Departmental Select Committees in the Commons

Baroness Murphy

Sticking with Lord Norton and Lord Tyler’s theme of Select Commons committees and their powers. Before I came into parliament I was summoned twice to appear before the Commons Health Ombudsman’s Committee. It was an experience I shall never forget. Both occasions followed investigations by the Ombudsman of serious failures of administration by the NHS. The Ombudsman, or maybe the Committee, chose examples characteristic of a huge number of complaints he had received of a similar nature. First time round I naively thought the Committee was there to investigate, understand what went wrong and why, and make some constructive recommendations.  I quickly realised it was a crowd pleasing drama designed to show off the toughness of politicians on both sides of the political fence, that none seemed interested in explanations but all of them basically were calling ‘Off with her head’ which would have been legitimate if I had been anywhere near being responsible for the disasters. I was shocked by how useless the committee was; it seemed more a public cabaret performance than a serious inquiry.

Having been cross-examined in court many times by barristers trying to dig at the truth I know well that it can be an uncomfortable affair but needs to be. But my overwhelming impression was that the Select Committee didn’t really care much about the truth, only apportioning blame. My second appearance of course I went forearmed, with a gung-ho determination to sidestep all questions, to smile or frown in reflection of their mood and in short put on as good a dramatic performance as they did. It served me well but it made me profoundly doubtful about the usefulness of these public committees unless they are conducted in an open spirit of enquiry. As a result of these behaviours Civil Servants and senior NHS staff tend to joke about them, laugh about them afterwards in the local pub and not take them seriously. It hasn’t half concentrated my mind when asking questions when I’m on a select committee taking evidence; the truth is all that counts and other people have opinions that should be respected.

3 comments for “Departmental Select Committees in the Commons

  1. Twm O'r Nant
    17/07/2011 at 10:15 am

    forearmed, with a gung-ho determination to sidestep all questions, to smile or frown in reflection of their mood and in short put on as good a dramatic performance as they did. It served me well

    Jack Straw was a past master at this; in fact something of a genius at it!

    I was summoned to a select committee in my own name, not as a committee chairman of any sort, and of course I should have waited to be summoned to the Bar of the house by the Lady speaker of the time. I did not, and paid for it with torrents of libellous abuse, but for the privilege, from a roustering gang of
    women members.

    My good friend, the late Gwynneth Dunwoody, stormed out of the meeting called by the member for the East End, saying she would have nothing to do with condemning an individual such as myself.

    I had not committee axe to grind, or cudgel to wield.

    The corruption of the recent election procedure went unnoticed, as a consequence.


  2. ladytizzy
    17/07/2011 at 10:36 pm

    Wow! Hats off to you, Baroness Murphy; it’s one thing thinking this is how it works, another being told this is how it works.

    Select Committees seem to have evolved to the point of their own oblivion, so what/who should take their place or should they die?

  3. MilesJSD
    18/07/2011 at 1:43 am

    It’s the title that’s the cuckoo-in-the-nest: a relic of One-Party Government, “selecting” members already known to be on the Government’s side.

    If the committee has the job of scrutiny then call it a Scrutiny Committee;
    what on Earth is so difficult about that ?

    Or is there some “Most Secret” reason for twisting titles, another one being the “politically-correct” twisting of Ethnic-Persecution into “Ethnic Cleansing”.


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