HC Deb 10 September 1941 vol 374 cc203-7

Ordered, That the Report [11th June] of the Committee of Privileges be now considered."—[Mr. Attlee.]

Report considered accordingly.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Attlee)

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in their Report."

I do not think any lengthy explanation is needed in introducing this Report. The Committee found that a breach of Privilege was committed. The persons responsible for the breach have expressed their unqualified regret and have made full apology, and the Committee therefore recommend that no further action be taken.

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That the Second Report [22nd July] of the Committee of Privileges be now considered."—[Mr. Attlee.]

Report considered accordingly.

Mr. Attlee

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in their Report."

The Committee were impressed with the importance of maintaining the principle of the Privilege of Members of Parliament and protecting them from improper allegations against their conduct. They appreciate to the full the reasons which caused the Chairman of Ways and Means to bring the statement complained of to the notice of the House. It is of special importance that officers of the House of Commons and Members acting officially on Commissions, such as a Commission on Scottish Private Bills, should be fully protected. The Committee considered very carefully the statement which was made, and they came to the conclusion that it was not specifically directed against Members but laid a general complaint against the Government. Therefore the Committee consider that there had been no breach of Privilege.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Dennis Herbert)

The House will perhaps expect me, and I believe it is my duty, to say a word or two regarding this Report. The House will remember that when I first raised the matter I stated that my main object was to establish a principle, that Commissioners sitting on these Commissions were within the protection and Privilege of Members of this House. I must confess that I am not entirely satisfied with this Report, and I could not myself conscientiously express my approval of it. None the less, I do not propose to offer any opposition to it. Let me take the particular matter which was the reason for my bringing it forward. When I read the Report in order to see what decision had been come to, I was inclined to regard it as rather like the well known curate's egg—generally bad but with some good parts in it—and when I turned to try and find those good parts I turned to page xi, paragraph 11, where the Committee, dealing with that particular matter, said: We do not desire to express an opinion on a matter which has rot arisen in this case. That is not very good for the point that I raised, but, happily, the Committee show a certain confusion of mind, which I think I find in other places in the Report. Having said they do not desire to express an opinion, they promptly do so, and they go on to say: We think it would be difficult to maintain that, if Members of the House served as Commissioners, they would not be entitled to pro- tection as Members laid down in the rule which we have cited. That is to the good, and I think it is worth preserving as a record. With regard to the Chairman of Ways and Means acting in this Scottish procedure, the Committee, while not making any definite statement, obviously by implication hold that the Chairman of Ways and Means in these matters is within the protection of Privilege, and that again is to the good. With regard to the remainder of the Report, I feel obliged at any rate to correct one or two definite errors into which the Committee have fallen. In paragraph 6, at the top of page vi, they refer to what I said when I first raised the matter, and I read part of the longer letter from the persons whose conduct I complained of. I read only the first part, finishing at the place where the writers of the letter express their regret. The Report says: The Chairman of Ways and Means, when he brought the matter before the House, stated that in his view, if the letter had stopped at the words quoted, he would not have troubled the House on the matter. This would have been on the basis that the words were capable of being construed as not infringing, or not clearly infringing, the privileges of the House. That is quite contrary to the fact, I had no idea of that kind in my mind. The sole reason why I should not have troubled the House further with it was that I should have considered that the apology which I have just read was sufficient and that the matter in the circumstances was not of sufficient importance for any further procedure to be taken in regard to it. The Committee go on in the same paragraph: The words which led the Chairman to submit the matter to the House were, therefore, in effect contained in a letter which was written to him personally in answer to his communication. That again is not the case. I should like to refer to the OFFICIAL REPORT at the time when I raised it, I take the longer letter as merely amplifying the original document giving the case of those who, if this matter goes before the Committee of Privileges, will be called upon by the Committee to justify their action."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th June, 1941; col. 1057, Vol. 372.] The Committee would not have fallen into these two errors if they had adopted what I suggest would have been a preferable course and had taken and considered a statement and evidence from me of the case that I desired to put up. The Chairman of the Committee, I think, takes the view that, to put the matter shortly, it was not the business of a Member raising a question of Privilege to act as prosecutor. Those are my words, and with that view I agree, but I do not agree that a statement of the case for the purpose of asking you, Sir, to decide whether there is a prima facie case is, or can be expected to be, a full statement of the case which the Committee has to consider. In my opinion the Committee were mistaken in the first place in not printing in their Report a précis of evidence which they received from me, or examining me on my case—they examined me only on the meaning of the word "irregularity"—or allowing me to make any statement on it, but apparently ignoring it entirely. In view of the fact that, as a result, the Committee fall into two definite errors, it is unfortunate that they should have dealt with it in that way.

I have no wish to oppose the Motion because I do not regard the matter, considering the important things that we have to deal with now, as one on which the House would desire to spend any amount of time, and I should be very sorry to raise any controversy about it. Again, to go to a literary reminiscence, I regard the matter as a little bit like the baby in "Midshipman Easy" which, though illegitimate, was not a very big one, and I think that is a pretty good description of the Report. I am sure in the circumstances my right hon. Friend cannot possibly object to my saying that I consider that it is full of seeming irregularities of procedure.

Mr. Denman (Leeds, Central)

May I put a question in regard to the Amendment standing on the Order Paper in my name—in line 2, at the end, to add: and doth regret the attempted interference disclosed therein in the proceedings of the Commissioners appointed under the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act. The Committee of Privileges called the attention of the House to an attempted interference with our Commissioners in Edinburgh which was thought in some quarters to be not merely improper but which, if regarded as a precedent, would seriously injure the procedure under the Scottish Private Legislation Act. I wish to ask whether in those circumstances it is possible to discuss this matter on the Motion?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think it would be in Order to discuss that particular question. It is rather outside the terms of reference.

Question, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in their Report," put, and agreed to.