Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Tenth and Eleventh Report


APPENDIX 1

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 length.

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 1999.

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:

CHILD BENEFIT

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 10 February.

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.

Press coverage

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 practice—for 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.

Conclusion

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 interference".

1 April 1999

  


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 27 July 1999