A Select Group: Looking at the role of Parliament’s Select Committees

Over the past few weeks it seems like there has been a plethora of select committee evidence sessions dedicated to the world of charities. In the past month we’ve seen the Public Administration Committee look into matters of chief executive pay, with the Public Accounts Committee, led by the indefatigable Margaret Hodge MP, looking into the use of Gift Aid, as well as the effectiveness of the Charity Commission.

But just what is a select committee, and what do they do?

As the most basic explanation, a select committee is a committee made up of a number of representatives who specialise in one particular area. In the UK, most Commons select committees are set up to scrutinise the work of a governmental department. Thus, for example, the Health Select Committee will oversee the work of Jeremy Hunt’s corresponding department. However other types of select committees do exist. Sometimes ad-hoc committees are established when a certain issue needs looking into in detail, and occasionally joint committees are set up, which bring together members from both Houses of Parliament. Lords select committees differ slightly, in that they tend to focus on more generalised areas, such as the constitution or the economy.

Departmental select committees were established in the UK in 1979 following recommendations by a Procedure Select Committee, with the 14 committees commencing their work in 1980. This is the modern form of committee used in Parliament, but earlier examples date back much further, with the first version of the Public Accounts Select Committee dating back to 1857. The terms governing that specific committee have not changed much in the intervening years, but there has been an increase in its remit, as there have been with other committees under their new format.

Before 2010 members of committees were appointed by their parties, and the members of that committee would then elect their chair from those chosen to serve on that committee. Since 2010, however, the House of Commons has been responsible for directly electing chairs of each committee, which means that they have a raised profile and are increasingly seen to represent the will of Parliament.

Select Committees use their role to investigate the effectiveness of government policy, and hold publicly-funded organisations such as the slickly named quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation (quangos) to account. This means holding regular oral evidence sessions in Parliament, receiving written submissions from organisations and individuals, and producing reports, as well as other core activities. These reports can be extremely influential, as they are produced by committees that are expert in that particular area, and offer an instant verdict on the effectiveness of government policies.

To give a flavour of their activity, since the last election the Culture, Media and Sport Committee investigated the breadth of phone hacking before the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry; the Home Affairs Select Committee examined the information made public by whistleblower Edward Snowden; and the Treasury Select Committee is renowned for forensic examination of the Chancellor. In addition, the Prime Minister regularly appears before the Liaison Committee, which brings together the chairs of each of the departmental select committees and gives Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise the work of the entire government.

The profile and role of select committees looks set to grow. Giving their chair elected status means that they are seen to have greater gravitas, leading to an increase in media attention and a high-profile calibre of witness. The recent focus on the machinations of the charity sector has been intense, seeming to culminate in a whirlwind month of activity, but not to be surprised, as each committee performs its role. Look for this trend to continue, and the rise of the select committee to continue in 2014.
Steve Clapperton

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