The director of the official Leave campaign Dominic Cummings has been found to be in contempt of Parliament after he failed to appear before MPs investigating fake news.
The Commons Privileges Committee said Cummings’ refusal to give oral evidence constituted a ‘significant interference’ in the work of the inquiry.
But it acknowledged its sanctions were limited to recommending the Commons issue a formal ‘admonishment’ for his conduct, raising questions about its enforcement powers.
The admonishment would require a resolution of the House which, if passed, ‘should be communicated to Mr Cummings by the Clerk of the House’, the committee said in its report.
In a blog post, Cummings responded by accusing the MP leading the fake news inquiry – Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee chairman Damian Collins – of having ‘faffed around’ over a date.
‘My offer to give evidence to MPs remains open. As does my reasonable demand that all of us are under oath to tell the truth,’ he added.
Collins said it was clear the powers of the House had been ‘found wanting’.
He said Cummings – the director of the Vote Leave campaign spearheaded by Boris Johnson – had shown a ‘total disregard’ for the authority of Parliament and called for statutory powers to ‘reassert the authority that is missing’.
‘The Dominic Cummings case highlights the need for Parliament to define in law what its powers should be to require witnesses to attend hearings, and what sanctions should apply if they do not,’ he said.
‘The current powers have been tested to their limits and found wanting.’
The Privileges Committee said the case ‘raised further questions about the enforceability of the House’s powers and those of its committees to secure evidence’ and that it would be resuming an inquiry into the matter.
The case was referred to the committee in June last year after Cummings – who was played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a recent Channel 4 TV drama – failed to respond to an order of the House requiring him to give an undertaking to appear before the inquiry by a specified date.
In launching its inquiry the committee noted the House had previously decided that its ‘penal jurisdiction’ should be exercised as ‘sparingly as possible’ and said it would not recommend the use of any ‘power of committal to prison’ in this case.
The report concluded Cummings committed a contempt ‘both by his initial refusal to obey the DCMS Committee’s order to attend it and by his subsequent refusal to obey the House’s order of June 7’.
It also expressed ‘regret’ for the ‘tone’ adopted by Cummings in his dealings with the DCMS Committee and in comments posted on his blog, including accusations of ‘grandstanding’ and ‘spreading errors and lies’.
‘This attitude did not serve the interests of civilised public debate,’ the report said.
‘We have no doubt that, had Mr Cummings attended a hearing of the DCMS Committee, he would have given robust and articulate responses to the questions put to him, and would have had no difficulty in communicating his standpoint to the public and the media.
‘Attending the hearing and defending his position when called upon to do so would have been the right thing to do.’
But Cummings responded by saying he agreed by email to give evidence on the condition everyone was under oath, which he said the committee rejected.
‘After another nine months of occasional emails, they’ve decided they don’t want to speak to me after all,’ he said.
Labour MP Virendra Sharma, a supporter of the anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain, said: ‘It’s been clear for a while that Dominic Cummings has no respect for our Parliament or our democracy. His actions as Director of Vote Leave absolutely back that up.
‘We cannot let people like Cummings do what they want and swan off when they don’t fancy being held accountable.’