Yesterday the highlight of the House of Commons timetable was the debate on the Leveson Report. However, there was something else of significance on the agenda too.
The Commons agreed a motion from the Lords that a Joint Committee will look into the issue of Parliamentary Privilege – the privilege that means parliamentarians can’t have things they say in Parliament used against them in a court of law.
Parliamentary Privilege has been used in both Houses recently to break super-injunctions. This was done most famously by John Hemming MP, who revealed the super injunction footballer Ryan Giggs had taken out:
In their opening to a consultation document published in April, then Commons Leader Sir George Young and his Lib Dem Deputy David Heath cited the breaking of super-injunctions, as well as the failed attempt of MPs to use Parliamentary Privilege to block information on their expenses coming out, as reasons to look again and this ancient ruling. Indeed, I’m fairly sure that it was Parliamentary Privilege that allowed Tom Watson to ask the question to David Cameron that led to the witch hunt of Lord Macalpine.
The Joint Committee formed by the vote yesterday will look at proposals which include:
- removing the protection of Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689 from Members accused of various criminal offences;
- giving power to the House of Commons to allow lay members of House of Commons Standards Committee to vote in proceedings of the committee;
- amending the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 to rebalance the burden of proof in favour of reporters
Referring expliciptly to court injunctions the document says:
In a previous situation of an MP disregarding an injunction, the House of Commons Procedure Committee summarised the issue by saying that Parliament, or in some cases just one single Member of Parliament, could effectively render a court’s carefully arrived at judgment useless and ineffective.56 The naming of an individual in Parliament may effectively break the court order, and there is nothing that the individual, or other people concerned with that person’s wellbeing, can do about it.
It went on to say:
It would clearly be a matter of some concern if privilege were routinely used to flout court orders designed to protect the privacy or security of individuals. The Government takes very seriously the importance of respecting court orders.
However, they also highlighted that in a previous statement David Heath had said that the Government was not keen on legislating on the issue for the time being. Further briefing notes detail that ultimately:
The Green Paper was unenthusiastic about any legislation affecting Members and injunctions, suggesting that the way forward was respect for the principle of comity between the courts and Parliament.
So Parliament is creating a committee that is unlikely to stop the populist abuse of an agent privilege. I believe privilege and freedom of speech for Parliamentarians should remain, but it does all feel rather outdated in the digital era.
We need more public information from Parliament, more transparency, and less posturing.