Select Committee Chairmanship Election day hits Westminster tomorrow: in 2010 the government introduced a much unheralded change. Traditionally select committee chairmen and women were handed out by governments and oppositions as prizes to the MPs in their party. That has now changed, and the individual chairs are elected by an entirely free vote secret ballot of MPs of all of the House of Commons.
And they are becoming very powerful, both at holding government to account and acting as a road test for new ideas. The select committees also allow MPs to develop real specialist expertise in a field, and to help parliament progress, review and alter legislation. The Committees take a lot of evidence and, for example, in the last parliament two constituents, Mike Murray and Lauren Langton, came to Westminster and gave evidence to the energy committee on their experiences and expertise in setting up oil buying clubs.
The chairs of the big committees also work very hard, and it is equivalent to a ministerial position in scope - in terms of responsibility, power to summon witnesses and ministers, write reports on any topic in their field, and become the expert in the field. It can also prove a spring board to promotion as several select committee chairs have then been asked to be the Minister in their specialist field. They are not quite as powerful as the USA select committee chairs but are not far behind.
The committees are divided up according to the number of MPs, with the chairs being spilt primarily between labour and the conservative parties; however, the liberal democrat's two committees chairs from the last parliament have now gone to the SNP, as the new third party and they have asked for Scottish Affairs and Energy as their two committees.
The big committees are Treasury, Home Office and Foreign Affairs. But the biggest prize of all, in terms of its wide ranging scope, is the Public Accounts committee, which Margaret Hodge, the firebrand labour MP, used to great effect in the last parliament. She is not standing again, and there is a real battle amongst labour MPs to succeed her.
Ministers, shadow ministers and government parliamentary private secretaries cannot stand for select committees. Many new MPs cut their teeth on select committees as the Prime Minister, David Cameron, did when he was first elected to parliament in 2001. The PM served on the Home Affairs select committee which then, as is now the case, was run by a labour MP chair; the chairs are elected this week and individual committee members follow in a couple of weeks.
I will post full details of the results later this week.