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by Caitlin Wilkinson 27th March, 2018

The rise of the select committee

Recent weeks have seen a host of high profile businesses face the select committee room – with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg being the latest in the crosshairs.

Public appetite for greater scrutiny of big businesses, combined with the decline in importance of other methods of parliamentary scrutiny such as Prime Ministers Questions, means select committees are more powerful than ever before. As such, the right select committee training is essential.

Select committees, once low-key affairs with narrow remits set up to scrutinise minutiae of policy, have been gaining influence and column inches steadily over the last 5 years – with infamous appearances from everyone from Mike Ashley to Hugh Grant. This rise in power has only accelerated in 2018 due to the lack of meaningful scrutiny elsewhere.

Prime Ministers Questions is a good example of this.

Not so long ago, PMQs was the most important event in the political week and a crucial vehicle for scrutiny and debate. Whilst it still holds importance, that is now largely derived from its profile rather than its impact – guaranteed coverage on the news bulletins of the day. However, as commentators such as the Guardian’s John Crace have noted, this has led to its change in status with politicians increasingly using PMQs as an opportunity to create short, social media-friendly soundbites, rather than engage in intense scrutiny of their opponents.

It also does not help that neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn is highly skilled at the dispatch box, with each consistently failing to land any sizeable blows and seemingly more interested in creating openings for their own pre-pared one-liners.

In this vacuum, select committees have come into their own.

For Labour backbenchers, frustrated with the leadership and their party’s inability to effectively hold the government to account, chairing a select committee provides an opportunity to increase their credibility, question policymakers and the companies who interact with them, and attract some press attention whilst doing so.

Rachel Reeves and Frank Field are among those making a name for themselves as chairs of the influential BEIS Committee and Work and Pensions Committee respectively – with Frank Field notably accusing the Big Four of “feasting on the carcass” of Carillion.

Since the financial crash, public appetite for scrutiny of corporations remains strong. Select committees have widened their remit to scrutinise not just policymakers, but the businesses and institutions which interact with them. As Meg Hillier, chair of the influential Public Accounts Committee, puts it: “citizens are getting angry… and we as parliamentarians have a duty to put pressure on our governments to be bolder about this.”

For business leaders, no amount of select committee training is too much.

A call for evidence can strike fear into the hearts of even the most experienced CEOs, and with good reason. A high profile appearance can cause serious and sometimes irreparable reputational damage, but, when properly prepared, a select committee session can provide opportunities for business leaders to take control of the narrative and speak directly to policymakers and the press.

Effective select committee training should include extensive research and media monitoring, as well as full rehearsal sessions.

Business leaders can, and should, ensure they equip themselves with the knowledge and communication skills to answer challenging questions credibly and effectively. It’s also a good idea to speak with Clerks or committee members prior to the event – the earlier you engage, the better.

The power of the select committee should not be underestimated – make sure you’re prepared.

For more information on GK’s range of training services, contact emma@gkstrategy.com

See more articles by Caitlin Wilkinson