Elmo from Sesame Street was once called to give evidence before a US Congressional Committee. The subject was musical education policy, but for some reason the furry red muppet seemed more interested in eating the microphone, dancing in his chair and telling Members of Congress how much he loved them than discussing the important policy issue of the day. Elmo’s appearance followed other brilliantly attention-seeking stunts by committees, including inviting Jane Fonda to give evidence on agricultural policy on the basis that she once played a farmer’s wife in a 1980s film.
Some of our Select Committees appear to have worked out this trick. For a committee chair, inviting celebrities (no matter how limited their expertise) to give evidence in front of the cameras is guaranteed to get your face on the news. In the last year alone, Keith Vaz MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, has invited Russell Brand to give evidence on drug laws (qualification: he used to take them) along with Mitch Winehouse – who agreed to appear but warned the Committee that he didn’t know anything about drugs policy and didn’t want to talk about his daughter, Amy.
Hopefully, this kind of attention-seeking behaviour isn’t symptomatic of how Select Committees approach their reports. The production of forensic, apolitical and evidence-based research – at the expense of grandstanding or playing to the gallery – should always be the focus of these important organisations.
The Home Affairs Select Committee is currently working on a report on Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) due to be published in November. As the first think tank to recommend the introduction of PCCs, at Policy Exchange we naturally want to see these new figures given a fair crack of the whip, but the Committee’s last report on PCCs left something to be desired. It amounted to a comparison of the costs of running PCCs’ offices with the costs of the Police Authorities that they replaced. This choice of subject matter alone suggested that Vaz and the Committee don’t really understand the nature of the PCC role, which is much broader, more significant and far more transformative than Police Authorities could ever have hoped to be.