A note of privilege
In our Parliament this past week, tributes were paid in the usual manner to the late Prime Minister the Honourable David John Howard Thompson and, according to Press reports, some of the remarks of the Right Honourable Owen Arthur, a former Prime Minister and the member for St Peter, did not appear to meet with the favour of the widow of the departed Prime Minister.
The Press also reported that a note had been sent by Mrs Thompson to the Clerk of the Parliament, and the contents of the note appeared in the Press.
The purpose of this article is not to comment on the issue of the note or indeed the content of the speech as it related to the alleged offending words.
As a former presiding officer of the Barbados Parliament, I am acutely aware that these issues relate to “proceedings in Parliament” within the meaning of that quaint constitutional expression, and that it is possible to breach the privileges of the House, even by comment and action outside the House.
Now at the beginning of every Parliament His Honour the Speaker claims on behalf of the members of the House all the ancient rights and privileges enjoyed by the members of the House. These ancient rights which are then granted by His Excellency the Governor General as the Queen’s representative include the freedom of all members to speak freely.
It is one of the ancient common law rights wrested from the king and fiercely claimed by the House with the support of the brave judges in turbulent times.
Today, in addition to the Speaker’s claim and the Governor General’s grant, legislation reinforces the rights of Members of Parliament as they set about to do the people’s business.
But it is surprisingly easy for anyone to breach parliamentary privileges, as a few examples will show:
In 1935, an organisation called the League for the Prohibition of Cruel Sports wrote a questionnaire to many members of the House of Commons asking their views on five questions related to the cruelty of fox hunting, which is a major pastime of the landed gentry in Britain.
The concluding sentence read: “If we do not hear from you, we shall feel justified in letting your constituents know that you have no objection to cruel sports.”
It was resolved by the House that the letter “constitutes a gross breach of the privileges of this House”.
In 1958, a British MP wrote to a minister asking questions about how a statutory corporation under the ministerial portfolio of the minister was disposing of its scrap metal.
The minister sent a copy of the letter to the chairman of the statutory corporation asking for his comments, whereupon the chairman and his members instructed their solicitors to send a letter threatening legal action if the member did not withdraw the allegations.
The Privileges Committee reported that the board and their solicitor had committed a breach of the privileges of the House. Now we come closer to the House as it were:
And then there was the Case Of The Sunday Graphic newspaper in 1956 which arose out of the aftermath of the invasion of the Suez Canal undertaken by Prime Minister Eden.
Mr Arthur Lewis, MP, put down a parliamentary question: To ask the prime minister whether he will arrange for part of the money contributed by the Government for the relief of Hungarians to be allocated to the relief of several thousand Egyptian people rendered homeless by British shelling and rocket fire.
The Sunday Graphic took a turn in Mr Lewis. They reported as follows: “This man wants to comfort the Egyptians. He is elected to speak for men and women in Britain in general and West Ham in particular, but Mr Lewis’ thoughts are with the Egyptians.”
The paper went on to describe the question as the most crazy mixed up question of the year, and printed Mr Lewis’ home telephone number inviting readers to call and to tell Mr Lewis if they agreed with the paper’s views.
Many readers called Mr Lewis’ house and he had to change his number after three days. The calls continued and he raised the matter as a breach of the House’s privileges. The Committee agreed that a serious breach had been committed.
Finally, in one curious case, a member while making a speech used words which the Presiding Officer had stricken from the record. A week later, another member who was also a journalist took it upon himself to write an article touching and concerning the very matter which the presiding officer had ruled should be struck from the record. He was found guilty of a gross breach of privilege and an aggravated contempt of the House.
There can be little doubt therefore that it is possible to breach the privileges of the House by written communication in respect of “a proceeding in Parliament”.
In the present situation, however, the presiding officer saw no reason to interrupt the member’s speech as offending the traditions of the House, but the circumstances in which a note is alleged to have been passed to the clerk are sufficiently vague to warrant no further discussion of this matter, either here or in the House.
Whether it is raised in the House of Assembly is a matter for the House itself.
• Ezra Alleyne is an attorney and former Deputy Speaker of the House under a Barbados Labour Party Government.