The impact and influence of Parliamentary select committees

I mentioned that I’d come back to this issue in more detail in my earlier blogpost An audience with the Hansard Society. That post was more about the experience of going to the event rather than a detailed dissection of who said what. I also want to point you in the direction of Meg Russell and Meghan Benton’s paper Selective Influence: The Policy Impact of House of Commons Select Committees  

I also wanted to refer to Alex Brazier and Ruth Fox’s paper Reviewing Select Committee Tasks and Modes of Operation that was published in Hansard Society’s publication Parliamentary Affairs (Vol 64, no 2, 2011 354-369) but as with many journals, it’s hidden behind a paywall which means hyperlinking is more problematic. My take is that the publications of the Hansard Society is of such public interest that Parliament should consider using some of its resources to ensure that back issues of the former’s journal is made free to access online.

I made a list of five points before things kicked off – on the grounds that I’d have been happy with raising any of them. These points were:

  • The resourcing of select committees compared with the responsibilities that they are charged with carrying out
  • Lack of clear procedures, powers and usage of summons, censure, taking evidence on oath, compelling people and organisations to do things and the issuing of prosecutions for serious failures to abide by the wills of committees (i.e. Contempt of Parliament
  • Questioning of powerful individuals outside of the world of politics – including big business, corporate media and London-based finance
  • Crowd-sourcing questions from public services

Mark D’Arcy, one of the four guest speakers noted that the need for specialist advisers will grow as the specialist nature of what the committees will be scrutinising only increases. Both papers I have referred to have highlighted the problems of poor preparation, poor research and poor questioning in the periods that they covered. (i.e. up to 2010). As someone who has been known to watch a select committee hearing or three, I’ve seen more than my fair share of substandard select committee questions/lines of questioning that make me despair. The publicity around the Leveson Inquiryon the culture, practices and ethics of the press & the select committee hearings involving the police and News Corporation has led to a significant increase in people’s awareness of select committees, as well as the strengths and shortcomings of some of the members who have been elected to them.

One of the observations that I’ve made both through Puffles and in previous posts is the lack of resources select committees have compared to the institutions and the people that they scrutinise. The only select committee that is the exception to that is the Public Accounts Committee which has National Audit Office behind them – the latter of which is also on Twitter. Sir Alan Beith noted in his remarks that the NAO supports other select committees in the examination of departmental estimates – i.e. scrutiny of planned spending as well as the traditional post-spending examinations. This is something that both Mark D’Arcy and Sir Alan noted – and said that select committees needed to be far stronger on. It makes me wonder whether there is a role for select committees to refer particular pieces of spending back to the Commons for debates where there are particular concerns prior to money being spent.

The need to train MPs for the role of being on select committees was also raised – especially in terms of cross-examining less-cooperative witnesses. I can’t be the only person who’s screamed at the telly calling on an MP to pin down a witness that is clearly on shaky ground. (Not that appearing in front of a select committee should be a spectator sport…unless the witness is particularly juicy).
All of the panellists raised the issues of ‘strategic oversight’ – or rather the lack of – when there is a particular issue that cuts across a number of select committees. The example that was mentioned to me during my civil service days was that of teenage pregnancy and attempts to get the overall rate down. The Health Select Committee is traditionally the select committee that would examine this. However, the impact of educational attainment on fertility rates across the world has long been studied and cited in academic circles. Yet scrutinising efforts to get young women to stay on in education or to join the workforce fall outside the competency of the Health Select Committee – falling somewhere across the Work and Pensions, Education and the Business, Innovation and Skills select committees respectively. Is there then a role for joint select committees that are formed to investigate specific issues that cut across a number of select committees?
Select committees regularly make calls for evidence when launching inquiries. The first time I came across a very public invitation to support a select committee was when the former Treasury Select Committee Chairman John (now Lord) McFall invited members of the public to send in the questions that they wanted the select committee to ask the banks in the 2009 hearings. It’s not surprising that Which? Magazine awarded him their Consumer Champion award (note the cross-party tributes). (See here for the staged apologies from the HBOS and RBS witnesses, who were sorry for the stuff that had happened but seemingly little for the roles that they played in getting to this state of affairs).
One particular weakness of select committees in my view is their inability to summon (and sanction when faced with refusals to appear) foreign nationals – in particular when said individuals have significant business interests, the operation of which is of public interest. We found this out the hard way with Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods who refused to appear (for whatever reason) before the Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee over the firm’s takeover of Kraft Foods – make of it what you will the correspondence between the Committee Chair and Ms Rosenfeld.
My take in cases like this is that Parliament should be able to refer for prosecution firms whose executives behave in such a manner, with courts having powers to impose unlimited fines (as percentages of turnover) to ‘concentrate the minds of executives’ and to send a message that it’s not just big government that needs to be accountable to Parliament, but big business too.
While the improvements driven through by John Bercow as Speaker (in part on the back of the recommendations by Dr Tony Wright, former Chair of the Public Administration Committee now chaired by Bernard Jenkin MP) have been a huge step on from his predecessor, there’s still far more that can be done. I think that Parliament needs to:
  • improve significantly the support and resources available to select committees
  • improve the training available to MPs to help them discharge their responsibilities as members of select committees
  • increase significantly the powers that select committees have – in particular when it comes to summoning and censuring individuals and firms that may otherwise be unwilling to appear before them
  • simplify the rules and make clear what the consequences will be of ignoring requests and/or demands from select committees so that the public are not left in a position of wondering what committees can and cannot do in terms of committees’ competences
  • increase the status of select committees – and of select committee chairs not just within Whitehall but across the country too – should select committee chairs have the same prominence and status as Cabinet Ministers given the growing responsibilities of select committees?
Finally I think that there’s a huge opportunity for select committee clerks and support staff to make use of social media through crowd-sourcing questions and lines of questioning for witnesses. MPs at present have huge demands on their time – despite what you read in the papers.
The work of select committees – which are far less party-political when in session compared to the bun fights in the Commons Chamber at Prime Minister’s Questions – provide an opportunity to increase the level of input into politics from the general public while ensuring some safeguards from party political bias – those safeguards being the role of committee clerks and their support staff. Sound social media operations could be built into more beefed up support systems for our select committees. Because as committees of Parliament, they are there to represent us. It’s therefore in our interests to lean on Parliament to improve how they do their jobs.

5 thoughts on “The impact and influence of Parliamentary select committees

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