Although they’ve been around for over 40 years, since 1979 in fact, select committees have only very recently assumed the important and influential role as integral to the checks and balances of our unique uncodified British constitutional settlement. For many years, the media, the civil service, ministers, business and the third sector were both disinterested in and largely ignorant of the work of select committees, which then had handpicked members (chosen by the party whips) and achieved little of note bar the occasional worthy-if-dull report, which was frequently ignored by the government.
One major exception to this perhaps unfair caricature was the select committee on which I had the great good fortune to serve from 2012 to 2016 – the oldest and most prestigious oversight and scrutiny body in parliament, the Public Accounts Committee. PAC was first established in 1861, where it oversaw £69m of government spending – equivalent to £8bn now. Today it oversees £800bn worth. Similarly, the nineteenth-century PAC reported once a year in the summer rather than twice a week during parliamentary sittings, as is now the custom.
In these ferociously partisan times, it’s pretty astonishing, too, that there has never been a public vote in a PAC meeting in over 150 years: decisions are reached by debate and are led by evidence and consensus. The committee prides itself on “leaving your party affiliation at the door” of the committee room. Amazing but true.
Still, unlike any other select committee, which are often clerked with a skeleton staff of maybe three or four officials, the PAC has the intellectual and repetitional muscle of the National Audit Office – around 800 accountants, auditors and lawyers – to fall back on.
The PAC is exceptional but the trend nevertheless in the last ten years has meant all select committees really count – for MPs, policy wonks, taxpayers and businesses, especially those seeking to safeguard and enhance their reputations and those who work to provide services for the government. Ever since the reforms in the 2010-15 parliament, which meant select committee chairs were elected by all MPs and individual members by their parliamentary party caucuses, the power of the whips has been broken and securing a seat on a high-profile committee can be lucrative, rewarding and career enhancing.
In truth, if you do the job properly, serving diligently on a select committee is hard work and not a task for which your demanding constituents are often likely to thank you for. They often assume if you’re not in the chamber or the constituency, you must be skiving. It was ever thus. The media also now understand in a way they never did before that select committee reports can be a rich mine of topical and interesting stories about waste, incompetence, corruption, risk-taking, arrogance and the like. They can also be a showcase for flamboyant and newsworthy witnesses and showboating and media-savvy chairs, like my old boss Dame Margaret Hodge, who chaired the PAC between 2010 and 2015 and who almost singlehandedly relaunched the committee as a trailblazer after a quiet few years. Dame Margaret put the massive issue of corporate tax avoidance front and centre of British polity as she slowly and methodically eviscerated business giants Google, Starbucks and Amazon in 2012. Others followed in her wake, such as Andrew Tyrie at the Treasury Select Committee and Keith Vaz at the Home Affairs Select Committee. The drama and sense of occasion present at key hearings have been great box-office entertainment on social and traditional media and, to be candid, has occasionally led those committees to chase ratings rather than inquiring solely into the efficacy of government policy or taxpayer value for money. In short, it’s not been unalloyed good news.
That said, select committees fulfil an important function in holding ministers and, in the case of the PAC, senior civil servants to account. The reputation of a permanent secretary can be completely shredded by a poor committee performance, with ramifications within their department and for their ministerial team. They shine a harsh light on conspiracies and cock-ups, on ministerial failings and minor triumphs, on institutional and structural failings, and it rights wrongs that “the system” too often misses in the hurly-burly of governing a complex, multi-faceted, modern, rich democracy. They really can damage and maybe even break careers. The reason ministers hate appearing before them is not just because the evidence session is one of the few occasions that they are not in control and indeed adrift in front of a hostile committee and microphones and cameras, but that the preparation for the session will have meant many hours of homework and second-guessing potential gotcha moments and curveball questions with their officials and special advisors. Even veteran performers like Michael Gove make sure that they’re ready for combat and that’s indicative of the fact that the government takes these grillings and the subsequent reports much more seriously than hitherto.
"Ambitious civil servants know that ministers, permanent secretaries, special advisers, private offices, other departments and their contemporaries will be analysing their select committee performances with great interest and that thorough preparation is not a luxury"
Ambitious civil servants know that ministers, permanent secretaries, special advisers, private offices, other departments and their contemporaries will be analysing their select committee performances with great interest and that thorough preparation is a necessity and not a luxury. Crashing and burning in front of MPs at a key witness hearing can be career limiting and certainly, at a minimum, embarrassing. I’ve seen more than one perm sec tongue tied, exasperated and crestfallen after a bruising encounter before the PAC.
That said, it’s not a one-way street. Yes, you can sink without trace, but you can also save the honour and reputation of your department and win valuable career kudos into the bargain, with a confident and compelling performance – well briefed but not a smart alec, authoritative but not pompous. Civil servants occasionally appear insular and passionately focused on their very particular work streams, but the very best civil service leaders have a strong strategic overview and a talent for exemplary stakeholder management.
Politics and government is a brutal world where your share price in credibility and influence can evaporate overnight. Why risk a disastrous outing before cranky members of parliament, followed up by a painful mauling in the media and an awkward board meeting or perm sec interview without coffee? Invariably, it works out. The MPs have a job to do, they understand you’re a professional taking one for the team and the evidence taking goes without a hitch. Maybe the chair even takes a shine to you, but why take a chance? If you’re a risk-taker, you might try to wing it. Otherwise, you’d be wise to get inside the head of your interlocutors and invest in proper prior planning and training. It might save your blushes and your promotion prospects!
Stewart Jackson is a Dods training associate and was MP of Peterborough, then a special adviser, from 2005-2018. He served on the Commons Health Select Committee from 2006-2007 and Public Accounts Committee from 2012-2016