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Tuesday, 17 July, 2001, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Q&A: What are select committees?
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Tony Blair's Labour government has suffered a humiliating and rare Commons defeat at the hands of MPs angry at the way it attempted to remove two outspoken select committee heads, Gwyneth Dunwoody from transport and Donald Anderson from foreign affairs.

At the same time there is growing pressure for reform, with calls for the government to hand its role in deciding committee membership directly to MPs.

Here BBC News Online explains what all the fuss is about.

Q: What are Commons select committees?

A: Set up in 1979, they are cross-party groups of backbench MPs, usually between 10 and 20 strong, led by a chairman or chairwoman.

Some select committees advise on issues such as House of Commons procedure, but the ones that capture the headlines are departmental select committees which scrutinise the government.

Q: Why are they important?

A: The departmental select committees are a vital check on the government. They undertake detailed examination of policies and activity that is beyond the scope of the House of Commons as a whole.

They are viewed as especially important when the government commands a large majority or faces a weak official opposition.

Many MPs regard their work on committees as the most significant of their parliamentary careers. The position of chair of a committee is particularly prestigious, and they are regularly called in relevant debates and quoted in the media.

Q: How do the committees work?

A: It varies, but normally they meet in committee rooms inside the Houses of Parliament or nearby. In contrast to the floor of the Commons, members sit round a horse-shoe shaped table and refer to each other by name.

Having chosen a topic to examine, the committee takes evidence from witnesses - politicians, civil servants or outside experts - in normally public hearings or in writing.

Private deliberations follow before a report with recommendations is produced for the whole House of Commons.

A government response to the report and its recommendations is expected within two months. Some reports are subject to their own debates either in the Commons or the new side chamber in Westminster Hall.

Q: What powers do select committees have?

A: They can order the attendance of witnesses and production of evidence but apart from the watchdog of MPs conduct, the Committee on Standards and Privileges, no MP is compelled to attend. However, ministers normally accept invitations to give evidence. The same applies to requests for information from government departments.

Committees can meet outside Westminster and even outside the UK, appoint specialist advisers and meet when the Commons is not sitting.

All are supported by staff provided by the Houses of Parliament.

Q: How is membership decided?

A: In typical parliamentary style, it is complicated. Committees are formally reconstituted at the start of each parliament, and the membership of each committee is voted on by all MPs soon after the Commons starts sitting.

Members are appointed for the full parliamentary term, though changes are fairly common - for instance, when members become ministers or frontbenchers. Changes must formally be voted on by the whole House of Commons.

Chairs of the committees are elected at the first meeting by the committee itself, though there is usually an obvious 'senior' candidate.

However, there are certain conventions, such as the chair of the public accounts committee being an opposition member (Conservative David Davis in the last parliament).

Membership of each committee is effectively decided by the committee of selection, which makes formal recommendations to the Commons.

The selection committee is in turn controlled by party whips. In the opening stages of a parliament, a great deal of 'horse-trading' goes on behind the scenes while mutually acceptable selections are hammered out.

An effort is made to ensure that members who have demonstrated a clear interest in a subject find an appropriate berth, and there are also meant to be a few places for self-conscious 'rebels'.

Q: Do select committees really have any effect?

A: There are numerous examples of departmental select committees making an impact.

In the recent past, Mrs Dunwoody made determined attacks on both the management of Railtrack and government plans for the privatisation of the air traffic control system.

Mr Anderson hit the headlines with a devastating report into the arms-to-Africa affair.

Further back, in the 1992-97 parliament, Tory Quentin Davies gave then minister David Willetts a notorious grilling over his attempts to rig another committee's inquiry, which ultimately led to the latter's resignation as paymaster general.

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