One of the most striking developments to come out of the end-of-term commotion has been the extent of media coverage that has been devoted to select committees.
Considering that Prime Minister’s Question Time is the only element of Parliament the public see on a regular basis, it is not surprising that the stereotype of a British politician is one who shouts and jeers, caught up in a performance that represents everything nasty about the word ‘banter’. In contrast, the extensive coverage of select committees over the past few weeks has reminded the nation how hard our politicians actually work for us – and although these committees are not immune to the pitfalls of mass politics, they have shown that people in positions of power continue to be held to account.
Of course, this publicity is not a new phenomenon. Like most things in British politics, media coverage of select committees has ebbed and flowed, in and apart from the mainstream. Recently, however, the work of these committees has been savoured by the press to the point where they have become almost ubiquitous. Nick Buckles’ media-friendly appearance in front of the Home Affairs Committee, which in the end descended into a kind of tragi-comic show trial, is a case in point. Andrew Lansley’s efforts to sidestep questions from the Health Committee on how his Caring For Our Future White Paper will be funded became similarly transparent when placed under the microscope of the media.
An interesting and relatively early example of the contemporary trend for committee coverage came in early 2011, when Bob Diamond gave evidence to the Treasury Select Committee. Caught squarely in the headlights, Diamond found himself under interrogation from Chuka Umunna regarding the activities of his offshore subsidiaries, which Barclay’s lawyers elegantly refer to as producing “tax efficiency”. Remembering that the leadership of Ed Miliband at this point was far from certain, and that Umunna had at this point only been in Parliament for eight months, his performance was celebrated. One headline from the Evening Standard provided something of a model: “Who can lead Labour? Chuka Umunna can”. Fast forward eighteen months, and it would seem that standing for the Treasury Committee was the best PR decision Chuka ever made.
Committees are but one component of Parliament, and while clearly in some ways they share its characteristics, they are also marked in contrast to them. As the Liaison Committee – a committee set up, ironically, to assess the work of committees – reported:
“More visible and more widely known, select committees are an entrenched part of our constitutional arrangements as never before”.
It is right that the public have the opportunity to witness and assess what has become a valuable means of accountability – long may it continue.