Having blogged earlier about select committees, I stumbled across a Hansard Society event that was all about this very subject. It was once said (by myself) that I was the sort of person who’d turn up to the opening of an envelope or the opening of a front door. Yet on this occasion, I thought it worth spending the £20 train fare to head down to London – not least to meet up with my good friend and former colleague Sarah Baskerville before the event itself.
The first thing that struck me in the queue was that it was full of grey suits – a big #DiversityFail if there ever was one. There were only a handful of people who didn’t fit the stereotype – myself and the police officer on the door being two of them. (If you’ve seen my dress sense over the past ten years, you’ll know why.)
Having turned up early (I always do for these things) for this event, I spent 20 minutes tweeting through Puffles noting that the reception in Portcullis House was absolutely appalling. How was I going to tweet from this event if the whole thing was a mobile-signal-wasteland? What made me go ***EEEEEK!!!!*** was when one of the Parliamentary staff said something along the lines of ‘Go and stand over there – you’ll get a stronger signal.’
Hang on a minute – you spent £235million (at year 2000 prices) on this monstrosity opposite Big Ben’s bell tower and you can’t even provide us with either a decent mobile signal nor a public wifi? Even the Hansard Society people could not get a decent signal, which meant that no one was live-tweeting from an event that Puffles’ Twitter-feed has already shown that there is interest beyond the Whitehall jungle.
The event itself was fascinating – standing room only with the ebullient Mark D’Arcy of the BBC holding court alongside the lovely Dr Meghan Benton who has spent recent months doing stuff that made me thing: “I want to be doing stuff like that!” Alongside the two of them were the Chair of the Liaison and Justice Select Committee, the Liberal Democrat grandee Sir Alan Beith MP and the rising star of the recent Conservative Party intake, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP.
Apart from bumping into an acquaintance from long before my civil service days, the event was more than useful if anything to get a feel for how ‘different’ Parliament feels from life inside the civil service. There was an interesting ‘buzz’ in the room that I couldn’t work out whether was a good or bad thing. What I mean by that is that you could see there were lots of high fliers in the room…yet at the same time I couldn’t help but notice that the room was full of people with a special interest in this field rather than having contributions from the general public.
This is where for me the insights of Sarah Wollaston were probably the most interesting of all of the contributions of all – on the simple grounds that out of most of us in the room, she was one of the people in the room who came into formal politics more recently than the rest – Sir Alan having been an MP for decades. (His comments were more than interesting, but for different reasons.)
Some people reading this blogpost will probably be thinking along the lines of
“She’s a Tory – he’s also a Tory! Booo!!!”
…and for more than a few of you, with good reason. I bumped into a number of Puffles’ followers in Brighton a couple of days ago – people who have been absolutely shafted by the cuts that have been made to public services. Again, recall that all of the three main parties stood on manifestos that involved cuts of some sort – cuts that ultimately cost me my job and career.
Yet the points that Dr Wollaston made during her contributions both in her speech and in her responses to the questions put to the panel resonated with me. She made sound comments on the need to provide MPs with more training and support in their roles as MPs. She also made the point about needing to improve how select committees function – in particular in relation to how they cross-examine witnesses. I may not agree with some of her politics, but then that could be said for most of the MPs in the Commons.
Mark D’Arcy made some very interesting comments too – not least on increasing pressure for select committees to bring in more specialist advisers who are experts in their fields to support select committees – something that I’ll be blogging about in a separate post.
Dr Meghan Benton made a number of sound contributions – on the back of her co-authored document about the influence of select committees – one which has a number of very striking statistics. The big one being the number of recommendations made by select committees that are taken up by central government.
The things that struck me about this event were:
- How relatively easy it was to apply for and get hold of (free) tickets – thus (for those within travelling distance to Westminster) on paper at least, it was accessible
- How the performance of select committees has improved significantly since the 2010 election – in particular on the back of the Wright Committee’s recommendations & Speaker John Bercow’s moves to reform Parliament
- How the performance of select committees could be improved further – and quite significantly.