The Constitution Society is pleased to announce the publication of a landmark Report that it has commissioned on the coercive powers of select committees.
Co-authored by eminent constitutional lawyers, Richard Gordon QC and Amy Street, the Report offers a balanced and neutral investigation into what coercive powers select committees have and what the options might be for change.
In the light of the phone-hacking scandal and the high profile appearances before select committees of the Murdochs and others this is a timely and important intervention.
The findings of the Report are that committee powers lack clarity, moreover, (and this may come as a surprise to many) select committees have no coercive powers in practice and perhaps not even in theory.
This means that:
- There are no effective means to compel witnesses to appear before them or to obtain information or documents that witnesses are reluctant to disclose.
- There is no power in practice to punish contempt.
- Witnesses are not necessarily protected by Parliamentary privilege
The report sets out the advantages and disadvantages of legislating for formal powers. It suggests that clarification of committee powers is an essential first step. However, it warns that conferring coercive powers on select committees could prove a hostage to fortune by resulting in clashes with the courts in circumstances where committee hearings were claimed to infringe fundamental rights legislation. This could lead to the courts making inroads on Article 9 of the Bill of Rights which protects ‘proceedings in Parliament’ from the jurisdiction of the courts.