Parliamentary Committee Witnesses: Why It Matters Who Parliament Hears From

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society.  Click here to access the full article.

It has long been argued that some groups, including poorer people and those who are otherwise socially excluded, lose out significantly in society and in the political process because they are powerless. For some groups, such as women, there have been debates about the extent to which those elected to parliaments should be representative of wider society, to enable their voices to be heard, while for others, such as younger people, there have been concerns about disengagement.

At the same time, there have been other questions about the ability of parliaments to undertake high quality scrutiny of legislation and the actions of governments. Drawing on a variety of literatures, and empirical research in the Scottish Parliament, this piece argues that many of these concerns can be considered in relation to the work done by parliamentary committees and the evidence gathered for their enquiries, and that broadening further the voices from which committees hear would provide the opportunity to enhance both parliamentary scrutiny and aspects of representation and engagement, for example:

Scrutiny and evaluation

  • A wider range of voices can provide different perspectives, including from those who are affected by and who are responsible for implementing policy and legislation, and that may inform scrutiny;
  • Similarly, a variety of inputs can provide additional external challenges to policy and legislation, which can, potentially, lead to improved outcomes, better implementation and increased legitimacy.

Representation

  • Symbolic and/or descriptive representation can increase the extent to which parliaments are seen to be engaging with and representative of society;
  • Substantive representation, with people seeking to act for those that they represent, may enhance participation and reduce socio-economic exclusion;
  • Representative claims – there are potentially strong arguments that some groups, including those who are not descriptively represented or whose views may not easily reach policy makers, may benefit from claims of representation made by those who are not themselves elected.

Engagement, participation and legitimacy

  • The activities of parliaments are seen and interpreted by those outside, including the media, civil society and the public, and who they select as witnesses sends a message about who they listen to and what they are interested in;
  • Hearing from a wider range of witnesses may contribute to public participation and engagement and enhance legitimacy;
  • While it is clearly important for committees to have input from those with expertise, hearing from only a limited range of voices could be seen as being counter-democratic;
  • People often value engagement, and indeed may be encouraged to learn more about parliaments and how they work, and this can also encourage more positive perceptions of institutions.

Committees and witness diversity

The Scottish Parliament was founded on commitments to power-sharing, accountability, openness, participation and equal opportunities, and in recent years statements such as the Public Engagement Strategy and the Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, 2017-21 have reiterated such aims, while the report of the Commission on Parliamentary Reform in 2017 also emphasised engagement with the people of Scotland and argued that efforts must be made to ensure all voices are heard.

The Parliament’s committees scrutinise both the actions of government and legislation, and there are clearly a variety of pressures that affect the collection of evidence and witness selection. The following discussion draws upon the analysis of more than 4,500 witnesses from 1999-2000, 2015-16 and 2016-17, and interviews with sixteen MSPs (including ten committee conveners) and twenty-two other parliamentary staff involved in the selection of witnesses. Table 1 shows that for the three years for which data was collected, there appears to have been a significant increase in the proportion of witnesses who are women (and which is higher than for committees of the National Assembly for Wales or House of Commons select committees).

Table 1 Gender of committee witnesses, 1999-2000, 2015-16, 2016-17 (percentages)

1999-2000 2015-16 2016-17
Female Male Female Male Female Male
25.1 74.9 35.9 64.0 38.2 61.8

As with other legislatures, there are also considerable differences across committees in terms of both the number and gender of witnesses (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Number and gender of witnesses by committee, 2016-17

bochelbernier

Interviewees noted four main aspects of the role of witnesses:

  • Accountability, hearing from those in responsible positions, so that committees may have little or no choice over who appears before them;
  • In a representative capacity, such as with key stakeholders and representative bodies, where the Parliament’s ability to influence who appears may be somewhat limited;
  • Providing expertise, when the pool of potential witnesses may be larger or smaller depending on the topic;
  • To talk about their experiences, whether on the delivery or the receiving side of legislation and policy, and here many respondents suggested that there may be greater opportunities to identify more diverse sets of witnesses.

In addition, two other strands of thought emerged, which can be seen as linked to the ideas of representation, scrutiny and engagement discussed above:

  • The benefits to Parliament from hearing a diverse range of views, including providing additional insights, detailing experiences, and perhaps raising different issues and concerns;
  • The selection of witnesses matters because of the messages it sends to people outside Parliament, about how Parliament works, what it is interested in and who it listens to.

It is important to note that the Scottish Parliament’s committees undertake a substantial amount of evidence-gathering beyond that which is formally recorded as oral or written evidence, including site visits, breakfast meetings and private meetings with potentially vulnerable groups, and that these inform their work. Indeed, reinforcing arguments for greater witness diversity, these were widely seen by interviewees as beneficial, in particular for providing different views and insights from those typically heard in formal evidence sessions. Finally, the Parliament is already taking steps to address some of the issues outlined here.


About the authors

Hugh Bochel is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Lincoln.

Anouk Berthier is a Senior Researcher in the Scottish Parliament Information Centre.  She is currently on secondment to the Scottish Government.

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