Except for the great William Rees-Mogg, no commentator seems to have noticed that Gordon Brown’s Bill to ‘clean up politics’ is about to remove the liberty of Parliament. ‘Res ipsa loquitur’ is the old legal tag: ‘the thing itself speaks’. Under the new Bill, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) is created. When IPSA speaks, its word will be law. It will tell Parliament what its allowances will be and MPs will not be allowed to vote this down. As David Heathcoat-Amory said in the debate in the Commons on Monday, it is ‘the final achievement of the quango state’ to create a quango which will tell Parliament what to do. So the people we have elected to make our laws will be ruled by people no one has elected.
The Clerk of the House of Commons, Malcolm Jack, found himself last week reluctantly speaking up against the Bill’s constitutional impropriety. The Leader of the House, Harriet Harman, said that ‘the issue of parliamentary privilege is not an issue in [the] Bill’. But Mr Jack thought otherwise. He wrote to the Standards Committee on Friday to say that the Parliamentary Standards Bill would take away freedom of speech in Parliament. Mr Jack said that ‘the words of Members’ spoken in the House could, under this Bill, ‘be admitted as evidence in criminal proceedings’. So could evidence given by non-parliamentary witnesses to Commons committees, and advice given to MPs by Commons officials. This change is being introduced in the name of enforcing high standards, but its effect, said Mr Jack, will be to ‘chill’ parliamentary debate. Article IX of the Bill of Rights protects ‘proceedings’ in Parliament from legal assault. It does so because it has until now been understood that, without such privilege for Parliament, other bodies — above all, the executive — could frighten MPs into biting their lips, and punish them if they fail to do so.