Inside Parliament: Madam Speaker awarded the ultimate accolade

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Indy Politics
Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the Commons, was set among the exalted yesterday when Tony Benn ranked her warning to the courts to stay off Parliament's patch with the deeds of her great 17th century predecessor, William Lenthall.

His famous rebuke of Charles I is regularly quoted as the acme of a Speaker defending the independence of Parliament and rights of its members. With the King at Westminster intent on seizing five opponents, Speaker Lenthall told him: 'I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.'

Whether Miss Boothroyd's rebuke to the courts will ring down the next 300 years is a moot point. So too is the effect it might have on the Maastricht imbroglio, of which it forms yet another part.

Miss Boothroyd's statement was made in response to a complaint by Mr Benn, Labour MP for Chesterfield, about Monday's High Court decision to allow Lord Rees-Mogg to challenge the treaty legislation, the European Communities (Amendment) Act.

Mr Benn claimed proceedings in Parliament were being questioned in a manner contrary to the 1689 'Glorious Revolution' Bill of Rights, which asserts the sovereignty of Parliament. Though Miss Boothroyd turned down his request for an emergency debate, she said she viewed such questioning 'with great seriousness'.

Following a recent decision by the House of Lords, the courts now allowed themselves to assess the significance of words spoken during the passage of Bills in order to assist in the interpretation of statutes, she said. 'This has exposed our proceedings to possible questioning in a way that was previously thought to be impossible.

'There has, of course, been no amendment of the Bill of Rights and that Act places a statutory prohibition on the questioning of our proceedings. Article IX of that Act reads 'that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament'.

'I am sure that the House is entitled to expect, when the case referred to by Mr Benn begins to be heard on Monday, that the Bill of Rights will be required to be fully respected by all those appearing before the court.' Mr Benn was well pleased. 'I think you have told the courts, in language which I am sure they will understand, that we don't interfere with their jurisdiction and they don't interfere with our jurisdiction,' he said.

If the practice of judges reviewing Parliamentary proceedings was not stopped, it would be open to anyone to seek a court injunction that would prevent MPs from doing the work for which they were elected. He hoped the judges would drop the Rees-Mogg case, 'since to proceed after what you have said could possibly constitute a breach of privilege'.

'I also believe that your statement, which I would rank along with Mr Speaker Lenthall's of the primacy of the House of Commons, will be a warning to any other persons, whether they are responsible for using the Royal Prerogative or any other powers, that this House is determined to protect the rights of those we represent,' he said.

While MPs were still struggling to assess the significance of all this, Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, made a statement on his dealings with the Arts Council, enabling MPs to voice fears that the council has a 'hit-list' of 10 regional theatres it intends to stop funding.

Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the heritage select committee, picked up on Mr Brooke's emphasis on the need to promote touring arts, maintaining it was no substitute for firmly-rooted regional companies. Glenda Jackson, Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate and a product of repertory, warned: 'If we have no regional theatres, we will never have any London theatres.'

No exchanges on the arts would be complete without a cold shower from Terry Dicks. 'This House is never so bad as when it sits here pompously considering the future of the arty- farty world,' the Tory MP for Hayes and Harlington said. The sooner the Arts Council and Mr Brooke's department were closed down, the better. Mr Brooke replied: 'There is a particular character part that Mr Dicks plays himself, and he plays it to perfection.'

Something similar could have been said of Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW, at Question Time as he railed against the lack of government action in response to the resumption of commercial whaling by Norway. 'Londoners are certainly going to take some action,' he said, 'by telling the Norwegians precisely what they can do with their Christmas tree this year - and we will not be suggesting they put it in Trafalgar Square.'