Detention oversight: Submitting evidence to a Select Committee

//Detention oversight: Submitting evidence to a Select Committee

Detention oversight: Submitting evidence to a Select Committee

2018-08-15T14:51:27+00:00 August 15th, 2018|

Over the past few years, immigration detention has been the focus of increasing government and parliamentary scrutiny. This year, Stephen Shaw published his follow-up review into welfare in detention, and inquiries were launched by the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. To enable Forum members to participate in these and other inquiries, the Detention Forum hosted a workshop on submitting evidence to a Select Committee, organised by the UK Parliament’s Select Committees Engagement Service.

Catherine Hurley, a volunteer at the Detention Forum, attended the workshop. She writes:

On 4 July I attended a briefing by Robert Baldry, from the UK Parliament Education and Engagement Service, who gave a talk to a group of Detention Forum members on submitting evidence to a Select CommitteeMost of the members present had previously given evidence to Select Committees but I was listening as a novice.

Robert introduced the briefing by describing how the work of the Select Committees fits into the overall Parliamentary landscape. In summary:

  • There are three kinds of Committees: Commons (MPs); Lords (Peers); and Joint (MPs and Peers). Joint committees are infrequent; see here for a list of the six Joint Committees currently operating.
  • Select Committees are set up to scrutinise the work of the Executive (the Government). Commons Select Committees are broadly set up along the lines of the Ministries (Justice, Home Affairs, Health, etc.) and Lords Committees investigate broader issues such as the Constitution Committee or Science and Technology Committee.
  • Membership is cross-party. The Parties divide up leadership of the Select Committees between them, then each Party has internal elections for members. Membership of the committees is liable to change. There are hierarchies of Select Committees, with Home Affairs, Treasury and Health being particularly sought after by MPs. Two of the Committees of particular concern to Detention Forum members are the Home Affairs Committee, chaired by Yvette Cooper and the Joint Human Rights Committee chaired by Harriet Harman.
  • Committees are usually supported by between 6-8 members of staff, including a clerk, second clerk, committee assistant and committee specialists to manage inquiries. The clerks are responsible for policy and logistical support of the committee and can be contacted via their details on the Select Committee’s webpage.

There is useful information about Select Committees on the parliament website, including an A–Z of all active committees.


Committees work by way of investigative inquiries. Committees can choose their own subjects of inquiry and determine their own terms of reference. Participants asked how it might be possible to influence the committees at the stage of setting of the terms of reference and the answer indicated that the committees could be influenced by evidence throughout and even at the end of the process.

Inquiries usually follow these stages:

  • Inquiries are announced;
  • A call for evidence is published with a deadline for the receipt of written evidence;
  • A public hearing of the evidence takes place;
  • A report is published with recommendations for Government action;
  • The Government publishes its response. This is meant to be within two months but often isn’t. Sometimes a Committee will hold a follow-up inquiry into the Government’s response (for example, the 2016 Women and Equalities Inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools).

Submitting Evidence – who can submit

In theory anyone can submit evidence to a Select Committee Inquiry. However, the process seems to assume that policy experts are mainly responsible for submitting evidence. Participants asked how Committees can make sure that they hear from people affected by the legislation under scrutiny. In reply, Robert said that part of the role of the parliamentary education and engagement service is to broaden the range of voices heard by inquiries and to increase the levels of public engagement and as such there is an engagement person nominated for each committee. However, it seems as though the engagement person only comes into it once a committee has decided that it isn’t reaching particular groups that it wants to engage with. This again raised questions of how and when Select Committees can be influenced.

Submitting Evidence – how to submit

  • Keep it concise – up to 3000 words, with Executive Summary. If the Committee wants more, they will come back to you
  • Refer directly to the published terms of reference
  • Use bullet points, subheadings, numbered paragraphs
  • Use factual information and avoid ‘political’ language
  • Avoid jargon
  • Use references
  • Consider audience: i.e. intelligent non-experts
  • Include recommendations for action

Written evidence is read by the clerks to the committee and digests prepared for the committee members. While the above guidance may resonate easily for policy experts, academics, and others, fitting the evidence of people’s lived experiences into this framework can be a delicate balance.

There has to be a public hearing of the evidence. The Committee will usually have in mind who they want to call in as witnesses and those submitting written evidence may be called before the Committee to give oral evidence. In this case, there is guidance offered to witnesses available from Committee staff.

Once all the evidence has been received and heard, the Committee sets about producing a report with recommendations for Government action. Participants wondered whether the Committees had an eye towards how their report and recommendations might be received by the Government, which therefore influenced how they wrote their recommendations.

Since this talk, I have looked at the submissions of many of the groups present to the Home Affairs Committee Immigration Detention Inquiry, which highlight some of the issues raised by this presentation. I imagined myself on the receiving end of evidence of groups such as the Detention Forum, Women for Refugee Women, Libertythe NUJ and many more. As expected the recommendations, such as for alternatives to detention or more transparency around immigration detention are highly persuasive and well argued.

In contrast, although the recommendations are similar to some of those of the groups previously mentioned, the evidence submitted by the Freed Voices comes directly from those most affected by the immigration process. The lucid and cogent style amplifies their testimony in a way that more emotive language may not. There is something uniquely powerful about hearing directly from ‘experts by experience’ which lends authority to Freed Voices’ call for the involvement of people with direct experience of immigration detention in policy discussions about detention reform.

The HASC Inquiry is ongoing and will continue to hear oral evidence. It will be interesting to follow this inquiry in light of what we learned at the briefing. The written evidence makes, in my view, a compelling case for the reduction and eventual elimination of immigration detention. One point made in a number of submissions was about the importance of building trust in the UK’s immigration system. That is a huge task in the context of a system built on the foundations of a hostile environment. Understanding the role of Parliamentary inquiries is an important tool in the fight for a more humane system.

Education and engagement service: outreach[at]