With my internship finished I relinquish my four hour daily commute… no more tube surfing (you don’t hold on during your tube ride). No more poor air quality. And sadly no more Parliament. I have absolutely loved my three months working with the EFRA Select Committee as a POST fellow and I am going to greatly miss it. I loved the relevance of the work, discussing a new comment from a Minister with the team, going to a conference on something tangible to society, hearing about the latest political rumour and being at the heart of democracy. For a short time I was part of the weird, wonderful, wacky and often archaic world that is our Parliament and democratic process, and I feel very privileged to have been there.
Elections of the chair of select committees
But before I finished I learnt a bit more about Parliamentary procedure with the election of the select committee chairs. The election of most of the select committee chairs, takes place at the start of each new Parliament. This includes 19 departmental select committees and a selection of other committees elected under Standing Order Number 122B. The chair of the Backbench Business Committee is elected separately, under Standing Order 122D.
The EFRA Committee chair was allocated to the Conservatives and three MPs ran: Neil Parish (the incumbent from the 2015-17 Parliament), Bill Wigan and Zac Goldsmith (who was in the press a lot when he resigned his seat after the Government’s decision to approve the construction of a third runway at Heathrow). In total, eleven chair positions were contested through elections. No election was necessary for seventeen committees for which a single nomination was received. The ballot was conducted by secret ballot and counted using the Alternative Vote system. The election was held, and the results announced on Wednesday 12 July, after 587 ballots were cast by MPs. Neil Parish was elected chair of the EFRA Committee. The key areas he has spoken about looking into are agricultural trade, subsidies and air quality. So moving forward, these are potential areas which the EFRA Committee may run inquiries into this session.
The chair can’t act or represent their select committee until they have approval from their committee of MPs. The committee membership is representative of the party division in the House of Commons, plus a little politicking. When the House rose on 20 July (i.e. the MPs are no longer required to be at Westminster), no Members had yet been nominated for the select committees. With summer recess here, the select committees will have to wait until the first couple of weeks in September to get up and running again!
PMQs and the King of Spain
One of the things on my Parliamentary bucket list was to watch Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs). It’s on every Wednesday for about half an hour from midday, when Parliament is sitting (i.e. when there’s MPs actively talking in the House of Commons). The last few PMQs have been some of the longest in recent times, with the final one before the June 2017 General Election reaching 57 minutes, the longest ever! PMQs is an opportunity for MPs, from any party including the governing party, to question the Prime Minister… and the Prime Minister doesn’t get to see the questions beforehand!
I was given a ticket for Wednesday 12 July, which unfortunately coincided with Theresa May being part of the welcoming delegation for the King of Spain. In her absence, the First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office, Damien Green stepped in and Emily Thornberry, the shadow Foreign Secretary, replaced Jeremy Corbyn at the opposition’s dispatch box. Emily Thornberry questioned what a ‘no-deal’ from the Brexit negotiations would mean for the UK and if there was a plan for such a situation. Damien Green pushed the new unemployment figures: the Office for National Statistics reported that the UK’s unemployment rate fell to 4.5% during the period from March to May 2017. At times the exchanges were humorous and it was great fun watching from the Public Gallery. I’ll have to go back again to see Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn battle it out!
Later that afternoon I saw the King of Spain address Parliament. The King spoke in the Royal Gallery, an area of Parliament where MPs, Lords and House Staff can gather. The Royal Gallery is a pretty impressive space. It connects the monarch’s Robing Room with the Lord’s chamber so the Queen walks through it on her way to give the Queen’s speech at the State Opening of Parliament. There’s some fantastic artwork along the length of the room, depicting scenes of significance from the Napoleonic Wars, including Nelson’s death and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher. The King of Spain, Felipe VI, spoke about the long history between Spain and the UK, with a brief, diplomatic mention of Gibraltar and Brexit.
The media and select committees
There’s also been some fascinating external speakers: Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator came to talk to the House staff about The Politics of the 2017 Parliament and Peter Snowdon from the BBC came to give a talk about selecting stories as a journalist and writing briefs and questions.
The talk by Fraser Nelson opened up an interesting debate about select committee’s relationship with the media. Select committees’ work adds value to the Parliamentary process by providing robust scrutiny of Government. This work is vital for holding Government to account, yet it doesn’t always produce exciting politics and so often the committees’ work is not highlighted by the media. That being said, many select committee inquiry evidence sessions are televised via the Parliamentary channel, so anyone can watch them at any time, for example you can watch Russel Brand giving evidence to an inquiry into addiction, to get a flavour for what an oral evidence session of inquiry is like.
My work for the EFRA Committee
Whilst working with the EFRA Committee I have found out a lot about Parliamentary procedure and have produced four background research reports into Lamb, Beef, Pork and Cereals. The research material has been great, the complexity of the agricultural industry across all areas of the UK is fascinating. It is people’s livelihoods, their businesses, it encompasses global trade and commodity markets, it provides food security and manages over 70% of the UK’s land… and it is a devolved issue, so each nation of the UK takes its own decisions.
It has been a refreshing opportunity to step back from the detailed micro-focus of my PhD and become more of a generalist. I have had conversations with a whole range of people within the agricultural sector, from lamb farmers in the uplands to University academics to market analysts. It has been interesting to go to conferences and workshops outside of Earth Sciences. As you might expect, a Meat Export Conference is a little different to a volcanology meeting. I’ve loved learning about new subjects and it has been rewarding getting to grips with the key issues and conveying them in a report, readable by educated ‘laypersons’, rather than subject specialists.
My fellowship has given me the unique opportunity to see the exciting world of Parliament, policy and what a career in policy would be like. These three months have been fantastic and incredibly beneficial to me, they will definitely alter and influence my future career path… but for the time being, it’s back to the PhD and planning for fieldwork in Greenland!