I conducted research for Democratic Audit (22 January 2014) into the profile of witnesses appearing at select committees, revealing a significant gender imbalance and the varying levels of access enjoyed by different types of organisation. The report was co-authored with Sean Kippin.
Parliamentary select committees have become an increasingly important part of our democratic process. Aided by the Wright reforms from 2010 onwards, they have grown in visibility, influence, reach, and workload. These changes included open elections for the membership, and crucially chairs, of committees, where these positions had previously been in the gift of party whips. Research from Democratic Audit’s co-Director, Professor Patrick Dunleavy has shown that committees are now cited by the media a great deal more, with some in particular (such as the Home Affairs committee) more than doubling their coverage since the reforms were implemented.
By calling witnesses to appear at hearings, select committees hold the government are able to account publicly for its policies and their implementation. Many witnesses also come from outside government, including key stakeholders in a particular policy area or independent experts. These witnesses provide an important source of external input into parliamentary scrutiny and, ultimately, public policy.
Indeed, much of the attention that Select Committees have garnered over the last three years has been as a result of their choice of witnesses. For example, the Culture, Media and Sport committee infamously saw Rupert and James Murdoch fielding questions in Parliament, leading Murdoch Sr to unconvincingly remark that it was ‘the most humble day of his life’. Likewise, the redoubtable Margaret Hodge’s Public Accounts Committee has made senior civil servants and outsourcing company chief executives squirm with her aggressive questioning and well-targeted inquiries.
We wanted to find out more about which people are invited to appear before committees as witnesses, to explore how representative the group is and what types of organisations have access to Parliament in this way.
We compiled a database of all witnesses appearing at a select committee (including in the Commons, Lords and joint committees) from 8th October to 7th November 2013. In total, we examined 167 committee sessions, featuring 583 witnesses. The data is derived from a single snapshot of committee activity, therefore, but we believe the scale of committee activity is such that it provides sufficient information to enhance our understanding of this topic.