What is this Parliamentary Privilege?
Basically, it’s the immunity of members of Parliament from legal action for words spoken in the National Assembly.
And it has its origins in the English Civil War of the mid-17th century when Parliament took a stand to be independent of the monarchy and to be self-governing.
Then in 1689, the Bill of Rights proclaimed, among other things, that “freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or any place out of Parliament”.
The thinking was that the representatives of the people required a forum at which they could speak without interference or repercussions, whether by the monarchy, or by the courts (over which, to a large extent, the monarchy held high influence).
And the plan was that the Parliament would regulate itself and its members by way of rules, custom, etc.
So even if a Member of Parliament were to make defamatory remarks about a person who was not a Member, and that person could not sue the MP in a court of law, the MP could nevertheless be disciplined if he or she had in any way breached the Rules which govern the proceedings of Parliament and the conduct of its Members.
And that, pretty much, is the way it is today in many Parliaments of the world, including here in St. Kitts & Nevis.
I’m not making a case for continuing this practice, or for changing it. I’m simply laying out the facts.
There’s no Rule that prohibits an MP from mentioning the name of, or speaking about, a private citizen. Indeed, references to private citizens are made every day in Parliaments throughout the world, whether it be for remembrance, outstanding achievements, giving thanks or criticizing.
The limits placed on such references are based on what is considered to be Parliamentary Conduct and Unparliamentary Conduct. The latter is not allowed, and the Speaker steps in and straightens out the offending MP, because the Speaker has to ensure that the integrity of the Parliament is not compromised.
So, put another way, not because a private citizen is unable to sue an MP for defamatory words uttered in Parliament means that the MP is allowed to walk Scot free. The Rules of Parliament are there to keep him or her in check.
So what are these so-called ‘attacks’ on private citizens that have been coming from the Government benches in Parliament?
Is Timothy Harris ‘attacking’ a person known to be an activist for the former Administration if he says that that person occupied positions of favour and benefited from certain arrangements under the former Administration, and if he gives us a detail or two?
Is Timothy Harris attacking that person or is he carrying out his obligation to the people of this country to let us know what was going on before February 16th, 2015?
Interestingly, I haven’t heard any claims that what Harris has said is untrue.
Is it that they want Harris to shut up, and that they don’t want the exposure? Is it possible that their hue and cry has nothing whatsoever to do with Parliamentary Privilege and the abuse of it?
I’ve heard Harris make some comments about certain persons in Parliament, none of which I’ve found to be abusive of Parliamentary Privilege. None of which I consider to be ‘attacks’.
I’ve also heard him make strong remarks about individuals in his press conferences. Again, those individuals were intrinsically connected to issues of public interest and importance. And it’s my view that he would be irresponsible not to inform the public of these things.
Indeed, it has been my steady call for a full, clinical, independent audit of the entire Government, and for the Prime Minister to report to us on what Douglas left him on February 16th, 2015. I want more information, and I want it more systematically and clinically. And so do many of you.
If the former dispensation covered up and concealed, then this dispensation must expose the cover ups and concealments wherever they may exist. I’ve stated repeatedly that it is Harris’ obligation to do so!
Finally, what I find most comical about the hue and cry is how often private citizens used to be, not just mentioned, butpenciled by them from the perches of Parliament when they were in power.
But now that they’re out of power, they’re lecturing us all on the Rules of Parliament.
No Deputy Speaker for over 1,800 days. No Motion of No Confidence for 775 days. Endless crudeness, indecorousness and disorder in the House. An historic act of parliamentary infamy on January 16th, 2015, when they went to pass the Boundaries Resolution. Incredible acts of egregiousness against Parliament and Parliamentary Democracy and the Rule of Law.
And now from their own mouths, accusations of abuse of Parliamentary Privilege.