Diligent MPs are filling the information vacuum because the government won’tby Paul Wallace / May 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
Amber Rudd will not forget the occasion of her self-destruction. Her denial that there were official targets for removals of illegal immigrants was at a hearing of the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. The former Home Secretary resigned on Sunday after accepting that she had inadvertently misled the committee when answering a question from Yvette Cooper, its Labour chair.
Departmental select committees were established almost four decades ago in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. Their architect was Norman St John-Stevas, whom Thatcher had appointed Leader of the House of Commons in May 1979. A Tory “wet” who wanted to restore the influence of MPs (he was a devotee of Walter Bagehot, the mid-Victorian author of a classic study of the constitution), St John-Stevas did not survive Thatcher’s first reshuffle in 1981. His parliamentary baby has fared better.
Select committees have grown in stature for two main reasons. First, they provide backbench MPs of all political persuasions a forum in which they can exercise more influence than in the chamber. Second, they break the government’s stranglehold over information and advice from the civil service by assembling evidence from a wide range of expert witnesses, including testimony from officials.
Since 2010 the chairs of select committees have been first allocated to the parties in line with their share of seats in the house and then elected by a secret ballot of all MPs. Chairing a select committee now compares favourably with life as a junior minister bound by the strictures of government policy. The work of committees has become even more relevant in a parliament defined by Brexit.
More than most governments Theresa May’s is reluctant to divulge information on a strategy that includes the crucial choices of leaving the single market and customs union. Supposedly, the attempted blackout is to strengthen the government’s hand in negotiating with the EU in Brussels. In fact it is mainly to disguise splits within the Conservative Party while avoiding the embarrassment of revealing official analysis showing the weaknesses in the strategy.
The government’s reticence has given select committees an opportunity to fill the information vacuum by conducting their own investigations. The Brexit Committee monitoring the Department for Exiting the EU has recently published a report on Britain’s future relationship with Europe, setting…