Trevor Phillips gets away with a slapped wrist but Peers clearly think he got away lightly

Just before the last Parliament was dissolved the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) became convinced that Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, had behaved improperly in trying to nobble members of the Committee in an attempt to water down the Committee’s criticism of his stewardship of the Commission.  As a result, they referred him for investigation by the Privileges Committee to consider whether he had committed Contempt of Parliament (which in the old days – and for all I know now – could be punished by imprisonment in the clock tower under Big Ben).

The Privileges Committee report was considered this afternoon by the full House of Lords.  The Committee’s finding was that Trevor Phillips had behaved in a way that was “inappropriate and ill-advised” but concluded that he was not guilty of Contempt – at least in part because his lobbying had been ineffectual.

Normally, such reports are approved with little debate.  However, on this occasion there was considerable dissent.

The Earl of Onslow said:

“I was on the Joint Committee on Human Rights when these allegations were made. We were advised by our clerks that this was a clear breach of privilege. The effect of the lobbying—which there undoubtedly was—was obviously going to be minimal, because the three people whom others attempted to nobble were grown-up and intelligent enough to maintain the views that they had maintained the whole way through the discussion on Trevor Phillips’s behaviour. Admittedly, there was discussion in the committee and some people favoured a harsher report than others, but we came up with what was in effect a unanimous opinion. However, I am quite disappointed—that is the best way to put it—that this is what the Committee for Privileges found ….. at the time it seemed to us that there was a clear breach and I maintain that opinion.”

He was followed by Lord Dale Campbell-Savours who was even more scathing about the Committee’s findings:

“I will say a few words on the judgment of the committee, because I dissent from it. Perhaps I may take the time of the House to refer to a number of documents that underline my view. Paragraph 21 of the report states:

“We therefore conclude that, however inappropriate and ill-advised, Mr Phillips’ actions did not significantly obstruct or impede the work of the JCHR”.

The judgment of the Committee for Privileges seems to have turned on the words “significantly obstruct”. That should be seen in context. The chairman of the Joint Committee, Mr Dismore, in his submission to the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, stated:

“The Committee’s consideration of its draft report on the EHRC was hampered by Mr Phillips’ actions. We were unable to agree a report on 9 February. Although we did agree a second version of the draft report on 2 March … I am in no doubt that Mr Phillips wanted either to tone down any criticisms we made of him in the draft Report or to delay the Committee’s deliberations so that we were unable to report before dissolution. Whether or not he was assisted by being familiar with the contents of the draft, he sought to achieve this aim by persuading Members he thought were ‘friends’ that the Committee’s inquiry was unbalanced and was motivated by hostility to him on the part of me or other Members. This represented a significant interference with our work which is why we looked to refer the matter to your Committee”.

The key words in that statement are:

“This represented a significant interference”.

We therefore have the chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights saying that, in the view of the committee, this was a significant interference; we also have the judgment of the Privileges Committee that it “did not significantly obstruct”. The matter turns on those words.

However, if we look back to an inquiry that took place in the Commons in 1994, we have some guidance on how the Privileges Committee deals with these matters. I think that it is worth explaining to the House that this matter was dealt with by the Privileges Committee in the House of Lords because the Commons went into recess and was not in a position to consider the matter fully, although it put into the public domain a number of memoranda that had been submitted to the committee for consideration for a report that it subsequently did not produce.

In the Willetts inquiry in 1994, Mr Willetts, a member of the other place, had been accused of trying to nobble the chairman of the Select Committee on Members’ Interests, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith. In response to a remit from the House to investigate an allegation of improper pressure brought to bear on a Select Committee, the conclusion of that inquiry was that,

“we have to consider how far the term ‘pressure’ is synonymous with ‘influence’. We recognize that, while assent to or reinforcement by one Member of an opinion held by another could be regarded as influence, something further is required, in the form of a positive and conscious [effort] to shift an existing opinion in one direction or another, for a Member’s words and actions to constitute pressure”.

I argue that there was a positive and conscious effort to shift existing opinion because the draft report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights had, in part, been leaked to Mr Phillips. My noble friend Lord Dubs says no, but perhaps I may refer him to another document, which provides us with evidence of that. It is a submission from Mr Phillips himself to the Standards and Privileges Committee, in which he states that he received a memorandum on 22 March this year. I am sorry to delay the House on this matter but it is extremely important, because it is about nobbling the members of a Select Committee prior to the publication of their report. An e-mail received by Mr Phillips from a member of staff of the Equality and Human Rights Commission dated 6 February 2010 states:

“I was talking to someone this evening”—

that is, a member of his staff is being quoted—

“who had had sight of the current draft of the JCHR report. He said the report, in its current state, was fairly weak and emphasised a few points”.

The leak of that report advises Mr Phillips of the contents that are critical of him, which is why he was seeking to influence the individual members of the committee.

All I am saying to the House is that this is an important matter. We are not going to divide on it, but I believe that the Privileges Committee could have produced a far stronger document. It has not taken into account the precedent of pressure on Select Committee members and I believe that today the House is taking the wrong decision.”

Then it was the turn of Lord Tyler:

“The fact that the attempt to influence members of the committee was unsuccessful is surely not entirely relevant. The fact that the members were successful in resisting any attempt to influence them is of course important in the outcome, but if someone attempted to bribe a Member of either House but was unsuccessful, would it not still be contempt and a very serious matter? The success of members of the committee in resisting the attempt to influence them is not crucial in this matter.”

So the Committee’s report was criticised from all sides of the House – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – and it sounds as if Trevor Phillips was lucky to get away with just having his knuckles rapped.  Goolies in the mincer next time?

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