Premature publication or disclosure of committee proceedings

38.56Any disclosure of written evidence or a committee's internal working papers which has not been authorised by the committee may be treated as a contempt.1 In particular, disclosure of a draft report which has been submitted to a committee, before such a report has been agreed to by the committee and presented to the House,2 may be treated as a contempt (see para 15.10 ).

The former Committee on Standards and Privileges, in its privileges role, has stated that any Member or other person who receives an unauthorised copy of a select committee report before its publication should return it without delay to the Clerk of the select committee and should make no use of it.3 In the event of premature disclosure of the content of a report which a committee has under consideration, or which it has agreed but not yet published, certain procedures should be followed:

  1. the committee should carry out its own investigation to try to discover the source of a leak, in particular by formally asking all members of the committee and the committee's staff if they can explain how the leak came about;
  2. the committee should decide whether or not the leak constitutes a substantial interference, or the likelihood of such, with the work of the committee, with the select committee system or with the functions of the House;
  3. it should inform the Liaison Committee, so that it may take a view;
  4. in the light of the views of the Liaison Committee it should make a special report to the House to that effect, outlining the action it has taken and the conclusions it has reached;
  5. such a special report would automatically be referred to the Committee of Privileges without a debate in the House: it is then for that Committee to consider the matter and make a report to the House, whereupon the House would consider its recommendations.4

The Speaker has declined to permit more than passing reference to matters under consideration by the Committee of Privileges during debates on the subject-matter of leaked reports.5

In 1999, two inquiries into disclosures of committee papers resulted in identification of the Members concerned, who were suspended by the House.6 The Committee of Privileges had previously stated that it retained the right to recommend a severe judgment against any Member or other person who, by a breach of trust or otherwise, chose to inflict serious damage on a select committee by making possible the premature publication of its proceedings.7 However, the House has tended to be reluctant in modern times to exercise its penal powers against those who give wider publicity to unauthorised disclosures.8

Footnotes

  1. 1. For the position with regard to oral evidence, see SO No 136 and para 38.41. For a complaint of contempt involving evidence taken in private, see Committee of Privileges, Second Report of Session 1967–68, HC 357 and CJ (1967–68) 361. For a complaint involving a ‘heads of report’ paper, see Standards and Privileges Committee, Seventh Report of 2008–09, HC 501-I. For a complaint involving legal advice given to the European Scrutiny Committee, see Committee on Standards and Privileges, Twentieth Report of Session 2007–08, HC 1212. Written evidence already circulated to third parties before being sent for by a committee may be referred to in the House or elsewhere before being reported, notwithstanding that it was marked confidential on reaching the committee (HC Deb (1984–85) 69, cc 349–50, 351). See also Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, ss 1 and 2 which oblige local authorities to make publicly available papers—which may include draft memoranda to be submitted to select committees—under consideration at public meetings of the authority.
  2. 2. CJ (1831–32) 360.
  3. 3. Eighth Report of Session 1998–99, HC 607. The House approved the Report, CJ (1998–99) 433.
  4. 4. For a full description of this procedure and its application in a particular case, see the Second Report of the Privileges Committee of Session 1984–85, HC 535, the Second Special Report of the Environment Committee of Session 1985–86, HC 211 and the First Report of the Privileges Committee of Session 1985–86, HC 376.
  5. 5. HC Deb (1998–99) 326, c 889.
  6. 6. Session 1998–99, HC 607, paras 19, 31 and Appendix 2; and HC 747, CJ (1998–99) 433, 516. For the Special Reports from the Committees concerned, see Session 1998–99, HC 293, 365 (Foreign Affairs Committee); HC 482 (Social Security Committee). See also Committee of Privileges, Second Report of Session 2016–17, Unauthorised disclosure of a draft Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, HC 672.
  7. 7. First Report of Session 1989–90, HC 117, p vi, para 11.
  8. 8. The Committee of Privileges recommended (First Report of Session 1975–76, HC 22) that the editor of a weekly journal in which a disclosure was published and the journalist who wrote the article should be excluded from the precincts for six months. The House rejected the recommendation (CJ (1975–76) 64), and no legislation has been enacted to enable the House to fine offenders, as the Committee believed appropriate to the case. In 1985–86, the Committee recommended the temporary exclusion from the precincts of a journalist in similar circumstances, and the reduction for a time of the number of Lobby passes available to the newspaper (Session 1985–86, HC 376). Again, the House took a different view (CJ (1985–86) 374).