On Thursday afternoon, in a back room of Parliament, history was made. A few MPs found themselves a backbone; they found a way in which they could exercise their Freedom of Speech and perform their ancient duty, drawn from the Bill of Rights 1688, of redressing the grievances of the citizens who rely on them.
They were warned first to ‘be careful’:
I remind Members of the importance of privilege, which we have here in Westminster Hall as in other parts of Parliament, but Members should always exercise their rights with care, particularly when naming individuals, and should avoid intrusion into areas that are within the jurisdiction of the courts, particularly things that are active before the courts.
The speaker, Mr Peter Bone, issued that warning because he knew what was coming; he understood the careful dance that must be performed before him.
Every single MP knows what has been going on; the Speaker of the House knows what has been going on; David Cameron knows what has been going on; to my personal knowledge, every single media outlet has known what has been going on; none of them were prepared to risk the wrath of the establishment by letting you know what has been going on. Do please Google and see if you can find one single reference in the media yesterday or today to the astounding events detailed in Westminster Hall on Thursday afternoon.
Mr John Hemming, MP for Yardley in Birmingham, rose to his feet and used parliamentary privilege to list some of the secret prisoners, the people who have lost their liberty in the UK behind closed doors; the court orders which detail the secret injunctions – not for the benefit of footballers or bankers, (although it was the issue of Fred Goodwin’s secret injunction that allowed the debate to be heard), but the injunctions, not mere ‘super-injunctions’ that the media could not mention, but ‘hyper-injunctions’ which even prevented the aggrieved citizen from appealing to their MP for help.
Because we are allowed to speak of that which has been in Hansard, we can today speak of the misery of those whose lives have been turned upside down, in secret, with the added bonus of a special injunction from the judge which prevented them even turning to their MP.
‘Secret Courts’, ‘Secret Prisoners’, Article 9 of the Act of Rights 1689:
“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.”
Overruled by our courts? Can it be true? Yes it can! Right here, right now, under your noses. Not in some far flung ‘failed state’, not out in the desert, but here, in Britain, in the Mother of all Parliaments – and every MP and every media outlet knew it.
I urge you, if you do nothing else today, to read the full transcript of that back bench committee meeting yesterday. It is long and complex. You may find it boring in parts.
I have several hundred e-mails, some from the very people John Hemming mentioned. I have said as much as I could without putting my entire world at risk. I have sent them on to every media outlet I could. Silence.
It has taken the hatred of bankers and Fred Goodwin’s obscene pension to even obtain this debate. It took the bravery of John Hemming to remember why he was sent to parliament by his constituents to speak out.
He spoke of the threats to constituents if they spoke to their MP:
To say, “We will remove your child, because you had the effrontery to raise your concerns about process with your Member of Parliament” is a dreadful thing to do. Parliament should not tolerate that, because it undermines the actions of Parliament.
He spoke of the self censorship of the media:
One of the freedom of speech issues is that media organisations are generally commercial organisations, and there gets to be a point at which it is not worth their while trying to challenge the system and to get information out. With that, we return to the article 9 issue, because our freedom of speech in the House is obviously on behalf of the citizens. We need to know of grievances so that we can raise them and talk about them publicly, so that the citizens of the UK can know. If it costs £20,000 or £30,000 in legal fees to write an article, in most circumstances a media organisation will just give up. The freedom of speech is basically sold down the river, because of the costs of the legal processes.
He spoke of the vested interests of the legal system:
One of the problems with how things have developed, and with all the secrecy rules, is that they seem to act to protect not vulnerable people but those who make money out of the system.
He spoke of the Hyper-injunctions in particular – in respect of a man wrongly imprisoned on an allegation of rape:
“upon the first and second Respondents agreeing that they will make no further disclosure in respect of this matter to any third party, including in particular the media and John Hemmings MP.”
Mr Bacon: For the benefit of the House, can my hon. Friend clarify, in case anyone did not notice? Is he saying that a court order was made prohibiting a constituent from talking to him as a Member of Parliament?
Yes, he was!
The essence of it is that he has no real choice. If he does not agree to it, the local council, of which I used to be deputy leader, would take action to take his child into care.
A man wrongly accused of rape, was not to discuss the matter with his MP, or the ‘authorities would take his child away from him’? Can this really be Britain today?
He spoke of secret prisoners:
In the case I am talking about, a large sum of money has been spent on keeping this particular girl in the custody of the state – she is effectively a secret prisoner.
He spoke of a commercial case, still sub-judice, which did not involve either children or vulnerable people:
When one thinks of secret courts, one thinks of unsavoury regimes such as those in Burma, Cuba, Hungary in the 1950s or Stalin’s Russia, but one does not think of the United Kingdom. How can a judge feel it appropriate to make an order making it unlawful – supposedly – to refer to the existence of proceedings?
John Hemming: The person in question could actually be jailed for telling his MP that he had been in court case No. 773. What is so sensitive about that? In practice, even family court proceedings are not that confidential. I think this case was in the Commercial and Admiralty court. My first question is not just how the hell this could happen – I apologise for the non-parliamentary language, Mr Bone. How does this happen? How many more of these cases are there? How many secret cases do we have in this country, with people being banned from even saying that the case exists?
All this tumbled out and more – just 24 hours after Lord Neuberger, the current Master of the Rolls, addressed the Judicial Studies Board thus:
“We live in a country which is committed to the rule of law. Central to that commitment is that justice is done in public – that what goes on in court and what the courts decide is open to scrutiny. This is not a new fundamental principle”.
If you are chatting on Twitter today, please pass on the link to John Hemming’s speech in Westminster Hall; it truly is more important than anything else you were planning to say. The media are still running scared of this matter, ‘commercial interests’ as John Hemming’s said.
It is up to the Blogosphere to make sure that Hemming’s voice is not a lone forgotten whisper in a dark corner.
He’s given you the baton – now run with it. Run for your life.