Select Committees: why wouldn’t you prepare for them properly?

One of the least expected consequences of the MPs’ expenses fiasco in 2009 was the strengthening of the House of Commons Select Committees. Despite having existed since 1979, these Select Committees had only occasionally threatened to be interesting and retained the reputation for being a backwater for those on the up or those approaching retirement, often chaired by party grandees as a thank you from the Whips office for not causing too much trouble.

A number of things changed all this. The first was changes to the Commons’ rules following the expenses mess – for the first time, Committee chairs were elected by the whole House, rather than appointed by senior party figures. Inevitably this made them more independent and, since the 2010 election, there has emerged a new class of publicity-conscious chairmen and women, unafraid to push their briefs and criticise the Government, their own parties and the witnesses that appear before them.

It is worth emphasising the latter point: the fact that Select Committees can now more or less demand an appearance before them is perhaps the other biggest change over the past few years. It is a change not a result of new rules but the precedent set by the appearance of Rupert and James Murdoch before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in 2011. Though not explicitly said, the implication was that, should they choose not to appear, then MPs could and would dig into the years of past House of Commons rules and force them to. Earlier in 2011, Irene Rosenfeld, chief executive of Kraft, refused to appear before the Business Select Committee to discuss her company’s takeover of Cadbury’s. Nobody refuses to appear before a Select Committee now.

This week saw Ian Read of Pfizer appear before not one but two Select Committees to discuss why his firm’s plan to buy Astra Zeneca was a good idea. Such scrutiny is undoubtedly positive, for Parliament, public debate and quite probably for the businesses themselves. But these appearances are also fraught with risk for the witnesses.

In many ways it’s an incredibly difficult task. MPs on the Committee, formed by the adversarial nature of politics and the Commons itself, are unlikely to tread softly, particularly with businesspeople and certainly with Chief Executives of global corporations. Even Brian Binley MP, hardly a left-leaning Conservative, was especially sharp with Mr Read during the Pfizer executive’s appearance before the Business Select Committee. It’s difficult to “win” as a witness before a Select Committee.

But it’s extremely easy to lose. Mr Read’s bullishness and seemingly casual dismissal of the job cuts that may result from a takeover of Astra Zeneca by Pfizer during his appearance before the Business Select Committee jarred with many observers. For too many, he too easily played up to the stereotype of the uncaring executive. This would matter little except for the obvious point that the Government has the power to end Pfizer’s takeover attempt, destroying months or years of best-laid plans – and has hardly ruled out using such power.

This is why Select Committee appearances matter and must be taken seriously. You don’t have to be the head of a global pharmaceutical company for Government, Parliamentary and regulatory decisions to matter to you and your company. It is therefore essential that witnesses invest time and effort in preparing for such appearances. They need to know not just what questions might be asked and how to answer them, but who will ask them, where the questioners are from, how to deal with a hostile atmosphere and a myriad of other considerations.

These days most professional spokespeople who appear on television, for example, are trained to the point of blandness. It seems extraordinary that senior executives called in to appear before a Select Committee do not put the same effort in to ensuring that they too do not appear callous, unprepared or out-of-place under the glare of television cameras, journalists and Members of Parliament.