Selecting committee witnesses: A man's world
Since the implementation of the 2010 Wright Committee reforms, it has become an established fact of political life that select committees have become more visible and powerful. The reforms established elections for the members, and crucially, chairs, of committees for the first time. The way committees work is to listen to evidence from witnesses, who then inform the findings of their inquiries on policy areas across Government.
But who are these witnesses? While many are simply the relevant Ministers or ‘quango’ chiefs, many are outside experts. In a new report, Democratic Audit looked at a month of select committee witnesses across both Houses of Parliament between early October and early November. What we found was a considerable gender gap, with 439 of 583 witnesses being men, 75% of the total. The House of Commons fared slightly worse than the House of Lords, with men representing 76% of committee witnesses to the Lords’ 71%.
Some of this is inevitable. Committees often have a limited amount of time to find potential witnesses, and often request a spokesperson from an organisation without specifying who. As such, it is often chief executives or senior staff who attend, with an increased likelihood that a man will represent the organisation. Likewise, if the Environment committee wishes to speak to the Secretary of State for the Environment, they only have one possibility, Owen Paterson MP. This is only one example of hundreds of possible scenarios in which a committee will find its choice of witness circumscribed.
However, committees’ hands are not always tied. Often, they appeal to experts for uniquely qualified insights into a given policy area. In these cases (provided, as with the case of the Public Administration Committees questioning of Nigel Shadbolt and Stephen Shakespeare, the experts in question are not active participants in a Government initiative) committees have a range of different potential invitees. Here, the results are disappointing. It is the ‘independent experts’ category we identified which shows the greatest disparity between men and women, with 83% of those appearing during the survey period who could be classified as ‘experts’ being men. The disparity was similar across each category of expert, specifically individuals (those without an organisational affiliation), academics, think tanks, and parliamentarians (excluding ministers).
Some individual committees exhibited a particular gender imbalance: the Energy and Climate Change Committee only took evidence from two women out of 32 (or 6%). Likewise, the Transport Committee only spoke to five women out of 27 (19%) and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee only 5 out of 29 (17%). The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee fared better, with 13 out of 31 committee witnesses being women (42%); however this is likely to be because the subject of the sessions in question was ‘women in STEM careers’. Likewise, the only committee to hear from more women than men – the (temporary) Mental Capacity Act 2005 Committee – heard mainly from caring professionals, in industries with a higher degree of women in senior positions.
Our research also looked at organisational affiliations which, likewise, produced some noteworthy results. One is that committees are clearly taking advantage of their ability to gather evidence from a wide range of different organisations and perspectives, alongside holding government to account.
Approximately 59% of witnesses are drawn from outside the public sector. The private sector provides 18% of witnesses and the non-profit sector 20%, with the remainder drawn from higher education, unaffiliated individuals and other sources. Organisations regularly giving evidence to committees include private companies, trade associations, professional bodies, unions, think-tanks, charities and local authorities.
There is clear difference between the parliamentary chambers in this regard. Most House of Commons committees have a remit to scrutinise a government department, so it is no surprise to see that 51% of witnesses at Commons committees are from the public sector. This drops to 18% in the House of Lords, where there is a greater emphasis on outside expertise.
Although witnesses come from a variety of types of organisation, the distribution between types is not necessarily even. Trade unions provide an example of the disparity. In the period we examined, only eight witnesses (1% of the total) from unions appeared before select committees. Worse still, the majority of these were witnesses from the Police Federation, who appeared at two different sessions of the Home Affairs Committee dealing with the fallout of the plebgate affair. There were just two witnesses (0.3%) from non-police unions – one each from NASUWT and Unison.
In contrast, trade associations appeared much more frequently, providing 55 witnesses (9% of all witnesses). The vast majority of these associations represented private companies (78% of trade association witnesses). Some were regular attenders, including the Local Government Association, National Farmers Union and the Federation of Small Businesses, each with three or four appearances.
Witnesses in the ‘independent experts’ category comprised over a fifth (21%) of witnesses. Again, they were more prevalent in the Lords (39%) than the Commons (14%). Indeed, the Lords committees are very fond of inviting parliamentarians: the fact that over 10% of witnesses at Lords committees are either backbench MPs or peers may prompt accusations that committees are spending too much time questioning their own colleagues.
Examining the geographical locations of the organisations invited to appear at select committees is crucial in determining the representativeness of witnesses. Of course, the vast majority of government guests are based in London, but those from other sectors need not be so. We considered the geography of university academics invited to give evidence – bearing in mind that unlike other ‘expert’ organisations like think-tanks, universities are distributed evenly across the country. However, we found that a disproportionate number (44%) of academics appearing at select committees were based in London – in fact there were more academics from the rest of England put together.
While much of this discrepancy can be explained with reference to society’s established power structures and imbalances, we’d like to see more of an effort made on the Committee side to bring about, where possible, a greater degree of gender and regional parity. As committees become more powerful, it is important that they receive their evidence from a more representative base.