Five things select committees hate about you

Yesterday’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee evidence session with Camila Batmanghelidjh and Alan Yentob on the closure of Kids Company was one of the most extraordinary in recent years.

Karl Wilding has rightly pointed out that Kids Company was not like most charities, but that there are still some lessons that can be learned by the sector.

Equally yesterday’s session was not like most select committee hearings, but that doesn’t mean that charities can’t take away some helpful tips. Here are my top five things to avoid when giving evidence to select committees.

1. Being rude to the committee

This should go without saying, but it’s amazing how often you’ll watch a select committee witness obliviously irritate their questioner in the way they address questions, how they answer and by interrupting. It’s a particularly bad idea to question the premise of an MP’s line of interrogation, as was done yesterday to Paul Flynn, a man who has literally written the book on how to be an MP.

Sometimes you will disagree with the way an MP has asked a question, but they are human and like all of us, will respond badly to being told that they’re being unfair or disingenuous. Always respond calmly and courteously – remember that however hostile the committee (and most aren’t), your job is to assist them to do their work and build their evidence.

2. Not admitting your mistakes

Most sessions are not about trying to identify your organisation’s mistakes and failures, but when they are few things annoy committees more than witnesses who refuse to admit they’ve done anything wrong, blame others and make excuses.

After the financial crash committees got very used to self-flagellatory appearances by humbled banking executives, and I’d argue you now need to go further than just apologising. Where things have gone wrong you need to identify why they have gone wrong and what you are doing to make sure they don’t in the future. But at the very least, a bit of humility never goes amiss.

3. Answering the question you want to answer, not the one you’ve been asked

Committees have a very clear idea what they want to get out of you to assist them with their work, and write their questions accordingly. Don’t instead tell them about something else that you really want them to know about – it will not help, and they will often have the opportunity to follow up until you do give them what they want.

Every organisation will have key messages they want to get across to the committee, but this should not be done at the expense of answering the question.

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4. Giving long, rambling answers to questions

MPs like to ask lots of questions to witnesses so that they can get as much information as possible. But if you respond by treating them to the important background that they really should know if they want to understand the nuances of your point, they can’t do this. So don’t.

If you want to avoid accusations of providing a committee with ‘psychobabble’ and ‘verbal ectoplasm’, answer the question as best you can, and relate it back to one or two key messages you want to get across. On the rare occasions it’s not possible to do that, offer to write to the committee.

5. Being inaccurate and inconsistent on factual questions

There’s nothing worse than getting your facts wrong, and in the pressure of a select committee it’s very easy to forget things or not explain them clearly.

If in doubt, be honest and admit you don’t know and offer to get back to them. It’s rare for a committee to read out a journalist’s tweet accusing you of being mistaken, but people who know about your subject area do watch hearings and have more ways than ever of picking you up on mistakes.

Of course there’s only so many times you can admit to not knowing facts before you start to look uninformed, so use this sparingly and for things that it’s reasonable for you not to know the answer to.

Which brings me on to my final point. A successful select committee appearance is about one thing: preparation. Think about what questions you might be asked, how you would like to answer them, and fill your head with all the facts you might need.

Select committees are keen to hear evidence from charities, so make the most of the opportunity if you do get it.

Working with select committees is of course just one of the ways you can ensure your work has an impact in Parliament, and our Influencing Parliament course will be looking at the different ways you can make sure your voice is heard in the corridors of power.


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Avatar photo Chris is NCVO’s public affairs manager, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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