HC Deb 24 May 1968 vol 765 cc1093-117
Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) addressed to me yesterday a complaint of breach of privilege relating to the text of a letter published in The Scotsman on 23rd May, 1968, over the signature of the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing). In my view, the hon. Gentleman's complaint does raise a matter of privilege conferring on it precedence over the Orders of the Day.

It would be in accordance with practice if I now offered an opportunity to the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton to address the House, if she wishes to do so, on this point. If, on the other hand, she does not desire to address the House, it is customary that she should leave the Chamber at this moment.

Mr. Peart

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have always had the impression that it was traditional, in view of your Ruling, for the Leader of the House to move that a matter of complaint such as this should be referred to the Committee of Privilege. I should have thought it in the interests of the House if there were to be no further debate or comment at this stage, but that the traditional practice should be followed.

Mr. Speaker

The Chair acts on advice. The Ruling that I have given is given on advice. The Leader of the House will be entitled to move the Motion, but I have invited the hon. Lady to speak.

Mr. Heffer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following the explanation of the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing), will it be open for hon. Members to make comments? What is the position?

Mr. Speaker

What will happen is this. We will hear the hon. Lady—I have invited her to speak—after which it will be for the Leader of the House to move a Motion. That Motion is debatable.

Mr. Emrys-Hughes

Further to that point of Order, Mr. Speaker. Do I understand that the Motion will be debatable?

Mr. Speaker

Yes. Mrs. Ewing.

Mrs. Ewing

Mr. Speaker, if people reading the letter I wrote, and to which reference has been made, read it as impugning the honour of the House of Commons and, in particular, of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan), I most sincerely regret it because it was not my intention so to do. I may say that the hon. Member for Maryhill, as an hon. Member, has lobbied for many years on matters of law reform, and I know him to be a teetotaller. It would be patently absurd for it to be suggested that I would ever impugn his honour in this way—at least, I would hope so.

The question of malice was raised yesterday. I should like to assure the House that the motivation in the writing of the letter had nothing to do with malice. The letter is now in the foreground of the attention of the House, and it has been mentioned and quoted in the Press. But, as in most cases, I am sure that hon. Members will note that where there is a foreground there is usually a background. I categorically deny that malice motivated me to write the letter. Rather, I was motivated by what I thought at the time to be self-defence.

This letter is one of a chain of many. I would not ask hon. Members to go back in time to read the whole chain. That, perhaps, would be to tax them too severely, because the chain would take us all back to the time before I even took my seat in this House. I felt, at any rate, that I had been the victim of a series of personal and sometimes vicious attacks. These ranged from implications that I enjoyed free holidays at the taxpayers' expense—including one on a date when I was sitting in the Chamber, when it was then suggested that I was gallivanting in Mull—to being accused of being a well-paid tool of the Daily Express, which does not pay me at all.

As I am trying to explain to the House, the motive was self-defence against what seemed to be a double standard in attendance being expected, one for me and one, it seemed, for other hon. Members. I hasten to assure the House that this was nothing to do with drinking; it was to do with attendance. I wish to explain that so that you will be able to bear it in mind, Mr. Speaker, in whatever decision you make.

In the legal profession, to which I belonged before I became a Member, this is one of the oldest and most common jokes about being called to the Bar. Lawyers usually take it in jest. If I had stopped to think about it, I would not have put that part in the letter. But I wrote it in the spirit in which I presumed politicians would take it. There was no malice aforethought. I regret very sincerely if I have impugned the honour of the hon. Member for Mary-hill or of the House of Commons.

Mr. Peart

In view of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, it falls to me as Leader of the House, in accordance with past practice, to move, That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton will be kind enough to leave the House.

The hon. Member then withdrew.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I wish to oppose the Motion. It elevates into a matter of national importance something which I believe to be a relative triviality. Complaints sent to the Committee of Privileges should be limited to matters which are important, vital and essential to the dignity and working of the House. I do not believe that this case falls in that category.

This was a letter printed in a comparatively obscure place in the Scotsman. Although I read the Scotsman fairly regularly, I should never have heard of it if it had not been raised as a matter of privilege. I understand that the Scotsman was a very popular newspaper here yesterday. The result of sending the complaint to the Committee of Privileges will be to elevate into a matter of national discussion something which, as the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) said, was not the beginning but the fizzling out of a controversy. I believe that that controversy would have fizzled out and that it will continue if we send it to the Committee of Privileges and give it an undue sense of proportion.

I have been editor of a Scottish newspaper. I was the editor and acting editor of Forward for over 22 years. These controversies are often not very mealy-mouthed. There is a certain ascerbity of expression and personal irrelevancies are sometimes brought into issue. But, as one interested in the freedom of the Press, I believe that the rights of hon. Members are already guaranteed by the law of libel.

What is the issue in the letter? The hon. Lady alleged—this was the gist of it—that some Members stand at the bars of this House more often than they stand at the Bar. That was a sort of feline aside which I do not wish to defend. But the fact is that there are bars in the House. Some Members to whom I have spoken about this question think that they can discuss matters of politics in the bars with great advantage to themselves.

I understand that recently a bar called Annie's Bar—I have not discovered its whereabouts—was established for the purpose of Members discussing politics and the ramifications of politics. I share the personal habits of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr Hannan): I am allergic to alcohol. If the Prime Minister sent a messenger to ask me to join the Cabinet, the last place in which he would look for me would be the bar. I am tolerant of other people and realise that we must treat this matter in a mood of toleration.

What will happen if this matter goes to the Committee of Privileges? We had the case of the former Member for Colne Valley, Mr. Duffy. He made a far more definite allegation than the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton. He accused masses of Members of attending debates under the influence of drink, and the matter was reported to the Committee of Privileges. Anyone who has read the evidence will know that Mr. Duffy ultimately bowed to the feeling of hon. Members and withdrew. But there is no allegation in this case of widespread intoxication among hon. Members. Pressure was brought to bear on Mr. Duffy by the Chief Patronage Secretary to end this incident so that we should not spend any more time on it. I believe that at one point Mr. Duffy was rather stubborn and said that he would not withdraw, but ultimately he did.

The hon. Lady is a rather different kind of person from Mr. Duffy. She might put up a fight. This House would look ridiculous if it came to a fight with the hon. Lady, who might not be prepared to retreat. What will we do then? The hon. Lady has a grievance, and she will discover a new grievance in the Committee of Privileges because on it there is an overwhelming majority of Englishmen. That may seem a strange argument, but it is the argument of the Scottish National Party. We shall have this new political St. Joan having to face an inquisition by a majority of Englishmen.

We are, therefore, on the way to making ourselves look completely absurd and to wasting the time of Privy Councillors who should be doing something else. There is only one Scottish Privy Councillor on the Committee of Privileges, and I understand that he is so bogged down in the Finance Committee that he will not be able to attend the Committee of Privileges.

Suppose that the Committee of Privileges decides to impose a sanction. Many of us remember how this has been done in the past. There was the case concerning the Sunday Express, when Mr. John Junor was brought into the House to be rebuked by the Speaker. The Speaker donned his ceremonial robes and Mr. Junor was marched to the Bar of the House where he read a solemn apology. He behaved with such dignity that in the end we did not know who was rebuking whom. Suppose that the hon. Lady appears at the Bar and says, "I believe what I said. Do what you damn well like with me". What will we do then? The House will have elevated the hon. Lady into a person of supreme national importance. The House will have given the greatest boost to Scottish nationalism that would be possible, and it would probably mean at least 100,000 more votes for Scottish Nationalists.

I ask the House to stop and not go further into this ridiculous business. I am not a Scottish Nationalist. The hon. Lady has established, I understand, about a dozen branches in South Ayrshire, in the hope that I will disappear along with many other Scottish Members. I have nothing personally to gain, but I ask the House not to proceed any further with this business. If we do, we shall embark on something supremely silly. I ask the House to reject the Motion.

Mr. Heffer

I think that hon. Members will agree that I am probably one of the most tolerant of Members. Whilst I may get involved sometimes in fairly heated exchanges with hon. Members opposite and with my hon. Friends, this is not a matter which continues, and one expects to have the rough and tumble of political life. If we cannot take that, we should not be in politics. I make that point first, because I rise to support the Motion that this matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

I do this because, if we do not follow that practice in this case, the House will be guilty of double standards. I can remember one of my former hon. Friends, Dr. Duffy, explaining from the back benches that the statement he had made had been made at a private meeting; he had no knowledge that the Press was present; then the matter was reported in the Press. We did not debate the matter in the House. The matter was brought before the House. As far as I can remember, no voice was raised against it going to the Committee of Privileges. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) nor any other right hon. or hon. Member said that in the circumstances the matter should not go to the Committee of Privileges. It went there. We know what happened.

We should be guilty of a double standard if we were to say that it was right to follow that course in the case of Dr. Duffy, who has now unfortunately left the House, but not right in the case of the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing), whose cause we might be helping to boost by a few thousand votes if we send the matter to the Committee of Privileges.

That is a matter the House must face up to. Because it might mean a few more votes for the Scottish Nationalists, and because the hon. Lady may appear to have been martyred, I do not think that we should dodge our responsibilities. We cannot dodge our responsibilities. We must not be accused of having double standards.

The hon. Lady writes a considerable number of letters. She also writes a number of articles. I do not seek to judge some of the things she says in her articles, but I became a little upset when it was suggested that I, along with other hon. Members, was more interested in dead birds on the south coast than I was in dead people in Glasgow. How does one answer that sort of thing? How do my Scottish hon. Friends answer this matter except by taking the action they are taking?

The trouble is that too many people are now saying that Members of Parliament are a bunch of layabouts and that they do not work hard. That is not the complaint we hear from the Opposition; their complaint is that we are doing too much work. However, we hear the other accusation throughout the country. Members of Parliament are constantly being attacked in this way.

It is said that the answer is for an hon. Member to write to the Press himself. However, if people constantly drip away at the concept that Parliamentary democracy is a dead letter and that we are not doing any work, the whole basis of Parliamentary democracy is undermined. That is what I am afraid is happening in Britain at present. It is high time that the House faced up to the issue. We are in very serious political times. Therefore, we have a duty. Members of Parliament certainly ought not to have any privileges above those enjoyed by anyone else, but they should at least have the right to protect themselves when they are wrongly attacked, as they have been in this case.

I can count on one hand the number of times that I have been to the various bars in the Palace. It is not just my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) who was being attacked. It was every hon. Member. I resent the suggestion that I am constantly in bars in the House drinking. The implication is that we are all in the bars more than we are in the Chamber.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

No one said that.

Mr. Heffer

I resent it. It is untrue.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

It is untrue, because it was not said.

Mr. Heffer

The hon. Lady should have said that it was untrue.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

If my hon. Friend reads the alleged breach of privilege he will see that the word was "some ". He is now translating that into "all".

Mr. Heffer

How many is "some"? "Some" could be 99 per cent. That is not true. When I came to the House of Commons I was more than pleasantly surprised to find that most hon. Members on both sides work hard. In fact, I do not know any who do not work hard for their constituents and who do their work in the Chamber and who have a cameraderie which I never expected would exist. That is what I found. I have been very proud to be a Member of the House of Commons and to have associated with hon. Members on both sides, even if I have disagreed intensely with their political point of view.

It is time that we defended ourselves in the country. It is time that we stopped knocking ourselves. It is time that we stopped suggesting that Parliamentary democracy is a dead letter. This is why I support the Motion. We cannot have double standards. We cannot have a position in which odd Members —I use the word "odd"—think that they can, in letters and articles throughout the country, say things like that to undermine our basic democratic system without our protecting ourselves.

Mr. Carlisle

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) has said —with this I agree—that it is important that we in the House should do our best to defend ourselves and to resist unfair attacks upon the House. I want to suggest one over-riding reason why we should support the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). The only purpose, as I have understood it, of having the privilege of Parliament is to try to uphold the dignity of Parliament. We must ask ourselves whether we are doing anything to uphold our dignity if we decide to refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges. I believe that we are not.

I believe that it was probably unfortunate that the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) wrote what she did. I agree with the hon. Member for Walton that it was an insult to Members of the House. I have absolutely no doubt—I say this with respect, Sir—that there was no possible Ruling that you could have given other than that which you gave. I honestly believe, however, that having been said, and the hon. Lady having, perhaps not in the most choice words, explained her motivation and having apologised to the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—I said that I did not think that the hon. Lady's choice of words was necessarily the best, but she made an apology—maybe not a wholly fulsome apology—to the House. I do not believe we improve the dignity of this place any further by referring a matter of this kind to the Committee of Privileges. By doing so we tend to make ourselves a laughing stock rather than to improve our dignity.

I suggest that because of the dignity of this House we should take no further action in this matter.

Mr. Paget

Mr. Speaker, as I understand it, the position here is that you rule as to wheher it comes within the rules of privilege. If I may respectfully say so, this clearly does. Then it is for the House to decide whether it is of sufficient weight for us to take notice of it and, in a sense perhaps, to make ourselves ridiculous in doing so.

There is nobody more jealous than I of the reputation of this House, but I do not think that we serve it by displaying an over-sensitivity over trivialities of this sort. We must remember that the saying, The greater the truth the greater the libel. is certainly true of our law where truth is always a defence and it may be true to say that the greater the truth the greater the breach of privilege. Unfortu- nately, our history of privilege was designed upon what was the then necessity of this House to conceal what it was doing. Our basic privilege was to not have our proceedings reported and the present system of privilege has emerged from that.

Let us consider for a second what this lady did say. She mentioned a particular man and wrote: … the customary stance of some M.P.s whilst at the House is closer to the many bars than the Bar of the House. Some M.P.s interpret their duties in a different spirit doing constituency work. Others seem to do neither. Are we not very greatly hypocritical if we do not note that in all the history of Parliament there have been hon. Members, a few, who have spent more time in the bar than they spent at the Bar and that there will always be people who do that? In an assembly of 600 people we do not get 600 conscientious paragons. Are we to say that we are going to take this formidable machinery of a Committee of Privy Councillors— and, as the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) said, English Privy Councillors—to judge this lady who is here as an individual without a party and without advice as a national party member and then conceivably to bring her to the Bar of the House?

Yesterday an hon. Lady placed herself, not at the Bar of the House but before the Mace. She got suspended for five days, losing her Parliamentary salary but earning television fees and avoiding work in a kind of week which I should think most of us would be profoundly happy to avoid. Are we readily going to do this for this other hon. Lady? I urge the House to say that we have noticed this and we have heard what she had to say. Now let us get on with more serious business.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

I support the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). This is not something I am in the habit of doing, but I found his argument entirely convincing.

I should say straight away that I join with all who have made it absolutely clear, with great respect to you, Mr. Speaker, that we do not believe you could possibly have arrived at any other Ruling than the Ruling you gave this morning. The question, as the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) said, is whether nevertheless the matter should be referred to the Select Committee. I thought it necessary to refute two points which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) made, and made effectively.

The first was that if we did not refer this case to the Select Committee we should be acting on double standards in view of the way in which the case of Mr. Duffy was referred to the Select Committee. I believe we would not be acting on double standards if we made this distinction. I say that for two reasons. First, I think there was a very clear difference, of degree at least, between remarks which Mr. Duffy made and the comments contained in the letter written by the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) to the Scotsman.

Secondly, and I suggest this is not unimportant, the hon. Lady is on her own here. She does not have more experienced colleagues to advise and help her about how she should handle a matter of this kind. It is fair to say that she has been the object of a certain campaign of personalised criticism directed against her by certain hon. Members opposite. [HON." MEMBERS: "Oh."] Hon. Members, particularly hon. Members from Scotland, can hardly dispute that there has been a personalised tone of attack since she became an hon. Member. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] This is my view. Under the circumstances one would accept that the phrasing of her letter to the Scotsman was unwise and indeed perhaps deplorable, but she does not have more experienced colleagues to advise here. We should take that into consideration.

The second argument, a far more important one, raised by the hon. Member for Walton, was that we needed to defend the dignity of Parliament at a time when it was under very serious assault and that by referring this case to the Select Committee we should be doing that. If I believed that to be true, I would certainly agree with the hon. Member because I do not dispute for a moment that there is a very grave decline in the public's respect for and support of Parliamentary institutions at the present time, but I question whether it is the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton who has produced this situation, or even contributed to it to a great extent. I am afraid we have to face the fact that it has been the conduct of our affairs over the past three years which has produced it. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I appreciate that this is bound to appear a partisan point, but I believe it is true. I furthermore believe—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not question the hon. Member's right to his opinions, but those are not the subject of this debate.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

All I wish to say in conclusion, Mr. Speaker, is that, in my view, far from enhancing the dignity of this House and far from enhancing public respect for it by referring a case of this really trivial nature to the Select Committee, we should be doing precisely the opposite. We should be encouraging the feeling of contempt which already exists outside the House, and we should be very ill advised, for those reasons, to do it.

Mr. Molloy

I do not agree with some of the comments which have been made suggesting that there is a great contempt in the country for the House of Commons. Such ideas might be in the mind of certain people who write in the newspapers, but they do not represent the opinion of the mass of ordinary people, who are proud of the House, proud of the way in which we can have massive rows, perhaps shouting at one another and being called to order by you, Mr. Speaker, because of our behaviour, while, at the same time, there is never any hon. Member blooded or maimed because of it all. The same cannot be said of other Chambers in the world. People are proud that we can in our House have heated debates which are reported in the newspapers and then, at the end of the day, conduct ourselves in the Division Lobbies so as to register the views which we hold.

I felt that it was somewhat distasteful —I must say this—of the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) to try to snatch a bit of party advantage out of an issue of this kind. It was an unwholesome and distasteful approach.

I agree with much of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), but I totally disagree with his conclusions. I support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It is not right to say that the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing), the cause of this debate, has been neglected in the House. Hon. Members who share the bench where she normally sits have helped her. From my place on this side, I have seen how hon. Gentlemen opposite have assisted and guided her.

Mr. Roebuck

And on this side, too.

Mr. Molloy

And probably on this side, too, I remember the days when I first came to the House. Not knowing my way around, I did not bother, in seeking the help of experienced hon. Members, to consider whether those whom I approached were Tories or Socialists. If an hon. Member was a well known figure in the House, I went to him and asked for his advice. I was at once assisted. He did not question whether I was a Welsh Nationalist, a Scottish Nationalist, a Socialist or a Tory. Help was immediately forthcoming. Such questions make no difference in the House of Commons in a matter of that kind. When it is said that the hon. Lady has sat lonely with no one to help her, it sounds to me like a cheap melodrama, not worthy of discussion in the House. I am sure that such suggestions are not right.

Let us consider what my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire said. I have never heard a speech of such appeasement, appeasement to another party, a nationalist party, carrying the suggestion that we in the House of Commons have not got the guts to carry on in the way we should, with proper respect among ourselves and to organisations outside and that we ought somehow to hold back in this particular instance.

I do not recall my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire making such a speech in defence of Dr. Duffy. I sat on this bench when Dr. Duffy had to apologise to the House. I sat next to him, and, naturally, there was private conversation between us, as there is so often when you are not looking at us, Mr. Speaker. There was a man whom I knew to be desperate moved and upset because he had offended the House of Commons, although no such thing was in his mind. He had had no desire to do that, so he was prepared to make the wholesome and forthcoming apology which he did. I know how he felt. He said to me, "It is the House of Commons which I have inadvertently, certainly unintentionally, besmirched, and that was not my intention".

We have heard an explanation from the hon. Lady. There was one apology to one hon. Member. But all of us have been impugned by her allegations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walton said, who are the few, who comprise the cabal, the small number who frequent the bars, who do not work either in the House or in their constituencies? Unless this nameless few are identified, we can all qualify. This is why I believe that we ought to proceed in the way proposed.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire sincerely believes in justice and in seeing that the right thing is done. I say to him that this is an occasion for us not to wilt before any form of political organisation, not to wilt before attack in the newspapers, not to wilt, if we think we are right, before the majority of ill-informed people, people who may be ill-informed because of biased reports in the newspapers.

This occasion presents a challenge to the House of Commons. It must do its duty and not be put off or frightened by the suggestions coming from my hon. Friend. The good name of the House of Commons has been impugned. From time to time, we all get irritated with the procedure here. When it does not suit us, we call it archaic. When it does suit us, it becomes the fruit of wonderful foresight which we have inherited. We all behave like that. But behind it all, and in some ways because of it, we love this place. Ordinary good people outside want to love the House of Commons, because they recognise that it is their House, too. They do not like to see it besmirched and impugned either in attacks on Members or in attacks on the establishment of the House itself. Not only has our good name been impugned, but the name of the House of Commons been impugned.

I conclude with some words from Shakespeare— Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed. I hope that the House will have the courage to defend its good and honourable name.

Mr. Thorpe

I hope that I shall carry the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) with me on two points. First, whatever he might have felt about the remarks of the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne), this is not a party-political matter, and it is quite possible for hon. and right hon. Members in all quarters of the House to take different views. I am sure that, if this matter goes to a Division, the voting figures will show that. Second, this is not a question of saying that, if we do one thing we discharge our duty but if we do another we fail. It is a question of how we in the House of Commons shall exercise our judgment.

The hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) wrote an unwise letter, and in the particular allegations referred to it was unfair to the generality of hon. and right hon. Members. Not surprisingly, it has been hurtful to quite a few hon. Members. If I may say so with respect, Mr. Speaker, you gave the only Ruling possible on the precedents. But it is now for us to decide whether the matter should go further, and that is a question of judgment.

I have for a long time felt that the House of Commons was a little too ready to cry "Privilege". I have felt it particularly since I acted professionally for the editor of a newspaper who was referred to the Committee of Privileges. I caused a Petition to be presented to the House, drafted in precisely the terms of the one which John Wilkes presented to the House, asking that one should have the right to be represented by counsel both before the Committee of Privileges and, if necessary, at the Bar of the House.

That was in the 1956 episode. The House took the view, after Mr. John Junor had been summoned, that this had gone far enough, that "This dance will no further go". It therefore dropped it because it was not prepared to have a show-down, because it felt—

Sir C. Taylor indicated dissent.

Mr. Thorpe

It dropped the case in which I was concerned. I can assure the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor) that although I may be declining in my mental capacities I know the outcome in the case in which I was concerned, which was not the Junor case. It concerned an Essex newspaper. The House was right in the action it took.

The hon. Lady has explained what she was trying to convey. Hon. Members may well feel that she might have been more magnanimous and might have gone into greater detail, but at any rate the House has been able to hear what she said. I always think that the greatest thing about the House is that it is fairly magnanimous. It is also pretty thick-skinned we are not as thick-skinned as in the days when Lord Sandwich would ask Charles James Fox whether he would die of the pox or the rope. If I had the courage of Mr. Leslie Hale, the former Member for Oldham, West, I would carry on and give the reply. But we are at any rate pretty thick-skinned.

Every one of us, whatever our view on this issue, is jealous to maintain the reputation of the House.—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would allow me to finish, because I am sure that he believes in freedom of speech as much as anybody else in the House. The reputation of the House depends much more on how we comport ourselves as a Chamber, the way in which we look after our constituents, and the work we do in Committee, than simply the letters which happen to be written unwisely to local newspapers—or great national newspapers.

If the House is to show that it has its sense of balance and priorities, now that the matter has been raised, Mr. Speaker has ruled, and there has been a discussion, let us drop the thing and get back to serious work.

Mr. Rankin

In intervening briefly in what has been a very interesting debate I must confess that I agree very much with a great deal of what has been said. but my view, as one who has been concerned in the matter, is that it has been taken completely out of its background. I should have assumed that those who have taken part in the debate would have read the correspondence in the Scotsman on Wednesday and yesterday.

I replied on Wednesday to certain things the hon. Lady had said and to certain inferences that might be drawn from them. I may say without flattering myself that my letter was generally welcomed by all my Scottish colleagues. A large number of them spoke to me about the matter and said that what I had written fitted in with their thoughts.

The hon. Lady replied yesterday, and again I was approached to ask if I was taking any further steps. After thinking very carefully about her concluding passage I said that I did not feel it was worth while continuing the correspondence.

I hope I shall not be revealing anything that is secret between us, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Mary-hill (Mr. Hannan) feels that I am he can interrupt me. I trust I am not going too far when I say that he did not accept my point of view yesterday and felt that further steps should be taken. I did not regard myself as being inpugned in the closing passage of that letter. Therefore, in view of the disturbance in his mind, I suggested that he should seek advice from a quarter more competent than I on these affairs, and what has happened is the result of that advice.

As one who has been concerned in the matter, I think we should be going too far if we pursued the course now suggested, because there are two things at least that the House must preserve— freedom of speech and freedom for Members to express themselves freely in public in correspondence over as wide a field as possible. I agree that there are limits, but in my view the limit was not reached at any stage in this correspondence. The statement which has given offence was: The customary stance of some M.P.s whilst at the House is closer to the many bars than the Bar of the House. If that were something new I could understand the reaction amongst Members, but it has been said in other words time and time again during the 23 years I have been a Member.

I put this point to my hon. Friends who are using that argument: if bars are such an evil influence in the House why license them to operate here at all? Why did we just recently open a new bar in the House? Why should we be the authors of the evils which inherently we are condemning? There are certain things that we must preserve. If the hon. Lady comes to stand before the Select Committee—and I hope that that will not be the verdict of the House—I would place beside her my hon. and good Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), who said yesterday: Is not one of the difficulties that all Scottish Members, whatever their condition, will be in Scotland tomorrow? "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd May, 1968; Vol. 765, c. 887.] That is not true, but it is widely believed. It is openly said that Scottish Members continually neglect their duties on Friday and that they are all in Scotland. My hon. Friend made that false charge yesterday and helped to spread that rumour. That is not true. Therefore—

Mr. Speaker

We cannot debate on this Motion whether the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) should go before the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. Rankin

All right, Mr. Speaker. But I have made one thing clear, that Scottish hon. Members are here, and I am one who does a five-day week along with others of my hon. Friends.

I think that the matter has been sufficiently dealt with by the House this morning, and I suggest that on this issue we should proceed no further.

Mr. Turton

Nearly all the arguments that I should have used have been used by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe). I merely want to make an appeal to the Leader of the House now. I am as jealous of the honour and dignity of the House as anybody because I have my unofficial position, but I believe that we are making fools of ourselves in this debate and wasting a great deal of valuable time.

The Ruling that Mr. Speaker gave enabled the House, if it so wished, to give an expedited procedure for dealing with the alleged case of privilege. This is for the House to accept or not to accept. In this case it was followed, I believe rightly, by an opportunity for the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) to make an apology. She took that opportunity perhaps not quite so satisfactorily as many of us on all sides of the House could have wished. However, she did make a qualified apology.

What has impressed me most in the debate and given me my greatest difficulty has been the speech by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), with whom I normally disagree but whom I always respect. He drew attention to the case of Dr. Duffy. Having been in the House now for nearly 40 years, I feel that the House is becoming more and more sensitive to the charges in respect of the conduct of hon. Members. I wish that in Dr. Duffy's case there had been an opportunity for an early apology to the House and that it could have finished there. But I warn the House that if we are to say that because we delt three years ago in the Dr. Duffy case in this way we are debarred from adopting a more lenient way here, we shall become more and more sensitive to these charges.

Therefore, I beg the Leader of the House, who is new to his office but has come with long experience of Parliament in other capacities, to withdraw the Motion at this stage. Surely if I am right in my definition there is nothing to prevent hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton from placing on the Order Paper an Early Day Motion expressing their views on the hon. Lady's epistolic expedition, which they do not like. There seems to be plenty of opportunity for Early Day Motions. It is one of the new changes in the House. We are getting more and more every day. This seems to me to be the right way to deal with the matter and to place it in the right perspective. Therefore, I make an appeal to the right hon. Gentleman: may we now get on with the business that we have on this Friday, and will he now withdraw the Motion?

Mr. S. C. Silkin

I rise to say a word or two in support of the proposition put to the House by the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). I do so—I apologise for not having been able to be here at the beginning of the debate—as a result of the experience that I had during the course of the year or more in which I was first of all a member and later the Chairman of the Select Committee which examined the whole question of Parliamentary Privilege. The report of that Committee has not yet been debated in this House. If it is accepted, there will be profound changes.

One of the matters which appealed to the Committee unanimously was the view that the House does itself no good and incurs the disrespect of the public if it spends a great deal of time in public dealing with matters which are relatively trivial. An hon. Member opposite spoke about the disrespect in which he thought the House is held by the public as a whole. I do not agree with him about that.

Mr. Heffer

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that many of us were in the House at the beginning of the debate and heard the statement made by the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing), and that we also feel that what he may think is trivial is not trivial to other hon. Members?

Mr. Silkin

I apologised to the House for not having been here, and I hope that my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite will accept that. I hope that I have a point of view as the result of the experience that I had in the capacity that I mentioned which I am entitled to express to the House.

I was saying that an hon. Member opposite expressed a point of view with which I do not agree, that this House is held in contempt or disrespect by the public generally. However, what I feel is that if the House spends a great deal of time discussing matters of this kind when it could be engaged on the real business for which our constituents sent us here it is likely to be brought into considerable contempt.

The matter which brought this question before the House has now been very adequately ventilated. My hon. Friends and hon. Gentleman opposite have made their points of view known to the House as to the impropriety of a letter such as that which was written. In my personal view—and I think it is the view of the Select Committee—a statement such as that which was made by the hon. Lady is more reprehensible coming from a Member of the House than it would be coming from somebody outside the House, and it would be right for the House to take a more serious view of such charges made by a Member of the House than such charges made by someone who was not a Member of the House.

None the less, weighing that up and bearing that point in mind, I cannot see what advantages will be gained by referring the matter to the Committee of Privileges now. It is highly likely—indeed, almost certain—that the Committee of Privileges on the material available to it will come to exactly the same sort of conclusion that the House could come to now having become aware of what the allegations are, and it is highly likely that it will follow the usual course which it follows in these circlumstances and that in the end there will be no further steps taken.

The Ruling which you gave to the House, Mr. Speaker, as has rightly been said, enables the House, if it so desires, to give this matter precedence over the Orders of the Day. It used to be the practice of the House where a matter was considered to be either relatively trivial or to have been dealt with adequately in the course of the debate for the Leader of the House at that stage, instead of moving that the matter should be referred to the Committee of Privileges, to move that the House should proceed to the next business of the day.

It seems to me that the matter has been adequately ventilated. It seems to me that it is far more trivial than some of the matters that have been brought to the attention of the House as possible breaches of privilege. I think that any lesson that needs to be learnt has been learnt by those concerned, particularly the hon. Lady, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will think it right and appropriate to withdraw the Motion, substituting the course to which I have referred and which is in accordance with practice.

Mr. Hannan

While thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for your courtesy in giving consideration to this matter, I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will pay regard to the course of action I propose to support. I think that those hon. Members who know me will recognise that I would not have raised a matter of this character without feeling that the conventions and orders of the House had been infringed. Some serious statements have been made about hon. Members outside the House and, by your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, you have made it clear that you, as representative of the House and guardian of its rules, are of opinion that this is at least a sufficiently serious matter as to constitute a prima facie case for reference to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. Turton

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Mr. Speaker has established that there is a prima facie case. It is now for the House to decide what to do.

Mr. Hannan

I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman does not appear to have heard me properly. I think that that is precisely what I was saying. Mr. Speaker indicated that the matter was of sufficient importance for the House at least to consider it.

These allegations were not only about the behaviour of hon. Members within the House but, indeed, outside it. It was alleged that hon. Members were not seen in the House for months and that no records were kept. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) made it clear that he exonerated himself. The hon. Lady appeared to aggravate the position by casting further aspersions on the habits of hon. Members in the House.

While it is true that your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, affords us an opportunity to discuss the matter, I do not think we should forget the precedents, particularly the case of Dr. Patrick Duffy in 1965. The Committee of Privileges examined the precedents then, and in paragraph 6 of its Report reference was made to the fact that it had been resolved by the House that … to print or publish any books or libels, reflecting upon the proceedings of the House of Commons, or any Member thereof, for, or relating to, his service therein, is a high violation of the rights and privileges of the House of Commons. Other precedents were referred to in the memorandum by the Clerk of the House in that case. In addition, in the case of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the Committee considered a memorandum submitted by the Clerk which said in paragraph 7: To constitute an infringement of privilege, the imputations against Members do not have to relate to named individuals. Imputations on unnamed Members … by the use of the indefinite article "some Members" was casting an aspersion on the House. He said that unless names were given, it was doing an injury to the House. In Erskine May, on page 117, it is stated: Reflections upon Members, the particular individuals not being named, or otherwise indicated, are equivalent to reflections on the House. It was with these thoughts in mind that I sought successfully to have your consideration of the matter, Mr. Speaker. In the light of the present circumstances, and having heard the hon. Lady today, I regret that she did not go further in her apology. I was not seeking a personal apology. I believe that I was expressing the views not only of Scottish hon. Members but of many others on both sides who are jealous of the reputation of the House.

I want to be as kindly as possible. The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) thought that the hon. Lady's apology might have been more felicitous. Perhaps because she is new to the House she did not quite recognise that her apology was due to the whole House, but in view of the personal apology which she made pointedly to me, I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to accept what I think was perhaps her real intention, although it is not for me to say—that she wanted in her spirit to be more all-embracing.

In view of all that has been said, I hope that the hon. Lady will seriously reflect on the matter and I think that it would meet the general wish of the House if I asked my right hon. Friend to consider the course suggested by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin)—that of withdrawing the Motion.

Mr. Peart

The House has taken this matter extremely seriously this morning and it has been in generous mood. Dealing with a colleague is always a difficult problem. I have listened carefully to the debate and I should like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) that his speech impressed us all. He should be proud of it as a parliamentarian.

I trust that I do not sound patronising in any way to the Father of the House, but I was also deeply impressed by the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). I have known him for 30 years and I have always listened carefully to his advice. He spoke with great common sense.

We have to judge, in view of Mr. Speaker's Ruling, whether to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges. I must bear in mind the advice of all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken and must try to assess the feeling of the House. I must not in any way seek to make a party case because this is a matter for the whole House.

I recognise that, as the Father of the House has said, we are trespassing on important private Members' time, and I think that we should now come to a decision. In the circumstances, in view of the advice I have had, I think that we should accept the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Mary-hill (Mr. Hannan), who first raised this matter. I trust that the speech of the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Ewing) will be regarded as an apology to all hon. Members. If it did not necessarily appear so, probably this was because of the reason mentioned by my hon. Friend, to whom she made a personal apology.

I think that we can accept that, in the end, the hon. Lady regrets what she has done. Perhaps she gave the impression that her apology was not as fulsome as it should have been, but in the circumstances I trust that she will have learnt her lesson in the best sense. The House is always jealous of its practice and procedure but I am sure that it will be tolerant and wise and in the circumstances I recommend that I should be allowed to withdraw the Motion.

Mr. Heath

If the Leader of the House is about to withdraw the Motion, may I says one or two things? As a Member of the Committee of Privileges, I did not intervene in the debate, because the House might have decided to send the matter to the Committee, but, as it appears to be likely to be the general wish of the House that the Motion should be withdrawn, I should like to make some comments.

Personally, I deeply deplore the publication of this letter and I sympathise with those who have expressed the view that it is damaging to Members of Parliament when a letter of this kind is published. One finds that for months and years afterwards it is suggested to one in correspondence and in questions at meetings that this was the condition in the House. When it comes from a Member of the House of Commons it is gravely damaging, and I hope that the House will never under-estimate this, nor the importance of maintaining its good name.

Secondly, I greatly regret that the apology which was made by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) was not the full apology to which the House is accustomed and which the House should expect.

Thirdly, I hope that no countenance will be given to the sentiment of the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) and the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) that this matter would be referred to an English Committee of Privileges. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is nonsense. The Committee of Privileges is a Committee of the House, and when a Member is appointed to it, nobody asks whether he is an Englishman, a Welshman, a Scot or something else. In any case, two distinguished Scottish Privy Councillors sit on the Committee of Privileges. It is just this sort of sentiment which gives emotional fervour to a situation which I believe to be deeply regrettable.

Lastly, I think that the Leader of the House is quite right to suggest that the Motion should be withdrawn and that, having expressed our views frankly and forcibly, in the interests of its own dignity the House should take no further action.

Mr. Peart

The House has been at its best this morning. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.