Mary Creagh has become the new chair of the Environmental Audit Committee: will she be a catalyst or a chieftain?

by Marc Geddes

Congratulations to Mary Creagh, who has won a by-election for the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). In addition to getting to grips with her new committee’s portfolio, Mary Creagh also faces a choice on the type of chair she wishes to be – with committee-orientated catalysts at one of the spectrum of chairs, and the leadership-orientated chieftains at the other. The choice that the newly elected chair will make will have an impact on scrutiny in the House of Commons in a range of ways. In this piece, I want to explore what it means to be a catalyst and a chieftain by drawing on interviews and observations for my doctoral research, and how this might affect Mary Creagh’s leadership of the EAC.

Axiomatically, chairs play a crucial role in the development of committee inquiries. Choosing the initial focus and direction of an inquiry is strongly influenced by chairs because of the breadth and depth of policy expertise that they hold, and the strategic position in which chairs are placed vis-à-vis committee members. Members tend to have specific interests that they wish to pursue, who consequently dip in and out of committee work. Therefore, ‘it’s only the chair that is interested in everything we do’ (interview with clerk). This means that Mary Creagh has one of at least two choices: first, she may attempt to act as catalyst by building on the work of individual committee members and nestle their ideas together (thereby giving MPs ownership over the committee agenda); or second, act as chieftain by instilling her own interests, expertise and priorities onto the committee agenda (but still giving MPs input into the agenda).

The decision that Mary Creagh makes about the agenda is likely to be reflected in her approach to the conduct of meetings more generally. During a committee session, a catalyst is likely to try to ensure that members are able to develop their own lines of questioning. As with the previous point, this gives committee members a sense of ownership over the inquiry. Other chairs, particularly chieftains, are more keen to proactively get involved through following-up questions from members or questioning witnesses in detail irrespective of the wishes of other members. Alex Kelso has done some interesting research on this, so it is sufficient to note here that this, once again, reinforces the oppositional choice that Mary Creagh faces.

Turning from evidence-taking to writing reports, the newly elected chair’s approach to building consensus over the course of an inquiry will matter. Though most committee reports receive cross-party backing from MPs, this formal agreement is often affected by the way that the chair interprets the concept of consensus. Some chairs – often chieftains – focus on compromising between members to achieve an agreed report, while others, the catalysts, seek to build consensus over the course of an inquiry through buy-in or ownership between all members. This arguably has an effect on the norms and values of a committee in that a compromise-based approach may limit members’ involvement in inquiries that do not fall in their specialist interests, while an approach with greater ownership between all members may do so.

In relation to the above, the chair’s individual style and approach has a wider impact on committee norms and values. Many interviewees noted in their discussions with me that the chair will set the tone and style of a committee. For example, one committee member explained that a previous chair of a committee was ‘theatrical’ and ‘liked controversy’, so the committee ventured into confrontation more often. However, the subsequent chair of that committee was more ‘technocratic’, and so adopted a different focus and style. Mary Creagh’s individual approach to other committee members matters in order to build a sense of trust and respect to pursue common objectives. Given that each chair has their own way of doing this, some interviewees noted that committees have a particular ‘feel’ to them. Though norms, values and everyday practices may be regarded as ephemeral, they have important consequences on the scrutiny landscape. Some believe that an adversarial approach make committees less constructive to influencing policy or make witnesses more reticent to give evidence. In my own research, the dominant approach of chieftains seems to negatively affect attendance and input from members.

Very often, the above factors are strongly influenced by the way in which the chair sees their role in Parliament more widely. Mary Creagh will need to consider that her new role is likely to encompass their parliamentary life, as this chair commented: ‘It’s my role in Parliament. It’s completely my role in Parliament’ (interview with chair). Another explained that he spends far less time in the chamber, and a further chair noted that most of her day was spent on committee-related activity. Particularly since 2010, chairs have become increasingly in demand by stakeholders, professional groups and the media. As a result, some committees have adopted a media-focused role. For example, Hannah White’s research points towards the Home Affairs Committee, where the chair believed that influencing the media gives select committees an outward-facing role that engages directly with public concerns and sets the policy agenda. Other chairs focus on building networks with policy actors (whether ministers or public servants) or seeking to ensure a report makes a specific and demonstrable impact on the policy process. Usually, chieftains believe themselves to be in a more agenda-setting, media-influencing role, while catalysts seek to embed themselves in a policy network to make constructive recommendations to improve policy.

In sum, this indicates two oppositional approaches to committees. Catalysts are chairs who seek to act as a facilitator for committee members, and build consensus through promoting a sense of ownership between all members. Usually, they perceive their role to be influencing government policy. Possible examples of catalysts include Adrian Bailey (BIS Committee, 2010-15), Stephen Dorrell (Health Committee, 2010-15) and Dame Anne Begg (Work and Pensions Committee, 2010-15). Meanwhile, chieftains are leadership-orientated in that they promote their strategic priorities as part of committee inquiries. They are more pro-active in evidence sessions and seek to gain cross-party agreement for reports through compromise and ‘horse-trading’. Usually, they perceive of their role as agenda-setting and media-influencing. Examples of chieftains are Keith Vaz (Home Affairs Committee, 2007-present), Bernard Jenkin (PASC/PACAC, 2010-present) and Graham Allen (PCRC, 2010-15).

As pointed out from the outset, these are not exclusive choices that all chairs must adopt. That said, they are useful reference markers for chairs in that they identify the choices – and dilemmas – that they face in enacting their role. It will be interesting to see how the 2015 cohort, Mary Creagh included, develops over the next five years.

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Please note that this piece was originally published on the Parliaments and Legislatures PSA Specialist Group blog (available here) and the Crick Centre blog (available here).

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