Parliamentary Privilege Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 304)



Mr Michie

  300. Do you think there is a case to follow the Australian example with their Privileges Act 1987?
  (Mr Morris) The Australian example has certain attractions. I have had a look at the Act which is pertinent. That again is not exhaustive. I understand it was passed because of doubts expressed in the New South Wales courts and certain judgments which were carried out there. I find it very surprising, having seen the Canberra Parliament in action, that they were concerned about the number of complaints and the vehemence of the complaints, critical or defamatory, of Parliament. I find that perhaps curious, to say the least, given the strong language that is used in the Australian and indeed in the State Parliaments. However, there it is, that is the law as it is. First of all, Mr Michie, it is not a complete codification. For example, it does not purport to set out what conduct amounts to contempt, and nor does the Act exhaustively define what Parliament's privileges are. Section 5 simply says that of all Parliament's existing powers, privileges and immunities are to continue unless the Act expressly provides otherwise. Arguably it might be said that it does not carry the case very much further forward. On certain other matters it is very precise; it lays down the maximum period of imprisonment of six months, it lays down that Parliament can fine, it actually defines proceedings in Parliament, and as regards contempt—I have already dealt with that—it does not. It also deals with the power to expel a Member, and that is done away with in accordance with the Act, as I understand it. Then it has some detailed provision regarding the exercise of its powers of what should be done and what should not be done. It is not exhaustive. It is an attempt. With respect, I would not suggest that the Committee might want slavishly to follow that model. Perhaps it might want to decide what should be in the code, as opposed to this particular Act which is precise on some matters and is as vague as ours on some others.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

  301. It is very tough indeed in its code, is it not? I am afraid it is several weeks since I have read it, but it is much less indulgent than our own code of practice, is that not right?
  (Mr Morris) Yes.

  302. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned there when we are considering whether there should be some offence of bribery—Lord Merlyn-Rees's point really—and whether there is anything left beyond what is made improper by a code in our system. There is more than a distinction simply of nomenclature, is there not, between a fine and depriving a Member of salary when he is suspended? The discipline or the sanction at the moment is to suspend somebody from the service of the House, is it not?
  (Mr Morris) Yes.

  303. So he does not get his pay while that is going on. That is one thing. It is surely rather different in substance, is it not, to have a jurisdiction to fine? Would the House of Commons be really in any position to carry out the sort of investigations which the courts have to do, and indeed do do, in order to determine the personal circumstances and so forth? Is that really something which the House of Commons or, come to that, the House of Lords, is really in a position to do in practice?
  (Mr Morris) I would think not. Before one has a penalty of any kind against a member of the public who is not a Member, one has to carry the public with one as regards natural justice and proper procedures. I do not think we come within 100 miles of wanting that, and I think that Parliament would not be excited about that kind of proposal, indeed, with our own Members. You rightly say, Lord Mayhew, that suspension perhaps is the biggest thing; that it is not necessarily the loss of pay, which is significant in itself, but the very fact that you cannot serve your constituents, and the damage it can do. I would be the first to appreciate the regard in which members are held—or not, as the case may be—by constituents. If you are not there to serve them, that probably is the biggest penalty for a Member.


  304. Thank you very much. The Committee is very grateful to you, Mr Attorney General, for your assistance and the assistance of Mr Jones this morning. We look forward to your further assistance with the written memorandum which has been mentioned, both on the particular points which we had mentioned and indeed on anything else which, on reflection, you think might assist the Committee.
  (Mr Morris) Thank you very much indeed.

  Chairman: Thank you.

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