Effort equals success: the role of committee members

Whatever a select committee does, its effectiveness depends, above all, on its chair and members. Their commitment and effort are crucial. As the Liaison Committee said in its 2000 report Shifting the Balance:

no pain, no gain: there is no easy route to success. A determined and hardworking committee, in which Members are prepared to devote substantial effort and put the interests of the citizen and taxpayer first, can be extraordinarily effective.

MPs on select committees need an up-to-date understanding of the subject area. They do not have to be great technical experts - and, indeed, there is some reason for them not to be; it could be said that one of the strengths of select committees is that they are made up of well-informed lay people who can ask common-sense questions of the experts and make sure they get proper answers. Occasional attempts to browbeat witnesses for some easy headlines do nothing for the select committee system and are usually counter-productive. As a wise select committee chair of another era used to say, ‘more flies are caught with honey than with vinegar’.

On individual inquiries, members of a committee need to keep up with the written and oral evidence and to prepare for oral evidence sessions. The committee staff support the committee through briefing, and summarising and analysing evidence, but there is no substitute for individual MPs having command of the subject. Although, as we have seen in earlier chapters, there are many other calls on MPs’ time, the most effective oral evidence sessions - especially with difficult and well- briefed witnesses - are those at which all the members of a committee are present throughout; are well-prepared; divide up the areas of questioning between them; ask questions rather than make statements; follow up each other’s questions - and do not spend time tweeting during the evidence.

It is sometimes suggested that committees should have counsel to undertake part of the examination of witnesses: and counsel was used in this way in the work of the

Banking Standards Commission. However, it is relatively rare for this sort of forensic examination to be required: other types of inquiry are frequently more valuable and play to other select committee strengths, and when forensic examination is required, a good many MPs are perfectly capable of extremely effective questioning. There is also an important principle at stake. MPs are elected by the people to speak in Parliament, ask questions and take part in parliamentary proceedings: they should be wary of delegating these functions to the unelected.

Being an effective member of a select committee is time-consuming. A chair can easily spend the equivalent of two to three days a week on committee business, having to combine this with all the other pressures on an MP, and the time commitment for members of a busy committee may not be much less (which demonstrates that membership of more than one investigative committee, which happens too often, is not a practical proposition). The average attendances each session for the most well- respected committees routinely top 80 per cent.

A bargain price

The Liaison Committee described the achievements of the select committee system as having been ‘at a bargain price’. This is still the case. Staff costs relating to select committees (other than those relating to the National Audit Office and the Ombudsman) run at around ?14 million a year, and all other costs, including printing, transcription of evidence, specialist advisers, travel, and commissioned work, amount to a little over ?3 million. ‘Bargain’ seems a fair description.

 
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