The election of Sarah Wollaston as Chair of the health committee illustrates the changing nature of the committee system

The Commons select committee system has just received a further injection of new blood in the person of former GP and Conservative back-bencher Dr Sarah Wollaston MP. The Institute for Government’s Hannah White asks what her election as the new Chair of the health select committee tells us about the way the system is changing. 

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Sarah Wollaston (Credit: Sustainable South Brent, CC BY NC ND 2.0)

First, it is relatively novel to be talking about the election of a select committee Chair at all, since the elections were only introduced in the 2010 parliament (following a recommendation of the Wright Committee). The by-election, caused by the surprise resignation of the previous Chair, Stephen Dorrell MP, was only the third in this parliament (apart from the required sessional re-election of the Chair of the backbench business committee), with only the defence and procedure committees previously having seen changes.

The Chairs of select committees are divided between the parties according to the political make-up of the House at the start of each parliament; which party gets which committee is determined by negotiation between the Whips. In 2010 the health committee Chair was allocated to the Conservatives so yesterday’s by-election was between five Conservative backbenchers. However, MPs of all parties get to vote – unlike with committee membership where members of each party elect their own representatives – so candidates for Chair have to appeal to colleagues from across the political spectrum to get elected.

There has been widespread interest in the impact of these elections on the select committee system; many commentators argue that they have given Chairs a stronger mandate and reinvigorated the system. It maybe that for individual backbenchers, select committee Chairs are increasingly being seen as an alternative career route to ministerial office.

Second, Sarah Wollaston joins Rory Stewart MP, recently elected Chair of the defence committee, as the second member of the 2010 intake of MPs to become Chair of a departmental committee. Interestingly, both were elected to the House following some form of open primary; Wollaston was selected through a postal ballot of all 69,000 voters in Totnes while Stewart’s selection followed a primary meeting, open to voters of all parties in Penrith and the borders.

The phenomenon of newly elected Members becoming Chairs has only really been made possible by the introduction of elections. Before 2010, Chairs were handed out to backbenchers by the Whips as part of their system of patronage – often used as a commiseration prize for reshuffled ministers or a reward for long service. The idea of a newly elected Member being selected as Chair under the old system, particularly one as vocal as Wollaston, would have been unthinkable. It will be interesting to see what impact this injection of ‘new blood’ has on the committees in question.

Notably, Stewart and Wollaston both bring a degree of ‘real world’ experience to their new jobs from before their days as MPs. This should provide some solace to those who complain that the UK is being run by a cadre of professional politicians. It seems their previous experience has given them both a strong vision and agenda for the work of their committees. Wollaston worked for 20 years as a GP, and Stewart worked in the Foreign Office as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. The challenge for both will be to ensure they take account of the views of other committee members, to maintain their engagement and the sense of committee work as a collective, cross-party endeavour.

Finally, Wollaston’s election is a boost for women’s representation within the committee system. Six of the 32 committees represented on the Liaison Committee are now led by women. At 18.75% that is just short of the 22% share of seats held by women in the House of Commons, although obviously still well shy of equal representation. Still, this represents a doubling since the 2005 Parliament, when only three (9.7%) of the Chairs (19.8% of MPs) were women.

Having been elected in the final year of the parliament, there is no guarantee that Wollaston and Stewart will be re-elected as Chairs by their parliamentary colleagues at the start of the next one. They have less than a year to demonstrate why they should be. And it remains to be seen whether the 2015 parliament will see further inroads made into the committee system by the newest Members of the House.

Note: this post originally appeared on the Institute for Government blog under the title ‘New Blood for Select Committees’. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. The shortened URL for this post is: http://buff.ly/1pACvsr

Hannah White 114x133Hannah White is Westminster Fellow at the Institute for Government. More information about her can be found on the IFG’s staff page.

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