A new boom industry: coaching select committee witnesses for ‘ordeal by Hodge’

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

They have publicly humiliated former business titans from Rupert Murdoch to Bob Diamond, forced Starbucks to cough up £10m in tax and made villains of some of the world’s best-known brands. But corporate Britain is fighting back against Parliament’s newly invigorated inquisitorial committees by hiring highly paid specialist consultants to prepare executives for grillings by MPs.

An investigation by The Independent has found a plethora of lobbying firms which are hiring out their services to executives facing cross examination by select committees. The companies offer to put witnesses through mock examinations, draft likely questions and provide clients with inside information on “motivations and objectives” of the committees and the MPs who sit on them.

Some are even hiring former MPs and ministers to play the roles of committee members while others are offering to get advance warning of potential lines of attack.

But the practice has been condemned as “pathetic” by a select committee chair who accused the companies of trying “manipulate the parliamentary process”.

The growth in so-called select committee training follows a string of embarrassing appearances by a number of highly paid executives from major companies in recent years.

Amazon’s director of public policy was left stuttering in front of the Public Accounts Committee when he was repeatedly unable to answer basic answers about Amazon’s tax arrangements.

Andrew Cecil’s performance led one commentator to describe the encounter as like “watching the Titanic, the Bismarck and the R101 all go down in the same afternoon”.

Nick Buckles, the head of G4S fared little better when he appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee to explain his company’s short-comings in providing security for the 2012 Olympics.

His performance – in which he admitted G4S had no way of telling how many staff would turn up during the Games – led MPs to accuse the company of “unacceptable, incompetent and amateurish” behaviour.

Less than a year later he was out of his job, with one leading investor in the firm blaming his departure on the “medieval persecution” by committee members.

And it is not only individuals who have suffered. Google has had its reputation dragged through the mud over tax avoidance with Margaret Hodge, the PAC’s formidable chairman, turning the company’s famous “Don’t be evil” slogan on its head.

“You are a company that says you ‘do no evil’. And I think that you do do evil,” she lectured Google’s northern Europe boss, Matt Brittin.

But perhaps the biggest scalp was that of the coffee chain Starbucks that was forced voluntarily to donate £10m to UK government coffers after an embarrassing performance in front of the PAC. The chain made the move after customers started boycotting its stores following a parliamentary hearing with its chief financial officer Troy Alstead.

Those lobbying firms offering clients help to navigate the minefield of a select committee appearance emphasise the risk of disaster from an ill-prepared performance.

Bell Pottinger warns clients that select committees can “break reputations, both individual and corporate, in a matter of moments”. It also cites examples of press coverage where clients it had trained “bested” Parliamentary committees.

Lord Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger, said his company had seen a marked increase in the number of corporate clients coming for select committee training.

He said they arranged “mock” sessions for them using former MPs and ministers. “We get them to ask the most extreme stuff they can,” he said, “because these committees now are no longer about finding things out – they’re about theatrics and destroying reputations.”

Lord Bell added that many corporations were “frightened” of appearances before select committees which he claimed were more about generating headlines that finding out facts.

“There is nothing to be gained from these companies being candid or transparent any longer. It’s about ‘Let’s get out of here without making a mistake’. They are much more frightened of these committees than they used to be.”

Another firm, Portland, whose clients have included Tesco, Coca-Cola and Apple, warns on its website that “giving evidence to a select committee can be a very challenging experience”.

“Corporate and individual reputations can be tested and broken under the glare of ever-bolder committees,” they write. “Portland can help with messaging, tone and for answering the difficult questions.”

Another firm offering their services called Connect Training adds: “You don’t need to be a member of the Murdoch family to know that appearing before a select committee requires significant preparation and expert coaching. Even the most seasoned personnel can fall victim to hardline questions.”

Mark Solon, head of the legal training company Bond Solon that has diversified into select committee training, said: “MPs are not trained advocates and they can be very aggressive and it can be very upsetting to the witnesses. We try and prepare people for that.”

But the rise of the industry has not gone down well with the likes of Ms Hodge. She said she had not heard of the practice but said she thought it was “pathetic”.

“These companies are promising to provide clients with details on committee members and their interests. But quite how knowing that I like cooking, opera and playing the piano will help them giving evidence is beyond me.

“All we are looking for is truthful, straightforward answers to our questions and chief executives should not need training in order to do that. In fact I suspect it makes them sound more evasive, less open and less credible than if they just turned up and answered the questions honestly.

“They need to know their stuff – not try and manipulate the process. This is not what democracy is about.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower