Introduction to select committees in the House of Commons

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38.1Select committees are established to undertake a wide range of tasks which require a different, and often more flexible, mode of operation than is found in Chamber proceedings; in particular, they can report opinions and observations on issues.1 These attributes can be brought to bear through select committees charged with regular scrutiny of government, or with routine issues relating to House governance and administration, or with addressing specific immediate problems or issues not easily addressed through other committees or mechanisms.2 Select committees are thus distinct from general committees (eg public bill committees), discussed in Chapter 39, which are established primarily as a means of accommodating business which might otherwise be taken in the Chamber and which operate broadly on lines similar to those in the House.

Although many variations of powers and remits have been deployed, select committees invariably share two key characteristics not otherwise easily available to the House. Firstly, they may seek out, and publish – to a greater extent than can public bill committees – written and oral evidence (which becomes part of the House's formal proceedings). Secondly, they may meet in private to discuss (to ‘deliberate’), and agree (by consensus, by voting, or by a combination of the two) conclusions and recommendations, based on the evidence gathered, for reporting to the House. Select committees have become over recent years the principal mechanism by which the House discharges its responsibilities for the detailed scrutiny of government policy, spending and actions. Increasingly, this detailed scrutiny work has become the most widely recognised and public means by which Parliament holds government Ministers and their departments and agencies to account.

Select committees usually possess no formal authority except that which they derive by delegation from the House.2A They acquire an informal authority from their performance and impact. It is the tradition of select committees, bolstered by their practice of deliberating in private, to proceed as far as possible by consensus and with as little regard as possible to party affiliations. Select committee members, being usually appointed for the duration of a Parliament, may acquire significant levels of expertise in the specific areas for which their committee is responsible. This, together with the specialist resources available to them, has reinforced the authority and influence of select committee reports.

Select committees are composed of several specifically named Members. Membership reflects the political composition of the House as a whole. Although individual select committees' formal powers vary according to the role they are expected to fulfil, they are customarily given most, or variations of, the powers set out in the table below:

Formal wording of power Explanation
To send for persons, papers and records To gather oral and written evidence and request specific documents
To appoint specialist advisers To employ experts to advise them on matters within their remits
To report from time to time To publish reports and evidence at times of their choosing
To sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House To meet when the House is not sitting (otherwise prohibited under Standing Order No 123)
To adjourn from place to place To hold informal and formal meetings away from Westminster, including in other countries
To admit the public during oral evidence sessions To take oral evidence from witnesses in public (as well as in private)
To appoint a sub-committee To establish a sub-committee to undertake a specific task or role and to report to the committee
To meet concurrently with any committee or sub-committee of either House of Parliament for the purpose of deliberating or taking evidence Formally to work with other committees of either House
To communicate its evidence to any other select committee, or sub-committee of either House of Parliament or to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly or to any of their committees To exchange papers with other committees in either House or the devolved Parliaments and assemblies in the UK

Aspects of normal select committee practice can be set aside by resolution or order of the House in response to some practical or political need. For example, in the 2017–19 Session, in the face of protracted political negotiations around the nomination of the Committee of Selection,3 the Leader of the House tabled the motions required to secure the nomination of Members to select committees, notwithstanding usual practice.4 On 24 March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the House passed a temporary Order allowing Members of select committees to participate in committee proceedings through electronic means of communication approved by the Speaker, and allowing Chairs of select committees to report to the House an order, resolution or Report of the Committee not agreed at a meeting of the committee, if they were satisfied that all members of the committee had been consulted, and that the order, resolution or Report represented a decision of the majority of the committee. The Order, which originally had effect until 30 June 2020, included a provision for the Speaker to extend its effect, which was used five times between June 2020 and June 2021.

In similar vein, the House has established select committees with specific features for specific purposes, such as the appointment of ‘lay members’ to the Standards Committee (see para 38.78 ) or the establishment of a joint committee with the specific title of a ‘Commission’ with powers to operate in some respects more flexibly than a normal select committee (see Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, para 41.2 ).

Footnotes

  1. 1. SO No 133.
  2. 2. See for example CJ (2012–13) 180–81 (Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards); Votes and Proceedings, 10 September 2014 (House of Commons Governance Committee).
  3. 2A. Section 13A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, as amended by the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, gave the European Scrutiny Committee in the Commons and the European Union Committee in the Lords a temporary, statutory power to require a debate, on a potentially substantive motion, in their respective Chamber on EU legislation or proposed EU legislation where they considered that legislation raised a matter of vital national interest.
  4. 3. HC Deb (4 July 2017) 626, cc 1077–88.
  5. 4. HC Deb (11 September 2017) 628, c 605.