HC Deb 01 December 1953 vol 521 cc957-9
Mr. H. Wilson

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a personal statement and to seek your guidance on a matter affecting all hon. Members of this House.

On Friday last, at 8.30 in the evening, a subpoena was served on me at my home to attend, at very short notice, namely, at 10.30 a.m. yesterday morning, at the High Court and to remain in court from day to day. I was required to give evidence in a case of which I had no knowledge and with which I had no direct or indirect connection.

I was required to produce on Monday morning minutes and documents of a committee of the Labour Party which are not in my keeping. The evidence I was to give related to discussions, the greater part of which occurred when I was not even a member of that committee. Why I was selected from the 27 members of that committee I do not know.

It was clear to me that compliance with this subpoena would be inconsistent with my duties as a Member of this House. Owing to the very short notice given, it was not possible for me to raise the matter in the House. However, Mr. Speaker, you intervened in the matter, for which I should like to express my thanks. Following the letter which you sent to the learned judge who was trying the case the subpoena was set aside, but I do not feel that the matter can rest there.

I should be most willing, as I am sure all hon. Members would, to give evidence in any case where I could help to assist the administration of justice, and no doubt in such a case arrangements would be made to permit of evidence being given at such a time as would not involve interference with the fulfilment of an hon. Member's duties to this House. But at the same time hon. Members are, I submit, entitled to protection against the issue of frivolous and even malicious subpoenas and from the consequence of sensational misrepresentations in certain organs of the national Press.

I am advised that there is widespread ignorance in the legal profession about the privilege of hon. Members in the matter of subpoenas, and that a declaratory statement by yourself would help to make the position clear.

Mr. Speaker

I would inform the House that I only heard about this for the first time yesterday morning. I immediately sent a letter to the learned judge in charge of the case asking if he would intervene to postpone or set aside the subpoena. This would, I said, obviate the necessity for this House to take the formal and more cumbrous step of refusing leave of absence from the House for the right hon. Gentleman to attend the court that day, in view of the fact that Members of both Houses are, by law and custom of Parliament, exempted from attendance as witnesses during the Sessions of Parliament. I express no opinion whatsoever about the case which is being tried and about which, indeed, I know nothing. I only acted as I did to protect the right hon. Gentleman and to preserve the privileges of this House.

Mr. McGovern

In connection with the Ruling which you have given, Mr. Speaker, may I point out that I asked a similar question in 1934, when I was summoned to a Glasgow court because I had been guilty of some disorderly conduct by holding a public meeting without permission? Mr. Speaker FitzRoy decided then that I was bound to attend the court.

Mr. Speaker

I do not recollect the incident, though I was in the House at the time. But there is a distinction to be drawn. All I have ruled on today is the issue of a subpoena to an hon. Member to attend as a witness.