Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Philip Aylett, ‘The political origins and impact of Commons select committees: some 20th century case studies’

Dr Philip Aylett (House of Commons/Queen Mary, University of London) reports back from his ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar paper last year: ‘The political origins and impact of Commons select committees: some 20th century case studies’…

In a paper delivered to the seminar on 29 November I talked about the role of committees in Parliament, and especially in the House of Commons. I said that, in particular, select committees – cross-party groups of MPs or peers, often asked by the Commons or Lords to inquire into and report on specific questions or issues, often in relation to government policy and administration –  had been a fundamental and often highly active part of life in both Houses since the early days of Parliament.  The Victorian era had then seen a great flowering of committee activity on both private and public matters.

In the last century or so select committees have been largely or exclusively composed of backbench MPs, giving these Members scope to influence events and policy. That was important, I argued, because it had implications for the relationship between government and Parliament.

I went on to trace the 20th century history of investigatory select committees, and to ask why they almost disappeared from view between the First World War and 1960. This remained something of a mystery, but the popularity of party committees of MPs on specific policy areas may have had something to do with it.  The paper argued that, by the late 1950s, some of the key functions of Parliament, including the task of holding Ministers to detailed account for their performance in office through select committee scrutiny, had become weakened.

Then I concluded by contending that since the mid-1960s select committees had grown gradually stronger and more effective, in ways that made them, today, politically and even constitutionally important. Along the way I picked out political events that helped select committees to grow in significance, turning up some unlikely and perhaps unintentional heroes of parliamentary reform, including Harold Wilson and Edward Heath.

Along with others, these party leaders of the mid-60s developed a realistic and workable model of select committees that would be attractive to the modern MP; this would concentrate on scrutiny through inquiry and report and would avoid the burdensome tasks of legislative drafting and budget setting and financial monitoring.  I also suggested that the revival of select committees after 1966 or so had been encouraged by the influx of a more highly-educated cadre of MPs, especially on the Labour side; these Members might be considered better equipped than previous cohorts to take on analysis of policy and administration.

The discussion was lively. Dr Philip Salmon of the History of Parliament thought that I had been too kind to many of the 19th century committees and had conflated ‘modern’ investigatory committees with earlier Commons bodies with different and not always commendable roles. Dr Paul Hunneyball made similar points in relation to the 17th century.  Professor George Jones suggested that the modern committees were too fond of grandstanding and could be seen as unconstitutional, inflating the role of the MP and undermining the proper function of government. Committees should avoid second-guessing Ministers on policy issues, he felt, because most MPs had been elected to support the governing party and its policies.


Watch this space for next term’s ‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ seminar schedule!

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