As some readers will be aware, I am working on a large project called Party Personnel Strategies. The nutshell version is we are seeking to determine the characteristics of legislators (career background, marginality of electoral situation, rural/urban district, etc.) that are associated with assignment to legislative committees and other offices. The “personnel” analogy refers to the notion that party leadership would seek to match the characteristics of members with the policy-making (or supervising) roles of committees.
I have a question for those who are familiar with the workings of the UK House of Commons. The intention is to focus on “permanent” or “standing” committees, as distinct from “ad hoc” committees.
The distinction itself may sometimes not be clear, but in general, if it is in the standing orders of the chamber or in legislation, and if it persists across legislatures, it is probably a permanent committee. Most of these are Select Committees that are “largely concerned with examining the work of government departments“.
On the other hand, if a committee is created for a specific term of parliament, or especially it it is for a specific bill, it is probably an ad hoc committee. In most cases it is a straightforward distinction, so let’s not get hung up on the tricky cases. I will give a few examples of “ad hoc” committees below.
The question is: is it acceptable to confine the analysis of the House of Commons only to those MPs who have a permanent committee membership? The question arises because the UK is a major outlier in the percentage of MPs who have no “permanent” committee positions. For instance, over the election years 1997-2010, we have observations on well over 1000 Labour Party MPs. Yet less than 500 remain in the data when those with only an ad-hoc committee assignment are excluded.
There is no other country in which dropping MPs with only ad hoc committee positions results in such a large drop-off in the number of observations. There is, however, one system that comes close: New Zealand, particularly in the era before its electoral reform in 1996.
The high percentage of MPs with only ad hoc committees does, in some respects, “fit” preconceived notions of the classic Westminster parliament, wherein the main policy-making action is in cabinet and the bureaucracy rather than in parliament, and where MPs are overwhelmingly dependent on voter evaluations of their party rather than their own policy activities. (Other actions that might affect an MP’s “personal vote” do not depend on committee assignments–for instance, asking parliamentary questions, doing casework, holding office hours or constituency events, etc.)
Maybe we are seeing a basic feature of the system in action.
On the other hand, maybe by dropping ad hoc committees, we are missing the “real” work in parliament in Britain (and New Zealand).
A less comfortable conclusion might be that UK parties should not be expected to have a “personnel strategy” at all with respect to parliamentary committees–whether permanent or ad hoc–because committees are just not important enough. I am not ready to accept such a conclusion just yet. Besides, there are patterns in assignment, just not the patterns one would expect if committee service was based on electoral needs of either the party or individual MPs. But, again, maybe that’s the point of the “efficient” Westminster system.
Examples of what I mean by “ad hoc” committees:
Armed Forces Bill (as distinct from the “standing” Defence Committee)
Draft Detention of Terrorist Suspects (note that this is a committee related to a specific draft bill, not ongoing scrutiny of policy with respect to terrorism or judicial matters)
Draft Marine Bill Joint Committee (again, “draft”; plus the committee is joint with the House of Lords)
Draft Civil Contingencies Bill Joint Committee
We are also considering as “ad hoc” a host of other “general committees” such as those on regional issues that are described on the official parliamentary website as being forms for discussing matters of local concern, but do not appear to have any direct role in managing bills or overseeing cabinet departments–“East of England Regional Select Committee” is one such example. Another is the “Welsh Grand Committee” which is apparently less significant than its name might imply.
A few examples from New Zealand:
Clutha Development Empowering Bill Select Committee
Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Select Committee
Employment and Accident Insurance Legislation
Private Bill – Cornwall Park Endowment and Recreation Land Bill (a committee formed to consider a specific private member’s bill?)
Papa Adoption Discharge Bill (what a great name for a committee!)
MMP Review Select Committee (as much as I want to think of this as the most important committee ever, it is clearly for a set purpose in one legislative term)