Privileges committee will give Boris a fair hearing

Following recent negative comments on the Privileges Committee and confusion by some as to the procedure it will follow, the Committee is concerned to ensure clarity and transparency as to the fairness and effectiveness of this procedure. With the Committee’s agreement, I am taking the unusual step of explaining some of the issues that have been raised.

The Privileges Committee is the servant of the House of Commons. He is considering a question referred to him by the House regarding the conduct of Boris Johnson. The Committee cannot and does not act of its own volition. Rather, it derives the mandate for its investigations from resolutions of the House.

The question raised by some is whether this investigation should take place. This is a question for the whole House and not for the committee. Of course, members of the House have the right to ask the government to introduce a motion to end the investigation, but unless that happens and until that happens, committee business must continue.

Throughout the investigation, a transparent procedure will be rigorously followed. The Committee reviewed existing precedents and published a procedure prior to its deliberations so that the procedure is known to all.

It is not true, as some have asserted, that the Committee “lowered the bar” by not adopting the concepts of the Ministerial Code. The Ministerial Code is a completely separate process from this investigation and is different in both terminology and application.

It is important to distinguish contempt of the House from definitions and concepts used in court. Contempt of the House of Commons is not the same as contempt of court, more specifically, it is not the same as criminal contempt.

Therefore, it is inappropriate to compare the present investigation with analogies surrounding criminal offenses and the language of verdicts, guilt and innocence, or criminal sanction. There is, for example, no question of loss of freedom following this investigation.

Professor Bogdanor suggested that the investigation should “disprove [the] defence” put forward by Mr. Johnson. To do so, however, would be to break with precedent. The Committee does not assume any fact until proven by evidence. The Committee will not speculate on any aspect of the investigation and, in particular, will not speculate on whether a justification of the type suggested by Professor Bogdanor is contemplated.

The essentials of whether the House was misled, whether there was contempt and, if so, what sanction, if any, should be recommended have yet to be decided on the basis of evidence which have not yet been received. To paraphrase a well-known aphorism: “nothing is decided until everything is decided”.

If it is to reach credible conclusions and make informed recommendations, the Committee must be in possession of all the relevant evidence. He acknowledged that to do this he needs to hear testimony from those who might not want their identity known. It is not new that special committees of the House have to consider such a measure. The Committee has made it clear that it will seek expert advice on this matter to ensure fairness and natural justice, while ensuring that it can consider all relevant evidence as part of its investigation.

If there is contempt, the recommended sanction would take into account any personal knowledge and any demonstrated intent. The circumstances are many and varied and have not yet been established in this investigation. The Committee will not prejudge anything. It is evident that Committee members are the subject of what appears to be a sustained campaign of negative commentary, much of it seriously misguided. There is no reason for committee members to be subject to inappropriate pressure or intimidation for doing their work on behalf of the House.

At the end of its investigation, the Committee will report its conclusions and recommendations. It is then up to the House to decide whether to accept or reject the report and its recommendations.


The Right Honorable Ernest Ryder is the independent legal adviser to the Liens Committee throughout its investigation

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