HL Deb 17 July 1997 vol 581 cc1085-90

3.37 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Your Lordships may recall that in a Written Answer on 9th June I told the House that, in the Government's judgment, the time was now ripe for a general review of parliamentary privilege. Three related considerations led us to that conclusion. The first is our declared intention to modernise Parliament, which has already borne fruit in the setting up of the Select Committee in another place with a wide-ranging remit to recommend reforms of its practices and procedures. As part of the modernisation initiative, it is surely right that there should now be a fundamental reappraisal of the kind of legal immunities which Parliament and its Members should enjoy at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st.

Secondly, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has announced proposals for taking forward a general reform of the corruption statutes, which will include clarifying the law on bribery of Members of both Houses of Parliament in their parliamentary capacity. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that the considerable implications which this will have for parliamentary privilege need to be examined very carefully before any legislation on the subject is introduced.

Thirdly, as your Lordships are aware, there have been several instances in recent years in which there have been difficulties in marking the frontier between Parliament and the courts. Your Lordships will doubtless recall the debates in this House last year on an amendment to the Defamation Bill, which allowed Members of either House, whose conduct was in issue in defamation cases, to wave the protection of Article 9 of the Bill of Rights if they chose to do so. On that occasion, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, called for a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider the serious constitutional issues raised by the amendment—a call that was supported by many other noble Lords including, I am glad to say, the then Leader of the Opposition.

That issue—and, of course, others—would fall within the scope of the comprehensive review that the Government now propose. As questions of parliamentary privilege affect both Houses, it is clearly appropriate that any review should be conducted by a Joint Committee of both Houses. The Government hope that it might be possible to complete the review by early next year.

Moved, That this House do concur with the Commons in their Message of Thursday last, that it is desirable that a Joint Committee of both Houses be appointed to review parliamentary privilege and to make recommendations thereon.—(Lord Richard.)

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the whole House should be extremely grateful to the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal for this announcement in pursuance of his Written Answer of 9th June. We on this side of the House warmly welcome the proposal. If nothing else, the debates on the Defamation Bill in the previous Parliament showed the importance of this procedure. There was clearly a need to examine the workings of Article 9 of the Bill of Rights in the light of developments that have occurred particularly in the latter decades of the past 300 years.

The privileges of Parliament and its Members have become a legitimate subject for debate. Nevertheless, the privilege of Parliament should be dear to all Members of both Houses. It is therefore entirely appropriate that, as both Houses are affected, both should examine the issue. The Joint Committee of both Houses that the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal suggests would seem to be an entirely appropriate mechanism. Having said that, I wonder whether the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal can tell us whether the Joint Committee's remit will be as broad as possible. Clearly, this is a subject with many ramifications going right to the roots of our system of parliamentary government. I hope that the tradition of committees, particularly of this House, to give riding instructions which are not too specific—if I may put it that way—but which are broad in their effect will be appropriate in this case.

Can the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal also assure the House—I am sure he will be able to do so—that there will be adequate representation on the committee from this House, particularly in view of the considerable breadth of experience available here which could give a helpful slant to the committee's deliberations over and above the interests that this House may have compared to another place? Can the noble Lord give any guidance as to the Government's thinking on the chairmanship of the committee? If he is not in a position to do so, I quite accept that this may he a matter to be discussed at a later date.

We on this side of the House greatly welcome the measure. Indeed, it would be odd if we did not, because, as the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal knows, this was a measure and a proceeding which I strongly advocated during the course of the previous Parliament. It would therefore be perverse to do anything except commend the Government for their action.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, we are wholly content with what is proposed. We think it appropriate to proceed by means of a Joint Select Committee of both Houses. I take it that there will be the normal consultation as regards membership from your Lordships' House. If the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal has anything to say, not about the name but in what direction he would expect the chairmanship to lie, we shall be interested to hear what he has to say. We remember with a certain ironic amusement the great fuss which was made as regards getting the Defamation Act on to the statute book. That was a classic example of a squib which blew up in a direction that was not intended.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the European dimension of this matter be borne in mind? I venture to address the usual channels on both sides of the House as there is a degree of unanimity on the attitude they take towards such matters. It is clear to a number of people—certainly to me—that the area within which parliamentary privilege operates in both Houses is progressively diminishing with the incursion by the European Commission and others on the undoubted rights and privileges we enjoy in this country. I hope therefore that the European dimension will be taken quite seriously into account by both sides. As an earnest of my good intentions, I offer my services if these are necessary.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I very much welcome the proposal. The essential feature in the constitution, the Bill of Rights, is now in a state of confusion. As the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal says, a particularly serious feature is that the situation now allows the courts and Parliament to come into collision. That has been carefully avoided for the past 150 years. I entirely agree, for the reasons given, that a Joint Select Committee is the appropriate organ now.

I ask two questions. The first concerns the Scottish dimension. Contemporaneously with the English Bill of Rights there was a Scottish claim of rights. Its status is not entirely clear at the moment. Moreover, it is in different terms from the Bill of Rights. The Scottish claim of rights asserts freedom of debate in Parliament but does not, as the English measure does, make proceedings in Parliament inadmissible in a court of law. That is certainly a matter that will require investigation, all the more so in view of current proposals to establish a Scottish parliament.

My question to the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal is: will the terms of reference be wide enough to embrace the Scottish implications? Even if it is decided finally that it should be a matter for a Scottish parliament, it can hardly be other than an advantage that the matter should be considered by the Joint Select Committee.

My second question relates to another matter to which the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal adverted; namely, the Home Office initiative. Last December the Home Office issued a consultative document on the question of bribery of Members of Parliament. As the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal indicated, the present Home Secretary has recently taken that up. But surely it would be highly undesirable to have two inquiries going on simultaneously with overlapping terms of reference. I hope that in spite of what I trust is a provisional view the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal will be able to assure your Lordships that the Joint Select Committee will now have exclusive cognisance and that the Home Office will hand over any material it has accumulated.

My final point is a personal one. The noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal has disclaimed any credit for what is now proposed. But in fact what is now proposed is what he originally advocated at the time of discussion on the Defamation Bill. He is now a senior member of the Cabinet. I hope that he will allow us to say that we consider ourselves in his debt.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I add my strong welcome for this initiative as someone who participated in the debates in May 1996. It is timely and important. I shall not rehearse the arguments then made and defeated. However, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal one question about what the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, referred to as the European dimension, but in a rather different direction.

In 1991 Mr. Demicoli, a journalist, was fined in Malta by the House of Representatives for describing a Minister as a clown in his satirical periodical. The European Court of Human Rights found that the use of the contempt procedure in Malta by its parliament had breached the European Convention on Human Rights. It left open the important question, which would apply to our Parliament, as to whether the use of the ancient contempt procedure satisfied the requirements of a fair trial by proper judicial procedure. Will the terms of reference of the Joint Committee be wide enough to encompass our obligations under Article 6 of the convention in that context?

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, following the changes to our ancient rights of privilege as Members of Parliament last year as a result of the amendment to the Defamation Bill, I am aware of concern expressed by Commonwealth parliamentarians—many of whose parliamentary systems are based on our own—about the implications of the changes as regards their privileges as members of parliament in their countries. While I am sure that it would not be right for us to defer to any outside considerations in determining any future system of parliamentary privilege for our Parliament in Westminster, perhaps the Joint Committee will bear in mind any knock-on Commonwealth implication. In its deliberations, perhaps it will consult with the Commonwealth regarding those implications.

Lord Peston

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal bear in mind that my generation of Peers joined your Lordships' House at a time when no one told us anything? I knew nothing then, and I have learnt nothing since.

Will the noble Lord ensure that the committee has a partly didactic purpose so that it can tell some of us what parliamentary privilege is and what privileges we have? I have listened to people talk on the subject for the past decade. None of it has borne any resemblance to the reality that I have experienced. It would be nice to know what parliamentary privilege is so that we can decide whether it is a privilege that we want or one that we need to reform.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. Perhaps I may say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, that I disclaim paternity for this progeny. It is always a great satisfaction, having expressed one's views, when, purely coincidentally, some months afterwards, other people seem to share those views. Perhaps that is my situation today.

I seek to answer the questions posed. A number of noble Lords referred to the terms of reference of the committee. They will be deliberately wide. The objective of the exercise is to have a general review of parliamentary privilege for many of the reasons that I gave earlier. The terms will be wide enough to cover the two points raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I am sure that the European aspect in both the forms raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lester and by my noble friend Lord Bruce will be within the terms of reference of the committee. I am sure that if the committee finds it helpful, it will consider the Commonwealth situation, as called for by my noble friend Lord Monkswell. I am sure that it will have in mind the knock-on effect, if I may so put it, of what occurs here in relation to other legislatures which have based themselves on the Westminster platform.

Perhaps I may say this to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. There will indeed be adequate representation from this House. I am not in a position today to give any guidance as to the chairmanship. It is being considered quietly and discreetly, as I think the noble Viscount knows, by the usual channels. When the usual channels reach the stage that they can bring forth, no doubt they will do so.

Finally, perhaps I may say the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that I hope that we shall all learn a lot from the committee. It is an important but slightly arcane subject. I hope that the Joint Committee will be able to shed some light on these perhaps not over-illuminated parts of our constitution. I commend the Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and it was ordered that a Message be sent to the Commons to acquaint them therewith.

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