HC Deb 02 August 1956 vol 557 cc1595-601
Mr. F. Noel-Baker

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to raise a matter which arises out of statements made yesterday by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, of which I gave you notice and which, in my submission, touches the rights and freedoms of Members of Parliament and constitutes a threat to obstruct them in their legitimate work in the service of this House. In asking for your Ruling, may I very briefly explain how this matter has arisen?

Last March, certain British subjects were deported from Cyprus to the Island of Mahe, in the Indian Ocean. No legal proceedings of any kind were taken against them, nor were any formal charges made, but at the time of their deportation an ordinance was very hastily enacted which does give a cloak of legality to almost any action, however mediaeval it might appear to some hon. Members, which the Secretary of State, through the Governor of this Colony, might like to take in regard to the unfortunate detainees.

That ordinance, which was referred to yesterday, is the Political Prisoners (Detention) Ordinance, No. 1, 1956, passed by the Legislative Council of the Seychelles Islands. The Secretary of State has said that these detainees are now on parole and are free to move about the island and to meet anyone who happens to be there in return for an undertaking not to attempt to escape.

I have two complaints to raise on this matter. The first is that there has been interference with my correspondence and, it may be, with the correspondence of other hon. Members addressed to these British subjects in the Seychelles. I am reminded of the case brought to your notice in this last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), but this is not an exact parallel because this is a case of interference with letters going from Members of Parliament. The manner in which the correspondence has been treated is a matter of uncertainty.

My greater and graver complaint is about the threat by the Secretary of State for the Colonies yesterday that unless one of the persons detained takes the action which the Secretary of State wishes to compel him to take, an hon. Member of this House will be prevented—if necessary, it seems, by force—from seeing detainees. We have the extraordinary situation that, apparently, as soon as a Member of Parliament sets foot on that particular island those detainees will be clapped behind bars. That seems to set a precedent which would permit the Secretary of State for the Colonies to put behind bars any British subject of whose political views he disapproves on the arrival of a Member of Parliament in that territory.

Some months ago I gave notice, privately first, to the Secretary of State for the Colonies that it was—and it remains—my intention to go to the Seychelles during the Recess. The Secretary of State knows perfectly well with what disposition and purpose I would go out there. He knows that I, at least, have not changed my attitude to him or to anyone else since the time when he and the Prime Minister seemed very ready to make use of my services in Nicosia.

The right hon. Gentleman has not made it plain whether this ban applies to all hon. Members of this honourable House and whether it applies to his hon. Friends. What would happen, for example, if the right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Water-house) were to arrive in Mahe? The right hon. Gentleman gave no answer yesterday to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) when he asked whether these arrangements would apply to right hon. Members of the Privy Council. Nor is it clear whether it would apply to Members of another place. If the Archbishop of Canterbury were to go out—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that we are concerned with Members of another place. I hope that the hon. Member will strive to put to me more briefly the point which he wishes me to consider.

Mr. Noel-Baker

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I accept what you say and will do my very best to put this point extremely briefly.

From what the Secretary of State has said, it is not clear to whom this applies, whether it applies to all hon. Members in this House or applies only to myself and, if so, why the distinction is being drawn between a Member of the House of Commons and members of the public who, apparently, are to have perfectly free access to these detainees. I respectfully suggest that this is a matter which affects the ability of Members of Parliament to carry out their work.

The only reason given for this decision was given by the Secretary of State yesterday when he said that he feared that if I went to Mahe I might become a genuine but rather simple bearer of ammunition."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st August. 1956; Vol. 557, c. 1481.] for the Archbishop's propaganda.

I conclude by saying that I hope that, on reflection, the Secretary of State will now think it right to withdraw that monstrously unfair, totally untrue and very ungenerous imputation.

Mr. Speaker

I have listened with great care to what the hon. Member has said and I will try to distil out of it those elements which concern me and the House. I have no concern either with the legality or the wisdom of the action taken by the Government. That is a matter which is not for me. The first complaint of the hon. Member was about the interference with correspondence from hon. Members. The law on that subject, as I understand, is that letters can be detained and opened by a warrant of a Secretary of State. There is a long series of Acts on this subject, the principal one being that passed in 1912. The fact that that Act was passed by this House, and that in it there is no exception for letters addressed either to or from Members of Parliament, shows that there can be no question of Privilege involved in that.

The second complaint of the hon. Member was that some action taken by the Secretary of State will prevent him from having an interview in Mahe with certain persons. The only question for me is whether or not that raises, prima facie, a case of Privilege.

I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the Privilege of the House of Commons is the Privilege of the whole House and not of the individual Members constituting it, and that this House will intervene to protect an hon. Member in his access to this place and protect him from molestation or threat in the course of his Parliamentary duties. I can find no precedent whatever for the doctrine that to prevent a Member of Parliament going, on his own volition, to see anybody who is in custody, is a breach of Privilege.

There has never been such a case. Had the House instructed the hon. Member to go out and speak to the detainees, very different considerations would arise, whether he went as an individual or as a member of a committee, with the orders of this House. I do not find that Privilege ever has extended to any obstacle put in the way of an hon. Member going to a place to which the ordinary citizen of the country may not have access, or to see persons.

While I pass no comment whatsoever—it would be improper for me to do so—on the legality or the wisdom of the action taken, I do not find that it comes within the law of Privilege. The hon. Member has not established to my satisfaction a prima facie case of breach of Privilege which would entitle him to priority for any Motion.

Mr. Noel-Baker

While thanking you. Mr. Speaker, with great respect for that Ruling, may I ask whether it is not, in fact, molesting and threatening me in the execution of my duties that this action should be taken by the Secretary of State? Have you borne in mind, in giving your Ruling, that this action is apparently a threat directed to all hon. Members of the House?

Mr. Speaker

I find nothing of a menacing character in that.

Mr. J. Griffiths

May I raise two points with you, Mr. Speaker? The first is that, as I understand, my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) has alleged that letters which he had written to an island in the Pacific, a British territory for which we are responsible, have been interfered with. Is that not an interference with a Member of Parliament carrying out his duty in an area in which the authority of this House runs?

The second point is whether, in the course of the debate last evening, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, unwittingly or otherwise, made a reference to my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon which can be construed as a suggestion that the purpose of his visit was to foment discord and disorder. In view of my hon. Friend's record in Cyprus, which is known to hon. Members on both sides of the House, ought not that reflection to be removed before the House rises for the Recess?

Mr. Speaker

The second point raised by the right hon. Gentleman is a matter for debate and not for me. In the interference with the hon. Member's letters there is no breach of Privilege, because the House has itself assented to the Act which gives the Postmaster-General this power, on express warrant by a Secretary of State. I cannot find any breach of Privilege in that.

Mr. S. Silverman

I would respectfully submit for your consideration, Mr. Speaker, on the point raised by my hon. Friend, this observation: it has been the habit for very many years for hon. Members of the House of Commons, and, indeed, for Members of another place, to use the long vacation for informing themselves more closely and intimately of matters with which the House of Commons is directly concerned. Many hon. Members have used the long vacation to go to places so that, when next called upon to exercise and perform their duties in this House with regard to those places, they might do so with the information so acquired.

If a Member of this House—this, I understand, to be the complaint of my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker)—announces his intention to go to the Seychelles and there to interview a man who is at this moment on that island and at liberty, free to move about and free to speak, and is told by the Secretary of State that not merely he but any other Member of Parliament—including, I gather, a Privy Councillor—would equally be prevented, even if, in order to prevent him talking, a man now at liberty would have to be imprisoned in order to prevent the conversation from taking place, I should have thought that that was the clearest possible indication by the Secretary of State that he proposes to prevent Members of this House from doing their obvious duty.

Mr. Speaker

As regards acts and visits by hon. Members, undertaken on their own volition, hon. Members are in exactly the same position as those citizens for whom they assist to make the laws. The hon. Member for Swindon is suggesting that the action taken against him is illegal or improper. It may be. I express no opinion on that, but it is not a breach of Privilege.

Mr. W. Griffiths

I want to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) about the handling of letters He said in the House last night: A letter which I wrote to the Archbishop the other day had been forwarded to Cyprus for consideration by the authorities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st August. 1956; Vol. 557, c. 1457.] The Minister last night did not inform the House of his point of view on this matter at all. Quite apart from any opinion about the monstrous procedure, it did remind me that in another connection you, Mr. Speaker, were good enough to consider a matter which I raised with you in 1954, whether the correspondence of hon. Members was privileged when it was divulged by a Government Department to a third party. I agree that it is not a strictly comparable position.

I want to remind the Lord Privy Seal, who took some part in those proceedings—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Wait a moment; this is relevant—that the outcome of those discussions was that, following a Question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) to the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), the Government gave an undertaking that in cases of this kind, before the correspondence from an hon. Member was passed to any other party, the hon. Member would be consulted before such action was taken. In my view, the Government and the Minister are in clear breach of that undertaking given to the House of Commons by the then Prime Minister.

Mr. Speaker

The two occasions are not the same at all. They raise quite different issues, The issue put to me this morning was that the opening and detention of letters either to or from Members of Parliament was a breach of Privilege and I have ruled sufficiently clearly that letters of Members of Parliament are in exactly the same position as the letters of other citizens of this country, under the Act which was assented to by this House. The other matter is entirely different.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I would make an appeal to the House. I have ruled clearly on this matter. We have a very important debate coming on. I hope that nothing more will be said.

Mrs. Castle

I want to raise a new point with you, Mr. Speaker, arising out of your Ruling that when it is a question of a Member of Parliament paying a visit on his own volition he is in no different position from any other member of the public. Have we not in this instance a case of inverted Privilege? Is not the Colonial Secretary saying that a Member of Parliament shall be discriminated against and shall receive different treatment from a member of the public? Is not my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) claiming the same rights as any member of the public who is free to talk to the Archbishop?

Mr. Speaker

I think I have answered that. I think that the position of an hon. Member is the same as that of other citizens of the country. I can find no question of Privilege in this at all.

Mr. F. Noel-Baker

With the greatest possible respect, Mr. Speaker, there is a distinction, but as it seems plain that I cannot pursue the matter at the moment, and as I should like to meet the convenience of the House, I beg to give notice that, at the earliest opportunity, I shall put a Motion on the Order Paper, in respect of which I hope that I shall have the support of some of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Speaker

That will be perfectly proper conduct. All I have to deal with is the procedural question of whether the hon. Member's Motion should be taken now.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heath.]

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