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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:17 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Labour 1:17 pm, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for giving us this opportunity to consider the potential complexities of this issue. I have no legal expertise, but as a member of the Procedure Committee, I had an opportunity to consider this issue.

I want to speak about parliamentary privilege—to reflect on what it was introduced for and its continuing relevance today. I should say up front that what has been characterised for the purposes of this debate as a potential conflict I see rather as a question of balance—between respect for legal judgments on the one hand and exercising Parliament’s profoundly important right to free speech on the other. I believe that the House already has sufficient mechanisms with which to maintain that balance. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, set them out very clearly. Seeking to change these mechanisms by introducing new restrictions or disciplines could have a profound effect on the ability of parliamentarians to carry out our public duties without fear or favour.

A consequence of Parliament’s exclusive jurisdiction over proceedings in Parliament is that participants are not legally liable for things said or done in the course of those proceedings; nor are those adversely affected by things said or done in Parliament able to seek redress through the courts. Therefore, in certain circumstances, it overrides other generally accepted legal rights.

Parliamentary privilege is, by its very name and definition, an exception to the general principle of the rule of law. The tension between parliamentary privilege and the rule of law can be uncomfortable, but the rule of law as reflected in judicial decisions must be balanced against the competing claims of Parliament to be free to speak on matters of importance without fear of prosecution. To seek a general assumption that judicial decisions must trump the freedoms of speech afforded through parliamentary privilege is to introduce the risk that the judiciary or the Executive interfere with the proper operation of Parliament. Parliamentary privilege is a fundamental constitutional principle, itself part of the law. It would be a big step to tamper with that principle by deploying the argument that parliamentary privilege, as currently operating, is no longer proportionate.

The last major review of parliamentary privilege was in 1999, the year I entered this House, and it still usefully reminds us that parliamentary privilege exists to protect the independence of Parliament. Parliament and its Members and officers have certain rights and immunities under the banner of parliamentary privilege, which are rooted in this country’s constitutional history. They allow each House to work effectively, giving them the exclusive right to oversee their own affairs and, above all, to enable Members to speak freely. While the courts have a legal and constitutional duty to protect freedom of speech and Parliament’s recognised rights and immunities, they do not have the power to regulate or control how Parliament conducts its business. Parliament in turn is careful not to interfere in how judges discharge their judicial responsibilities. In taking responsibility for our own affairs, we must still respect the rule of law.

The way that we ensure privilege is not abused, and the rule of law is not undermined, is for each House to enforce its rules on conduct and to ensure that our Standing Orders set out the importance of respecting judicial process, the separation of powers and the rule of law. The sub judice rule, set out in the Standing Orders of the House, makes it clear that the privilege of freedom of speech in Parliament places a corresponding duty on members to use the freedom responsibly. Respect for this rule is important in securing a balance between Parliament and the courts. Perhaps, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, suggested, stronger wording in the Companion could highlight the need to respect the sub judice rule and use parliamentary privilege responsibly. But I would also want to ensure that any enhanced wording in the Companion would still provide for the possibility of a Member breaching a court order if he or she believed there was a strong public interest argument in favour of doing so.

For me, free speech in Parliament remains the touchstone in any debate of this issue because of its constitutional importance to our functioning democracy. In my 20 years in this House, I have heard parliamentary privilege called on only a handful of times. It is clearly not used lightly, nor do I believe that its recent use by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, in October last year represents an escalation that now needs to be addressed. I would counsel against introducing new or draconian measures that would regulate what Members can or cannot say during parliamentary proceedings. That would mean curtailing the freedom of speech essential to parliamentary privilege, guaranteed by Article IX of the 1698 Bill of Rights, and reaffirmed regularly thereafter.