Five key takeaways
• Julian Knight replaced Damian Collins as DCMS Chair. Knight has aligned himself with Number Ten by backing reform of the license fee. Incumbents are rarely defeated in Committee elections – this result underlined the power that the government wields in parliament.
• Tom Tugenhadt’s re-appointment as Foreign Affairs Committee Chair is significant given his vocal opposition to Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network – he will lead investigations focused on reducing their role and opening entry to the network for competitors.
• Meg Hillier was appointed chair of Public Accounts for the third time. There is a rumbling divide in the Conservative Party concerning spending commitments – her scrutiny of the government’s plans may heighten these tensions
• The SNP will control the International Trade Committee – they are vehemently opposed to Brexit and will provide painful public scrutiny of the UK’s future trading relationships.
• Mel Stride will resume his role as chair of the Treasury Committee. As seen this week, their immediate priority is scrutinise Andrew Bailey, the proposed new Bank of England governor.
What are they?
Select Committees allow parliament to hold the government and other organisations to account. There is roughly one committee per government department and each is charged with assessing spending, policy decisions and the administrative process. Every committee is formed by a cross-party group of MPs that gather evidence from government officials, the general public, and organisations outside of Parliament
How are they formed?
The composition of Select Committees reflects the distribution of party power in parliament. This also applies to the allocation of committee chairs – the Conservatives will lead the majority, while smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats will not chair any. The SNP have been awarded two – Scottish Affairs and International Trade.
Government ministers and MP’s in the shadow cabinet are completely excluded. A final rule worth noting is that the chair of a Committee does not vote on resolutions except in the event of a tie; however, they impose significant influence by setting the working agenda.
What powers do they have?
Select Committees can access departmental documents, appoint special advisors and call witnesses to provide testimony – but can’t compel any individual to attend.
Oral sessions provide prominent platforms for party chairs to showcase their political nous. Many former ministers have enhanced their reputation using this position – a notable example was Yvette Cooper’s compelling questioning of Amber Rudd concerning the Windrush Scandal, which prompted Rudd’s resignation as Home Secretary.
How can we combat disinformation and fake news on social media? Should the license fee be scrapped? Is the Gambling Act fit for the digital age? These are the type of issues that the DCMS Select Committee will have to investigate.
Julian Knight, a member of the committee since 2016, narrowly defeated Damian Collins to be elected chair. Knight aligned his pitch for the top job with many of the government’s top priorities – he supports scrapping the license fee in favour of a subscription service and changing the rules that govern the BBC’s impartiality. He has also backed plans to roll out full fibre broadband and has vowed to ensure that the DCMS’s budget is spread equally across regions. Notable members of the committee include Phillip Davies MP, a former bookmaker and once chair of the Betting and Gaming APPG. He has a rebellious streak and will provide a dissenting voice from the current anti-gambling rhetoric. Another member to watch out for is John Nicolson MP, a former journalist and vocal supporter of public service broadcasting. He is likely to cause problems for his chair, Julian Knight, as he attempts to steer the membership towards a subscription-style service for the BBC.
Foreign Affairs Select Committee craft cross-parliamentary consensus on foreign policy. They have released notable reports on Britain’s relationship with China and directed the government to take action against corrupt Russian influence in the UK. They are also responsible for the UK’s participation in organisations including the UN, NATO and the OECD.
Tom Tugendhat MP was first elected chair of the Committee in 2017 and was re-appointed in January. He is vocally opposed to Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network, which will likely lead the Committee’s immediate agenda. Investigations and reports will advocate for a strategy that reduces Huawei’s presence on the network over a longterm period and may leverage evidence of China’s Xinjiang ‘re-education’ camps and record on intellectual property theft.
Tugendhat has urged the government to form coalitions with a diverse range of international partners, particularly in Europe, in order to reduce Iranian influence in the Middle East. He rightly identified a top priority to achieve this – investing in the UK’s diplomatic service in order to build enduring partnerships in a post-Brexit world.
Notable members of the Committee include Bob Seely MP, a former foreign affairs journalist and army sergeant. He has actively advocated policies to deter Russian activity in western politics and co-authored a report that reccomended barring Huawei from the UK’s 5G network.
Public Accounts is Parliament’s oldest Select Committee and one of the most active, having published 119 reports since 2017. Their work serves a vital democratic purpose: ensuring the British public gets value for money on their tax receipts. Notable reports include an investigation into declining National Lottery income for good causes and the collapse of Carillion.
Meg Hillier MP was re-appointed chair of the Committee, having served in this role since 2015. As it’s led by a Labour MP, the Committee is unlikely to prioritise fiscal prudence. Nevertheless, Hillier will closely scrutinise the efficiency and effectiveness of the government’s attempts to deliver on £100bn of infrastructure promises.
HS2 will no doubt preoccupy attention – Hillier has previously expressed concerns that the timetable is overly ambitious and that it may lead to ‘risky’ agreements with private contractors. Dame Cheryl Gillan, a former cabinet minister, has also campaigned against HS2 since 2010. As a member of the Committee she will work closely with Hillier to scrutinise costs and delays.
To assess whether the Government is truly levelling up regions and public services, follow the reports issued by Public Accounts – there will be many.
The Treasury Committee examines the expenditure, administration and policy of HM Treasury, Revenue & Customs and relevant public bodies like the Bank of England. Its influence has grown as a result of the 2008 financial crash and they are viewed as an essential force for scrutinising the conduct of the financial industry.
Mel Stride MP ran unopposed to be re-appointed as Committee chair, after being elected last year. Prior to the election he vowed to place regional economic imbalances and business rates at the centre of the Committees agenda. In October, the Committee hinted at a radical overhaul of business rates– they found that the current relief system was inadequate and bogged down by bureaucracy – a view that will be welcomed in Number Ten.
Four of the six Conservative members of this Committee were formerly bankers – this has led to accusations that the government are giving “big finance” a prime position to shape post-Brexit Britain. Alternatively, these members have the know-how to help parliament hold the banking industry and treasury to account.
This Committee grilled Andrew Bailey, the incoming governor of the Bank of England, at a hearing on Wednesday. Bailey was not the first choice of Number Ten, which was reflected in the hearing. Stride scrutinised Bailey on whether he’s capable of turning a “slow moving institution” into one that is fit for purpose. It was a combative approach that reflected the power that this committee wields – based off this hearing they can recommend to the government that they pursue a different governor, in a move that would radically impact Britain’s fiscal policy.