If, like us, you watched the recent live stream of the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearing (part of the inquiry into “Combatting Doping in Sport”) with representatives from British Cycling and Team Sky present as witnesses and giving evidence, you’ll know the bulk of the session focused on the key question “what was in the jiffy bag?” which was transported from the UK by Simon Cope, handed to Dr. Richard Freeman at the end of the Critérium du Dauphiné, for use by Sir Bradley Wiggins.
The MPs who asked the questions were polite, considered, and professional but nevertheless showed a determination to try to get to the truth, and some pretty robust questioning during the session was the result.
Committee member John Nicolson (Member of Parliament for East Dunbartonshire and the SNP spokesperson on Culture, Media and Sport) demonstrated an amazing ability to ask logical, ‘boiled-down’ questions which presented a narrow set of options as answers; during the session with British Cycling’s Bob Howson OBE and Dr. George Gilbert as witnesses, we saw John pin down the BC duo to a commitment to provide the Committee Chair, Damian Collins with written evidence of what was in “the package” within a couple of days.
John was also firm in his questioning of Team Sky’s Shane Sutton OBE and Sir David Brailsford concerning the reasons for the jiffy bag being couriered to France from Manchester via London and Switzerland, spotting inconsistencies and contradictions in their evidence and questioning why the product wasn’t simply purchased over the counter from a nearby pharmacy.
We felt it would be interesting to hear from John about the operation of the Select Committee and his thoughts on what he was told by the cycling top brass, so we grabbed some of his time during Parliament’s Christmas break.
The brief of the select committee is far-reaching and disparate; Culture, Media and Sport… how are you selected as a member?
“I was put forward my my party.
“It’s quite unusual to be both the front bench spokesperson and a Committee member, but I enjoy the combination as they cross fertilise.”
How do you manage to cover such a wide range of topics with the level of detail needed?
“Inevitably we have to choose what we focus on.
“Committee members put forward suggestions and the other members either accept or decline to support the proposal – we’ve always agreed.
“Some suggestions are obvious, such as the BBC Charter hearings.
“Others (like my homophobia in sport proposal), less so.”
Do you put yourself forward for a particular inquiry or session, or do all members of the Committee take part in every inquiry?
“All members take part in every inquiry.”
Obviously, your day-to-day work concerns representing your constituents and party, how much time and effort does the select committee work take up?
“We often have two hearings a week.
“And there tends to be a lot of paperwork to study – especially as in this case for me as I’ve no background in the sport of cycling.”
Given the broad scope and number of inquiries ongoing (such as the “Impact of Brexit”), how does the Committee prioritise and allocate its resources?
“We tend to have no more than two inquiries ongoing at any one time, and they have different timetables.”
How often does the Committee meet? Is it a standing schedule or only when required?
“We meet as-and-when required.
“But it’s typically twice weekly.”
Are you a cyclist yourself, or a cycling fan?
“I’m a weekend cyclist, happy to be overtaken as I meander slowly towards the gym.”
Are any of the Committee members active cyclists themselves? (commuting, leisure riding or racing?)
“I don’t know, certainly none of them race – have you looked at them?!”
How do you prepare for an inquiry? There must be a lot of research undertaken to get up to speed on the subject matter – do you have people who do that and update you?
“The Committee Clerk and her team prepare a brief.
“My researcher also does some background research for me, but ultimately it’s up to the members themselves to prepare.”
Just how deep into the details can you realistically go in an inquiry? (I’m thinking the title of this one, “Combating Doping in Sport”, could keep a panel of people busy full-time for years).
“Indeed. The Committee has to be realistic in its aims.”
How do you manage the potential for “mission-creep” on this particular topic? (There is so much background and history involved!)
“The Committee has to be disciplined.
“But it also has to be flexible, and willing, if necessary, to adapt if new evidence becomes available.”
Are witnesses able to watch proceedings as they happen live, before they themselves are called to the room? (It looked to me like Brailsford had been able to watch Gilbert, Howden and Sutton giving their evidence before he gave his).
“Yes, they can sit in the room and listen like any other member of the public.
“Or indeed they can sit outside and watch on their iPads.”
During the session, after Brailsford divulged the contents of the jiffy bag, you mentioned that you were all having to learn very quickly about Fluimucil. Do you have researchers popping information to you on a screen during the session, are you Googling things for yourselves or following certain informed people on Twitter?
“I was Googling and watching Twitter.”
This session was to hear the witnesses’ evidence… does the committee meet immediately thereafter to consider what it’s heard, and decide the next steps?
“We tend to e-mail subsequently.”
The Committee received some comments from a fellow MP about the tone used when questioning witnesses during the session – do the members agree beforehand the approach to adopt during the session or do you adapt depending upon the answers given by the witnesses?
“It’s most unusual for an MP from out-with the Committee to be critical, as was the MP you mention.
“His behaviour was motivated, I suspect, by party political tribalism.
“And as can be seen by the reaction from the world of cycling and cycling journalism his comments enjoyed little support.
“The Committee is very well chaired by Damian Collins and the Committee members all have their own styles, but we try to support one-another in our work, regardless of party.
“We all want the Committee’s work to succeed.”
You were clear in trying to have the witnesses give ‘unambiguous answers’ to questions…
“I don’t feel the need to ask questions in every session but when I do ask questions it’s because I hope I’ve something worthwhile to contribute.
“My background is political journalism so I know how irritating it is for members of the public to watch someone wriggle and avoid answering direct questions.
“When I see that happening, I try to pin the witness down.
“Sometimes our witnesses are powerful people at the top of their organisations – and often they’re media trained.
“We have a relatively short period of time when they appear before the Committee to get answers so we have to get to the point as speedily as possible, whilst, of course, allowing the witness to develop their argument.”
Is there a messaging ‘chat’ going on amongst the Committee members as the session is running, to share information and make comments to each other (offline, as it were)?
Do you pick up on the wording witnesses use when giving evidence? For example, the distinction between “authorised” and “arranged” was discussed, but Sutton also said he was aware that the doctor had “administered” the medical substance to Wiggins.
“I’m a journalist, so yes, I listen closely.”
Do you envisage a second inquiry session taking place with the same, or different witnesses; Simon Cope, Phil Burt (BC’s lead physio who packed the jiffy bag, according to Brailsford), Dr. Richard Freeman, or Bradley Wiggins himself perhaps (whether now retired or not)?
“We’ve yet to decide that.”
Do you wonder what ‘logistics’ assistance someone could realistically bring at the end of a race, for just a few hours before they return home, that could justify flying them over from London?
Do you imagine that you heard the truth as the witnesses believed it?
“Mmmm… I found some of the answers unconvincing.”
Do you ever hear evidence from witnesses ‘under oath’ – in other words, covered by perjury laws?
“This is one for the Committee Clerk.
“Remember, I’m a new member so not very experienced.”
Elizabeth Flood, the Committee Clerk completed this question for us:
“Parliamentary Committees have the right to take evidence under oath/affirmation, like the courts, but the departmental select committees do so very, very rarely.
“People who give evidence to Parliament are expected to tell the truth – and if they do not, they are in contempt – just as they would be if sworn.”
It is reported now that British Cycling can’t find the paperwork to prove that the package contained – or didn’t contain – Fluimucil. Will you be looking for further evidence from anyone else, other witnesses or experts?
“I would imagine so, yes.”
If there is no paper trail for the contents of the jiffy bag (a medical product, as Brailsford said he believed it was), is that the end of the matter or do you think a full review of the governance procedures in place in British Cycling needs undertaken?
“It would be most bizarre if there was no paper trail kept for drugs issued to athletes and flown across international borders.”
When do you think the Committee will be publishing its report, setting out its findings and recommendations?
“We have yet to decide this.”
Cycling and sports fans across the globe will be glued to their screens when the next Committee session takes place, and the knowledge that the MPs are using Twitter to follow the conversation as it happens – so people are perhaps able to contribute to it indirectly – will add further interest.
With thanks to John for his valuable time and willingness to share these unseen aspects of the Select Committee.