How to give evidence to a parliamentary committee


We have an art trail in my home town of Steyning, to coincide with a cut-down Steyning Festival over the weekend. And on the art trail on Sunday, I ran into my friend Sally Barnard, who is also a local artist.

It so happens that she is due to give evidence to the parliamentary environmental audit committee on Wednesday and she asked my advice about it.

Why me, I hear you ask? Because I have twice given evidence in Parliament myself, though on one occasion it was to a parliamentary inquiry into the future of volunteering, about two decades ago. I’m not sure that one counts, though I was questioned pretty closely by the late, great Lord Dahrendorf about the central contradictions between my books Funny Money (1999) and The Tyranny of Numbers (2001). He was absolutely right to ask, but let’s deal with that another day…

So my main experience was giving evidence on co-production to the public administration select committee in 2007. Based on that single experience, here is my humble offer of advice.

  1. Don’t worry about it. If there is no opportunity for grandstanding, your opponents will probably not be there – and for someone representing the community (as Sally is), nobody wants to be seen being unpleasant to you. This will mean that you will be talking mainly to opposition MPs who agree with you.

2. Tell stories which exemplify what you are saying. The most important thing is to express your ideas clearly in such a way that the MPs will remember them.

3. You will probably be questioned together with two others at the same time. I was questioned at the same time as Matthew Taylor as a recent Blairite refugee back then – which obviously irritated the Labour membors of the committee (the only ones to show up).

So here is the bigger question. How can giving evidence to a select committee make any difference?

Sally tells me that the National Audit Office (NAO) has published a report setting out exactly what needs doing to align local government with national priorities for tackling climate change – the latest report to do so. So why has the government not acted?

And more to the point, having persuaded a small group of MPs – who feel themselves to be powerless, even if they are not quite as powerless as we are, what good might the environment audit committee’s eventual report do?

Here are a few thoughts about this question…

  • Make sure that the MPs you talk to don’t forget what you say – again this is about telling memorable stories. In fact, I remember some research about why policy changed, and it had nothing to do with evidence – it was about the stories that ministers may have heard 48 hours before the decision.
  • Make sure that people with more lobbying power than you know what you have and why – the Local Government Association for example; the NAO too.
  • Think about why the government might act on this now – because it will be relatively inexpensive and will demonstrate vital activity in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow in November.
  • Scour your address book to find who you know who might have some means of getting to those who could help the right decision along – special advisors at the Defra or the Department for communities or No. 10.

Because, after all, if local government does nothing to stop our looming climate catastrophe, then really what hope can any of us have – and being in government has to be about the business of building hope.

Really good luck, Sally! And if anyone has any better advice for her, we have about 48 hours to write it down, below the line…

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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