Select Committees – The new frontline in holding the Government to account

May 22, 2020 Andrew Niblett

As the fifth and final week of the hybrid, virtual Parliament comes to end, its impact cannot be downplayed. Centuries of tradition have been upended, with proposals that some have called for over the last few years, such as remote voting, entirely accelerated. While these changes were necessary to allow Parliament to continue to sit, they have created an accountability vacuum, with the ability of MPs to question the Government and Prime Minister severely limited, at a time when questioning has never been more important.

The changes, coupled with the enormous and unprecedented situation created by COVID-19, have amplified issues that already existed, while also creating new challenges entirely. This triumvirate of difficulties consists of time constraints, party loyalty/ambition, and the ability to hold decision makers to account. The three of these are intrinsically linked, each magnifying the shortcomings created by the other. While the House of Commons has largely been unable to overcome these issues, Select Committees have been far more successful in circumventing them.

When Parliament returned after Easter recess, it was with a compressed and condensed timetable, aiming to ensure MPs could question as many different Ministers as possible, with two sets of Departmental Questions each day. While the aim was understandable, in practice it has simply left more time taken up with standard pre-prepared responses, and less time to actually answer questions on specific issues. This, coupled with the necessary removal of Topical Questions, allows Ministers to evade difficult questions far easier, shown by Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey not answering a single question during Work and Pensions Questions, despite there having been more claims and payments made of Universal Credit than ever before.

These time constraints faced by the hybrid Parliament have been worsened through the actions of ‘loyal’ Conservative backbench MPs, who ask ‘fluffer questions’, consisting of praise for the Government or criticism of the opposition, rather than anything probing or important. While this is standard for governments of all colours, their impact has now grown considerably.

The most important issue however, and not one that would be changed by Parliament returning to sitting normally, is that those who are advising Government cannot be called to answer questions from MPs in the Commons. With the Government continuously insisting that every action they take is ‘governed by science’, those who are evaluating the ‘science’ cannot be brought to explain it.

Select Committees are not so beset by these issues, and have ably adapted to operating virtually, and in recent weeks have proven to be one of the biggest causes of headaches for Boris Johnson’s Government. While limited by time, they are usually able to question witnesses for at least an hour, and are therefore able to nail down answers on particular issues, and to garner information that would not be willingly presented to the House of Commons. They began sitting virtually while the Commons was still sitting physically, and have sessions due to take place during recess next week, indicating that they will not be affected by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s desire for the Commons to return.

The Chairs of Select Committees are not only some of the most experienced Parliamentarians, but also compose some of Boris Johnson’s most fierce intraparty critics, and who are not afraid to criticise the Government’s actions. Tom Tugendhat, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is leading the rebellion against Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network; Health and Social Care Committee Chair Jeremy Hunt was the longest serving Health Secretary since the formation of the NHS, and has of course been one of the most vocal MPs when it comes to the Government’s handling of COVID-19. Science and Technology Committee Chair Greg Clark was sacked as Business Secretary when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, while Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn, two of the only remaining Labour MPs who have served as Secretaries of State, are also Committee Chairs. The Chairs have worked together to ensure that they are able to attend others Committee sessions, working across party lines to ensure that the right questions get asked of the right people.

In these unprecedented times, the ability of Select Committees to question medical professionals, scientists, and business leaders has been invaluable. Numerous members of the influential Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) have appeared before Committees, providing more of an insight into the thinking behind decision making than questions at the Downing Street daily briefings could provide. It was in a committee where the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser stated that 20,000 deaths from COVID-19 could be seen as a good result, and where the Chief Executive of Care England directly disputed claims by the Government that a “protective ring” had been thrown around care homes, points picked up on by Labour leader Keir Starmer during Prime Minister’s Questions. With nearly every sector and industry impacted by COVID-19, Committees have also called on company CEOs to give evidence and explain what actions their businesses are taking.

With MPs voting against the continuation of hybrid proceedings this week, the importance of Select Committees is also likely to grow in the coming weeks, and potentially months. Fewer MPs will be able to question the Government at a time, with it likely that many choose to stay away from Westminster entirely. With Select Committees continuing to sit remotely, this will give those MPs the chance to still ask questions, to get answers, and to ensure that the accountability vacuum doesn’t become a chasm.