A senior and engaged committee chair who knows the policy area well and has the experience to run a body of MPs has the potential to do much good, and examine a lot of big questions, writes Eliot Wilson
It’s not unknown for former ministers, even Cabinet ministers, to seek a new challenge and a last stretch in the limelight by chairing a select committee.
Nicky Morgan, sacked by Theresa May, found a lifeline in the Treasury committee; John Denham was a mid-period Blair casualty but reinvented himself as an excellent chair at Home Affairs; and now Jeremy Hunt has returned to the health brief by persuading MPs to elect him to head the health and social care committee.
I’m not sure if a former Cabinet minister chairing the committee which scrutinises his old department is a gamekeeper-turned-poacher, or the other way round. It’s not unknown – just think of Stephen Dorrell – but it requires a considerable adjustment of attitude, focus and mental energy if you are to excel at both.
What’s my motivation, as a million actors and actresses have asked over the years? There’s a modest financial incentive; chairs of select committees are paid an additional salary (a little over £15,000) to reflect their extra responsibilities and commitments.
It was introduced to encourage MPs to see select committee work as an alternative career path to the ministerial tree, but it hasn’t really worked. I’ve met very few MPs who would rather chair a select committee than be even a junior minister, and £15k isn’t a game-changing amount of money.
Spotlight and influence
Ego, of course. All politicians, because it is a necessary part of the nature, have a fairly good estimation of themselves, and they like attention, the spotlight and a degree of influence. You get some of that as a select committee chair.
You are listened to with added attention in the House, you will be deferentially addressed as “chairman” on a weekly basis (if you wish), and you will have a small but hard-working and experienced team at your command to carry out all sorts of tasks.
There will be a little bit of foreign travel (though less since the expenses scandal broke in 2009), and you will get to meet international counterparts at earnest conferences and symposiums.
Jeremy Hunt, however, has already been foreign secretary. It may not be as influential a role as chancellor, but it’s the classiest going, from the Gilbert Scott palazzo on Whitehall to the country retreat at Chevening House.
You have under your control 14,000 people employed across the world, you are the principal architect of the UK’s global stance (excepting the prime minister) and you are a Cabinet heavyweight. So, how will he find life in the meeting rooms of Portcullis House?
I hope chairman Hunt will accept a few words of advice from an old health committee hand. Choose three or four high-level issues to address in your first year or so. If possible, concentrate on issues where there is no obvious party split, and where calm, measured deliberation by lawmakers might add value
His past inevitably carries weight. Former ministers, especially senior ones, know how an organisation should run, and in particular will have experience of a private office at their service: they will often expect the committee team to carry on this function in their new role.
That makes them demanding, but don’t take that automatically as a disadvantage. Committee staff, in my experience, like a chair who knows his own mind, has a clear set of objectives and interests, and is used to acting in a professional and businesslike manner.
Hunt will find himself a powerful voice on the liaison committee (the body made up of select committee chairs); he may even, like his predecessor Dr Sarah Wollaston, end up chairing it.
Being a chair, however, is not like being a Cabinet minister. You control the committee’s agenda, it is true, and you have wide discretion as to the areas it will investigate and the sort of witnesses it will hear from. But you have to proceed by consensus.
You only have a casting vote. Select committees work best when party labels are left at the door; if you divide the committee straight down party lines, you will, as a chair from the governing party win, but it will be a hollow victory.
Your audience, the political classes and your stakeholders, will see through the partisan atmosphere and the conclusions of your reports will be accordingly less influential and less respected.
I hope chairman Hunt will accept a few words of advice from an old health committee hand. Choose three or four high-level issues to address in your first year or so.
If possible, concentrate on issues where there is no obvious party split, and where calm, measured deliberation by lawmakers might add value. In my time, the best piece of work the committee did was to examine the government’s proposals for banning smoking in public.
There was no partisan consensus, so the members looked at the science, the epidemiology and the experience from other countries. They pointed out flaws in the draft legislation, and backed up their arguments. The report was agreed unanimously. The government took its advice.
Be collegiate. Reach out to the Opposition members, when they are elected. They may be new to Parliament, and they may not have a high estimation of Jeremy Hunt.
Prove you are a human being, that you listen and you are interested in meaningful policy outcomes, not party sound and fury. If an obvious leader emerges—what the Americans would call a “ranking member”—then use them as a conduit. Build a relationship of trust and amicability. It will repay huge dividends.
Hunt’s chairmanship is a genuine opportunity for the healthcare sector. A senior and engaged committee chair who knows the policy area well and has the experience to run a body of MPs has the potential to do much good, and examine a lot of big questions.
The work is there—social care provision, the role of the private sector, finding effective methods of investment—and the Department of Health and Social Care shows no sign of having all the answers.
There’s no reason at all why the committee should not be one of the bodies to step in and fill that void.