Locking horns for the common good

Select committees are looking for a proper argument

By Matt.Ross

22 Feb 2012

This week’s Special Report, in which we ask the chairs of select committees to appraise the attitudes and efficacy of the departments they watch, provides a mixed picture (see p1, p8-13). Importantly, the areas of light and shade in that picture don’t appear to be defined by those chairs’ political loyalties: the MPs seem to be carefully observing their non-partisan brief, with party membership providing a very poor predictor of their relationships with the departments.

In fact, most of these relationships seem to be working pretty well – even allowing for the chairs’ interest in talking up ministers’ and officials’ readiness to help and willingness to listen. Most departments’ witnesses and data are praised; and many of the chairs point to policy changes that, they believe, were made in response to committee reports.

Indeed, the main complaint is not that departments sometimes reject recommendations; it is that, too often, those rejections aren’t supported by fully worked-up arguments that engage directly with the committee’s concerns. This is a gripe that civil servants should be able to address.

To meet and deal with committees’ concerns, departments may have to make more contentious or overtly political arguments; or they may need to more openly acknowledge the risks or weak points in a policy, while clearly setting out the safeguards. Just as often, the solution will simply be to recognise the picture being painted by committees, and to wholeheartedly address the broad arguments rather than trying to isolate and shoot down individual points or recommendations in a hail of government statistics. As CSW well knows, departments too often try to avoid bad publicity by repeating their own perspective rather than dealing with their interlocutors’ – but this approach, while denying the other side further ammunition, leaves people feeling patronised and ignored.

Only in a few cases do relationships between chairs and parts of government seem to have deteriorated to the point where the relationships themselves, rather than the issues, are shaping the conversation. Elements of this problem are visible with regard to the Home Affairs Committee, for example, and – beyond the departmental committees – the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) too. This, unfortunately, is the point at which interpersonal issues and histories of conflict begin to interfere with committees’ ability to do their jobs, while creating a ready supply of juicy – and politically expensive – grist to the media mill.

In these circumstances, both the chairs and the departments need to make determined efforts to put their relationships on a more constructive footing. In providing witnesses and answering questions, departments should be as open as possible; and chairs, for their part, should recognise the pressures acting on departments and officials, and ensure that they don’t get so carried away in their investigatory zeal that they end up damaging the relationship which lies at the heart of their effectiveness.

As PAC chair Margaret Hodge herself told CSW soon after taking her new post (p13, CSW 22 Sept 2010): “People feel frightened of appearing in front of the PAC. They should feel that they’ve got to be accountable, but I don’t think they should feel it’s going to be a show in which our object is to make a fool of the person giving evidence. I want to move away from that culture – but it takes two to tango.” CSW entirely agrees, and recommends Hodge’s comments to all involved – including, dare we say it, the PAC chair herself. ?

Matt Ross, Editor.matt.ross@dods.co.uk

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