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Application of Parliamentary Privilege to the House of Commons as a Whole

The privileges enjoyed by the House of Commons as a whole cannot be defined and limited in the same way as those of individual Members can. This discrepancy exists because the House must have sufficient power to guard against outside interference, and sufficient disciplinary and regulatory powers to protect its privileges and preserve its authority, dignity and independence.

As a collectivity, the House of Commons has certain rights that it claims or that have been accorded to it by law. These include the following:

The two most important rights or powers are the power to discipline and the right of the House to regulate its own internal affairs as it relates to controlling its own debates, agenda and proceedings.

Disciplinary Powers

The House of Commons may discipline anyone (Members, staff or “strangers”) whose conduct it considers to be in breach of parliamentary privilege or in contempt of Parliament. A wide range of penalties is available for dealing with such misconduct.

The disciplinary and penal powers of the House of Commons are part of the control exercised by Parliament over its affairs. An individual, whether a Member or non-Member, whose conduct improperly interferes with the House’s performance of its functions or with the individual performance of Members in carrying out their functions is, by definition, in contempt of Parliament.

Members may be called to order, directed to cease speaking, "named" (suspended for the remainder of the day) for disregarding the authority of the Chair, suspended from the service of the House of Commons for a period of time, incarcerated or expelled. They may also be summoned to appear before the Bar of the House (the railing at the rear of the Chamber), where they may be admonished, censured, declared guilty of a breach of privilege or a contempt of the House, or ordered to apologize.

“Strangers” (individuals who are neither Members nor officials of the House) may be removed from the visitors’ gallery or the parliamentary precinct. If they are found to be in contempt of the House of Commons—that is, guilty of an offence against the dignity or authority of Parliament—“strangers” may also be formally summoned to appear before the Bar of the House, if the House adopts a motion to that effect.

Parliament has the power to incarcerate both Members and non-Members, although it has grown increasingly reluctant to use this power and such cases have been rare. In the event of incarceration, the accused would remain imprisoned until he or she complied with any order of the House, or until the end of the session.

Powers and limits continue to be defined (and adapted) as procedural precedents and Speakers’ rulings accumulate in response to new situations.

Regulation of Internal Affairs

The House of Commons enjoys the exclusive right to control its debates and proceedings. It can make and change its own rules, and manage its internal affairs without outside interference. It determines its own agenda and controls its own proceedings. Its decisions are free from judicial review or control by the executive.  While Members are ordinarily encouraged to refrain from discussing matters currently under consideration by the courts (sub judice), this restriction is self-imposed, and there is no rule enforceable outside of the House itself to prohibit such comments.

Parliament has the right to ensure the attendance of its Members and to ensure that its proceedings have priority over all others. Unless otherwise occupied with parliamentary business (e.g., committee meetings), Members are expected to be in the Chamber whenever the House of Commons is sitting. In practice, however, considerable leniency is exercised in this regard, and it is considered unacceptable to mention the presence or absence of a particular Member in the Chamber. As each party (through its Whip) ensures the attendance of its Members, it is rarely necessary for the House as a whole to take action in this regard.

The House of Commons, as a collectivity, has the right to initiate inquiries. It can summon witnesses and compel their attendance. It can take their evidence under oath and treat any misrepresentation of information as a contempt of Parliament. It can order and compel the production of documents, and it has the right to administer oaths to witnesses and to publish papers containing defamatory (or potentially defamatory) material. The rules of the House (and its Orders of Reference) also empower its committees to exercise most of these collective rights.

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