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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:59 am on 23rd May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 11:59 am, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, I have great respect for the judicial expertise and eminent career of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. I remind your Lordships that the Commissioner for Standards completely exonerated me in dismissing complaints from Sir Philip Green after I had named him on 25 October 2018. I explained to her that I acted for moral reasons and was not second-guessing or criticising the judiciary, nor have I done so since. To explain why, I am revealing for the first time in public exactly what one of Sir Philip Green’s victims told me while pleading with me to name him under parliamentary privilege.

I quote: “He was touching and repeatedly slapping women staff’s bottoms, grabbing thighs and touching legs. Hundreds of grievance cases were raised with HR. The company lawyer who interviewed me then lied. Sir Philip screamed and shouted at staff ‘to go to psychologists’. Victims went to an employment tribunal but were told it would not get anywhere so settled with an NDA. Some were worn down with spiralling legal costs costing them a fortune. He broke some in the end. It was horrible. He is still doing exactly the same thing. It is rife, it happened all the time. I saw him grab the breasts of others. This has gone on for a long time”.

After I named Sir Philip, numerous former employees and executives of his made similar allegations in various newspapers. My motive was to stand up for ordinary employees against a very powerful and wealthy boss who, as described to me, seemed to think he was above the rules of decent respectful behaviour. Part of the injustice I acted against is the misuse of non-disclosure agreements—NDAs—which Sir Philip Green deployed to suppress victims from obtaining redress, as did Harvey Weinstein to silence his sexual harassment victims, as did organisers of the Presidents Club dinner in January last year, when 130 women were required to sign NDAs in a bid to stop any details of harassment, groping and propositioning going public.

Maria Miller MP, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said the Philip Green case had,

“thrown a spotlight on the way NDAs can be used repeatedly to cover up alleged wrongdoing … If an NDA hadn’t been used in this case then maybe the managers and the board of the company involved could have taken action to avoid this repeated behaviour, and that is what is so concerning about the way NDAs are being misused”.

She added that she personally would like to see NDAs outlawed in employment severance agreements. Jess Phillips also said that:

“It seems that our laws allow rich and powerful men to … do whatever they want, as long as they can pay to keep it quiet”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/18; col. 274.]

Parliamentary privilege is a fundamental part of our constitution and is the only absolute free speech right entrenched in the law. It is a part of the rule of law itself, and the prospect that it may be used should surely be a deterrent to anyone minded to seek a secrecy order from the courts to cover up allegations of misconduct, as in the Philip Green case. Despite similar outrage from the legal establishment, it was used to name the notorious spy Kim Philby. It was vindicated again in 1977 when MPs used it to expose the bogus secrecy of “Colonel B”, who was wrongly—as the judges later found—given anonymity by the court to bolster an oppressive official secrecy case against journalists. When the DPP immediately threatened the press with prosecution, newspapers, led by the Times, defied him. That said, it should be used responsibly, sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. In my 30-year parliamentary career I have used it just twice before: in 2000 when I named traffickers selling arms for “blood diamonds” fuelling wars in Africa; and then in 2017-18 to name, in this House, British corporations complicit in former President Zuma’s corrupt activities in South Africa. These, like my Sir Philip Green intervention, exposed gross injustice in the public interest when the law was clearly failing to do so, and are living proof of parliamentary sovereignty, irrespective of the wishes of the Executive, the powerful and the wealthy, and even rulings by the legal establishment when it covers up allegations of misconduct.

Some noble Lords would make parliamentary sovereignty subject to the power of judges, who perhaps have granted secrecy orders—as, notoriously, in the Colonel B case—at the behest of an oppressive Executive. In such cases, a parliamentarian’s right to exercise privilege conscientiously and responsibly is an important safeguard for the liberty of the subject. It should not be whittled away by turning the Speaker or the Lord Speaker into pre-vetting police officers with a censorship role. Nor should the sovereignty of judges override the sovereignty of Parliament—the path down which, I fear, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, and others might be leading us.