Evidence from civil servants

38.35Civil servants frequently give evidence to select committees, although successive governments have taken the view that they do so on behalf of their Ministers and under their direction, and that it is therefore customary for Ministers to decide which official should represent them for that purpose.1 The Government issues guidance to civil servants appearing as witnesses before select committees, which is published.2 The guidance says that a Minister will usually agree to a request from a committee to take evidence from a particular named official, but retains the right ‘to suggest an alternative civil servant, or additional civil servant(s), to the person named by the Committee if the Minister believes that would be a better way to represent them’, and that if ‘there is no agreement about which official should most appropriately give evidence, the Minister can offer to appear personally before the Committee’.

The guidance, however, has not been approved by Parliament and has no parliamentary status. Although select committees have from time to time commented upon its provisions, they have never formally agreed to them.3

The guidance also says that ‘it is not the role of select committees to act as disciplinary tribunals'; where a committee is likely to ask a named official to give evidence about their personal responsibility or about the allocation of blame as between them and others—particularly where the official concerned is the subject of existing or possible internal inquiries or disciplinary proceedings—Ministers might want to suggest another official to give evidence instead.4 The guidance suggests that if committees require details of disciplinary proceedings which identify individuals, they should be given in confidence, after the proceedings are complete.


  1. 1. HC Deb (1985–86) 93, c 10W. From time to time Governments have taken the view that it would not be appropriate for certain officials to appear before select committees, eg ibid (1984–85) 76, c 13W (the Director General of the Security Service or members of his staff). See also ibid (1983–84) 92, cc 895–96. See also European Scrutiny Committee, Formal Minutes of Session 2017–19, 11 July 2018, where a named civil servant was formally summoned and attended.
  2. 2. Giving evidence to select committees (known as the ‘Osmotherly rules’), most recently issued in October 2014; for the history of the guidance, see Procedure Committee, First Report of Session 1977–78, HC 588, para 7.12; Procedure Committee, Second Report of Session 1989–90, HC 19, para 155; Treasury and Civil Service Committee, Fifth Report of Session 1993–94, HC 27, para 130; Public Service Committee, Second Report of Session 1995–96, HC 313, para 72; Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2004–05, HC 419, paras 124–32.
  3. 3. Second Report of the Procedure Committee, Session 1989–90, HC 19, para 155.
  4. 4. For the background to these commitments see Cm 78, pp 4–5; HC 100 (1986–87); Cmnd 9916, para 44; HC 519 (1985–86); HC 62 (1986–87).