September 26

The politics and performance of scholars giving evidence to Parliamentary select committees

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Reading time 3 minutes

I read last week that Westminster’s Select Committees are still struggling to get equal numbers of women and men to give evidence. This matters partly because whole sections of the population are not getting heard. Different life experiences tend to lead to different opinions and gender, race, age etc all have a profound influence on how people encounter the world. Hannah Arendt wrote that politics is a public space where people come together, seek to persuade each other and create new ideas; for this, plurality of views is needed.

The language used by select committees – scrutiny, witness, evidence – emphasises their relationship with legal process. This can be misleading. Most ‘witnesses’ who give evidence are not offering facts to prove guilt or innocence but sharing their experiences as victims or witnesses of challenges in society. I note that Parliament has noticed this too and explains this in a video that offers advice about giving evidence.

Maybe scholars (and other citizens) don’t give evidence because they see the more aggressive sessions on the news, e.g., Teresa May being skillfully grilled by the Liaison Committee or Aaron Banks’ walking out? But as an occasional witness, I find it reassuring to make the distinction between the different modes of committees. When they are in their scrutiny role – holding a Minister or senior civil servant to account, probing the affairs of companies whose executives would rather they didn’t – they need to push hard to stop their ‘witnesses’ being evasive. But when they are doing an inquiry to understand a broad issue, their witnesses are in a collaborative role; they even call them ‘friendly witnesses’. In the vast majority of cases of scholars, we are definitely ‘friendly’, even when being critical.

The outreach bit of Parliament offers training to researchers about engaging with the Commons. They encourage witnesses to tell their stories. So, to continue the conversation about what it’s like giving evidence, I thought I’d muse on my experience…

How I reduce the pain of giving evidence to select committees and even quite enjoy it:

I need to prepare like crazy; I read every document I can get hold of relating to the inquiry (terms of reference, any evidence already given, previous inquiry reports on the topic) and ask to speak to one of the committee staff if possible. They can’t give me everything that I might want – a forensic assessment of the political views of all the committee members – but I test out ideas on them, asking “do you think the committee would be interested if I dwelt on x, y, or z?” “do you think they might find this kind of evidence compelling?” “have they already heard about the situation in x part of the world?” They are always willing to advise and extremely shrewd about what might work.

When I am writing my evidence, I assume that MPs might only read the summary. I give a brief summary, a summary of recommendations (cross-referencing to the reasons below), and then reasons with evidence to substantiate them in numbered paragraphs so it is easy to reference. Parliament provides guidance and recommended limits are usually around 3,000 words – I find crafting it so as not to waste words is what takes the time. MPs are not in the business of coldly assessing evidence – as if divorced from the political views of their party, their constituents, emotions and their own pressures – but like anyone they can be influenced. I aim for a mix of scholarly detachment and clear and heart-felt statements, backed up by powerful evidence. Neither emotion nor research are much use on their own.

Like others, including scholars, MPs have prejudices about the nature of evidence. They will be influenced by the identity of its source, so I try to establish my credibility (perhaps reassuring myself too) – whether through my life experience, my professional expertise or my grasp of the topic. Scientific method is assumed to be superior by many, and yet philosophically each discipline has spent decades (or centuries in many cases) establishing the rigour of its own method, so I remind them why mine (anthropology) is good at systematically researching complex puzzles about motivation, ideology and symbolism. Whether based on science, philosophy or the arts, any claim is contestable so I recognize that even when I think is blindingly obvious (it probably isn’t), it needs to be argued as persuasively as possible.

When I have been called to attend a committee to answer their questions during a verbal evidence-taking session, I do my research on the specific MPs – find out about their interests, their politics and what they have said before on this topic. That helps me to work out what needs to be explained in greater depth and what I should prioritise. I aim to offer the most compelling view for that moment. If I can’t decide, then I ask, “there is more I would like to say but I don’t have time, would it be alright if I sent in more written evidence?” MPs will not normally then want to appear impolite so have always said yes!

I also find it useful to think about what kind of process I’m involved in. This is a form of performance – not in the sense of being artificial, but in the sense of improvising to put your case in the best possible way for that specific audience. In fact, I assume that artifice, image management or even worse lies will totally undermine your evidence. Trying to tell the truth is hard work.

Image: Copyright UK Parliament

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