Letter: Select committees and civil servants' duties

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your criticism of the training of civil servants to appear before select committees is nave ('Hostile questions, scripted answers', 6 April).

Select committees are not learned societies seeking after absolute truth. They are part of the adversarial system of parliamentary government. Opposition members, and sometimes government supporters, are seeking information in order to attack government policies and to expose weaknesses. There is nothing wrong with that: it is their job. The job of civil servants is to explain and defend government policies and to present them in the best possible light. Their responsibility is to ministers, not to Parliament. It is a professional role like many others.

Anyone who has appeared before a select committee knows that the answers cannot be 'scripted'. The areas of questioning may be known in advance, and possibly some of the questions, but on the day the questioning has a life of its own and will go wherever the chairman and members choose. Appearing before a select committee is a daunting experience for most people.

Shorter or longer answers? Monosyllabic or very brief answers are not generally helpful to committees. The chairmen are very experienced politicians, perfectly capable of pulling up witnesses who try to waste their time.

In conclusion, I find it strange that civil servants should be criticised for doing what any other competent professional or business person would do: prepare carefully the presentation for an important occasion.

Yours faithfully,


(Retired civil servant)

Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire