What are select committees?
From the middle of the nineteenth century, parliamentary reformers argued for a system of permanent select committees to support Parliament's efforts to exert control over the Executive. But it wasn't until 1979 that a permanent structure of select committees was introduced. The House of Commons now has a means of impartial, systematic scrutiny of the government that can be much more rigorous than traditional methods of debates and questions.
There are 18 select committees, one to shadow each department of state, and several that look at a particular issue across departments, such as the Public Accounts, Public Administration, Environmental Audit and European Scrutiny committees.
The Liaison Committee is made up of the Chairs of all the committees in the House of Commons and it has the general task of considering issues around the work of select committees. In 2000 it launched a campaign to make select committees more effective, resulting in something of a confrontation with the Government. Among other innovations it eventually succeeded in establishing the principle that the Prime Minister should appear before the Liaison Committee to be questioned on domestic and international issues. This now happens twice a year.
How do they work?
Select Committees are made up of - usually - nine to eighteen Members of Parliament "selected" (hence the name) from across the political parties, in proportion to the representation of the parties in the House of Commons. They are served by a permanent staff of six to eight people. They are the employees of the House, not civil servants. Departmental select committees are charged with investigating the "expenditure, administration and policy" of Government departments. That is a broad remit and the basic principle is that they can decide who and what they will investigate.
Their powers derive from the House of Commons itself and include the ability to meet away from Westminster (including abroad), meet with other Committees, appoint outside specialist advisers, and have a special power, which allows them to send for "people, papers and records". This means that in the rare cases where a witness is not willing to do give evidence, the Committee can serve them with an order to attend (or produce papers or records).
What do they do? Select Committees work by holding inquiries into subjects they choose and reporting their findings to the House. They might investigate a particular existing or proposed policy, an area of public concern, or the work of one of the bodies associated with their department (or of independent regulators. They will usually put out a general call for written evidence with the terms of reference for the inquiry - anyone can submit evidence to the committee - and may also request specific evidence from people or organisations.
They will then put together a list of witnesses to take oral evidence from, which may include the responsible government minister. Oral evidence is almost always held in public and the public are welcome to attend. The witnesses are questioned by the committee and their testimony taken down verbatim, to be published. All evidence is part of a parliamentary proceeding, and is protected by parliamentary privilege.
This means nothing given as evidence can give rise to criminal prosecution or civil action, or for example, disciplinary action by an employer. The session may be televised and if so is always broadcast in either audio or video on the parliamentlive.tv website. When they are discussing evidence and reports, the committee meets in private, which means they can speak frankly with each other and operate outside the pressure of their parties and whips. They can therefore often come to consensus and agree a tough view even on a contentious subject.
And how do they affect us?
The Clerk and staff will produce a draft report (usually with recommendations to the government), which the committee considers and amends. Usually reports are agreed unanimously, which makes an effective - and more powerful - cross-party statement. The government is expected to reply to the report and address its recommendations within two months. The government reply can be published by the committee after they receive it, or the government may decide to publish its response itself directly.
While the government may be reluctant to accept select committee recommendations outright, the "delayed drop" effect, where ambitious or challenging recommendations can change the public debate on a subject, they may be taken up by public bodies and pressure groups, and months (or years) later substantially contribute to a shift in government policy.
Governments have accepted very many select committee recommendations, but it's always difficult to judge exactly how far the select committees are responsible for changes. For example, in 2002 the government accepted the Home Affairs Committee recommendation to downgrade cannabis from a class B to a class C drug.
The Defence Committee took up the case of Gulf War veterans who believed they were suffering from Gulf War syndrome, and pursued the issue through a number of reports, forcing changes in policy on governments of both main parties. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee's recommendation for a tax break for British films was accepted and had a revitalising effect on the British industry. The Treasury Committee's criticism of credit card charges put that issue high on the political agenda.
The select committee system has enabled the questioning of ministers and civil servants and forced them to explain themselves.