Parliament: Freedom of Speech and the Rule of Law - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct 11:37 am, 23rd May 2019

I am terribly sorry, I am not proposing to take interventions. This is a strictly time-limited debate and I need my 15 minutes.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, does not suggest that the court’s judgment was in any way wrong, but rather that, whatever the legal position, he thought it his moral duty to name Green. He said that he believed he was acting honourably in naming him and:

“The sovereignty of judges is vital but should never override the sovereignty of parliament”.

Of course I accept that the noble Lord is an honourable man, but I reject utterly his suggestion that his own subjective view of what is right must always prevail over a court order.

My central concern is for the future. Indeed, the very fact that, as I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, does not accept that he was guilty even of a misjudgment in his use of the privilege increases that concern. Why would he and perhaps others of like mind, if there be such, not act similarly in the future unless the House now clarifies and, as I suggest, modifies the position? Doing what we now can to guard against any such egregious exercise of parliamentary privilege is essential to protect both the rule of law and the reputation of this House. Here I should declare an interest as a member of the House’s Privileges and Conduct Committee and as the chair of its Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct until these were recently restructured.

My essential concern is for the House’s loss of reputation if its Members breach the rule of law. Of course I recognise the fundamental importance of a Member’s right to speak freely in Parliament. Parliamentary privilege is enshrined in Article 9 of the Bill of Rights. It is of foundational significance in our constitution and I am certainly not proposing any legislative change to its scope. But I cannot accept that parliamentary privilege must always prevail over all competing interests. Are Members invariably to be free to breach court orders protecting, say, the identity of children, sometimes even the safety of children? Take the notorious Thompson and Venables case: could a Member have decided off his own bat to reveal their whereabouts and thus imperil their lives—or, say, trade secrets or intelligence material?

Essentially, the privilege is to prevent Members being vulnerable to claims of defamation, breach of privacy and so forth—indeed, to any other risks inhibiting the discharge of their duty to speak fearlessly on an issue in the House. But surely it is one thing to say that the privilege should not be whittled down, and quite another to claim for it so exorbitant a reach as is asserted here—namely the right, with total impunity, to breach any court order that the Member dislikes.

I advocate two distinct steps. First, the Companion, our guide to proceedings in the House, should be tightened up on this point. It is 250 pages long but there is not a word about disobeying court orders. All there is is our resolution some years back on the sub judice rule, which I can summarise simply: the privilege of freedom of speech in Parliament should be used responsibly. It requires both Houses to,

“abstain from discussing the merits of disputes about to be tried and decided in the courts of law”.

Essentially the rule requires Members in most proceedings before the House not to refer to active court proceedings, except where the Lord Speaker, in his discretion, allows it, and the Lord Speaker must be given at least 24 hours’ notice of any proposal to refer to a matter which is sub judice. Civil proceedings cease to be “active” on judgment.

I have three comments. First, the rule contemplates the issue arising in the context of,

“any motion, debate or question”.

I suggest that it does not envisage doing what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, did here—rising unannounced before the House after the conclusion of one unrelated, busy debate, and before the start of the next, to make a “personal statement”.

Secondly, in his evidence to the commissioner, the noble Lord asserted not only that he did not consult the Lord Speaker before making his statement but that he consulted no one. He merely notified the Deputy Speaker on the Woolsack at the time that he would say something once the ongoing debate had ended.

Thirdly, the noble Lord’s statement was contrary to the sub judice rule, but only because the court’s order was for an interim injunction. Had it been a final court order at the conclusion of proceedings, it would not have been covered by the rule. I suggest that the very least the House should do now is revise the Companion to make plain that in addition to the sub judice rule—indeed, more important than the sub judice rule—there is an obligation on Members to respect the independence of the courts and the rule of law, as the Lord Speaker said in his brief, well-judged Statement four days after the noble Lord’s statement, so that,

“we do not set ourselves in conflict with the courts or seek to supplant them”.

The sub judice rule is, after all, intended merely to discourage Members without good reason from discussing the merits of a case, so that their views will not risk prejudicing the court in deciding it. Intentionally flouting an actual court order after it has decided the case is surely altogether more extreme, and clashes directly with the rule of law.

I might add that the action of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, in the Green case had the effect of preventing the court ever deciding the important final question that the interim injunction was intended to leave for decision—namely, the correct approach to non-disclosure agreements in this context. The court’s open judgment, a full and measured judgment, expressly recognised the conflicting interests and arguments in play. The Court of Appeal took account of a recent House of Commons report by its Women and Equalities Committee on sexual harassment in the workplace, which recognised a legitimate role for NDAs, not least—as in the Green case—in settling employment tribunal claims. Two of the five employees supported Green’s application for an injunction. All five had been separately and independently legally advised, and each agreement expressly allowed disclosure to people such as the police and any regulatory and statutory bodies.

Unsurprisingly, Green discontinued his action after the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, had pre-empted the result. Anonymity, of course, was lost for ever—but surely even unpopular people such as Philip Green are entitled to the protection of the courts. Shortly after the statement the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, described it in his Times column as,

“a clear abuse of parliamentary privilege”,

and suggested that the House should,

“amend its procedures to deter such conduct in future cases”.

He advocated Standing Orders in both Houses forbidding disclosure of information,

“without first seeking and then complying with a ruling by the Speaker”— a failure to comply with that being a breach of the Code of Conduct. Whether that approach would put too heavy a responsibility on the Speaker is for consideration, but it is difficult to think of many cases where the Speaker would support the proposed breach of a considered court order.

Moreover, there is another important factor to have in mind here, which is the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2002 Strasbourg, in A v UK, accepted by a majority that the rule of absolute parliamentary immunity was justified even when it operates to defeat convention rights. The court’s reasoning, however, included that:

“General control is exercised over debates by the Speaker of each House of Parliament”,

and that,

“the immunity attaches only to statements made in the course of parliamentary debates on the floor of the House”.

The privilege there had been used to prevent a defamation claim—not, as in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, a statement wholly outwith the control of the Speaker and unrelated to any debate on the Floor of the House, simply oversetting a court order. As Erskine May tells us on pages 222 and 301, even in A’s case,

“the judges were not uncritical of the exercise of privilege without recognition of … human rights”.

They expressed the view that a national Parliament should incorporate into its procedures,

“some system of redress for citizens”.

For my part, I seriously doubt whether the case of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, would survive a Strasbourg challenge today.

As the admirable Library note makes plain, there have been a number of relevant committee reports down the years. In the context of super-injunctions, a 2012 Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions concluded that the use of privilege to defeat them, as in the Ryan Giggs and Fred Goodwin cases, had not yet reached the point where Parliament needed to act; a high threshold for taking action had not yet been crossed. I suggest that it now has been and that we should not kick this can further down the road.

We all of course enjoy our privileges and it is understandable that we should cherish them and wish to guard them jealously. But it is my contention that the time has come when we should recognise an abuse for what it is and try to limit its recurrence in future. I greatly look forward to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and all others have to say in this debate—the non-lawyers at least as much as the lawyers. I beg to move.