– in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 29th November 2022.
I remind hon. Members of the decision in question and of the procedure on this motion. The decision before the House is whether to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges. It will be for the Committee to report back on whether it considers that there has been a contempt.
Although it is in order for hon. Members to refer to the issues cited in the motion, it is not in order to make general criticisms of the conduct of John Nicolson or of any other hon. Member. Good temper and moderation must be maintained in parliamentary language. Previous debates on such motions have usually been relatively short; I hope that this debate will be focused and brief. Any hon. Member who wishes to speak needs to stand at the beginning of the debate to ensure that they catch my eye.
Mr Davis has tabled a motion for debate on the matter of privilege, which Mr Speaker has agreed should take precedence today. I call David Davis to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That the matter of the actions and subsequent conduct of the hon Member for Ochil and South Perthshire in relation to correspondence from the Speaker on a matter of privilege be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
I have been advised by the Clerks that this is a very narrow motion, so I will stick strictly and exclusively to the matter at hand. Before I come to the substantive motion, however, I want to say something to those members of the public who may think that this is an arcane or even abstruse issue.
Ever since Speaker Lenthall told King Charles I that
“I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me,” the Speaker has been the spokesman, champion and protector of the Members and institutions of this place, as well as being the impartial arbiter of our proceedings. If hon. Members think that that is just a piece of ancient history, they ought to consider more recent times. Mr Speaker’s more recent predecessors have been criticised on issues of impartiality or for failing to protect Members: for example, Mr Speaker Martin’s failure to protect my right hon. Friend Damian Green was highly controversial at the time and very important.
As for upholding the rights of Back Benchers and Opposition Members, we need only look at Mr Speaker’s fierce criticism of the Government during the statement yesterday, when he upheld our rights. It is therefore vital for Members to protect the integrity, impartiality and apolitical nature of the Speaker’s office. That point is clearly recognised in “Erskine May”—hardly a polemical document—at paragraph 15.14, which states that
“reflections on the character of the Speaker or accusations of partiality in the discharge of their duties” are a punishable offence. “Erskine May” also recognises that a Member’s behaviour and conduct outside this House count towards that.
I turn to the substantive motion. Following an appearance by my right hon. Friend Ms Dorries before the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport while she was Secretary of State, the Committee opened an investigation into several claims that she made, but ultimately it decided against any action. The Committee as a whole published a special report—[Interruption.] [Hon. Members: “He’s turned up.”] Oh, right.
The Committee as a whole published a special report, which said:
“we may have sought a referral to the Privileges Committee but, as her claims have not inhibited the work of the Committee and she no longer has a position of power over the future of Channel 4, we are, instead, publishing this Report to enable the House, and its Members, to draw their own conclusions.”
It is crucial in this matter to remember that John Nicolson sits on that Committee. He did not ask for a Division before the report was published; he did not vote against it; he did not publish a dissenting opinion on that report. Instead, he wrote to Mr Speaker asking him to give precedence to matters reported on by the Committee, even though the Committee itself was not seeking such precedence. As would be expected, Mr Speaker did the usual thing, and—in his own words—decided to
“respect the Committee’s assessment of the situation.”—[Official Report,
After Mr Speaker had replied to the hon. Member privately, as is the convention with privilege issues, the hon. Member took to Twitter. He brandished a copy of Mr Speaker’s letter in his video. He broke all the conventions on the privacy of Speakers’ correspondence on privilege, and disclosed a partial and partisan account of Mr Speaker’s letter. He said on Twitter:
“He’s considered my letter, but he’s decided to take no further action.”
In doing so, he implied that it was Mr Speaker’s unfettered decision not to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee. Nowhere in his filmed statement did he tell his followers that Mr Speaker was following normal procedure by accepting the will of the DCMS Committee—I imagine that is why Mr Speaker described his action last week as giving a “partial and biased account” of the correspondence—and nowhere in his statement did he tell his followers that it was he himself who sat on that Committee and signed off the conclusions.
All of us in this House have a duty to uphold its rules and institutions, but by knowingly breaching the confidentiality of the Speaker’s correspondence, the hon. Member has done the opposite. This is a clear breach of our rules. The proper response after Mr Speaker’s censure of him for his behaviour last week was for the hon. Member to accept the seriousness of his actions, apologise properly to the House, and delete the offending tweets. If he had done so, I imagine that would have been the end of the matter; indeed, I would not have made my point of order on the day. However, he failed to apologise, and instead compounded his misdemeanour. Taking to Twitter once again, he claimed that he
“offered no apology as there was no misrepresentation.”
He claimed that he
“didn’t ‘release’ the Speaker’s letter. I summarised it entirely fairly.”
That is untrue. He misled the country by deliberately withholding the way in which this decision had been arrived at and his part in it. He also retweeted an account that was directly critical of Mr Speaker, saying that Mr Speaker’s statement had been merely “Ermine pursuing theatrics” and that Mr Speaker was placing his
“integrity above that of parliament”.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire had again compounded his misdemeanour by deliberately attempting to undermine the impartiality and integrity of the Speaker’s office. It is the role of the Speaker of this House to protect Members and stand up for its Back Benchers, and it is the Members’ duty, on our part, to uphold the dignity of the Speaker’s office.
I do not believe any of this conduct to be appropriate for a Member of this House. However, that is not for me to judge, as a single, ordinary Member, which is why this is not a motion to condemn, but a motion to pass the matter to the Privileges Committee of the House of Commons.
At the heart of this issue, I believe, is accountability. What should happen to Members who break the rules, and how open should our procedures be? What should the public be allowed to know?
Let me say at the outset that I am very sorry that the Speaker feels that my revealing his decision not to have a debate in the House about our Committee’s report has put him in a bad light with the public. That was never my intention. My intention—[Interruption.] If Members allow me to develop my speech, they will hear my points. My intention was merely to let the public know what had been decided.
I am accused of breaking a rule myself, and I would like to explain the circumstances to the House. I am a member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. We held a hearing with the then Culture Secretary, Ms Dorries, at which she claimed that a Channel 4 reality series in which she had appeared some years ago had used actors pretending to be members of the public. She claimed that they had confessed this to her. A member of the production team who lived on the estate concerned—
Order. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman missed my opening remarks, but it is quite clear that this is not about the actions of any other Member. It is not about what happened in the Committee with any other right hon. Member. It is about the motion before us.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Let me say that there was considerable press interest in our Committee’s work, and I decided that we should send a copy of the report to the Speaker. I thought that time might be set aside for a debate about referring it to the Committee of Privileges. However, the Speaker wrote back to me saying that he did not believe the case met the threshold for a debate. I recorded a video summarising the Speaker’s decision, and I tweeted it. I offered no comment about the Speaker, nor did I criticise him. There was considerable public interest, and I soon discovered that the Speaker was angry. He believed that I should not have reported his decision. Last Wednesday, he told me in the House that he thought I had not summarised him accurately, and that I should not have reported him at all. It was not my intention in any way to summarise him inaccurately.
Before I was elected to the House, I was a journalist—a reporter for “Newsnight”, among other current affairs shows. I believe in open democracy, but I also believe in maintaining agreed confidentiality. It did not cross my mind that revealing the Speaker’s decision on this was a breach of privilege. After all, what was I to say if journalists asked me whether I had written to the Speaker? Was I to say, “Yes”? If they asked me, “Has the Speaker responded? Has the Speaker given a ruling?”, was I then to say, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you”? I did not consider that I had broken any confidence or betrayed any trust. I did not imagine that the Speaker’s decision on a matter of importance to my constituents could not be revealed. Moreover, I believe that I summarised the Speaker fairly, but I am in the unfortunate position of finding myself unable to prove that, because in order to do so I would have to release the Speaker’s letter to me in its entirety—something which, as we have established, the Speaker does not believe I should do.
There has been a suggestion that I printed only half the letter. That is not the case. The Speaker’s letter to me came as a letter through the post. There was no need for me to print it, nor did I publish it, nor did I show its contents to the camera, nor did I leak it to others. I was very open in the way I talked about it, which I hope shows that I did not think I was behaving improperly. There has also been some suggestion that the Select Committee did not wish to see this matter proceed to a privileges debate. That, too, is not the case. The Committee decided not to refer the Member concerned because she was no longer a Cabinet Minister, but the Committee left open the option for others to do so. Indeed, some Committee members expected that to happen. I agreed with the findings of the Committee, which were unanimous and cross-party.
Mr Davis, who wrote to the Speaker asking for this debate, has just spoken again. I have never met the right hon. Member or spoken to him here, although I may have interviewed him in the past. He is not a member of the Select Committee, and he has previously championed free speech.
Order. We really are not here to discuss the matters surrounding the Committee itself. The hon. Gentleman needs to stick to what is in the motion.
May I just say this, Madam Deputy Speaker? I spoke to the Chair and the Clerk of the Committee today. I gave them exactly the words that I intended to use, and obtained their permission to use the words that I have just repeated.
Order. It is up to me to make the final decision. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Those people do not give the hon. Gentleman permission; I do.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden spoke last Wednesday following the Speaker’s remarks from the Chair, and he laid into me with some vigour, using what appeared to be a pre-prepared speech. He was especially exercised by what he saw as my breach of parliamentary etiquette. It is worth me pointing out in that context that he did not contact me to inform me that he planned to speak about me, which as we all know is the convention. I was not afforded the opportunity to reply last Wednesday, but before moving on to other business the Speaker concluded:
“I am going to leave it there for today”.—[Official Report,
I therefore assumed that the matter had been laid to rest. However, the right hon. Member then took to Twitter to pursue his criticism of me, complete with a video of his speech.
Order. It is not for the hon. Gentleman to be criticising the right hon. Gentleman who moved the motion. He can speak to the motion, not outside it, so can we just stick to the matter in hand?
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who on a personal level I like. Can I just give him some friendly advice? Put the spade down.
People are watching this, and I am pleased that they are. I think they will draw conclusions, having heard both sides of the argument.
I have been in this House for 21 years, and as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have been a member of the House of Commons Commission for something like four years. I had absolutely no idea that we could not reveal that we had had correspondence with the Speaker or summarise what it was. How on earth was my hon. Friend supposed to know that, when I, with my 21 years in this House and my service on the Commission, did not know it? All of this seems to be, at best, some sort of means for retribution and, at worst, institutional bullying, because that is what it is starting to feel like right now.
Order. Interventions can be made, but they should be brief. I would also remind hon. and right hon. Members that if the House decides to refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges, these sorts of arguments can be made there. This debate is on the simple matter of the motion. Other arguments can be made to the Committee if the House decides it wants the matter to go to the Committee.
I know that the Speaker has been on the receiving end of often unpleasant comments from the public since I revealed his decision. That was never my intention. I did not use his name, I did not link to him and I did not post contacts for him. I am very sorry that a pile-on has ensued. I have friends across the House, and I believe in vigorous but fair debate. I have no time for abusive behaviour; I do not engage in it and I deplore it.
I am advised that I breached a parliamentary rule by referring to the Speaker’s letter, but as I have explained, I did not knowingly do so. I would never reveal a confidence. I did not believe that the Speaker’s decision on a parliamentary matter was a secret. Indeed—this is perhaps not a matter for today—should there not be a distinction between correspondence containing confidences and correspondence on policy decisions? Has every Member who has revealed a Speaker’s decision by letter found themselves the subject of a parliamentary privilege debate, as I am today? Although this convention appears to exist, is it not the very antithesis of open democracy? Many Members on both sides of the House have told me privately that they did not know this rule existed.
I should declare an interest as another Member who appeared in the very same reality show that the hon. Gentleman’s Committee discussed. He has not apologised to the Speaker. Does he not think that, having betrayed what was marked as private correspondence, which clearly and rightly aggrieved the Speaker, if he had given an apology at the time when it was raised by the Chair last week, he would not be in this position now? Why did he not do that? Would he not like to bring back at least some decorum by apologising profusely to the Speaker and the House now for the offence he has caused?
The hon. Gentleman says the letter was marked “private”. I do not know how he knows what was on the letter. I have shown the letter to absolutely nobody. But since he challenges me, the letter was not marked “private”. If it had been, I would not have talked about it. It is a core belief of people in my former profession that we hold confidences and that we will go to prison rather than reveal our sources. The letter was not marked “private”. It was about a matter of policy on whether or not a debate could be held, and I did not think that it was confidential.
The hon. Member has said that he was aware that the Speaker had become very angry. As the Speaker serves all of us, and as this is all about decorum, is it not time that he apologised to the Speaker? Maybe that would resolve a lot of things.
I want to answer that question honestly. I am slightly torn because, on the one hand, I am deeply sorry that the Speaker is upset. Those who know me will know that I do not ever conduct politics in a way that aims to be offensive, and I am truly sorry that the Speaker is upset. I am truly sorry that I have upset the Speaker, but it would be disingenuous of me to say that I knowingly revealed this. I could not have been more open by going on camera and discussing this. I clearly was not trying to hide it. If people in my profession—my former profession and this profession—want to pass things into the public domain in a sleekit or surreptitious way, they give them to journalists. I did not do that. I stood up and talked about the letter, not revealing its contents in detail but summarising it.
This place often seems hard to understand for the general public, and its procedures can appear opaque. I suspect that most people will find it curious that the Member who misled the Select Committee was subject to no consequences but the Member who revealed that—
Order. The hon. Gentleman absolutely needs to withdraw that remark.
I withdraw that remark. I, however, am subject to the current debate. I note that, over the years, these debates have been confined to people who have committed or been accused of committing some of the most egregious offences, but I have yet to meet a Member who thinks this falls into that category.
I want to conclude by saying again that it was never my intention to insult the Speaker. I do not know him well but we have only ever had friendly exchanges when meeting. I bear him absolutely no ill will. I deplore any and all online abuse that he has suffered. Nobody, I imagine, is enjoying this debate—least of all me. I find interpersonal conflict stressful and unpleasant. I hope the House concludes that there was no malicious intent in anything that I did, and I apologise to the Speaker for breaching a House rule, but given the all-party nature of the Committee report I sought no party political advantage and I hope that Members here today will seek no party political advantage. My only motivation was to do what I always try to do, and that is to engage with the debate and to communicate my work here with constituents and with journalists as openly and fairly as I can.
I received a letter today from someone who met me at a conference, saying that I was right in saying to her then that although I was not directly involved in her cause, it was a cause worth fighting for. I took that as a tribute. It was the LGB Alliance conference across the road from here. John Nicolson talked about pile-ons, and he constantly used the term on Twitter. That may or may not be relevant to the Committee of Privileges, if the matter is referred to that Committee—[Interruption.]
Order. I have to say to the Father of the House that this is not about criticising other people’s behaviour. It is strictly about the motion before us.
In the Hansard of
I think the proper description of last week’s exchange with the Speaker, as shown on the record in Hansard, is that the Speaker is awaiting an apology, which we have not yet heard. We have heard an explanation this afternoon that the hon. Gentleman was asking for a debate on a Select Committee report. The way to ask for a debate on a Select Committee report is to ask the Leader of the House. That is the normal parliamentary procedure.
The hon. Gentleman was actually asking for a privileges reference, which was not accepted. If a Member has been here for 21 years, they know the rules changed some years ago. Requests for a privileges reference are taken up in private with the Speaker, who then gives a view. If an hon. Member receives a reply from the Speaker saying no, and if they decide to make it public that they asked, they have a responsibility to be fully open about Mr Speaker’s whole response, not a part of it, as the Speaker said in the Chamber last week at 12.33 pm.
I believe the House has a responsibility to back the Speaker, right or wrong, but especially when he is right. On this issue, my right hon. Friend Mr Davis is right, and I ask the House to support the reference to the Committee of Privileges. After that, when the Committee has reported, we can decide whether to have a fuller debate and whether the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire has, by then, done as the House would expect, and as the Speaker asked, and given a full apology.
I call the SNP spokesperson, Deidre Brock.
It is extremely unfortunate that matters have come to this, but I understand the conventions of the House that brought us here. The Scottish National party respects the need for a transparent and open process.
The Leader of the House has previously spoken of the importance of parliamentary modernisation, and of how the House operates unlike any normal administrative centre in the public or private sector, and I agree with her. The procedures of the Houses of Parliament need updating, and this situation perhaps provides us with an example of where some reform could take place.
I am confident, having spoken to my hon. Friend John Nicolson, that he was completely unaware of the conventions of the House at the heart of this issue. He sought clarity on proper procedure and was caught out. He has already spoken at length, with his customary eloquence, outlining his position and how there was no malicious intent.
In closing, I repeat that the SNP respects the need for transparency and openness.
The upholding of conventions is essential to the smooth running of this House and to the foundation of political order in this country. “Erskine May” is clear—there is a search function, and I checked this morning—about the procedure for raising a complaint about a breach of privilege. The rules are there to find for a Member who seeks to raise such a complaint. “Erskine May” says that Members need the permission of the Speaker and must request it in writing. There is a long-standing convention that, when Members write to the Speaker, they do so on the basis that the correspondence in both directions will remain confidential. This is especially the case on matters of privilege. Paragraph 15.32, footnote 6, is explicit:
“It is not the practice for such letters to be made public… Members should not challenge the Speaker’s decision in the House.”
As Members of this House we all hold parliamentary privilege, but that comes with responsibility. We have a duty not to misuse it, and we have a duty to respect the Chair’s rulings. Our conduct must live up to the high expectations that the public should have a right to expect of us.
I therefore believe the conduct of John Nicolson warrants an investigation by the Committee of Privileges, as requested by Mr Davis, so I will support the motion today, and I urge others to do so.
I thank my right hon. Friend Mr Davis for moving the motion. I deeply regret it, but I understand why he has had to do so.
I heard what John Nicolson said today, and I am glad to see him in the Chamber. I do not think his argument that he was not aware of the right course of action or of the appropriate response to journalistic inquiries, which is to state that any such correspondence is confidential, is a reason for not passing the motion. I sincerely hoped he would make an apology. I think there is consensus across the House about the right course of action. Had he taken that opportunity, the matter could potentially have been brought to an end today.
The procedure for raising breaches of privilege is a long-standing and important convention that ensures the privileges and rights of this House are protected.
I think there is a misunderstanding. I quite clearly said that I was apologising to Mr Speaker. I was unaware of this convention, and I wished to cause him no hurt. I apologised, and I am repeating that now.
I am afraid that the way in which the hon. Gentleman phrased it, and the way in which he has not appreciated—
I will continue.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire has not appreciated the damage that has been done in these circumstances. The Speaker’s role in this is integral, including in avoiding—
Correspondence on such matters must remain confidential and, in this place, we all suffer if that does not happen. As Mr Speaker noted, it is not for him to determine whether a contempt has been committed. I therefore support the motion and the need for the Committee of Privileges to thoroughly and correctly investigate any potential breach. I think we all regret where we are today. I am sorry the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire did not make a full and frank apology, and I support the motion.