12th February, 2020

How important are select committees and their new chairs?

As we wait for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to complete their respective leadership elections, some other significant elections have taken place within the House of Commons recently. The chairs of the Commons select committees – the prominent cross-party groups of MPs that scrutinise the activity of each government department and other political issues – were confirmed at the end of last month. Alongside frontbench opposition MPs, committee chairs are some of the highest-profile politicians outside of the Government.

With a majority of the committees chaired by Conservative MPs, how important are these committees, and how will their new make-up affect how policy is made?

A chance for Tory sceptics to find a new outlet…

Of the 16 Conservative MPs who will chair a select committee in this parliament, only one – Julian Knight, the newly-elected chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee – supported Boris Johnson in last year’s Conservative leadership election. While that is not to say that all of the others are necessarily opposed to Johnson’s political project, it is an opportunity for well-known chairs such as Jeremy Hunt – the former Health Secretary and Johnson’s leadership rival, now chair of the Health and Social Care Committee – to challenge the Government, and sustain their influence and profile within the party and across the Commons.

…and for new MPs to make a name for themselves…

Being active on a select committee is one of the ways in which ambitious new MPs can begin to carve out an identity for themselves. Whether loyal Conservatives with an eye on junior ministerial posts later in the parliament, critics of the Government wanting to build their profile, opposition members looking to catch Ministers out or subject-specialists wanting to contribute their experience, committee membership is one of the best opportunities for new MPs to make themselves known and advance their parliamentary careers. If you are looking for a parliamentary advocate for a particular cause or interest, understanding these dynamics is important.

Will select committees provide meaningful parliamentary opposition to the Government?

As well as chairing many of the committees, a large majority for the Conservatives means that they also hold sway over the broader committee memberships, as each party’s share of committee members is proportionate to the overall size of their parliamentary party. This means that while all MPs will take their committee responsibilities seriously in terms of providing scrutiny of government policy, in many cases it may be reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of members of any given committee are likely to be at least sympathetic to the aims of the Government.

There is also one important committee chairmanship that is yet to be decided: that of the Liaison Committee, membership of which comprises the chairs of all other committees and frequently calls the Prime Minister to give evidence on a range of areas of government policy. Outside of Prime Minister’s Questions, this should be one of the main ways in which MPs can scrutinise Johnson, but he has not yet appeared in front of the committee during his time in Downing Street and its new chair is unlikely to be elected for several weeks, further delaying the Prime Minister’s debut in front of the committee.

Select committees can be powerful and influential stakeholders in the policy-making process but, like many other political and parliamentary actors, their role is likely to be different with an executive that has a large Commons majority. For businesses thinking about engaging with MPs and the parliamentary process, understanding these changes is essential.