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Home > Speeches > Bill of Rights, 17 March 2011

Defending the right to communicate with your Member of Parliament

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, Mr Bone. I was very keen to do so after discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), because of some of the things that he had described about the bullying of constituents. The idea of a debate immediately commended itself to me because of instances in my own constituency. You will be pleased to hear, Mr Bone, that I shall not dwell in great detail on any of them, and also that the particular instance I had in mind was nothing like as severe as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley.

I had a case where two parents came to see me about their child, who was being bullied in school. The child had an autistic spectrum condition and was also visually impaired. Those were contributing factors to his being bullied at school and the parents wanted me to help to sort it out. On a subsequent occasion, at a meeting with the school, the parents were told that it would probably be better if they did not go back and see me again. Naturally enough, I took umbrage at that, on the same basis as the stories told by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley. In substance, however, it did not make much difference, because in essence I ignored the school's request, which it had not made to me. I continued to help the parents, continued to advocate on their behalf and, indeed, met with the school. The issue was-how can I put it?-improved, if not fully solved satisfactorily.

The principle of constituents being told that they should not contact Members of Parliament is deeply offensive to me, as I think it would be to most Members. The principle that a court of law should order someone not to contact their Member of Parliament, which I was not aware of until I had detailed discussions with my hon. Friend, is even more offensive. I contend that, according to the Bill of Rights, it is not correct or possible for a judge to make such an order, because the ability of a constituent to contact an MP so that they can help to deal with a grievance, whatever it is, is of the essence-it is fundamental.

John Hemming: Would my hon. Friend agree that making such an order is, in effect, an attempt to interfere with the workings of Parliament by preventing Parliament from obtaining information?

Mr Bacon: Yes, I absolutely would. I am no constitutional lawyer, but my belief is that an English judge trying to make such an order is in contempt of Parliament, which is, after all, a court. I know that people tend to roll their eyes when the subject of the High Court of Parliament is raised, but the fact is that it is a court, and that, ultimately, it has sovereign power in this country.

The subject of parliamentary privilege has been raised on several occasions, and I, too, shall refer to it. The phrase "parliamentary privilege" is particularly unfortunate, especially in the modern world. The word "privilege" has almost entirely pejorative connotations. I prefer to call it the right of MPs to speak up for and defend the British people, which I think is a much better way of conveying what we mean by parliamentary privilege. In my parliamentary career, I have certainly taken advantage of my right as an MP to use parliamentary privilege to speak up for and defend the British people in my work.

A particular case came to my attention because of paperwork that was sent to me by an official in Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. The dossier showed that people from eastern Europe-criminal gangs, in fact-were coming to this country, getting employment in low-paid jobs and then applying for tax credits. Once the tax credit claim had been made and a British bank ccount had been set up for the payments, the fraudsters returned to their home country. They left their employment but continued to receive tax credit payments which were extracted using a cash card in various points east-in different cities in eastern Europe. In some cases, the fraudsters managed to make several thousand pounds, which they used to buy homes in parts of eastern Europe where property is much cheaper: Slovakia, parts of Romania and elsewhere.

When I was sent the information, I thought that it was in the public interest that something should be done, and that that was part of my job as an MP. I have sat on the Public Accounts Committee since I was elected in June 2001. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) was the Chairman of the Committee on the day that I first attended a meeting of it. I have had great concern throughout my parliamentary career for the proper use of public money, and for ensuring that it is not squandered.

I thought that the right thing to do was to make sure that the information came into the public domain, but I was careful to ensure that nothing might be disclosed that would impede any investigation of what was happening, or disclose to anyone how it was that I had come by the information, other than to say that it was sent to me by an official. I certainly did not want to disclose who the official might be. I had his name and mobile phone number on my Blackberry and other information that would have disclosed his identity, but I felt safe in the knowledge that were I simply to send the dossier to the Comptroller and Auditor General at the National Audit Office and ask him to investigate it, things would happen, something would be done and the fraud would be stopped. Indeed, that is what happened.

Imagine my surprise to find that, in doing his job, another MP-a colleague of mine to whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden referred a moment ago-who is now the Minister for Immigration was arrested by the police. That caused me not a little concern. I remember at the time that my hon. Friend's office was ransacked by the police in what I regarded as an unlawful and unwarranted search-in fact, unlawful search and seizure of his possessions and documents-and that his Blackberry was taken away from him. One can imagine what I started to think: what if that happened to me? What if my Blackberry were taken away from me, with the telephone number on it of the HMRC official who had given me important information which I thought it was my job to disclose, in the public interest?

For that reason, I was deeply perturbed by the arrest of my hon. Friend. It breached some important principles. One of the most important is that there has to be a certain amount of agreement. Our political system can operate only if there is agreement between different political actors and parties on certain fundamentals, and one of them is that the Government of the day shall not use the resources of the state to harry and intimidate their opponents. Indeed, I was pleased when Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary produced its report, "Review of the Lessons Learned from the Metropolitan Police Service's Investigation of Home Office Leaks", in which it stated:

"Departments and the Cabinet Office should have the capability to deal with the matter"-

the leaks from the Home Office-

"and should not have to rely on the police. The smooth running of Government is an understandable concern but not an obvious matter for the police."

When the former chief constable of the British Transport Police, Sir Ian Johnston, undertook his inquiry at the request of the Government, he also found that the actions of the Home Office and of the police had not been proportionate. He said that the leaks amounted to embarrassment for the Government but did not threaten national security.

The whole case was peculiar to anyone who had followed the legislation in the late 1980s which put the security service on a statutory basis and separately redefined the law of official secrets. A significant purpose of the legislation was to remove from the ambit of the criminal law whole swathes of Government information, so that the wrongful disclosure of information by an official to someone else would not itself be a criminal act but would be a civil matter that would be dealt with under the law of employment contract. That was a welcome development. One would not have expected that disclosures of the kind that were made could possibly have led to an arrest for potential criminal action because there was no criminal action, as was subsequently shown.

I certainly would not have expected to have the police knocking on my door, looking for papers, because of what I had been doing in respect of the tax credits fraud committed by people from eastern Europe. Following the scandal of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), I hope that we have taken a step back and recognised more rightly where the parameters should lie.

John Hemming: Would my hon. Friend agree that as the legislation aimed to protect whistleblowing, given that MPs are the whistleblowers of last resort, there should be greater protection of disclosures to MPs?

Mr Bacon: I absolutely agree. The role of an MP is to be an advocate of last resort. We all know that people come to us when they do not know where else to turn. Sometimes, sadly, they come to us too late, when there is nothing that we can do. Sometimes we see in our surgeries cases about which we think, "If only they had come a bit sooner, we might have been able to act." I had that happen with a farmer in my constituency who had been made bankrupt by the time he came to see me, by which time it was too late to do anything for him. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Because of the nature of an MP's work, and the nature of the contact between a constituent who has a grievance and the MP, we should get extra protection.

I mentioned that I would speak about parliamentary privilege, or the right of MPs to speak up for and defend the British people. A quite different case involved an approach made to me by people who were concerned about what was happening at the Manchester College of Arts and Technology, or MANCAT, as it is better known. They approached me in my capacity as a member of the Public Accounts Committee and because of my known predilection for detestation, if one can have a predilection for detestation-my known dislike of the waste of public money might be a better way of putting it.

The case involved MANCAT, which has subsequently merged with City College Manchester, and basically concerned investigations into management practices which had been hampered because MANCAT officials were alleged to have destroyed auditable documents and had reached financial settlements with certain ex-members of staff on the condition that they signed confidentiality agreements-gagging clauses-in their settlement agreements, which were obviously paid for with public money.

The point at issue was that staff felt that they were under pressure from the college to falsify student attendance registers and other funding-related paperwork in order to enable MANCAT to claim extra money from the then Learning and Skills Council. Indeed, one witness was planning to explain the extent of the malpractice at an employment tribunal where she had been in the process of seeking redress for constructive dismissal, but she was offered a financial settlement with a gagging clause, so she could not easily take the matter further.

As a result of the privilege granted to Members of Parliament, I was able to draw those matters to public attention in two Adjournment debates over a period of months. The Guardian later wrote an article on 27 January 2009. It was headed, "College faces fraud claims" and sub-headed, "A Manchester institution stands accused of altering registers to claim extra funding, reports Andrew Mourant". In my view, and I suspect in the view of most hon. Members, such matters should be brought to public attention. My point is that that would not have been possible without parliamentary privilege and the right of Members of Parliament to speak up for and to defend the British people. That is why I feel so strongly about the matter.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I totally and absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend is saying. I was much involved in the Damian Green affair-

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member. I know that we sometimes refer to the Damian Green affair, but we should refer to the hon. Member for Ashford.

Mr Cash: I accept your point, Mr Bone, and will refer to the matter of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford. Does the Minister worry that there are moves afoot to adjust, in the light of political correctness, the so-called role of the Member of Parliament and degrade it? Are they not missing the biggest wood for the biggest trees by not realising that the Member of Parliament, who is elected by voters and who, if given privilege and using it responsibly, is the best possible defence for the right of the individual to obtain the protection that they need through that privilege, not for our sake but for theirs?

Mr Bacon: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why I labour the point that "privilege" is an unfortunate word. It is better to speak of the right of Members of Parliament to speak up for and to defend the British people, because that is what we are talking about. My hon. Friend is right that those who want to chisel away at the rights of Members of Parliament are chiselling away at the rights of the British people.

At the time of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, I received a number of e-mails from people who were under the impression that I, as a Member of Parliament, thought that some people, including Members of Parliament, should be able to break the law, and that we were somehow above the law. That was another aspect of the unfortunate phrase, "parliamentary privilege", because that is how they had understood it. It surprised me-I had always understood it in the terms used by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone-to realise that the majority of people had put a completely different connotation on it. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House is listening to this debate, and perhaps Parliament should consider the whole question of what we call such things. It is misleading, and it is important that we understand what we are talking about.

One of the stupidest things I ever heard a journalist say was when someone was defending The Daily Telegraph sting, when Members of Parliament were secretly recorded in their surgeries. I thought that that was an outrage, as did many other people, including many in the media who thought that it was a step too far. I did not catch the journalist's name, but when trying to defend the sting he said on the radio, "Well it's not exactly the confessional." I remember thinking at the time, as I shouted at the radio, as we sometimes do, that that is exactly what it is.

All Members of Parliament know that it is a fairly common experience for people to come to our surgeries and to burst into tears. Last time that happened to me was the week before last, not last week, but two weeks ago. It happens quite frequently, because when dealing with constituents, we are often dealing with them as an advocate of last resort when they have nowhere else to turn. Sometimes they come with a supporter-a friend-to help them, because they do not know whether they will get through it and whether the Member of Parliament will be helpful or a scary and intimidating figure of authority.

I have had people come to see me who looked completely balanced and calm, and in full possession of their faculties, only to discover when I said the wrong thing that I triggered a wave of emotion about things that had happened to them. From being perfectly collected, the constituent would suddenly break down in tears. It is exactly a confessional. I can think of a range hypersensitive cases at my surgeries involving child custody, marital breakdown, allegations of paedophilia, armed robbery, allegations of corruption, and so on, and other hon. Members will have had similar experience. Our ability to help people in desperate situations is what we want to protect.

Mr Cash: Does my hon. Friend accept that journalists are liable to be at the rough end of this, because of certain aspects of investigative orders, European arrest warrants and so on? Here we go again on the European issue. The plain fact is that the defences that are available through Members of Parliament to protect the public include invasion from external legal requirements that are imposed on us and undermine our ability to carry out our duties. That includes the Bill of Rights and a whole raft of other things. People may find that funny, but it is deadly serious, and the more they laugh, the more stupid they look.

Mr Bacon: I would never say of my hon. Friend, "There he is, going on about the European issue again", and I certainly do not intend to do so today. He is right. What exercised me most in the recent debate that the Backbench Business Committee held in the main Chamber on prisoners voting was not whether prisoners should have a vote but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said in that debate-sadly, he is not in his place at the moment-the second of the two main points at issue. The first was whether prisoners should have a vote; the second was who should decide. As he pointed out at the time-I subsequently read the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights-the court misinformed itself. It said things in its judgment about why it thought prisoners in the UK should have a vote that were factually inaccurate. I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone says.

I do not want to detain the House much longer, except to say that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley said at the outset, if Parliament is blinded or deafened by the acts of others, it cannot see or hear all grievances, and it is very clear from the Bill of Rights that one of our purposes is to be able to see and hear all grievances-I emphasise "all grievances"-and to do something about them. If Parliament cannot see or hear all grievances, it cannot seek to remedy them.

The whole development of English constitutional thought owes a great deal to the word "remedy". The history of administrative law in this country and how it has grown over the past 300 years shows that the seeking of a remedy was the point at issue. When our constituents come to us with a grievance, they are seeking a remedy. The connection and the relationship between us and our constituents is a sacrament. It is something that we must work hard to protect; it is not something that we can take for granted. We must uphold it, cherish it, and protect the right of Members of Parliament to speak up for and to defend the British people.