IN COMMITTEE : Rules of Engagement

The question I am most commonly asked with regard to select committees is, “If I have to appear before one, what are the rules of engagement?”
The first thing to know is that, when giving evidence before committee, you are expected to be both respectful and to tell the truth. Most people who get in trouble before committee do so because they do not demonstrate the degree of respect required. You may think that politicians are scum of the earth types – total tossers – but you’d be well advised not to let on. These guys can get mean.
As witness, you have absolute freedom of speech without any fear of facing defamation proceedings. Indeed you are protected by Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1688 in precisely the same way as Member of Parliament is protected. But couple of words of warning here. The law does not protect you if you repeat actionable statements outside Parliament, or even if you simply confirm that you stand by what you said before the committee.
Some years ago Member told journalist that he did not “resile” from what he had said in the House. He was sued and has now long since retired; however the politicians and the courts have still not laid the matter to rest.
If you decide to use the protection of Parliament to let fly, just know that the target of your vitriol will almost certainly receive the right of reply, and you might well find that your own reputation is in for thorough trashing.
A committee can require witness to give evidence on oath. This is an infrequent procedure but if it is used, such witnesses are subject to the laws of perjury and face the possibility of criminal prosecution.
Most witnesses appear before select committee either because they have sought the right to be heard, or because they hold some position that requires them to appear to give an account of their stewardship. However, committee can call for persons, papers and other evidence. And don’t think that you can duck out of it when summoned. Note, too, that if you are summoned, it is you that the committee wants to see. Neither you nor your employer has any right to second guess the committee.
Most evidence is heard in open session where the news media may – and Select Committee News most certainly will – report on what you have to say. There are, however, provisions for hearings in private or secret and you may apply to be so heard.
Private and secret are not the same thing. Evidence given in private is not open to the public or available to the media and remains confidential until the Committee reports to the House. Evidence given in secret may not be so disclosed. The House can, however, authorise disclosure. You have the right to ask to be heard in private or secret.
If you do ask to be heard in private or secret, you are required to give reasons for doing so. It is also worth keeping in mind that you can request to be heard in private or secret at any time while you are appearing before the committee. This would normally only happen when questioning strayed into areas which you could not reasonably have anticipated at the outset. decision by committee to hear evidence in either private or secret must be unanimous.
When you give evidence before committee, you may be accompanied by legal counsel of your choice and you may consult them throughout the hearing. Your lawyer can also get involved in proceedings to certain degree. He or she can make oral submissions on your behalf (providing Members agree) and may object to certain lines of questioning. So, if you want counsel to hold your hand, that is your right.
That said, you should know that Parliament is full of former Perry Masons who are itching to remind their colleagues of just how sharp they used to be in the court room. Generally speaking, matters proceed in more relaxed manner without Counsel present. It also saves on legal bills.
Finally, before report is presented to the House, the committee must distinguish between an adverse finding that is simple criticism and one that may seriously damage person’s reputation. In the latter case, if you are the subject of the finding, the committee must inform you of it, give you reasonable opportunity to respond to the findings, and take your response into account before finally reporting to the House.
Providing you remember all of the above, your appearance before the select committee should be breeze.

Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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