Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Commons Select Committee System in the 2015–2020 Parliament

Ian Marsh

The House of Commons select committees witnessed some of the most constructive political theatre of the 2010-2015 Parliament. Recall Rupert Murdoch’s public contrition, Margaret Hodge’s assault on MNC tax evasion, and Keith Vaz’s timely interrogations of G4S etc. All of these represented the public face of a newly empowered system. Less noticed longer term activity was no less significant – for example, Andrew Tyrie’s Banking Commission, the Energy Committee’s reports on the challenge of decarbonising the UK, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s focus on a written constitution or the Education Committee’s inquiries on the multiple causes of under-achievement in education.

Behind these developments lay significant changes in the standing of the committee system. Following the Wright Committee proposals, the Coalition government agreed to the election of Committee chairs by the whole House and the election of Members by their own parties. Committees responded variously to their new standing and authority.

These developments and possibilities for the future development of committee roles are assessed in four current, independent reports: a 2015 report for the Centre for Policy Studies by Treasury Committee Chair Andrew Tyrie; one for the Institute for Government by Dr Hannah White; a 2013 report for the Hansard Society on digital media; and finally a report on public engagement commissioned by the Liaison Committee from several academics.

These reports differ somewhat in their primary orientation - but in complementary ways. Thus Tyrie is concerned with the power and effectiveness of Parliament. In his analysis, committees are the best candidates to rebuild its broader stranding. Wider social developments reinforce expanding committee roles. A collapse of deference has affected the standing of Parliament and this requires a proactive response. But social change is also affecting Parliament’s own culture. ‘Deference to the party hierarchy, as to so many institutions, is in decline. Independence of mind is also more often rewarded by balanced or positive national media coverage than, as was all too often the case, ritually dismissed as the actions of a maverick or a “wrecker” ’.

For her part, White is concerned with impacts on policy making. She finds wide variance across committees which she traces to differences in basic practices. She notes the essentially contingent sources of committee influence, not least the quality of reports and the respect with which witnesses are treated. Her recommendations range widely across committee practice.

The Hansard Society report looks specifically at social media. As citizens mobilise in more fragmented and more specialised communities of interest, a fresh communications and linkage challenge arises: ‘Increasingly the media landscape needs to be seen not as a pyramidal ranking of outlets according to perceived influence, whose foundational base is television, radio and newspapers, but as a flat, networked sea in which are interspersed a series of ‘hubs’ which represent a particular brand or community around which a specific audience interest can be built.’ The report concludes: ‘Parliament has enormous online brand potential as an authoritative source of information and news, particularly if its role and work is pitched in the context of ‘democracy’ rather than ‘politics’…….Its unique selling point is its authoritative place at the apex of our democracy’.

Finally, the Flinders et al report explores why public engagement should be a priority and how it can be enhanced. Formal and informal outreach has developed in the 2010-15 Parliament. For example, social media was used to get committee publics to suggests topics for inquiry (Transport Committee); to generate questions for Ministers via Twitter ( Business; Transport; Education); it was also used to distribute video clips of informative evidence sessions (Education and Transport); and clips promoting reports (International Development on FGM; Energy on decarbonising the economy; Environment on endangered species). Secondary platforms like Mumsnet, Money Saving Expert and The Student Room were also used to reach new audiences. But much social media activity was either broadcasting out or one-off engagement. Flinders et al suggests alternatives.

All these reports embody high aspirations for the future development of the committee system. But because they frame imagination and ambition, conceptions of the wider systemic roles of committees are fundamental. Three of the reports more or less draw on familiar scrutiny and oversight activity. This orients imagination in the first instance to impacts on parliament and the executive. The case for seeing committees as contributors to agenda setting and to the public conversation around emerging issues is developed most comprehensively in the Flinders et al report.

In responding to these varied opportunities, select committees begin with some singular advantages.

• First, they focus on single issues which, in an era of pluralised citizen identities and more fluid partisan attachments, seems to align with the way increasing numbers of citizens relate to politics.
• Second, formal committee inquiries and other activities can cover the policy process through all its phases – from the moment an issue emerges and seeks a place on the public agenda through to its definition, assessment of its significance, an enumeration of possible remedies, and (much later) legislative, executive and administrative action.
• Third, although reports and other documentation need to be made much more accessible, these processes occur in transparent settings. Transparency is a critical asset.
• And finally, findings usually involve a search for common ground that can cross partisan lines – but without succumbing to anodyne fudges. This is particularly evident in inquiries on issues that are seeking a place on the political agenda; or that are longer term in nature; or that are not yet the subject of explicit partisan contention; or in inquiries on the detail of proposed legislative or administrative measures.

But whilst much has been accomplished much more remains possible. The 2015-2020 Parliament has the opportunity to initiate pioneering experiments or pilots that could have far wider and far reaching democratic implications.

You can read Ian Marsh’s article ‘The Commons Select Committee System in the
2015–20 Parliament’ in full here.

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