Select committees: what MPs want from sessions with civil servants

Select committees have a key duty to hold those who hold power to account. Former MP Huw Edwards looks at how they have changed in the 40 years since they were created, and what parliamentarians are looking for when they are taking evidence.

Photo: Parliament.TV

By Huw Edwards

26 Jun 2019

Public understanding of how select committees operate has certainly increased as a result of high-profile scandals and the scrutiny of high profile individuals – Robert Murdoch and the News of the World phone hacking case, the employment practices at Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct and Sir Philip Green’s BHS pensions scandal. 

In the 40 years since the current departmental based system of select committees was established there have been some important changes to the way committee are appointed and operate. But the fundamental role of select committees – to hold those who exercise power to account – remains.

What have been the key changes? No longer is appointment to select committees in the gift of party whips and no longer is the chairmanship a reward for long service. Since 2010 the Wright Reforms require chairman to be elected by secret ballot by the House of Commons as whole and other members of the committee elected MPs within each party. This has helped ensure that members bring a greater expertise and interest in the policy areas that each committee examines. Essentially MPs are on a select committee because they want to be on it and their colleagues want them to be on it.


Select committee chairs now receive an additional salary similar to that of a junior minister to reflect the amount of work and responsibility the role requires. Chairing a committee now has more prestige. Current chairs include former cabinet ministers such as Yvette Cooper on the Home Affairs Select Committee. Committees are also better staffed with specialist advisors and media specialists working alongside committee clerks.

In recent years pre-legislative scrutiny has been an added role for select committees and they now examine draft bills and question expert witnesses about the bill.

After legislating, the second most important role of parliament is to hold government to account. For ministers, being questioned by select committee for up to three hours can be gruelling experience especially when having to explain failures in policy. It requires specialist knowledge of their brief and the ability to respond to unexpected and challenging questions.

There is no party politics – or there shouldn’t be – on select committee. Members are appointed in proportion to the political balance in the House and they are expected to work together across party and produce a unanimous report.

MPs do feel empowered on the committee. They relish the opportunity to expose failure, investigate irregularities and hold powerful individuals, not just ministers, to account. The failings of political figures and senior officials were manifestly exposed in the inquiries into the Rotherham sex abuse case. The questioning of Mike Ashley was a clear case of a powerful person who believed he was immune from public scrutiny for the employment practices at Sports Direct, being questioned. However, the public was dismayed that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg failed to appear having been summoned by the DCMS committee investigating the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Civil servants can be involved in the whole cycle of a select committee inquiry: drafting their department’s written evidence; briefing and supporting their ministers or senior colleagues who are called to give oral evidence; preparing the government’s response to the committee’s report; and finally implementing any changes that the government adopts following the inquiry.

Senior officials can also be called to give oral evidence in their own right as they are accountable to parliament, though through ministers.

‘Good scrutiny leads to good policy’ is a wise mantra that civil servants would do well to remember. Policy officials should be mindful at all times that they themselves and not just ministers or senior colleagues could be scrutinised and have to answer to parliament for the outcome of policy they were involved in developing or implementing.

For civil servants it can certainly be daunting experience. They have to maintain their professional dignity as public officials and avoid being drawn into questioning that has a political edge. Civil servants have duty to be helpful to parliament while maintaining their political neutrality under the civil service code.

There is some protection. The ‘Osmotherly Rules’ provides guidance for civil servants appearing before select committees. It states that civil servants can be questioned about the considerations before a ministerial decision is made and the consequences of a decision but they cannot be questioned on the advice they give to ministers. But members of select committee are all politicians. They think and act politically in a manner that civil servants are understandably wary of. Select committee inquiries are largely established because of some failure in the implementation of policy.

The public expects their elected MPs to do something when things go wrong in public life. Civil servants have a crucial role in helping parliament in one its key roles – to hold those who hold power to account.

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