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Tips from an old chair

In an open letter to MP Barry Sheerman, new chair of the education select committee, Christopher Price, a former incumbent, hopes his colleague will keep his independence in the face of ministerial pressure.

Dear Barry Sheerman

Congratulations on being appointed chair of the Select Committee on Education and Employment.

Chairing a select committee remains an underrated parliamentary career. While it offers no power, it brings with it a surprising amount of influence. The prerequisites for success at the job are a canny experience of how the House of Commons works, an ability to find a consensus across the political and professional spectrums (especially when the Government does not particularly want one) and a willingness to distance yourself from your own party when you feel it has got things wrong.

You have done well to get yourself approved by the whips because, as a rule, they do not like experienced MPs with an independent streak chairing select committees: they prefer loyal apparatchiks. After I lost my seat in 1983 and Conservatives began to chair the committee, Margaret Thatcher appointed safe, ex-ministers to dumb it down and leave space for Kenneth Baker to press ahead with his reforms; in the event, the committee dissolved into political fisticuffs until Malcolm Thornton, an excellent chair, was allowed to restore law and order.

The Labour whips have so far ensured loyalty by appointing ambitious and youngish MPs, who, they calculated, would soon be "promoted" to ministerial office.

So, the first advice I have for you is this: if you are offered a government job, refuse it; and if the whips put pressure on you to retire at the next election, tell them to get lost. Select committee chairs need time and continuity to be effective, as Frank Field and Gerald Kaufman have proved. Take a lesson from Madam Speaker and stick with the job as long as you can. The unwritten seniority rules of the Commons will ensure you keep it.

Second, use the committee's powers to send for persons and papers with ingenuity and persistence. This power is too ancient and hard-fought-for a parliamentary privilege for even the most authoritarian government to abolish.

Third, avoid chumminess with witnesses. Whether they are ministers, chief inspectors or union bosses, make sure that they answer questions, not ask them - as Chris Woodhead somewhat impertinently did when he was last before the committee.

Fourth, treat your parliamentary colleagues, especially the four Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats, with th utmost respect. You will need their goodwill one day; and if the committee becomes divided on party lines, it will have no influence whatsoever.

Fifth, use the press creatively. The publicity you get from public hearings is quite as important as the content of your reports; and if government departments can spin, so can select committees. Get to know each of the education correspondents personally and see them collectively the evening before important hearings with an indication of the questions that will be asked. But always make sure that you control them - not vice versa. Publicity should always be on the committee's terms.

Finally, and most important of all, persuade your colleagues to be more strategic and avoid too many tactical, ephemeral forays. Your reports on the Office for Standards in Education and school governors have been useful; but there are also longer-term tasks which only your committee can perform.

First, the coherence of the Department for Education and Employment as a Whitehall department. Michael Bichard, the permanent secretary, recently indicated that he would welcome more coherent arrangements for the appraisal of his own and his department's success in meeting their targets.

Both the Cabinet Secretary and some of the chairs of other select committees agree that a move in this direction across Whitehall is necessary. The DFEE was created four years ago to abolish artificial distinctions between the academic and the practical in a sensible, modernising merger. But the make-up of your committee, with its two hermetically sealed sub-committees, makes it difficult for you to monitor the progress of this cohesion or the objectives of the department as a whole. You should make far greater use of the full committee for tasks of this kind.

The second is to scrutinise the direction in which governance of all schools and colleges is moving and say something about local and regional accountability. There were good reasons why the polytechnics and the colleges were sequestered 12 years ago from local council ownership. But after training and enterprise councils, colleges and sixth forms have been brought together under Learning and Skills Councils in 2002, the next proposal (simmering for years in the Treasury) will be to take schools out of local government altogether. Your committee could do much to publicise the problem of creeping educational centralisation.

But these are just tips from an old colleague; I wish you well in the job.

Christopher Price now edits The Stakeholder

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