Nadine Dorries - Standards Committee Contents

Appendix 4: Letter from Kevin Barron to Nadine Dorries

In your responses to the Commissioner and in oral evidence last week you raised the confidentiality agreements which attached to some of your contracts. The Committee has received the attached advice from Speaker's Counsel on the interplay between confidentiality and proceedings in the House.

The Committee will consider the Commissioner's memorandum further at its meeting on 5 November, but wish to share this advice with you to give you the opportunity to respond or reconsider your earlier responses if you wished to do so.

22 October 2013

The Rules relating to the Conduct of Members and Parliamentary Privilege

Ms Dorries's evidence raised several issues relating to parliamentary privilege including:

  • The interplay between the law of confidence and the House's power to determine its own proceedings, including the registration requirements for Members;
  • The interplay between contractual duties of confidence and the right of the House, its Committees and the PCS to information.

At the Chair's request I have asked advice from Michael Carpenter, Speaker's Counsel, and Liam Laurence Smyth, Clerk of the Journals. Both have seen the transcript, in confidence.

Speaker's Counsel: A contractual obligation undertaken by a witness cannot be used to displace a duty to answer questions put by a Committee, and the right of the House and its committees to seek information is unqualified.

Erskine May (24th ed p.823) notes that a witness is 'bound to answer all questions which the committee sees fit to put to him'. The witness cannot excuse himself on the grounds he may thereby subject himself to civil action (Parliamentary Oath (Mr Bradlaugh) Committee, HC 226 (1880)) or because the matter was a privileged communication, such as that protected by legal professional privilege. The duty on the witness is one which is owed to Parliament, rather than one owed under the general law.

Unless the evidence is given under oath, the courts in the United Kingdom will have no basis on which to consider whether such evidence should be given, or whether it is truthful or complete, for to do so would be to question or impeach proceedings in Parliament contrary to Article IX of the Bill of Rights. It is therefore not possible for a witness to invoke a legal ground for refusing to answer a question, or to question its relevance or 'pertinence'. The question for the committee and the House is whether, in refusing to answer, the witness had 'reasonable excuse', a matter which is solely for the House to determine.

I am afraid that Ms Dorries is simply wrong in stating that a reply to the Committee would make her liable to an action for damages or other remedy for breach of contract. No such action could be sustained in the courts of the United Kingdom, and this by reason of the constitutional principle reflected in Article IX of the Bill of Rights.

The Clerk of the Journals concurred with this advice, and added that there was of course a wider public interest in preserving confidentiality which the House took into account as appropriate, for example in the way the Guide to the Rules not insist on the naming of clients if this would breach legal or professional duties of confidentiality.

I also attach an advice note, agreed by the Committee on Standards and Privileges last year, which touches on confidentiality agreements. [not printed]

Eve Samson

Clerk of the Committee on Standards  16 October 2013

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Prepared 11 November 2013