This article is from the November 2012 issue of Total Politics

Following the recent reshuffle, many MPs have been left disappointed; they failed to land a ministerial job. While the common perception is that all power rests with the government, the recommendations of the 2009 reform of the House of Commons committee, known informally as the Wright Reforms, were designed to give more power to backbench MPs.

Sometimes described as “lobby fodder”, backbench MPs are typically considered to be devoid of any real power. The stereotypical perception is that their only real chance of exercising power is to win favour with the party leadership and whips, to escape the backbenches and secure a ministerial position of their own. I’ve heard numerous MPs state that the Wright Reforms are helping to ensure “the Commons matters more”, that they have “rebalanced Parliament’s relationship with the executive”. But what, specifically, has changed?

Certainly the Speaker is on the side of the backbencher. He has ensured that hardly a week goes by without a minister being called to the despatch box to answer an urgent question. Furthermore, his granting of an emergency debate in July 2011 on the News of the World phone-hacking revelations was almost certainly a catalyst to establishing the Leveson Inquiry.

Beyond the control of the Speaker, the creation of the backbench business committee and introduction of elections to select committees were meant to “increase the ability and legitimacy of parliament to hold the government to account”. The former has enabled backbenchers to secure time for more debates on the floor of the House. Robert Halfon’s campaign on fuel prices was one such beneficiary of this new system, and he believes that the committee has vastly increased the powers of backbenchers: “The backbench business committee is one of the greatest reforms of Parliament in recent times. It has enabled backbenchers to have more of an impact on policy.”  

Several debates granted through this route have directly affected government policy, including Mark Pritchard’s motion to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, and the memorable debate on the release of the Hillsborough papers, secured by Steve Rotheram. Although many debates do not have such a profound effect, they can help bring issues strongly to media and public attention. For example, David Nuttall’s motion calling for a referendum on EU membership led to one of the biggest Conservative Party rebellions in the post-war era.  

Elections for select committees were proposed as being critical for enabling MPs to take a more active, independent role in holding the government to account. It was thought that, in turn, creating stronger and more autonomous committees could give backbenchers an alternative to a ministerial career and a direct platform from which they could critically assess government policy. This has led one committee chairperson to observe that “the government has to realise the terms of trade have changed”, while others have said that elected members give committees so much more authority, as “owing your position to the patronage of the whips was so corrosive”.

Douglas Carswell, a member of the defence select committee, says that these reforms have raised the profile of backbenchers and that several MPs – home affairs committee chair Keith Vaz, culture committee chair John Whittingdale, and public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge among them – have flourished under the new system, elevating their status to the equivalent of that of a minister. This rise in prominence has been reflected in media coverage of select committee hearings, with Rupert and James Murdoch, Paul Stephenson, Bob Diamond and Nick Buckles becoming household names thanks to the 24-hour news channels and splashes on most front pages. This status is explained in Carswell’s question, “If things go wrong – for example, the Olympics security shambles – who do we look to to analyse the matter and ensure it is put right?”

Does the increased status that comes with chairing a committee, not to mention the additional salary (an extra £14,582 per annum), mean there’s a risk that the committees become a retirement place for old hands? Certainly the current crop of chairpeople backs that up. The average age of a select committee chair is 59.5 years, against 51.8 years for ministers. With committee chairs now having security of tenure for the duration of a parliament, it will be interesting to see in 2015 how many of the current set are challenged in elections for their posts, and whether those challenges come from younger MPs who have decided to make a proactive career choice for a select committee chairmanship.  

Despite this, 2010’s intake of MPs has appeared particularly enthusiastic to pursue committee membership: 212 of the 227 MPs new to the House have served on a select committee. Encouragement for the ambitious backbencher that committee membership will do your career prospects no harm is provided by the fact that only two current government ministers, Hugh Robertson and Esther McVey, have never served on a committee.   

The chair of the public administration committee, Bernard Jenkin, believes that the reforms have made committees more independent and assertive. Before, he says, “there was always a whips’ stooge trying to sabotage what the committee was doing, or ambushing or seeking to tone down critical recommendations. Those days are over.” And he believes that the tone of reports has changed as committees have become more confident. His own committee’s recent report on government IT provocatively described government procurement practices as a “rip-off”. Such assessments create negative publicity for the government and enrage the whips, but in the eyes of more independent committee members that’s exactly the role they should be playing. 

Enraging the whips is one thing, but do select committees now directly influence government policy? The foreign affairs select committee thinks it has done so. It attributes the government U-turn on BBC World Service funding to its report that warned of the dangers of cutting the BBC Arabic budget. Its members argued that this success was due to the fact that, following publication, the report was debated in parliament and the Commons voted in favour of the committee’s recommendations.  In addition, it’s telling that the Constitution Unit believes that civil servants are, when developing policy, constantly thinking, “How would this look if it was put before a select committee?”

Select committees are also increasingly gaining the power to wield a veto over high-profile potential public appointments. The Treasury committee now has the ability to reject the Chancellor’s Office for Budget Responsibility appointments, and former justice secretary Ken Clarke pledged that the justice committee would enjoy similar powers over the appointment of the next information commissioner. 

However, despite such improvements, it is a worry that too many committee reports are simply reactions to government announcements. The Constitution Unit calculates that less than one in ten select committee reports can be considered to be agenda-setting, and this is illustrated by a number of the most high-profile select committee sessions over the last 12 months. The interrogation of the Murdochs arose in response to phone-hacking allegations, the session with Buckles happened after the G4S Olympics scandal had broken, and the investigation into the GCSE grade boundaries was called following allegations that Michael Gove was complicit in Ofqual’s decision to change them.

These limitations should not, in any way, be interpreted as a sign of timidity; rather, they are all about resources. Select committees do not hold their own budgets and cannot distribute their own resources. This makes it harder for them to invest time and energy proactively into investigating particular policy areas, and also means that they can find it hard to follow up their own recommendations. If the government decides to ignore a committee suggestion, then it invariably stays ignored. 

There are also further restrictions on a committee’s ability to hold witnesses to account. If a witness deliberately gives vague or misleading answers, they will not be sanctioned, as committees hold no such power. This problem was highlighted when the culture committee was able to do no more than strongly criticise News International’s Tom Crone and Colin Myler and News Corp’s Les Hinton for misleading the committee over phone hacking. 

Similarly, there is no formalised power to compel a witness to attend a select committee hearing. While this power exists in theory – it was used to force the Maxwell brothers to attend the social security select committee in 1992, and more recently employed to bring the Murdochs before the culture committee – there is substantial doubt as to whether a summons can be enforced. This uncertainty was apparent when the BIS committee called the CEO of Kraft, Irene Rosenfeld, to explain the takeover of Cadbury. She refused to attend, and with no clearly defined sanctions the committee had to accept evidence from other, less senior Kraft employees. 

The 2009 Wright Reforms aimed to cultivate a new role for backbenchers, providing them with more powerful tools with which to hold the government to account. The question remains: have they worked? Things have undoubtedly improved, and through the backbench business committee MPs are able to put issues on the agenda that the government either has no interest in highlighting or would prefer were not debated at all.

Also, the election of select committee chairs has strengthened the ability of committees to act as an independent voice, unafraid to criticise government policy. This gives backbenchers a platform from which they can make a tangible contribution to the legislative process.

That said, there is still progress to be made. Select committees are poor at setting the parliamentary agenda, and there remains insufficient clarity about the powers that they hold. With such uncertainty it will be more difficult for these bodies to get the answers they need.  

The liaison committee has this year been undertaking an inquiry into the powers and effectiveness of select committees. Proposals regarding co-locating committee clerks with their committee chairs, further scrutiny of public appointments and spending are all on the agenda. 

We do not need, however, to wait for the committee’s report to recognise that parliament has made gains over the last two years in its attempts to wrest back some measure of control from the executive. The Libor scandal, phone hacking, IT procurement, government waste, drugs policy, Hillsborough and petrol prices are campaigns and causes that would not have had as much airtime without the Wright Reforms.

‘Just a backbencher’ is a description of an MP’s role that you may be less likely to hear over the coming years.

John Lehal is managing director of Insight Public Affairs

Tags: Issue 52, John Lehal, Select Committees