We come now to the main business. As I advised the House yesterday, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) has tabled a motion for debate on a matter of privilege which I have agreed should take precedence today. To move the motion, I call Mr John Whittingdale.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the conclusions set out in chapter 8 of the Eleventh Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2010-12, on News International and Phone-hacking, HC 903-I and orders that the matter be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
Let me begin, Mr Speaker, by thanking you for granting precedence to this motion, which I move on behalf of all the members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I am aware that the motion is unusual, if not almost unprecedented in modern times, but as the Committee set out in the conclusions to our report, we believe that the integrity and effectiveness of Select Committees relies on the evidence that we are given being given truthfully and completely. We therefore regard the finding of the Committee that we were misled by specific individuals as an extremely serious matter, and we think it only right that it should be brought to the attention of the whole House of Commons and referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I apologise for throwing this hot potato into the lap of the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), but I think that it is important that his Committee consider this matter, first, to establish whether my Committee was indeed misled in the evidence that it was given; and secondly, to deal with the perhaps rather more difficult question of what Parliament should do in response.
It might help the House if I briefly describe the events that have led to this afternoon’s debate. At the beginning of 2007, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee decided to hold an inquiry into the self-regulation of the press. Three events triggered that decision. The first was the harassment of Kate Middleton —then a commoner, now the Duchess of Cambridge—that was taking place, which was felt to go well beyond what was acceptable.
The second issue was the publication by the Information Commissioner of his report “What price privacy now?”, at the end of 2006. In that report, he published details of the very large number of journalists working for a wide variety of publications who had employed the services of Steve Whittamore, a private investigator who was subsequently convicted for illegally breaching the police national computer and the driver vehicle licensing database in order to obtain information. Although no prosecutions of the journalists were brought, there was certainly a widespread suspicion that many members of the press had been involved in what appeared to have been illegal activity.
The third matter that the Committee decided we needed to consider was the conviction, just a few months previously, of Clive Goodman, the royal editor of the News of the World, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, who were found to have conspired to intercept communications without lawful authority. On that third specific issue, the Committee took evidence from the then chairman of News International, Mr Les Hinton. During our evidence, I put this question to him:
“You carried out a full, rigorous internal inquiry, and you are absolutely convinced that Clive Goodman was the only person who knew what was going on?”
Mr Hinton replied:
“Yes, we have and I believe he was the only person, but that investigation, under the new editor, continues.”
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the Committee had to accept the assurance that we were given, but we did make some fairly strong comments about the culture that had allowed payments to be made by Clive Goodman without any apparent authority from the management of News International. However, although we concluded that we had not seen evidence that proved otherwise, I think we all heard alarm bells ringing, since we were very much aware that Glenn Mulcaire had been convicted of hacking into the telephone voice messages of Mr Max Clifford, Mr Sky Andrew, Mr Gordon Taylor, Ms Elle Macpherson, and the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), none of whom had any obvious connection with the royal family. Yet we were told that the only person at the News of the World who had any knowledge or involvement was the royal editor. There was therefore certainly a suspicion in our minds that the phone hacking may have gone much wider than we were led to believe.
During 2009, two years later, the Committee conducted an inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. During that inquiry, in July 2009, The Guardian reported that News Group Newspapers had paid more than £1 million to settle privacy cases that had been brought by Gordon Taylor, one of those on the charge sheet for Glenn Mulcaire, and by Jo Armstrong and a lawyer, all of whom were involved in football matters. We decided that the size of that settlement was so large that it cast doubt on the previous testimony that we had received. On that basis, we decided to reopen our inquiry.
That decision, and certainly the report that appeared in The Guardian, was vigorously attacked by News International to such an extent that when we summoned the editor of The Guardian and the journalist who had written the story, Mr Nick Davies, to appear before us, they responded by providing the Committee with certain documents. In particular, there was a contract between Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator, and Greg Miskiw, a senior executive on the News of the World, and also what has become known as the “For Neville” e-mail. That was a heavily redacted transcript of an exchange that took place between Gordon Taylor and Jo Armstrong on their voicemails.
To us, that clearly suggested that others had been involved. We therefore took evidence during the course of our inquiry in 2009 from quite a number of senior executives of News International, including Tom Crone, the legal manager; Colin Myler, the then editor of the News of the World; Andy Coulson, the previous editor of the News of the World; Stuart Kuttner, the managing editor; and Les Hinton, the executive chairman. Mr Crone told us that he had become aware of the e-mail in April 2008, but in his evidence to us he suggested that an investigation had found little real evidence that it had gone any further. His implication was certainly that it did not amount to much. As we commented in our report:
“In summary, Mr Crone’s investigation, he said, had established that nobody remembered the ‘for Neville’ email, apart from Mr Hindley”—
the journalist who taken the transcription—
“who could not remember what he did with it.”
We went on to note:
“In spite of the allegations contained in the Guardian, the News of the World has continued to assert that Clive Goodman acted alone. Les Hinton, the former Executive Chairman of News International, told us: ‘There was never any evidence delivered to me that suggested that the conduct of Clive Goodman spread beyond him.’”
I thank the hon. Gentleman not just for his work and that of his Committee but for the measured way in which he is putting the case.
May I make it quite clear—this is in the public domain, so I am not breaching any prospective prosecutions —that there was substantial evidence, at all material times soon after the arrest of the two people who were subsequently convicted, that a series of other people at higher levels in the same newspaper had been involved, because they had been told what was going on? That is now in the public domain, and some of us believe that that knowledge cannot have been limited to those who were named in the documents seized by the police. It must have been held more widely.
I hope that the full facts will continue to emerge, not just through the work of the Committee but through that of Lord Justice Leveson and the police investigation and the possible charges to follow. I have to say that the Committee reached that conclusion in our work. Initially, it was suggested that the “For Neville” e-mail might have been going to any old Neville in the News of the World. We made inquiries and discovered that in fact there was only one person called Neville in the employment of the News of the World, and he was its chief reporter. Therefore, in 2009 the Committee concluded:
“Evidence we have seen makes it inconceivable that no-one else at the News of the World, bar Clive Goodman, knew about the phone-hacking”.
In relation to the previous assurance about the rigour of the inquiry, we said:
“The newspaper’s enquiries were far from ‘full’ or ‘rigorous’, as we—and the PCC—had been assured. Throughout our inquiry, too, we have been struck by the collective amnesia afflicting witnesses from the News of the World.”
We published that report and nothing happened. It is perhaps a matter of regret that no further action was taken for another two years. However, evidence then started to emerge from the civil cases being brought by the victims of phone hacking, which led to the initiation of Operation Weeting—the police inquiry—and an Adjournment debate introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), in which he suggested that the Committee had been misled. Those events, plus the decision of James Murdoch to close the News of the World and to make a statement saying that the evidence and statements given to Parliament were wrong, caused the Committee to decide to reopen the inquiry.
We took evidence from a wide range of people, including John Yates, then of the Metropolitan police, Rupert and James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, Jonathan Chapman, Daniel Cloke, Tom Crone, Colin Myler, Les Hinton and Julian Pike. We were assured at the time that News International was extremely keen to co-operate with the Committee and to establish the facts, but during the course of our subsequent inquiry three crucial documents emerged. It is worth noting that none were supplied to the Committee by News International, and that they actually came from various lawyers acting for the personalities involved.
The first document was the letter sent in March 2007 by Clive Goodman to Les Hinton, the then chairman, objecting to his dismissal. The reason Clive Goodman gave for his objection to his dismissal was as follows:
“This practice [phone hacking] was widely discussed in the daily editorial conference, until explicit reference to it was banned by the Editor. The legal manager, Tom Crone, attended virtually every meeting of my legal team and was given full access to the Crown Prosecution Service’s evidence files. He, and other senior staff of the paper, had long advanced knowledge that I would plead guilty.”
The second document we obtained was an internal e-mail sent from Tom Crone to Colin Myler before a meeting with James Murdoch to discuss the terms of the settlement with Gordon Taylor. The e-mail states that
“this evidence, particularly the e-mail”—
the “For Neville” e-mail—
“from the News of the World is fatal to our case.”
Tom Crone went on to say:
“Our position is very perilous. The damning e-mail is genuine and proves we actively made use of a large number of extremely private voicemails from Taylor’s telephone in June/July 2005 and that this was pursuant to a February 2005 contract.”
Of course, that was written almost a year before Mr Crone appeared before the Committee and suggested that the “For Neville” e-mail was of no real significance because they could not remember where it had gone or find any record of it.
The third document was the opinion obtained by Michael Silverleaf QC, who advised News Group Newspapers that it should reach a settlement because, as he said:
“there is a powerful case that there is (or was) a culture of illegal information access used at News Group Newspapers in order to produce stories for publication.”
The Committee, in its conclusions, comments on several specific issues that I will not go into in great detail, but they include such matters as the decision to authorise payments to Clive Goodman following his conviction; the importance of confidentiality in the size of the Gordon Taylor settlement; and the commissioning of surveillance of at least some members and former members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. These are matters that we describe in detail, and I hope that the Standards and Privileges Committee will also consider them.
Our overall conclusion was that the evidence that we had obtained made it clear that the evidence given to us in our previous inquiry, when the individuals involved had once again attempted to assure us that there was no real suggestion or evidence that anyone else at the News of the World was involved in phone hacking other than Clive Goodman, was not true. They certainly did have documents that indicated very clearly that that was not the case. It was for that reason that the Committee concluded that we had been misled by Les Hinton, Tom Crone and Colin Myler—
I commend my hon. Friend for the skilled way in which he has chaired the Committee over a long period, including during these very difficult inquiries, on which there was not always agreement. Will he just reiterate that, despite all the controversy over other parts of the report, on the chapter we are discussing today the Committee was united in finding that these people had misled the Committee, and there was no disagreement about any part of this chapter?
My hon. Friend is correct: on whether the three individuals whom I have just named misled the Committee we were unanimous in our finding. It is for that reason that I was very pleased that the Committee agreed to support the motion that I am moving.
We took evidence from other individuals, and the Committee deliberately decided that we would reach no conclusion on the evidence given to us by people who have since been arrested and could face criminal charges. The Committee reserves the right to return to that question once proceedings are concluded, but the three individuals we identified have not been arrested, and we therefore felt it was right that we should draw the conclusions that we have and bring them to the attention of the House.
We are under no illusion: these are serious matters. The conclusions we have reached bear profound consequences. I am not entirely clear what those consequences are, but there is no question but that these are very serious matters. It was also brought to our attention that those individuals should have a right to rebut the charges and to respond to them. We respected that, and we therefore felt that the right procedure was to refer the matter to the Standards and Privileges Committee, so that it had an opportunity to consider the evidence that led to our findings and to consider the responses that have already been given by two of the individuals named. On that basis, I ask the House to refer the Committee’s report and the evidence we received to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
I support the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) in his recommendations. These are very serious matters and they mark a parliamentary milestone in an investigation that began in 2003, when my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asked the now infamous question about payments to the police. Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Maldon said, this marks the beginning of the end of the role of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in this inquiry, although obviously we have reserved the right to return to the other arrested members of News International.
The matter is not over for News Corporation, the police officers who failed to investigate properly back in 2006 or the computer hackers and other rogue private investigators who some evidence suggests played a wider role. There are other investigations going on, but for now it is important that the Committee is united and that the House unites to send this document to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I am sure that other Committees will play a role, but we are united in ensuring that the three people named receive some form of parliamentary justice. The last thing we want to do is interfere with the process of criminal justice. I hope that the House can unite around the motion.
I want to make a short contribution and to begin by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and his fellow members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for their painstaking and at times challenging inquiry into News International and phone hacking, building on the Committee’s work in the last Parliament. I thank them for their comprehensive report.
The motion is a narrow one inviting us to note the conclusions of chapter 8 of the report and to refer it to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I believe that this is the right course of action in the first instance and I support the motion. The Committee rightly observes:
“The integrity and effectiveness of the Select Committee system relies on the truthfulness and completeness of the oral and written evidence submitted.”
The Committee’s report contains four specific conclusions relating to possible contempt, which are set out in paragraph 275. The findings are, of course, disputed vigorously by the individuals and organisation concerned. Although it would be for the House itself to reach a final determination on whether a contempt has been committed and, if appropriate, to respond in the light of any recommendations by the Standards and Privileges Committee, it should do so on the basis of a full and impartial consideration of the facts and appropriate steps by that Committee.
Should the Standards and Privileges Committee conclude that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee was knowingly misled, it would be right for the Standards and Privileges Committee to consider any appropriate action, having regard to the House’s 1978 resolution to use its penal jurisdiction in respect of non-Members as sparingly as possible and only when the House is satisfied that it is essential to act in order to provide reasonable protection from improper obstruction causing or likely to cause substantial interference with its functions. The Committee on Standards and Privileges, which is chaired with such distinction by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) and whose members are accustomed to the impartial consideration of complex and contested issues, is well equipped for this role. The House should concern itself today, therefore, with the specific question whether to refer to the Standards and Privileges Committee the issues identified in chapter 8 of the report. I believe it should, and I support the motion.
I echo the comments of the Leader of the House by paying tribute to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for its significant work on the ongoing, complex and important matter of News International and phone hacking. Throughout its long inquiry, the Committee has been chaired admirably by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and his Committee has pursued its inquiries in a commendable and dogged fashion. Just as the Treasury Select Committee pursued its inquiries into the banking crisis, so the Culture, Media and Sport Committee has pursued its investigations into the media crisis. I know the work has been exhaustive and exhausting for the members of the Committee, past and present, and the House staff supporting them, and once more I pay tribute to all involved.
Members will be well aware of the context of this report, which the hon. Member for Maldon has just set out. The Committee’s inquiry began in the last Parliament and has taken place against a background of rapid external developments. Despite the challenges, it is a tribute to the Committee that it has produced its report in spite of the ongoing police investigation and the Leveson inquiry. Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry, which we expect to report in the autumn, will be of great importance. We are inevitably constrained in what we can say today, given the context, but the House will have further opportunities to debate the wider issues. The motion before us is therefore a narrow one, as the Leader of the House has just told us.
From their introduction in 1979, Select Committees have had the power to send for persons, papers and records. They have relied largely on written and oral evidence to perform their duties. Over more than two decades, and during hundreds and hundreds of separate inquiries, Select Committees have ably and satisfactorily used mainly informal powers to ensure that they can access the evidence they need. However, we should not forget the purpose of such inquiries: Select Committees exist not just to hold the Government to account and to examine in detail the implication of Government bodies and policies, but to shine a light across the public realm. The powers of the House are for a purpose: to enable Parliament, on behalf of our constituents, to hold the powerful to account. Today the Select Committee system works well, but it would not if witnesses felt they could mislead a Committee without consequence.
Although Committees rarely take evidence on oath, the House of Commons 2011 guidance for witnesses giving evidence to Select Committees is clear. It states that witnesses are expected to answer fully, honestly and truthfully, and:
“Deliberately attempting to mislead a committee is a contempt of the House”.
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee concludes, at paragraphs 274 to 280, that three individuals—Les Hinton, Tom Crone and Colin Myler—and, corporately, News International and the News of the World misled Parliament in their evidence to the Committee. Under these circumstances, it is right that the matter be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee for further investigation and consideration. We should not seek to pre-judge or second-guess the work that the Standards and Privileges Committee may undertake, under the able chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron). It is enough that we agree today to refer this important matter to that Committee, which is why the Opposition support the motion.
It is a privilege to speak in today’s debate, and I wholly endorse the motion before the House today. It is fair to say that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee was absolutely united in saying that Les Hinton, Tom Crone and Colin Myler had misled Parliament. That was evidenced by just one aspect of an external lawyer’s perspective. Julian Pike from Farrer & Co. affirmed that Parliament had been lied to when responding to a question from the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly). When asked by the hon. Gentleman, “When did you first know about the evidence given to this House?”, he answered, “At the moment they said it, back in 2009.” Such affirmations from external parties give confidence to members of the Committee on the conclusions reached in our report.
In preparing our report, we were advised not to take on the principle of lawyers, in serving their clients, not having regard to allowing falsehoods to be perpetuated, but instead to accept that lawyers are there to serve their clients. However, we all have to show personal leadership. I wonder at times whether lawyers should take a look in the mirror—individually and, as the legal profession, collectively—and decide to take a certain view on these ethical matters, including whether they wish that position to continue to be part of their ethical code.
I think it is fair to say that the Committee was not entirely united on chapter 8, owing to the fourth point in paragraph 275. However, we all accept the established principle of vicarious liability, and that the company should accept responsibility for what happened in that terrible time.
As I have stated before, News International will have a long time to regret not taking action after our excellent predecessor Committee’s 2009 report—as it now appears to be doing through its internal management and standards committee. I point to paragraph 278. Parliament—our Select Committee—was careful to try not to trample on criminal proceedings, for which we could not have been forgiven. However, we should reflect on the fact that it is thanks to parliamentary privilege that we were able to uncover and bring certain information through to Parliament that the Leveson inquiry would not have been able to bring. It is not acceptable to evade the truth when speaking to parliamentarians. It is not acceptable simply to try to leave people second-guessing, so that they may be misled—often deliberately so. It is imperative that people are prepared to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and we demand nothing less for our constituents.
I am grateful for all the work that has been done by the Committee, so ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). Does my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) agree that the issue about taking an oath is irrelevant, as when a witness comes before a Select Committee there is an expectation that they must tell the truth, whether or not they swear an oath?
That is absolutely right. As the shadow Leader of the House said, that was in the guidance. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is irrelevant whether or not somebody puts a Bible or some other thing in front of them; they are in this House because they have been asked, on behalf of the people of this country, to come to answer questions. People should do that honestly, straightforwardly and without reservation.
The taking of the oath is not irrelevant, because if someone gives evidence under oath that turns out to be untrue—these powers of a parliamentary Select Committee exist for a reason—they can subsequently be charged with a criminal offence under the Perjury Act 1911.
I am not a lawyer; I stand here as a parliamentarian who passes law. In response to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), my understanding is that any information given as evidence during parliamentary sittings cannot necessarily be used in a court of law. That is part of the basis of parliamentary privilege.
I, too, pay warm tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), because this task has been particularly difficult, not least because it has followed on from previous inquiries, not only while he has been Chairman, but carried out when my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) chaired the Committee.
This is a debate about privilege, and I always think that the word “privilege” is an unfortunate one to use in relation to Parliament, as I am sure would most voters. The truth is that we have not yet seen all the evidence. It is important to note that, precisely for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has adduced that nobody has wanted to trample on the toes of a criminal investigation, we are so far—this is true of Leveson as well—seeing only the tip of a very large iceberg. The issues that have been presented to us in the report refer to just three people, but more than 40 have been arrested and there may be further arrests yet.
When the whole story has come out, as I hope it will eventually, I think this instance will prove to have been one of the most flagrant examples of contempt of Parliament in Parliament’s history. It was not just one person at one time or one organisation for a brief period of time; a series of people systematically and repeatedly lied so as to protect themselves, to protect their commercial interests and to try to make sure that they did not end up going to prison. They did that knowing fully that they were telling lies to Parliament, and I believe that that is a fundamental contempt. If we look through the history of Parliament, it is difficult to find a moment when there was such a concatenation of deliberate abuses—contempt of Parliament. That is why we need to take this moment very seriously.
There was covert surveillance of Members of Parliament, deliberately to intimidate them in going about their duties. That applied particularly to members of the Committee. As we know, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) had his phone hacked, as quite possibly did some four score others. Indeed, News International managed to turn the Metropolitan police into a partially owned subsidiary, whereby members of staff from one organisation were going to work for another and then coming back. [Interruption.] I note that some of my hon. Friends suggest that the subsidiary was not partially owned.
The important thing for us to decide is what we do about this. I think that everybody is agreed that something egregious and terrible has happened. The question is what we do now. The Government have published a White Paper on parliamentary privilege, and it seemed to me that the Leader of the House was trying to suggest to the Committee on Standards and Privileges that it should be very wary of using penal powers or recommending that penal powers should be used. The Scottish Parliament, however, has precise powers under section 25—I think—of the Scotland Act 1998: where people refuse to give evidence to a Committee of the Parliament or to the Parliament or where they lie to Parliament, they are liable to imprisonment for up to three months. That provision is not written into statute for us, but we should certainly consider it.
Perjury before a court attracts a maximum sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment, and even perjury by making a false declaration in a statutory declaration is liable to a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment. The factors considered when sentencing would be whether the lie was said just once, whether it was inadvertent or deliberate, the impact that the lie caused, whether there was more than one lie, and on how many occasions the lie was perpetuated.
Further to my earlier intervention, does my hon. Friend remember the point of order I raised on this matter on 14 July 2011, when Mr Deputy Speaker confirmed that under the Parliamentary Witnesses Oaths Act 1871 and the Perjury Act 1911, Select Committees can require witnesses to give evidence under oath and make them subject to criminal charges of perjury if they are subsequently proved to have lied?
I do remember that point of order, which is why when my hon. Friend intervened on the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), I knew what he was going to ask her. It is a point that he rightly makes and has made repeatedly.
We are congratulating ourselves today on the Select Committee process bringing us to this point, but if the Select Committee process had worked better, we might have reached this point three years ago. The Select Committee might have been able to require Rebekah Brooks to give evidence in 2009 and it might have been taking evidence under oath from the very beginning. Then we would not have to decide what we should do about these people, as the courts would be doing so. If we were to apply all those elements of how to decide a sentence for perjury before a court to this case, I would have thought one of the lengthier sentences would be handed down. The same is true for contempt of court, which carries a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment.
Yes, but Committees have quite often been rather tentative about using those powers. I remember discussing this with the hon. Lady in the Library, and she was uncertain whether that power existed—and I kept on telling her, “Yes, it does exist. It can be used. All we have to do is make sure that the Clerk of the House uses the proper processes.” It is important to remember that we have these powers and that they need to be used more effectively. For instance, it seems extraordinary that no member of the Murdoch family had ever given evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee until the day on which Mr Rupert Murdoch and Mr James Murdoch were summoned last summer. I am sure that that was not because Committees did not want to interview the most important significant player in the British media landscape in this country.
As well as using such powers more effectively, we need to decide for ourselves that we have these powers. I know that there are those who say that we are not a High Court of Parliament anymore; that we are not a court. They say that we are not able to provide a fair tribunal, as the Human Rights Act or, for that matter, the European convention on human rights, might determine. So would it be possible for the House of Commons to make a determination in relation to any individual, for instance requiring that individual to be arrested and brought to the House? Some people think that the very idea of bringing someone to the Bar of the House is anachronistic.
We must have some powers to be able to do our job properly. We must be able to summon witnesses, and if they do not want to come here—as happened with the Maxwell brothers, and seemed at one point to be going to happen with the Murdochs—we must be able to send the Serjeant at Arms to summon and, if necessary, arrest them and bring them to Parliament. We need to be able to arrest. Most Members will not have been here on the occasion when the Chamber was invaded, but the Serjeant at Arms has to be able to arrest. It is quite a simple power.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman takes an intervention from the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), may I gently remind him that the narrow matter under consideration today is the question of whether to refer it to the Standards and Privileges Committee—to which subject I know that he is addressing himself?
Indeed, Mr Speaker. It has been customary in all the debates that have taken place historically on such motions to try to provide a little bit of advice for the Select Committee that will be dealing with the matter, so that it knows how to deal with it.
I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and then to the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland).
I shall bear your warnings in mind, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman is raising matters that I think Parliament needs to consider. In particular, the Select Committee did decide to dispatch the Serjeant at Arms to serve a summons on Mr James Murdoch and Mr Rupert Murdoch after they had initially said that they were not willing to attend the Committee at the time when we had asked them to attend. I have to say, however, that we did so with some trepidation, because we genuinely had no idea what would happen if they maintained their refusal to come. That too is something that Parliament needs to think about.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about being bold in regard to contempt of Parliament and how the House enforces its rules, but does he not share my sense of trepidation about involving the prosecuting authorities in dealing with any alleged lies that have been told to us? Does that not present a danger that the courts will be brought in to determine issues that are properly the province of this House and no other?
The hon. Gentleman has taken me into much wider subject matter, but he too is trepidating—if that is the verb from “trepidation”—and I do not want to trepidate. I want to step boldly.
I believe that the House, and the Select Committee itself, should consider, in terms, first whether or not the three individuals mentioned, and perhaps, corporately, News International, should be summoned to the Bar of the House. I believe that that must still be an important power available to the House. Secondly, I think that the House and the Committee should consider whether or not the individuals should be fined, not least because considerable expense has been incurred by Parliament and by the prosecuting authorities through the process of lying to Parliament. Thirdly, I think that it must be right for us to consider whether or not to imprison. If this had happened in the Scottish Parliament, it would have led to imprisonment. If it had been a contempt of court, it would have led to imprisonment. If it had been perjury in court, it would have led to imprisonment.
It has been said that some of these people are not in this country. What can we possibly do about it? The last person who was arrested and imprisoned by Parliament, in 1880, Charles Grissell, also fled the country. He went off to France, to Boulogne. The Speaker sent the Serjeant at Arms’s messenger to Boulogne, and when Charles Grissell came back to the country he was arrested and sent off to Newgate until the end of the parliamentary Session.
I simply think that we were hoodwinked. Indeed, for a long period politicians were so nervous and frightened of what the press would say about us that we effectively put the hoodwinks on ourselves. Now the temptation will be for the Committee to shy away from using any of its penal powers, and I think it a shame that that seemed to be the direction in which the Leader of the House was pushing it. I think that would be a profound mistake, because, surely to God, it is time we asserted the freedom of Parliament—in fact, the rights of Parliament. We must do so not for our own sakes—it is irrelevant for our own sakes—but simply because if Parliament is lied to, we cannot do our job on behalf of our constituents, and if Parliament is lied to and there is impunity thereafter, people will lie again, and then the democratic process unfolds.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and I join him and other Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for the great care and skill with which he chaired what was a lengthy and challenging inquiry.
I want to address the key point that the hon. Member for Rhondda brought to our attention: there must not be no sanction for lying to a parliamentary Committee. However, although we may like reassuring ourselves about the traditions of this House and its rights, it is not clear what the sanctions should be. It is unclear whether someone giving evidence not under oath to a Select Committee has the same obligations as if they were under oath. The Committee obviously considered that before the Murdochs gave evidence to us last July. I believe it is very important that there are consistent procedures. There should not be some witnesses who are made to swear on the Bible and some witnesses who are not.
Are we not in danger of getting into a situation where all witnesses before Committees have to appear under oath? The vast majority of witnesses who appear before Select Committees do so willingly in order to give of their information and expertise, and these issues therefore do not arise.
I agree, but it should be implicit that someone giving evidence to a parliamentary Committee is telling the truth. I therefore do not think there should be a separate group of people who are made to take an oath. It should be implicit in the act of their giving evidence that they are telling the truth and openly answering the questions asked by Members of Parliament. It must be built into the processes of our methods of inquiry, particularly in Select Committees, that witnesses will tell the truth and there is some form of sanction against them if it can be demonstrated that they have not done so.
At present, however, that is not clear. It is not clear what powers the Standards and Privileges Committee has to punish or recommend punishment. There may even be a question as to whether the recommendation of a penal sentence, as the hon. Member for Rhondda suggested, would itself be open to some form of legal challenge in the courts, including the European Court, which may seek to overrule the House on any such decision. We therefore need much clearer guidance about the available punishments and the processes for summoning witnesses to appear before a Committee.
The Select Committee is posing an interesting challenge to the Standards and Privileges Committee, because in our conclusions in chapter 8 of the report we make recommendations about three named individuals—Colin Myler, Tom Crone and Les Hinton—in respect of instances where we believe they gave misleading evidence to the Committee. Members can read the report, the evidence given in previous sessions and the written evidence presented to the Committee, and thereby see that there are discrepancies in testimony and, I feel, clear evidence that we were given misleading testimony by those witnesses.
There is a second issue that the Standards and Privileges Committee must consider: the corporate guilt of News Corporation, as also expressed in the conclusions of the report, and what sanctions there should be against a company and its directors and representatives, as opposed to a named individual who has given misleading testimony to Parliament. This is an important issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon touched on it in his speech.
We must consider what in the evidence that was given has undone the News Corporation executives. They were not undone by a witness changing their story or a new witness giving evidence that was different from evidence given to our predecessor Committee in the last Parliament. They have largely been undone by documents that have always existed and were in the possession of the company, and which subsequently came to light as a result of the inquiry—by information that was always there and was always accessible to those executives, and that we believe they could, and should, have had access to. Indeed, we know that some of them—including Tom Crone and Colin Myler, who played a pivotal role in these investigations—did have access. We know that they had access to the Queen’s Counsel opinion suggesting that phone hacking and the use of illegal methods to obtain information was widespread. We know that information was received by the legal department of the company. We know that Clive Goodman suggested in his letter to Les Hinton that phone hacking was widely discussed within the company, and that that was rejected. We know that that information was known, and these executives have been undone by information that was neither presented to Parliament nor freely given but released as a result of cross-examination of witnesses by the Committee or released by lawyers or other people who chose to make it available to us. It would have been much better if the company, when it gave evidence last July, had provided that information. If the Murdochs had sought it themselves, they might have given us clearer and better evidence last July and we would have been able to conclude our inquiry somewhat sooner.
We were consistently given false reassurances about the rigour of internal investigation, the work that was done to uncover phone hacking and those who had knowledge of it. Indeed, we have received information from Surrey police that states categorically that the police discussed the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone with executives at News of the World in 2002. That was not a minor discrepancy or new information that had recently come to light; the information was known by people within that company for a very long time. Parliament was misled over a long time by some of those people and I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda that we will probably not get the full picture until the conclusion of the police investigation and any subsequent trials. I am sure that the Committee, next year or in future years, will wish to return to the matter and give the House a fuller picture of exactly what happened based on all the evidence that has come to light.
I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), on his excellent introduction. I agree very strongly with the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who has just left the Chamber. Not a single member of the legal profession—not a single legal adviser to News International—has resigned their services when they knew that evidence that was being given to the Committee was false and misleading, and that is an issue for the legal profession to consider.
I will be brief, because I believe our report’s conclusions are clear and speak for themselves. Our Committee has pursued the issue of phone hacking and how it reflects on press standards for five long years and, sadly, because of the forthcoming criminal trials, this might not be the final word. As the House has already heard, so as not to prejudice any prosecutions, we have taken great care in what we have said.
The report is not just about phone hacking per se; it is about the integrity of the Select Committee system in Parliament. Two years ago, in our report on “Press standards, privacy and libel”, on the evidence we found it “inconceivable” that News International’s “one rogue reporter” defence could possibly be true. Yet on the same evidence, the Press Complaints Commission cleared the News of the World of wider wrongdoing and shot the messenger—The Guardian—instead. The PCC is, of course, now on the scrap heap, a busted flush, waiting for Lord Leveson to pronounce and the Government—possibly—to act on the future shape of regulation.
After revelation upon revelation from the civil cases, last summer the then chair of the PCC, Baroness Buscombe, put her hands up. At long last, she was scathing about News International’s conduct and its so-called co-operation with PCC inquiries.
Order. I remind the House that the motion for debate is the question of whether to refer the Select Committee’s conclusions to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. As has already been indicated, it is perfectly legitimate to record and, in a sense, almost to report to the House the basic findings of the Committee and to offer to the House, as the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee did, the background to and context for our debate. That seems eminently reasonable, but this is not an occasion to rehearse all the issues, the evidence and the chronology of events that have led to where we are today. Although I do not in any sense seek to prescribe what people should say, there could be advantage in recalling the pithy observations of the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson).
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and the background has been rehearsed well enough by the Chair of the Select Committee. I will now move on to what the Committee did about the lies to us, which the Press Complaints Commission’s chairman admitted when she said that there was only so much that the commission could do when people were lying to it.
Order. I just want to be clear that the hon. Gentleman has understood what I have said and intends to be guided by it. I presume that he is adducing this material in support of the proposition that the report should be considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee.
You are right, as always, Mr Speaker.
On the conclusions of the report that we are asking the House to note, if “collective amnesia” was the one phrase from our 2010 report that echoed long afterwards, I hope that our “wilful blindness” conclusion will be one of those that resounds with the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges this time. That is the wilful turning of a blind eye to wrongdoing, not just phone hacking, over a period of time as long as any repercussions could be contained through the exercise, if need be, of raw press political power.
We were invited to lay most, if not all, of the blame for the cover-up on just two executives through News International’s damage-limitation exercise—Tom Crone, the company’s long-time in-house lawyer, and Colin Myler, the new and final editor of the News of the World. In our report, after months of deliberation and very patient amendment, with very skilful chairing, we declined that very unappealing invitation. As we navigated the issue of possible prosecutions, we asked whether it could be right to find wanting just a few executives who had so far not been arrested. We wondered whether it would be right, based on the evidence, to limit a critical verdict in our report if not just to one rogue reporter or one rogue newspaper, to just one rogue subsidiary, News International. After careful deliberation, we decided that it would not be right.
During that time, the group’s founder, Rupert Murdoch, and his son James were directors both of the parent company, News Corporation, and of News International. At the same time, News International misrepresented the investigations it had actually undertaken and attacked the Select Committee remorselessly, and its executives authorised surveillance on certain members of the Committee. So, we found that it was important that the report, based on the evidence, drew a strong corporate conclusion about a culture that was set right from the top. I conclude by drawing the House’s attention to the final sentence of paragraph 275 on page 84 of the report:
“In failing to investigate properly, and by ignoring evidence of widespread wrongdoing, News International and its parent News Corporation exhibited wilful blindness, for which the companies’ directors—including Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch—should ultimately be prepared to take responsibility”.
I commend the motion to the House.
Following on from the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), I am glad that the motion calls for us to “note” the report, because—it is worth beginning by saying this—three members of the Committee, of whom I was one, did not agree with the very last paragraph of the conclusions, particularly the wilful blindness allegations against James and Rupert Murdoch. Nevertheless, I support the motion as it is written, and I think it is important that we refer this matter to the Standards and Privileges Committee because that is the least worst choice before the House. Frankly, there is no ideal answer to the situation in which we find ourselves. Parliament is in a difficult position, but that does not mean that we should take no action.
We are here debating this motion because it is not usual for a witness before a Select Committee deliberately to mislead and lie to the Houses of Parliament. I must take issue with the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who has inferred again and again that our Committee ought to have put witnesses under oath, after which, had they lied to us, they could have been charged with the common criminal offence of perjury. The Committee considered this issue very carefully indeed, but decided that it would be better for our inquiry not to take evidence under oath because certain legal privileges would not then kick in, which would allow witnesses to deny us certain information when we requested it and would allow their lawyers not to co-operate with us. The Committee decided that taking evidence that was not under oath would give us greater flexibility in our inquiry. The point has already been made that one does not wish to get into a situation in which, in order to protect the integrity of Select Committee proceedings, we routinely put every witness under oath. Indeed, it is part of the dignity of Parliament that there should be a simple assumption that there is a requirement to tell the truth to Parliament.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) adduced the example of the Scottish Parliament and the powers that exist within that Parliament to punish those who lie to it. There is another example currently taking place across the Atlantic, where the baseball player Roger Clemens is about to go on trial for contempt of Congress, for having misled Congress. It is alleged that Mr Clemens lied to the American equivalent of a Select Committee of Parliament in, I think, 2009, when under oath he denied taking steroids, the allegation being that he did indeed take steroids, that he misled Congress and that a contempt of Congress was committed.
Perhaps when we consider this jurisdiction, that may be one way for us to square the circle. I completely agree with the thesis of my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) that it cannot simply be the case that somebody lies to Parliament, sends a stiff letter to the Select Committee saying, “I don’t agree with your conclusions”, and that is the end of the matter. That cannot be acceptable. Nevertheless, we can all immediately see the problems inherent in the suggestion from the hon. Member for Rhondda that we should seek to imprison somebody without their being able to testify in their defence and without the legal protections that the European Court of Human Rights might demand in a procedure that was to terminate in imprisonment.
In America we see, perhaps, the way to square the circle. It is prosecutors who have brought the case for contempt of Congress. That will be tried within the courts system. We have determined that we have been lied to. A simple method, perhaps, would be that we could refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions and a trial could proceed on the basis that defendants would have all the protections of the court.
After the referral to the Standards and Privileges Committee, perhaps there should be a wider debate in the House about what punishments ought to exist for serious contempt of Parliament. In the American system, the case against Mr Clemens is not merely that he lied to Congress. There is also a materiality test, as the hon. Member for Rhondda noted. The lies told to the US Congress must materially have affected the investigation that was ongoing. In the case of the Select Committee, that test would manifestly have been passed, as lies of substance were repeatedly told us by lawyers who should know better. There is a test of proportionality built into the offence.
The hon. Lady and others mentioned the situation in the Scottish Parliament. Depending how things evolve, the powers of the Scottish Parliament could be tested in the near future. I am concerned about the legal situation of witnesses who gave evidence via a video or conference link. Is that any different from witnesses who gave evidence face to face?
That is an interesting question. There ought to be no difference. People are testifying before the Parliament of the United Kingdom when they testify before a Select Committee, and Parliament has the right to expect that it is not materially lied to. In my opinion, the same sanctions should apply.
The whole House is familiar with the offence of contempt of court that is routinely used. Let us hope that it would not be so routinely used, but I believe an offence of contempt of Parliament ought to be created. It would be used only in the most exceptional circumstances and as with any other offence, it should be up to prosecutors to try it, and the protections of the court system and the defence system should kick in.
As the old joke says, I wouldn’t have started from here, yet that is where we are. We must rely on the Standards and Privileges Committee because there is nothing else for the House to do in the present circumstances. Perhaps we need to look at the wider powers of Parliament, the importance of Select Committee hearings, procedures for creating offences, and the material problem that Parliament has a right to be told the truth in serious inquiries, whether or not a witness is under oath. That is something that the House ought to consider in future deliberations. For now, I am delighted to commend to the House the motion to note and not to endorse the report.
If the House decides to refer this matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, we will ensure that all our processes are rigorously fair and impartial. It is likely that there will be widespread speculation before we are in a position to say more about the Committee’s plans, but we will not be rushing into making any hasty decisions and will consider our actions carefully, thoughtfully, and with professional advice from the appropriate sources.
At its meeting this morning, the Committee agreed that none of its members would discuss this matter outside the Committee, whether with colleagues or other third parties. I trust that Members and others will respect the Committee’s decision, and will not try to engage Committee members in discussions about this inquiry.
I rise briefly to commend once again my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for the way in which he chaired what has been, at times, a challenging and difficult Committee, not just in this Parliament, but in the previous Parliament, when our conclusions were not always unanimous and we had a number of disagreements along the way. He, as ever, chaired the Committee expertly.
I would also like to take the opportunity to commend the other members of the Committee. We did not always agree on these matters, but everybody put a lot of hard work into the report. There was a lot of dedication over a long period, and even though we may well have had an honest disagreement at the end of it on some matters, people should not underestimate the efforts that Committee members on both sides of House put in to get to where we are today, not least the hon. Members for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), who put in a lot of time and effort to uncover the wrongdoing that clearly took place at News International.
I absolutely endorse the case that was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon at the beginning of the debate on why the matter should be passed on to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I want to emphasise that the Committee did not come lightly to the decision that Tom Crone, Colin Myler and Les Hinton had lied to the Committee in its previous inquiry, and, it might be said, in this one too. I do not think that any Select Committee would lightly decide overtly to state that certain named individuals lied to it in the course of its inquiry. I want to press that point to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee so that he appreciates that the decision was not entered into lightly. Those conclusions did not come flippantly, but after much serious consideration and deliberation.
I also want to emphasise how our inquiry was repeatedly impeded by News International, not just this inquiry, which, to be perfectly honest, showed for the first time elements of News Corporation co-operating with the Select Committee, but particularly the previous inquiry, when News International repeatedly, consistently and corporately made it clear that it was impeding our inquiry. In case people are not aware, I have to report that News International attempted to have the hon. Member for West Bromwich East and me thrown off the Committee during the last Parliament because it thought that we would not be particularly favourable to them in our deliberations. As the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) made clear, it would be absolutely unacceptable if people could come to Parliament and know that they could get away with repeatedly lying to the Committee. If that did happen, it would open the floodgates for witnesses not to tell the Committees about anything that might be inconvenient to them.
Let me make one brief point to emphasise how we did not enter into these matters lightly. The lies were not just little white lies, but deliberate attempts to mislead the Committee on serious matters. For example, my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) mentioned the letter that Clive Goodman sent to appeal against his dismissal to Les Hinton, saying that this practice was widespread in News of the World and that it was discussed on a daily basis. Yet Les Hinton made it clear that he had seen no evidence at all to suggest that the practice was more widespread, which was quite a palpable lie.
We must also remember that on the back of the letter that Les Hinton received, he was responsible for making sure that, one way or another, Clive Goodman received a payment totalling around £250,000. That happened only for him to say quite flippantly that there was no evidence at all; there was certainly sufficient evidence for him to authorise £250,000 to be paid out from News International to Clive Goodman—somebody who was convicted of a criminal offence, caused huge embarrassment to the company and could have been dismissed for gross misconduct. I would like to press upon the House, and the Standards and Privileges Committee, the fact that that was not only repeated, but very serious and blatant.
Finally, I would like the Standards and Privileges Committee to consider the motives of the people who lied to us—my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Louise Mensch) touched on this in her contribution—because it is not entirely clear why certain people lied. Was it to protect themselves, which might have been the case for some people, to protect colleagues, or was it to protect the company and its reputation as a whole? The Committee might like to consider what motivated those people to lie and whether different motivations should come with different punishments. I am not offering any particular opinion, but I think that that is something that should be put on the record.
The reason I mention motives is that it was perfectly apparent during the previous inquiry in the last Parliament that witnesses from News International came to the Committee with a corporate game plan: nobody knew anything, nobody could remember anything, and nobody knew anybody who might know anything, and that was everybody’s defence at every possible turn. Whatever question was asked, that was the corporate defence from everybody who appeared before us under the News International banner, and it was particularly striking. I recall asking Les Hinton during that inquiry whether he had received any coaching before the evidence session so that we would know where we stood and whether News International had employed someone to advise them on how to answer the questions.
That is something the Standards and Privileges Committee might want to look at, because to my mind, and that of the Committee as a whole, the three individuals we named palpably lied to us, and it is very interesting to consider how on earth that came about. Were they told to give those answers, or did they make that decision themselves? I certainly have a feeling that on some occasions they were told what to say and that it was a corporate decision, rather than one they made themselves.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, the Committee and its Chair for the way they have conducted their inquiry and today’s debate. Will he reassure me that, as this ever-changing situation evolves, if any other witnesses are found to have misled or lied to the Committee, it will take the same action and call for them to be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend but fear that his question is slightly above my pay grade, as those are not decisions I can take for the Committee as a whole. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon, the Chair of the Committee, listened carefully to his intervention. He is probably the best person to direct that request to. I would certainly be sympathetic to the idea of the Committee looking again at certain individuals, if the legal situation allowed, who might also have lied to us, if that is what we conclude.
In conclusion, these are very serious matters, matters about which the Committee was absolutely unanimous, with regard to the three individuals concerned, and that we did not enter into lightly. We might have had some very well-publicised disagreements about parts of our report, but on this we were absolutely united. On the report as a whole, and on the inquiries as a whole, there was far more that united the Committee than divided it.
I, too, will attempt to be brief. Far from being critical of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I praise it for the work that it has undertaken on this matter over many years, dating back, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) said at the beginning of his remarks, to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asked way back in 2003 of the then Rebekah Wade about the payment of police officers, a practice that he and I were strongly convinced—shall I put it that way?—was not uncommon but was taking place at the time.
May I pick up on the matter, and slightly disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, regarding the Committee on Standards and Privileges? I support the motion before us, but it is unfortunate that we have to talk about referring the issue to the Committee on Standards and Privileges and about the possibility of Parliament imprisoning individuals because they have lied to a Select Committee. That is the essence of the point that I have made for some time, and to which the hon. Member for Corby (Louise Mensch) referred, about the need for evidence to be taken under oath by Select Committees.
The hon. Lady started by saying that taking evidence under oath would be a bad idea because, in effect, lawyers would make witnesses clam up, and she is absolutely right that, at the moment, a Select Committee chooses whether to do so, but, as in the case that she cited from the United States, it is common practice for committees of Congress to take evidence under oath, and that is exactly why Roger Clemens can be held accountable on a charge of contempt of Congress.
I do not mind whether the criminal charge that results from such practice is contempt of Parliament, because there is no question but that News Corporation and News International, in their attitude to our Select Committees, showed over many years utter contempt for the proceedings of Parliament. They did so because they thought that those Committees had no power, no authority and no teeth—exactly because they were not taking evidence under oath.
The situation is not quite as simple as a simple perjury charge, which would apply on any occasion that one gave evidence under oath. The case in the United States refers specifically to contempt of Congress, which in respect of Parliament is the offence that we should create. As a corollary, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that there must be grave disquiet when a non-judicial body, such as Parliament, agrees to imprison a person? Does he agree also that the offence should be prosecuted by a prosecutor and decided by the courts in the normal way—after it has been committed against Parliament?
I am not quite sure how the hon. Lady disagrees with me, to be perfectly honest. As I pointed out earlier, there is an Act of Parliament in place, the Parliamentary Witnesses Oaths Act 1871, which means that oaths can be taken before Select Committees, and any false evidence given under those oaths would be subject to prosecution under the Perjury Act 1911. If she would prefer to substitute a criminal offence of contempt of Parliament for that, I would be perfectly happy, but my point is that I feel uneasy that the only option available to us, because in the case before us an oath was not taken, is referral to the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the possibility of Parliament having to consider using that rarely used power of imprisonment.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I regret the fact that I have been in the Chamber for only part of the debate, but I heard the opening remarks. I feel it is appropriate for me to inform the House that the Liaison Committee has charged me with working with colleagues to investigate the whole question—it is very germane to this debate—of how Select Committee powers should be exercised.
Listening to these exchanges, I hear many matters that we have discussed and considered carefully, and I hope that the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee will have regard to the findings that I hope we will produce in short order, which should provide not only some guidance on how the Committee should conduct its investigation into the matter, but some guidance to the House on what the consequences of contempt should be and, in future, on whether we will need to avail ourselves of the courts or of our own procedures. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for emphasising that we are a House with a penal jurisdiction. That was a very important thing to put on the record.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee for that intervention. He knows that I was a member of the Committee for many years, briefly under his chairmanship and in previous years under the chairmanship of Tony Wright, when we also considered a number of these issues.
I have appeared, as the hon. Gentleman may and others will, both as a member of a Committee and as a witness, giving evidence to a Committee, and I have never understood why an oath, although it is implicit for a Member of Parliament, is not administered while giving evidence to a parliamentary Committee. I shall say nothing further, other than that I support the motion before the House.
We are elected here to represent our constituents, and the privileges of Parliament are their privileges. One of those privileges is their right to talk to us even if people bully them; the other is to get answers. If we do not act when people lie to Parliament, we are failing our constituents.
I agree with pretty well everything that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said. We need to take a particularly robust approach to this. Contempt of Parliament is a very detailed matter; a barrister, Kieron Wood, wrote a book about it recently. I gave a copy to the Library, so any hon. Member can take it out and read the details of what has happened in the past. It is important that we operate robustly to protect the rights of our constituents to have us act on their behalf to find out what is going on.
As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, if we had been more robust at an earlier stage, perhaps all this would have happened at an earlier stage. We need a separate jurisdiction. There are questions about how the police have behaved in respect of this situation, so simply passing the matter over to them is an inadequate response. If, as some people have suggested, there has been an issue with the activities of the Crown Prosecution Service, then we need a separate jurisdiction for that. I have concerns about people being banned from court proceedings, even criminal court proceedings, as has happened recently. At the end of court proceedings, Parliament must have the chance to find answers and to explain to citizens what is going on. In the interests of our constituents, and so that we can stand up and protect democracy, we must take robust action.
I, too, will be brief in speaking in support of the motion. I repeat my tribute to the members of the Select Committee, all of whom have worked very effectively for us, including my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), who made sure that all three parties were well represented.
The other day, we had a memorial service for Lord St John of Fawsley, who set up the Select Committee system back in the 1980s. This case has taken us to a crucial point in the development of Select Committees. We listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), who said things that have been gratefully received about how his Committee proposes to do its business, and we have no doubt that it will do it appropriately.
Bluntly, though, it is no good having a Select Committee system that is the only way in which Parliament can interrogate people, quiz people and ask people questions on our collective behalf unless sanctions can be enforced when they do not follow the rules. The whole exercise has led us to this point. The Leader of the House made it clear, and Parliament is now clear, that we need to address the difficult questions of how we deal with breaches of the understandings or commitments that people undertake. Is it by our taking a criminal sanction? Is it, as the hon. Member for Corby (Louise Mensch) suggested, by our referring the matter to others to prosecute in the criminal courts? We cannot duck the question, and it needs to be picked up.
Colleagues know of my interest. I was the only Member of Parliament originally to give evidence in the trial that convicted Mr Goodman and Mr Mulcaire. Throughout the last part of the previous Parliament, I argued that we needed a public inquiry and needed to increase the criminal sanctions on those in the world of the press, not only those at the News of the World, who broke the law. Very recently—I wanted to leave it until late in the day—I took civil proceedings against the News of the World.
For me, there are two remaining substantive points. First, the serious issue is not so much that these individuals flaunted their positions, refused to co-operate with the Select Committee, and are found to have given dubious evidence, but that people from a very large national and international company did so. In Thomas Fuller’s famous phrase of 1733, which is oft used by lawyers,
“Be you never so high, the law is above you.”
We need to make sure that the law is above the News Corporations of this world and that Parliament is above the News Corporations of this world. The fact that someone is from a big company or an international company should not preclude them from telling the truth and from being answerable and accountable. We have remitted to the regulatory body, Ofcom, the duty of deciding who is a fit and proper person to hold a licence, and it is doing that. These are relevant matters, and corporate responsibility has to be accepted.
Finally, I am not at all vindictive about these things, but I am clear that we now have to bring the matter to a conclusion. The police are doing their job and Lord Justice Leveson is doing the job that we have asked him to do very well. Parliament has to complete its job, too. I trust that the motion represents the right way to do it and that the Standards and Privileges Committee will start its work unencumbered by pressure. We have to find ways of holding people to account when they abuse this place and ensuring that they understand that this is the Parliament of the people, and that they will be answerable and tell the truth.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on his chairmanship of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee during not just this inquiry but previous ones, including those for which I was a member of the Committee. I also thank members of the Committee past and present, and I thank the members of staff who have supported it for their patience and counsel. It has not necessarily been easy for them.
I will be brief, because much that needed to be said has already been said. I hope that the Standards and Privileges Committee will take into consideration one of the difficulties that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee had, which was that the circumstances were changing week by week as new evidence became available. That may also become a challenge for the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron). Ongoing inquiries and investigations may influence its decision making.
The most important issue, as has been mentioned, is the ability of Select Committees to seek out facts and uncover the truth. If there is no penalty for misleading a Committee, it affects our entire Select Committee system. I suspect that that concern lay behind the unanimity of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on the relevant part of the report. Our experience has highlighted the need for Parliament to consider its powers and the procedures that we follow.
I end with a note of concern, although I fully support the motion. It is that the Standards and Privileges Committee meets in secret, which could be a difficulty. Those who, in our view, have misled the Culture, Media and Sport Committee could seek to challenge anything that the Standards and Privileges Committee does if it meets in secret.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the conclusions set out in chapter 8 of the Eleventh Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2010-12, on News International and Phone-hacking, HC 903-I and orders that the matter be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.