Posted on 16 January 2024
Professor Tony Heron, Professor of International Political Economy at York, offers some advice and guidance for those who have been called to appear at select committee, discussing what to expect on the day, and how best to prepare.
Parliamentary committees oversee and scrutinise the work of government departments. There is a select committee for every major government department.
Select committees run inquiries on specific topics. The outcomes of these inquiries are public, and many require a response from the government. Select committees also carry out their work through correspondence, by engaging with the public through events and surveys, holding round-table discussions and undertaking visits.
Academics and researchers are regularly called up to provide evidence and expertise at select committees and they can play an important role in helping to shape the discussion and outcomes of these committees.
We spoke to Professor Tony Heron, Professor of International Political Economy at York, who previously worked for the International Trade Committee (now Business and Trade) for two and a half years as a parliamentary academic fellow.
He offered some advice for those who have been called to appear at a committee, and discussed what to expect on the day, and how best to prepare.
A select committee is usually comprised of 10-12 members of parliament which roughly reflects the make-up of the sitting parliament of the day.
There are also several public servants who support the committee, including a clerk, second clerk, policy specialist and a communications specialist.
The clerk will be the main point of contact and it’s their job to manage the committee process. The policy specialist will assist with technical input based on the testimony provided.
The committee members will decide on the line of enquiry and will call for written evidence on this. Most committee inquiries will also gather oral evidence from expert witnesses and these oral sessions are typically (but not always) open to the public and screened live on Parliament TV
Committee staff will prepare a brief for the members which will include the questions that will be asked on the day. Under each question, there will be some commentary to help provide some context for members.
There will be a briefing session prior to the committee, and you are allowed to ask for the questions in advance, including which questions will be addressed to you. This will allow you to draft some short answers in advance.
It’s important to note that politicians are not necessarily experts in the field of research being discussed, and in some cases will have only read the brief right before the committee is held. As such, it’s important that responses to the questions are delivered in layman’s terms where possible.
When drafting responses, it’s useful to consider your findings: what does your data show; what policy recommendations does it lead to? Members will want concrete steps that they can take, e.g., legal advice or government regulation.
It’s ok to be provocative with your comments but try and frame your answers in a way that ties back to your research. Convince the committee that this isn’t just your opinion and that what you’re saying is fully backed by evidence.
Depending on the number of witnesses, all questions may be asked to each panel member, or they may be allocated depending on area of expertise.
Select committees take place in the Houses of Parliament and the session will be broadcast live via Parliament TV and will also be entered into the public record.
On the day, you might find that you don’t end up having much time to speak. Occasionally, another witness may take up most of the time depending on the way the conversation pans out. In these situations, it’s best to be patient and wait for them to come to you.
Members may ask some follow up questions, but the chair will generally try and stick to the agenda. Time is short at committees, which last around an hour with thirty minutes for questions.
If members do ask a follow up question that you don’t know the answer to, just be honest. You’re allowed to follow up in writing after the committee to provide the information they’re looking for. This is also allowed if you need to provide a point of clarification away from the committee session.
Overall, appearing as a witness at a select committee is one of the simpler forms of public engagement and they provide an excellent chance to present yourself and your work to an influential audience. Remember, it’s your field of expertise and they want to get your thoughts on this so embrace it and try and enjoy the opportunity.
To learn more visit Parliament.UK's guide to Select Committees