Dr Sarah Wollaston MP: Select Committees must not become tools of the Party Whips

Posted On: 
11th March 2019

Dr Sarah Wollaston says if newly independent MPs are removed from their Select Committee posts it would "politicise and degrade the entire Select Committee system."

Dr Sarah Wollaston
Credit: 
PA

Our impartial system of parliamentary Select Committees is at risk.

These cross-party groups of MPs are established at the start of every Parliament to scrutinise and hold to account government departments and their arms-length bodies, as well as other powerful organisations and individuals.

Select Committees have been strengthened since the reforms which allowed their members to be elected by their fellow MPs – and Chairs by the whole House of Commons – rather than appointed by the patronage of party whips. As a result, members are more likely to have relevant experience and genuine interest in the work of their Committees; and have shown themselves to be more independent-minded in their approach.

Select Committees are at their most effective when MPs leave tribal party politics at the door, focus on the evidence and work constructively to build consensus.

It is worrying that the Labour leadership recently sought names for ‘vacancies’ on a number of Committees, including those covering Health and Social Care, International Development, and Foreign Affairs.

The point is that there were no vacancies on these Committees – only MPs that the party whips wanted to eject.

Mike Gapes is on the list, despite having served as a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee since 1992, including five years as its Chair from 2005 to 2010.

During his time as Chair, the Committee heard evidence from the Dalia Lama, despite Chinese protests; and exposed the corruption and intimidation which led to the suspension of the Turks and Caicos Government.

His Committee’s reports criticised the then-Labour Government for extraordinary rendition, cuts to language services, human rights matters, and many other issues.

The Foreign Affairs Committee, like other Select Committees, operates on a cross-party and consensual basis. Its members are not there as ciphers or delegates of their parties.

Whilst Committees undoubtedly benefit from new members being elected at the start of each Parliament, their effectiveness is improved if there are some members with experience from previous sessions and who bring a memory of former hearings and inquiries. 

The Foreign Affairs Committee will be needlessly diminished by losing one of its most engaged, knowledgeable and longest-serving members. His colleagues on the Committee have unanimously agreed that not only Mike, but also Ian Austin, who also brings an independent-minded and robust approach, should retain their places on the Committee.

Luciana Berger has been a distinguished member of the Committee that I chair, covering Health and Social Care, and is nationally recognised for her work on mental health and experience on wider health issues. It was particularly insensitive, given the disgusting antisemitic abuse that she has suffered, that she should also have found her post on the ‘vacancy list’, simply because she now sits as an independent. It is even more surprising that Labour whips would seek to replace her in the week she began her maternity leave.

Thankfully, none of her colleagues was prepared to replace her. But the threat will remain so long as the principle goes unchallenged that party whips can remove members from Committees.

Whilst the overall allocation of members is determined at the start of a Parliament, roughly based on the results of the general election, MPs are voted onto Select Committees by their peers to serve a full term. It sets a worrying precedent if, irrespective of the quality of their work or their contribution to holding the powerful to account on behalf of the public, their posts are retained only thanks to party whips.

If Mike Gapes and Ian Austin are removed from their posts, this will not only diminish the Foreign Affairs Committee, but politicise and degrade the entire Select Committee system. It would be not be in the public interest – and parliamentarians should reject it.

Dr Sarah Wollaston is the Independent Group MP for Totes. She is the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee and of the Liaison Committee of the House of Commons.