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Select Committees and Contempts - Chair’s thoughts for 2021

22 January 2021

The following text was originally published as part of the House magazine’s 2021 Guide to Select Committees

‘Privilege’ is not a comfortable word these days. It comes with more baggage than Louis Vuitton and suggests that entitled MPs might be tediously standing on their dignity, but ‘parliamentary privilege’ is an essential cog in the wheel of democracy. It allows MPs to speak without fear, it guarantees free speech and enables Members to do their jobs on behalf of the public.

At the moment the Committee’s main task is to resolve a tricky issue referred to it by the House back in October 2016, that is, the “exercise and enforcement of the powers of the House in relation to select committees and contempt”. The debate over select committee powers to summon witnesses, and the sanctions available to the House in cases of non-compliance, has been long-running; rather frustratingly, two influential Joint Committees on Privilege, one in 1999 and another in 2013, reached different conclusions on the issue. The current inquiry results from a 2016 report into the conduct of witnesses from News International appearing before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee as part of their investigation into phone-hacking.

Since 2016 this inquiry has been interrupted by two general elections and other urgent business referred to the Committee by the House. But since the Committee was re-established in March this year following the 2019 General Election, we have made good progress.

The Committee has reconsidered the three options outlined by the former Clerk of the House in 2017: to do nothing, to reassert the House's existing powers by amending Standing Orders or by Resolution, or to legislate to provide a statutory regime for committee powers. The Committee has also sought to bring fresh perspective to the inquiry and has received responses to a questionnaire on the matter from over 50 overseas legislatures, including the US Congress, the Parliaments of Australia and New Zealand, and the Houses of the Oireachtas in Ireland. These submissions will be published when the Committee reports.

This is not a simple issue to resolve. The Committee has been acutely aware that all of the options, including doing nothing, have drawbacks. Clearly Parliament can no longer behave as it did centuries ago and order that people locked up in our own cell in the Tower. The most effective way of giving committees enforceable powers would be through legislation. However, that runs the risk of eroding Parliament’s ability to control its own affairs without interference from the courts, unless we can craft a limited measure that protects the separate powers of the courts and of parliament.

The right of select committees to summon witnesses and papers, and to ensure effective scrutiny of the most powerful in the land cuts right to the heart of our representative parliamentary democracy. Recent years have seen witnesses refuse to attend, refuse to answer questions or provide documents and cock a snook at the whole of Parliament. Some lawyers advise high-profile clients to refuse to attend. That cannot be allowed to continue as it undermines the whole point of select committee enquiries.

That is why we are keen to make credible proposals to the House as soon as possible. We hope these will empower committees to conduct their work without undue hindrance, provide everyone with greater clarity over the powers of committees and the rights of witnesses. It is a significant challenge, but one essential to the ongoing health of, and public trust in, our select committee system.

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