The Lord Chancellor was rebuked yesterday by a parliamentary standards watchdog after he disciplined a whistleblower who gave evidence to a Commons committee.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton was accused of "contempt" after he tried to remove from her job Judy Weleminsky who had submitted written evidence to MPs about the shortcomings of an official child protection agency.
Lord Falconer wrote to Ms Weleminsky, a member of the board of the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), accusing her of failing to "observe confidentiality" and failing to "behave in a corporate manner". He suspended her and called on her to resign from the board.
A report by the Standards and Privileges Committee said the peer had given "the unfortunate impression" that he was trying "to penalise Ms Weleminsky for giving evidence". It accepted this had not been his intention and noted he had apologised "for giving the impression her evidence" was a reason for his action. But, the report said, it had appeared that a letter he wrote to Ms Weleminsky was a "punishment for the giving of evidence to a select committee of the House".
The inquiry by the standards committee followed the intervention of the senior Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith, chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, who said that the disciplining of a committee witness after giving evidence set a dangerous precedent and could deter future witnesses.
The report said: "Had it not been for Ms Weleminsky's vigilance in bringing the matter to the attention of the Constitutional Affairs Committee and the speech with which it, in turn, brought the matter to the attention of the House, those who had followed the case, as well as the witness herself, might well have formed the view that she was being dismissed from the Cafcass Board for giving evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee."
MPs on the standards committee agreed no further action should be taken against Lord Falconer or the former Cafcass board chairman, Anthony Hewson, and a senior official in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, David Crawley. But it said all three had been guilty of contempt of Parliament.
It reiterated the importance of witnesses to select committees remaining "free of any interference or recrimination by others", and added: "Select committees have a key role to play in enabling the House to hold the Government to account and witnesses must be free to give evidence without fear of retribution"
New guidelines were called for in the report, Privilege: Protection of a Witness, to all government departments so "no similar case should arise in future." The committee also urged parliamentary committees to "continue to be vigilant" so witnesses were not punished or penalised as a result of their evidence. The report recognised that Lord Falconer did not have "any motive to penalise a witness".
All board members were asked to resign after a report by the Constitutional Affairs Committee recommended a fundamental review of board membership. But when Ms Weleminsky refused to resign Lord Falconer, following advice, wrote to her, saying he was satisfied there was evidence she had "failed to behave in a corporate manner" and "refused to observe confidentiality". He then sought her agreement to her suspension from the board, which she gave.
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