Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Call the Commissioner to the Bar

The Joint Committee on Privileges, in its report on Parliamentary Privilege in 1999, outlined the following definition of Contempt of Parliament (emphasis added):

" 264. Contempts comprise any conduct (including words) which improperly interferes, or is intended or likely improperly to interfere, with the performance by either House of its functions, or the performance by a member or officer of the House of his duties as a member or officer. The scope of contempt is broad, because the actions which may obstruct a House or one of its committees in the performance of their functions are diverse in character. Each House has the exclusive right to judge whether conduct amounts to improper interference and hence contempt. The categories of conduct constituting contempt are not closed. The following is a list of some types of contempt:

...
— assaulting, threatening, obstructing or intimidating a member or officer of the House in the discharge of the member's or officer's duty
deliberately attempting to mislead the House or a committee (by way of statement, evidence, or petition)...
— removing, without authority, papers belonging to the House
...
— assaulting, threatening or disadvantaging a member, or a former member, on account of the member's conduct in Parliament"

It seems to me that under several of those headings, the Met can be charged with contempt. We already knew they had removed Damian Green's computers and files, thereby obstructing him from carrying out his role as a Member. The Speaker, in his statement today, acknowledged this when he told MPs that he had demanded Mr Green's equipment be given back.

The heavy-handed tactics employed by the police, Mr Green's arrest and confiscation of his property arguably amount to "threatening, obstructing or intimidating a member". And we now know, most shockingly of all, that police did not have a warrant to search the House of Commons, and did not inform the Serjeant at Arms that she was within her rights to refuse their request. That, to me, sounds like "deliberately attempting to mislead the House". Their removal of material from that office therefore amounts, arguably, to "removing, without authority, papers belonging to the House".

Whether these charges can be absolutely proved is beside the point: as the Committee notes "Each House has the exclusive right to judge whether conduct amounts to improper interference and hence contempt". The mood of the House this afternoon shows the anger felt on all sides, and I have little doubt the conduct of the police would be found to be in Contempt.

The historic powers of the House include the right to imprison someone found in contempt, but the last time this was used was in 1880 (for failure to appear as a witness), and the Committee recommended this power be abolished. However, they found:

"The first question to be considered is whether contempt of Parliament by non-members should still attract any punishment at all. We believe it should... If the work of Parliament is to proceed without improper interference, there must ultimately be some sanction available against those who offend... For the same reason we are in no doubt that, to be effective as a last resort, the punishments themselves must be meaningful. The prospect of being summoned to the bar of the House and reprimanded may be a sufficient sanction in many cases. "

Indeed it may. So I call on MPs - defend your freedom, and so defend ours - reprimand the Acting Commissioner, and summon him to the Bar of the House to hear it.

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