LONDON — TWO sons of the late Robert Maxwell have raised major constitutional issues by refusing to answer questions from a US-style parliamentary committee.
The committee is investigating the disappearance of millions of pounds from Maxwell company pension funds.
On Jan. 13 trustees of the Mirror Group Newspapers pension fund - thought to have been plundered most heavily by Mr. Maxwell - announced it was seriously short of cash. If the missing 450 million pounds ($801 million) is not recovered, pensioners can not be guaranteed their full benefits, a spokesman said.
The brothers' stand - equivalent to invoking the United States Fifth Amendment - is seen by constitutional experts as a direct challenge to the parliamentary committee review system introduced 11 years ago by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Kevin and Ian Maxwell, who inherited their father's publishing empire after his death last November, risked possible imprisonment for contempt of Parliament when they refused through their lawyers Jan. 13 to answer questions from the House of Commons Select Committee on Social Security about the missing money.
The parliamentary committee chairman, Frank Field, said the brothers' defiance was "immensely serious" and indicated that before pressing them any harder he would consult political party leaders and possibly seek a House of Commons debate on the issues raised.
Experts dispute the rights of the committee to extract answers from resisting witnesses. Stephen Gilchrist, a specialist in constitutional law, says the right to silence in criminal cases does not apply to appearances before Parliament.
George Jones, professor of government at the London School of Economics and a leading British constitutional authority, sees the Maxwell brothers' clash with one of 14 parliamentary committees as "a crucial test case of the system of parliamentary review."
"This is a straight clash between the demands of a parliamentary committee to get answers to its questions and the constitutional right of an accused person to remain silent," Mr. Jones says.
"This could be a turning point in the evolution of our parliamentary committee system," he adds. "We have a different system from the Americans.... The US Congress is much more powerful in the system of government than our Parliament, which in fact does not govern but passes laws.... The whole future of that system could depend on how the Maxwell investigation is resolved."