HC Deb 25 June 1941 vol 372 cc1054-60
The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Dennis Herbert)

I am sorry to have to occupy the attention of the House for what I hope will be only a few minutes, but in the performance of my duties as Chairman of Ways and Means in connection with Private Bill legislation, I have to inform the House of certain facts and to submit to you, Sir, my contention that they establish a prima facie case of Privilege, and if you take that view. I shall move the formal Motion that the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

The matter arises in connection with the Grampian Electricity Supply (Scotland) Order in respect of which a Confirmation Bill was placed on the Order Paper yesterday. On the nth of this month there came to my hand a circular printed letter addressed to all Members of Parliament, which is the document complained of, and which therefore must be read in full. I am advised that upon this occasion it will be proper and convenient that I should read it—it is not very long—and hand it in to the Clerk at the Table afterwards. This is the document. It is headed: Highlands Development League, 100. West George Street, Glasgow, C.2. 20th May 1941. To all Members of Parliament.


We understand that the above Order, having with certain modifications been approved by the Commission of Inquiry to which it was recently submitted, is now to be laid before Parliament as a confirmation Bill. The Highland Development League, which for years past has been actively concerned with measures for the improvement of living conditions in the Scottish Highlands, was, in common with many others who have the interest. of the Highlanders at heart, strongly opposed to this Measure. Ever since the publication of the draft Order last August, the Council of our League have examined it from time to time with great care and have been greatly perturbed, not only by the un-timeliness of its introduction, when most of [The Chairman of Ways and Means.] the Highland men whose future is affected are absent from their homes on military service"— and then come the important words: not only by the seeming irregularities in the procedure by which it has been advanced to its present Parliamentary stage, but most of all by the prejudicial effect which it will have on the future development of the Highlands. In support of our views on that point we send you the accompanying pamphlet and respectfully ask you to give careful attention to its contents. Your obedient Servants, On behalf of the Highlands Development League, LACHLAN GRANT, President. T. M. MURCHISON, Vice-President. DONALD MACKAY, Clerk and Treasurer When I read that, my mind at once turned to the expression: seeming irregularities in the procedure by which it has been advanced to its present Parliamentary stage It seemed to me probable, and it has since turned out that I was right, that these alleged '' seeming irregularities '' had reference to the conduct of the Lord Chairman in another place and the Chairman of Ways and Means of the House of Commons in referring this Order to a Scottish Commission under the Private Legislation (Scotland) Act, 1936, and also to the conduct of the two Members of the House of Commons who were two of the Commissioners who conducted this inquiry. But as I felt that there was a possibility that I might be mistaken, I thought the proper course was to write a letter, which I did in identical terms to all three signatories of that letter. I wrote them that my attention had just been called to their communication and wrote in view of those words, and in view of the apparently improper allegation contained in those words, I have to ask you before I take any other steps to write to me explaining what is intended by those words ' seeming irregularities in the procedure ' and making any further observations you may desire thereon To that I received a very long reply, which I do not think the House will want me to read, but I must read just a short part of it and tell the House the gist of the letter. We are favoured with your letter of the nth inst. addressed to each of us in identical terms, in which you refer to words used in the League's letter of 20th May to all Members of Parliament, in particular to the words ' not only by the seeming irregularities in the procedure by which it has been advanced to its present parliamentary stage.' We would respectfully assure you, Sir, that no improper allegation is intended or contained in those words, and if the phrase in question seems to you to carry such implication, we much regret it and beg to tender our apologies If the letter had stopped there, I think— I may have been wrong—that I should not have troubled the House on the matter at all; but, unfortunately, the letter proceeds at very considerable length to explain that what was intended was what I had supposed, a certain reflection upon the conduct of the Lord Chairman and the Chairman of Ways and Means, and upon the conduct of the Members of the Commission, two of whom are Members of this House. They not only repeat these allegations, or rather set them out in detail, but they justify them, or attempt to justify them, and beyond that I need not perhaps make any further reference to that letter.
Mr. Benjamin Smith

I think it would be as well if the House were informed of the justification to which the Chairman has referred.

The Chairman of Ways and Means

I think that is probably, if I may suggest it, a matter which, if Mr. Speaker gives the decision which I invited him to do, will be for the consideration by the Committee of Privileges. I may say that, in the first place, they misquote or incorrectly quote the Scottish Procedure Act referred to and they also show a certain ignorance in regard to other matters of law to which they refer. As I have said, this undoubtedly is a case of making somewhat serious and definite reflections upon the conduct of the Lord Chairman, who is in another place, and with whom, of course, we are not concerned, upon the Chairman of Ways and Means, as an officer of this House, and on Members of this House, sitting as Members of the Scottish Commission.

I do not place importance in this case upon the gravity, or otherwise, or, may I say, the degree of turpitude of this offence, if an offence has been committed, but the case is of very great importance as a matter of principle for this reason: This Scottish private legislation procedure is a comparatively modern innovation, and I believe this is the first time on which any question has ever arisen of reflections of this kind being made on Members of this House sitting as Members on one of these Scottish Commissions; and the House will realise at once that it would be very difficult to expect hon. Members of this House to undertake the very responsible, and often very laborious, duties of sitting on Commissions of this kind unless they feel that they have the protection which the House always accords to its Members in the discharge of their duties. Therefore, it does appear to me that it is, as I say, a case of very great importance, which should be referred to the Committee of Privileges, in order, as I hope, that the House may establish definitely that Members sitting on these Commissions are entitled to the same protection as is given to them in other cases when carrying out their duties as Members of Parliament. I think I need add nothing more, and if you decide, Mr. Speaker, that there is a prima facie case, then, I will merely move the formal Motion that the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. A. Bevan

On a point of Order. I understand it is the contention that a prima facie case has been made out of a breach of Privilege. It is necessary, in my submission, before you, Mr. Speaker, give your Ruling, that the grounds upon which that is based shall be stated to the House. The only thing so far in support of what has been said has been the reading of a statement, subsequently withdrawn and apologised for. Then the Chairman of Ways and Means has directed our attention to a statement which he has not placed before the House and which therefore cannot, in my respectful submission, be given a Ruling upon until the House itself has heard it.

The Chairman of Ways and Means

I am perfectly prepared, though I should be sorry to have to do it, to read the whole of the second letter to which I referred, but I venture most respectfully to submit to the House that, with the explanation which I have given, it is sufficient that I have read the original offending document, if I may so call it, which contains words calculated to cast reflections upon an officer and Members of this House in the performance of their Parliamentary duties, and I take the longer letter as merely amplifying the original document and giving the case of those who, if this matter goes before the Committee of Privileges, will be called upon by that Committee to justify their action.

Mr. Bevan

Further to that point of Order. I do not want to appear to be pedantic, but it would be an extraordinary piece of Parliamentary proce- dure if the House set up a Committee of Privileges on a matter because it is the opinion of the Chairman of Ways and Means that a breach of Privilege has in fact occurred. It is necessary for the charge to be made.

The Chairman of Ways and Means

If I may be allowed to say so, the hon. Member is wrong. I have done nothing but submit to Mr. Speaker a question of whether there is a prima facie case, and I await his decision.

Mr. Neil Maclean

Is it not the case that the three individuals who have signed the letter have withdrawn the words of which the Chairman of Ways and Means properly complained, and consequently, having withdrawn those words, those words cannot be submitted to the Committee of Privileges? What the Chairman of Ways and Means has said is that they go on, in a subsequent letter in which they have withdrawn the words complained of, to add other words which he considers to be at least equally offensive as regards a breach of Privilege. But he has not placed those words before the House; he has not read those words which he complains are an added breach of Privilege. Consequently this House is being asked to submit to the Committee of Privileges something it has not yet heard which has been alleged to be a breach of Privilege. I put this point to the Chairman of Ways and Means. I am not discussing the Glen Affric Bill, but there is a great deal of very adverse criticism and a keen sense of uneasiness at the manner in which this Commission held its sittings. I am making no allegations against the Members of the Com mission, but the fact that its proceedings were held in secret, against most precedents —

The Prime Minister

On a point of Order. Is it not the practice, when a Motion raising a question of Privilege has been moved, that the Chair pronounces upon it at once?

Mr. Speaker

That is so, and it was my intention to do so. I was merely waiting to know whether the matter would be a little more clearly explained so that Members would understand it better, but I am prepared to make up my mind upon it now.

Mr. Buchanan

I wish to submit a point of Order. The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean) referred to the Commission sitting in private, as though the Members of the Commission were responsible for that.

Mr. Maclean


Mr. Buchanan

I am putting my point.

Mr. Maclean

You are misrepresenting my point.

Mr. Buchanan

I will put my point of Order. I have no wish to argue it here, but as a member of this Commission I am not going to have any imputation, direct or indirect, placed upon me or my conduct as a member of that body.

Mr. Maclean

I made no imputation against any member of the Commission. I made that clear, as the OFFICIAL REPORT will show. I did not say whether they were acting beyond their functions or not.

Mr. Buchanan

We did not decide to sit in private. We had no power.

Mr. Maclean

I merely put forward the fact that unlike the proceedings in most cases of Scottish Private Bills submitted to a Commission, this Commission's meetings were held in private.

Mr. Buchanan

We did not do it. It was the Secretary of State for Scotland who ordered it.

Mr. Speaker

The question which I am asked to decide is whether a prima facie case has been made out that a breach of Privilege has been committed. This is a rather difficult and complicated case, but, undoubtedly, a matter of principle is involved. Members of this House have to carry out their duties, very often in difficult circumstances and on very controversial questions, and it would not be right if we took no notice whatever, when Members are persecuted by outsiders, no matter how interested those outsiders may be in the business affected. On that matter of principle, I think it only right that the House should order an inquiry. As I say, I think that Members are undoubtedly entitled to protection in the discharge of their duties. In this case, I consider that a prima facie case has been made out that a breach of Privilege has been committed.

The Chairman of Ways and Means

I beg to move, "That the Matter of the Complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges"

Question put, and agreed to.

Major Neven-Spence

Since the con duct of the Commission has been mentioned, would I be in Order as Chair man —

Hon. Members