Phone hacking: How Parliament could punish News Corp bosses

Chamber of House of Commons Parliament has powers to reprimand non members

Three former News International executives could be forced by MPs to come to the House of Commons to be admonished publicly by the Speaker.

It is a punishment available to Parliament known as being "called to the bar of the House of Commons".

This is the white line across the floor of the chamber beyond which non-MPs may not cross while the Commons is sitting.

The last time a stranger - or non-MP - was summoned to the bar was on 24 January 1957.

The editor of the Sunday Express, John Junor, was brought by the Serjeant at Arms to the bar and admonished by the Speaker for publishing an article that cast doubt on the integrity of MPs over their constituency petrol allowances.

Precedent

Here is the brief exchange:

"Mr. Speaker: Mr. John Junor, you have been summoned to appear at the Bar of this House in consequence of a Report made by a Committee of this House. That Committee was directed to inquire into the matter of an article published on 16 December 1956, in the Sunday Express, of which you are Editor.

Sir John Junor Sir John Junor was the last person to be "called to the bar of the House".

You did not seek, so the Committee have found, to establish the truth of the article, nor did you appear willing to admit its obvious implications.

Although given every opportunity to express your regret, you made what the Committee were only able to regard as an entirely inadequate apology. Nevertheless, I have to inform you that before considering the findings of the Committee the House is willing to hear anything that you may have to say in extenuation.

Mr. John Junor: Mr. Speaker, I wish to express my sincere and unreserved apologies for any imputations or reflection which I may have cast upon the honour and integrity of the members of this House in the article which I published in the Sunday Express on 16 December.

At no time did I intend to be discourteous to Parliament. My only aim was to focus attention on what I considered to be an injustice in the allocation of petrol, namely, the petrol allowances given to political parties in the constituencies.

In my judgment these allowances were a proper and, indeed, an inescapable subject of comment in a free press.

That was a view which I held then and hold now, Sir, but I do regret, deeply and sincerely, that the manner in which I expressed myself should have been such as to be a contempt of this House. I have nothing more to say. I now leave myself in the hands of this House."

Likely procedure

It is open to any MP to table a motion calling for the House of Commons to censure someone.

However, the more likely procedure is this: an MP raises the issue with the Speaker in a letter.

The Speaker would decide if he will allow an MP to move a motion relating to the case. This motion would probably refer the matter to MPs on the Standards and Privileges Committee. They would consider the matter, draw up a report and recommend a punishment. This would be debated and voted upon by the House.

Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary rules, states that "witnesses who have persistently misled a select committee" may be considered in contempt of Parliament, which is defined as doing something that "obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions".

Imprisonment option

MPs could, in theory, imprison the three ex-News Corp executives.

There is a former cell in the lower floors of the clock tower. But in practice it is only the police within the parliamentary estate who have the right to arrest anyone. The last time a non-MP was imprisoned was in 1880 when a man called Charles Grissell was detained.

The last time MPs fined someone was in 6 February 1666 when a man called Thomas White was forced to pay the House £1,000 for preventing an MP attending parliament.

So the least implausible punishment would be for Mssrs Myler, Crone and Hinton to be called to the Bar of the House.

But the rules most recently approved by MPs say that "the House should exercise its penal jurisdiction in any event as sparingly as possible".

'Untested'

In a green paper on privilege published only last week, the government said: "The Houses' power to punish non-members for contempt is untested in recent times. In theory, both Houses can summon a person to the bar of the House to reprimand them or order a person's imprisonment.

In addition, the House of Lords is regarded as possessing the power to fine non-members. The House of Commons last used its power to fine in 1666 and this power may since have lapsed.

In 1978 the House of Commons resolved to exercise its penal jurisdiction as sparingly as possible and only when satisfied that it was essential to do so in order to provide reasonable protection for the House, its Members or its officers from improper obstruction or interference with the performance of their functions.

Since that resolution, the Commons has not punished a non-member. There is no equivalent resolution in the House of Lords, but the House has not punished a non-member since the nineteenth century."

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