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Lawyers 'should help committee MPs'

Lawyers should be able to put questions to some witnesses appearing before Commons committees to help stop MPs probing issues such as phone hacking looking like "junior Perry Masons", Tom Watson has said.

Parliamentary select committees should also have tougher powers to tackle people who refuse to attend hearings, the Labour MP suggested.

In a speech to the Hansard Society, the former minister also revealed he had been "99% certain" he was going to stand down ahead of the 2010 election but remained to see out the hacking investigation.

Mr Watson defended the Culture, Media and Sport committee he sits on over its performance at some of the most high-profile hearings during the Westminster inquiry into phone hacking, saying it has very limited resources.

Referring to one article in a national newspaper that had dismissively described the committee members as "junior Perry Masons" - in reference to the television legal drama - he said the journalist had "got a point".

"Not all inquiries require a formal cross-examination, in fact most of them are there to look at what policy should look like in the future.

"When you are trying to get facts out of people who don't really want to give you that information, I think there is a case to say that select committees should be supplemented with professional legal advocates who perhaps could put some of the questions on behalf of the committee or help members with their question plan so they can co-ordinate the way they do their questions."

Mr Watson said current sanctions available to force witnesses to appear were "pretty limp", adding: "Had the summons been refused, I don't think there is a lot we could have done to compel Rupert and James Murdoch to give evidence."

Mr Watson said he quit as a minister in 2009 after The Sun had "smeared" him by carrying incorrect reports which had damaged his reputation. That had taken an "unbearable toll" on his personal and family life, he added.

He added that in 2009 he had been "so thoroughly sick of the whole system" he was "99% certain" he was going to stand down but his "obligation" to phone hacking victims motivated him to stand again.


From Belfast Telegraph