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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:32 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 1:32 pm, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, I particularly thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for enabling me to witness a near-private tutorial, given by some of our nation’s top experts—not just from the law, but from Parliament, academia and elsewhere—on the interrelation of aspects of the rule of law with that vital issue of parliamentary freedom of speech. If my noble friend Lord Hain had done nothing else in his career than create the opportunity for today’s debate, I would have much to thank him for. Incidentally, I wonder whether today’s Hansard together with the helpful Library briefing we had, bound into a book, would not only be a great bestseller, with no issue of copyright and royalties, but may provide that extra guidance that some speakers have called for today.

I turn to the issue, whose coverage I will not try either to summarise or assess, and will say three brief things. The first nicely follows the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who talked about there not being enough cases. I always think that amending or making rules in response to an isolated incident, whether that incident is right or wrong, rarely makes for good law. We often refer to the Dangerous Dogs Act but, within other organisations, in business and elsewhere, the normal advice is to wait for a pattern before contemplating a response. Whatever the merits that brought the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, to table this debate today, there is clearly not a trend in behaviour to which we need to attract our attention.

Secondly, in any arena where two long-held and vital principles might collide—although the idea of balance referred to is better—hard and fast rules will rarely provide the solution. Careful judgment is needed, particularly when the public interest has to be defined and weighed. This is where skill may need to mix with sense, even political understanding, for a judgment to be made. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, if lines are drawn, someone will have to arbitrate on where the boundary was crossed. Few of us want to rise to that challenge.

Thirdly, we have a Procedure Committee. As one of its members, my noble friend Lady Warwick, said, it has already looked at this issue and has not come to us with recommendations for change. We should heed its membership, which reflects the expertise we have in the House, from whom we have heard today. As they have the confidence that we did not need to bring anything today, we should follow their lead. It has been a fascinating two hours or so, and I now look forward to some added experience from the noble and learned Lord the Minister.