Something interesting has begun happening at Westminster, and if you want to know what, you need to prowl the committee corridors to find out. House of Commons select committees have not only discovered that they are in possession of some pretty sharp teeth, but have increasingly realised how to use them to devastating effect.
The Public Accounts Committee today published its report on HM Revenue & Customs, which was trailed to great effect a few weeks ago when the committee MPs took evidence from Starbucks, Amazon and Google and roundly condemned them for the low rates of corporation tax they paid. The report leads today’s news, focusing attention on the committee’s arguments about how multinationals use tax structures and legislation in order to minimise taxable income, arguments which have already prompted action. Over the weekend, Starbucks attempted to defuse this detonation by announcing it was ‘talking’ with HMRC about its tax liabilities, which was perceived as geared towards avoiding a potential/actual customer boycott. The PAC report also accuses some of its witnesses in giving ‘evasive’ evidence, a problem that select committees are now tackling head on through a strategy of naming and shaming.
The PAC – with its supremely coordinated pincer movements between Labour chair Margaret Hodge and Richard Bacon as the ranking Conservative – provides regular evidence of the ability of Commons select committees not only to expose serious public policy matters to the oxygen of publicity, but also to use their power of evidence-taking to put tremendous pressure on the narratives and accounts offered by witnesses, whoever they may be. And, as the PAC’s report today shows, in drawing difficult conclusions and adopting media-savvy strategies, select committees can detonate a bomb beneath public debate and prompt action on pressing issues, in a way that few other public forums can.
Some people still say parliament doesn’t matter, but that’s becoming an increasingly difficult argument to sustain. Select committees used to be described as toothless and pointless. No longer.