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After a general overview of the powers of select committees, this Briefing Paper reviews the power of select committees “to send for persons, papers and records”, that is to obtain oral and written evidence. Although select committees have these powers, they can ultimately only be enforced by decision of the House.  The Note considers arguments that have been made to increase select committees’ abilities to enforce these powers without recourse to the House.  It reviews the arguments for requiring witnesses to give evidence on oath to select committees.

The Paper outlines the sanctions that can be imposed by the House on those who choose not to respond to requests from committees. It summarises the 1999 Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege’s review of these sanctions and its comments on contempt.  The Joint Committee recommended that parliamentary privilege should be put on a statutory basis.

In April 2012, the Government published a Green Paper on parliamentary privilege, which included some draft clauses. A joint committee was appointed to review the Green Paper.  It considered the difficulties that the two Houses face in exercising their penal powers.  It considered approaches suggested by the Green Paper: doing nothing; legislating to confirm the powers of the two Houses or to specify particular contempts in statute; and reforming internal procedures to clarify powers and set out how they would be exercised.  The Joint Committee preferred the third option and outlined how it believed the process should operate, stressing the importance of fairness, access to the rules and expectations of each House and a formal statement of “the kinds of behaviour likely to constitute contempt”. 

The questions of the powers of select committees and the powers of the House of Commons to punish have not been clarified since the Joint Committee reported. Since then, informal select committee invitations to witnesses to give evidence have been declined.  This has led to calls for the issue of select committee powers to be reconsidered and to make it a criminal offence to fail to appear or refuse to appear, without reasonable excuse, before a House of Commons Committee.

For authoritative procedural advice on select committee procedures, Members should contact the Clerk of Committees.

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