Select Committees bare their teeth

Two Select Committees are in the news for very different reasons. Both have important lessons for business.

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has published a controversial report condemning News International for the News of the World‘s alleged widespread phone-tapping of public figures. There are potentially major reputation – and possibly legal – implications for Rupert Murdoch‘s UK newsgroup.

Yesterday, too, Bank of England Governor, Sir Mervyn King appeared for the 17th time before the Treasury Select Committee and its forensic Chairman, John McFall MP. It was also King’s 19th Parliamentary questioning on the economic crisis in 29 months. Like Bob Beamon’s long-jump record, this was set in extraordinary circumstances and is unlikely to be surpassed for a very long time. King admitted that his time before the Treasury Committee “hadn’t been fun and, if I’m honest, it hasn’t been easy”. But what King did acknowledge is the high quality of the Committee’s reports and that they have contributed to the reform of the UK financial sector.

Parliamentary Select Committees rarely attract much attention beyond the Westminster village. Although they have existed for centuries, the modern system of departmental Select Committees was only established in 1979, as an innovation under Margaret Thatcher. Today, there are 19 of them. In the last full session they produced nearly 250 reports, but only about 25 of them were debated in Parliament. These reports are hardly ever read by anyone outside the Westminster bubble. And apart from the Mervyn King Show the work of the committees rarely makes it onto television screens – unless you watch the Parliamentary Channel at two in the morning.

Despite this, the Select Committees should not be ignored by businesses and campaigning organisations that seek to influence policy. Select Committees can present a valuable means to, at the very least, publicise views, criticisms or policy proposals. With a well-argued case, which wins over the committees, organisations can sometimes even exert some influence on Government policy.

But Select Committees are also be bear traps. I have helped prepare people for grillings from McFall and other Committees, so I know how King felt each time he was up before his inquisitor. It can be even worse for representatives of commercial organisations, whose company reputations (and their own jobs) can be on the line. News International is one high-profile, politicised example. But damage can also be done in much lower-profile committees: witness the discomfort that Tesco suffered at the hands of the Human Rights Committee last year, when pressed about its refusal to meet a trade union seeking recognition in its US subsidiary. Select Committees should not be underestimated.

And, potentially, with a minority Government in a hung Parliament or with a weak majority, who knows? Select Committees could be more influential than ever before.

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