John Nicolson – 2022 Statement on Privilege Debate Concerning His Behaviour

The statement made by John Nicolson, the SNP MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, in the House of Commons on 29 November 2022.

At the heart of this issue, I believe, is accountability. What should happen to Members who break the rules, and how open should our procedures be? What should the public be allowed to know?

Let me say at the outset that I am very sorry that the Speaker feels that my revealing his decision not to have a debate in the House about our Committee’s report has put him in a bad light with the public. That was never my intention. My intention—[Interruption.] If Members allow me to develop my speech, they will hear my points. My intention was merely to let the public know what had been decided.

I am accused of breaking a rule myself, and I would like to explain the circumstances to the House. I am a member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. We held a hearing with the then Culture Secretary, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), at which she claimed that a Channel 4 reality series in which she had appeared some years ago had used actors pretending to be members of the public. She claimed that they had confessed this to her. A member of the production team who lived on the estate concerned—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)

Order. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman missed my opening remarks, but it is quite clear that this is not about the actions of any other Member. It is not about what happened in the Committee with any other right hon. Member. It is about the motion before us.

John Nicolson

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Let me say that there was considerable press interest in our Committee’s work, and I decided that we should send a copy of the report to the Speaker. I thought that time might be set aside for a debate about referring it to the Committee of Privileges. However, the Speaker wrote back to me saying that he did not believe the case met the threshold for a debate. I recorded a video summarising the Speaker’s decision, and I tweeted it. I offered no comment about the Speaker, nor did I criticise him. There was considerable public interest, and I soon discovered that the Speaker was angry. He believed that I should not have reported his decision. Last Wednesday, he told me in the House that he thought I had not summarised him accurately, and that I should not have reported him at all. It was not my intention in any way to summarise him inaccurately.

Before I was elected to the House, I was a journalist—a reporter for “Newsnight”, among other current affairs shows. I believe in open democracy, but I also believe in maintaining agreed confidentiality. It did not cross my mind that revealing the Speaker’s decision on this was a breach of privilege. After all, what was I to say if journalists asked me whether I had written to the Speaker? Was I to say, “Yes”? If they asked me, “Has the Speaker responded? Has the Speaker given a ruling?”, was I then to say, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you”? I did not consider that I had broken any confidence or betrayed any trust. I did not imagine that the Speaker’s decision on a matter of importance to my constituents could not be revealed. Moreover, I believe that I summarised the Speaker fairly, but I am in the unfortunate position of finding myself unable to prove that, because in order to do so I would have to release the Speaker’s letter to me in its entirety—something which, as we have established, the Speaker does not believe I should do.

There has been a suggestion that I printed only half the letter. That is not the case. The Speaker’s letter to me came as a letter through the post. There was no need for me to print it, nor did I publish it, nor did I show its contents to the camera, nor did I leak it to others. I was very open in the way I talked about it, which I hope shows that I did not think I was behaving improperly. There has also been some suggestion that the Select Committee did not wish to see this matter proceed to a privileges debate. That, too, is not the case. The Committee decided not to refer the Member concerned because she was no longer a Cabinet Minister, but the Committee left open the option for others to do so. Indeed, some Committee members expected that to happen. I agreed with the findings of the Committee, which were unanimous and cross-party.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who wrote to the Speaker asking for this debate, has just spoken again. I have never met the right hon. Member or spoken to him here, although I may have interviewed him in the past. He is not a member of the Select Committee, and he has previously championed free speech.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. We really are not here to discuss the matters surrounding the Committee itself. The hon. Gentleman needs to stick to what is in the motion.

John Nicolson

May I just say this, Madam Deputy Speaker? I spoke to the Chair and the Clerk of the Committee today. I gave them exactly the words that I intended to use, and obtained their permission to use the words that I have just repeated.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. It is up to me to make the final decision. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Those people do not give the hon. Gentleman permission; I do.

John Nicolson

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden spoke last Wednesday following the Speaker’s remarks from the Chair, and he laid into me with some vigour, using what appeared to be a pre-prepared speech. He was especially exercised by what he saw as my breach of parliamentary etiquette. It is worth me pointing out in that context that he did not contact me to inform me that he planned to speak about me, which as we all know is the convention. I was not afforded the opportunity to reply last Wednesday, but before moving on to other business the Speaker concluded:

“I am going to leave it there for today”.—[Official Report, 23 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 292.]

I therefore assumed that the matter had been laid to rest. However, the right hon. Member then took to Twitter to pursue his criticism of me, complete with a video of his speech.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. It is not for the hon. Gentleman to be criticising the right hon. Gentleman who moved the motion. He can speak to the motion, not outside it, so can we just stick to the matter in hand?

John Nicolson

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—

Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con) rose—

John Nicolson

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Simon Hoare

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who on a personal level I like. Can I just give him some friendly advice? Put the spade down.

John Nicolson

People are watching this, and I am pleased that they are. I think they will draw conclusions, having heard both sides of the argument.

Pete Wishart

I have been in this House for 21 years, and as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have been a member of the House of Commons Commission for something like four years. I had absolutely no idea that we could not reveal that we had had correspondence with the Speaker or summarise what it was. How on earth was my hon. Friend supposed to know that, when I, with my 21 years in this House and my service on the Commission, did not know it? All of this seems to be, at best, some sort of means for retribution and, at worst, institutional bullying, because that is what it is starting to feel like right now.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Interventions can be made, but they should be brief. I would also remind hon. and right hon. Members that if the House decides to refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges, these sorts of arguments can be made there. This debate is on the simple matter of the motion. Other arguments can be made to the Committee if the House decides it wants the matter to go to the Committee.

John Nicolson

I know that the Speaker has been on the receiving end of often unpleasant comments from the public since I revealed his decision. That was never my intention. I did not use his name, I did not link to him and I did not post contacts for him. I am very sorry that a pile-on has ensued. I have friends across the House, and I believe in vigorous but fair debate. I have no time for abusive behaviour; I do not engage in it and I deplore it.

I am advised that I breached a parliamentary rule by referring to the Speaker’s letter, but as I have explained, I did not knowingly do so. I would never reveal a confidence. I did not believe that the Speaker’s decision on a parliamentary matter was a secret. Indeed—this is perhaps not a matter for today—should there not be a distinction between correspondence containing confidences and correspondence on policy decisions? Has every Member who has revealed a Speaker’s decision by letter found themselves the subject of a parliamentary privilege debate, as I am today? Although this convention appears to exist, is it not the very antithesis of open democracy? Many Members on both sides of the House have told me privately that they did not know this rule existed.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

I should declare an interest as another Member who appeared in the very same reality show that the hon. Gentleman’s Committee discussed. He has not apologised to the Speaker. Does he not think that, having betrayed what was marked as private correspondence, which clearly and rightly aggrieved the Speaker, if he had given an apology at the time when it was raised by the Chair last week, he would not be in this position now? Why did he not do that? Would he not like to bring back at least some decorum by apologising profusely to the Speaker and the House now for the offence he has caused?

John Nicolson

The hon. Gentleman says the letter was marked “private”. I do not know how he knows what was on the letter. I have shown the letter to absolutely nobody. But since he challenges me, the letter was not marked “private”. If it had been, I would not have talked about it. It is a core belief of people in my former profession that we hold confidences and that we will go to prison rather than reveal our sources. The letter was not marked “private”. It was about a matter of policy on whether or not a debate could be held, and I did not think that it was confidential.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)

The hon. Member has said that he was aware that the Speaker had become very angry. As the Speaker serves all of us, and as this is all about decorum, is it not time that he apologised to the Speaker? Maybe that would resolve a lot of things.

John Nicolson

I want to answer that question honestly. I am slightly torn because, on the one hand, I am deeply sorry that the Speaker is upset. Those who know me will know that I do not ever conduct politics in a way that aims to be offensive, and I am truly sorry that the Speaker is upset. I am truly sorry that I have upset the Speaker, but it would be disingenuous of me to say that I knowingly revealed this. I could not have been more open by going on camera and discussing this. I clearly was not trying to hide it. If people in my profession—my former profession and this profession—want to pass things into the public domain in a sleekit or surreptitious way, they give them to journalists. I did not do that. I stood up and talked about the letter, not revealing its contents in detail but summarising it.

This place often seems hard to understand for the general public, and its procedures can appear opaque. I suspect that most people will find it curious that the Member who misled the Select Committee was subject to no consequences but the Member who revealed that—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)

Order. The hon. Gentleman absolutely needs to withdraw that remark.

John Nicolson

I withdraw that remark. I, however, am subject to the current debate. I note that, over the years, these debates have been confined to people who have committed or been accused of committing some of the most egregious offences, but I have yet to meet a Member who thinks this falls into that category.

I want to conclude by saying again that it was never my intention to insult the Speaker. I do not know him well but we have only ever had friendly exchanges when meeting. I bear him absolutely no ill will. I deplore any and all online abuse that he has suffered. Nobody, I imagine, is enjoying this debate—least of all me. I find interpersonal conflict stressful and unpleasant. I hope the House concludes that there was no malicious intent in anything that I did, and I apologise to the Speaker for breaching a House rule, but given the all-party nature of the Committee report I sought no party political advantage and I hope that Members here today will seek no party political advantage. My only motivation was to do what I always try to do, and that is to engage with the debate and to communicate my work here with constituents and with journalists as openly and fairly as I can.