Parliamentary Privilege First Report

Letter from the Leader of the House of Commons (Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP) in reply to letters from Chairman of the Joint Committee of 29 October 1998 to various Government departments


  Following my letter to you of 19 November; I am now replying substantively on behalf of the Government to your letter of 2 November to all Cabinet members and the Attorney General.

  From the Government perspective, there are three broad categories of documents which we produce but which are printed under the Parliamentary Papers Act. The first includes documents specifically requested by either House—usually Memoranda or Reports submitted to Select Committees, and those responses to Select Committees which are published by the House rather than as Command Papers. In this case, the documents are submitted to Parliament, and the decision on printing is entirely one for Parliament. The Government has no special wish to claim privilege; we would be content for Parliament to consider what level of privilege is appropriate. Clearly, that will relate to the level of privilege that Parliament is seeking for other documents produced by the Committee in question.

  The second category is those estimates and accounts and a number of annual and other reports and accounts which are required by statute to be laid before the House. Here again, privilege attaches because of the statutory requirement, or the chosen route of publication. Where the Government itself directly publishes similar material (for instance, departmental reports which are usually published as command papers) no privilege attaches. Once again, we would be happy for Parliament to consider the appropriate level of privilege for this category of documents, but we would be grateful to be consulted in the course of any such consideration, as we have not been able, in the limited time available, to check the sensitivity of all these documents. I know, for example, that the Treasury believe that there may be a good case for Appropriation Accounts retaining absolute privilege.

  The final significant category are those documents where Government seeks publication via the Parliamentary Papers Act, usually on a return to an address. This approach is only used after careful consideration, and is used to publish the reports of Royal Commissions, non statutory inquiries etc, where the Government (and usually the Chairman of the Royal Commission or inquiry) considers that the absolute protection available under the 1840 Act is justified. This route is only used where the public interest in publishing the report outweighs the public interest in withholding the report (or part of the report) because of the potential damage to individuals, companies or other bodies. This judgement is always made on a case by case basis—parts of inquiry reports have been withheld from publication on occasion because the damage which would follow from publishing such material was held to outweigh the public interest in favour of publication.

  In summary, therefore, the Government believes that the privilege attached to Parliamentary Papers is primarily a matter for Parliament itself. It does, however, make occasional use of publication under the Parliamentary Papers Act for specific categories of document where it believes that absolute privilege is justified.

Margaret Beckett

30 November 1998

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