House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has blocked Newsnight journalists from investigating bullying allegations against fellow MP Keith Vaz by invoking parliamentary privilege safeguards.
Newsnight has spent the past year investigating claims that MPs, including both Bercow (pictured) and Vaz, bullied clerks. Both men deny all allegations.
The BBC has previously reported that some of the allegations against Vaz relate to incidents of him bullying staff and not following parliamentary guidelines during committee trips abroad.
Newsnight policy editor Chris Cook revealed yesterday that he had tried to gain access to documentation relating to Vaz’s overseas trips, including any formal complaints, through the Freedom of Information Act.
However Bercow blocked the release of the documentation with a “certificate” – what Cook described as “in effect, a personal release veto” – under Section 34(3) of the FoIA.
Section 34 says information can be classed as exempt if this is necessary to avoid an “infringement of the privileges of either House of Parliament”.
It adds that a certificate signed by the “appropriate authority” – either the Speaker of the House of Commons or the Clerk of the Parliaments in the House of Lords – is “conclusive evidence” that the exemption was necessary, meaning it cannot be appealed.
Cook wrote: “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 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.”
Cook also questioned why the administration of committee trips should come under parliamentary privilege, when the administration of MPs’ expenses do not.
In a leader column today, The Sun said Bercow’s use of “ancient laws to block journalists’ questions” had “dragged our great Parliament further into the sewer”.
A spokesperson for Bercow told the Daily Mail: “The information requested relates to the private business of select committees and is covered by parliamentary privilege.
“We would not release that information under any circumstances, irrespective of which members or select committees were involved. The act requires that the speaker sign any certificate that privilege applies.”
Picture: Reuters/Simon Dawson