UK Politics

The new breed of select committees offers MPs an alternative career structure

Rupert Murdoch addressing a parliamentary select committee
Image caption Rupert Murdoch described his appearance at the committee investigating phone-hacking as "the most humble" day of his life

The House of Commons can, on occasion, have the feel of a deserted pub. There's an old joke that does the rounds at Westminster that if you have got a secret to keep, announce it to the Commons.

But keeping an appearance before a select committee secret is no longer so easy.

All sorts of people find themselves sitting in front of these increasingly vociferous, confident and newsworthy collections of backbenchers from all parties.

The comedian Russell Brand, the-then chief executive of Barclays Bank, Bob Diamond, and Rupert Murdoch may not have much in common.

But they have all faced the music.

"It is the principal mechanism in Parliament for holding the departments of government to account," Ruth Fox, director of the research charity the Hansard Society, told BBC Radio 4's PM programme.

"It is not unusual now to hear a select committee report being the opening piece on the 7am slot on the Today programme on Radio 4. They are beginning to shape the political agenda of the week when they publish their reports."

'Credibility and enthusiasm'

This growth in profile is, in part, down to changes to the committee system, designed by the former Labour MP Tony Wright and introduced before the last election.

Committee members are now elected by MPs, rather than nominated by the whips.

It gives them clout and independence.

"If you think back, it is only three years since we were talking about Parliament being in terminal decline, with the expenses scandal. Three years on and the place just seems to be more vital, more robust and I think the people who are making it like that are the select committees and we should rejoice in it," Dr Wright said.

A striking indicator of their increasingly central parliamentary role is the credibility attached to those who chair the committees, and the enthusiasm of those who have secured these roles.

Keith Vaz was a minister when Labour was in power. But he said his current role as chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee was a far more fulfilling job.

"I like this much better because I think that when you are elected as a Member of Parliament there seems to be this great desire to go into office. But office is a limited experience. Unless you can be prime minister or sit at the very highest levels of government, you really don't make those decisions."

In other words, the reforms to the select committee system now provide an alternative possible career structure for MPs.

Room for improvement

A career in the Commons no longer has to have a ministerial red box as a long-hoped-for ambition. The opportunity on the committee corridor, to scrutinise, cross examine and pronounce on government policy, and be listened to, is another option.

But, for Mr Vaz, the reforms do not go far enough. Witnesses who would rather not be verbally beaten up in front of the cameras can still refuse to turn up, if they are happy to defend themselves in the court of public opinion for blowing a raspberry at Parliament.

"I still think we lack independent powers - the power to compel. The power to say 'I would like you to come in'. Two witnesses managed to get away from me in 2012, only because I was too busy to chase them."

Other criticisms are made too.

Image caption Russell Brand cracked jokes as he gave evidence to MPs on drug addiction and treatment

Individual MPs can try to grandstand when a high-profile witness appears in front of them.

Or members can plough their own rather idiosyncratic furrow, and so fail collectively to put together a consistent line of questioning.

Civil servants often fall back on rules stating that they are accountable to Parliament only through their ministers.

Ministers, on the other hand, are known to blame their officials if things go wrong.

With arguably more at stake for those giving evidence, some witnesses are also becoming more muscular.

There are fears it could lead some witnesses to ask to bring their lawyer with them. That could have profound implications.

Despite this, and the fact that many of their reports are rejected by the government, it's been a good year for select committees.

For many Westminster observers, Parliament has been revived since the last election.

The select committees have played no small part in that.