The installation of its preferred chair at the head of the most senior select committee represents poor governanceby Brigid Fowler / May 22, 2020 / Leave a comment
In getting the House of Commons to appoint Bernard Jenkin as chair of the parliament’s most senior committee this week, the government has ignored or forgotten that “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” On 20th May, against the expressed wishes of opposition parties and some of its own backbenchers, it got the House to back its motion naming Jenkin to chair the Liaison Committee, which has functions encompassing House business, the select committee system and scrutiny of the prime minister, and which otherwise comprises select committee chairs.
The government’s move is a retrograde one that violates the principle that the scrutinised should not choose the scrutineer. It runs counter to the spirit and practice of reforms strengthening the select committee system over the last decade; and it confirms that, after the Brexit-related upheavals of 2017-19, constitutional and procedural questions around the scope of what the government can and should do with the House of Commons remain very much live.
The problems with the government’s Liaison Committee appointment motion this week were partly of substance and partly of process.
The government’s motion rolled together two distinct issues: whether the Liaison Committee chair should be a “full-time” figure not simultaneously chairing a regular select committee or a “double-hatted” one holding the position on top of a regular select committee chairmanship; and the process by which the chair should be appointed.
In naming Jenkin, the government’s motion reverted to the pre-2010 practice of having a full-time chair. Having lost January’s election for the Defence Committee chairmanship to Tobias Ellwood, Jenkin is not the chair of any other Commons select committee. Given the scope of the Liaison Committee chair role, the ever-increasing workloads of all select committee chairs and the potential for conflicts of interest to arise for a Liaison Committee chair who is double-hatted, there are good grounds for again making the Liaison Committee chair a full-time position.
However, in naming the chair (in the motion that the House must anyway pass to appoint the committee’s members), the government overturned all precedent—whereby the committee has formally chosen its chair itself. This was what caused the government’s move to be blocked when it first tried in March, and what an amendment from…