Parliamentary Privilege First Report

Letter from the Chairman of the Commons Liaison Committee (Mr Robert Sheldon MP) to the Chairman of the Joint Committee


  With the backing of the Liaison Committee, I have been seeking for some time to find ways of making evidence before select committees available more quickly, both to Members and to the general public. In March of this year the House of Commons Commission considered a proposal from me that transcripts of evidence should be posted on the Internet as soon as they are received. I understand that the Commission decided to seek the views of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege on whether this proposal to disseminate uncorrected evidence in this way raised any issues of privilege, and that the matter was referred to your Committee after its March meeting. I am rather surprised at this as some uncorrected expedited transcripts are made available in the Vote Office for both members and journalists on the morning following the taking of evidence. This was the case in today's report from the Treasury Select Committee. In such cases it is emphasised the evidence is uncorrected. Quite apart from this extracts of such uncorrected evidence are on radio and TV and are quoted in the Press.

  I am most anxious to make progress. I attach very great importance to the early availability of witnesses' evidence before select committees. I hope very much that you and your colleagues on the Joint Committee will decide on this proposal at an early date.

Rt Hon Robert Sheldon MP

16 July 1998

Reply from the Chairman of the Joint Committee


  Thank you for your letter on this subject of 16 July.

  The Joint Committee's inquiry has so far focused on the central privileges: freedom of speech and exclusive cognisance, including Parliament's disciplinary and penal powers. We have not yet decided whether to extend our inquiry and consider parliamentary publications. This is a decision we will take in the autumn. We have, therefore, only had a brief discussion on the request made to us by the House of Commons Commission.

  There seem to be at least two issues here. Firstly, if the Joint Committee looked at parliamentary publications they might well wish to consider which categories of publication should have absolute privilege at law. An uncorrected version of a Committee's transcript may or may not merit such protection. The second issue is whether uncorrected transcripts are currently protected by absolute privilege. This is not a matter for the Joint Committee, but is a matter of statutory interpretation. If the House were to order the publication of the transcripts, then it would seem likely that they would fall within the absolute protection from an action for defamation provided by Section 1 of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840. But you may wish to seek a more considered opinion from authorities in the House of Commons or from the law officers.

Nicholls of Birkenhead

22 July 1998

Further letter from Mr Robert Sheldon MP to the Chairman of the Joint Committee

  I was pleased to have the meeting with you last week.

  I did raise the question of putting the uncorrected minutes of evidence of Select Committees on the Internet. As you know, minutes of evidence at present are published several weeks after the event. This has little impact on the public debate. Those responsible for producing the minutes of evidence have agreed, where necessary, to produce overnight transcripts of important evidence sessions. If these were widely available important evidence could form part of the daily parliamentary and public debate.

  The problem is, I understand, the question of privilege which might arise if the transcription were in serious error. This is a problem which the media seem able to deal with. The scheme suggested is that on each page of the internet will be the disclaimer that the evidence is uncorrected. Any subsequent correction could, of course, be made.

  I believe that the widespread reporting of evidence while it is still news needs to be part of the Parliamentary process. It will improve the public's perception of Parliament and will stimulate debate on the issues involved.

Rt Hon Robert Sheldon MP

2 December 1998

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Prepared 9 April 1999