" Not just the politics, but also the personalities, of its members will determine what kind of committee the Scottish Affairs, and indeed other Select Committees, will be in the current Parliament."
Westminster’s system of Select Committees is widely considered to be one of the most positive features of an institution whose structure and procedures are frequently criticised. The reports of Select Committees, particularly in the House of Commons, frequently make the media headlines; leading members, particularly some of their Chairs have a high profile; and I know from personal experience having served on a number of Select Committees that their work is taken seriously by government and can have a real impact on policy at UK level, and sometimes internationally as well.
The status and profile of these committees has been enhanced in recent years by a number of procedural and organisational changes designed to have that effect. Following a report at the end of the 2005/10 Parliament, the new Commons in 2010 agreed that:
1. The Chairs of its Select Committees would be elected by MPs, in secret ballot, rather than being decided by the leadership of whichever party had been allocated the chair of the committee in question. That meant that the party whips could not control the appointment of chairs, and MPs who wished to be elected would have to obtain cross-party support to have a good chance of election. Not surprisingly, that has meant that MPs who were seen as more independently minded and willing to challenge their own party, even if in government, have tended to been elected to these posts since 2010. (Of course, if only one MP from the relevant party is nominated, MPs from other parties have no say in the choice).
2. The other members of the committees would be elected by secret ballot within their own political party group, similarly encouraging the election of members who had broad support within their own party.
3. Chairs of Select Committees would be paid a significant salary in addition to their MP’s salary, with the aim of encouraging MPs to regard service as a chair as a ‘career path’ of similar standing to that of Ministerial office.
Select Committees were further strengthened by giving them increased resources to support them in their work and to ensure that they were in a better position to meet on a better footing the substantial back-up support often available to those appearing before them, such as ministers or company chief executives.
By these changes, the Commons aimed to make sure that its Select Committees were better able to hold government to account for its actions and to scrutinise the work of its departments; to keep abreast of key developments in the field with which the committee is concerned; and to do so for the most part in a non-partisan manner.
The reforms to the Select Committee system since 2010 have made substantial progress towards achieving those objectives. Many of their reports have indeed been influential in their effect on public opinion and government policy; and one of the reasons for that success has been the way in which for the most part committees have operated on a reasonably consensual basis, where in all but a few cases reports have been agreed unanimously, with MPs from all sides being prepared to make compromises to achieve that. Members have recognised that a report which has support from across the Commons is more likely to be taken seriously by the public and the media than one which is seen as a vehicle for a narrow party political standpoint. That, in turn, makes it more likely that government will take them seriously because it knows that the committee report has had an impact on public opinion.
For those familiar with the committee system at Holyrood, there are two major differences with that at Westminster. Firstly, Select Committees at Westminster normally have no direct role in the passage of legislation. The only significant exception is that Select Committees on occasion will be given the responsibility to consider a draft Bill in detail. For example, the Scotland Bill currently going through Parliament might well have been considered first in draft by the Scottish Affairs Select Committee were it not for the considerable political pressure for it to become law without delay. (In fact, it is being considered at committee stage by the whole House, as is the normal procedure with constitutional bills).
‘Line-by-line’ consideration of a Bill, however, will be carried out by a Standing Committee of MPs appointed just for that committee – and those MPs, except the Ministers and their opposition counterparts, need have no knowledge and interest in the subject matter of the Bill. This is in contrast to Holyrood, where the same committee will deal with the scrutiny of legislation as well as undertaking the type of work done by a Select Committee at Westminster. Secondly, Holyrood committees can frequently be politically partisan in their activity, whereas Westminster Select Committees tend not to be. To date, at least, Select Committees have no shown hesitation in criticising, sometimes sharply, Ministers from the governing party or parties, even though MPs from those parties have a majority on all committees. Holyrood committees, on the other hand, are not well-known for allowing stringent criticism of Scottish Ministers to get into their reports.
One of the points to watch in the new House of Commons will be how far Select Committees will maintain their cross-party consensual approach, in a world where the UK once again has a majority Tory government, but the SNP has an overwhelming dominance in Scottish representation at Westminster. For the first time ever, two powerful Select Committees (Energy & Climate Change, and Scottish Affairs) will be chaired and led by members of a party which by definition only elects MPs from one part of the UK, and yet because committee membership reflects the party proportions in the Commons as a whole, across the UK, those chairs will be in a small minority in those committees.
Will those SNP committee chairs find themselves getting heavily outvoted on issues and reports on a regular basis? Will the MPs from other parties restrain themselves from doing that too often, out of respect for the SNP’s strong electoral showing, and conscious also that to do so might play into the hands of those who would want to highlight that Scottish MPs make up only 10% of the total at Westminster? And will a newly confident Tory majority choose to exercise their dominant position in committees as well as in the House as a whole?
Or will MPs from across the parties, including the SNP, continue to see value in Select Committees continuing to operate on a broadly consensual basis, as they have so far? In the last Parliament, even the Scottish Affairs Select Committee which in the run up and aftermath of the 2014 referendum became the focus of partisan controversy, nevertheless found it able to agree to bring to light and force government action on the scandal of blacklisting. Thousands of workers are now beginning to receive some compensation which they might well not have done if it had not been for the work of that committee.
Not just the politics, but also the personalities, of its members will determine what kind of committee the Scottish Affairs, and indeed other Select Committees, will be in the current Parliament.
Mark was Labour MP for Edinburgh North & Leith from 2001 – 2015. He served on a number of Select Committees throughout that period, including the Environmental Audit, Environment Food & Rural Affairs, and Modernisation Select Committees.
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