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By Lord Moylan
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New MPs Encouraged To Join Select Committees To "Make A Difference" In Politics


3 min read

Joining a select committee would be the “really obvious route” for MPs new to Parliament or opposition to “make a difference”, according to an Oxford political scientist.

Ben Ansell, a professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions at the University of Oxford, told PoliticsHome that the system means “average Parliamentarians” can have much more of a say than previously on accountability and representation in Parliament. Aside from climbing the ministerial ladder, he felt it was the next best way for backbenchers or newer MPs to make an impact.

Ansell, who wrote his Why Politics Fails book on whether self-interest in politics can be overcome, believes that becoming a PPC – a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate – is a “mad thing to do”, with candidates facing huge sacrifices.

Departmental select committees were first introduced in 1980 following the general election in the previous year. In the House of Commons, there is a committee for each government department, and according to the Parliament website, they all examine three key areas: spending, policies, and the administration of their respective departments. 

Committees conduct inquiries, gathering written and oral evidence that is then reported to the Commons. The chairs of the committees are elected by MPs, and the jobs are allocated to the parliamentary parties to reflect the proportion of MPs they have in the Commons

Recent inquiries by select committees have included investigations into the Post Office Horizon scandal, gambling regulation, and the UK’s response to the ongoing situation in Ukraine. 

“Select committees really are an important innovation that I do think is holding Parliament and in particular Cabinet much more accountable than in their absence," Ansell continued.

“It’s not changing what Cabinet or Government looks like, it’s not changing the electoral system, it’s not changing the House of Lords. 

“But I think it is still changing how accountable Parliament is, how representative the debates are, the power of the government to set the debate of the day. All of that stuff is being affected in a way that average Parliamentarians can have much more say on than they used to.” 

Political parties across the UK are in the process of selecting their candidates for the General Election, which must be called before the end of this year.

It is widely believed that the predicted swing towards Labour, combined with the number of Conservative MPs standing down, could leave a larger cohort of new MPs this time around than there have been in recent elections. 

Ansell explained that finding “somebody who has gone and succeeded elsewhere, and has been then willing to take the chance" on running for office can often be difficult. Attracting politicians like Keir Starmer – who had a successful career as a lawyer before becoming an MP in 2015 – is “rare”, Ansell said. 

Standing to be a parliamentary candidate often costs a lot of money, and requires long, anti-social hours campaigning. People who become MPs then split their time between their constituency and Westminster. 

"The incentive to step up and run for office in the first place doesn’t seem like an obviously self-interested thing to do," Ansell said. 

He added that becoming an MP “makes sense for people who are already in the game,” such as those who have already worked in think tanks or as special advisers, but that then means “we’re selecting from such a small pool of people” who want to stand for office. 

“They’re already in it, the sacrifices aren’t as large, because they’re probably going to remain in this world,” he said. 

“But if you want Parliament to be more representative of the population, then you’ve got a whole bunch of people for whom it would be a huge risk.” 

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Ben Ansell