Gateway to Government – Huw Edwards reflects on the important work of Select Committees

Wed 26 Jun 2019

Gateway to Government – Huw Edwards reflects on the important work of Select Committees

Public understanding of how select committees operate has certainly increased as a result of high-profile scandals and the scrutiny of high profile individuals. In the 40 years since the current departmental based system of select committees was established there have been some important changes to the way committee are appointed and operate - but the fundamental role of select committees is to hold those who exercise power to account.

There is no party politics or should be no party politics on select committee. Members are appointed in proportion to the political balance in the House and they are expected to work together across party and produce a unanimous report. Since 2010 chairman are elected by secret ballot by the House of Commons as whole and other members of the committee by elected MPs within each party. This ensures that members bring a greater expertise and interest in the policy areas that each committee examines.

Committee chairmen now receive an additional salary to reflect the amount of work and responsibility the role requires and committees are better staffed with specialist advisors and media specialists working alongside committee clerks. Pre-legislative scrutiny has been an added role for select committees and they now examine Draft Bills and question expert witnesses about the bill.

After legislating, the second most important role of Parliament is to hold government to account.  For Ministers, being questioned by Select Committee for up to three hours can be a gruelling experience especially when having to explain failures in policy. It requires specialist knowledge of their brief and the ability to respond to unexpected and challenging questions.

The committees empower MPs to expose failure, investigate irregularities and hold powerful individuals, not just Ministers, to account. The failings of political figures and senior officials were manifestly exposed in the inquiries into the Rotherham sex abuse case. While the questioning of Mike Ashley of Sports Direct clearly showed a powerful person who believed he was immune from public scrutiny being called to answer for his actions. However Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s failure to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee investigating the Cambridge Analytica scandal was highly disappointing.

Civil Servants can be involved in the whole cycle of a select committee inquiry: drafting their department’s written evidence; briefing and supporting their Ministers or senior colleagues who are giving oral evidence; preparing the government’s response to the Committee’s report; and finally implementing any changes that the government adopts following the inquiry.

Civil servants have a duty to be helpful to parliament while maintaining their political neutrality under the civil service code and they can be called to give oral evidence in their own right.  The ‘Osmotherly Rules’ provides guidance for civil servants appearing before select committees. Policy officials should be mindful at all times that they themselves and not just Ministers or senior colleagues could be scrutinised and have to answer to parliament for the outcome of policy they were involved in developing or implementing.

The public expects their elected MPs to do something when things go wrong in public life. Civil servants have a crucial role in helping Parliament in one of its key roles - to hold those who hold power to account.

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