HC Deb 29 November 1962 vol 668 cc658-9
Q4. Mr. Marsh

asked the Prime Minister if he will move the motions necessary to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses to examine the law in so far as it confers exceptional privileges upon Members of both Houses which exempt them from the normal processes of the courts.

The Prime Minister

I assume that the hon. Member's Question refers to the privilege of freedom from arrest on civil process enjoyed by Members of each House of Parliament, which was in issue in a recent case in the High Court.

I would remind the hon. Member that the privileges of Members of this House and of the House of Lords have deep roots in our constitutional history. In the words used by Erskine May: The privileges of Parliament are rights which are 'absolutely necessary for the due execution of its powers'. They are enjoyed by individual Members, because the House cannot perform its functions without unimpeded use of the services of its Members; and by each House for the protection of its Members and the vindication of its own authority and dignity. That is Erskine May's description.

Beyond question, the privilege of freedom from arrest on civil process was very necessary in the days when arrest was a normal method of compelling the appearance of a defendant before the court or of enforcing a money judgment. It may well be that the extent of this privilege is now wider than contemporary circumstances require. This is, however, a subject which needs careful examination; if the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition so wishes, I should be pleased to discuss with him how such an examination might best be undertaken.

Mr. Marsh

Is it not a fact that there is a separate privilege for peers, quite distinct from the privilege obtaining to Members of Parliament? If that is not the case, does the Prime Minister not agree that most of us would accept, and feel strongly, that the principle of equality before the law is the cornerstone in any democracy, and that while we may be able to justify privilege to enable Parliament to continue to perform its normal function, it is impossible to justify privilege which defends any person from an action in the courts under civil law?

The Prime Minister

I would rather not be drawn into the technicalities of this. If the hon. Member studied them—and I have had time to take only a very cursory look at them—he would see that they are very complicated, dealing with such questions as subpoena, evidence and all sorts of questions upon which either House might feel deeply that it wished to retain its privilege. What I think should be examined is whether, now that changes have been made and time has passed, these privileges should be maintained in their entirety or whether some change ought to be made by legislation or otherwise. But it is a question on which it would be very unwise for me to give rash judgments. I have no right to do so, because it is each House which is responsible.

Mr. Gaitskell

In response to the right hon. Gentleman's invitation, may I say that I think that his approach will be shared generally in the House, that there is some concern about the extent of these privileges—although none of us would wish to do away with all our privileges—and that I shall be glad to discuss the matter with him to see how we can best proceed?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. If we could discuss what ought to be done, if anything, we should then be able to decide how the matter could best be approached and by what method.