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Ministers quail before public eye

This week MPs delivered their long-awaited verdict on OFSTED, criticising the polemical stance of the chief inspector

ALTHOUGH they have few formal powers, select committees can exert considerable influence on government. Ministers are known to dread appearing before usually well-briefed members of Parliament to be publicly cross-examined. And the best reports can have a real impact on the national policy debate.

The current select committee system was set up in 1979 to provide closer scrutiny of government departments. Members are backbenchers and the party balance mirrors that in the Commons as a whole. The chair normally comes from the governing party.

Each committee shadows an individual department and every year holds a number of inquiries into that department's work. They can also hold one-off sessions on individual issues. Committees usually appoint specialist advisers and call experts, ministers, and pressure groups to give evidence and take written submissions from the public.

The education and employment select committee is split into two sub-committees each with its own chair. Since the election, the education group has been one of the more influential committees. Its report on further education, published last year, made a number of recommendations which have since been taken up by ministers - including learning allowances for 16 to 18-year-olds. And a new pay spine for excellent teachers was suggested by the committee in November 1997 - long before the Government's Green Paper on the teaching profession.

Malcolm Wicks took over as chair of the education sub-committee last autumn, after Margaret Hodge was appointed as a junior minister. He faced a difficult task presiding over an Office for Standards in Education inquiry which was already arranged and was always likely to be focused more on personalities than any recent report.

The Government now has to publish its response within two months. But whether or not ministers agree with the criticisms of the chief inspector, the report is likely to re-ignite the public debate about his future.

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