Parliamentary Select Committees have often formed the backdrop to some of the more consequential and confrontational moments of recent times in British politics. Rupert Murdoch’s coming-together with a foam pie is the clearest illustration of this. They offer a rare chance for MPs to grill, challenge, and in some cases vent fury at perceived injustices.
After each new election committee memberships are renewed and MPs jostle for the key Chair roles. We analyse why this matters to communications professionals and what it tells us about Parliament
New Parliament, New Committees
One Select Committee (SC) exists for each of the 19 government departments with an additional 8 specialist committees. The specialist SCs exist for cross-departmental purposes and on-going parliamentary investigations. SCs are cross-party, have both a Chair and Vice-Chair, and a minimum of 11 members. They produce written reports which are either agreed unanimously or by a majority. These written reports are based on both oral and written evidence gleaned from conversations with Ministers and other witnesses. Crucially Government is required to produce a written response to these reports within 60 days. This can provide valuable insight into what Government is thinking.
Right now, the House of Commons is weighing up who to elect to Chair of each SC. The party affiliation of the Chair is decided by a pre-agreed motion. This divides the roles based on the number of MPs a political party has in the House of Commons. MPs wishing to stand as chairs had until 3pm on the 7th July to submit their nominations. The nomination papers had to be signed by at least 15 MPs from their own party or 10% of MPs from their parliamentary party. All MPs are entitled to vote in these elections and these votes will be held in the Commons on the 12th July.
The Struggle for Chairmanship
A powerful Chair warrants great respect and can be influential in both dictating the direction of the SC and influencing debates in the House. The greater media attention this guarantees has created favourable conditions for members seeking to make a name for themselves.
SC elections also tell us something about party dynamics. When Keith Vaz resigned as Home Affairs Chairman in 2016 Labour big beasts Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna and Caroline Flint battled for the role. The calibre of these candidates highlighted the status of the position and its potential authority.
The current batch of SC Chair elections provides some interesting contests to look out for. Firstly, there is the battle for Treasury Chair which pits renowned Leaver Jacob Rees-Mogg against renowned Remainer Nicky Morgan. Secondly, there is the contest for Defence Chair between Johnny Mercer of the newer Conservative intake and Dr Julian Lewis from the old guard.
On the Labour side the contest for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Chair between Rachel Reeves, Liam Byrne, Albert Owen and Ian Lucas is one to keep an eye on.
As the official announcements of new SC Chairs are made, we can gauge who holds sway within the parties, who can galvanise support, and who holds favour. For drama, political intrigue and scrutiny SCs are the place to go in this Parliament.
What it means for business and campaigners?
So how do SCs show their power and will they matter in this new Parliament?
They provide an opportunity for MPs to scrutinise ministers, organisations and experts, by raising challenging questions (see Jacob Rees-Mogg vs Mark Carney). SCs can compel witnesses to give evidence. Organisations can refuse the request but will be placed under great pressure to attend through media means or other Commons channels. Even Sir Philip Green ‘opted’ to appear in the end!
Because we have a hung parliament, there will be more SCs chaired by opposition parties and memberships will be more finely balanced. This means parliament via the SCs will have a greater power to scrutinise Government decisions transparently.
They are a way of defending the status quo or advocating for policy change. A critical report from a well-respected SC can lead to a change in policy either immediately or over time. For instance, Michael Gove back-tracked on his education reforms partially because of pressure applied by the Educational Select Committee.
Gaining the support of a SC can be crucial to the chances of a particular policy or reform progressing. Knowing how they work and the MPs on these committees is therefore vital for all in this industry.
Any individual appearing before a Select Committee must do their homework. Mike Ashley appearing before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is testament to this. At Atlas Partners, we offer training for those appearing before SCs to give you the best possible chance of representing your case effectively.