HC Deb 01 November 1966 vol 735 cc254-64
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

Mr. Lipton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek to draw your attention, in the first instance, to the fact that the following Question appears on the Order Paper for Oral Answer by the Attorney-General tomorrow: 48. Mr. LIPTON: To ask the Attorney-General whether, in view of the representations by the Press Council, the National Union of Journalists, the Institute of Journalists, the Newspaper Society and the British Committee of the International Press Institute, he now will give further advice about public comment on the Aberfan disaster. I have reason to believe that the statement about to be made by the Prime Minister will, in effect, answer the Question which I have put down for tomorrow 24 hours earlier than was originally intended.

May I ask you, Sir, whether your decision to allow the Prime Minister to make a statement, which will, in effect, answer the Question due to be dealt with tomorrow, breaches the principle of non-anticipation which it has always been the practice in the past to observe?

Mr. Speaker

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman wishes me to congratulate him on his prescience in foreseeing what may be going to happen. On the question of order, it is quite in order for the Prime Minister to make any statement which he wishes to make to the House.

The Prime Minister

Last Tuesday, this House resolved that a Tribunal be established under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921, to inquire into the causes of and all the circumstances relating to the Aberfan disaster. Last Thursday my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General made a statement on the implications of that decision. In view of the misunderstanding and, indeed, the gross misrepresentation of his action, I now find it necessary to ask permission to make a statement about some of the consequences of the decision the House took, and also about the position of the Attorney-General.

The House fully recognises the unique position of the Attorney-General. In addition to being a member of the Government, with collective responsibility for Government decisions, he has certain important duties in connection with the administration of justice which are non-political and on which no Prime Minister nor he himself would allow any pressures to be put. But he has a third capacity, that of adviser on matters of law to this House and through this House to the country. It was in this third capacity that my right hon. and learned Friend acted last Thursday.

It is now being widely suggested that my right hon. and learned Friend, in the statement he made last week, did what he did for political reasons, indeed, for party political reasons. This is a gross and contemptible slur on my right hon. and learned Friend which should be sharply repudiated by every Member of this House.

I think it right now that the House should be told of the considerations which led him to make the statement.

On Tuesday last this House resolved to establish the Tribunal and clothed it with all the powers of a judicial inquiry. Every Member of the House who agreed to that Motion must have known the consequences of that decision. They were set out, in fact, on a similar occasion by the then Prime Minister, Mr. Macmillan, when he referred to a 1921 Act Tribunal as … a Tribunal armed with the power of subpoena, armed with the power to put witnesses on oath, armed with the power to pursue them for perjury if they tell untruths, armed with the power to examine and cross-examine, and where witnesses will be protected by privilege, irrespective of the evidence they give."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th November, 1962; Vol. 667, c. 400.] Since it is the earnest desire of every Member of this House, and of the whole public, including Press, television and radio, that this Tribunal must be enabled to get at the truth, and to establish responsibility where responsibility may be shown to lie, it is vital that nothing be done which in any way weakens the power and ability of the Tribunal to do the job we have given it to do.

Before he made the statement my right hon. and learned Friend consulted the Chairman of the Tribunal and his statement was made with Lord Justice Edmund Davies' full knowledge and approval. And there was good reason for the statement. On the Friday of the disaster, and subsequently, the great majority of Press reporters, and also television and radio, did their duty with great responsibility and consideration—indeed, I myself, in Aberfan, paid tribute to the Press for the great responsibility and restraint it had shown. But, Sir, certain television interviews subsequently involved cross-examination of potential witnesses of a kind so searching that they appeared to be seeking to do the work of the Tribunal in advance without all the powers and safeguards for a judicial inquiry on which this House has insisted, as in the words I have just quoted from Mr. Macmillan.

Statements describing action taken or actions which it is considered should have been taken are matters to be elucidated by the Tribunal. Once statements have been elucidated by television interviewers under non-judicial procedures, they are on the record in a form which could hinder the Tribunal's ability to get at the truth.

Moreover, those who have attacked my right hon. and learned Friend and have imputed unworthy motives to him disregard the precedents he was following. In a previous Tribunal it was the Prime Minister, and not the Law Officer of the Crown responsible, who, in moving the Resolution to establish the Tribunal, said this: … I do most sincerely and earnestly deprecate publication in any form or in any conditions, of any speculation as to what happened, now that a court has been set up to investigate the circumstances. It clearly will be impossible to obtain any indication of the real causes of this terrible disaster until the evidence has been given and considered by the Tribunal. I hope, therefore, whatever people may have thought or said in the past, that they will now say no more about it until the Tribunal reports."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th June, 1939; Vol. 348, c. 938.] That was the "Thetis" disaster.

Indeed, Mr. Speaker, the House itself has from the earliest days of these Tribunals, ruled through the mouths of a number of your distinguished predecessors in the Chair that, having established a court with full judicial powers, this House itself could not discuss any matter within the competence of the Tribunal. The original rule, Mr. Speaker, was made on 21st March, 1921, by Mr. Speaker Lowther, when he ruled that as a matter before the Tribunal had been referred to that Tribunal it should not be raised or discussed in the House.

In 1959, for example, the then Lord Advocate refused to answer Questions to him even before the Motion had been confirmed by the House establishing a Tribunal, on the ground that a Motion was awaiting decision by the House.

In November, 1962, when the Vassall Tribunal was set up, your predecessor gave a Ruling which strictly followed that of Mr. Speaker Lowther.

The then Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod), then submitted a Motion to the House referring this whole matter to the Select Committee on Procedure, which reported on 5th March, 1963, confirming in the strongest terms the Rulings which your predecessors had given. The House approved that Report in July, 1963.

If Parliament has consistently and rigorously restrained its own functions in this matter because of the sub judice Ruling, my right hon. and learned Friend was abundantly justified in acting as he did so that others outside this House were advised of the legal position. The more so in view of the fact that since the House first ruled on these matters a new and much more formidable instrument of interrogation, namely, the television interview, has been evolved. In addition to this, it was the more necessary in that those whose duty it is to assist the Tribunal had already begun their work in Aberfan and were in process of collecting evidence and taking statements from witnesses who, therefore, by this time had become witnesses of the Tribunal.

I trust, therefore, that, having quoted the precedents and recorded the facts, the House as a whole will agree that my right hon. and learned Friend was fully justified in the action he took in the discharge of his duty to the House and the country.

Mr. Heath

Is the Prime Minister aware that his statement raises many points to which right hon. and hon. Members and many people outside the House will wish to give further consideration?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that what aroused the greatest criticism in the Attorney-General's statement—and the Attorney-General is not the legal adviser of the country—was that any comment—any comment—on these matters was highly undesirable and that this was followed by ill-defined threats—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—which went much further than the words, quoted by the right hon. Gentleman, of either Mr. Macmillan or the Prime Minister at the time of the Thetis disaster?

Is it not the case that what is ruled here by this House concerning our own proceedings has no bearing on or legal power over what happens outside the House? Is it not also true that what the Attorney-General says about the law has no power outside this House?

In fact, is it not the case that the public can make comments on this matter—that individuals can make comments, and have done so since the Attorney-General's statement—provided that they are not liable to influence the President of the Court or the members and thus provide a contempt? Is that not the legal position? Therefore, is it not absolutely right that there should have been criticism of the Attorney-General, who ought to take the utmost care to avoid confusing his legal, Governmental and party positions, and that a statement on any question of contempt would have come much better from the President of the Court?

The Prime Minister

The Leader of the Opposition is right in saying that time will be needed perhaps to study some of the precedents I quoted—which is all the more reason why he should not have rushed, as he did last Saturday, just as he always does without knowing the facts, into a scurrilous attack at Scarborough on my right hon. and learned Friend. I know that the right hon. Gentleman was speaking to a particular gallery, but in the light of my statement today I hope that he will reconsider his remarks at that meeting and withdraw them.

It is a fact that any comment is out of order, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, on matters which it will be the express function of the Tribunal to investigate. It is not only a question of any comment seeking to influence the learned judge and his colleagues—no one here thinks that Lord Justice Edmund Davies or his colleagues will be influenced by what they may read in the Press—but as my right hon. and learned Friend said, much more serious is the extent to which witnesses may be making statements as a result of a quite bullying interrogation, such as we all know often happens on television, at a time when they are making statements to the officers of the Tribunal. It is contrary to the success of the Tribunal if this sort of thing can go on.

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right in saving that the decisions we take in this House to regulate our own conduct do not have the force of law outside. This must be a matter for the courts and for the Tribunal itself. But the fact that we ourselves throughout all these years—and I could quote many more precedents—have placed a complete ban on Parliamentary discussion, would provide, surely, some justification for drawing the attention of those outside to some of the dangers if discussion was uninhibited, as it undoubtedly was in the television interview to which I referred.

It must, of course, be for the courts ultimately to decide whether contempt has occurred. My right hon. and learned Friend was right to warn those who might comment, for example, in a live interview on television, of the possible consequences. No one in the House wants to get into the position, any more than the then Government did, of a Tribunal leading to the imprisonment of people acting in accordance with their judgment but not knowing what the consequences of those actions would be.

Mr. Heath

The Prime Minister is only confusing the issue by citing as precedent what we ourselves do in the House. The Attorney-General went further than the existing law in his statement. The right hon. Gentleman has quoted the specific case of witnesses being cross-examined on television and from that has drawn the conclusion that any comment of a general nature must be stultified. That is not a situation which those outside are prepared to accept. Is the Prime Minister aware that he may try to bully the Press and may try to bully us in the House, but that however much he tries to prevent—[HON. MEMBERS: Oh.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members ought to be able to listen to something which they do not like.

Mr. Heath

However much the Prime Minister may try to prevent us from stating what we believe to be the truth, both inside and outside the House, he will certainly fail.

The Prime Minister

No hon. Member would ever be so cowardly as to try to bully the right hon. Gentleman.

I was dealing with the duty of my right hon. and learned Friend as he saw it in the statement which he made last week. There was no question of bullying and I still hope that the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw the scurrilous attack which he made at Scarborough last week.

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that it was unnecessary for my right hon. and learned Friend to speak in the terms which he used—after consulting Lord Justice Edmund Davies, who knows more about the conduct of this Tribunal and what should and should not be said than the right hon. Gentleman does—and if the right hon. Gentleman thinks that it was wrong for my right hon. and learned Friend to make this statement, I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he thinks that it is possible for this Tribunal to do its work when, for example, there has been a television interview, of which I shall be glad to send the right hon. Gentleman the text, which provoked the statement and in which there was a cross-examination of an individual which would never be permitted in any court of law—I am not concerned with the rights and wrongs of what was said, but with the merits of the fact that words are brought out at interviews and then put on the record for all time and can invalidate, or might invalidate, to some extent the views of those witnesses in future—in which it was said: Now, I have as a young journalist attended and reported several public inquiries into pit disasters … And in nearly every case I have to report to you, that when grief had safely abated, the final report was a frustrating exercise in official whitewashing. In the light of that, at the very moment that the Motion was on the Order Paper of the House of Commons, does the right hon. Gentleman still think that it was wrong for my right hon. and learned Friend to give this warning?

Sir J. Hobson rose——

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We are discussing a very serious issue and we ought to be able to discuss it quietly.

Mr. Shinwell

On a point of order. Are you to allow a debate, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

The answer is, No.

Sir J. Hobson

Does not the Prime Minister realise that the matter under discussion is not whether the Attorney-General was right to have made his statement? Nobody suggests that it was not correct for him to criticise action which affected the impressions of witnesses. The matter which was criticised and which I immediately raised was the form of the statement in trying to prevent outside comment of any sort and whether that did not go much too far. The laws of contempt which apply to the courts and to this Tribunal prevent only those comments which are liable to influence witnesses, which is quite right, but many other people are perfectly entitled to make reasonable comments.

The Prime Minister quoted one comment. On Saturday, after the Attorney-General's statement, Lord Robens said that the Aberfan disaster had produced a new hazard in mining about which we knew nothing before. Surely, one of the very aspects into which the Tribunal will be inquiring is whether the N.C.B. did or did not know about that. If we are to have a complete shut-down of Lord Robens and anybody else, does not that show how absurd it is?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman put the same question to my right hon. and learned Friend. My right hon. and learned Friend had referred to comments on matters which it would be the express function of the Tribunal to investigate. Following further questions from both sides of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend said: The important thing"— and this was being limited and defined— is that there should not be either prejudging of the issues or such interference—if that is not too harsh a word—with witnesses as to embarrass their future position as potential witnesses before the Tribunal."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October, 1966; Vol. 734. c. 1320.] I would have thought that that was an unexceptionable statement.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman had a perfect right to try to elucidate from my right hon. and learned Friend what he wanted, but even his authority and protection will not justify a statement such as: There are always those in authority who will seek to suppress news and stifle comment … sometimes openly, as when the Attorney-General issued his threatening caveat last Thursday. Those were the words of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition.

I hope that, as I have said, when he has had time to study what has been said today, the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw that slur on my right hon. and learned Friend. Alternatively, if he feels that this matter should be gone into further because it is a matter of great public importance, we would be very happy to have discussions through the usual channels to see that it is.

Mr. James Griffiths

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. May I add a word about this terrible accident, which has aroused deep feeling and anger, speaking as one who, in his time, has attended inquiries into pit disasters? What is now needed is for the inquiry to be undertaken as soon as possible and to be a searching inquiry without fear or favour.

As one who has known the Attorney-General all his life, and known his family, may I say how deeply I was hurt, knowing his character, by what was said and rumoured about him? May I assure my right hon. and learned Friend, who knows and who is attached to his people and who has served Merthyr as Recorder, that I believe that he will apply his full power to making this the searching inquiry which we all want?

The Leader of the Opposition was far below himself in what he said, and I hope that he will now rise like a man and withdraw it.

The Prime Minister

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths) for what he has said. I am certain that, as was clear a week ago, it is the wish of every hon. Member that this Tribunal should get at the truth, whatever it is, and that it should have every facility for doing so. What I regret—and this is why I made my statement today—is that a statement made in good faith by my right hon. and learned Friend for the very purpose of enabling the inquiry to do its work should have been dragged through the political mud in the way it has this weekend and by newspaper articles which, on consideration, I think that those who wrote them would regret.

I gave the reasons why I thought that It was necessary to make the statement. The whole House, hon. Members opposite as well as on this side, know the record of my right hon. and learned Friend, his liberal record in many matters legal before he came to his present position and his integrity throughout as Attorney-General, but not least as coming from South Wales, feeling as strongly as anybody in the House that we must get at the truth. If hon. Members opposite still want to support the Leader of the Opposition, they will at any rate agree that my right hon. and learned Friend acted in complete sincerity in performance of what he believed to be his duty.

Mr. Hooson

Is the Prime Minister aware that his statement will give general satisfaction, in particular to those in Aberfan who are most concerned that there should be a thorough, searching and fair inquiry into the causes of this appalling disaster? Is he further aware that what was said by the Attorney-General last Thursday was a perfectly correct statement of the law, that it needed to be stated and that those who have any legal experience know how dangerous it is for witnesses to be rehearsed in their evidence, since evidence tends to change imperceptibly and unconsciously when rehearsed in this way? Is he also aware that what he has said this afternoon will give general satisfaction to those who want to get at the real truth of the matter?

Mr. Lipton

While accepting in full everything my right hon. Friend has said today, would it not have obviated much misunderstanding and unfortunate comment being published since the statement was made last week had my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General made it clear that the prime reason for making his statement was the objectionable and deplorable interviews which took place on television? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the whole, the Press behaved fairly responsibly and that the main and driving reason for my right hon. and learned Friend making his statement was the danger of a possible repetition of the television interviews, which everybody thoroughly deplored?

The Prime Minister

When I was at Aberfan I found that all the officials—the Chief Constable, the Mayor and others—paid tribute to the Press for their restraint on a very difficult day in questioning relatives and those who had a job of work to do. The television question is, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) said, the key to this matter. It is not merely a question of rehearsing witnesses, but of rehearsing them in the full glare of the television lights, with millions of people watching, and the fact that the statements which they made may make it harder for the tribunal to get at the truth later on.

Sir Knox Cunningham

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister has told us that when a Tribunal of Inquiry is set up, this House will cease to discuss the matter. We have, in fact, been discussing this very important matter for quite a time. The Prime Minister has also been giving examples from the Dispatch Box of criticisms which have been given. Is all this in order, here in the House?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Gentleman makes a very good and subtle point. Hon. Members must leave it to the judgment of the Chair to rule on what is or is not in order. The fact that I have permitted it makes it in order.

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