Increasingly Independent: The Evolution and Impact of Select Committees

Select committees are often viewed as notoriously independent institutions of parliament. But they haven’t always been this way, nor have they always had a great policy impact. Callum Nimmo, Consultant at Luther Pendragon, writes on the history of select committees and the role they play in political process today:

While the practice of MPs and Peers sitting on parliamentary committees is as old as parliament itself, they were mostly convened on an ad-hoc basis, declining both in number and influence in the 19th century with the advent of the modern political party.

The creation of 12 codified and permanent departmental select committees was first recommended by the House of Commons Procedure Committee in 1978, and implemented following Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979. While tasked with holding government departments to account, this incarnation of select committees was criticised for being subject to perverse government control with whips often recommending the appointment of MPs and chairs who would give the Government an easy ride.

In 2010, the Wright Reforms saw the creation of the modern select committees that we see today. The reforms stipulated that chairs be elected by secret ballot among all MPs, meaning the whips no longer had influence on the outcome. Since then, there has emerged a new form of fiercely independent select committee chairs, and members, many of whom see their committee work as an alternative career path to becoming a minister.

One consequence of the reforms is greater media coverage of committee findings and evidence sessions. Prior to the Wright Reforms, the Treasury and Public Accounts Committees were making the papers 40% of the time (approximately 150 days per year); by 2018 this had increased to 60% (more than 220 days per year).

Scathing headlines drawn from committee reports are often the ones which catch most attention, such as the Business, Innovation, and Skills Committee criticising Mike Ashley for running Sports Direct like a “Victorian warehouse” or the Pubic Accounts Committee saying it is “not confident” that COVID-19 testing contracts were awarded properly to Randox. For those appearing in front of committees, minimising the likelihood of such headlines involves anticipating where MPs and Peers are likely to probe while developing and practicing the strongest possible response.

But, other than reputational challenges, the question remains, what part do select committees play in the UK’s political process?

Positive impacts are found in select committees’ well-documented legislative effects. A report produced by UCL’s Constitution Unit in 2011 found that, across a sample of seven departmental committees, 40% of recommendations were accepted by the Government between 1997 and 2010, including 39% of legislative proposals being partially or fully implemented. Persuading a select committee to formally recommend your organisation’s cause can be a significant step towards policy change, so ensuring you can present your case as effectively as possible is vital.

Select committee reports also shape the thinking of other Parliamentarians, as they are frequently quoted by MPs and Peers in debates, who often emphasise their thoroughness and independence.

There are both opportunities and risks for those who wish to appear before a select committee. A well-formed argument, which leads to a committee recommending your case, carries a good likelihood of policy change. However, a hostile committee evidence session could lead to negative press. To take advantage of the opportunities, while minimising the risks, requires careful preparation and practice of your arguments. 

At Luther Pendragon, we create bespoke select committee training programmes to help achieve just that. No two organisations, committees, or inquiries are the same, so we tailor our approach to suit you.

To find out more, visit the training section of our website or get in touch at