It is time to give select committees more teeth
Chair of the Privileges Committee, Chris Bryant, in the House of Commons Chamber | UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
Committees of Enquiry have been a vital part of how Parliament does its work for centuries. When the governor and chaplain at Newgate were forced to tell the truth to a parliamentary committee about the appalling conditions in the jail – including the practice of prisoners having to pay other inmates ‘garnish’ just for a filthy mattress – that led to demands for prison reform in 1818.
Successive early nineteenth century parliamentary reports on slavery, policing, the education of the poor and sewerage led to dramatic changes in the law and improvements for thousands. And in the modern era select committees have done important work digging out the truth, putting sections of society under the microscope and holding the powerful, especially in government, to account.
None of this can happen without parliamentary committees having clear and enforceable powers to summon people, papers and records.
Nobody doubted those powers in the past. They were part of Parliament’s inherent unimpeachable powers as the highest court in the land. Yet increasingly over the last few years, we have seen rich and powerful individuals cock a snook at committees when they’ve been asked to appear. Sometimes they prevaricate endlessly, constantly claiming excuses for not appearing in the hope that the committee will give up.
In some cases, they have point-blank refused to appear, having effectively been told by their lawyers that Parliament has no real powers to enforce attendance. Yes, they might suffer a bit of reputational damage – but then they might suffer even worse if they do turn up and face questions they have been running away from for years.
The open secret that had been whispered in the committee corridors of the Commons for years – that our powers had no teeth – was now out in the open
The result has been a series of instances of recalcitrant witnesses showing disdain for select committees – and holding Parliament – and thereby, the public – in contempt. This has been accompanied by a steady decline in Parliament’s self-confidence. The open secret that had been whispered in the committee corridors of the Commons for years – that our powers had no teeth – was now out in the open. This led to the House to commission the Privileges Committee in 2016 to report on the powers of select committees to summon people, papers and records.
We have now published a report setting out proposals that aim to put an end to this blatant disregard for parliamentary democracy and accountability. It builds on two influential Joint Committees on Privilege, one in 1999 and another in 2013, which reached different conclusions on how to address this issue.
We have come to five key conclusions.
First, if select committees are to play a vital role in our parliamentary democracy, they must be empowered to function effectively. Second, the House should reassert its commitment to fair treatment and safeguarding of witnesses so as to ensure due process and natural justice. Third, the options of doing nothing or merely amending standing orders to reassert historic powers are no longer viable. Fourth, although there are risks attached to the option of introducing legislation to reinforce the power to summon people, papers and records, this is now the only pragmatic and practicable solution to a longstanding problem. Fifth, that legislation should introduce a new criminal offence of refusing to attend a valid summons without a valid cause, which would be sanctioned by a court of law.
Our report, and the proposals for consultation within it, follow a period of extensive research, where we gathered perspectives and evidence from more than 50 legislatures across the globe. Our investigation determined that while all options for empowering select committees have risks and drawbacks, the best option is to draft legislation. Legislation will bring clarity to the process, and set clear and effective deterrents to witnesses who would otherwise refuse to engage with select committees. The use of legislation to empower committees in this way also brings the UK Parliament into line with many comparable legislatures around the world.
The report and proposals shouldn’t be seen as the final step, but the next step in a consultation. The legislative route to empowering select committees does have downsides, most obviously the risk of entangling Parliament and the courts. But our proposal – which includes a draft bill – minimises those risks and we hope our proposals are considered carefully and widely. That is why we are encouraging views from colleagues across both Houses, legal professionals, academics, former Clerks and any other interested parties who may have an interest in this legislation.
The report published by the Committee today is a huge step, but it is not the final step. Once we have completed our consultation on these proposals we hope to produce a final report by the end of this year. These are not simple decisions, but the select committee system is such an important aspect of holding power to account and informing the national debate that we must protect it and give committees the powers they need.
Chris Bryant is Labour MP for the Rhondda and chair of the Privileges Committee