HC Deb 04 March 1959 vol 601 cc454-64
Mr. Benn

Yesterday I drew your attention, Mr. Speaker, to a question of Privilege concerning my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stone-house) and I said on that occasion: It is my submission that the arrest of a Member of Parliament not on a criminal charge, not reported to the House and to you. Mr. Speaker, in a territory over which the House has absolute legislative authority, raises a question of the Privilege of Parliament so serious that it deserves reference to the Committee of Privileges."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1959; Vol. 601, c. 225.] In reply, you gave a Ruling: The origin of the doctrine of freedom from arrest which attaches to all Members of Parliament during a Session of Parliament lies in the fact that this House is entitled to have a first claim upon their services and that any person who, by an action of arrest or hindrance, prevents a Member from attending in his place to do his duty is guilty of contempt of the whole House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1959; Vol. 601, c. 226.] Since you gave that Ruling, Mr. Speaker, there is, of course, fresh evidence on this matter. I would refer you to the report in The Times of today, in which the hon. Member for Wednesbury is quoted as having said, in Dar-es-Salaam: I was hoping to get hack to the House of Commons in time for the debate tomorrow, but they would not listen to reason. I asked to see the Governor but they refused. The submission which I make today is that the Federal prohibition order, coupled with the arrest by the Federal authorities, did constitute a hindrance to my hon. Friend attending the debate today which, above all debates, concerns him personally, since it is to be upon a Motion of censure by my right hon. and hon. Friends against the Government for failing to protect my hon. Friend.

I have caused inquiries to be made about the way in which my hon. Friend could have returned from Northern Rhodesia to attend the House. There is only one route and one type of aircraft which would have permitted him to return here today. That was the aircraft which he intended to catch from Lusaka this morning, leaving at seven o'clock, Flight C.E. 611, which was routed via Blantyre in Nyasaland, which he was prohibited from entering by the prohibition order, from there to Salisbury, which was covered by the same order, to connect there with an aircraft from Johannesburg which would have brought him to London Airport at 12.35 p.m. today. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, the effect of the order and my hon. Friend's arrest by the Federal authorities raises a very serious matter indeed.

I will, if I may, draw your attention to one other authority, the authority of the present Attorney-General, who, in 1944, referring to the case of Captain Ramsay, detained under the order to which you yourself referred in your Ruling yesterday, said: When we look back into history we find that among one of the chief of the ancient rights and liberties that you, Mr. Speaker, claim on our behalf is the right of freedom from arrest for 40 days before the Session and 40 days thereafter…The real reason for the freedom from arrest of Members of this House was to enable them to perform their duties".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th June, 1944; Vol. 400, c. 2345.] That, of course, is the ground on which my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury wished to return to the debate today which concerns himself. I therefore submit the matter to you on those grounds.

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker, you gave a second ground for rejecting my appeal, which was that an order made by the Secretary of State for Home Affairs detaining a Member of Parliament in pursuance of the Defence of the Realm Regulations is not a breach of Privilege. I wish to submit to you some evidence now on this point. First, I should like to draw your attention to the Report of the Committee of Privileges which was set up in the case of Captain Ramsay. Of course, it is part of my argument that, since there was doubt on the law in that case which could be resolved only by the Committee of Privileges, similar doubts on the law occur in this case.

One of the firmest points made in the Report of the Committee of Privileges was its quotation, with approval, from Blackstone, that The chief, if not the only, privilege of Parliament in such cases seems to be the right of receiving immediate information of the imprisonment or the detention of any Member with the reasons for which he is detained. As of yesterday's date, Mr. Speaker, you had received no such notification. I do not, of course, know whether you have received it today.

The next point, which differentiates the case of Captain Ramsay from the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury, is the fact that, in the case of Captain Ramsay, the Committee of Privileges found that the Executive, in detaining the hon. Member, was responsible to the House of Commons for the power that they exercised. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), who was responsible at one stage for the detention of Captain Ramsay, was, of course, open to daily questioning in the House about the hon. Member for Peebles, as he then was, and frequently gave an account of his stewardship to the House. In this case, under your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, there is no possibility of questioning Ministers about the detention or arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury.

Thirdly, in the case of Captain Ramsay, we have it on the authority of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South, who was Home Secretary at that time, that the case for arresting him can be justified only where there is reasonable cause to believe that the safety of the State may be in danger."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th September, 1944: Vol. 403, c. 42.] Since there is not a state of emergency in the Federation at this moment, it cannot be argued that the escorting of my hon. Friend home, under escort, via Blantyre and Salisbury, could have endangered the security of the State.

I submit, therefore, that we are back to the central point of freedom from arrest, namely, the point which arises out of the molestation of a Member by the Crown not answerable to this House. I would respectfully draw your attention once again to the famous occasion of the five Members, when your predecessor, Mr. Speaker Lenthall, said to the Crown, who came personally: May it please Your Majesty. I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place save as the House directs me, whose servant I am here. With those words, Sir, I ask that the matter of the complaint be sent to the Committee of Privileges.

Mrs. Castle


Mr. Speaker

It is usual to hear only one hon. Member on a submission of Privilege.

Mrs. Castle

Before you give your ruling, Mr. Speaker, may I add to the point put by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), in the light of some fresh evidence which I have just received which supports the first point that he made to you so ably and strongly?

I have here the transcript of a tape recording, taken this morning, of a telephone conversation I had with my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse), who is now in Dar-es-Salaam. The purpose of my telephone call was to ascertain from my hon. Friend whether he had made efforts to get back to London in time for today's debate and had been prevented from doing so by the Federal authorities.

My hon. Friend informed me that he was due to catch the 7 a.m. plane yesterday to Blantyre, a plane which would have enabled him to reach London in time, but that, at 6.30 a.m., half a hour before the plane was due to leave, he was arrested by the Federal immigration authorities, who prevented him from seeing the territorial Government officials and the Governor, which he wanted to do in order to ask that alternative travel arrangements could be made to enable him to reach London in time for this debate. Instead of being allowed to see the Government officials for this purpose, my hon. Friend was forcibly put on a plane for Dar-es-Salaam, a plane so small that it inevitably meant that he could not reach Dar-es-Salaam in time to catch the London connection from the territory.

My hon. Friend also informed me this morning that, en route for Dar-es-Salaam in this small Piper Apache plane, he was met at a refuelling point in Tanganyika by the Provincial Commissioner, whom he asked to make travel arrangements so that he could reach London. My hon. Friend asked that his plane should be diverted from Dar-es-Salaam to Nairobi so that he might catch the London plane, because it was his very earnest desire to attend this debate and make his own representations here this afternoon. He was told by the Provincial Commissioner and the pilot of the plane that the plane was unsuitable for transporting him to Nairobi, but the point which my hon. Friend made to me on the telephone this morning was that, if he had been allowed, as he had requested half an hour before his plane was due to leave for Blantyre, to see the Governor of Northern Rhodesia, alternative travel arrangements could then have been made and he would by now have been in this country.

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker, you said: I cannot see that the Federal Government have done anything to prevent or hinder the attendance of the hon. Member for Wednesbury in his place here. On that ground, I should say that they have not acted in contempt of Parliament."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1959; Vol. 601, c. 226] I put this point specifically to my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury, and it is here in the transcript of the tape recording. I asked him: Would you say that the actions of the Federal authorities prevented your attendance at today's debate? My hon. Friend replied: That is right, yes. They prevented me from making alternative arrangements to travel. I submit that the words of my hon. Friend himself are prima facie proof that a breach of Privilege has taken place.

Mr. Speaker

I have listened with great care to what has been said by the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle). I regret as much as anybody the unhappy chain of events which has prevented the attendance of the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) among us today, but that is not really the point. The point I have to decide is whether a prime facie case has been made out of contempt on the part of somebody such as would enable me to give discussion of this matter priority over the Orders of the Day. That was the problem which I had to decide yesterday, and it is a problem which I have again to decide today.

In view of all that I have heard, I do not think that yet I am entitled to give that priority. That is not to say that the matter cannot be referred to the Committee of Privileges, or that the House may not declare it to be a contempt of Parliament or a breach of Privilege; but, I think that I must rule that that should be done by a Motion. If I may, I will again give my reasons in brief.

Yesterday, when I was speaking—I did not want to be too long—I thought of the case which occurred in my own experience, concerning a Mr. John Lewis who was the hon. Member for Bolton, West. Mr. Lewis was coming to the House for a Division, and he afterwards complained that, in the course of his journey, owing to traffic difficulties and the action of a policeman who held him up, he was prevented from arriving here in time. The Committee of Privileges then deliberated on the matter and in its Report, which was published, there are certain very interesting findings which I will draw to the attention of the House. The Report was discussed and approved by the whole House.

The Committee found, in the first place, that the policeman had not obstructed Mr. Lewis in that sense. The Committee stated: The general privilege is one which has no geographical limits within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". That statement about the limits of the jurisdiction of Parliament for the purpose of Privilege is the first clear statement which we have had as to how far the matter of access goes. The Committee limits it within the United Kingdom. I have made it my business to make a search to discover whether the privilege of Parliament has ever been claimed for events happening outside the United Kingdom, and I have found none.

If the House considers this matter, then there is the difficulty that it must also consider how we should make any decree on Privilege effective. I am sure that hon. Members would not wish the House to engage in any controversy unless they had a remedy to see that their own will was carried out. That is the first point.

The second point is that the Committee stated, in its conclusions: Such privileges do not exalt the Member above the ordinary restraints of law which apply to his fellow-citizens. I think that that is agreed on both sides of the House.

It therefore seems to me that in this case, and in the circumstances which have followed from it, the question whether the order was properly made will no doubt be discussed this evening. I take the view that it was certainly legally made and that, as the hon. Member for Wednesbury did not comply with it by leaving the country, which he could have done, and perhaps reached home in time, they deported him in accordance with their own law; but it was within their jurisdiction, not within ours. Therefore, in all these circumstances, this is a matter which the House should consider carefully. If the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, after reflecting on what I have said, and with the assistance of any further advice and learning which I can place at his disposal, thinks that a Motion should be tabled to this effect, I am sure that the House would be prepared to consider it.

Mr. Benn

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving your reasons for rejecting my proposal, because it enables further submissions to be made.

The difference between the case of Mr. Lewis and that of the hon. Member for Wednesbury is that no obstruction was placed in the path of Mr. Lewis to prevent him entering the House. There was only the delay which was necessary to give his own details to a policeman for an action which subsequently led to a charge in court. In the case of the hon. Member for Wednesbury, that is exactly the obstruction of which we complain.

The second point which I should like to put to you, Mr. Speaker, is whether you should really lay down a Ruling today which would be read as seeming to suggest that the privileges of a Member of Parliament were limited to the shores of the United Kingdom and could not be extended.

I should like to ask you two further questions, Mr. Speaker. First, have you yet received notification of the arrest of the hon. Member for Wednesbury, and, secondly, in your researches have you ever found an occasion when a Member or Parliament was obstructed and arrested in a British Colonial Territory?

Mr. Speaker

In answer to the first point, I should like to make it perfectly clear that I laid down no fresh Ruling as to the extent of the privileges of the House. I merely quoted a Report of the House's own Committee of Privileges, which was endorsed by the House of Commons.

In reply to the second point of the hon. Member, I have not found a case of a Member of Parliament who was detained in a Colonial Territory. I do not know whether such a case has occurred before. I have not been able to find such a case. If the hon. Member can assist my researches by finding one, I would be much obliged to him. But, as I say, I have not been able to find a case of an hon. Member who complained on the ground of Privilege of his detention by any Colonial or Commonwealth Power.

What the hon. Member has said does not alter my decision. All these considerations which he urges upon me do not affect my procedural judgment, that a Motion should not get precedence over the Orders of the Day. If the matter is properly put in the form of a Motion, and it goes to the Committee of Privileges, no doubt it will take into account, at more leisure than I have, all the arguments and precedents which the hon. Member is able to find.

Mr. Benn

Have you received notification of the arrest of the hon. Member for Wednesbury, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

I have received no notification whatsoever of the hon. Member's arrest. As I told the House yesterday, I was concerned about him and I made inquiries to find out whether he had been arrested, and I was told that he had not. He had been put on board an aircraft at Lusaka and was being flown to Dar-es-Salaam at that moment, where he was at liberty. He was not imprisoned in any way.

Mr. Paget

Is not the fact that the arrest of a Member in a Colonial Territory has not occurred before a reason why we should consider it, precisely because it is a highly important point upon which there is no decision of this House? Not only Privilege of Parliament but every privilege can be justified only by duty. Our duty runs in the Colonial Territories over which we are the ultimate legislative authority and where we have legislative duty and responsibility. Our privileges, if they exist, spring from that duty.

Now, our Privilege is challenged as to the performance of that duty in a colonial area where a duty clearly exists. I submit that the fact that this is unprecedented is the major reason why the matter should be decided.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East has found a reason why I should procedurally give my decision at once—that this matter should receive priority—but, in giving my decision, I am bound by the precedents which I mentioned. On the mere matter of procedure, the question of Privilege is one for the House. These considerations can be advanced on a Motion.

Mr. Gaitskell

I am sure that we all appreciate the care and attention which you have given to this matter, Mr. Speaker. You suggested that if my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Bonn) felt it desirable he could table a Motion, but I am sure we would all agree that it is far better that the normal procedure should be followed in matters of Privilege. It would be very unfortunate if this became a party issue and was confused with other matters. The normal procedure is for us to await your Ruling whether a prima facie case has been made out. If you so decide, it is for the Leader of the House to move the appropriate Motion, which is generally passed without opposition.

In that connection, I should like to put this point to you, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friends have submitted today their case on the ground that we did not know yesterday that there appears to have been, or there is said to have been, some interference between my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) and his return to this House. I think, however, that we must concede that we do not know all the facts. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) has spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury, but a telephone conversation at that distance, in a short time, does not enable one to probe the whole matter full. Nevertheless, my hon. Friends raised the matter today because they wished to observe the rule of urgency in these matters.

I should like to put this to you, in view of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. Since the facts are not clear and since this is, as I am sure you will agree, Mr. Speaker, an important matter of principle, I wonder whether you would be willing, if the hon. Member for Wednesbury so desires when he conies back, and wishes to submit to you his account of the matter, to consider it?

Mr. Speaker

The same thought passed through my mind. It is very difficult for me to decide these matters on reported conversations over the telephone, and also the distance which the hon. Member for Wednesbury is from the House of Commons increases the possibility of hazards and vicissitudes in his power to travel. But that is another matter. It I had the benefit of the hon. Member's attendance and account, I should be in a much better and happier position than I am at present, but procedurally, bound as I am by precedent, I must for the moment reject the Motion without prejudice to the hon. Member for Wednesbury's right to make his complaint in this House.

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

As Leader of the House, I should like to say only that normally it would be the duty of the Leader of the House, had your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, been different, to move a Motion such as has been suggested by the Leader of the Opposition, but I have respected your Ruling of yesterday and listened to your Ruling of today and, in the circumstances, I feel that no duty falls upon me, at any rate on this occasion.

I paid respect to your Ruling of yesterday and I have paid attention to the arguments of the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) today, but one physical fact should be known to the House in relation to the difficulty of the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) in getting away. That is that the 7 a.m. plane did not fly on account of the emergency, which makes the physical addition to the reasons advanced yesterday by the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East not so good as would appear. In the circumstances, I think that the best thing would be to leave matters as you have ruled this afternoon, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Benn

Further to that point, Sir. Since the Leader of the House has chosen to raise the question of the hazards of travel, I might point out that the Government of the Federation put at the disposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury a plane which could have taken him to catch the connection but chose to take him to a place from which no connection was possible.

Mr. C. Pannell

May I say, Mr. Speaker, that I have looked at the records outside Erskine May, and though I have not found a case that concerns a Member of Parliament I have found one which indicates the extreme sensitivity of the House to matters affecting British citizens when they are abroad. I refer to the case of two people who actually afterwards became Members of Parliament, though the incident happened prior to the time when they became Members. It concerns the action of the then Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, then Mr., later Viscount, Curzon, in 1896, when dock strike leaders from this country went to Antwerp. They were Ben Tillett and Sexton and, afterwards a Minister of the Crown, John Burns, intervened with Curzon on their behalf. They were expelled from Antwerp for agitation. Lord Curzon held the view that a British citizen abroad, as long as he did not break the law, could agitate on behalf of people in search of their rights, and the dockworkers of those days were just as much depressed as are the people of Nyasaland today.

It will be a very bad job for this House if, sixty years afterwards, we are less sensitive to the fate of a Member of Parliament than Lord Curzon was all those years ago about a couple of agitators, although they afterwards played so great a part in the service of the State. A greater principle is involved here than merely the question of ruling on this matter as a prima facie case of breach of Privilege. If I support my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) it is out of respect to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, but not necessarily out of agreement with it.

Mr. Speaker

I take what the hon. Member has said. I, too, think it right that any British citizen abroad, as long as he does not break the law of the land, is entitled to the protection of the House and, even if he does break it, is entitled to such help and succour as the House can give him.

The conclusion that I have reached, with the assistance of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House and the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, is that the best course is to wait until the hon. Member for Wednesbury returns and return to this matter again completely without prejudice to what may be the result.