The House

Parliament­ary Privilege

- Lord Hain

The doctrine of “parliament­ary privilege” dates back to arguably Parliament’s finest moment, in 1642, when King Charles I and his soldiers invaded the Commons to arrest five MPs who had spoken critically of his rule.

The Speaker courageous­ly defied him while MPs chanted “privilege, privilege” – a cry taken up in the streets by the people of London – and eventually in 1689 the right to free speech in Parliament was entrenched in the Bill of Rights. It means that MPs or peers when speaking in Parliament cannot be sued and what they say can be reported without the rich or powerful being able to suppress it with legal injunction­s or asset seizures. Rules in both Houses require prior notificati­on to the Speakers.

During my 30-year career as a parliament­arian I have used it just three times – first in 2000 when as minister for Africa I utilised UK intelligen­ce to name trafficker­s selling arms for “blood diamonds” fuelling wars in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, putting most of them out of business.

The second occasion was to expose in the Lords internatio­nal – including UK headquarte­red – corporate complicity in former president Jacob Zuma’s shameless and corrupt looting of South Africa.

The third was in October 2018 to name businessma­n Sir Philip Green who in my view had abused the system of non-disclosure agreements to suppress allegation­s by his employees of sexual and racial harassment - claims he has always denied. (NDAs were also used by disgraced film tycoon Harvey Weinstein to silence victims)

Members of the judiciary insisted I had undermined the rule of law. My response? Such abuse was unlawful and the courts should not be party to covering it up.

That right to exercise parliament­ary privilege, conscienti­ously, rarely and responsibl­y, is an important safeguard for the liberty of the subject and should not be whittled away by making the sovereignt­y of judges override the sovereignt­y of Parliament.

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