Letter from the Chairman of the Commons
Liaison Committee (Mr Robert Sheldon MP) to the Chairman of the
TRANSCRIPTS OF MINUTES OF EVIDENCE OF SELECT
With the backing of the Liaison Committee, I
have been seeking for some time to find ways of making evidence
before select committees available more quickly, both to Members
and to the general public. In March of this year the House of
Commons Commission considered a proposal from me that transcripts
of evidence should be posted on the Internet as soon as they are
received. I understand that the Commission decided to seek the
views of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege on whether
this proposal to disseminate uncorrected evidence in this way
raised any issues of privilege, and that the matter was referred
to your Committee after its March meeting. I am rather surprised
at this as some uncorrected expedited transcripts are made available
in the Vote Office for both members and journalists on the morning
following the taking of evidence. This was the case in today's
report from the Treasury Select Committee. In such cases it is
emphasised the evidence is uncorrected. Quite apart from this
extracts of such uncorrected evidence are on radio and TV and
are quoted in the Press.
I am most anxious to make progress. I attach
very great importance to the early availability of witnesses'
evidence before select committees. I hope very much that you and
your colleagues on the Joint Committee will decide on this proposal
at an early date.
Rt Hon Robert Sheldon MP
16 July 1998
Reply from the Chairman of the Joint Committee
TRANSCRIPTS OF UNCORRECTED SELECT COMMITTEE
EVIDENCE ON THE INTERNET
Thank you for your letter on this subject of
The Joint Committee's inquiry has so far focused
on the central privileges: freedom of speech and exclusive cognisance,
including Parliament's disciplinary and penal powers. We have
not yet decided whether to extend our inquiry and consider parliamentary
publications. This is a decision we will take in the autumn. We
have, therefore, only had a brief discussion on the request made
to us by the House of Commons Commission.
There seem to be at least two issues here. Firstly,
if the Joint Committee looked at parliamentary publications they
might well wish to consider which categories of publication should
have absolute privilege at law. An uncorrected version of a Committee's
transcript may or may not merit such protection. The second issue
is whether uncorrected transcripts are currently protected by
absolute privilege. This is not a matter for the Joint Committee,
but is a matter of statutory interpretation. If the House were
to order the publication of the transcripts, then it would seem
likely that they would fall within the absolute protection from
an action for defamation provided by Section 1 of the Parliamentary
Papers Act 1840. But you may wish to seek a more considered opinion
from authorities in the House of Commons or from the law officers.
Nicholls of Birkenhead
22 July 1998
Further letter from Mr Robert Sheldon
MP to the Chairman of the Joint Committee
I was pleased to have the meeting with you last
I did raise the question of putting the uncorrected
minutes of evidence of Select Committees on the Internet. As you
know, minutes of evidence at present are published several weeks
after the event. This has little impact on the public debate.
Those responsible for producing the minutes of evidence have agreed,
where necessary, to produce overnight transcripts of important
evidence sessions. If these were widely available important evidence
could form part of the daily parliamentary and public debate.
The problem is, I understand, the question of
privilege which might arise if the transcription were in serious
error. This is a problem which the media seem able to deal with.
The scheme suggested is that on each page of the internet will
be the disclaimer that the evidence is uncorrected. Any subsequent
correction could, of course, be made.
I believe that the widespread reporting of evidence
while it is still news needs to be part of the Parliamentary process.
It will improve the public's perception of Parliament and will
stimulate debate on the issues involved.
Rt Hon Robert Sheldon MP
2 December 1998