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Harriet Harman and Sir Bernard Jenkin publish joint article in The Times rebutting press criticism

16 August 2022

The below article was originally published in The Times Red Box on 12 August 2022. Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP (Chair of the Privileges Committee) and Sir Bernard Jenkin MP (Member of the Committee) published a joint article in The Times, as a response to inaccurate comments that had appeared in the media concerning the Committee’s inquiry into the conduct of the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP.

The Committee of Privileges has existed in some form for centuries. Its role is to consider matters referred to it by the House, which can include anything which could obstruct or impede the House in its work. In the current case, it has been asked to look at allegations that an individual has misled the House. It is easy to see how giving misleading answers to the House can impede its work.

In recent weeks, a number of inaccurate comments have been made about the Committee, with some individuals questioning the integrity of its processes and its current investigation into whether or not Boris Johnson has committed a contempt of the House of Commons.

It is important to stress that the Privileges Committee can only consider matters referred to it by the House. The House tasked the Committee to conduct this inquiry back in April, and the text of the motion referring that matter to the committee is on the Committee website for all to see. The motion was passed unopposed.

The position of Chair of the Committee was elected unanimously by the committee members. The membership of the Committee is decided by the House of Commons. The distinguished former Court of Appeal Judge Sir Ernest Ryder has been appointed to advise the Committee to ensure fairness of process.

The Committee is committed to transparency in its procedures and process. It has published them in full in a Report to the House dated 21 July. These include sharing evidence with Mr Johnson and providing notice of any criticism so it can be challenged before the final report is agreed. Neither any Member of the House or the Government has made any proposals to change these procedures.

There have been unfounded allegations about ‘goalposts being moved’ and ‘rules changed’. But this is inaccurate. No rules or terms of reference have been changed at any point, and the Committee is carrying out this inquiry as instructed by the House and according to the rules of the House.

In our Report of 21 July, the Committee published a paper by the House of Commons Clerks, who are impartial, setting out what may be considered a contempt in the context of the inquiry. The report makes clear that the Committee is only concerned with whether a contempt has been committed. A decision on this is first for the Committee but then for the House as a whole to decide, on the basis of the final inquiry report and on the evidence from the inquiry. The questions the inquiry will set out to answer are whether the House was misled; if so, whether that misleading was a contempt; and if so, how serious that contempt was. The issue of whether the House was ‘deliberately’ misled may arise in the second and third points in the investigation, and this may become one of the key issues of the inquiry.

We have been instructed by the House as a whole to carry out this inquiry and we are obliged to proceed as instructed.

Recent efforts to undermine the work of the Committee represent an attempt to undermine the procedures which the House has established to hold the Members to account. The House should be reluctant to allow intimidation and the targeting of individuals to subvert the proper processes. We will not let this succeed. As is our duty, our Committee will publish its findings on the basis of the evidence we receive.

The deadline for the Government to provide documents has not yet passed so our active investigation has not begun. Until then, it is also open for anyone to challenge the fairness of our process. Ultimately, the Committee will make a decision on the basis of the evidence it receives. We will publish the evidence in line with our commitment to transparency. It will rightly then be a matter for the House as a whole, with access to all the evidence and the facts, to decide on its response to our final report. 

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