Conduct of witnesses before a select committee: Mr Colin Myler, Mr Tom Crone, Mr Les Hinton, and News International Contents

8Lessons learned

Select committees

324.The CMS Committee stated in its Report that “Important lessons need to be learned” from their experience in terms of the ability of select committees to rely “on the truthfulness and completeness of the oral and written evidence submitted”.293 This is undoubtedly true. One submission to our Committee pointed out that the Commons guidance note for witnesses before select committees does not state that witnesses should give full answers on matters within their exclusive knowledge.294 It may seem to many in Parliament that this is so obvious that it does not need stating but it may be worth considering changing the notes to witnesses to ensure that it is clear to all that Parliament has a right to expect full responses. We consider that the existence of our Report and any subsequent action by the House in consequence will be sufficient to remind all potential witnesses of their duties when giving evidence to select committees.

325.There are also lessons to be learned for select committees. Whilst we have not upheld many of the procedural objections raised by and on behalf of the inquiry subjects in this area (see chapter 2 above), our analysis of the CMS Committee’s Reports and proceedings highlights the need, where they are set on discovering facts rather than eliciting opinion, for committees to ask clear questions and be fair to witnesses. Where they touch on the reputations of individuals, select committee reports should be grounded on the evidence with conclusions clearly drawn from and linked to that evidence. Those to be criticised should be given a chance to defend themselves. The draft standing orders as set out by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 2013 provide a good model for how select committees should deal with those who are potentially the subject of significant criticism.

326.Like that Joint Committee, however, we fully recognise that select committees are not courts and should not be expected to act as if they were. They are political entities with a responsibility to scrutinise Government policy and, by extension, matters of public interest. They may therefore be highly critical on occasion of the behaviour of individuals and companies, and the public would expect no less.

Parliamentary privilege and contempt

327.Our inquiry has also highlighted questions relating to how the House deals with allegations of contempt of Parliament, including the imposition of sanctions. While we are satisfied that the processes we have followed in this case have been fair and robust, we believe that the House’s procedures for enforcing the exercise of the powers of select committees and for investigating, adjudicating on and imposing sanctions in relation to allegations of contempt should be put beyond doubt and publicly stated. The Joint Committee in 2013 also recommended that the House of Commons (and the House of Lords

should build on our work to set out clearly the powers they reserve the right to exercise, what is expected of witnesses, and the means by which they will consider allegations of contempt, including procedural safeguards to ensure that witnesses are treated fairly.295

328.This includes how the House may impose its will on reluctant witnesses as well as how to exercise its powers over those who are alleged to have given false or misleading evidence to a committee. It is time that that this work was taken forward.

294 Morrison Foerster to CoP, 2 February 2015, para 30

295 JCPP (2013–14), para 100

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

13 September 2016