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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

—or about the editor of The Times, and sometimes I feel provoked to do both. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Of course, the first part of that sentence should immediately be deleted from the record.

The right of privilege is there for a reason, and the obligation that goes with it is to use it responsibly.

On the other side, we know that journalists have treated politicians with magnificent contempt not only in latter days but for hundreds of years. They have lampooned them, traduced them, defamed them and done all kinds of monstrous things to them. Despite the predicaments in which some hon. Members find themselves, all that was far worse in the past than it is today,

But in all that time—even when a daily columnist has suggested that an hon. Member does not possess his own hair—it has never been suggested that we should rush to the courts because of such treatment. Such matters are too important for that. Matters of privilege are embedded in how the House works.

This is not the time to rehearse the arguments and anxieties expressed in another place and by hon. Members about some of the implications of the Bill. I want to focus simply and briefly on a fundamental point. Only Parliament itself could waive a privilege that belongs to it on behalf of the people. An individual hon. Member could not waive it because that would undercut the purpose of privilege itself. It might be possible to introduce a mechanism so that Parliament could find a way of allowing individuals to waive privilege, but that would require a special procedure. We are in deep and dangerous territory, and casual amendments to Bills are not the solution.

I end with my second point, which is a procedural one. We are told that Lord Hoffmann tabled the amendment in the other place only so that it could be discussed and debated. As we have heard, he did not feel that he could vote for it. In addition, the Minister said earlier that he wanted only to have the matter debated. The problem is that Parliament does not have the mechanism to enable that immensely important constitutional debate to take place. With great respect to those hon. Members who will serve on it, such a debate will not take place in Committee. It will not take place on Report, although we have been promised some discussion and a vote later. Our discussion will not be informed by the extensive, expert and critical scrutiny that an amendment or a derogation from the Bill of Rights warrants. Such an amendment would require a Committee of Privileges to pronounce on it, and would certainly require a Joint Committee, as proposed by hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), to consider it.

The real problem is that when Parliament wants to consider such matters, it does not have the mechanism to do so. I speak as someone who favours constitutional change—I am not conservative in these matters. In wanting to make constitutional change, however, we must not make change as Parliament tends to—on the hoof and without thought, storing up problems for the future.