Select Committees are at their best seeking practical reforms in a non-partisan spirit and at their worst when led by political zealots. For Paul Flynn MP, the Public Administration Committee on which he serves perfectly depicts this: once led by Tony Wright, the professorial chair concerned with sensible reforms, it is now being led by Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, whose major ruling passion Flynn considers to be anti-Europeanism. In this article, Flynn recounts how he recently walked out of a committee hearing in protest after being gagged by Jenkin.
The new system failed to give a reasonable choice of candidates for some committees. There was only one nominee for the Welsh Select Committee. For PASC it was choice between three extreme right wing Tories: Iain Liddell Grainger, Bernard Jenkin and Christopher Chope – none obviously qualified for the exacting task of leading committees.
Select Committees are at their best seeking practical reforms in a non-partisan spirit and at their worst when led by political zealots. The best reports they have done in my 27 years here were Robert Adley’s demolition of rail privatization in 1993, Chris Mullin’s verdict on illegal drugs and David Hinchliffe’s exposure of pharmaceutical chicanery in 2005. I served on the first committee and gave evidence to the other two.
The Wright reforms have sadly not improved the committee he served brilliantly. Gone were the days of scholarly, rational inquiry of Tony Wright. Bernard Jenkin’s brand of anti-European, global warming denying, foreigner-wary extremism rules. To acknowledge the validity of his election, the committee gave him his head without enthusiasm for his first inquiry. It was a demand for the restoration of a ‘Grand Strategy.’ Nostalgically Bernard regretted that the UK’s Imperial Grand Strategy Committee had not convened since 1939. The inquiry was a limp embarrassment with support for the idea at protozoan level. Witnesses agreed that strategy is now determined by unexpected events not set in stone by a fixed strategy. We had been warned to be wary of his idiosyncratic ideas.
His major ruling passion is anti-Europeanism. He fears Government and Civil Service pressure in an in-out Euro vote. Getting his retaliation in first, he persuaded the committee to probe the role of civil servants in the Scottish Independence vote. The Better Together campaigned are irritated by the role of the Scottish Civil Servants. No evidence of improper conduct has been discovered north of the border. But what appears to be an egregious breach of the civil service code occurred in London. Treasury mandarin Dick Macpherson leaked to the press a copy of his advice to the Chancellor which warned of post independence financial nightmares.
Head of the Civil Service Bob Kerslake was acquiescent and ignored this rare transgression. He told PASC he will take no action in spite of the partial public involvement of a civil servant in a fiercely controversial issue. There is no complaint against providing advice in confidence to a minister, but very serious objections to his publishing the letters in the press in order to influence Scottish opinion. Bob Kerslake does not accept that a line had been crossed and a drain has been opened for an incontinence of future civil service leaks. I reminded Bob that he has form in political meddling. He wrote with Jeremy Heywood a gushing sycophantic eulogy to Margaret Thatcher. Her work was not universally loved by Civil Servants.
My cross-examination of Bob Kerslake was interrupted by Bernard Jenkin before I had finished my questions. I then put into the public domain my disagreement with Bernard. For many months I have pressed for PASC to return to its core task inherited from the previous parliament. Crying out for investigation is the protracted delay in reporting the conclusion of the Chilcot Inquiry. This is PASC’s bailiwick. We held a seminar in 2009 demanding an inquiry into the Iraq War. We also published an Inquiry into Inquiries. It’s crucial that MPs learn about past mistakes as we now the arbiters of decisions on declaring war. The refusal of parliament on August 29th to take military action in Syria was greatly influenced by repentance on MPs decisions to join Bush’s war in Iraq and the calamitous excursion into Helmand.
I walked out of PASC having been gagged by the Chairman. It was a protest against the degradation of the committee from its high function into a personalized campaigning weapon for the prejudices of the chairman. He defends himself by saying he allows other committee members to grandstand on our political views. We do. In self-defence and to balance the political messages. The sub-plot of the present inquiry is to embarrass the Scottish Government unfairly. I will continue my devoted attendances at PASC and two other Select Committee because my absence might provoke more excesses.
New PASC remains a pale shadow of Classic PASC. Statistics, including exposing the fiddling of crime figures, is an area in which New PASC has progressed. But the successes of New PASC are as rare as the failures of Classic PASC. I live in hope that select committees will reform themselves. Until then, they will continue to underachieve woefully.
Note: This article was originally published on the PSA’s Insight blog and gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Image credit: UK Parliament CC BY
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