Review of House of Lords Investigative and Scrutiny Committees: towards a new thematic committee structure Contents

Chapter 9: Committee witnesses and evidence


195.Whilst the unique feature of House of Lords committees is their membership, their evidence-based scrutiny forms the essential foundation of their work. Put simply, without the input of several hundred witnesses each session most of our committees would grind to a halt. The consideration of who committees hear from raises the issue of witness diversity, to which we now turn.

Witness diversity

196.Witnesses to our review highlighted the tendency for committees to contact the ‘usual suspects’ for inquiries.162 Dr Wollaston noted that picking witnesses “is about being mindful” and “going back to people to ask, “is there somebody else who could come?” so that you do not always hear from the same people.”163 This was reiterated by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots CBE who said “greater effort needs to be taken to reach past ‘the usual suspects’ when seeking people to give evidence”.164 However, Lord Lisvane pointed out that “we cannot ignore the usual suspects when it comes to witnesses, but it is important that the judgment is not who you are, but how good the ideas are that you contribute”.165

197.Since 2013, when Democratic Audit carried out a survey of witnesses to House of Commons committees and found that during the period studied 76% were male and 24% female,166 there has been an increased focus on witness diversity. The House of Commons now includes information about witness gender diversity in its Sessional Returns.167

198.Dr Wollaston pointed out that in the House of Commons, committee invitations to witnesses now “ask them to consider diversity and its importance”168 and they are now recording different diversity characteristics. Dr Wollaston stated that “just thinking about it makes a difference.”169 Mr Christopher Warner from the Welsh Assembly noted an experiment in which the Economy Committee in the Welsh Assembly tried to encourage more women to give evidence “by offering them a training package”. This included “giving them a mock committee situation and critiquing their performance in a very supportive way to demystify and give them more confidence about the process.”170 He suggested that this could be a way of helping create a change in the diversity of witnesses, in turn improving the evidence that is then taken by any given committee.

199.Other witnesses pointed out that one of the biggest barriers to a more diverse witness base could be due to the sometimes intimidating environment of the committee room itself, an issue to which we turn in Chapter 10. Mr Clancy suggested changing some of the terms that are used by committees such as “invitee” or “consultee” rather that witness, and “instead of evidence one could say “views” or “opinions”.171 Changes such as this might enable witnesses to feel more comfortable, and as Mr Khan pointed out, “some of the language could be made more accessible.”172 This could then help to expand away from “the usual suspects” as well as encouraging a more diverse audience to take part. We have already changed the term “ad hoc” committee to special inquiry committee, and consider that other small changes, in particular replacing the term Chairman with Chair, would be appropriate. We intend to review the language and terminology used in committee proceedings more systematically, and to recommend further changes later this year.

200.Throughout the evidence taking process the Committee heard from witnesses about the benefits that arise through diversifying the pool of people heard from during inquires. In the parliamentary context it is important to note that in addition to protected characteristics, diversity also includes geographic diversity and diversity of organisational type. Expanding the variety of voices that a committee hears from is important to ensure that committees are undertaking their role most effectively. Diversity comes in many forms, and hearing a range of different perspectives means that committees are better informed and can more effectively scrutinise public policy and legislation.

201.In order to understand and improve the diversity of witnesses in House of Lords committees, in July 2018 the Committee Office set up a working group of staff to understand the issues and develop a series of recommendations to be put in place. In February 2019 a number of recommendations were agreed by the Committee Office Senior Management Team to help improve the diversity of witnesses. These recommendations were presented in a paper to this Committee. We endorse the work of the witness diversity working group, and encourage the implementation and continued reflection of the success of these recommendations and the impact they have on committee output.

202.There is currently no formal monitoring system in place for committee witness diversity in the House of Lords, but it is hoped that such a system will be put in place as part of website developments in the next parliamentary session. The 2018 Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit recommended as follows:

“… committees should make every possible effort to ensure that female witnesses and those from other diverse groups are not prevented from contributing to their inquiries, either by being overlooked in favour of the ‘usual suspects’ or by being put off from putting themselves forward. We understand that the Lords Liaison Committee is expected to consider proposals on how Lords committees might monitor this more routinely: we support this.”173

203.We encourage the introduction of a formal monitoring system for committee witness diversity as soon as possible in order to better understand the current witness base, as well as to track and monitor the progress we make in hearing the views of a greater variety of voices.

The nature of evidence

204.In addition to hearing the views of a greater variety of voices, House of Lords committees have been increasingly inviting these views in formats which are different to the usual, formal, written and oral evidence processes. In the following paragraphs we examine three formats piloted by committees in 2018–19 with the help of the bicameral committees engagement team, which have served to expand upon our traditional definition of what constitutes evidence.

‘Go-to democracy’ in seaside towns (July-October 2018)

205.The Regeneration of Seaside Towns Committee planned six visits to seaside towns to hear from those living, visiting and working there. A range of different engagement methods were used to ensure that opportunity was given to members of the public who wanted to contribute to the inquiry. A form of ‘go to democracy’ was used where staff went to places where larger numbers of people were likely to be (for example the Illuminations in Blackpool and the Turner Gallery in Margate), interviewing and surveying 200 people to capture views on the issues their town faced. In Skegness and Clacton-on-Sea, roundtable events took place between members of the Committee and the public which allowed for members to consult with people including students, local business owners and interest groups, who provided varying experiences and perspectives.

206.Summary notes, reports (including statistical data from the surveys) and filmed interviews were provided on all the engagement as outputs for the Committee to use.

Community conversations brought back to Westminster (October-December 2018)

207.The Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee wanted to consult with people who represented the young, middle and elderly generations and used an innovative way to do this through a series of ‘pyramid’ style events. In October 2018, representatives from the different age groups were invited to Westminster to meet with members of the Committee, where they provided their own views on the topics of the inquiry and were given a distributed dialogue resource pack to guide them in running their own discussions in their local communities throughout November.

208.At the start of December, the representatives returned to Westminster and again met with members of the Committee but this time were able to provide a wider perspective to the members as they used the information and insight gained form the conversations they had held in their own communities. This method allowed the Committee to hear a range of perspectives from across the UK whilst ensuring that the participants were fully involved in the inquiry as they became ambassadors for it in their local communities. It helped to promote the message that Parliament is accessible to the public and open to hearing a variety of views.

Partnering with organisations to engage local communities (October 2018)

209.The Rural Economy Committee visited South Yorkshire on 10 October 2018 and worked closely with the Coalfields Regeneration Trust to facilitate a roundtable event with local businesses, councillors and charities. The Committee heard from a range of voices involved in the rural economy and the event complemented the Committee’s visit to a local community shop and local housing developments. Working with partner organisations in this way helped to facilitate dialogue between committees and networks in local communities.

210.We endorse the various techniques that have been used by the 2018–19 special inquiry committees to gather evidence. We support the ongoing use of innovative ways to collect evidence and expand the variety of voices that committees hear from. Committees should continue to develop new techniques to gather evidence, ensuring that such techniques are tailored to the individual aims of the committee and inquiry, as and when they are used.

162 Q 77 (Baroness Taylor of Bolton)

163 Q 13 (Dr Sarah Wollaston MP)

164 Written evidence from Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots (RIS0070)

165 Q 92 (Lord Lisvane)

166 Democratic Audit UK, Parliamentary select committees: who gives evidence? (2013): [accessed 23 April 2019]

167 House of Commons Liaison Committee, Witness gender diversity (Second Report, Session 2017–19, HC 1033) paras 1–6

168 Q 12 (Dr Sarah Wollaston MP)

169 Ibid.

170 Q 111 (Christopher Warner)

171 Q 68 (Michael Clancy)

172 Q 68 (Robert Khan)

173 UK Parliament, UK Parliament Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit 2018 (November 2018) [accessed 4 July 2019] p 21

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