How should those called before a House of Commons Select Committee prepare for their appearance?
When Peter Linthwaite took his chair in front of the influential Treasury Select Committee in June 2007, he was chief executive of the British Private Equity & Venture Capital Association. Two days after his appearance, he was not.
Linthwaite's ineffectual defence of the industry he represented during an hour-long onslaught from committee members was deemed the final straw.
Already under attack from his members for allowing trade unions to dominate a debate as to whether private equity takeovers led to job losses and unsustainable debt, Linthwaite prevaricated and squirmed as he tried to dodge the committee's tricky questions.
Committee members quizzed Linthwaite about the lack of transparency and beneficial tax status of the private equity industry. During the session, MPs described written evidence submitted by the BVCA as 'bland', answers given by Linthwaite and his colleagues as 'obstructive' and accused the association of 'behaving like ostriches'.
When Linthwaite was asked about controversial comments by industry veteran Nick Ferguson, chairman of SVG Capital, that many in private equity paid less tax than their cleaners, he avoided a direct answer arguing that he did not know the context in which the remarks had been made.
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB Union, said: 'What he [Linthwaite] was asked to do was the equivalent of being asked to paint the Forth Bridge with a pint pot of paint. He was bound to fail.'
Others disagree. They claim that Linthwaite failed to take the session seriously and adequately prepare. It was a mistake that four BVCA members were determined not to repeat one week later when they were called before the committee.
The private equity bosses, who included Damon Buffini, managing partner of Permira, sought advice from specialists in public affairs. They also held a series of conference calls to discuss general points. They did not agree a common stance but instead discussed key issues, such as tax and transparency, which they expected to be raised.
Every government department has an associated select committee. Its role is to evaluate the department's work and investigate issues that may affect this. The Treasury Select Committee, for example, was investigating financial stability before even the collapse of Northern Rock. The inquiry has simply expanded in scope and duration to take account of the saga that has subsequently played out in the banking sector.
OPPORTUNITY TO INFLUENCE
John Lehal, managing director at Insight Public Affairs, believes that those called to give evidence before a select committee should 'treat it very seriously'. Quite apart from the need to prepare for robust questioning, Lehal points out that, drawing upon all the evidence provided, the committees produce reports making recommendations regarding the issue under investigation to the Government.
The Government must respond to each recommendation within two months. Lehall advises that those called before select committees must work out in advance areas of public policy where they would wish to see change in the future. 'You should work out what you want the committee to say in its report,' he says. 'I always advise that clients remember four key messages that they wish to get across.'
Warwick Smith, director of public affairs at College Hill, has a slightly different attitude when he prepares clients for their appearances. Many are already trained in dealing with the media, and well able to cope with the aggressive questioning from broadcasters such as Jeremy Paxman. But responding to questions from members of a select committee requires a different skill. It is not about evading the question - or answering the question that you wished had been posed. It is about answering the question honestly and precisely, without offering additional information that can then be drawn upon in the debate.
'Prepare, prepare, prepare,' says Smith. 'Make sure your tone is respectful. Be assertive without being argumentative. Be clear. Every hearing is different. I have seen people who I thought would be really good being just awful in front of the committees, and others who just get it. They appear concerned about the issues, interested in the questions and helpful in their answers.'
Lord George, former Governor of the Bank of England, was famous for regularly losing his temper when called before the Treasury Select Committee. At one point, he accused members of a 'witch hunt' during a grilling over the collapse of merchant bank Barings.
Observers believe his inability to keep calm whilst under attack paved the way for Gordon Brown's later decision to create the Financial Services Authority and assign it responsibility for banking regulation, formerly the remit of the Bank of England.
'You do see political theatre,' says Lehal. 'Eddie George was known for losing his temper, so that is what the MPs wanted to see. I am sure that a lot of their comments are rehearsed.'
The committee's clerk and a special adviser to the inquiry (usually an academic specialising in the field) prepare the committee in advance on the potential areas of discussion. The clerk may also supply a range of questions for MPs to pose.
Shadow European minister Mark Francois believes that 'giving evidence before a select committee is an important opportunity to get across a point of view to a specialist group of MPs. But, conversely, it is also a major opportunity to muck things up'.
When Francois sat on the Environmental Audit Committee, it conducted an inquiry into the sustainability of future house building and sought evidence from the industry's trade body, House Builders Federation. 'One of my colleagues remarked that if the committee were to create an award for the worst witnesses of the year they would be hard to beat,' he recalls. 'They appeared not to take it seriously. They had little to say. And they were extremely defensive in responding to questions. They had prepared virtually nothing to say about the effect of housing building in the environment.'
Rod Cartwright, director of public affairs at Ketchum, adds: 'This is not an everyday experience for people. It is vital to prepare properly. When a select committee announces an inquiry, it has a clear view of which people will be called. There may be some room for negotiation on this [perhaps sending head of policy rather than finance director] but the committee can ask for anything.'
HELD TO ACCOUNT
For many of those called to appear before a select committee, it will be the first time that they are truly called to account in public.
Chief executives or chairmen of FTSE 100 companies, for example, are used to being quizzed by institutional shareholders or appearing at their annual meetings for a grilling by retail shareholders concerned about, in many cases, minor issues.
But in both cases the executives will retain the upper hand. Difficult or rude questions from retail shareholders can be dismissed, while meetings with institutional shareholders usually take place behind closed doors.
'The main difference for many people appearing before a select committee is that they are used to firing questions at people in front of them. They are used to their own environment, where they are in control,' adds Smith. 'This is quite different.'
MPs on select committees do not have to worry about social niceties or sticking to a pre-prepared script. One PR adviser explains: 'Imagine how scary this can be for us. We have no control over the questions that are to be answered. We don't know how it will play out in the media. My boss got really worried before his appearance. He really didn't know if they were going to hang him out to dry.'
Cartwright points out: 'You can confer. It is not advisable to refuse to answer a question, but you might be able to say Can I get advice on this? But if you are called as a witness, they expect you to know your stuff. Be prepared and be yourself.' The clerk to each committee will usually have made members aware of any issues that cannot be discussed for legal reasons.
College Hill's Smith believes that when Sir Fred Goodwin, the former chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, appeared before the Treasury Select Committee 'he was never going to come out better than walking wounded'. He adds: 'It is a way for the general public to express concerns about the activities of the people before it.'
Famously, Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, refused to appear before a Transport Select Committee chaired by the late Gwyneth Dunwoody.
As a foreign national, O'Leary was within his rights to refuse to attend but advisers do not recommend such a stance. 'You lose the right to influence the debate,' says one. 'If it concerns the industry or market that you operate within then you should turn up if called.'
The House of Commons select committees were established in 1979. They comprise cross-party groups of backbench MPs, usually between ten and 20 strong, led by a chairperson.
There are currently 34 select committees. Most are departmental select committees which scrutinise the Government, although some advise on House of Commons procedures.
Each committee is reconstituted at the start of each parliament, and membership is voted on by all MPs soon after the Commons start sitting. The committee votes on its chair at the first meeting.
Membership is determined by the committee of selection, which is controlled by party whips. On occasion, MPs are forced into joining a committee but many welcome the opportunity. In particular, chairing a committee is viewed as an elevated post, which is not quite Cabinet level but above backbench. (The salary is also somewhere between the two.)
The committees are also very powerful. Tony Blair's Government was defeated in the House of Commons when it tried to remove two outspoken committee heads.
Guide for witnesses
GUIDE FOR WITNESSES
This should consist of the following documents:
• A covering letter containing:
- Name and contact details
- Any request to give oral evidence
- Any request for information to remain confidential
• A memorandum containing:
- A summary of the main points you are making
- A brief introduction about yourself
- Factual information you would like the committee to be aware of
- Any recommendations that you would like the committee to consider including in its report
This usually takes place in public in one of the committee rooms at the House of Commons
Prior to hearing
• Committee staff will confirm administrative arrangements
• Committee staff may provide an informal briefing highlighting potential lines of questioning
• Let committee staff know the name and job title of witnesses
On the day of hearing
• Arrive 20 minutes before scheduled appearance
• It is helpful to attend sessions of witnesses appearing before you to ensure that you are able to comment on their evidence
• The session will be in a question and answer format
After the hearing
• Send additional information that you have agreed to provide to committee staff as soon as possible
• Correct the transcript of your evidence, which will be sent by committee staff with instructions