Vote Leave chief could face contempt charge for refusing to answer questions

The director of the Vote Leave campaign is to be reported to the House of Commons after refusing repeated requests to give evidence to an inquiry into fake news.

The move by the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is the first step in a process which could end with Dominic Cummings being found in contempt of Parliament.

Mr Cummings accused the committee of "grandstanding", insisting he had always made clear he was ready to give evidence once an Electoral Commission inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 EU referendum was over.

Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica boss Alexander Nix has agreed to return to Parliament to give evidence about alleged misuse of Facebook users' private data.

Alexander Nix
Alexander Nix

Mr Nix appeared before the committee in February when he denied any involvement in the referendum beyond "exploratory" discussions with rival Brexit campaign Leave.EU.

But the committee later summoned him to return to explain "numerous inconsistencies" in his evidence, and he will face a further grilling at Westminster on June 6.

Cambridge Analytica has been accused by whistleblowers of misusing millions of Facebook users' personal data to target ads in Donald Trump's campaign for the US presidency.

The company folded earlier this month amid massive controversy over its methods.

Vote Leave used online ad firm AggregateIQ to target its messages during the referendum. The Canadian firm's chief operating officer Jeff Silvester told the committee on Wednesday that it had previously worked for CA's parent company SCL, but denied any link with CA itself.

Cambridge Analytica probe
Cambridge Analytica probe

DCMS committee chairman Damian Collins said Mr Cummings had been issued with a formal summons to appear on May 22 and answer questions about the conduct of the Vote Leave campaign.

"We are disappointed that Dominic Cummings has not responded positively to our requests for him to appear," said Mr Collins.

"His reasoning that he must delay giving evidence due to ongoing investigations simply does not hold up, considering that Alexander Nix, Jeff Silvester and others involved have agreed to co-operate with the committee's investigations despite currently being subject to various investigations.

"Reporting the matter to the House is a first step which could result in a decision that a contempt of Parliament has been committed, a very serious outcome for the individual.

"We are glad that Alexander Nix has accepted our summons. The committee will use the opportunity to address numerous inconsistencies in his previous evidence."

A report from the DCMS Committee could result in a debate in the House and an inquiry by the Commons Privileges Committee. That committee could recommend further action, but only the House itself can impose sanctions.

It is not clear what punishment the House could impose if it decides Mr Cummings is in contempt. In theory, the Commons can order imprisonment or issue fines, but neither of these sanctions has been used for years and a 2012 report said its powers were "untested in recent times".

Two News International executives found in contempt over misleading evidence to a select committee were admonished by the House in 2016.

Asked for his response, Mr Cummings pointed to an entry on his blog posted a week ago, in which he accused the committee of "grandstanding".

In said he had told the committee he had been told by lawyers to "keep my trap shut" until the conclusion of an Electoral Commission probe, but was happy to give evidence after this.

The issue of a summons amounted to the committee "demonstrating their priority was grandstanding PR, not truth-seeking", he said.

"I said that if they issued a summons instead of discussing possible dates like reasonable people, then it would be obvious they are not interested in friendly co-operation to uncover the truth," said Mr Cummings.

"So I will not give evidence to this committee under any circumstances. I may to other committees depending on behaviour."

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