Parliamentary Privilede and the Expenses Fiasco

The lawyers acting for the defence of three Labour MPs who have been charged in the expenses scandal have raised the question of using Parliamentary Privilege as a defence against their prosecution.

Parliamentary Privilege is a legal privilege developed originally from a clause in the Bill of Rights 1689 designed to prevent matters discussed in Parliament from being questioned in court, or MPs being impeached in a court for their actions surrounding matters of Parliament.  It is one of the oldest laws in the United Kingdom, and also one of the most unclear.

Parliamentary Privilege prevents UK courts questioning debates in Parliament

Parliamentary Privilege prevents UK courts questioning debates in Parliament. Photograph by Ben Sutherland.

The question that has therefore been raised is: are issues of expenses that are supposedly incurred during an MP’s duties, to their constituents and to Parliament, included within “matters of Parliament”?  Many have claimed that no, they cannot; they are ancillary matters.

The defence lawyers have, of course, looked at the nebulous nature of Parliamentary Privilege and raised the point that it may well provide a defence.  This is, of course, what defence lawyers are for; since if there is an adequate defence, to not raise it would potentially lead to a miscarriage of justice.

The Conservatives, and also the Government, have now stated that the law will be changed to clarify the situation; setting expenses clearly outside of Parliamentary Privilege.  However, it should be noted that Parliament does have its own system of punishment for wrongdoing but this seems to have been overlooked in regard to the expenses scandal, in favour of relying on the standard criminal court system.

This may therefore come into consideration if privilege does get brought as a defence against the charges made against these MPs.  At this stage, however, what may or may not come from this when the case reaches the courts is still unclear.

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