by Stephen Tall on October 14, 2009
Astute readers may have noticed one or two mentions on the site yesterday concerning Trafigura, its lawyers Carter Ruck, and their attempts to impose a gagging junction on The Guardian preventing the reporting of Parliamentary proceedings.
Not only was the issue promptly picked up by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, but two of the party’s MPs, David Heath and Paul Burstow, were also quick off the mark in pledging to ask questions in the House of Commons – an action which, as Alix Mortimer has remarked, was perhaps decisive in forcing Trafigura to back down.
So here for your delectation is the Hansard transcript of the Commons’ exchanges which took place yestrday afternoon, starting with the Labour MP whose question sparked the whole farrago:
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to raise a chain of events that may be of some concern to the House. Today The Guardian reported that it had been prevented from reporting a written question tabled by a Member of Parliament. This morning I telephoned The Guardian to ask whether that MP was myself. The question was printed on the Order Paper yesterday and relates to the activities of Trafigura, an international oil trader at the centre of a controversy concerning toxic waste dumping on the Ivory Coast. The question also relates to the role of its solicitors, Carter-Ruck. I understand that yesterday Carter-Ruck, quite astonishingly, warned The Guardian of legal action if the newspaper reported my question. In view of the seriousness of this, Mr. Speaker, will you accept representations from me over this matter and consider whether Carter-Ruck’s behaviour constitutes potential contempt of Parliament?
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Further to that point of order—
Mr. Speaker: In a moment.
Let me first say to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) that I think that he has just made representations. I am grateful to him for his point of order and for courteously giving me advance notice of it. A written question has indeed been tabled, as he said, by the hon. Gentleman himself. It is not sub judice under the House’s rules. It has already been published on the notices of questions, and it is also available on the Order Paper and, indeed, on the parliamentary website. There is no question of our own proceedings being in any way inhibited. If the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue this as a matter of privilege, there is of course, as he will doubtless know, an established procedure for raising it with me in writing. Furthermore, I now understand that an injunction is no longer being sought. I hope that that reply is helpful both to the hon. Gentleman and to the House.
Mr. Heath: I also wish to speak about the matter raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), because it seems to me that a fundamental principle of this House is now being threatened by the legal proceedings for an injunction and the consequent proceedings for contempt of court in respect of injuncted material. As you know, we have enjoyed in this House since 1688 the privilege of being able to speak freely. We have also developed the right of British citizens to know what we say in this House and have it reported freely. Is there an opportunity for a wider debate on what I think is a very substantial matter, either through a consideration of privilege or on the Floor of the Chamber?
Mr. Speaker: There are usually further opportunities, as the hon. Gentleman, as an experienced parliamentarian, can testify. I hope that he will not mind if I point out that one suitable opportunity to raise the matter might be at business questions, in relation to which he himself enjoys a privileged position.
David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): You, Mr. Speaker, are the defender of our rights and privileges in this place. This is a new class of injunction, a so-called super injunction, in which the press are not even allowed to report the injunction itself and the existence of the case. That is how Parliament’s reporting has been stopped by it. Could you undertake to the House to do two things? First, will you take legal advice to see whether the courts can be instructed not to grant injunctions that close down reporting of this place? Secondly, will you seek a meeting with the Secretary of State of Justice, who I know is sympathetic to this—it is not a party matter—to see whether the Government can act to achieve that same aim?
Mr. Speaker: I am not sure that I can accommodate the right hon. Gentleman in relation to his first question. I am not sure that it would be right to interfere with a legal process in the way that I think his question would invite me to do. I would like to reflect further upon the second point that he has very reasonably put to me.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On the same point of order, Mr. Speaker. While you are reflecting on that point, may I ask you also to reflect on whether the increasing habit of solicitors of seeking injunctions in advance of publication, not only in this case but in others, might prevent newspapers regularly from reporting such questions? Given that the efforts of John Wilkes MP in the 18th century to provide for the reporting of parliamentary proceedings were such an important breakthrough, and indeed led to the disuse of sedition laws against this House, would it be possible for you to reflect on that and see whether something urgently needs to be done to control the habit of law firms of seeking to prevent the reporting of this House?
Mr. Speaker: It has always been my pleasure to reflect on any observations put to me by the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that he is seeking to inveigle me into a wider debate than I should enter this afternoon. I think it is fair simply to reiterate the point that the proceedings of the House have been, and will be, in no way inhibited. For today, I would like to leave it at that.