Letter: Official responses to interrogation by MPs

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your leading article on Civil Service witnesses at select committee hearings ('Hostile questions, scripted answers', 6 April) puts a sinister construction on some perfectly sensible arrangements.

You say that 'without the knowledge of committee members, government departments have established liaison officers'. On the contrary, all the select committee members I had dealings with were well aware of the existence for more than a dozen years of DSCLOs (departmental select committee liaison officers). These are simply co-ordinators of select committee business, usually at middle level (grade 7 principals); they are essential if complicated issues are to be dealt with promptly and comprehensively. They are no more controversial than the parliamentary clerks that each department appoints to deal with parliamentary questions and other Westminster matters.

'Without MPs' knowledge,' you say, 'civil servants have been given advance copies of questions.' Perhaps this has happened occasionally, but in my experience it is unusual. Departments are normally given an indication of the areas of work that are to be investigated, rather than the detailed questions. In any case, MPs - reinforced by the advice of the expert advisers whom they themselves engage - should be capable of thinking up extempore questions during the hearings.

One has to appreciate the realities of the situation. It is not a case of innocent, unworldly MPs being misled by machiavellian officials. Often witnesses are not the departments' most senior; they are the people who know the details of some particular policy: assistant secretaries or principals (grades 5 or 7). Even SEOs and HEOs have been known to give evidence.

Such people are not usually familiar with the cut-and-thrust of party politics, and before they are exposed to a grilling by experienced and ambitious MPs, it is plain common sense that they should have some training in dealing with an unfamiliar and often hostile cross- examination.

Yours sincerely,

DENNIS L. BIRD

Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex

7 April

The writer was formerly a senior lecturer at the Civil Service College.

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