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Financial Times: Notebook: Swearing blind in the Commons

By Sue Cameron
Published: August 28 2007 19:20 | Last updated: August 28 2007 19:20

As the political circus starts up again, stand by for more suggestions on how Gordon Brown can meet his pledge to “rebalance power between parliament and government”. One idea from Quentin Letts, writing in The Observer, is that witnesses to Commons select committees should be forced to give evidence on oath – as happens in the US and New Zealand. Make witnesses realise that parliament is a high court and that they should stand in awe of it, says Mr Letts.

Good idea – yet MPs do not need a new initiative from the prime minister to start swearing in witnesses. They already have the power to do so, even though they hardly ever use it. The most recent example I could find was in 1988 when the trade and industry select committee was investigating petrol sales. MPs on the committee found Shell and the Petroleum Retailers Association contradicting each other on key pieces of evidence – so much so that Tory Sir Kenneth Warren, then the committee’s chairman, warned them that they were “bound on pain of contempt of the House of Commons to give truthful answers to all questions”. He added that the committee had power to put them on oath if necessary.

A few weeks later it did just that. Top executives from Shell and the PRA were sworn in and tough, courtroom-style interrogations followed. Some of the executives were less than convincing. One Shell man tried desperately to distinguish between “influencing” prices and “manipulating” them. Another tied himself in knots trying to explain why Shell penalised garages that sold its competitors’ products. The oilmen were made to sweat, though they were not threatened with fines or imprisonment – traditional sanctions of the High Court of Parliament.

David Kelly, the weapons expert, took no oath when he appeared before the foreign affairs select committee in 2003 but Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay famously reminded him that he was in the High Court of Parliament. Mr MacKinlay was seen – perhaps unfairly – as attacking Mr Kelly, who later killed himself over the Iraq dossier scandal. Evidently Mr MacKinlay’s real aim was to attack Ministry of Defence officials and the government for using Mr Kelly as a decoy.

Civil servants and the government would feel the fallout more than outsiders if witnesses before MPs were regularly put on oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Officials, fearful of perjuring themselves, would find it harder to protect incompetent ministers, which might mean a real strengthening of parliament’s powers to call government to account. All that is needed is MPs with the balls to use existing powers more often.

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