HC Deb 07 July 1958 vol 591 cc31-4
Mr. Speaker

I have a statement to make to the House.

The hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Sir J. Barlow) raised with me on Wednesday last a question about copies of a certain document being made available in the Vote Office. This was a statement by the Manchester City Council with regard to their Bill, which the Chairman of Ways and Means has ordered to be considered on Wednesday next at 7 o'clock. The hon. Member asked whether it was in order for this document to be made available to hon. Members in the Vote Office.

The Vote Office distributes to Members a wide variety of papers published by the authority of this House or presented to Parliament by Ministers. Most of these are printed by H.M. Stationery Office, but not all. Other documents published by bodies such as the boards of nationalised industries, dock boards and the like, are distributed by the Vote Office at the request of Ministers who think they may be of use to hon. Members in view of a pending debate. But all these documents are deposited by persons who are directly responsible to the House, or over whom the House exercises some direct control.

In the case of Private Bills, the practice has been to allow the deposit in the Vote Office by Parliamentary Agents not only of copies of the Bill but, when a Bill comes on to the Floor of the House for debate, copies of statements on behalf of the promoters and the petitioners on the points which have caused the Bill to be taken on the Floor of the House. These statements are succinct in character and confined to facts. They are, I believe, of assistance to hon. Members from constituencies remote from the locality in question, in enabling them to form an opinion on the gist of the question at issue. I see no reason to interfere with the proper exercise of this practice. Normally, Parliamentary Agents send these documents by post but, when time presses, they may seek the services of the Vote Office.

I would remind the House that the term Parliamentary Agent has a very restricted meaning. It means a person who is registered as such in the Private Bill Office of this House. Before he can be so registered, he has to satisfy me, on behalf of the House, that he is a fit and proper person to exercise this function. He has to sign a declaration that he will observe the Standing Orders and rules of this House. I can remove him from the register in case of misconduct. Any person improperly calling himself a Parliamentary Agent is liable to be proceeded against for breach of Privilege.

A Parliamentary Agent is, therefore, a person over whom the House, through me, exercises a direct control, and it is no doubt for this reason that they have been given the privilege of depositing document in the Vote Office. Hon. Members will find the rules which govern the conduct of Parliamentary Agents set out in the latest edition of Erskine May at pages 908 to 910. Among those rules is No. 18, which says: No written or printed statement relating to any bill shall be circulated within the precincts of the House of Commons without the name of a parliamentary agent attached to it, who will be held responsible for its accuracy. The document in question did not bear the name of a Parliamentary Agent attached to it, though it has been circulated within the precincts of the House.

I asked the Agent to come to see me on Thursday. He explained that his clients, the Manchester City Council, had prepared their case on the point in dispute some time ago. When, however, the case was referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, they considered, I think properly, that they should not distribute it, either through the post or through their Agent, until the Director had decided what he should do. The Attorney-General gave a reply to a Question for Written Answer which stated that the Director saw no grounds for a prosecution. This appeared in the OFFICIAL REPORT on Tuesday last.

The Manchester City Council then felt that they had little time to lose. They sent a copy of their statement by post to every hon. Member. At the same time, they sent a number of copies to their Agent. This gentleman, also, I gather, felt that time pressed him. He, in the result, asked an Hon. Member for Manchester who supports the Bill to hand these extra copies to the Vote Office. This the hon. Member, I am sure in all good faith, did. The Clerk in the Vote Office telephoned to the Parliamentary Agent's office and understood that the documents had been placed there by the authority of the Agent. They were then made available to hon. Members.

It is clear that this was a breach of Rule 18, because the document did not bear the name of the Parliamentary Agent. He had realised his mistake and had apologised for it to the Chairman of Ways and Means. He repeated his apology to me and I have no doubt at all that he was sincere.

In all the circumstances, I feel sure that there was here no deliberate attempt to evade the rules of the House. This error was due to inadvertence and a sense of haste, which is a frequent source of error. I therefore think that I have no need to take any further action with regard to the incident.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Sir J. Barlow

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the very exhaustive and comprehensive manner in which you have investigated this matter, and I and my hon. Friends are also most grateful for the action which you have taken.

Mr. W. Griffiths

As I was the hon. Member who placed the document referred to in the Vote Office, may I also say that I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for what wou have said? I can only apologise for any wrong action which, inadvertently, I may have permitted. However, perhaps I may also take the opportunity, while thanking you, of also thanking the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Sir J. Barlow), because I have observed that when books are banned curiosity is aroused, and the Manchester Corporation will be grateful to the hon. Member for drawing attention to this document, because all that they seek is that hon. Members should read it.

Sir G. Nicholson

Would you make it abundantly clear, Mr. Speaker, that there is no reflection on the admirable officials of the Vote Office, to whom we all owe a great debt for their excellent work?

Mr. Speaker

I think that the House understands that. I am certainly of that opinion myself. It would be rather difficult for a clerk in the Vote Office to refuse a request of an hon. Member who is well known in the House, especially when he has been told that it has the authority of the Parliamentary Agent. I do not think that any blame attaches to them.