Unsystematic scrutiny

Committees such as the Sebastopol Committee played some part in calling governments to account (often after the event) but, with the possible exception of the Public Accounts Committee (see page 249), set up in 1861 to see whether public money had been properly expended, until the twentieth century there was little use by the House of Commons of select committees to monitor the detail of what the government of the day was actually doing.

A move in this direction was made with the appointment in 1912 of the Estimates Committee, which lasted until 1970, when it was succeeded (until 1979) by the Expenditure Committee. Both committees worked mainly through subject subcommittees, but their coverage of government activity, although occasionally influential, was very patchy. In the late 1960s and 1970s, various ‘subject’ select committees (for example, on agriculture, education and science, and overseas aid) were set up; but there was no real system of select committees; and the Agriculture Committee, for example, was wound up in February 1969 after a campaign of opposition by government departments.

The real change came with the election of the Conservative government in 1979. The new Leader of the House, Norman St John-Stevas, was quick to put before the House the recommendation of the Procedure Committee the previous year that there should be select committees to shadow each government department. The committee had also recommended that eight days per year on the floor of the House should be devoted to debating the committees’ reports (and that their chairmen should be paid a small additional salary). These latter recommendations were not adopted by the government, but the key principle of a system of select committees related to government departments was approved in June 1979.

Had St John-Stevas not moved so quickly, the change would probably never have been made; by the autumn the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (who had other things on her mind in the first few months of office), would have realised how inconvenient for the government these committees might be, and would have vetoed the proposal. But, for the first time, the House of Commons now had at its disposal a means of systematic scrutiny of the government of the day potentially much more rigorous than the traditional methods of debate and question.

Today, these departmental select committees account for the majority of select committee activity; but they number only about half of the House’s select committees. We now look at what select committees there are and what they do; then at their appointment and powers; and we will then use the example of a departmental committee to see how they work.

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