Andy McSmith's Diary: Parliamentary privilege and the police force that broke the law
Home Secretary Theresa May’s announcement of a public inquiry into undercover operations is not the only embarrassment the police suffered today. Sussex Police has been rebuked for committing a contempt of Parliament.
The case involved the Tory MP and former education minister, Tim Loughton, who has a habit of getting into ferocious arguments. One voter in his East Worthing and Shoreham constituency annoyed him so much that Mr Loughton took the curious step of announcing, in Parliament, that he intended to “sack” this constituent. To make sure the man understood that Mr Loughton no longer considered himself to be his local MP, he sent him a copy of the day’s Hansard, with an unsigned compliments slip.
This was one of a series of raging arguments involving characters in and around Worthing, which so exasperated Sussex Police that the force issued warning notices, called PINs, to all concerned, including the MP.
MPs are not above the law, as the expenses scandal proved, but it is a long- established law that MPs cannot be prosecuted, or threatened with prosecution, for anything said in Parliament, no matter how off beam. That protection also applies to the words in official parliamentary papers such as Hansard. Therefore, by issuing Mr Loughton with a PIN, Sussex Police unknowingly broke the law.
Hansard, being Parliament’s official record, has rules it must follow. When an MP talks drunken gibberish, for example, Hansard writers have to make his speech read as clearly as if he had been stone cold sober. Today’s Hansard contained a rare example of the opposite problem: an intelligible exchange which reads like nonsense:
“Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): I call Nia Griffith.
Nia Griffith: I am sorry, Mr Bone, but it is pronounced Nia.
Mr Peter Bone: Nia. I am sorry.”
A phonetics footnote would have helped.
Lip service to women?
International Women’s Day was the dominant theme of Parliament’s agenda, as three ministers – Justine Greening, Maria Miller and Lynne Featherstone – set off to New York to take part in the 58th Commission on the Status of Women. A debate in the Commons chamber, another in the Westminster Hall annexe, and the whole of today’s business in the House of Lords focused on women’s issues. The Commons Leader, Andrew Lansley, told MPs that he was “delighted” that the cause was receiving so much parliamentary attention.
It was a bit unfortunate that as he spoke, the thin ranks of Tory MPs behind him consisted exclusively of men in dark suits.
Quick currency conversion
“Why am I the only politician looking to provide solutions? No one is holding the council to account,” Paul Uppal, Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West, exclaimed in anguish as he laid out examples he had uncovered of lavish expenditure by Wolverhampton Council on a local BBC radio programme. “They spent £70,000 on a luxury five-star hotel in India, £100,000 at a Park Plaza, £1,500 at a Pizza Hut and nearly five grand in cash withdrawals, £140,000 on alcoholic beverages,” he protested, confronting the Labour MP Pat McFadden with the evidence.
But his evidence, Mr McFadden pointed out, was out by a factor of 100, because all the figures quoted were in rupees – worth just under 1p, at the current exchange rate.
Mr Uppal told the local Express and Star that his mistake was the council’s fault, because it had used pound signs when the figures were entered in its database.
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