HC Deb 19 July 1963 vol 681 cc919-21
Mr. Speaker

I have considered the complaint raised by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) arising out of an article in Wednesday's Evening Standard. Speech or writing which could cast doubt upon the strict impartiality of the Speaker is unquestionably to be regretted, but I cannot find any precedent in any way parallel to this case.

It must be remembered that in ascertaining what constitutes a contempt it is usually necessary for me to collect from the Journals some precedent which would give effect to the belief that in some parallel case in the past the House has pronounced that a contempt has been committed. I have now had studied all the cases of speeches and writings reflecting on the character of the Speaker or making accusations of partiality in the discharge of his duty. In every instance the reflections related to the Speaker's conduct in the Chair, to his partiality in the exercise of his duties in the House, or to his prejudicial approach to matters before the House. They all in essence relate to the execution of the Speaker's duties. There is in them nothing resembling the situation in this case when the report is of the person concerned describing her own initiative in a party matter and only remotely linking the Speaker with the matter in hand by reference not to a fact but to an expectation.

My conclusion must be that the matter is not so clearly a contempt of the House as would justify me in finding that it constitutes prima facie a breach of Privilege.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acquitting me of any intended impropriety but, as the decision in such matters rests with the House, I must in fairness to all concerned make it plain that the article is accurate in so far as it is based upon a conversation which I had with Mrs. Butler when we were fellow guests on an official occasion from which a fitting and agreeable element of frivolity was not entirely lacking. It is true that I told her that I would let her have an old hat, having failed at that moment—I am sure that the fault is entirely mine—to realise that an element of support for political party funds might be involved. I have contributed no hat.

Mr. C. Pannell

While, of course, your remarks, Mr. Speaker, ended on a note of frivolity, generally speaking I did not raise this as a frivolous matter. I think that you have appreciated from the beginning that there were certainly five or six hon. Members who were concerned about this. If this issue has made it perfectly clear that the Chair is above any of these considerations of patronising a party affair and that Mr. Speaker is something very much more than a placeman in the Conservative Party to be used on behalf of party fêtes, then I have accomplished my purpose.

You have used words so generously in this context, Mr. Speaker, but it still seems to me that an apology is due to you from the lady concerned.

Mr. Wigg

As, Mr. Speaker, you have struck a note of frivolity, may I ask whether it would not meet the case if you presented 629 additional hats, one to each Member of the House?

Mr. Speaker

I think that it would have to be hats given to every known political party, which would be extremely difficult. Of course, I could not help being frivolous when the matter in question is an old hat, but I do not mean to be frivolous about the matter. I think that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) was very right to raise it, and I am very glad that he did.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Although this particular case is one which no one would want to take further, on the bigger issue, although there are no precedents, might it not be necessary for the House to protect the Speaker from allegations which reflected not merely on his conduct in the Chair but on his general conduct outside? Much more serious things than this might be said which did not reflect on your conduct or the conduct of any Speaker in the Chair, and I trust that the mere fact that there was no precedent would not inhibit us from stopping that sort of thing if ever it occurred in the future, not in a frivolous case of this kind but in a more serious case.

Mr. Speaker

If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the words which I used, which are carefully chosen, he will see that what I am dealing with is the problem of ruling on a prima facie case, because in that field I must look to precedent. The House, of course, can make as many precedents as it likes.

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