Guide for Witnesses

Introduction

1. This is intended as a general guide to giving written or oral evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons. Although other Select Committees, to whom this guide also applies, may take evidence, most witnesses will be giving evidence to one of the Select Committees related to Government Departments, established under Standing Order No. 152. Their terms of reference are to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the relevant Government department(s) and associated public bodies.

Inquiries

2. Within its terms of reference, a Committee chooses its own subjects of inquiry. Depending on the subject, external deadlines, and the amount of oral evidence the Committee decides to take, an inquiry may last for several months and give rise to a report to the House; other inquiries may simply consist of a single day's oral evidence which the Committee may publish without making a report.

Invitations to submit Evidence

3. When a Committee has chosen an inquiry it normally issues a press notice outlining the main themes of inquiry and inviting interested parties to submit written evidence. A Committee may also identify possible witnesses and issue specific invitations to them to submit written evidence. The House gives almost all Select Committees the power to send for "persons, papers and records". They therefore have powers to insist upon the attendance of witnesses and the production of papers and other material. These formal powers are rarely used.

Written Evidence

General

4. As a Committee's time for taking oral evidence is limited, all witnesses, even those whom a Committee expects to invite to give oral evidence, are encouraged to submit written evidence; this not only makes oral evidence hearings more productive, as Members have the witnesses' statements in front of them, but also means that if witnesses are not called to give oral evidence a Committee still has the benefit of their views.

Content

5. Written evidence should contain, if appropriate, a brief introduction to the persons or organisations submitting it (perhaps stating their area of expertise, etc.), and any factual information they have to offer from which the Committee might be able to draw conclusions (or which could be put to other witnesses for their reactions). It is also helpful to include any recommendations for action by the Government or others which the witnesses would like the Committee to consider for inclusion in its report to the House.

Form

6. There are no rules about the form written evidence should take; what follows is simply guidance based on what Committees have found useful in the past. If written evidence is very brief, it can be sent as a letter, but otherwise it is helpful for the evidence to be in the form of a self-contained memorandum, with any request to give oral evidence, etc., in a covering letter. If longer than one page, memoranda should have numbered paragraphs (if a memorandum is later printed, page numbers will change, so it is helpful to be able to refer to paragraph numbers). If long, a memorandum should include a one-page summary of the main points, and a table of contents.

Confidentiality

7. If witnesses wish the whole, or part, of their evidence to remain confidential to the Committee, they should state this clearly in their covering letter, giving reasons and, if necessary, discussing the matter with the Clerk. The decision on whether to accede to that request is a matter for the Committee itself.

Supplementary Material

8. Supplementary material (leaflets, articles from periodicals, etc.) may also be sent, but it is helpful if the memorandum itself is self-contained (summarising the main points made in the supplementary material if necessary). This is because material published elsewhere is not usually reprinted by Committees.

Electronic Submission

9. The preferred form of submission is by e-mail attachment to the Committee's mailbox address as set out in the Press Notice, and shown on the Committee's website. It should be in MS Word or Rich Text format; this makes it easier should the Committee decide to print the memorandum, and produces more accurate copy . Memoranda can also be submitted on a disk. If a memorandum is submitted by e-mail, a letter should also be sent validating the e-mail.

Hard Copy

10. Memoranda can also be sent in hard copy. It is helpful for future copying if the evidence is simply stapled together rather than put in any complicated type of binding. Material printed in colour should be avoided as much as possible; graphs in particular should not rely on colour to indicate different data series. Submissions should be sent to either the Clerk of the Committee or the Committee Assistant, as instructed in the Press Notice.

Timetable

11. A timetable for the submission of written evidence is usually set out in the invitation for evidence or agreed with the Committee. It is almost always required at least a week before the date fixed for a related oral evidence session.

Publication

12. Once written evidence has been sent in, it is for the Committee to decide the manner and timing of its publication and the Committee's permission (which is often given) is required if witnesses wish to distribute or publish it before the Committee has decided to do so. Witnesses should therefore consult the Clerk in advance if they wish to publish their evidence (there is no objection to witnesses simply outlining the views expressed in it). If witnesses give oral evidence, copies of their written evidence will usually be made available to press and public at the hearing, and may thereafter be treated as in the public domain. Written evidence which is not the subject of a hearing may not be published until considerably later, or at all. (The restriction on publication does not, of course, apply to material already published elsewhere which is simply sent to the Committee for information and which will not normally be reprinted by the Committee.)

Privilege

13. All written evidence which the Committee decides to publish is protected by absolute privilege, in accordance with the provisions of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840. This statutory privilege does not apply to memoranda distributed or published prior to publication by the House or by or under its authority. A Committee is not bound to accept unsolicited material.

Oral Evidence

Place

14. Oral evidence sessions usually take place in one of the committee rooms at the House of Commons or in Portcullis House. It is not normally possible to confirm the room number until the end of the preceding week. On the day of the meeting room numbers are displayed in the Central Lobby and on lists in the Committee Corridors. Entrance to the House is through St. Stephen's Entrance, opposite Westminster Abbey (see map): entrance to Portcullis House is from the Victoria Embankment. Disabled access is via New Palace Yard. As much notice as possible should be given to Committees if such access is required.

Time to arrive

15. No special passes are required for witnesses but at least ten minutes should be allowed to get through the security arrangements. (Witnesses should identify themselves as such and ask to be directed to the committee room). Sometimes Committees take evidence from more than one set of witnesses successively at a single meeting; in this case it is helpful if the witnesses to be called second attend the whole of the hearing so that if necessary they can be asked for their comments on the earlier evidence.

Identity of Witnesses

16. If the witness is an organisation, Committees often leave it to the organisation to decide which of its members or staff should represent it at the hearing; the Clerk is willing to advise if necessary. Committees may, however, request the attendance of specific individuals or post holders. The names (including the forename by which they are usually known) of those who will be attending to answer questions, with their proper titles within the organisation, should be sent to the Committee if possible one week before the evidence session. (It is not necessary to list those who will be accompanying the witnesses either to watch them or to pass them information.) Although Committees try to meet witnesses' wishes, it is very difficult to accommodate more than six witnesses at a time.

Likely questions

17. In order to assist witnesses to prepare for the session, and with the agreement of the Committee, the Clerk of the Committee may be able to give, in advance, some informal indication of possible lines of inquiry, but witnesses should not expect Members to restrict themselves to these. Committees may also be able to provide witnesses (for their private use) with uncorrected copies of evidence already given. Committees try to inform witnesses in advance when some research or gathering together of information or views might be necessary.

Public/Private

18. Committees nearly always take evidence in public; representatives of the press will usually be there and the proceedings are often recorded for broadcast on radio or television. If there are particular reasons why a witness wants to give some or all of the evidence in private, the Clerk should be approached about this at an early stage.

Opening Statement

19. Although Committees sometimes ask witnesses for a brief opening statement, they should not rely on being able to make one, and such a statement should, if desired, be included in the written evidence. If a witness does not have immediately available the information to answer a question, Committees may ask for further information to be submitted in writing afterwards.

Powers

20. Committees have the power to require witnesses to answer questions but, in practice, evidence-taking before Committees is conducted with a degree of informality and the wide powers of the House to require a witness to co-operate are seldom used. If witnesses consider that a particular question is unfair, or that they are not the appropriate people to answer it, or that they would like time to consider the answer or to seek advice they may appeal to the Chair. However, if a Committee, collectively, considers that the question is proper, the witnesses must attempt to answer it.

Privilege &c.

21. Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689 provides "That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament." This provision remains the law of the land. It ensures that witnesses have absolute privilege in parliamentary proceedings and are not liable in the courts for the answers they give to the questions put to them. This protection must not be abused. 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.

Evidence on Oath

22. A Committee has power to take evidence on oath. This rarely happens but if the procedure is used witnesses are liable to the laws of perjury.

Matters before a Court

23. When giving evidence in public to a Committee witnesses should take care not to comment on matters currently before a court of law. The same consideration may apply in certain cases where court proceedings are imminent. If witnesses think this is likely to be a problem or that the evidence they may give is likely to breach an injunction or order of a court of law, they should discuss the matter in advance with the Clerk of the Committee.

Proceedings

24. Members sit around a horseshoe table, with the Chairman at the centre; the witnesses sit at a straight table at the end of the horseshoe; their assistants may sit immediately behind. The other seats behind are for the public. There are sometimes microphones around the table; these are to record the proceedings (for broadcasting or to assist with the transcript), and do not make voices louder; witnesses are therefore encouraged to speak up. It is also appreciated if witnesses make their answers reasonably brief. When hearings have been recorded for television purposes, unedited video recordings may subsequently be purchased through the Parliamentary Recording Unit (0207219 5511).

Publication of Uncorrected Transcripts

The Committee's practice is for all transcripts of oral evidence to be placed uncorrected on the internet as soon as they are available.  Please let the Clerk of the Committee know as soon as possible if you have any objection to this.

Transcript

25. A few days after the hearing, witnesses will be sent, normally by e-mail, a transcript of what was said, so that they can correct it and identify any supplementary information asked for by members of the Committee. The transcript will be accompanied by a letter giving details of the very limited sorts of corrections which are acceptable and the time within which they should be sent. Failure to keep to the timetable for corrections may mean that the evidence is published without correction. It is helpful if any supplementary material can be sent in at the same time as the corrections.

Expenses

27. Witnesses may apply to recover expenses necessarily incurred in attending the Committee's meeting, but this does not extend to full loss of earnings. Any witness wishing to submit a claim should apply to the Committee Assistant in advance of the meeting. Please note that it may not always be possible to meet the expenses of witnesses, particularly those attending from overseas.

Reports

28. When a Committee has concluded its inquiry and agreed a report it may decide to issue embargoed copies up to 48 hours in advance of publication. Instructions for obtaining such copies will be sent to those concerned, normally in the press notice announcing publication. The Committee may also decide to hold a Press Conference. While these are primarily for the press they are held in public and witnesses may attend. Details are normally given at the same time as publication is announced.