A funny thing happened to my parliamentary evidence…

Readers may recall that on 30th June 2009 I gave evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life as part of their inquiry into MPs’ allowances. I gave oral evidence and also submitted an opening statement. I posted this statement on my blog (read it here) and the Committee posted it on their website along with transcripts from the public hearings. The committee’s website states: “The Committee publishes all evidence”.

Well that’s not entirely true. As of yesterday, my submission went missing and I received the following email:

Dear Ms Brooke

Our lawyers have advised us not publish your submission due to the following reason:

“it contains statements about named individuals which are potentially defamatory.”

We are currently seeking their clarification and requesting suitable redaction.

Once we have this, I will forward them to you for your authority, in writing, to the redaction. We will then be able to publish your submission.

Anju Still
Business Manager
Committee on Standards in Public Life

You can read my statement yourself and decide. There’s very little about named politicians and what there is has already been published elsewhere. But more to the point – what sort of public inquiry is it where those giving evidence can’t speak freely and have to worry about being clobbered by the world’s worst libel law? I don’t think the take-down of my statement is necessarily the fault of the Committee and to be fair, lawyers are always risk averse. What is a disgrace is that it should even be a risk to publish evidence given to a committee set up to investigate parliament. There’s also the shameless double standard: That MPs and those giving evidence to MPs are protected from libel by parliamentary privilege, yet those giving evidence to a public inquiry investigating MPs have no such protection. A pretty scandalous state of affairs for a so-called democracy.

It would be very funny indeed if I were to receive a libel writ from an MP for my evidence given to a public inquiry investigating MPs.

14 Responses to “A funny thing happened to my parliamentary evidence…”

  1. John L Bell says:

    Have I missed the tanks in the streets? ……. or is this still meant to be a democray!?

    Or perhaps like many dictatorships past and present, there is a nod to consultation and freedom of speech ….. until, that is, there is any criticism of those in power?

    P.S.
    Have you heard on the grapevine of any MPs due to be charged with fraud for contravening the Fraud Act 2006?

  2. John L Bell says:

    Re: censorship of your statement!

    Does this mean that my oft repeated use of the term ‘This Fraudsters’ Parliament’ when I define parliament as ‘the largest single concentration of shysters, thieves and frauds this side of prison bars’ may be libellous?

    If so, is the law of this land brought to bear in some form of alphabetical order… so that offences under the Fraud Act 2006 would be dealt with BEFORE offences undet any Libel Law?

  3. Matt Wardman says:

    Heather

    May I republish your statement in full, with attribution?

    Am I right that I can do this under the Parliamentary “one-click” license, anyway? I think I can but I’m not sure whether the CPL actually fall within the terms.

    Rgds

  4. Charles says:

    So is the CSPL not actually partt of Parliament? Otherwise it could publish that stuff under Parliamentary privilege. How bizarre.

  5. heather says:

    Charles – according to the Committee’s secretary they are not covered by parliamentary privilege.

    Matt – Yes feel free to re-publish!

  6. Richard says:

    I don’t get it. I’ve just read your submission and I can’t see anything potentially defamatory in it.

    If your submission is defamatory, then the various articles I’ve been reading in the Guardian for many months about MP’s expenses and allowances must also be defamatory. I’d imagine that the newspaper disagrees.

    Perhaps their message to you should have parts redacted:

    …due to the following reason: “it contains statements about named individuals which are potentially [REDACTED].”

  7. PhilC says:

    Very odd and well done for publicising (and publishing) the info anyway.
    Even if not covered by absolute Parliamentary privilege I would have thought there was qualified privilege and that would have been enough.
    Is it too much to expect them to release their legal advice that led to this decision?

  8. Michael says:

    What times are we living in when a parliamentary commission of enquiry can be trying to intimidate witnesses? And, worse, so few people notice and care!

  9. Michael says:

    This is from a “Committee of standards in public life”!

  10. John Page says:

    “Potentially defamatory” is an interesting concept.

    Like the good journalist we know you are, you wrote facts. They’re in the public domain.

    What does “potentially defamatory” mean? Just that ‘somebody might not like them republished and take exception, and we can’t be arsed to check whether they’re true or not’?

    ‘Potentially defamatory’ in this sense could cover anything controversial.

    Attack the committee robustly on this curtailment of freedom of speech.

  11. Kris Jones says:

    According to a House of Lords Report on Parliamentary Privilege, “Papers published by order of either House have absolute privilege under the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840.” That being the case, there can be no question of the Committee’s report being subject to defamation proceedings.

    See the penultimate paragraph of the executive summary at http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/jt199899/jtselect/jtpriv/43/4303.htm

    The text of the Act can be found here: http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/content.aspx?activeTextDocId=1033804

  12. Kris Jones says:

    A further thought. It may be that your submission to the Committee is not covered by privilege. However, its publication as part of the Committee’s report would be. If you gave the statement as oral evidence rather than just submitting it in writing, I think it would be very hard for them to resist publishing your statement in full.

  13. Nick says:

    @Kris Jones: this isn’t a Parliamentary committee. It’s a quango, so not necessarily covered by the Parliamentary Papers Act.

  14. Gus Friar says:

    @ Kris Jones: in fact, you’re spectacularly ignorant. The CSPL report will not be published by order of either House.

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