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