HC Deb 11 December 1961 vol 651 cc45-7
Mr. Paget

I desire to raise a quite different point of order, Mr. Speaker. I desire to ask whether you can be of some assistance over a problem which we feel may arise with reference to the application of the rule against sub judice, and the danger that it may unduly interfere with the performance by the House of its duties to the public.

Since the days when this rule came into being, which was in 1844, when the Government were prosecuting Daniel O'Connell, circumstances have changed quite a lot, in particular with the main disappearance of the jury system. It is, therefore, not very easy to see that the purpose of the rule, which is to avoid prejudicing the trial of a matter awaiting adjudication in a court of law, can today, with seldom a jury at all or with quite different juries, have the same reality that it once had. I do not think that it had previously been realised—at least it had never occurred—that this rule applied to a civil action.

If it had been realised, and if it had been realised that anybody by issuing a writ could stop the action of this House, one can only think that the Marconi Company, on a famous occasion, could have stopped the agitation that gave rise to a famous inquiry simply by the issue of a writ, or that Mr. Sydney Stanley, on a more recent occasion, by the issue of a writ, could have done the same thing. Again, in a mining disaster, where people had great fears about the safety regulations, the issue of a writ might have halted it.

Perhaps the latest case is where a Minister is responsible for safety in the air. There is nothing more vital to that safety than the mind of the captains of aircraft and their feelings about liberty to take decisions which they regard as necessary to safety where that is in question. It seems strange and highly inconvenient that the issue of a writ, which need never be brought to trial, and, in any event, could probably not be brought to trial for a year, should halt the proceedings of this House and its performance of its duty to the public to demand an inquiry in the name of safety.

Therefore, I should be most grateful if you could give us your guidance, or suggest how it might be possible to bring this old rule up to the modern requirements of the House and the convenience of the public.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) for giving me warning about this, so that I could be sure that my advice was well-founded.

Supposing that it is thought, for instance, that the rule as it exists does not leave the Chair any or any adequate discretion on this or other matters which the hon. and learned Member was urging, the proper procedure is for him to put down a Motion expressing what he believes our rule should be. Then, if it finds favour with the House, that becomes our operative rule on which we can all work, and by which we will all be bound.

Mr. Gaitskell

I should like to say how grateful we are for your Ruling, in which I take it that you are saying, in your experience, that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has made a point of some substance here and that this is a matter which the House should consider. May I, with permission, put it to you that it would be desirable if we settled this by agreement all round? This is a highly technical matter. Possibly, with your assistance, the Leader of the House and some of us on this side of the House might discuss it, with a view to getting an agreed Motion to put to the House.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I would favour the view that an agreed Motion would be ideal. It must not be taken that I am expressing any view about it one way or the other at this stage.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Iain Macleod)

May I say, Mr. Speaker, that I would be glad to take part in any discussions which are suitable.