§ Mrs. Castle
I wish to raise with you, Mr. Speaker, a point of procedure which affects the rights of hon. Members. I apologise for not being able to give you earlier warning, but the relevant facts have only just been brought to my attention.
Yesterday, a number of us were gravely concerned by Press reports of the imprisonment in Germany some weeks ago of six Service men in Germany belonging to the 1st Battalion of the Lancashire Regiment, two of whom had received very heavy sentences for 671 inciting mutiny and four of whom had lighter sentences for disobeying orders. The reports say that the facts have only just come to light because the court martial had been held in secret. The Army authorities would not say whether the men had pleaded guilty or not, nor give their home addresses, so that there was no way in which we could find out whether they were our constituents.
A number of us yesterday tried to table Questions on this matter, asking for a statement. We were informed that we could not do this because the matter was sub judice, the men having appealed. I understand that you yourself, Mr. Speaker, refused permission for a Private Notice Question on the same grounds.
My attention has just been drawn to a very full report in today's Daily Telegraph by the special correspondent in Hilden, which begins,Lieut.-Colonel H. G. Kemball, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Regiment, told me today the full story of the events which led to prison sentences for six of his men.The story goes on,Colonel Kemball, who had the War Office's permission to speak …From this report, I gather that one of these men was one of my constituents. Incidentally, there is no mention in the story that the men have appealed. This means that hon. Members have been denied the opportunity of asking for a statement on this case which would have enabled them to put Questions in the interests of their constituents, whereas at the very same time that we were being refused that permision the War Office was giving permission to the commanding officer of these men to put the War Office's side of the case. I suggest to you that this means one of two things—either that you were misinformed that this matter was under appeal or that there are different rules of procedure with regard to a matter being sub judice applying to hon. Members and to Government Departments. I suggest that this is a very serious matter which ought to be cleared up at the earliest opportunity.
§ Mr. Speaker
I will try to help the hon. Lady as far as I can. As for Questions refused at the Table, I did not specifically examine them in detail 672 myself, although I was aware of their existence. I will do so if she wishes me to do so. She is aware of the operation of our sub judice rule. If there is an appeal—and such is my information—it would depend on the precise terms of the Questions which, as I say, I have not seen, as to whether they were properly disallowed. I have no reason to think that they were not properly disallowed in the circumstances. Without being discourteous to the hon. Lady, I ask her not to assume that the grounds on which I felt obliged to decline two Private Notice Questions are necessarily those which she stated. It is not my practice to give reasons in public, but I was satisfied that it would not be right to allow either of them.
With regard to other people's sub judice rules—'that is to say, rules about contempt of court and so forth as enforced by courts of law—I know nothing. I have to be guided by our rule which in the matter which the hon. Lady is raising has, I think, been rightly applied.
§ Mrs. Castle
Further to that point of order. In view of the fact that a completely one-sided statement has been made publicly as to the circumstances of this case, should we not now be allowed to ask the Secretary of State for War to make a statement on this point? I ask for an opportunity of asking Questions. It is now set on the record completely to the detriment of the men and we are in no position to exercise vigilance on behalf of our constituents.
§ Mr. Speaker
Perhaps the hon. Lady will permit me to finish what I am saying. This is much too complicated a matter for me to rule off the cuff, by reason of the existence of a Question desiring a Written Answer this day in the name of the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun). I should have to look at the whole rack of questions in some detail before I knew where I was. I have no power to comply with the hon. Lady's request.
§ Mrs. Braddock
Is there no possible way by which we can be informed 673 whether any of these men are constituents of ours? Is there no possible way of obtaining information of that sort? Have we reached the stage at which there is no way to obtain the names and addresses of the persons involved? Have we reached that stage?
§ Mr. Speaker
No. I do not think that any of the Questions was addressed to that proposition as far as I can now remember.
§ Mr. Bellenger
Without attempting to question your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, especially if the matter is sub judice, for the House is obviously precluded to a large extent in putting Questions, may we take it that if in the public interest the Secretary of State wished to make a statement on general terms tomorrow he would be allowed to do so?
§ Mr. Fletcher
In your Ruling, and for the benefit of the House generally, Mr. Speaker, would you bear in mind whether the sub judice rule can possibly have any application to questions directed not to the merits of the trial but to whether a trial, a court martial, took place in conditions of utter secrecy? I submit with great respect that the sub judice rule could not possibly have any application to questions directed to inquire whether courts martial in Germany have taken place in secrecy without the public having any right of access?
§ Mr. Speaker
I hope that the hon. Member does not misunderstand me. What our sub judice rule applies to, broadly, is that which may be prejudicial to what is going on in the trial or appeal, as the case may be. I do not want to make off-the-cuff pronouncements on it. If it were being asserted in appeal, for instance, that the court martial was illegal because of some circumstances of secrecy in which it was held, then we might be so involved, but I have no recollection of eliminating any Question directed to that point at any time.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
Further to the same point, while one sees the difficulties when a matter is sub judice of asking any question which goes to the merits of the matter, or even to the procedure of the trial or any suggestion that the procedure 674 was wrong, would it not be an extension of our rule if this rule were applied to questions which merely sought information as to what had happened? A court martial, like any other trial, is supposed to be a public trial, and a statement of what took place at the trial, what the charge was, what was the nature of the evidence and what was the verdict and the sentence, would not infringe any rule of order, would it, either in the House of Commons or in the courts, as long as it was limited to a statement of what had in fact occurred and did not raise any question of criticism or argument about its propriety? The present position is that we cannot find out the facts?
§ Mr. Speaker
I hope that the House will not misunderstand me or the hon. Gentleman. In these matters I have to rule on the terms of these specific questions when submitted. I have no recollection of any Question asking what happened at the trial or elsewhere. If one were submitted I would have to rule on it.
Perhaps I may be able to help the House by making these two suggestions. First, on the general point, we have on a number occasions found ourselves in difficulty with questions on the sub judice rule. Perhaps I may tell the House that it was my intention to ask the Select Committee on Procedure, which we have recently set up and which, as the House knows, is considering the question of the application of a particular Standing Order on minorities, when it has completed that consideration to consider as an early matter the question of our procedure in relation to the sub judice rule. That is on the general point which a number of hon. Members have raised. On the particular point, I can say that I shall, of course, consult at once my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War and, if it is both appropriate and in order—and one cannot make up one's mind in advance on that—for him to make a statement, perhaps it might be made tomorrow morning.
§ Mr. Frank Allaun
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. One of the men involved happens to come from Salford. That is the man who suffered three years' imprisonment. His aunt and uncle came to see me about this case last week, and I can inform the House very 675 definitely on the appeal position. The appeal position is that the forty days had been exceeded during which he could appeal. There is, however, a further period during which he can petition for the right to appeal, and that has now been done. I should like to draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to a Written Question in my name appearing in today's Order Paper and accepted by the Table, quite correctly, because it makes no reference to this case. What is involved in no ways affects the appeal in this case. Therefore, because of the fact that we are due to go into Recess for 17 days, which means that there will be no opportunity for an oral supplementary question, I thought, Mr. Speaker, that it would be the correct procedure to ask you, as I have done, for the right to put a Private Notice Question in this case.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member must know, I am sure, that it is in the general interest that I should maintain the practice of my predecessors in declining to give reasons for disallowing Private Notice Questions. If the hon. Member wishes to see me privately, I will tell him why it was not within my power to allow that. I hope that that may dispose of this matter for the moment.