Here two political insiders take up the argument
YES says Jon McLeod
They are literally a mix of slapstick and ritual humiliation. They are the national stocks, in which the villain of the day can be arraigned and pelted with impudent questions to see whether they crack.
I am talking, of course, about our parliamentary select committees. In fact, I am really talking about the committees in the House of Commons, as those in the upper house operate at a more sedentary and, some would say, more dignified tilt.
The subject is a timely one, for we are in the final round of campaigning by the wannabe select committee chairs, who will rule the roost in their respective areas for the period of the next parliament – and who will thereby become some of the most lobbied MPs in the House.
When Parliament was first televised in 1989, few suspected that it was the proceedings outside the chamber, in the dusty committee corridors of the Palace and its annexes, that would make TV stars of previously anonymous backbenchers.
But so it has come to pass. By the last parliament, no news bulletin was complete without a clip of the arch dominatrix, Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, or the patrician Keith Vaz, chairman of Home Affairs, giving the parliamentary equivalent of a knee in the groin to some hapless individual who had had the misfortune of being hauled – yes it is always “hauled” – before them.
With the SNP now bagging two chairs, can we expect the Glasgow kiss to be added to the rhetorical flourishes that grace these overblown proceedings?
The committees are generally seen as one of the great bastions of our democracy, allowing the people’s representatives to speak truth unto power, and call the feckless and greedy to account. What’s not to like?
Well a lot, actually. Founded in 1979, select committees are a modern phenomenon which, egged on by the cult of celebrity, have cheapened debate. And they are an abuse of power, and cut across some of our key freedoms.
So here are the three ways the Commons select committees have lost their way – and how they can get back on track:
1. The select committees need to remember that they are there to scrutinise the work of government departments first and foremost.
The select committee structure is there for a reason. It is intended as a reinforcement of Parliament’s constitutional role in scrutinising the executive. The committees are not there to be dispensers of justice, roving around the topic du jour, with a little recreational cross-examination designed to capture three seconds of the six o’clock news.
2. The select committees must respect the rights of witnesses and observe a form of due process, which promotes genuine inquiry in place of the blood sport of the ritual humiliation of the powerful.
We have ended up with many situations where witnesses have become the accused, and the interrogation has ridden roughshod over their basic legal rights, not least, the right to avoid self-incrimination and the right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention.
Parliamentary privilege is not some sort of magical legal veil or Gollum’s ring cast over proceedings, that makes them invisible to the courts and the real world.
3. The select committees should be taken off air so that their proceedings stop being what people focus on and instead their reports become the real focus of their work.
What? I hear you scream. Pull the best bit of Parliament off TV? There would be no custard pie for Murdoch. Well, quite. The select committees are there to promulgate findings; produce insights for better government; influence the conduct of ministers.
The departmental response to these reports has become a point of such little pressure that the real work of these committees can be all but completely ignored.
It’s almost as if a deception has been carried out, in which the backbenchers and the public have been fobbed off with the gimcrack accountability of the televised hearings, while the real challenge contained in any committee’s report is lost in the lower intestines of parliamentary proceedings. And the government of the day gets off scot-free.
Jon McLeod is chairman of Public Affairs at Weber Shandwick. He trains witnesses to appear before select committees
NO says Oliver Wright, Whitehall Editor
The transformation of select committees into effective and powerful public watchdogs has been one of the most profound and beneficial changes in decades to our system of parliamentary democracy.
It began, slightly haphazardly, in 2011 when the humble Culture, Media and Sport Committee realised that it had the power to hold Rupert Murdoch to account for phone hacking. That realisation has opened the floodgates and resulted in Parliament scrutinising public life and government in a way it never did before – and that must never be allowed to wither.
Take the Public Accounts Committee, under the formidable chairmanship of Margaret Hodge. The constitutional role of her committee when she took it over was to follow the taxpayer’s pound: to make sure that the money we have to pay the government is well spent.
But she and her committee took that remit in its very broadest sense to look not just at how the pound was spent – but whether it was being collected fairly in the first place.
Her bruising and, yes, at times theatrical hearings highlighted endemic corporate and personal tax avoidance that had been ignored by the government for years. It broke open the often cosy relationship between big companies, their accountants and HMRC and created real public and political pressure for reform.
Take just one example. Starbucks used loopholes in the tax law for more than 15 years to pay just £8.6m of corporation tax on £3bn of revenues. It was legal – but immoral – and it was only public humiliation in front of the PAC, and the media coverage that those hearings were given, that forced the company to alter its practices in the face of a public boycott.
From Starbucks to Amazon to Google to the big accountancy firms which grew rich on designing ever more elaborate schemes to outwit the taxman, the Pubic Accounts Committee took them on and won.
Yes, Hodge deliberately worked with the media to ensure her hearings received maximum attention, because she knew that was the only way to force companies and the government to take her committee’s concerns seriously.
But her committee, and others such as the Home Affairs Committee, have done much more than this.
Government is now a hugely complicated and diverse business. The old idea that ministers are responsible for everything that happens in their departments no longer holds true when public services are contracted out, mutualised or spun off into arm’s-length bodies.
The better select committees now go where the evidence takes them. Thus when G4S messed up its contract to provide security for the Olympics it was its chief executive who was held to account.
Equally when fraud was alleged in the multibillion-pound Work Programme it was not just the Department for Work and Pensions that had to answer, but the private company A4E too.
So what about the argument that select committees should be “taken off air” so that their proceedings stop being “national stocks” and instead their reports become the real focus of their work?
What total rubbish – an argument that could only be plausibly advocated by people with a particular agenda.
If a chief executive, senior civil servant or any other potential witness knows that he or she might have to account publicly for the actions of their organisation it is a powerful incentive to make sure they are well run in the first place.
In pictures: Not-so virtuous MPs
In pictures: Not-so virtuous MPs
1/17 Lord Hanningfield
Lord Hanningfield claimed more than £3,000 in a month by regularly 'clocking in' to the House of Lords to claim his £300 daily attendance allowance. The former Conservative leader of Essex Council was also convicted in May 2011 for fiddling his expenses.
2/17 Denis MacShane
The disgraced former Labour minister was jailed for six months at the Old Bailey in July 2013 after admitting making bogus expense claims amounting to nearly £13,000.
3/17 Maria Miller
Although she was cleared of making false expenses claims, Maria Miller was ordered to pay back £5,000 in overclaimed taxpayer-funded expenses on her second home. Mrs Miller’s apology in the Commons lasting just over half a minute was widely viewed as grudging and perfunctory. She resigned over the row in April.
4/17 Eric Joyce
Falkirk MP Eric Joyce was fined £1,500 at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in March after admitting abusive behaviour at the city’s airport. Mr Joyce repeatedly hurled insults at baggage handlers, and abused a black police officer during the incident in May 2012. He has said he will now “reflect” on whether to continue at Westminster until the election next year.
5/17 Mark Harper
Immigration minister Mark Harper resigned after it emerged his cleaner was working in the country illegally. Mr Harper quit after he discovered his cleaner, whom he employed at his London flat for seven years, did not have indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
6/17 Lord Rennard
The former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats faced allegations of sexual harassing several women, claims he denies. He was suspended after refusing to bow to calls from Mr Clegg to apologise to the women.
7/17 Mark Menzies
Former Conservative MP Mark Menzies resigned as a ministerial aide following allegations made by a Brazilian rent boy in March. The MP for Fylde in Lancashire resigned his position as a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) amid allegations which appeared in a tabloid newspaper, some of which he strenuously denied.
8/17 Nadhim Zahawi
Nadhim Zahawi apologised in March for charging the taxpayer £5,822 to heat his stables. It later emerged that he had claimed 31p on his expenses for paperclips, 53p for a holepunch, 63p for ballpoint pens and 89p for a stapler.
9/17 Liam Fox
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox resigned in 2011 over his working relationship with his friend Adam Werritty, which saw the Tory MP ordered to repay £3,000 of expenses for allowing Mr Werritty to live rent-free at his taxpayer-funded second home for a year. Mr Fox faced further embarrassment when it was revealed successfully claimed 3p of taxpayers’ cash for a car journey of fewer than 100 metres.
10/17 Aidan Burley
The ex-Tory MP for Cannock Chase was photographed at a Nazi-themed stag party in 2011. He admitted there had been 'clearly inappropriate behaviour’ by some of the other guests at the party in a French ski resort after the Mail on Sunday published photographs of Mr Burley at the event, where revellers allegedly made Nazi chants and toasted the Third Reich.
11/17 Jeremy Hunt
Mr Hunt admitted to sending a congratulatory text message to News Corp executive James Murdoch just hours before the minister was asked to oversee the firm's bid for BSkyB. Although Downing Street insisted that Mr Hunt had acted properly during the takeover, a Labour MP accused him in the house of deliberately misleading Parliament about his contact with News Corp over the takeover.
12/17 Brian Binley
The Tory MP for Northampton South, allegedly told a local businessmen ‘we are all totally corrupt’ talking about politicians at a drinks party during a taxpayer-funded trip to Malta.
13/17 Tim Yeo
Stood down as the chairman of the influential Energy and Climate Change committee in June 2013 amid allegations he was prepared to use his position to help business clients.
14/17 Chris Huhne
The former Energy Secretary was jailed for eight months in March 2013 for swapping penalty speeding points with ex-wife Vicky Pryce in an offence that the court heard had struck at the heart of the criminal justice system.
15/17 Patrick Mercer
Patrick Mercer resigned the Tory whip in May last year after he was filmed by the BBC's 'Panorama' apparently agreeing to lobby on behalf of Fiji for a pro-Fijian cross-party committee.
16/17 Michael Martin
Former Labour party MP Michael Martin became the first Commons Speaker to be forced out of office for more than 300 years following criticism of his handling of the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009.
17/17 Jacqui Smith
Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith stood down in the cabinet reshuffle amid a flurry of controversy after the MPs expenses scandal revealed her husband Richard Timney, who also ran her constituency office, had watched two pay-per-view adult movies which had then, unknown to her, been subject to a claim for reimbursement. The ‘porn scandal’ not only saw the former Labour MP Ms Smith, who was the first female Home Secretary, eventually resign but also saw her lose her parliamentary seat in May 2010.
These people don’t need “select committee training” (which is now a growing industry). They just need to go and answer questions in a straightforward, honest manner and admit when things go wrong while pointing out when things go right. It’s really not that hard.
A dense parliamentary report can, and sometimes still is, simply ignored by governments that are generally suspicious of outside interference.
The Justice Committee in the last parliament did some admirable work, I am sure, but nobody noticed because it failed to engage and campaign on issues such as legal aid reform, where it should have been a major player.
So far from being reined in, select committees need to develop still further – and refuse to give in to vested interests that find their scrutiny unwelcome.Reuse content