Evidence on select committees, 1989/90

The following evidence was given to the House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure on 14 February 1990 and printed with its Second Report of Session 1989-90, HC 19-II, The Working of the Select Committee System, (pp 160-168). The first two memoranda had previously appeared as Memoranda 15 and 16 in a volume of memoranda, HC 19-i (1989-90), (pp l-lv). See also related oral evidence and other oral and written evidence. See copyright notice below.

THE DEPARTMENTAL SELECT COMMITTEES AND PRESSURE GROUPS: Memorandum by Dr Michael Rush (University of Exeter) (SC 16)


1. The purpose of this evidence is to draw to the Committee’s attention the extent to which the departmental select committees have become a focus of attention for interests outside government and Parliament. It is based upon research conducted by the author on behalf of the Study of Parliament Group. The views expressed in it, however, are entirely those of the author.

2. Parliament is inevitably a focus of pressure politics and, although by no means the most important focal point of pressure group activity, receives a good deal of attention from outside interest. A major part of the project was a survey of organisations outside government and Parliament, the response rate to which was 73 per cent, giving a total of 253 respondents. The survey covered contacts with individual MPs, members of the House of Lords, select committees, and party and all-party committees and groups.

Table 1: Contacts with Parliament

Type of contact % n
Regular or frequent contact with MPs 74.7 189
Presented written evidence to a select committee 65.6 166
Regular or frequent contact with peers 58.7 148*
Presented oral evidence to a select committee 49.0 124
Contacts with all-party groups 47.6 120*
Contacts with party subject groups or committees 40.9 103*

* 1 respondent did not reply.

Table 1 shows that organizational contacts with Parliament are extensive and that they are by no means limited largely to contacts with individual members of the two Houses of Parliament. On the other hand, it should be noted that, whereas the figures on contacts with MPs and peers relate to ‘regular or frequent contact’, those for select committees, all-party groups and party subject groups or committees relate to whether organizations have ever had contact with such bodies. Even so, it can hardly be said that Parliament is neglected and the number of respondents who said they had no contacts of any sort was as few as 4.3 per cent. Select committees figured prominently in parliamentary contacts, with two-thirds of the organizations in the survey having presented written evidence and half oral evidence.

Select Committees as Targets for Pressure Groups

3. In one sense select committees are obvious targets for outside interests, since through the evidence taking aspects of their inquiries they provide clearly-defined opportunities for pressure groups to put their points of view. In another sense, however, they appear less obvious targets: they have no powers of decision, do not deal directly with government legislation, and are by no means clearly-defined channels of influence in the policy process, if indeed they can be said to be part of it at all. In fact, select committees have become a more significant focus for pressure politics as their numbers have grown and their activities increased.

4. As recently as the 1950s and the early 1960s there was little opportunity for outside organizations to make use of select committees, since, in addition to the Select Committee on Estimates, there existed only one specialised select committee, that on Nationalized Industries. Furthermore, although ad hoc select committees were used from time to time to investigate particular matters, their use was not widespread. The development of select committees through an expanded Estimates Committee, the ‘Crossman’ committees, the Expenditure Committee and, finally, the departmental committees meant more inquiries. The Expenditure Committee attracted considerable attention from outside organizations,(1) but the departmental committees produced not only a more extensive range of committees but more committee activity generally and therefore even greater opportunities for outside organizations to use select committees. The departmental committees held proportionately more inquiries than did either the Estimates Committee or the Nationalized Industries Committee. In the 1950s the latter normally completed one inquiry per session and, even though the Estimates Committee operated through a series of sub-committees, the average number of inquiries per sub-committee was only 1.5, compared with 6.9 per committee for the departmental committees in 1985-86. Moreover, the Estimates and Nationalized Industries Committees also took proportionately less evidence from pressure groups compared with the departmental committees: in 1957-58 25.5 per cent. of the witnesses appearing before the Estimates and Nationalized Industries Committees were from pressure groups, compared with 43.5 per cent. for the departmental committees in 1985-86.(2)

5. Although the expansion of select committee activity has increased the number and range of inquiries conducted, the number of topics covered each parliamentary session is inevitably limited and is therefore a restricting factor in the involvement of outside interests. It is, however, the power to take evidence that is the key to the interest of outside organizations in select committees. Only the committees themselves can decide who is to appear before them, apart from the practical limitations of time, but anyone may submit written evidence, and many individuals and organizations have taken and continue to take the opportunity to do so.

Pressure Group Inputs to the Departmental Select Committees

6. Although outside organizations contribute most obviously to select committee activity by the submission of evidence, there are other ways in which they can make inputs, especially in a less formal way. They are less easy to measure, but of their existence there can be no doubt. The most apparent is in some form of relationship with individual committee members. The association of individual MPs with particular outside interests is in most cases widely known and extensive and inevitably some of these associations are reflected in the membership of select committees. Such contacts are useful and provide some entrée for pressure groups, but should not be exaggerated in that there are limits to what individual committee members can achieve. Certainly such members should not be seen simply as spokesmen or mouthpieces for outside interests; they are more likely to be part of a two-way process between member and outside organization. Ultimately, of course, it is the committee members who decide the topics of inquiry, but their views are one of a number of factors.

7. Just as some groups have links with committee members–it would be surprising if they did not, so links with committee staffs and, to a lesser extent, the specialist advisers of committees have developed. The Clerk and other committee staff become known to group spokesmen and in many cases perform a valuable liaison role for their committee. Again, nothing sinister should be read into this; on the contrary, the Clerks’ knowledge of their ‘clientele’ is invaluable to the committee, especially in deciding who can most usefully give evidence, especially oral, for each inquiry. Much the same applies to specialist advisers to the committees.

Table 2: Pressure group representation on the circulation lists of departmental select committees.

Committee % n Total on list
Agriculture 19.1 35 193
Defence 3.3 8 242
Education, Science and Arts 27.5 66 240
Employment 20.3 30 148
Energy 14.3 44 308
Environment 46.0 52 113
Foreign Affairs* 13.3 17 128
Home Affairs 16.6 34 205
Scottish Affairs 6.5 5 77
Social Services 25.9 42 162
Trade and Industry 18.4 19 103
Transport 30.2 113 374
Treasury and Civil Service 11.5 15 130
Welsh Affairs 7.7 14 181

*Based on an incomplete list, since part of the circulation list of the Foreign Affairs Committee is confidential and was not available for analysis.

8. All the departmental select committees maintain extensive circulation lists which are used for distributing information about their activities, including pending inquiries and calls for evidence. As recently as the early ’80s it was suggested that some of the committees confined their formal circulation lists to the media,(3) but this is certainly no longer the case, although, as might be expected, the media figure prominently on all such lists. As the figures in Table 2 demonstrate, the size of the lists varies enormously, ranging from Transport’s 374 to Scottish Affairs seventy-seven. Furthermore, the proportion of pressure groups on each list also varies considerably from 46.0 per cent for the Environment Committee to 3.3 per cent for Defence and numerically from a massive 113 for Transport to a mere eight for Defence. This is partly a reflection of the varying styles of committees–some have clearly been much more systematic than others in compiling circulation lists, but it is much more a reflection of the policy areas within their remits. It is clear from further analysis that, both proportionately and numerically, it is on the circulation lists of committees like Environment, Transport, Education, Social Services, Employment, Energy, Home Affairs, and Trade and Industry that groups figure most prominently. These are all committees whose remits cover policy areas in which pressure group activity is generally high. Committees like Foreign Affairs and Defence have a smaller range of outside interests, whilst the two regional committees on Welsh and Scottish Affairs are less obviously a focus for particular groups in that their remits cut across rather than focus upon particular policy areas. The Treasury and Civil Service Committee might seem an odd exception given the importance of economic policy, but it should be remembered that much of its activity is about the technical aspects of government policy which attracts relatively little pressure group attention outside the Budget.

9. Of course, being on a circulation list is neither a necessary condition, still less a guarantee of being asked to give oral evidence. The opportunities for presenting oral evidence are inevitably restricted by the amount of time available. In many cases some of the choices are self evident, but in others extensive inquiries and consultation may be necessary to find the appropriate witnesses. Written evidence may generally be submitted by any individual or organization, but it is quite common for a committee to issue a specific invitation for written evidence from appropriate quarters. Moreover, individuals and organizations invited to appear before a committee are usually expected to provide a written brief prior to their appearance.

Table 3: Proportion of oral and written evidence submitted to departmental select committees by outside organizations, 1985-86.

Committee Oral evidence % Written evidence %
Agriculture 55.6 57.9
Defence 23.8 36.0
Education, Science & Arts 66.1 55.8
Employment 41.4 55.5
Energy 55.0 54.8
Environment 37.4 40.8
Foreign Affairs 18.8 25.0
Home Affairs 30.9 25.6
Scottish Affairs 28.2 31.6
Social Services 64.9 61.9
Trade and Industry 49.5 51.2
Transport 42.6 37.5
Treasury & Civil Service 29.6 18.7
Welsh Affairs 9.4 42.4
Total 43.5 43.7

Source: Committee reports and minutes of evidence.

10. The pattern that emerged from the analysis of circulation lists is largely confirmed by the proportion of oral and written evidence submitted to the departmental select committees in the 1985-86 parliamentary session by outside interests. Committees like Social Services, Education, Agriculture, Energy, Employment, Trade and Industry, and Transport figure prominently in taking and receiving evidence from outside organizations. What is clear in general is that in 1985-86 more than two-fifths of the oral and written evidence was generated by outside organizations, mostly pressure groups of one sort or another. Broadly the same pattern was repeated when respondents to the survey were asked to name Committees to which they had presented oral or written evidence, with the Environment, Social Services, Education, Employment, Transport, Trade and Industry, and Energy Committees in that order being mentioned most often. Two groups also said they had given evidence to special standing committees, which on five occasions since their inception in 1980 have been appointed to take the committee stage of bills. The precise proportion of evidence provided by outside organizations varies in practice from session to session, largely in response to the particular inquiries being conducted by the committees. An analysis of the evidence presented to committees in the whole of the 1979-83 Parliament found that a third (34.7 per cent) of the oral evidence and more than two-fifths (42.7 per cent) of the written evidence emanated from outside organizations.

11. Outside interests thus make a substantial input to the evidence received by select committees and in written evidence make the largest single contribution to all except four committees. Therefore outside organizations provide the committees with a great deal of information and opinion and are a major source for committees of non-Governmental information. As already noted in Table 1, 49.0 per cent of the organizations responding to the survey had appeared before a select committee and 6.6 per cent had submitted written evidence. Of those groups which had given oral evidence the overwhelming majority, 91.8 per cent (112), said that they had had an adequate opportunity to present their views and, of those who submitted written evidence, 24.7 per cent (41) said it had always been at the committee’s request, 6.6 per cent (11) that they had taken the initiative, and 68.7 per cent (114) that it was a mixture of both. One respondent expressed some misgivings:

The Association … submitted evidence to the select committee …, but was not given the opportunity to appear before the committee. There was therefore no opportunity to counter claims made by another organization who did have the opportunity of giving oral evidence.

But this experience does not appear to be typical.

The Impact of Outside Organizations on the Departmental Select Committees

Table 6: What impact do you believe your evidence made upon the committee and its report?[a]

Response % n
Significant 16.3 28
Some 69.2 119
Minimal 8.1 14
None 4.1 7
Varied 0.6 1
Don’t know 1.7 3
Total 100.0 172[b]

Notes: [a] This question relates to all respondents giving evidence to committees whether oral, written or both.

[b] 2 respondents did not answer

12. Assessing the impact of outside interests on select committees is no easier than trying to assess the impact of the committees themselves on the formation of public policy. Respondents were therefore probably being appropriately modest when only 16.3 per cent. said that they thought they had had a significant impact on the committee and its report, with the great majority (69.2 per cent.) believing that they had had some impact. These results concur broadly with the finding in the survey conducted by Ian Marsh that 70.9 per cent. of the groups who had given evidence to select committees said that they were generally favourably treated in the resulting committee report.(4)

13. There can be little doubt, however, that the main impact is informational, but not merely for the committees. Philip Giddings has summarized the situation effectively:

… the taking of evidence has usually offered an opportunity for interested groups to express opinions and make comments upon matters under investigation. Providing a forum for debate on such issues has been a significant achievement for the [departmental select] committees, on issues as diverse as animal welfare, D-notices, and monetary policy. The established interest groups welcomed the opportunity to put their views on record and to offer an appraisal of the evidence of competing groups, as well as departmental witnesses.(5)

This is confirmed by Marsh’s survey in which he found that, in being involved in select committee inquiries, between a fifth and more than a quarter regarded the learning of new information as a ‘very important’ or ‘important’ outcome. Thus 28.3 per cent. of organizations had acquired new information about the attitudes and judgements of government departments, 25.2 per cent. information about the attitudes of friendly groups, 21.3 per cent. about the attitudes of hostile groups, and 19.7 per cent. about government policy.(6)

14. Groups also welcome the public platform that giving evidence presents, especially the opportunity to present oral evidence. David Lea, Assistant General Secretary of the TUC, has written:

… the TUC’s appearances before the Employment Committee … have usually attracted media interest. Such sessions offer the TUC a valuable public platform to emphasise its views on industrial relations law, and to express its opposition to the government’s legislative intentions.(7)

15. The informational and publicity roles are clear enough, but do pressure groups have any more substantial impact on the policy process through select committees? Insofar as select committees can make recommendations, a significant proportion of which are accepted by the government,(8) it is likely that pressure groups do have some effect from time to time. One of the attractions of select committees for outside interests is that they generally operate in a less partisan atmosphere than other areas of Commons activity. Divisions are not especially frequent and, when they do occur, are not always on party lines. In the 1979-83 Parliament almost two-thirds of departmental select committee reports were approved by the committee concerned without a division.(9) Many of the recommendations made in committee reports concern the details of policy, rather than the principle, and the details of policy are what many outside organizations are interested in influencing. David Lea again:

In the less highly charged areas the select committees can come up with a genuine joint approach to [policy questions]. The Home Affairs Committee’s inquiries into British nationality fees and into ethnic and racial questions in the census–to both of which the TUC submitted evidence–produced valuable reports containing progressive recommendations.(10)

16. Sometimes there is evidence to suggest that pressure group activity has had an impact on broader policy. Marsh reports that:

… the Council for the Protection of Rural England and several other environmental groups believe that the Energy Committee has been decisive in obliging the department of Energy to address the issue of energy conservation. Similarly, interest groups credit the same committee with an important role in moving government oil depletion policy towards a market basis.(11)

These are areas in which pressure group activity was extensive, but it would be naive to expect a simple relationship between pressure group input and committee output and, as Gavin Drewry has pointed out for the Home Affairs Committee,

Inevitably there were many disappointments, if only because select committees are not in the delivery business. CHAR [Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless] … got no joy at all from the Vagrancy Offences inquiry … Pressure groups which gave evidence sometimes complained that the Committee, in pursuit of consensus, was offering only half a loaf.(12)

17. Most groups are generally realistic about select committees, as one spokesman quoted by Marsh illustrates: ‘Select committees are an important point of access to the arena of public debate, and can be used to raise issues, but their effects are very limited …’(13) and this is borne out by the survey responses on the relative importance of different parliamentary contacts, shown in Table 5:

Table 5: The importance of different parliamentary contacts.

Form of contact % placing first Rank order *
Backbench MPs 49.8 1
Select committees 15.9 2
Backbench peers 13.8 3
All-party groups 8.3 4
Party committees 5.2 5

* Calculated by scoring each ranking 1 for first, 2 for second etc., the lowest total indicating first and the highest fifth. 33 respondents (13.0 per cent of the total) were ‘don’t knows’ and 5 (2.0 per cent) said the ranking varied with the issue.

Table 5 shows clearly that outside organizations regard backbench MPs as far and away the most important form of parliamentary contact, whether judged by the proportion placing MPs first or by compiling a rank order index. Not a great deal of difference was found between the proportions regarding select committees and backbench peers as most important, but both were clearly regarded as more important than all-party groups or party committees, which in turn were similarly regarded.


18. The expansion of the committee system, both before and in 1979, has widened the opportunities for outside interests to influence public policy through Parliament. Procedurally select committees are largely an isolated part of parliamentary activity, but in the wider context of policy formation they are part of the policy network. Like other forms of parliamentary activity select committees enable outside interests to get issues aired, even to secure a governmental reaction if any of their views are incorporated in a committee’s recommendations. The specialised nature of the departmental committees allows a relationship to develop with some groups, to the point where suggestions have been met that a committee has developed too close a relationship in some policy areas. From a group’s point of view the giving of evidence, especially orally, confers a legitimacy within the policy community. Select committees illustrate perhaps better than more direct attempts to influence policy the amorphous nature of pressure politics: much group activity is directed at ministers and civil servants, but much of it is indirect aimed at individuals and bodies who may influence those who make policy decisions and those who advise them. As a specialist adviser to one of the departmental committees remarked, the impact of the committees is ‘often a matter of emphasis rather than direction’ likening their influence to that of water dripping on a stone, and pressure groups provide much of that water.

Govt. response Education Committee Social Services Committee
  % n % n
Accepted 26.5 48 35.1 66
Keep under review 46.4 84 45.2 85
Rejected 27.1 49 19.7 37
Total 100.0 181 100.0 188

Source: Michael Rush, ‘The Education, Science and Arts Committee’ and ‘The Social Services Committee’ in Drewry, Op. cit., pp. 100 & 249.


Memorandum by Dr Michael Rush (University of Exeter) (SC 17).

1. In 1968, following a number of reports from its Procedure and Organisation Committee and several years of experimentation, the Canadian House of Commons substantially reorganised its committee system. A range of specialised subject committees was established to which appropriate departmental estimates and the committee stage of bills were referred, and which could undertake, in the manner of British select committees, inquiries into policy and administration.

2. There is no doubt that the committee system introduced in 1968 was a vast improvement on the arrangements that preceded it and that bills were subjected to more effective scrutiny than was previously the case. The committees were empowered to and normally did take oral and written evidence at the committee stage of all bills. The practice adopted was that subsequently used by special standing committees in the British House of Commons that is a number of sittings at which oral evidence was heard (written evidence, of course, being invited), followed by sittings devoted to the debating of the bill clause by clause.

3. However, in due course the burden on the committees increased to such an extent that in 1985 separate committees were set up to deal with the committee stage of bills. These, like British standing committees, are essentially miniatures of the whole House, designed to facilitate the committee stages of several bills simultaneously. In the Canadian case however, these committees (known as legislative committees) followed the special standing committee model, allowing oral and written evidence to be presented.

4. The Canadian experience suggests that it would be a mistake for the departmental select committees to become responsible for the committee stage of bills. Although the Canadian committees which dealt with estimates, bills and inquiries were, on the whole, successful in keeping the evidence-taking sessions basically non-partisan, leaving partisanship to emerge as appropriate during the clause by clause debate, there remains a danger that the less partisan tradition of the departmental select committees and their predecessors could be undermined given the sharper ideological differences found in Britain compared with Canada. More importantly however, the increased burden upon the departmental select committees should they become responsible for the committee stage of most bills could only be detrimental to their investigatory role.

June 1989



Supplementary Memorandum by Dr Michael Rush (University of Exeter) (SC 61)

1. In my memorandum submitted to the Committee in June 1989 I reported that outside organisations were responsible for 43.5 per cent of the oral evidence and 43.7 per cent of the written evidence submitted to departmental select committees in the 1985/86 session (Table 3 refers). Categories of outside organisations who presented evidence to the Committees were as follows:

Category Oral evidence Written evidence
Industry & Finance 10.6 11.9
Pressure Groups(a) 16.8 21.6
Professional Organisations 8.3 6.2
Trade Unions 7.8 3.9
% of total evidence 43.5 43.7(b)


(a) Defined as organisations established specifically to exert pressure or influence. All other organisations are multi-functional.

(b) Total increased by 0.1 per cent because of rounding.

2. The principal committees to whom outside organisations presented oral evidence were Education, Social Services, Agriculture, Energy, Trade and Industry, Transport, Employment, and Environment, in that order. For written evidence the committees were, in rank order, Social Services, Agriculture, Education, Employment, Energy, Trade and Industry, Welsh Affairs, and Environment.

3. Following the General Election of 1987 37.3 per cent (23.9 per cent Conservative and 13.4 per cent Labour Members) of the members of the departmental select committees had interests listed in the Register of Members’ Interests relevant to their particular committees. Of these 17.6 per cent (13.4 per cent Conservative and 142 per cent Labour Members) described themselves as advisers or consultants to particular businesses or organisations. The principal committees concerned were, in rank order, Employment, Trade and Industry, Transport, the Treasury and Civil Service, and Home Affairs.

February 1990


1. Between 1970 and 1974 36.6 per cent of oral evidence presented to the Expenditure Committee came from outside organizations (Ann Robinson, Parliament and Public Spending: The Expenditure Committee of the House of Commons, 1970-76, Heinemann, London, 1978, p. 104, Table 8).

2. See Table 4 below. For an assessment of the departmental select committees see Gavin Drewry (ed.), The New Select Committees: A Study of the 1979 Reforms, Oxford University Press, 1985, reprinted in 1989 with a supplementary chapter on the 1983-87 Parliament.

3. Ian Marsh, Policy-Making In a Three-Party System, Methuen, London, 1986, p. 165.

4. Marsh, op. cit., Appendix 4, p. 224.

5. Philip Giddings, ‘What Has Been Achieved?’ in Drewry, op. cit., p. 378.

6. Marsh, op. cit., Appendix 4, p. 223.

7. David Lea, ‘A Trade Unionist’s View’ in Dermot Englefield (ed.), Commons Select Committees: Catalysts for Progress?, Longman, London, 1984, p. 51.

8. Excluding recommendations which were directed not at the government but at other bodies, such as local authorities, quangos, and, in some cases, private or governmental organizations, the present author found the following results in respect of the Education, Science and Arts and the Social Services Committees between 1979 and 1983 (see Table on next page [after paragraph 18]).

9. Geoffrey Lock, ‘Resources and Operations of Select Committees–A Survey of the Statistics’ in Drewry, op. cit., p. 342.

10. Lea, op. cit., p. 52.

11. Marsh, op. cit., pp. 174-5.

12. Drewry,’The Home Affairs Committee’ in Drewry, op. cit., p. 198.

13. Quoted in Marsh, op. cit., p. 175.

© 1990, Dr Michael Rush.

Prepared by Simon Patrick, 26 June 2001