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The politics and performance of scholars giving evidence to Parliamentary select committees

I read last week that Westminster’s Select Committees are still struggling to get equal numbers of women and men to give evidence. This matters partly because whole sections of the population are not getting heard. Different life experiences tend to lead to different opinions and gender, race, age etc all have a profound influence on how people encounter the world. Hannah Arendt wrote that politics is a public space where people come together, seek to persuade each other and create new ideas; for this, plurality of views is needed.

The language used by select committees – scrutiny, witness, evidence – emphasises their relationship with legal process. This can be misleading. Most ‘witnesses’ who give evidence are not offering facts to prove guilt or innocence but sharing their experiences as victims or witnesses of challenges in society. I note that Parliament has noticed this too and explains this in a video that offers advice about giving evidence.

Maybe scholars (and other citizens) don’t give evidence because they see the more aggressive sessions on the news, e.g.,  Teresa May being skillfully grilled by the Liaison Committee or Aaron Banks’ walking out? But as an occasional witness, I find it reassuring to make the distinction between the different modes of committees. When they are in their scrutiny role – holding a Minister or senior civil servant to account, probing the affairs of companies whose executives would rather they didn’t – they need to push hard to stop their ‘witnesses’ being evasive. But when they are doing an inquiry to understand a broad issue, their witnesses are in a collaborative role; they even call them ‘friendly witnesses’. In the vast majority of cases of scholars, we are definitely ‘friendly’, even when being critical. 

The outreach bit of Parliament offers training to researchers about engaging with the Commons. They encourage witnesses to tell their stories. So, to continue the conversation about what it’s like giving evidence, I thought I’d muse on my experience…

 

How I reduce the pain of giving evidence to select committees and even quite enjoy it:

  • I need to prepare like crazy; I read every document I can get hold of relating to the inquiry (terms of reference, any evidence already given, previous inquiry reports on the topic) and ask to speak to one of the committee staff if possible. They can’t give me everything that I might want – a forensic assessment of the political views of all the committee members – but I test out ideas on them, asking “do you think the committee would be interested if I dwelt on x, y, or z?” “do you think they might find this kind of evidence compelling?” “have they already heard about the situation in x part of the world?” They are always willing to advise and extremely shrewd about what might work. 
  • When I am writing my evidence, I assume that MPs might only read the summary. I give a brief summary, a summary of recommendations (cross-referencing to the reasons below), and then reasons with evidence to substantiate them in numbered paragraphs so it is easy to reference. Parliament provides guidance and recommended limits are usually around 3,000 words – I find crafting it so as not to waste words is what takes the time. MPs are not in the business of coldly assessing evidence – as if divorced from the political views of their party, their constituents, emotions and their own pressures – but like anyone they can be influenced. I aim for a mix of scholarly detachment and clear and heart-felt statements, backed up by powerful evidence. Neither emotion nor research are much use on their own. 
  • Like others, including scholars, MPs have prejudices about the nature of evidence. They will be influenced by the identity of its source, so I try to establish my credibility (perhaps reassuring myself too) – whether through my life experience, my professional expertise or my grasp of the topic. Scientific method is assumed to be superior by many, and yet philosophically each discipline has spent decades (or centuries in many cases) establishing the rigour of its own method, so I remind them why mine (anthropology) is good at systematically researching complex puzzles about motivation, ideology and symbolism. Whether based on science, philosophy or the arts, any claim is contestable so I recognize that even when I think is blindingly obvious (it probably isn’t), it needs to be argued as persuasively as possible. 
  • When I have been called to attend a committee to answer their questions during a verbal evidence-taking session, I do my research on the specific MPs – find out about their interests, their politics and what they have said before on this topic. That helps me to work out what needs to be explained in greater depth and what I should prioritise. I aim to offer the most compelling view for that moment. If I can’t decide, then I ask, “there is more I would like to say but I don’t have time, would it be alright if I sent in more written evidence?” MPs will not normally then want to appear impolite so have always said yes!

I also find it useful to think about what kind of process I’m involved in. This is a form of performance – not in the sense of being artificial, but in the sense of improvising to put your case in the best possible way for that specific audience. In fact, I assume that artifice, image management or even worse lies will totally undermine your evidence. Trying to tell the truth is hard work. 

Image: Copyright UK Parliament

Objecting to Bristol's Airport Expansion

I'm normally commenting on politics, but this weekend I'm going to join in. Today I will post my objection to Bristol Airport's expansion. If anyone wishes to comment on their planning application, then the deadline is 26 January and the North Somerset Council site makes it easy to find the application (if you put 'airport' into the search of current applications) and fill out a form in a few minutes. Some have written pages, others only a line or two. They pay no attention to repeated arguments so expressing individual views has more impact. Here's mine:

I strongly object to the planning application submitted by Bristol Airport to expand from 8 million to 12 million passengers per year. Since the airport has yet to fulfil commitments made contingent on past applications, I argue against the idea of approval with conditions. I note that they have yet to complete the multi-storey car parks and are asking to be released from earlier conditions about night flights; why couldn’t that pattern happen again?

The only sensible options for the Council to consider: (a) acknowledgement that expansion is not possible on this site, or (b) allow a resubmission addressing the gaps. The content of the substantial number of objections from residents to this application provide evidence of this. To approve as it stands would expose the Council to the risk of judicial review and adverse media publicity.

 

1.    Existing problems that will be increased by expansion:

  • The airport is causing damage to this beautiful part of North Somerset. People are intending to leave the area if the airport expansion takes place and observing that properties may be harder to sell. This could impact on schools and businesses.
  • Environmental impact including on climate change. How will Bristol achieve its targets of being carbon neutral with this increase? 
  • Noise pollution – this has increased already since I have been living in North Somerset (since 2014) and is decreasing the quality of life for the airport’s neighbours (even though our house is not that close).
  • The Airport currently operates a monopoly with regard to car parking on its site. Bearing in mind the recent ruling by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) against Heathrow Limited. Heathrow was fined £1.6m for breaching competition law. (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/heathrow-and-arora-admit-to-anti-competitive-car-park-agreement) So potentially Bristol Airport is also in breach.
  • Hugely more traffic along the A38, making it extremely difficult to get onto the road from the villages and massively increasing the traffic jams and likelihood of accidents.
  • Illegal car parking on the green belt in fields and along the lanes, causing further risk of accidents, visual blight and damage to the Green Belt.
  • Waste of opportunity to compensate the local communities by at least providing public transport between the airport and Bristol. The current Flyer from Temple Meads is infrequent, has no proper bus stop and is not well known so is under-used relative to need.
  • No further construction work should have been allowed under any new approval until existing obligations within previous planning applications have been met i.e. multi-storey car parks, and yet we have a huge ugly new building just by the A38.
  • No new expansion of surface car parking on current Greenbelt zones (e.g., within the Airport’s area known as 'Silver Zone') should be allowed at all until all current obligations are met. What if this application is approved and then the airport argue they can only survive by endlessly encroaching onto the Greenbelt?

 

2.    Gaps in the application that are serious enough to warrant rejection:

  • There is no comprehensive environmental impact study in the application. It should at least cover noise pollution, impact on climate change, and inappropriate development on green belt. 
  • There is no consideration of other negative impacts in the application (including economic, health and social) so it is entirely one-sided. (Some of those residents who are creating employment may move elsewhere as living anywhere near the airport could become unbearable.)
  • There are no proposals for (a) introducing low carbon emission vehicles to be used on the site to reduce the negative environmental impact, (b) introducing larger, low noise and emission aircraft with the airlines.
  • No full explanation of the new flight plans or plans to minimise noise pollution caused by the increase in night flights.
  • A parking strategy that includes the introduction of an alternative car park operator.
  • No plans to support North Somerset Council in their efforts to reduce unauthorised parking in fields. Employment of an external contractor to assist North Somerset Council with surveillance should be part of the application, as required by the Article 4 Directive.
  • No plans to improve the links between the Airport Flyer, all Bristol’s railway stations and other parts of the city.
  • No traffic study carried out between the Airport, North Somerset Council and Bristol City Council or plans for improving transport in an integrated way. Currently the proposal includes small improvements between the A38 and Downend Road that will neither address on-going problems or risks nor anticipate new ones. Especially problematic, there are no plans about how the A38 approach to the north of the Airport will be developed and expanded to accommodate the increase in traffic.
     

3.    Suggestions for improving the application or North Somerset Council’s response

  • Include the introduction of (a) taxi holding area on-site to minimise the current issue of taxies parking on double yellow lines, in A38 lay-bys, field entrances, country lanes, etc making driving around difficult for local residents and increasing the risk of accidents for both cars and pedestrians, and (b) taxi operator code of conduct for all taxis, minibuses and cabs to sign up to. 
  • Include a free passenger drop off and collection area adjacent to the terminal buildings, partly to reduce risky parking but also for local residents picking up those using the Flyer from Bristol.
  • Introduce a comprehensive CCTV system around the external parameters of the Airport to improve monitoring and security.
  • North Somerset Council should develop or encourage an independent park & ride facility as a competitor to on-site Airport parking to ensure no breach of competition law.

 

I recommend that it is rejected.

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