The development of select committees

Select committees have long been a feature of the work of the House of Commons. If you look at the Journals of the House for the end of the sixteenth century, you will find select committees involved in, and advising the House on, some of the most sensitive political issues of the day. In 1571, there was a Committee for the Uniformity of Religion - a matter of life and death in Elizabethan England. The following year there was a Committee on the Queen of Scotts [sic] - in this case, a matter of death. In 1571, there was also a Committee for the Examination of Fees and Rewards taken for Voices (that is, votes) in this House - an early example of the House looking at appropriate standards of conduct. Just after the turn of the seventeenth century, select committees dealt with the Confirmation of the Book of Common Prayer and with the Union with Scotland (both in 1604).

Some committees were virtually permanent: committees on Grievances, on Privileges and on the Subsidy (the grant of money to the Crown) were regularly appointed. There were also select committees with wider responsibilities, such as the splendidly named Grand Committee for Evils (1623).

But most committees were ephemeral; something came up that the House wanted looked at, and it set up a committee. These would often operate very informally: the members nominated to the committee would go straight out of the House into another room, would deliberate, perhaps examine witnesses, and then come back to the House (possibly even later in the same sitting), when one of their members would report orally what view they had come to.

Until well into the twentieth century, most select committees were set up ad hoc to examine a particular issue of public policy, or often some disaster or scandal (and their appointment was often used as a political weapon). A classic case was the Sebastopol Committee, set up in 1855, which - with some resonances for the aftermath of the Iraq war in 2003 - investigated the conduct of affairs but also sought political scapegoats in the process. The committee sat almost every day for more than two months, asked some 7,000 questions of witnesses and was bitterly critical of Lord Aberdeen, the former Prime Minister (who gave evidence to the committee). Unlike a modern select committee, the Sebastopol Committee had no staff (the role of committee clerks then was largely to ensure procedural rectitude), and the final report was written by one of its members, Lord Seymour (the draft report proposed by the fiery chairman, Mr Roebuck, was rejected by the committee).

The reputation of select committees as a means of inquiring into events was dealt a serious blow by the committee investigations into the Jameson Raid (a botched attempt to overthrow President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal Republic in 1895, often thought to have led to the Boer War) and the Marconi scandal of 1912, involving allegations of insider trading against senior politicians. Both were marked by extreme partisanship and were almost wholly ineffective. The contemporary lack of confidence in select committees as investigators led to the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 providing a non-parliamentary means of investigation.

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