Skip to main content

Committee of Privileges

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 16 June 2022

Select Committee statement

Sir Bernard Jenkin, representing the Committee of Privileges, will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and call Sir Bernard Jenkin to respond to those in turn. I emphasise that questions should be directed to Sir Bernard Jenkin, not to any relevant Minister who might be here. Interventions should be brief, not a wider comment, and the in form of a short question to Sir Bernard. Those on the Front Bench may also take part in questioning.

I commend the report that the Privileges Committee has published this morning dealing with the powers of Select Committees to summon persons and papers, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for this opportunity. I am making this statement on behalf of the Committee, because the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is no longer Chair of the Committee. He was discharged from it on Tuesday because he has recused himself from the new matter referred to the Committee, concerning the conduct of my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). However, the hon. Member for Rhondda was in the Chair during all proceedings on the report published today, and I pay tribute to the effective way in which he chaired the Committee, enabling us to come to a unanimous conclusion on this somewhat vexed matter.

Today’s report is the second we have issued on this subject. A year ago we published our original proposals with a draft Bill. Both reports relate to the matter referred to the Committee by the House as long ago as 27 October 2016, namely,

“the exercise and enforcement of the powers of the House in relation to select committees and contempts”.

Our earlier report set out different potential options for addressing the issue of recalcitrant witnesses. Its preferred option was legislation, and the creation of a criminal offence of refusing to obey a summons to attend a Select Committee meeting or to provide it with papers. A draft Bill was attached to the report. Following extensive consultation, including further written and oral evidence, the Committee now reaffirms its conclusion that

“if the House wishes to address the problem of recalcitrant witnesses, then legislation is the only appropriate means to do so.”

A revised version of the draft Bill is annexed to the report.

On the role of Select Committees, the report notes that

“select committees have a right to scrutinise matters of public interest beyond the main bodies of government.”

It adds

“in considering government policy, it is legitimate to look at the effects of policy failure, or to identify emerging areas which need policy oversight. For that legitimate function to be effectively performed, Parliament needs appropriate powers.”

Explaining the intention behind recommending that Parliament legislates to empower Committees, the report asserts that

“topical inquiries involving non-cooperation by witnesses will continue to occur from time to time.”

and that

“individuals who feel that they have little to lose will test the ability of the House to enforce their attendance as witnesses or their production of papers.”

The report notes that while cases are few,

“it is undoubtedly a real problem”,

which the Committee's proposed legislation “is intended to address.”

The Committee’s report concludes that, ultimately, and perhaps realistically,

“the decision before the House in relation to powers is between accepting the status quo or introducing new powers by means of legislation, accepting there will be a role for the courts. A primary benefit of legislation is that it would put Parliament’s power to sanction beyond doubt.”

The other option—that the House should reassert its historical powers to fine and imprison through Standing Orders or by resolution—is rejected outright by the Committee on the grounds that the powers have effectively become unenforceable. A new word that I learned in studying the matter is desuetude.

The report analyses the consultation responses and makes modifications to the initial proposals as well as mounting a defence of them where it feels that criticism was misplaced. It clarifies some points, such as that the draft Bill does not seek to criminalise contempts of the House as such, and that the criminal offence will be that of failing to comply with a summons to attend a Committee or to produce papers without reasonable excuse rather than giving unsatisfactory responses to questions when attending a Committee. It revises the draft Bill to substitute a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment in place of the original proposal of two years’ imprisonment, and to give Mr Speaker the power to issue the statutory summons. It calls on the House’s Liaison Committee, which I chair, to develop a protocol on the treatment of witnesses to ensure that all witnesses get fair treatment. I will ensure that that occurs.

Now that the Committee has published its report and recommendations, it will be for the House to consider the proposals and make any final recommendations. I am happy to take questions.

I thank the hon. Member for his statement and congratulate the Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on their work on this important issue. As we all know, Select Committees play an essential role in holding the Government to account, and it is right that they have the powers to function properly, so the Opposition welcome the Committee’s report and recommendations. Will the hon. Member expand on his preferred timetable for any potential legislation to be brought forward?

I could give the short answer of “as soon as possible,” but, realistically speaking, I suspect that the Government will find difficulty in providing time for the draft Bill that we have annexed to our report. I very much hope that they will introduce it soon. In the interim, we can do much to improve Select Committee procedures to ensure fairness for witnesses and to include some of what is relevant in our Standing Orders. That is much easier to do and, in the absence of legislation, if we used our traditional powers, that would make them more credible as well as less likely to be challenged by the courts were we to ensure that our procedures are human rights-compliant.

My view is that Select Committees are not for jumping on private individuals in the manner of some kangaroo court and prosecuting them for wrongdoing, and I doubt that we would get consent from the courts for a statutory process if that is how we treat our witnesses. We really need to copper-bottom and copper-plate the treatment of witnesses so that they always get fair treatment and are never unfairly treated.

Select Committees are not prosecuting bodies. They are not there to find fault with individuals. They are there to improve Government policy and scrutinise Government Departments. Occasionally, they have to carry out that function by looking at independent bodies, private sector bodies or charities. However, their job is not to regulate the private sector but to oversee and scrutinise the public sector.