The Role of Select Committees with Stephen McGinness

Round two took place in the same venue and timeslot. Our second guest was Stephen McGinness, Senior Clerk in the Journal Office.

McGinness recalled that he had started working for parliament in 1998, having previously been an environmental biologist, as evidence that there are many possible routes into the political scene.

We were asked if we knew the purpose of select committees. The answer that emerged was to study complex issues in more detail than would be possible in plenary. Committees are elected by MPs with quotas for each party to reflect their overall size in the house just after a general election. It was noted that, in the last parliament especially, defections and by-elections can cause significant changes to the balance of power in the lower house which will not be reflected in committees. There are a few committees in which the party balance is different, notably the Scottish Affairs committee in which the Scottish National Party, naturally, has a larger delegation (although they did not get a majority as they had wanted).

Departmental select committees were instituted in 1979 at the initiative of Norman St John-Stevas, though others had existed for centuries before. Prior to 2010 a chairman would be elected among committee members at their first meeting. The members in turn were nominated by their party’s whips. In practice the whips would decide the chairman in advance as well. Nowadays the committees and their chairs are elected by the whole house in a secret ballot. The chairman generally does not vote except to break ties, which means that the government sometimes finds it advantageous to have an opposition member in charge and vice versa. McGinness told some stories about parliamentary manoeuvrings of those who sought chairmanships – such as Meg Hillier scooping up second preference votes for Public Accounts, or whips trying to get Nicola Blackwood atop Science & Technology as consolation for not making her a minister.

Our guest then showed us some information graphics, which he admitted to pinching from the Institute for Government, and whose content I will not bother typing out here. His slideshow also included this photograph of a committee room in portcullis house. Immediately I sensed that there was something familiar about the dark-tinted edges, the fuzzy lines and that bright purple suit top. Sure enough I uploaded in 2017 from an educational video that parliament put out in 2012.

An important point made towards the end of the presentation was that the European Scrutiny Committee (mentioned last week) is frequently overlooked by parliament, press and public. They scrutinise EU legislation many years in advance of its implementation yet outsiders only take notice at the last minute – often with alarmist reactions.

After another buffet lunch we again subjected our guest speaker to questions. Those  questions and their answers are summarised below:

How different could two individual chairs be? Some are very adamant, treating members and staff as their own personal retinue. Others are very consensual and always want unanimity. Effectiveness is somewhere in between.

Has there been a change in the nature of chairs since 2010? Elected chairs feel they have a mandate to lead and so are more confident in commanding. Whip-appointed chairs had less of a personal agenda.

Has election improved the quality of chairs? There have been downsides, but committees are now more representative and more independent. You can never guarantee the quality of reports.

Would one-party dominance reduce a committee’s effectiveness? The committee reflects the effectiveness of the whole House of Commons. When one party has a landslide – such as in the Blair years – the committees can often be the real opposition.

Could there be one improvement to the scrutiny process? Currently it is hard to get members away from Westminster. Committee members should be allowed to vote remotely.

[On this one Professor Norton interjected that a party-balanced committee could all be absent at the same time as an extension of pairing. McGinness replied that pairing is now impossible as members no longer trust each other.]

Do Commons committees work with their counterparts in the devolved legislatures? No, they hate us! Devolved administrations don’t want anything to do with Westminster.

 

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