affiliated to the International Association of Constitutional Law
The Standards and Privileges Committee has produced a report into the phone hacking scandal, considering whether the hacking of Members’ phones amounted to contempt of Parliament. The Committee provided a definition of contempt as: “an act or omission which obstructs or impedes (or tends to obstruct or impede) the business of the House or any of its Members in carrying out their Parliamentary functions” (para. 35), though the precise nature of the offence remains unclear. It will often be hard to show that the act of hacking has affected a Member’s participation in the Commons, though hacking would probably amount to contempt if it had the aim of interfering with a Member’s participation, or created a climate of insecurity that had this effect. The current Government has announced that it will introduce a Privileges Bill to clarify and reform parliamentary privilege. The Committee recommends that the opportunity be taken to clarify contempt of Parliament in light of new technologies. The report also includes a discussion of the overlapping jurisdiction of the courts and Commons. The Committee concludes that the Commons should only exercise its jurisdiction in unusual circumstances: generally, punishment for hacking should be left to the courts and to criminal law.