Everything you need to know about Parliamentary Select Committees: A Pagefield Guide

Monday 23rd October

Image: Copyright UK Parliament/ Photography by Jessica Taylor

Most people learn about policy developments through their consumption of the news – often when the Government commits to or passes a law.

However, the architecture of our parliamentary democracy means responsibility for policy development, and scrutiny of proposed legislation, lies with more people and organisations other than just the Government.

The polarised and often tribal nature of UK politics might lead some to assume that representatives of different political parties operate in siloed and competing groups without ever engaging in collaborative working. Public affairs and policy professionals, however, will be aware that Parliamentary Select Committees – cross-party groups that examine the work of Government – play a crucial role in the oversight of policy development and legislative scrutiny.

Here, the Pagefield team takes you through the key questions – and answers – about the role of Select Committees and their role in our parliamentary democracy.

What are Parliamentary Select Committees?

Select Committees work across both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, checking and reporting on areas ranging from the work of government departments to economic affairs.

Depending on their remit, Select Committees run inquiries on specific topics or issues that inform government policy. Once inquiries are launched, Select Committees initiate what is referred to as a ‘call for evidence’ – inviting the members of the public, businesses, trade bodies and other organisations to submit evidence outlining their views and recommendations on the issues being examined.

Select Committees, supported by a team of clerks and researchers, will then collate written evidence submissions, and schedule a programme of oral evidence sessions where ‘witnesses’ are invited to appear in front of the Committee, providing their views on various issues and responding to questions from the Committee’s membership.

As well as members of the public and leaders of businesses and organisations, Select Committees have the authority to summon government ministers and officials to give evidence. This allows them to question decision-makers directly and hold them accountable for their actions.

The outcomes of these inquiries are then made public, often in the form of a report, and generally require a response from the Government within 60 days. Government responses are meant to address the Committee’s specific recommendations and provide a rationale for whether they’ll be adopted or not.

Who sits on Parliamentary Select Committees?

Commons Select Committees are made up of a minimum of 11 members and are represented by MPs from different political parties.

In the House of Commons, there is a Select Committee for each government department which is responsible for examining three main aspects: spending, policies and administration. For example, the Education Committee will scrutinise the work of the Department of Education while the Home Affairs Committee will probe the work of the Home Office.

Each Select Committee has a chair, the majority of whom are elected by their fellow MPs. This applies to departmental Select Committees and the Environmental Audit, Procedure, Petitions, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, Public Accounts and Standards Committees.

Unlike those in the Commons, Select Committees in the House of Lords do not shadow the work of government departments. Their investigations and inquiries look into specialist subjects, drawing on the broad range of expertise and experience in the House of Lords and the greater amount of time available to them to examine issues.

How effective are Parliamentary Select Committees in shaping policy?

The effectiveness of Parliamentary Select Committees depends on several factors, including the composition of their membership and the issues they’re tasked with investigating.

There are a number of ways in which Parliamentary Select Committees can play a crucial role in our parliamentary democracy, such as:

  • Thorough research and analysis: Select Committees, when run effectively, are known for their ability to conduct detailed and impartial inquiries. By engaging in thorough research and seeking input from experts, stakeholders and the public, Select Committees hear from beyond the echo chambers of Westminster and as a result can provide evidence-based recommendations, providing a robust and evidenced foundation for policy proposals.
  • Ministerial accountability: As Select Committees have powers to question government ministers and officials, they can provide a level of scrutiny that holds decision-makers accountable while ensuring transparency and responsibility. The fact that written evidence submissions and transcripts and recordings of oral evidence sessions are made public can help demystify the work of politicians when scrutinising decisions made by the Government.
  • Exposing overlooked and significant issues: Select Committee inquiries often bring to light issues that may not have been adequately addressed, or worse completely overlooked, by the Government. For example, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, now known as the Business and Trade Committee, opened an inquiry into the Post Office/Horizon scandal in 2020, some four years before the ITV drama Mr. Bates vs The Post Office brought the issue to the attention of the wider public.
  • Pre- and post-legislative scrutiny: Public Bill Committees contribute to the development of legislation through pre-legislative scrutiny. This involves examining draft bills and suggesting improvements and amendments before laws are enacted. Likewise, Select Committees assess the impact of existing legislation, identifying areas for improvement, and proposing changes where necessary.
  • Public consultation: As Select Committees often involve the public in their inquiries by seeking input and feedback, this lends itself to ensuring diverse perspectives are considered in policymaking. Politicians of all stripes are often confined to the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall and therefore need to hear from those who will be most affected by the issues on which they’re legislating.
  • Government consideration: While Select Committees cannot directly enforce their recommendations, the Government is encouraged and often expected to consider and respond to Committee reports. When this happens, it demonstrates a willingness to engage with parliamentary scrutiny and to hear from a broader range of voices and perspectives before making decisions that will affect the electorate.


At Pagefield, we understand the world of Westminster and Whitehall – we are specialists in Public & Regulatory Affairs with a long-history of supporting clients with tricky regulatory and policy issues. We also provide clients who have been invited to give oral evidence to Select Committees with training, helping them contribute to the process of policy development on behalf of their business or organisation.  If you want to talk to us about how we can help you to engage UK political parties ahead of the General Election, please get in touch via hello@pagefield.co.uk.

Related News & Insight