By Tom Caygill
Last year I was one of the lucky two applicants to be offered one of the PSA/House of Commons Committee Office placements. The placement was a great opportunity: to utilise the skills I use in my PhD in a different context, while developing new ones; to better understand the ethos of select committees; and to discuss my doctoral research with parliamentary staff, which has gone on to help shape my final research design.
During my four month placement I was placed with the House of Commons Petitions Committee. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Committee and its secretariat and I was fortunate to be involved in all aspects of their work. One of my main tasks was to moderate petitions on the e-petitions website to ensure that they met the Committee’s criteria. In a typical week around 300 petitions will be submitted. For every petition rejected, a reason is always given as to why the petition has been rejected and it usually includes an alternative petition title that the petition creator may wish to use. If a petition is particularly complicated or sensitive, the work of moderating also involves corresponding with petition creators to help them to draft a petition which meets the criteria.
Another important part of my work was to support the continued engagement with the public who have signed petitions, so the act of signing the petition does not have to be their only act of engagement with the Committee or Parliament. The Committee secretariat will email petitioners to notify them of any debates that have taken place on the issue of their petition. One assumption of Parliament by the public is that it does not discuss issues important to them, this is just one way of showing them that it often does. Other emails include notifying petitioners of a Government response to their petition, if it has reached over 10,000 signatures. Emails are also sent out to the petitioners who have signed petitions reaching over 100,000 signatures to notify them of whether the petition has been agreed for debate or not, and if so when the debate will be held. One other type of email sent to petitioners, although less frequently, is notifying them of an inquiry by another committee, linked to the subject of their petition and if the respective Committee agrees, information on how they can contribute to the inquiry through submitting written evidence. There is thus scope for the Petitions Committee to help engage the public with the work of other committees.
One of my other major roles was to prepare the petition briefing for the Committee’s weekly meeting in which the Committee considers petitions reaching the 10,000 and 100,000 thresholds that week. I also had the opportunity to write briefing papers, with the support of the House of Commons Library, for oral evidence sessions and briefing papers for petition debates where the Committee had agreed to undertake specific public engagement work in which petitioners could express their thoughts on a particular issue to help guide the debate.
Finally I also played a role in supporting the Committee’s social media work in expanding the Committee’s twitter output in terms of introducing new infographics to explain the work of the committee and to advertise forthcoming work and events, as well as tweeting Government responses to petitions, to a wider audience.
There were two stand out events during my time with the Committee. The first was the great work the Committee had undertaken on funding for brain tumour research, which saw the Committee undertake its first ever inquiry and which has alerted the Department for Health to the problems regarding funding for brain tumour research. I was present for the report launch and petition debate which saw Westminster Hall packed out for both events with MPs and affected families. Through such events and in particular debates, the Petitions Committee is helping to raise the profile of Westminster Hall as a debating arena.
The other stand out event was the brief inquiry the Committee undertook on the meningitis B vaccine with the House of Commons Health Committee. The evidence sessions were moving yet rewarding as families who had lost young children to this terrible disease had the opportunity to have their voices heard in order to inform the petition debate. It was also an interesting exercise in witnessing the successful joint working of House of Commons committees and a more informal and less intimidating style of oral evidence session.
While the outcomes of these inquires did not solve all the problems which were raised, they were important steps in moving both campaigns forward. The debate on a petition is not the end of the process, it is a stepping stone along the way. The ability to put issues on to the parliamentary agenda and require the Government to respond is a valuable asset to any campaign, especially those started by people who do not normally engage with Parliament.
The placement was beneficial to my skills development in terms of being able to show that I can utilise the skills I use while studying for my PhD in an alternative and practical context. In particular I developed skills in being able to convey difficult and complex policy in understandable language to non-specialists. This included the written briefing for the Committee’s inquiry into the meningitis B vaccine. I worked closely with specialists in the House of Commons Library to prepare briefings which covered the technical areas of the vaccine in a manner which was accessible to MPs with no specialist background knowledge.
The placement was also valuable for me in terms of gaining a better understanding of the ethos of select committees. There is a difference between reading about the operation of committees in a book and witnessing it for yourself. This included an insight in to: how committees meetings actually work; the relationship between the Committee and its staff; the role of the chair and their importance; how committees undertake inquiries, oral evidence sessions and how they prepare and publish reports. Finally, as mentioned above, I was also able to experience and learn about the process of joint working between Committees and the rules and procedures which impact upon Committees.
The placement was also beneficial for my research. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to undertake ten hours of scoping interviews. During the four month placement I undertook interviews with clerks from both Houses of Parliament, the Head of the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit and staff from Speakers Counsel and the House of Commons legal team (who had previously worked on post-legislative scrutiny inquiries). In particular these scoping interviews focused upon: how post-legislative scrutiny is defined; what guidance if any is available to committees; how do they decide what to scrutinise; what ways of undertaking post-legislative scrutiny are there; do committees monitor the implementation of recommendations and how does the formal process of government memoranda operate. These interviews were not just beneficial for scoping purposes but also in terms of networking, in terms of making contacts who can be approached at a later date for a formal interview and finally in terms of putting my research on Parliament’s radar. These interviews have been valuable in guiding and finalising my research design as I was able to pick up on key themes that I was not aware of before. The placement was thus a great success, for my skills development, for gaining a practical understanding of how committees operate but also in helping to shape and guide my research.
During the placement I also had other opportunities to explore the work of Parliament, from touring the Parliamentary Archives and the House of Commons Library to spending time with Hansard, experiencing the amount of time and effort that goes into transcribing parliamentary proceedings especially during Prime Minister’s Questions.
It was a pleasure to work with the Committee and its secretariat and I would happily do so again without a second thought. It was a fantastic experience and I can’t recommend this scheme highly enough.
Applications are now open for up to two PSA/House of Commons Committee Office Placements for the 2016/17 academic year – deadline 1 September 2016. You can find out more about these placements here.
About the author
Tom Caygill is an ESRC-funded PhD student in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University. His main interests are the scrutiny of government, the legislative process and parliamentary reform. He tweets @thomascaygill.