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Select Committees: The last bastion of expertise?

27th July 2017

During last year’s referendum campaign, Michael Gove famously quipped that the British public “has had enough of the experts”. Indeed, in the past twelve months it has been the popular vote, rather than the strength of arguments from a handful of experts, that has induced some of the most radical political and social change in a generation. From Brexit and the Trump Presidency, to Boaty McBoatface and Love Island, popular opinion – rightly or wrongly – has outplayed that of those who are considered most in the know.

This month saw the election of Select Committee chairs. Finally, an election cycle that was both short (17 posts were uncontested), and largely uncontroversial – aside from the Brexiteer vs. Remoaner bid for Treasury Committee chairship, which was narrowly won by pro-EU Nicky Morgan.

In this era of populist politics, uncertainty and political divide, committees can arm themselves with expertise – from members’ backgrounds (Foreign Affairs chair Tom Tugenhadt was formerly an army officer; and Neil Parish, re-elected as Chair of the EFRA Committee had a career in farming before moving into politics), and call on countless witnesses. They provide nuance in calling the Government to account that polls and referendums cannot. In fact, where Ministers and even the Prime Minister might show reticence to widen the scope of the advice they receive and consult experts (Nick and Fiona, anyone?) the role of the Select Committee is exactly that.

When Committees work well they scrutinise both policy and politics, and individual politicians and their influencers. Committees have created some of the most explosive political moments of recent political memory; though one would not wish to see a repeat of the (literal) custard pie to the face of Rupert Murdoch during the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into phone hacking in 2011.

In this new Parliament, expect to hear a lot more from Select Committees. BEIS Committee chair Rachel Reeves has already said she is keen to consult the business community more closely than ever on issues such as Brexit negotiations. Giving industry a voice in proceedings and policy direction is something the department Reeves’ Committee shadows has pledged on paper, but has not been swift to take up in reality.

Of course, Select Committees do not provide all the answers to the problems and uncertainties we face, and the surge of public opinion in the past year has undoubtedly strengthened our democracy. Perhaps though Committees, grounded in thorough lines of inquiry, and gifted with the time and tools that are so precious to decision making, can provide a useful contrast and scrutiny we need now more than ever?

Grayling Team

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