Molestation, reflections and intimidation
15.14It is a contempt to molest a Member of either House while attending the House, or coming to or going from it, and in the eighteenth century both Houses roundly condemned ‘assaulting, insulting or menacing Lords or Members' going to or coming from the House1 or trying by force to influence them in their conduct in Parliament.2 Members and others have been punished for such molestation occurring within the precincts of the House, whether by assault3 or insulting or abusive language,4 or outside the precincts.5 The Commons took no action on an incident where a member of the public endeavoured to dissuade a Member from entering a room where a standing committee was meeting.6
To molest Members on account of their conduct in Parliament is also a contempt. Correspondence with Members of an insulting character in reference to their conduct in Parliament or reflecting on their conduct as Members,7 threatening a Member with the possibility of a trial at some future time for a question asked in the House,8 or for repeating certain allegations claimed to be defamatory,9 calling for their arrest as an arch traitor,10 offering to contradict a Member from the Gallery,11 or proposing to visit a pecuniary loss on them on account of conduct in Parliament12 have all been considered contempts. The Committee of Privileges has made the same judgement on those who incited the readers of a national newspaper to telephone a Member and complain of a question of which they had given notice.13 Speeches and writings reflecting upon the conduct of Members as Members have been treated as analogous to their molestation on account of their behaviour in Parliament.14
Written imputations, as affecting a Member of Parliament, may amount to contempt, without, perhaps, being libels at common law, but to constitute a contempt a libel upon a Member must concern the character or conduct of the Member in their capacity as a Member, not as a private individual.15
Reflections which have been punished as contempts have borne on the conduct of the Lord Chancellor in the discharge of their judicial duties in the House of Lords16 or that of the Chairman of Committees.17 In the same way, reflections on the character of the Speaker or accusations of partiality in the discharge of their duties18 and similar charges against the Chairman of Ways and Means19 or Chairman of a standing committee20 or a select committee21 have attracted the penal powers of the Commons.
Imputations that a Member nominated to a select committee would not be able to act impartially in that service,22 and similar reflections on Members serving on private bill committees,23 have been considered contempts. An individual who claimed that they could control the decision of a private bill committee (and offered to do so for a corrupt consideration) has been punished, along with another who assisted them.24 More general reflections on Members accusing them of corruption in the discharge of their duties,25 challenging their motives or veracity,26 or describing their conduct as ‘inhuman’ and degrading,27 have also been found objectionable and proceeded against.
To attempt to intimidate a Member in their parliamentary conduct by threats is also a contempt, cognate to those mentioned above. Actions of this character which have been proceeded against include impugning the conduct of Members and threatening them with further exposure if they took part in debates;28 threatening to communicate with Members' constituents to the effect that, if they did not reply to a questionnaire, they should be considered as not objecting to certain sports;29 publishing posters containing a threat regarding the voting of Members in a forthcoming debate;30 informing Members that to vote for a particular bill would be regarded as treasonable by a future administration;31 summoning a Member to a disciplinary hearing of their trade union in consequence of a vote given in the House;32 and threatening to end investment by a public corporation in a Member's constituency, if the Member persisted in making speeches along the lines of those in a preceding debate.33 When a Member stated their intention of influencing a local authority to the detriment of other Members, a complaint was referred to the Committee of Privileges which concluded that the words spoken constituted a threat but recommended no further action.34 Most recently, attempts to dissuade a Member from raising a matter in the House through threats of legal action in respect of statements outside the House has been held to be a contempt.35
- 1. The Metropolitan Police Act 1839 (c 47), s 52, which is a general power to control assemblies, is the principal means by which Parliament is currently protected from tumultuous assemblies (see para 6.53 ). Part 3 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 also controls activities around Parliament Square and in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster and provides penalties for those who take part in prohibited activities; see Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, ss 142–149
- 2. LJ (1765–67) 209; CJ (1732–37) 115; ibid (1778–80) 902.
- 3. CJ (1688–93) 348, 354, 355; ibid (1824–25) 483 and Parl Deb (1824) 11, c 1204; and CJ (1946–47) 54, 91. In the last case, it was decided that the contempt committed by the Member concerned, who struck the first blow, was greater than that of the other who retaliated (Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 36 (1946–47)).
- 4. CJ (1646–48) 42; ibid (1660–67) 186; ibid (1688–93) 782; ibid (1877) 144 and Parl Deb (1877) 233, cc 951, 956; and CJ (1887) 377, 389 and Parl Deb (1887) 317, cc 1167, 1631.
- 5. Officials of the Liberty of Westminster were committed in 1751 for having apprehended, insulted and abused a Member and refusing to discharge them except upon an assurance of their silence (CJ (1750–54) 175–76).
- 6. HC Deb (1948–49) 470, cc 1535–38.
- 7. LJ (1830–31) 285, 335; CJ (1862–63) 80, 84; ibid (1890–91) 481 and Parl Deb (1891) 356, c 419. Challenging Members to fight on account of their behaviour in the House (CJ (1780–82) 535, 537; Parl Deb (1844) 74, c 286; CJ (1845) 589 and ibid (1862) 64) or of remarks made outside the House touching proceedings in the House (CJ (1883) 232, 238) has been considered a contempt.
- 8. Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 284 (1959–60).
- 9. See para 15.2, fn 1.
- 10. Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 462 (1966–67) and CJ (1966–67) 415.
- 11. CJ (1826–28) 395, 399 and Parl Deb (1827) 17, cc 282, 343.
- 12. CJ (1898) 381.
- 13. Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 27 (1956–57); CJ (1956–57) 31, 50.
- 14. The Commons Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege recommended in 1967 that a Member who considered that they had been defamed should seek a remedy in the courts, and not be permitted to invoke the penal jurisdiction of the House in lieu of or in addition to that remedy (Third Report, HC 34 (1967–68) para 42). Subsequently, the Committee of Privileges took the view that it would be unsatisfactory for the House to appear to rely on action by an individual Member in the courts as a substitute for its own penal jurisdiction. The Committee might have added that difficulties such as those which subsequently gave rise to the Defamation Act 1996 (see para 16.19 ) were likely to arise in such an action. It therefore recommended that the Speaker should take into account the possibility of other remedies when deciding on whether to give precedence to a complaint that a contempt might have been committed (see para 15.32 ) (Third Report, HC 417 (1976–77) para 5; CJ (1977–78) 170).
- 15. See the action taken by the House, Parl Deb (1875) 222, cc 1185–1204; cf also Parl Deb (1888) 329, c 1251; ibid (1890) 341, c 43; ibid (1893) 8, c 1592. For more recent cases in which this question was considered, see HC 247 (1963–64) and HC 269 (1964–65).
- 16. LJ (1834) 704, 737, 743; Parl Deb (1834) 24, cc 892, 941, 946, 1006, 1065.
- 17. LJ (1867) 31, 33, 46, 72.
- 18. CJ (1772–74) 452, 456; CJ (1888) 385 and Parl Deb (1888) 329, c 48; CJ (1890–91) 481 and Parl Deb (1890–91) 356 c 419; CJ (1893–94) 123, 408, 416 and Parl Deb (1893–94) 9, c 1866; ibid (1893–94) 14, cc 820, 1094; and CJ (1937–38) 213.
- 19. HC Deb (1909) 8, c 31; CJ (1928–29) 50, 156, 159; and ibid (1950–51) 319 and Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 235 (1950–51).
- 20. CJ (1924) 180 and Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 98 (1924).
- 21. CJ (1874) 181, 189 and Parl Deb (1874) 219, cc 752, 755 and CJ (1950–51) 299. In a case in 1968–69, the Committee of Privileges considered that an assertion that a Member who was Chairman of a sub-committee of a select committee would not be able to form a sufficiently fair and dispassionate view of events when hearing evidence in their own constituency was not a contempt (HC 197 (1968–69)).
- 22. CJ (1900) 178.
- 23. CJ (1831–32) 278, 294; ibid (1857–58) 189, 196, 201 and Parl Deb (1857–58) 150, cc 1022, 1063, 1198; HC Deb (1909) 7, c 235; Parl Deb (1921) 145, c 831; and CJ (1932–33) 141.
- 24. CJ (1878–79) 326, 366; Parl Deb (1879) 247, cc 1866 and 1956 and ibid 248, cc 602, 633, 971, 1100, and Report of the Select Committee on Privilege (Tower High Level Bridge (Metropolis) Committee), HC 294 (1878–79).
- 25. CJ (1667–87) 88, 95; ibid (1732–37) 245; ibid (1836) 658, 676 and Parl Deb (1836) 35, cc 167, 255; CJ (1893–94) 631 and Parl Deb (1893–94) 20, c 112; CJ (1901) 414, 418; Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 138 (1946–47) and CJ (1947–48) 22. See also ibid (1935–36) 203 and HC Deb (1935–36) 311, cc 1349–52.
- 26. CJ (1901) 355; ibid (1926) 99; Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 55 (1926); Committee of Privileges, First Report, HC 302 (1974–75); and see also Report of the Committee, HC 112 (1947–48).
- 27. CJ (1880) 46, 54 and Parl Deb (1880) 250, cc 797, 1108.
- 28. CJ (1873) 60 and Parl Deb (1873) 214, c 733
- 29. CJ (1934–35) 201 and HC Deb (1934–35) 301, c 1545.
- 30. Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 181 (1945–46).
- 31. Committee of Privileges, Second Report, HC 228 (1964–65).
- 32. HC Deb (1974) 877, cc 466, 673. The complaint was not pursued, following a letter of apology.
- 33. Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 214 (1980–81). Although the Committee was unable to establish the facts alleged, it observed that ‘such an allegation, if established, would certainly reveal a serious affront to the privilege of freedom of speech’.
- 34. Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 564 (1983–84). See also HC Deb (1993–94) 238, c 21.
- 35. Committee on Standards and Privileges, Ninth Report of Session 2009–10, Privilege: John Hemming and Withers LLP, HC 373.