Thirty years of departmental select committees

25 June 2009

On 25 June 1979, the House of Commons passed the motion that established departmental select committees, by 248 votes to 12.

The then Leader of the House, Norman St John Stevas, stated:

"The proposals that the Government are placing before the House are intended to redress the balance to enable the House of Commons to do more effectively the job it has been elected to do."

The new committees were nominated by the Committee of Selection on 26 November 1979, although none of the committees began work until early 1980.

The original departmental committees were:

  • Agriculture
  • Defence
  • Education, Science and Arts
  • Employment
  • Energy
  • Environment
  • Foreign Affairs
  • Home Affairs
  • Industry and Trade
  • Social Services
  • Transport
  • Treasury and Civil Service

These ran alongside the already established committees, the Public Accounts Committee, the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the committee responsible for the House’s organisation.

The Welsh Affairs and Scottish Affairs Select Committees were also established in 1979.

Background to 1979 committee reforms

Following a debate on House of Commons procedure in 1976 a select committee was established to:

"consider the practice and procedure of the House in relation to public business and to make recommendations for the more effective performance of its functions."

Among many recommendations, it reported specifically on select committees and their role and recommended the replacement of the existing Expenditure Committee and the other specialist committees (but not the Public Accounts Committee) in favour of 12 subject committees, responsible for the scrutiny of government departments.

Departmental select committees today

Select committees play a key role on behalf of the public in holding Government and major public figures to account, asking the questions that they believe the public would want answered. Has public money been wasted? Are officials serving the public properly? Have Ministers made the right policy decision? Are the consumer’s interests properly protected? Is this person suitable for a public appointment?

There are now 19 Commons departmental select committees. Their role is to examine 'the expenditure, administration and policy' of the relevant department and its 'associated public bodies' (e.g. regulators and quangos).

Committees determine their own subjects for inquiry, gather written and oral evidence (and some times information from visits in the UK or overseas) and make reports to the House which are printed and placed on the Internet. The Government subsequently replies.

Select committees have been used by the House for many centuries to inquire into major matters of state. The present system of committees monitoring government departments was established in 1979.

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