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Who’s in the Chair?

Gabriel Gavin

Select Committees and scrutiny of healthcare and the life sciences in the new parliament

At the 1979 General Election, Margaret Thatcher swept the Conservatives back into government with a majority of 43 seats. With the support of her Party’s backbenchers, her ability to get her programme of balancing the books and tackling the might of the unions through Parliament was virtually assured. However, this raised significant questions around what role the House of Commons should have, and whether it existed solely to rubber-stamp government legislation. Instead, to counterbalance executive power, she embarked on a programme of reforms that strengthened parliamentary Select Committees, their powers and remit.

Now, with Boris Johnson having secured the first sizable majority since 2005, the Government is no longer dependent on either confidence and supply or coalition partners, or on the whims of a small number of backbenchers. As a result, the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s performance and policy programme is once again of the utmost importance.

And nowhere is it more significant than in relation to both healthcare and the life sciences industry. With the NHS having been a key battleground at the General Election, and the widespread dissemination of false and inaccurate information, the role of the Health Select Committee is central to ensuring evidence-based assessment of whether the Government is delivering on its pledges.

Similarly, with the goals of the Government’s post-Brexit trade deal strategy expected to be set out in early February, committees that have an overview of R&D spending and the life sciences industrial strategy are of growing importance. These committees should play a clear role in standing up for industry and ensuring their perspectives are heard in the debate around global trade.

Furthermore, the Health Select Committee will have its work cut out in assessing how effectively organisations such as NICE and NHS England are able to update their processes to deal with new and innovative medicines. They’ll also need to ensure patients can access them in a way that represents good value for taxpayers, and ensure the UK remains a market of relevance.

This week, following elections among MPs, the new Chairs of these Committees were announced. Uncontested committee Chairmanships were announced the week before. Interestingly, a number of former Ministers and Cabinet members have secured election to Committees that scrutinise their former briefs, which will make for an interesting dynamic when it comes to interrogating those who replaced them in Government at evidence sessions. Of relevance to health and the life sciences, the following Committee Chairs will play a central role in defining the scope of their inquiries, seeking evidence and holding the Government to account:

Health Select Committee Chair

Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP

(Con, South West Surrey)

Jeremy Hunt announced his candidacy for the Chairmanship of the Health Select Committee by declaring that he would put aside party loyalty in order to scrutinise the delivery of world-class health and care. In June 2018, Mr Hunt became the longest-serving Secretary of State for Health, and having broadened the role during his tenure to include a clear remit for social care as well. However, in July 2018, he was appointed Foreign Secretary following the resignation of Boris Johnson over then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit proposals. Mr Hunt stood to be Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister following the resignation of Mrs May. He made it through to the final two candidates on the ballot, but was defeated by Boris Johnson, receiving around a third of the vote.

During much of his time at the Department for Health and Social Care, Mr Hunt’s primary campaign was around improving patient safety in the NHS, including a focus on safeguarding and the reduction of hospital-acquired infections. One of the most significant challenges of his tenure was the dispute around junior doctors’ contracts with the British Medical Association that led to strikes and disruption as the Government sought to ensure staffing contracts were meeting the ambition of a “seven-day-a-week NHS”.

The other contender for the Chairmanship of the Committee was Committee member Anne Marie Morris MP. Tweeting his delight at his election success, Mr Hunt identified social care as an area in which he wished more had been done during his time in office, and as his most pressing focus for the Committee.

Science and Technology Committee

Rt Hon Greg Clark MP

(Con, Tunbridge Wells)

Greg Clark was one of the longest-serving members of the Government, having entered office as Minister of State for Decentralisation in 2010 after the formation of the Coalition Government. In the years that followed, he held a wide number of briefs, including Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Minister of State for Cities and the Constitution, Minister of State for Universities and Science, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and, most recently, Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Seen as a reliable and uncontroversial minister, he became a key part of Theresa May’s Cabinet and made his opposition to a no-deal Brexit clear. He was not re-appointed to Cabinet following the election of Boris Johnson as Conservative Party Leader. In September 2019, Clark had the Conservative whip removed after voting against the Government in a Brexit division. In October, however, he had the whip restored and was re-elected as a Conservative MP at the 2019 General Election. His Committee will now scrutinise a wide brief, which includes R&D, the life sciences and the pharmaceutical industry.

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee

Rachel Reeves MP

(Lab, Leeds West)

Rachel Reeves rose to prominence in the Labour Party under Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband and held a number of Shadow Cabinet roles, including Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. A political moderate and an economist by profession, she was widely tipped as a potential Shadow Chancellor had either Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper won the Labour Leadership election in 2015. However, when Jeremy Corbyn became Leader, she announced that she would not return to his Cabinet following her maternity leave.

As a backbencher, Ms Reeves has focused on economic and business policy, and has spoken frequently at events on infrastructure, as well as on the gig economy and regional growth and development. She was re-elected unopposed to Chair the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which has a remit that covers the life sciences industrial strategy, inward investment and the impact of Brexit on UK businesses.