Blogs, evidence, and the Scottish Affairs Committee

Perhaps I should be flattered.  When I appeared before the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee on Wednesday, the chairman (Ian Davidson MP) preferred to ask me detailed questions about a post on this blog (specifically, THIS ONE), rather than what I’d said in the memorandum of evidence I’d submitted to them (available HERE).  Since I’d taken care to check what the committee wanted to discuss this and it didn’t include this, I was a bit put out – as may come across from the TV recording, or the transcript, or perhaps Thursday’s Scottish papers.  Indeed, no member of the Committee mentioned what I’d said in my memorandum at all, and it was only from my own references to it that one might know I’d submitted it.

Truth be told, this was a similar sort of ambush to that which Drew Scott and Andy Hughes-Hallett had faced from the Scotland Bill Committee at Holyrood a few weeks ago, if on a less drastic scale and with better manners. Thankfully I had a printed copy of my post with me and could work out what the Committee chairman was talking about.  But this is neither a suitable way to treat an expert witness, nor the best way of getting such witnesses to help you.

Part of the cause of this is the stoushie at Holyrood, but there’s more to it than that.  Davidson and his colleagues were quoted in the Scotsman a week or so back (see here) promising Scott and Hughes-Hallett ‘robust questioning’ and ‘an even tougher time here’ (than at Holyrood).  I know one eminent witness who chose not to appear when he saw those comments, and perhaps that has had a wider effect.  Davidson was keen to say something to the effect of ‘we’re so much better behaved than those folk in Edinburgh’ at the start of the session.  But bad behaviour is bad behaviour, whatever the perpetrator says about it.

As well as the knock-about, there’s a serious point.  If blogs are to be taken more seriously than formal memoranda – which have to be written in a different way, and take a lot of time – why bother with submitting them?  Parliament says it wants evidence written expressly for it, and that it won’t publish other material.  (Indeed, my experience advising Lords Committees is that published material of any sort is at best a second recourse.)  Parliament also claims some unspecified form of ‘property’ in evidence submitted to it, and declines to let one publish one’s evidence until the Committee to which it’s submitted authorises one to do so. But if it’s so eager to use blog posts instead, what’s the point of going through all that?  One member of the Committee said outside that it was evidence of how thoroughly they’d done their research, but as they’d evidently not seen other posts on here (notably THIS ONE, which I mentioned but no-one there knew about), it’s clear their research is pretty selective.   As I have to strike a  balance between time spent and perceptible effect, I shan’t bother communicating with this committee other than by blog post in future.

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7 Comments

Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Devolution finance, Scotland, Westminster

7 responses to “Blogs, evidence, and the Scottish Affairs Committee

  1. Daniel Kenealy

    Alan

    I watched your appearance before the Scottish Affairs committee and I have to say I found some of the questions and tone from the chair to be unprofessional. It started from the first comment in which he suggested that you all had to be treated delicately as academics. He used the same joke last week when questioning Prof’s Muscatelli and Keating. He needs some new material.

    On a more substantive note I thought that Drew Scott and yourself did exactly what you needed to do, namely point out some of the political and economic holes in the Scotland Bill as it currently stands. Hopefully the debate can now proceed on those lines. One can only hope.

  2. Lynda Williamson

    I’m a housewife, a lay person who has been struggling to understand the proposals in the Scotland Bill. What annoys me about the whole scrutiny process is that they don’t seem to prioritise the issues. They don’t seem to grasp the important bits and instead they spend time checking your arithmetic from a light hearted blog and trying to convince us that this is a really important issue. Then they had the cheek to hurry everything along as they ran out of time.
    I don’t for a moment pretend to have grasped all the complexities in the Scotland Bill, my problem is that I have no confidence that the members of the committee have either, and that worries me.

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  5. ratzo

    (I posted this on one of your other blog posts but I’m reposting it here in case anyone else had the same impression I had of the session) –

    I watched the session online, (and also the one following, where the committee discussed it with Michael Moore). It was rather distasteful.

    My overall impression was of an aggressive chair and a weak committee, oddly nervous and defensive about the Bill itself, but principally concerned in case the session should turn out to be an unstable media event.

    For that apparent reason Alan Trent and the two economists were on the receiving end of a fair amount of pointless derision and truculence. It was not really constructive or edifying, and not helpful at all in establishing clarity about some rather serious points. Ian McLean was treated with notable respect by comparison (except at one point where he appeared to be going off script about borrowing and was addressed sharply by the Chair).

    As it was proceeding I was inevitably reminded of the disreputable process at Holyrood that was so tainted by the behaviour of the excitable Wendy Alexander.
    Another unavoidable impression was of the sheer intellectual weakness of the politicians on the panel, with possibly the exception of the (more experienced) chair.

    It was actually quite painful to watch the committee members struggling to follow an explanation through more than two steps. Time and again they simply failed to follow what was said and the discussion went round in circles, or just drifted into inconclusive silence. It was notable how they were visibly relieved and the mood lifted when the chair preferred to talk about blog rhetoric, or letters to the press. It looked very much as though they were not intelligent or informed enough to participate meaningfully in the process. The prize for sheer feebleness must surely go to Lindsay Roy, who was silent as the grave throughout the full three and half hours of both sessions, except for once when he said something juvenile about his brain hurting.

    The sense that the main purpose of the first session was control was obvious by comparison with the session with Michael Moore that followed, where the aura of fright had vanished and much of the comment was less self-conscious.

  6. ratzo

    ech, Alan Trench, not Trent

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