Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

Except for the great William Rees-Mogg, no commentator seems to have noticed that Gordon Brown's Bill to 'clean up politics' is about to remove the liberty of Parliament. 'Res ipsa loquitur' is the old legal tag: 'the thing itself speaks'.

Under the new Bill, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) is created. When IPSA speaks, its word will be law. It will tell Parliament what its allowances will be and MPs will not be allowed to vote this down. As David Heathcoat-Amory said in the debate in the Commons on Monday, it is 'the final achievement of the quango state' to create a quango which will tell Parliament what to do. So the people we have elected to make our laws will be ruled by people no one has elected.

The Clerk of the House of Commons, Malcolm Jack, found himself last week reluctantly speaking up against the Bill's constitutional impropriety. The Leader of the House, Harriet Harman, said that 'the issue of parliamentary privilege is not an issue in [the] Bill'. But Mr Jack thought otherwise.

He wrote to the Standards Committee on Friday to say that the Parliamentary Standards Bill would take away freedom of speech in Parliament. Mr Jack said that 'the words of Members' spoken in the House could, under this Bill, 'be admitted as evidence in criminal proceedings'. So could evidence given by non-parliamentary witnesses to Commons committees, and advice given to MPs by Commons officials.

This change is being introduced in the name of enforcing high standards, but its effect, said Mr Jack, will be to 'chill' parliamentary debate. Article IX of the Bill of Rights protects 'proceedings' in Parliament from legal assault. It does so because it has until now been understood that, without such privilege for Parliament, other bodies - above all, the executive - could frighten MPs into biting their lips, and punish them if they fail to do so. Yet Clause 10 of this Bill specifically overrides the Bill of Rights. IPSA loquitur, and liberty falls silent.

And all this is happening with one of the worst excuses for constitutional change - haste. Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life is working on a report on MPs' expenses, and has not yet produced it. Mr Brown says he will implement it 'in full' before he knows what it will say. So if he thinks Sir Christopher will decide rightly, and after due thought, why is he rushing in ahead of him? For political the need to be seen to be doing something and be able to boast about it when an election comes (and to excoriate any political party which does not vote for the measure as being 'complacent').

The government wants the Bill through both chambers by 21 July, so, by the time you read this, it will have charged through the lower House. In fact, there is no good reason why any change of law on this subject need be rushed. Interim measures are in place. After the Daily Telegraph's exposure of expenses and the long-shirked decision of Parliament to publish the details itself, there is no imminent danger of slipping back to the old corruptions. Indeed, you could argue that this present Parliament, so discredited and divided, should not introduce any statutory or permanent reform at all, but wait for its successor to do so. Then clear, non-partisan thought could be given to the matter. …

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