Governmental committees

These cards talk about the different types of governmental committees and the merits and demerits of them.

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Standing Committees

These are groups of backbench MPs who have the role of examining a bill in deatil. Bills come to a standing committee after they pass their second reading. Although no member of the government may be a member, there is always a government majority on the committee, and the chair is also a member of the majority party. If there is no majority, then the membership reflects the balance of the House of Commons. It is very unusual for a standing committee to make any significant changes to the principles behind a bill, but it may make ammendments. it may call the relevant ministers or civil servants to explain items, and it may occassionaly call outside experts. The whips are 'on' so the government invariably gets its way. If the government is in a hurry, it is possible to cut short the discussion in committee by use of a procedural device called a guillotine, even when only a small amount of the bill has been examined. The bill is then returned to the commons for the report stage and third reading.

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Select committees

Select committtees are groups of backbenchers who have a responsibility for examining the work of a department, such as the Home Office, or for looking at a specific area, such as the ombudsman or the public accounts. The committee membership is usually 11 backbench MPs.

As with standing committees no member of the government may be a member, but most of the MPs on the committees will be from the majority party, if there is one. The Majority party will also provide most of the chairs of the committees, and chairs dominate the committees' agenda. Membership, and the allocation of chairs, reflects the balance of the House of Commons. Chairs are paid an additional allowance, but ordinary members do not get one, so there is no financial incentive for their work.

The main purpose then on select committees is to provide a means of scrutinising the government and other public institutions such as the television companies and the railways, and of upholding the public interest.

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Merits of Select Committees

They have the right to request ministers and civil servants to before them, and the evidence they give is, of course, televised and reported. Naturally, ministers and civil servants do not wish to appear incompetent in front of Paarliament and the cameras, so they keep on their toes. Committees can also highlight deficiencies in government, and focus the attention of the government on real problems. Examples of where select committes have encouraged government to act are:

  • the safety of RoRo ferrries
  • caring for Gulf War veterans suffering from 'Gulf War syndrome'
  • providing sufficeint customs officers at some ports to prevent drug smuggling
  • ensuring a reduction in the number of deaths in police custody on Saturday nights
  • highlighting the Bank of England's failure to regulate the banks

 

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Demerits of Select Committees

The main failing of select committees is that the majority of MPs on them are members of the same party as the government of the day, and they are bound to have difficulty in criticising government meausures openly. These committees also do not have the power to compel ministers of civil servants to attend, answer questions or provide information. They have no power over legislation - they can point out failings, but they cannot enforce solutions. They do not have the recourses to call on experts. Really able MPs are not interested in working for them, as they do not lead to becoming a minister. No additional pay is given to an MP who chooses to sit on a select committee (except fot the chair). There was strong criticism of the government in 2001 when it tried to prevent potential critics within its own party from sitting on select committees.

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Public accounts Committee

It is alsways chaired by a member of the opposition. it is regarded as the most influential committee. This committee has the power to summon civil servants and make them answer for the spending of their department. It has the support of the National Audit Office, which employs a large number of skilled accountants and, with its reports and investigative capacity, ensures minimal dishonesty and incompetence in UK government.

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Public accounts Committee

It is alsways chaired by a member of the opposition. it is regarded as the most influential committee. This committee has the power to summon civil servants and make them answer for the spending of their department. It has the support of the National Audit Office, which employs a large number of skilled accountants and, with its reports and investigative capacity, ensures minimal dishonesty and incompetence in UK government.

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