The Study of Parliament Group and the development of specialist select committees, 1964-1985

Professor Gavin Drewry

The long-running, albeit sporadic, discussions among parliamentarians and parliamentary scholars about the pros and cons of reconfiguring the select committee system—to better-inform the quality of debate and enhance the capacity of the legislature to scrutinise the Executive—can be traced back at least to the early years of the 20th century. By the time that I joined Study of Parliament Group, as an innocent but keen young academic, in 1974, the Group had already been in existence for a decade and had established itself as an active and generally respected forum for such discussions. In 1985, to mark its ‘coming of age’ (though the age of majority was, by now, for most purposes, 18 rather than 21!), the SPG produced a celebratory booklet, The Study of Parliament Group. The First Twenty-One Years, edited by Dermot Englefield. It included a foreword by its two founder members. Michael Ryle and Bernard Crick, who observed that:

‘The [Group’s] main area of success has been the development of a comprehensive, lively, and politically significant select committee system in the Commons. As now operating, these departmental committees go well beyond what was originally envisaged, but at least the Group was, early, vigorous and persistent in the fight to get them appointed at all.’

Was this a justifiable claim? Well, it is certainly the case that, even in advance of the Group’s foundation, several of its early/founding members—notably, Bernard Crick, John P. Mackintosh, Harry Hanson and Victor Wiseman—had already published their own proposals for committee reform and had, in some instances, given evidence on the subject to select committees on procedure. Interestingly, given the subsequent ‘departmental’ trajectory of Commons committee reform, Crick’s book, The Reform of Parliament (1st edition, 1964) advocated a radical overhaul of the ‘ramshackle’ committee system but was sceptical about the ‘superficial attractiveness’ of departmentally-related committees, preferring a new system that would ‘bring together considerations relevant to several departments and … take broad views …’

In 1965, ‘some members’ (a quaintly coy anonymising formula that was customary in those early SPG days) authored a PEP pamphlet, Reforming the Commons, reproducing evidence submitted to the Procedure Committee—which had echoed Crick’s preference for subject-related or thematic committees, and recommended the establishment of specialist committees to examine particular areas of public administration.

Subsequently of course, beginning with the session 1966–67—and with the encouragement of the then Leader of the House, Richard Crossman—the committee landscape did indeed begin to change. There can be little doubt that the SPG made a contribution, and probably a significant contribution, to these developments, but the actual quantum of its impact would be difficult to measure. A handful of specialised select committees covering ‘subjects’ (Science and Technology, Race Relations and Immigration, Scottish Affairs) and departments (Agriculture, Scottish Office, Education and Science) came and went: in 1970–71, the Expenditure Committee, with its specialised sub-committees, came into being.

In 1975, ‘some members’ of the SPG (I am not sure how many of the ‘some’ were the same ones as those who had ventured into print ten years previously) revisited the scene with another PEP pamphlet, Specialist Committees in the British Parliament—The Experience of a Decade. The authors concluded, rather gloomily, that:

‘Over the past decade there has been a steadily growing disenchantment with the concept of specialist committees. Their reports have failed to command great attention in the House; they have made little impact on the limited section of the public that takes an interest in parliamentary affairs. For the backbench MPs, select committees become another claim on their time and energy. The whips view select committees without enthusiasm …’

It noted, however, that ‘there is still much support for the development of Committee work within the Commons.’ And, it continued, ‘Whenever MPs discuss the need to strengthen the activities of the legislature, the idea of committees is mentioned.’

The PEP document also suggested that the 1966 distinction between ‘subject’ committees and ‘departmental’ committees has disintegrated.’ Nevertheless, two years later, an SPG memorandum of evidence to the 1977–78 Procedure Committee re-emphasised the distinction between the two kinds of committee—and noted that (at least in terms of longevity) ‘without question the subject committees have fared better …’

A few years then passed before the Stevas reforms and the dawn of what looked as though it might turn out to be a brave new world of select committees. In 1980, in recognition of this interesting prospect, the SPG established a study group, initially convened by Michael Lee, later by Gavin Drewry, to assess the work and impact of the 14 newly-established departmentally-related select committees across the span of the 1979–83 Parliament. The project was supported by a small grant from the Nuffield Foundation. The work of the 13 academics and ten parliamentary officials (there were a few subsequent additions and subtractions to and from the original membership of the group, but the turnover was very small), involving a lot of deliberative meetings, many interviews with key stakeholders, and the digesting of a vast amount of committee documentation, was a generally well-received book, The New Select Committees, published by the Clarendon Press in 1985. A second edition, with material relating to the following session, appeared in 1989. The editor (Drewry) and one of the main contributors (Philip Giddings) gave written and oral evidence to the Procedure Committee in 1990.

The book (now out of print but still to be found advertised on ebay) included an historical overview, separate chapters on each of the new committees, a single chapter providing an overview of the Lords’ committee system, and five concluding chapters. The study was cautiously supportive in its conclusions, firmly rejecting some over-excited claims that the new committees might represent a constitutional shift towards the American congressional model and a significant change in the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive, but suggesting that ‘the impossibility of effecting constitutional revolution does not mean that the 1979 reforms can be dismissed as mere cosmetic tinkering.’

Even this rather tepid accolade was too much for some critics. Thus, a waspish review by Frank Field in The Listener (5 September 1985) began as follows:

Who would suspect that this group [the SPG], composed mainly of academic political scientists, could be running one of the most effective job creation schemes in the country? … No sooner had the Study Group (sic) bounced a pliant Commons into establishing a system of Select Committees than it was scurrying off to the Nuffield Foundation for research funds to measure the strength, appeal and what-have-you of its offspring.’

(It may be worth noting, in passing, that, Mr Field himself appears to have been a significant beneficiary of this job-creation programme and is currently the distinguished Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee).

A slightly gentler critique by a distinguished member of the SPG—he later served as our President—Geoffrey Marshall (THES 25 October 1985), was wary about the constitutional implications of ‘the attempt to involve members of Parliament in the making of executive policy.’ And this goes to the very heart of what the pros and cons—and the limitations—of committee reform are ultimately about.

As I well remember, when Philip Giddings and I subsequently gave evidence (on 14 March 1990), to the Procedure Committee, in relation to its inquiry into The Working of Select Committees, our session was immediately preceded by evidence from George Jones, a stalwart SPG colleague who had long been a sceptic—shades of Harold Laski—about empowering committees to challenge the executive’s monopoly in policy making. George was given a rough ride by the Committee—particularly, I recall, by Robin Maxwell-Hyslop. This serves as a sharp reminder that although, as Ryle and Crick had claimed in 1985, the Group may indeed have been ‘early, vigorous and persistent’ in advocating committee reform, its views on this subject were (and no doubt still are) very far from homogeneous.

Professor Gavin Drewry,
Emeritus Professor of Public Administration,
Royal Holloway, University of London.
August 2019

Prepared by Simon Patrick, 28 August 2019