Privilege

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:58 pm on 22nd May 2012.

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Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 3:58 pm, 22nd May 2012

I echo the comments of the Leader of the House by paying tribute to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for its significant work on the ongoing, complex and important matter of News International and phone hacking. Throughout its long inquiry, the Committee has been chaired admirably by Mr Whittingdale, and his Committee has pursued its inquiries in a commendable and dogged fashion. Just as the Treasury Select Committee pursued its inquiries into the banking crisis, so the Culture, Media and Sport Committee has pursued its investigations into the media crisis. I know the work has been exhaustive and exhausting for the members of the Committee, past and present, and the House staff supporting them, and once more I pay tribute to all involved.

Members will be well aware of the context of this report, which the hon. Member for Maldon has just set out. The Committee’s inquiry began in the last Parliament and has taken place against a background of rapid external developments. Despite the challenges, it is a tribute to the Committee that it has produced its report in spite of the ongoing police investigation and the Leveson inquiry. Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry, which we expect to report in the autumn, will be of great importance. We are inevitably constrained in what we can say today, given the context, but the House will have further opportunities to debate the wider issues. The motion before us is therefore a narrow one, as the Leader of the House has just told us.

From their introduction in 1979, Select Committees have had the power to send for persons, papers and records. They have relied largely on written and oral evidence to perform their duties. Over more than two decades, and during hundreds and hundreds of separate inquiries, Select Committees have ably and satisfactorily used mainly informal powers to ensure that they can access the evidence they need. However, we should not forget the purpose of such inquiries: Select Committees exist not just to hold the Government to account and to examine in detail the implication of Government bodies and policies, but to shine a light across the public realm. The powers of the House are for a purpose: to enable Parliament, on behalf of our constituents, to hold the powerful to account. Today the Select Committee system works well, but it would not if witnesses felt they could mislead a Committee without consequence.

Although Committees rarely take evidence on oath, the House of Commons 2011 guidance for witnesses giving evidence to Select Committees is clear. It states that witnesses are expected to answer fully, honestly and truthfully, and:

“Deliberately attempting to mislead a committee is a contempt of the House”.

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee concludes, at paragraphs 274 to 280, that three individuals—Les Hinton, Tom Crone and Colin Myler—and, corporately, News International and the News of the World misled Parliament in their evidence to the Committee. Under these circumstances, it is right that the matter be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee for further investigation and consideration. We should not seek to pre-judge or second-guess the work that the Standards and Privileges Committee may undertake, under the able chairmanship of my right hon. Friend Mr Barron. It is enough that we agree today to refer this important matter to that Committee, which is why the Opposition support the motion.