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

  • @oliver_wright

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.”