HC Deb 07 May 1958 vol 587 cc1221-4
The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council this morning read in open court the Report on the question of law concerning the Parliamentary Privilege Act, 1770, which the House asked Her Majesty to refer to the Committee last December. The Queen in Council has considered the Report and has commanded me to communicate it to the House.

The Report, which is already available in the Vote Office, expresses the opinion that the House would not be acting contrary to the Parliamentary Privilege Act, 1770, if it treated the issue of a writ against a Member of Parliament in respect of a speech or proceeding by him in Parliament as a breach of its privileges.

Mr. Gaitskell

While expressing satisfaction at this opinion because it will facilitate the further work of the Committee of Privileges on this difficult subject, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is his intention that the Committee should meet again in the near future, or that there should first be a debate in the House on the Report which has already been published?

Mr. Butler

I refreshed my memory as to what I had said in moving that the question that was referred should be referred to the Judicial Committee. I said at that time that the House would be free to decide what it wished to do. The Government are, of course, free to table a Motion that this matter be referred back to the Committee of Privileges, but it occurred to me that it would be better to allow a little time for hon. Members to read this Report and for the Government and myself, as the Leader of the House, to consider it before we decided on any specific action. In so far as it goes, I think that we are glad to welcome the Report of the Judicial Committee, but I think we should all be very glad to have time to consider it before any of us decide to table a Motion or take any other particular action.

Mr. H. Morrison

Presumably this will not prejudice the right of the House further to consider the Report of the Committee of Privileges or the right of the Committee of Privileges further to consider its own Report in the light of the Report from the Judicial Committee. I hope that the statement by the Leader of the House does not in any way prejudice our rights on what is an important matter which concerns not only the House, but the rights of private individuals outside.

Mr. Butler

I can give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance that this is entirely without prejudice to the questions that he has raised and the liberties that he has espoused. I considered whether I should be right today to add at the end of my statement that the matter would be referred back to the Committee of Privileges, but I thought that that would be premature, because right hon. and hon. Members would wish to consider the matter before any action whatever was taken. This leaves the House the utmost opportunity. If the House desires the question to be resumed by the Committee of Privileges, it can always take the opportunity of making its voice felt.

Mr. Ede

When will the right hon. Gentleman be able to tell us how much it has cost to prove that the advice tendered to the Committee of Privileges by the Attorney-General was wrong?

Mr. Butler

I should prefer to have a little time before I gave the exact expenses. The Report is now in the Vote Office for hon. Members to read. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes, I will do my best to find out.

In relation to the right hon. Gentleman's other observation. I should merely like to hold the ring by saying that, having read all these papers—in passing, I might say that the pleadings will be found in the Library—I think there is a legitimate opportunity for difference of opinion, and that while the right hon. Gentleman has very strong, dignified and traditional feelings, other people are entitled to their opinions as well.

Sir G. Nicholson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the decision of the Judicial Committee will be greeted with some consternation by the general public as being a dangerous extension of the privileges of this House? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Will my right hon. Friend not be precipitate in taking definite steps formally to enshrine that extension of Privilege in the rules and accepted procedures of the House without sounding opinion more generally?

Mr. Butler

I am indebted to my hon. Friend for putting that point, because it enables me to say that the Report from the Judicial Committee relates only to a comparatively small, though important, point, namely, the interpretation of the 1770 Act, and that it does not raise, as their Lordships are careful to point out in the latter part of their Report, many of the more controversial points upon which the Committee of Privileges itself animadverted. The Report relates only to a comparatively small point.

Mr. E. Fletcher

I welcome the Report of the Judicial Committee in view of the great importance of this matter, but may we have an assurance from the Leader of the House that, whether or not he thinks it necessary that the Committee of Privileges should be reconvened, there will be no undue delay in giving the House an opportunity of considering the matter?

Mr. Butler

I do not think that there will be an opportunity before Whitsun, nor should there be an opportunity, I think, before we have considered the Report. Let us agree to discuss the matter through the usual channels. As it is a matter involving all hon. Members, perhaps any Member who feels interested would take the opportunity to inform me of his views.

Mr. Gaitskell

Without expressing an opinion on whether there should be a debate first, was not the Report of the Committee of Privileges an interim one and will it not be essential for the Committee to meet again to clear all points still outstanding?

Mr. Butler

Yes, Sir. The Committee kept itself free to meet again if it were so desired.