Select committees and contempts: clarifying and strengthening powers to call for persons, papers and records Contents

Annex 2: Parliament’s historic powers to compel attendance

Power to fine

1)The House of Commons has not imposed a fine since 1666, when a fine of £1000 (roughly valued at £200,000 today) was imposed upon Mr Thomas White who had absconded after he had been ordered into the custody of the Serjeant at Arms.235

2)The House of Commons’ power to fine has been questioned since at least the 18th century. In 1762, Lord Mansfield in R v Pitt and R v Mead, remarked in relation to a case about bribery at an election that the House of Commons did not have the power to fine.236 In 1833, the Fines Act implicitly confirmed the understanding that the House of Lords had to power to impose fines, whereas the House of Commons did not.237 However, the New Zealand House of Representatives, whose privileges were defined as those enjoyed by the United Kingdom House of Commons in 1865, has used its inherent powers to fine, as recently as 2006.238

3)In the 20th century committees looking at matters of privilege in 1967, 1977, and 1999 all recommended legislation to give the Commons a statutory power to fine, notably on the basis that it did not already have recourse to that power. It is therefore generally considered that the House of Commons does not nowadays have the power to fine non-Members.239

Power to imprison

4)The House of Commons historically has exercised powers to imprison persons and temporarily to detain persons in custody. The Commons’ powers of detention were exercised frequently until the end of the 19th century; Erskine May notes that between 1810 and 1880 there were 80 committals.240 Committals during this period were almost equally divided between Newgate Prison and the Serjeant at Arms although many of those sent to Newgate were briefly taken into the custody of the Serjeant at Arms. There were also a few instances in 1775 of people being committed to the Gatehouse Prison in Westminster.241 The length of custody varied considerably (ranging between 1 day and four months) and the period of committal automatically ended at the end of a session.

5)Parliament’s power to imprison was last used in 1880 with the committal of a Member Charles Bradlaugh, and the imprisonment of a non-Member Charles Grissell in the same year.242 Bradlaugh was committed to custody for disobeying an Order of the House. Charles Grissell was committed after asserting he could control the proceedings of a private bill committee in relation to the building of a bridge and then not attending the House as ordered.243

6)Erskine May notes that no warrant or order for committal has been issued by either House for many years.244 However, by virtue of Standing Order No. 161, the Serjeant at Arms does have the power to temporarily commit someone to custody without a warrant. Under the Standing Order, the Serjeant can take into custody strangers who intrude themselves into the House or other misconduct themselves (in the Gallery or elsewhere).245 Persons who are taken into custody by virtue of SO NO. 161 are normally discharged by the rising of the House on the day in question. This power is used and is “useful”, in addition to the powers of the police, within the parliamentary precincts.246

Power to admonish

7)The power to admonish non-Members is undoubted and is used in current practice, most recently in March 2019 with Mr Dominic Cummings after he failed to comply with an order to attend the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.247

8)It was previous practice in both Houses that, in appropriate cases, non-Members were brought to the Bar to answer charges of contempt. Any admonishment was delivered by the Speaker in the Chamber during a sitting. The last time a non-Member was summoned to the Bar of the House of Commons to apologise was in 1957. Mr John Junor, a Newspaper editor, was deemed to have given an inadequate apology to the Committee of Privileges for an article he had written in which he claimed that Members were evading petrol rationing.248 At the bar Mr John Junor expressed his “sincere and unreserved apologies”, but stated that his initial article was an “inescapable subject of comment in a free Press”.249

9)In 1992 the House agreed a resolution reprimanding two Members for their part in taking cash for questions, without causing reprimand to be delivered orally thereafter.250 This set the precedent for admonishment to take the form of a resolution of the House, without any requirement for the contemnor to appear in person and without any further action taken against that individual. Mr Crone and Mr Myler, who were admonished by the House in 2016 in respect of phone hacking, were the first non-Members to be admonished in this way.251

235 Committee of Privileges, Third Report of Session 1976–77, HC 417, para 36 [Report accessible via ProQuest UK Parliamentary Papers]. The Lords have not imposed a fine since 1801.

236 Erskine May, 25th edition (London, 2019), para 11.27

237 Erskine May, 25th edition (London, 2019), para 11.27

238 New Zealand Clerk of the House (SCCXXXX), Q.3; see also Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, Report of Session 2013–14, Parliamentary Privilege, HC 100, para 56

239 Clerk of the House [Sir David Natzler] (SCC0001), para 3.7

240 Erskine May, 25th edition (London, 2019), para 11.23, fn 2

241 Committee of Privileges, Third Report of Session 1976–77, HC 417, Appendix G [Report accessible via ProQuest UK Parliamentary Papers].

242 Erskine May, 25th edition (London, 2019), para 11.23, fn 2

243 HC Deb, 22 July 1879, vol 248 cc971–4,

244 Erskine May, 25th edition (London, 2019), para 11.25

245 Erskine May, 25th edition (London, 2019), para 11.24

246 Clerk of the House [Sir David Natzler] (SCC0001), para 3.1

247 Committee of Privileges, First Report of Session 2017–19, Conduct of Mr Dominic Cummings, HC 1490

248 HC Deb, 24 January 1957, Volume 563, col 404 [Commons Chamber]

249 HC Deb, 24 January 1957, Volume 563, col 404 [Commons Chamber]

250 Committee of Privileges, First Report of Session 2016–17, Conduct of witnesses before a select committee: Mr Colin Myler, Mr Tom Crone, Mr Les Hinton, and News International, HC 662, para 7

251 Mr Tom Crone, Legal Manager at News Group Newspapers Limited and News International and Mr Colin Myler, editor of the News of the World 26 Jan 2007- July 2011, were formally admonished by the House on 27 October 2016.




Published: 3 May 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement