Richard Ward, Clerk of the Education Select Committee in the House of Commons, reflects on his role in Parliament.
From Birmingham to Westminster
I studied Philosophy at Birmingham between 2004 and 2007 and attended a couple of events run by the careers centre during my second and final years, one of which was a practice assessment centre run by the Civil Service. I really benefited from the support of the careers centre and was lucky to be at Birmingham just as the Philosophy Department was taking on more staff and offering some great new modules in the philosophies of science and religion.
I applied to join the Civil Service during my final year and ended up joining the House of Commons the autumn after I graduated. The House Service is similar to the Civil Service, but much smaller – the big difference is that we work for Parliament rather than Government.
I’ve worked in a number of roles across the House supporting Members of Parliament on committees and in the Chamber. Towards the end of 2015 I became responsible for the team that supports the Education Select Committee. In summer 2016 changes within Government extended the committee’s remit to include higher education, and we launched ourselves into things with a roadshow-style inquiry listening to staff and students at universities around the country about how they thought Brexit would affect studies and research.
My role in Parliament
Our role on the team is to provide excellent policy, procedural and administrative support to the MPs on the committee. There are three key aspects to my role. First, I’m the team leader, giving direction, supporting colleagues and generally keeping the show on the road. The second part of my role is being the committee’s principal adviser on strategy, policy and procedure (or alternatively, how Parliament works). Finally, I manage the committee’s relationships with key stakeholders such as the Department for Education, the public bodies we scrutinise, and other organisations and individuals who contribute to our work.
Over the last four years, we’ve done some great work across our very broad policy areas. We ended the 2017-19 Parliament with a really ambitious piece of work on how reforms to support for children with special educational needs and disabilities had been implemented. This saw us combine some quite technical work around legislation and funding with a huge amount of real—and often very raw—human experience from families trying to secure support for their children and young people.
Parliament and universities
Select committees do much more than grill Ministers: a report published last year to mark the 40th anniversary of the creation of the modern select committee system highlighted several of the ways in which they’ve become more influential, such as working together and doing more to engage the public in their work.
One of the real growth areas for us at the moment is in working collaboratively with universities. We have a Knowledge Exchange Unit working with researchers and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has been building a scheme of academic fellowships with the support of the research councils for some years now. Parliamentary staff now support the delivery of an undergraduate module in parliamentary studies at 24 universities including, I’m pleased to say, at Birmingham.
Top tips for working with select committees
- First, always remember that Parliament and Government are different. Government makes policy and initiates the bulk of legislation, both of which are scrutinised by Parliament. Select committees are drawn from all political parties and supported by impartial and expert staff.
- Offer to host a visit, away day or evidence session away from Westminster – newly-appointed committees will be getting going very soon and keen to get out and about.
- Look for areas where your research is relevant to public policy – committee staff will probably be very interested if you have cutting-edge research which casts a new light on an important policy question.
- Keep an eye out for calls for written evidence and make a short submission which directly addresses an inquiry’s terms of reference (the pithier the better – make it as engaging as possible).
- Try and build relationships with committee staff over a specific issue of relevance to the committee—this is something for individual researchers as much as a public affairs team—Danielle Beswick’s blog from September 2019 has some great evidence-based insights on this.