British MPs have enjoyed what is known as “Parliamentary Privilege” for hundreds of years, since Henry VIII in fact. This has prevented them from being arrested in Parliament, and allowed them free speech immune from prosecution.
It is the job of the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the Serjeant at Arms, to protect and uphold the rules of the Houses of Parliament, and to protect parliamentary privilege. In fact, the English Civil War was started when the King attempted to have five MPs arrested within the House.
On 27th November 2008, it happened again. The police marched in and arrested Tory MP Damian Green, searched his office and took away his computers and disks. Without a warrant.
Unfortunately, it seems we have a rather weak Speaker of the House at the moment, and his Serjeant at Arms seems to have just caved in to whatever the police asked of her. Not only did she not refuse them access, which is her duty as well as her job, she also didn’t ask the Clerk of the House (pdf) for advice on what she or the Police could or could not do, and then she even signed a Consent Form allowing the police entry to the MPs office without any involvement from anyone else.
In such a case as this it would be easy to paint her as the scapegoat in this story, but to my mind it shows more a portrait of the Speaker as a weak man with little control over his underlings, and from his own mouth little knowledge of events that are his responsibility. He clearly has an iron grip on things.
Meanwhile, Jacqui Smith, Home Office Minister in charge of the Police claimed “ignorance” about the matter, although she did admit in Parliament that the Cabinet Office was involved – and she is of course a member of the Cabinet. The Serjeant at Arms, always previously an ex-Army officer who enforced the rules rigorously but now no more than an office manager who clearly didn’t know the rules and who didn’t request to see a warrant just let them walk past her rather than doing her job of protecting Parliamentary privilege. Scottish Labour MP and Prime Minister Gordon Brown says he has a “great deal of confidence” in fellow Scottish Labour MP and Speaker of the House, Michael Martin.
The Speaker of course has a lot of power over MPs, so you won’t hear many of them slagging the Speaker off. But over his own underlings, clearly he exercises little control at all. For instance, today the Speaker, rather limply, if not exceedingly limply, only managed to squeak out some ineffectual nonsense about he “did not know the Police did not have a warrant…” Clearly he should be more in control of his underlings so they do inform him then.
One of the foundation stones of any healthy democracy is adherence to and respect for the rule of law, but it seems even at the the highest levels of British political life, liberties are being taken that affect all our freedoms.
It certainly seems we need more than at anytime a Government which believes in Civil Liberties, rather than one composed of either of today’s two most partisan parties, the Labs or the Cons. Unfortunately, I don’t think the LibDems yet have the ear of the people although they probably do have many of the right ideas.