HC Deb 18 February 1964 vol 689 cc1032-4
Mr. Speaker

I understand that the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) wishes to raise a complaint of privilege.

Mr. Wigg

I wish to raise with you, Mr. Speaker, a matter involving a question of privilege.

Last night, the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Aviation told the House that today the Public Accounts Committee was meeting to consider what has now become known as the "Ferranti affair". The right hon. Gentleman went on to say: My accounting officer is appearing before that Committee tomorrow."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th February, 1964; Vol. 689, c. 970.] That part of Eskine May which deals with this subject leaves the House in no doubt on the matter. I will not weary the House by reading out in full the relevant passage, but only the first and last sentences on page 119. It deals with the premature publication of Committee proceedings. [Interruption.]

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that those who are interrupting, including those hon. Members who shout "Order", will allow me to hear what is being addressed to me.

Mr. Wigg

The section of Erskine May which deals with this matter leaves the House in do doubt about the circumstances in regard to disclosure. Therefore, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will quote from page 119, from the section the crossheading of which reads: Premature Publication of a Committee's Proceedings or Evidence. It states: By the ancient custom of Parliament ' no act done at any committee should be divulged before the same be reported to the House '. The last sentence of this passage reads: The publication of proceedings of committees conducted with closed doors or of draft reports of committees before they have been reported to the House will, however, constitute a breach of privilege. Therefore, there can be no question but that, if a matter is divulged from a Committee's proceedings, it constitutes a breach of privilege.

I have given the Minister of Aviation notice of my intention to raise this matter. I do not want to make too heavy weather of it, but it is very important that the correct procedure should be established and I suggest that there is here a prima facie case for consideraation by the Committee of Privileges as to where the line should be drawn. I have already established that divulgence of proceedings of a Committee is a question of privilege, but there is also the question whether the calling of witnesses and a statement that a Committee is: to meet on a matter brought before it constitutes part of those proceedings.

The only guidance I can find which throws any light on this is in HANSARD on 17th May, 1960, in a Ruling given by yourself. This Ruling was given at Question Time and was not a considered Ruling. It was in terms which are not very definite. The first words you used were: It is probably all right… and later you used the words: …I suppose, we cannot indicate in this House any proceedings before the Committee before it has reported …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th May, 1960; Vol 623, c. 1074.] In these circumstances, as you yourself were indefinite on the matter then, and as Erskine May is quite definite, I submit that it is of the utmost importance to establish this point, not to exact any penalty from the Minister of Aviation—who, I am sure, spoke in good faith—but so that the House knows where it stands on this subject.

If the interjection by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister is considered of no account, then the House must consider the converse. Supposing an hon. Member or the Press got to know that Ferranti's was to be brought before the Public Accounts Committee, and the statement was made, "Ferranti's brought before Committee ", there would be uproar. If we are able to depart from the principles laid down in Erskine May we shall no, know where we may end up.

I do not wish, as I have said, to make heavy weather of all this, but it is a matter which the House may wish to clarify in order to enforce its own rules and to understand what they are. After due deliberation, you may well consider, Sir, that the case I have made out is prima facie one of breach of privilege.

Mr. Speaker

Whether heavy weather or light, it is my duty to decide whether or no the iron. Gentleman has raised a prima facie case of breach of privilege. I will take 24 hours and rule tomorrow.