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Orders of the Day — Defamation Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:28 pm on 21st May 1996.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright , Cannock and Burntwood 10:28 pm, 21st May 1996

I have only two points to make. I am neither a lawyer nor a Member with a grievance, which makes me a distinct minority among those who have spoken in the debate. But what I am is a Member of Parliament—one who has an interest in how Parliament has developed, and how it has attempted to claim its rights over the years.

As a Member of Parliament, I view with some alarm the casual way in which, into an otherwise perfectly benign, uncontroversial, helpful Bill, has been slipped an amendment that would have the effect of striking out a fundamental of our constitution. That may seem rather an extravagant thing to say to a thin Tuesday night House on the day before we rise for the recess, but I am afraid that that is what we are talking about, and I hope that the House will understand it.

Many of us will say that we have genuine sympathy with the hon. Members who find themselves in the predicaments that we have heard about, and that we want to do something to help them, but we live in an environment in which privilege has been claimed for proceedings here, and we would be ill advised to trespass on that arrangement unless we had given the whole idea the most careful consideration and knew precisely what we were doing.

In an earlier intervention, the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) said that if we did as is suggested we would simply be "closing a loophole". Actually, we would be altering the Bill of Rights of 1688. That is the "loophole" that we would be closing. I know that it may be a bit old-fashioned, but it is worth reminding ourselves what the Bill of Rights says: Freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament". On the whole, that formulation has served the House rather well for 300 years. It is rather sharp and acute, and has a point to it. Above all, it has kept Parliament and the courts out of the conflicts that have bedevilled political systems all over the world. Each has known its place, because ever since 1688 privilege has been enshrined in that clause of the Bill of Rights.

When amendments are introduced late in the day to deal, so it is believed, with particular court cases of the moment by allowing hon. Members a waiver of privilege, as though that were a matter affecting no one but the individual hon. Member concerned, whatever our sympathies with such individuals, many of us will say, "I am afraid that things are just not like that." The matter of privilege is just not like that.

It is not possible for individual Members of Parliament to claim waivers of privilege, because privilege belongs to the House of Commons itself, and it is there for a reason. We hold privilege not so much for ourselves but on behalf of the people, who have set up a system of democratic representation and given us certain rights of privilege to speak on their behalf.

We have to exercise that right responsibly. I could stand here and say the most outrageous things, about the chairman of my constituency party—