Parliamentary Privilege First Report

Letter from the Chairman to the Minister heading each government department

  As you know, the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege was appointed earlier this session to review all aspects of parliamentary privilege. We are now considering a draft report. One of the report's themes is that absolute privilege, which provides complete immunity from any action by the courts, should be no greater than is necessary for Parliament to function effectively.

  The Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 makes an important extension to parliamentary privilege by giving absolute privilege to any document published by order of either House. At present House of Commons printing orders are made as a matter of course for certain categories of document which departments are required to lay before Parliament. The Joint Committee is concerned to identify the criteria according to which the House of Commons should give or withhold its consent to such printing orders.

  One such criterion might be the public interest. The Joint Committee understands why departments might wish to give certain categories of document the protection of absolute privilege, for instance, to safeguard against suits for defamation. The Joint Committee also understands why departments believe that it is appropriate that certain documents which owe their existence to the House of Commons financial duties and constitutional status should be ordered to be printed by the House. But it is not clear why such documents need or should enjoy absolute privilege. Could absolute legal protection be safely removed from some of the categories of document or from all the documents which your department lays before the House? We also wish to identify any other criteria which departments believe are relevant to the House's decision to order a document to be printed.

  The Committee would be very grateful if you could reply to this letter by 19 November, as we are keen to finalise our report as soon as possible.

Nicholls of Birkenhead, Chairman

29 October 1998

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