MPs on the House of Commons’ Liaison Committee have locked horns with prime minister Theresa May over the refusal of her national security adviser to appear before the Defence Select Committee.
The panel – which brings together the chairs of a host of select committees – told May that Mark Sedwill was declining to appear before the Defence Committee and it was their “unanimous view” that the refusal was an “obstruction”.
May said that Sedwill, who was permanent secretary at the Home Office until he was appointed to his current role in April, was answerable to her and to the National Security Council but insisted that MPs on the committee could direct any questions to defence secretary Gavin Williamson and his perm sec, Stephen Lovegrove.
“When we look at appearances by civil servants in front of select committees, of course it’s ministers who are accountable to parliament and civil servants give evidence on the basis that they do so on behalf of their minister and under their directions,” she said.
“Because it is the minister and not the civil servant who is accountable to parliament.”
May said Sedwill had given evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, adding: “I think that’s where it’s appropriate for him to give evidence”.
Liaison Committee member and Health Select Committee chair Sarah Wollaston said there was a clear precedent for people in Sedwill’s position to give evidence to the Defence Committee and that the session May had referred to did not provide enough time for him to be properly quizzed.
“The Defence Committee are specifically undertaking a review of the National Security capability review,” she said.
“They feel that it’s very difficult for them to carry out their work without his appearance before them. And there is a clear precedent. We feel very strongly that he should appear.”
Liaison Committee colleague and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee chair Bernard Jenkin supported her view, insisting that it was a matter of principle for select committees to decide who they wanted to see.
“It is not for the government to decide which witnesses appear before select committees,” he said, adding that parliament was not bound by the government’s Osmotherley Rules, which offer guidance on the role of officials appearing before select committees.
May said Sedwill was “perfectly capable of defending himself before a committee” and pledged to respond to MPs concerns in writing.