Why we should celebrate our select committees 

Written by Lord Sewel on 15 June 2015 in Opinion
Select committees in the House of Lords have challenged prevailing orthodoxies and provoked robust public debate across a range of issues and policy areas

Listeners to the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme and readers of broadsheet newspapers will be used to references to the House of Lords Select Committees. But this is the tip of the iceberg. The important business of scrutiny that happens every day in the Lords can easily get overlooked. Much of that work takes place in our Select Committees.

Today we’ve published a Report celebrating the impact our Select Committees have had in the last five years. These cross-party Committees have had considerable success in their work of holding the executive to account and informing public debate, two key functions of this House.

We had a significant increase in the number of ‘ad hoc’ Committees after 2010. These are Committees that meet for a single session of Parliament and look in detail at a particular issue or area of policy. The growth of ad hoc Committees plays to the strengths of the House’s membership as the expertise and experience of Members can be deployed on issues which cut across government departments and might otherwise be overlooked.

Areas such as the legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games, the challenges to public services presented by an ageing population and the future of the Arctic all brought important issues to public and government attention. Their cross-party, evidence-informed, consensus-based approach ensured that government and opposition parties had to take their findings seriously.

Ad hoc committees have also carried out post-legislative scrutiny – another innovation since 2010 – considering whether laws to which Parliament agreed are working in practice and delivering the right outcomes for the public. One example of this work, which challenged the prevailing view, was the Committee on the Mental Capacity Act 2005. The Committee exposed that an Act previously considered to be working was failing the vvulnerable adults that it was designed to protect and empower. Originally the Government had thought that this Act was working well; however, the inquiry found that social workers, healthcare professionals and others involved in the care of vulnerable adults were not aware of the Act, and were failing to implement it. In response to one of the Committee’s principal findings, the Law Commission will be reviewing the legislation underpinning the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS).

The House’s Sessional Committees also continued their important work and influenced significant changes to government policy and the law. In the case of the European Union Committee many of the recommendations were directed at European legislation and policy issues, from women on company boards to food waste, and in October 2014 the outgoing EU Commission President (José Manuel Barroso) singled out that Committee’s reports for their excellence.

The Communications Committee’s inquiry into revenge pornography found that the social media guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) did not specifically refer to this offence. The Committee asked the DPP to clarify the circumstances in which cases may be prosecuted and the DPP responded by amending the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on prosecuting communications sent via social media, clarifying their application to ‘revenge pornography’ cases.

In its 2013 Report on Corporate Taxation the Economic Affairs Committee recommended that the Government take unilateral action to reduce avoidance of tax by multinational firms and to increase transparency of the tax companies have paid.

Proposals to implement such changes, known as the ‘Google Tax’, have since been brought forward by the Government in successive Budgets.

The findings of the Science and Technology Committee’s 2013 inquiry into scientific infrastructure, e.g. polar research ships, supercomputers, telescopes etc., were almost entirely accepted by the Government and acted upon in its Science and Innovation Strategy  in December 2014. The Committee had found that the competitiveness of the UK’s large scale scientific resources was being compromised by the lack of a long term plan, and that the UK was missing out on vital research opportunities because large scale scientific equipment was not being used to maximum effect.

Our Select Committees make a real difference on issues that affect the people of the United Kingdom, challenge prevailing orthodoxies and provoke robust public debate.  I encourage people to read more about their work and to engage with them to help ensure that they continue to influence policy, government and legislation for the better.


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