In a contrast to the show business of the Chamber, the Select Committees are blissful oases of intelligence and calm. Now, chairs and members, elected rather than appointed by whips, work with renewed authority and zest. They are the Forum, the Star Chamber, the Inquisition and the Consumers’ Court of the nation –and the media has now discovered them.
The country has been fascinated by the inquiries into ‘cash for honours’ and ‘Hackgate’. Twenty-four-hour news has provided platforms for the interrogator MPs. Select Committees in their present form have been in business only since 1979. Their task is to scrutinise the work of Government departments by hearing evidence and taking reports. They are a worthwhile career speciality for the inquisitive. Tom Watson and Louise Mensch leapt to fame with their forensic cross-examination of the Murdochs. The performance of the committee as a team flopped and invited questions on the unequal contest between MPs and expensively trained witnesses.
Choose which committee to serve on with care. Chairs of committees are influential, sometimes powerful. Their elections are keenly contested. On popular committees, backbench places are in great demand and the first elections prompt a blizzard of e-mail canvassing. The choice of committee is vital. Avoid those that constantly divide on party lines. They are not taken seriously and their reports carry little weight. Choose one whose chair is not a party hack. The perfect chairs are fair-minded, intelligent and have abandoned hope of promotion or honours.
Some knowledge or interest in the subject is useful but less valuable than forensic interrogation skills and Socratic judgement. Refuse committees on subjects where Profits Unlimited plc or the General Union of Court Wanglers fills the wallet or constituency coffers with sponsorship or consultancy fees. However pure Members’ motives are, they will be accused of being the mouthpiece of vested interest paymasters.
There are some Select Committee subjects that will guarantee free travel to a luxury sun spot on the far side of the planet. If that’s what your heart desires there are jobs going with Thomas Cook. The Gullivers may be heading for the Seychelles or the Maldives; politically they are heading for oblivion. It’s relatively effortless to acquire faux-expertise on foreign policy or defence. The toilers for truth are those who plough through the intricacies of the Public Administration Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee.
Ensure that issues chosen for investigation are ones that the committee can genuinely influence. The choice of advisers is pivotal to the quality of the work. They and the clerks draft the model questions and write the final report. It is a mistake to leave the choice of advisers to the chair. The value of the committee’s work would be undermined if it was influenced by political, ideological or fraternal considerations. Study the known enthusiasms and foibles of the chair and fellow Members. This will help in anticipating their strengths and weaknesses.
Each investigation follows the same course. The subjects are chosen in private session and the political horse-trading is done. The only subjects worth considering are those of high importance where a unanimous report is attainable. Individual or constituency Members’ hobby horses must be resisted.
The evidence arrives in a pile of extensive reports, often a foot high. The Member or a trusted researcher must at least skim read it all. Nuggets of precious information are buried in the tortuous prose. Scour the vital sections. Star the killer points.
Ensure that no key witnesses are ignored by advisers. Challenge invitations to witnesses that may reflect partial interests.
The public cross-examination of witnesses is now broadcast frequently on 24-hour television and can also be viewed on the Parliament website. The aim is to draw out helpful evidence from the benign well-informed, expose the deceivers and crush the crooks. Time is very limited. Carefully plan questions from a detailed study of evidence. Quote vital phrases or induce witnesses to repeat their key sentences. A small number of people will read the final reports; millions may hear the verbal evidence.
Some witnesses are unsophisticated. They deserve gentle handling. Put them at ease. Be courteous. Ask deliberately easy questions. Thank them generously. Compliment them on their answers if nervousness persists. Comfort. Flatter. Seduce.
Civil servants were once trained with a video on how to give evidence. It advised them to make their answers as long as possible to ensure that MPs cannot ask too many questions. Politicians, captains of industry and other well-heeled witnesses are now professionally coached before they appear. They have undergone dummy sessions with skilled advisers who have tried to anticipate the questions. They are instructed on the personalities of Members to second guess likely lines of inquires. Speeches of Members are read; blogs and tweets are trawled.
There is strong evidence that many witnesses have prior knowledge of the questions prepared for committee members by advisers. The committee clerk will have legitimately told them of the general headings of the subjects to be raised, but there are grave suspicions that detailed questions may be leaked by political, business or trade union chums on committees. This is the best reason to ditch the prepared questions, especially for formidable witnesses who probably have been tutored in answering them.
Obstructive witnesses deserve no mercy. They are out to conceal the truth. Try to knock them off their perch with your first question. It should expose a contradiction or falsehood in their evidence. Point out, at first courteously, that they are not answering the questions. One minister, in answer to a simple question of mine, spoke for eleven minutes, making all the points he had previously planned to make and not attempting to answer. It is not the function of a Select Committee to provide an additional platform for ministers who already have the Chamber and press conferences as their pulpits.
If witnesses persist in stonewalling, apologise for being direct and discourteous, then ask a question that is sharply direct and discourteous. Often the only remedy for streams of vacuous verbiage is to interrupt the witness. Tell them that they are not answering the question. If they still evade, repeat the question again word for word.
Richard Branson thought the Transport Committee had been hard on him because he wore a jogging outfit to address the committee. Wrong. Their irritation was roused by his ignorance of railways. When asked in a programme connected with the inquiry what he was going to do to improve the running of his privatised service, Branson said he would urge his drivers to drive faster. ‘To overtake the train in front, presumably,’ was the mocking, whispered response by a committee member.
Those who ask the first questions have an advantage in gaining media attention. In every other respect it is best to be the final questioner. The obvious and the prepared questions will then have been asked. The witnesses will be relaxed, disarmed, vulnerable. Listen carefully to the answers, spot their weaknesses and leap on them. Note the strong points made in answers to other Members. Use the limited time and insist on a second go to rebut or reinforce contradictions.
The main faults of Members are making speeches or asking vague questions. Matthew Taylor of the Royal Society for the Arts, a witness at a committee on which I serve, complained that Members went off-piste, riding their individual hobby horses. We did. The complaint was justified. Our questions generally missed the target. We fell for the temptation of playing to the gallery when a clutch of newshounds were present.
The most eloquent exchanges are the sharp, single sentences that strike at the heart of the issue. Broadcasters are seeking tiny, fifty-second sound and vision bites to illustrate three hours of evidence.
Most of the useful work is done behind the scenes by the splendid anonymous committee staff. Be hyperactive in the tedious, lengthy private sessions when the report’s headings are considered. Prepare detailed amendments to highlight key information. Committed Members should draft their own recommendations and not rely on amending those written by advisers. As elsewhere in Parliament, the spoils are won by the industrious.
To fill the gaps in the evidence, ask written Parliamentary Questions on points not fully developed by witnesses. Although reports are usually confined to evidence received, parliamentary answers can be included.
If the final report is not good, a Member can rewrite it. The committee clerk will help. Seek outside assistance if necessary. Be prepared for the horse-trading. Reports that carry the greatest authority are unanimous ones. Be prepared to sacrifice and compromise even lovingly drafted prose.
Leaking the report to the hacks who request advance details is always damaging. It will ruin the standing of the leaker with fellow members and blunt the impact of the conclusions. The identity of the leaker, in my experience, is always known to fellow committee members. Trust is lost. Friendships fracture. Parts of the media that are not recipients of the leak will strike back with thin or no coverage and sometimes with hostility towards the committee’s conclusions.
Press conferences on Select Committee reports are now rare because of other instant means of communication. Individual interviews with committee members have replaced them. Have sound bites ready for both specialist and general reporters, plus a fifteen-second response for the main television news. The speciality subject reporters will read the details. The rest of the hack pack is searching for a simple sentence headline. Give it to them –brief, punchy, news-rich.
Exploit the value of the report afterwards by raising the issues in questions and debates. If the issue is dying, try an adjournment debate, a Ten Minute Rule Bill or an oral question six months later. If the report has wounded some dragons, be ready with a killer punch. The prize virtues of all politicians are patience and persistence. If the vested interests get away with it, it’s the fault of the lazy committee members.
Select Committees’ status is growing. They have a major role to play in the Legislature’s challenge to the Executive. Unfortunately, the weakness in the implementation of the Tony Wright reforms was allowing the whips to determine the party of the chairs. In some of the 2010 committees docile party hacks were elected as chairs. Their reports are strongly influenced by the need to please the Government. They rarely challenge policy or take on outside vested interests. Several of the committees have deservedly attracted little attention for their repeated statements of the obvious. If individual Members cannot enliven these soporific bodies, they should resign and seek a committee that is doing its job.
Select Committees continue to disappoint. Even the acclaimed questioning of the Murdochs was less than competent. In that case there was advice from a distinguished outside authority. There was little evidence of a forensic team approach by the committee that would have drawn the truth from the witnesses. As usual there was competition from the MPs to chase personal hares. Few capitalised on the weaknesses in the Murdochs’s answers.
The Murdochs were trained and rehearsed in their carefully manicured replies by expensive legal experts. This is an uneven contest. There is a strong case for calling in wise QCs to train MPs and committee clerks in the art of cross-examination.