Key distinction between Parliamentary sovereignty and Parliamentary privilege

Public Law expert David Radlett points to a key distinction between Parliamentary sovereignty and Parliamentary privilege following revelations by a former undercover police officer that Scotland Yard kept intelligence files on MPs during the 1990s.

Commenting on the BBC News article ‘MPs ‘monitored by Scotland Yard during 1990s’, David says: ‘There are a couple of disturbing aspects to this story. The first is that the alleged monitoring of an established Parliamentarian and committed democrat like the late Tony Benn is, if true, indeed a scandal.

‘The second is that Peter Hain, who has been a Member of Parliament for about 24 years really ought to know the difference between Parliamentary sovereignty and Parliamentary privilege. The former – which makes an Act of Parliament the highest source of law known to the law of England – is not engaged in this alleged scandal.

‘Parliamentary privilege is generated by a combination of Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689 and the exclusive cognisance doctrine to be found in the ‘lex et consuetudo parliamenti’ (the law and custom of Parliament), a discrete part of the law of England. The purpose of Parliamentary privilege is to ensure that, whilst engaged on the business of the House, a Member of Parliament can act freely. Surveillance of the sort alleged obviously impacts on her or his ability to do so, and Parliamentary privilege is therefore clearly engaged.’

David is a Lecturer in Law at Kent Law School, currently teaching Public Law. Read more about his research and publications on his staff profile.