HC Deb 26 February 1968 vol 759 cc942-4
Mr. Speaker

Sir H. Legge-Bourke, point of order.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise a point of order arising out of the Petition presented by the Solicitor-General at the beginning of Question Time today. It will be within your recollection and that of hon. Members who were present that the Solicitor-General petitioned the House for leave that the evidence given before the Select Committee on an opposed Private Bill, namely, the British Transport Commission Bill, 1957, should be made available to the Tribunal which is inquiring into the Hixon level crossing railway disaster.

In rising to my point of order. I do not wish in any way to challenge the permission which the House has now given to the Solicitor-General. However, in fairness to my fellow members of that Committee, of which I was Chairman, it is only right that I should say that I was not informed that this announcement would be made this afternoon. In the interests of my fellow members of that Committee, who were the late Sir David Campbell, then Member for Belfast, South, and the hon. Members for Bootle (Mr. Simon Mahon) and Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Oswald), we ought at least to seek some method of ensuring that, when this evidence is read before the Tribunal, hon. Members who did their best to arrive at a right judgment on this matter will not in any way be compromised.

The Select Committee heard evidence from the Chief Signal Engineering Officer of British Railways, and a high official of the Ministry of Transport, Colonel McMullen, who had been on the Continent and had gone into this matter in great detail. I have read all the evidence again since the Hixon disaster. I would like to place it on record, having read all the evidence over again, that on the evidence which was put before my Committee I do not see that we could have arrived at any other decision than that which we came to.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Arthur Irvine)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that the normal practice was followed in the case of the Petition which I presented today and the Motion which I moved and that it is not normal for notice to be given to the Chairman of the Committee concerned. One is attentive, I hope, to the courtesies of this place. I regret that the hon. Gentleman was not told in the time that was available that the Motion was to be moved.

On the wider point, I have no doubt that the evidence which the House has decided can be made available to the Tribunal will be treated by the Tribunal as evidence of fact. As for the rights of hon. Members, and in particular hon. Members who served on the Select Committee, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is appearing before the Tribunal and the House may be confident that he will carefully safeguard the interests and position of Members of the House.

Mr. Shinwell

I rise to a more limited point of order, not on this issue. Mr. Speaker, I am not quite sure what method requires to be deployed, but will you ensure that the rights of other Members of the House are not weakened by the introduction of Petitions during Question Time? Perhaps in future Petitions could be presented immediately after Questions.

Mr. Speaker

The time at which Petitions are presented is governed by the Orders of the House. This is certainly a matter which the House might consider. On the method of presentation of Petitions, right hon. or hon. Members who present a Petition can either read the Petition themselves or read part of it and have the full Petition read by the Clerk. It would always be better to do either one or the other—that is, either read the Petition themselves or present it formally if they wish the Clerk to read it.

On the larger issue raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke), first on the personal courtesy side, I am certain that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied by what the Solicitor-General has said. Perhaps I should emphasis that the Bill of Rights protects the proceedings of the House of Commons, which may not be called in question in any court or place. But to assist the proceedings of the law the House may allow reference to be made, as it has permitted in this case, to the evidence taken by a Select Committee. No court would presume to criticise the findings of this Committee, and that is not included in the Petition to which the House has agreed. As the Solicitor-General has told the House, the evidence will be taken merely as evidence of facts. I hope that this is clear to the hon. Gentleman.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Further to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. I would humbly like to thank you for what you have said. Perhaps you will also allow me the opportunity of saying that I fully accept the Solicitor-General's apology.