Saying no – when scrutiny goes wrong
Last week, the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee had a bit of a public tussle with Dominic Cummings, former special adviser to Michael Gove and more recently campaign director for Vote Leave. The CMS Committee wanted to speak to Cummings about inconsistencies between evidence he had already given to the Committee and more recent evidence which suggested that Vote Leave had sought to swing the referendum vote by planting “fake news” on Facebook.
How does this kind of thing usually play out? In recently years we’ve seen this happen a couple of times – first with Rupert Murdoch and his son James, and more recently with Mike Ashley, chairman of Sports Direct. Initial refusal was followed by negotiation and then attendance to give evidence – not wholly willingly, but honour was satisfied.
Not this time, though. Cummings has refused to appear, and no number of brusque letters from Damien Collins, Chair of the Committee, will budge him. Embarrassingly for the committee, it has increasingly become clear that it actually has no powers to force him to attend. And perhaps inevitably, when it becomes clear that the Emperor has no clothes, others will take advantage of that fact – Arron Banks, due to give evidence to the committee on similar matters, advised that he, too, would refuse to attend as well, although he rather quickly backtracked on that plan.
It suits Banks and Cummings to be seen as iconoclasts. The profile of select committees is such that witnesses will often use their attendance (or non-attendance) as leverage for the points they particularly want to put across. But for most witnesses, there will be a driver to pull or push them to engage (in the Murdochs’ case it was the spectre of the Ofcom “fit and proper person” test for media ownership; for Ashley the adverse publicity around Sports Direct at the time meant that he could hardly avoid the opportunity for a public platform).
Here, though, no such drivers exist. And Parliament’s systems have been found wanting as a result – in a way that will only lead to the prestige of select committees declining, as it is abundantly clear to everyone involved that the power of select committees to “summon” witnesses is essentially meaningless.
How could they have approached things differently and what can we apply to the local government context?
With an uncooperative witness, there is little point proceeding beyond the opening salvos. When it is abundantly clear that someone does not want to attend – it is pointless trying to press the point.
Doing so only wastes time and effort – and forces everyone to dig in.
Better simply to shrug your shoulders and move on. You can draw what conclusions from the refusal to engage that you might like. In the case of the CMS Committee, there will be a wealth of other people with personal experiences of the issues involved, willing to speak to the people involved. The opportunity to challenge Cummings directly has been lost, but the Committee’s work continues. Let it go.
Even for local scrutiny, there comes a point at which you should pause, express regret, and continue with the confidence that the person involved has had an opportunity to contribute, but has passed that up. Such witnesses like to refuse to participate often for two reasons – firstly, because they hope that the work of a committee will be derailed for want of the evidence that only they can provide (well, the self-importance), and secondly, because they want to rattle the committee into not following certain lines of inquiry because they, as a witness, have not been given an adequate right of reply or opportunity to comment.
For people who act in this way, these power plays are part of a game. The only way to win that game is not to play.