HC Deb 07 May 1969 vol 783 cc464-8
Mr. Speaker

I wish to make an announcement about the Ruling on privilege which I was asked to make yesterday.

The House will remember that yesterday afternoon, before the debate on the Finance Bill began, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) submitted that a breach of privilege was involved in the non-delivery of copies of the Finance Bill.

It is now my duty to rule on whether the non-availability of additional copies of the Finance Bill at the Vote Office yesterday constitutes a prima facie breach of privilege.

I have given this matter my anxious consideration, as I appreciate that there was serious inconvenience for some hon. Members when the Vote Office was unable to supply additional copies of the Finance Bill.

As the House knows, the procedure for printing all Bills is as follows. First, the House orders the Bill to be printed and an order is duly entered to this effect in the Votes and Proceedings. As soon as the order is made, the Public Bill Office sends a final proof copy of the Bill to the printer and the Bill is then duly printed at St. Stephen's Parliamentary Press by Her Majesty's Stationery Office and thereafter published. The Controller of the Stationery Office has the sole authority to print and publish our Bills and other Parliamentary papers and he is answerable, of course, to Ministers.

As I indicated to the House yesterday, the Vote Office took delivery of 1,000 copies of the Finance Bill, and this was in line with the normal requirement for an item of this kind. But owing to circumstances for which the authorities of this House have no responsibility, delivery of additional copies of the Finance Bill did not take place.

As I told the House last week on a similar occasion—HANSARD, 2nd May, c. 1768—there is no question that the Controller of the Stationery Office was in any way negligent. The inconvenience which Members have suffered was due to circumstances beyond his control.

I must, therefore, rule that a prima facie case has not been made out by the hon. Member. In saying this, I do not, of course, prejudge the subject which he raised, and my Ruling does not prevent him, or any hon. Member, from carrying the matter further by any of the other courses which are open to him. All that I am now Ruling is that I cannot give this matter priority over the Orders of the Day.

Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith (Glasgow, Hillhead)

May I say how much I appreciate the care with which you, Mr. Speaker, have looked into this matter in an endeavour to help the House in the difficulty in which it was placed.

I appreciate that there is no breach of privilege in this instance, at least not of a prima facie nature, but I wonder whether it would be possible for you to instruct one of the Officers of the House to collect the copies of the Finance Bill which physically exist at the Stationery Office? If it were possible for you to instruct one of the Officers of the House to do that, I imagine that anyone who tried to obstruct him in carrying out the instruction of the House would be in breach of privilege. This might be a way of getting copies of the Bill which we required to discharge our Parliamentary duties.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that my staff are taking every opportunity they can to secure further copies of the Finance Bill, and that they are doing their best to see that the House is not Inconvenienced in any way by circumstances which are at present outside our control.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Fred Peart)

I believe that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) was right to raise yesterday the point that he did. Mr. Speaker, if you had ruled that there was a prima facie case of breach of privilege, I should have had to move a Motion to that effect.

I know that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about not receiving publications. This is a delicate matter, and I think that all hon. Members appreciate why. I assure the House that active steps are being taken to meet every emergency. I hope that I shall not at this stage be pressed to go beyond giving the House an assurance that the authorities of the House are doing all they can to ensure that the business of the House is carried forward.

I should like to keep the House continually informed, by informal and official means. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that what I have said was the right thing to say in the circumstances. This is an extremely delicate situation. I shall keep the House informed.

Mr. Edward Heath (Bexley)

We are grateful to the Leader of the House for intervening and giving us an assurance that the authorities of the House are doing everything possible.

As I understood your statement on privilege, Mr. Speaker, you made it clear that the Stationery Office is responsible to Ministers. It is, therefore, the responsibility of Ministers, and, in particular, the Leader of the House, to ensure that the documents are available, if not in the printed form then in an alternative form. I am glad to note that the Leader of the House nods in agreement with that.

I do not wish to press the right hon. Gentleman to tell us what steps the Government are taking, again for obvious reasons, but I give the right hon. Gentleman notice that if the Government put down business for the House and they do not provide the necessary documents, the House ought not to proceed with that business.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

My only comment—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member knows that he cannot question my Ruling. He may raise a point of order now, or he can raise a point on the statement of the Leader of the House.

Mr. Orme

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. I welcome the statement which you have made, and the emphasis which you have laid on the fact that you would not be put under pressure to take action which might only exacerbate the current industrial dispute.

I hope that every hon. Member, however he feels about this issue, will recognise that it is an industrial dispute and that it can be settled only through the normal industrial negotiations—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—and that any form of pressure as suggested by hon. Gentlemen opposite will have the exact opposite effect.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

Mr. Speaker, may we be told, either by you or by the Leader of the House, whichever is appropriate, about something which has not yet been said in this matter? What is the nature of the difficulty which has prevented the delivery of these papers? Everybody keeps referring to this as a delicate matter, and one which must not be spoken of. It seems odd that we should not be told what the difficulty is.

Mr. Speaker

I mentioned yesterday that there was an industrial dispute at Her Majesty's Stationery Office. I refused to comment on it yesterday. I refuse to comment on it today. A long time ago I decided to refuse to comment on anything in this country about which there were differences of opinion.

Mr. Heath

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If you feel unable to comment, may I make it plain that we on this side of the House absolutely repudiate the point of view put forward by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme), and that the duly elected British Parliament is not going to allow itself to be impeded in its work by an industrial dispute?

Mr. Speaker

On behalf of the whole House, may I say that everybody in the House would echo the words of the right hon. Member the Leader of the Opposition that we regard the work of the British Parliamen0t as very important indeed, and that we regard interfering with it as something very serious indeed.

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