I beg to move,
That this House—
(ii) endorses the conclusions of the Committee in respect of the conduct of Mr Dominic Cummings that the evidence sought by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee from Mr Cummings was relevant to its inquiry and that his refusal to attend constituted a significant interference with the work of that Committee;
concludes that Mr Cummings committed a contempt both by his refusal to obey the Committee’s order to attend it and by his subsequent refusal to obey the House’s Order of
and therefore formally admonishes him for his conduct.
In a week of constitutional innovation, we have one more, whereby I am standing in for the Leader of the House, who sends her apologies. I understand that she has been in touch with the Chairs of the Committee of Privileges and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to explain the reason for her absence.
The House deeply respects the work of Select Committees across the House. They do incredibly important work on behalf of all the peoples of the United Kingdom, and the Government remains a strong supporter of the Select Committee system. In accordance with traditional practice, the Leader of the House brought forward motions on Thursday
It is vital to the work of Select Committees that they can obtain full and accurate evidence from witnesses as part of their inquiries. I thank the members of the Committee of Privileges for undertaking the report and the members of the DCMS Committee for their work on behalf of Parliament. The report from the Privileges Committee concluded that it accepted the DCMS Committee’s view that the evidence it sought from Mr Cummings was relevant to its inquiry and that his refusal to appear constituted a significant interference with its work. The report states that Mr Cummings committed a contempt both by his initial refusal to obey the DCMS Committee’s order to attend and by his subsequent refusal to obey the House’s order. The Committee recommended that the House admonish Mr Cummings for his contempt, and it is for the House to determine whether to endorse these conclusions.
Mr Cummings has raised questions about the enforceability of the House’s powers and those of its Committee’s to secure evidence. I know that the Committee of Privileges intends to consider this matter further, and we await its conclusions, but today’s debate underlines the right of Select Committees to undertake their duties as assigned to them by the House. The Government have full respect for the privileges of the House of Commons and will continue to uphold them. They are crucial to the independence of Parliament and the strength of our democracy. I therefore commend the motion to the House.
Before the debate gets under way, I want to say one thing. From experience, I am clear in my own mind—and I am reinforced in my view by the specialist advice of the Clerks—that the focus of this motion is narrow. The Minister rightly stuck to its proper focus. This is not an occasion—I repeat not an occasion—for airing all the arguments about the conduct of the referendum campaign, Vote Leave, tactics used, fake news, and so on. That is not for today—I repeat not for today. This is about the rights of this House and the appearance and non-appearance of witnesses, the issue of compliance with the express wishes of the House and the issue of consequences for violation of our rights. If people have got speeches prepared in which they want to rehearse again all the arguments about the referendum campaign, I suggest the speedy and liberal application of the blue pencil. It is not required; indeed, it is required not to happen. We must not play games with the House’s procedures. I am extremely grateful to the Minister who moved the motion.
I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for presenting the motion, and note that the Leader of the House is occupied with important matters elsewhere. I also thank the Committee of Privileges, chaired by my hon. Friend Kate Green, for all its work in producing the report.
This is not the first Committee report on the conduct of Mr Dominic Cummings. On
“give an undertaking to the Committee, no later than 6pm on
Vol. 642, c. 492.]
In the annex to the report, on page 11, the Committee of Privileges helpfully set out the procedure that it would follow in inviting Mr Cummings to provide the DCMS Committee with oral and written evidence, so he has benefited from due process. It made a number of recommendations, and accepted the view of the DCMS Committee that the evidence that it sought from Mr Cummings was relevant to its inquiry and that his refusal to attend constituted a significant interference with its work. The Committee of Privileges rejected Mr Cummings’s argument as to why he did not appear before the DCMS Committee. He had been offered a series of dates for a hearing, and had not supplied any evidence that suggested he was at significant risk of prosecution. The report states :
“The fact that a prospective witness takes a different view on policy or political issues from a select committee…does not constitute grounds to refuse to appear before that committee.”
Many of us who are members of Select Committees often hear evidence from all sides. It is the right of a Select Committee to do that, and to form a view based on the evidence.
The Committee of Privileges accepted the DCMS Committee’s view that in not giving it the evidence that it sought, Mr Cummings had committed a contempt both by his refusal to obey its order to attend and by his subsequent refusal to obey the House’s order of
“Attending the hearing and defending his position when called upon to do so would have been the right thing to do.”
The Committee recommends that the House should admonish Mr Cummings for his contempt, and that the admonishment should take the form of a resolution of the House. The resolution, if agreed to, should be communicated to Mr Cummings by the Clerk of the House.
I thank the Committee again for its work, and I support the motion.
I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for his statement. I also thank the Leader of the House for giving me notice that she would be unable to attend the Chamber today, and for the words that the Deputy Leader of the House read out on behalf of the Government. I thank my fellow members of the DCMS Committee, and I thank the Chair of the Privileges Committee and her colleagues for their investigation.
We are not here today as a consequence of a rush of blood to the head and the “at whim” decision of a parliamentary Committee to order a private citizen to give evidence in front of us. Today we are at the end of a process that has run for the best part of 10 months, from the Committee’s first attempts to invite a witness to attend to the process of its ordering that witness to attend, to that being reported to the House and the House also ordering him to attend, and then to the matter being referred to the Committee of Privileges for it to investigate.
I am pleased that that Committee has agreed with the statement in our report that we were within our rights to call the witness, and that the witness should have attended. The witness himself, Mr Cummings, was critical of our Committee’s inquiry, of other witnesses who had attended, and of the evidence that they had given. Our main reason for wishing him to attend was so that he could respond to the allegations made by other witnesses. That is an important part of the inquiry, and also demonstrates the Committee’s desire to hear all sides of the story. We are frustrated in that process when witnesses refuse to confirm dates, put up spurious reasons for why they cannot attend, and then, in correspondence with the Committee, seek to behave in a way that is contemptuous of its work and, therefore, of the work of the House.
This is the heart of the matter. The report states that many of Mr Cummings’s communications were highly inappropriate, including some outside the House. He did not do himself any favours in that respect. I personally wanted to hear what he had to say, and I honestly believe that many members of the Committee had open minds and wanted their questions to be answered. Is it not also true that we asked very probing questions when it came to the other side of the debate? We questioned Christopher Wylie very closely about his desire to hawk information to Vote Leave.
Indeed. The questions that we wished to put to Mr Cummings were highly relevant to our inquiry. They were also highly relevant to evidence presented by other people, including representatives of organisations that had worked with him in his capacity as director of Vote Leave. I think that we should have had an opportunity to put those questions, as a relevant part of our inquiry and the work of the Committee. As the Committee of Privileges says in its report, it cannot be for individuals to seek to interfere with the work of a parliamentary Committee. We should regard that as a very serious matter.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making, but is there not also an issue of consistency? I am told that Mark Zuckerberg also declined to give evidence to the Committee during the same inquiry. Moreover, it is quite common for Ministers to decline to give evidence to inquiries, including Ministers in some of the devolved Administrations and Assemblies. I think that the point my hon. Friend is making should be applied consistently and across the board to all potential witnesses, and that we should not fall into the trap of singling out one individual.
I do not believe that we are singling out one individual in this case. It is highly unusual for anyone to behave in the way in which Dominic Cummings behaved towards the Committee. My right hon. Friend is right in saying that we issued an invitation to Mark Zuckerberg, but that is all that we could do. We did not issue a summons or an order for him to appear, because we do not have the jurisdictional powers to do so. He is not a UK national, and is not resident in the UK. We can only issue summonses of that sort to foreign nationals if they happen to be in this country. We said that we would do that, but obviously we do not have an opportunity to do it. So the circumstances in that case are very different.
On the day that we issued the order for Dominic Cummings to appear before the Committee, we also issued an order to Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, and he chose to accept. The personal circumstances of Mr Nix at the time, in terms of the investigations of him and his former company, gave far greater reason for him not to attend than Dominic Cummings, who was not under personal investigation at all at that stage. There were no reasons in law why he should not appear. The normal sub judice rules that protect witnesses from incriminating themselves did not apply in his case. The Committee sought legal advice in that regard. I think that, when we have gone through a thorough process and there are no particular grounds for a witness not to appear, if the Committee and the House believe that it is important for that witness to appear, he should do so.
I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the privileges of Ministers, but the rules of the House in that regard are very different from those applying to private citizens.
Will my hon. Friend confirm, then, that it is his view that it is illegitimate for Ministers ever to claim that they cannot give evidence to a Committee because legal proceedings on a particular issue are under way?
The House does have rules relating to matters that are before UK courts and may prevent witnesses from giving evidence, but I agree with the principle that my hon. Friend has cited. I do not believe that Ministers should claim special privileges in order not to give evidence to a Committee, but they do have a different status. I do not think that that different status should give any individual in the country an opportunity to ignore an order from a Committee or a summons to appear before Parliament simply because they happen to take exception to the idea that Ministers have special privileges that they do not have—as, indeed, do Members of the House of Lords.
I want to pick up the point about consistency. It is not just my hon. Friend’s Select Committee that may have problems with calling witnesses—important witnesses—to take part in inquiries. The Women and Equalities Committee is currently going through a similar process, but we are only one month into requesting an individual to appear before us. Does my hon. Friend agree that it might be helpful if there were more explicit guidelines on the process to be followed, so that it could take place more speedily? I certainly would not want my inquiry on non- disclosure agreements to drag on for a further 10 months.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There needs to be more clarity about the process—clarity within the rules as they stand, and more clarity on what the powers of the House are. We have ancient powers, which in modern law cannot be enforced, and they have not been replaced with anything more suitable.
As Chair of a Select Committee, I am sure that my hon. Friend will have shared my experience that the difficulty in getting witnesses to appear is not necessarily around private citizens, who are usually very willing to appear before a Select Committee; it is around encouraging ministerial colleagues, on occasion, and public officials to come before Select Committees. That is where the resistance is. Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be at least an equivalence of rules regarding the appearance of private citizens and elected individuals and publicly accountable individuals before Select Committees? We have not got that balance right yet.
As I said to other hon. Members, I am sympathetic to any Select Committee that seeks to interview a public official or Minister as part of their inquiry. In my three years’ experience as Chair of a Select Committee I have never had that problem, but others have. There is a big difference between a Minister of the Crown and a private citizen, in that a Minister is a Member of Parliament and can be questioned, in this House or in the House of Lords, as part of their ministerial duties. The only opportunity we have to question people outside Parliament, as part of an inquiry, is to invite them to appear before the Committee. There is no other avenue, be it a ministerial question time or debate, where we can pursue that person. That is why the rules concerning private citizens are particularly important. I would be very sympathetic to the idea of looking at the rules for Ministers, but at least other avenues are open for challenging a Minister as part of parliamentary process.
I recall, as a Minister, having agreed to give evidence to a Committee of the Welsh Assembly and being told that it was not Government policy for Ministers in Westminster to attend such Committees, since they had no rights to hold us to account. Does my hon. Friend think that, bearing in mind what he has just said, perhaps a different set of rules should apply to the devolved Administrations, and that Westminster Ministers should be required to attend such hearings in devolved assemblies?
As I said to my hon. Friend earlier, I think there is a basic principle and a presumption that witnesses, be they a Minister or not, should attend Committees conducting inquiries. Select Committees conduct such inquiries on behalf of the House, with powers delegated to them by the House. I also believe that if a Member of the House of Lords chose to use their special privileges as a parliamentarian not to be summoned in front of a Committee, that would not be appropriate if that Member of the House of Lords held an important public position, as many Members of the House of Lords do.
Other options are available to question Members of Parliament and Ministers that are not available to question a private citizen. The only forum we have to question a private citizen as part of a parliamentary inquiry is to invite them to appear before a Select Committee. That power is incredibly important, because the role of a Select Committee is not just to scrutinise the work of a Government Department or a public body, but to scrutinise other matters of public interest, where a Committee believes there is a case for Government intervention, new rules or new laws on something important. It is for the Committees to determine the scope of their inquiries, and witnesses should attend when required. It is very rare that witnesses choose not to attend.
Of course, Mr Cummings cannot be with us today—and did not want to be with us on another occasion. Did he give any indication that he thought there was some legal reason why it would be better if he did not attend?
The correspondence between myself as Chair of the Committee and Mr Cummings is published in full in the Committee’s report, so any Member can read that and make their own judgment as to the case that Mr Cummings made. Obviously, the matter was also reviewed by the Privileges Committee, which also invited Mr Cummings to speak to it as part of its inquiry, which he declined. Mr Cummings stated that other cases were involved, and that he had been guided by the people he had spoken to not to appear, but there was no reason in law for that. He was not under personal investigation; he was not likely to be charged with an offence. He may have all sorts of private grounds for not wanting to do it, but unless there is a particular legal reason why witnesses should not appear, I do not believe it is good enough for them to create reasons why they would rather not give evidence; that would undermine the whole process. If a witness declines to give evidence simply because it is unsatisfactory to him to do so, I do not think we should accept it.
We had a similar issue with other witnesses during the inquiry. When Arron Banks gave evidence to the Committee, some aspects of Leave.EU’s work that were relevant to the Committee investigation were under investigation by the Electoral Commission at that time. My hon. Friend may check the official record of the evidence session. We told Mr Banks at that session that we would not question him about matters that were under investigation by the Electoral Commission, as it would not be proper to do so, but there were a large number of other topics on which we wanted to pursue relevant lines of inquiry.
It was exactly the same with Dominic Cummings. We could have reached an accommodation, but he was not prepared, in principle, to attend. During the course of our correspondence we set out why we thought he should attend, and it became quite clear that once he was aware that we were determined to issue an order requesting that he appear on a certain day, he would refuse point-blank to appear at all. He then requested all sorts of other conditions—that he would not appear before the DCMS Committee but he might appear before a specially constructed ad hoc Committee of the House, and that members of the Committee should swear an oath before questioning him, in addition to his swearing an oath. This is nonsense. We either respect our rules and the powers that we have, or we do not.
Not just my Committee found this. I am sure that the Chair of the Privileges Committee will speak for herself about her inquiry. During the Treasury Committee’s inquiry before the referendum, different parties were invited to give evidence, and it too is scathing about the experience of dealing with Mr Cummings and the general contempt that he showed. We have to accept that if we do not really take our own powers seriously, other people will behave in a similar way. Other people will look at this case and say, “Actually, you can just ignore the Committees’ requests. There is nothing they can do.”
There are often important reasons why Committees wish to call in private citizens to account for their work. Mr Cummings is not just a private citizen going about his business in a quiet part of the country. He has held a series of important offices, he is a former Government special adviser and he was director of an incredibly important national political campaign. The work of that campaign had been referenced already in a parliamentary inquiry, and we wished to ask him about the evidence that had been given, of which he himself was critical and to which he felt there should have been some right to reply.
That is absolutely right. I was a member of the Committee when Rupert Murdoch came to give evidence, in response to a summons of the House. That was right in the middle of the phone-hacking scandal, with legal cases left, right and centre—massive challenges for that business—and yet he considered that it was his responsibility and the proper thing to respond, give evidence in person and answer all the Committee’s questions. If it is good enough for someone of the stature of Rupert Murdoch, surely Dominic Cummings could find time in his busy schedule as well. There was no reason why he should not have done so.
There have been other times when my Committee has struggled to get witnesses to attend and they have attended at the last minute. We are going through that process now with some companies. We may wish to call other organisations as well. We saw during our inquiry that other political campaigns, such as the shadowy Mainstream Network, which was advertising last year on Facebook, were seeking to get members of the public to lobby their MP on what they should or should not do on the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Other organisations, such as We are the 52% and Britain’s Future, are doing that right now. We might want to call in such organisations in future as part of investigations, but they could look at the behaviour of Dominic Cummings and say, “We are disinclined to come, and there is not much you can do about it.”
People often cite the ancient powers of the House to lock people up in a prison under Big Ben or in the House, and those powers technically still exist, but they would rightly be considered to be unenforceable. The House must therefore debate and decide what we want to do when witnesses decline to attend. There should be a proper process; it should not just be down to the arbitrary summons of 11 Members of Parliament. There should be a proper process to check—as the Privileges Committee has done—that the Committee was following due process, that it had good grounds, and that there was a public interest in the witness attending. Then, when they fail to attend, there should be some clear sanction. In other Parliaments in the world, there are rules in such cases—a referral to court or some other body that makes the final decision and imposes a sanction. I believe we now need clearly codified rules, on both summoning witnesses and ordering papers.
That is ultimately a matter for the House to determine. Let us look at other jurisdictions. I believe that the United States Congress, for example, can impose a fine or a custodial sentence of up to three months, and I believe that the Scottish Parliament has something similar, but Members will correct me if that is not the case. Other legislatures have processes that include clear sanctions in law that can be applied if a reasonable request for a witness to appear or for documents to be served has not been met. I do not believe that politicians should sit in judgment over private citizens and start ordering those penalties, however. It is probably right that some independent outside body should do that, as happens in other areas of public life. We should determine what our role should be, and if we believe that a reasonable request has been made for a witness to appear or for papers to be issued to a Committee, that should be done. It is reasonable to expect someone who has been asked to give evidence to a Committee to do so honestly and truthfully. If it is proved that they are lying to or misleading the Committee, there should be some sanction for that as well. There is then a separate debate about who should enforce that sanction and what the penalty should be, but if we use these powers responsibly and we expect people to comply with them, there has to be some sanction if they do not do so, as in the case of Mr Cummings.
I am following this argument with great interest. Given the nature of Dominic Cummings—incidentally, I do not think the way he has behaved towards the Select Committee is any different from the way he behaves generally—does my hon. Friend agree that there is a real danger that he would regard an admonishment from the House of Commons as a badge of honour? Does he also agree that we need some form of alternative measure so that future witnesses will not think that an admonishment is the only thing they might have to face?
My hon. Friend is right; that is an important point. There has to be some penalty. For some people, that would involve damage to their reputation. Someone who is running a public body or a regulated industry, for example, might find that their reputation was damaged because they had behaved in a way that was inconsistent with upholding the high standards of their office. Clearly, Dominic Cummings does not seem to care about those things. We need to ask whether someone who has been found in contempt of Parliament and admonished by Parliament would be an appropriate candidate to hold a public position such as a Government adviser or a member of a public body in the future. Should there be a bar on that?
Absolutely; my hon. Friend and fellow member of the Committee makes an excellent point. That is a good example of people finding themselves in a situation of which they are the cause, and of clear penalties being in place that can restrict their future actions and activities, although not necessarily their liberty. Someone who has been found in contempt of the House should face some sort of real-world sanction that takes into account their appropriateness to be a fit and proper person to hold certain positions and roles, and certainly to be appointed to public office. For example, if Mr Cummings were ever again asked to be a Government adviser or special adviser, these sorts of things should be taken into account, and I am sure that they would be.
There needs to be a further sanction in law as well, including a range of penalties depending on the severity of the offence, with someone in authority to adjudicate and enforce those sanctions. As the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller has said, there should be a clear process so that we can understand how long it should take and, ideally, a witness could be compelled to come within the scope of an inquiry, rather than doing as I believe Dominic Cummings intended to do, which was to offer to come here at some point in the future, knowing full well that that could be one or two years later. Indeed, I do not believe that the conditions he set out in his initial email have yet been met, so he probably still would not come before the Committee, more than a year later. We have to consider whether that is in any way acceptable, because it massively impedes the work of parliamentary Committees if they cannot summon witnesses who are relevant to their inquiries. In his case, we were asking him to come here in direct response to evidence that the Committee had received that was relevant to him and to our inquiry. We had very strong grounds for asking him to come.
I am slightly concerned about one more thing, which was touched on earlier when my right hon. Friend Sir Hugo Swire mentioned Rupert Murdoch. There was a serious criminal inquiry into Vote Leave going on at the time that my hon. Friend is talking about. Surely he would have some sympathy if there was a danger that someone appearing before the Committee might prejudice their own defence, should a criminal investigation then occur.
Those conditions certainly applied in the case of Rupert Murdoch, because he was asked expressly what he knew about the practice of phone hacking at his newspapers, as was Rebekah Brooks, who gave evidence on the same day. That was a major part of the hearing. Those people could have used that excuse. There are different questions involved here. The right to non-incrimination for someone who is likely to face court proceedings and be charged with a particular offence, or who has already been charged, is already covered by the House’s sub judice rules. There are already clear rules in place for that. In this case, however, Mr Cummings had not been directly charged with an offence, although there were other ongoing investigations. As I have said, we agreed with other witnesses that there were certain things that we would not discuss as being on topic, so as not to interfere with other ongoing inquiries. Nevertheless, we managed to conduct a proper hearing with those witnesses and gain valuable evidence from them. There is no reason why that could not have been done in Mr Cummings’s case.
The argument that my hon. Friend is making is a curious one, because Dominic Cummings was the director of Vote Leave, and the investigation into Vote Leave was ongoing. As the former director of that organisation, it was obviously legitimate for him to be concerned that the investigation might be prejudiced, in much the same way as a Minister, while not being directly charged with anything, might nevertheless have concern for proceedings being made against the Government.
Well, it sort of depends on what Mr Cummings thought he was going to say and whether he thought he was likely to be in that position. As I have said, the Committee wished to discuss a range of issues and topics with him that were not at the time being expressly investigated by the Electoral Commission. Its investigation was largely to do with funding issues and the co-ordination between Vote Leave and other campaigns involved in the referendum. We had lots of questions about Vote Leave’s work with AggregateIQ and about its involvement in data analytics and the way data was being gathered, stored and used during the campaign that were highly relevant to our inquiry. He could have come in to discuss those issues. If there were no grounds for him not to appear, and he just did not want to appear, I do not believe that the House should accept that as an excuse.
Does my hon. Friend concede that there would be a difference if the gentleman in question had not wished to appear on account of prejudicing an ongoing inquiry with which he was associated, as against his not recognising the legitimacy of Parliament to summon him to appear? I suspect that in this case the latter applied, not the former, and that there might be a difference.
There is a difference. I do not believe that Mr Cummings ever accepted the legitimacy of Parliament to ask him to appear, which is a matter that we should take seriously in its own right. From the very start, it seemed clear that he thought he should give evidence on his own terms, in his own way, on his own dates—
And even to his own Committee, yes. He thought it was no business of ours to set parameters for the special ad hoc Committee of the House that should be assembled just to question Dominic Cummings. That is a ridiculous way for someone to behave when they have been asked to give evidence. If he had said at the beginning that he was willing to give evidence even though he did not want to discuss certain topics because of other investigations he was associated with, and that he would discuss other things, that would have been a very different matter. The Committee of Privileges might have taken a different view if that had been the case. It is interesting that he declined to give evidence to that investigation as well, even though it took place sometime after the event. This just shows his general contempt for the House and its practices. He feels that we have no business asking difficult questions or prying into his affairs, but I believe that that is our business and that we have a right to do that.
It is rare for the House to issue a summons—most witnesses come willingly—but when we legitimately seek to summon witnesses to give evidence to our inquiries, we should have that power, and when someone refuses and shows contempt for us, there should be a sanction and we should have a power to act further. Today’s debate is not the end of the discussion on whether Dominic Cummings should have appeared before the DCMS Committee; it is about how we can take this forward and formalise the powers of the House to ensure that we do not find ourselves in this position again.
I rise on behalf of the Scottish National party to support the resolution and to urge the House to vote for it, although sadly without any great hope or expectation that doing so will have a great deal of effect. Mr Speaker cautioned us at the beginning of this discussion to try to restrict our comments to the narrow business under consideration. I had wanted to put this question into the wider context of the debate on Brexit, and to consider the wider political questions, but I will not do that. I have taken Mr Speaker’s advice and, in my imagination, I have applied a blue pen to much of what I was going to say.
It is appropriate for us to note why the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee wanted to hear from Mr Cummings in the first place. It was because many of the concerns expressed about the Vote Leave campaign exemplified the concerns about fake news that it was holding an inquiry into. As I said, I shall not go into great detail about this, but we have to say as a matter of record that the Vote Leave campaign stands accused of engaging in lies, propaganda and wilful distortion of the facts. It is a fact that it has been found guilty by the Information Commissioner of breaking the regulations on the gathering of personal data. It is a fact that it broke the law and has been fined by the Electoral Commission on expenses. It would be legitimate for Mr Cummings to engage with the Committee to discuss those things, and his refusal to do so or to appear before the Committee—that is the reason why the motion has been tabled—suggests that he has something to hide or that he cannot mount a defence against the accusations that have been made, which should concern the House.
Hon. Members have said, and I think it is true, that we should be concerned about what admonishment actually means. What sort of sanction or leverage is it at the end of the day? I fear that it is not a very great one, and this instance and others should lead us to reflect on whether our procedures are adequate for House of Commons inquiries into matters of public concern, and whether we need additional powers, as many other countries have, to compel people to give evidence when that is in the public interest. I make no suggestion about how that might happen, but I want to put on the table a recommendation that it should happen.
Finally, we are entitled, without going into detailed political debate, to form opinions and draw conclusions about the intentions and attitude of Mr Cummings as described in the motion. Many colleagues and I watched the recent TV drama, “Brexit: The Uncivil War” which, to my mind, offered a generous and sympathetic portrayal of Dominic Cummings, suggesting that he was some sort of tortured genius—a radical, a free thinker and iconoclast; someone who wanted to engage in the noblest notions of sovereignty and democracy, and who would not debase himself for a moment in gutter politics. I am not sure that that is entirely the case.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the direction that Mr Speaker gave at the beginning of the debate was for an important reason? This is a serious discussion of an admonishment for someone’s failure to appear before a Committee. It should be about the facts of that decision not to appear or otherwise—
Order. I, too, know what was said, and I will be the judge of whether something stretches beyond or remains within the advice that Mr Speaker gave. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am listening carefully. At the moment, we have not stepped outside the limits, and Tommy Sheppard is coming towards the end of his speech. We all know that there are limits that we should not go beyond. To mention someone in passing is one thing, but I do not want to get into an argument about the weakness of examples. It is purely about privilege, and we certainly have not stepped outside those limits.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have been keeping an eye on you carefully to make sure that I do not stray beyond the bounds or limitations that were set. I shall conclude simply by saying that I have drawn my own opinions from what has happened in this case as to the character of Mr Cummings.
Perhaps the truth is rather more mundane. Perhaps he is, after all, just a posh boy from a privileged background who has a sense of entitlement that means he does not think he has to account to his peers for his actions. I fear that Michael Fabricant is correct. If we agree the motion, as we should, at Mr Cummings’s next dinner party it will be worn as a badge of honour, and he will continue in contempt of the House, because there are people of his class who regard democratic institutions such as this in precisely that way.
Along with many colleagues, I think that the Select Committee system is a good one, and it can only operate if we invite witnesses to give evidence. If they do not want to appear, we can summon them, so I think the debate is timely. It should not just be about one particular case or person but encompass the important issues alluded to by some of the previous speakers that revolve around the question of what is a compelling invitation and what is a sanction for those who refuse the invitation or the requirement that they should attend and answer questions.
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend so early in his speech, but I want to probe him on this. Earlier in the debate, Members discussed what happened in other countries—for example, the United States, where there are sanctions if someone does not appear before a House Committee. Then we get into a position whereby witnesses say to the Committee, “I am sorry, I won’t answer that because it might incriminate me.” Does my right hon. Friend think that we have to be careful lest we end up with that situation? It is about getting the balance right.
I agree that it is about balance. My hon. Friend has invited me to reach my conclusion before I have made my argument. However, cutting to part of the conclusion, yes, we do need to look at sanctions, and it would be good if as a result of this debate the relevant Committee considered practice in other good, democratic institutions around the world and looked at which were most effective. We need to be seen, as we are, as a serious body with every right to require any UK citizen to come here and explain themselves, and we need to be able to enforce that in a sensible and proportionate way. I do not think that our current enforcement is proportionate if someone has no good reason to refuse or deny.
I want to develop one or two exceptions to that rule. At the heart of this particular case is the issue of whether or not legal proceedings are under way that could in some way be prejudiced if the witness came here and spoke too widely about the things that the authorities were investigating. There is a sub judice rule. It is always a matter of judgment for any individual who faces that kind of proceeding, and it is also a matter of judgment for lawyers involved in prospective cases. I do not think that we should ignore that, as it could be an important part of this particular case, and can certainly be a crucial part of any future case. If someone has to answer because there is a general worry about their past conduct—I am not talking about Mr Cummings, I am talking about a future case—it is quite likely that there could be a legal inquiry, as well as the wish to have a parliamentary inquiry.
If we are going to have higher sanctions, as I suspect we should, we need to be even clearer about what are the legitimate legal grounds. That brings me to my next point. When people do something that is contentious for the wider public and for Members of Parliament, and which splits opinion in the country, there is a danger of too many inquiries. Suddenly, they are all across the media, and are on the front pages of the newspapers. Everyone is talking about them, and people chase the ambulance—they want to chase the excitement. There is a danger that there will be several Committees in this House wanting to conduct an inquiry into largely the same thing from different departmental perspectives. They may want to hone in on the same key witnesses, because they are so newsworthy at the moment. We may then be in a position where we overload potential witnesses, and get in the way of conducting a fair inquiry that can add to our understanding, rather than just adding to glamorous media reports of our involvement.
I know that my right hon. Friend is talking in general terms about a future case, but for the record, in this particular case involving Mr Cummings, Select Committees were not competing to ask him to come and give evidence. We were the only Committee that sought to invite him to appear, and we took advice from the House authorities on whether or not the concerns raised about other cases were relevant to our request.
I understand that, and I explicitly said that I was not talking about Mr Cummings in that part of my speech. This is about how we enforce in general, as well as being about the sanction that the House wishes to confirm in the motion against a particular individual. Certainly, Mr Cummings, Vote Leave and all the rest of it might have been subject to other inquiries, because there has been huge political interest in that both outside and inside the House, and it is a contentious matter. It is the kind of thing where there could be inquiry overload, with more heat, but not a lot of light. We need a period of calm reflection, as I know the Committee Chairman and others are undertaking, to think about a range of possibilities.
There are two issues to deal with before we think of intensifying our sanction regime. First, can a witness give a really good reason, because of some kind of legal advice or legal inquiry? We do not want to get in the way of proper inquiries into possibly serious crimes. Secondly, can we make sure that we do not contribute to chasing excitement, and often false allegations, because an individual is in the media spotlight? Where there is a serious interest, perhaps a lead Committee should take it up and handle that particular person.
It is also important to be fair between the different possible categories of witnesses. We have to bear in mind that an individual will not have the back-up, support and cover for legal and other costs that may be involved in being on the wrong end of an inquiry, whereas a representative of a great company will have enormous support and will have people writing parts of their evidence and drawing on the back data that is needed, and they will obviously have cover for legal expenses.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for mentioning the types of witnesses who appear before Select Committees. I simply want to put the record straight. Is he aware that Dominic Cummings’s father was an oil rig project manager, his mother was a special needs teacher and he went to Durham School? To categorise him, as Tommy Sheppard did, as some sort of “posh boy” is completely wrong.
It is always better to deal in facts than in general allegations or misdescriptions, so I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
The point I am making is that Committees should understand that an individual who does not work for a great corporation, who does not have a well-paid job or who is no longer part of an organisation does not have the same back-up and support as someone who is still the chief executive of a mighty company.
My right hon. Friend is making an important point. The chief executive of a big company will have a team of people to help them prepare their evidence, but that is not required. Committees well understand that a submission from a company might be different from a submission from a private individual. There are many private individuals who submit written evidence and who freely come to give evidence to Committees without any of that support. All we ask them to do is to come and talk about themselves. In fact, when they seek to give evidence, they have the same legal immunity and protection as members of the Committee do, so they do not have to worry about potentially incriminating themselves or taking legal advice before speaking out.
I was not going to conclude that we should stop asking people who do not have a well backed up job, but we need to understand, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that if we are asking an individual who was once in an important position, with all that back-up, to come and talk about events of a year or two years ago, and if they do not wish to mislead the Committee and they wish to be factually accurate, they will need somehow to get access to the records of their past institution and they will need to go through a lot of preparation, and they will have to do it all for themselves or spend their own money on getting advice and legal support.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to be mindful of the unintended consequences if we were to introduce a stronger sanction on witnesses for failing to appear? What if, for instance, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee were holding an inquiry into phone hacking and decided it would be newsworthy to force the parents of a murdered schoolchild to appear before the Committee? That would clearly be inappropriate, and it would clearly be inappropriate to use such a sanction in that situation.
That is another hard case I had not thought of, and it needs to be taken into account as we pursue this general issue of what would be a relevant sanction.
The third category of people is senior officials and Ministers who receive salaries from the public via the Government. I think they should be more answerable than anybody else, because they are, by definition, primarily remunerated by and spend much of their lives working for the Government and the public. I would have difficulties if we found that Committees could not get access to senior officials who work full time for the Government and the wider public or if, in certain cases, as my hon. Friend Damian Collins mentioned earlier, Ministers did not think they should be answerable to elected Assemblies because they thought it might be inconvenient to give more background or detail on the policies they have been pursuing or the decisions they have taken.
I would want to weight things a bit more heavily in favour of this House having extremely strong powers to demand the presence of senior officials and Ministers, who should not be able to refuse to answer, unless it is a state secret or a matter of national defence, just because it is embarrassing or might reveal that the Government have made a mistake or wasted a lot of money—as if those things never happen. It is our job to tease out those things, and to do so we need direct accountability.
Our Ministers are normally very good, and they have to be, because Mr Speaker or the Deputy Speakers will grant urgent questions, or there will be a statement or a Question Time at which Ministers have to come and give answers. Ministers also normally come to Select Committees. The system is not perfect, but it is rather less satisfactory with senior officials, and there have been occasions when Select Committees have found it quite difficult to get access to very senior officials who know a great deal that is of public interest and should not be secret.
From my memory of my past life as a Minister, there was a bit too much secrecy in government, and there was a feeling in the official machine that everything that happened before a Minister made a statement was somehow private, whereas I felt it was often better to explain some of it. If I had made a 51:49 call but had a lot of sympathy with the 49%, because it was a collective decision, I found it helpful to explain to the House that I could see both sides of the argument, that we had to come down on one side or the other but that it was a marginal call. That is helpful to the House, but sometimes Ministers seem to think that the 51% call has to be put up as the only possible answer and all other answers are stupid, which does not make for good inquiries or for a good understanding of the difficult and sometimes messy business of government, in which Ministers often make imperfect decisions on insufficient information because a decision has to be made.
Something good can come out of this incident, which may be a more general recognition by this House that we need a stronger sanction for anyone in future who has no good reason for turning down a requirement to come as a witness. We need all UK citizens to feel they should come unless there is a compelling legal reason, but we need to be sensitive to the different categories of witnesses, and we need to have proportionate and sensible responses, according to how powerful a witness is and how much access they have to support and legal advice.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for this early opportunity to debate the report of the Committee of Privileges, which we published last week, and for tabling a motion in the terms requested by the Committee. She was good enough to inform me that she is not able to be present in the Chamber this afternoon to move the motion, and I thank Paul Maynard for doing so and for supporting the Committee’s report.
This case has proved rather protracted, for reasons I will come to, but it is essentially a very simple matter, so I will try to keep my remarks as brief as possible. As the hon. Gentleman outlined, Mr Cummings failed to obey, first, an order of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee and, then, an order of the House itself to attend an oral evidence hearing. When the House referred this to the Privileges Committee as an alleged contempt, we agreed a resolution on process that is appended to our report. It is based on a resolution agreed by our predecessor Committee some years ago when considering the case of News International witnesses who were alleged to have committed a contempt by misleading a Select Committee. We have adhered strictly to the procedures set out in that resolution, even though it has had the effect of lengthening our inquiry.
We invited Mr Cummings to give oral evidence, but despite our giving him ample opportunity to agree a date, it proved impossible to do so. In an email to us, and again in his blog last week, Mr Cummings has made various mis-statements about this. I do not wish to detain the House unduly, but I want to put on public record a rebuttal of one or two of his assertions.
In his blog, Mr Cummings states, in relation to the date of a projected evidence session before the Committee of Privileges, as agreed in December:
“We tentatively agreed 31 Jan” but
“they cancelled the hearing in January and declined to reschedule it”.
Our report sets out what actually happened. At the start of December we offered Mr Cummings a selection of dates for a hearing in January. In response, Mr Cummings told us that he would “probably” come on
I wrote to Mr Cummings on
“helo ive just seen this, I will reply this afternoon”.
There was no further reply. On
In his blog, Mr Cummings states:
“My last letter to the Committee of 26/2 is below. I got no answer...”
That is quite untrue. On
At an earlier stage—this is similar to the experience of the DCMS Committee—Mr Cummings had insisted that all Members of Parliament taking part in the hearing should take an oath. I replied, pointing out that that would not possible; we were willing to administer the oath to him, at his own request, but the oath could be administered only to witnesses, just as in the law courts the judge and barristers do not take an oath. In his blog, he described that argument as “laughable”. He also says that the Committee
“replied that No, they didn’t want to promise to tell the truth and sadly they weren’t able to make such a promise(!) but would I come anyway”.
Those comments are completely fabricated. I will not continue outlining the exchanges; anyone who wishes to can read our full report, and the various letters and email exchanges published with it, and make up their own mind as to whether it was the Committee of Privileges or Mr Cummings who was behaving unreasonably.
Notwithstanding those responses from Mr Cummings, I want to assure the House that the Committee has done its very best to approach the case scrupulously. Our report assesses whether his conduct amounts to contempt of Parliament. It might seem obvious that a refusal to obey an order of the House, or of its Committees, is a contempt of Parliament. However, in certain exceptional circumstances it is conceivable that a prospective witness might be justified in declining to give evidence, if they have genuine grounds to fear that they would be treated unfairly, or that giving evidence might significantly prejudice future court proceedings against them.
The report considers the arguments advanced by Mr Cummings to see whether there were extenuating circumstances that might have justified his conduct, particular in relation to the risk of legal proceedings against him, which Government Members have mentioned today. The report concludes that the DCMS Committee had offered Mr Cummings a series of alternative dates for a hearing and that he had not supplied any evidence that he was at significant risk of criminal prosecution, or that suggested any significant flaw in that Committee’s inquiry or in its handling of witnesses. Legal inquiries into whether he or others might have been at risk of future criminal proceedings were assessed in the light of assurances that we received from regulators, which led us to understand that he himself was not facing criminal proceedings.
We agree with the DCMS Committee that Mr Cummings’s evidence would have been relevant to its inquiry—a few moments ago we heard more detail from the Committee’s Chair about why that would have been the case—and we agree that his refusal to attend was a significant interference with that Committee’s work. We conclude that he committed a contempt by his refusal to obey first the Committee’s order and then the House’s order. We recommend that he be admonished by resolution of the House, to be communicated to him by the Clerk of the House. We do not recommend the old practice of summoning him to the Bar, which we believe would merely give him an opportunity to grandstand. The motion before the House, in conjunction with the report that it approves, constitutes the admonishment. If agreed to, no further action by the House will be sought in this matter.
Finally—this point has been raised a number of times this afternoon—the report comments that
“the case of Mr Cummings has raised further questions as to the enforceability of the House’s powers and those of its committees to secure evidence”.
The Committee will therefore now return to its wider inquiry into these matters, referred to it in the previous Parliament, and we plan shortly to announce a series of oral evidence sessions. We hope to co-ordinate our inquiry with the Liaison Committee’s current inquiry into Select Committee effectiveness.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that excellent suggestion. I urge right hon. and hon. Member to submit their own evidence to the Committee—we will shortly publish details on how that can be done.
It has been apparent to all of us for some time that the current situation is unsatisfactory. I acknowledge that admonishment is a fairly feeble sanction against an individual who does not appear to feel a sense of shame at his own behaviour. The historical punishments used by the House—fining and imprisonment—have not been used for many years and, although they have not been abolished, it is highly unlikely that any attempt to use them now would survive legal challenge. None of the alternative options—they may be summed up as doing nothing, attempting to assert the House’s rights through resolutions or changes to the Standing Orders, or legislating to confer powers on the House—is without objection, which is why the problem is still with us; if there was an easy answer, something would have been done a long time ago.
Notwithstanding that, the Committee wishes to canvass options vigorously, including, as John Redwood suggests, by looking at how other legislatures around the world have dealt with the issue. We will focus not only on ways of strengthening sanctions, but at ensuring, as we have striven to do in this inquiry, that the House is fair and scrupulous in the way it treats witnesses. We intend to report to the House with proposals as soon as possible.
I will conclude by placing on the record my thanks to my colleagues on the Privileges Committee for their assistance in bringing the report to the House, to the Leader of the House for tabling the motion, and to the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, Paul Maynard, for introducing the debate. I urge the House to support the motion.
When Mr Speaker gave the admonishment from the Chair, it clearly had an impact on Tommy Sheppard, who I think thought that it was perhaps targeted at him, given the reference to not making long speeches about matters that are not pertinent to the motion we are debating. I must say that I felt that, rather as with Mona Lisa’s eyes, Mr Speaker was indeed looking directly at me, given his reference to taking a “liberal pen” and crossing out great swathes of a speech. I have therefore written my speech on the back of the Order Paper.
Absolutely—two minutes, or thereabouts.
This debate is clearly about the rights of the House and the consequences of failure to observe those rights. I am pleased that the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, Paul Maynard opened the debate, because I would have had some reservations had the Leader of the House done so. She of course has a connection with the Vote Leave campaign, and in the circumstances it might have been inappropriate for her to open the debate. We have heard from—
Order. We are discussing somebody who is not here. I do not think it is quite fair to suggest what that person would or would not do. The right hon. Gentleman would be right to stick to his two minutes about the subject, rather than go into matters relating to the Leader of the House.
Kate Green did a good job of setting out exactly how arrogant Mr Cummings has been in relation to the inquiry and the false allegations he has made about the way he has interacted with the Committee. His lack of accountability rather fits a pattern of a lack of accountability in relation to the whole Vote Leave issue. I know I am not allowed to speak about that at any great length, but given the role that she played, perhaps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should consider revisiting the appointment of Gisela Stuart as the chair of Wilton Park, which is in the business of promoting good governance around the world. Other key players in the campaign include the co-convenor of Vote Leave, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—
Order. We are not going to go through the people involved in the campaign. You were advised, Mr Brake, and you know much better than that. You are a much better politician and you do not want to test my patience or that of the House. Let us just move on with your two minutes.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Let me conclude. It is clear that the action the Committee has taken and that we are going to take today is entirely appropriate. As Damian Collins said, it will send a message to others. It would certainly send a message to others if we did nothing. As others have expressed today, I have doubts about whether the panoply of powers or punishments we have at our disposal is sufficient, but it is right that we pass this motion today.
This motion is about basic respect for Parliament, for individual Members of Parliament and for Select Committees. Under the exemplary leadership of Damian Collins, the DCMS Committee undertook an enormous task in carrying out the inquiry. Like all other Select Committees, the DCMS Committee is of course a cross-party group—we have Members from three separate political parties. We worked hard to produce two substantial reports that have been widely approved—by which I mean worldwide—and scrutinised very closely indeed. To obtain our evidence, we took oral evidence from a lot of individuals, many of whom were potentially under investigation, from businesses such as AggregateIQ, Cambridge Analytica and so forth. Under the Chair’s guidance, we exercised extremely seriously our responsibility to make sure that none of the individuals concerned, whom we thank for giving evidence, were prejudiced. We exercised judgment at different times about preventing evidence from being given that might in any way prejudice any other inquiries.
In response to that work, we have had the actions of this individual—I invite all Members present to look at the correspondence included in the two reports before the House—who shows utter contempt, first, for the Chairman of the Select Committee, which is completely uncalled for: and secondly, for the institution of Parliament. None of us here is anything without our office. We are elected to come here and to be impartial, honest and committed in the work that we undertake. All we ask for is basic human respect from those with whom we deal. If Members read the documentation and correspondence from this individual, they will see it is quite clear that he has utter contempt for Parliament, which is in many ways ironic.
We cannot allow to continue a situation in which individuals have such utter contempt. If, for example, during the period some years ago when I used to take part in magistrates courts proceedings and Crown court proceedings, this individual had corresponded with a judge in the terms in which he corresponded with the Chairman of the Select Committee and with Parliament, he would have ended up in the cells pretty sharpish. I am not suggesting that we do that, but I am interested in the work that is going to be undertaken from the position we are in, because frankly we need to put in place some form of procedure, which is not beyond the wit of man or, indeed, woman, to codify the process that needs to be followed in cases where Select Committees take important evidence. That is an urgent task, because we all undertake important work that we want to see done to the best of our abilities.
This is a case in which a contemptible person has behaved contemptuously towards this institution. He should be held properly accountable for that and a proper procedure should be put in place to make sure that the type of distain exhibited to this great Parliament should not be permitted again.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House—
(ii) endorses the conclusions of the Committee in respect of the conduct of Mr Dominic Cummings that the evidence sought by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee from Mr Cummings was relevant to its inquiry and that his refusal to attend constituted a significant interference with the work of that Committee;
concludes that Mr Cummings committed a contempt both by his refusal to obey the Committee’s order to attend it and by his subsequent refusal to obey the House’s Order of
and therefore formally admonishes him for his conduct.