Select Committee inquiries are not the damp squibs they used to be.
Media-friendly inquiries into MPs expenses and phone hacking have certainly helped raised their profile, and gone are the days of MPs grandstanding for the two people watching Parliament TV.
Recent research from the Constitution Unit at UCL into the impact of Select Committees found that around 40% of their recommendations are implemented by Government. Beyond this, Select Committees were found to be influential in much more subtle, less quantifiable, ways:
- Contributing to debate
- Drawing together evidence
- Spotlighting issues
- Brokering between actors in government
- Improving the quality of government decision-making through accountability
- Exposing failures
- Generating fear
This is pretty significant stuff and your organisation is going to want a piece of that influence pie.
So how do you grab the attention of a select committee?
Select Committee inquiries are ten a penny: for example, the Health Select Committee currently has 11 ongoing inquiries. The key is finding the right committee and the right inquiry for your organisation’s policy issues and priorities. Make sure you keep an eye on your committees of choice – subscribe to email alerts on the Parliament website.
Once a Select Committee has decided to launch an inquiry into a particular issue, their first step is usually to invite interested parties to submit written evidence to the committee through a call for evidence. This is your chance to highlight your key messages on the subject.
What to do:
- Closely examine the inquiry’s terms of reference and be selective about which points you submit evidence on. Quality is better than quantity.
- Layout is crucial. Section headings are your friend – make sure it’s really easy for the reader to work out which item from the terms of reference your points are referring to. Use the same wording if possible.
- Why you? Be very clear and specific about how your policy area relates to the inquiry and why it’s important. If possible, provide quantitative data to support your positions.
- Segue… Be creative within reason about how you interpret the terms of reference. Think about how the party interests and personal passions of committee members will likely shape the inquiry – politicians will interpret questions in a way that allows them to repeat their key messages.
- Solutions. Probably the most important thing is not just to highlight problems, but to also provide answers. Committees are always looking for ready made, evidence-based solutions. Be sure to include an identifiable owner so the committee knows which body/bodies should be responsible for delivering this change, and which heads to bang together if and when it doesn’t happen.
- Be sure to include real-life case studies and examples of good practice. Highlight longstanding and new research to support your messages – in the absence of UK data, look internationally. Reference your work well throughout.
If you’re super lucky your written submission will result in your organisation being invited to give oral evidence before the committee.
A word of warning: oral evidence sessions are not as well-mannered as they used to be. Committees have become increasingly adversarial in recent times, pursuing pretty ferocious lines of questioning. Government bodies and senior civil servants usually fare the worst but you should still prepare as much as possible.
So how do you prepare for oral evidence?
- Choose the right person for the job. In many cases, your chief executive will be the person to represent your organisation before the committee, but sometimes another member of senior management is best. Pick whoever has the most appropriate knowledge, expertise and credibility.
- Call the committee clerk. Try and get as much information from them as possible: particular interests of the committee, likely lines of questioning, which committee members are likely to be attending the session, and other invited panel members.
- Speak to other panel members. Find out who will be representing each invited organisation, speak to them about their key messages and areas of focus, ask to see their written submissions, and explore whether there are any areas on which you agree.
- Brief brief brief. Use all the information you’ve learnt to brief your representative to within an inch of her life. Write a detailed briefing on what to expect, committee members and other panel members, key messages, lines to take, tone of voice, and answers to difficult questions. Hold a rapid-fire Q&A session to give them a chance to practice answering questions (both expected and unexpected).
- Go along to support your man. Make sure you’re sat behind him in the public gallery so you can pass him a note during the session if he really gets in a pickle. Don’t forget that sitting behind the panel means your lovely face will be all over the live broadcast, and immortalised in the Parliament TV archive forever.
- And if all else fails, don’t forget that if you don’t have the information to hand (or the question is a real stinker) it’s perfectly fine to say that you’d be happy to follow up the point with the committee in writing.
And that’s it. Easy, right?
Amy Forbes works in policy for a medical research charity