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Select committees and APPGs ensure a responsive functional Parliament

John Baron MP
May 23, 2024

A theme of my recent articles has been to take on the common consensus that our Parliamentary system is ‘broken’, dysfunctional and unresponsive. I believe this is a lazy consensus, which blinds itself to the evidence that the system continues to work well. In my last article I looked at the role individual backbenchers can have to influence legislation, and in this I will highlight the more formal groupings of Select Committees and All-Party Parliamentary Groups.

Select Committees have existed in various forms for centuries, but only began to be considered on a more formal basis after the Haldane Reforms of 1918. These envisaged corresponding committees to shadow the work of the new departments and ministers, but it would take until 1979 for this to be properly realised and the committees established on a permanent and structured basis.

Until then, these committees were regarded with suspicion by party hierarchies – in her excellent survey, Lucinda Maer highlights a quote from Bernard Crick, who wrote in 1970 that the committees were ‘thoroughly distrusted and disliked by the whips’ since ‘despite Government majorities on them, they have an awkward tendency to develop cross-bench sentiment…’. This is a backhanded compliment, and it is fair to say that this awkward tendency has indeed developed, to great effect.

From 1979, party whips and the ‘usual channels’ held a very great sway over appointments to Select Committees, which tended to ensure the conclusions of their reports did not cause too many headaches for the government of the day. However, an appetite for reform became evident in 2001, when the New Labour Government attempted to remove Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson as chairs of the Transport and Foreign Affairs committees. This was widely interpreted as an abusive use of the Government’s majority to remove two independently-minded MPs (as indeed it was), and the Commons duly voted down the motions to appoint alternatives and compelled the Government to reinstate them.

Some reforms followed, but part of the response to the Expenses Scandal was, via the Wright Reforms, the introduction of elections to Select Committees as a way of empowering the Commons and reducing the patronage and influence of the whips. From the 2010 election onwards, committee chairs have been elected on a secret ballot of all backbenchers, with elections amongst relevant party backbenchers to fill the ordinary slots on the committee.

How many slots are available to each party, and which chairmanships will be held by the Government or opposition parties, is agreed by the whips after each General Election and weighted according to the overall election result. However, Committees such as the Home Affairs Select Committee are always chaired by an opposition MP.

Elections ensure that chairs and members of Select Committees are not party stooges, and the requirement for a chair to win an election across all parties in the Commons encourages a consensual and cross-party approach. Regular close exposure to the issues, and the expert assistance of the Committee clerks, who are impartial staff of the House of Commons, allow members to develop considerable expertise, especially if they are in post over several parliaments. In an era where ministerial churn has been pronounced, the relative constancy of Select Committee membership has at times resulted in their members being in some ways more expert than the ministers they are quizzing – especially if outside interests converge.

The main business of Select Committees is to publish reports, usually highlighting shortcomings in Government policy and issuing recommendations to address them. These reports tend to be long-term and wide-ranging, but can also be considerably shorter if the Committee wishes to respond quickly to sudden events.

Reports can be authoritative, and a well-timed evidence session can set the political weather. The testimony of G4S in advance of the 2012 Olympics paved the way for the Government announcing the Armed Forces would step in to ensure security, and there has been much recent coverage of the Post Office Horizon scandal which was extensively examined by the Business Select Committee. Perhaps the most damning recent Select Committee report was the May 2022 conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Committee into the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which exposed the confusion and lack of clear authority at the FCDO at this critical time.

Select Committees speak with the authority of the expertise of their members, coupled with the election by their peers and the expert support from the clerks. It is widely said amongst Parliamentarians that one can be more influential as a Select Committee chair than as a Junior Minister. Anecdotally, some chairs have been offered government posts as a way of silencing a particularly effective operator, which is perhaps the ultimate tribute to this effective development of our Parliamentary system.

It is widely said amongst Parliamentarians that one can be more influential as a Select Committee chair than as a Junior Minister. Quote

Select Committees speak with the authority of the expertise of their members, coupled with the election by their peers and the expert support from the clerks. It is widely said amongst Parliamentarians that one can be more influential as a Select Committee chair than as a Junior Minister. Anecdotally, some chairs have been offered government posts as a way of silencing a particularly effective operator, which is perhaps the ultimate tribute to this effective development of our Parliamentary system.

All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) work in similar ways to Select Committees, but are nevertheless quite different. In differing forms they have existed from the 1930s, and serve as much more informal cross-party groupings of Parliamentarians with a particular interest. Unlike Select Committees, members of APPGs can come from both Houses, and most will have a healthy mix of MPs and Peers.

APPGs often operate in a similar fashion to Select Committees in taking evidence from witnesses and publishing reports into particular issues. Because of their smaller size (in general) they can be nimbler than Select Committees, and often they can come into their own at a Bill’s Report Stage by advocating particular amendments – often tabled by the APPG membership itself. In this way the chair of the APPG can act as an informal ‘shop steward’, and often addressing the concerns articulated by an APPG chair is an effective way for the Government to stave off a backbench rebellion, to the benefit of the APPG members too.

Several crucial differences exist between APPGs and Select Committees. The first is that the chair and leading members of APPGs are elected only by those who turn up to AGMs and EGMs, and whilst in theory it is possible for all MPs to turn up to these meetings, this never happens in practice. In terms of numbers, APPGs are vastly larger – whilst there is essentially one Select Committee per Government Department, there are hundreds of APPGs.

Another difference is that APPGs do not receive support from the Commons clerks, and to fulfil this role organisations can step in to act as the APPG’s secretariat. Whilst this allows APPGs to be nimble, it does mean that there have to be safeguards to ensure that APPGs do not become a vehicle for the advancement of special interests with the imprimatur of Parliament. This could be a particular problem if the APPG could be confused with a Select Committee – someone not close to Parliament might fail to pick up on the important differences between an APPG for International Affairs and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

In recent years Parliament has taken steps to address this: APPG reports now have to carry a prominent disclaimer making clear the findings have not been endorsed by Parliament, and greater transparency is required to demonstrate the sources of funding which support them. Members of APPG secretariats are also no longer entitled to Parliamentary passes. These are all sensible measures, even if it has come at the expense of making running APPGs more onerous.

Approached in the right spirit, APPGs can be very effective. I have already written in an earlier article about the APPG for an EU Referendum’s role in securing the 2016 vote, and we like to think the British Council APPG has been an effective advocate for one of Britain’s key soft power institutions, especially during the challenging funding situations caused by the pandemic. When I was at the helm of the APPG on Cancer, each December we ran the largest one-day cancer conference in the UK, which connected the cancer community with policymakers in the NHS and Whitehall which often focused on the importance of earlier diagnosis, as well as running regular backbench debates to allow MPs to raise related issues and, at times, share their own experiences.

The related groupings of Select Committees and APPGs can be powerful tools in Parliamentarians’ inventory to frame the debate and influence government policy. There are not many issues which fly under their radars, and they serve as more grist to my mill that Parliament has never been more responsive to public opinion. They are yet another aspect of our system which its detractors must explain away to make their points.

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John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a former Shadow Health Minister.

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