Banking scandal will test select committees’ limits
Bonus-friendly Bob Diamond breezed into Westminster last week for a grilling by MPs. Plenty of people in Northern Ireland might have preferred to see Ulster Bank’s bosses in his place.
In any case, the former Barclays chief’s session with the Treasury Select Committee provoked a storm of publicity, with more camera crews outside Westminster than I’ve seen since Rupert Murdoch was treated to a foam pie by an anarchist comedian.
Sadly, Bob escaped foam-free, but these two events did have something in common — the supporting role was played by a cross-party select committee of MPs.
In Murdoch’s case, it was the Culture Media and Sport Committee, while Bob was questioned by the Treasury one.
While Mr Diamond was fielding questions, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee — with a rather lower profile — was quizzing Stormont ministers Arlene Foster and Danny Kennedy on air travel.
There were no pies or foam thrown during that one.
With showpiece guests like Murdoch and Diamond, select committees — charged with holding each Government department to account — have a higher profile than ever before.
And their effectiveness has come under scrutiny with the row over who should investigate the banking industry in the wake of the interest rate-rigging scandal.
Labour wanted a judge-led inquiry. David Cameron and the Government chose to entrust the task to a select committee.
There are plenty of positives — the flexing of muscles in summoning Murdoch for the most humble day of his life, for one.
One the other hand, the committees are supposed to be impartial, yet the unedifying spectacle of the culture committee dividing along party lines marred its phone-hacking investigation.
And are MPs really as good at questioning as a lawyer? Some are far more effective than others, yet each are given equal time to pose questions.
This makes it difficult for them to build up a head of steam and because members often don’t co-ordinate their questions, the narrative often suddenly veers off at a tangent.
The role of chair is crucial. These days they are elected by Parliament, rather than the government of the day, meaning they need to be painfully impartial.
The chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, Andrew Tyrie, is an example, as is Laurence Robertson, who chairs Northern Ireland affairs.
There may be members of Mr Robertson's committee that can’t stand each other, but he remains a calm influence on proceedings.
The forthcoming banking inquiry could be the biggest test yet of this particular model.
And when it does get round to investigating the state of the banking industry, let’s hope the committee invites the Ulster Bank to Westminster to explain itself.