Friday, October 16, 2009

House Points: Carter-Ruck, Trafigura and MPs' expenses

The first House Points of the new parliamentary season.

My copy of Liberal Democrat News has not arrived yet, but I believe the editor dropped an "alleged" in here somewhere.

"Wilkes and Liberty"

It has been a quiet week at Westminster. MPs arrived back to find the rooftops occupied by activists protesting about global warming. The demonstrators didn’t stay up there long – these October evenings can get very chilly.

Then MPs had to wait for a letter from Lord Legg telling them if they were going to be asked to repay some of their expenses.

And then it emerged that a judge had granted the oil company Trafigura an injunction against the Guardian. This banned the newspaper from mentioning that Paul Farrelly, the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, had put down a question about an earlier Trafigura injunction preventing the publication of a report on the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast.

Not only that. The new injunction even banned the Guardian from mentioning that it existed.

You probably know what happened next. The newspaper’s veiled report gave readers just enough clues to be able to find Farrelly’s question on the Parliament website and they did the rest. Soon the wording of that question, and the names of Trafigura and its lawyers, were spread across the world. Interestingly, this was thanks more to Twitter than the old steam-driven internet.

MPs were furious. Labour backbenchers met Gordon Brown to voice their anger. Their chairman was asked to sound out his counterpart on the Tory 1922 Committee about a joint response.

Except, of course, it was not Trafigura’s injunction MPs were angry about. It was Lord Legg and his letters that got them worked up.

There were honourable exceptions – Nick Clegg, David Heath and Paul Burstow all spoke out in defence of the public’s right to unimpeded reporting of Parliament – but their expenses were far dearer to the hearts of most members. Second houses, furnishings, gardening... that was what moved them.

It used to be different. In the 18th century the Radical MP John Wilkes went to the Tower in defence of his right to report parliamentary proceedings and later sued the secretary of state who had him arrested. “Wilkes and Liberty” was the cry of the people.

Yes, MPs used to be jealous guardians of their privileges. Today – and I have taken the precaution of locking the doors so you cannot escape this – they just worry about their privet hedges.

1 comment:

Suzanne Fletcher said...

Oh dear, just like the Gruaniad you've got the history wrong! Whilst Wilkes was around at the time, it was Brass Crosby, born in Stockton on Tees, who became Lord Mayor of London we have to thank. newspapers of the time were not allowed to print the proceedings of Parliament, or even who said what. It was only done with made up names, an altered story, under the heading of something like "Tales of Lilliput". In 1771 it was Brass Crosby who stood up to Parliament by refusing to punish a printer, and had the messenger from the House of Commons who went to arrest the printer arrested. Brass Crosby was sent to the Tower till he was freed when parliament rose.
I am writing a book on the life and work of Brass Crosby, so trust me - I've got a number of original sources! And of course you can buy the book when it is published :-)