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Biting Back: Taking a Stand for Business

17/03/2015 11:04 GMT | Updated 16/05/2015 10:59 BST

In an article in the Telegraph last week, Iain Martin argued that witnesses before Select Committees should 'bite back' at 'grandstanding' MPs. He cited the case of Rona Fairhead, and said that she should have told Margaret Hodge, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee to 'take a running jump' for being 'insufferably rude'. More generally, he argued, public affairs professionals like me should advise our clients to stand up to Select Committee members rather than simply take their punishment stoically and move on.

Iain makes a number of observations about the fantasies of lobbyists having a go at their clients under the guise of Select Committee role play. (In my case he may think that the fantasy is doubled, since I am also a former Select Committee clerk.) This is an amusing point, but it is also wildly wide of the mark. Whilst the point of these sessions is to challenge and test our clients, our interests are of course perfectly aligned: we want the session with the Committee to go well, and for our clients to be able to get their messages across. Gratuitously beating them up a few days beforehand would hardly achieve that goal.

The article is right, though, in one key respect. Some Select Committees increasingly grandstand, and have been getting more populist, posturing and aggressive. Most Committees have not fallen completely into this trap, and still do work that is worthy, important and unremarkable (and unremarked), although even when I was a clerk drafting questions for oral evidence sessions a decade ago I was told more than once by members, by my Chairman and by others to keep in mind what might play well on News at Ten. Nowadays for some Committees it is not only a few questions that appear to be directed towards this goal: whole evidence sessions, and sometimes entire inquiries, appear to be conducted on that basis. This yearning for publicity coupled with the prevailing mood of antipathy towards business creates the sour and negative atmosphere Iain Martin rightly complains about.

So he is right that a few Select Committees often seem ridiculous and one-sided and, notwithstanding the brief spasms of interest from the broadcasters, risk becoming an irrelevant irritation. And it is for that reason that us advisers recommend that clients don't get involved in a stand up row with MPs with a bully pulpit in front of the cameras in Committee Room 15. Who will really remember what happened a few days after each session? Beyond making witnesses feel a bit better, where is the upside in getting involved in a spat? Doing so is a distraction at best, and risks reputational damage at worst. If Select Committees want to behave like children the only sensible response is to treat them like kids: be calm, authoritative and don't rise to their bait. Where criticism is fair, respond to it. Where it is ludicrous, move beyond it. And never, ever, end up as an apologist for the worst behaviour of your sector.

There are major risks here for us as voters, and for the Committees themselves. The louder Committees shout, the greater the likelihood that organisations will not engage with them, and in fact will ignore them. And given the critically important role they should be playing in shaping policy and overseeing Government practices, that would be a huge shame for our democracy. Indeed Committees might occasionally like to remember it is Government they oversee, not private businesses.

For the UK as a whole the risk is our standing in the Global Race. The reception given to potential foreign investors is important: given the choice between investing here and, say, Germany a company boss might lean towards the country that appears to be more open and friendly. What Select Committees do and say may be relatively insignificant in some respects, but where a decision is hanging in the balance some executives may choose not to come here when they run the risk of being patronised and offended by MPs who exhibit no respect, little understanding and frequent contempt. That is bad for UK plc.

In short I do not agree with Iain Martin: standing up to bullying Select Committees is not the responsibility of individual business folk or of specific companies. But at the same time I agree with him that someone needs to do it. But who? Step forward the much maligned trade bodies and business organisations, first and foremost the CBI. They should be out there meeting fire with fire, and reminding Committees that they cannot just behave as they please without consequences. They should be doing more too to remind politicians that businesses create employment and deliver a host of other public goods. It is time for business' own elected representatives to stand up, and to bite back.