According to the Parliament website, the purpose of a Select Committee is to ‘check and report on areas ranging from the work of government departments to economic affairs. The results of these inquiries are public and many require a response from the government’. Committees often mirror Government departments and have the ability to call witnesses to give oral evidence, issue terms of reference asking for written submissions and embark on Committee visits away from Westminster to enhance their understanding of a particular subject.
In the past, Select Committees were often seen as a vehicle by which MPs who have a specialist knowledge in a policy area could continue their Parliamentary career once the option of a Ministerial Office was no longer open to them. In recent years, the role of Select Committees has changed considerably, with Chairmen now being paid an additional salary and this position often seen as an alternative but equally significant career path in Westminster. Looking at MPs such as Keith Vaz and Margaret Hodge, they attracted significant media coverage of their Select Committee activities as they pursued regular high-profile inquiries.
However, despite the efforts of the Westminster authorities, there is considerable evidence which shows that Select Committees do not wield the power they might like to think they have. Mark Zuckerberg is the latest well-known figure invited to appear before a Committee who has declined such as invitation; Sir Philip Green did attend but only after several times of asking and even when Rupert Murdoch appeared before the DCMS Committee during their inquiry into the phone hacking scandal, his blasé attitude and contempt with which he answered the Committee’s questions did not appear to show any deference to the inquiry. And yes of course, there are numerous examples of when Select Committees do have a greater influence than a decade ago – G4S’ handling of security at the Olympics and banking bosses galore have been taken down a peg or two, but to what effect?
The Constitution Unit at UCL produced a piece of research on the influence of Select Committees in 2011. Despite the increased output, fewer than one in 10 committee reports could be considered ‘agenda setting’. And while Select Committee recommendations call for a wide variety of actions by government, relatively few (around 20%) relate directly to flagship policies as identified in government manifestos and Queen’s speeches. Although Committees do have other functions, it is significant that their influence over Government does not seem to have been enhanced with their change in role.
And perhaps this is why Zuckerberg and others cannot be bothered with UK Select Committee inquiries. Does that mean that the assessment of Select Committees is ‘must do better’? They are hampered by the restrictions placed on them by Parliamentary procedure and practice and it could just be a matter of time as MPs wield their power more and more. However, if they are to be seen as a serious form of scrutiny and inquisition, Parliamentary authorities must give the Committees all the power they need, and Government Departments must respect and response to their reports appropriately – and that is beyond the control of even the most audacious Chairman.