Fears that on the runs inquiry may not be able to compel reluctant witnesses

Palace of Westminster
Palace of Westminster

There are fears that Westminster’s On The Runs’ inquiry may not be able to compel unwilling witnesses such as Tony Blair and Gerry Kelly to give evidence in public.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into the ‘letters of comfort’ to IRA fugitives has spent months questioning senior political, judicial and police figures who were involved in the hidden scheme.

It had been widely assumed that as a Parliamentary inquiry, the investigation by MPs would be able to compel all those who it thought had information which would help it get to the truth of what happened. But one well-placed source has now raised questions about the committee’s ability to compel witnesses after the reluctance of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the outright refusal of Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly to attend.

Other sources have played down the concerns and suggested that the committee will at least be able to secure Mr Blair’s attendance as it would be highly embarrassing for a former Prime Minister to even be summoned to a committee.

Erskine May, the ‘Parliamentary bible’, states that “failure to attend a committee when formally summoned is a contempt and if a witness fails to appear, when summoned in this manner, his conduct is reported to the House … If he still neglects to appear, he will be dealt with as in other cases of disobedience”.

But the sanction is long out of use, with committees almost invariably securing witnesses’ cooperation with the threat of contempt proceedings.

The constitutional implications came close to being tested in 2011, when media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his son James initially refused to attend its inquiry into the phone hacking scandal. The Commons Media Committee issued a summons which was served on News International’s Wapping headquarters. Within hours, the men had agreed to attend the committee.

But in the wake of that high-profile test of Parliament’s authority, questions were raised about whether the Murdochs could have been compelled to attend, had they dug in their heels.

A report by Richard Gordon QC and Amy Street in 2012 warned that, in their view, Parliamentary select committees do not have the power to compel witnesses or punish those who refuse to attend and that “poses a threat to the legitimacy of select committees”.

The lawyers’ report for the Constitution Society said that “any enforcement powers claimed by Parliament to fine or imprison have not been exercised for hundreds of years and it is doubtful whether they can properly be said to exist in current times”.