HC Deb 08 April 1957 vol 568 cc819-22
Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

Mr. Speaker, I desire to raise with you a question of Privilege. I want, first, to thank you for sparing time this morning to peruse some of the essential letters concerned in this case.

A few weeks ago I was approached by a business colleague who called my attention to a certain business practice by the London Electricity Board which, in his opinion, was a matter of some public concern and possibly called for investigation. I looked into the matter very carefully and I became convinced that this was, indeed, a matter which should be looked at from the outside and that the case which was presented to me by my friend was a strong one.

I do not want to go into the details of the case, because it would take some time, but I should tell the House, in essence, what it is. It concerned the peculiar method, contrary to normal commercial practice, by which the London Electricity Board disposed of its old and useless cables, a method quite different from that employed by all the other electricity boards in the country, the Post Office and London Transport. It seemed to me that this method which the Board insisted on operating meant that the cables were sold at prices well below what they should and could fetch, and, therefore, a substantial amount of public money was being lost every year.

I did what I think every other Member would do in these circumstances. I conveyed these facts, together with my views of the situation, to the Minister responsible, the Paymaster-General, suggesting that the matter should be investigated, and rather urgently, because the Board's policy on this matter was to be decided very shortly. I should add that I did not accuse the Board or any of its officers of dishonesty or of any lack of integrity I should also add that I declared in my letter a personal interest which, in point of fact, is a very remote one indeed.

I received a reply from the Paymaster-General in which he said that, in his opinion, the matter was one of administration which concerned the Board and not himself, and he went on to say: On the other hand, I share your concern that it should not be felt that any public Board is acting unwisely or improvidently, and I have, therefore, arranged for my officials to bring your views to the attention of the Board Chairman as a matter of urgency. I was then invited by the Chairman of the Board to discuss the matter with him, which I did, together with one or two people who understood the technicalities of this trade, which I do not.

Later, I had a letter from him in which he explained the Board's policy, and, naturally, defended it, and asked me to withdraw the criticisms I had made in my letter to the Paymaster-General. I replied that I was not prepared to withdraw those criticisms, because I wan more convinced than ever, after the interview and after receiving his letter, that they were justified.

I then had a letter asking me again to withdraw those criticisms on threat of legal action if I did not. That was followed by a solicitor's letter which emphasised the threat, and, finally, on Friday, my solicitors received a letter from the solicitors of the Board saying that they were issuing a writ for libel against me this week. This was in respect not of any public statement I had made, but in respect of the criticisms, suggestions and comments which I had made in a letter to the Minister responsible for that Board.

It seems to me that this raises a grave matter affecting the rights and duties of Members. I thought that the action of the Paymaster-General in this respect was perfectly proper, and because I was satisfied with it I did not do what I would be perfectly entitled to do—raise the matter in the House either by Question or on the Adjournment. I did not do that. Now, it is quite irrelevant whether my views are right or wrong. They nay be wrong. I think they are right. It is also irrelevant whether I would be protected in any action brought against me in the courts by a plea of qualified Privilege.

The question, it seems to me, which does arise is whether this threatened action by the London Electricity Board does not strike at the heart of Parliamentary Privilege. If a Member has good reason to believe that harm is being done to a constituent or to the public interest generally by a wrongful act, or by faulty administration on the part of a Government Department, or a nationalised industry, he must surely have the unfettered right, unimpeded by any threat of a possible court action, of bringing the matter to the attention of Parliament or the Minister concerned where he thinks that such action is appropriate or desirable.

If he does not have that right, Mr. Speaker, then a very serious situation arises. Members would then be forced to ventilate any allegation of improper action which they desire investigated on the Floor of the House where, of course, full Parliamentary Privilege prevails, and that means that they would have to state it in public. That is an action which, of course, most hon. Members would not want to take. Therefore, it seems to me obvious that, if Parliamentary Privilege does not do so now, it should cover not only statements by Members in the House, but statements made by Members to Ministers in correspondence concerning the Government Departments or the public boards for which they are responsible.

It is because this threatened issue of a writ against me raises such an important question concerning the rights and duties of Members of this House, that I submit to you that it should be referred to the Committee of Privileges for its consideration.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) was good enough to give me notice of this matter this morning, and I have had an opportunity of considering it. It is not, of course, for me to say whether a breach of Privilege has occurred or not. That is a question for the House. My duty is to decide whether the right hon. Gentleman has, in fact, made out a prima facie case such as would entitle me to give his complaint priority over the Orders of the Day. I think that the answer to that question is in the affirmative, and I am prepared to accept a Motion on the matter.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

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

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I rise, Mr. Speaker, for the very simple purpose, first, to assert the right to have this Motion debated, and, secondly, to thank you for your statement that a prima facie case of breach of Privilege has been made out.

I think that it has been widely believed by hon. Members of the House that the fact that you say that a matter is a prima facie case of breach of Privilege deprives the House of any possibility of choice as to whether it should go to the Committee of Privileges or not. I wish to thank you for having made the position abundantly clear today. I am sure that this is a suitable case, and I am anxious that the House should fully assert its full responsibility of sending it to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. Speaker

I have always endeavoured to make it clear that my duty at this stage is purely procedural. I have to decide whether to give the matter priority. That is all I have to decide.

Mr. F. J. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

On the Motion moved by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House, I have nothing to say. [Laughter.] I think I am quite correct in what I have just said. I could have raised what I want to raise as a point of order.

What I want to ask you, Sir, is what reaction you have to the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) which, I take it, will not be discussed by the Committee of Privileges, as to whether Members are privileged not, as we know they are at the moment, in statements in this House, but in statements that they make in letters to the Minister? Is there any Ruling that you could give on that?

Mr. Speaker

Certainly not. Perhaps that matter will be considered by the Committee of Privileges. It is for the House to define these matters, not for me.

Question put and agreed to.