We’ve finally got the Supreme Court’s reasoning in R v Chaytor and others – in which former MPs and a peer argued that Parliamentary privilege prevents their being prosecuted for offences relating to their expenses claims.
As I’ve said before, it’s entirely unsurprising that the nine Justices have decided unanimously that expense claims are neither a “proceeding in Parliament” for the purposes of the Bill of Rights 1689, or within Parliament’s “exclusive cognisance”. There is therefore no breach of Parliamentary privilege in prosecuting former MPs for offences relating to their expense claims. What would have been surprising is if even one of the Justices had been persuaded by these arguments, which obviously exaggerate the scope of Parliamentary privilege.
I’m puzzled, therefore, that Tristram Hunt MP should (as I think I just heard him say in committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, during a debate in which MPs seem, depressingly, obsessed with the power of the courts rather than with the wider constitutional import of the proposed reform) have called Lord Phillips’s judgment “damaging” and “dangerous”, at least in part, referring I think specifically to paragraph 68:
Where a statute does not specifically address matters that are subject to privilege, it is in theory necessary as a matter of statutory interpretation to decide a number of overlapping questions. Does the statute apply within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster? If it does, does it apply in areas that were previously within the exclusive cognisance of Parliament? If so, does the statute override the privilege imposed by article 9? In practice there are not many examples of these questions being considered, either within Parliament or by the courts. If Parliament accepts that a statute applies within an area that previously fell within its exclusive cognisance, then Parliament will, in effect, have waived any claim to privilege.
Why he thinks that’s dangerous, I’ve no idea. I’d have thought it arguably damaging to Parliamentary sovereignty and dangerous if Lord Phillips thought Parliament had, on the contrary, no power to override its own privilege, or even that it had to use “clear words” to do so, which are the only logical alternatives. This just illustrates the surly confusion many MPs seem to be in about Parliamentary privilege, which they think is simply about judges giving them “nuff respect”.