Written evidence from Rt Hon Mel Stride MP, Chair of the Treasury Committee (SCC0027)
I am aware that your Committee is seeking evidence from Chairs for your inquiry into committee powers and contempts, and in particular information about whether committees have experienced difficulty in securing the attendance of witnesses, or the production of papers.
I am glad to say that since the start of the Parliament, the Treasury Select Committee has not encountered any major issues in securing witnesses or evidence.
Where the Committee found that witnesses were initially reluctant to appear, this has been managed by a combination of flexibility on dates and reassurance about the purpose and scope of a session. I should point out that in these unusual times due to Covid-19, virtual meetings have, on the whole, also helped give witnesses greater flexibility. I think the approach the Committee has taken reflects my belief that the most effective scrutiny arises as part of a constructive process, which relies on being fair to witnesses.
However, when a constructive approach does not achieve the desired outcome, Committees need the right tools to obtain the information required to effectively scrutinise or to hold public figures, including private organisations or individuals who have influence on the public square, to account.
I am aware that my predecessor but one as Chair of the Treasury Committee, Rt Hon Lord Tyrie, has submitted written evidence, setting out how the powers of Select Committees were used under his stewardship. I thought it would be useful to describe how the Committee has used these powers since 2017, when Rt Hon Baroness Morgan of Cotes was Chair. During this period, there were a couple of occasions when the Committee used its powers to demand papers, but it was cautious when doing so:
I have considered some of the written evidence you have received, and to me it seems that the powers of the House do not have sufficient teeth. The recent well publicised case of contempt has moved the discussion of powers on. and I think now is the time to consider a legislative solution which might make contempt a criminal offence. This should be accompanied with sanctions, most sensibly analogous to those for contempt of court. Critically, if enforceable sanctions are to be introduced, then it is essential that there is an accompanying fair procedure for witnesses, which should be applied as a code of practice.
5 October 2020