Britain is living through an age of cynicism about politics and politicians. Seven years after the Westminster expenses scandal, the electorate is still inclined to view MPs as a detached and self-serving elite.
There is one area, however, where parliamentarians have come to enjoy growing clout and respect and that is the work of House of Commons select committees.
The power these bodies exercise is evident in the handling of the BHS saga. Two select committees — those responsible for business and for work and pensions — have joined forces to probe the circumstances in which the UK retailer collapsed leaving a substantial pension fund deficit behind it.
It is still unclear whether Sir Philip Green, the former owner and boss of BHS, will appear at Wednesday’s session when he is due to give evidence. He has threatened to stay away on the grounds that Frank Field, one of the two committee chairmen involved, has prejudged his evidence. The MP has threatened to strip the Arcadia boss of his knighthood if he does not undertake to pay £600m into the stricken retailer’s pension fund.
Sir Philip’s complaint may be spurious. But the fact that he is making it comes as little surprise given the challenging and revelatory nature of the committee’s sessions. True, this is not the first time such a body has put a corporate boss under pressure. The treasury committee’s grillings of Bob Diamond, the former Barclays chief executive, are thought to have played a part in his fall from grace.
But the BHS committee has been particularly effective in pursuing the facts in this complicated affair. Past hearings, such as the one five years ago into phone hacking involving the News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch, were marred by MPs grandstanding before the television cameras and failing to pursue consistent and forensic lines of questioning. But helped by the presence of several MPs with valuable professional experience in the world of finance, the BHS hearings have been far more focused on pursuing the facts.
The committee has also obliged witnesses to disgorge written evidence promptly. For instance Goldman Sachs has handed over nearly 100 emails between the bank and Sir Philip’s organisation. Given the public anger of the length of time that the Chilcot inquiry has taken to publish its report into the Iraq war, this speedy uncovering of evidence is especially welcome.
Sir Philip’s reluctance to turn up does touch on an area where the power of select committees remains to some extent untested. Mr Field, in many ways an estimable chair of the work and pensions committee, was perhaps unwise to comment in the way he did. Were the retailer to stay away it would set a precedent, and allow future witnesses to spurn invitations. This would make it harder for select committees to do their job.
Technically parliament has considerable power to compel witnesses to show up. Those who fail to do so can be found guilty of the offence of contempt of parliament, which can lead to a fine or spell of imprisonment. But these powers are ancient and have not been tested for many years. The Commons has not locked anyone up for contempt since the Victorian era and the last time it imposed a fine was 1666.
The test for the BHS committee is by no means over. Assuming Sir Philip turns up, MPs need to continue with the focused questioning they have shown so far. But at a time when public confidence in business leaders is waning, it is welcome that parliament is evolving as a forum to hold them to account.