HC Deb 04 May 1961 vol 639 cc1619-22
Viscount Hinchingbrooke

May I raise with you, Mr. Speaker, a point of order about prior publicity which is given to statements made at the Dispatch Box? We are not supposed to have eyes or ears for anything except what takes place on the Floor of the House, but in the past we have noticed the growing practice of issuing statements to the Press before they are made at the Dispatch Box.

I should be grateful, Mr. Speaker, if you would take this matter into consideration over the weekend and, perhaps, make a statement to the House during the course of next week as to the general propriety of the practice in relation to the dignity of our proceedings.

Mr. Speaker

I have not sufficiently in mind what the noble Lord is complaining about. Is it the suggestion that this particular statement was issued to the Press before it was made here?

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

It was apparent to all of us that in the middle of the Prime Minister's statement there was a great shuffling of paper up in the Press Gallery as the pages were turned over. I am wondering what would have happened if the representations made by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) had been borne out by the facts and an appeal had been lodged, in which event, Mr. Speaker, you would have curtailed the proceedings, prevented the Prime Minister from continuing his statement, and there would have been other parties elsewhere who were in possession of the whole of it.

Mr. Speaker

All kinds of problems would arise had that happened. I am obliged to the noble Lord for his explanation. He will understand that I am prevented by a canopy from being as wise as he is. I will consider what he has put to me.

Mr. J. Hynd

Further to that point of order. Apart from the incidents to which the noble Lord referred, I believe that the foreign Press has been able to publish full reports of the evidence that was heard in camera in this case. That seems to suggest that not only was the statement handed out while the Prime Minister was speaking, but that other information was given to Press sources long before any information was given to this House—and information which went far beyond anything which has been given to this House. Is it in order for such information to be given in these matters before the House of Commons is appraised of it?

Mr. Speaker

I understood the hon. Member to be saying that somebody has published evidence that was given in camera. In that event, we can safely leave it to the Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Further to the point of order raised by my noble Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke). It has been obvious to hon. Members on the Floor of the House with an uninterrupted view of the Press Gallery that for many years, and by various different Governments, this practice has been followed of releasing statements to the Press before they were delivered in this House. When you are considering this matter, Mr. Speaker, will you have it in mind that what is, perhaps, now becoming respectable antiquity for this practice should not justify it if it is undesirable from the point of view of the interests of this House?

Mr. Speaker

I will bear in mind what the hon. Member has said. It must be obvious that, at first glance, there may be a quite sensible purpose in allowing the Press to have a simultaneous handout so that it gets an accurate report of what one is trying to read when making a statement. That might be so. I will not, however, prejudge the matter. I will consider it.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Further to that point of order. In view of the fact that the matter has in some ways created a precedent of statements being made when an appeal is pending, and that there is strong complaint in the Press that a directive was given to suppress information which has since been revealed by a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh), will you further consider the question of preventing statements of this kind, which might remotely affect the possibility of the sentence being altered? Can you give us an assurance. Mr. Speaker, that the Prime Minister will not give a directive to suppress the proceedings of the House of Commons?

Mr. Speaker

I can give no assurance as to what the Prime Minister will think it right or not right to do in any circumstances. That is no part of my duty.

With regard to the other matter, I follow the practice of the House and I cannot change it. The House can change it. The sub judice rule applies only in the circumstances which I indicated earlier to the hon. Member and to the House.

Mr. S. Silverman

At the same time as you are considering the point raised by the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke), I wonder whether, Mr. Speaker, you would consider whether our practice with regard to questions sub judice should not be assimilated to the practice outside. What I have in mind is that where a period is provided by Statute during which a man may think over whether to appeal, it is the practice among newspapers, and in other places, not to comment upon it until the time provided by Statute for appeal has passed. The reason for that, I apprehend—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to stop the hon. Member, but I understand the point. At one time, the House went into the question of whether the sub judice practice applied during the time when an appeal could be lodged or as from the moment when it was, in fact, lodged. It is clear that the practice of the House is that the rule operates as from when the appeal is made. I cannot argue the merits of a possible change, because I cannot change the practice. The House could change it if it wished.

Mr. Silverman

I wonder whether you can help us, Mr. Speaker, in considering how the House might take an opportunity of considering how it ought to make the change. Obviously, a great deal of irreparable damage might be done during the intervening period and then an appeal might be lodged, when the mischief could not be overtaken.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member knows that he can put down a Motion to that effect. If he could get it considered by the House, that would provide the opportunity. At the moment, I do not know of any other method. One thing that is quite clear is that we cannot debate the matter now.