HoC Select Committees: Out of control?

Posted by Richard D North under Dare to be dull / The Political Class on 17 July 2011

Invented in their modern form in 1979, House of Commons Select Committees were designed to increase Parliament’s scrutiny of the Government of the day, and to do it by “marking” the departments (the ministries) through which it works. That approach has widened a lot, and in the case of bankers, the police and media tycoons, has maybe gone too far….

[At the end of this post there are some links to sites which explain the Select Committee system, and which reinforce this blog's general message that their job ought to be to scrutinise government.]

It is of course exciting to be writing this just before the Murdoch empire is carpetted by the Culture, Media and Sport select committee. We’ll all watch and thrill to the circus as the people’s tribunes take bites out of the once-powerful.

An obvious question arises: why this inquiry when the police and judge-led inquiries are about to cover the same ground more forensically?

More to the point, why the Murdochery at all? The further a select committee ranges in its inquiries, the further it leaves behind its real job: the scrutiny of government. There are important governmental failures in the Murdoch affair, and they start at the top with the Prime Minister. One might argue that the entire political class is in question. The committee might more properly wonder whether ministerial behaviour (I mean both the political and the Civil Service branches) has been up to scratch.

The Home Affairs select commitee has had a go at some policemen – who are at least public officials – and not really distinguished itself, again in advance of proper inquiries.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it would make sense to hear these committees ask the Prime Minister how he can defend the intimacy and informality of his relations with the Murdochery. That would be right in the middle of their real turf.

More generally, we could be in real difficulty if select committees are to be seduced into thinking they are the right place for inquiring into everything which goes on in national life and which provides good theatre.

It perhaps made sense for the Treasury committee to look at state-owned banks (those are sort of public bodies). Perhaps Home Affairs should have looked at police: they certainly are public bodies. But even these are not ideal subjects.

The Treasury committee needed really to focus like a laser on whether banks are now well-regulated. The Home Affairs committee should focus on whether the police are properly regulated in their relations with the media (and as to wearing identification when they thump protestors, for instance). Culture, Media and Sport had plenty of similar stuff to get on with.

If the public has a right to see all and sundry grilled in public, then let public inquiries do that work.

Select committees explained:




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