Senior civil servants have told me of their anxiety about appearing in front of parliamentary committees. The one they seem to dread most of all is the Public Accounts Committee. A permanent secretary, so grand that I always call him 'Sir', told me he had stomach upsets for a week before his appearances and underwent dawn-to-dusk rehearsals with his staff on the technical issues on which he was likely to be grilled by the terrier-like MPs.
Normally I don't get stressed about much, but I was in a proper state before appearing as a witness before the Health Select Committee a few days ago. It didn't help that it was back-to-back with a presentation to an important potential corporate sponsor, but at least there were five of us to share the load at that one. For the committee I was on my own, with only the consolation that a little row of my colleagues in the public area could pass notes to me if they saw me floundering on charges to NHS patients. "Why don't you do it?" I said to our specialist. "Too late now," he replied smugly.
I was in the third group of witnesses and, to get a sense of the atmosphere, arrived early at the committee room in the architectural arrogance of Portcullis House. The ventilation relies on draughts rather than fans, with the result that you can smell the coffee everywhere, but as a member of the public you can't get near it - an exquisite form of torture.
You may know all about the 28-day linking rule and the downrating of attendance allowance, but it isn't something I think about very often. Perhaps you know about the rules under which hospital trusts set car parking fees, but I have managed to get through most of my life without knowing about them. I sat there with sweaty palms as the first phalanx of witnesses dealt adroitly with the intricacies of the prescription charges exemption list, and then the second group hacked their way through the jungle of health benefits means tests.
The last group, representing medical charities, took the stand. The MPs were mesmerised by a witness from the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, a young woman with the condition and a short life expectancy, who explained how she was trying to have a good time, like other people of her age, but how difficult it is when you're on 80 pills a day and you have to pay for them. My speech on the linking rule and car park charges went well and is immortalised in Hansard - but I know who the MPs will remember.