55 The House may treat as contempt any act or omission which:
- Obstructs or impedes the House in the performance of its functions; or
- Obstructs or impedes any member or officer of the House in the discharge of the member's or officer's duty; or
- Has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such a result. (SO 399)
Examples of conduct which may comprise contempt include refusing to answer a question as ordered by the House or a committee, and divulging the proceedings or the report of a select committee or a subcommittee contrary to Standing Order 400.
56 Witnesses or advisers who knowingly mislead a committee can be proceeded against by the House for contempt. In addition, committees have the power to receive evidence under oath, which leaves a witness who deliberately misleads a committee open to a charge of perjury under s 108 of the Crimes Act 1961.
57 The Government expects officials to cooperate with select committees and to provide full and accurate information to them within the framework (described at paras 7-17 above). However, Standing Orders state that a witness may object on any ground to answering a relevant question from the select committee and will be invited to state the ground of the objection. Grounds for objection might include those set out in paragraphs 28 and 29. The committee may then choose not to press the question. Otherwise, the select committee will consider in private whether to insist upon an answer, having regard to the importance to its proceedings of the information sought.
58 The witness will be informed if the committee decides to insist on an answer, and is then formally required to answer the question. The committee may decide that, in the public interest, the answer will be heard in private or in secret (see paras 35 to 37). When a witness declines a formal requirement to answer, the committee may report this fact to the House. 23
59 The House needs to get free and frank answers and evidence from those who appear before its select committees. This is more likely to happen if officials appearing as witnesses or advisers are not in fear of retaliatory action from their employing agency or from their Minister.
60 Parliamentary proceedings are subject to absolute privilege, to ensure that those participating in them, including witnesses before select committees, can do so without fear of external consequences. The protection, enshrined in the Bill of Rights 1688, is an essential element in ensuring that Parliament can exercise its powers freely on behalf of its electors. There must be no pressure placed on those appearing before a select committee, in order to deter them from giving advice or evidence, nor should action be taken against them as a direct consequence of their giving evidence. Such conduct could be punished by the House as a contempt. Standing Orders 399-400 set out a general statement and particular, non exhaustive, examples of conduct that may comprise contempt.
61 The House's power to punish for contempt is, however, discretionary, and it is not automatic that conduct falling within the Standing Orders will comprise contempt. Committees are likely to take account of the circumstances in which officials give evidence or advise them in determining whether a contempt situation arises. These circumstances could include the conduct of any official in parliamentary proceedings and the nature of the action taken against an official on account of that person's parliamentary conduct.
62 The absolute nature of Parliamentary privilege should not be regarded as giving officials any leeway to ignore the processes and expectations for their conduct set out in this Guidance. For example, an official who appears before a select committee on behalf of, or in association with, a State sector agency and Minister, but who flouts the law and conventions of accountability, can expect that there may be a resulting loss of confidence in him or her. In addition, an official who provides unjustifiable or irresponsible evidence may have it rejected by the committee under the Standing Orders.
23 Standing Orders 228 and 229. See also Report of the Standing Orders Committee, ibid, Chapter VIII.