Select committees are one of the key ways the two Houses of Parliament hold the government to account. They are also important bodies for Parliament’s engagement with the public.
- What are select committees?
- How are select committees created in the House of Commons?
- How are select committee chairs put in place in the House of Commons?
- How are select committee members put in place in the House of Commons?
- How are select committees set up in the House of Lords?
- What is the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC)?
Select committees are committees of Members appointed by one or both Houses of Parliament to carry out particular tasks on behalf of the House or both Houses, or to work on a particular issue or policy area and report back.
In the Westminster Parliament, select committees are separate from and additional to legislative committees. (In this respect, the Westminster Parliament differs from many other parliaments.) Legislative committees scrutinise bills and draft bills, and pieces of delegated legislation. (Legislative committees may also be referred to as ‘general committees’.)
What are the different types of select committee?
Select committees are distinguished, first, by whether they are appointed by one House or both. Most committees are appointed by only one House. Select committees appointed by both Houses, and so comprising both MPs and Peers, are known as Joint Committees.
Beyond this distinction, there are several different types of select committee:
- Some have administrative roles, such as, in the House of Commons, the Administration Committee and the Finance Committee.
- Some deal with particular types of parliamentary activity or issue. Examples in the House of Commons are the Backbench Business Committee, the Petitions Committee, the Procedure Committee, the Standards Committee and the Privileges Committee.
The best-known type of select committee comprises scrutiny committees. These fall into several groups:
- Some, in the House of Commons, scrutinise the “expenditure, administration and policy” of specific government departments or offices. These committees are known as ‘departmental select committees’ (DSCs). The list of these committees is set out in Standing Order No. 152. At the start of the 2019 Parliament, there were 20 such committees.
- Some scrutinise policy issues that may straddle more than one department. In the House of Commons, examples are the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). There is also the House of Commons’ Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU, a temporary select committee which is due to lapse in January 2021. In the House of Lords, most scrutiny committees are of this issue-based, cross-departmental type, such as the Economic Affairs Committee. Two joint committees, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS), are also of this type.
- Some scrutinise a particular class of document. Examples are the Lords’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC), the Commons Statutory Instruments Committee, and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (JCSI), which examine Statutory Instruments (SIs); the Commons’ European Scrutiny Committee (ESC) and the Lords’ European Union Committee, which examine EU policy documents; and the Lords’ EU Committee’s new International Agreements Sub-Committee, which scrutinises UK treaties.
- Each House has a Liaison Committee, which has an overarching role to consider select committee-related matters. The House of Commons Liaison Committee also takes evidence from the Prime Minister. The House of Commons Liaison Committee comprises the chairs of other select committees, plus – in the 2019 Parliament – a further member who is the chair. The House of Lords Liaison Committee comprises senior Peers chosen by the House; includes the leaders of the three main parties and the Convenor of the Crossbench Peers (or their representatives); and is chaired by the Senior Deputy Speaker.
This section was last updated on 24 May 2020.
The House of Commons may create a select committee at any time, by agreeing a motion to do so.
Such motions are normally moved by the government, in the shape of the Leader of the House.
The House of Commons changes the line-up of its select committees most commonly when the government makes a machinery-of-government change that affects the number and/or responsibilities of government departments. The government may make such a change at any time, although it is most likely after a general election or when a new Prime Minister takes office.
Standing Order No. 152 provides that:
“Select committees shall be appointed to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the principal government departments … and associated public bodies.”
This has always been implemented so that each government department is shadowed by its own, dedicated, House of Commons select committee. The Science and Technology Committee, and the Women and Equalities Committee, shadow government offices that fall under departments (respectively, the Government Office for Science, under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and the Government Equalities Office, in the Cabinet Office).
For how long does a House of Commons select committee exist?
When the House of Commons creates a select committee, it must decide whether to create it as:
- a select committee which will by default exist permanently (unless and until the House were to decide to abolish it); or
- a select committee with only a limited lifespan – most commonly, until the end of the current Parliament.
The House may choose the latter option when it wishes to try out a new committee, as it did originally with the Women and Equalities Committee, or when the task for the new committee is expected to be time-limited.
If the House chooses the permanent option, it will probably agree an amendment to Standing Orders. Committees created under non-time-limited Standing Orders still exist at the start of a new Parliament and therefore do not need to be re-created at that point.
If the House chooses the time-limited option, it may make a Temporary Standing Order. These are published at the end of the list of Standing Orders. When the House makes a Temporary Standing Order, Standing Orders are in effect amended in line with it; but when the Temporary Standing Order lapses, Standing Orders automatically revert to their previous state.
Examples of recent select committees to exist under Temporary Standing Orders include the:
- Exiting the European Union Committee (‘Brexit Committee’), which was established to shadow the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) under successive Temporary Standing Orders made between October 2016 and January 2020;
- Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, which was established by a March 2020 amendment to the previous ‘Brexit Committee’ Temporary Standing Order, and is due to lapse on 16 January 2021;
- European Statutory Instruments Committee (ESIC), which was established in successive Temporary Standing Orders made in July 2018 and February 2020 to carry out the House of Commons’ ‘sifting’ process for some Statutory Instruments made under the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018, until the end of the 2019 Parliament; and
- Selection Committee. This was established for the 2017 Parliament to carry out the functions of the Committee of Selection.
This section was updated on 20 April 2020.
The positions of select committee chairs and members must be re-filled at the start of a Parliament.
House of Commons select committee chairs are divided into those that are elected in competitive elections by the whole House, and those that are chosen by their committee from among the committee’s members. In the 2019 Parliament, there is also a third category: the chair of the Liaison Committee is appointed by the House.
Competitive elections of chairs by the whole House of Commons now take place for most committees. These whole-House elections have been one of the most high-profile and far-reaching of the ‘Wright reforms’, introduced just before the 2010 general election on the basis of the November 2009 report of the ‘Wright Committee’ (the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, established in the wake of the expenses scandal and chaired by Tony Wright). In its major report on the select committee system in September 2019, the Liaison Committee recommended that whole-House elections be extended to the chairmanships of all House of Commons select committees, but this recommendation has not been implemented.
Which select committee chairs are elected by the whole House and which are not?
Select committee chairs who are elected by the whole House are the chairs of the:
- departmental select committees listed in Standing Order No. 152 (of which there were 20 at the start of the 2019 Parliament);
- Environmental Audit Committee (EAC);
- Petitions Committee;
- Procedure Committee;
- Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC);
- Public Accounts Committee (PAC);
- Standards Committee;
- Backbench Business Committee; and
- Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union (for as long as the Committee exists).
Committees which still choose their own chairs include the European Scrutiny Committee (ESC); the Statutory Instruments Committee; and the Privileges Committee. Joint Committees also choose their own chairs.
If a committee is choosing its chair and a vote is required, a candidate needs the support of a majority of committee members to be elected.
What happened with the Liaison Committee chairmanship in 2020?
The Liaison Committee has existed in something like its current form since 1980. Until 2019, its chairmanship had been determined successively in three different ways. In May 2020, for the 2019 Parliament, the government controversially introduced a fourth process:
- 1980-1992: The Liaison Committee chose its chair from among its members, with those members being MPs already appointed to chair a select committee – formally by the House, but in practice at this time by party managers.
- 1992-2010: Formally, the Liaison Committee continued to choose its chair from among its members. However, as well as the select committee chairs, the House appointed a senior backbencher as an additional member of the Committee. As a result of consultations by party managers, it was understood in advance that the Committee would choose this additional member as its chair. The Committee’s decision was thus a formality.
- 2010-2019: The Liaison Committee again chose its chair from among its members, who reverted to again comprising only select committeee chairs. Most chairs were now elected competitively by the whole House of Commons.
- 2020: The House appointed the Liaison Committee chair. The government’s appointment motion specifying the select committee chairs who would make up the Liaison Committee also named a senior backbench MP, Sir Bernard Jenkin, as the Committee’s chair. An Opposition amendment to preserve the 2019-19 process was defeated by 323 to 262 and the House agreed the government’s motion without a vote.
What is the process for electing select committee chairs?
The process has several stages.
Allocating chairmanships to parties
First, the chairmanships of most committees must be allocated to particular parties.
This does not apply to the chairmanship of the Backbench Business Committee, which is open to any and all MPs whose party is not in government (and only to such MPs).
Among other committees, Standing Orders allocate the chairmanships of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Standards Committee to the Official Opposition.
The allocation of other chairmanships to parties first involves the Speaker. He must determine the overall number of elected chairmanships which are due to each party, so as to “reflect the composition of the House”. The Speaker must make this determination on the day after his election at the start of a Parliament.
Then, the parties must agree among themselves on which party gets which chairmanship. By tradition, some chairmanships – such as those of the Treasury and Foreign Affairs Committees – go to the government party. Otherwise, the parties negotiate among themselves, via the ‘Usual Channels’ of the party whips.
The assignment of the relevant chairmanships to specific parties must be agreed by the House by a motion. (If a motion must also be agreed to change the line-up of select committees, the two are often considered together.) Under Standing Orders, the leaders of the parties involved have two weeks from the Queen’s Speech jointly to table the motion concerned. If two weeks pass after the Queen’s Speech without such a motion having been tabled, on the following day the Speaker must give time for the consideration of any motion tabled by any MP allocating the chairmanships to parties.
At the start of the 2019 Parliament, the new House of Commons agreed to extend the two-week deadline to four weeks, because it otherwise would have expired during the Christmas recess.
At the start of the four post-Wright Parliaments so far, the House of Commons agreed the motion allocating chairmanships to parties on its 6th, 10th, 11th and 11th sitting days, respectively.
Chair nominations and elections
Once the chairmanships have been allocated to parties, the House can proceed to the elections.
Standing Order No. 122B provides that the elections which it governs take place 14 calendar days after the motion allocating chairmanships to parties is agreed. However, the Standing Order gives the Speaker the power to vary the timetable:
- At the start of the 2017 Parliament, Speaker Bercow brought the chair elections forward to 12 July so that elected chairs would be in place before the summer recess.
- At the start of the 2019 Parliament, Speaker Hoyle brought the elections forward by a day, presumably so that they would take place on a Wednesday, when more MPs are likely to be at Westminster.
At the start of the four post-Wright Parliaments so far, the dates of the main select committee chair elections were thus the Commons’ 12th, 18th, 16th and 18th sitting days, respectively.
Nominations for each chairmanship are open only to MPs from the party to which it has been allocated. No MP may be a candidate for more than one chairmanship.
Under Standing Orders, nominations must be made by 5pm on the day before the election. The Speaker has the power to vary this timetable (and did so in January 2020 at the start of the 2019 Parliament).
Nominations must be made by 15 MPs elected for the party to which the chairmanship is allocated, or 10% of such MPs, whichever is the lower. Up to five MPs from other parties may also back a nomination.
If there is more than one candidate for a chairmanship, the election takes place by a single secret ballot, using the Alternative Vote system. MPs rank the candidates, and the votes of the candidates with the lowest number of first preferences are successively redistributed until one candidate has more than half the votes.
If there is only one candidate for a chairmanship, he or she is declared elected automatically after nominations close.
Backbench Business Committee chair
The election of the Backbench Business Committee chair may take place on the same day as the other chair elections, or separately.
Nominations for the chair of the Backbench Business Committee must be made on the day before the election by between 20 and 25 MPs, including at least 10 each from government and non-government parties. If there is more than one nomination, the election takes place by secret ballot, as for the chairs of other select committees.
Unlike other elected select committee chairs, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is elected for only one parliamentary session. The post must thus be re-filled at the start of each new session.
How many elected chairmanships are uncontested?
At the start of new Parliaments, the proportion of select committee chair elections which were uncontested (including for the Backbench Business Committee) rose from the 2010 Parliament to the 2015 Parliament and again to the 2017 Parliament, but fell back at the start of the 2019 Parliament:
|No. of chair elections at the start of the Parliament||Of which: No. uncontested||% uncontested|
|Parliament starting in:|
What happens if an elected select committee chair leaves the post?
If any elected select committee chair, having taken up the post, resigns or is no-confidenced by his or her committee, an election by the same procedure as at the start of a Parliament is held to fill the vacancy.
Are there term limits for select committee chairs?
Standing Order No. 122A specifies that:
“Unless the House otherwise orders, no select committee may have as its chair any Member who has served as chair of that committee for the two previous Parliaments or a continuous period of eight years, whichever is the greater period.”
This provision became controversial after the 2017 early general election. Because the 2015 Parliament lasted only two years, select committee chairs who had taken up their positions after the 2010 general election and been re-chosen after the 2015 election, and who expected to be in post until 2020, found that the term limit of eight years was now longer than the term limit of two Parliaments. They therefore faced the prospect of having to stand down in 2018, only one year into the 2017 Parliament.
Five select committee chairs were affected (Clive Betts at Communities and Local Government; Sir Bill Cash at European Scrutiny; David TC Davies at Welsh Affairs; Sir Bernard Jenkin at PACAC; and Lawrence Robertson at Northern Ireland).
Recognising the problem, in April 2018 the House extended the eight-year limit to ten years. This meant that chairs who first took up their posts after the 2010 general election could serve until July 2020. The House made its decision on the basis of a Procedure Committee report which concluded that:
“The maximum term of a select committee chair should be a period equivalent to two full Parliaments. Since the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 the period equivalent to two Parliaments is ten years.”
However, the House ordered the change to apply only for the rest of the 2017 Parliament. At the start of the 2019 Parliament, therefore, the term limit reverted to eight years. Three chairs who by that time had been continuously in post since 2010 (Clive Betts, Sir Bill Cash and Sir Bernard Jenkin) faced the prospect of being ineligible to remain there after July 2020.
On 21 January 2020, the House agreed to set its term limit aside for the rest of the Parliament.
Of the three previous chairs who could have been affected by the term limit, Clive Betts was re-elected unopposed as chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee; Sir Bill Cash was re-appointed to the European Scrutiny Committee, which re-elected him as chair; and Sir Bernard Jenkin did not run for re-election as chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC).
This section was last updated on 24 May 2020.
The first step in the process of populating select committees with members is that the size of each committee must be agreed.
How many members do select committees have?
Any motion agreed by the House which creates a select committee normally also specifies the number of its members. For most select committees which already exist at the start of a Parliament, Standing Orders will thus already set out their size, and there may be no need to re-visit the question.
Under Standing Order No. 152, most departmental select committees have 11 members.
However, the number of members of a committee may need to be adjusted to reflect political factors. This is most likely to happen at the start of a new Parliament, but the House may decide to vary the number of members of any select committee at any time, by making a change which affects the relevant Standing Order.
How are select committee members appointed?
The list of members of each House of Commons select committee must be agreed by the House. This normally takes place by agreeing an appointment motion moved on behalf of the Committee of Selection. (In the 2017 Parliament, the functions of the Committee of Selection in this respect were taken over by the Selection Committee.) The Committee of Selection must normally give two days’ notice of any such motion. There is no requirement that all such motions be moved at the same time, and it is common at the start of a Parliament for the House to agree motions appointing select committee members on several different days.
The make-up of each select committee by party is supposed to reflect as closely as possible the party balance of the House.
In practice, once the overall number of members of each committee is known, the parties must agree amongst themselves on how these committee places are divided among them. Broadly, for a committee of any given size (such as 11), the balance of parties across the House converts into a particular division of committee seats.
Once the division of committee places by party is known, the party whips give the Committee of Selection a matching number of names of MPs from their party to fill their seat allocation. The Committee of Selection then moves the motion in the Chamber proposing (‘nominating’) for appointment the full, cross-party, line-up of members for each committee.
Potential political complications in appointing select committee members
Several political factors may complicate the process of allocating select committee places among parties. Sometimes, the problem may be resolved by changing the size of a committee:
- The party balance across the House may not convert exactly or clearly into a division of select committee seats for a select committee of any given size.
- If there is a hung Parliament, the question can arise of whether the government should have a majority on select committees even though it does not have one in the House.
- The party balance across the House may be such that some or all of the smaller parties would not be entitled to select committee seats. In this case, the number of select committee places may be increased. For example, the Treasury Committee in the 2010-15 Parliament was expanded to 13 members, to allow the Liberal Democrats and SNP to have seats. Alternatively, a larger party may give up a select committee seat so that a smaller party has some representation.
- The geographical distribution of a party’s MPs may mean that it does not have members from Scottish or Welsh constituencies available to take up the seats due to it on the Scottish or Welsh Affairs Committees. The issue arises especially acutely with respect to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
- In October 2016, the Exiting the EU Committee was created with 21 members, so as to maximise the likelihood that a more-than-usual number of parties and parts of the UK would be represented, as well as ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’.
In its last report of the 2010-15 Parliament, recognising the strains to which the House of Commons’ increasing party fragmentation was giving rise, the Liaison Committee said that “accommodation between the parties” about the allocation of places was preferable to expanding the size of select committees beyond 11, and that select committees’ habits of “consensus and unanimity” made the precise “arithmetical proportions” of parties’ representation on each committee less relevant. The Liaison Committee suggested that:
“The balance need not be identical on each committee if the overall representation across all committees was fair and proportionate.”
How do parties choose the MPs they put forward for their select committee seats?
House of Commons Standing Orders do not specify how parties should choose the MPs they put forward for their select committee seats, nor require parties to publish information about their process. The process is essentially an internal party matter.
However, as part of the 2010 ‘Wright reforms’, the House agreed that parties should at least hold internal elections for their select committee places, rather than, as previously, the places being allocated simply by party whips.
The governing provision is thus the motion agreed by the House in March 2010 that:
“parties should elect members of select committees in a secret ballot by whichever transparent and democratic method they choose”.
What is the appointment process for members of the Liaison Committee?
As is widely known, the House of Commons Liaison Committee comprises the chairs of other select committees (plus, in the 2019 Parliament, an additional member as chair). However, Standing Orders do not specify the select committee chairmanships which are entitled to a Liaison Committee place. As a result, at the start of each new Parliament the House must agree a motion appointing the members of the Liaison Committee (defined as the chairs-in-office of the committees that are specified in the motion), in the same way as it must agree motions appointing named MPs to other select committees – despite the fact that, in contrast to ‘ordinary’ select committee members, the chairs who are members of the Liaison Committee are members ex officio. Even though all the chairs who will be members of the Liaison Committee may be in place, the Liaison Committee thus cannot come into existence until its appointment motion has been moved and passed. (Unlike the appointment motions for most select committees, the Liaison Committee appointment motion is usually moved by the Leader of the House, not the Committee of Selection.)
To eliminate this potential source of delay, the Liaison Committee in the 2917-19 Parliament recommended that the relevant Standing Order (SO No. 145) be amended to include a list of the select committee chairs-in-office who make up the Liaison Committee, so that the Committee can come into existence and elect an interim chair as soon as a quorum of select committee chairs is in place.
Why can it take so long to get select committees in the House of Commons fully up and running?
The length of time taken to get House of Commons select committees re-established at the start of new Parliaments has been a longstanding problem, both before and since the ‘Wright reforms’ of 2010. Since 2010, the earliest in terms of sitting days that the House of Commons has appointed a select committee is the Committee of Selection on the 10th sitting day, in January 2020. The earliest in sitting-day terms that any departmental select committee has been appointed is the 25th sitting day, in 2017. In calendar terms, this means that the House of Commons departmental select committees are not up and running for at least six weeks after the start of a Parliament, and possibly much longer if recesses and/or other factors intervene.
For select committees with chairs elected by the whole House, delay in appointing committee members means that several weeks can go by in which elected chairs have no functioning committees. Select committees which choose their own chairs have no members at all during this period and can undertake no work.
The procedural problem is that, in contrast to the arrangements for the election of select committee chairs by the whole House, the House has never put into Standing Orders the deadlines for the appointment of select committee members that were recommended by the 2009 ‘Wright report’. This has left the process of appointing select committee members vulnerable to internal party timings and to any political complications – such as 2017’s lack of a government majority – that may arise at the start of a Parliament.
The Wright Committee recommended that:
“the principal select committees should be nominated within no more than six weeks of the Queen’s Speech and that this should be laid down in Standing Orders and capable of being enforced by the Speaker.”
However, rather than inserting a deadline into Standing Orders, the House in March 2010 only agreed a motion. In this, the House:
“approve[d] the principle that the principal select committees ought to be appointed within six weeks of the beginning of the Session at the start of a new Parliament.”
At the end of 2017-19 Parliament, the Liaison Committee repeated the Wright Committee’s recommendation that “select committees should be nominated within no more than six weeks of the Queen’s Speech”. For his part, in a letter to the Leader of the House and the newly-elected Speaker about the Committee’s 2017-19 work, then-Procedure Committee Chair Sir Charles Walker MP “stress[ed] the importance of establishing select committees as early as possible in the new Parliament, in view of the significant scrutiny work required to be undertaken on Government proposals for Brexit whatever the outcome of the election.”
This section was last updated on 24 May 2020.
Just as in the Commons, the House of Lords must agree via a motion on the creation of any select committee and on the names of its members. As in the Commons, motions proposing the names of members for appointment to select committees are put forward by the Committee of Selection.
Most House of Lords select committees are formally appointed only until the next parliamentary session. That is, they must be formally re-established at the start of each session, not only at the start of a Parliament after a general election. However, this is normally a formality, and House of Lords ‘sessional’ committees are in effect permanent.
What select committees are there in the House of Lords?
House of Lords select committees fall into the same broad types as their Commons counterparts.
However, rather than have select committees which shadow specific government departments, the House of Lords conducts policy scrutiny via select committees which are responsible for broad policy areas. This is partly to avoid duplicating Commons select committees’ department-based work.
House of Lords select committees thus include, among the ‘sessional’ committees, the Communications Committee, Constitution Committee, Economic Affairs Committee, European Union Committee, International Relations Committee and Science and Technology Committee.
Special inquiry committees
Unlike the Commons, the House of Lords makes routine use of fixed-term special inquiry committees appointed only to consider and report on a particular issue. (These committees used to be known as ‘ad hoc committees’.)
Peers are invited to put proposals for special inquiry committees to the Liaison Committee, which makes recommendations to the House on which of them should be established.
The Lords now typically apppoints four special inquiry committees each year.
On 14 May 2020, on the basis of a Liaison Committee recommendation, the Lords agreed in principle to establish a Covid-19 Committee “to consider the long-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economic and social wellbeing of the United Kingdom.”
At the start of a Parliament, why are select committees established more quickly in the House of Lords than the House of Commons?
House of Lords select committees are usually up-and-running at the start of a Parliament more quickly than their House of Commons counterparts. Procedural and political factors make the appointment of select committees more straightforward in the Lords than in the Commons. Such factors in the Lords include:
- There are no committee chair elections. Committee chairs are either identified in the motion appointing members to the committee, or chosen by committees themselves.
- There is no requirement that parties hold internal elections to identify their select committee members.
- The lesser importance of party politics in the Lords, and the much larger proportion of independents (Crossbenchers) there, mean that party balance is less of a consideration and the filling of select committee places is more consensual.
- The size of House of Lords select committees is much more flexible than that of their Commons counterparts.
At the start of the 2015, 2017 and 2019 Parliaments, the House of Lords appointed its main sessional committees on its 9th, 6th and 6th sitting days, respectively.
What is the ‘rotation rule’ for House of Lords select committees?
Unlike the House of Commons, the House of Lords operates a ‘rotation rule’ for select committee members. Under the rule, Members who have been appointed to a committee for three successive parliamentary sessions may not be reappointed in the next two.
In its July 2019 report on House of Lords investigative and scrutiny committees, the Lords Liaison Committee recommended that the Procedure Committee give further consideration to the future of the ‘rotation rule’, so as to balance the preservation of expertise with the provision of opportunities for all Peers.
This section was last updated on 24 May 2020.
The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) is not a select committee. The procedures that apply to select committees therefore do not automatically apply to it.
The ISC is not a select committee because the creation or abolition of a select committee is an internal decision of one or both Houses of Parliament. By contrast, the ISC is established by law; it is a statutory committee. With the law as it is, neither House has a choice over whether the ISC exists, and could not abolish it.
The ISC was established by the Intelligence Services Act 1994. The Justice and Security Act 2013 repealed the ISC-related sections of the 1994 Act, and replaced them with more detailed and in some respects different provisions. The 2013 Act, together with an accompanying published Memorandum of Understanding between the Committee and the government, are now the main instruments governing the ISC.
Under the 2013 Justice and Security Act, the ISC is to “examine or otherwise oversee” the “expenditure, administration, policy and operations” of the security services – the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Ongoing operations are excluded. The ISC may also examine such other government intelligence and security activities as are set out in the Memorandum of Understanding, which further delimits the Committee’s remit.
How is the Intelligence and Security Committee appointed?
Under the 2013 Justice and Security Act, the ISC has nine members, drawn from both Houses of Parliament. Government ministers cannot be ISC members.
Since passage of the 2013 Justice and Security Act, the members of the ISC are formally appointed by Parliament (with the House of Commons appointing the MPs and the House of Lords the Peers). However, under the 2013 Act, the proposed ISC members who are put before each House for approval must first be nominated by the Prime Minister. In the House of Commons, it is the Prime Minister who tables the relevant appointment motion for the House to agree (in the House of Lords, the appointment motion is tabled by the Leader of the House). The 2013 Act requires the Prime Minister to consult the Leader of the Opposition before making his nominations.
The ISC has always had a majority of MPs over Peers. Between 2010 and 2020, the Committee’s nine members comprised seven MPs and two Peers. The Committee appointed in July 2020 comprises eight MPs and one Peer.
ISC members are appointed for the duration of a Parliament.
Under the Justice and Security Act 2013, the House which appoints each member of the ISC may pass a further motion removing him or her from the Committee. Otherwise, a member leaves the ISC if he or she resigns from the Committee, ceases to be a member of the House of Commons or Lords, or becomes a government Minister.
How is the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee appointed?
Under the 2013 Justice and Security Act, the Chair of the ISC is chosen by the Committee. This made a change from the 1994 Act, which had specified that the Prime Minister appointed the Chair.
How long does it take for the Intelligence and Security Committee to be appointed?
- Time taken from the start of a Parliament to the appointment of the Intelligence and Security Committee:
- 1997: 30 July – 2 months 23 days
- 2001: 30 July – 1 month 17 days
- 2005: 12 July – 2 months 1 day
- 2010: 26 October – 5 months 8 days (the ISC’s final member was only appointed in December, but the Committee started work once its other members were appointed in October)
- 2015: 14 September – 3 months 27 days
- 2017: 21 November – 5 months 8 days
- 2019: 14 July 2020 – 6 months 27 days
At the start of recent Parliaments, the ISC has been one of the last committees to be appointed. There is no deadline for the ISC’s appointment, in the 2013 Justice and Security Act or elsewhere.
The wait is normally for the House of Commons to make its appointments to the Committee. The House of Lords does not normally appoint its ISC members until after the Commons has done so, but then does so within days.
Recent occasions have seen criticism from some parliamentarians and observers of the length of time that the ISC appointment process has taken, and during which there has therefore been no parliamentary oversight body for the security services.
How are Intelligence and Security Committee reports published?
In contrast to select committees (which have exclusive control of their agenda), under the 2013 Justice and Security Act the ISC can be asked by the Prime Minister to investigate a topic.
Under the 2013 Justice and Security Act, the ISC may also make a report to the Prime Minister, rather than Parliament, although it has rarely done so.
In the case of any report which it is making to Parliament, under the 2013 Justice and Security Act the ISC must first send the report to the Prime Minister. The ISC must then exclude from the version of the report which it lays before Parliament any material which the Prime Minister considers prejudicial to the functioning of the security services. Where such exclusions are made, the ISC must include in the report that it lays before Parliament the information that this has occurred. In practice, the version of a report that is laid before Parliament is in effect the product of a negotiation between the Committee and the Cabinet Office (advised by the security agencies) about what may be published.
In 2019-20, this process was at the centre of the controversy surrounding publication of the ISC’s so-called ‘Russia report’. The 2017-19 ISC sent its report on Russia to the Prime Minister for review on 17 October 2019, but the Prime Minister did not clear the report for publication before the dissolution of Parliament on 6 November, ahead of the 12 December general election. The Prime Minister then cleared the report for publication on 13 December; but there was no Committee to publish it until the new ISC was appointed on 14 July 2020. The new Committee published the report on 21 July 2020, as its first act following its appointment.
This section was added to the page on 20 April 2020 and last updated on 21 July 2020. Thanks to Dr Andrew Defty of the University of Lincoln for reviewing a draft.