Privileges Committee inquiry into Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP - Frequently Asked Questions
11 November 2022
Frequently asked questions
Who is the Chair of the Privileges Committee?
The Committee’s Chair is Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP. The House of Commons approved a motion to appoint Harriet to the Committee on the understanding that she would take the role of Chair. She was then elected as Chair unanimously by the Committee’s membership.
What is the party make-up of the Committee?
The Committee is comprised of seven MPs: four Conservative, two Labour and one SNP. They are elected to serve on the Committee by the House of Commons, in proportion to the parties’ representation in the House.
Has the Committee changed the rules or the terms of reference for this inquiry?
No. There has been no change to the rules or to terms of reference. The initial report published by the Committee in July sets out the process for the inquiry, including details of how this is based on relevant precedents. The background paper on contempt included in that report was by a senior Clerk of the House of Commons. All Clerks are employees of the House of Commons and impartial. The report also publishes the advice on fairness of process and compliance with natural justice given by former President of Tribunals and Court of Appeal Judge Sir Ernest Ryder. The Committee has published this material pursuant to its commitment to transparency.
What can I do if I think the process is not fair or is prejudiced in some way?
Please write to the Committee Chair or any member of the Committee about your concerns. The Committee is committed to the principles of fairness and will take seriously any reasoned critique of its processes, that is why the Committee set out its procedures in detail in a report in July in the interests of transparency and fairness.
What was the last contempt considered by the Privileges Committee?
The most recent case of alleged contempt considered by the Committee was relating to Dominic Cummings in 2018. In that case, the individual was found to be in contempt of Parliament. The most recent investigation into an alleged contempt by an MP was into Justin Tomlinson in 2016: he was suspended for two days for leaking a select committee report. The investigation previous to that was in 2009 when Adrian Sanders MP was found to have failed to ensure security of committee papers and duty of care to staff, and required to apologise on the Floor of the House.
What powers does the Committee have?
The Committee only has power to issue a report to the House setting out its findings. The Committee can recommend to the House that an individual be found to have committed a contempt, and sanctions can include a range of measures. These include oral or written apologies, suspension from the service of the House for a specified period, or expulsion. Additional detail can be found in Erskine May. The Committee can also recommend that the House admonish someone found to have committed a contempt, or it can recommend no sanction at all.
What triggers an inquiry by the Committee of Privileges?
The Committee can only consider those matters which are referred to it by the House. The current inquiry was set up after the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion to refer the matter to the Committee on 21 April 2022. The Committee cannot choose what to investigate or what not to investigate.
How does the process work?
On 21 July the Committee published a report setting out the proposed conduct of the inquiry, including a ‘resolution on procedure’ agreed by the Committee with a supporting memo from the Committee’s legal adviser, the former President of Tribunals and Court of Appeal Judge Sir Ernest Ryder.
What will happen after the Committee publishes its final report and findings?
The Committee will report back to the House with its findings. These will include findings on whether the House was misled, if so whether this was a contempt, and if so what sanction (if any) is recommended. The House will then debate the report and decide whether to accept or reject it. This is House business and traditionally any vote is not whipped but a free vote.
When will the Committee take oral evidence from witnesses?
On 18 November the Committee received further material from the Government, which it had originally requested in July. The Committee is currently analysing that material. It may have further requests to make for additional information. The Committee remains committed to progressing the inquiry expeditiously.
If Mr Johnson is recommended to be suspended, could that possibly trigger the recall procedure in the Recall of MPs Act 2015?
A recommendation by the Committee is only a recommendation and does not trigger anything except a debate in the House. If the House, following such a debate, decided to implement a recommended suspension of 10 sitting or 14 calendar days or more, the Speaker has ruled that “the Committee of Privileges is a committee concerned with the standards of conduct of individual MPs, and therefore any suspension of the requisite length [10 sitting days or 14 calendar days or more] following on from a report from that Committee will attract the provisions of the Recall of MPs Act.” You can read more about the Speaker’s ruling in the published correspondence here.
Will the Committee take oral evidence in public?
The Committee will take oral evidence in public in line with its commitment to transparency. The Committee has announced that Mr Johnson will be called to give oral evidence. Decisions on which other individuals will be called to give oral evidence will be announced in due course, after initial written evidence has been assessed. The Committee’s preference is to take all oral evidence in public. However, requests to hear evidence anonymously or in private will be considered on a case by case basis if necessary.
What is the standard of proof that the Committee will be considering during the inquiry?
The standard of proof the Committee will apply when deciding on factual issues will be “on the balance of probabilities”. The Committee will therefore decide on the basis of the evidence it receives whether the allegations have been proved “on the balance of probabilities”. This is in accord with the past practice of the Committee.
What exactly are the Committee investigating?
The Committee can only consider matters referred to it by the House of Commons. The House of Commons unanimously agreed to refer the current matter to the Committee on 21 April 2022 (here) - instructing the Committee to undertake this inquiry. The three questions the Committee will set out to answer are: (1) whether the House was misled; (2) if so, whether that was a contempt – which has been defined as an action or omission which may have obstructed or impeded the functioning of the House of Commons; and (3) if so, how serious was that contempt. The Committee has not prejudged any of these questions. The issue of whether the House was deliberately misled may arise under steps (2) or (3) of the Committee’s inquiry.
Why are the Committee taking anonymous evidence? Isn’t this unfair on the subject of the inquiry?
The Committee needs to be able to hear any evidence which is relevant to its inquiry and there may be witnesses who may not be willing to give that evidence if their identity is made public. The Committee will not take evidence from witnesses whose identity is not publicly disclosed unless it has established that they are credible witnesses with relevant evidence to the inquiry, and unless their identity has been verified by the Chair and Committee staff. The Committee will share any evidence it receives during the course of the inquiry with the subject of the inquiry and will ensure they have the opportunity to challenge the evidence before a final report.
Will the Committee make witnesses give evidence under oath? How will written evidence get similar provisions?
All oral evidence submitted to the inquiry will be taken under oath. The equivalent provision for written evidence is that it must be accompanied by a “statement of truth”.
Why is the Committee Chaired by an opposition MP?
It is convention for the Privileges Committee to be chaired by a Member of the Opposition. The Committee has a majority of Government MPs. The Committee’s current Chair is Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP. The House of Commons approved a motion to appoint Harriet Harman to the Committee, and she was subsequently elected unanimously by the Committee’s Membership as Chair. Chris Bryant was formerly Chair of the Committee, but he recused himself ahead of the current inquiry.
Why has the Committee decided to hold this inquiry?
The decision to carry out this inquiry was not taken by the Privileges Committee but by the House of Commons as a whole. The House unanimously passed a motion to refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges on 21 April. The motion was unopposed and there was no division. The Committee can only consider matters referred to it by the House, and is duty bound to proceed with the inquiry following the House’s instruction until and unless the House instructs otherwise. You can see the text of the full motion here.
Will the Committee continue their inquiry when Mr Johnson has ceased to be Prime Minister? Or if he ceases to be an MP?
The current inquiry (the matter referred on 21 April 2022) remains referred to the Committee regardless of any decision to resign, including if Mr Johnson decides to resign as an MP. The Committee will continue to follow the instruction of the House unless and until it is instructed otherwise by the House. The House of Commons would have to pass a motion for the Privileges Committee to cease their inquiry. That motion would have to be brought to the House of Commons by the Government.
Can members of the press and/or members of the public attend Committee hearings? Will they be in public? Will they be broadcast?
The Committee’s preference is to hear oral evidence in public with proceedings to be broadcast live. Further details on attending select committee evidence sessions can be found here. More details will be made available in due course about specific sessions.
How can I submit evidence of relevance to the inquiry?
The initial deadline for public submissions of evidence passed on 29 July. Notwithstanding this, if any one has first-hand evidence or knowledge of the events being investigated which they wish to draw to the attention of the Committee, they are asked to contact the Committee via the contact details on the website.
Can the evidence or findings of the inquiry be challenged in any capacity?
The Committee will share any evidence it receives with the subject of the inquiry and will ensure they have the opportunity to challenge the evidence before a final report is prepared. Once the Committee has published its findings and recommendations it will then be a matter for the House as a whole to consider and approve the report.
Doesn’t this inquiry risk Ministers being too afraid to speak at the Dispatch Box for fear of making incorrect statements or inadvertently misleading the House and being referred to the Privileges Committee?
There are already well-established ways for Ministers to correct the record, with the understanding that they do so at the earliest opportunity to avoid misleading the House. In line with the rules that apply to all MPs, it is a matter for the House as a whole to consider whether or not to refer complaints that a contempt of the House may have been committed to the Privileges Committee, and any decision to put this to the House requires prior approval from the Speaker. The House unanimously referred the present inquiry to the Privileges Committee.
How often does Committee meet?
The Committee are meeting regularly to consider this inquiry. You can find details about future confirmed public meetings of the Committee on the website here.
What has the Committee been doing so far?
- The Committee appointed a legal advisor, Sir Ernest Ryder, commissioned advice from him particularly on ensuring fair process and has considered his advice.
- The Committee have taken procedural advice from the clerks of the House of Commons and advice on the nature of contempt, misleading, the process for the inquiry and any potential penalties. The Committee has considered this advice.
- In June, the Committee put out a public call for evidence.
- The Committee called for documentary evidence from the Government.
- In July, the Committee reported to the House (Report of the Session 2022-2023) setting out the Committee’s procedures and process in line with precedent.
- On 18 November the Committee received further material from the Government, which it had originally requested in July. The Committee is currently analysing that material. It may have further requests to make for additional information. The Committee remains committed to progressing the inquiry expeditiously.
Has the Committee contacted witnesses for the inquiry yet?
The Committee has sent letters to individuals who may have knowledge relevant to the present inquiry regarding Boris Johnson MP, requiring them to provide evidence in writing. The Committee requires the written evidence to be submitted by Tuesday 7th February. All written evidence submissions must be accompanied by a statement of truth. The Committee may have further requests to make for additional information.
Image: Parliamentary copyright/Jessica Taylor