Prejudiced Chair of Welsh Affairs Committee devalues shale gas hearing

22 Oct 2013. Oral evidence: energy generation in Wales: Shale Gas

Chair David TC Davies MP (MP for Monmouth)
House of Commons – Portcullis House.

Panel 1: Professors Hywel Thomas, Richard Davies & Kevin Anderson
Panel 2: Trefor Owen (Natural Resources Wales), Nick Molho WWF & Gareth Clubb (FoE Cymru)

I have engaged widely and vociferously on issues around shale gas, including at several evidence sessions for different committees, in heated debates at industry conferences and as a reviewer on the DECC shale gas report – all of which have been a rewarding mix of challenging and enlightening. Unfortunately today’s appallingly chaired session with the Welsh Affairs Committee was neither – despite valiant attempts by some of the members and witnesses.

The brief for the session noted the importance of shale gas resource potential – on which there was broad agreement amongst the witnesses; concerns over local environment impact – on which there was some debate; the economic/financial implications – with witnesses sharing similar views; and climate change – a subject not raised by any member and when brought up by witnesses either shut down or flippantly dismissed by the chair.

Given the significance of climate change within DECC’s recent and detailed review of shale gas, it is surprising and disappointing that it featured so superficially in today’s hearing. Certainly the failure of any member to enquire as to the carbon implications of shale gas was remiss and parochial, but much more concerning was the atrocious and partisan chairing. Throughout the hearing the chair repeatedly fiddled with his laptop searching for news snippets, which he then used to attempt to trip up witnesses. Beyond this, the chair dominated the hearing both in terms of time speaking and in his frequent and facetious remarks.

I have given oral evidence at many parliamentary committees and have typically found them to offer valuable opportunities to explore and understand differences in views and conclusions. Given the importance of such committees, I hope today’s experience was simply a one off; certainly I have not previously experienced a member of the committee so incensed as to feel obliged to apologise to the witnesses for the dismal chairing – but today that is exactly what happened.

As a final comment, the committee clerk requested that all witnesses turn off their phone and IT devices so as not to interfere with the hearing’s recording equipment. This perfectly reasonable request should surely apply equally to all committee members? Certainly having the full attention of the chair, rather than competing for interest with his computer searches, would have fostered a more engaged and courteous rapport with the witnesses.