Was a new piece of parliamentary history made today?

Summary

On the live online fact-checking of statements made by select committee witnesses by Twitter-savvy parliamentary select committees

It turns out the Education Select Committee got there first (wingtip Laura McInerney) but today’s hearing at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee was the most high-profile one I’ve heard to date.

I spent much of the morning listening to the evidence given by former Kids Company chairman & chief executives to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. It was a good three hour grilling, the likes that show Parliament at its best. The details of the hearing are here. Further to this case is this ministerial direction sought by the then Permanent Secretary at Cabinet Office, Richard Heaton. Mr Heaton is one of the most highly regarded civil servants I’ve worked with, and he wouldn’t have sought such a ministerial direction lightly, as I stated in this earlier blogpost.

Twitter catches fire

It’s very rare that a select committee hearing will result in Twitter coverage that during the day has it trending as the top subject across the country – demonstrating at least within political and journalistic bubbles how serious the issues are. The first noticeable issue that made Twitter users go ***Eeek!*** was former chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh’s disclosure that she had no professional qualifications nor membership of any professional bodies. (From 09h50m).

What qualifies a director or an executive to do their job?

That’s not to say she doesn’t have work experience or hasn’t had a positive impact on the lives of the people that used Kids Company’s services. The purpose of the hearing, as set out by the committee was as follows:

The session will examine the governance, financial management and reporting procedures at Kids Company, as well as the charity’s relationship with central government

On governance, I’d expect any select committee to be asking what qualifies a chief executive to be carrying out the job they do. Recall the Treasury Select Committee found with Northern Rock, RBS and HBOS that none of their chief executives were qualified bankers. In their final report, I expect Bernard Jenkin, the Select Committee Chair to make a recommendation on this.

The theme of exchanges: Questions about systems and processes given responses about individual (and heart-breaking) cases

The summary of the hearing is here in The Guardian. I got the sense of witnesses being evasive through persistent interruptions, rejecting premise of straight-forward questions, and responding to questions about systems and processes by talking about individual cases – the last of which MPs are inevitably cautious about lest any vulnerable member of the public is identified. MPs were incredibly patient, Mr Jenkin only raising his voice to stop Ms Batmanghelidjh’s persistent interrupting.

Bringing into the scope a number of statutory organisations & functions

Another consistent theme – in particular from former chairman Alan Yentob (a senior figure in the BBC) spoke of the responsibilities of other organisations – such as local council social services, along with auditors and inspectors. Just as with the banking crisis and with recent faith schools inspections, there are questions that need answering on the inspection regimes. At the same time, central government needs to take some responsibility for the lack of funding for social services as a result of cuts to central government grants.

On inspection, Mr Jenkin stated:

“I know of no other institution that works with children that is not regularly inspected”

What struck me in that part of the exchange was how neither of the witnesses seemed to be clear as to which inspection regimes they were subject to and on what frequency. Ms Batmanghelidjh tried to state research done by universities working with them, and Mr Yentob tried to bring in the example of the Centre for Social Justice. As Mr Jenkin (who otherwise likes the CSJ) stated they are ***not*** a statutory inspectorates. The CSJ is a think tank. This for me was one of the most alarming disclosures from the select committee hearing – one which I’m surprised the media hasn’t yet taken up. (10h12m).

Data protection issues

The charity’s records claimed to have 36,000 clients, but only 1,069 were handed over“. Several people picked up on this – why were so few handed over? What happened to the other records? Then a couple of people on Twitter picked this up in an article on time management:

Seven PAs keep me going around the clock. It starts at 8am, and finishes about 12am. I dictate everything while playing with toy helicopters, remote-controlled cars and plastic spoons. At night, I go home carrying a multicoloured laundry bag full of papers, filed in a manner incomprehensible to everyone – including myself. So I hold tight a little book full of lists, which I add to at 4am. My joy is to use a felt-tip and colour out completed tasks.

Safeguarding sensitive personal information? In the hearing, Ms Batmanghelidjh disclosed she still had a personal casework load – something that surprised me as I wouldn’t expect the chief executive of an organisation in receipt of so much money to be doing this on top of being an executive. Again, this leads to further questions to the trustees on oversight. How much did they know of what her duties & responsibilities were, and who was the one who could say ‘No!’ to her?

Fact-checking in real time by the committee

This was the pocket full of dynamite Newsnight journalist Christopher Cook tweeted during the hearing:

Followed by

The clerks of the committee who’ve been following Mr Cook (and Puffles) for quite some time picked up on this

…and tipped off the select committee chair Mr Jenkin – in real time.

When Mr Jenkin put the point in the tweets to the witnesses, they backed down.

Laura McInerney confirmed the Education Select Committee was the first – note it was former chair Graham Stuart MP, who used to be a councillor in Cambridge for the ward next door to me – Cherry Hinton, who pioneered Twitter with select committees.

A precedent set?

Perhaps – in this case the committee had a rock-solid source and a copy of the document. That said, I’m a little uncomfortable about the lack of potential safeguards if it allows anonymous people (or dragon fairies for that matter) to throw speculative allegations that can then be repeated under parliamentary privilege. In a nutshell, the bar needs to be incredibly high for select committee chairs to read pieces of evidence submitted over Twitter. This means there needs to be a filtering process (or even a break between evidence sessions) for clerks and MPs on the committee to assess anything that comes through via social media.

We live in interesting times.

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