You are currently browsing the daily archive for November 4, 2019.

Before I continue with the surprise ending the exiting Speaker of the House John Bercow received during an afternoon of nauseating tributes, this is what happened today in Parliament:

I’m writing this post before the session begins, but, note how late Monday sittings start — rarely before 2:30 p.m. Parliament does not meet on Fridays, either, so it’s a nice long weekend for all concerned.

Also note that there will be no prayers from the chaplain, as the House of Commons is in transition with regard to clergy. The outgoing chaplain will be appointed as Bishop of Dover later this month. She is in the photo on the left in red. The newest Sergeant at Arms, originally from Nigeria, carries the mace:

Someone responding to the House of Commons tweet lamented that no prayers were being said:

I think a few Prayers are needed before the Election of a New Speaker Clearly none were said during the last election.

I agree.

Apparently, the new chaplain, a Catholic priest, has not yet started. However, I would have thought that Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, could have been in a position to say prayers.

Another issue looms. Bercow knew that an election was coming up on December 12, yet, he wanted his successor chosen now. Several MPs will not be standing for re-election, e.g. the Father of the House Kenneth Clarke, and many more, e.g. the Independents, risk losing their seats next month.

Therefore, it seems inappropriate for a departing House of Commons, led by an departing Father of the House to appoint a new Speaker. Parliament will be adjourning on November 6, by the way:

More on the new Speaker anon.

Now let’s return to Thursday, October 31. Bercow was lapping up the afternoon session, which MPs completely devoted to him.

Never mind any pending legislation that has to be completed by the end of the day on Tuesday. One looming bit of legislation concerns compensation to victims of child abuse in religious and state-run care homes in Northern Ireland. I have heard the testimony from some of these men, now in their 50s and 60s, and it is harrowing.

Labour MP Kate Hoey has served her London constituency of Vauxhall for many years and will retire (unless she runs for the Brexit Party), but she is from Northern Ireland originally. She was appalled by Thursday afternoon’s events:

Yes, Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen messed up Bercow’s delightful punchbowl by demanding the truth about a crooked, longstanding Labour MP for Leicestershire, Keith Vaz. Vaz represents Leicester East and Bridgen North West Leicestershire.

What a surprise ending for Bercow.

A report — an investigation into Keith Vaz’s activities — came out that day. Andrew Bridgen is holding it in his hand when he speaks. (You can see the name Keith Vaz on the cover.)

Bridgen told Bercow — ‘Mr Speaker’ — that he tried warning him about this in 2015. Bercow shot out of his chair and told Bridgen to sit down. Then he made out as if Bridgen was in the wrong: ‘I cannot help him’; ‘I fear he is beyond redemption’.

Interestingly, at this point, Bridgen had spoken for probably a total of two minutes. Bercow told him to sit down twice. As the video below shows, Bercow spoke for at least ten minutes. Near the end, Bercow gave him permission to speak for a third time but not ‘to dilate’ (go on at length):

Bridgen seized the opportunity, warning about public sentiment once the report on Vaz is released outside of Parliament:

Mr Speaker, to the fag end [cigarette butt] of your tenure, you are defending the indefensible and your very close relationship with the honourable Member in question [Vaz]. The House can come to its own conclusions. The Standards Committee has come to its own conclusions, and, Mr Speaker, the public will come to theirs. Thank you very much.

Political pundit Guido Fawkes put it this way:

At the end of the day, Bridgen tweeted and got a lot of compliments for speaking out:

The Mail on Sunday‘s Dan Hodges, who is the son of actress and former MP Glenda Jackson, agreed with Bridgen and the public. He got hammered for it:

However, not all comments were negative:

A Conservative MP also spoke up about Bercow’s conduct during his tenure:

Nothing will happen. Bercow denied allegations of bullying members of his staff and, as I wrote last week, that’s the end of the matter. Lucky for him. Yet, Bercow was the one telling Conservative MPs that they must be nice and moderate their language in Parliament when, in reality, it’s the opposition who are the strident ones. More on that in another post.

Returning to Andrew Bridgen’s short but sharp comments, let us look at the allegations about Keith Vaz, the Speaker’s personal friend. Wikipedia tells us (emphases mine):

Vaz served as the Minister for Europe between October 1999 and June 2001. He was appointed a member of the Privy Council in June 2006. He was Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee from July 2007, but resigned from this role on 6 September 2016 after the Sunday Mirror revealed he had engaged in unprotected sexual activity with male prostitutes and had said he would pay for cocaine if they wished to use it. At the end of October 2016, Vaz was appointed to the Justice Select Committee; a parliamentary vote to block this development was defeated.[1]

The Mirror, incidentally, is a Labour-supporting newspaper.

Further detail follows:

Allegations about Vaz were published by the British Sunday Mirror tabloid in early September 2016. It was reported that he had engaged in unprotected sexual activity with male prostitutes and had told them he would pay for cocaine if they wished to use it. He told the prostitutes that his name was Jim and that he was an industrial washing machine salesman.[60] Vaz later apologised for his actions.[61][62] “It is deeply disturbing that a national newspaper should have paid individuals who have acted in this way”, he said.[61][63] Vaz resigned as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee on 6 September 2016.[64]

At the end of October 2016, Vaz was appointed to the Justice Select Committee, after he had put himself forward and was nominated by his party.[65] A House of Commons motion to block this development was defeated; they are rare on such an issue. According to Laura Hughes of The Daily Telegraph, Conservative Party whips told their MPs to vote for Vaz in the division to prevent a precedent being created of such appointments being rejected by MPs. Over 150 Conservative MPs voted in support of Vaz.[1] The Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen asked in the chamber of Vaz; “If the right honourable member for Leicester East found himself last month to be not fit to be chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and the matters are unresolved, what makes him think that he is a fit and proper person this month?”[66]

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Hudson, has previously announced an investigation into Vaz’s conduct.[66] The Standards Commissioner’s investigation was halted “for medical reasons” in December 2017.[67] The inquiry recommenced in March 2018[68] and, in October 2019, the inquiry recommended that he be suspended from Parliament for six months.[69][70] On 31 October, MPs voted in favour of the suspension.[71]

I agree with Diane Abbott below (if only this time), but, if Labour had any moral compass at all, they would not allow Vaz to stand for re-election:

On November 7, 2018, the BBC published an article by Newsnight‘s editor Chris Cook, ‘How John Bercow keeps Keith Vaz’s secrets’. The article says that Bercow is exercising ‘parliamentary privilege’. Newsnight is a BBC weekday programme:

In the 17th century, England had a problem with laws on sedition. MPs could not speak freely about the king’s policies for fear of judges. To solve that problem, we adopted a special guard against tyranny: “parliamentary privilege”. Now, John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, has invoked it to stop Newsnight getting information about the behaviour of the MP Keith Vaz.

Bercow had the final say in the matter:

Mr Bercow has personally intervened and gone out of his way to bar Newsnight from asking the Information Commissioner or a judge to review the decision. We will not be able to overturn this decision, as journalists fought through the courts to get to see MPs’ expenses.

The core legal text here is the 1689 Bill of Rights. It states: “the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament” …

This is perhaps the most important legal change in England that came from the 1688-9 coup, dubbed by supporters “the Glorious Revolution”, when James II was replaced by the Dutch prince William of Orange and his wife Princess Mary. It is an important constitutional principle.

That is why MPs and peers can make allegations in the Commons or Lords without fear of libel law. When Lord Hain named Sir Philip Green as having obtained an injunction against the Daily Telegraph, he was deploying this right. Injunctions have no weight inside the walls of the debating chambers.

As Chris Cook explains, not everything is cut and dried in these matters, past and present. Recently, judges have had to intervene, as they did when the expenses scandal broke several years ago.

At the time Cook wrote the article, he focussed on Vaz’s expenses rather than the prostitution angle. Cook and his team tried to use the Freedom of Information Act to get details of Vaz’s trips abroad, but to no avail:

If the administration of MPs’ expenses is not covered by privilege, why should the administration of committee trips be? MPs are involved – but they oversaw expenses too. Could knowing which travel agent booked tickets for MPs be a route to power for a would-be tyrant? What is the threat to free speech?

Some months ago, Mr Bercow personally made the argument that this paperwork was all covered by privilege. But I looked forward to a tribunal when this could be tested.

It all got heavy handed, as Bercow pulled out all the stops to prevent Newsnight from getting access to information about Vaz:

Normally, this sort of determination can be referred to the Information Commissioner and then to the tribunals and courts to judge whether that finding is fair. My judgment is, if they did that, I had a reasonable chance of winning.

I suspect Mr Bercow agreed. That would explain why he has now used an unusual personal power to block any appeals.

This week, I was notified he has issued a “certificate” under section 34(3) of the Freedom of Information Act. This is, in effect, a personal release veto.

These sorts of vetos are supposed to be used sparingly – an emergency reserve power to guard sacred spaces if courts get it wrong.

That is because their use means I have no rights of appeal. The Information Commissioner’s view is that, since the certificate is genuine, that is the the end of the matter. Any appeal to the tribunals will automatically be discarded. I can ask a judge to review his decision, but it would entail looking at a decision taken by a parliamentary officer. That would hit privilege from another direction.

The net result is that the Speaker, who denies bullying, has made an order to hide information about the behaviour of his close personal friend, Keith Vaz, a man who also denies bullying – supposedly to protect MPs’ freedom of speech.

And then he has gone out of his way to use a personal veto to make sure no-one could even consider reviewing that questionable decision.

You can understand why staff are so suspicious about whether MPs will ever let themselves be judged by outsiders when it comes to bullying and harassment.

I have no confidence that Bercow’s conduct will be investigated, whether it concerns bullying, Brexit or Keith Vaz.

On a happier note, however, Andrew Bridgen hurried home to Leicestershire to end Thursday with what looks to have been an excellent curry:

More to follow on the new Speaker soon.

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