Eight tips on engaging with select committees for the benefit of your charity

hannah-whiteDr Hannah White is Programme Director at the Institute for Government, leading their work on Parliament and the relationship between scrutiny and effective government. She has over ten years’ experience working in Parliament and the civil service.

Select committees can provide a conduit to get your organisation’s voice heard by government, so it is worth thinking about your strategy for engaging with them. The following summarises some of the advice given at an NCVO event hosted by the Parliamentary Outreach Service at the Houses of Parliament on Friday 4 December 2015.

1.  Identify and follow the committees whose agendas are most closely related to your own concerns

On each committee’s webpage you can sign up for email alerts about their work and many committees are also active on Twitter. There is also a page on the Parliamentary website where you can browse all the committee inquiries that are currently active (listed alphabetically) – which is worth checking just in case another committee launches a relevant inquiry.

2.  Build a relationship with the staff of your most relevant committee

The staff, such as the clerks and the committee specialists who normally lead on inquiries, are usually delighted to hear from people with information and experience relevant to their committee’s work, and can be a great source of advice on how to engage. It can pay dividends to establish these relationships even before a highly relevant inquiry is launched.

That way you are more likely to be able to understand and even influence the committee’s emerging agenda, and you may already be on the committee’s list of those it wants to hear evidence from before an inquiry has begun.

3.  Remember committee staff don’t always have detailed knowledge about the area of inquiry

Often external organisations will be the ones with the expertise and experience to help them make the most of their inquiry. So do consider making proactive suggestions to committees. That might include ideas for witnesses, visits or even specific questions to ask to high profile witnesses.

When thinking about who you could suggest to give oral evidence, remember that committees have a budget to pay witness expenses, including childcare.

They also have a budget to commission original research, so providing tips about the gaps in the evidence base they are examining can also be really useful. And committees are increasingly keen to engage with the public, so helping them to do so will often go down well.

4.  Consider going along to watch some oral evidence sessions

This is a great way of increasing your understanding of the way committees work and appreciating the interests and approach of different committee members. Evidence sessions are almost always open to the public (unless there is an unavoidable need for privacy) – you just need to turn up at the appropriate time and place, as detailed on the committee’s webpage.

5.  Remember members of committees are now elected as well as their chairs

Often they have stood for election because they have a particular interest in the committee’s subject matter. This means it’s really worth engaging with committee members as well as chairs.

Their place on the committee gives them greater influence in the House and means the media are more likely to seek their views, enabling you to leverage your own influence. Also bear in mind that some committee members will find their way to the front bench in the future, which makes it even more worthwhile getting your views across to them.

6.  Present novel and interesting evidence in written submissions

Case studies and your own data are particularly useful to committees. Think about how to present your organisation’s unique view on the questions the committee is investigating (rather than simply re-presenting widely held views) and try to make clear and interesting recommendations.

Ideally written evidence should be succinct and stick closely to the questions asked by the committee. Committees don’t necessarily give greater weight to evidence submitted by a group of organisations, so the time involved in agreeing a joint submission may not always be well spent.

7.  The key to performing well at oral evidence sessions is preparation

This is something NCVO can help with if you have an important session coming up. Try to anticipate the questions that may be asked. Looking at the transcripts of previous evidence sessions on the same inquiry can help you identify the committee’s concerns and the interests of individual members.

You should also always touch base with committee staff before a session – they won’t be able to tell you the exact questions that will be asked – MPs may ask anything they like. However, they should be able to give you a good idea of the main themes in the briefing the committee has received – it’s in everyone’s interests for witnesses to be well prepared.

If you don’t feel you quite got your point across properly during the session, don’t be afraid to follow up with further written evidence to clarify or expand on what you said.

8.  Give committees feedback on their inquiries – how they are run and what they achieve

The select committee system is remarkable for its lack of feedback mechanisms and the only way for them to improve is to learn from the impact of their past efforts. Without such feedback they will not have the opportunity to do so.

Further information

Alongside Hannah White, the other members of the panel were NCVO’s own Chloe Stables , Alasdair MacKenzie from Parliamentary Outreach and Gosia McBride, Clerk of the new Women and Equalities Committee.

 

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