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.
- 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?