HC Deb 11 July 1966 vol 731 cc976-81
Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

I beg leave to raise a question of privilege of which I have given you notice, Mr. Speaker, namely, the instructions which have been issued by the National Executive of the Transport and General Workers' Union to the right hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Cousins), the existence of a contractual relationship between him and the union which controls or limits his complete freedom of action in Parliament and, in particular, which seeks to dictate the timing of his resignation as a Member of this House, and the connivance of the Nuneaton constituency Labour Party in this constitutional arrangement.

In raising this matter, I intend no reflection whatever on the right hon. Member for Nuneaton's personal integrity and honour. I have the highest regard for him, but I believe that he has committed a serious error of judgment in this case.

The matter of instructions has a long history going back at least as far as Edmund Burke. In Burke's speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774, he repudiated the proposition, advanced by his opponent, that a Member could accept what he called … the coercive authority of such instructions … from his constituency.

Burke said that the wishes of his constituents ought to have great weight with a Member and that he should give his unremitted attention to their business. He added: But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. If Burke's doctrine is true with regard to his constituents, how much greater force does it have with regard to any outside body or sectional interest?

Erskine May, in Chapter IV, page 52, shows that the duty of Members to maintain the privilege of freedom of speech must prevent them from entering into any contractual agreement which purports to limit their absolute right to exercise their unfettered judgment in the House of Commons. The rule in this matter is explicitly given in a Resolution of the House passed on 15th July, 1947, when it was declared That … it is inconsistent with the dignity of the House, with the duty of a Member to his constituents, and with the maintenance of the privilege of freedom of speech, for any Member of this House to enter into any contractual agreement with an outside body, controlling or limiting the Member's complete independence and freedom of action in Parliament or stipulating that he shall act in any way as the representative of such outside body in regard to any matters to be transacted in Parliament; the duty of a Member being to his constituents and to the country as a whole, rather than to any particular section thereof."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th July, 1947; Vol. 440, c. 365.] This Resolution arose out of a complaint by the late Mr. W. J. Brown, who was then Member of Parliament for Rugby, against attempts to influence him by the Civil Service Clerical Association, and it was my predecessor as Liberal Whip, now Lord Byers, who raised the complaint on Mr. Brown's behalf.

In its Report on this complaint the Committee of Privileges had this to say—and it seems to me that its statement is equally relevant to the case I am now raising: The relationship between a Member and an outside body with which he is in contractual relationship and from which he receives financial payment is, however, one of great difficulty and delicacy in which there must often be a danger that the rules of privilege may be infringed. Thus, it would certainly be improper for a Member to enter into any arrangement fettering his complete independence as a Member of Parliament by undertaking to press sonic particular point of view on behalf of an outside interest, whether for reward or not". In the present case, there is a contractual relationship between the right hon. Member for Nuneaton and the Transport and General Workers' Union under which the right hon. Gentleman has agreed that, following his resignation as Minister of Technology, he will resume his duties as actual General Secretary of the union instead of being the titular holder of the office as he was during his period in the Ministry, and the payment of his salary of £3,750 by the union and the refunding by the right hon. Gentleman of an agreed proportion of his Parliamentary salary to the union are only important as evidence of the nature of the contract into which the parties have entered.

The National Executive of the Transport and General Workers' Union, at its meeting last Wednesday evening, rightly said that it … holds the view that it is not physically possible for the General Secretary to undertake the responsibility and duties of the General Secretaryship and at the same time remain a Member of Parliament". The executive apparently did not consider the ethical aspects, but felt that the physical considerations alone meant that the right hon. Gentleman should resign … at the earliest possible moment". Yet the resolution passed went on to say that the executive … would expect the General Secretary to play a major part in the opposition to the Bill in the House of Commons … and that it was agreed that, for the time he remained a Member, he would refund an agreed amount from his Parliamentary salary.

This was open to the interpretation that the right hon. Gentleman should at least remain in the House until the Prices and Incomes Bill had passed through all its stages, but since the right hon. Gentleman announced that he would be seeing the management committee of the Nuneaton constituency Labour Party on Saturday … to see how we can give effect to the view of the Union's Executive … as he put it, one might have expected that the meeting would call on him to resign forthwith, bearing in mind that he no longer intended to represent the people of Nuneaton, but the union's executive.

It is ironic to reflect that the right hon. Gentleman who replaced him as Minister of Technology fought a hard battle for his constituents' rights, which many of us supported, while in Nuneaton those rights are being given away to a body that is not represented in Parliament at all, by a small minority of the electorate in that constituency.

Contrary to the view of the National Executive of the Transport and General Workers' Union, the constituency Labour Party decided on Saturday that there was no incompatibility between the right hon. Gentleman's resumption of his duties as General Secretary of the union and his continued membership of Parliament. Far from calling on him to resign forthwith, it appears to have asked him to remain indefinitely as its Member of Parliament. I claim that the matter could not have been raised until Nuneaton Labour Party had had this opportunity of considering it, because of the ambiguity of the executive's resolution regarding the right hon. Gentleman's continued services as a Member of Parliament and that this is, therefore, the first opportunity which have had.

I ask you, therefore, Mr. Speaker, whether you would be good enough to give your Ruling on whether the contractual agreement entered into between the Transport and General Workers' Union and the right hon. Gentleman and the endorsement of that agreement by the Nuneaton constituency Labour Party constitute prima facie a breach of privilege.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) for letting me know in advance of his intention to refer to this matter. The whole House will appreciate his opening words, for in this place any quarrels which we have are political and not personal.

The House will appreciate that in what I am about to say I am concerned only with the procedure aspect of the hon. Gentleman's submission and not with its merits. Any Motion taken at the time for raising a matter of privilege has to be given precedence over the prearranged programme of public business, but before the Chair can submit such a Motion to the House two conditions have to be satisfied. Of these two the one condition with which I am concerned this afternoon is whether the matter has been raised at the earliest opportunity.

The right of an hon. Member to raise a matter of privilege and the duty of Mr. Speaker to give it precedence are bound by two distinct sets of rules. It is a strict rule that to secure precedence an issue of privilege must be brought before the House at the earliest opportunity. In particular, it has been held that in the case of a matter covered by London newspapers of daily circulation, it must be produced to the House on the day of issue, or at the first sitting of the House after the day of issue.

As my predecessor reminded the House on 10th December, 1953, this is a very important rule of our procedure and the exception which was made on that date affected a paper which, though printed in London, had a very limited circulation and was, in any case, brought to the Table on the day of issue.

The matter to which the hon. Member for Orpington has referred today was fully reported in the Daily Express on Friday, 8th July. That was the appropriate day on which the hon. Gentleman should have sought to raise the matter. It is now out of time and, although he is fully entitled to take such other opportunities as the procedure of the House offers him, I cannot allow the matter precedence over the business of the House.

This is not merely my own Ruling. A Resolution of the House passed as recently as 2nd November, 1960—col. 317 of the OFFICIAL REPORT—prescribed as a condition of the hearing of complaints of breach of privilege that Mr. Speaker must be satisfied that notice had been given at the earliest opportunity.