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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 09-Oct-06


Monday 09-October-06

Select committees

I went on a course this week about appearing before Select Committees. Something akin to the Congressional Committee in the USA, they are focused committees which scrutinize and criticize the working of UK government departments. They are made up of cross-party members of both houses (Commons and Lords). Whereas in other meetings, MPs may deal in feelings and opinions, the job of the select committee is more cognitive, determining facts and reality and ensuring the country is served well.

A problem for the select committee is that they do not have the legal status of a court of law, but do have a similar goal in seeking after truth. Whilst courts of law have the power of jurisdiction, the select committee can only publish reports and make recommendations. They are, however, extremely powerful, and MPs may quake in their boots  when called to be questioned by the committee. The committee may also call captains of industry to appear before them or members of governmental bodies This is where I come in -- not that I am ever likely to be called, but I may have to advise those who are.

What is interesting is how the committee applies pressure to extract the truth from the people who appear before it. Remember that many are politicians and are expert at not answering the question put before them and even a good lawyer might find a bar of soap easier to handle.

One of the most powerful effects on those called to give evidence to the select committee is the layout of the room. The members of the committee sit in a U-shape, with the chairman and clerk at the head. In the middle of the U sits a recorder, who captures everything that is said. The person being questioned sits at the open end of the U, facing about a dozen members. Behind the person are benches for the public. To the side is seating for the press. The room may well be clad in oak-panels. All of this has the effect of intimidating the person being questioned and making the room appear similar to a law court. Thus the person questioned should transfer how they would behave in court into how they behave in front of the select committee.

The members of the committee also tend to act as if they were lawyers questioning a witness or plaintiff, coercing them further into answering the question asked. Questions can also change radically as each member asks different questions (sometimes designed as much to make them look good as get to the real truth). Whilst there is no obligation for those called to fully answer questions, not to do so can be political suicide. The press take great interest in the select committee, and report on anything of interest, which includes any MPs who appear to be squirming under the spotlight.

Overall, select committees seem like a good counterbalance to the cut and thrust of the parliamentary floor. Getting democracy right is a hard business, but now I understand a little more, I have greater confidence that our system, although not perfect is also not bad.

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