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Select Committees (Evidence)

Volume 466: debated on Thursday 23 June 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I desire to raise a point which I think is of great constitutional importance and to which you, Sir, kindly said that you would be prepared to give a Ruling. In the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee on Estimates on 18th January, 1949, the Chairman. I think gratuitously, said this to the witnesses:

"I should like to point out that you can speak with perfect frankness, because copies of the transcript are submitted to anybody who gives evidence, and you can sideline anything which you do not wish to appear in print, though the Sub-Committee reserve their right to base their recommendations on that evidence."
And another Chairman on 25th January, 1949, said this to the witnesses:
"We have to thank you for your attendance, gentlemen; and may I remind you that you may sideline any parts of your evidence which you think should not be made public."
I do not advocate any evidence being made public on subjects, such as atomic energy, which it might not be in the public interest to disclose. However, I ask you, Sir, to give a Ruling that with regard to evidence given before a Committee of this House, it should not be left to the discretion of the giver of that evidence whether it should be published or not, especially as the Committee take that evidence into consideration. It may be that a civil servant gives evidence which his Minister would not like and, when he shows it to the Minister, he says, "You had better wipe that out." I do not call that fair to the Committee, or to the House and I ask you for a Ruling because, as our liberties are being gradually filched from us, I think we ought to fight every step for our freedom of speech and freedom as Members of this House in order to see that evidence should be maintained as it is given upstairs in Committee.

I think the hon. Member is under a misapprehension when he suggests that witnesses before the Select Committee on Estimates are allowed to suppress evidence that they have given before the Committee. The procedure is that the witness is asked to indicate for the information of the Committee if there is any part of this evidence which, for security reasons or in the public interest, he would prefer not to be published. It is then open to the Committee to decide whether or not that part of the evidence shall be reported to the House for publication.

As the hon. Member will see, in Erskine May, 14th edition, page 606, it is written as follows:
"It is usual to present the evidence to the House together with the report. A committee may, however, instead of reporting the whole of the evidence to the House, report only so much of it, or such summary of it, as the committee may judge necessary in order to present the grounds of its conclusions to the House."

I thank you, Sir, for the trouble you have taken to answer my question, but may I once again appeal to you to be a Sir Thomas More, even if you do lose your head, and stand up for the rights and liberties of hon. Members.

Further to that point Mr. Speaker, would you make it clear that this is not a new procedure but has been the practice of the Select Committee for many years?

That is laid down on page 606 of Erskine May. It is the procedure for Select Committees and not Committees of the House.