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Privileges Committee publish key report on select committee powers

2 May 2021

The Committee of Privileges publishes a key report on select committee powers, setting out preliminary proposals to ensure the committee powers to call for persons, papers and records can be enforced and that witnesses before committees are treated fairly.

The report considers how the House can address the issue of the enforcement of select committee powers, and recommends legislation to confirm its historic powers in statute. The report also includes for consultation a draft bill that would make failure to comply with a summons issued by a select committee a criminal offence, with the person ultimately liable to a fine or imprisonment as determined by the courts.

The publication includes recommendations to ensure safeguards and protections for select committee witnesses, and to ensure Parliament’s practices comply with modern standards of fairness.

In the report, full title “Select committees and contempts: clarifying and strengthening powers to send for persons, papers and records.”, the Committee concludes that:

  • Select committees play a vital role in our parliamentary democracy. It is essential that they have the powers necessary to function effectively, and to uphold the reputation, dignity and authority of Parliament.
  • The Committee discusses three options: doing nothing; re-asserting the House’s powers through resolutions or standing orders; or legislating to provide a statutory basis for existing committee powers to compel attendance of witnesses and production of documents. The report finds that all the options have risks as well as benefits, but that the best option is legislation to provide much needed clarity and effective deterrents for non-compliance, and to bring the UK Parliament into line with many comparable legislatures.
  • The House should clarify and reassert its commitment to fair treatment of witnesses to ensure the practices of select committees comply with modern standards of fairness and natural justice.

The Committee will now consult on the proposals included within the report, gathering views from MPs, legal professionals, academics, former Clerks and other interested parties. The Committee will take further oral evidence before presenting final recommendations to the House later this year.

Chair's comment

Chair of the Committee of Privileges, Chris Bryant MP said:

“The right of select committees to summon witnesses and hold the powerful to account cuts right to the heart of our parliamentary democracy.

“For too long, the rich and powerful have been able to resist engaging with select committees and, in doing so, have shown contempt for Parliament and the people. From billionaire high street moguls to unaccountable Government advisers, the proposals we set out will make it tougher for such individuals to disregard Parliament and the people.

“These proposals will give select committees the necessary powers to compel reluctant witnesses to attend or provide information to investigations, while safeguarding and ensuring fair treatment of those giving evidence.

“I hope these proposals will empower committees to conduct their work efficiently and fairly, while ensuring everyone has greater clarity over the powers of committees and rights of witnesses.

“The Committee of Privileges will now continue the next stage of this inquiry, putting these proposals out to consultation before presenting final recommendations to the House.”

The report is the result of a detailed and comprehensive inquiry undertaken by the Committee following an instruction by the House that it should investigate “the exercise and enforcement of the powers of the House in relation to select committees and contempts”. This matter was first referred to the Committee by the House in 2016, but the inquiry had been interrupted by two general elections and other urgent business referred to the Committee by the House.

During the inquiry, the Committee received evidence from a range of experts, including current and former Clerks of the House of Commons, and representatives from Parliaments across the globe, with senior officials from more than 50 legislatures contributing information to the inquiry about their own procedures and committee powers.

Further information

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