The parliamentary bodies provide essential scrutiny. But as the government embarks on the most immense constitutional challenge in living memory, are they able to do their job properly?by Alex Dean / July 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Westminster watchers and parliamentary obsessives are used to watching MPs squirm, but late last year there was a classic of the genre.
On 6th December David Davis, then still in the cabinet, appeared before the Brexit Select Committee. The arch-Leaver began in characteristically relaxed fashion, but was quickly put under agonising pressure. There had been a suggestion the government had conducted meticulous impact assessments, judging the effects of departure on different sectors of the British economy. What followed was excruciating to watch.
Hilary Benn, Committee Chair, proceeded to list sectors and asked whether the government really had any evidence. He probed on the automotive industry, then moved to financial services. Davis began to look deeply uncomfortable. Still the political theatre went on. “The answer’s going to be no to all of them,” Davis eventually conceded. No analysis existed, contrary to previous claims.
It was an astonishing admission and generated instant headlines. Shock rippled through Westminster. It was not the first time Benn had caught Davis out. It would not be the last. Dominic Raab, Davis’s replacement, will dread his first appearance in front of the panel.
That wintry afternoon was an illustration of just what select committees can do. At their best, they offer an unrivalled opportunity to pool expertise, publish serious analysis and hold devious ministers to account. They are a crucial cog in Britain’s parliamentary machine.
As Brexit uncertainty consumes political life, effective scrutiny is more important than ever. But was Benn’s grilling of Davis an exception to the rule? Conversation with leading constitutional experts confirms all is not well. Select committees increasingly face immense difficulties in doing their job. They are coming under unprecedented strain.
The select committee system has existed in one form or another since the 19th century: the public accounts committee dates back to 1857. In the Commons, modern committees were brought in under Margaret Thatcher when then-Leader of the House Norman St John Stevas sought to reassert the authority of parliament. Within months over a dozen were up and running and there are now many more: over 30 in the Commons alone. Previously selected by the whips, chairs have since 2010 been allocated in proportion with a party’s seat share and then mostly voted on in a secret ballot of all MPs. The Lords has fewer committees,…