MPs urged to decide whether to act over phone-hacking evidence

Culture select committee requests action over three News International executives who gave it misleading evidence

The Commons committee on standards is being pressed to decide what action parliament should take against three leading News International executives alleged to have misled the culture select committee about their knowledge of phone hacking.

The request by the culture select committee last week is a test case for parliament on how it will respond if witnesses are judged to have knowingly misled a parliamentary inquiry.

The culture select committee in May 2012 found that three executives, Les Hinton, Tom Crone and Colin Myler, and News International had misled the committee by giving false or misleading evidence, findings broadly denied by those concerned.

The report by the select committee was endorsed by the Commons in May 2012. MPs decided without a vote and after a short debate to refer the committee report to the commons standards and privileges committee. That committee has said it will look at the possibility of admonishing the witnesses. The 2012 select committee report found:

• Les Hinton, the former News International chief executive, “misled the committee in 2009 in not telling the truth about payments to [the jailed former News of the World royal editor] Clive Goodman and his role in authorising them, including the payment of his legal fee”.

• Tom Crone, the company’s former legal affairs manager, “misled the committee in 2009 by giving a counter-impression of the significance of confidentiality in the [Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive] Gordon Taylor settlement … and sought to mislead the committee about the commissioning of surveillance”.

• Crone and the former NoW editor Colin Myler “misled the committee by answering questions falsely about their knowledge of evidence that other News of the World employees had been involved in phone-hacking and other wrongdoing”.

• The News of the World and News International “corporately … misled the committee about the true nature and extent of the internal investigations they professed to have carried out in relation to phone hacking”.

It was agreed no action against the three should be taken pending decisions by the courts whether to pursue further criminal charges against them.

In July 2012 the standards committee agreed to seek written evidence from the News International executives pending the start of oral evidence sessions in which the accused would be entitled to be legally represented. Most of the evidence sessions would be heard in public.

The committee also agreed a procedure by which those charged with potential contempt could hear the potential charges against them. The standard of proof would be the same as set during a case against an MP or peer. It was agreed no hearing should go ahead if the DPP said it might prejudice a pending criminal inquiry.

The Crown Prosecution Service announced at the beginning of this month that it was to take no action against News International lawyer Tom Crone on potential charges to hack phones and pervert the course of justice.

“It has been agreed for years that the punishment for misleading a parliamentary inquiry and so committing a contempt requires updating. In theory both Houses can summon a person to the bar of the House to reprimand them or order a person’s imprisonment.”

The last time a non-member was reprimanded at the bar of the House was in 1957, when the editor of the Sunday Express, John Junor, was rebuked for some remarks he had printed about MPs and petrol rationing in the aftermath of Suez.

Erskine May states witnesses who have prevaricated, given false evidence, wilfully suppressed the truth or persistently misled a committee have been considered guilty of contempt of parliament.

The recent inquiry by the joint select committee on parliamentary privilege warned against imposing a fine against someone found guilty of misleading parliament, fearing this might require the civil courts to pursue the individual for the fine. Many MPs are reluctant to allow the civil courts to intervene in the activities of parliament.

Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the public administration select committee suggested it might be necessary for the standards committee to give any individuals alleged to have misled a select committee a chance to defend themselves in front of an independent body, probably with some of the evidence being heard in public.

He added it was also possible the reputational damage to a businessman found to have misled parliament would be sufficiently damaging that it might not be necessary to impose a fine.

Contributor

Patrick Wintour, political editor

The GuardianTramp

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