HC Deb 04 February 1954 vol 523 cc569-76
Mr. S. Silverman

I desire to call your attention, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House to a matter which may be a contempt of Parliament. It arises in connection with the proceedings of Standing Committee A, which until this morning, when it concluded its Sittings, was dealing with the Cotton Bill. It was not a matter which arose in the course of the Committee, but in connection with its proceedings, and it was therefore thought proper to consult both the Chairman of that Committee in the Committee and yourself, Mr. Speaker, as to whether the Committee or the House itself was the proper forum in which to make the complaint. It seems to be agreed that the proper forum is the House, and I therefore make my representation to you. I have given notice to the hon. Baronet the Member for Middleton and Prestwich(Sir J. Barlow) so that he may, if he wishes, make any explanation to the House that he thinks fit.

The matter complained of is a letter contained in the correspondence columns of the "Manchester Guardian" for yesterday, 3rd February. It is headed "The Cotton Bill" and is signed, or purports to be signed, by the hon. Baronet. I need not trouble the Committee—

Sir H. Butcher

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Any complaints of Privilege should be brought to the knowledge of the House at the earliest possible moment; that is the Ruling of yourself and your predecessors. I submit that, in time, a matter of Privilege should be raised immediately, and that yesterday was the proper day for so doing in this matter.

Mr. Speaker

I shall deal with that matter when I have heard the hon. Member's complaint.

Mr. Silverman

These are the parts of the document to which I desire to draw attention. In the second paragraph, after referring to the Cotton Bill—now the Cotton Act—of 1947, and the numberof Clauses and the number of days it took, the hon. Baronet goes on to say:

The present Bill consists of only six Clauses and it has already taken up nine days lasting over a period of nearly two months. Clause 4 has not yet been completed. Having said that, he then goes on: I have taken part in many Standing Committees since 1945, but I have never seen such delaying tactics nor heard so many irrelevant and irresponsible speeches on the part of the Opposition. Such methods are a great disservice to the cotton industry. I say nothing whatever about the use of the word "irresponsible," because I apprehend that that means no more than that the speeches were delivered by the hon. Member's political opponents and that it is merely a political epithet and nothing else. But the rest of the matter complained of appears to me to make three very serious and improper charges. One is that Members of the Committee were guilty not merely of irrelevance—we are all guilty sometimes of irrelevance—but guilty of persistent irrelevance, which has always been held to be an unparliamentary accusation.

The second charge is not merely that, but that a group of Members in the Committee engaged in a concerted endeavour—a kind of conspiracy—by persistent irrelevance to delay the progress of the Bill. The third charge which, I submit, is implied is the gravest of all. If it were true that a group of Members had over a period of two months been able to make a concerted manoeuvre of delay by means of organised persistent irrelevance, that could not possibly be done without, at the worst, the acquiescence or, at the best, the incompetence of the hon. Member—

Major Anstruther-Gray

On a point of order. I wonder whether you, Mr. Speaker, would consider dealing with the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Sir H. Butcher), the point being that a newspaper report should be brought forward at the earliest possible opportunity unless there are exceptional circumstances. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) has given us no cause to understand that there are exceptional circumstances and I invite you, Sir, to give your Ruling forthwith.

Mr. Speaker

In order to satisfy the House on this matter, I will explain what happened. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), together with the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson), came to see me last night about this matter. The passage of which they complained was in the "Manchester Guardian."I am afraid that, in my ignorance, I thought that this was a provincial newspaper which did not appear in London in the morning. Consequently I did not raise then and there, as I would have done otherwise, when the hon. Members came to see me the question of the time of their complaint. I let them go without raising it, and I feel that I may have, quite unconsciously, misled them into the idea that this Rule did not exist or did not apply in this case. Therefore, I feel myself in decency bound to hear the complaint, because otherwise I might be thought guilty by them of having misled them unconsciously.

I do warn the House on this matter that I now realise that this is a newspaper that does appear at the same time as other newspapers in London in the morning, and on any future occasion I shall enforce the Rule strictly that the matter, as the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir H. Butcher) said, must be raised on that day if it is a morning newspaper.

Mr. Silverman

I was perfectly prepared to raise the matter yesterday and I came to see you, Mr. Speaker, with the intention of doing so if, in your opinion, this House was the proper forum and not the Committee.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member came to see me a few minutes before eight o'clock last night. It would in any case have been too late to raise it that day.

Mr. Wigg

On a point of order. On a previous occasion, Mr. Speaker, I came to you on a matter of this kind, and you raised no objection on that occasion; indeed, I believe you then asked the Attorney-General to get information, which he did, and which influenced you the next morning. You informed me on that occasion that you had no objection to the fact that I had raised the matter with you late at night, and you then allowed me to raise it the next morning.

Mr. Speaker

I think that was not a case in which publication in a newspaper was directly involved. The matter which the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) raised was on something quite different. It is not at all parallel with the present case. I think that, as an hon. Member of this House is involved in this matter and is being complained against, we ought to hear this matter and dispose of it.

Mr. Silverman

I came to see you, Mr. Speaker, with regard to the matter as soon as I knew of the publication. One cannot know of it earlier than the day on which it is published.

If I may conclude the statement which I was making, I say that the third and much the gravest matter involved in the letter is this. If it were true that an organised group of Members were able for over two months and nine sittings of the Committee to delay the progress of a Bill by organised, concerted, persistent irrelevancies, that could only be done either with the acquiescence of the Chairman or by reason of his negligence and incompetence. Therefore, the charge implied, having regard to the length of time and the concerted nature of the alleged offence, must have involved not merely the Chairman's previous conduct of the proceedings in the Committee, but must have been a direct attempt to intimidate him in his future conduct of the proceedings of that Committee.

When the hon. Baronet wrote the letter, he did not know that the Committee was going to be over. If he had had patience to wait 24 hours, it would not have been necessary for him to write the letter at all. I submit that there are ample precedents today that such a charge, whether made directly or by implication, is in fact grossly improper and an abuse of the Privileges of the House.

Mr. Speaker

Will the hon. Member bring the newspaper to the Table?

Copy of newspaper handed in.

Mr. Speaker

The passage complained of has been read, and I will not ask the Clerk to read it again. The hon. Member complains of this letter on three grounds. First, that it asserts that there was persistent irrelevance in the Committee and, in fact, obstruction. I am bound to say that for one hon. Member to accuse another hon. Member of obstruction is not out of order. The matter is dealt with on page 440 of Erskine May, at the top of that page, and there is a footnote giving the authorities and Rulings for that statement in the text. I have personally consulted the authorities and Rulings and find that they support the text fully.

The second point the hon. Member raises is that in some way the Chair is involved in this in that this conduct could not have occurred without some connivance or lack of duty on the part of the Chair. I do not myself take that view of the passage. The Chairman is bound by Standing Order No. 20 to call to order any hon. Member who is guilty of persistent irrelevance, but this passage of which the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) complains does not accuse any one Member of being guilty of persistent irrelevance, and therefore it is not implied that the Chairman of that Committee failed in his duty to check that Member. All it says is that the speeches as a whole of the Opposition were irrelevant and irresponsible. I cannot find that that in any way implies or suggests any lack of duty on the part of the Chairman of the Committee, and I therefore see no breach of Privilege in this at all.

It is not for me finally to pronounce on the matter; it is a matter for the House itself, which is the guardian of its own Privileges. My duty is only to say whether I believe there is a prima facie case or not, so as to give this matter precedence over the Orders of the Day. I am bound to say that I cannot find evidence in this case of a prima facie breach of Privilege, and I must so rule.

Mr. Silverman

May I, with respect, draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that in addressing your mind to the points which I made, you suggested that there were two. In fact, there were three. The middle point, which you omitted, is, I submit with respect, a vital point. While it is no doubt true that to accuse an hon. Member of obstruction or of irrelevance is not of itself out of order, I think it is clear that an accusation of persistent irrelevance would be out of order.

My second point was that if you read the second paragraph of the hon. Baronet's letter in conjunction with that part of the third paragraph which I read out, it is perfectly clear that what he is saying is that over a period of two months there was more irrelevance than he had ever known in nine years. If that is not a charge of persistent irrelevance, it is very difficult to attach any ordinary meaning to ordinary words.

My submission about the Chair was not that the charge was that the Chairman failed to pull up some individual Member now andagain for irrelevance, but that he had permitted a conspiracy for two months on the part of Members of the Committee to defy his authority and to prevent the Committee from getting on with its business. If that can be said with impunity, there is an end to all respect for all Chairmen in all the Committees.

Mr. Speaker

I am bound to say that I do not take the hon. Member's view. What the letter says is this: I have taken part in many Standing Committees since 1945, but I have never seen such delaying tactics nor heard so many irrelevant and irresponsible speeches on the part of the Opposition. That is the sort of charge which is frequently made. I have heard it made many times on both sides of the House, and no one has ever taken exception to it. I do not think it in any way reflects on the Chairman. I myself find it very difficult indeed sometimes to check irrelevance in debate, and I am sure every Chairman is in that difficulty. The difficulty about irrelevancy is that the Chairman has to be patient. It cannot be expected that every hon. Member in the House can speak with an equal degree of cogency. The Chairman must wait and see what the argument is.

Mr. H. Wilson

Since the phrase used is that of "delaying tactics," I submit, with all respect, that that implies motives on the part of some 20 Members of the Standing Committee. As, if the accusation were true, the tactics must have been deliberately decided it would impute to us a decision to delay the Bill. It would surely have been the duty of the Chairman of that Committee to prevent the use of those delaying tactics. My hon. Friend is surely right, therefore, in suggesting that this is a reflection on the conduct of the Chairman of that Committee.

Mr. Speaker

I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman, but I must say that my opinion is unchanged. I think the common sense of the position is that an Opposition is entitled to use legitimate means of delaying the passage of legislation to which it objects. For that reason the Government are armed with certain methods of dealing with delaying tactics. I think we must not be too thin-skinned about this.

Miss Ward

Might we not be grateful to the hon. Baronet, because has not his letter succeeded in bringing the proceedings of the Committee to an end?

Mr. Speaker

I know nothing about that. Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]