Peter Riddell on the progress of a Parliamentary reform

  • The New Select Committees: A Study of the 1979 Reforms edited by Gavin Drewry
    Oxford, 410 pp, £25.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 19 822785 X
  • Commons Select Committees: Catalysts for Progress? edited by Dermot Englefield
    Longman, 288 pp, £15.00, May 1984, ISBN 0 582 90260 6
  • British Government and the Constitution: Text, Cases and Materials by Colin Turpin
    Weidenfeld, 476 pp, £25.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 297 78651 2
  • Parliament in the 1980s edited by Philip Norton
    Blackwell, 208 pp, £19.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 631 14056 5

The new select committee system was launched in 1979 with a characteristic flourish by Norman St John Stevas, then Leader of the House of Commons. MPs were ‘embarking upon a series of changes that could constitute the most important Parliamentary reforms of the century’. The proposals were ‘intended to redress the balance of power’ – as between Parliament and the executive – ‘to enable the House of Commons to do more efficiently the job it has been elected to do’. This rhetoric and the expectations it raised have coloured all subsequent discussion of the role of select committees, 14 of which now monitor the work of various government departments. The New Select Committees, a collection of essays by the Study of Parliament Group, provides a sober corrective to the early euphoria in adding to the growing literature on the subject. The authors are mainly academics, though with a sprinkling of House of Commons staff.

The committees were created, and have operated, in the political framework of the Commons as it is, not as it might be. As John Biffen, that quintessential Commons man and current leader of the House, points out in Commons Select Committees, the new committees are not a move towards the extensive and powerful committee framework of the US Congress. The British committees have ‘no formal role in the legislative process. It is not a procedural requirement in Parliament, as it is in the US, for all legislation to be referred to an appropriate committee before it is considered on the floor.’ Instead, ‘the criterion of measuring the effectiveness of the committees will be by judging how far they have been successful in increasing the power of scrutiny by the House of Commons over the activities of ministers and government departments.’

Accountability and scrutiny, not power over decisions or legislation, have been the essence. Indeed, for all his considerable success in bouncing a reluctant prime minister and Cabinet to accept the new system of select committees in 1979, Norman St John Stevas did a disservice by exaggerating their likely role. This enabled traditionalists like Michael Foot and Enoch Powell to warn that expanding the role of the committees might distract attention from the proper Parliamentary forum, the floor of the House. On their view, this would damage the position of individual members and of Parliament itself. Moreover, as Priscilla Baines of the Commons Library points out in discussing the background to the 1979 reforms in The New Select Committees, some MPs were worried that the bipartisan, consensus-seeking approach of select committees would be incompatible with the party struggle. ‘Mr Powell argued in the February 1979 debate (on the procedure committee’s report urging reform) that real power in the House of Commons depended on party, while, as Mr Foot had suggested on another occasion, “what we are concerned about is maintaining the conflict of clash of interest.” ’

Yet neither need have been worried. None of the select committees has attempted to challenge the party system or the dominant role of the executive in initiating legislation and securing its passage. Members of committees are, after all, party men and women, receiving the weekly whip and often interrupting committee proceedings to go and vote in opposite lobbies.

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