The term parliamentary privilege refers to the special rights and immunities which apply to the Houses, their committees and their Members, and which are considered essential for the proper operation of the Parliament. These rights and immunities allow the Houses to meet and carry out their proper constitutional roles, for committees to operate effectively, for Members to discharge their responsibilities to their constituents, and for others properly involved in the parliamentary processes to carry out their duties and responsibilities without obstruction or fear of prosecution.
Privileges are not the prerogative of Members in their personal capacities:
In so far as the House claims and Members enjoy those rights and immunities which are grouped under the general description of ‘privileges’, they are claimed and enjoyed by the House in its corporate capacity and by its Members on behalf of the citizens whom they represent.
Despite the immunity from suit or prosecution which Members have in respect of what they say in the Parliament in carrying out their duties, ultimately they are still accountable to the House itself in respect of their statements and actions. It is within the power of the House to take action to punish or penalise Members, for example, for some form of extreme obstruction of the business of the House.
Distinction between breach of privilege and contempt
‘Contempt’ and ‘breach of privilege’ are not synonymous terms although they are often used as such.
The power of both Houses to punish for contempt is a general power similar to that possessed by the superior courts of law and is not restricted to the punishment of breaches of their acknowledged privileges … Certain offences which were formerly described as contempts are now commonly designated as breaches of privilege, although that term more properly applies only to an infringement of the collective or individual rights or immunities, of one of the Houses of Parliament.
It has been said that ‘All breaches of privilege amount to contempt; contempt does not necessarily amount to a breach of privilege’. In other words a breach of privilege (an infringement of one of the special rights or immunities of a House or a Member) is by its very nature a contempt (an act or omission which obstructs or impedes a House, a Member or an employee of the House, or threatens or has a tendency so to do), but an action can constitute a contempt without breaching any particular right or immunity. May has this to say in respect of contempt:
Generally speaking, any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any Member or officer of such House in the discharge of his duty, or which has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence. It is therefore impossible to list every act which might be considered to amount to a contempt, the power to punish for such an offence being of its nature discretionary.