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5.51 pm

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley): Having been put on the Committee, I was a little apprehensive about exactly what form it would take, but I found our proceedings, which lasted 15 months and produced 39 recommendations, absolutely stimulating to say the least. I recall boring my family to death by discussing every Saturday night what had happened the previous Tuesday morning when we spent four hours discussing the first paragraph of a draft report. Our discussions went on and on, but they were important and not at all boring.

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The attendance tonight is not too bad, although there are not too many Members in the Chamber. That is the bad news. The good news is that, knowing the pecking order in this place, I would still be waiting to speak if many more Members of greater seniority were present. That is another matter which the Standards and Privileges Committee ought to consider on occasion.

Our proceedings were not dry in any shape or form, although there was plenty of dry humour, and I take the point about the Chairman of the Committee, who was very helpful. I have nothing but profound respect and gratitude for the way in which he conducted proceedings and, along with the other Lords and Members, helped the Committee. The Clerks in particular did a tremendous job for us. That appreciation should go on record. I do not think that the lawyers were on top, but it took a little bit longer to get our own way, which is always the case when lawyers are involved in any sort of discipline. I found their expertise very much to our advantage. I learned a lot as a member of the Committee, and I am sure that a lot of lords, including Lord Nicholls, did so as well.

A review of this nature is painstaking and it is obviously important not to throw the baby out with the bath water. I had some preconceived ideas about what I wanted to happen, but when I considered the way in which our procedures work and how they came about I learned day by day that the question of privilege is not a simple one to answer. There is no doubt that it is fascinating to discuss amending or codifying an unwritten constitution. The mind boggles because the constitution is not written down, but here we are discussing changing and modifying it. That was the job the Committee was given and I think that we did a good job, although that may sound like self-praise.

It is 30 years since the previous fundamental review of these matters and many circumstances have changed. I believe that the attitude of the people of this nation towards Parliament has changed. It was necessary to look at the way in which we run this place in any case, because the perception of it held by people outside is totally different from ours. In the light of events, we needed to consider changes and modification to achieve much more open and accountable Houses of Parliament while allowing Members to carry out their duties fully without fear or favour. That was one of the main planks of our discussions.

Chapter 1 of the review refers to

and states:

    "Parliamentary privilege consists of the rights and immunities which the two Houses of Parliament and their members and officers possess to enable them to carry out their parliamentary functions effectively. Without this protection members would be handicapped in performing their parliamentary duties, and the authority of Parliament itself in confronting the executive and as a forum for expressing the anxieties of citizens would be correspondingly diminished."

I fully believe that to be the case. Getting the right balance may have taken a long time, but we have arrived at it.

Members know from their own experience that people outside the House perceive us as members of a club, although we discipline some Members and interview them on certain occasions. From the outside, the House is seen as a club with privileges--an old boy network in which we all look after ourselves. The public were becoming

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more and more critical and that was damaging the image of this place, so when we debate privileges we must make sure that we do not give the impression that we are self-serving. The media pick up on that impression--quite wrongly, on many occasions--and splash it about that we are looking after Members, but not looking after democracy and doing the job that we are supposed to do.

Nevertheless, we have to grasp the nettle. There is no doubt that we have to use our privileges--which are not personal privileges, but privileges of the House--to best effect to do our job properly on behalf of not only the country, but our constituents. The Joint Committee took all those points into account and we asked whether

Those matters were obviously discussed at great length because the public's perception was not always fair to us or to our constituents. The right to free speech, as provided for in article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, must not be misused or abused. We all understand that and have our own commitments and responsibilities.

I am glad that the Leader of the House has accepted the second option in the Home Office consultation paper, which is:

However, if there is to be a draft privileges Bill, I hope that some of the points of concern that were raised in Committee will be considered, for example the problem of who consents to the prosecution. I note that she said that that matter is likely to rest with the Attorney-General. I bored the Committee to death discussing when he would make such a decision--late, early or what? If we are not careful--and if, having weighed up the evidence, he thought that a case should be considered by the courts for prosecution--that very decision could prejudice the case for the defendant. I do not know a way round that. I suppose that we must hope that he does not have any more influence with the jury than does the Crown Prosecution Service when it makes such a decision.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech. However, I do not think that he need worry about that aspect of the matter. The Attorney-General gives consent in very many cases--even in very high-profile ones, such as war crimes cases--but no one realises it. The fact that the Attorney-General has given consent will not weigh with the jury when it comes to consider the case.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to make hon. Members subject to corruption and bribery charges, as they may already be held to be in common law, does not mean that what is said and done in the Chamber or in Committee necessarily has to be made admissible in evidence? Does he agree that the two issues are distinct? Whatever his view on the matter, does he recognise that there are very real dangers for the immunities of the House if we go down the second route?

Mr. Michie: Yes, I do accept that there are dangers in taking the second route--which is why, time and again, the dilemma posed by the second route raised its head in Committee. However, I think that the position of

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hon. Members is slightly different, as it is a high-profile one, and one of our most senior peers has made a judgment that the courts should play a role in the matter. Nevertheless, I do not particularly disagree with the Committee's recommendation, and am happy that the Attorney-General will decide on prosecutions.

Section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996 has already been well rehearsed in the debate. I am happy that it will be replaced by a more general waiver, given by the Speaker, with the advice of a small Committee of senior Members. The Act was passed in a blaze of publicity, and for reasons that might have been good at the time, but the House and the Committee have made it quite clear that we have come to regret it.

I support the report's proposals, and hope that hon. Members will endorse them in today's debate. I also hope that we shall soon have a Bill that will not only clarify for hon. Members what they may and may not do--the Register of Members' Interests is certainly a step in the right direction--but give the public a better idea of how this place is run.

6.3 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I should like to apologise now if I am not able to be in the Chamber to hear the closing speeches, but I have an unavoidable engagement.

I found reading the report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege extremely interesting, and have no reason but to endorse heartily the vast bulk of the proposals. The clarification that seems to be inherent in the way in which the Committee has approached the matter is very desirable. It is undoubtedly a tribute to the Chairman, and perhaps to a little bit of legal incisiveness that has been introduced into quite a murky area, that, in many respects, what emerges seems to be so clear. However, with that in mind, I hope that I may be forgiven if I flag up one or two potential problems.

A moment ago, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) touched on the difficulties in making corruption, in terms of what might be said in Parliament, a criminal offence. To make the position clear, all hon. Members are subject to the bribery provisions at common law, and we shall continue to be so if a statute is introduced.

The key issue that the House will have to decide is the extent to which it is prepared to waive its current privilege in what may be said or done in the House, if it were to transpire that that might be material evidence in bringing a prosecution for bribery or corruption against a Member of Parliament. Although I am quite prepared and open to persuasion on the issue, I have anxieties about how that waiver would work in practice.

A central principle of our privilege in the House is that we are given liberty to express our views as we like. As we know from some previous debates, it is often suggested--albeit not in a way, I hope, that would offend against the Speaker's or a Deputy Speaker's ruling--that some policy decisions or Executive decisions may have ulterior motives, serving other than the public benefit. It is a problem which the Minister and his colleagues face daily. It is also a problem that, less usually, individuals may face.

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Dealing with the problem is, of course, one of the reasons why the House has introduced the Register of Members' Interests. It is also one of the reasons why a very serious breach of the procedures of the House--effectively a contempt of the House--is committed if an hon. Member seeks to argue a case without making absolutely crystal clear what personal interest he or she might have in it. If someone were offering such an hon. Member a financial inducement, no more personal interest could possibly be found.

I am content with that system. If we start departing from it and saying that, when an allegation of corruption is made against a Member of Parliament, what he says in the House could be used upon a waiver of privilege, we shall be going down quite a dangerous road. I believe that it would lead to the risk that that device might be used against an hon. Member for improper purposes, and that it could give rise to a great deal of political discussion on the motives behind the bringing of the prosecution.

We have to face up to realities in all this. In the presence of the previous Attorney-General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, let me say that I have never had the slightest doubt about the impartiality of his office. However, it remains the case that we have always accepted in the United Kingdom that the marriage of politics and the system of justice could not be neatly cut in two, as there will always be pressures with which to contend, even if an Attorney-General were not a Member of this place.

The further one goes down the road of trying to dissect the issue of parliamentary privilege and a Member of Parliament's role--to cut off various aspects of that role and to say, "In that respect, you shall no longer have that protection"--the more difficult the situation will become. The truth--as has been noted to be the case in not only the past, but the recent past--is that, if an hon. Member transgresses, he exposes himself to enormous opprobrium, and probably to the ruin of his career. That seems to be the suitable verdict upon someone who falls foul of the House's very clear rules on how we should conduct ourselves.

We shall raise very serious issues by carrying the matter further and saying that, in a trial for bribery or corruption, what is done in the House should be open to analysis in the courts. Although I should be happy to pursue the issue further if it is raised again, all I wish to do now is to flag up my anxieties about it.

I should like to deal with two other matters. There is a very important section in the report on the waiver of privilege. I had certain anxieties about the route that was taken in 1996, and believe that some of the problems--which are linked to what we have been talking about--stemmed from that hurried legislation. Therefore, on that basis, I should be very happy to consider alternatives.

When reading the report, however, I had some anxiety about the proposed alternative. As cases that may involve a waiver may well be the subject of considerable political polemic and contention, leaving to the House the power to decide whether a Member of Parliament may be able to avail himself of the right to waive privilege raises many anxieties about what might happen if a waiver were not granted.

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Clearly, if the rules of the House were sufficiently tightly drawn in the way suggested in the report, so that the waiver would be granted except in cases in which the integrity and credibility of the House would be in some way in danger if it were, I see no great difficulty. However, my second anxiety is that unless that is the case there would be a real risk that a Member of Parliament seeking to bring a libel action might find himself unable to obtain the waiver because there was a majority in the House against it. That would be an undesirable politicisation of the issue. Unless the rules are clear, I would rather go back to the situation before 1996. It was unsatisfactory in some ways and did injustices to some, but at least it had the merit of clarity. Unless we are certain on the issue, we should not embark on change.

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