Welsh Secretary denies allegations by Johnson camp that partygate probe is rigged
Welsh Secretary Sir Robert Buckland has denied allegations by some allies of Boris Johnson that the Commons committee investigating his partygate denials has deliberately chosen its terms to ensure that the Prime Minister is found guilty.
Asked if he believed the claims, the former justice secretary told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme: “No, I don’t. As a former member of the Privileges Committee, I can attest to their independence, the quality of the clerks who advise them.”
He said he would advise the new prime minister against “any suggestion that somehow the committee should be impeded or prevented from carrying out its inquiry”.
But Sir Robert said it is “entirely legitimate” to have a discussion about “the precise parameters” of the probe.
“The danger here is that if we extend the concept of contempt to cover inadvertently misleading the House, then we really are in a position where lots of people are going to fall into that category.
“It could, as Lord Pannick suggests, have a potential chilling effect on the way in which oral questions are answered, and in the way in which ministers are held to account in the Commons”.
Mr Buckland’s comments follow claims from a top barrister that the parliamentary inquiry into whether Boris Johnson misled MPs with his partygate denials is “unfair” and “fundamentally flawed”.
Lord Pannick’s Government-commissioned legal advice states that “the Committee has failed to understand that to prove contempt against Mr Johnson, it is necessary to establish that he intended to mislead the House”.
The lawyer warns that “the threat of contempt proceedings for unintentional mistakes would have a seriously chilling effect on all members.”
Lord Pannick also said a court would declare the Privileges Committee’s approach to the inquiry into whether Boris Johnson misled MPs over partygate “unlawful”.
In a legal opinion, Lord Pannick said: “We advise Mr Johnson that the Committee is proposing to proceed by reference to substantive errors as to the ingredients of contempt and the standard of proof required, and is proposing to adopt an unfair procedure.
“But for Parliamentary privilege, a court hearing a judicial review application brought by Mr Johnson would declare the Committee’s Report to be unlawful.”
Rhondda MP Chris Bryant, who chairs the Privileges Committee but has recused himself from the partygate inquiry, dismissed the legal opinion by Lord Pannick as “disgraceful bullying”.
“You would have thought that Boris Johnson would want to clear his name in front of the Privileges Committee instead of trying to intimidate it,” he wrote in a series of tweets.
“There is no danger of ministers being cowed by this inquiry – although of course it would be good if they were careful that what they say to Parliament is true and accurate – as the House will always recognise an honest mistake quickly corrected…
“It’s time this disgraceful bullying stopped. Let’s hear and see the evidence. If Johnson has a good case to make, he’ll be vindicated. If not, he should take his punishment”.
Mr Bryant also said the legal opinion “wrong on several counts”.
The Privileges Committee chair tweeted: “Lord Pannick’s bizarre ‘opinion’ has no formal status and is wrong on several counts.
“Firstly, he fails to mention that the motion that charged the Committee makes no mention of ‘intentionally misleading’.
“Nor does he acknowledge that many aspect of Standards processes have changed over the years, including the introduction of the right of ministers to correct the record through a Written Ministerial Statement – which was used 200 times last year.”
Mr Bryant accused the barrister of wanting to “change the ancient principle that a Member of either House defends their conduct before their colleagues in person, not via a lawyer”.
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