Phone hacking: the next step

Amidst all the sound and fury around the interest-rate fixing scandal, a reminder that the phone hacking fandango hasn't gone away: the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee has just published details of its next moves on case of the individuals accused of misleading parliament by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and their approach could allow the tables to be turned.

In their last report into phone hacking, the Culture Committee included the finding that the committee had been misled by former News International staff, Les Hinton, Colin Myner and Tom Crone - and the Commons voted to refer the matter to S&P to decide its response.

That turns out to be more complicated that one might imagine. First the S&P note that the Commons has more or less renounced its "penal jurisdiction" - its power to jail people who offend it. Second, they make it clear that, if they uphold the verdict of the Culture Committee, they will not recommend any punishment beyond "admonishment" - a good telling-off. So no fines and no prison.

But note the key words: "should the committee find any of the allegations… to be proved…" In other words, S&P will re-investigate the Culture Committee investigation, rather than simply accept their conclusions as fact. It will launch into an elaborate process, verging on an appeal trial. The three accused will be invited to respond in writing and in person to the findings against them.

And "such submissions may include additional questions which the subjects of the inquiry consider should be explored with key witnesses or other relevant parties".

So S&P can cross examine the witnesses against them - and this wording may open the door to the questioning of the behaviour of Culture Committee members and the manner in which they reached their conclusions.

And there's another important quote: "When considering the allegations against the subjects of the inquiry, the committee will apply the same standard of proof as applied to allegations against members, as set out in the Procedural Note of 24 April 2012 from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards."

What this boils down to is that S&P is bending over backwards to ensure the three get a fair chance to rebut the allegations against them; the ancient procedures by which Parliament could once punish those who displeased it are not human rights-compliant, and, if exercised, could result in a swift and humiliating excursion to Strasbourg for the Commons authorities.

This may account for one of the interesting nuances of the Commons resolution which referred the case to S&P - the committee originally planned to ask the House to endorse its finding that the three had misled it; the resolution which was actually voted on noted that finding.

And the bottom line is that the accusers, the Culture Committee, may find themselves as much under the spotlight as the accused.

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