Ministers are looking into whether it would be possible to compel people to attend parliamentary select committee hearings. This comes after the turmoil that surrounded the News of the World investigation.
It was not clear from the outset whether the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks could lawfully decline to appear before parliament in connection with the News of the World phone hacking scandal.
The uncertain state of affairs saw both ministers and the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, calling for new powers to be implemented in order to require witnesses’ presence at committee hearings.
The measure would, if accepted, make it a criminal offence for someone summoned to refuse to appear in front of parliament. Ministers hope that such powers will lend more authority to committee investigations.
However, many ministers question whether creating a new criminal offence is necessary. Moreover, many believe that parliamentary rules already embed such powers, making it unnecessary to add another offence on the statute book.
According to a report on parliamentary privilege from 1999, the house of commons can in principle jail people who refuse to attend a select committee hearing for “contempt of parliament” if they have been officially summoned and had “without reasonable excuse failed to attend before the House or a committee after being summoned to do so”.
However, the existing power is rarely resorted to and it is doubtful whether it applies to foreign nationals.
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