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Six months if you defy MPs
Committee of privileges still wants to imprison people who don’t turn up
The Commons privileges committee slipped out a report yesterday recommending that members of the public — but not MPs or peers — should face six months in prison for failing without reasonable excuse to attend a Commons committee or produce papers.
I had argued against this proposal in written and oral evidence last year.
The committee rejected my main argument:
But I helped persuade the MPs that their proposed two-year prison sentence was excessive. Some witnesses had supported it:
The committee agreed to a maximum of six months.
It also dealt with the point I had raised about misleading MPs. The bill, as originally drafted, said:
It is an offence for an individual to fail without reasonable excuse to comply with a summons issued by a Select Committee of the House of Commons—
(a) to attend the Committee to answer questions, or
(b) to provide information or documents.
As I observed more than a year ago, providing information must surely include answering oral questions. This was not what we meant at all, the MPs now say. And it was not sloppy drafting by the committee; it was my failure to understand simple English:
Some witnesses misinterpreted our draft bill as criminalising not simply the refusal to attend a select committee, but also a refusal to answer questions before a committee or give satisfactory answers to questions. This was not our intention…
We have accordingly redrafted our bill to remove any unintended ambiguity in clause 1, subsection (1) and to make clear that the criminal offence is failing to comply with a summons to attend a committee or produce papers, without reasonable excuse, rather than giving unsatisfactory responses to questions when attending a committee.
The new draft now says:
The Speaker of the House of Commons may issue a summons requiring an individual —
(a) to attend a specified Committee of the House;
(b) to provide documents or other records to a specified Committee of the House; or
So long as you have handed over your files, it will apparently be fine to turn up and say nothing.
It will now be for parliament to decide whether to implement these proposals. But the issue is not seen as particularly urgent: it’s nearly six years since the committee was first asked for its views. But at least the privileges committee has cleared the decks for something rather more important.
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