Parliamentary Privilege First Report

Letter from the Clerks to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

  Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, has asked me to write to you. He would be very grateful for your views on a question which the Joint Committee has been considering recently, namely, whether the House of Commons should have the power to fine Members and non-Members for contempt and breach of the House's rules. Would you welcome such a power, and would you find it useful, in relation to your present duties on the Standards and Privileges Committee?

10 June 1998

Reply from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

  Thank you for your letter of 10 June.

  My own view is that, having effectively relinquished its power to impose fines, the House of Commons would be most reluctant to reinstate it. The Privileges Committee has twice recommended its reinstatement (the last time in 1977) and the House took no action. I am not sure whether this response was considered or instinctive but I think it was almost certainly wise.

  While it is arguable that the present range of penalties (virtually none for non-Members) risks inviting acts of contempt, I suspect that the imposition of fines would only make matters worse.


  The current range of penalties is expulsion (with loss of livelihood and very little chance of regaining a seat); suspension with loss of pay (effectively a fine and, in most recent cases, damaging consequences for re-election); and enforced apology. This is a fairly flexible menu and I have not detected any concern that the powers are inadequate.


  Clearly the sanctions of expulsion and suspension are unavailable but the House's censure can be tailored to the offence. Former Members are, almost by definition, in the public eye and severe public condemnation is likely to be an effective penalty. Even in the case of serious rule breaches, I find it difficult to envisage that the House would wish to impose a fine as well—particularly if corruption is handled as a criminal offence by the courts.


  I know of at least two acts of contempt which would probably not have occured before the courts. In my experience, however, these are most likely to be committed by those, such as newspapers, who are well able to pay any fine and whose motive may be to seek publicity. Far from acting as a deterrent, I believe the imposition of fines would be used to fuel the belief that the House was being heavy-handed in the protection of its own privileges. It seems to me that public censure would be at least as effective, and perhaps more consistent with the separation of functions between Parliament and the courts.

  One other point occurs to me. The disciplinary processes adopted by the Commons do not seek to provide the safeguards of a court. In particular, the appeal procedures may well fall short of judicial standards. In these circumstances I suspect the House would feel uncomfortable in applying overtly penal sanctions, even if such a process were not subject to challenge under the European Convention of Human Rights. Indeed, if the power existed, I do not think it would be used.

  On balance, therefore, my personal view is that there is no need to provide the Commons with the power to impose fines.

Sir Gordon Downey

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Prepared 9 April 1999