332: The critical role of Select Committees
The role of Select Committees is often underestimated. They fulfil a number of critical roles so should be at the heart of political and Parliamentary engagement.
Select Committees operate in both the Commons and Lords but fulfil slightly different roles which need to be recognised.
The primary role of Committees in the Commons is to hold government departments to account. The inquires they undertake can examine the spending, policies, and administration of departments. This means that the sweep of topics they can cover is very wide-ranging.
In the Lords the Committees examine specialist subjects more in line with the expertise available in that House and the potential time available to them.
Some Committees, and Chairs, have a higher profile than others so the media will often take more notice of them.
They really are creatures of Parliament rather than the political parties themselves. So, in the current Parliament, a Conservative chair cannot be relied upon to simply tow the established party line. The Chairs are often strong and quite independently minded. The election of Select Committee chairs has certainly strengthened this position.
In public affairs, we need to consider that Select Committees play, at least, three distinct roles:
- Select Committees as ‘policy developers’ – each inquiry will lead to a report to which the Government has to respond. That means that each inquiry must come up with concrete recommendations. Committees, and especially their Clerks, are always looking for ideas that can be adopted as recommendations. That central concept needs to be at heart of engagement with Committees on relevant inquiries, both written and oral contributions.
- Select Committees as ‘legislations influencers’ – Committees are often engaged by government to consider draft legislation. The recent example of the DCMS Committee examining the Online Safety Bill shows how independent their voice can be. The Committee identified issues that need to be addressed in the Bill and the Chair, speaking on the Today programme, regretted the slightly tetchy government response. Sometimes this role is formal but often there are informal channels between Committees and the relevant departments. A channel through which potential ideas and legislation can be explored.
- Select Committees as ‘reputation threateners’ – some inquiries, although focused on a department-related issue or a policy, are really about focusing on the work of outside organisations. That is where their attention is really focused. We can all think about examples across social media, financial services, retail, and many others where the real power of Select Committees comes to the fore. That power is the ability to impact on reputations. They can inflict real and long-lasting damage so need to be carefully managed.
None of these roles are mutually exclusive but each require a different type of public affairs approach. Whilst there are some generally applicable ways of engaging, Select Committees should not be considered as a single entity. Instead, each issue and inquiry should be looked at on its own merits. Otherwise, you risk making mistakes with your engagement.