Parliamentary privilege refers to the unique rights and powers that belong to Parliament, and its Members, and that enable it to fulfil its role. The main aspect of privilege that is relevant to your everyday work as an MP is freedom of speech.
Alongside the rights and powers of parliamentary privilege, there is a Code of Conduct for MPs. The Code requires MPs to observe the seven principles of public life and also the parliamentary Behaviour Code, which calls for respect, professionalism, understanding of others’ perspectives, courtesy and acceptance of responsibility.
MPs are protected by privilege only when they are engaged in proceedings in Parliament, and have no special protection for anything they do outside those proceedings. It’s important to remember that not everything that happens in Parliament is a proceeding. This means that the protections of privilege don’t apply to some things you might expect to be covered. For example, they don’t apply to
- correspondence with constituents or ministers
- tweets or other things posted on social media
- party meetings
- reports of all-party parliamentary groups (because activities of APPGs aren’t official parliamentary proceedings),
- statements made to the media, whether on or off the parliamentary estate
The courts ultimately decide the boundaries of “proceedings” and they have interpreted the term quite narrowly.
MPs have no immunity from the criminal law. But MPs can’t be compelled by service of a witness summons to give evidence in court proceedings.
Historically, privilege derives from Parliament’s status as a sovereign body that regulates itself. It was expressed in statutory form in Article IX of the Bill of Rights 1689, which states that “the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place outside Parliament.” There are some other relevant statutory provisions, but privilege has never been fully set out in statute.
The way privilege applies can be complex and if you need advice, or have questions about a particular case, you can contact the Clerk of the Journals.