HC Deb 12 May 1924 vol 173 cc1006-11

I desire to call attention, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, to a question of privilege, and I may explain that I wish to raise no party issue or any matter of that kind, or to object to the ordinary give-and-take of party politics. I think Members in ail parts of the House will agree that, when an attack is made upon a Member who occupies the position of Chairman of a Standing Committee, and on his conduct in the Chair of that Committee, it is right to call attention to the matter and that the House should take some notice of it. The particular statement to which I call attention is contained in the "Daily Herald" newspaper of Saturday last. It is a leading article on page 4, and is entitled "From the workers' point of view."

It deals with the conduct of the Committee which is considering the Rent Restrictions Bill upstairs. I do not wish in any way to refer to the proceedings of that Committee, but simply to refer to the statement which is made in this newspaper as to the conduct of the Chairman of the Committee, who is respected in every quarter of the House.


Not by some Members of the Committee.


There are three references in the article, and I will refer briefly to them, and move a Motion. The first reference is to the protracted nature of the proceedings of the Committee, and says. Thanks to the antiquated and lumbering procedure of the House of Commons, and to the partiality of the Tory Chairman of the Committee to which the Bill was referred, they have so far been successful. A further reference to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. and gallant Member for South-West St. Pancras (Major Barnett), is this: The deliberate wasting of time ought to be reported to the Speaker, and the conduct of the Chairman should call down upon him the censure of the House. The third reference in the article in unmistakable terms accuses the Chairman of the Committee of partiality and misconduct in that capacity. It says: He has tolerated, even encouraged, the wreckers. He has allowed them, for example, to submit frivolous Amendments, scribbled down during the proceedings. Things have come to such a pass that we doubt whether it is worth while to go on with the Bill. I will not make any further references, except to say that it is a most improper attack upon one of the Members of this House, who is fulfilling a very honourable position as Chairman of one of our Standing Committees, and whom, so far as I know, everyone treats with respect and consideration. Having brought this matter to the attention of the House, I have no desire to raise any question of controversy, but I beg to move the Motion of which I have given notice, namely: That the statement in the 'Daily Herald' of Saturday last is a gross libel on the hon. Member for South-West St. Pancras, Chairman of Standing Committee A, and is a grave infringement of the privileges of this House.

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Snowden)

I beg to move to leave out from the word "last" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof the words "be referred to the Committee of Privileges."

The Deputy-Leader of the House is unable to be present at the moment, and so it devolves upon me to speak on behalf of the Government. I am afraid that I am not very well acquainted with the matter that has been raised. I have not seen the article to which the hon. Member has called attention; but it appears to the Government to be a matter that ought to be referred to the Committee of Privileges, and if that would meet the views and desires of the hon. Member responsible for this Motion and the House generally, I would move the Amendment to the Motion. I believe that the Committee of Privileges has not been set up this Session, but if the House accepts my Amendment the Government will at once take steps to constitute that Committee, and without any delay the matter will be referred to the Committee's adjudica- tion. I hope that the House will accept the suggestion.


I am very much in the same position as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for, although a member of the Standing Committee, I have not been very regular in my attendance. Certainly the words which have been read out appear to me to be a very clear case of breach of the privileges of this House. I am glad that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has suggested that the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges. That seems to me to be a proper course in the circumstances, and I hope the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) will accept the Amendment.


I accept the suggestion.


I do not want to delay the proceedings or to prevent the matter going to the Committee of Privileges, but I want to ask why, on a question of this kind, this procedure is adopted, seeing that I, a year or two ago, raised the question of privilege because of an attack made by a newspaper, not merely on the political but the real honesty of a Cabinet Minister, and I was ruled out of order. The matter in question was the attack made by the editor of "Plain English" upon Mr. Winston Churchill when he was a Cabinet Minister. It accused him of gerrymandering the report of the battle of Jutland and receiving a present from those who benefited financially from that gerrymandering. I would like to know why it is that upon an occasion such as that, when a question of the honesty of a Minister of the Crown was involved, the action which I proposed, namely, that the House should summon the editor of that paper to the Bar, was ruled out of order by Mr. Speaker, and yet, on this occasion, when a statement is made—I am not saying whether it is in good faith, but probably the editor thought it was in good faith—the matter should be brought up in this House and referred to the Committee of Privileges for consideration and report.


I have not any personal recollection of the case to which the hon. Member refers, and, therefore, I am not able to answer his question. If he will look up the reference, and give it to me later, I shall be glad to look into it.


I shall be glad to do that.


Is it not a fact that to establish a case of breach of privilege the words complained of must reflect on the conduct of a Minister or Member in some action or duty actually in this House, and in connection with the proceedings of this House, and that, therefore, the action of a Minister in circulating or assisting to circulate a report upon an outside event would not fall within the rule?


That may have been the ground, but without further investigation I would not like to express an opinion.


Is it not the case that the question of privilege, so far as a Minister of the Crown is concerned, refers not only to his action or utterances within this House, but to his action or utterances in connection with his duties as a Minister inside or outside the House?

Lieut.-Colonel J. WARD

If we adopt the Amendment, are we leaving the question of deciding whether this is a matter of privilege to the Committee of Privileges, or are we first deciding that in our opinion it is a question of privilege? A serious attack has been made on a Member of this House who carried out the responsible official duties to which he was appointed by the House. If this is remitted in accordance with the Amendment, shall we have a report and be able at any period later to consider it without having to ask the permission of the Government? Will it still be a matter of privilege that stands first in the procedure of the House? If that be not so, I should imagine that what we are really doing by carrying the Amendment is shelving the whole question. Before I vote I would like to know exactly what the House is doing.


As I understand the matter, if the Houses passes the Amendment the question whether a breach of privilege has been committed will be left to the Committee, and it will be the duty of the Committee to report to the House whether there has been in fact a breach of privilege. When the House receives the Report it will be for the House to decide what action, if any, is appropriate, assuming that the Committee decides that a breach has been committed. I doubt very much the wisdom of raising at all these questions of privilege. I raised the question of privilege regarding the personal liberty of Member of the House, with the result that he has been delivered from captivity, but that is quite a different matter from raising a question of privilege in relation to the House itself, and imposing a penalty on some outsider who is alleged to have infringed the privileges of the House. On former occasions in recent times, when it has been found that such a breach of privilege has been committed, the House has had to be content with a barren censure, and if the person guilty of the breach was recalcitrant the House had no remedy. In these circumstances it may become a matter for the House to consider whether it is worth while to continue.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman when the Government propose to set up the Committee of Privileges?


As soon as possible.


On the point of Order raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Stoke (Lieut.-Colonel Ward). I take it that the Report of the Committee, when presented, will be debatable, and that a Motion can be made on the presentation of the Report.


I think that is so. I would require to look up the precedents on that matter.


May we have an assurance from the Government that if the Committee of Privileges does make a Report, not only will that Report be presented to the House, but an opportunity will be given of diseasing its findings. Committees are constantly reporting to the House without any day being set apart or any opportunity given of discussing those Reports. If that is to be the case in this instance, then the whole question will be shelved, as has been suggested.


I think, in the view of a good many Members in this House, this is a rather unusual point, and I do not know what is the ordinary procedure in regard to such matters. I should think that the Committee will, as a matter of course, report to the House, and the inquiry and the recommendations of the Committee, if there be any recommendations, would be quite useless unless an opportunity were given to the House to act upon them. I think I may take it upon me to say that the Government will give an opportunity to the House to consider the matter.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and negatived.

Question, "That the words 'be referred to the Committee of Privileges' be there added," put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That the statement in the "Daily Herald" of Saturday last be referred to the Committee of Privileges.