Parliament could gain powers to prosecute witnesses who lie

Witnesses may face criminal charges if they mislead MPs at select committees

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Indy Politics

Parliamentary committees of MPs could be given American-style powers to initiate the prosecution of witnesses who lie to them.

Under proposals being discussed by senior parliamentarians, misleading a select committee or refusing to attend and answer questions could become a criminal offence.

The development comes in the wake of Bob Diamond's testimony to the Treasury Select Committee which led one of its members to accuse the former Barclays' chief executive of "calculatedly and deliberately" misleading Parliament.

It also follows a report earlier this year that found three former executives at News International had deliberately misled the Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into phone hacking.

But MPs say they are unclear what realistic powers Parliament has to sanction or punish those that mislead them.

Theoretically – and not so theoretically in the distant past – both the House of Commons and the House of Lords can imprison those they find in contempt of Parliament. Between 1810 and 1880 there were 80 cases of committal to prison. Since then the power has never been exercised.

Parliament can also levy fines – although this has not happened since 1666 – or call a miscreant before the whole House for a dressing down.

None of these punishments has been used in recent years and a report commissioned by MPs from the Clerk of the House and published this week suggests that the time has come to consider carefully what up-to-date powers Parliament needs.

Robert Rogers points out that if the Commons were to attempt to jail, fine or humiliate an unco-operative or lying witness it could face challenges under the Human Rights Act. He suggests it would be better for the Commons to consider what proportionate powers it should have and possibly legislate for them in advance.

Such an option could include introducing an American-style system where witnesses could be prosecuted for misleading or failing to answer questions put to them by MPs.

In the US anyone found in contempt of a Senate or House Committee can be reported to the US Attorney for the District of Columbia for Grand Jury investigation.

A similar system is known to be the favoured option of some committee chairs keen to capitalise on the success of hearings into News International, Barclays and G4S to codify the new-found teeth of select committees. However, Mr Rogers points out that this could have undedsirableresults.

"Most committees would regard the possibility of their actions being second-guessed by a court uncomfortable, to say the least," he writes. "The possibility that the court might find that the committee had not in fact acted fairly, and throw the case out, would be no more welcome."

Bernard Jenkin, the chairman of the Public Administration Committee, said he favoured codifying procedures in a way which would not involve the courts. "The fact is that the times when the House of Commons could send out a posse to arrest someone are over and no-one regrets that," he said. "But we do need to formalise and set out what sanctions we will apply."

Mr Jenkin added that he favoured establishing a standing order of the House which would allow MPs to publicly censure an individual – for example, stating that they were unfit to hold public office – but which would not involve the courts. "I think we want to avoid judicial involvement in Parliamentary affairs if at all possible," he said. "And this would appear to be one way of doing that."

Select few: Rise of the committee inquisitors

Bernard Jenkin

His Public Administration committee has been fighting an attritional war with the Government. This week it embarrassed David Cameron when MPs voted to let the PM's adviser on the ministerial code instigate his own investigations.

Ego (out of 5) 2

Revelations 3

Tom Watson and Louise Mensch

The Media committee dramatically questioned James and Rupert Murdoch. More significant was its finding that former News International executives had given them "false or misleading evidence" and reporting them for possible sanction.

Egos 4

Revelations 4

Margaret Hodge

The Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises government spending, has re-invented itself under the chairmanship of feisty and combative Hodge. She forced top taxman Dave Harnett to give evidence under oath after she felt he was not answering her questions frankly. But some senior civil servants are critical of the committee's aggressive approach.

Ego 5

Revelations 4

Andrea Leadsom

After a rocky start when the Treasury committee failed with Bob Diamond, things have improved. Other witnesses suggested Diamond was less than frank and elicited damaging documents from Barclays and the Bank of England.

Egos 2

Revelations 4

Keith Vaz

This week Nick Buckles had a bruising encounter with Parliament at which he agreed that G4S, had been responsible for a "humiliating shambles" over Olympics security. A full inquiry will follow. Vaz's Home Affairs committee has a reputation for baring its teeth.

Ego 5

Revelations 3