How today's select committees could be a formidable force

Select committees now have a high profile and an effect on public policy. But there's still room for improvement.

John Lehal: MD of Insight Public Affairs
John Lehal: MD of Insight Public Affairs

If you were asked to name a member of Theresa May’s ministerial team at the Home Office, you would probably struggle (unless you have closely followed the careers of James Brokenshire, Damian Green, Norman Baker or Karen Bradley). 

The chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee on the other hand is a familiar face – Keith Vaz frequently pops up on the 24-hour news channels and has led inquiries on issues in the public spotlight ranging from passports to police corruption and drugs to immigration.

Select committee chairs enjoy a far higher profile than many junior ministers, and are often able to make a greater impact in advancing and changing public policy.

New MP Rory Stewart was given chair of the Defence Select Committee and fellow 2010 intake member Dr Sarah Wollaston was appointed chair of the Health Select Committee. This was symbolic in that neither would have prospered under the previous system, when government whips would reward long-serving MPs with select committee chairs. Today’s chairs are mavericks, issue experts and respected. 

Since the select committee reforms were introduced five years ago we have seen some major scalps: Met commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson; G4S CEO Nick Buckles; while the Murdochs and Starbucks, Google and Amazon bosses have been chastened.

Media coverage of committee reports has exploded, and there is now far more parliamentary time for debating them on the floor of the House. So what else can be done to improve the scrutiny by our select committees? I have five suggestions.

Joint inquiries

The Parliamentary Banking Commission showed that a joint committee can unite to form a powerful movement for change. Cross-cutting issues would be best explored by joint or even tripartite committees.

Expert rapporteurs

Learning from the Brussels experience, an MP could lead an inquiry; be immersed in the issues; meet stakeholders; and then draft a report for consideration by the committee. This would almost certainly enable more capacity, shorter inquiries, briefer reports and greater follow-up.

Better preparation by members

Some witnesses can run rings round MPs, especially on technical and complex issues. MPs have to be better informed and should no longer be allowed simply to read out questions drafted for them by their clerks.

Greater public engagement

We have had #AskGove #AskPickles and #AskMay but committees can learn from the Transport Select Committee by crowdsourcing inquiry topics, and then responding to each suggestion.

Diversity of witnesses

Democratic Audit has analysed the witnesses and committees should get out of London more, ensure gender balance and seek smaller organisations’ views.

Robin Cook stated: "Good scrutiny makes for good government. The best batsmen really do need the best bowlers." As a new Government comes in to bat in May 2015, we need to ensure the UK’s 56th Parliament builds on this one’s fearless bowling.

John Lehal is managing director of Insight Public Affairs

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