What is a Select Committee?

Peter Smart, former Lakeman Fellow

Posted on the 6th October 2022

One of the most important aspects of British democracy is the Select Committee. Select Committees are groups of parliamentarians chosen by their colleagues to conduct scrutiny of the government. Here’s a quick explanation of some of the key features:

Select Committees have a minimum of eleven members who come from different parts of the UK and are made up of different parties based on their size in the House of Commons. During the 2017 – 2019 parliament a typical Select Committee had: five Conservative members, five Labour members and one Scottish National Party member. Committees could have members from other parties if the brief of the committee was more relevant to that party. For example, if the committee was on Levelling Up in Northern Ireland there would likely be Democratic Unionist Party members sitting on the committee.

Select Committees are formed either by the House of Lords or the House of Commons. The members are chosen by either MPs or Peers (depending on if the committee is from the Commons or Lords respectively) from their own party. After all the members have been appointed a chair must be elected. In order to be eligible to chair a Select Committee the parliamentarian must secure the signatures of 15 MPs or 10% of the members from their party, whichever is lower. Most chairs of each select committee are then elected by the whole House via the Alternative Vote.

Once the chair and the membership has been decided a Select Committee will start their meetings which can happen any time on Tuesdays and Wednesdays or at specific times on Mondays and Thursday.

A House of Commons Select Committee is set up to observe spending, policy and administration decisions of each government department. For instance, the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee scrutinises the work of the Department of Health and Social Care. MPs from the Select Committee get to choose their own lines of inquiry.

Not all select committees exactly match a single department. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has eight lines of inquiry at the moment including the effectiveness of the Electoral Commission and one on English devolution. This means that government departments receive a greater level of scrutiny than the parliamentary calendar allows for in the House of Commons chamber. Commons Select Committees hold enquiries, call for written and oral evidence and question government legislation.

Lords Select Committees do not shadow government departments as their Commons counterparts do. Instead, Lords Select Committees explore more broad subjects relating to the UK. For example, there is a Science and Technology, Economic Affairs and Communications. Lords Select Committees will investigate how decisions made by Parliament effect their subject.

Joint Committees work in the same way as both the Commons and Lords Committees and are made of members from both houses. Joint Committees either deal with broad subjects as the Lords Select Committees do or they can be especially assembled to scrutinise government bills.

After the committee’s evidence has been gathered and published the government are legally obliged to respond to it. Select Committees do not have any power to enforce their recommendations. However, Select Committees provide much needed scrutiny and help ensure better governance.

If you would like to find a committee you’re interested in, you can find them all on parliament’s website.

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