In praise of select committees

A former House of Commons clerk reflects on a decade of public scrutiny. 

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Select committees have become one of the most visible parts of Parliament over the last six or seven years. The select committee brand itself is not always reported; they can often become “an influential cross-party body” or “a group of backbench MPs”. Sometimes you can read a piece on a committee report without ever seeing the words “select committee”. Nevertheless, the work that MPs do through the committee system is some of the most important scrutiny of public policy.

I was a clerk in the House of Commons for 11 years, and for the majority of that time I worked on select committees across the spectrum of policy. One recurring concern was public engagement. To adapt the old philosophical question, if a select committee publishes a report and nobody reads it, has it really happened at all? Members of Parliament, of course, are acutely attuned to the need for media coverage.

It is important to emphasise – because it comes as a surprise even to those up the road in Whitehall – that the staff of select committees are small in number. An average departmental committee, Education, say, or Health, will have somewhere around six to eight full-time members of staff, plus the share of a media officer and some access to web and publishing expertise. This is a long way from the US model. I remember visiting Washington DC with the Defence committee some years ago, and we met our Senate counterparts. Only two Senators were available (I think we had brought 11 of our 14 members), but behind them into the room trooped more than a dozen members of staff.

Commons committees must attempt to connect with the public through modest resources. I and my former colleagues will all have horror stories of holding press conferences to launch committee inquiries or publish committee reports only to have barely a handful of journalists and perhaps one or two cranks (or members of the public, as I should more politely call them) turn up to hear the assembled parliamentarians give forth. When this happens, you grin and bear it, and try to learn lessons for next time.

This is important, because the work of select committees does matter. One of the first inquiries I ever worked on was scrutinising proposed legislation to ban smoking in public places. Tony Blair's New Labour government intended to exempt various categories of venue from the ban, including pubs which did not serve food. The Health committee came to the view that this was a nonsense. Passive smoking was either harmful or it was not, and that a ban must therefore be all-encompassing. The committee duly published its report, and the government amended its legislation.

Nevertheless, select committees, just like the MPs who sit on them, are not immune to the lure of ambulance-chasing. Both Keith Vaz, as chair of the Home Affairs committee, and Margaret Hodge, as head of the Public Accounts committee, had their moments of grandstanding. The tattooed Russell Brand giving oral evidence to the Home Affairs committee on drug addiction was not, shall we say, the finest hour of parliamentary scrutiny. 

When scrutiny of public policy does take place, meanwhile, it is not always easy to explain. Some concepts and arguments are just hard. When the Health committee looked some years ago at the use by the NHS of independent-sector treatment centres for elective surgery, the arguments for and against were finely balanced and carefully nuanced. The conclusions did not lend themselves easily to a three-paragraph press release or a one-sentence headline. It made gaining traction in the media difficult and presenting the committee’s findings accurately a challenge.

I am sure committees could do better. They are still finding their way with social media, though most now have a Twitter feed and some even use them to crowdsource questions for oral evidence sessions. Committee reports can still be stodgy things (I well remember the consternation when the Defence Committee published a report with a photograph on the cover).

There are, too, some seemingly arcane but actually very important arguments to be had. I remember a discussion with very senior colleagues about whether public submissions to an internet forum hosted by one committee were protected by parliamentary privilege and, therefore, not subject to libel or other forms of legal redress (the answer was no). Is the House of Commons in the modern age? Yes, I think it is, but it’s only just burst panting through the door.

One way of engaging wth the public is to go out on the road and hold evidence sessions beyond Westminster. Speaking for myself (and, I suspect, a large number of my former colleagues), I hated it. It was logistically and administratively difficult, and MPs were more enthusiastic about the principle than the practice. If (again, see above) the session is poorly attended by "civilians", it is a depressing and disheartening experience for all involved. But sometimes it works. The Environment committee once held a hearing at the National Waterways Museum in Gloucester and, as an act of outreach, it energised what could otherwise have been a rather dreary inquiry.

What does all of this mean? I suppose I would draw three conclusions from my experience over a decade. First, select committees matter. They do important work, and, if done properly, their work can make a beneficial contribution to the common weal. Second, like any endeavour in political life, they depend on the oxygen of publicity. The public has to be aware of and, if possible, engaged with the work committees are doing, otherwise it can be a wasted effort. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the public has to see the work that committees do as useful. They need to see the value. In other words, if I could issue a cri de coeur to MPs on select committees, keep it classy. Don’t chase the headlines: let them come to you. Then, you really might make a difference.

Eliot Wilson was a House of Commons clerk from 2005 to 2016. You can follow him at @SybariteLooks.