Inside Whitehall: Once mice, parliamentary select committees have finally learnt to roar

Today, declining an invitation to give evidence is no longer an option
  • @oliver_wright

There was a time when being called before a parliamentary select committee was, to use Denis Healey’s famous phrase, a bit like being savaged by a dead sheep.

Questions were deferential, while MPs sometimes seemed in awe of witnesses – especially those from outside politics.

How things have changed. Google: publicly lambasted for being “evil”. Bob Diamond: accused of running a “rotten, thieving bank”. Wonga, Amazon, G4S, energy companies, the BBC, the banks. The list of casualties goes on.

Senior civil servants, too, are increasingly under fire for failings both real and perceived. Lin Homer (HMRC), David Nicholson (NHS England) and Robert Devereux (Department for Work and Pensions) have all felt the wrath of newly emboldened select committees. So how did the mice learn to roar? Before the last election, government and opposition whips would effectively appoint the chairman of each committee as well as their wider membership.

Appointments were based on loyalty and willingness to toe the line. But in 2009, following the MPs’ expenses scandal, a little-publicised report by the House of Commons Reform Committee suggested overhauling the appointments process.

It was agreed that committee chairs should be elected by their fellow MPs in a secret ballot, while party members of committees were also to be chosen by a ballot of their own MPs – effectively robbing the whips of their control.

New committee heads such as Margaret Hodge, Keith Vaz and Andrew Tyrie lost little time asserting their independence. In this they were helped by Rupert Murdoch’s “forced” appearance before the then lowly Culture Media and Sport Select Committee in 2011. At first Murdoch had declined the “invitation” to give evidence, but when the committee’s chairman John Whittingdale used a historical parliamentary power to summon him, he quickly changed his tune.

Today, declining an invitation is no longer an option. But while the transformation has arguably improved the reputation of Parliament following the expenses scandal, the committees have sometimes generated more heat than light. The Public Accounts Committee hearings into the tax affairs of multinational companies generated legitimate public outrage but have been far less effective at examining the root causes of the problem (which rests with politicians, not companies or the taxman) or suggesting solutions. Equally, while payday lenders such as Wonga have been dragged over the coals, far less attention has been given to rogue doorstep lenders or to examining whether some companies might be providing value for money. In addition, the questioning often leaves much to be desired. As one very senior civil servant who was about to appear before the PAC put it: “They don’t listen any more; they just hector. You can’t win. You just have to get through it.”

These problems, however, could be solved. When the Government established the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (effectively a time-limited select committee of both Houses) it allowed the appointment of a barrister with the power to examine witnesses. The result was an effective way of dealing with complicated evidence – albeit in less showy way.

Some will argue that, at present, Parliament should not be spending more. But holding those in power to account is exactly what Parliament should be doing, and would be worth every penny. It might lead to less heat. But it would shine a lot more light.