Women MPs and House of Commons Select Committees
Following the appointment of Harriet Harman as chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Vote 100’s Oonagh Gay investigates the history of women MPs chairing Select Committees and finds some surprising results. Women’s participation in Parliament has often been hidden, and so finding new stories has been an essential and exciting aspect of the Vote 100 project. There are a whole series of ‘firsts’ to be discovered and this blog entry is about the first women to chair select committees.
Select committees are important cross-party groups of MPs or Lords formally established by either House for either the duration of a Parliament or a session of Parliament. They date back some centuries. The current use of the term tends to refer to departmental select committees which are designed to mirror each government department and are re-organised as the machinery of government changes. However, other select committees deal with internal House matters, or regional areas, or cover individual issues which have become a topic of concern. In the nineteenth century, select committees had been an influential part of parliamentary work, often leading to significant legislation. However, the growing use of independent inquiries and royal commissions in the early twentieth century reduced the scope of select committees. Reforms from the 1960s onwards, culminating in an inquiry by the Procedure Select Committee in 1976-78 led to the establishment of a system of departmental committees and a resurgence in the importance of select committees within the work of the Commons. This is discussed by Commons official Philip Aylett in his Phd thesis Thirty Years of Reform House of Commons Select Committees 1960-90 (see link below).
Parliamentary archivist Mari Takayanagi’s Phd thesis Parliament and Women c1900 to 1945 (see link below) illustrated how women MP’s work on committees has been overlooked in general surveys of their participation in the work of the Commons. In fact, there had been women members of the select committees since the 1920s. But most select committees in the inter-war period did not have a woman member (at least in part because there were so few women). Those appointed tended to be placed on committees which dealt with what were defined as ‘women’s’ interests – such as the Commons Kitchen Committee, or committees on nursing, guardianship of children, the nationality of married women, sexual offences. This is particularly obvious during the 1920s but less so during the 1930s, when women also appeared on the select committees on Indian Constitutional Reform, and Public Petitions.
Elaine Burton – First woman to chair a sub-committee
Select committees continued their varied subject areas after the Second World War, when normal parliamentary work resumed. Gradually, scrutiny work increased in importance and the Estimates Committee can be seen as a forerunner of the departmental select committees established in 1979. So appointment to the chair of an Estimates sub-committees indicated that the Member held an influential role. The first woman to serve in this position was Elaine Burton, who served as Chairman of Sub-Committee E in the 1957-58 and 1958-59 sessions of Parliament. Burton had become a Labour MP in 1950, but was an accomplished writer and broadcaster, with an interest in sports. She lost her seat in 1959, but became a life peer in 1962, and a major force behind the creation of the Sports Council.
Bessie Braddock – first woman to chair a select committee
As in the pre-war period, there was a noticeable tendency for women MPs to be appointed as members of the Kitchen Committee in the 1940s and 1950s. So it is unsurprising that the Kitchen Committee was the first to have a woman chair. Bessie Braddock chaired the Kitchen and Refreshment Rooms Select Committee in session 1964-65, but the following session the committee was merged into the new House of Commons Services Committee, and she chaired the relevant Kitchen sub-committee. Braddock was a well-known MP, who had first entered the Commons in 1945. Her last years in the Commons were affected by ill-health and she died in 1970, months after retiring from her seat at the June general election.
The importance of select committee work in the Commons began to increase in the 1960s, as Philip Aylett has shown in his Phd research; several factors were at work, including pressures to make the Commons more relevant and the arrival of a generation of MPs who intended to make their roles full time.
Margaret Herbison- first woman chair of a subject committee
The reforming Leader of the House, Richard Crossman, enabled the establishment of six subject select committees in 1969. One of these was Overseas Aid, and Margaret (Peggie) Herbison was its first chair. Although her appointment was noted in the Dictionary of National Biography entry by Tam Dalyell, its significance has not until now been fully appreciated. Herbison was another 1945 entrant, who had achieved a front bench position under Harold Wilson in October 1964 but resigned in 1967 over his refusal to increase children’s allowances. She retired from the Commons in 1970, becoming the first woman to serve as the Queen’s representative, the lord high commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in 1970–71.
Renee Short- first woman chair of Expenditure Committee sub-committee
The reforms instituted by Crossman were followed in 1970 by the creation of subject-based sub-committees under a new Expenditure Committee, replacing the Estimates Committee system. The Labour MP, Renee Short, had became chair of sub-committee B of Estimates in session 1968-69, and went on to be chair of the new Employment and Social Services sub-committee of the Expenditure Committee in 1970-71. Short’s sub-committee produced some major reports. The Expenditure Committee Report on the Employment of Women published in the spring of 1973 was based on an inquiry carried out by the Employment and Social Services Sub-Committee.
The Report contained a range of policy recommendations, many of them aimed at improving the employment chances of women of all ages. Recommendations mostly covered detailed issues such as the inequality in the level of training grants between men and women, but there were also a number of major recommendations to change the face of work for women. These would involve, for example, changes to encourage flexibility in working patterns and the rapid expansion of day nurseries and nursery school provision. The Government responded to the Committee by agreeing to remove the inequality in the level of training grants – a direct committee effect on policy.
When the departmental select committee system was established in session 1979-80, Short was the natural choice as chair of the Social Services Select Committee. Previously, her long service on Estimates and Expenditure has been overlooked. Janet Fookes also became chair of the Education sub-committee of the Expenditure Committee in 1974-75, but never became a departmental select committee chair.
Joyce Butler- first woman chair of an ad hoc committee
Select committee which dealt with subjects likely to be of interest to women tended to have a higher proportion of women MPs nominated to them. In the 1970s, ad hoc subject select committees began to proliferate and this trend becomes clearer. Labour MP Joyce Butler chaired the Violence in the Family Select Committee which met in session 1975-76. The previous session 1974-75, another select committee on Violence in Marriage, had been chaired by Butler’s ally, Willie Hamilton. Barbara Castle later related her annoyance at being asked to attend as a witness, especially as the committee had been created at her instigation. 
Butler was an experienced campaigner on women’s issues. She introduced the first bill outlawing discrimination against women in education, employment, social and public life in 1967; this became the basis of the formation of Labour’s landmark Sex Discrimination Act 1975.
However, the absence of women from many key committees was also striking. There was no woman on the prestigious Privileges Committee until Margaret Thatcher was appointed in 1975, as Leader of the Opposition. The Conservative, Joan Quennell, was the first woman to be appointed to the influential Public Accounts Committee in 1970, followed by Oonagh McDonald for Labour in 1976.
Women Chairs of Select Committees 1979-2017
The establishment of a permanent system of departmental select committees in 1979 consolidated the growing importance of select committees. Renee Short from the Social Services Committee, was the only woman chair appointed in 1979 and served as chair until the general election in May 1987. It was not until Marion Roe was appointed to chair the Health Committee in 1992 that another woman chaired a select committee. Roe went on to chair the Administration Committee. The list below sets out all women chairs from 1979 to 2017.
Memorable women chairs of select committees
Select committees scrutinise the policy and actions of the Government and associated public bodies. In recent decades there have been some remarkable women chairs, who have shone a light in some of the darker corners of government policy and administration. Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody for example, served as chair of the Environment, Transport and Regions Committee (in various manifestations) from 1997 until her death in 2008, impressing with her determination to expose misgovernment, even when her own party was in power. She also survived an attempt to unseat her by the Labour whips in 2001. The choice of members and chairmen was decided by whips of the major parties until 2010, when the first House-wide elections for select committee places took place.
Margaret Hodge raised the profile and extended the scope of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in her role as chair from 2010 to 2015. She focused on the failure to deal with tax avoidance, summoning private sector executives, as well as HM Revenue and Customs officials. Both women were renowned for using plain language and probing jargon and obfuscation. Today, it seems natural for women to chair select committees, and in 2017 Parliament there are currently nine women chairs, which reflects the gender ratio of the House of Commons, but it took some decades for women MPs to overcome parliamentary obstacles to leading select committee work.
Departmental and similar committees (i.e. those now with elected chairs) and domestic committees
|Member||Committee||Dates as chair|
|Renee Short||Social Service/Social Security||1979-87|
|Dame Marion Roe||Health
|Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs – Transport Sub-Committee
Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee (joint chair)
|Education and Employment: Education Sub-committee
Public Accounts Committee
|Irene Adams||Scottish Affairs||2001-05|
|Jean Corston||Joint Committee on Human Rights||2001-05|
|Phyllis Starkey||Office of the Deputy Prime Minister/ Communities and Local Government*||
|Anne Begg||Work and Pensions||2010-15|
|Anne McIntosh||Environment, Food and Rural Affairs||2010-15|
|Joan Walley||Environmental Audit||2010-15|
|Nicola Blackwood||Science and Technology||2015-16#|
|Harriet Harman||Joint Committee on Human Rights~||2015-17|
|Meg Hillier||Public Accounts||2015-|
|Maria Miller||Women and Equalities||2015-|
|Mary Creagh||Environmental Audit||2016**-|
|Yvette Cooper||Home Affairs||2016***-|
|Dame Rosie Winterton||Finance~||2016****-|
|Rachel Reeves||Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy|
~ since 2010, Committee chair not elected by the whole House
* elected 18 June 2014
# resigned 19 July 2016
** elected 10 February 2016
*** elected 19 October 2016
**** elected 26 October 2016
Sources: David Butler and Gareth Butler, British Political Facts, Tenth Edition, 2011, Parliamentary Information List, Chairs of Commons select committees since 2010. 17 July 2017
A House of Commons Library blog Second Reading Select Committees: Membership by Gender 25 September 2017 examines the current gender balance of chairs and committee members in the House of Commons.
Takayanagi, Mari – Parliament and Women c1900-1945 https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/files/30807371/2012_Takayanagi_Mari_1069335_ethesis.pdf
Aylett, Philip – Thirty Years of Reform House of Commons Select Committees 1960-90 https://qmro.qmul.ac.uk/xmlui/bitstream/handle/123456789/18377/Aylett_P_PhD_final_230516.pdf?sequence=1
Select Committees http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/committees/select/
House of Commons Select Committee videos http://www.parliament.uk/about/podcasts/theworkofparliament/select-committees-in-the-house-of-commons/
House of Lords Select Committee video http://www.parliament.uk/education/teaching-resources-lesson-plans/lords-select-committee-video/
Sixth Form Select Committee experience visits http://www.parliament.uk/education/visit-parliament-with-your-school/faqs-and-subsidy/select-committee-experience-faqs/
Parliamentary Outreach offer special sessions on Select Committees and how to get involved http://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/attend-an-event/events-for-organisations/
 Dunwoody served as the chair of Environment, Transport and the Regions (1997-2001); then Transport, Local Government and the Regions (2001-02) and finally Transport Committee (from 2002).
 Sixth report from the Expenditure Committee, Session 1972-73 (182); 369 Expenditure Committee, Session 1972-73, Government Observations on the Reports on Youth Employment Services, the Employment of Women, and Employment Services and Training, 1974, Cmnd 5536, p. 15
 Report from the Select Committee on Violence in Marriage, Session 1974-75 (553)
 Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1974-76 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980), p. 144
 Contributed by Richard Kelly and Sarah Priddy, House of Commons Library.