Departmental select committees were established in 1979 by Thatcher to look at the work of each government department (Defence, Foreign Affairs, Health, Education etc). If a new development is created a committee will follow, such as the Department of Constitutional Affairs. The role of Departmental Select Committees is to act as a check on the policies and work of individual government departments. Most have 11 members and a very broad remit to examine the expenditure and administration of policy. In the view of many, Departmental Select Committees are a success story of British parliamentary democracy in spite of their lack of powers.
Committees do try to influence policy but they usually make enquiries into failings or areas where concern has been raised, such as the government’s Iraq policy both in the Defence department and the Foreign Affairs department. A key Departmental Select Committee is the Defence Committee, chaired by Dr Julian Lewis. It is made up of politicians from the Conservatives, Labour, SNP and DUP. An example of an inquiry was one that looked into defence expenditure and the 2% pledge. The UK aims to spend 2% of GDP on defence, and the inquiry was set up to discover if it would be sufficient. Evidence was given by Jonathan Parish, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Defence Policy and Planning at NATO, as well as other powerful figures in international defence.
They take evidence from all involved, including opinions of experts or pressure groups. They can summon ministers and senior civil servants to give evidence. They can also call independent witnesses and initiate their own research. This can be in the form of oral or written evidence. It is a bit like a mini court and the committee can even ask for an oath to be taken but this is rarely used. All evidence is protected by parliamentary privilege which means evidence cannot result in prosecution or civil action.
The committee then writes a report on its findings. These can often be highly critical of the government and are often seized upon by the opposition. Some of these reports have influenced future policy. An example of a report is the report on the Inaction on Dangerous Dogs by the Environment Committee. They criticised the Government over their apparent inaction following a spate of well publicised dog attacks which have had several fatalities. Their report recommended better regulation of breeding of dogs and an urgent review of legislation protecting the public from dangerous dogs.
Other benefits of Departmental Select Committees include the fact that they are less partisan and the whips have less control over them, creating a culture of independence. Membership of select committees is decided by a secret ballot within each political party. This allows MPs a degree of independence from the whips. They meet in committee rooms inside the Houses of Parliament or nearby. As it is supposed to be above Party politics and non-partisan, members sit round a horse-shoe shaped table and refer to each other by name.
Committees can be used to shield ministers from the media. A committee grilling in front of the TV cameras acts as a useful deterrent to ministers who are now warier of potential reactions to their actions. Furthermore, these committees have allowed many MPs to specialise in a particular area of public policy. Some are now regarded as experts, such as Bruce George in the Defence Committee since it was created until his retirement.
To conclude, Departmental Select Committees are a useful check on the government. Overall committee level was high 2001-2, when 72 reports were written. Over the last four years an average of 375 MPs have been members of select committees of one sort or another. There has also been an increase in the use of committee reports in debates in the House and Prime Ministers’ Questions, proving that they are effective.