Categorised | Civil Liberties, Conservatives, General, Labour, Lib Dems |

MP’s seek immunity from prosecution

If evidence was needed that members of parliament fear a public backlash, here it is, in the form of a new Bill, Exercise of Reasonable Discretion Bill 2008-09, which is due to get a second reading on the 24th April 2009. Below is a summary of what the Bill sets out to achieve;

The Bill aims to ensure that public authorities and public servants would not be subject to any criminal or civil penalty as a result of the exercise of reasonable discretion in the performance of their functions. Its provisions would cover public authorities, public servants and contracts for public services. The term public authority is defined by the Bill and includes the NHS, the police, local and central and devolved Government and non-departmental public bodies. The formal intent of the Bill is to indemnify public servants, central government, local government and other public agencies from legal action if they take decisions in good faith, as a result of the exercise of reasonable discretion, in the public interest.

In other words, MP’s amongst other public servants which include the Police, local officials and even the NHS, will be able to claim that in effect they acted in good faith, or in the words of the Bill, exercised ‘reasonable discretion’. Any lawyer will tell you that such a defence is subjective, therefore it offer enormous scope for any public servant (including, of course, MP’s) seeking to defend their actions.

So, hypothetically, any Minister taking this country to war on dubious grounds could claim that they had exercised ‘reasonable discretion’ by, for example, commissioning a security assessment of the threat to this country. The information they act on does not have to be factually correct, so long as the Ministers can claim that they acted in good faith. The public would have no right of criminal or civil recourse. No longer will public servants be accountable to the public…and this is a democracy?

Reasonable discretion is defined as being either, in the public interest or in the performance of their functions, in other words, it covers everything. The Bill seeks to include cover for all civil servants (and of course Ministers), for any mistakes they have made related to contracts for public services. Therefore, the civil servants responsible for ordering the new NHS database, which was originally budgeted to cost £2.3bn, has now spiralled to £12bn and is expected to result in a total bill of £32bn, will be able to claim that they exercised reasonable discretion.

What about the Department of Work and Pensions where officials wasted £300m on two cancelled IT projects In 5 years the DWP managed to spend £2.14bn on IT projects, both ongoing and cancelled, with over £500m going to consultants alone. Was reasonable discretion exercised? You decide, because it is unlikely the courts could do anything about it.

Would a Police officer be able to argue that he or she exercised reasonable discretion when they shoot an innocent bystander? Or could a Doctor claim that he or she exercised reasonable discretion when they removed the kidneys of a patient because they pick-up the wrong patients notes? Remember, there is no right of criminal OR civil recourse. Will this prevent people from suing the NHS and/or Doctors for criminal negligence?

This legislation is a danger to all of us, given it is a Rogues Charter that seeks to protect all public servants from accountability to the people they are supposed to serve or represent. It is, perhaps, the most draconian and self-serving legislation ever devised by our parliament. Worst of all, it prevents the public from taking any action (civil or criminal) against MP’s or Ministers, because in virtually every instance, other than a direct and proven lie, they will be able to claim they had exercised reasonable discretion. In fact, even in their lied, they could claim that they did so ‘in the public interest’.

I would urge all fellow bloggers with an interest in justice to use their blogs to publicise this outrageous attempt provide public servants, especially MP’s with a ‘get out of jail free’ card. If this legislation gets through, as it undoubtedly will, then no public servant can truly be held accountable to the public, because a ‘good faith’ defence will always be available!


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13 Comments For This Post

  1. British Politics Says:

    If enacted into law, this new Bill is the thin edge of the wedge, given it virtually removes the right of any citizen to challenge a public servant through the civil courts or for a criminal prosecution to be mounted. Why on earth has the mainstream media not picked up on this?

    There has been a steady erosion of the civil liberties of British subjects, this Bill will have the affect of removing accountability as well, we must all be wary. If opposition MP’s have said little or nothing, must we assume that there is a large helping of self-interest here? One thing is for certain, this Bill, if enacted, will benefit no-one other than the public servants. Call this a democracy?

  2. CJ Says:

    Sorry, for once I don’t agree with you. It is Britain’s blame and litigation culture that has been responsible for more loss of our decent normal lifestyle than almost anything in the UK (apart from Gordon Brown at least) – especially for our children – and teachers, doctors and others who are doing their best in sometimes difficult circumstances, should NOT in my opinion EVER be held responsible every time some minor mishap occurs. People are human and the only ones who don’t screw up are those who do nothing at all. Health and safety? B*ll*cks!

    However, there should be no hiding place anywhere for those who fail in their duties either WILFULLY, or through NEGLECT, but that’s a different thing entirely.

  3. Frustrated Voter Says:

    @ CJ: I am more than happy to have people disagree with me, we are, for the moment at least, in a society where such things are permitted. I take due cognisance of your views in relation to doctors and teachers, but I would make the following observation, before I return to your specifics.

    My primary concern is that this legislation is designed primarily to offer protection to members of parliament, the term ‘public servants’ is simply a smokescreen, because no-one would support legislation that limited this ‘get out of free card’ to MP’s.

    Turning to your point: As you may already be aware, I have blogged about ContactPoint, the database for children and Onset, the profiling tool that will be used to determine which of our children could turn into tomorrow’s criminals. As you may already be aware, doctors, teachers, social workers, corers and the like will be able to add information to ContactPoint, in fact in many cases they will be legally obliged to. Parents do not, however, have access to the information contained on this database, even though much of it will be subjective, this fact is admitted by the Government.

    Information on this database can be used by future employers, Government bodies, employers and the like to determine the antecedence of the child, turned adult. Any public servant can freely add information on this database, subjective, vindictive, wrong or otherwise with absolute impunity, given all they have to do, if caught out, is claim that they had exercised reasonable discretion.

    There is already a legal defence of ‘good faith’ that we are all entitled to use. Why do public servants need to have specific legislation brought forward to provide a further defence of reasonable discretion? For the most part, it is the fear of legal sanction that keeps the vast majority of us on the straight and narrow. Take speeding, if there was no penalty, would we have more or less cases? If I had Diplomatic Immunity, would I be more, or less likely to park on yellow lines, speed etc. Yes, I accept that many people would have high enough ethical standards to deny the temptation, but all? I think not.

    I do not subscribe to the “litigation culture” and I would argue that when it comes to claims against doctors and so on, claims are invariably on the basis of negligence. Spurious cases are simply too expensive to pursue, therefore I ask again, why would they need a further defence of reasonable discretion? It is as I said in my original post, a rogue’s charter. It offers immunity for everyone, severely limiting the chances of any form of legal sanction therefore, in my opinion; it encourages a culture of risk taking.

    Further, there have been many examples of public servants making massive cock-ups over the past 15 years, many of these were schoolboy errors and they have cost the taxpayer £billions. Take virtually any large scale IT project, how many have been brought in at or below budget? I know of only one out of scores of projects costing well over £100bn (combined).

    I would never want to discourage people from making decisions through fear of prosecution and I have always subscribed to the philosophy that the only people that don’t make mistakes are the ones not making decisions. So we agree on that. However, I do not believe that providing immunity from prosecution encourages better decision making, instead, I believe it will encourage more risk taking and in some cases, open up a ‘devil may care attitude. Remember, there are over 10 million public servants in this country, do you want to offer them all a wide-ranging legal defence.

    CJ, I would ask you to read my post again, I think you may find that most of my points are valid, especially in relation to members of parliament, who were and are my main area of contention. I would make one further point, in the main; it is senior decision makers that would find themselves the subject of criminal or civil proceedings and likely to need to rely on this legal defence. We are entitled to expect and demand much higher levels of competence from senior management, no matter what their profession.

  4. CD Says:

    Interesting to note that the NHS is included in this list, a body that has now been given the power to demand compulsory fluoridation of drinking water supplies….poisoning them, as far as I’m concerned. So anyone who suffers ill-health as a direct result of ingesting too much fluoride will not be able to sue the Health service because it acted in “good faith”.
    I am making a note of this post and will be writing to my MP who, I will be honest, is not someone I’d regard as a candidate for being sued for anything in his general workload.
    Geez this is getting serious. UK people are going to be well and truly stuffed if this goes through. Government will effectively be “above the law”. Problem is, most people won’t realise it until it affects them personally, by which time it will be too late. I dont have a blog, so those of you who have got influence, for God’s sake do something.

  5. Frustrated Voter Says:

    @ CD: Thanks for your comments. As you state, millions of civil servants will be beyond the reach of the law if this legislation is brought into law, in my view this will encourage a reckless attitude, given none need fear being held responsible for their actions. I also hope that more people will blog on this issue, because there is a very real possibility that this will become law with little or no debate. We cannot expect much of a fight from the opposition parties given they also stand to gain from this type of immunity.

  6. CJ Says:

    -Frustrated Voter: Oh yes, I agree with the principle. MPs should NOT be included. However, they aren’t really the problem – just don’t vote ANYONE who supports the Big Brother State back into office. It’s the “blame culture” that bothers me. I repeat, people screw up and that’s life, just as little Johnny is at some risk if he goes on a school trip – the risk should be minimised, but fear of personal prosecution is what stops a lot of teachers taking kids on such trips.

    Good faith? I don’t think so. Even if you’re right, the state will make scapegoats of teachers, doctors and anyone they can at ENORMOUS expense. Nevertheless, blame (negligence) in the States can amount to things like, “It didn’t say anything about not feeding the packet itself to my parrot and it choked on the cardoard so I’m suing for a million dollars.” I know that’s extreme, but it does happen there and it WILL happen in the UK.

    Common sense died with the Nanny State and that’s the saddest loss, but all these databases should NOT be allowed and, to me, that’s a MUCH more serious question.

  7. Frustrated Voter Says:

    @ CJ: Simply voting MP’s out is to give them a free pass, they must, instead, be held truly accountable to the people for their actions. For example, was Tony Blair acting in good faith when he took this country to war, or did he just want to suck up to President Bush? Did Gordon Brown deliberately ignore the warning signs over the state of the housing market and our econony. In both cases, their action are going to destroy many thousands of families.

    Experience suggests that it is the Government, not the public that abuses current legislation, therefore I do not see the need for doctors, teachers etc., to have additional protection. People do make mistakes, but there is already a defence of ‘good faith’, many rely on this and it is generally accepted. However, to prevent action against those that are guilty with a uniform defence of reasonable discretion is going too far. In my opinion this will encourage people to be reckless.

    I agree that the biggest threat to our well-being at the moment is the PC brigade, the nanny state and Big Brother Britain databases. However, I do not want to live in a country where those that have been reckless, negligent or downright stupid can continue with impunity through a catch-all defence of reasonable discretion. I suspect for different reasons, we will be disagreeing on this point, that said, I suspect we agree on more than we know!

  8. CJ Says:

    @Frustrated Voter: I know what you mean, but I still think that endlessly trying to rake over past failures and mistakes that don’t involve wilful neglect or fraud is pointless – much better to make prospective MPs take an “eleven plus” style exam and a lie detector test before they can become candidates and then shoot the bastards if they fail 🙂

    On a slightly lighter note, see my latest post about the surgeons at http://cjw666.wordpress.com/2009/04/12/surgical-preferences/ – it’s a joke, of course, but there’s a scary ring of reality about the punchline too…

  9. Frustrated Voter Says:

    @ CJ: Fair enough, albeit not looking back may deal with now, but it does presuppose that future MP’s will behave themselves, I am not so hopeful! As you say, shooting may be an option. Will take a look at your post now, thanks for entering the debate 🙂

  10. MindOverMatter Says:

    CJ: You have a point about this country’s perpensity to litigate, but as Frustrated Voter has stated, the biggest risk is to us all is genuinely unaccountable members of parliament.

    Frustrated Voter: I agree with you sentiments, every MP must swear allegiance to the Queen and agree to serve the people, with that comes responsibility and accountability. Any attempt to provide themselves with immunity is utterly wrong and against everything we believe in. I doubt, however, that we will see any detractors within parliament.

  11. Liberty Lover Says:

    I truly hope that other bloggers will take up this issue and highlight it given there has been virtually nothing in the press about MP’s cynical attempts to exempt themselves from their own actions.

  12. HexieMystique Says:

    Why isn’t the political commentator of Skynews picking this up and making a hue and cry over this? Or have I missed him?
    Why hasn’t the prospective candidate for my county sent me an email about this?
    I wouldn’t expect the EU MP (labour of course) to protest.. he has a cushty job and his waistline has been expanding in the last 20 years! Maybe he is claiming for three homes?
    I have never known a more corrupt labour party than the one TeflonBlair handed over to Mr Broon! And I have lived through quite a few labour politics disasters.

    Anybody agreeing with me that Blair’s religious fevers were behind all this? Whoever voted for ‘Bambi’ voted for Britain’s downfall! We are getting closer to that! Soon the ‘Great’ will be removed from Britain too!
    Mr Broon is the first UN-elected prime minister of GRRRRRRRRRReat? Britain!
    hexie
    hexie

  13. Frustrated Voter Says:

    @ HexieMystique: It is a mystery to me why none of the mainstream media has picked up on this appalling Bill, which serves only one purpose, to protect those in power from civil or criminal proceedings!

10 Trackbacks For This Post

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