Appearing before a Parliamentary Select Committee can be a daunting experience, particularly when political scrutiny is compounded by intense media interest. In recent years, select committees have become more prominent and powerful – both inside and outside Parliament.
This is primarily due to rules introduced in 2010, whereby committee membership is now elected. Whilst political parties vote on their membership of the committee, Chairs are chosen through a secret ballot of all MPs. As a result, committee membership is now viewed as a position of responsibility – one where government policy can be greatly influenced. Committees are a potential launchpad for the career of an ambitious parliamentarian, keen to make a name for themselves.
Good preparation is therefore key. Practice might not mean perfect, but it could mean avoiding embarrassing headlines. Below are Pagefield’s five golden rules for all organisations to live by when under the select committee spotlight.
This is the first and most important rule. Always make sure to allow significant preparation time in advance of the session to revise core messages and rehearse your approach. Anticipating difficult questions, recognising weaknesses and devising comprehensive Q&A documents are all essential. In many cases, you can contact the Clerk to get an idea of what information the Committee wants from you. It’s also important to do your research into the committee personalities and their areas of interest; what are their areas of expertise? What is their opinion of your organisation or industry? What have they said in the past on the issue?
A lack of preparation is not tolerated amongst select committee members, as was evident during the Transport Committee’s session on Vauxhall Zafira fires with General Motors last week. The committee chairman Louise Ellman MP was scathing of witnesses’ preparedness for what she termed “pretty obvious questions”.
Every organisation will have key messages they want to get across to the committee, but this should not be done at the expense of answering the question. Make sure to focus on the question at hand rather than being off topic, but on message.
If you don’t know the answer, say so. It’s understandable with the pressure of a select committee to forget facts, or not explain them clearly. If in doubt, offer to follow-up with the committee after the session with supplementary information.
Don’t be afraid of admitting mistakes or shortfalls in your organisation – especially if they are clear for all to see. Being deliberately obtuse, evading or refusing to answer is not well-received amongst committee members, so be prepared to answer uncomfortable questions.
Last year, Google’s Matt Brittin refused to reveal his salary during a Public Accounts Committee into Google’s UK tax deal. This led to a grilling by Chair Meg Hillier MP, who asked “You don’t know what you get paid, Mr Brittin?” a blunder which landed him across national media pages the following day.
Committees will often have a premeditated idea of exactly what information they would like from witnesses. Amongst MPs, select committee membership is increasingly seen as a platform where they can raise their own profile and MPs may therefore structure hostile questions to grab headlines for themselves. However, it is crucial not to take this personally and to always respond courteously.
This was an error made to the detriment of Sir Phillip Green. Called to the BIS committee in the wake of the collapse of BHS, he told MP Richard Fuller to “Stop staring at me, it’s really disturbing”. He was subsequently criticised by both MPs and national press (Evening Standard).
From an organisational perspective, this can be a great opportunity to focus interest on issues that matter to your organisation. It provides a public platform in which you can position yourself at the forefront of a particular area of debate, to ensure your organisation’s work has a tangible impact. It is also an opportunity to build relationships, or even to act as a conduit to government. Don’t underestimate the value a successful select committee appearance can make.
Pagefield offers select committee training for organisations as part of our Pagefield Academy. To find out more information, click here.