Sarah Wollaston: 40 years of departmental select committees – showing the Commons at its best

Posted On: 
18th January 2019

Select committee, scrutinise thyself – that’s the message from the Liaison Committee as it launches a major inquiry into select committee influence and effectiveness. Chair Sarah Wollaston looks at why, in this 40th anniversary year of the ‘departmental’ system, it is time to take stock

The Liaison Committee is launching an inquiry into the select committee system
Credit: 
Nick Pickles

At a time when politics can feel fractious and tense, select committees often show a more positive side of parliament. Select committees are where MPs sit around a table, engaged on a joint enterprise and are at their best when party politics is largely left to one side.

MPs work together with an evidence-led approach and seek to reach a consensus where they can make a positive difference. They hold the government and others to account, propose forward policy solutions to difficult issues, and listen to a range of voices to inform debate. They can show the House of Commons at its best.

The existing departmental select committee system is celebrating its 40th anniversary in June. Departmental committees mirror each government department, and other committees consider wider issues across government, such as public administration and environmental audit; others deal with the internal and domestic matters of the house.

As chair of the Liaison Committee, the committee of all the chairs, I follow and appreciate the work of fellow chairs and their committee colleagues. Scrutiny extends beyond government – for example the DCMS Committee’s inquiry into fake news – and their testing of the powers of the house to get access to information on behalf of the public.

Detailed scrutiny of the budget by the Treasury Select Committee and of public spending by the Public Accounts Committee has put pressure on government to account for their policies and actions.

Inquiries into issues such as the future of our high streets, and the sexual harassment of women and girls in public have engaged wider audiences in policy issues which affect people in very direct ways.

Others have had a major impact on government policy, such as the recent Work and Pensions Committee’s campaign on universal credit.

We’ve seen powerful industry leaders called to account. As chair of the Health Committee I’ve been involved in a joint inquiry with the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee which was the first to commission a citizen’s assembly to look at the future funding of adult social care – an innovative way to engage informed and representative public opinion.

Committees regularly leave Westminster for more informal settings, listening and providing a platform to those who may otherwise struggle to be heard, and in settings far outside London.

In this anniversary year, it is important to take stock and reflect – what can we do differently and how can we do better? We have therefore launched a major inquiry into select committee influence and effectiveness: what more can we do to engage with a diverse range of voices to get the range of evidence we need? How can we ensure we focus on the right things? Do our structures enable us to work effectively? How can we maximise our influence as the context we operate in changes?

2019 also marks the 10-year anniversary of the Wright report, which recommended the election of most select committee chairs by the whole house. This inquiry will consider the impact of this change.

Our inquiry will also allow us to look at the Liaison Committee’s own operation. We are perhaps best known for our regular evidence sessions with the prime minister. However, we also provide a forum for backbench MPs to come together to discuss common areas of concern for scrutiny and accountability.

We also have a role in ensuring that current structures enable joint working and cooperation between committees. Are we effective in this role? Is there a potential role for the Liaison Committee itself in scrutinising cross-cutting policy issues?

40 years on, it is impossible to imagine a House of Commons without its departmental select committee system. But to ensure its continuing strength and influence it is important to reflect, hear a wide range of views, and challenge ourselves to do even better.

The Liaison Committee welcomes views from anyone who has provided evidence, appeared as a witness, or who is interested in the work of select committees. For more guidance on how to submit evidence, please see the Liaison Committee’s web pages.