38.33As noted above, the general practice of select committees is to request witnesses to give evidence to them by means of an informal invitation issued through their Clerks or the Chair of the committee. Such requests are almost always complied with, so that committees seldom use their formal powers to summon individuals, preferring to keep them in reserve. When a select committee has the power to send for persons, that power is unqualified,1 except to the extent that it conflicts with the privileges of the Crown and of Members of the House of Lords, or with the rights of Members of the House of Commons.

When a committee decides to summon a witness formally, the witness is summoned to attend the committee by an order signed by the Chair.2 Failure to attend a committee when formally summoned is a contempt and if a witness fails to appear when summoned, their conduct is reported to the House.3 If in the meantime the witness appears before the committee, the order for their attendance has been discharged;4 but if the person summoned still neglects to appear, they will be dealt with as in other cases of disobedience to an order of the House (see para 11.19 ff).5


  1. 1. For the position in respect of witnesses overseas, see para 38.39. If a witness whose attendance is desired by the House or by a select committee is serving a term of imprisonment, the Speaker may be asked to issue their warrant, which is personally served upon the appropriate person responsible for the prisoner's custody by a messenger of the Serjeant at Arms and by which they are directed to cause the prisoner to be brought to the House to be examined, CJ (1940–41) 9; for the case of a Member in custody, see ibid (1939–40) 227. For examples of a prisoner attending a select committee, see Report of the Select Committee on Conduct of Members, Session 1976–77, HC 490, xxii; Education, Science and Arts Committee, Minutes of Evidence, Session 1982–83, HC 45-II, 128 ff.
  2. 2. Second Report of the Energy Committee of Session 1982–83, HC 135 (Pit Closures); Energy Committee, Minutes of Proceedings of Session 1982–83, 24 November 1982, HC 392; Welsh Affairs Committee, Formal Minutes of Session 2009–10, 24 November 2009.
  3. 3. A witness who has been reported to the House by a committee for his failure to attend has been ordered to attend the committee, CJ (1920) 263.
  4. 4. CJ (1836) 352.
  5. 5. See Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Third Report of Session 2017–19, Failure of a witness to answer an Order of the Committee: conduct of Mr Dominic Cummings, HC 1115; also see Privileges Committee, Session 2016–17, Select committees and contempt inquiry, Written evidence from the Clerk of the House of Commons, February 2017.