13 Jul 2012

UK commissioner want outside QC to question bankers

Parliamentary experts say that it’s unprecedented for a Westminster committee to employ an outside QC to ask questions, as proposed for the new joint Commons-Lords commission that’s being appointed to look into the banking scandal. The motion setting up the committee, published today, will allow it to employ not just an outside counsel to question witnesses, but “special advisers” to ask questions as well.  This obviously reflects the success of Robert Jay, the QC who’s been grilling witnesses at the Leveson inquiry. It also goes some way to meeting Labour’s request for a judicial inquiry.   (Watch Michael Crick’s analysis on Channel 4 News:

Nobody can recall this on a parliamentary committee ever before, and I’ve consulted several experts today including Lord Norton of Louth, the former Father of the House Tam Dalyell, and a senior Commons clerk. Yet congressional committees in Washington have long employed outside lawyers to ask questions in difficult hearings. Indeed, many of these outside congressional counsel have achieved fame in doing so, among them Roy Cohn on the McCarthy committee in the 1950s, and Bobby Kennedy on the Senate committee which investigated corruption in the Teamsters Union.

But the move also reflects rather badly on the ability of MPs to ask difficult questions. It’s a “feeble” decision, Tam Dalyell told me today. “What are MPs paid for then?” he asked. “Serious questioning doesn’t depend on being a QC incidentally.” And he pointed out that an outside QC won’t come cheap.  

Every MP asks a question in the TV era

Dalyell points out that in the past, a parliamentary committee might appoint one of its own MPs to pursue a line of questioning at length. These days, in contrast, and in the television era, every MP on a committee feels the need to ask questions. The result is that each member gets just a few minutes, and not enough time to get to the bottom of an issue. In such circumstances it’s easy for witnesses to avoid proper interrogation.

Another factor is that these days there are very few barristers and QCs in the Commons with the experience of mounting a detailed and probing line of interrogation. Indeed, not long ago parliament was widely derided for having too many lawyers. 

I suggested in my blog earlier today that a contender for the QC role might be Jonathan Fisher, a barrister who has long experience of financial crime.  He’s been a leading figure in the Society of Conservative Lawyers, though he’s not such a Tory activist as to go out canvassing or to have stood for public election. I understand that Fisher is keen to do the job, though nobody has yet contacted his clerks about it. 

Watch Michael Crick’s analysis on Channel 4 News (bottom of the page): http://www.channel4.com/news/us-warned-bank-of-england-about-libor-fixing-in-2008 

Follow Michael Crick on Twitter: @MichaelLCrick