Being held to account

House of Commons Select Committees may sound as dull as ditchwater but they produce some of the juiciest business and political stories and are extremely dangerous for communicators and their clients.

It’s an instant recipe for conflict and controversy. Select committees have the ability to summon anyone they like to answer their questions. They are also populated by politicians who are highly aware of their committee’s power and often don’t bother with niceties or politeness in their quest for political capital and chances to get well-prepared soundbites on national television news.

Who can forget former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Fred Goodwin being excoriated at the Treasury Select Committee in 2009 after leading the company to the biggest annual loss in British corporate history?

Also memorable was Labour MP John McFall’s description of Aberdeen Asset Management chief executive Martin Gilbert as ‘a sophisticated snake oil salesman’ at a 2002 investigation by the same committee into the scandal resulting from the collapse of 27 split-capital investment trusts?

Former Barclays chairman Matt Barrett, meanwhile, hit front page headlines in 2003 when he admitted under Treasury Select Committee questioning that he didn’t borrow on credit cards and advised his four children not to pile up debts on them.

Fears of such rough treatment led Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley to refuse a formal summons to attend a Business, Innovations and Skills Committee hearing into pay and working conditions at the retailer earlier this year. Ashley said he would challenge the order and accused the MPs of ‘showboating’ to create a ‘media circus,’ calling them a ‘joke’ and saying they cared only ‘about the business of politics’. ‘I am not willing to stand idle while this company is subjected to public vilification,’ he added.

Ashley also declined to attend a Scottish Affairs Select committee hearing last year, saying he was ‘too busy’ and instead sent Sports Direct chairman Keith Hellawell, who struggled to answer MPs’ questions.

No wonder scribes have been licking their lips at the prospect of seeing Sir Philip Green, the voluble billionaire owner of Arcadia Group, thrust under the glare of MPs’ questions on the controversial matter of the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS) and implications for its thousands of pensioners. Sir Philip appears on 15 June before a joint evidence session of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and the Work and Pensions Select Committee.

Part of the committees’ separate enquiries into the role of directors, including Sir Philip, in the sale of BHS and the arrangements made for its pension fund, the hearing will follow three other sessions questioning advisers, trustees and other directors.

Yet, Sir Philip is the prize the committee members will be gunning for. ‘The situation is particularly dangerous for Sir Philip because there are two select committees examining the fallout from the BHS situation at the same time,’ says Kevin Craig, managing director of political lobbying and media relations agency PLMR.

‘You also have on those committees some of Parliament’s most effective and dangerous MPs. Sir Philip was so concerned about some of the pre-hearing noise that he actually wrote publicly to both committee chairs and asked them in a very unusual manner to ensure that any witnesses would be given a fair hearing and not subjected to trial by media.

‘The danger of a select committee is directly linked with the profile it has. In this case it could not be higher profile because the subject under discussion affects thousands of people and the chairs of the committees, Labour MPs Iain Wright and Frank Field are very well-regarded Parliamentarians.’

Craig believes that the most terrifying thing for people going before select committees is that there are no hard and fast rules about the questions that can be asked or the kind of decorum that needs to be observed.

‘I thought I’d get an easy time from him because he was Scottish,’ Gilbert recalled of his grilling by McFall in a 2014 interview. ‘The first clue I had that I was wrong was when I asked if I could take my jacket off and he said he’d rather I kept it on.’

Hellawell’s ordeal saw his answers almost reduced to whispers at some points, while the Sports Direct chairman complained at one point: ‘I didn’t think I was on trial.’

Goodwin, meanwhile, was asked in his select committee ordeal whether he accepted that ‘hubris on your part’ brought down RBS in the global financial crisis. He was also forced to admit at the hearing that he had no technical banking training and no formal banking qualifications.

Then, as is also the case now, the political undercurrent was anger and resentment at the perceived development of two UK societies: one for the super-rich and the other for everyone else. ‘Sir Philip’s situation is almost a microcosm of that debate,’ adds Craig. ‘It’s really about whether his actions are seen to be the unacceptable face of capitalism.’

So how should communicators prepare their clients for such public torture? The answer seems to be: extremely vigorously. ‘The key thing is to prepare,’ says Iain Anderson, executive chairman of communications agency Cicero Group. ‘Witnesses that go in without preparation aren’t taking a committee inquiry seriously.

‘With quasi-judicial powers, select committees are more important than ever, so don’t think you can just rock up and answer questions off the cuff. Witnesses need to understand the context of any inquiry, understand what a select committee is trying to achieve and provide comprehensive answers.

‘A golden rule is never to challenge the question being asked. That’s fatal. It’s immediately met with a TV interviewer-style snap back response that you’re there to answer any questions asked. Be ready to substantiate every answer.’

Howell James, a former director of corporate affairs at Barclays, went before select committees in his civil service career, which saw him serve as political secretary to former Prime Minister John Major and as permanent secretary for government communication in the Cabinet Office from 2004 to 2008.

Now chief executive of Quiller Consultants, he uses his experience from both sides of the political fence to advise clients on how to deal with such appearances.

‘Be thoughtful before you appear about what will help Parliament and legislators do a better job and understand your role and your sector’s role and challenges,’ he guides. ‘Work out what you want to say, ensure that you create an opportunity to say it and keep it simple. Use everyday language, minimise jargon and bring your answers to life with examples and facts.

‘If a member says something that is incorrect, do not let it stand. If you don’t know the answer, say I will find out and write to you. Be polite, respectful, reasonable, constructive and open and become more so when faced with aggressive questioning.’ According to Gavin Davis, managing director of PR agency group Bell Pottinger, simulations of what clients are about to face in select committee hearings should be rehearsed to cover every eventuality.

‘We organise full dress rehearsals for select committee hearings, running through what clients should expect and the do’s and don’ts of those sorts of sessions,’ he says. ‘Just like we do presentation training and video training, we do select committee training as well. We set the room up in the horseshoe shape of the Commons rooms where select committee hearings take place and advise on where to sit, what to wear and what you can expect.

‘We also look at who is on the committee and advise clients on who they can expect to try to antagonise them and not to rise to that. We train them how best to respond. It’s a full-blown training session.’

Craig, who has 22 years’ experience in public affairs, public relations and crisis management, including dealing with the aftermath of the 1999 Paddington rail crash for Railtrack, agrees.

‘The basics are turn up looking well-presented, don’t be overly flashy and avoid in any way alienating or insulting MPs about how unreasonable they are to you,’ he says. ‘Preparation is fundamental. You have to think about the worstcase scenario; where these hearings could go, replicate the style and format of the exact select committees that individuals are up before and put them through absolutely torrid and even extreme simulation to ensure that when they get in that room, nothing will surprise them.

‘With Sir Philip, for example, we would be asking the worst possible questions. How much is he worth? Does he feel bad that he lives an international jet-set life while there are people on low incomes who have lost their jobs and have doubt over their pensions?’

While Ashley is not the first individual to refuse to attend a select committee hearing, it’s a moot point whether witnesses can actually be compelled to appear. Ashley was warned he would be in contempt of Parliament if he did not agree a date to appear, though nobody has faced such a charge for more than 50 years.

Rupert Murdoch was summonsed by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in 2011 after writing a letter refusing to answer questions on phone-hacking. Murdoch and his son James eventually appeared before the committee after the deputy sergeant-at-arms was sent to deliver formal summonses in person.

However, in the same year, Irene Rosenfeld, the chief executive of Kraft Foods, refused to attend Parliament to answer questions about the American company’s acquisition of Cadbury’s, sending members of her team instead.

Are there any positive actions that those appearing before select committees can take to minimise potential fallout and even extract some positive outcomes?

Anderson advises those called to take a studious approach, showing that they are interested in the substance of an inquiry by repeatedly referring back to previous evidence. He also believes that effective select committee witnesses should offer their own policy ideas of what the committees should recommend.

‘Lessons learned from a collapse, failure or a wrong-headed government policy go down very well with select committees,’ he says. ‘So have a detailed set of ideas to put on the table.’

Craig, meanwhile, helps clients develop five to ten key messages that they can weave seamlessly into their answers. ‘It can seem clichéd but it works time after time,’ he observes. ‘No matter how badly it goes, it’s about what a select committee witness wants to have communicated at the end of the session.

‘You can’t avoid hostile questions; you can only rehearse them. But with thorough and proper preparation you can change perceptions by making sure your messages are clear and that they speak to people outside the chamber.’

The message is clear: trivialise a select committee hearing at your peril. This oddly-named but dangerous part of Britain’s Parliamentary democracy has to be taken seriously. Britain’s business elite have been warned.

A GUIDE TO SELECT COMMITTEES

There are 47 House of Commons Select Committees, ranging from the Administration Committee, that considers the services that the House of Commons provides to MPs, their staff and visitors, to the Welsh Affairs Committee.

There is a select committee for each government department, examining three aspects: spending, policies and administration. Each committee has the power to choose its own subjects of inquiry, although these must come within the remit of their ‘terms of reference’.

These inquiries can take several months, requiring detailed written and oral evidence to be submitted, which is then presented to the House of Commons as a report, or they may consist of one day of oral evidence, which is published without an accompanying report.

When a committee decides on a specific inquiry, it will issue a press notice outlining the themes or terms of reference. Interested parties are invited to submit written evidence but the committee may also invite specific witnesses to do so.

The submissions are usually published, although in certain circumstances will remain confidential, but the committee is also under no obligation to accept all submissions as evidence.

If it intends to hear oral evidence, a press notice will be produced revealing those who the committee wishes to hear from and the date on which the evidence will be heard. Oral sessions are generally public, and transcripts are published online.

While witnesses may be invited to give an opening statement, the focus is on putting questions to them. Witnesses can appeal to the committee chair if they perceive a particular question as unfair, if they need more time to consider an answer or to seek advice or if they believe they are an inappropriate person to answer.

Witnesses will be provided with a transcript of their evidence within days of the hearing. Any corrections to matters of fact or interpretations must be submitted at this point, and will be appended to the evidence.

Witnesses enjoy absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give, whether written or oral, provided that it is formally accepted by the committee. This means that they are immune from civil or criminal proceedings that may otherwise arise from their evidence.