News In Depth
Ex-newspaper execs may be summoned
Three former senior News International executives could be summoned to the Commons to face a public dressing down from MPs over allegations they misled Parliament.
The House of Commons will be asked to agree with the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's findings that the trio misled the MPs during their investigation into phone hacking.
If MPs support the finding that the three men were guilty of contempt of Parliament then a range of sanctions - in theory including imprisonment - potentially apply.
The committee agreed that Les Hinton, the former News International chairman, misled it when he gave evidence in 2009 about payments made to former royal correspondent Clive Goodman, who was jailed in 2007 for phone hacking.
It also found that Colin Myler, former News of the World editor, and Tom Crone, the paper's former legal manager, misled it over their knowledge that other staff were involved in phone hacking.
The MPs said they could ask the House of Commons to decide whether there had been a contempt of Parliament and what the punishment should be.
The powers are so rarely used it is unclear what sanctions would be open to MPs to impose.
Committee chairman John Whittingdale said: "I believe there is precedent, although quite a long time ago, for an offender to be called before the bar of the House to be admonished and have the House's conclusions made clear to them.
"But, to be quite honest, I don't know. I suspect that will be a matter for debate, perhaps by (the Committee on) Standards and Privileges, perhaps by the Leader of the House and others.
"At this stage, we are intending to table the motion and I have no doubt that I, and perhaps the committee, will be involved in subsequent discussions about what would happen if it is then passed by the House of Commons."
Conservative committee member Louise Mensch said a new criminal offence should be created "similar to the offence of contempt of court".
The Government has launched a consultation on parliamentary privilege in an attempt to clarify the situation.
The green paper, published last week, said: "The Houses' power to punish non-members for contempt is untested in recent times.
"In theory, both Houses can summon a person to the bar of the House to reprimand them or order a person's imprisonment."
While the Lords was "regarded as possessing the power to fine non-members" the Commons "last used its power to fine in 1666 and this power may since have lapsed".
The green paper added: "In 1978 the House of Commons resolved to exercise its penal jurisdiction as sparingly as possible and only when satisfied that it was essential to do so in order to provide reasonable protection for the House, its Members or its officers from improper obstruction or interference with the performance of their functions.
"Since that resolution, the Commons has not punished a non-member."
The last member of the public to be summoned to the bar of the House of Commons was Sunday Express editor John Junor who appeared before MPs in January 1957.
The newspaper had published a piece criticising the petrol allowances given to political parties in constituencies.
He was rebuked by MPs for failing to "establish the truth of the article" and not being willing to "admit its obvious implications". He apologised and no further action was taken.
The last fine imposed on an offender by the House was on February 6, 1666 when Thomas White was ordered to pay £1,000, the equivalent of around £130,000 today.
White absconded after being ordered into the custody of the Serjeant at Arms, for causing Henry Chowne, the MP for Horsham, to be arrested and prevented from attending Parliament.
According to the Commons information office, the last imprisonment by the Commons of a non-Member was of Charles Grissell in 1880 for a breach of privilege in connection with the committee on the Tower High Level Bridge (Metropolis) Bill.
In 2010 a leading law firm was found to be in contempt of the Commons after threatening an MP with legal proceedings if he made allegations about one of its clients in the House.
The Standards and Privileges Committee criticised Withers LLP for failing to realise that John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat backbencher, was protected by Parliamentary privilege.
But it made no recommendation for further action after receiving an apology.
Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman Trevor Phillips was cleared over an allegation of contempt in 2010.
But the Lords Privileges Committee said Mr Phillips' decision to speak to members of a parliamentary committee ahead of the publication of a report criticising him was "inappropriate and ill-advised".