ONE of the most significant parliamentary reforms of recent times showed its value yesterday when the new chairs of the House of Commons' 24 select committees were announced. In the past these important positions have been appointed by the party whips, thus ensuring that “safe” MPs held the jobs. But in reforms introduced by the last government the chairs are now chosen in a secret ballot by all MPs. The results, announced yesterday, showed an immediate shift to candidates popular with backbenchers rather than those favoured by the whips. A particularly interesting outcome was the election of Margaret Hodge, a former Labour minister, as chair of the influential Public Accounts Committee which will have an important role in vetting the public service economies promised by the Lib-Com coalition. Mrs Hodge may have benefitted from her success in convincingly seeing-off the British National Party challenge in her Barking constituency at the general election.

Other results included the election of Clive Betts, a long-serving Labour MP, as chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee in preference to the former communications minister Nick Raynsford, and of former Conservative Health Minister Stephen Dorrell as chairman of the Health Committee. Although they do not have the powers of the comparable committees in the US Congress, Select Committees have an important role in pursuing detailed issues which cannot easily be followed in general parliamentary debate.