HC Deb 17 December 1956 vol 562 cc934-7

and states: Tomorrow a time of hardship starts for everyone. For everyone? Include the politicians out of that. Petrol rationing will pass them by. They are to get prodigious supplementary allowances. Isn't it fantastic? The small baker, unable to carry out his rounds, may be pushed out of business. The one-man taxi company may founder. The parent who lives in the country may plead in vain for petrol to drive the kids to schools. But everywhere the tanks of the politicians will be brimming over. What are M.P.s doing about this monstrous injustice? Are they clamouring for Fuel Minister Mr. Aubrey Jones to treat politicians like the rest of the community? If it were a question of company directors getting special preference you may be sure that the howls in Westminster would soon be heard from John o'Groats to Ebbw Vale. But now there is not a squeak of protest. If politicians are more interested in privileges for themselves than in fair shares for all, let it swiftly be made plain to them that the public do not propose to tolerate it. And let Mr. Aubrey Jones know that, if he is so incapable of judging public feeling, he is not fit to hold political office for a moment longer.

This is not a party matter, Mr. Speaker, It affects the Socialist Party, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, and it affects you, Mr. Speaker, and me. The article is not only untrue, but is a disgraceful libel against the High Court of Parliament. I ask for your Ruling that a prima facie case has been made out for the article to be referred to the Committee of Privileges so that the truth may be ascertained and made generally known.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should bring the paper to the Table.

Copy of the said newspaper delivered in.

Mr. Speaker

As the hon. Member has read this article, I will not ask the Clerk to read it again.

I heard of this for the first time as the hon. Member was reading it. My duty is to say whether it constitutes a prima facie case of breach of Privilege such as would enable me to give the matter precedence over the Orders of the Day. There are cases when contempts of this House as a whole have been treated as breaches of Privilege, but, also, there have been many cases in the past where hon. Members of this House have been subjected collectively to a certain amount of journalistic censure, and possibly abuse.

In the past, these matters have not been considered as breaches of the Privileges of the House. Making the best judgment I can, I think that this is an article about the truth of which anyone can have his own opinion. Although the general tone of the whole article may be regarded by hon. Members as very regrettable, I do not myself think that it comes within the category of contempts of the House of a serious character which could make it a prima facie breach of Privilege.

I have arrived at that conclusion only as a procedural matter. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) is, of course, quite entitled to test the feeling of the House by putting down a Motion to that effect.

Mr. Burden

On a point of order. Is it not perfectly clear, Sir, that that article might well cause very considerable unrest among many people, that it is designed to cause mischief and that, in fact, there is no basis whatsoever in that statement in the newspaper? The claims of hon. Members are subjected to scrutiny every bit as exacting as that in the case of other members of the community.

Mr. Paget

Is not the test of this type of Privilege the test of truth, Mr. Speaker? In the old days attacks by way of comment on the behaviour of hon. Members of this House were often held to be breaches of our Privilege. Of recent years we have taken the view that the public and the newspapers are free to comment. But have we ever gone further and said they are free to lie? Is this the case with specifically untrue statements, defamatory to this House in its collective sense so that they would not be actionable in the courts by any individual? That is precisely the sort of case in which, in my submission, this House defends itself. I would respectfully say that the issue before a Com- mittee of Privileges, under modern procedure, would be the question whether this was comment, which we can allow, or whether it Was a defamatory lie in fact. I respectfully submit that that is a matter which the Committee should consider, Sir.

Mr. S. Silverman

May I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, with the greatest respect, that it is difficult to imagine a grosser or clearer libel upon the House collectively than the article which the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) read out? The implication is perfectly clear—indeed, it is expressed—that the Members of the House of Commons have exercised their rights as legislators in the sovereign Parliament to exempt themselves from hardships which, at the same time, they are inflicting upon every other member of the community. If that charge is untrue, as we all know it to be, then I submit with respect that it is very difficult indeed to imagine how anyone who set himself out to commit a gross and deliberate libel upon the House of Commons collectively could have done it more effectively than the writer of that article.

Mr. Stevens

I wish to add only one word to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor). The cross-heading of this article was the single word "Privilege," which seemed to indicate quite clearly that politicians—and the only people, I think, who could properly be described as politicians are Members of this House of Commons—were using their places to put themselves at the head of the queue for a privilege, for a right, which is being denied to the citizens whom they represent. I should have thought that a clearer case has not existed.

Mr. Speaker

Hon. Members have put their points of view to me. Of course, I had an opportunity of hearing this article only when the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) read it out. I always take the view that the Privilege of this House is a very serious matter, not to be lightly invoked. For that reason I do not feel that every attack of this silly nature should be regarded by the House as a breach of Privilege. I have given my opinion on the matter but, as I have said, that does not finish it. If it be the general sense of the House that the matter should go to the Committee of Privileges—

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Speaker

—and the House so decides, I shall not dissent in any way.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I think it is clear that there is a general desire that this matter should not be left as it is, Mr. Speaker. In the circumstances, as Leader of the House, I therefore beg to move, That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. J. Griffiths

May I support that Motion and thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your decision? Having sat through Question Time this afternoon, it is clear to me that hon. Members will be appealed to by their constituents because of difficulties about petrol coupons. It is, therefore, very important that this matter should be cleared up at a time when we are having to deal with these difficulties.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. C. Pannell

On a point of order. May we have an assurance from the Leader of the House, Mr. Speaker, that there will not be the procrastination in this case which there was in the case concerning my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis)?

Mr. Speaker

I cannot answer for that, but I hope not.