Parliamentary privileges and immunities are special rights enjoyed by the Speaker, Members and Officers of Parliament. These privileges and immunities where crafted for the purpose of free running of the House and office of Parliament without any external influence.
These rights and privileges are also intended to ensure that matters of national interest are fully and openly discussed in the House without fear or favour.
Like most provisions that govern our Parliament, these privileges and immunities are facilitated by constitutional provisions. Under the constitution, the main provisions are freedom of speech, debate and proceedings in Parliament (Article115).
As well, a civil or criminal process issuing from any court or place out of Parliament may not be served on, or executed in relation to the Speaker or Member when s/he is on their way to, attending or returning from proceedings of Parliament.
The exception is with the Speaker’s permission in the case of a criminal process. Also no civil or criminal process could be instituted against a Member of Parliament for anything s/he said on the floor of the House.
The Speaker, Members and Officers of Parliament may also enjoy immunity from service as jurors or assessors as well as from giving evidence in court during meetings.
Without these provisions, Members will be restricted in the performance of their duties. They will be vulnerable to the pressures and temptations from powerful executive members and pressure groups who may seek to gag them by taking legal action or intimidating them in the course of their duty.
The authority of the House to scrutinize the actions of the Executive and the use of the House as a forum for ventilating grievances of the electorate would be compromised if the Parliamentary privileges do not exist.
Parliamentary privileges and immunities are therefore essential to the status and authority as well as the dignity of Parliament as an institution.
What must be made clear though, is the fact that such immunities do not give Members of Parliament the freedom to do whatever they like whenever, wherever.
Any person who breaches these privileges could be said to have committed contempt of Parliament and may be brought before a Committee of the House for examination. Contempt of Parliament usually refers to acts which impede or those that tend to impede the House in the performance of its functions or acts that affront the dignity of Parliament or those that breach a Parliamentary privilege.
These may include assaulting or insulting the Speaker or Members of Parliament while they are on their way to, attending or returning from any of its proceedings. Acts such as giving false evidence to the House or any of its Committees, interrupting proceedings in the House, Members and Officers deliberately misleading the house, etc., may be regarded as contempt of Parliament and could be referred to the Privileges Committee for redress.
Any MP wanting to raise a matter of contempt in the House has to submit a written notice to the Speaker soon after a privilege is breached.
The notice may include supporting evidence. When the matter is of an urgent nature the Speaker may permit an MP to raise the matter on the floor of the House in the form of a relevant statement.
The matter may then be referred to the Privileges Committee for examination and report to the House. If an apology is received from the offender, the motion may either be withdrawn or not moved at all.
Despite the fact that both the Standing Orders and the Constitution are silent on the kind of punishment that could be meted out to those who offend the institution of Parliament in any manner.
Any MP who is found guilty of contempt may be reprimanded in his place in the house by the speaker. S/he may be suspended from service of the house for a specific period, or in extreme cases be expelled from the House.
An offending Officer of Parliament may be suspended from duty and may have disciplinary action taken against him/her by the Parliamentary Service Board. A stranger who offends the dignity of the house may be reprimanded by the Speaker or have criminal proceedings taken against them in a court.
Article 123 states categorically that the exercise by Parliament of the power to punish for contempt shall not be a bar to the institution of proceedings under criminal law.
The privileges committee has the powers of a high court and could actually impose punishment although it does not have the right to enforce a sentence.
Having said this, it must be stated clearly that the privileges committee is not there entirely to shield members and officer of parliament from public scrutiny. In fact privileges committee sittings, as I have witnessed, sought to clarify issues and more often than not, offenders were given wrist slapping rather severe punishment for errors that may have been committed without any malicious intent.
Although the Speaker, Members and Officers of parliament enjoy privileges and immunities which set them apart from the people Parliament represents, this is not in a discriminatory manner.
The main aim is to ensure that the legislative arm of the government has the requisite power and freedom to effectively perform the democratic duties expected by the citizens. Ultimately, democratic power lies with the citizens and the success or failure of any Parliament will depend on their peoples.
By Saint Ayisi