As a consequence of Theresa May appointing her government and changing departments, there will be some knock on impacts to how select committees work. Inevitably that will mean charities need to build new relationships to address any new responsibilities and the way in which committees might change their work.
A new committee (and chair) for charities
With the Office for Civil Society (OCS) moving to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the policy areas it covers will move to the culture, media and sport (CMS) committee. Its previous chair Jesse Norman has been made a minister in the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so the commons will also have to elect a new chair to replace him.
Who might the next CMS committee chair be?
Since the Wright reforms of 2010, select committee chairs have been elected by MPs. Only those who are in the party designated to chair the committee are eligible to stand.
It’s not clear yet who the front runners for the committee might be, and it looks like campaigns will only start in earnest once MPs return to the House in September. The committee’s current stand-in chair Damian Collins may well choose to run, and with a whole array of ministers now looking for their next role from the backbenches, it is likely to be a sought after position.
What might the committee look at?
There are some potential challenges to the committee in taking on additional work on charities. Firstly, the committee already has a number of inquiries planned, and no doubt plans for what to do next on a portfolio that takes in the arts, heritage, sport, media and other areas.
Equally those who put their names forward for the committee will likely have done so because they have an interest in the areas already covered. Because of this, it may be a while before we see significant focus on charities – and if there is, it’s more likely to be because something’s gone wrong and there is high profile media coverage.
Brexit and committees
Aside from moving the OCS to DCMS, a number of other machinery of government changes will also mean alterations to other committees. Generally speaking, apart from a few established exceptions (for example public accounts, environmental audit, science and technology), select committees tend to reflect the departments of the day.
That means we are set to get new committees on international trade and exiting the EU (with a couple of very powerful chair roles up for grabs), though there could be alternative arrangements put in place to scrutinise Brexit.
It also means there are questions about the future of the energy and climate change committee, having lost the dedicated department it was scrutinising. Energy is now likely to be the remit of an expanded business, energy and industrial strategy committee, though some in the sector hope they may retain a separate voice.
The loss of this committee would undoubtedly be a major concern for environmental charities, with both a reduced focus on climate change, and a membership less committed to examining it.
One additional complication to getting rid of the energy and climate change committee is that it is currently chaired by SNP MP Angus MacNeil, and the SNP would have to be given an additional committee to compensate.
At the start of each parliament, each party is allocated a number of chairs of committees broadly in line with the number of seats they have secured. Which party gets which is decided through ‘the usual channels’, the euphemistic name for negotiations between the whips of different parties. The exceptions to this are the public accounts committee and standards committee which are always chaired by a member of the official opposition.
After the SNP massively increased the number of seats they hold in 2015, they were given two committees to chair – Scotland and energy. This means if the energy committee does cease to exist, they will have to be given a different committee.
It seems unlikely that the government will want the SNP to have control of the committees looking at Brexit or international trade, but with the two vacant committees either containing significant areas of devolved policy (CMS) or unlikely to be seen as equivalent (science and technology), it’s difficult to predict how that square will be circled.
Whatever happens, reforms to the way select committees work have strengthened their influence, and they will remain important for anyone seeking to influence government policy, and have an impact on the political agenda.
At NCVO, we’ll be continuing to work with committees in parliament, and for those charities who want to make sure they are able to get called and provide compelling evidence, we are running a training course in December on how to maximise your impact with select committees.