Skip to 0 minutes and 0 seconds Government departments have an impact on every aspect of our lives. But they do not have free reign to do as they please. They have to justify their policies to Parliament, and, in particular the select committees. Each committee has the job of scrutinising the work of a particular department of government. A select committee is made up of around 11 or so Members of Parliament drawn from all political parties. These politicians combine their efforts to pick apart and examine every area of work carried out by the department they are scrutinising. They do this by deciding what inquiries they should hold and calling for written evidence from the public.
Skip to 0 minutes and 32 seconds The committee then takes evidence from all sorts of different experts from across public life. They then use the information they have gathered to question ministers and Secretaries of State. You can watch all this activity, and read every word spoken, online, You may not know this but anyone can submit evidence to a select committee inquiry, not just academics or think tanks. Committees use lots of methods to gather evidence from as wide an audience as possible. And committees often take themselves around the country, or even around the world, to see the evidence for themselves. Once enough evidence has been gathered, a committee will publish a detailed report full of recommendations for the Government to act on.
Skip to 1 minute and 12 seconds The Government then have two months to respond to Parliament. But this is just the start of the story. The select committee report often initiates further action and campaigning by pressure groups, charities and the media. This can often be the first step in a country-wide political debate affecting the future of the country.
How do House of Commons select committees work?
There is a House of Commons select committee for each government department. They are tasked with examining three aspects: spending, policies and administration. Formed entirely of backbenchers, select committees are considered to be one of the most effective means by which MPs can scrutinise the work of the Government.
Departmental select committees
Each departmental committee has a minimum of 11 members, who identify and agree upon a specific line of inquiry. During an inquiry the committee will make requests for written evidence from government departments, specialists in the area and from the general public. The committee will also take oral evidence, where MPs question witnesses. Nearly all evidence is given in public, so as well as attending a ‘live’ committee, you can watch or listen to all public evidence sessions on Parliament TV.
A key strength of select committees is that they are cross-party, with their chairs and members appointed from across the backbenches. So when a committee reaches a consensus on an issue, it presents the Government with a set of recommendations that have been agreed by members from across the political parties.
Alongside departmental select committees, there are also cross-cutting committees which look at the Government’s performance across all departments in relation to one specific criteria. Examples of this include the Public Accounts Committee who focus on value for money in government spending across the whole of government and the Environmental Audit Committee who monitor the impact of government decisions on the environment.
The departmental committees look ‘vertically’ at all the responsibilities of a single department and its ministers. The cross-cutting committees on the other hand, look ‘horizontally’ across Whitehall at themes or actions in which all or most departments are involved. How Parliament works, 7th edition p. 307 Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters
Report and response
Select committee findings are reported to the House of Commons, printed, and published on the Parliament website. The Government then usually has 60 days to reply to the committee’s recommendations.
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