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Speaking truth to power: Polygeia’s guide to Parliamentary Select Committees

When being interviewed about internet surveillance, Gen. Keith Alexander, the former director of the NSA, once joked that the organisation he headed was “the only agency in government that really listens”. Thankfully Britain has a more direct institution that allows citizens, non-profits and corporations to communicate with their government – the Parliamentary Select Committee. In order to demystify Select Committees, Polygeia recently hosted a talk given by Leoni Kurt, a Clerk at the House of Commons. Leoni has worked for the Science and Technology and Defence Committees and currently works in Parliamentary Outreach – which goes some way to explaining why she was willing to spend four hours of a pleasant London evening teaching us the nuances of the British Parliamentary system.

Leoni began by explaining the origins and purpose of Select Committees. The first Parliamentary Committees were formed in Elizabethan times to look at subjects such as the failed invasion of Britain by a neighbouring country as well as a Committee looking at the uniformity of religion. While the role of Committees has morphed substantially since the sixteenth century the general concept of a Select Committee as a collection of MPs focusing on a particular problem of governance has remained relatively constant throughout the years. Parliament consists of two Houses, the Commons and the Lords. Both Houses have a number of Select Committees which comprise around ten to fifteen members. There are some joint Committees with Members from both Houses, such as the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. Committees have cross-party membership and in most cases exist for the length of the Parliament, although in the House of Lords, they may appoint ad-hoc Committees to look into particular issues, such as sexual violence, which are convened for a limited time. The focus of Commons and Lords Committees is subtly different. Commons Committees tend to mirror a government department and its connected agencies and exist to scrutinise and advise that department. However, there are some ‘cross-cutting’ Commons Committees such as the Environmental Audit and Public Accounts Committees which cast their eye on all government departments and public bodies. In contrast, Lords Committees tend not to focus on individual government departments. Instead Lords Committees make use of the more diverse backgrounds and technical expertise of their members to examine issues such as the EU, the economy and constitutional matters.

Leoni went on to explain how the composition of Commons Committees is decided. At the beginning of a new Parliament each party is allocated a number of Committee Chairs subject to negotiation between the parties. Chairs are responsible for directing the business of a Select Committee and lead the Committee during public hearings. Some parties have special interests and so naturally gravitate towards Committee Chairmanships that allow them to further their work in that area. For example, the SNP MP Pete Wishart chairs the Scottish Affairs Committee. Once the parties have claimed their various chairs, candidates from those parties can nominate themselves for an election in which all MPs are eligible to vote by secret ballot. After chairs for the various Committees have been decided, ordinary members of the Committees are decided by another round of negotiation between and within the parties.

Once a Committee is formed it can begin the business of starting an inquiry into some matter within its remit. Inquiries tend to focus on issues of broad public interest. However, because Committees are made up of MPs from a number of parties they tend not to form inquiries to investigate contentious ideological issues. Leoni noted that a possible exception to this convention is the fact that a number of Committees have begun inquiries into the potential effects of the EU referendum, and a British exit from the EU.

The process of conducting an inquiry has four main steps. First, members of the Committee work together with Clerks (and occasionally outside experts) in order to ‘scope’ an inquiry. This involves deciding on the main themes and questions the inquiry will seek to address. This results in the second step, a call for written evidence published on the Committee’s Parliamentary website. The call for evidence will include the Terms of Reference for the inquiry. This is a list of topics and questions that the committee would like to receive evidence on. Anyone can submit written evidence to an inquiry and most submissions are eventually published by the Committee as formal written evidence. The third step in the inquiry process is the taking of oral evidence. A Committee may call people to give oral evidence for any number of reasons. Sometimes they wish to ask follow-up questions based on a person or organisation’s written evidence, sometimes they will call individuals or organisations who they think are important stakeholders and sometimes they will call a person who has an emotive story to tell in order to raise awareness of the issues under discussion. After written and oral evidence is taken the committee members will work together with clerks in order to draft a final report. The report usually makes a number of recommendations to the Government. The Government will then review the report and choose whether or not to accept any of the recommendations. The Government’s response is normally published by the Committee as a special report, but could also be presented to Parliament as a Command paper. The Committee will review the Government’s response, and may themselves respond by holding a follow-up evidence session or writing to the relevant Minister.

There are a number of ways that individuals or organisations can influence what issues Select Committees decide to focus on. Anyone who believes that there is a problem which requires the establishing of a new inquiry can write to the relevant Committee Chair or Committee Clerk detailing the problem and asking for an inquiry to be set up. Additionally it is possible to lobby relevant All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) who may be interested in a particular cause. APPGs are cross-party groups made up of MPs who share a common interest in a specific policy area. Select committee members will in some cases also be members of a number of APPGs relevant to the remit of their committee.

Once an inquiry has issued a call for evidence anyone is welcome to submit written evidence. While there are no hard rules about the form written evidence should take, Leoni gave these tips to make sure your written evidence has the maximum impact when it reaches the Select Committee.

1) Keep it short

While there is no official word limit on written evidence, keeping the submission below 3,000 words is recommended-submissions which are substantially longer than this may be rejected. 30,000 words is too long!

2) Keep it simple

The Committee Members and Clerks reading your submission may not be experts in the field. So make an effort to explain important technical terms and concepts that may not be common knowledge and avoid jargon.

3) Keep to the facts

It is expected that you will express an opinion on various policy ideas in your submission. However, back these opinions up with evidence such as newspaper articles, academic journals or official statistics that are clearly referenced so that Committee Members can verify the claims you have made where possible.

4) Keep to the point

The scope of the inquiry is guided by the terms of reference. Try to directly address the questions posed in the terms of reference. This can be done by using the individual bullet points in the terms of reference as section headers for your submission. This was strongly recommended by Leoni as it is an easy way to give structure to the submission. Leoni also recommended numbering the paragraphs of the submission for ease of reference. Don’t feel obliged to respond to every point in the terms of reference. If some points are beyond your expertise you are free to ignore them. However, sometimes there may be points that are not covered within the terms of reference which you think are relevant, so remember to include those within submissions.

5) Keep to the deadline

Any evidence submitted past the official deadline is much less likely to be published as part of the formal written evidence of the inquiry.

My thoughts on the talk

I found Leoni’s talk absolutely fascinating. Although this probably says as much about my innate wonkishness as it does about the objective quality of the talk. Leoni gave a really detailed insight into the day-to-day of how policy gets made in the UK and I would encourage anyone working on a Polygeia research project to keep an eye out for Select Committees which may be interested to hear about the work of your group. Committee inquiries require a lot of, sometimes thankless, work on the part of Parliamentary staff and MPs. And because of their sometimes glacial pace and lack of political intrigue, Committee inquiries rarely get the media coverage they deserve. Despite this, Select Committees represent perhaps the most powerful instrument Parliament has to monitor Government ministries and individual Ministers. Moreover, Select Committees serve as forums which allow backbench MPs to learn about the issues most important to the people and institutions of the country. For these reasons alone, anyone interested in how the UK transmutes ideas-on-paper into real-world change should have a good working knowledge of Select Committee practises.

I would like to thank Leoni Kurt for her help and advice in preparing this article.

Patrick L Diaz is currently studying for a PhD in plant science, his research focuses on crossover during meiosis; a process that occurs in all sexually reproducing organisms. Patrick joined Polygeia because he was curious about how basic science and research gets translated into policy. He is especially concerned about areas of science where there is a disconnect between the opinions of scientists and the public. As Cambridge training officer, Patrick is responsible for delivering training to researchers and editors on subjects such as critical thinking, policy writing and public speaking.


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