Letter to the Rt Hon Robert Sheldon MP,
Chairman of the Liaison Committee
from Mr Archy Kirkwood MP, Chairman of
the Social Security Committee
I am writing to seek the views of the Liaison Committee
in accordance with the procedure laid down at page 670 of Erskine
May. As there is some disagreement within the Committee as
to the extent of interference to which the Committee has been
subjected, it is necessary for me to rehearse the facts at some
The written answer
As you know, Mr David Maclean asked a round-robin
question of the Cabinet Ministers responsible for each Department,
including the Treasury, to ask if (a) they, (b) civil servants
in their Department or (c) special advisers in their Department
had (i) had sight of drafts of select committee reports, in whole
or in part, or (ii) been informed of conclusions of select committee
reports prior to their publication by the select committees.
Mr Iain Duncan Smith also put down questions to ask
the Chancellor of the Exchequer (1) if he or any of his Ministers
or his Department's parliamentary private secretaries, advisers
or civil servants discussed the contents of the Social Security
Committee's report on Child Benefit with any members of the Committee
prior to publication of the report; (2) if he or any of his Ministers
or his Department's parliamentary private secretaries, advisers
or civil servants received copies of the Social Security Committee's
report on Child Benefit prior to its publication; and (3) if he
or any of his Ministers or his Department's parliamentary private
secretaries, advisers or civil servants received any copies of
a draft report of the Social Security Committee on Child Benefit.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer gave holding answers
on 10 and 11 March 1999 respectively before his reply appeared
in Hansard for 16 March 1999 at columns 641-2 written:
"Most of the Treasury's business is dealt with
by the Treasury Select Committee, and Treasury Ministers have
given evidence to the Committee on several occasions. I have also
given oral evidence to the International Development Committee
and to the House of Lords Committees on European Legislation and
on the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. Neither
I nor any other Treasury Minister have seen copies or drafts of
any report prepared by these Committees prior to their release.
Because the Social Security Committee normally deals with the
work of DSS, there have been informal discussions between the
Treasury and the Committee on how cooperation can best be
achieved. The Committee has been anxious to work with the Treasury
in two areas: integration of tax and benefits, and child benefit.
To discuss tax and benefits, Treasury and Inland Revenue officials
have given oral evidence to the Committee. There was also an informal
meeting at 11 Downing Street between the whole Committee and myself.
More recently, there have been discussions about how best the
Treasury can assist the work of the Committee in matters related
to the taxation of child benefit. One issue has been detailed
questions about the practicalities of implementing arrangements
for taxing child benefit. I have talked to the Chairman of the
Committee about Treasury officials and Ministers giving evidence;
and Treasury and Inland Revenue officials gave evidence on 24
February 1999. It was agreed that, if requested, a Treasury Minister
would appear before the Committee following the Budget. A preliminary
draft of a report was given to my Parliamentary Private Secretary,
but not the final report. Neither I nor any other Treasury Minister
was given or read any copy of reports, draft or otherwise, prior
to their release."
In accordance with the procedure laid down on page
670 of Erskine May, we have conducted an internal inquiry,
which has not been able to establish how it came about that the
Chancellor's PPS (Mr Don Touhig) was given a copy of a report.
The leaked draft
I wrote to Mr Touhig on 18 March 1999 and asked him
to return his copy of the draft report. He did so on 23 March
The draft of which Mr Touhig was given a photocopy
had been sent out on Thursday 4 February for consideration by
the Committee at its meeting on Wednesday 10 February, under double
cover with a circular which read as follows:
The Chairman's Draft Report on Child Benefit is circulated
herewith under separate cover. The Chairman proposes that the
draft Report be considered at the Committee meeting on Wednesday
Members are reminded that this text is in confidence
for the use of Members of the Committee only, and that any
public disclosure of it would be a prima facie contempt
of the House.
It would also be a prima facie contempt for
any person not on the Committee to be given access to the text,
particularly if attempts were then made from outside the Committee
to influence the Members' consideration of the Report.
It is intended that the Committee should agree this
Report with any necessary votes at the meeting at
10.30 am on Wednesday 10 February in Committee Room 19.
On Tuesday 9 February, Mr Chris Pond wrote to me
to say he would be surprised if, as currently drafted, the Report
reflected the views of the majority of the Committee, and he attached
some forty amendments.
In the event, the Committee decided at its meeting
on Wednesday 10 February not to proceed to formal consideration
of the 4 February draft. I undertook to prepare a revised Chairman's
draft, which would incorporate the substance of most of Mr Pond's
drafting amendments, whilst reserving my position on the content
of the final conclusion.
It was also agreed at the 10 February meeting that
I would write once again to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to
urge the appearance of officials to give evidence on the practicalities
of taxing Child Benefit for higher rate taxpayers. You will recall
that I had already written to the Liaison Committee to draw attention
to the possible implications of the Chancellor's earlier resistance
to evidence being given in advance of the Budget.
We had further agreed at the 10 February meeting
that Members of the Committee would ask Mr Touhig to convey to
the Chancellor the Committee's strong feeling that officials ought
to appear to give evidence to the Committee. This effort appears
to have been successful, because the Treasury contacted the Clerk
of the Committee on 11 February to say that it had been agreed
that officials should appear on Wednesday 24 February.
The revised draft
Following my undertaking on 10 February, and in the
light of the evidence received on 24 February, my revised draft
Report was circulated on Thursday 25 February for consideration
on Wednesday 3 March. It was agreed on Wednesday 3 March and published
on Thursday 4 March at 1030am with press copies being available
from 9 am.
The published record of the Committee's Minutes of
Proceedings on Wednesday 3 March shows that in the case of the
Child Benefit Report there were seven divisions, of which two
were on new paragraphs moved myself and five were on amendments
moved by Mr Pond. It can be seen from the published record of
those divisions how the Committee's majority view differed from
the conclusions in my revised draft.
Concern has also been expressed about the press coverage
of the Committee prior to the publication of its report. In an
eight-paragraph article in The Guardian on 10 February
1999 by Lucy Ward and Michael White under the headline "Ministers
face benefits row" dealing with the proposed reform of Incapacity
Benefit in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, the fourth and
fifth paragraphs read as follows:
"While the Social Security Secretary, Alistair
Darling, has sought to calm a back-bench revolt over the measures,
the Government faces further challenges over welfare reforms from
the social security select committee. A report due in 10 days
is expected to express concerns over the difficulties involved
in taxation of child benefit, a move Chancellor Gordon Brown is
set to announce in his March 9 Budget.
While the Treasury insists the reform is workable,
the report will reflect the views expressed by a string of witnesses
during committee hearings that implementation will run into difficulties
in practicefor example where the higher earning partner
in a cohabiting couple is not the parent of the children, and
in principle, since it would challenge the principle of independent
taxation for women."
I have explained to my colleagues that I myself briefed
Lucy Ward to the effect that the Committee aimed to produce a
report before the Budget, and that it would reflect the evidence
received. At the time I spoke to Ms Ward I had no inkling that
the Committee would not be agreeing its Report on 10 February
for publication soon thereafter.
The only previous oral evidence had been taken in
public on 16 December 1998. The paper from the Institute for Fiscal
Studies (which was later re-published as part of our Minutes of
Evidence) had been published by the IFS before its Director appeared
before us at the beginning of that evidence session. There has
been no suggestion that any journalist has seen a copy of any
draft report from the Committee.
Mr Touhig has declined to state whether he received
the draft before or after our meeting on 10 February. It could
be argued that to have given the draft to the PPS only after the
Committee had decided not to proceed with its formal consideration,
and in the spirit of securing the Treasury's compliance with the
Committee's unanimous wish to seek further evidence, would not
amount to a substantial interference in the work of the Committee.
On the other hand, one might follow the line expressed by the
Health Committee in its First Special Report of 1991-92:
"The possibility of Government Departments being
in possession of an unauthorised copy of a draft Report of a Select
Committee implies that Government could seek to influence the
private proceedings of a Select Committee and seriously disrupt
its work. Investigating such a leak itself also causes serious
interference in the work of the Committee and obstructs its main
task of scrutinising the expenditure, administration and policy
of the Department of Health. Any repetition of such events would
inevitably mean that any subsequent work of the Committee would
take place in an atmosphere of mistrust, which would contrast
sharply with the hitherto constructive working relationships between
members of the Committee and between the Committee and the Department
of Health."HC34, paragraph 13.
At our meeting on Wednesday 31 March, we were unable
to agree on the definition of "substantial interference"
as referred to on page 670 of Erskine May. Conservative
Members took the view that the occurrence of any leak in itself
amounted to substantial interference. The importance of trust
between Members serving on a select committee has often been referred
to in Reports about previous leaks. It was argued that for any
Member to act in a way which undermined that trust amounted to
a substantial interference in the work of the Committee.
The Labour majority of the Committee applied the
test of "substantial interference" to the special circumstances
of the case, and concluded that there had, in fact, been no substantial
interference on this occasion. No Member has reported being put
under any pressure as a result of the leaks.
The Social Security Committee invites the views of
the Liaison Committee on two points:
- Whether in this case (where a majority of the
Committee takes the view that in the circumstances there has not
in fact been any substantial interference in its own work) there
has been substantial interference, or the likelihood of such,
with the select committee system or the work of the House
- Whether briefing journalists on the Committee's
likely conclusions, albeit by explicit reference to the evidence
taken in public, should be held to constitute "substantial
1 April 1999