More on electing committee chairs

In my previous post, I wrote about the recent election of the new chair of the Select Committee on Health which occurred last week in the UK House of Commons. Dr. Sarah Wollaston was elected by her fellow MPs, winning on the fourth count over four other contenders for the post.

The BBC’s Parliamentary correspondent, Mark D’Arcy’s recent column warns that some Conservative MPs aren’t too happy that Dr. Wollaston won the election. Ms. Wollaston, he explains, “has never been an identikit party trooper.” She was the first Conservative MP chosen via open primary, and has always been very independent as an MP. In fact, she was highly critical of her Government’s original NHS reforms as proposed in the Heath and Social Care Bill back in 2011. Some Conservatives, according to Mr. D’Arcy, fear that having such an independently-minded Conservative heading the committee could be embarrassing for the Government should any major issue involving the country’s health services arise over the course of the final year of this parliament. They also think that this independence is why Dr. Wollaston has so much support from Labour MPs. Because of this, some Conservatives:

are starting to suggest that their party should have some kind of primary process to decide its favoured candidates before the election is thrown to the whole House, or that the election itself should be restricted to MPs from the party which holds the particular committee.

Now for the non-regular readers of this blog, and for those not familiar with how the UK House of Commons chooses committee chairs, let me explain why the above quote is worrisome. Chairs of select committees (the equivalent of Standing Committees here in Canada) are elected by the whole House – by MPs. The chairships are divided amongst the major parties at the outset of a new parliament, in proportion to each party’s share of seats in the House of Commons. This in itself is a major departure from how we do things in Canada. In the Canadian House of Commons, the government party chairs almost every single committee. In the current parliament, 22 of the 26 — 84% of the Standing Committees — are chaired by Conservative MPs, even though the Conservatives hold only 52% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Official Opposition chairs the other four, and the third party Liberals, despite holding 11% of the seats, don’t chair any. This isn’t the case in the UK House of Commons. There are 38 select committees in the UK House of Commons; the Conservative Party chairs 20 (53%), Labour chairs 14 (37%) and the Liberal Democrats chair 4 (10%). This is comparable to their representation in the House where the Conservatives hold 47% of the seats, Labour 40% and the Liberal Democrats 9%. The parties decide amongst themselves which party will chair which committee, although traditionally, the Public Accounts Committee is chaired by the Official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats always take International Development.

The Health Select Committee was allocated to the Conservative party, and thus when the former chair stepped down, only interested Conservative MPs were eligible to put themselves forward as candidates to replace him. However, following the election of two very independent-minded Conservative MPs, Dr. Wollaston at Health and, earlier this year, Rory Stewart at Defence, some within the Conservative party want to control the process of who becomes a committee chair. One way, according to Mr. D’Arcy’s article, would be for the Conservative caucus to decide by some process which of their MPs could stand for election for the post of committee chair. This would, in theory, allow the party (aka the party leadership) to weed out any MPs who are less keen on toeing the party line. Alternatively, any Conservative MP could put themselves forward as a candidate, but rather than the whole House voting to elect the Chair, the vote would be limited to  Conservative MPs (and one assumes they’d want the same process to apply to the election of chairs from other parties – limiting the vote to members of that party only). That would prevent the other parties from backing a candidate that they favour. Suffice it to say that either option completely undermines the entire point of having elected committee chairs and would reverse this very important procedural reform by putting the committee system back under the control of party whips.

However, not all Conservative MPs want the process to change. Mr. D’Arcy heard from a fair number who said they voted for Dr. Wollaston because she is independent-minded and won’t hesitate to criticize the government (and their own party) if that criticism is warranted.

Canadians may not be aware that a Canadian Conservative backbencher, Brad Trost, has successfully moved a motion ordering the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to study the matter of elected committee chairs. Trost was inspired by the reforms adopted by the UK House of Commons; however, his proposal falls short (in my view) because he does not also recommend distributing the chairships more proportionally among the parties. I don’t know why the government party has almost complete control of the committees here in Canada, but this is something that should be changed. As I mentioned above, in the Canadian House of Commons, the government party chairs almost every single committee. In the current parliament, 22 of the 26 — 84% of the Standing Committees — are chaired by Conservative MPs, even though the Conservatives hold only 52% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Official Opposition chairs the other four, and the third party Liberals, despite holding 11% of the seats, don’t chair any. If the chair positions were divided more proportionally, the Conservatives would chair 14 committees rather than 22, the NDP 8, the Liberals 3 and the Bloc Quebecois 1. But of course, in our system, the BQ can’t chair a committee because they aren’t “recognized” as a party, failing, as they do, to have the magic number of MPs required to be considered a party in the House. And because they don’t meet this magic number, not only are BQ MPs denied the right to chair a committee, they can’t even be members of a committee. This is another thing that we do horribly wrong – the entire concept of “officially recognized party” needs to be tossed out the window.

But that, my friends, is perhaps a post for another day.

(Note: for those interested, Mr. Trost’s motion on electing committee chairs was debated on two occasions, first on October 21 2013, and then again on January 29 2014.)

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