40th Anniversary of Departmental Select Committees in the House of Commons

40th Anniversary of Departmental Select Committees in the House of Commons


Maria Miller: I can remember the first time I ever sat in a Select Committee. I’d only just been elected in 2005, and and it was a Committee that no longer exists—the Trade and Industry Select Committee. It was perplexing, bemusing, exciting and exhilerating all at the same time. The Chairman seemed so authoritative and knowledgeable about the subject area that it was quite daunting as well. What I have learned over the years is that, far from being daunting, it is the most exciting opportunity to learn about policies in more detail. Stephen Twigg: My first experience of a Select Committee was appearing as a witness when I was President of the National Union for Students. I remember being very nervous appearing before the Committee. Later, I was an Education Minister and had to appear to give evidence. I always found the most challenging and daunting part of the job of being a Minister was that Select Committee accountability. Now I am on the other side chairing a Committee, and a part of that Committee, I do realise that we are perhaps not as scary as people think we are going to be. I am always at pains to encourage expert witnesses in particular to be relaxed, because we are there to hear from them; we are not there to catch them out. Sir Norman Lamb: I am the only Liberal Democrat on our Committee, and I have to win the trust of colleagues in the Labour party and Conservative party, and the Scottish nationalists. That is something I have really enjoyed doing, and I think we have produced a really coherent and strong Committee, but it was very scary to start with. Pete Wishart: It was terrifying. I didn’t expect ever to be a Select Committee Chair, so I hadn’t even properly prepared for it. It was just an overwhelming thought that I was actually doing this for the first time. It is four years now that I have been in the Chair and I have really enjoyed the experience. Maria Miller: Being the Chair of a Select Committee, you can look at a wide range of different policy areas— really any area that you feel needs scrutiny and interrogation. It’s a great opportunity to interrogate whether or not the Government is delivering on its policies. Tom Tugendhat: I wanted to have a bit more time to ask the questions that really shape our debates. When you are in the House of Commons, when you are actually in the Chamber, you get a few minutes, really— either literally a couple of minutes because you are in Questions, or five or 10 minutes if you are in a serious debate. So if you want to really explore a subject, the only way to do it is on a Select Committee. Meg Hillier: When you chair a Select Committee, you are in a very privileged position, but the only point of doing it is if you are going to actually make a difference for citizens and taxpayers. So when we get Government to make a change because we have pointed something out, that is very satisfying. It takes some time for Government to shift its position, but when we achieve that, it is really good. One of the themes that is very nice is when citizens and constituents write in and tell us that something has changed as a result. Pete Wishart: I think what the Select Committees provide is a safe space where we can dispense with the traditional party politics and try to agree things consensually. And sure, we can make progress on a whole range of issues without being encumbered by our own political ideologies. They are a really useful part of our parliamentary process, and I think that more than anything gives Select Committees their own place in the House. Stephen Twigg: People often talk about the usual suspects, and one thing I would say is that sometimes the usual suspects are usual for a reason:
they know their brief and what they are talking about. But it is so vital that we hear other voices; younger voices; voices from black and minority ethnic communities. Particularly working in international development, I am anxious that we hear voices from outside this country and that we work out ways of engaging with witnesses and other evidence from people in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, not just people who are based here in our own country. Maria Miller: The Women and Equalities Select Committee is one of the newest Committees in Parliament, and I am proud that it has been established in the first place in the last few years. But I have to say when it comes to our reports that it was the Sexual Harrassment in Schools report that I am most proud of. Why? Because it led to sex and relationship education being made mandatory for all school-age children— something that Governments of many different persuasions had failed to do for almost two decades. I believe our report really helped to break that impasse. Sir Norman Lamb: I am really proud of the work that the Science and Technology Committee has done on research integrity and on clinical trials transparency—two absolutely vital issues in the research community. I think we’ve had an impact through the reports that we have produced, and I think it will result in change that will enhance this country’s reputation for research integrity and transparency in years to come. Pete Wishart: Since I became the chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, I have been determined to take the Committee as much as possible to Scotland. We have been all over Scotland now, making them available and making sure people can see us in action. That more than anything else was this reconnection with people in Scotland, to make the Committee much more available and more useful to the people in deciding our agenda for us. So I think that shaping our agenda based on what people tell us they want is the greatest thing I have achieved as the chair of this Select Committee. Tom Tugendhat: Evidence sessions can be really tough. Sometimes the evidence can be harrowing. Listening to the evidence, for example, that we heard recently of a Uighur Muslim woman from Xinjiang and hearing about the abuse her family have been going though, or hearing from a North Korean dissident about the brutality conducted against her family. But the real problem with evidence sessions is that they are so short. You’ve got at best two or three hours. That sounds like a long time, but when you’ve got two panels and maybe three witnesses on each panel, you’re talking
very few minutes per panellist to respond to questions that often you could talk about, really, for hours. Meg Hillier: Being in the Chair in general is an amazing position, because you see the witnesses and the body language they have, and that is quite revealing, but also the people behind them. I am giving away a secret of the Committee room here; when the people behind are nodding vigorously, you know that the person in the front has done what they have been told to do. And when they shake their head, you think “Ah ha! We’ve got somewhere; they’ve said something that maybe they were not told to say.” Sir Norman Lamb: I guess the thing that frustrates me most in an evidence session is those witnesses who really won’t answer in a straight way the question you put to them. I always want to ensure that we are courteous and polite to witnesses that appear before us, but I do expect in return straight answers to clear questions. Maria Miller: The big change I would make to Select Committees is the resources we have available to us. At a time when scrutiny is more important than ever—we’re under continual 24/7 scrutiny from media organisations, interest groups, members of the public and our constituents—we need more resources to be able to do more reports and more detailed reports. Particularly we need to be able to get our own research. We are wholly reliant, for the most part, on research that’s done by outside organisations, and if there is a gap in research, it’s very difficult to fill it. Meg Hillier: What I would like to see in the future is much more interactive support for people who are watching who may not be in the room, and even for those in the room. If we refer, for example, to a graph or statistic, there is no easy way for that to flash up on the screen, and certainly if you’re watching it online or on TV, none of that information is there. The danger is that we are having a conversation of detail between a group of MPs who know about the subject, and witnesses who know about the subject, and we can dive in at too high a level. So I would like to see background information much more easily available for people who are online. Stephen Twigg: For the future, Select Committees need to engage a lot more with technology. We look at opportunities, for example, to hear from voices in other countries. It’s hard to set up the kind of video conferencing that might enable a witness in Nairobi to give evidence to our Committee. If we can really get the technology right, we can engage more with audiences here in this country, but also for Committees like mine, audiences internationally as well. Tom Tugendhat: One of the things I would do is make them much more open. Actually, although there are 11 I would allow, under the permission of the Chair, others to be invited if they have a particular expertise. So if there is somebody in Parliament who isn’t a member of a Select Committee, either because their work in other areas won’t allow them to, or because they don’t have time or whatever, you could invite them as a guest member to ask a particular series of questions. Sir Norman Lamb: If I could swap Committees for the day… Meg Hillier: I’ll have to think about that one for a minute… Pete Wishart: That’s quite easy for me, believe it or not. Tom Tugendhat: If I could swap for a day I’d have a go on all of them, to be honest. Pete Wishart: It would be Culture, Media and Sport, with my background as a musician and artist. I think there was a slight possibility I might have got that one about four years ago, but for a number of reasons it didn’t happen. Meg Hillier: If I could swap Committee for a day—that is a difficult question. Sir Norman Lamb: It would be the Health and Social Care Select Committee. I was a Minister in the Department for Health, as it was called at that time. It is an area I am fascinated by—particularly mental health— and I’d love to spend a little bit of time on that Committee. Meg Hillier: There are two that stand out. One is the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, because obviously with no Government in Northern Ireland at the moment, it is a particularly interesting time. The other one is DWP, because the pensions issue is this country is so critical, and work issues. There are a lot of things there that I would like to get stuck into. Maria Miller: I’d find it very difficult to go on to another Committee at the moment, because everything we are doing on the Women and Equalities Select Committee is fascinating, exciting and hugely important. But we find we have a lot of overlap in the things we do with the Home Affairs Committee, and if I wasn’t on the Women and Equalities Committees, I’d probably want to be on the Home Affairs Committee. Stephen Twigg: I love chairing the International Development Committee—it is a great privilege—but if I could have the opportunity to swap, I guess I’d swap with my good friend Meg Hillier and chair the Public Accounts Committee, because she gets to hold the whole Government to account. Tom Tugendhat: In a few minutes’ time I am going to be a guest on the Science and Tech Committee with Norman Lamb—sorry, Sir Norman Lamb—and the reason I am going is that they are doing some really impressive work on Huawei and the technology behind quite a lot of the political choices that are facing us through the 5G revolution. But I’d also love to be on the DCMS Committee, because the work that Damian Collins is doing there is fantastic— the way in which he is challenging the internet industry to be responsive. If you look at the work that Nicky Morgan is doing on Treasury, you can see that the amazing range of work that she’s been doing not just on the UK’s tax policy but on banks and the stability of our financial and global financial systems is fantastic. But perhaps, I suppose, the premier Committee in some ways is Meg Hillier on Public Accounts, where you have the complete span of all
Government spending. So I think there’s any number of areas that I would love to do, and that’s a bit political as an answer, because I haven’t chosen anything, but I think it just tells you that the truth is that all Committees can do fascinating work, if the Committee members and the chair wishes to lead them into those areas. Because the truth is that any aspect of British policy, whether it is foreign policy, financial policy or domestic policy, is about changing the lives and supporting the communities that make up these wonderful islands.
So I think any of that can be really fascinating.

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