Parliament has historic powers to punish Members and non-Members for contempt. A “contempt of Parliament” is a relatively rare occurrence, but in recent years it has become a more prominent issue, especially in the context of select committees, which have, for instance, sometimes been unable to compel the attendance of witnesses or secure provision of papers.
On 27 October 2016, our predecessor Committee was asked to consider the matter of “the exercise and enforcement of the powers of the House in relation to select committees and contempts”. Following interruptions including two general elections, the Committee resumed the inquiry in June 2020. We have sought to determine what the best options available to the House are in relation to contempts committed before select committees. Specifically, we have focussed on the issue of witnesses who refuse to appear before select committees or to provide evidence.
We have considered the arguments for and against three main options: to do nothing; to reassert the House’s historic powers, including to fine and imprison; or to legislate to provide new powers. We have examined equivalent arrangements in other legislatures. We have also considered the related issue of fair treatment of witnesses and whether the practices of the House comply with modern standards of fairness and due process.
We have concluded that:
This report evaluates several different models for legislation. We set out in detail our preferred option in the form of a draft Bill that would make failure to comply with a summons issued by a select committee a criminal offence, with the person concerned liable to a fine or imprisonment. We also propose that, in the interim before the passage of legislation, the House should proceed by way of resolution and standing order changes to set up improved processes for ensuring the fair treatment of witnesses.
We now wish to hold a public consultation on our preferred option. We have set out questions that will inform the next stage of our inquiry. Following the close of the consultation period, we plan to take further oral evidence before presenting our final conclusions and recommendations to the House.