Free Speech: Sam Fowles acts for MP cleared by Parliament’s Appeal Panel over Nadine Dorries complaint

28 Jun 2023

Parliament’s Independent Expert Panel has overturned the finding of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards that John Nicolson MP “bullied and harassed” Nadine Dorries, by “liking” critical tweets about her. Cornerstone’s Sam Fowles acted for John Nicolson MP in this matter.

Dorries had clashed with Nicolson when she appeared before Parliament’s Culture, Media, and Sport Committee on 15th May 2022, Dorries claimed, while answering questions about the government’s proposal to privatise Channel 4, that she had participated in a reality TV programme on the network in which the actors had been used instead of “real” people. Channel 4 instructed an independent law firm to investigate and found no truth to the accusation. The Committee, consequently, conducted its own inquiry into Dorries’ actions.

While the Committee considered her case, Dorries complained to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, accusing Nicolson of a variety of “bullying” activities. The only part of the complaint upheld related to a period after Dorries had appeared before the Committee on 23 November 2021. Nicolson had challenged Dorries about her social media use. Nicolson followed his usual practice of tweeting clips from the committee and “liked” a number of the replies. All of the replies that Nicolson interacted with were critical of Dorries and some used strong language (but there was no suggestion that they threatened any sort of violence or harm). Dorries claimed that “liking” these tweets (and retweeting one) amounted to bullying.

In an ordinary workplace, this matter would have been dealt with by an Employment Tribunal or civil court but Parliament has its own internal system. The parliamentary process has three stages. In the first, the Commissioner appoints an inspector to examine, and reach a recommendation on the matter. The inspector in the case recommended that Dorries’ claim be dismissed. In the second stage the Commissioner can accept or reject the inspector’s findings. The Commissioner rejected his inspector’s findings and upheld the complaint. Nicolson appealed to parliament’s appellate body, the Independent Expert Panel.

The Panel overturned the Commissioner’s decision and dismissed Dorries’ complaint on several principal grounds including:

  • It held that parliamentarians must be afforded a significant degree of latitude to criticise each other. Parliamentary business involves holding the government to account and this justified parliamentarians using language even of the sort that might be considered unacceptable in an ordinary workplace (although the Panel noted that there must be some limits to this licence).
  • The Commissioner had failed to take Dorries’ own social media use into account. The Panel referred to the history of Dorries’ tweets, presented by Nicolson in evidence, in which she had used degrading language or threatened political opponents and journalists. The Panel held that, while Dorries may have held a subjective belief that Nicolson’s actions amounted to bullying and/or harassment, that belief must also be objectively reasonable.
  • Fourth, the Panel held that the political context of the accusation was relevant. Nicolson’s position as Dorries’ shadow and, in particular, his role on the committee investigating her conduct, should have been “considered closely” to determine whether Dorries’ complaint was both genuine and reasonable.
  • The Commissioner had relied on accusations against Mr Nicolson to which he had not given Mr Nicolson the opportunity to respond.

The Panel’s decision is the final determination of the claim, the full judgment can be found here.

Commenting on Fowles’ work, Nicolson said: “Sam’s help, advice, and erudition were invaluable. He’s a talented and tenacious lawyer.”

Sam Fowles is part of Cornerstone’s Public Law group and acts in all areas of public, constitutional, and parliamentary law. He has a particular interest in questions of freedom of expression.