The future of committee selection
- 3 July 2014
- From the section UK Politics
More than two years ago, an ugly row shook the Scottish Affairs select committee.
Its SNP member Dr Eilidh Whiteford had a row with the Chair, Labour MP Ian Davidson, claiming he had told her he would give her "a doing" if she leaked information discussed during one of its meetings.
Mr Davidson denied any threatening behaviour towards Ms Whiteford - noting that none of the 13 people present at the time heard the words complained of. And he adds that the row was about Ms Whiteford complaining about Committee decisions.
She has boycotted the committee ever since.
I understand Mr Davidson is now seeking to have Dr Whiteford removed from the committee, for non-attendance. And no-one seems to know quite what to do next.
Normally MPs who, for whatever reason, find themselves unable to attend a committee simply quit and are replaced, usually with barely a ripple. I can't remember an incident of someone being removed when they didn't want to go.
But in this case the issue is a point of principle and the SNP are digging their heels in - irresistible force (Ian Davidson) meets immovable object (the SNP) amidst rising pre-referendum tension.
So who gets to umpire this bout?
Appointments and removals from Commons committees are made by the Committee of Selection, chaired by the Conservative Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, into whose lap this dispute has now landed.
Normally his committee is little more than a clearing house for lists of nominations provided by party whips - and since the advent of elections for places on most select committees, its role in their membership has been pretty minimal.
Now there's a genuine controversy to field. Mr Speaker will probably be roped in, too.
Interestingly, the Speaker suggested this week that the public bill committees which conduct "detailed scrutiny" of legislation are ripe for reform, and their membership should be elected in the same way as select committees.
With some bills, he thought, the relevant select committee- the Education Committee for an (English) education bill, for example - could take on the committee stage of certain legislation, which would be simplest where there was no major disagreement between the government and the opposition.
To be sure this would add to the committee's workload, which could lead to weaker scrutiny of the government department it was supposed to be monitoring.
And it could corrode the cross-party culture of select committees if they were involved in the cut-and-thrust of more controversial legislation.
A more radical idea would be to hold a secret ballot of MPs to elect Public Bill Committee members on the basis of expertise and interest, which the Speaker believes would help close an emerging "legitimacy gap" between select committees and Public Bill Committees. "
Would not 2015, the 750th anniversary of the creation of the House of Commons, be the ideal time to consider whether the House believes it would deal with legislation more effectively if those who scrutinise it line-by-line on behalf of the whole House were chaired, as with select committees, by an individual from a designated party but elected by the entire House and by committee members who, once again with select committees as the example, were selected by secret ballots of party caucuses?"
Public bill committees can be pretty ritualistic exercises - members who have to be in the room to maintain a quorum often sit there dealing with constituency correspondence or reading unconnected documents, taking no part at all in the fabled "detailed scrutiny" process.
So elections could pep up the membership, at least for contentious bills - but I can't help wondering how much interest there would be in getting on the committee for more humdrum legislation. What if they held a vote and nobody ran?