Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Speakers Committee

Speakers Committee

Monday 8th December 2008

House of Commons



Mr Speaker, in your statement last Wednesday following the search of the office of the Hon Member for Ashford, you asked for a Motion to set up a committee to review the internal processes of search of the House administration for granting permission for police searches of Members' offices on the parliamentary estate.


The motion before the House sets up such a committee which would have all the powers to get papers and evidence of a Committee of the House and would adjourn after choosing a chair till after the completion of the police investigation in this particular case.


There are a number of issues here:

  • First, the immediate one of whether the papers and data of Hon Members are properly protected as of now.
  • Secondly, what led up to the search of the office of the Hon member for Ashford and
  • Thirdly, were the important constitutional principles which are at stake here  properly protected in this particular case and are they protected for the future..



I know that Hon Members want the issue of search of parliament to be sorted out now, and not wait till after the police have finished their inquiries in this case.


You have,  Mr Speaker, last Wednesday in your statement  told the House that you have reviewed the handling of this matter and that


" from now on a warrant will always be required where a search of a member's office or access to a member's parliamentary papers is sought."


You said:


"Every case must be referred for my personal decision as it is my responsibility. All this will be made clear in a protocol issued under my name to all Hon members."


That should provide some immediate reassurance to those Hon Members who have criticised the consent to the search.


Though we should remember that at the time consent was given, it appears that a Magistrates court had issued a warrant to search the Hon Members home and constituency office.


But further to your statement, I can tell the House that I have asked that we consider at our next House of Commons Commission meeting 2 further issues in respect of a warrant for a search of the House which should provide even further reassurance to Hon Members.

  • First, whether it should not be a magistrate, but only a High Court Judge that would have the power to grant a warrant to carry out a search in parliament and
  • Secondly, whether through Speakers Counsel there could be an opportunity for representations to be made to a court considering an application for a warrant to search in the House, about the high test that should be applied before a warrant is granted within parliament.


Indeed Mr Speaker, there is one further point here that the Commission could consider.  If Hon Members data and papers are to be protected when they are on the parliamentary estate, should they attract the same level of protection when they are in the member's home or in his or her constituency office.  It is, of course, the material which is in issue here, not the building. This is something that the Commission could look at as you  consider taking forward the changes in search  procedure that you announced last Wednesday.


Mr Speaker, you also provided immediate reassurance for members concerned about police access to the Parliamentary computer network saying that it was your serious responsibility, that you had already taken action and would further look into the matter.


So the House should be reassured on that too. 


The Motion before the House establishes a committee to start its work as soon as the police investigation is concluded.


Mr Speaker, in your statement on Wednesday, you said that you had decided to

refer the matter of to a committee which would report and be debated by the House as soon as possible.


But let me explain why that must mean not before the police have completed their investigation.


If the committee were to be responsible  for looking at the process for any search in the immediate future, or at the current protection of data of Hon Members they could, and  would need to do that now, but, as I have said, you, Mr Speaker, have already acted on that.


So, what remains for the Committee are questions which fall 4 square on the same territory as the current police investigation and the issue for the House is whether the Committee should be conducting an investigation into police action at the same time as the police enquiry of which that action formed a part.




There are two problems here


  • Firstly, the need for the House to avoid the accusation or perception that we are any way we interfering with, or breathing down the police's neck on their current investigation.



  • Secondly, the need for the House to avoid any inadvertent potential prejudice to any future criminal proceedings in court.


What is said and done in parliament is important.  That is why there is concern about the search and seizure. And by the same token, anything we say would be influential in criminal cases.


We have to look ahead to any future criminal trial.  We have to avoid doing or saying anything which could hinder justice -  either the prosecution or the defence.


That is why Prime Ministers, Home Secretaries have to be very careful about what they say.  And Leaders of the Opposition and Shadow Home Secretaries  have to be  careful too.  It is for neither Government nor Opposition to pronounce what the evidence is and whether a crime has been committed.


The courts are rightly very vigilant about this.


[Let me give the House a recent example.  On 14th November 2004 the then Home Secretary said on the Politics show referring to suspects who had been arrested

"I am talking about people who are about to go through the court system.  They may be found not guilty. But our security and policing services have been securing our well being over the last few years"


Even though the Home Secretary included reference to the fact that they might be found not guilty, the judge in that case expressed concern that there should be any comment at all on an ongoing criminal case.]




So I ask the House to resist the amendments which would have the Committee start its work now.


I know that the shadow Home Secretary who is also Shadow Attorney General understands the importance of this argument and I urge him too to acknowledge it and act in accordance with it.



The four principles at stake here


In conclusion Mr Speaker, I would like to set out the 4 principles which I think we should all,  - all members of this House, government and opposition, backbenchers and front benchers, - the principles which we should all be mindful of, and we should all be vigilant to protect.


Firstly, it is essential for the freedom of our democracy that as members of this House we are able to get on with our work without looking over our shoulder.


Secondly, in respect of the rule of law no-one, not ministers, nor members of this house are above the law.  We should all accept that. 


Thirdly, that we should have a professional and impartial civil service.  And that civil servants who feel in conscience that they have to divulge  information should be able to do so without falling foul of the criminal law. And it was to protect whistleblowers that we introduced the Public Interest Disclosure Act in 1998.


And fourthly, the principle of separation of the executive and the legislature on the one hand, from the operation of criminal justice system on the other.  No-one in this country wants  politicians - whether government or Opposition telling the police who to investigate and who not to investigate.  In any individual case the police are accountable to the courts and to the independent complaints system. And whilst they are accountable too to police authorities and the Home Secretary, where anyone who is the subject of an investigation is known to the Home Secretary it is imperative that  she makes it clear that she is standing right back from the enquiry.  And this is what she has done.


I hope that all members, will support all of those four principles and will support the motion to establish the Speakers Committee which will be able to look into all these matters and make recommendations for the future.


I commend the motion to the House


















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