HC Deb 01 August 1951 vol 491 cc1527-40

Motion made, and Question, "That the Report [26th July] from the Committee of Privileges be now considered"—[Mr. Clement Davies]—put, and agreed to.

Report considered accordingly.

7.7 p.m.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

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

Mr. John Lewis (Bolton, West)

I propose to make a very short statement in view of the Motion which has been moved by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies), and I would ask the indulgence of the House in this matter.

I would ask the House to accept that whatever occurred on the night of the 3rd July arose out of my natural anxiety to get to the House for what I thought was to be a critical Division. I think, on reflection, that it was unwise to have reported this matter to you, Sir, at the time. I believed at the time that it was the proper course to take. Whatever action was taken subsequently, I want to assure the House that it was on the best advice that was available to me.

At the time the incident occurred, I was extremely agitated because I thought I would not get to the House in time. When one is in a state of nervous anxiety, tempers are inclined to get frayed, and if this condition contributed in any way to the difficulties which arose I can only express my regret to the House.

I do not propose to say anything on the evidence submitted to the Committee of Privileges, except to say that the evidence which I gave to the Committee was the truth.

7.9 p.m.

Mr. Paget (Northampton)

I feel that we have had some useful guidance from the Committee on the difficult questions of Privilege. As I understand the situation, as a result of their Report, anyone anywhere who deliberately obstructs an hon. Member travelling to this House offends against the Privilege of Parliament. The privilege of unobstructed passage is not co-extensive with the Sessional Order.

On the one hand, the privilege is without geographical limitation; on the other hand, failure to comply with the Sessional Order will not necessarily, or indeed usually, involve breach of Privilege. The privilege is the negative one of not being obstructed. The Sessional Order imposes on the police the positive duty to facilitate progress, but failure to facilitate may be a breach of the instructions of the constable. Only in exceptional circumstances would it involve a breach of Privilege.

The second point, which seems to be of importance, is that it is an offence against Privilege to take steps to bring before a court of law, either as a civil wrong or by the Executive as a crime, an act which is within the Privilege of Parliament. Equally, it is not an offence against Privilege to bring before the courts, as in this case, an act which is not within the Privilege of Parliament, and if the act is not within Privilege, then it does not matter whether a Motion has been set down or whether any other means are taken to bring it before Parliament.

This case seems to be somewhat different from the Sandys case, but on this, for what it is worth, I agree with the Committee. Nevertheless—and I think this is important—both Parliament and the Executive should be careful to avoid conflict and not to impinge on the functions of the court, for when a claim of Privilege by whatever means has been raised, I think the police would be well advised —I put it no higher than that—to leave Parliament reasonable time in which to deal with the matter before they set the court in motion.

I rather gather from the Report that in this case the Committee were under the illusion that the summonses had to be issued within 14 days. That is not the law. So long as the warning is issued within 14 days there is no limit on when the summons is issued, and I believe the police would have been better advised to have left a little more time to see what action Parliament would take than merely to chance that the claim of Privilege would prove to be ill-founded. Equally, I think that Parliament should be careful not to impinge on the function of the courts, and it is here that I think the Committee of Privileges have gone wrong. I believe that their Report would have been a far better Report had they accepted the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Cocks).

The Committee of Privileges is not a police court. It is not its job to try an issue, and it was not its job to try the issue between the hon. Member and the police. It has not the machinery to do so. The hon. Member does not have the opportunity to present his case. He does not have an opportunity to cross-examine. He does not even have the opportunity to hear the evidence which other witnesses are giving. There is not the machinery to try an issue, and yet that is what I feel the Committee of Privileges did here. Their job, as I understand it, is to report to us whether a breach of Privileges has occurred. They investigated the facts, and it was clear when the facts were investigated that this was not a complaint of obstruction, but a complaint of failure to facilitate, and that there would be no breach of Privilege.

It seems that the Committee went quite outside their functions in trying the issue, rejecting the hon. Member's evidence in certain matters and accepting the police evidence when those matters were outside what it was necessary to find as to whether Privilege had or had not been established, and that in so doing they have impinged on the function of the law and have prejudiced the trial. I would refer particularly to two paragraphs in the Report. They are paragraphs 9 and 10, which the hon. Member for Broxtowe proposed should have been left out. They state: When the hon. Member reached the gate (through which only one car can pass at a time), there were in front of him some cars at a standstill—waiting to be allowed to proceed to the right towards Kensington, but unable to do so as their route was blocked by cars which were also at a standstill which had come from the direction of Marble Arch and desired to turn right through the Gate into Bayswater Road. It was this congestion which the policeman had seen from his point in Bayswater Road. The congestion had been caused by two cars coming together and getting their bumpers inter-locked. One of these cars came from the direction of Marble Arch and the other from the direction of Kensington. Both were going to go through the Gate into Bayswater Road. Both had passed the policeman on point duty in the Park…when they became interlocked. Before the policeman could intervene to stop them, cars had come up behind these two cars from the direction of Marble Arch and from that of Kensington. The traffic could not move until these cars were separated and freed. In the meantime the cars which had entered through the Gate into the Park which wanted to proceed towards Kensington were held up between the Gate and the congested traffic above described. In making that point, the Committee accepted the evidence of the police and rejected the evidence of the hon. Member, who said that there was no traffic there to obstruct. Frankly, I find it a little difficult to understand how this obstruction could have occurred. It is quite easy to see how a car coming from Marble Arch and turning right into the gate could become interlocked with a car coming from the Serpentine on a converging course. That is understandable.

But unless those cars blocked the gate, I find it very difficult to see how they could have blocked the left-hand turn towards Marble Arch. This is a narrow gate through which only one car can go, but it is the end of a funnel, and unless it is blocked it is very hard indeed to see how one can block the left-hand turn. That was my impression, and the Amendment of the hon. Member for Broxstowe was that those paragraphs should be left out as it was not the function of the Committee to try the issue between the hon. Member and the police.

Today I had an interview with a gentleman who was driving his car along Bayswater Road when this incident happened. He told me he had no sympathy with the Labour Party—of that he was a bad judge—that he held the view that Members of Parliament ought not to have privileges over the rest of the community, and that the traffic should not he upset for their convenience. But he also told me that he approved of the police on these occasions giving accurate evidence and for that reason he had, when he read the Report of this Committee, telephoned to Mr. Lewis. He had seen the incident and he had got out of his car. Throughout the incident the whole of his sympathy was with the police, but when he read this evidence he felt that he had to come forward and say that he had got out of his car to look at it and that there was no traffic obstruction whatever in the Park at any time.

I feel that if the Committee had had the advantage of that evidence—not that they would have rejected the police evidence: as I understand it that is not their job—they would have seen the wisdom of the hon. Member for Broxtowe in saying that they ought not to decide between two stories when they have not the machinery to test them one against the other.

Sir Peter Macdonald (Isle of Wight)

The hon. and learned Member said somebody rang up the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. J. Lewis), to give him a certain statement. Did he give his name, and has he confirmed his statement by letter?

Mr. Paget

He rang up my hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend brought him to see me in the House this afternoon. I took down a statement which he signed and which I have in my pocket. He was most anxious not to have his picture in the newspaper and that sort of thing, so I am not going to give his name, but I have the statement in my pocket. It may come up at a later time. I am saying no more than there was more in this question than the Committee had opportunity to see or means to decide and that they misconceived their functions when they converted themselves into a police court. That is all I am saying.

One final point with regard to this question of Privilege in general. There was an article in "The Times" today deploring frivolous complaints of Privilege. With that article I cordially agree. I believe that this House has been bothered by a number of quite frivolous complaints of Privilege and that hon. Members should be very careful indeed not to be too particular. [An HON. MEMBER: "Touchy."] I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Hon. Members should not be too touchy about their rights. They should not be assertive and they should not bother this House unless the business of this House and its functioning have been seriously interfered with.

Having said that, one must also mention the effect that this must have on the restraint of individual Members, and the very worst way of getting restraint is by attempting to obstruct the exercise of rights by Members. I believe this has been the experience of Whips, of the Leader of the House and perhaps even of the Chair. In this case, I feel that both in the Committee of Privileges and in this House there was absolute unanimity on one thing, and that was that my hon. Friend's complaint raised an issue of Privilege.

That complaint did not turn out to have been well founded, but it did raise an issue of Privilege, and my hon. Friend was entitled to and did raise it. It was my hon. Friend's right to have that issue brought before the House, and I would respectfully say that I think a great deal of confusion has been caused by the use of the words prima facie.What I understand is the function of the Chair—and it arose when this was used by Irish Members for obstruction—is to rule whether the complaint, if well founded, raises the question of Privilege. If the matter raised by the complaint does not affect Privilege, then it does not have priority. If it does raise Privilege, it ought to have priority and be dealt with right away.

I would suggest two other things. The first is that hon. Members should come to you, Mr. Speaker, for advice and should be advised as to whether you think and will rule that the question which they propose to raise affects Privilege or does not affect Privilege. I feel that if hon. Members were told that you would rule that it did not affect Privilege many of these matters might not be raised at all, which would be all for the best.

I would suggest further that they should be advised, even when it does raise Privilege, whether you feel it is sufficiently important to bring before the House. I feel that by the restraint of hon. Members and with the assistance of your advice, which I know will always be available to them, the somewhat frivolous complaints of Privilege from which the House has been suffering will cease.

7.26 p.m.

Mr. Henry Strauss (Norwich, South)

I shall detain the House for only a very few minutes, but I think a few things should be said having regard to the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). The first thing I would say—and I say it with the greater sense of duty because I think it very likely that no member of the Committee of Privileges will himself speak—is that this House is very much indebted to the Committee for the great speed with which they have produced this Report. It cannot have been easy to sift so much evidence and to go through so much investigation in such a short time, and on my behalf, and I think on behalf of many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I should like to convey my appreciation of the efficiency with which they have acted.

There is one word I should like to say, so that there may be no misunderstanding, about the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. J. Lewis). I completely agree with the statement that the question whether he is guilty or not guilty of the offences for which he will shortly stand his trial is a matter for the courts and is in no way determined by any findings of the Committee of Privileges.

The two points on which I wish to reply to the hon. and learned Member for Northampton are these. The first was that he still thought apparently that some criticism should be advanced against the police. He said they would be well advised in such a case if they delayed the issue of summonses in criminal proceedings. I want to say in the clearest possible terms—I have already expressed this view in my speech on 24th July and I say it with renewed emphasis after reading the Report of the Committee of Privileges—that no complaint of any kind whatsoever can be made against the police for issuing summonses in this case.

That brings me to the only other matter raised by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton on which I am respectfully going to differ from him entirely. He complains that the Committee of Privileges found various facts, and he pointed out that the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Cocks) would have preferred fewer findings of fact to appear in the Report. I am certain of the complete good faith of the hon. Member for Broxtowe and I can understand that there may have been a difference of opinion between the majority of the Committee and the hon. Member for Broxtowe on how many facts it was necessary to find.

The point on which the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Northampton very much puzzled me was this—that never, I think, has a speech made it more necessary for the Committee of Privileges to find various facts than the speech he himself delivered on 24th July. I will not quote passage after passage but I would remind the House of the whole point of the submission that he, and I think the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), made in opposition to me when I was stating that matters of criminal law were wholly excluded from the Privileges of this House—that is to say, that this House does not claim any Privilege for its Members to be exempt from the ordinary process of criminal justice for acts done outside this House.

His whole point in answer to me was that the facts in the present case were so bound up with the question of Privilege that they must be investigated by the Committee. The very facts claimed as constituting Privilege were the facts which the police were claiming constituted crimes. He did not hesitate on the last occasion to mention a whole number of facts relating to the summonses and other matters which were not known to the House from any other source. That having been done in debate in this House, it seems to me that the Committee of Privileges were bound, when we remitted the matter to them, to make findings of facts.

I can quite see that there may be a genuine difference between the majority of the Members of the Committee and the hon. Member for Broxtowe as to how many facts it was necessary to find. I can see the difficulty, but not having served on that Committee myself I would not venture—and I think it would be improper to venture—on any decision between them. But I really do not think that we should ourselves say that the Committee of Privileges have done anything wrong at all in finding a series of facts.

Mr. Paget

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman point out a single fact which I opined on 24th July and which was in issue before the Committee? They were all accepted.

Mr. Strauss

It is all very well to say that they were not in issue and were accepted. What the hon. and learned Gentleman did was to make a statement of all sorts of facts, and he said that the facts which he was alleging constituted both the assertion of Privilege and the offences which were the subject of the summonses.

Mr. Pagetrose

Mr. Strauss

The hon. and learned Gentleman has made his point. The House will judge whether my reply is a good one or not. It is essential that the Committee of Privileges should find a series of facts. The Committee of Privileges seems to me to have discharged their function bona fideand well, and I do not think that they should be subject to the criticism that has been made by the hon. and learned Gentleman of finding too many facts.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas)

Perhaps it would be desirable that this point which has been raised should be cleared up. I should like to refer to Question 85 on page 7 of the Report, when I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. J. Lewis): I would like to be completely clear about this. The complaint is that the Police did not hold up the traffic to let you through at the moment you got to the head of the queue? That is the whole gist of the complaint. The answer was: Not at that moment. If there was any intention of doing that, then I would not have regarded it as being an obstruction "— and now come the vital words— if conditions were such that it was not possible to let me through. In view of that answer, it was, in my view, inescapable that the Committee should decide whether the conditions were, in fact, such that it was not possible for the police to let the hon. Member through.

Mr. Strauss

I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for his intervention which bears out that the Committee acted with complete propriety in finding a whole series of facts. I do not think that anybody who did not attend the Committee would have any inclination to criticise it.

Reference was made to the Amendments of the hon. Member for Broxtowe. He challenged five paragraphs of the Report—paragraphs 9, 10, 11, 12 and 15 —notin toto,but certain passages in them which he would have preferred to be different. I should like hon. Members to glance at the Amendment which the hon. Member for Broxtowe moved to paragraph 15. They will find it at the foot of page xi. This was the final sentence of the Amendment: There is no evidence that in this case the two police officers concerned did not act otherwise than reasonably and in good faith. He meant, of course, precisely the opposite. He has got one too many negatives in that sentence, which made his Amendment complete nonsense.

Mr. Cocks (Broxtowe)indicated assent.

Mr. Strauss

The hon. Member for Broxtowe, with his usual good humour and honesty, nods his assent. I dare say he did the drafting hurriedly. I only mention it because I think that, since we are being asked to prefer the Amendments of the hon. Member for Broxtowe to the considered views of the Committee, that might make us hesitate—

Mr. Cocks

I would point out that this Amendment was written very hurriedly, and I never saw a proof of it. The word "acted" should be substituted for the words "did not act."

Mr. Strauss

I am obliged to the hon. Member. I do not want to exaggerate the point. There is no cause for criticism of the Committee of Privileges for this Report. On the contrary, we are indebted to them—and when I say that, I mean all of them. I say further that there is no complaint of any sort that can be made against the police, and I would finally say that it was necessary for the Committee of Privileges to find a whole series of facts, and I do not think that any criticism could be levelled against them because they discharged that duty.

7.37 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

In the four or five discussions which, in the course of the last 100 years or so, have taken place on occasions of this kind when questions with regard to the obstruction of Members coming to the House have been raised, the Home Secretary of the day has intervened to give his assurances to the House as to the attitude which the Commissioner of Police adopts towards the Sessional Order.

I only wish to say this evening that the moment the Commissioner receives the Order each year he inserts in the Police Orders of the Day a paragraph drawing the attention of the chief superintendents particularly to the Order of the House and tells them that they are to instruct the constables at all times to prevent or remove any cause of obstruction and afford every facility for the free passage of Members to and from the House at all times. As far as my observation goes, I think that the rank and file of the Police Force endeavour to carry out that very difficult duty with courtesy, tact and promptitude. I wish to assure the House that I am certain that that is the attitude of all ranks of the force.

I should like to draw the attention of the House to the answers to Questions 228 to 231, inclusive, at the foot of page 13, where Constable Cordingley was being examined, and he was asked by the right hon. and learned Chairman of the Committee: …have you any instructions at all with regard to Members of Parliament in your Division?—Yes, Sir. Are they written instructions or verbal instructions?—We were told at the Training School. I want to bring home to Members of the House the importance that this particular point has in the training of a policeman, and that every man as he goes through the Training School has this particular duty brought to his attention.

At previous meetings of the Committee I have been called to the Chair. On this occasion, as I am responsible to the House for some parts of the police duty in the Metropolis, it would have been wrong for me to take the Chair or to attend the Committee. I did not, therefore, attend, in order that there should be no feeling that the Committee had been improperly influenced by any bias which I might have.

May I say this? During the course of the preliminary discussions before this matter was sent to the Committee of Privileges, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) said that I gave orders to the police about issuing a summons. May I say that that is entirely wrong? No police authority may instruct a constable to issue a summons or to refrain from issuing a summons. That is a matter which the constable has to decide on his own responsibility. Of course, in the organised police force he makes his report, which is considered by the legal advisers to the force, and they decide whether or not a summons shall be issued.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

On the rare occasions on which I have had a summons it has always been signed by a magistrate and not by a police constable.

Mr. Ede

Undoubtedly the summons is signed by a magistrate, but the information upon which the summons is based is laid by a constable.

Mr. Pannell (Leeds, West)

Is my right hon. Friend saying that a summons is issued on the authority of the constable? Is it not a fact that the information is laid by the constable before some superior officer—some officer very much above the rank of constable?

Mr. Ede

That is exactly what I was saying when I was interrupted—that the constable reports and then the legal advisers to the police or a superior officer decide that information shall be laid and a summons applied for. Of course, it is within the discretion of a magistrate whether the summons is issued or not. I want to make it quite plain that the Home Secretary has not and never has had the power either to order the issue of a summons or to order that a summons shall not be issued.

May I say this in conclusion? I do not want to deal with the merits of this case at all, but I am quite certain that we must all recognise this: that the problem of London traffic is a very heavy one for the police, and that it is only by their efficient regulation of the traffic that in many parts of London the traffic can move at all; and that when a policeman, in the due exercise of his duty, bona fide has to hold up a line of traffic so that another line may proceed, he cannot, I think, be held to be guilty of obstruction for, if he was not there to regulate the traffic, the probability is that neither line of traffic would be able to move at all.

I am quite certain that we have to apply the Sessional Order of the House in accordance with the facts and circumstances of our time. I desire to assure the House that the police of the Metropolis will at all times do what they can to see that the Sessional Order is carried out, not merely in letter but in spirit.

7.46 p.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I should not have taken part in the debate but for the state of confusion in which the Home Secretary was on the subject of who issues a summons. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The Home Secretary quite definitely said that it was the policeman who issues the summons, but that is not in the faintest degree true. That is why I raised the point.

There is one satisfactory feature about this Report which at least should be put on record. These privileges do not arise out of the Sessional Orders. If hon. Members will read through them they will see that they apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. The Sessional Order has no significance at all; it is merely a reminder to the Commissioner of the Police in a particular area which affects us more than other areas. The Sessional Order has no importance; the Report makes it quite clear.

We have not solved this problem, that we have two sets of law operating. One law makes it an offence for a policeman to take certain actions. I have no complaint at all here; on any occasion on which I have wanted to get to the House I have been given every facility. I drove in solitary state down Whitehall recently when it had been cleared for a Royal procession. I have no complaint at all. I just said where I wanted to go and the barrier was raised, and I drove in great state down Whitehall. The taxi man was much impressed.

But let us take the serious point which the Committee did not face. We declare that privileges are not personal to us. They are the privileges of our constituents; that is the fundamental thing. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] They are the privileges of our constituents in the sense that we cannot discharge our duty to our constituents—that is the fundamental basis—without what are called the Privileges of Parliament. I notice that the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) laughs, but he has only to dig back into history, to which he belongs—

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

I hope my hon. Friend will not mind my making the observation that it is sometimes rather difficult to avoid laughing at his remarks. I hope he will not mind my laughing. I know I ought to take him seriously.

Sir H. Williams

On this occasion, as far as I could make it out, the bulk of hon. Members laughed with me. [HON. MEMBERS: "No; laughed at you."] We are in this conflict.

We have over many years proclaimed that Members have a certain privilege of access to this House. Circumstances might arise, when an hon. Member is making use of the privilege which this House has conferred upon him, in which he is obstructed. The question is this: in which order do the two crimes occur? Because if the policeman obstructs me, he has committed the first crime; and if. later, I exercise my rights against him and he charges me with a crime, we have the problem of which crime occurred first. [Laughter.] This is a perfectly serious point; I wish hon. Members would sometimes apply their minds to the fundamental problem at issue, a problem which the Committee have not faced and have not answered.

The present position is that in future no hon. Member approaching this House will know what his rights are and no constable will know what are his rights in relation to an hon. Member. Although the Committee have taken infinite trouble, I do not think they have solved the problem which hon. Members and the policeman would have liked to have had solved.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That this House doth agree with the Committee in their Report.