A History of Committees in the British House of Commons

I recently became interested in the history of committees in various legislatures, and the seven hundred year history of the British parliament was too intriguing to leave alone. So I decided to do a bit of research and this is what I came up with for the House of Commons. I have tried to capture all the important developments though it’s possible I missed some parts (comment if you think I did).

Early committees

Committees in the British House of Commons date back to the early days of parliament, certainly as far back as the 14th Century. Public petitions (which concerned what we now call public policy), the forerunner to bills, would sometimes be ‘committed’ to a single MP (who would correspondingly be a ‘committee’*), usually a privy councilor, who could make changes and report the petition back. Private petitions (to do with specific cases of law**) could also be committed to an MP, but they would have to judge the case for the exception to the law and report the petition back with or without changes.

The number of people to whom a petition was committed to varied greatly after 1600, but before it was usually one.

Grand Committees

In 1571, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a committee was appointed to investigate ecclesiastical affairs, another to examine election returns – whether these committees were appointed for the first time then or if the clerks merely became more complete in their note-taking is a question we may never know the answer to. These, which would later be called ‘grand committees’, were intermittently appointed and developed into the standing committees on privileges and elections, religion, and grievances. Other committees, also known as ‘grand committees’ were appointed to consider specific subjects on an ad-hoc basis, but those three lasted beyond that parliament.

For the committees of the House, membership was mostly allocated by nomination – members shouted their names until the clerk had written enough names for the committee. This process was open to manipulation by the King through the Speaker and those who sat close to the chair (who were the King’s privy counsellors) next to the clerks. Occasionally, Select committees on private bills could be composed of all the privy counsellors, or all the lawyers, or all the members of the counties affected.

In the reign of King James I, we see committees on petitions for bills being appointed (though, again, it’s unclear if this is simply better record-keeping or an actual innovation) who would listen to petitions and decide whether to introduce a bill to resolve the issue or not. These were very rarely appointed however.

A major development for Select Committees on public bills came about in 1621 when it was ordered that all members of the House could participate in those committees.

Grand Committees Assert Themselves and the Commonwealth’s Government by Committee

At the same time the Committee on Privileges and Elections became appointed for a single session rather than the whole parliament even though it was constantly in existence throughout, as did the committees on grievances and religion. As the power of the King in parliament dwindled, two further grand committees were appointed – on trade and the courts of justice. Around 1626, the committees on privileges and elections and religion were empowered to hear witnesses and send for records. In time, however, they became little more than committees of the whole house except that they could adjourn themselves.

In a major new-found assertiveness, a sub-committee of the Committee on Grievances became, in essence, an organised opposition to King Charles’ government as the number of privy councilors declined. They co-ordinated the business of the House and identified bills that they would push forward in challenging the King. Not only that, but in 1641, the committee of the whole house developed a more exact and comprehensive scrutiny of government finances. It had two functions, each of which was given a different name: the committee of supply which raised money through recognised taxes and the committee of ways and means which imposed new taxes.

Throughout the English Civil War and some of the republican Commonwealth that followed, England was essentially governed by committees. Some of these committees had staff and offices, others consisted merely of their members. Some, like the Committee of Compounding, set up offices in the City of London to gather funds. Others, like the Committee for Sequestrations, had ‘satellite committees’ out in the counties to bolster their power. Some had wide powers, like the Committee of Examinations, which had unlimited powers of arrest, sentencing and gaoling. Committees sometimes abused their powers by issuing orders of a judicial nature without the House being informed or affirming it, though this was quickly stopped. Their number proliferated on such varied subjects as Strafford, the Star Chamber (a court of law), the army, the accounts of the Kingdom, and the slightly Orwellian ‘safety’.

Most of the executive government after 1649 was held in the Council of State (a sort of amalgamation of Privy Council and the House of Lords), but all of their committees were mirrored with ones in the Commons. While grand committees appear to have become dormant for a period during the Commonwealth, they returned in the late 1650s and the myriad committees appointed in the last decade were not reappointed. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the House of Commons resumed, outwardly looking much as it was before the Civil war. It again had the committees on privileges and returns, religion, grievances, trade and the courts of justice. However, this was the first time that these committees took the committee stage of bills.

The Decline and Fall of Grand Committees and the Rise of Private Bill Petitions Committees

In contrast, by 1708 the House began to hear appeals on election returns at the bar of the House and the committee on privileges and elections, while still appointed at the start of every session, did not meet for decades at a time. While all the grand committees still technically existed and were occasionally invoked in debates, they were not serious committees. These committees had become committees of the whole house with a different name. The decline and fall of these grand committees is partially down to the development of cabinet government originating in the legislature. It was much easier to scrutinise and hold government accountable when the ministers in Parliament were in charge not the King personally. Instead, more ‘select’ committees, usually dissolved at the end of the inquiry, were appointed to examine one-off issues, and public bills increasingly were taken by committee of the whole house.

Committees on petitions for private bills also became commonplace during this century, as did their having sub-committees, though they had to be reined in to stop their inquiries going on too long and led to arguments being repeated later on in the passage of a bill. Instead, they merely looked at the case for a bill, not the case against which would be examined later. These committees were not very impartial (liable to local concerns where, for example, building roads and bridges was the subject of a petition), didn’t reliably enforce the requirements for fairness in petitioning for a private bill and suffered from very low attendance unless a petition was widely opposed. Towards the end of the 1700s, there was even a Speaker’s List from which the Speaker could allow local members to participate on the relevant select committees on petitions and bills.

As the 1700s progressed, the committee of supply turned to authorising the estimates of government expenditure in the coming year whilst the committee of ways and means concentrated on raising money through any kind of taxation to cover the amount voted through in the committee of supply. In 1787, the Consolidated Fund was created – a single pool of money from which all taxes went into before being allocated to government, greatly simplifying the process of allocating money.

The Cleaning-up of Private Bill Committees and the Temptation of Wholesale Legislative Committees

The committees on petitions for private bills were widely seen to be in need of reform by this point, and in 1824 a Standing Orders Select Committee was appointed so that if a private bill was rejected because the Standing Orders requiring fairness in presenting petitions had not been followed, the promoters of the private bill could appeal to the Standing Orders committee, and then to the House as a whole.

To restrict the abuse of private bill committees, the Commons limited the number of local (and therefore interested) members who could be appointed from the speaker’s list in 1825, though failed to abolish this practice completely.

In 1833, the House of Commons noted that many of their ‘grand’ committees were, in effect, dead, and the classic grand committees (Religion, Grievances, Courts of Justice and Trade) formally ceased to be appointed.

A new Committee on Petitions, of forty-two members, was appointed in 1837 to look in a judicial way at settling points of procedure in relation to petitions for private bills. This helped to make practice more consistent with regard to private bills. On a roll, three years later the Commons also created a Committee of Selection to nominate five members to specific Select Committees on opposed private bills as abuses of the system were rife and the old committees were often an unwieldy 120 members in number. In Select Committees on unopposed private bills, only one member was appointed by the committee of selection. It was 1847 before the Speaker’s list was abolished entirely, with the Commons simply being unwilling to divest itself of the abuses of having interested members judging these private bills.

Ten years later, the Commons delegated the work of the committees on petitions for private bills (not to be confused with the Committee on Petitions) to clerkly figures called Examiners; two examiners promptly did the work of four of these committees in half the time and saved immense amounts of money for the people who promoted or opposed a private bill.

One of these examiners was Thomas Erskine May, the clerk of the House that gave his name to the guide to procedure. He began agitating for standing committees to be resurrected to take evidence on public bills in 1848 with a pamphlet. Six years later he advocated them again with a letter in Edinburgh Review where he advocated six ‘grand’ committees on different subjects between select and whole house committees each containing 110 members appointed by a committee of selection, echoing the traditions of the classic grand committees. Erskine May gave evidence that year to the Select Committee on Procedure. His proposals were to have a ‘select committee’ to sit on a public bill rather than committing it to the Committee of the Whole House and the bill should not be recommitted to the Whole House except in exceptional circumstances. The Speaker and chairman of committees agreed with Erskine May, but no action was taken.

Also in 1854, the Committee of Selection was ordered to appoint a twenty-four to forty member committee on opposed railway and canal bills (to give a more comprehensive view of the schemes proposed rather than the ad-hoc committees which existed previously).

Around this time that a group of MPs led by Sir Francis Bearing argued for a Committee on Public Accounts to scrutinise the way government has spent its money, and William Gladstone put it into action in 1861. It was bolstered in 1866 by the creation of the Comptroller and Auditor-General whose reports would eventually prove invaluable to it.

Another reform to private bill procedure was created when the Commons established a judicial tribunal composed of the Chairman of Ways and Means, three referees nominated by the Speaker and any members of parliament who wanted to serve but weren’t paid. The Court of Referees, as it was known, undertook a preliminary examination of the arguments for and against an opposed private bill, though not the merits or policy behind it which were meant to be dealt with by committees. It was hoped that this would save time and give a more consistent application of principles and practices behind private bills and the question of whether anyone promoting or opposing were actually affected by the bill and hence whether they could appear before the private bill committees.

After a brief expansion of its powers in 1867 to take on the committee stage of gas bills, the Commons objected and the system was radically altered. Instead, to prevent repetition of arguments, the referees were added to opposed private bill committees and the Court of Referees was restricted to determining who was affected. In certain circumstances, opposed private bill committees were also able to pay petitioners to compensate them for having to defend themselves against frivolous claims.

Standing committees were examined again by the Select Committee on Procedure in 1861 and they agreed with Erskine May, though the one in 1871 was more equivocal even though Erskine May’s views had reverted; now he was proposing a ‘grand’ committee somewhere between a Select Committee and the Committee of the Whole House.  In his evidence to the one in 1878, he foresaw four grand committees on religion, law, local government and taxation, and trade, to which only non-controversial bills would be sent.

The ascent of Standing Committees and Financial Scrutiny Committees

In the end, it was William Gladstone who introduced them in 1882. There were two to start off with – a Standing Committee on Law and the Courts of Justice, and a Standing Committee on Trade. With chairmen appointed from a special Chairmen’s Panel and members appointed by the whips, these became almost immediately as partisan as the Commons, naturally splitting into opposition and government. Strangely, the government had a majority on the former committee but was in the minority on the latter. The next session, the committees were reappointed but only one ever met. No progress was made until the next government, after the sessional standing orders lapsed.

Lord Salisbury’s administration in 1886 put down motions for every public bill to go before one of up to nine public bill committees of thirty-to-forty members, but the government fell before these were voted on. A subsequent Liberal ministry appointed a Procedure Committee which while advocating an Erskine May-style standing committee.

In 1888, a series of housekeeping motions were approved abolishing the remaining ‘grand’ committees and resurrecting the 1882 Standing Committees. Lord Rosebery’s government instituted a Scottish Grand Committee for debate and discussion but it lapsed after the Conservatives took office and only returned in 1905 under the Liberal Campbell-Bannerman. After 1907, Standing Committees were reformed so that there were four committees taking on whichever bills were referred to them, known only by their identifying letter (A, B, C or D). It was now common practice for all bills to go through Standing Committee.

A permanent Select Committee on Estimates was formed in 1912 as a partial successor to the centuries old Committee of Supply, but this was weak and tended to be used by government to find savings rather than true consideration of the estimates. The Committee of Supply’s resolutions were put into supply days where the estimates were debated in the whole house and the resolutions voted through at the end of the day. In a related action, a Select Committee on National Expenditure was also appointed in 1917 to look at value for money in government.

Standing Committees were widely considered to have too many members, and the Coalition government in 1919 halved the number of members to forty, and by 1945 had been reduced to an average of twenty, though up to fifteen more members were appointable for a particular bill.

While there was much talk in the 1920s and 1930s about a greater use of committees, nothing really came of it. The Donoughmore report recommended a Select Committee on delegated legislation, but governments didn’t react. The UK entered the Second World War as a chamber-oriented institution with few effective committees. While MPs used the National Expenditure committee and its six sub-committees as an effective method of criticising the government, this was a wartime-only solution; the committee quickly returned to its normal state of relative impotence in the resumed partisanship after 1945.

In 1944 the Select Committee on Special Rules and Orders – later Statutory Instruments – was formed in as a partial response to the Donoughmore report which deplored the lack of scrutiny over delegated legislation – where a bill leaves to ministers the right to add bits to a law without much parliamentary oversight. It examined all statutory instruments (the most common form of delegated legislation) laid before parliament and considered their drafting, whether the order was beyond the powers conferred on it, whether it was subject to judicial review, etc.

Parliamentary Quiescence

After the Second World War, ad-hoc Select Committees were more rarely formed – this was taken by many as a sign that governments feared parliamentary independence. Standing Committees were increased in number; at first by one to five in 1945 and to as many as necessary in 1948. There were often up to ten Standing Committees in existence at any time, and after 1947, whips were appointed to them making them less independent of the mainstream party battle.

A permanent Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, designed to inform MPs about the host of industries which were nationalised either through the wartime government or Clement Attlee’s Labour administration, was formed in 1955 after much Conservative backbench pressure but felt unable to do its work given the stringent restrictions put on it by government. Its successor committee in the next session, identically named, was much more competent though still not up to the level of current committees.

Select Committee on Procedure looked at changes to standing orders around 1960 and although Standing Committees were transformed into essentially ad-hoc ones, with membership no longer “standing” for the entire parliament but instead rejigged for each bill, the committee also looked at whether a system of departmental Select Committees was advisable and determined that it would be a radical constitutional innovation and thus bad.

Rumblings of Change

This attitude changed with the arrival of self-styled arch-moderniser Harold Wilson into power. By 1966, parliament abolished the committee of ways and means and transferred the tax resolutions to the floor of the House. As part of his reformist agenda, he also experimented with a system of departmental Select Committees that same year. The Procedure Committee report this time argued that a new, more wide-ranging and powerful Select Committee succeeding the Estimates Committee would appoint sub-committees to examine the administration and estimates, not policy, of departments. It also proposed specialist select committees. These committees would be able to question civil servants in order to inform members of the House in debates.

The Leader of the House’s reforms, known as the Crossman reforms, created six subcommittees of the Estimates committee which specialised in different areas of policy and two specialised Select Committees (Science and Technology, and Agriculture). Four more Select Committees were created (Education and Science, Scottish Affairs, Overseas Aid and Race Relations) over time. This was somewhat weaker than the original proposals. The next year, the procedure committee floated the idea of giving these specialist committees a role in legislating, either by scrutinising legislation referred to them or by proposing their own legislation. It goes without saying that this was resolutely ignored.

These departmental committees in particular were damned by the Procedure Committee as failing to even attempt to control expenditure and becoming little more than a forum for the few cross-party issues that they can tackle. The Agriculture Committee, in its defence, exposed quite how shabbily the government had treated it before all departmental committees were shut down. Their limited mandates and government resistance to their interference hobbled them from the start. The subject Select Committees on Science and Technology, Overseas Development, and Race Relations continued however.

Riding on what would turn out to be a wave of backbench discontent, a Joint Committee on Delegated Legislation was set up to reduce the endemic duplication of scrutiny in both Houses in 1971 and was summarily replaced with the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Subject to a report from that committee, the House of Commons set up a Standing Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments which would look at the merits of instruments that the House commanded it to – negative instruments would only be referred if 20 members wanted them to and affirmative instruments if 20 members wanted it and the usual channels (that is, party whips) agreed. This meant the committee was very weak in getting instruments referred to it, and once they were there by the fact that the committee would only ever debate a statutory instrument’s merits under a ‘take note’ motion rather than any way to get rid of the instrument.

In that same year, the Estimates Committee was replaced by an Expenditure Committee with six sub-committees and wider terms of reference, but it was selective in its choice of inquiries and didn’t produce reports that were significantly different from its predecessors. So by this point, despite over a decade of reform, committees had failed to have anything but a minor influence over public policy.

After the accession in 1973 to the European Community, the House of Commons set up a Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation Etc. The aim was to scrutinise the breadth of European secondary legislation. If necessary, they could refer a document to the House or a standing committee for debate.

A Comprehensive Select Committee System

The 1978 report of the Procedure Committee recommended a Select Committee for each department to monitor policy, administration and spending. A year later, the new Leader of the House Norman St John-Stevas, the principal enthusiast for the reforms around the cabinet table, announced the creation of a network of fourteen departmental Select Committees given the full powers of ad-hoc Select Committees, all appointed by a Committee of Selection rather than the whips. The Select Committees on Science and Technology, Overseas Development, Nationalised Industries, Race Relations and Expenditure were shut down. Another big change was that these committees had access to specialist advice on a continuous basis. Previous committees only had intermittent specialist advice at best. Over the next twenty years, the Select Committee apparatus would spread from most to all government departments, mirroring government’s structure.

The same report that produced the new Select Committees recommended replacing Standing Committees, which were widely seen as obstructive, partisan and burdened with corrosive attitudes where the minister defended the bill and backbenchers shut up and voted by the whip. Experiments in 1980 and 1983 and made permanent in 1986 produced the Special Standing Committee which took evidence on bills for three sessions under the chairmanship of the relevant Select Committee chair before line-by-line consideration as in normal Standing Committee under a chair appointed from the Chairman’s Panel. They were never much used, probably because of government fears about exacerbating backbench independence.

Also in 1983, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee was given an effective veto over the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, which was an impressive change in status for a committee.

A number of committees have been created with no government department in mind. Two European Standing Committees were created in 1991 (later expanded to three) to debate documents pointed out to them by the now-named Select Committee on European Legislation (later European Scrutiny) – unfortunately, these suffered from low attendance and were generally quite weak. The next year the Science and Technology Committee was reestablished, filling a hole that was left since its abolition. Two years after that a Deregulation Committee examined all deregulation orders made recommending approval, rejection or amendment. 1996 saw a Public Service (now Public Administration) committee on the civil service.

Agitating for More

With the Blair government came the Select Committee on Modernisation, which in its initial report considered whether ‘first reading committees’ should have the power to scrutinise bills or a weaker system of pre-legislative scrutiny could be established. In the end, the government proposed publishing some bills in draft and ad-hoc or departmental Select Committees could take evidence and recommend changes to draft bills.

As part of the modernisation of the House of Commons, the Select Committee on Modernisation prompted the abolition of all Standing Committees in 2006. Their replacement, based on the Special Standing Committees of the 1980’s, were Public Bill Committees which took evidence from experts before consideration of bills and precluded ministers from voting in committee. In a key difference to Special Standing Committees, they were presided over throughout by a member of the Chairman’s Panel rather than the relevant Select Committee chair for evidence-taking.

After the expenses scandal in 2008, Dr Tony Wright MP was allowed to set up a Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, elected from across the House. His report advocated radical and wide-ranging changes, including electing Select Committees, a Backbench Business committee to schedule non-government business and an eventual House Business Committee to schedule government business. In 2010, his recommendations were implemented: Select Committees were elected by their parties, with the chairs elected by the whole house. Committees subsequently became much more assertive and independent of government, securing assurances from government that their verdict on certain public appointments to non-departmental public bodies (commonly referred to as quangos) would be respected, even with some vetoes being put into law.

*When a petition was committed to more than one person, they were ‘committees’ rather than a singular ‘committee’.
**It is strange today to think that anyone wanting divorce, anyone wanting to build a church, etc, had to first get a private bill passed by parliament for that purpose.
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