Puffles in the House – more on select committees

Some of our public sector institutions need to update their rules in the face of rapid technological change. Job Centre Plus weren’t best pleased to see me tweeting while waiting for my now fortnightly appointment with them on the ground that they don’t like mobile phones being switched on.

Parliament doesn’t like people taking photographs or filming on its premises, and during the Hansard Society event on select committees that I attended this evening, we were asked to switch mobile phones off shortly to be told that people were being encouraged to tweet.

We were fortunate to have four departmental select committee chairpersons on the panel

My thoughts on the previous event on this subject are set out in my blogpost The impact and influence of select committees – although at that session, Sir Alan Beith MP (LD) was the only select committee chair (Justice – & also chair of the Liaison Committee of select committee chairpersons that get to cross-examine the Prime Minister on a bi-annual basis).

One of the things that the Treasury Select Committee did during the banking crisis is that they asked members of the public to submit questions that the select committee should ask. One of the things that I’d like to see select committee clerks and supporting officials do is to set up social media accounts to crowd-source submissions to select committee inquiries and hearings. At this stage it doesn’t need to be particularly onerous – just having it as an announcing twitter feed. I’m mindful that the resources select committees have are minimal and going by what Dr Ruth Fox (who chaired this evening’s event) said, committees are unlikely to get any extra resources in the short to medium term. 
Clive Betts conceded that his committee did not make much use of digital and social media – something that I think is a bit of a shame. I think that a well-managed social media function can help significantly rebalance the relationship between select committees and the departments & organisations that they scrutinise. Whitehall departments can have many thousands working for the ministers and senior civil servants that select committees scrutinise. Yet such committees only have a handful of staff they can call upon.

I was also interested to see Graham Stuart – a former Cambridge Councillor, tearing into the role of parliamentary private secretaries – in particular those who work for junior ministers. The role of PPS’s is traditionally seen as the first rung of the ministerial ladder. The problem is that it’s an unpaid role that also means you’re not allowed to speak on the floor of the House of Commons because you are nominally part of the Government (and are thus expected to fall into line with the whips). From a governing party’s point of view, the more PPS’s you have, the greater your control is over MPs – because of that carrot of a future ministerial post. This means that you get MPs who are guaranteed lobby fodder who won’t upset the apple cart & ask awkward questions in public…and you don’t have to pay them any extra! Bargain!

But this neuters Parliament in a big way. This is why I think it’ll be interesting to see how the select committee roles evolve. Select committee chairs already have a raised status in the Commons – ministers nearly always refrain from party-political point-scoring when taking questions from them. The media has also picked up on this increased status, meaning that we often see the chairs of select committees being interviewed on television. It still feels though that too many are interviewed as an alternative to a government minister rather than as select committee chairs in their own right.
University College London’s Constitution Unit has a number of academics following the work of select committees, some of whom I’ve met at the Hansard events. This is an area that at present is just a sideline interest but if money were no object, I wouldn’t mind supporting the research in this field – in particular the following-through of recommendations from select committees. 

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