HC Deb 25 March 1947 vol 435 cc1077-80
Mr. Frank Byers

Mr. Speaker, I desire to bring to your notice a matter which I believe affects the Privileges of a Member of this House, namely, the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown), who would have put this matter to you if he had not, unfortunately, lost his voice. With your permission, I will state the facts as briefly as I can, and then ask for your Ruling. When, in 1942, he was elected Member for Rugby, the hon. Member was general secretary of the Civil Service Clerical Association, which he had founded and organised many years before. Upon his election to this House, he relinquished the general secretaryship but agreed to act as Parliamentary secretary to the Association. Under the terms of the agreement drawn up between him and the Association, it was made clear that, while on Civil Service matters he would, of course, do his best for the Association and its members, on general political matters he was to be completely free to speak and vote as he thought right. That document made it clear that for his actions or utterances on matters other than Civil Service ones, he would not be speaking on their behalf, and that they would have no responsibility, as an Association, for what he said or did in his capacity as Member for Rugby. This agreement was endorsed by the annual conference of the Association in 1942. It was circulated to members, and it was published in the Press.

During the last Parliament, difficulties arose about the working of this agreement, and, despite its terms, there were occasions when members of the executive committee brought pressure to bear on the hon. Member for Rugby on matters quite unconnected with Civil Service issues. This was, of course, ultra vires; but the matters were not considered to be sufficiently serious to justify his invoking, the Privileges of the House. After the repeal of the Trade Union Act, 1927, in the present Parliament, however, matters took a sharp turn for the worse. That repeal made it possible for the Association to affiliate to the Trades Union Congress, and last year it did so, without a ballot of the membership. Many members of the executive committee attended the Trades Union Congress at Brighton. It is not, of course, known what transpired there, but at the executive committee meeting following the conference strong pressure was brought to bear upon the hon. Member for Rugby not to speak or write in a sense contrary to the policies of the Trades Union Congress or the Labour Party.

To this pressure he refused to submit, and reminded the executive committee that he was elected to this House as an Independent, and that the agreement between the association and him clearly divested them of responsibility for his actions on general political matters. And he said that for no consideration, and under no circumstances, would he accept any limitation on his freedom to speak, vote or write as he thought proper as a free Member of this House. The executive committee thereupon determined that, if he would not submit, then the agreement between the Association and him should, if they could contrive it, be brought to an end, and that he should cease to be the Parliamentary secretary to the Association. The officers waited upon him and offered him certain financial compensation if he would agree to terminate the agreement.

What they proposed was subsequently embodied in a letter to the hon. Member for Rugby. The letter made it perfectly plain that what was at issue was not his work as Parliamentary secretary to the Association, to which, indeed, high tribute was paid. It was made plain that it was his political activities which were objected to. He replied to that letter that he had no wish to terminate or alter the agreement; that there were two parties to it—himself and the Association; that he did not regard them as being representative of the Association; and that, further, it would be for the annual conference to determine whether or not it wished to terminate the agreement. At a later stage, he took the opportunity of warning the executive committee that the question of Privilege might arise out of these proceedings. I wish to emphasise this point: the executive committee, at its last meeting yesterday, decided to table a motion for the annual conference to the effect that it was desirable that the agreement between the hon. Member and the Association should be brought to an end.

I claim that this is a definite act, and the matter is now being raised at the first opportunity. It is not known what will happen at the annual conference, but I ask whether it is proper that pressure should be brought to bear upon a Member of this House by an outside body to compel him to take a certain political line—a line, in this case, quite inconsistent with the basis upon which the Member himself was elected to this House—and that when the Member refuses to comply, the executive committee of that body should then attempt to terminate the agreement with the said Member for his services as an employee of the Association? In discussions at the executive, it emerged that the matters in which the hon. Member for Rugby had offended were his speeches and votes on the Bill repealing the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act of 1927; his known and proclaimed views on the closed shop; his alleged views on the subject of "splinter" unions; and his Parliamentary speeches and writings.

I, therefore, ask you, Sir, if you will be good enough to give your Ruling on the question whether this sequence of events does not constitute a prima facie case that a breach of the Privileges of this House has taken place. I ask you to give that Ruling, Sir, on this matter, irrespective of any legal rights or protections the hon. Member may have in respect of the agreement between himself and the Association. What is concerned here is not the personal position of the hon. Member, which is unimportant and which, it is hoped, will be vindicated by the annual conference, but the issue that an hon. Member should be free to speak, vote, or write as a Member of this House, unsubjected to pressure from an outside body, and free, if he declines to yield to such pressure, from victimisation thereafter.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member asks me for my Ruling on this matter, Of course, it must be perfectly clear that I do not say whether the facts as outlined are correct or not. That is a matter upon which I have no knowledge, but it is alleged that pressure has been brought on an hon. Member and, therefore, it seems to me that it is right for me to declare now that I think a prima facie case has been established.

Mr. Gallacher

On a point of Order. How is it possible to say that there is interference with an hon. Member when all the hon. Member had to do was to resign the job of Parliamentary secretary and he would be quite free to carry out his duties?

Mr. Speaker

If the matter is referred to the Committee of Privileges that is a question which, no doubt, they will be able to settle.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Arthur Greenwood)

In view of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, I beg to move, That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. Churchill

On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to support the Motion made by the acting Leader of the House.

Question put, and agreed to.