Acton and parliamentary privilege
May 10, 2012
Bishop Hill in Climate: Parliament, FOI

Steve McIntyre notes UEA's recent submission to an Information Tribunal hearing. McIntyre had pointed out that UEA's vice-chancellor, Edward Acton, had told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that the emails relating to the Wahl and Ammann affair were available. However, they told McIntyre that they no longer existed.

In their defence, the university invokes the principle of Parliamentary Privilege.

Mr Mclntyre makes allegations to the effect that evidence given by UEA’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Acton, to the STC as part of its inquiry into climategate was untrue. UEA does not accept that these allegations are well-founded. However, the doctrine of Parliamentary privilege in any event means that these are not allegations which can or should be countenanced by the Tribunal.

According the Guide for witnesses giving written or oral evidence to a House of Commons select committee, witnesses to select committee hearings are indeed covered by Parliamentary Privilege (emphasis in original).

Witnesses to select committees enjoy absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give, whether written or oral, provided that it is formally accepted as such by the Committee. Absolute privilege protects freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings; it is enshrined in statutory form in Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, which prohibits proceedings in Parliament from being called in question in any court. In practical terms this means that select committee witnesses are immune from civil or criminal proceedings founded upon that evidence; nor can their evidence be relied upon in civil or criminal proceedings against any other person.

Absolute privilege does not apply to written submissions which have been distributed or made available prior to being published by a committee.

However, the protections involved also appear to be something of a double-edged sword.

The protection which absolute privilege gives to those preparing written evidence and to witnesses must not be abused. In particular, witnesses should answer questions put to them by a committee carefully, fully and honestly. Deliberately attempting to mislead a committee is a contempt of the House, which the House has the power to punish.

Interesting times.

Update on May 10, 2012 by Registered CommenterBishop Hill

This Guardian article on contempt of Parliament is interesting, and helps explain why the committee might be in difficulties here.

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