Since the UK’s decision to leave the EU, businesses, trade associations and the third sector have experienced a sustained period of uncertainty. It is not just the Groundhog Day feeling generated by the process that is frustrating, but the lack of a domestic agenda in Parliament.
The legislative process has noticeably slowed. A combination of Brexit and a minority Conservative Government has made any prospect of initiating transformative change in crucial areas such as health and education unlikely.
A dearth of formal activity in the chambers of the Commons and Lords means that organisations and campaigners need to look at alternative means of grabbing the attention of the Government.
Yet, whilst Parliament may not be pursuing an agenda other than Brexit, there is ample opportunity to engage with Parliamentary Select Committees and as a result, they play an increasingly important role in the policymaking and accountability framework.
An important change was made to Committees’ composition in the wake of the MP expenses scandal – Committee chairs are now elected on a cross-party basis rather than being appointed by their party. The result of this has been an influx of more independent and experienced MPs at the helm – often meaning a more strategic approach and more frequent, higher quality inquiries. This also means that with a lack of Government led policy making, Select Committees can come into their own, advancing new policy positions and challenging existing ones.
More proactive and better resourced Committees also provide opportunities for various organisations and experts. For example, the Science & Technology Committee, chaired by former Health Minister Norman Lamb MP, has 24 inquiries currently open or completed since the 2017 General Election. By contrast during the last five years of the last Labour Government, the Committee only undertook a total of nine inquiries. For those seeking to shape the debate on any of the wide number of subjects the Committee covers, now is clearly an ideal opportunity to link your objectives with the Committee’s inquiries.
More inquiries also means more evidence sessions. For a global business or high-profile institution, being called to give evidence to a Select Committee is not uncommon. Evidence sessions will offer the Committee the chance to scrutinise or take expert evidence on a specific issue or broader policy area.
For organisations giving evidence the stakes can be very high – making or breaking reputations and sometimes affecting the market valuation and future prospects of commercial entities. Preparing for Select Committee appearances is not something to leave to chance or take for granted as demonstrated by Amazon’s poor preparation ahead of a session with the Public Accounts Committee at the start of the decade. We’ve also listed some of our other favourites from 2018 here.
Organisations should take advice at the earliest indication of an inquiry or call for submission being announced. This allows time to liaise with committee clerks about the scope of an inquiry and provides sufficient time to agree key messages, draft a written response and – if called to give evidence – begin developing Q&As and taking an assessment of the characteristics of the Committee.
Select Committee’s ability to break stories and fill column inches can obviously be a reputational risk but the reverse can also be true. A well prepared and opportunistic organisation can use the forum of an evidence session to make a positive announcement that will be given wider publicity than it otherwise would. It is important to remember that for organisation confident of their messages and where they want to effect change, evidence sessions should be embraced as a proactive opportunity as much as a reactive one.
by Joe Cormack