Are the Government losing control of Committees?

Juliun Lewis was last week appointed as the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Last week saw a drama play out in Parliament as Julian Lewis sensationally became Chair of the Intelligence and Security Select Committee over Government choice Chris Grayling. He subsequently had the Conservative Whip Withdrawn. These events are a useful of the changing balance of power when it comes to Select Committees in Parliament.

What are Select Committees?

Select Committees are groups of MPs and/or Lords that are formed to scrutinise the government. Committees are either departmental (they focus on the work of one government department) or are non-departmental (they focus on a broader issue of governance).

Examples of Departmental Select Committees: The Education Select Committee, The Foreign Affairs Select Committee, The Defence Committee.

Examples of Non-Departmental Select Committees: The Liaison Committee, The Public Accounts Committee, The European Scrutiny Committee.

A Select Committee in action

Committees are made up of MPs from the different parties in Parliament and seats on the broad range committees are distributed according to the numerical strength of the different parties in the House of Commons.

Committees carry out a range of functions in scrutinising the executive. These include pre-appointment hearings, scrutinising policy and administration and scrutinising expenditure. Committees regularly hold hearings and write reports that are publicly available.

What is the Intelligence and Security Select Committee?

The Intelligence and Security Committee is technically not a Select Committee, though it serves the same fundamental purposes. It is made up of members from both the House of Commons and House of Lords and is responsible for scrutinising GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and other aspects of the British intelligence and security apparatus. The Committee is somewhat unique in that, due to the nature of the business being scrutinised, most of it functions are carried out in private. Many of the issues and documents being dealt with our Top Secret, meaning public hearings can rarely be held.

How is membership of Select Committees chosen?

Party membership within Select Committees is based on the number of seats each party has in Parliament. The whips from different parties work behind in the scenes (a process known as the ‘usual channels’) to decide the number of each parties MPs that will sit on each committee and then which party will hold the chairmanship of different committees.

Until 2010 individual membership of Select Committees was at the discretion of party whips, giving them enormous power of the make-up of the Committees. However, following the publication of the Wright Report in 2009, Parliament amended its standing orders so that in future membership of Select Committees would be by ballot. Once an MP has been nominated to sit on a Committee, they are voted for my members of their own party in a secret ballot. This has reduced the power of patronage that the government has over its backbenchers.

Significantly, party chairs are elected in a secret ballot by the whole house, not just their own political party.

Why is the Intelligence and Security Committee so important?

The Intelligence and Security Committee is extremely important. Members deal routinely with Top Secret information and are responsible for overseeing British intelligence both domestically and internationally.

However, at present, the Intelligence and Security Committee is particularly politically important due to the publication (or lack thereof) of the infamous Russia Report.

The Russian Government under Vladimir Putin has been accused of interfering in UK elections and referendums.

It has long been alleged that Russia may have interfered in the 2016 Brexit Referendum and the 2017 General Election. In particular, the use of bots to influence voters via social media has been in the spotlight. A report into the matter as completed in November 2019 and at that time the Intelligence and Security Committee voted unanimously that it should be published. However, controversially, Downing Street did not publish the report before the 2019 General Election and it has still not been published.

How did Julian Lewis become Chair?

The Intelligence and Security Committee is slightly different than most in that the members of the Committee elect the chair, rather than the house as a whole.

The Government openly confirmed that former Cabinet Minister, Chris Grayling, was their preferred choice for Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Given the make-up of the committee, he appeared to be certain of election, with Conservative Whips demanding their members voted for him:

Importantly, before the vote, Julian Lewis was a Conservative.

However, in a remarkable turn of events, Dr Julian Lewis, not Grayling, was elected as Chair by the members of the party. Opposition members of the Committee were clearly concerned that Chris Grayling would serve as nothing more than a government stooge. So, they voted for Juliun Lewis instead. Importantly, this action alone was not enough for his election. Importantly, Lewis ignored his own whips and voted for himself, achieving a majority and being elected chair!

Julian Lewis is eminently suited for the role. He has been an MP since 1997 and between 2015 and 2019 was Chair of the important Defence Select Committee. He is known as a committed and conscientious MP and has been willing to challenge his own party when he thought it necessary. This is a role which has a clear crossover with the role of Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

As a Minister Chris Grayling had the unfortunate nickname of ‘failing Grayling’.

Grayling (nicknamed Failing Grayling), on the other hand, has, in the minds of many, been an epic failure in the majority of Government positions he has held, particularity as Transport Secretary and Justice Secretary:

  • He privatised the Probation Service which the National Audit Office called ‘setting it up to fail’.
  • He changed court case and then reversed this decision after a national outcry.
  • He was forced to temporarily took over train services on the East Coast Mainline, effectively giving the failing operators a £2 Billion Government Bail Out.
  • He oversaw the introduction of a new railway timetable that was utterly disastrous and resulted in over 700 trains being cancelled per day.
  • He awarded a £13 Million Ferry Contract to a company that had never owned a ferry.

If Malcolm Tucker’s epithet of ‘omnishambles’ was meant to apply to one government minister – Grayling was it. Yet, he was the government’s chosen man. He was expected to chair the committee it is embarrassing for the government that he won’t be doing so.

What is the significance of these events?

The significance of these events can be split into two: the immediate and wider significance.

Firstly, Julian Lewis has been an outspoken critic of the government’s approach to the Russia Report. Under his stewardship of the committee, the report is likely to be published sooner rather than later and without the wide-scale redactions that may have been in place if Grayling had become chair. Insiders who have seen the report have suggested that it is damaging to the government. However, what will be even more damaging is the idea that they have tried to suppress it, particularly prior the the 2019 General Election.

The wider significance of this event is that it shows that Parliament will actively try to address the attempts of the Executive to curtail its rights to scrutinise it. Select Committees have grown in importance since the publication of the Wright Report and the changes that followed. That trajectory appears to be growing. The response of the government to withdraw the whip from Lewis appears petulant. As Lewis’ great friend Jon Bercow said:

” The government has made a complete exhibition of itself…[it is an act of] juvenile bed-wetting”

It will be interesting to see whether the Russia Report is published by Parliament’s recess on the 22nd July. More widely, it will be interesting to see if Committee’s continue to flex their muscles against the executive irrespective of Boris Johnson’s 79 Seat Majority.

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