How to ensure parliamentary scrutiny when MPs returnby Hannah White / November 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson has been anxious to emphasise that should he win the general election, he will get parliament up and running as quickly as possible. The prime minister’s priority is to “get Brexit done” by getting the Withdrawal Agreement Bill into law—something he has somewhat implausibly claimed could be done by Christmas.
The PM is keen to restore parliament’s legislative function as soon as possible after 12th December. But equally important will be setting up parliamentary committees so they can resume scrutiny of the government. Whatever the result of this election, with every possible Brexit outcome still on the table, the work of parliamentary committees will be more crucial than ever.
Setting up committees rapidly after an election is important if they are to undertake meaningful scrutiny. But in the past, too often, there have been significant delays. Although Lords committees can resume their work as soon as the Queen re-opens parliament because their members have not had to be elected, in the Commons there is usually a gap of weeks if not months.
This problem—which no government has much incentive to fix—is caused by two delaying factors. First, under Commons rules, committee chair elections—in which all MPs can vote—must take place within a month of the general election. However, there is no equivalent rule for the election of committee members. These elections are managed within parties (only Labour MPs can vote for Labour committee members for example) and the parties are often slow to conduct their various electoral processes.
As these processes take place behind closed doors—a lack of transparency that needs to be addressed—it is not possible to see what slows them down. But it must in part be due to the second delaying factor: committee roles are low in the parliamentary pecking order. After an election the parties start by appointing their front bench teams. It is a rare MP who would turn down a ministerial or shadow ministerial role to take up a committee position. For many it may even be worth waiting to see if they are offered a parliamentary private secretary job—the lowest, unpaid rung on the ministerial ladder—before considering standing for election to a committee. So filling committee roles must wait for lots of other jobs to be allocated first.