Jacqui Smith: Select committees beckon for Labour's talent
VIEW FROM AN EX-MINISTER: Labour MPs such as Chuka Umunna might be better of as select committee chairs.
What do you do if you’re an ambitious, talented and experienced Labour MP who can’t stomach a place in a Corbyn shadow cabinet?
This week, Tim Farron suggested that the battle between Caroline Flint, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna to chair the home affairs select committee was one of premier league politicians ‘jostling for position in a side show’. This is conference speech rhetoric and I agree with him about the calibre of those three candidates, but is he right about select committees? I don’t think so.
To be frank, I suspect that the chair of the home affairs select committee will be more able to get a public platform and more able to influence policy than a shadow cabinet minister or even the most junior ministers in government.
Since 2008, the amount of media mentions of select committee work has more than trebled. There is certainly more attention being paid, but are committees delivering results? Public scrutiny is a key element of impact. Ministers are held to account in a whole range of ways by parliament – questions, debates, statements. However I always used to be reminded of doing my finals when I appeared in front of a select committee.
Rhetoric, political grandstanding or lengthy dull answers can usually get you through a tricky spot in parliamentary questions or a debate, but a select committee hearing allows a more detailed consideration with follow up questions and probing. A wily minister can turn this to his advantage. John Reid’s famous ‘not fit for purpose’ quote about the Immigration department of the Home Office was uttered at the home affairs committee. Conversely, an unprepared or inexperienced minister can be exposed by the detail of select committee interrogation. I don’t subscribe to the snide and largely misogynist criticism of Liz Truss’s appointment as Justice Secretary, but she’ll need to beef up her select committee appearances in future to avoid further bad notices.
Much of the media interest in select committees comes from their ability to summon high profile faces to parliament and to put them through the wringer.
Rupert Murdoch, Philip Green and Mike Ashley all resisted a committee summons, but eventually appeared without the need for arcane parliamentary procedures to get them there. They were probably rightly advised that even a committee grilling was likely to offer some opportunity to get their points over and avoided the PR ignominy of being branded cowardly or being dragged to parliament. Select committee members have, however, been criticised for failing to really lay a finger on these high profile witnesses. It is true that neither the process nor the skills of the members equip them for a really forensic legal style cross examination. And there are select committee members who don’t always put in the preparation necessary to get to the bottom of issues. However, certainly in the case of Mike Ashley, the MPs could claim to have materially altered the working practices at Sports Direct through their work on the committee.
During my time as a member of the Treasury committee in 1998, we started the process of appointment hearings for members of the Monetary Policy Committee. This has now spread to other committees and jobs. However, here we see a clear contrast with the power of the far stronger US committee system. The education committee refused to approve the appointment of Amanda Spielman as OFSTED Chief Inspector, but Justine Greening nevertheless confirmed her appointment. The truth is that the US Appointment confirmation process is both broader in scope and more powerful in its ability to halt appointments than the current UK select committee pre appointment hearing system.
To be a really powerful alternative career route, MPs will need to be convinced that select committee work can have an impact on policy. It is not clear that this is the case. Whilst Caroline
Flint has cleverly used the work of the public accounts committee to inform and promote her Finance Bill amendment on tax transparency, most select committee reports do not really change or initiate policy. Whilst I feared my appearances before the committee, I didn’t feel the same trepidation about select committee reports. They have strength because the recommendations are informed by evidence and are cross party conclusions. Committee chairs are getting better at publicising their key messages.
However, the fate of most reports is to receive a non-committal government response and, if they’re chosen, to be the subject of a lacklustre parliamentary debate. Committees are still not focussing enough attention on following up their recommendations and on harrying the government on progress (or not) in the areas they’ve considered. The committee members are keener to move onto new pastures than they are to bang on about the old issues until they actually make an impact.
There is an opportunity for committees to make a difference if they take up the opportunities offered by post legislative scrutiny. The government now undertakes to produce a report on how any piece of legislation is actually working out 3-5 years after it is passed. This could form the basis of a really interesting Select committee enquiry which could change laws and lead to better legislation in the first place.
All of this could make a political job which doesn’t quite measure up to being a cabinet minister, but may be both more interesting and more significant than being a long term opposition front bench spokesperson. Expect to see even more Labour talent heading to the committees.