HC Deb 07 May 1952 vol 500 cc390-3
Mr. H. Morrison

I rise to a point of order. I do not know, Mr. Speaker, whether you can give advice about this matter, and I am not sure whether it is a question of Privilege or whether the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House can say something about it or undertake to look into it.

In today's "Evening Standard" there is the following statement with regard to a White Paper which it is understood will be presented tomorrow. The story says: The White Paper is due to be published tomorrow. The Political Correspondent of 'Motor Transport' claims that 'according to people who have read it,' the White Paper makes four main proposals. Then the alleged four main proposals are set out. It is further stated: Mr. F. F. Fowler, national chairman of the Road Haulage Association, is quoted as stating that the Government's proposals' on long-term policy will provide'"— for certain matters.

The important point is that this White Paper is to be presented, by Command, to the House of Commons, and we find here a claim that, according to people who have read it, there are certain provisions in it. It has been well known that while facilities are given to the Press within certain limits on the basis of non-publication, the House of Commons and the other place should be the first to have an opportunity of seeing and reading these White Papers.

I desire to ask you whether there is anything you can advise or do about it. If your answer is in the negative, I would wish to ask the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House whether they will be good enough to make investigations into what appears to be a serious leak and to report to the House the result of their investigation.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to bring me the paper when I was trying to attend to Questions. I am clear that there is no question of Privilege about it. The custom of the House, whereby Ministers judge it courteous to the House to make important announcements here before they make them outside, is a matter of courtesy which has grown into a custom, a good custom, of the House. Its breach does not raise a question of Privilege. I think the best course I can advise is that the Government should consider what has been said and that, when the matter has been clarified, perhaps there could be a short return to the subject at a later date. That is my best advice on the subject.

The Prime Minister

We will certainly make every inquiry possible into the sources of this leakage, in which we shall welcome any assistance we can receive from any quarter.

Mr. Morrison

I am much obliged to the Prime Minister. Obviously the matter should not be pursued at this moment in those circumstances.

Mr. Mikardo

Upon a different but very closely related point of order, may I recall, Mr. Speaker, that I ventured to put to you on Friday last a somewhat similar case in which there was a document which appeared prima fade to be at the disposal of some hon. Members and was only later made available to all hon. Members? It was not possible for you, without fair warning, to consider the matter, but may I now ask when you will be in a position to give your Ruling about it?

Mr. Speaker

I have considered that matter and I am in a position to give my Ruling upon it; I intend to do so tomorrow, if that will suit the hon. Gentleman's convenience.

Mr. Aneurin Bevan

Arising out of the first Ruling you have just given, if a document has to be presented to the House containing Government policy for the consideration of Parliament, is it not a breach of Privilege for outside persons to have access to the document so that a debate can occur in the public Press long before Parliament has the document itself?

Mr. Speaker

I should not like to give a general Ruling on that matter beyond what I have said. My Ruling today was directed merely to the instance which the right hon. Member brought before me. I do not think in that case any question of Privilege arises, but I do not wish to prejudge what other circumstances might force me to say.

Mr. Bevan

You did make your statement in rather general terms that it was a matter of courtesy and not a breach of Privilege. It has always been understood that, whereas a document may be given to the Press for the purpose of predigestion, no references could be made to it until it was available in the Vote Office. That has always been the rule, so far as I remember, and whenever it has not been done points of order have been raised in the House and Mr. Speaker has usually said that it was a breach of Privilege. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] This is not a matter for disagreement amongst parties but a matter for the House of Commons. If it were the case that public documents should not be made available to us but should be debated outside first, the position would he most unfortunate.

Mr. R. T. Paget

Is not the distinction with regard to Privilege whether it is a document which is the property of the House of Commons or a document which is subsequently presented to this House? If a document which is the property of this House is prematurely disclosed, that is a breach of Privilege, but not in the case of a document which is subsequently presented.

Mr. Speaker

That distinction is roughly accurate. I have had to give some attention to this matter to settle the point which was presented to me by the hon. Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo). I am clear that in general circumstances prior disclosure by Ministers is not necessarily a breach of Privilege. I find no case of that. It is an old custom which has been observed. I can conceive of cases where the House has given a definite direction and a breach of it would be a disregard of the orders of the House and therefore a breach of Privilege.

Mr. Julian Snow

May I have your permission to continue the point which was raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) concerning the Motion moved by the hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell), on the standstill Order?

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid we have passed from that. We cannot go back.

Mr. Snow

With great respect, I would point out that my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), did get up rather quickly and curtailed discussion on that point.

Mr. Speaker

It is not my fault.