HC Deb 12 July 1960 vol 626 cc1184-94
Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Charles Pannell, who, I believe, desires to raise a matter with me.

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

I wish to raise with you, Mr. Speaker, a matter of Privilege, of which I have given you notice.

Last week, on 6th July, I asked two Questions of the Postmaster-General which were replied to by the hon. Lady the Assistant Postmaster-General, about anti-Semitic literature and literature directed against coloured people of the Commonwealth and circulated in telephone boxes in Leeds.

Following the reply of the hon. Lady, and only arising from that reply—I stress that I have had no dealings with anybody outside except arising from that reply—I received a letter from the people who were responsible—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members be good enough not to make so much noise? It is very difficult to hear the hon. Member.

Mr. Pannell

I received a letter from a source which I can only think is the original source of the leaflets which gave rise to the complaint, the letter being in terms which, I think, are a clear breach of Privilege. It is said on the letter that copies have been sent to the Yorkshire Post and the Guardian. It is on notepaper headed, "For Race and Nation", and it comes from the British National Party, with a national headquarters at 74, Princedale Road, London, W.11. It is addressed to Mr. T. C. Pannell, M.P., Leeds, West, at the House of Commons, and is dated 8th July. The letter reads:

"Dear Sir,

My attention has been drawn to your reference in the Commons to leaflets in Leeds presumably issued by the British National Party, and from which it appears that, in return for the £1,000 p.a. which you receive from the British taxpayers ostensibly for the promotion of their interests, you are perfectly agreeable to see their land flooded with negroes and dominated by Jews, and feverishly anxious to deprive them of the freedom to criticise the intrusion of the racial aliens and to speak out for a Britain for the British.

"No doubt, when you clamour for our prosecution, you will be commended by all the Jewish overlords of Leeds and their coloured allies for your zeal in the service of their interests, but you would do well at the same time to take into account the possibility that, in the resurgent Britain of tomorrow, it may well be you and your fellow racial renegades who face trial for your complicity in the coloured invasion and Jewish control of our land.

Yours sincerely,

Colin Jordan,

National Organiser, B.N.P."

I wish to point out, Sir, that, however foolish that may sound, it is written by an educated man who is a school teacher in a British school. It is intended as a threat. I have no doubt that, if one searched the archives of Germany, one would find that certain equally silly letters—if one may stigmatise them as silly letters—were sent to Socialist deputies in the days when Hitler was on his way up. The point is that the literature is still being disseminated in the city which I represent, a city which has the highest percentage of Jews among all cities in the United Kingdom.

No one can represent the City of Leeds without sensing the wave of emotion which passes over Jewry in that city whenever there is a pogrom in some part of the world, or whenever there is any racialism at all. No one on either side of the Chamber representing a constituency in that city—

Mr. Speaker

I think that, supposing leave to be given for a Motion to be submitted by the hon. Member, what he is now saying might be properly directed to this speech on the Motion. I think that this is the stage when I should ask him to bring the letter to me.

Mr. Pannell

Yes, Sir.

Copy of letter delivered in.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman was good enough to raise this with me at the earliest possible moment, which was yesterday. Accordingly, I have had an opportunity of considering its terms. In my clear opinion, the writing of this letter constitutes prima facie a case of breach of Privilege of this House.

Mr. Pannell

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I have considered, since the time I spoke to you, what would be the appropriate course to take. I have had in mind the nature of the source from which the letter has come, and I do not wish to do anything which would tend to inflate the significance of the matter or give the writer any sense of great self-importance. It is, I think—I imagine that hon. Members will probably agree—very much a question of taste and a sense of proportion. I wish to ask the House to take a course rather different from the usual one, but a course which has honourable precedents. It was last invoked on 14th April, 1938, by my predecessor in the constituency of Leeds, West, who was well known to many hon. Members, I think—Mr. Vyvyan Adams. I ask that the matter should not be referred to the Committee of Privileges, but should be the subject of a Motion now, on the Floor of the House.

I beg to move, That the said letter constitutes a gross breach of the Privileges of this House. If the House accepts that Motion, as I hope it will, the result will be that we shall have made a finding, but will not have imposed a sanction. It really means that, if these people or this person does anything following such a Resolution by the House, he will be in contempt of the whole House. We shall thereby serve warning upon him, if he does anything like this again arising out of a purely Parliamentary procedure and holds a Member up to a threat, contempt or ridicule because of something done in Parliament, and it means that I am completely free to proceed either within or without the House. I believe that the letter as written is itself, of course, a libel.

I wish to dispose of the matter in that way. It will have the added advantage, if the House agrees to accept the course I recommend, that the matter will be finished this afternoon for the time being. We shall not have a Motion of Privilege hanging over the House until October, and we shall have got rid of it. It is, I think, a procedure rather older than our usual Committee of Privileges Motion and it has respectable antecedents. It does not tend to inflate the issue of Privilege in this case beyond a point to which I think hon. Members generally would wish it to be inflated, but it does serve notice that any Member standing in the House and asking a Question on behalf of his constituents is not to be libelled and is not to be threatened. It serves notice that the House will act if there is any repetition from the same source.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I fully appreciate and sympathise with the motives which have led my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) to move his Motion, but, for my part, I must dissent from it. There are many occasions on which Members of Parliament are well advised to take no action whatever with regard to something which may well be, nevertheless, a technical or more than technical breach of Privilege, just as there are other occasions when all of us would feel it to be our duty to draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to some matter and ask for your Ruling and then, if your Ruling be that there is prima facie a breach of Privilege, for the normal consequences in the House of Commons to follow.

In my humble opinion, there is no halfway house. Either the matter should be ignored or, if it is not ignored, once you have declared, as you have here, that prima facie, at any rate, there is a clear breach of Privilege, the matter ought to go to the Committee of Privileges in the ordinary way so that it may consider what action, if any, it would recommend the House to take, after proper investigation and after giving the person against whom the complaint is brought an opportunity to be heard.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind my saying that it seems to me that it is really not consistent with the protection of the exercise by Members of Parliament of their duties in their office, once it has been established that prima facie a breach of Privilege has occurred, to ignore it and do nothing about it. If it is trivial, leave it alone. If it is not trivial—my hon. Friend certainly does not think that this is trivial and I think that most of us do not regard it as trivial—then the Committee of Privileges is a safe tribunal. It will do justice to everyone concerned. It will make a considered report, and the House of Commons itself, at the end of the day, will be able to decide, on advice, whether it wishes to take any further action or not.

Mr. Speaker

So that the House can decide what it wants to do, is the hon. Member thinking of moving an Amendment to the Motion of the hon. Member for Leeds, West?

Mr. Silverman

I beg to move, to leave out from "the" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Sir Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I take precisely the opposite view to that of the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). It seems to me that in the course of his speech he fell into a very well-known trap. He assumed that when you, Mr. Speaker, decided that the matter was prima facie a breach of Privilege you were deciding on the merits of the matter, whereas, in actual fact, I understand, Mr. Speaker, that when you used those words you are merely saying that the matter raised falls within the category of Privilege and, as such, has precedence over the Orders of the Day.

I feel that the House is always in grave difficulties when the normal procedure such as that advocated by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne is followed. The procedure is that the Leader of the House moves that the matter be committed to the Committee of Privileges. If any hon. Member of the House thinks that the matter is too trivial—and I, for one, feel most strongly that recourse to the Committee of Privileges should be had as rarely as possible—he can claim a Division.

The Motion, having been moved by the Leader of the House, is supported by the Government Whips. The Whips are on. That is bound to happen. It is almost impossible for those who dissent from the view that it be sent to the Committee of Privileges to win the day. I commend with my whole heart the suggestion of the hon. Member for Leeds. West (Mr. C. Pannell). It is an interesting coincidence that the last occasion this was resorted to was by Mr. Vyvyan Adams, whom many of us remember with great affection and esteem.

I hope that the hon. Member for Leeds, West will carry his Motion. I think that it is the proper way to decide these matters unless they are of major importance. The issue involved in this is of major importance although the incident in itself is trivial. I believe that the House will best consult its own dignity and its own effectiveness if it agrees to the Motion proposed by the hon. Member for Leeds, West.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

I think that it is rather a pity that my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) moved his Amendment, because the House will now be in some quandary as to what to do on the immediate issue without having to give it a great deal of careful thought.

As I understand the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), it is, in effect, that if the House were to accept the Motion that he has moved not only would it be a salutary warning to the person who wrote this letter, and indicate to that type of person what this House thinks of this sort of thing happening to a Member, but, much more important, it would mean that if, in breach, that particular person again repeated it, the consequences could be that much more severe.

I ask the House to remember that be- cause, as I see it, this is the way for the House of Commons to be sensible about a matter of this kind in knowing how to deal with a situation which all of us, I hope, detest and want never to see rising again in this country. All I want to see is that at the end of the day the right method is followed. I hope that, on consideration, my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne will withdraw his Amendment, bearing in mind that if he does that, it will mean that if this person repeats his action the punishment that could then be inflicted is much more severe than we can expect from the Committee of Privileges considering it in the first instance.

Sir Kenneth Pickthorn (Carlton)

I am not quite sure that I wholly agree, with great respect, with the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). In the main, it seems to me that his suggestion is the more sensible of the two before us. I can put the reason very shortly indeed.

You, Mr. Speaker, have thought on this matter and have had longer notice of it than the rest of us, except the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), and in your judgment this is, as far as can be seen at this stage, a breach of Privilege. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."]. As far as can be seen at this stage. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I think that it would be difficult to take a view opposite to that. On the other hand, I think that there is no doubt that the House ought not, at such short notice, upon such short consideration, not having seen the letter before it, to pass a Motion which is, in effect, a condemnatory judgment. It seems to me quite plain that that is so.

If I may say one other thing which may sound a little pretentious, but it is merely the accident of my professional life, I have at one time or another read every reported case on Privilege. I think that those who have done anything like the same will not contradict me when I say that when the House has hurriedly decided, particularly on matters which excite emotion, on a question of Privilege brought before it, it has very frequently had reason later to regret its decision. I think that what, as a matter of commonsense theory, we most of us would agree to, is in fact, borne out by experience.

I feel, therefore, that we should not simply adopt the Motion of the hon. Member for Leeds, West, for whom I have great respect and great sympathy, and that the alternative before us is to accept the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Carlton (Sir K. Pickthorn) and the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). I listened to the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) reading out the letter, but hearing a letter read out in a rather noisy House is a very different thing from seeing it in the OFFICIAL REPORT and having a chance to form an opinion on it.

I think that it would be quite unfair to the man who wrote this letter, whatever his merits, that we instantly pass a Motion finding him guilty of a gross breach of Privilege of this House. I understand how the hon. Member for Leeds. West feels. It is a matter of opinion and judgment just when one takes account of abusive letters and when one does not. I personally would not have taken account of that letter: but it is a matter of judgment.

The hon. Gentleman thinks it right to do so. I do not quarrel with him. I can understand the way that he feels about it. You, Mr. Speaker, have ruled that it raises a prima facie case of breach of Privilege, and once that point has been reached I think that it would be very difficult, if we had nothing before us but the hon. Gentleman's Motion, to reject it. It would be very hard to do so. I think that the only proper procedure in these circumstances is to do what the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne suggests, refer it to the Committee of Privileges so that it can consider the matter carefully and decide what to recommend to us.

Personally, I would want to consider this matter very carefully. I never quite know where the boundary line comes between breach of Privilege and contempt and although, in its consequence, the matter may be slightly academic, we do not want on the record of this House a Resolution to the effect that a particular form of conduct is a breach of Privilege, when, according to all our precedents in law and in this House, it ought, in fact, to be contempt. These are the sort of matters which arise and I hope that the hon. Member for Leeds, West will agree to this case going to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. Scholefield Allen (Crewe)

I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell). He is trying to assist the House. He is trying to avoid using a sledge hammer, but, with great respect, I feel that that is not the way to look at this problem.

The hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) referred to the gentleman who wrote this letter, if one can call him a gentleman. But that is a presumption. There is no proof whatsoever that he is the man who wrote the letter. All of us have been associated with cases of forgery, and this may be a forgery. The man may come forward and say, "I did not, in fact, write the letter". In those circumstances, it would be foolish for the House to dismiss this matter in such a peremptory manner.

Sir Peter Agnew (Worcestershire, South)

I want to express my agreement with the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). Usually, when the House is asked to come to a decision on a matter of this kind, it is a decision regarding procedure and the House is committed to nothing more than sending the case for thorough examination to the Committee of Privileges. If, without having seen the letter for ourselves and being able to consider it, we pass a hasty Motion, however correct it might be, I venture to say that that procedure would savour something more like that of a people's court. We are asked to exercise a semi-judicial, if not a judicial, function. I, for one, would prefer to do that after having seen the documents on which I am asked to record my vote.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I should inform the House that the Hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) consulted me on this matter last night, and that I have been in touch with the Table, although not with you, Mr. Speaker. I must confess that my first reaction was rather on the line taken by the hon. Member himself. I took some soundings and I found that that was generally supported, at any rate last night, so far as I could judge.

I have now listened to the debate, and the first thing which strikes me, as Leader of the House, is that if there is any doubt we should take care about what action we adopt. Sufficient doubt has been expressed to make me feel that we should not decide this matter summarily, but that it should go forward in the ordinary way and be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

On that basis, either the hon. Member should withdraw the Motion, in which case I would move in the normal way—

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that that is possible now, because an Amendment has been moved to the Motion.

Mr. Butler

I was about to say that I thought that that might be difficult, but I am saved in my oratory by your intervention, Mr. Speaker. As the Amendment has been moved, I think that the House has only one course, namely, to support it.

I do not want to say that this is in any way letting down the hon. Member for Leeds, West. We are all in sympathy with the case which he has put forward. I have quite openly stated that last night I agreed with him. Today, I am taking the other line, because, if there is any dubiety in the matter, we ought to have the opportunity to have it investigated. If the hon. Member feels happy about this, I feel sure that this is the best course for the House to adopt.

As there is evidence of a prima facie case, I suggest that the House should support the Amendment of the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman).

Mr. Pannell

With the permission of the House, may I say, as the Leader of the House has said, that I went to some trouble to have adequate consultation yesterday and to sound the authorities. Of the propriety of the course which I have asked the House to take, I have no doubt, I could probably quote a dozen precedents. I would have wished the House to do what I have suggested because, in the long run, I think that it would have been better, but in so far as it is suggested that this is not, to other hon. Members, the plain case which it appears to me—and no one will question my motives in moving the Motion—I will bow to the difference in the House and justice will then seem to have been done. I will not object to the matter going to the Committee of Privileges.

Question, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question, put and negatived.

Proposed words there added.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

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