Royal Commissions Part Two: Government by Commission 

By: Colin Talbot

In a previous post I started to examine the hazy world of ‘Royal Commissions’ and similar bodies. Most commentators and analysts of such bodies maintained there was not very much difference between Royal Commissions and the many similar bodies established by governments to independently review and advise on difficult issues.

The public administration scholar Richard A. Chapman wrote in 1973 that:

“In British central government there are several terms signifying categories of ad hoc advisory body. This can be confusing if people do not appreciate that, although particular institutions may be called, for example, Royal Commissions, Commissions, Committees, or Working Parties, there is in practice little difference between them.”

Although originally Royal (or other) Commissions were often set up to inquire into a specific event, crisis or blunder, that function is now subsumed by Public Inquiries, statutory or ad hoc. These may – often do – lead to policy suggestions but their primary purpose is usually to establish ‘the facts’. We are concerned here mainly with independent bodies established to address a broader policy or constitutional issue.

A.H. Birch, writing in 1998, said:

“special committees to inquire and to advise are frequently appointed, sometimes being known simply as committees and sometimes being given the status of Royal Commissions. These committees differ from the permanent advisory committees in that they are much more likely to contain a preponderance of independent members, who may have experience in the field of activity under consideration.”

We can define these as independent policy (or sometimes constitutional) reviews that are:

  • Appointed by a Minister (or Ministers)
  • Usually published as an official Government publication (Command paper)
  • Independent one-off policy reviews by a panel or an individual
  • Independent special (non-routine) policy review by a standing committee, quango, or other body

They do not include, for this article:

  • Royal Commissions (covered in the previous article)
  • Routine policy reviews by the Department itself or
  • Routine policy reviews by a standing body
  • Inquiries to establish the facts around a specific incident or failure
  • Parliamentary Commissions or Committees – we will return to these in the next article

Analysis of ‘Departmental Committees’, as we define them, seems to have gone out of fashion in recent years, creating the impression that – like Royal Commissions – they have largely fallen into disuse.

Our analysis of official Government documents suggests otherwise, though. Although the number of such independent policy committees or commissions has undoubtedly fallen in recent years, they are still an important part of the Whitehall policy eco-system.

Recent use of Departmental Committees

Since 2010 there have been almost 50 of these Departmental Committees (DCs) reviewing a wide range of policy issues.

My initial trawl through the database has found 47 ‘Departmental Committees’ that have reported since 2010, up to the present. Twenty-four reported under the Coalition Government and 23 under subsequent Conservative Governments.

These figures may underestimate the number for several reasons. The database of official documents published by Government is a bit ‘clunky’ and hard to search.

YearReports
20105
20118
20122
20133
20142
20154
20163
20172
20185
20191
20200
20214
20225
20233

Not all ‘Departmental Committees’ necessarily lead to a formal report, or if they do it is not necessarily published – Ministers can decide not to. A few of those counted here appear not to have been published as Command papers but there was an official Government response, so we know they exist. In these cases, the reports are included in this list, even though we don’t have access to the originals.

It should be stressed this is a list of the outputs of Departmental Committees – given that most take around 1-2 years to complete their work and publish this is only a rough guide to how many are in process at any one time. And, of course, 2023 is incomplete.

The most prolific user of independent Departmental Reviews is clearly the Department of Work and Pensions at 16 reports over 13 years. These range from several annual reviews of how work capability assessment was working through to Professor Löfstedt’s independent review of health and safety legislation: Reclaiming health and safety for all.

DepartmentDepartmental Committees 2010-2023
DWP16
HOME OFFICE7
EDUCATION6
HEALTH4
DCMS4
JUSTICE3
MHCLG2
BIS2
TRANSPORT2
CABINET OFFICE1
TOTAL47

Other topics reviewed by Departmental Committees ranged across many policy areas – from rail franchising to cosmetic surgery, and modern slavery to the governance of the BBC. [1] It is an impressive list of policy issues being dealt with – at least in part – outside of Departmental boundaries.

However, there are also some areas of Government policy where departmental committees seem to be entirely absent. The most obvious are foreign affairs and defence. It may be that for security and diplomatic reasons external advice is sought in these areas through less public channels? There is certainly no lack of available UK expertise in academia and think tanks in defence or international relations.

It is also notable that only one of these reviews touched on what might be considered broadly ‘constitutional’ matters – Lord Hodgson’s Third Party Campaigning Review on how third party campaigning rules operated during the 2015 general election conducted for the Cabinet Office. In the third article in this series, we will look at where constitutional reviews have gone since Royal Commissions have been abandoned and the absence of Departmental Committees in their place.

And finally

Given there are no rules governing the appointment or functioning of this fairly prolific but irregular form of policymaking – or at least policy-advising – it raises potentially important constitutional issues. The roles of Ministers and Civil Servants within Departments are covered by a number of rules, regulations and codes as well as constitutional conventions. These include the Ministerial Code, the Civil Service Code, freedom of information and data-protection and access rules, political neutrality, and so on.

There appear to be no specific rules about the appointment, conduct, transparency, or reporting requirements for Departmental Committees. Yet they appear to play a significant part in the policymaking process, outside of normal structures and rules.

Some will no doubt argue that the lack of rules governing ‘departmental committees’ – in the broadest sense including Royal Commissions – is a distinct advantage. It makes such ad hoc arrangements an extremely flexible tool of government. As many commentators have pointed out, such bodies can be used for many purposes – both positive and rather less so.

Positive purposes for Commissions/Committees might include:

  • to get informed, expert, advice from outside the ‘groupthink’ of Whitehall
  • to deal with a delicate issue at ‘arms-length’ allowing the government to fly a kite for controversial ideas
  • to prepare the way for change with Parliament and the public 

There have been examples of all of the above in recent decades. Of course, they can also be deployed for rather more cynical or Machiavellian purposes such as:

  • to pacify critics and buy time by kicking an issue into the ‘long grass’ – the most usual criticism of Royal Commissions, where there are plenty of examples of where this has been done
  • or to kill off an existing proposal or idea by putting into a lengthy reviews process 

Such commissions or committees continue to play an important role in the process of government. The lessons of Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s magnificent 2013 book “The Blunders of Our Governments” is that Whitehall – Ministers and mandarins – can too often fall prey to ‘groupthink’ and a serious lack of deliberation in formulating important polices. Their 12 case studies of policies that cost the UK billions and caused huge dissent and disruption show this beyond doubt.

There is no guarantee that commissions might help to avoid errors in the future – but there is a stronger chance they would avoid such epic blunders. By being outside of the Whitehall silos, composed of independent expertise, diverse opinions and more open to public input, they are far less likely to succumb to groupthink.

In the third post in this series we will look at the way that constitutional reforms – affecting parliament itself, elections, the civil service, different levels of government, and so on – have shifted into Parliament – both Select Committee’s and special commissions.

Colin Talbot.

Colin is Emeritus Professor of Government, University of Manchester. He also has relationships with the Cambridge Judge Business School and the Federal Trust. Colin has worked extensively with all levels of British government and public services, including being an advisor to two House of Commons Select Committees and appearing as an expert witness over two dozen times in both Houses of Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh Assembly. He has also advised more than a dozen other governments, from the USA to Japan.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.


[1] A full list is available on request.