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Privileges Committee publish further report on select committee powers following consultation

16 June 2022

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

The report comes following an extensive consultation after the Committee published initial proposals in May last year, setting out different potential options for addressing the issue of recalcitrant witnesses.

Published today, the full report includes modifications to the Committee’s original proposals for select committee powers, as well as setting out the Committee’s recommendation that new legislation be introduced to allow the House to address the matter of non-cooperation by witnesses. The report reaffirms the conclusions of the Committee that “if the House wishes to address the problem of recalcitrant witnesses, then legislation is the only appropriate means to do so.”

The full report also includes an annex with proposed draft legislation for the House to consider. The draft bill, a revised version of that published last year, would make failure to comply with a summons issued by the Speaker (without reasonable excuse) a criminal offence, with the person ultimately liable to a fine or imprisonment for a maximum of six months, as determined by the courts.

On the role of select committees, the report notes that “select committees have a right to scrutinise matters of public interest beyond the main bodies of government.”, adding “in considering government policy, it is legitimate to look at the effects of policy failure, or to identify emerging areas which need policy oversight. For that legitimate function to be effectively performed, Parliament needs appropriate powers.”

Explaining the intention behind recommending that Parliament legislates to empower Committees, the report asserts that “topical inquiries involving non-cooperation by witnesses will continue to occur from time to time. Powerful individuals who feel that they have little to lose will test the ability of the House to enforce their attendance as witnesses or their production of papers.”, the report notes that while cases are few, “it is undoubtedly a real problem”, which the Committee’s proposed legislation is intended to address.

The Committee’s report concludes that ultimately “the decision before the House in relation to powers is between accepting the status quo or introducing new powers by means of legislation, accepting there will be a role for the courts. A primary benefit of legislation is that it would put Parliament's power to sanction beyond doubt.”

The report also analyses the consultation responses. It makes modifications to the initial proposals, as well as mounting a defence of them where the Committee feels criticism was misplaced. The report clarifies some points, for example that the draft bill does not seek to criminalise contempts of the House as such, and that the criminal offence will be that of failing to comply with a summons to attend a committee or to produce papers, without reasonable excuse, rather than giving unsatisfactory responses to questions when attending a committee. The revised report also includes a revised draft bill - substituting a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment for the original proposal of two years’ imprisonment, and to give the Speaker the power to issue a statutory summons. The report calls upon the House’s Liaison Committee to develop a Protocol on the Treatment of Witnesses.

Now the Committee has published its report and recommendations, it will be a matter for the House to consider the proposals and make any final decisions.

Chris Bryant MP, who chaired the Privileges Committee inquiry said:

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

“Most witnesses are more than happy to give evidence to a Parliamentary inquiry. But an increasing number of the rich and powerful have started to resist engaging with select committees in recent years and, in doing so, have shown contempt for Parliament and the people it represents. From billionaire high street moguls to unaccountable Government advisers, these proposals will make it tougher for such individuals to disregard their democratic duty.

“Our proposals, if approved by the House, will empower select committees to compel reluctant witnesses to attend or provide documents to parliamentary investigations – allowing committees to conduct their work efficiently and fairly. Our report also sets out proposals to ensure fair treatment of those giving evidence.

“I hope the House will give careful consideration to these proposals in the coming weeks, and consider the importance of ensuring that select committees have the powers they need to function effectively. The House has ignored this for too long and although simply doing nothing is an option, it is a risky one .”

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”.

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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