What is parliamentary privilege? How Peter Hain was able to name Philip Green

The Labour peer named the Topshop tycoon as the businessman who had gagged the press from reporting sexual harassment allegations in the Lords today.

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Labour peer Peter Hain has named Philip Green, the billionaire owner of Topshop, as the businessman who has prevented the media from reporting allegations of sexual harassment, racism and bullying with a High Court injunction.

Addressing the House of Lords this afternoon, Hain, a former cabinet minister, said he had been “contacted by someone intimately involved in the case of a powerful businessman using non-disclosure agreements and substantial payments to conceal the truth”, adding that he felt a “duty under parliamentary privilege to name Philip Green as the individual in question”.

But why was Hain able to do what Green’s lawyers had prevented the Daily Telegraph from doing on its front page this week? Put simply, every MP and peer has the right under parliamentary privilege to say whatever they like during parliamentary proceedings, without the risk of being sued for defamation. This privilege extends to the right of the media to report what they say.

Originally intended as a bulwark against interfering monarchs, it was enshrined in the 1689 Bill of Rights as a guarantee “that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court of place out of parliament”.

In recent years – as seen today – it has given parliamentarians the opportunity to circumvent restrictions imposed by the courts. The most recent parallel to Hain’s decision to name Green happened in May 2011, when the Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming named the footballer Ryan Giggs as the anonymous celebrity who had prevented the media from reporting details of an alleged affair with an injunction.

In the March of that year, Hemming had similarly named Fred Goodwin, the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, as having secured an injunction to prevent the publication of details of an alleged sexual relationship he had with a senior colleague, as did the Liberal Democrat peer Benjamin Stoneham.

Hemming justified his decision to name both figures on free speech and public interest grounds but attracted cross-party criticism at the time. After he named Giggs, Tom Harris, the then Labour MP, attacked him as a “self-publicist” who had undermined judicial decisions without justification, with the Conservative MP John Whittingdale making a similar criticism.

The full nature of the political reaction to Peter Hain’s decision to name Philip Green, on the other hand, has yet to be seen. With both government and opposition united in seeking reform of the non-disclosure agreements the businessman is alleged to have used, however, it seems unlikely that Hain will be met with such disdain.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.