Government efforts to install a preferred chair have left one of the most important committees out of action at a critical timeby Hannah White / April 16, 2020 / Leave a comment
Select committees have adapted rapidly to the arrival of coronavirus and the restrictions on physical proximity it has placed on everyone. Moving their hearings online, many Commons committees have continued to sit through the Easter recess, taking evidence from a wide range of experts and those involved in the government response, and eliciting important information.
But there has been one notable absence. The Liaison Committee—made up of all Commons select committee chairs and normally responsible for holding three oral evidence sessions a year with the prime minister—has not yet been established following the general election. In one way this is normal—the Liaison Committee always has to wait for the chairs of other committees to be elected before it can get going—but on this occasion a further delay has been introduced.
The problem is that the government is seeking to impose its own choice of chair on the committee—Bernard Jenkin. In the recent past the chair of the Liaison Committee has been elected by members of the committee from among their number. Members see it as important that the chair is independently elected because he or she will play an important role in holding the prime minister to account. Recent holders of the position—Sarah Wollaston and Andrew Tyrie—were both elected as members of the Conservative Party but had strong reputations for independence from government.
But Jenkin is not currently a member of the committee because he is not a chair of any committee, having stood down from the chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to contest the chair of the Defence Committee—a contest he lost to Tobias Ellwood. In order to install Jenkin, on 17th March the government asked MPs to agree a motion setting up the Liaison Committee specifying that he would be chair. That motion was objected to by MPs but has been laid again for decision on Wednesday 22nd April.
MPs are suspicious of the government’s efforts in light of the reluctance Boris Johnson has shown to subject himself to the committee’s scrutiny. More than once during the febrile Brexit-related events of the autumn of 2019 he refused requests to appear or cancelled scrutiny sessions at short notice, to the frustration of the committee which wanted…