Constituents and others

15.25Those who voluntarily and in their personal capacity provide to Members information that has no connection with proceedings in Parliament are not afforded the same protection as those who participate in formal proceedings, even if they are constituents of Members of Parliament.1 The special position of a person providing information to a Member for the exercise of their parliamentary duties has however been regarded by the courts as enjoying qualified privilege at law.2

After a subordinate army chaplain had provided information to a Member who subsequently gave notice of a question based on this information, it was alleged that the Deputy Assistant Chaplain General of the army district threatened their subordinate to make them persuade the Member concerned to withdraw the question. The matter was referred to the Committee of Privileges who reported that they could find no precedent where an attempt by one individual to influence another individual (not a Member of Parliament) as to the nature or content of the latter's communications with a Member of Parliament had been treated as a breach of privilege or as a contempt of the House.3

While it is the policy of service departments that the usual service channels should be used wherever possible, service personnel may communicate with Members on all matters, including service matters, so long as there is no disclosure of operational or classified information and the political impartiality of the armed forces is not compromised.4

Action has been taken to ensure that communications between constituents and their Members of Parliament can be effective. The Data Protection Act 2018 expands upon the principles set out in the General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 with a range of provisions to enable the processing of personal data by Members of Parliament in representing and supporting their constituents. These include provisions enabling processing of data for purposes which are in the public interest, and paras 23–25 of sch 1 set out circumstances in which special category data may be used by or revealed to elected representatives.

In March 2014, it was made clear that the right of a party to family court proceedings to communicate information relating to the proceedings in confidence to obtain support extended to communication with MPs.5

After a complaint had been made by a Member that a constituent's letter forwarded by them to a government department had been disclosed by the department to a third party who had threatened proceedings for libel, the Prime Minister stated that all departments had been reminded that they must exercise greater discretion as to the circumstances in which disclosure was appropriate.6 However, public authorities listed in sch 1 to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 have argued that they are required to apply the provisions of that Act to correspondence received from Members, including correspondence relating to constituents.

Footnotes

  1. 1. In Rivlin v Bilainkin [1953] 1 QB 485, [1953] 1 All ER 534 the court held that a communication of an allegedly defamatory nature repeated to a Member of Parliament contrary to an injunction against repetition, being in no way connected with any proceedings in Parliament, was not protected by parliamentary privilege so as to oust the jurisdiction of the court. See O'Chee v Rowley (1997) 150 ALR 199, Supreme Court of Queensland, when it was decided that procuring, obtaining or receiving documents by a Senator for the purpose of questions or debate in the House was done for the purposes of or incidental to the transaction of parliamentary business, and that bringing documents into existence with or for parliamentary purposes, collecting or assembling them was capable of being considered a proceeding in Parliament. See also, however, Rowley v Armstrong [2000] QSC 088, where the act of an informant communicating with the Senator was held not to be a parliamentary proceeding. A letter from a constituent who was a clergyman was forwarded by a Member to the bishop of the diocese, and it was alleged that the clergyman was in consequence damnified. The House disagreed to a motion referring the matter to the Committee of Privileges (CJ (1950–51) 148–49 and HC Deb (1950–51) 485, cc 675–88, 1297–1316, 2491–2543). A civil servant who was accused of leaking confidential information to a Member of Parliament was not protected either from criminal proceedings or dismissal from their office; see Committee on Issue of Privilege, First report, Police Searches on the Parliamentary Estate, HC 62 (2009–10).
  2. 2. Dickson v Earl of Wilton (1859) 175 ER 790. In this case, the jury found for the plaintiff, the defendant's privilege having been vitiated by malice. In R v Rule [1937] 2 KB 375 (a judgment which in part depended on the absence of malice) it was held that a Member, to whom a written communication had been addressed by one of their constituents asking for their assistance in bringing to the notice of the appropriate Minister a complaint of improper conduct on the part of a public official in the course of their duties, had sufficient interest in the subject-matter of the complaint to permit the occasion of the publication of the complaint to be privileged at common law. See also Re Parliamentary Privilege Act 1770, referring to Gruban v Booth (1915) ( [1958] AC 339 ). In Beach v Freeson [1971] 2 All ER 854, it was held that in general a Member of Parliament had both an interest and a duty to communicate to the appropriate body at the request of a constituent any substantial complaint from the constituent concerning a professional man in practice at the service of the public. Since the defendant had not been actuated by malice, the communication at issue enjoyed qualified privilege at common law. For judicial consideration of the phrase ‘in his capacity as a Member of Parliament’, see Attorney-General of Ceylon v De Livera [1963] AC 103, [1962] 3 All ER 1066.
  3. 3. Report of the Committee of Privileges, HC 112 (1954–55).
  4. 4. HC Deb (1954–55) 540, c 51W.
  5. 5. See HC Deb (18 March 2014) 577 cc 645–46; Family Procedure Rules 2012, Chapter 12, Part 7, 12.75. On the other hand, the Speaker has ruled that whether an MP should be given access to a court was not a matter for the Speaker, HC Deb (9 November 2015) 602, cc 44–45.
  6. 6. HC Deb (1953–54) 524, cc 1932–37 and ibid 525, cc 210–11.