In committee

In committee

In committee

First Published 04 September 2016

Westminster mole, LPW’s parliamentary correspondent reports.

Members of Parliament don’t often get a chance to put ministers in their place, but this is where select committees really come into their own. It is within the bounds of these inquiries that the common or garden MP will occasionally get the pleasure of hauling government ministers up and humiliating them. In theory the committees are supposed to be forms of reasoned and informed discussion, but if a sensational altercation can be eked out of the meeting and picked up by Newsnight, then all the better as far as the MPs are concerned.

So far the Treasury select committee has had a pretty good recession, vigorously running inquiry after inquiry into the banking crisis and getting an unusual degree of attention for it -especially when ministers have been involved. It’s a shame that other than these occasional flurries of interest, committee business remains so obscure. Apart from being great for policy debate, they often make compelling theatre.

The Treasury committee recently brought Lord Myners (financial services secretary) in to explain the government’s response to rising numbers of mortgage arrears. Lord Myners was, for a while, cast as a minor villain of the piece last year when he became embroiled in the Fred Goodwin bonus row. It didn’t help that he is a former banker himself. It being evident that some of the committee members were baying for blood, it was entertaining to watch their victim dance around attempting to dodge the bullets. The art of the select committee dodge is a fine one. Lesson one: answering questions rationally and honestly doesn’t tend to work that well.

For example, the minister made a scholarly attempt to explain gaps in the government’s safety nets for people at risk of repossession (‘…the most constructive approach that we can take to dealing with this issue is in the area of macroeconomic management…’) But Conservative MP Michael Fallon, who has enjoyed stringing Lord Myners up in the past, wasn’t having any of it. He accused Myners of complacency and asked him, witheringly, ‘Do you understand the social impact of repossession?’ ‘Of course, I understand the social impact of repossession’ responded Myners, through gritted teeth.

‘The art of the select committee dodge is a fine one -answering questions honestly doesn’t tend to work that well’

But Lord Myners was a quick learner and by the time Sir Peter Viggers collared him a few minutes later he had figured out that it was better not to get too specific. When Viggers asked him whether he was ‘contemplating compulsion’ for the 20 per cent of lenders not signed up to the homeowner mortgage support scheme, Myners replied that ‘we would study very carefully the advice that the committee gave in this area’. A brilliant response -at heart utterly dismissive, yet the veneer of gravity and even flattery was irresistible. It succeeded in shutting Viggers up, anyway.

A couple of weeks later and the Communities and Local Government select committee also managed to get some ministerial face time, when its latest report on housing and the recession was debated. But away from the comparative safety of the committee room, MPs don’t have as much power and ministers get a much easier ride. Poor Sarah Teather caught the brunt of government indifference when the minister attending the debate, Ian Austin, left the chamber half way through her speech (though he came back later on). Ms Teather did not hide her irritation: ‘That is the situation that Liberal Democrats face when they speak in debates. None the less, it is not particularly courteous’.

At least this allowed Teather and fellow MPs to look more dedicated in comparison. Emily Thornberry even went as far as to apologise for caring too much: ‘I know that I am irritating in the extreme to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr Starkey), who is the chair of the committee, in my overwhelming interest in housing. However, I have that interest because I try my utmost to be a proper representative of my constituents and their desperate housing need.’

To be fair, Thornbury is indeed a tireless campaigner on housing. That being said, some MPs’ purpose in taking part was not so much show off media-worthiness on Newsnight as to demonstrate election-worthiness to a constituency audience.