HC Deb 31 July 1963 vol 682 cc456-65

3.45 p.m.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Defamation Act 1952. The general anxiety underlying my proposals has already been expressed in this House by my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) and Carlisle (Dr. D. Johnson) in Parliamentary Questions. It has been widely and authoritatively expressed outside in a first leader in The Times of 18th June of this year, in a main article on a centre page by the editor of the Sunday Express on 16th June, by Mr. Cecil King, the chairman of International Publishing Corporation Ltd. in his speech to the Guild of British Newspaper Editors, at Bath, and in the Sunday Times editorially in the previous week.

The Defamation Act represents an attempt to strike a fair balance between licence and repressiveness which the House should not lightly be tempted to amend. However, there is one respect in which its operation is proving unsatisfactory, and I shall give a precise example, in detail, of that to the House directly. Meanwhile, I would explain my Bill as follows: it seeks to do two things: first, it requires the amount awarded as damages to be related to the actual damage which the plaintiff can show that he has suffered; and, secondly, it makes the assessment of those damages the function of the judge instead of the jury.

I shall now give the House the detailed example of the way in which the law works at present which leads me to believe that it requires amendment. I want to declare, at the outset, that I have a deep personal involvement in the events which I am about to narrate of which I shall make a full and frank disclosure. However, I shall merely narrate the facts to begin with.

On 19th December, 1961, an article appeared in the early edition of the Evening Standard which questioned the London County Council's policy of using its own employees instead of the independent district valuer to value property which it compulsorily acquired. The wisdom of that policy was questioned in the article on the ground that the London County Council might appear to be acting as judge in its own case and that public confidence might thereby be impaired.

The article made it clear that it was the policy and not the officials employed to carry it out which was open to criticism. It contained the following phrases to that effect: Personally, I am convinced that these honourable men do their best to be fair", and: This s a nasty situation. It is unfair to the owner….It is even more unfair, let us not forget, to the officer placed in this invidious position. This article was founded upon submissions made to the General Purposes Committee of the London County Council by an elected member of the London County Council who is also a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and an estate agent. These submissions were made in support of a motion under Standing Order No. 84 calling for a report to the council on the London County Council's valuation methods which had been moved by that member.

The motion was seconded by another member of the London County Council who had had complaints on this score from constituents. That other member is the author of the article to which I have referred. She is also my wife, and you, Mr. Speaker, said in this House, if I may respectfully quote your words, in connection with your own lady wife, "Her cause is my own". For my part, my wife's honour is my honour. I want to affirm my absolute certain knowledge of the sincerity of the words used in the article which I have quoted absolving individual officers from criticism.

I also want to quote from the covering letter which accompanied this article when it was sent to the editor of the Evening Standard: You will appreciate, I know, the vital importance of the exoneration of the officers in question from any possible imputation of improper conduct. The words "I know" in that quotation from the letter referred to a telephone conversation which the author had had with the editor, in which she stressed that she was passing the responsibility to the newspaper to ensure the absolute impeccability of the article in this respect.

The article was then cleared by the newspaper's legal department. I can say here, incidentally, that I intend to deploy the whole argument, incorporating the text of the article, together with supporting evidence in this House at the first opportunity I can make and, if any horn. Members want to have notice of my intention, I shall see that they have it.

In view of what I have said, the House may imagine the sense of outrage and shock experienced by all concerned when the 134 valuation officers of the L.C.C. all threatened to sue the author on the grounds that the sincere belief which she had expressed in their honesty was "sarcastic" and the criticism of the L.C.C.'s policy constituted a libel on each and all of the 134. The Evening Standard and the author immediately offered to publish a generously phrased letter to eliminate any possibility of the article being so misinterpreted by readers. This offer was arrogantly refused and the valuers demanded £2,000, their legal costs and a grovelling statement in court so phrased as to brand the author of a wilful and malicious attack on public servants employed by the authority of which she was an elected member, and a writ was eventually issued.

Such is the operation of the Defamation Act, which I am seeking leave to amend in this respect, that the upshot was that, in theory, here was a classic textbook case to defend on grounds of no identification of each and all of the plaintiffs and fair comment on a matter of public interest. But we were advised—I think that I can best put the advice in the words, used as recently as the 3rd of this month— You cannot always rely on winning a case, however right you think you may be. Those words were used by the Lord Chancellor.

Apart from that, we were also advised that, whatever the theory, in practice juries have been showing themselves so fantastically prejudiced against newspapers and that the damages which juries have been awarding tend to be so beyond all reason and so astronomical—the House will have in mind the award made against Associated Newspapers of nearly £¼ million—and that, as there were 134 valuers suing who could get, say £134,000 because, never mind the theory, in current practice each could get, say, £1,000, it would be better to settle. The sum involved could mean ruin for the newspaper.

That was the sum and the practical risk. Therefore, the newspaper decided to settle the action on the terms demanded, and the author's case was thereby irretrievably compromised. Therefore, the action was settled in court on the terms dictated: first, the payment of a punitive fine, equivalent to that imposed for a criminal offence—the House may reflect that a brigadier accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy recently settled an action without demanding money; but, then, he was a soldier—and, secondly, colossal legal costs; and, thirdly, the publication under duress of a statement in court in terms to which reasonable amendments were adamantly disallowed and which was a travesty of the true situation, and which itself constituted a grave libel on the author.

In other words, what happened in this case was that as a result of the way the Defamation Act works, as viewed in harsh reality by leading counsel, the bullying tactics and legalised blackmail of the instigators of a political conspiracy—and I shall explain exactly what I mean by that in a moment—paid off. They had their way. They silenced a great newspaper, they punished with a fine of an amount reserved for serious crime, an elected member of a great local authority for doing her public duty in a responsible and particularly circumspect manner.

I will explain what I mean by "conspiracy". What I am about to say depends upon a source which, if challenged by an hon. Member, I will be prepared to reveal in confidence to an agreed third party who will vouch to that hon. Member for its authenticity without revealing it. I cannot without express permission, which I have not sought and cannot anticipate, go further than that here and now.

I believe, with many others, that this action for libel and the exploitation of the Act I am trying to amend was the result of a political conspiracy for the following reasons. The writ was issued eventually in the names of the Chief Valuer of the London County Council and the four next senior valuers. However, the Chief Valuer, before he died recently, conveyed to me through a private channel of utmost responsibility and integrity, to which I have referred, that he had had no wish that this thing should be done and that he had been "pushed into it". Hon. Members may ask—

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

On a point of order. Is it in order that this procedure should be used in order to disseminate gross libels on a series of officials of the London County Council when those libels, when made on an unprivileged occasion, have already been withdrawn and apologised for? It seems to me an outrageous abuse of our procedure.

Mr. Speaker

On the last factor, which affects the matter, it would, of course, be an abuse of the privilege of asking the leave to introduce a Bill to use it for some purpose of that kind. On the other hand, the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Ire monger) is clearly entitled to urge what he suggests is the undesirable manner in which the law can be made to operate now which causes him to ask the House to give him leave to amend it. We are journeying along that line at the moment, but we are getting rather near the limit.

Mr. R. H. S. Crossman (Coventry, East)

On a point of order. The hon. Member is making particular allegations against particular officials of the L.C.C., and is purporting to introduce a Bill, but is, in fact, making personal attacks of a grievous character on certain officials in a case which has already been settled. I cannot see how that can be in order, or a proper use of procedure for the introduction of a Bill.

Mr. Speaker

Of course, if it is not for the purpose of introducing a Bill it would be an abuse, but I am not to presume that some such purpose is to be attached to the use of our procedure when an hon. Member rises to address me asking for leave to introduce a Bill. I have been listening carefully because of the anxieties which enter my head, as they do the heads of other hon. Members, but I have not yet reached the stage at which I can say that it is out of order to give an illustration of the reasons why the hon. Member thinks that he ought to have leave to amend the law.

Mr. Frank Bowles (Nuneaton)

The hon. Member has had ten minutes already.

Mr. Speaker

It is only fair to say that some of the time has been taken up by points of order. Nor is ten minutes a prescribed time.

Mr. Iremonger

I am obliged to you Mr. Speaker, for your Ruling and I say with great respect to the hon. Members who have interrupted that I understand their concern.

I hope that what I am about to say will persuade the House that those considerations were not absent from my mind. If I may say so with great respect, in regard to your Ruling, hon. Members have to use their experience to illustrate points which they are trying to make in respect of legislation. That is what I am trying to do.

I shall resume the argument by saying that the House may ask itself, "Who did the pushing and who were the pushers pushed by?" Because who, indeed, can push the head of a great department? I believe that the whole action was originated by a conspiracy of a small number of political opponents of the author to deflect an attack on their policy by misrepresenting it as an attack on the persons employed to carry it out.

However that may be, legalistically one might say no one has any right to complain, and I take the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) on that. The valuers merely shrewdly assessed a technical and tactical advantage arising out of the way that the Defamation Act is seen to operate in practice, but this House has a duty to look behind the legalism to the realities of justice. I have thought deeply whether, in using Parliament's privilege to voice my suspicions and misgivings, I should be performing genuinely a public duty. I have sought no advice on this, for this is the sort of decision which an hon. Member must take for himself. I can only say that two of the things I care most about in this world are involved in this debate.

One of those two is the honour of this House. I am quite sure that if this is not a proper and responsible use of the privilege of this House, then the privileges of Parliament have no use and no meaning. Of course, the truth that I have spoken can be "twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools". I can only answer such attacks, if they come within this House. Incidentally, I intend to meet the 133 surviving valuers privately—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not use this procedure, under which he may ask the House for the privilege of being allowed to introduce a Bill to amend the law, in order to answer some attack. That, clearly, would be an abuse of procedure.

Mr. Iremonger

If I may respectfully say so, Mr. Speaker, any man worth his salt who saw his wife's arm being twisted by a gang of bullies would want to go to her defence.

Mr. Speaker

The question of defence does not arise under the Standing Order.

Mr. Iremonger

I was about to say that, with great respect, and I hope that I shall be believed when I say it, that that particular motive, however understandable, is not—and I repeat, not—my motive for seeking leave to introduce a Bill. My motive is my outrage at seeing the disgraceful abuse of what I consider to be a defective Act of Parliament being exploited against the public interest.

Under the present operation of the Defamation Act, what newspaper will now dare to criticise the valuation methods of the London County Council? What elected member will dare to express publicly anxiety on this score? The member in question will be stripped, by reason of the settlement of this action, of her qualified privilege even in her place on the council chamber. It is my submission that, in the light of what I have said, the law of libel is defective in its operation, and for that reason I am seeking leave to introduce my Bill.

4.2 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

We in this House are granted certain formidable privileges. Those privileges should be used with the utmost restraint. We are granted the privilege of saying things here which may be deeply injurious to individuals. That is a privilege which should be confined strictly to circumstances in which the public interest is pressingly and clearly in issue.

The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) has said that he feels a natural desire to defend his wife. That is something which we can all respect, but it is not something which should be done by using the privilege of this House to libel other people. If the sort of speech which we heard is in order on this sort of occasion, we should reconsider our rules of order.

The general proposition, that in matters of defamation the question of damages should go to a judge and not a jury, is one which I would very strongly oppose. Freedom of the Press is certain a great principle, but it is justified only in the sense that the Press is the expression of the voice of the people. Where one has a jury, which is the people judging the Press, and the Press finds that that jury takes large opportunities to punish the Press, then the Press should look to itself and see what in its conduct has so antipathised the public whose

representatives judge it so harshly. The Press should look to itself and its own conduct, and not seek to change the law.

Right throughout our history juries have been the instrument of the public freedom; it may be freedom from the conduct of the Press as well as of Governments and judges. While juries take that attitude in our general defence and in defence against some aspects of Press conduct, we should be grateful to juries and applaud them for so doing.

I ask the House most emphatically to reject the principle that juries should be taken away from this very essential civic function.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 12 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 33, Noes 106.

Division No. 183.] AYES [4.6 p.m.
Bourne-Arton, A. Gurden, Harold Rodgers, John (Sevenoaks)
Bullus, Wing Commander Eric Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel Royle, Anthony (Richmond, Surrey)
Cooper-Key, Sir Neill Hiley, Joseph Russell, Ronald
Cordle, John Iremonger, T. L. Thornton-Kemsley, Sir Colin
Errington, Sir Eric Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Vaughan-Morgan, Rt. Hon. Sir John
Farey-Jones, F. W. Kitson, Timothy Webster, David
Farr, John Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Foster, John Linstead, Sir Hugh Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Glover, Sir Douglas Longden, Gilbert Woollam, John
Glyn, Dr. Alan (Clapham) Nicholson, Sir Godfrey
Gower, Raymond Ridley, Hon. Nicholas TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Gresham Cooke, R. Robinson, Rt. Hn. Sir R. (B'pool,S.) Mr. Skeet and Dr. Johnson.
Awbery, Stan (Bristol, Central) Gourlay, Harry McBride, N.
Bacon, Miss Alice Grey, Charles McCann, John
Bence, Cyril Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly) MacColl, James
Benson, Sir George Grimond, Rt. Hon. J. Mallalieu, E. L, (Brigg)
Blackburn, F. Hamilton, William (West Fife) Marshall, Sir Douglas
Bottomley, Rt. Hon. A. G. Hart, Mrs. Judith Mason, Roy
Bowden, Rt. Hn. H. W. (Leics, S. W.) Harvey, Sir Arthur Vere (Macclesf'r) Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.
Bowen, Roderic (Cardigan) Hayman, F. H. Mellish, R. J.
Bowles, Frank Healey, Denis Mendelson, J. J.
Brockway, A. Fenner Henderson, Rt. Hn. Arthur (Rwly Regis) Millan, Bruce
Brown, Alan (Tottenham) Herbison, Miss Margaret Mitchison, G. R.
Butcher, Sir Herbert Hilton, A. V. Neal, Harold
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.) Houghton, Douglas Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon)
Carmichael, Nell Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.) Noel-Baker, Rt. Hn. Philip (Derby, S.)
Cary, Sir Robert Hunter, A. E. Oram, A. E.
Craddock, Sir Beresford (Spelthorne) Hurd, Sir Anthony Pannell, Charles (Leeds, W.)
Crosland, Anthony Hynd, H. (Accrington) Pargiter, G. A,
Dalyell, Tam Jay, Rt. Hon. Douglas Parker, John
Darling, George Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.) Redhead, E. C.
Davies, S. O. (Merthyr) Jones, Rt. Hn. A. Creech (Wakefield) Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)
Diamond, John Jones, Elwyn (West Ham, S.) Rogers, G. H. R. (Kensington, N.)
Ede, Rt. Hon. C. Kelley, Richard Ropner, Col. Sir Leonard
Fernyhough, E. Kenyon, Clifford Ross, William
Finch, Harold Key, Rt. Hon. C. W. Shinwell, Rt. Hon. E.
Foley, Maurice Kitson, Timothy Silkin, John
Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton) Lawson, George Slater, Joseph (Sedgefield)
Gibson-Watt, David Lee, Miss Jennie (Cannock) Small, William
Ginsburg, David Lipton, Marcus Smith, Ellis (Stoke, S.)
Glyn, Dr. Alan (Clapham) Litchfield, Capt. John Snow, Jullan
Gordon Walker, Rt. Hon. P. C. Lubbock, Eric Steele, Thomas
Stewart, Michael (Fulham) Wainwright, Edwin Wilkins, W. A.
Stross, Dr. Barnett (Stoke-on-Trent, C.) Weitzman, David Williams, Paul (Sunderland, S.)
Thornton, Ernest Wells, John (Maidstone) Williams, W. R. (Openshaw)
Thorpe, Jeremy Wells, Percy (Faversham) Winterbottom, R. E.
Tomney, Frank Whitlock, William
Turton, Rt. Hon. R. H. Wigg, George TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Mr. Crossman and Mr. Paget.