How select committees can help Whitehall think in a more joined-up way
As select committees turn 40, Paul Evans, clerk of committees, reflects on how parliamentary scrutiny of government has changed over the past four decades
In June 1979, the House of Commons voted to set up a system of select committees to monitor government departments. That decision has dramatically changed the parliamentary landscape.
It was presented as a technocratic solution to the question (which had been asked at least since the 1918 Haldane report) of how backbench MPs could keep watch over the business of government when its budget and the scope of its activity were constantly growing. The Commons didn’t have the will or means to really get stuck into what the civil service was up to on behalf of ministers, and ministers could scarcely be expected to keep a handle on every detail of their growing empires. How could the Commons fulfil its fundamental constitutional task of ensuring money was being well spent?
Post-war, a series of experiments with more systematic scrutiny by committees had gone off rather at half-cock, facing intense resistance from government. The 1979 reforms looked like a modest further step towards converting the Commons from a talking to a working legislature, to achieve a degree of equality of arms between the legislative and executive branches.
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The committees were charged, prosaically, with examining “the expenditure, administration and policy of the principal government departments and their associated public bodies” (pretty much the reverse order to the aspects in which MPs are interested). However, they interpret their own remit, and have been increasingly imaginative in doing so.
After spending two decades conducting long, royal-commission-style inquiries into vast policy areas, the tempo and scope of their work has steadily increased. Between them, they now produce a report almost every working day. Consequently, the support they receive has dramatically altered. In 1979, the committees had around 30 staff – today there are 300. By happy coincidence, under the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, the House had taken control of its own finances and no longer had to go cap-in-hand to the Treasury for every increase in its staff.
Each committee has one or two staff bearing the traditional title of “clerk”, including its team leader. But teams are generally between six and 12 in number and include around 80 policy analyst staff.
Central support services have also developed. The first full-time media officer was appointed around the turn of this century – there are now over a dozen. A team of web editors and social-media technologists helps committees to engage with a wider audience via digital channels.
Following the successful efforts of the then leader of the House, Robin Cook, to persuade the Commons to increase the resources for its scrutiny function in 2002, the central “Scrutiny Unit” was set up to provide financial and legal expertise.
The committees also work closely with the House of Commons Library (especially its Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology), the new participation team and the National Audit Office. A growing number of staff are being seconded to the committees from the NAO, the civil service, the Bank of England and other regulators, and academic institutions. The committees’ core costs are, however, still only around £15m a year – about one-and-a-half minutes’ worth of central government expenditure. They must leverage their resources by capitalising on civil society’s goodwill to bolster their knowledge base.
The committees operate in a much more crowded field than 40 years ago, with think tanks, lobbyists and various institutions competing for attention, and FoI and open government having deprived them of their privileged access to data. What still distinguishes them is that they gather that information in public and can publicly challenge those who provide it: evidence sessions are webcast and written evidence is published online.
The profile of the committees has risen and risen. The decision in 2010 to hold cross-party elections for their chairs has drawn a new breed of MPs to take the helm and many now have a higher recognition factor than the average non-cabinet minister. Several see themselves primarily as campaigning figures. The task of staff therefore goes far beyond research, drafting and administration. Increasingly, the challenge is mostly in “stakeholder management” of not only civil society bodies but citizens.
The committees are the human face of parliament, and many run a continuous series of mini national conversations. Last year, two committees sponsored a citizens’ assembly on social care. This year, five are co-sponsoring another on responses to the climate emergency. Committees can work together on cross-cutting issues more nimbly than Whitehall – and can help Whitehall to think in a more joined-up way.
In an era of highly divided politics, committees continue to work mostly across party divides and to seek facts and consensus. While making ministers explain and justify their policies and actions is still the core task, exemplifying the possibilities of deliberative democracy and keeping alive parliament’s engagement with the electorate are just as critical, and form a growing part of the demands placed on their staff.
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