Letter from the Clerks to the Parliamentary
Commissioner for Standards
Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, Chairman of the
Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, has asked me to write
to you. He would be very grateful for your views on a question
which the Joint Committee has been considering recently, namely,
whether the House of Commons should have the power to fine Members
and non-Members for contempt and breach of the House's rules.
Would you welcome such a power, and would you find it useful,
in relation to your present duties on the Standards and Privileges
10 June 1998
Reply from the Parliamentary Commissioner
Thank you for your letter of 10 June.
My own view is that, having effectively relinquished
its power to impose fines, the House of Commons would be most
reluctant to reinstate it. The Privileges Committee has twice
recommended its reinstatement (the last time in 1977) and the
House took no action. I am not sure whether this response was
considered or instinctive but I think it was almost certainly
While it is arguable that the present range
of penalties (virtually none for non-Members) risks inviting acts
of contempt, I suspect that the imposition of fines would only
make matters worse.
The current range of penalties is expulsion
(with loss of livelihood and very little chance of regaining a
seat); suspension with loss of pay (effectively a fine and, in
most recent cases, damaging consequences for re-election); and
enforced apology. This is a fairly flexible menu and I have not
detected any concern that the powers are inadequate.
Clearly the sanctions of expulsion and suspension
are unavailable but the House's censure can be tailored to the
offence. Former Members are, almost by definition, in the public
eye and severe public condemnation is likely to be an effective
penalty. Even in the case of serious rule breaches, I find it
difficult to envisage that the House would wish to impose a fine
as wellparticularly if corruption is handled as a criminal
offence by the courts.
I know of at least two acts of contempt which
would probably not have occured before the courts. In my experience,
however, these are most likely to be committed by those, such
as newspapers, who are well able to pay any fine and whose motive
may be to seek publicity. Far from acting as a deterrent, I believe
the imposition of fines would be used to fuel the belief that
the House was being heavy-handed in the protection of its own
privileges. It seems to me that public censure would be at least
as effective, and perhaps more consistent with the separation
of functions between Parliament and the courts.
One other point occurs to me. The disciplinary
processes adopted by the Commons do not seek to provide the safeguards
of a court. In particular, the appeal procedures may well fall
short of judicial standards. In these circumstances I suspect
the House would feel uncomfortable in applying overtly penal sanctions,
even if such a process were not subject to challenge under the
European Convention of Human Rights. Indeed, if the power existed,
I do not think it would be used.
On balance, therefore, my personal view is that
there is no need to provide the Commons with the power to impose
Sir Gordon Downey