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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:05 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 12:05 pm, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, naturally the disclosure of material contrary to a court order offends against the training of all lawyers. We are brought up to respect the rule of law, to keep our mouths shut when it is appropriate, to respect the courts and their judgments and not to criticise them. I am wary that this approach may not have the same cataclysmic effect upon those who are not lawyers.

This issue came to a head in 2011 with John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Yardley from 2005 to 2015. I have been a guest in his house and I know him very well. John Hemming was a scholar in theoretical, atomic and nuclear physics at Magdalen College, Oxford, and he became a millionaire with a software business by the age of 27, at which point he took up Liberal politics. He really was a good, old-fashioned Liberal campaigner. He passionately opposed super-injunctions, orders forbidding the revelation not just of the parties but even of the existence of the injunction itself. He considered that their use was the preserve of the rich, because only the rich could go to court and obtain them. I was very interested to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Hain, that Jess Phillips, who succeeded him in Birmingham, Yardley, made precisely the same point—that this is the preserve of the rich. In 2011 John Hemming revealed a number of well-known figures under parliamentary privilege: the chairman of Barclays Bank, Mr Goodwin and a well-known Welsh footballer. The result of that seems to be that the use of super-injunctions has declined—you can spend a lot of money and find that, if it is mentioned in Parliament, you have wasted it all.

Similarly, another friend of mine, Paul Farrelly, Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, disclosed the existence of a super-injunction in the Trafigura scandal by means of a Parliamentary Question. Trafigura was dumping toxic waste products in Côte d’Ivoire, causing injury in the nature of burns to skin and lungs to 30,000 people. These are exceptional cases involving very considerable public interest. I oppose altering our disciplinary procedures so as to make such disclosures a breach of the Code of Conduct. It seems to me that, in exceptional circumstances, it may be justified to do what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, did—although I must say that, as a lawyer, I was shocked at the time, I can tell him that, and I do not think it quite comes into the category of some of the other disclosures that have been made. However, I think it is highly unwise to make such disclosures.

First, I think that a Member of Parliament who does so must examine his own motives. It may be a vehicle for a lowly Member of Parliament to indulge in publicity he would not otherwise get, as a result of the dramatic disclosure he makes and all the press that follows.

Secondly, it is obviously wide open to abuse. I do not suggest that abuse has taken place in any of the cases I have mentioned, but it would be possible for parties to proceedings and the press to approach a particular Member and induce him in one way or another to ask a Parliamentary Question under the cloak of privilege. We should be very concerned about that.

Thirdly, the Member in question is not a caped crusader, going around the world to seek justice and end injustice wherever it may be; someone must put him up to the particular issue, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hain. Whether it could amount to a criminal conspiracy to perform an unlawful act is doubtful, but it is inappropriate for a representative of the people to engage in an unlawful act, and it is unlawful to breach a court injunction. The fact that you are an MP and will not be punished for mentioning it in Parliament is an exercise of the privilege of Parliament, not the privilege of the Member. The Member is not cloaked and protected by the armour of this principle. It rests with Parliament itself.

I do not criticise the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for doing what he did. I am sure that he had very good reasons and was moved to do so. However, it is unwise, and anyone who seeks to do it should examine their conscience very carefully.