I’ve been a Parliament-watcher for some time now – almost to the stage where during my final days in the civil service I felt myself being more on the side of Parliament than the executive that I served. Having spent time inside the corridors of power has given me insights into the strengths and weaknesses of our system.
I am still of the view that most people who are elected to Parliament do so because they want to make a positive difference to the world. As for the calibre of people who become MPs, comments against individual MPs and ex-MPs are also a reflection of the processes that led to their selection (by political parties) and their election. Around one in six MPs will hold ministerial office. Those MPs who serve as ministers are thus not in a position to properly scrutinise the actions of the government that they are part of. (One of the weaknesses of the system I think). But when it comes to scrutiny, the real detailed stuff comes not in Prime Minister’s Question Time (which is yah-boo pantomime stuff), and nor is it in departmental questions – when every month the ministerial team of each department has to appear in front of MPs to answer questions. It is in the departmental select committees which are charged by the House of Commons to scrutinise the work of both ministers and of officials – civil servants.
Have a look at the kicking Sir David Omand (then Permanent Secretary of the Home Office) toom from Charles Wardle, then of the Public Accounts Committee after the chaos at UK passport offices following the problems there in 1999 that led to lots of passports not being issued in time for people to go on holiday. The film footage is even more painful – so painful in fact that the National School of Government included it as part of their materials in the basic training of Fast Streamers in the Civil Service. (It was on that very course that I met Jon Worth for the first time – and have kept tabs on his adventures in the EU and in the social and digital media world ever since).
I became more aware of select committees when I was tasked with providing briefing for ministers and senior civil servants appearing before them. In the news I also became aware when newspapers made hay with select committee reports that criticised the governments of the day – especially as Parliament had such big Labour majorities in those days. Then there came the banking crisis.
John McFaul’s Treasury Select Committee went after Northern Rock after that bank faced a run from investors. This short clip from the BBC gives a feel for what things are like on a select committee when the proverbial hits the fan and those responsible have to be hauled before our elected representatives to account for it.
Select Committees got further publicity following the election of John Bercow as Speaker – in particular because of the reforms he has driven forward. One that has made a subtle but significant difference has been the election of select committee chairpersons by secret ballot. The nature of the current make up of the current Parliament is that select committee chairs must have the confidence of MPs across the different political parties. Inside the Commons, I have noticed that this has had an impact on the type of questions select committee chairs ask. They tend to be less party-political and far more focussed. The respect with which ministers treat them in their responses is also noticeable – irrespective of which party the select committee chair happens to be in.
There are however, two key weaknesses of select committees as they are currently constituted.
- They do not have full and clear powers to summon people to appear before them or for papers to be submitted to them – with clear penalties well-publicised for those who treat committees and by extension, Parliament, with contempt – or behaviour that is close to it. We know this from the treatment of the Business Select Committee by the Chief Executive of Kraft Foods following its takeover of Cadburys. of which the exchange of letters between the Business Select Committee speaks for itself. My take is that Parliament should be able to fine businesses whose executives ignore ‘invitations’ and summons to appear before them.
- Select committees are not nearly well resourced enough. I’ve met a few Parliamentary officials in my time and I have been astonished at how few people support select committees – especially when considering what and who they have to scrutinise. There needs to be a much stronger support system for select committees – both in terms of full-time staff and in their ability to bring in people on short secondments when and where a select committee is carrying out an inquiry.
I hope that as Parliament evolves, and as the continuing hearings around newspaper hacking take place, the role and the status of Parliamentary select committees will rise in the public’s consciousness. Whether it will depends in part on the willingness and ability of the corporate media, social media types and most importantly, of Parliament itself to reach out beyond the Whitehall bubble to communicate the importance of the work of these committees. I dare say that there’s a role for some of these committees to hold hearings outside of London – in exactly the way the Treasury Select Committee did during the banking crisis.