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Giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee

25 April 2014/Categories: PTRC News

I recently made the “mistake” of preparing a response to a Parliamentary Select Committee.  That it was a mistake became apparent when I was invited to appear at the House of Commons to give evidence; for a first-timer it turned out to be an unexpectedly nerve-wracking experience.

It’s possible that the more outspoken your written reps are, the more likely the committee is to want to talk with you.  So if you actually want a trip to the Mother of Parliaments, don’t pull your punches.  A straight polemic is unlikely to win you any plaudits but an even-handed, well-evidenced critique that leaves the reader in no doubt of your true opinions could prove quite effective.  Select Committees are cross-party so there are likely to be Members who want to see support for Government proposals.  Similar rules will apply, though they will be far more appreciative of an evidenced approach to your submission than of a bout of blatant sycophancy.  Whichever line you choose, try to be lucid and succinct.  By expressing in a few paragraphs what could be a much longer discussion for many, you will impinge less on Members’ time and are more likely to be understood.

So you’ve lobbed in the bait and, depending on Committee time, the weight of responses and the level of interest likely to be generated by the respondents, you may be asked to appear in front of the Committee to give evidence.  There may still be a chance to politely withdraw and if you don’t feel comfortable with the prospect or you think you may struggle to defend the points you’ve raised, then that is what I’d advise.  But most of us don’t get invited to this sort of occasion very often and it’s your chance to take an active part in the democratic process.  Think of the contribution to your professional development.  What could possibly go wrong?

The form generally follows what you are likely to have seen on the television news.  Committee Members are arranged in a horseshoe facing maybe two to four respondents sitting obediently in front of them.  Behind the respondents is the public area which is where Rupert Murdoch’s pie originated.  I imagine that such treatment is generally reserved for the more controversial characters that appear so you’d be best advised to forget about the people behind you and focus your attention on the Committee.  Panels change over quite quickly so be prepared to take your seat as soon as your name card is placed on the desk in front of it – you won’t want Parliament TV to focus on the one empty chair while you’re still at the back of the room marshalling your papers or straightening your tie.

Now the questioning starts.  However well you may have prepared, you are now at the mercy of the Committee Members.  It is they who will decide on the line of questioning and it is they who might be tempted to minutely examine any of the detail that comes up.  Remember; they are in their own environment, they are accomplished public speakers and they regularly take part in Select Committees. Prepare well and expect to be challenged.  Adrenaline has a strange effect on our perceptions and, if like me you are completely out of your comfort zone and shot-through with nerves, it’s likely that at the end of the grilling you’ll be wondering how it could all have gone so badly; promising yourself that you’ll never again be so foolish as to accept such an invitation.  Fear not.  Parliament TV will come to your rescue and once you pluck up the courage to go online and witness the proceedings you’ll realise that actually you didn’t do too badly and you even managed to get across a fair number of the points that you’d rehearsed.  If only it had felt like that during the event…

Andy Shaw

Dorset County Council

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