Select Committees, scrutiny and democracy


Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s recent appearance before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee was a prime example of how such institutions can hold the government to account. Unanswered questions, such as how many British nationals were left in Afghanistan, and which foreign ministers (if any) had Raab spoken to, painted a picture of uncertainty at the heart of government.

Such committees are made up of a cross-party group of parliamentarians and have several aims. Perhaps most crucially, individual committees are assigned to scrutinise each government department. As part of this, they aim to influence government decision-making, producing reports and recommendations (although, according to University College London, between 1997-2010 just 40% of such recommendations were accepted by the government).

Committees also serve wider democratic functions, with Lucy Atkinson, Research Fellow at the Constitution Society, arguing that they increasingly act as a forum for public debate. For example, committees can be proactive in addressing issues that the government may not be focused upon, such as the governance of football clubs or drugs policy.

Committees can be proactive in addressing issues which the government may not be focused upon

The Wright Reforms, implemented by the Coalition government, aimed to remove the influence of government whips over the composition of select committees. The election of their chairs is now done by secret ballot and an alternative vote system (where electors rank their preferences), allowing MPs to vote for more independent candidates without fear of reprisal from their party. 

Such a change allowed for the rise of ‘outsiders’, such as Rory Stewart’s ascension to the Chair of the Defence Select Committee in 2014, as well as a growth in independent voices, such as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP who has been a vocal critic of the government’s Afghanistan policy. With their growing scope and profile, Nat Le Roux of the Constitution Society argues that the role of chair of an influential committee is now perceived as an attractive career goal in itself, as evidenced by Jeremy Hunt opting for Chair of the Health Select Committee over a role as Defence Secretary in the Johnson government.

With greater independence and status has come greater media attention. In May this year, Dominic Cummings faced a much-publicised joint session before the Commons’ Health, Science, and Technology Committees, in which he outlined Boris Johnson’s disregard for people’s lives and scolded then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock as someone who “should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things”. This was the lead story on every major British newspaper the next morning.

Select committees are not all-powerful seekers of the truth

Notable members of the private sector have also been called before Select Committees in recent years, with Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley admitting in June 2016 that workers in his Derbyshire warehouse were being paid below the minimum wage; the committee’s inquiry concluded that the company was being run like a “Victorian warehouse”. Several years earlier, Rupert Murdoch told a committee that he was ashamed by allegations of phone-hacking and bullying by his British press titles (before a protester proceeded to launch a foam pie at him).

As well as scrutinising figures of public scorn, the committees have also uncovered major scandals. In 2013, a Metropolitan Police Constable revealed to the Public Administration Committee that the force had been under-reporting crime to meet targets, leading to the undercount of rapes by up to a quarter. 

However, select committees are not all-powerful seekers of truth. Hannah White, of the Institute for Government, notes that in practice committees cannot compel people to appear before them. Such a fact was evidenced by Mark Zuckerberg’s repeated refusal to appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in relation to the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, delegating this to a more junior employee.

Even Boris Johnson was able to repeatedly delay his appearance before the Liaison Committee, despite such prime ministerial scrutiny being expected of all premiers since Tony Blair. However, once he did finally appear, the committee made light work of revealing fundamental gaps in the Prime Minister’s knowledge. As such, the public came away better informed of the strengths and weaknesses of their prime minister and his decision-making process, suggesting the committee had effectively exercised its democratic purpose when given the chance.

Image: UK Parliament via Flickr

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