Sketch: No bun fight at the Public Administration Select Committee

They might have come expecting a bun fight between some of the sector's big guns, writes Andy Ricketts, but it was one of the supporting cast who stole the show.

Sylvia Sham, director of the Wai Yin Chinese Women Society, was among the three witnesses who took to the stage before the more familiar names were rolled out - the "warm-up act", as one of them called it.

But Sham won the hearts of the MPs on the committee with her passion and her light-hearted approach.

"Even though I have a PhD, I could not understand capacity building and infrastructure," she said, probably summing up the feelings of most of the sector.

Tony Wright, chair of the committee, concluded after the first half of the session that the UK would be better off if it could produce an army of Sylvias to tackle the nation's ills. "We need a lot of Sylvias across the country," he declared.

To the main debate, and those hoping to see pastries flying between the representatives of Acevo, the Directory of Social Change and the NCVO went home disappointed.

The major conflicts turned out to be between Peter Kyle, director of strategy and enterprise at Acevo, and a couple of the MPs on the committee.

Kelvin Hopkins attacked Acevo's assertion in its evidence paper that charities could "make an immediate impact in improving services" in areas such as education and children's services.

"I'm astonished by what I've read," said Hopkins. "Do you really think people would take these services seriously?"

Kyle, clearly offended, thundered back: "Are you suggesting that some of the third sector organisations are not serious?"

It got personal. The idea was something "from the ancient regime of Tony Blair", said Hopkins. "I take it you have been looking at my CV," replied Kyle, who previously worked for former Cabinet Office minister Hilary Armstrong.

If Sylvia was flummoxed by infrastructure, so was committee member Paul Flynn, who complained he had been "buried under a tsunami of information" during the inquiry.

That might explain why he queried why Emmaus UK should focus its efforts on tackling homelessness in rural Cambridgeshire. "We don't. That's just where our first community was," pointed out a perplexed Selwyn Image, who kick-started the Emmaus movement.

The next big question is: will the committee make enough sense of the tidal wave to produce a coherent report?

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