Almost the end of January and we are still awaiting the House of Commons to agree which party will chair each of the various Select Committee’s let alone allowing MP’s to elect a chair of each committee, site of the motion to appoint members that is followed by members of each committee being appointed on an agreed party split basis and for the Committee’s themselves to begin work. The bottom line is that until the Committees are formed and back up and running (they are automatically stood down when a General Election is called and, assuming they retain their seats, can and most often do put themselves forward for re-election) scrutiny of government appears to be in the hands of press and media alone!
I am well aware that the priority was to get both bills covering the Queens Speech and Brexit through but both those events being now done and dusted so to speak, priority must surely be to get the Committee’s up and running as soon as possible.
Select Committees in both the House of Commons and House of Lords are not only part of the established democratic process in holding government minsters, heads of industry, public services and others to account but they play a vital role in calling attention to developments in public management that can and often do create severe problems of public accountability – especially for example amongst the many outsourced areas of public services that include parts of the NHS, Transport Systems, Energy, Environment and what we used to call utilities plus from my main subject area, MOD operation of its core functions.
Select Committee MP’s generally have shrewd political antennae and in theory if not always in practice, Select Committees have the fast-moving capability to tackle issues of growing public concern. A well-run committee made up of a good mix of Conservative Labour, Lib-Dem, SNP and usually, a member of one of the Northern Ireland political parties (excluding Sinn Fein whose members choose not to sit in the House of Commons) work well.
The current system which has been in operation since 1979 has made them by far the most effective tool for increasing the scrutiny of outside organisations carrying out government work. Depending on who chairs the committee, I would say that the Public Accounts Committee and Treasury Select committees have made the most impact on government over the past twenty years but on occasion, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs and Defence Select Committees have had their moments too. Each Committee ‘employ’ formal advisors and they are chosen by committee members.
Select Committees operate is by calling witnesses, and so it behoves civil servants and ministers to pay more attention to who these potential sources of information (and possible criticism) are. Apart from ministers including the Prime Minister, Secretaries of State, junior ministers, departmental heads, critics, leading members of industry and so on, quite often the Committee’s relay on evidence submitted or those invited in front of the Committee to be interviewed direct Select Committees often take evidence from academics, Think Tanks including in Defence, RUSI and Chatham House and those who are known to specialise in the subject. I have myself been in front of Foreign Affairs, Public Accounts and Defence Select on several occasions in the past and served as an advisor to the Defence Select Committee for three years until 2017.
An oft asked question is how effective are Select Committees in influencing government? Make no mistake, they are effective not least in drawing the issue to the attention of the wider public. Even while it is in their interests to listen and observe criticism levied at them in final Select Committee reports which are always published and available to all, government ministers are not forced to act on any recommendation made. While I would suggest that, depending on who is in government at the time, 50% of recommendations are taken up by ministers when the issue directly affect their department or policy decisions, all that a Select Committee can do is make recommendations.
Whilst I have no issue in how individual Committee MP members are chosen (they volunteer for this and those put forward will have the blessing of their individual party leaders, I am less keen on the process that leads to the choice of chairs. This is particularly so when the process of whether the chair of a committee has been decided to be that of the party in government.
An example here is when James (now Lord) Arbuthnot who had very successfully chaired the Defence Committee for nine years stood down in 2014. Most had expected that an existing member of the Committee would take his place but, under Coalition Government pressure, Rory Stewart was suddenly hoist in to chair the committee. The point here was that Rory Stewart, brilliant as his knowledge of Foreign Affairs was and on which committee he had previously sat, knew next to nothing about defence. Needless to say, although Mr. Stewart did have to go through the process of being ‘elected’ by House of Commons members, I would be very surprised if No 10 had not worked very hard behind the scenes to pushed their preferred candidate in – one who they perhaps thought would give them less pressure. Needless to say, given that for some time Mr. Stewart required more than the usual degree of hand holding in order to grasp the complexities of defence, some other committee members were less than pleased.
As I write this all that I can say is that I live in hope that we are getting closer toward Select Committees being elected and getting back up and running. For me the appointment of Defence Select Committee chair (formally Julian Lewis MP and who I assume is standing again) cannot come a moment too soon. As to the members of the committee, I’ll just wait and see. But I will say that I hope that in the next five years the Defence Select Committee gets back on track and does more in respect of looking at aspects of defence, the military and defence procurement and rather less on what the Foreign Affairs and Public Accounts committee’s do perfectly well. That, for instance, the Defence Select Committee has yet to even consider the impact of SDSR 2015 on air power is an absolute disgrace.
CHW (London – 27th January 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785