HC Deb 27 November 1956 vol 561 cc239-43
Mr. Lewis

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to raise with you a matter which I feel you may be inclined to rule, when you have heard the facts, as being prima facie a breach of Privilege. So that you may be aware of the facts I will briefly relate them.

On Friday last I tabled a Question to the Foreign Secretary for answer on 6th December. Last Sunday, at 2 a.m., I was awakened by a telephone call, when a person who preferred to remain anonymous used the most objectionable, threatening and intimidating language regarding that Question. From 8 a.m. last Sunday, almost for the whole day, for the whole of yesterday and the whole of today until—the last information I had—3.15 this afternoon, abusive, threatening and intimidating calls have been anonymously delivered to my wife and daughter at home. [Laughter.] I do not think that this is a laughing matter; the calls are really objectionable.

The position became such that on Sunday a person telephoned from a call box, left the receiver off and thus disconnected my phone for some hours. Subsequently, the operator phoned, explained what had happened, and reconnected the phone. Thereupon these abusive calls recommenced. I had to phone the operator to ask whether he would disconnect the phone, but he explained that he was unable to do that. These threatening, abusive, vulgar and anonymous calls continued so much that I was compelled myself to leave my receiver off, thereby automatically disconnecting my telephone.

Yesterday morning I received two letters from a local borough councillor explaining that on several occasions on Sunday he had tried to reach me by telephone on an urgent matter affecting the compassionate discharge or compassionate posting of one of my constituents who is a soldier serving in the forces. The councillor said he was unable to make any contact with me. Thereupon, of course, I immediately replaced the receiver, but the calls recommenced and again I had to disconnect the telephone.

Last night my wife replaced the receiver and again the calls recommenced. She told me that they were so vulgar, abusive and anonymous that she was becoming really frightened at what was happening. She said that one of these anonymous phone callers had said that he was referring to an article in last Sunday's Sunday Graphic which, as you know, is a rather disreputable type of Sunday newspaper.

As the Sunday Graphic is a newspaper which I—and, I think, most people who read decent newspapers—do not look at, I was not aware of what had appeared in it, because it is a paper mainly concerned with sex and sensationalism. I had not read the article and, in fact, I was not concerned with it, but I thought that as the disturbance was still going on, and the annoyance was continuing, I had better take an opportunity of looking at the said article. Last night I went to the Library and, in page 2 of the Sunday Graphic, I saw a rather objectionable and offensive article.

In so far as this is a disreputable type of journalism I take no objection to that article. I have no objection to its wording, except the last part, which I will now read to you, Mr. Speaker. It refers to my Question and says: If you agree with us please do not write and tell us so. Ring up Mr. Lewis and tell him. his number is … Then the article gives my private telephone number.

I see Ministers opposite smiling and laughing, but this is very serious. I emphasise that I take no objection to the content of the article, but I thought that this was a very serious matter and that I should consult one of my hon. Friends who knows more about Parliamentary procedure than myself, one who had more experience and qualifications. I chose—as anyone would—my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan). I explained the matter to him and showed him the article. Immediately he gave it as his considered judgment that that particular section of the article was a gross breach of Privilege and that I should immediately acquaint you with the position, Sir.

You may perhaps recollect, Mr. Speaker, that, accompanied by my right hon. Friend, I called upon you last evening and placed the whole of the facts before you. That was the earliest possible moment I could do so. For your information, even at this moment these abusive and threatening calls are taking place. I emphasise that up to 3.15 this afternoon my wife had received about ten of these vulgar and abusive communications, even though she had to disconnect the telephone for one and a half hours.

My telephone has been virtually put out of order by irresponsible people using objectionable and foul language in anonymous phone calls, threatening me, trying to make me withdraw my Question, and so forth. This has been done at the behest of a Sunday newspaper. By this means my telephone has been deliberately and maliciously disconnected as a result of the incitement of the public by this article and the instruction to people, on the part of this newspaper, to telephone me.

This has meant, of necessity, that I have not been able to carry out my work. My old father is 85 and is liable to drop dead at any moment. I have a standing instruction to my mother to let me know at any time when he may be in any sort of trouble. She cannot get through to me, and I have no information from minute to minute as to what may be happening.

These threats, intimidations and attacks mean that I cannot deal with my constituents' problems. The President of the Board of Trade should not laugh about this. It is a serious matter. I resent people who are supposed to be Ministers laughing and giving their support to this sort of thing. In my opinion, this is a very gross breach of Privilege on the part of the editor and the Sunday Graphic and I therefore ask you, Mr. Speaker, to rule accordingly that this is prima facie a breach of Privilege.

Mr. Speaker

My duty on these occasions, as the House knows, is not to decide whether a breach of Privilege has, in fact, occurred or not, but merely to settle, for the guidance of the House, the procedural question whether the hon. Member has made out a prima facie case and raised the matter at the earliest possible moment so as to enable me to give the consideration of this matter priority over the Orders of the Day. That is all I propose to consider.

If this had been a complaint by the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis) of the usual sort about the contents of a newspaper article, I should have been obliged to rule it out on time, because it is a strict rule of the House, by which I am bound, as well as other hon. Members, that complaints about such articles must be brought at the earliest possible moment; and the earliest possible moment has been construed as immediately the paper appears or as soon after that as may be. This paper appeared on the Sunday, I understand from the hon. Member, and, therefore, if it had been an ordinary complaint about the contents of an article, to be in time it ought to have been raised yesterday afternoon.

But from what I have heard, I think the hon. Member's complaint goes further than that. He says that he does not object to the contents of the article as such, but he complains that up to the moment he is being molested in the way that he has described and his telephone arrangements have been rendered ineffective and that this is still going on; and certainly was going on up to a late hour last night, as he told me then.

In these circumstances, although I would rule a complaint on an article out of time and I therefore do not ask the hon. Member to produce the article at the Table, as I normally would, I think that the hon. Member has disclosed a prima facie case of that sort of breach of Privilege which can be called indirect molestation and which has often engaged the attention of the House. I have, therefore, come to the conclusion after careful consideration that I should accept a Motion on the matter.

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

I have listened to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and I think that under the circumstances I should immediately move, as Leader of the House, that the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges. I am sure that this is the right course to take. Without making any other observations, I simply express regret that the hon. Member should have suffered this great inconvenience.

I therefore beg to move, That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I should like to associate myself with the Motion which has been moved by the Lord Privy Seal.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

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