Select Committees work in both Houses. They check and report on areas ranging from the work of government departments to economic affairs. The results of these inquiries are public and many require a response from the government.
House of Commons Select Committees are largely concerned with examining the work of government departments and continue working throughout a whole parliament. In the House of Lords there are two main types of select committee: 'permanent' committees that are set up in every parliament to cover broad subject areas - and special inquiry committees that investigate a specific current issue and complete their work within a year.
There is a Commons Select Committee for each government department, examining three aspects: spending, policies and administration.
These departmental committees have a minimum of 11 members, who decide upon the line of inquiry and then gather written and oral evidence. Findings are reported to the Commons, printed, and published on the Parliament website. The government then usually has 60 days to reply to the committee's recommendations.
Some Select Committees have a role that crosses departmental boundaries such as the Public Accounts or Environmental Audit Committees. Depending on the issue under consideration they can look at any or all of the government departments.
Other Commons Committees are involved in a range of on-going investigations, like administration of the House itself or allegations about the conduct of individual MPs.
Committees also have power to appoint specialist advisers; these are not permanent members of staff, but outside specialists paid by the day. They are often, but not always, academics, and are appointed either generally or to assist with particular inquiries. They support the clerk as the head of the committee's staff.
Following the adoption by the House of recommendations from the Reform of the House of Commons Committee (which was chaired by the former MP, Dr Tony Wright);
- the majority of Select Committee Chairs are now elected by their fellow MPs. This applies to departmental committees and the Environmental Audit, Procedure, Petitions, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, Public Accounts and Standards committees.
- a Backbench Business Committee has been established with the ability to schedule business in the Commons Chamber and in Westminster Hall on days, or parts of days, set aside for non-government business.
Pre appointment hearings
Pre-appointment hearings enable select committees to take evidence from candidates for certain, key public appointments before they are appointed.
Hearings are in public and involve the select committee taking evidence from the candidate and publishing a report setting out the committee's views on the candidate's suitability for the post.
Hearings are non-binding - but Ministers will consider any relevant considerations made by the committee before deciding whether to proceed with the appointment.
Hearings have been introduced on a pilot basis. The purpose of the pilot is to monitor and assess the impact of pre-appointment hearings on the number, balance and quality of applicants.
Lords Select Committees do not shadow the work of government departments. Their investigations look into specialist subjects, taking advantage of the Lords' expertise and the greater amount of time (compared to MPs) available to them to examine issues.
'Permanent' House of Lords Select Committees include:
These are re-appointed at the beginning of a new session. Each one runs inquiries and reports on issues within their specific areas. Special Inquiry Committees, such as the committee on Digital Skills, are set up to look at issues outside these subject areas.
The Government will normally make a response to a select committee report, either publishing it itself (as a Command Paper) or sending a memorandum to the committee, which can be published as a special report (simply saying, in effect, “we have received the following reply ...”), although the committee can publish the response with further comments or take further evidence.
The Government has undertaken to reply within two months of the publication of the report, when possible, but may seek the committee's agreement to allow a longer period. In some cases where a report has recommendations affecting a body outside Government (for example the Bank of England) responses will be received from more than one source. It is sometimes convenient for the committee to publish such responses together. The Government's replies to reports from the Committee of Public Accounts are published as Treasury Minutes (which are Command Papers).