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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:06 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Conservative 1:06 pm, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for bringing forward this remarkable debate, which has showcased the huge legal depth on the Benches here, and I thank the Library for the excellent briefing paper. I have an emotional response to this debate, as a former journalist who has himself been injuncted, which is to sympathise with the description from the noble Lord, Lord Hain, of his feelings when he decided to commit this breach. In my life as a new parliamentarian, I feel very excited about having this privilege. I feel defensive of it. But I think that the noble and learned Lord put really powerfully the case for there being a problem that needs to be resolved. From listening to the debate my sense is that doing nothing is not an option.

I will make two recommendations based on the principle that something needs to be done. First, we need to resolve this bitter battle between the courts and Parliament. Hearing in the debate how parliamentarians and the courts are at odds over this has made me feel very uneasy. Some very sensible-sounding reforms have been recommended—some of which have been articulated by the Bingham Centre, which has written a very good note on this matter—such as strengthening the existing provisions in the Companion to the Standing Orders. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, made some very detailed recommendations along these lines, which I support.

My second recommendation is to protect not the courts, but citizens. Privilege can be used for good, as a number of noble Lords have explained. I remember, as a boy, when the then Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, used privilege to expose Anthony Blunt, which not only was a pivotal moment in the Cold War but cleared the name of an innocent man who had been associated with spying. But in recent times some mistakes have been made, the consequences of which can be extremely damaging and long-lasting for the individuals concerned. The lurid and fantastical claims made against Lord Brittan—once my boss at the European ParliamentLord Bramall and Harvey Proctor have been exposed as false. Surely some sort of redress is appropriate for them. The hurt and suffering felt by innocent people and their families when great privileges are not used responsibly should stop us in our tracks and make us reflect on our behaviour.

This is different from the point I have focused on, but I will make not a legal, but a political point. As my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier said, the danger is that such incidents reinforce a deepening impression among ordinary people that somehow parliamentarians might think that they are above the law in some way. It contributes to the sort of anger that is often remarked upon on the Floor of this House, and which I fear we will see meted out at the ballot box today.

Something should be done to tilt the balance of power between unaccountable parliamentarians and ordinary people, in a way that preserves the principle of privilege—which is such an important part of our constitution—and does not create confusing definitions, but gives people a form of redress. Some kind of citizen’s right of reply should be considered. This would provide aggrieved citizens with the opportunity to have published on the record a brief response to accusations made in Parliament that they feel are inaccurate, unfair or defamatory. It would also help redress some of the tensions between the absolute nature of parliamentary privilege and fundamental human rights, tensions which a number of noble Lords have mentioned and the European Court of Human Rights has recognised.

Similar democracies in Australia, New Zealand and Ireland have adopted their own versions of a citizen’s right of reply, putting power back into the hands of ordinary citizens and allowing them to set the record straight and defend their reputations, while preserving the important principle of privilege in Parliament. This House has debated a citizen’s right of reply several times over the last 20 years. Given the public’s justifiable concerns and growing cynicism about government, I wonder whether now is the time to demonstrate respect and honour for our fellow citizens by enabling them to clear their names when they feel unjustly targeted by members of Parliament and abused under the cover of privilege.

I wonder whether it is time to seize this opportunity to consider these two proportionate measures in order to modernise a precious but fraying custom and to protect its fundamental value from being undermined or discredited in the future, while at the same time safeguarding the rights of citizens.