Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): My right hon. Friend rightly points out that the Committee had to examine what a modern Parliament really needs. Was it, therefore, sensible that a Law Lord should have been the Chairman of such a Committee? I have nothing against the noble Lord; he is a most able and distinguished person, but was he a suitable choice?

Mrs. Beckett: I can say, with hand on heart, that I had no connection with that matter at the time. I am sure that my right hon. Friend has no intention of impugning the capacity and the work of Lord Nicholls. His question is a legitimate one, but not one which I am in a position to answer.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): I was a member of the Joint Committee. I fully understand the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), with whom I have served on the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I have to tell him that, during the 15 months of the Committee's deliberations, we could not have got through the legalistic maze that faced us, or dealt with the matter in an appropriate and logical fashion, had it not been for the work put in by Lord Nicholls. I have great admiration for him and think that he did a great job--indeed, the Committee would still be sitting and floundering had he not been there to guide us. He did not influence our decision, but helped us to see our way through.

Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and take his point that the combination of someone with legal expertise and experienced parliamentarians gave us the best of both worlds.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Before the Leader of the House leaves it, may I pursue the point raised by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon)? The report states:


The cause of concern is that an over-legalistic approach--one driven by legal niceties rather than a profound appreciation of the broader role of Parliament--might have given rise to some difficulties, and, to that extent, I can understand the point raised by the right hon.

27 Oct 1999 : Column 1022

Gentleman. Does the Leader of the House have any sympathy with the argument that that might have biased the approach expressed in the report?

Mrs. Beckett: It is not a question whether I have sympathy with that point, which is a perfectly legitimate theoretical point. However, I think that that argument would arise only if one were dissatisfied to a significant extent with the terms of the report. I am not dissatisfied with it; if the right hon. Gentleman is, I am sure it will emerge during our debate.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mr. Alan Williams: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Beckett: If the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) will forgive me, I shall give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West first.

Mr. Williams: Even had the Joint Committee not been set up when it was, it would soon have had to be set up because of the European convention on human rights. The so-called legal niceties have to be observed if we are to conform with that convention, so it was a dominant element in our discussion and Lord Nicholls' guidance helped us in that respect.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful--

Madam Speaker: Order. I must ask the Leader of the House to respond to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) before taking another intervention.

Mrs. Beckett: I apologise, Madam Speaker--I was trying to help the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point and I do not dissent from it.

Mr. Hawkins: Without wanting to overelaborate, does the Leader of the House agree that the balance in the Joint Committee's work mentioned by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West is between the sanctity of parliamentary privilege and Parliament's governance of its own affairs and the fact that parliamentary privilege is, of itself, a legal concept? It is because of the legal protection that all of us have as Members of Parliament that the experienced chairmanship of Lord Nicholls was needed.

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. However, I should add that, although the understanding and expectations of parliamentary privilege of those outside this place tend, perfectly naturally, to focus on the freedom of speech that it affords to Members of Parliament, it also gives protection to witnesses who come to give evidence to Parliament--for example, to Select Committees--and enables them to give their evidence without fear or intimidation from those who might dislike what they have to say. The freedom of speech that lies at the heart of parliamentary privilege is not for Members of Parliament alone, but extends to those who inform our discussions.

27 Oct 1999 : Column 1023

The principle that underlies that is enshrined in article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, which states:


The Joint Committee has recommended that that article, which is a powerful protection, should be confined to activities that justify so high a degree of protection and that the boundaries within which it can be exercised should be made clear. That would involve new statutory definitions of "proceedings in Parliament" and "place out of Parliament". It also recommended that section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996, which enables an individual Member of Parliament to waive privilege, should be repealed so that it can be replaced by a provision for the House to waive privilege in cases where there is no risk of legal liability for someone who makes a statement in Parliament.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): That point troubled me when I looked at the report. If the House chose to waive privilege in respect of something that a Member had said which, at that point, would not give rise to any legal liability, does it remain possible that the material to which the removed privilege applied could subsequently become subject to a court action?

Mrs. Beckett: That is certainly not impossible. The hon. Gentleman may later wish to discuss the issues raised with some of those, of whom sadly I was not one, who served on the Committee. I understand that the issues were exhaustively thrashed out and that the Committee tried to come to the right balance and achieve a proper degree of protection.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) indicated assent.

Mrs. Beckett: I see that the hon. Gentleman, who was on the Committee, is nodding. The Committee wanted proper protection, but wanted it to be exercised by the House as a whole.

The second core principle underlying the principle of privilege has been the right of Parliament to control its own affairs. The Joint Committee has proposed--and I think that all hon. Members will agree--that the right of each House to administer its own affairs within its own precincts should be confined to activities that are directly and closely related to proceedings in Parliament. The corollary is that Parliament should not, as has been the case in the past, be a statute-free zone on matters such as health and safety. That will be recognised and welcomed by many hon. Members. The Committee also recommends that while the House should retain its jurisdiction over its own Members, its power to punish non-Members for contempt should be transferred to the courts.

Among the privileges that we have all, at least in theory, enjoyed for several years, although mostly without exercising them, are freedom from arrest in civil cases and protection from the service of civil writs by post. In the Lords, there has been similar provision under privilege of peerage. There has also been a lack of clarity about whether peers unfortunate enough to be detained under

27 Oct 1999 : Column 1024

mental health legislation are thereby disqualified from sitting and voting. The Joint Committee has done us all a useful service in identifying the fact that many of those provisions have fallen into desuetude, are no longer necessary and need not be preserved in our rules and proceedings.

I am on slightly delicate territory because I was not a member of the Committee and because it reported to Parliament, rather than to the Government. I hope that it will not be thought presumptuous of me to give an idea of the approach that the Government are minded to take to the report before I have had the opportunity to listen to the debate. Because it is addressed to Parliament rather than the Government, I propose not to go into detailed, line by line comment, but to summarise the Government's approach to the report with which, I am happy to say, we broadly agree.

The report's 39 recommendations cover a range of issues, including freedom of speech, bribery, control of Parliament's own affairs, disciplinary powers and the handling of parliamentary papers. The Government broadly concur with the vast majority of the recommendations.

There are just two small proposals by the proposals of the Joint Committee that might need a little closer examination and to which we hope that the House will give further thought. The Joint Committee's logic on both issues is clear; I do not quarrel with that. The issue is whether it is necessary in practice to go quite as far as it suggests.

The first proposal is that the power to imprison Members, which has been long unused, should be replaced by a power to fine. That is set out in paragraphs 276 to 279 of the report. The House is well aware that the suspension of a Member now carries an automatic loss of salary for the period concerned. That was not, I think, the case and was not so fresh in Members' minds when the Joint Committee undertook its consideration. Of course, the punishments of admonishment or, ultimately, even of expulsion remain. I admit that I am not certain that we also need, in those circumstances, a power to fine Members of Parliament for misconduct over and above the financial penalty that suspension carries.


Next Section

IndexHome Page