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The Impact of House of Commons Select Committees

April 2010 - January 2011

Select Committee

Establishment of Select Committees is routinely cited as one of the most important reforms in the House of Commons' recent history, and one of the few occasions when a reform unequivocally strengthened parliament against the executive. Despite this the research carried out into committee impact and effectiveness has been limited. Committee impact is complex, and may often be indirect, making it difficult to assess. The most obviously measurable factor is the number of committee recommendations which are taken up by government. But applied too simplistically this measure can give misleading results, and committees can also have more subtle forms of influence.

This innovative project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, was the first large-scale cross-committee analysis of the policy impact of select committees. The project was unusual, in that it was a collaboration between the Constitution Unit and House of Commons Select Committee staff. During the dissolution period and the summer recess of 2010, committee staff worked to gather and code data on committee inquiries and recommendations. The parliament team then conducted interviews and quantitative analysis. The results of the project were published in a report launched in June 2011, which you can download from the outputs page.

The work on committees also fits within a wider programme of research into the policy impact of the British parliament, which Dr Russell is pursuing as part of an ESRC Research Fellowship. Find more information on the programme, the Policy Impact of Parliament.

Publications

Journal Articles

Reports

Findings included:

  • Committees are highly prolific, and producing increasing numbers of reports. Between 1997 and 2010 select committees probably produced almost 1500 inquiry reports (or 110 a year) and almost 40,000 recommendations and conclusions, of which 19,000 (or 1450 a year) were aimed at central government.
  • Committee recommendations call for a wide variety of actions by government. Relatively few (around 20%) relate to flagship policies. Around 40% call for a small policy change or continuation of existing policy, while the remainder call for larger changes.
  • Around 40% of recommendations are accepted by government, and a similar proportion go on to be implemented. Calls for small policy change are more likely to be accepted and implemented, but around a third of recommendations calling for significant policy changes succeed.
  • The report identifies seven additional types of influence: contribution to wider debate, drawing together evidence, spotlighting issues and changing ministerial priorities, brokering (improving transparency within and between departments), accountability, exposure, and generating fear.
  • Select committees are most influential when they are strategic, timely or persistent. They could do more to follow up on previous inquiries, and monitor the progress of their recommendations. Media attention is also a double-edged sword. Public embarrassment is a key form of influence, but committees can sometimes veer towards 'ambulance chasing'. 
Other Outputs

Oral Evidence

Written Evidence

Press releases

Media

Presentations

Meg Russell and Meghan Benton also presented some of their findings and conclusions at the 2011 Political Studies Association conference in a paper titled The policy impact of parliamentary oversight committees: visible and less visible factors (London, 21 April 2011).