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Volume 503: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has tabled a motion for debate at the commencement of public business today under the rules set out at pages 167 to 168 of “Erskine May”.

I wish to call attention to my complaint that an e-mail dated 4 August 2009 from Withers LLP, a firm of solicitors, committed a contempt of the House by seeking to intimidate a Member in his parliamentary conduct.

I therefore beg to move,

That the matter be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to raise this complaint. If the House agrees with my motion, it will be up to the Standards and Privileges Committee to examine not just the wording used by Withers in its e-mail to me of 4 August, as printed in yesterday’s Hansard just after Mr. Speaker’s statement, but the full context of the way in which attempts are being made to intimidate a Member of this House and to deter him, by threats ostensibly directed elsewhere, from exercising that freedom of speech enjoyed by this House as one of the principal foundations of the liberties of the British people.

This is an issue for the Committee to consider in detail, and detailed submissions will be made to it, but I feel that it is worth giving the House some of the background to the case. It relates to a dispute that has gone for about 10 or 11 years in respect of the Swan area of Yardley and which has been described as “store wars”.

Initially, there was a proposal by Sainsbury to develop the site, but then Tesco put forward an alternative proposal that involved using less green space. For that reason, local politicians supported the Tesco proposal, but then Asda came in and bought a plot of land. Various problems arose. A person called Jeremy Knight-Adams had bought some land there previously, and a compulsory purchase order to buy Mr. Knight-Adam’s land was finally arranged last year. He objects to that order, and we distributed a leaflet that refers to the actions of Asda, in particular, and of Sainsbury in buying plots of land. Mr. Knight-Adams has wrongly taken the leaflet as being intended to refer to him.

The real difficulty for this House arises from the e-mail of 4 August, and also from the great deal of other correspondence that has taken place since. Mr. Knight-Adams has threatened me with proceedings—not related to this House, but directed to a different issue—to prevent me from raising my concerns about the effects being felt by residents of Bakeman House.

Bakeman House is a sheltered scheme of 120 flats, about 118 of which are occupied by senior citizens. Those most vulnerable people are suffering from living in a building site, where there are all sorts of problems with parking and so on. A developer trying to ransom a plot of land is using spoiling tactics to stop me talking about the matter. He has threatened that he will take proceedings against me, although those proceedings do not mention the House. Obviously, the e-mail of 4 August is very explicit, but there is a lot of other correspondence that will go to the Committee.

Withers solicitors issued a short public statement on the matter. With the leave of the House, and to be fair to the company, I shall read the statement to the House, which is as follows:

“Throughout our client’s dispute with John Hemming MP, we have acted entirely properly and professionally in defending our client’s reputation. We strongly refute Mr. Hemming’s allegations that our actions were intimidatory in any way.”

Obviously, the issue needs to be considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Finally, the Law Society has also put out a statement. I am not quite sure whether it means that it supports referring the matter to the Committee for consideration, although I think that it does.

These are important issues for the House and hon. Members, and I should like to give the Government’s support for referring the motion in the name of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) to the Standards and Privileges Committee.

We on the Conservative Benches also support the motion, as it clearly impacts on what Members of Parliament can say in this House. We should all be able to speak freely and without fear on any matter that arises as we carry out our duties.

For the sake of good order, however, there is one matter that I should like to clarify. The e-mail in question refers to materials that have been written and distributed outside the House. I should therefore like to make it clear that my comments are confined to what can be said in the House itself, and that Members of Parliament, like the general public, are of course subject to the normal laws of libel and slander in connection with anything that they say outside the House.

The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware that the Standards and Privileges Committee has a very heavy work load, and that it is important that the matter before us is resolved before the Dissolution of Parliament. Will she assure the House that she will make sure that the Committee gets any additional support and back-up—manpower, resources and so on—that it requires? In that way, we can ensure that we resolve this very important matter before the Dissolution of Parliament.

I entirely support what the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) said about resourcing the Standards and Privileges Committee if this matter is referred to it.

This is the second time in the past couple of months that my attention has been drawn to a potential issue of privilege that has involved lawyers. I wonder whether lawyers are fully aware of constitutional law and the very important part that the privileges of this House play in our history and our democratic processes. To that extent, I admit that I am a little concerned by the briefing from the Law Society. It appears to question the basis on which parliamentary privilege is employed, but I hope that that is not the Law Society’s position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has raised issues that should properly be considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee, and I hope that the House will refer them to it with expedition.

It is sometimes surprising what one picks up while waiting for the next business. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), and read the letter printed in yesterday’s Hansard and studied it carefully. Of course the motion is correct, and the matter should be considered properly, but it surely relates to what is said in this House. We must be free to discuss things in the House without fear or favour, but that does not relieve us of our responsibility to be extremely careful in what we say outside this place. I have to say from years of bitter experience that the Liberal Democrats are particularly adept at putting out material of a doubtful nature. This case might serve as a lesson to them that they should be more circumspect.

I do not want to get involved with the facts of the case; I simply want to get involved with the issue that Parliament and Members of Parliament should have the absolute right, as set down in the 1688 Bill of Rights, to say what they like in this House. It is a fundamental right that was restated by Lord Denning in the 1970s when he said:

“whatever comments are made in Parliament”

can be reported in newspapers without fear of contempt.

As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has said, this is the second case in two months. We had the Trafigura case, in which a wide injunction was sought against persons unknown and the solicitors Messrs. Carter-Ruck sought to use that to prevent The Guardian from even reporting a written parliamentary question tabled by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly). I was at a table the very night of that incident with four QCs, and they were extremely worried about the operation of the law in attempting to gag Parliament in that way.

As I say, I do not wish to get involved with the facts of the case, but I shall quote what I consider to be the important part of it. It asks for:

“an undertaking not to repeat the allegations or any similar allegations particularly in Parliament.”

If those solicitors said that, I as a Member of Parliament consider that a breach of privilege, and I hope that the House will vote for the matter to be considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee.

In 17 years in the House I have used privilege only once, and with great care, and it had the desired effect of getting the matter resolved. I believe that the vast majority of Members of Parliament respect that privilege and use it sparingly, only when it is absolutely necessary. The other part of that privilege is that we should not infringe the judiciary’s privilege when matters are sub judice. If matters are sub judice, the House has no remit to examine them, but it is clear to me that the privilege of the House to report matters without fear of being in contempt of court must remain absolute. I hope that this short debate will demonstrate that in true measure.

With the leave of the House, I should like to respond to the points made.

Freedom of speech in the House is the freedom to speak on behalf of our constituents. This case is about the residents of 118 flats in Bakeman House—senior citizens in a vulnerable situation who, through the actions of one man, a Mr. Jeremy Knight-Adams, have to live on a building site. That is wrong. To that extent, I am pleased that hon. Members support maintenance of freedom of speech on behalf of the people of the UK.

Question put and agreed to.


That the matter be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.