Parliamentary Privilege is an important constitutional convention in the UK. So where does it come from and what does it mean?
Parliamentary Privilege allows any member of Parliament, either from the Commons or the Lords, to speak freely whilst exercising their role within Parliament. This means that they cannot be sued for slander or libel and cannot be prosecuted for contempt of court of breaching the Official Secrets Act.
Before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the rights of Members of Parliament to exercise their role without fear of persecution by the Crown were not clear. There were a number of famous occasions whereby the Crown tried to intimidate Members of Parliament. By far the most famous example was when Charles I entered the House of Commons to arrest five members of Parliament on 4th January 1642.
When the Glorious Revolution occurred Britain essentially became a constitutional monarchy. In 1689 the Bill of Rights received Royal Assent.
One of the clauses of the bill stated that:
” That the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament. “
This saw the birth of modern parliamentary privilege.
Parliamentary Privilege is checked by the Committee on Privileges. This is headed by Labour MP Kevin Barron and can suspend a member for abusing their right to parliamentary privilege.
Examples of Parliament Privilege in Action
The Zircon Affair
In 1985 BBC Scotland produced a television documentary series called Secret Society. As part of this the programme was going to reveal details about a spy satellite that the Government had not disclosed to the Public Account Committee, which was meant to be able to have financial oversight over the Government. GCHQ, one of Britain’s spy agencies tried to stop the BBC from airing the programme, when they refused, Special Branch raided the offices of BBC Scotland. With the help of MPs, the producer of the programme arranged for a showing in the House of Commons. Despite it being a breach of the Official Secrets Act, the MPs who watched it were exercising Parliamentary Privilege in doing so. This was a catalyst for the issue becoming public knowledge and it was extremely embarrassing to the Government.
John Hemming breaches injunction in the Commons
In 2011 a Premier League footballer was reported to be having an affair by major news outlets. However, the footballer in question had taken out an injunction at the High Court. This meant that no-one, including the newspapers, were able to reveal the identity of the footballer in question. The problem with injunctions in modern society is that social media allows information to be shared to millions of people at the touch of a button – in essence making them unfeasible. Everyone on social media knew the identity of the footballer in question, however, ridiculously, it could not be published in the newspapers. The Liberal Democrat MP, John Hemming, recognised the nonsensical nature of this situation and used his right of Parliamentary Privilege to highlight that the footballer in question was, in fact, Manchester United superstar Ryan Giggs. Although he had breached an injunction, Hemming could not be punished because of Parliamentary Privilege. Although he was ticked off by the Speaker, Hemming had effectively made his point.
R v Chaytor – a failed attempt to exercise Parliamentary Privilege
In 2010, the Daily Telegraph used the Freedom of Information Act (2000) to access details of MPs Expenses Claims. What they found was truly shocking. Among the worst cases were those of MPs David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and Jim Devine.
Not only were they punished by parliamentary authorities, criminal charges were also bought against them. During their trials, each MP claimed that they could not be prosecuted because their expenses claims fell under the remit of Parliamentary Privilege. The cases went all the way to the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Parliamentary Privilege was no justification for their criminal actions over their expenses.
Why is Parliamentary Privilege so important?
Parliamentary Privilege helps to underpin the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty. Without Parliamentary Privilege, MPs would not be able to fully represent their constituents interests and MPs would not be able to scrutinise the Government without fear of falling foul of legislation, such as the Official Secrets Act. As such, it is an essential element of a modern parliamentary democracy.