Parliament

“The United Kingdom Parliament is a sovereign legislature. It is not a statutory body, although there are several statutes relevant to its operation.”  (Liam Laurence Smyth, Clerk of the Journals in the House of Commons with responsibility for advising the Chair on contempt matters)

“I believe in Parliament’s right to make law and to be the ultimate arbiter of political questions because it is the bearer of democratic legitimacy in our system, and I believe in the Parliamentary process and in Parliament as a forum for testing and improving our law and scrutinising government.” (Dominic Grieve QC MP, former Attorney General)

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  1. Function of Parliament
  2. Powers of Parliament
  3. High Court of Parliament
  4. Contempt of Parliament
  5. Parliamentary Privilege
  6. Members of Parliament

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1. Function of Parliament

The main functions of the UK Parliament are to:

  • Check and challenge the work of the Government (scrutiny)
  • Make and change laws (legislation)
  • Debate the important issues of the day (debating) 
  • Check and approve Government spending (budget/taxes)

Parliament is made up of three central elements: the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarchy. The main business of Parliament takes place in the two Houses. Generally the decisions made in one House have to be approved by the other. (Official Website. Click here.)

Parliamentary Debate, 17 Mar. 2011, Westminster Hall:

Our job is to be the defence of last recourse for the individual. We stand between the individual and the misdemeanours of the state or, indeed, the lynch-mob law at the other extreme.   That is why, in modern terms, and not just in terms of the ancient rights, our access to information is fundamental to continuing freedom in Britain. Once our right to have that information is taken away, the freedoms of our citizens and constituents are undermined. Parliament itself—its officers and the Speaker—should take a stand and make a statement to the effect that we have those rights on behalf of our constituents. (David Davis, MP, 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 143WH)

Parliament is here to protect citizens of the UK, not MPs. The individual who was trussed up by that secret hyper-injunction needs protecting. We all need protecting from water that people are being told to drink without being warned that there are potentially toxins in it. That causes me great concern. This is about protecting people, not about using money and wealth to get legal processes to gag people. There is a way round these issues, but it requires Parliament to stand up for the people and for people’s right to communicate with Members of Parliament. (John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD), 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 152WH)

We need to go further than that. We need to protect people’s right not be bullied. Somebody might say, in all innocence, that they would like to talk to their MP about a housing problem or something else, but they might then be threatened and told that if they try to get help, action will be taken against them. (John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD), 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 152WH)

The question is: is the inter-play between the estates of our constitution operating correctly? Obviously, Government Ministers should not be looking at the decisions of judges, but Parliament should, and particularly at the secret courts. Parliament has a role to do that. (John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD), 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 153WH)

 

2. Powers of Parliament

Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle of the UK constitution. It makes Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law. Generally, the courts cannot overrule its legislation and no Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change. Parliamentary sovereignty is the most important part of the UK constitution. (Official Website. Click here.)

Parliamentary Debate, 17 Mar. 2011, Westminster Hall:

On the statute law website, found at legislation.gov.uk, we can find the Bill of Rights 1688, which is sometimes called the Act of Rights 1689.

Article 9 of that Bill is on freedom of speech, and says that   “the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament.”   

Interestingly, that it is often misunderstood to mean absolute privilege, when it in fact means that the courts cannot look at what is said in Parliament, which gives a defence not only against defamation but against contempt of court. Things that perhaps otherwise could not be spoken of, can be spoken of within Parliament because of article 9. It is absolutely crucial to recognise that that is a liberty of the British people: the powers of Parliament, in the body of democracy, to represent the citizens of the United Kingdom are liberties of the British people. Contempt of Parliament and parliamentary privilege are there to protect the citizens of the UK, and of the world more widely, and I shall go into some detail about that later.

Article 13 is about frequent Parliaments:  “And that for Redresse of all Grievances and for the amending strengthening and preserveing of the Lawes Parlyaments ought to be held frequently.”   

That clearly gives Parliament two functions, one being the redress of all grievances. The nub of my arguments today is that if Parliament does not know what is going on, for one reason or another, it is somewhat difficult for it to produce any results whereby the grievances are redressed. We face serious problems if Parliament is blinded or deafened by the actions of others…

Member of Parliament may obtain information from a party; for example, from a parent or a child who is aggrieved at their treatment by the family courts.

I am particularly concerned about situations in which people are bullied and threatened to prevent them from raising their grievances with their Member of Parliament, and there is obviously a question as to where the limits of that lie. I tend to construe it more broadly, in that when information is needed for proceedings in Parliament that should be protected by the law. The law of Parliament is part of the law, even if some solicitors firms do not understand that, such as Withers last year. ……contempt of Parliament, so Parliament could take action on those grounds to ensure that people’s right to talk to their MP is protected.  (John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD), 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 140WH)

 

3.  High Court of Parliament

The House of Lords‘ ability to consider judicial appeals (its “appellate jurisdiction”) went back to the 12th century when the Monarch dispensed justice via the “Curia Regis” (an advisory council of landowners and clerics)….While the judicial work of the Lords declined in the 16th century, the jurisdiction of the House was recognised in both legal treatises and statute, and it also constituted a court in certain trials, including those of Members of the Lords and in impeachment cases….From the early 17th century the number of petitions seeking justice increased – both as a result of proceedings in a lower court and when a petitioner took his complaint directly to the House – and in 1621 the House appointed a Committee for Petitions to accept or reject petitions. (Official Website. Click here.)

A professional court

By 1834 the number of English appeals considered by the House of Lords exceeded Scottish appeals, and the increasing professionalisation of the Lords’ appellate work meant it began to assume an important role in shaping English law…Under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act the right of the Lords to consider judicial appeals was maintained but more strictly regulated. Most significantly, the Act allowed the Sovereign to appoint several Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (commonly known as “Law Lords”). These were professional salaried judges appointed specifically to consider appeals, and appeals were heard by them as well as by other Members of the Lords with judicial experience. (Official Website. Click here.)

Parliamentary Debate, 17 Mar. 2011, Westminster Hall:

…an English judge trying to make such an order (to prohibit a constituent to speak with his Member of the Parliament) is in contempt of Parliament, which is, after all, a court. I know that people tend to roll their eyes when the subject of the High Court of Parliament is raised, but the fact is that it is a court, and that, ultimately, it has sovereign power in this country.  The subject of parliamentary privilege has been raised on several occasions, and I, too, shall refer to it. The phrase “parliamentary privilege” is particularly unfortunate, especially in the modern world. The word “privilege” has almost entirely pejorative connotations. I prefer to call it the right of MPs to speak up for and defend the British people, which I think is a much better way of conveying what we mean by parliamentary privilege. In my parliamentary career, I have certainly taken advantage of my right as an MP to use parliamentary privilege to speak up for and defend the British people in my work.

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con), 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 158WH)

 

4. Contempt of Parliament

“In the parliamentary context, “contempt” refers to disobedience to, or defiance of, an order of the House, or some other insult to the House or its dignity or a breach of parliamentary privilege. It can relate to any attempt to interfere with proceedings or to obstruct or threaten Members in the performance of their parliamentary duties. In the House of Commons contempts are usually referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges but any decision must be agreed by the House.”  (Liam Laurence Smyth, Clerk of the Journals in the House of Commons with responsibility for advising the Chair on contempt matters)

Parliamentary Debate, 17 Mar. 2011, Westminster Hall:

….the House of Commons has the power, by referring cases to the Standards and Privileges Committee, to deal with contempt of Parliament. In fact, the last example came about at my suggestion. I moved a motion to refer someone to the Committee last year, when Withers threatened me with legal action unless I agreed not to say something in the House. That was an obvious and very straightforward contempt of Parliament.(John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD), 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 151WH)

…it has been looked at in the domestic courts to determine the extent to which communications with Members of Parliament are potentially privileged. In the case of Rivlin v. Bilainkin, the judgment, which was delivered on 18 December 1952, concluded that a communication with a Member of Parliament is not automatically privileged, even if it is handed over in Parliament. It is the institutions that matter; in that respect, we constitute Parliament just as much in this Chamber as in the main Chamber. If something is not connected with proceedings in Parliament, it is not privileged; if it is connected with proceedings in Parliament, it is privileged. That obviously gives the House control over which communications with Members of Parliament are privileged and protected by article 9. (John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD), 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 152WH)

 

5. Parliamentary Privilege

‘Parliamentary privilege’, an English legal term, covers the sum of the powers and immunities of both the legislative bodies and legislative body members.  (Oxford Constitutional Law)

Report of Session 2013–14, House of Lords and House of Commons. Click here.

Parliamentary Privilege (Defamation) Bill [HL] 2014-15. [A Bill to repeal section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996., Started in the House of Lords, No Royal Assent] Click here.

Also see above ‘High Court of Parliament’.

Parliamentary Debate, 17 Mar. 2011, Westminster Hall:

The word “privilege” has almost entirely pejorative connotations. I prefer to call it the right of MPs to speak up for and defend the British people, which I think is a much better way of conveying what we mean by parliamentary privilege. In my parliamentary career, I have certainly taken advantage of my right as an MP to use parliamentary privilege to speak up for and defend the British people in my work. Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con), 17 Mar. 2011  Westminster Hall, Column 157WH)

Does the Minister worry that there are moves afoot to adjust, in the light of political correctness, the so-called role of the Member of Parliament and degrade it? Are they not missing the biggest wood for the biggest trees by not realising that the Member of Parliament, who is elected by voters and who, if given privilege and using it responsibly, is the best possible defence for the right of the individual to obtain the protection that they need through that privilege, not for our sake but for theirs? (Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con), 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 161WH)

….if Parliament is blinded or deafened by the acts of others, it cannot see or hear all grievances, and it is very clear from the Bill of Rights that one of our purposes is to be able to see and hear all grievances—I emphasise “all grievances”—and to do something about them. If Parliament cannot see or hear all grievances, it cannot seek to remedy them. (Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con), 17 Mar. 2011  Westminster Hall, Column 163WH)

Hon. Members know that they must use the protection granted by parliamentary privilege sparingly and not for their own advantage, but use it they must if it is necessary to right a wrong or to get justice for a constituent. Since I came into the House, I have seen a number of examples of hon. Members rightly taking up issues on behalf of their constituents and using parliamentary privilege to do so, because that is the only way to get something done. (Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab), 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 167WH)

Many Members would be surprised to learn the limits of parliamentary privilege. For that reason, a review of parliamentary privilege was undertaken by a Joint Committee in 1999. The Committee drew attention to the fact that although Members are not exposed to any civil or criminal liabilities in respect of what they say and do in the course of proceedings in Parliament, there is no comprehensive definition of what “proceedings in Parliament” covers. Equally, there is no proper definition of what constitutes a place “out of Parliament”. That needs to be tackled.It is generally accepted that proceedings in Parliament are covered by the formal proceedings of the House and its Committees and any documentation directly associated with those proceedings, but there are grey areas around that, as the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) noted about the documents that he had received. The Committee said that article 9 needs clarification. It clearly does, in light of Members’ experience and given what we have heard today.   (Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab), 17 Mar. 2011 Westminster Hall, Column 168WH)

 

Also see Attorney General, part 4. Click here.

 

6. Members of Parliament (MP)

The British Parliament works on a constituency basis. This means your MP represents one area and everyone living in that area. Amnesty International explained how your MP works for you.

This is significant because regardless of your MP’s party and regardless of whether you voted for them or not, they have to represent you and respond to your communications. Your MP may not always agree with you, and you them, and indeed they may represent you in ways that you do not agree with, but, it is still their job to explain to you why.

All MPs can table written questions – these questions will go to the most relevant Government Minister – and there is no need for MPs to agree with the sentiment of your question in order to table it.

If MPs are sympathetic to an issue they can also ask a question in person in the Chamber at Oral Questions, which rotate between the different Government departments monthly.

Parliament’s website at www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/

To find out what your MP does for you:  www.theyworkforyou.com

It is always better to get the topics in a group and get the MPs to put the questions in the House of Commons. Contact us as we are putting issues in the House of Commons.

 

See how MARK FIELD, Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster (where the courts are located, most business is conducted and where Judges reside when they are in London), has been voting on Social Issues and Foreign Policy and Defence. For Mark Field’s profile and links: Click here.