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A select gathering

The role of Parliamentary select committees has been brought into sharp focus in the past few days for the most appalling and tragic reasons.

The death of Dr David Kelly still poses more questions than it answers but, for me, as someone who has followed the development of select committee practice in recent times, the political impact of recent events paints an important picture.

If the death of Dr Kelly gives pause for thought, to my mind, this will be one of his most important legacies.

In the uncomfortable heat of June and July in Westminster this year, some MPs appear to have grown increasingly hot under the collar, what with the comparison of the BBC&#39s annual report and accounts with Enron and the garroting which the store card companies got at the expense of the Treasury select committee earlier this month.

It seems the summer recess could not have come soon enough for most MPs.

Perhaps it is mid-term blues, perhaps it is post-Iraq war syndrome but, whatever has been going on, select committees have asserted their powers to hold both Government and public servants to account in the current Parliamentary term.

There is a model which select committees appear to be following – that of the Congressional system of hearings in the US. The experience of the Watergate hearings in the 1970s, Iran Contra-gate in the 1980s, Clinton-gate in the 1990s and Enron-gate in the early part of this new century has clearly had an impact on our own Parliamentarians&#39 aspirations for the development of the select committee structure.

While many think of select committees as being as old as some of the most arcane of our Parliamentary procedures, the fact is they are a relatively modern creation. Established in their own right in the 1970 – 1979 to be exact – select committees have grown in stature and powers and are treated increasingly seriously by those who are called to appear before them.

There are now a wide number of select committees monitoring the activities of Government departments. Their role is to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of each department and its relevant associated public bodies. Hence, the FSA, under the Treasury&#39s eye, comes under the scrutiny of the Treasury select committee.

I read last week that some of the credit card companies that appeared before the select committee earlier this month spent up to £50,000 on training for their appearance. I am not sure if this made any difference to their final performance in front of MPs but it does demonstrate the increasing fear that many witnesses have before they appear at Westminster.

The financial services industry has had its own share of casualties in front of the Treasury select committee, in particular.

From Equitable Life to split-capital investment trusts, from the recent appearance by the credit card companies to the performance of the FSA, the impact of chairman John McFall and his colleagues&#39 committee continues to grow.

Is this right? Do select committees have any real power other than the ability to pour scorn and embarrass those who appear before them? Increasingly, committees are able to provide reports which Government departments and their agencies find hard to ignore.

I think there is an extremely important function which the committees are performing – that of holding the Government, ministers and civil servants, as well as executive agencies such as the FSA, to account. This is a role which the House of Commons chamber itself seems singularly unable to perform effectively in the current environment.

Enough of the history – what of the likely focus of select committees for the remainder of 2003?

When Parliament returns for a short period in early September, we can expect the Treasury select committee to bare its teeth once again on the credit card companies&#39 activities on APRs and consumer information.

The committee has been considering the idea of a consumer “box” for credit cards to provide customers with clearer, more up-front product information. This is intended as a single one-page source of data.

I am sure many reading this might welcome this concept as a means of waving goodbye to pages and pages of key features.

Something tells me that the committee will report in the autumn that this approach would enable consumers to understand a lot more about credit cards and we can expect a similar principle to be extended to a wider range of financial products.

As the FSA consults on the current disclosure regime, expect the Treasury select committee&#39s findings to input considerably towards the development of policies at Canary Wharf.

The new Parliamentary session is set to see a raft of new legislation affecting financial services, all of which is likely to be subject to scrutiny by the Treasury and the work and pensions select committees. The child trust fund and a new Pension Bill are the two most likely candidates in the Queen&#39s Speech in November.

However, in recent dealings with the Treasury select committee, it has also become clear that it will be undertaking a review of the effectiveness of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 – the legislation which formally created the FSA and gave it powers.

This will certainly involve an inquiry calling FSA executives. But it will also require input from the wider financial services community. This inquiry will be a significant opportunity for the committee to look at the remit of the regulator and see if any key improvements can be made. This is definitely an opportunity for the industry to make some key points about the effectiveness of the new regulator.

So, select committees will continue to grow in influence and they remain an important way for our industry to make its point to Parliamentarians.

Iain Anderson is a director and chief corporate counsel at Cicero Consulting


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