There has been a story recently about Facebook having private documents forcibly taken on behalf of the UK Parliament.

From the BBC article it is claimed that:

"Rarely used parliamentary powers were used to demand that the boss of a US software firm hand over the details."

All the articles I have read state the same thing, but no further detail of the powers used. The alleged laws / powers allowed the following:

"In a highly unusual move the House of Commons serjeant-at-arms was sent to the businessman's hotel and he was given a final warning and a two-hour deadline to comply with the order."

"When the executive failed to do so he was escorted to Parliament and warned he risked fines and imprisonment if the documents were not surrendered, the paper said."

This kind of power is very worrying to me, I would like to know about this in more detail.

Which rarely used powers are they exercising? What is the extent of these laws? Under what circumstances can they be applied?


Okay, I think that I have found the answer to my own question.

TLDR: Parliament technically has the power to summon / fine / imprison anyone, but the applicability of these laws is in doubt as some have not been exercised for 100’s of years. It is unclear that any fines or imprisonment would actually have been brought against the man.

It turns out that The House of Commons and The House of Lords technically have the power to summon, imprison, and fine anyone. (See point 252 on page 62 here)

An older BBC article goes over these alleged powers in greater detail. The last time that an non member was summoned was in 1957:

”The editor of the Sunday Express, John Junor, was brought by the Serjeant at Arms to the bar and admonished by the Speaker for publishing an article that cast doubt on the integrity of MPs over their constituency petrol allowances.”

However, the powers of fining and imprisonment have not been exercised for 100’s of years and their legitimacy today is debatable. Specifically, the European Convention of Human Rights would seem to undermine such arbitrary powers of imprisonment.

The article alleges that the last recorded cases of fines or imprisonment are as follows:

”There is a former cell in the lower floors of the clock tower. But in practice it is only the police within the parliamentary estate who have the right to arrest anyone. The last time a non-MP was imprisoned was in 1880 when a man called Charles Grissell was detained.”

”The last time MPs fined someone was in 6 February 1666 when a man called Thomas White was forced to pay the House £1,000 for preventing an MP attending parliament.”

So I’m summary, it is murky territory and highly unlikely that the business man in question would have faced serious fines or imprisonment for failing to comply. This parliamentary article nicely summarises how farcical the whole affair could have become:

”In modern circumstances, as a televised proceeding, it would risk being a pantomime. Consider: the miscreant is brought to the Bar, accompanied by the Serjeant with the Mace, and is admonished by the Speaker in front of the House. Even assuming that the miscreant is prepared to come (and a refusal would be a further embarrassment) the proceedings are not controllable, and the House would risk looking like a lynch mob. The Speaker stands and delivers a rebuke, at a range of some thirty yards. Then what? The individual at the Bar, in prime TV time, may decide to have a go at the House and the treatment he or she has received. If the individual really does have a case, or perhaps produces some surprise piece of evidence which makes it clear that the House has got it wrong, the result could be a reputational disaster.”

Monologue finished.

  • Are you sure those are the same powers that were used in that case? Seizing documents seems like a different set of powers. In the US, for example, Congress does not have the power to fine and imprison people (no bills of attainder), but they do have a subpoena power to compel testimony and demand the production of documents, to investigate any matter within their purview. Refusal is illegal ("contempt of Congress") and can be prosecuted and punished within the regular criminal justice system. – Nate Eldredge Nov 27 '18 at 23:09
  • 1
    Congress has fined and imprisoned people however this is limited to findings of contempt of Congress. Furthermore, in Anderson v. Dunn the House has a person arrested for contempt in that person’s attempt to bribe a House member. Furthermore the Senate imprisoned witnesses and the House imprisoned a person for assault. See Congressional Research Services Report “Congress’s Contempt Power...” by Todd Garnet. – Viktor Nov 28 '18 at 0:18

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