§ Motion made, and Question, "That the Report [18th July] from the Committee of Privileges be now considered—[Mr. Ede]—put, and agreed to.
§ Report considered accordingly.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in their Report."—[Mr. Ede.]
§ 7.49 p.m.
§ Earl Winterton (Horsham)
I apologise for troubling the House, and I will try to keep my speech as short as possible. I rise in order to put a point of view concerning what may be described as the minority report to the Committee's Report. I use the term not in its technical sense because, as the House is aware, there can be no minority report to the Report of the Committee of Privileges as there can be in the case of a Royal Commission.
1541 At the outset, I want to emphasise certain facts. First of all, I should like to say that I am speaking only for myself and that I rise only for the purpose of supporting the principle and the contention which, as I have already said, is embodied in my Amendment to the Report which I will presently read. I shall not ask the House to divide against the Report, because my desire is to cause the minimum of controversy and friction. One can see that the Committee was not united in its view, and I should like to make it clear that it was purely accidental that the vote on my Amendment happened to be defeated on party lines, for I am sure that neither side was actuated by party motives.
Before I come to the gist of the proposal, I should like to make this further observation. Anything that I say is not intended to reflect in any way upon the Chairman of Committees. It will not be improper in the circumstances for me to say that his dignity, confidence and fairness in the Chair I personally greatly admire. I should like to say also that in a sense I am not concerned with the position of the Chairman of Committees or Lady Mellor, because I want to put forward a view which was only defeated in the Committee by a narrow majority, and which seeks to establish at least in general terms the rights and privileges of the Chair, and also of its criticis outside the House.
Assuming that the principle of my Amendment were accepted, I should regard it as a minor point whether Lady Mellor did or did not infringe that principle, especially as the Committee recommended that no action be taken against her. I admit that someone in that case might ask, "How can the principle be accepted if no Division is called?" I would reply that my purpose would be to secure a discussion for a rather complicated reason, for which I ask the leniency of the House if I do not explain it very clearly because it is very complicated.
It is not an improper disclosure of the proceedings of the Committee of Privileges, of which I happen to be the senior member in point of service, to say that the Committee bases its Report on submissions to the House of precedents, views of Erskine May, decisions by, or debates in, the House and what one might 1542 almost call the obiter dictumof Mr. Speaker. These precedents, decisions and statements by Mr. Speaker stretch back literally for hundreds of years. For example, a matter was quoted in a Report of the Committee of Privileges at the time which was given to us by one of the former officials of the House, which stretched back to the 17th century. For all those reasons and because of the manner in which the Committee based its decision, I think it is useful to have a discussion on a point, even if it were a minority one, which seeks to modernise the relations between us and those outside bodies or individuals who might comment adversely on its judgment.
I am afraid at this point I must trouble the Committee to read the Amendment which I moved to the Report. It is on page 6 of the Report and it says:Your Committee are of opinion that adverse comments on Rulings given by or actions of Occupants of the Higher or Lower Chair, whether implicit or direct, do not necessarily constitute a breach of privilege. If they did, whenever a Motion criticising the action of the Chair is discussed in the House, as has often happened in the past, the Press would be procluded from expressing sympathy with the supporters of the Motion because, by so doing, they would be criticising the Chair. Such a curtailment of public comment on the proceedings of this House would be contrary to the whole spirit of the modern relationship' between Parliament and the Nation. On the other hand, a criticism, whether by a Newspaper or an Individual, charging the Occupant of the Chair with a partiality or venality or unfitness for his Office should, in your Committee's opinion, be treated as a breach of privilege.I then go on to say that we did not consider that Lady Mellor came within that category, and then I added:We think it right to add that the considerations urged in the first four paragraphs of this Report are confined to the position of outside Bodies and Individuals who are not members of this House and do not apply to Members of this House.My contention, which I will put in the most succinct form—we have plenty of time tonight and I would invite discussion on them—is that the Amendment protects the Chair against charges which would deprive it of its due authority to perform its duties and high functions.
I should like to go on to the next point, and here I imagine I would receive assenting cheers from both sides of the House. The House has never accepted 1543 the doctrine of infallibility for Mr. Speaker when in the Chair, or the Chairman of Committees, the Deputy-Chairman or any temporary Chairman. The power to criticise any of these functionaries or remove them by Resolution of the House is completely incompatible with such a doctrine. It is open, as the House knows, at any time to put down a Motion criticising any of the occupants of the Chair, and it is open to the House to remove a Chairman by a Motion of the House. The doctrine of infallibility—and I do not use that phrase in any way offensively to Members of a certain religion—has never been applied to occupants of the Chair of this House.
To come to this immediate case, I suggest that the matter at issue is, did Lady Mellor charge the Chairman with lack of faith, unworthy motives or partiality? I submit to the House that she could not have been guilty of a breach of Privilege unless this House asserts what I claim to be an entirely new principal—that no one outside may support a Motion on the Paper criticising the action of the Chair or a Motion about the discussion on Clauses 1 and 2 of the Finance Bill. If anyone takes a contrary view to that, it would be impossible for any person or any newspaper to comment at all by way of support of any such Motion on the Paper. I do not think that that would be tolerated by public opinion.
In the previous discussion we heard a great many things about Privilege, and, speaking as the senior Member of this House, I say that it is all very well to assert the Privileges of this House, but there are such things as the privileges of the public. We have to consider them, and it would be a great breach of the rights of the public to say that in no circumstances could they support any Motion which criticised the Chair.
To support my case, I say that the Committee by a small majority were wrong in holding that Lady Mellor had committed a breach of Privilege, and I should like to refer to certain of the findings and to the evidence. First of all, I should like to draw the attention of the House to two cases which it was suggested were precedents. They are on page 3 where it says:The words which have been so held have however usually been of a stronger character 1544 than the words now under consideration. The nearest precedents appear to be the word 'disgraceful' used of a ruling from the Chair in 1938 by 'The Daily Worker,' and the words 'Nothing short of a public scandal' applied to a ruling from the Chair in 1888 by Mr. Conybeare.In the case of the "Daily Worker." it was described asa gross breach of the privileges of the House.I will come in a moment to the action which which the House took, which was exactly nil. The House took no action. They merely recorded their opinion.
My contention is that I cannot see any real and justifiable link between the charge against the Chair of giving a "disgraceful" ruling, or one "nothing short of a public scandal," and the comment made by Lady Mellor that a ruling of the Chair was "very deplorable." Lady Mellor qualified that statement by saying that it was a Ruling within the rights of the Chair.
I will be very frank and be entirely non-party, and will say that I admit that one sentence at the end of Lady Mellor's statement which formed the subject of the reference to our Committee might have been taken as meaning that the Government improperly influenced the Chair's decision. The sentence to which I refer is that in which she was reported as saying:It seemed a particularly bad thing when a government with such a small majority was in power refused to admit full and free discussion.It might equally be taken as meaning that in the circumstances the Government themselves should have made it clear that they wished for the fullest and freest discussion by supporting the points of order asking that the Amendments be called.
Here I want to say something which I hope will not cause any perturbation. It is quite a useful thing to bring out facts which are normally concealed from the eyes of the public. It is a fact, as most hon. Members of the House know—whether we like to recognise it or not—that the Government and the Opposition can, through the usual channels, usually induce the Chairman to give more latitude to particular Motions than the strict interpretation of the Standing Orders sanctions. We know, again and again that Mr. Speaker—
§ Earl Winterton
I say that it is a fact, whether we like to recognise it or not—I will put the matter in a different form, a more simple form—that by general agreement in the House and if representations have been made through the usual channels, discussion is frequently allowed on resolutions, Amendments or Bills which is perhaps not strictly within the Rules of Order. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Again and again we have heard Mr. Speaker say words to this effect: "I think it will be for the advantage of the House if such and such a thing is done." We know that it has happened again and again. I turn from that point to the next—
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
Will not the noble Lord admit the great distinction between allowing latitude in a debate and the Chairman allowing discussion on Amendments when it is out of order?
§ Earl Winterton
That is not the case—but if the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue the matter which, as I say is non-controversial—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is not."] Well, non-party—I am perfectly prepared to follow it further. I would say this, that in my experience—I do not think anyone would deny it—the Chair does have regard to the feelings both of the Government and of the Opposition in respect of certain matters. It may be only coincidence, but in fact, after the Resolution to which reference was made, there were, both on the Committee stage and on the Report stage, very many more Amendments called than I remember on most Bills in the past. It is quite proper that the Chairman should have regard to the feelings of parties.
§ Mr. Loganrose—
§ Dr. Morgan (Warrington)
On a point of order. This is a very serious matter, 1546 Mr. Deputy-Speaker. This is a definite charge that, when the Government and the Opposition are agreed, certain things are allowed by the Chair which would not be allowed to an ordinary Private Member. I really must confess that I ask for your Ruling.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)
I listened to the noble Lord, and since I was appointed Deputy-Chairman nothing of that character has come to my notice. [Interruption.]
§ Earl Winterton
I am very much obliged to the hon. Gentleman below the Gangway who just said: "The noble Lord is telling the truth." The real point is—I am sure that both sides of the House will wish to approach this matter with the utmost frankness, and I hope to have some influence on the minds of those who may have had a different view previous to the discussion—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Warrington (Dr. Morgan). wish to make a speech?
§ Earl Winterton
In all the years I have been in this House, I have never asked anyone to qualify my speech, and if I wanted help the last quarter I would look to would be the hon. Member for Warrington, and that would apply to most of his colleagues as well.
The point with which we are concerned in this discussion is whether or not Lady Mellor said anything which she intended to be a charge of non-impartiality against the Chair. I will ask the House to look at the answers which she gave on the subject in answer to a question which she was asked. On page 2 of the Minutes of Evidence, it will be seen that one of the witnesses said:At the conclusion of speech by Lady Mellor, several questions were asked, but I did not take shorthand notes of those, or answers. I recall, however, one question was asked and that, in reply, Lady Mellor emphasised the fact that when Major Milner was in charge of the conduct of proceedings in the House of Commons, he always showed himself to be scrupulously fair and completely without bias.It is right, in justice to Lady Mellor, to quote what she said in evidence on Monday, 16th July. She said:I wish to make it quite clear that in my opinion Major Milner is always impartial in his conduct of the Chair.1547 She said again:I did question Major Milner's judgment but, never his impartiality.She repeated that she emphasised once again that Major Milner's judgment was the one particular thing that she criticised, and not his impartiality.
§ Earl Winterton
These are the answers she gave to a question put to her on 16th July. She had already said, long before there was any Motion before this House, when asked a question at the meeting, that she did not intend to impugn Major Milner's judgment. I quote again:I recall, however, one question was asked and that, in reply, Lady Mellor emphasised the fact that when Major Milner was in charge of the conduct of proceedings in the House of Commons, he always showed himself to be scrupulously fair and completely without bias.That was said at the time of the meeting. It was quite understood that whether Lady Mellor committed an error of judgment in making her comment upon the Deputy Speaker or not, she did not intend to question his impartiality.
In the light of the statements Lady Mellor made both at the time and subsequently in reply to the questions of the Committee, I find it impossible to believe that. Lady Mellor did comment on the judgment of the Chair but she did not criticise the impartiality of the Chair, but I hope that hon. Members will agree with me that those outside this House have a perfect right to make comments adverse to the Chair provided that they do not infringe the principles which I have already enunciated. I am glad to see assent from some hon. Members opposite. If this House thinks that it can at this time of day assert rights which it really has never asserted in the past in respect of the Chair or anything else, it will get itself very much wrong with public opinion outside.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
\: I find myself in considerable agreement with what the noble Lord has said, but he ought in fairness to the Committee of Privileges to point out that the claims he is making for Lady Mellor cannot be substantiated by any evidence. Those statements were not reported.
§ Mr. Wigg
I beg the noble Lord's pardon. What I meant was that none of this is supported by reports in the newspaper. They are all things that Lady Mellor might well have thought up afterwards. I am not saying that she did so but that she could have done. We ought to draw a distinction between reports of what she said supported by the reports in the newspaper and what Lady Mellor may have thought up afterwards.
§ Earl Winterton
Perhaps I have not made myself clear. The hon. Member is in error. The first of my quotations was from a statement made by one of the witnesses, and I will read it once more. The witness was Mr. William Strange, and this is what he said:At the conclusion of speech by Lady Mellor, several questions were asked but I did not take shorthand notes of those, or answers. I recall, however, one question was asked and that, in reply, Lady Mellor emphasised the fact that when Major Milner was in charge of the conduct of proceedings in the House of Commons, he always showed himself to be scrupulously fair and completely without bias.I remember "scrupulously" in some reference to "bias."
§ Earl Winterton
I have never heard a more extraordinary argument than that. This is the statement of a witness. The witness said he was convinced that Lady Mellor had used these words, which showed that she did not intend to reflect upon the partiality of the Chair.
§ Mr. Turner-Samuels
The noble Lord does not follow my point. This does not derogate from the credibility or the strength of the statement. What was put to the noble Lord was that the statement was not in the newspaper. He rather led the House to believe that it was.
§ Earl Winterton
Nothing of the sort. Lady Mellor or any other person whose statement is complained of cannot be held responsible for what appears or does not appear in a newspaper. What she is responsible for, and what every person against whom a complaint of Privilege has 1549 been made is responsible for, is the statement made. I claim that on all the evidence—I am sure that I have all my colleagues with me—after the most careful examination of the witness we were convinced that Lady Mellor did give this answer to the question. I hope I may leave the matter there.
§ Mr. E. Fletcher
On a point of order. On a number of occasions the noble Lord has admitted that it is not in order in this House to discuss proceedings in the Committee of Privileges except in so far as they appear in the Report. The noble Lord is going quite outside what I have always understood to be the rules of Order, for he is asserting that every Member of the Committee accepted the evidence.
§ Earl Winterton
To save the time of the hon. Gentleman and the House, I will put it in a different form and then the hon. Member will not wish to raise a point of order. It would appear to be obvious from the questions asked of this witness by the Members of the Committee that particular pains were taken to find out if his recollection was right and that the Committee accepted it. There is no breach of order in saying that.
§ Mr. Fletcher
Will not the noble Lord agree that there is nothing in the Report of the Committee to suggest that they necessarily accepted that evidence?
§ Earl Winterton
There is nothing to the contrary. What I am advocating to the House is that my Amendment, which was supported—
§ Earl Winterton
I think I might be permitted to continue. I have never known more interruptions in a single speech.
§ Mr. Wigg
This is a very important point. If the noble Lord will turn to paragraph 105 on page 6 of the Report he will find that Mr. Strange's evidence on this point was prompted by a telephone call from Lady Mellor to the editor of the newspaper asking the editor to see —I am not complaining of this—if Mr. Strange could remember a question that was asked of Lady Mellor at the end of 1550 her meeting because there was no record of it. I find myself in some difficulty in accepting the noble Lord's point of view that Lady Mellor is supported by what Mr. Strange said.
§ Earl Winterton
I gather that the hon. Gentleman means that he doubts the credibility of Mr. Strange. He is entitled to do so if he wishes, and I accept it. As he made a very friendly reference to the rest of my speech, I hope he will now permit me to continue. I accepted the witness's evidence, and I believe that my colleagues did, but, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, I am not entitled to say that. If they had not accepted the credibility of the witness they would have put other and more searching questions.
§ Mr. Frederick Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)
Does not the noble Lord agree that a distinction may properly be drawn between a qualification extorted by perhaps an indignant questioner—we do not know the nature of the question—and the content of the main body of the speech? It seems to me, looking at the Report of the main body of the speech, that the juxtaposition of the last sentence and the penultimate sentence can only indicate a direct reflection upon the partiality of the Chair.
§ Earl Winterton
The hon. Gentleman has asked me a perfectly fair question. However, never before in my 47 years in this House have I known what it was to stand in the witness box. Nevertheless, I will answer the hon. Gentleman's cross-examination question to the best of my ability by saying that I do not think he is right. For one thing it is unlikely that it would have been a hostile question, for it was delivered at a small garden meeting at which some 30 Conservatives were present. I believe the reply was given in all good faith by Lady Mellor, and I believe that Mr. Strange, the reporter, whose memory some hon. Members seem to doubt, was correct.
I want to conclude by asking some questions. I hope that some of the vociferous—I will not say that, because the House has been very good to me—some of the more persistent questioners opposite, when they address, the House will answer the points which I now propose to put.
What purpose is served by saying that a breach of Privilege has been committed 1551 if no action is taken? It is true that we have a precedent for it. It is true that in the case of the "Daily Worker," which described the attitude of the Speaker as disgraceful—which I should have thought any fair-minded person would agree was a breach of Privilege—a more serious charge could have been brought than in respect of anything Lady Mellor has said, but no action was taken. What is the purpose of this? Is it intended as a warning or to enhance the dignity of the Chair? I should have thought that the failure in 1938 to take any action against the "Daily Worker" did not impress either the public or that paper.
Now I shall say something which will cause universal dissent on all sides I entirely agree with the attitude of many newspapers and individuals outside this House in regard to Privilege questions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am astonished, delighted and heartened beyond belief to get those cheers and I am most grateful. I think the House is getting far too Privilege minded—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—and if any person wishes to guy our proceedings, all they have to do is to get up every time after Questions and say, "Mr. Speaker, I desire to raise a question of Privilege."
There are at the present time up there in the Press Gallery 30 or 40 persons who are taking down the proceedings of the House. That is contrary to the rules of the House. Mr. Speaker would presumably say that it is a prima faciecase of Privilege and it must go to the Committee. It could be done day after day.. In this matter the House could quite easily make itself supremely ridiculous and, far from enhancing the dignity of the Chair or of anyone in the House, it would have exactly the opposite effect.
I know the House generally dislikes a story, but I cannot resist telling this one because I once broke a convention. It was solemnly impressed on me by my Whips when I first got into the House that it was the right and privilege of hon. Members of this House to wear a hat. Without it, they would get into trouble. The only place where they need not wear hats was in the dining room. Every hon. Member had to walk into the House with his hat in hand and put it on immediately he sat down. Some of us decided 1552 that it was out of date and fantastic and we decided to break it. People shouted when we came into the Chamber, "Hat, hat." We said it was ridiculous to say that this was either a right or a Privilege. I suggest that some of these cases of Privilege are equally as ridiculous as the idea of wearing a hat.
If I were to get on to the subject of procedure, Sir, you would properly call me up. However, I must just call attention to the comic opera arrangement by which one can only raise a point of order during a Division by putting on a hat. Anything more childish can hardly be imagined. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear hear."] I must add this, too, that it is awfully funny, with a Left wing Government in power for the last six years, that the House should have had more cases of alleged breach of Privilege than at any time in its history. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) is not here, because he is the principal protagonist in the matter.
I beg the House not to be too sensitive in the case under discussion. I do not ask hon. Members to reject it, but I ask them not to be too sensitive now or on future occasions. Because there is a danger that they might create ridicule or resentment against the House as an institution by the effect on public opinion outside, to whom in the end, in our democracy, we must always be responsible.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
I find myself in almost complete agreement with the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) for the first time since I have been in this House. I think we shall lay ourselves open to damaging repercussions of public opinion if we go on raising questions of Privilege like some of those we have had during the last few months. I have questioned the noble Lord on some of the points he has put before the House, not because I have doubted what he said—I did not have the advantage of hearing the evidence—and I am quite prepared to accept what the Committee of Privileges say in their Report. I merely wanted to draw a distinction between the point at which I agree with the noble Lord and the point at which I would require further evidence before going as far as he went.
1553 I think the question of Lady Mellor should not come before the House of Commons because I do not think that what she says is as tremendously important as all that. I do not say that in an offensive way. If Lady Mellor wants to criticise Parliament, it is a good thing for Parliament, and I do not think that the Chairman of Ways and Means suffers very much if Lady Mellor says unkind things about him.
I have said some unkind things to the noble Lord, and he has said some to me. I do not regret anything I have said, and I am sure that he does not regret what he has said. It is quite likely that the speech we have just heard from the noble Lord may be the last speech of his we shall hear in this House. I hope he will not misunderstand me if I say that I hope it is. I understand he is retiring from this Parliament, and I hope we are going to have a General Election before the end of September so that we can give the Government a larger majority than we have at present.
If, however, the noble Lord is going to leave us, I should like to say that so far as I am concerned he will go with every expression of good will. I regard him as a completely honest and honourable man. Like myself—(Laughter.] There should be a full-stop after man. Like me, when he hits he does not mind whether he hits above or below the belt. I understand that in the last Parliament the noble Lord was sometimes confused with my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell). One of them was called "Arsenic" and the other "Old Lace." I know the right hon. Member for Easington better than I know the noble Lord, and I am not quite sure who is "Arsenic" and who is "Old Lace."
I am quite certain, however, that the noble Lord tonight, in his last speech in this House, has done great service to the House of Commons, particularly if we listened with care to the advice he gave us. If we have a new Parliament, as I hope we shall in the course of the next few weeks, the new Parliament will add to its dignity and to its lustre if every hon. Member reads what the noble Lord has said and takes it to his heart. With those words, I wish the noble Lord the best of luck in the future.
§ 8.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)
I agree with what has been said by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). The House is indeed indebted to the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) for his assistance in these matters on so many occasions, and particularly on this occasion. His speech divided itself into three parts: first, the question of what is the Privilege of the House and its extent, and what would constitute a breach of it; second, what were the effect of the words used by Lady Mellor, and whether they constituted a breach of Privilege as we understand it. His last point was, what is the purpose of having found that there was a breach and then to say that we advised that the House should take no action?
With regard to the first point—that is the one where the noble Lord has done a real service in bringing it to the attention of the House—there is, quite obviously, practically no difference between any of us. Too many questions of Privilege have been raised in this House. Members are getting much too sensitive, much too ready to claim Privilege when really the question of Privilege does not arise.
In the last Report of the Committee of Privileges which was before the House prior to this one, we pointed out that the Privilege of individual Members is really only the Privilege of the House itself, and that we only derive any rights we have in as much as we are part of the House, and nothing more. The same, then, applies to you, Sir, and to the other Officers of the House. What we are anxious about is that we should maintain the position of the House and its dignity, and that you should be protected in your position.
The noble Lord put before the Committee the Amendments to which he has already referred. May I again refer to them and say that with the statement he then made, I think we were all in agreement? This is what appears on page vi of the Report from the Committee of Privileges:Your Committee are of opinion that adverse comments on Rulings given by or actions of Occupants of the Higher or Lower Chair, whether implicit or direct, do not necessarily constitute a breach of privilege.'1555 They do not constitute such a breach. Comments can be made upon you, Sir, and your colleagues. They might be a breach of Privilege, but are not necessarily a breach of Privilege. With that statement of the noble Lord, I think we are all in agreement.
Page vi of the Report continues:If they did, whenever a motion criticising the action of the Chair is discussed in the House, as has often happened in the past, the Press would be precluded from expressing sympathy with the supporters of the motion because, by so doing, they would be criticising the Chair.'That is quite a fair comment upon the noble Lord's prior statement.'Such a curtailment of public comment on the proceedings of this House would be contrary to the whole spirit of the modern relationship between Parliament and the Nation.'I do not think it was necessary to add even the word "modern."
§ Mr. Davies
I repeat:'Such a curtailment of public comment on the proceedings of this House would be contrary to the whole spirit of the modern relationship between Parliament and the Nation.'Again, I absolutely agree. Then we come to the noble Lord's next remarks:On the other hand, a criticism, whether by a Newspaper or an Individual, charging the Occupant of the Chair with partiality or venality or unfitness for his Office, should, in your Committee's opinion, be treated as a breach of privilege.'Quite right. Does the comment go to this extent: that it charges the occupant of the Chair with partiality? If it does, then it is a breach of Privilege. If it charges the Chair with incompetence—that the occupant is not fit to be there—it is a breach of Privilege. It is the duty of the House to protect its Officers against such complaints which are made outside the House.
Now, I turn to the finding of the Committee—that is to say, of the majority. I quote now from paragraph 7 on page iv:Your Committee had to consider whether the words which Lady Mellor admitted using and which she stated were correctly reported in the 'Sutton Coldfield News' constituted a breach of privilege. While Your Committee are not prepared to go so far as to say that any comment made upon the Chairman in his conduct of the business of the House, even though such comment be adverse, is necessarily a breach of the Privileges of the House…1556 That is exactly the same point as the noble Lord made. I am not at all sure that his words were not better than ours.…undoubtedly a comment upon the conduct of the Chairman with regard to the business of the House which would be construed reasonably by those who hear or read such comment as charging him with partiality is a breach of the Privileges of the House.There we are again in complete agreement in trying to state the law in regard to the action of the Chair and comments upon it. On that point I think we were in complete agreement with the noble Lord and others. Where did we differ? It was in applying our minds to the subject of the charge of breach of Privilege.
The noble Lord has referred to the evidence that was given by Lady Mellor. I will come to that in a moment. What was before us? If the House will turn to page 3 they will read:The Committee of Privileges, to whom the Matter of Complaint made upon the 18th day of June last, of the speech of Lady Mellor reported in the Sutton Coldfield News newspaper of the 16th day of June last, was referred "—That was all that was before us, what was reported in that newspaper, and it will be found that the words are there set out in paragraph 2:The other day Major Milner (Deputy-Speaker) made a ruling and though he was within his rights Lady Mellor thought that, in the present circumstances, it was a deplorable one. He refused to permit certain amendments to the proposals to increase certain taxes to be discussed which normally would have been discussed. It seemed a particularly bad thing when a government with such a small majority was in power refused to admit a full and free discussion.That was what we had to apply our minds to, and the question we had to put to ourselves was, in our opinion, was there a charge of partiality against the Chairman and would that be regarded by any reasonable person giving it a reasonable construction as a charge of partiality in his office? To anyone who reads it reasonably, what construction would he put on it? We came to the conclusion, as a matter of fact, that anyone reading that and giving it a reasonable construction would say that it in effect came to a charge of partiality on the part of the Chairman, and that was why the majority of the Committee came to its conclusion.
Having come to that conclusion, then comes the question of what we should report to the House should be the penalty. 1557 A penalty might be a very grave one for a breach of Privilege, a very grave one indeed. The House has, for example, sent for a person who has committed a breach to stand at the Bar to be reproved from the Chair. When we come to consider it, we had to consider the question of the wrong and what had really happened.
As the noble Lord said, this was a small meeting, and the report was also in a rather small local paper. Then Lady Mellor, at the meeting itself, which unfortunately was not reported—the readers of the paper did not know that—when the question was put to her, said quite definitely, "I am making no charges"—I cannot remember the exact words" against the Chairman, he has always been completely impartial," or something of that sort.
We bore that in mind, and she came before us and repeated that. Under those circumstances, we said that this case could best be met by reporting to the House that no further action should be taken. That is why that was done. We had to consider, was there a breach of Privilege? Was there a real charge here against an Officer of the House with a duty to the House to protect it? Giving the best construction we could we came to the conclusion that there was. Having come to that conclusion, we then said that, taking everything into consideration, we did not think anything further should be done.
It was only on the question of that construction, of what would a reasonable person think in reading that, that we differed from the noble Lord. I am perfectly sure the noble Lord and his colleagues were just as conscientious in coming to their conclusions as we in coming to ours. It is a matter entirely for the House. We thought that we had given the one and only construction that any reasonable man would. That really is the whole position.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Pannell (Leeds, West)
The first thing which ought to be said by anyone representing the City of Leeds in this House is the pleasure we feel at the confidence of the Committee of Privileges, and indeed of the whole House, in the conduct of Mr. Deputy-Speaker. It seems to me a trifle ungracious that all those people who have spoken on behalf 1558 of the Committee of Privileges have not make that remark before now.
It seems to me that the noble Lord, in addressing the House, and indeed the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) seemed far more keen to acquit Lady Mellor than they did—
§ Mr. Pannell
I will give way if the noble Lord will let me finish my sentence. It was characteristic that he did not give way to me when I wanted to intervene on this point previously, so he might wait a minute.
§ Mr. Pannell
The noble Lord was making a great plea that anyone should be allowed to attack the Chair, that there was nothing infallible about the Chair. The only person in this House that is infallible is its Father.
§ Earl Winterton
The hon. Member has made a most uncalled-for attack on me. It is obvious that he has not listened to what I said. He said that I paid no tribute to Mr. Deputy-Speaker. May I quote my words to him—I read them textually from my notes—that nothing I said was intended to reflect in any way upon the Chairman of Committees, whosedignity, competence and fairness in the Chair I personally greatly admire.I call on the hon. Member to withdraw, from a sense of fairness, the quite unwarranted statement he has made.
§ Mr. Pannell
I can only say that the noble Lord's statement was rather over-larded with special pleading for Lady Mellor rather than with any praise for Mr. Deputy-Speaker.
§ Mr. Pannell
Anyone who knows—I am speaking here as one who is not a member of the Committee of Privileges—the feeling occasioned in the House after Mr. Deputy-Speaker had ruled in the way he did on the Finance Bill will know full well that there was a good deal of feeling on the other side of the Chamber. No 1559 one doubts that, nor has the Committee of Privileges held otherwise.
We at least—I hope I carry the House with me—should express our confidence in the Chairman of Ways and Means. He had a considerable record before he came to this House, and he has been the occupant of the junior Chair for many years. I think that a colleague of his from the same city should say these things, and they should be said in emphatic terms at the beginning of his speech.
I am not one of those people who ever raise the issue of Privilege here; therefore I am not under the strictures of the noble Lord in that regard. This matter of raising matters of Privilege seems to be confined to one or two Members on either side. I do not think that the question raised by matters of Privilege is popular with the whole House.
§ Mr. Frederick Elwyn Jones
Is that really fair? Can my hon. Friend mention a single instance of an hon. Member in this Parliament having raised two points of Privilege? It is true that in the course of debates there are one or two outstanding spokesmen upon these issues, but my hon. Friend has done less than justice to his colleagues by saying that there are some of them who consistently initiate questions of Privilege.
§ Mr. Pannell
I accept the statement that there are one or two outstanding protagonists and leave it at that.
It is proposed to say that we have found that there is a breach of Privilege and that we intend to do nothing about it. The noble Lord asked what purpose was served by a decision of that sort. I think that a certain purpose is served. It is noteworthy that some people, especially the Communist Party, like to refer to places such as this, and to this place, in derogatory terms, referring to it as the "gas chamber." It is that sort of general contemptuous allusion that can easily be shared and easily taken up. Some of us felt even the other day on a much deeper matter of Privilege which was brought to an end rather peremptorily that the purpose of the House was not well served, because there was not an adequate debate upon it.
It is rather remarkable that throughout the Report of the Committee of Privileges there is shown a marked party line. I 1560 wish to refer to page 11, paragraph 197. Here we can see the sharp distinction which arises between something said by Lady Mellor at that meeting and what was talked about afterwards. Lady Mellor made a flat statement which reflected upon the Chair. The Committee of Privileges agreed upon that.
Taking that with the fact that it is joined to a reference to the narrow majority of the present Labour Government, it indicates that it had a political connotation. But she suggested that she qualified that statement. She remembered that there was a question asked of her later on, and in her reply she paid tribute to the Chairman of Ways and Means. I will read what she said. I think that this refers to a conversation between Mr. William Strange and his editor. Apparently, Lady Mellor telephoned on the morning after the publication of the paper and said that it was a fair report. She was not blaming the newspaper. Then:I think he said, 'I am glad to tell you' "—this is the editor speaking to the reporter—'that Lady Mellor does not question the accuracy of the words that have been reported. The words were correctly reported.'Then the witness says:Yes, I remember that. Then did he say anything else to you about her wishing to know about anything else?This was a prompting as to whether she asked any question.Yes, he did say again, I think: Are you quite sure "—this is the editor jogging the reporter's memory.Are you quite sure that you have not got any shorthand notes of remarks in which she said (at least she thought she said) that the Deputy-Speaker was quite impartial in the position of Deputy-Speaker? Yes. Now, after he said that to you, what did you do?And here comes the priceless thing.
§ Mr. Pannell
That is right. I am assuming that hon. Members are following the Report. Now we come to the priceless thing. This is the reporter answering:I think I then thought that over, and I drafted in my mind some words that I thought were what she might have used, and what I thought I heard.1561 I suggest that that is a masterpiece, and I think we are reasonable to think that possibly some questions were thought up after the event.
§ Mr. Pickthorn (Carlton)
This is not a part of the business in which I was interested, but since the suggestion is being made, not for the first time, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will read out the last sentence of the Committee's Report in which the Committee who had the advantage of seeing and examining, cross-examining and re-examining the witnesses, came to a perfectly definite conclusion in this matter. I hope that if the hon. Gentleman wishes his argument, as I am sure he does, to be fair, he will now read the last sentence on page iv.
§ Mr. Pannell
I cannot withdraw what I have said. I have quoted the evidence, and I ask all hon. Members here who have taken sufficient interest to read the Report to agree that whether we accept the Report or not is a matter for the House. The Committee has reported, but surely we have a right to judge the evidence in our own way. I say that that evidence indicates that there were considerable second thoughts on the part of Lady Mellor about what she had said. If hon. Members read the evidence, they will find that no copy had been produced of the letter which is referred to in the evidence, and that this sort of thing came up subsequently.
I think our opinion on this matter would be the opinion that would have been given by the readers of the newspaper when they first read the Report, and that was that an attack had been made upon the Chairman of Ways and Means for a political motive, and that it was part of an attack on the Labour Party.
§ Mr. Pannell
It is not terrible at all. After all, why bother about the fact and suggest that the lady had a high opinion of Mr. Deputy-Speaker? Why suggest at all that she had a high opinion of him? I think she expressed contempt for him, and in terms with which many hon. Members opposite agreed. As a matter of fact, she expressed that view in a way which was followed up by hon. Members of the Committee when they took up sharp party divisions in the Committee itself following 1562 the Ruling of the Chairman of Ways and Means.
§ Earl Winterton
On a point of order. The hon. Gentleman has made a charge against members of the Select Committee on both sides of taking sharp party decisions. That is what I understood him to say, although, perhaps. I am wrong It is known that members of a Select Committee vote according to their judgment and not on party lines, and I think that what the hon. Gentleman has said will be resented as much by those who sit on his side of the House as it is by those who sit here.
§ Earl Winterton
I would call your attention, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to the fact that the hon. Member, after I put a point of order to you, has made an attack upon you and says that you are not competent.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
With regard to the noble Lord's point of order, I do not think the hon. Gentleman was imputing any motives.
§ Mr. Pannell
We have only to turn to the proceedings of the Committee to see that a remarkable coincidence—
§ Earl Winterton
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman overheard a sotto voce remark of mine. If he chooses to make offensive attacks on hon. Members on this side of the House, he must not be too sensitive if he gets a smack in the jaw back.
§ Mr. Pannell
As I understood the noble Lord, he objected because I said that members of the Committee of Privileges appeared to vote according to their party affiliations. I am sorry, but that is a matter of fact, and not one of argument. Every vote appeared to find hon. Members in exactly opposite camps according to their party affiliations. I do not think there is any point in boggling about this. I think it adds considerable weight to what the noble Lord said on this matter of Privilege. It is being thought of less and less in an objective way. It gets responses across the Chamber dependent upon the persons raising the matter and upon the individuals concerned. I think that the whole matter of Privilege, together with many other things in this House, wants looking at again and wants to be re-codified.
I do not want to refer to the matter we debated earlier this evening, and it would be out of order if I did, but nobody would say that the approach to this House and such other Privileges was the same as when the first Speaker asked for right of access to it. All we have to do in a case like this is to decide whether the House has confidence in the occupant of the Chair. The noble Lord would have us believe that it is quite a simple matter to move the Chairman from the Chair. I do not think it is. I, of course, have not had his experience of that sort of thing, but obviously once we put anyone in the Chair he speaks in our name in every sense, and consequently he is vested with an authority and a prestige which we have to concede to him as we concede it to chairmen of other bodies, corporate or otherwise.
The value of this Report of the Committee of Privileges has surely been that it has exonerated the Chairman of Ways and Means and has not called his conduct into question. He did not effect the debate or precipitate it. It was the party opposite which challenged those Rulings. People in the country would not attack the Chair unless they were encouraged to do so by the speeches of hon. Members opposite, who argued all one afternoon on the Deputy-Chairman's interpretation of the Amendment, which they did not even carry to a vote.
Therefore, I think that many of us on this side will take this incident at its face value. I do not quarrel with the fact that Lady Mellor is a good Conservative, like 1564 her husband, and expresses her point of view. I only say that we have got to be very sure that in doing that she does not give the impression that the Deputy-Chairman is the tool of this party.
It so happens, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you, if I may say so with respect—though I understand the antecedents of the occupants of the Chair, however lurid, should not be referred to at all—have a political past and a political present, just as has my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East (Major Milner). But we bring you both to the Chair as men of honour to advise us, and that is all we are concerned with. The charge here today is that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East, did not act in accordance with the traditions of his office. The Committee has exonerated him from such a charge, and I do not think that anyone in the House would challenge the fact that he is a man of honour and acts with integrity and probity in discharging his duty.
§ 8.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Pickthorn (Carlton)
I should like if I may to ask one or two questions about this Report, because in some respects I do not think it is as plain as it might be. The fist one may seem perhaps very technical. I do not know which right hon. Gentleman is going to give us his guidance later on but, whoever it is, I should like him to say whether on reflection a "breach of Privilege" is the right expression to use here.
I do not assert the opposite, but I should have been inclined to have thought that upon the premises and findings of the majority, and therefore of the Select Committee, I should have been inclined to think upon those premises and findings it ought to have been not "…constitute a breach of Privilege" but "constitute a contempt." I should have thought that that would have been the more accurate phrase. In all this matter accuracy is of so great importance that if upon reflection it is conceded there is something in this view I am very tentatively and I hope modestly putting forward, I hope that may be considered.
As my noble Friend the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) said earlier in the evening, Privilege depends always on an immense string of precedents, none of them ever quite accurate, because, as the 1565 hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) reminded us, the things to which the words apply always change between one generation and another; and that being so it is very important to get clarity where we can. With respect to another thing the hon. Member for Leeds, West, said, I think he was under a misunderstanding when he spoke of re-codification. There has never been codification of Privilege; in my understanding of Privilege—though I do not claim to have any learning in it now—I had some learning in it once—it is in essence incapable of codification, and we ought not to think of that as one of the possibilities. But it is not always incapable of clarity, and should have all the clarity it can. This, what seems to be a pedantic point, of what is a case of Privilege and what is contempt, is important if, as I think, clarity is what we ought to seek.
The second, perhaps smaller, point is the question of finding whether there is a breach of contempt and then recommending to the House that nothing should follow from that finding. I have not refreshed even the remains of my own learning. I have not even searched Erskine May or still less looked at my own notes or at other books. I hope this is right, but I shall not be ashamed if it is wrong. The Solicitor-General will correct me if I give a false impression, that the "Daily Worker" case was the first case of deciding there had been a breach of contempt but no action was to follow.
I am inclined to think that is true, but what I am certain is that both in weight and number the precedents both of action and argument in the past were on the whole on the side that the House ought not to find a breach or contempt unless it meant to go on to consequent action.
§ Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
It is all very well for the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) to shake his head, but if he will look it up I think he will find that is so. Certainly Mr. Gladstone, certainly Mr. Pitt, and I think it may fairly be said all the most respectable of the great figures of Parliamentary history who have talked on this, have talked in the sense I have indicated. I am laying my flanks open rather, 1566 because I have not provided myself with references, but the House will do me the justice that I do not generally assert these things without being reasonably certain.
Here I come to a matter in which we are in very great difficulty. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery said what was before the Committee, and all that was before the Committee, was the paragraph printed, I think, the fourth down, on page iii.He said that upon any constructions that paragraph must be taken to be, to put it roughly, so offensive that notice must be had of it. I think I am putting his argument correctly. My trouble with that last sentence is that there is not any possible construction of it. I have read it upside down and inside out.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
And right way up first. I generally begin that way, unlike my compatriot, my slightly overdressed, compatriot. But finding no way of construing it that way, I set it on its head, and inside out, and still could not construe it. I say this in praise of the ingenuity of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery, that when he read it out he found an entirely new way of reading it that had not occurred to me at all. He read it, as far as I can imitate his intonation, and the whole argument turns on intonation so it is going to be rather difficult for HANSARD, as follows:
§ " It seemed a particularly had thing when a Government with such a small majority was, in power, refused to admit full and free discussion."
§ I never thought of reading it in that way.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
The right hon. and learned Gentleman clearly does not listen to himself as carefully as I listened to him. That really is the way in which he did read it, and I appeal to such hon. Members as were here when he spoke to say whether or not that is the way in which he read it. It almost seems to make sense if it is read like that. In no other way that I read it can I make any sense out of it at all.
This is admitted by Lady Mellor to be a fair report of what she said, and 1567 I think it is very modest of her, because I can hardly believe that it is exactly what she said. We all in fact utter sentences which are not grammatical or construable at the time and which, if written down exactly, cannot be construed afterwards. Perhaps I have done it myself in the last five minutes or so; if not, I am sure to do so if I go on for another five minutes—no doubt, because I am not such a good speaker as hon. Members opposite. That may happen to anybody.
But we are then told that only these words were before the Committee, and also that the effect upon the audience must be determined not only from these words but from the other words, the answer to the question. I think that on reflection hon. Members opposite may agree that a great deal of doubt has been thrown not quite fairly upon the other words. I do not know whether the other words were exactly reported, but this I do know, that the Committee apparently unanimously found that they were. They say quite plainly that "Lady Mellor paid a tribute to the Chairman," and so on. There is no doubt at all that we cannot conduct this argument except upon some agreed view of the facts, and I do not see how we can have any agreed view of the facts which is not the agreed view of the Committee.
It may be unfortunate that the second part was not reported, but it seems to me quite certain that anybody who says that the effect upon the readers of the paper depends upon the failure to report that, is really rather estopped by holding the printed words against the speaker, using the first part of the words only, and against the speaker; especially when the first part of the words are not construable. I defy anybody to find exactly what were the words said from what the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery says were the only things they had to consider.
I understand the noble Lord does not propose to divide the House, and I do not know that I propose to divide the House. I think the whole matter was a very small matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "I think it was a small matter. I am entitled to think that.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)indicated assent.1568
§ Mr. Pickthorn
I am very glad to see that I have the agreement of the right hon. Gentleman who leads the House. Other hon. Members are entitled to opposite opinions. I think that the whole thing was a very small matter. It is a misunderstanding to suppose that the words put the Chairman of Ways and Means in the dock, so to speak, and that the Chairman has been exonerated by this Report. I think that is nonsense. That point of view was put by the hon. Member for Leeds, West, but I do not think the right hon. Gentleman needed exonerating, nor do I think this the appropriate way in which to exonerate him. That was not in question. It seems to me a misunderstanding of the matter.
I think it was a very small affair. I do not think in strict language it was a breach of Privilege. If it was anything, and if the House is doing anything by reprobating it, it seems to me that what it is doing is exercising the right which, I think we may now say it quite illegally and unhistorically usurps, of acting like a court and punishing for contempt. I think that is what the House is doing now, if it is doing anything.
For all these considerations I could have wished that this Report had not been presented to us in this form, and although perhaps it is not worth the bother of a Division, I think it is rather regrettable and not very accurate and, I do not say it is disreputable, but not carrying conviction. Lastly—and this is my very last sentence—the immediate point is that the effect of the sentence as reported is not construable.
§ Mr. Logan rose—
§ Mr. Pickthorn
I cannot give way now. That fact seems to me to make the general tenor of the Report, if it is not a breach of Privilege to say so, rather meaningless. Now I shall sit down.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)
I think the hon. Member for Carlton (Mr. Pickthorn) has focused effectively some of the essential points in this discussion. I shall try to reply to the three points which I think he endeavoured to put before us clearly. On the first point, whether the word "privilege" is the proper word, may I say that I was inclined to agree with him in drafting the Report in the first place that the proper phrase was that it was contempt? Erskine May, however, says this—and I would listen to an argument from the hon. Member for Carlton against Erskine May, but I should not venture to advance one myself:Reflections upon the character or actions of the Speaker may be punished as breaches of privilege.That is page 235, and it gives a reference back to page 126, where he lists the breaches of Privilege, and that confirms that point of view. If I could have the hon. Member's attention—
§ Mr. Ede
As far as the wording of the Report was concerned, I think on the authority which is generally quoted we took a sound line. The second point was, why did we do nothing? I am bound to say that there are more precedents than that which the hon. Member quoted for doing nothing, and I have one here which was raised by Mr. Grenfell, who was at that time Member for the City of London, who called attention to some comments by the "Evening News" on a ruling of Mr. Fitzalan Hope, afterwards Lord Rankeillour, who was Chairman of Ways and Means:That the passage in the 'Evening News' newspaper of Friday last constitutes a libel on the Chairman of Ways and Means and is a gross breach of the privileges of this House.After a short discussion the Motion was carried and no further action was taken. I can quote another case within my own recollection. Towards the end of the last House, the hon. Member who now represents the Northfield Division of Birmingham (Mr. Blackburn), raised a question of Privilege with regard to the "Daily Worker," which he alleged had misreported him. The present Foreign Secretary up to that time had been a member of the Committee of Privileges. 1570 He suggested that there was really nothing in this, and he did not think it was a subject for the Committee of Privileges. However, the House decided that it should go to the Committee, and I eventually replaced my right hon. Friend and took the Chair at the Committee.
We had to report then that any report of the proceedings of the House was a breach of Privilege, but I am quite sure that a great many hon. Members would be very disappointed if the newspapers took fright at that and declined to report the speeches of hon. Members on the ground that they might get into trouble for publishing a report of the proceedings of Parliament. We could not but report to the House that this was a breach of Privilege, but I am sure that even the persons most opposed to the "Daily Worker" did not want to bring the editor to the Bar of the House and reprove him or decide on some more dreadful punishment. Therefore, we had to recommend to the House that no action should be taken.
I agree with what has been said from both sides of the House, that there has been too much sensitiveness on this question of breach of Privilege. The trouble is that when there is a technical breach of Privilege and the Committee charged with the duty of examining a statement to see if it is a breach of Privilege finds on technical grounds that it is, the Committee is then confronted with the problem of what we can do in modern circumstances to the person who has been guilty of it.
That is one reason why I think individual Members should be somewhat chary about raising breaches of Privilege which are recognised from the first as not being too serious, because they land the Committee of Privileges with a difficulty of recommending to the House what effective action should be taken. In this case the Committee came to the conclusion that there was a breach of Privilege by an imputation on the impartiality of the Chair. They had, therefore, to report accordingly to protect an officer whom we have placed in a very difficult and responsible position.
It is admitted that if a reflection on the Chair for being partial could be allowed and found not to be a breach 1571 of Privilege, one might then get a wearing away of the protection of the Chair, and people who were guilty of doing something more serious would then say, "But in the Lady Mellor case you found there was no breach of Privilege. Therefore, since we only did a little worse than that, we also ought not to be found guilty of breach of Privilege." That, of course, is on the assumption that the Committee was right in finding that there was a breach of Privilege.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
I could see the whole of that argument if the case were proceeding against the printer and publisher, but if it be held, as it is held by the Committee, that Lady Mellor subsequently, though not in the course of the same speech but in the course of the same proceedings, used words that showed she did not intend to reflect upon the Chair, I do not see how on that argument it could be found that Lady Mellor was guilty of a breach of Privilege.
§ Mr. Ede
I was going to deal with the point, but I did want to emphasise first of all the point with which I had been dealing, that it is perfectly justifiable to find—and there are plenty of precedents for it—that there is technically a breach of Privilege but that it is not anything that the House should visit with any penalty or any greater expression of displeasure than the mere finding that there is a breach of Privilege.
The hon. Member also said that he could find no sense in the final sentence of the quotation. Hon. Members who have read carefully the evidence will know that, in fact, the reporter had to explain to us that it was not a correct rendering into oratio obliquaof the words actually used by the speaker. I think that the words actually used by the speaker and that were heard by the audience and the reporter were a little stronger in criticism and linked the matter up with the Chair more effectively than the words which were printed in the paper.
§ Mr. Pickthorn rose—
§ Mr. Ede
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that I do not try to dodge any part of the argument. I am coming to the other part.
I think, therefore, that we must assume that at that stage of the meeting, at any 1572 rate, what the hearers had heard was something that, in the view of the Committee—which was reinforced by our getting the actual words that were spoken, which the reporter read out to us from his notes—was a reflection on the Chair.
I am bound to say—here I think I speak for the Committee—that we did not think that the final statement made by the lady did remove entirely from the minds of the hearers any impression that they might have formed, and that was one reason why we came to the finding that we did. I do not accept the suggestion that there is some bad faith about this matter, and that this was an afterthought.
The reporter, if I may say so, was a very unsatisfactory witness because, at one stage, he told us he had taken no notes of Lady Mellor's answer to the question and then, at a later stage, said he got the first part. Then the wind was blowing, and I understand that some birds were singing —it was apparently a very enjoyable garden party—and the reporter did not go on taking his notes apart from these sentences in the speech. He was not a very satisfactory witness, and at the end of the day he did not understand that he had altered the sense of the speech by the correction he made in transcribing it into oratio obliqua.
I have tried to deal with three distinct points that were raised by the hon. Member for Carlton. I think that the House would be ill-advised to attempt to do anything more than declare this to be a breach of Privilege. I hold very strongly that we do not want to have brought before us here extempore speeches made by unpractised orators—I hope I am doing the lady no injustice by saying that: she was a very pleasant witness—at small meetings, and reported in obscure local papers. I do not think I am saying anything unkind to the speaker in saying that.
This House is a very great place—it can be a very great place—and we ought to be very careful about how far we allow speeches of the kind that I have just tried to describe to be made the subject of questions in this House. It is unfortunate that in order to protect ourselves and the House—perhaps it would be better to say "protect the House and the future"—when a technical breach of Privilege is brought to our attention we have to take notice of it.
1573 We have to declare as breaches of Privileges things which I am sure were not uttered with any thought of the dignity of the House in the mind of the speaker. If we took down the reports of speeches made in certain places in the county of London and the City of Westminster at week-ends and went through them to find out whether or not there was a breach of Privilege in them, I wonder how many we should find were quite clear of that charge?
I presided over the Committee, and they gave great attention to this matter. I think the noble Lord was rather nearer right than he was given credit for when he disputed the fact that the division on the Committee was on real party lines. I hope I am not saying anything to which my colleagues would object. There was a long discussion on the Committee before we passed the Resolution which was moved, as the Report reveals, by the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies), to which the noble Lord moved the Amendment which he read to us. If in the end the division took place so as to put the Members of two parties on one side and the Members of another party on the other, we did not at any rate start off or conduct the discussion on any party lines; there was a genuine effort to get to the sense of this sentence, to the obscurity of which the hon. Member for Carlton has directed our attention.
§ Dr. King (Southampton, Test)
Will my right hon. Friend explain why there was even a party division in the Committee on paragraphs 2 and 3, which are mere statements of fact.
§ Mr. Ede
I do not know why the division occurred there. Perhaps I ought to say, in explanation, that I was placed in a very difficult position. On the first day when we passed the Resolution there was a clear majority, and the Chairman did not have to vote. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies) suffered a bereavement, and the consequence was that he was unable to turn up the next day. I then took advice as to my duty as Chairman, and I was told that the Report must not stultify the decision that the Committee had already reached. I think I should probably have voted the same way as I did, whether I had received that advice 1574 or not, but it was clearly my duty to see that the Report did not stultify a decision which had been reached.
I agree with several hon. Members on both sides of the House who have suggested that this is not a large case. I am quite certain that there was no real malice or attempt to bring the House into derision in the speech that was made. But I am quite certain that the effect on the minds of the hearers of the passage referred to us must have been to make them think that the conduct of the Chair in this matter was not one of impartiality. That being the case, the Committee came to the conclusion they did, and they regarded all the surrounding circumstances as warranting them in suggesting to the House that, although a breach of Privilege had been committed, we might very well leave the matter with that declaration.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames) rose—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Is the House not ready to come to a decision? [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide."] Mr. Boyd-Carpenter.
§ 9.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
An hon. Member below the Gangway says, "Leave it where it is." May I explain why I cannot? At the moment the House is engaged in a kind of judicial process. We are being asked to approve a report of the Committee of Privileges finding that a certain person outside has been guilty of a breach of Privilege.
Those of us who, having listened to the whole debate so far, are not convinced that any breach of Privilege has been committed, are bound to say so because we are concerned [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide."] I do wish hon. Members opposite could get the idea of Divisions out of their minds for one moment when they are performing a judicial duty. It is our duty to the dignity of this House to make quite sure that we do not do an injustice to any individual outside, and it is a serious thing to find that any person has committed a breach of the privileges of this House.
Secondly, if we are, as I believe, creating a new precedent in the law of the Privilege of this House, we have to 1575 be careful about the creation of a new precedent which may lead to untold consequences in the future. Therefore, may I say as briefly as I can why I do not agree with the very fair and reasonable speech of the Home Secretary? First, I entirely agree with him, as against my hon. Friend the Member for Carlton (Mr. Pickthorn), that there are precedents for finding a breach of Privilege coupled with a decision to take no further action. On that point I think my hon. Friend is wrong.
§ Mr. Logan
On a point of order, Sir, I should like your Ruling. It is now being argued by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) that the decision reached by the Committee is not an accurate one or one that ought to be accepted. Is the hon. Gentleman in order in dealing with the case?
§ Mr. Speaker
Yes. I have not heard the debate, but one is entitled to disagree with the Report of the Committee.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
If I may respectfully say so, Sir, the Motion before the House is "That this House approves the Report of the Committee." It is surely material, if one does not approve of the Report of the Committee, to say why. Indeed, I know no other purpose for the House being in Session at this moment.
I agree with the Home Secretary on this point. Of course, I agree with his second general proposition, that reflections upon the Chair may—and I stress the may—be punished as a breach of Privilege or, as my hon. Friend more accurately put it, as a contempt of this House. But of course the point, and the point where we are creating a precedent, is the degree of reflection upon the Chair which can or cannot constitute such a breach of Privilege. Where I thought the right hon. Gentleman left the House, in deciding aye or no whether to approve the Report of the Committee, in a wholly unsatisfactory position, was when he referred to those words in the newspaper report, which, as my hon. Friend pointed out, are so difficult to construe as they are set out in the Report of the Committee.
What the right hon. Gentleman said was this: that in fact he believed that the words used on the particular occasion were a little more severe than the 1576 words set out in the Report. That leaves the House in a wholly unsatisfactory position. The words set out in the Report were the words which were referred to the Committee on, I think, 18th June. They are the words which the Committee themselves quote in their Report to the House. Surely, we must judge—it is the only thing on which we can judge—whether we think there is here a breach of Privilege, not on some unspecified words which in the Home Secretary's opinion were a little more severe, but on the words which the Committee have themselves reported to the House.
The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, referring to the page in the reporter's evidence in which the reporter—I did not have the advantage of hearing him as the right hon. Gentleman did—very fairly indicated some doubt as to the phraseology used. But if the Committee of Privileges came to the conclusion that the words used were other than those set out in the Report, they should have inserted them in the Report. That would have made the task of the House, in deciding the infinitely delicate matter as to whether there is here a breach of Privilege, a good deal more easy than it is now.
I agree also with the Home Secretary that this is a very small matter. Like every hon. Member who has spoken, except the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell), I think it is a great pity that this matter was ever raised as a question of Privilege, and I think so for two reasons. Any hurt that these words may have done to the House or to the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means has been infinitely increased by transferring words spoken to 35 women in a garden, and reported in a newspaper which is not, perhaps, one of the colossi of Fleet Street, into what has become front page news in every national newspaper. That has been the direct consequence of raising this matter as a question of Privilege, and I regret it.
I regret it, secondly, because I feel, like most hon. Members, that most people outside feel that it does not add to their respect for this House that the House, against the sombre background of world affairs at present should be concerning itself at all with Privilege matters of this kind.
1577 I think that our responsibility in this quasi-judicial function of ours is in this case heavier than in any other Privilege case in this Parliament or the last, and for this reason. Here we have a case in which that much respected Committee the Committee of Privileges only decided that there was a breach of Privilege by five votes to four, and in which every Clause of their Report, except the purely formal one, was carried solely on the casting vote of the Chairman. That must impose on the House in its examination of this matter a much bigger responsibility than when the Committee which is entrusted with these matters comes with their unanimous report to the House.
We are bound to respect the views of the four right hon. Gentlemen who found themselves in the minority in this issue and who voted for a minority report, finding that there was no breach of Privilege. We are bound to take this into consideration, and we cannot therefore give to this Report the more or less tacit acceptance which, I hope, we generally will give to Reports from the Committee of Privileges when they find themselves able to come to a unanimous or nearly unanimous conclusion.
If there is here a breach of Privilege, we are forced to consider what comments upon the actions of the Chair are permissible and what are not. I am not sure that I altogether like the words in the Report by which the Committee do not appear to have come to a conclusion aye or no, as to whether any words spoken in criticism of decisions of the Chair would necessarily be free from the imputation of Privilege. The words are used in the second sentence of the seventh paragraph and seem to leave it apparent that in the minds of the Committee it is at least possible that any criticism, however temperate and well expressed, of a decision of the Chair might constitute a breach of Privilege.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
If I may respectfully say so, the hon. Member for the 1578 Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. Logan) would have a better chance of knowing what I was about to argue if he would allow me to argue it.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I am sorry that I cannot give way at this point. The House will recall that I generally give way, but I have been submitted to two attempts in the guise of a point of order in the course of what I hope will be a brief but must necessarily be a closely knit argument. I intend no discourtesy to the hon. Member, but I cannot be continually distracted from it.
The rightness or wrongness of this decision bears on the degree of criticism of the Chair which is committed. We have here a case in which the lady herself in evidence to the Committee summed up her intention. It is at Question No. 223 in the Report—May I just emphasise that I did question Major Milner's judgment, but never his impartiality.It is my submission that it is open to persons outside in respectful and courteous terms to question the judgment of decisions of the Chair so long as no motive is imputed. It is important that that view should be expressed and put as fully on record as possible.
I do not think it is necessary to argue at great length why that should be so, but I am bound to remind the House how much more touchy we seem to be getting in these days than we used to be. The right hon. Gentleman quoted a precedent in 1928, or 1929. I have one here from 1st March, 1929, when it so happened that the person concerned was a lady—now, unfortunately, no longer with us—who as a right hon. Lady sat on the Front Bench opposite in the early part of the last Parliament—Miss Ellen Wilkinson. She wrote an article, an extract of which appears in the OFFICIAL REPORT for 1st March, 1929, on the subject of the then Chairman of Ways and Means, in which she said:This contempt for the Constitution of the House of Commons was shown in a marked way by the Chairman of Ways and Means in a ruling of so partisan a character that it would take one's breath away, if the Tory Government had not, by this time, almost exhausted one's capacity for indignation.1579 She went on to say:What kind of ruling is this? What possible respect can be left for a Chairman who so completely flouts the Rules of Order? "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1929; Vol. 225, c. 2334.]The House may be interested to know what happened. A Motion that this was a contempt of the House was moved by Mr. Grotrian. As the right hon. Lady—then the hon. Lady—was not present, the matter was adjourned to the 4th March, when the hon. Lady said that she desired to express her regret that she had made the criticism outside the House, instead of according to the established custom of the House. She made no withdrawal of the substance of her words, and regretted only their occasion. The Motion was withdrawn and no action taken.
The words were wildly beyond anything attributed to Lady Mellor. I quote that as showing that this extreme touchiness —in this case in respect of the Chair and, in others, in respect of hon. Members —for which there is no authority in precedent is in itself a lamentable tendency. How far is it to go? If there is not to be a reasoned criticism of the Chairman of Ways and Means, can it be made of the Chairman of a Standing Committee, or of a Chairman of a Select Committee and so on? How far does this kind of thing go? If it is to go so far are we not derogating very considerably from the rights of the public to comment on matters of public controversy?
One is bound to recall that the particular criticism made was not so irrelevant to political controversy at the time as to give any indication of malice. The criticism was made in a speech on the very day that the particular decision of the Chairman of Ways and Means referred to was the subject matter of a Motion placed upon the Order Paper of this House by the Leader of the Opposition. I cannot go into the merits of that, but all I am concerned to say is that it was a matter then of public interest, public concern and public controversy to which reference was made.
The House must be consistent on this matter. The words used—the first part of the alleged breach of Privilege—were "very deplorable." It so happens that in the OFFICIAL REPORT of 24th July, c. 2065—it was in point of fact in the 1580 early hours of 25th July—the hon. Member for Oldham West (Mr. Leslie Hale) referred to a Ruling of yours, Mr. Speaker, as an "unfortunate observation." Although on the point being taken up, the Chairman of Ways and Means ruled that out of order, the hon. Member for Oldham, West, was neither called upon to nor did he in fact withdraw those words. The words are very similar, "unfortunate" and "deplorable," in connection with a Ruling of the Chair.
It really would be highly inconsistent for this House to allow one of its own Members, on the Floor of the House, so to criticise a Ruling of the Chair while it punished as a breach of Privilege somewhat similar words spoken by somebody outside this House. Really the House must apply, in its power to punish strangers for breaches of its Privileges, rules at any rate no more arbitrary than it applies to punish its own Members who use similar expressions about the occupants of the Chair.
I do not need to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Carlton (Mr. Pickthorn) said about the other words alleged to constitute a breach of Privilege. I tried to construe them. I think that they could reasonably bear two constructions. They could bear the construction that the Government had refused full discussion or they could bear the construction that the Chairman ought, in the selection of Amendments, to have taken into account the narrowness of the Government's majority. Either of those interpretations is, in my respectful submission, consistent only with those words not amounting to a breach of Privilege or anything of the sort.
I hope that we are not going to use this immense engine of Privilege—a vital instrument in great matters for the defence of this House and of its ancient rights —about words of this sort; that we shall not suggest that the occupants of the Chair of this House are so vulnerable to criticism that they cannot discharge their functions—their highly important functions—if criticisms of this sort are permitted by outside persons.
I believe that all occupants of the Chair are too far above such weakness to be upset or perturbed by words of this sort. The only justification this House has for Privilege, the only basis of Privilege, is the right to protect the 1581 efficacy and proper conduct of our own proceedings.
No one outside a madhouse would suggest that these words affected or could possible affect the Chairman of Ways and Means or any other occupant of the Chair in the discharge of their duties. For that reason it seems wrong to find that this is a breach of Privilege, and I should like to see this Report rejected.
§ 9.49 p.m.
§ Mr. A. Edward Davies (Stoke-on-Trent)
In four years' service on the Committee of Privileges, I have never previously intervened in a debate, but I think that after the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) some reply is called for, because a considerable attack has been made after the explanation of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
We are all most anxious that matters of trivial or seemingly trivial importance should not have the attention of this House and the publicity of this great institution if in the event it serves no useful purpose. We all agree that there may be something in the present position and in the suggestion that hon. Members are becoming increasingly sensitive to criticism, and so on. But the subject we are discussing tonight is not a trivial matter. It is a matter which involves the occupant of the Chair.
Under Standing Order 31, we invest the occupant of the Chair—Mr. Speaker himself or the Chairman of Ways and Means —with the great honour and the great responsibility of directing our affairs. As I understand the Standing Order, it lies within the power of the Chair to select certain Amendments which may be put on the Order Paper, and no question can be asked of the occupant of the Chair. We need not go into the whole background, but I suggest that the words used by Lady Mellor in this case undoubtedly cast a reflection upon the Chair.
I think that they must be related to the last few words in the report which seem to identify the Chairman with the Government—with a party Government. They seem to show conclusively that he was in the pocket of a certain party and that he was in fact showing partiality. This is not a small matter. Once the impartiality of the Chair is called into question, the whole process of democratic 1582 Government and discussion is brought into disrepute.
I suggest that this is something more than the report in an obscure newspaper of a small meeting in a garden. From our point of view, it is a matter of definite duty to say that, from our experience, the Chair has operated impartially. I cannot take the view which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames seemed to take. He quoted the words of Miss Ellen Wilkinson in 1929, but I think that the circumstances there were very different.
We will take the definition of the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton). He sought to move an Amendment to the findings of the Committee. That Amendment was not accepted. He said that unless there can be shown to be partiality, unless there is something venal and there is some unfitness for office, in some circumstances it is not a breach of Privilege to criticise the Chair.
When we carefully study the words contained in the newspaper report, there can be no doubt in our minds, or in the minds of anybody reading the report impartially, that there was a reflection on the Chair to the extent that the right hon. Gentleman seemed to take a partial and deliberate course to satisfy some faction in the House. It was nothing less than that. Therefore, this falls within the noble Lord's definition that there was partiality.
If, on the other hand, it is argued that these words do not convey that meaning, it means that the occupant of the Chair was unfit for the job. So, on the second count, the occupant of the Chair is called to account. I suggest that there was no evidence at all that on this occasion the occupant of the Chair exceeded his duty, or acted impartially, or in any way showed that he was unfit to occupy the Chair.
I confess that, after hearing all the arguments, I was greatly surprised that there should have been this narrow division in the final vote. It is not for me to go into all the transactions which took place within the Committee, but, from listening to the arguments and hearing the witnesses, I thought that we all, with the exception of the noble Lord, took the view that there was undoubtedly a technical breach of Privilege. It was as clear 1583 as the sun rising in the morning, but, when the vote came, we found that what happened was as has been reported for us all to see.
I hope I have not unduly wearied the House, but I think this matter is of some importance to the House and is not a trivial matter. We must take our own views whether Lady Mellor wished to be malicious, or whether it does this House any good to give all this "puff" to this case, but I do not think that it is the simple matter which the hon. Gentleman tried to make out.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ " That this House doth agree with the Committee in their Report."