House of Commons select committees influence policy by 'generating fear'

By Nuffield Foundation

A large-scale study of select committee influence by UCL’s Constitution Unit has found that a third of committee recommendations calling for significant policy change are implemented by government.

Funded by the Foundation, the study also found that committees’ main form of influence may not be in making recommendations at all, but in ‘generating fear’ in government.

Ministers and senior officials increasingly think about how something would look if examined by a committee. This helps keep them on their toes, making for better decision-making.

Selective Influence: The Policy Impact of House of Commons Select Committees is based on detailed study of seven departmental select committees from 1997 to 2010, and over 50 interviews with parliamentary and government insiders.

“Select committees are well respected” said the Unit’s Deputy Director and report co-author Dr Meg Russell, “But there is wide scepticism about the extent to which they influence policy, and some believe that committee reports are routinely ignored by government. Our research shows that this is not true: many committee recommendations find their way into policy.”

“Our interviews found that select committees can sometimes catalyse opinion and act as a tipping point in a debate, as when the Health Select Committee intervened in the smoking ban debate in 2005” added Dr Meghan Benton, report co-author. “But most importantly committees have a deterrent effect: government insiders often think ‘how would this look if exposed by the committee’, and change policy accordingly. This key form of influence is largely invisible.”

Other findings include:

  • 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’.

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