How to Survive a Select Committee by Scott Colvin

You will be placed in the pillory and pelted with rotten fruit by grandstanding politicians bent on trashing your reputation. That prospect strikes “sheer terror” into successful business people who are summoned to appear before Commons select committees to be questioned about something or other which has gone conspicuously wrong with the great enterprises over which they have hitherto held untrammelled sway.

The appearance of this “how to” book is a tribute to the success of those committees. So far as I can see, it is the first work of its kind.

For the committees have become more frightening. An entire career, arduously constructed over a period of 30 years, can be destroyed in an hour or two if the witness strikes the wrong note.

This means people like Scott Colvin, who works for the Finsbury public affairs firm founded by Roland Rudd, are hired to help support witnesses through the whole “incredibly arduous” process.

Colvin is not a good writer. In the first five lines of his book, he uses the word “great” three times, which no one with an ear for language would be willing to do.

But the phenomenon he investigates – the humiliation or attempted humiliation of men (chief executives are still most often men) who are unused to answering impertinent questions about the vast sums they earn and the negligible amounts of tax their firms pay – has become part of the theatre of politics, and brings joy to many an egalitarian heart.

The author rightly contends that the election of the chairs of these committees by the whole House, a reform introduced in 2010, has made them more independent of the whips and therefore more formidable.

A good chair can apply great pressure to a witness. It was a pleasure to be reminded of Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour chair of the Transport Committee from 1997-2008, who remarked that “awkward old bats have their purpose”, and took no nonsense from New Labour even in the days when the whips were more powerful.

She said Railtrack would collapse, the Blairites insisted it was fine, and Railtrack collapsed. Her sarcastic attitude to the callow ministers who appeared before her was a joy. One woman who informed her that she was giving figures “in pounds” received the crushing retort: “Oh, good, what a clever lady. You will obviously have a long career.”

Andrew Tyrie, chair of the Treasury Committee from 2010-17, and Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee from 2010-15, both made considerable reputations as inquisitors.

Colvin quotes lengthy chunks of evidence where witnesses from Amazon and G4S get into terrible trouble. He observes that select committees “work best when a private sector witness has something to lose”.

Business figures who are already discredited can, by contrast, be impertinent to their tormentors, without losing anything more.

In the “how to” section of the book, Colvin observes that witnesses who are arrogant tend to come off worst. The poorest performers are those who think they know everything, make no preparation, do not inform themselves of the embarrassing facts about their organisation which the committee is likely to require (its tax arrangements in Luxembourg; the ratio between the chief executive’s earnings and what the lowest-paid employees are paid; the reasons why there was no back-up plan when the IT system crashed), and instead indicate their deep resentment at being required to appear.

Humility works better. Rupert Murdoch (not touched on in this book), never one for half-measures, said while being questioned by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee about the phone-hacking scandal: “This is the most humble day of my life.”

You have to accept that MPs have the right, on behalf of the public, to question you, and in Colvin’s dull but prudent view you should not try to be interesting, or to score points:

“During the course of questioning remember that there is little to be gained from taking too many risks or trying to gain an obvious victory over the committee. The MPs are both the opposing team and the referee, so it is difficult to beat them at their own game. That applies after the hearing too, when the committee can simply write up the report in the most aggressive, and personal, way possible to score an act of final revenge against you if you have bested them in the session itself.”

He gives a list of business clichés of American origin which however freely you may use them inside your firm, will greatly irritate British MPs, so should not be used in your evidence:

“Burning platform… Boil the ocean… Low-hanging fruit… Reaching out… Going forward.”

And he draws with proper attribution on the work of Philip Aylett, clerk of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, in order to sketch the history of select committees. I did not know of Aylett’s thesis, Thirty Years of Reform: House of Commons Select Committees, 1960-1990, and have not had time to read it before writing this review, but it looks a valuable work, written with a consideration for the reader which is missing from this book.

Harold Wilson was a champion of the select committee system, so was Norman St John-Stevas, and so in more recent times was the Labour MP Tony Wright, author of the reforms which since 2010 have made select committees more formidable.

The image of the pillory, with which this review started, is fitting, for when something has gone scandalously wrong either with a business or with a government department, part of the punishment is that whoever is in charge is humiliated by the relevant committee.

Whether you are a minister or a chief executive, you could end up losing your reputation and therefore your job.

During the Windrush scandal, Amber Rudd had to resign as Home Secretary after she had given an incorrect answer to Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Cooper asked: “Targets for removals – when were they set?”

Rudd replied: “We do not have targets for removals.”

Colvin discusses various ways in which committees might be improved. But like the Chamber of the House of Commons, they are already working better than they did 20 years ago.

And perfection is hardly to be expected. A certain improvisation, and chasing in a not entirely reputable way of headlines, is natural and even useful.

After all, Theodore Roosevelt made his name as a young politician by denouncing, with the help of journalists who supplied the evidence and then acclaimed his heroism, plutocrats who were behaving in a disgraceful way.