HC Deb 12 March 1951 vol 485 cc1064-70
Mr. Ian L. Orr-Ewing

I desire to raise a matter of complaint and to ask for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, upon whether the facts I propose to give provide a prima faciecase of Privilege or contempt. This matter arises from a broadcast in the Light Programme of the B.B.C. at 8 o'clock on Friday night last in a performance called, "Any Questions?" It may be within your recollection that on Thursday last a point was. raised by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) who asked for your Ruling on a matter of Privilege. Though I was not present in the House on that occasion, as I was ill, I studied the OFFICIAL REPORT and I understood that the matter was left in your hands. to decide whether in fact a prima facie.case had occurred or not.

I understood, therefore, that the whole matter which was raised by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne was sub judice.In this broadcast the first question that was put referred directly to the subject matter of complaint on Thursday afternoon. I should explain that in this programme the questions are submitted before the performance to the producer, who then selects questions. Having selected the questions, the producer calls the selected questioner to the microphone from which point he puts the question.

The first question was: A letter written by a constituent to his M.P. protesting against re-armament was sent on, without his permission, to the writer's superior. Is it the opinion of the team that this is opening the way to endless victimisation of people who write to their M.Ps.? The moment that question was put, the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Wedgwood Benn), followed at a later stage by the hon. Baronet the Member for Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), both of whom I would with respect remind the House are fairly new to this House, took a line of which this House need never be ashamed. They stood up for the rights, duties and decencies of Parliament and also for the prestige, standing and respect of you, Sir, and the Committee of Privileges. But, that question having been put, and this protest by the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, having been made, the chairman of the session referred the matter to the producer, saying that he thought it would be wrong to discuss it. The chairman's words were: Well, that does really rather put a spanner into our works, doesn't it? It's very difficult to discuss something which is still sub judice;in fact, it is one of our laws and regulations that we do not do that. I understand that's right isn't it? I'm going to ask the producer here to say a word or two, he knows the policy very much better than I do. The producer then said: In this instance I think we should be perfectly correct and we can trust to the good sense of our team in discussing this matter. I have no hestitation in saying that it should be discussed this evening. That is the first point on which I ask for your Ruling. I should like to know whether in fact it is not correct that the whole of this matter, being left in your hands for you to give a Ruling whether a prima faciecase of Privilege had been made out, is not therefore sub judice. Once that decision by the producer had been made, the effect was that further answers asked for from members of the team. I will quote from one by somebody called Mr. Longland. He said, in reply to the question: I'm tremendously relieved to find two distinguished M.Ps. who have such respect for the Speaker and for the Committee of Privileges. Anybody reading the newspaper account today of what happened in the House of Commons last night would not suppose that either the Committee of Privileges or the Speaker mattered at all. But there are, I think, just two things that the ordinary man who hasn't got the misfortune of being an M.P. can say. I honestly think that anybody who writes to an M.P.—apart from writing about a purely personal matter—and thinks that his letter is a perfectly private document is a bit of a mug: that seems to be the first thing to say. The second thing is that I think in general that M.Ps have got far too much sense, and sense of responsibility, for the fears expressed in the question to have any reality. I have quoted from a transcript supplied to me by courtesy of the B.B.C. and made from the recording of this programme. I hope that it may prove possible that some mistake has arisen in transcription. That, I am afraid, is not a matter which I can investigate or which this House as a House can investigate.

I submit to you with all respect that the mere fact that the question was received and that these comments were made was improper as the whole matter was left in your hands and was, therefore, sub judice.I beg to ask for your Ruling.

Mr. Speaker

Of course, one must not discuss the matter on which I shall give a Ruling tomorrow but, as far as this case is concerned, it appears to me that there is a prima faciecase of Privilege, and I rule accordingly.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I thank you for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. In view of what you have said, I beg to move, "That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges."

Mr. Poole

May I respectfully suggest, Mr. Speaker, that no evidence in support of this declaration has yet been laid at the Table.

Mr. Speaker

Is it not often very much better that the Committee of Privileges should hear the evidence? If we are to be a court of law we shall be hearing evidence for ever. It is only fair, as somebody is accused, that they should have a chance of giving evidence; otherwise, they have to be brought to the Bar of the House, and that is something which has not been done since 1905. If the House agrees, I think it is only fair that the matter should go to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

Before the House comes to any conclusion on the matter, I should like to offer one single argument.

Sir Ian Fraser

On a point of order. Have not the voices been collected?

Mr. Speaker

This is a debatable Motion.

Mr. Silverman

Although you have Ruled that there is a prima faciecase, Mr. Speaker, nevertheless it is one which the House would be ill-advised to pursue. It seems to me that the only question which was sub judice,and which remains sub judice,is the question whether the particular alleged conduct—we do not even know what the conduct was yet—was breach of Privilege or not. Therefore, the only way in which this House could have felt itself reasonably affronted by anything said in the broadcast to which the hon. Member has referred would have been if any one had sought to prejudge that question. Whether the events complained about happened or not, and, if they have happened, whether they should have happened or not, are questions quite different from the question whether a breach of Privilege is involved or not, and whether a breach of Privilege is involved or not is for the House of Commons to determine; not even, Sir, as I understand it, for you, but for the House of Commons itself.

I would myself have been inclined to support any Motion based on a breach of Privilege if anybody taking part in that programme, or any newspaper or speaker, had ventured to say that what was complained of was a breach of Privilege or that it was not, that question being for determination by the House of Commons. Since it seems to me that what was read out did not venture in the least to beg the question which the House will have to decide—whether or not a breach of Privilege was involved—since it did not do that, I should have thought that this was a matter which, in the interest of public discussion, the House of Commons might well ignore.

Mr. Speaker

I must point out that the hon. Member has got a complete misconception of our proceedings. We have not decided that a breach of Privilege, or anything of that kind, has taken place. I have only said that it looks possible that it may have taken place, and, therefore, we are asking this very important Committee of the House to find out and let us know. The hon. Member has argued as if we had decided that a breach of Privilege had taken place. We have not decided anything of the kind.

Mr. Silverman

I was venturing only to debate the Motion which is before the House, namely, that the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges: that is a debatable question, and I was venturing to offer the House reasons why they should deny the Motion rather than adopt it. I am not in the least seeking to prejudge the question whether there was a breach of Privilege or not, and, if anything I said gave you to understand that I was prejudging it, let me hasten to correct it at once. The last thing in the world that I wanted to do, Mr. Speaker, was to prejudge that or any other matter. I am saying that it seems to me that the House of Commons on this occasion would best consult its own dignity by ignoring the matter.

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

The matter raised by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. I. L. Orr-Ewing) is one which arises out of the growth of the possibilities of comment on the proceedings of this House, and the way in which modern science affords fresh vehicles for it. Let us be quite certain of this. Any report of the proceedings of this House is a breach of Privilege. I had to preside during the last Parliament over the Committee of Privileges when complaint was made by the hon. Member for Northfields (Mr. Blackburn) about a report in the "Daily Worker," and the learned Clerk of the House drew our attention to the fact that any report of our proceedings is a breach of Privilege; but we said that that was not in accordance with modern practice, and that, in fact, there would be grave complaint if the proceedings were not reported. We said that there was a breach of Privilege, but we advised the House to ignore it, and the matter was never further discussed.

We are now faced with one of the ways in which the proceedings of this House have been commented upon, and the stage at which they are commented upon is raised in this particular Motion, but it seems to me, without making any reflection at all at this stage on any of the participants in the discussion of last Friday night, that this is the kind of matter that ought to be discussed by the Committee of Privileges, so that guidance can be given, not merely to hon. Members of this House but to the outside public, as to what are their rights, responsibilities and liberties in this matter. I am quite sure that the last thing that this House would desire to do would be to circumscribe the rights of discussing the affairs of Parliament, when that can be done without impeding the reasonable course of justice, and I suggest to the House that at this stage we might very well accept the Motion which has been moved.

Mr. Eden

I should like to endorse the advice which the Leader of the House has given us, and I simply want to add this. I think that the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Wedgwood Benn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), if I may say so with respect, did exactly what they should have done in what was obviously a difficult position for them, and, therefore, this is not in that sense a party matter at all. I think the attitude which they adopted is one which the House should now adopt. It is the same thing in another context, and it is that the matter should be referred to the Committee of Privileges to give us their advice.

Mr. Duncan Sandys

I should like to raise one point, because I want to ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker. As I understand it, the practice of this House in cases of Privilege is that, when you have ruled that there is a prima faciecase of breach of Privilege, the Leader of the House or the Prime Minister proposes the Motion, in which case it is usually adopted without discussion. Are we departing from that normal practice in this case?

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is mistaken. If, after an hon. Member has raised a case, I then declare it to be a prima faciecase, it is the duty of the hon. Member who made the complaint to move that the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges. It is not the duty of the Leader of the House to do so, and I do not remember that that was ever done.

Mr. John Hynd

I am sorry to detain the House, but I really have listened very carefully to the complaint made, and, while it has been ruled that there is a prima faciecase, I should like to support the appeal of my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), because I am concerned whether or not we are likely to discourage what is legitimate public discussion of what happens in this House.

As my hon. Friend has said, and so far as I could gather, at least from the statement made by the hon. Member who moved the Motion, there was no discussion at all on the merits or demerits of the Ruling given by Mr. Speaker in regard to the case at issue. All that happened, so far as I could understand, was that a question was asked on the wireless, and, on that, a comment was made which made no reflection upon the House nor upon the Ruling of Mr. Speaker. It was, I understood, on all fours with any comment that may have been made in a newspaper to the effect that a complaint had been made in the House of Commons and that a certain matter was being referred to the Committee of Privileges.

As the commentator might well say, the public are entitled to consider how far it is safe for them to write to their Members of Parliament at all, and I do not think that can convey breach of Privilege. I am only concerned whether or not we are going a little too far and reducing the status of this very important question, and, therefore, bringing the whole procedure of Privilege into disrepute. Therefore, I hope the House will consider very seriously before it passes this Motion.

Question, "That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges," put, and agreed to.