HC Deb 24 March 1969 vol 780 cc1042-6
Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order. I wish to raise a serious matter with you, Mr. Speaker. It may involve a breach of privilege or other grave content, and it certainly involves a discourtesy to you and this honourable House. I apologise for the fact that I have not had the opportunity to give you longer notice, but that opportunity did not arise, of course, until 2.30.

On Monday, 10th February, by a large majority the House passed a Motion setting up a Select Committee to go into Vehicle Excise Duty allegations. The Committee was then appointed and, as I understand it, the matter became sub judice and from that time no comment by anyone was allowable until the Select Committee had reported to you and the House.

At 2.30 today the official report of the Select Committee was published, but in this morning's Press and during the weekend in many newspapers there were reports of the Select Committee's findings. I shall refer to just one which was published this morning in the Daily Mail. The report is headed: Nabarro car tax plot"—

Sir G. Nabarro

Get it out.

Mr. Lewis

I repeat, with deference to the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro)—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. When we are dealing with a serious issue, it should not be spoiled.

Mr. Lewis

The report is headed: Nabarro car tax plot 'didn't exist'". I will not quote all of it, because it might be claimed to be intelligent anticipation, but two short extracts are as follows: They are unanimous in their verdict."— that is a reference to the Select Committee— And if there is a debate in the Commons, hardly anyone is likely to back Sir Gerald, whose story is reckoned to be the deadest of dead ducks. It later says: But evidence that a car tax plot was afoot? There was none. The report says that the Committee reports that there was no such plot and it does so in terms almost identical with those in the Report.

This issue may not be important in the eyes of many hon. Members, but I raise it with you, Mr. Speaker, as a general principle. In my time in the House I have always understood that it was a grave discourtesy to you and the House for anyone—and I emphasise anyone—be he a Minister or newspaper, to report what a Select Committee intended to report. May I ask for your Ruling?

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) for putting his point so clearly. I know that from time to time he has been keenly interested in the issue which he has just raised. I have not had an opportunity to consider it before coming into the Chair, but I have had advice.

I rule that the Select Committee on Vehicle Excise Duty Allegations made its report to the House on Friday, 14th March, when the House ordered that the report, together with the evidence given to the Committee, should be printed. Some days must inevitably elapse while the printing of the report is going forward. Any publication of a draft report before the report has been agreed to by a Committee and presented to the House is treated as a breach of privilege, but when the report has been presented to the House, though not yet available to hon. Members in printed form, it is not an offence against the House to publish the findings of the Select Committee.

It is certainly inconvenient, however, and discourteous to the House when this is done. I cannot go further than that. Hon. Members will find the practice set out in page 665 of Erskine May. What I have done is to draw a distinction which has been observed for many years. No question of privilege is involved.

Mr. C. Pannell

On a point of order. Will you consider another point, Mr. Speaker? With the exception of the Daily Mail, the whole of the Press has not understood the position as you have put it, but has refrained from publishing reports on the subject as a courtesy to the House. You and I and the whole House must, of course, be sensitive to keeping the good will of the Lobby and the journalists who deal rightly by us. [Interruption.] Oh, yes; we must be concerned about that.

May I ask you, therefore, to consider the disadvantage to which the general corporate body of the Press has been put by this premature disclosure?

Sir G. Nabarro

Further to that point of order. Are you aware, Mr. Speaker, in giving your Ruling—and I apologise for not advising you of this earlier; I had no opportunity to do so—that on Monday, 17th March, that is, three days after the date to which you have alluded, I wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee asking as a principal witness before the Committee to be allowed to see a copy of the final report and that the Chairman of the Select Committee thereupon refused me, saying that it was completely secret until the matter was published and available to hon. Members in the Vote Office?

It now appears from your Ruling that a newspaper has had access to the report before it was available to hon. Members in the Vote Office, thereby placing newspapers in a position of precedence over hon. Members, and, particularly in view of the reply by the Chairman of the Select Committee, placing newspapers in a position of priority and precedence over a principal witness in the case.

May I point out to you that the report which appeared in the Daily Mail this morning is, first, highly inaccurate and, secondly, highly biased against myself, and is made in a newspaper by a privileged journalist before I as a Member of the House of Commons have had an opportunity to consider what is in the report? I submit to you that this is a gross contempt of the House of Commons and ought to be submitted to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. Speaker

First, I remind the House that we have ahead of us a foreign affairs debate for which the House has been asking for a long time.

It would be wrong if the Press had access to a report of a Select Committee, not only before the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro), but before other hon. Members as well as himself, had had access to it. He went on to say that the report was incorrect, which would suggest that his first charge was not true.

Mr. Strauss

On a point of order. I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that it is desirable to put the matter correctly. It was a decision of the Select Committee that nobody should have any priority in viewing the report. Nobody—neither the Press nor witnesses—was in a position to see the report until it was published at 2.30 this afternoon.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for stating the position.

Mr. English

On a point of order. May I point out, Mr. Speaker, that probably because of the short notice available to you, you did not say whether or not Lobby copies of the report were issued? If they were, and if some 200 people got them but did not publish them, then this would seem to be something which might perhaps be better dealt with by a method other than the one of privilege. If they were not, then how can it be explained that I observed somebody carrying one this morning? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]

Mr. Speaker

That is a matter which the House must look into. The Chair is not a private detective. I have ruled that privilege does not arise in this matter. On the other hand, I have also ruled that the premature disclosure of something in the report in the Press is a discourtesy to the House.

Mr. Ronald Bell

On a point of order. You said, Mr. Speaker, that the report or the conclusions of the Select Committee were reported to the House on a certain date. Would you explain what that means? If no hon. Member is able to see the report, in what sense has the Committee reported to the House, that is, if the House collectively and individually knows nothing of its report?

Mr. Speaker

The procedure is quite simple. A Select Committee reports to the House. The House orders that its report be printed. It takes time to get it printed. The report with which hon. Members are concerned is apparently out today, because the printing of it was completed today.