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New chair appointed and inquiry into select committees and contempts resumed

1 June 2020

The Committee of Privileges has elected Chris Bryant MP as its Chair following his recent election by the House as Chair of the Committee on Standards.

The Committee has also now resumed its inquiry into “the exercise and enforcement of the powers of the House in relation to select committees and contempt”.

Purpose of the inquiry

The Committee’s inquiry is assessing different options for enforcing the House’s powers to summon witnesses and call for production of documents. This includes reviewing the House’s available sanctions in cases of non-compliance by witnesses and other contempts.

The inquiry includes consideration of the following issues:

  • How can select committees effectively exercise their powers to summon witnesses and call for papers, while at the same time treating potential witnesses with fairness and due respect?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of the three options identified in 2017 by the then Clerk of the House, that is, 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?
  • What are appropriate sanctions for non-compliance or other contempts on the part of witnesses? How should these be applied?
  • What relevant developments have there been since the inquiry was originally launched?
  • What lessons can be learnt from other parliaments and assemblies in the UK and overseas?

The Committee invites previous witnesses in this inquiry to update their evidence in the light of recent developments if they wish to do so. The Committee would also welcome new evidence submissions. It would be helpful to receive any submissions not later than Wednesday 1 July. It is the Committee’s intention to publish a Report later this year.

Submit evidence to our inquiry here.

Chair's comments

Chair of the Committee Chris Bryant MP made the following statement:

“The ability of select committees to summon witnesses and rely on their evidence is vital to the proper functioning of our parliamentary democracy. The House of Commons asked the Committee to consider the powers of the House in relation to select committees and contempts back in 2016 and since then the Committee has been given evidence that the number of witnesses who have been reluctant or have refused to attend a select committee when summoned has increased in recent years.
This is not a simple issue. All of the options, including doing nothing, have drawbacks. That is partly why the Committee has not yet been able to conclude a report.
Our predecessors in the last Parliament were engaged in serious discussion with interested parties; the present Committee will resume this dialogue. We hope to be able to put realistic and achievable proposals before the House to clarify the extent of select committee powers, to ensure fair treatment of witnesses, and to enable effective sanctions to be used against people who attempt to interfere with the work of committees, including by refusal to attend when summoned.”

Background to the inquiry

This is a long-running inquiry which has now spanned several Parliaments. The matter was originally referred to the Committee of Privileges by the House on 27 October 2016. The Committee took a range of written evidence prior to the General Election of 2017, including a memorandum by the then Clerk of the House (Sir David Natzler KCB) setting out three options for the House: 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.

In 2018 the Committee resumed its inquiry and consulted the Liaison Committee, which comprises the chairs of select committees. While that committee was unable to reach an agreed position on this matter, its then Chair (Dr Sarah Wollaston MP) wrote to the Privileges Committee setting out the discussions among the committee chairs, appending two submissions that presented contrasting views.

The inquiry was suspended during the last Parliament for the duration of the separate inquiry into an alleged contempt by Mr Dominic Cummings arising from his failure to obey orders of the House and of a select committee to attend a committee hearing. (The Committee reported on this on 27 March 2019 and the House has subsequently admonished Mr Cummings by formal resolution.)

In July 2019, the inquiry was resumed with further written and oral evidence gathered, which is available on the committee’s website. Further evidence sessions were planned for November 2019 but were cancelled due to the 2019 general election.

All written and oral evidence previously submitted to the Committee as part of its inquiry has been published and is available on the Committee’s website.

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