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Lord Renton: My Lords, I too can be brief. I have not discussed this matter with any member of the Government, although I am a keen supporter of the Government. I agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said and with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. However, we have to acknowledge that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann, with great care and thoroughness and obviously after giving the matter great thought, has drawn our attention to a conflict. It is a conflict between the constitutional necessity for having freedom of speech in all proceedings in Parliament and in committees of Parliament and the sense of justice in rare individual cases.
I served for some years on the Committee of Privileges of another place. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said, there were occasions when that committee had to consider the justice of a matter. In my experience, it reached sensible conclusions. I do not think that there was ever a case in which we had to consider the kind of conflict that arose in the case of Mr. Neil Hamilton. I should hope that after 300 years or more such cases would be extremely rare.
But there is one fundamental objection to the principle put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann. It is the only opinion that I wish to put before your Lordships. If Parliament said that parliamentary privilege could be waived in any case before the courts, in my opinion it is most likely that in such cases the person who might be asked to waive the privilege would be deemed under a moral obligation to do so. If that became the usual practice, then de facto, although not directly by law, we would do away with the privilege conferred by the Bill of Rights. So we must be very careful before we give a discretionary power on the part of the individual which could become by moral obligation a pressure and in that way indirectly alter a constitutional principle.
It is a constitutional principle which must not be altered without the very greatest care, if it is altered at all, I repeat that freedom of speech is fundamental to the working of democracy, especially to the working of the House of Commons. It also affects your Lordships, although in practice, over the centuries, it has not in fact done so. But, of course, your Lordships have a duty to consider the matter as we are doing this afternoon.
Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, I hesitate to follow the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who is such an experienced parliamentarian, and to dispute that freedom of speech is fundamental to the workings of Parliament, especially of the other place. However, it is my strongly held view that freedom of speech should be exercised with responsibility.
One of the developments in modern politics has been the way in which freedom of speech, protected by 100 per cent. parliamentary privilege, has been abused. Like the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I served for some considerable time in another place. Over the 25 years I have served in Parliament, I have become increasingly concerned about the blanket privilege protection that is enjoyed, particularly by those who serve in the other place. I was a member of the Procedure Committee when the decision was taken to televise the proceedings of another place. At that time I expressed the view that a Member of Parliament could rise in his or her place and make outrageous statements about members of the public, particularly local authority councillors, who were in no position to defend themselves against such allegations. Today, Tuesday, large numbers of people throughout the country will have watched the exchanges during Prime Minister's Question Time. It has become quite commonplace for Back-Bench Members on all sides of the House--I make no party political point here--to rise in their place and make such outrageous statements.
When I was a member of the Procedure Committee in another place I suggested at the time of the decision to televise its proceedings that there should be introduced some redress for those whose characters were maligned in that way by people who were using the protection of privilege in another place. In my time here I have seen privilege used constructively. Noble Lords may remember the Savundra affair, the great insurance scandal, of the early 1970s. That insurance scandal could not possibly have been exposed had it not been for the fact that Raymond Carter, a Birmingham MP, raised the matter under privilege from the Back Benches of the other place. So I have seen privilege used in a correct and constructive fashion, but I have also seen privilege abused in the most appalling manner.
While I support the proposal submitted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, I should like to have seen the terms of that proposal extended to include not only a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament but also some constitutional experts who serve in neither House of Parliament in order to bring outside opinion and influence to bear on the proceedings of that investigation.
I know Neil Hamilton very well and I can claim with some confidence that he and I have been friends since he entered the House of Commons. I was already there when he came. However, we are not here today to discuss an individual's problems and concerns. We are discussing an issue of profound principle. Neil Hamilton was a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry. He was not involved in any way, shape or form in the Matrix Churchill affair. But had he been, it is an astonishing fact that, like every other Minister at that time, he would have been in a position, advised by the Government's Law Officers, to issue a public interest immunity certificate to prevent the very examination that we are seeking to implement here today in the change to the Bill of Rights.
Ministers, advised by the Law Officers, are in a position to issue public interest immunity certificates to prevent the revelation of information. That is the dichotomy and contradiction with which we are all faced. In this case it is suggested that the courts should be given the power, by changing Article 9 of the Bill of Rights, to examine the conduct of a Member of Parliament--a Minister in this case--on the say-so of that individual. If that is the opinion of both Houses of Parliament, where then stands the citizen? Why should not the citizen have the right to go to the courts to ask them to investigate the parliamentary conduct of a Member of this House or of another place; or is it to be a one-way street? That is how this will be seen in the country at large.
I appreciate the frustration that is felt by Mr. Hamilton in his complaint against the Guardian but I do not agree with the proposal to change Article 9 of the Bill of Rights. Perhaps I may point out that the Bill of Rights would not apply to Scotland. The claim of right is the article of association that would apply to Scotland. The position at the minute is that the courts do not have the right to investigate the conduct of a Member of Parliament. It is suggested that we give them that right but that we do not give the individual citizen the right to ask the courts to carry out that same investigation. What kind of impression are we giving to the people of this country as we seek to reform the democratic process?
If this matter comes to a Division I shall follow the advice of my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition and support the proposition put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I would hope that on the amendment that was moved so genuinely and ably by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann--he has done the House a service by allowing us to discuss the matter--the opinion of the House will not be sought.
Lord Aldington: My Lords, at this stage perhaps the House will bear with someone who wishes to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann. Not surprisingly perhaps to the House, I put first the fact that the honourable Member, Mr. Neil Hamilton, has decided to bring libel proceedings, a very considerable decision for anyone to take, in order to defend himself against an attack by a newspaper which has brought to a stop his ministerial career and must have damaged his career as a Member of Parliament. Having made that great decision and having decided to subject himself to the ordeal--it is an ordeal--of libel proceedings, he now finds that he has come to a dead stop. He can do nothing to remove from public knowledge an attack upon his character first made in a newspaper and now made in proceedings by justification. He can do nothing. We here appear to believe that to release him from the bar that puts a stay on the proceedings raises such implications of a constitutional nature that we are unable to back the noble and learned Lord's amendment.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, gave valuable advice to the House, but I believe that he misdirected himself on one point. He referred to the amendment being "tacked on" to the Third Reading. The amendment was moved in Committee and at Report stage. I am sure that he would not wish to charge the noble and learned Lord with that.
Lord Richard: My Lords, the noble Lord is right as regards the procedure. Perhaps I may be forgiven for observing that, as I understand it, the amendment had been discussed by only four Members of your Lordships' House before today.
Lord Aldington: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. It may have been discussed by only four noble Lords, but some of us were here who agreed with what had been said so we did not feel it necessary to add to it. Certainly, I was one of them. I hope that the House will consider carefully what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann, said, bearing in mind the great authority which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, my noble friend Lord Renton and others, bring to our discussions, and that we shall get back in our minds to the problem of what is the right thing to do over what is manifestly an injustice.
These proceedings have been stayed and for so long as that is so, Mr. Neil Hamilton's character is stained. That is what happened to me, and that is why I can speak with some feeling. In my case the matter goes on and on and I am getting used to it. Mr. Neil Hamilton is not used to it. He is a much younger man and he has to face life with this charge sticking to him. Surely, this House, with its regard for justice, which means not only the privilege of Parliament but justice to the individual, will think again before dismissing the arguments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann.
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