Select committees will demand Whitehall tape: Civil servants and clerks suspected of collusion over questioning

SELECT committee chairmen are to demand to be shown a Whitehall video for training top civil servants how to handle questioning by

committees.

The video suggests collusion takes place between select committee clerks and civil servants over the questions to be asked by committee members, which threatens to undermine the integrity of the system.

Last month, a decision by the Public Accounts Committee to recall Sir Thomas Legg, Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor's office, after he 'forgot' to tell a hearing about a letter from the Master of the Rolls protesting at cuts in legal aid eligibility, raised doubts about the openness of civil servants and their evidence to committees. The question of the video is certain to renew such doubts.

Frank Field, the Labour chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security, said: 'We need to ask to see that the video is made available to see what advice is given.'

The video, of a civil service seminar, shows Sir Bryan Hayes, former permanent secretary to the Department of Trade and Industry, advising civil servants not to give short 'yes' answers. 'I don't think it's a good idea to answer yes, because then they go straight on to another question and you are foxed again.' The use of coaching videos is standard practice for politicians. But a committee clerk is also quoted as saying that civil servants will be allowed to see the questions before they have to give evidence. She urges them 'not to give the lie to the game' by telling the committee they have seen the questions.

Michael Clark, former Tory chairman of the energy select committee, said: 'I would be surprised and dismayed if there was collusion between the select committees and the civil service.' He said he had wondered whether witnesses knew the questions in advance because they seemed very carefully prepared.

'I questioned my clerk on a regular basis. He always assured me that the questions had not been sent to the witnesses, although there had been some indication of the broad areas of questioning.'

But in the BBC television programme Scrutiny shown last Saturday, John Sweetman, the Clerk of Committees, said that the clerk had 'over- stated the practice'. The programme was told by Mr Sweetman that: 'It is quite common for witnesses to be given in advance questions which require lengthy, technical answers. In my experience it would be most unusual for witnesses to be given any advance notice of the precise questions.'

Mr Sweetman said he would not take any action, unless he knew that was happening. 'I am not going to conduct a witch-hunt.'

Leading article, page 17

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