HC Deb 14 October 1969 vol 788 cc220-33

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

The House will remember that yesterday the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell) raised a question of privilege concerning an article which appeared in the Sunday Times of 12th October, 1969. He submitted that allegations in this article against himself as Chairman of the Catering Sub-Committee and as a member of the Select committee on House of Commons (Services), disclosed a breach of privilege.

As the House knows, it is not Mr. Speaker's duty to pronounce on whether passages in the article in question do or do not constitute a breach of privilege. All the Chair has to rule on is whether the hon. Gentleman, in his submission, has made out a prima facie case of breach of privilege to the extent that this matter may be given priority over the Orders of the Day.

Accordingly, having studied the article and the precedents involved, I have to rule that a prima facie case has been established. It is now necessary, in accordance with the practice of the House, for a Motion to be moved, and then it is up to the House to decide what course to follow.

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

In view of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, it falls on 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. It would, I think, be in the interests of the House as a whole if it were decided that no further debate should take place at this stage.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

I am extremely doubtful whether it is right that the House should accept the Motion moved by the Leader of the House, and I will state briefly why I hold that view.

In taking this attitude, I am not in any sense reflecting upon the decision which you have made, Mr. Speaker, or upon the way in which the Leader of the House has followed the previous practice of the House, but, for reasons which I shall state, I cannot agree with him that it is right or desirable that the House should deal with these matters without debate

I am making no comment whatsoever on the rights and wrongs of the matters which are raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell); I am in no position to do so. Less still am I commenting on his stewardship as Chairman of the Catering Sub-Committee and the endless flow of gastronomic delights with which he enticed us and which were so beneficial to the Exchequer even if ruinous to our pockets and our digestions. I make no comment on those matters.

I am, however, concerned about the way in which the House deals with matters of privilege and I do not think it is right that we should proceed to refer this matter. As the House knows, there has been over many years a growing concern on both sides of the House about the way in which privilege was invoked and, to deal with the matter, the House followed its general practice of setting up a Committee to examine the question, a Committee which reported to the House, I think, at the end of 1967.

Of course, I am not saying, and no hon. Member is entitled to say, that the House is called upon to accept the Report of the Committee; the House has every right to pronounce itself upon the Report. After much pressure, a debate was secured earlier this year when the Report of the Committee was discussed; and a very unsatisfactory debate in many respects it was, because the Government gave no clear indication that they were prepared to present to the House their findings on that Report.

The Leader of the House will recall that in that debate I stated that if the Government were not prepared to come forward with any better proposals for dealing with this awkward question some of us would have to resort to direct action, and the direct action that is available to us is that we shall oppose every request for a matter to be referred to the Committee of Priveleges until the Government have given us time to settle the matter.

It is the right course because, although the method by which procedure cases are dealt with has not exactly been condemned by the Committee—that might be too strong a word—at any rate the gravest doubts and suspicions have been cast upon the way in which the House under its precedent deals with this matter of privilege, and it is the general conclusion of those who sat upon the Committee that we should alter the whole of that procedure. Here we are proposing to proceed with a privilege case without altering that procedure, and we should not be prepared to refer any further matters to the Committee of Privileges until the House has considered the propositions that the Government will put forward to deal with it. I will in a moment make a proposal as to how the Government might deal with it.

My second reason, again not commenting on the merits of the case, for believing that it should not be referred to the Committee of Privileges, is that it deals with precisely one of the major matters that was discussed by the Committee. It was the view of all the members of that Committee who examined this subject—that does not mean that other hon. Members are bound—that it was undesirable that hon. Members should have a shield to protect themselves against defamation which was not available to other citizens in the land. Proposals were, therefore, made for trying to alter that state of affairs.

From what my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said yesterday, it is quite clear that this is a case which comes within that compass, exactly the kind of case which was discussed in this context by the Committee and upon which the House itself has not yet pronounced. If my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has been defamed, and it may very well be that he has been, he has every right to a remedy, but the remedy, in my belief, should be a remedy provided by the laws of the land and not by the privileges of Parliament.

The reason that I hold that view is that it is only if the remedy is provided by the law of the land that other people's rights will be protected outside this House. It is only by that method one can ensure that the frontiers of free debate are clearly defined for other people. One of the conclusions of the Committee on Privileges, which examined the matter, was that the law is far from clear and that people outside the House are in a state of inevitable uncertainty as to what they can say about proceedings in this House and its Committees.

The House has a responsibility to put its own affairs in order. If it is to provide a sense of justice in dealing with these matters, then it must deal with the question. It must not push it off from month to month, from year to year, and say, "We will merely proceed to send privilege cases to the Committee without dealing with the fundamental question of principle."

In allegiance to the pledge that I gave to the Leader of the House in that debate, I will oppose this Motion unless the Government offer the remedy which is now within their power to offer. That remedy is a pledge that in the next Session they will deal with this whole question. I am not saying that they have to accept a report 100 per cent., but that they should put forward comprehensive proposals to deal with the matter in the next Session.

If they will do that—and I do not consider that it is the best way of dealing with such matters—I would agree that the matter should go through without any opposition in the House. But if the Leader of the House cannot give such an assurance, I urge the House to oppose the Motion.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

I feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot)—I mean no offence to him—has been grossly unjust, on the merits of the case, in an attempt to carry out his blanket promise to oppose every case. Cases should be opposed or supported on their merits.

What my hon. Friend has not said is that if the Report of the Select Committee on Privileges was carried out, the case would not go to the courts. The case would go before a Sub-Committee of the Committee of Privileges and then be handed on to the Committee itself as peculiarly a case which should come before the House.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell) dealt fairly with this matter yesterday when he said: I have not yet sought to exercise my legal remedies with regard to this particular article … although it is known that in other cases he has gone to the courts and issued writs. Why has he done so? He said: … I am advised that no redress could be obtained at law for many months due to the normal legal process and also in order that the matter should not become sub judice, which could possibly prevent me from asking this House to decide at the earliest moment on a matter which affects its privileges."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th October, 1969; Vol. 788, c. 46.] The Sunday Times articles may be matters over which my hon. Friend could seek redress outside. I do not want to be offensive to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, but he is in a financial position to take such action. Anybody else in similar circumstances in a matter of libel could not do so, since they would not have the resources. It would not be a matter for legal aid. It would make M.P.s the complete victims of people with money.

I ask the House to look at this matter as a whole. Let us forget that it deals with refreshments and touches the Catering Sub-Committee. We should remember the case which was before us not very long ago, in which the House dealt harshly with a junior member of the House about the premature disclosure of a document.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

We were wrong there.

Mr. Pannell

That may be so. The hon. Gentleman could debate that on another occasion, but as a good democrat he will bow to the will of the House. The hon. Member in question felt that he had been justly dealt with.

That case touched upon the premature disclosure of a document which had not been published. There is something of that nature inherent in this matter which is now before us. If Mr. Speaker had found a prima facie case on nothing else, he would have had to grant it on the basis of premature disclosure.

This is a matter which affects the House itself. No court in the land could have dealt with it in the same knowledgeable way as could the Select Committee on Privileges. Let us not take too much notice of how people outside would be dealt with. We in this House bear the heat and burden of the day. We suffer attacks in the electoral process to become Members, attacks which no other body of persons have to stand up to.

Unless the House is prepared to protect its own affairs, it will go down in esteem. Nobody enters the House with a great reputation that is taken at face value. A Member must win his way and earn our esteem by the sort of person he is within the comradeship of the House of Commons. Therefore, a Member must be dealt with as one of us. We must ask whether the Member has offended against our standards, whether he has been unjustly defamed.

Even if Mr. Speaker had not found this case on its merits to be a prima facie case, the House would have been bound in its own interests if not in the interests of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, to set up a special Select Committee to investigate these charges I feel most strongly on this matter. Although I have been associated with my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale on many other occasions, on this occasion I feel that he is wrong to oppose the Motion.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Edward Heath (Bexley)

In a number of cases of privilege raised in the House lately, the House has found itself in difficulty, for the reason which has been emphasised by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), that there has been presented a Report on privilege on which no action has been taken. In this instance the House is in a slightly easier position because the Committee's Report has now been debated. It remains for the Government to take action upon it.

I agree with the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale that I hope the Government will soon take action on it and I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to give the pledge for which the hon. Member has asked and that action will be taken next Session.

In the meantime, it seems to me that, once the Speaker has ruled that there is a prima facie case of privilege, then a remedy lies to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell). That remedy ought not to be denied him. So long as the remedy is available to us, and the Speaker has ruled in the way in which he has ruled, then, in fairness to the hon. Gentleman, and also in fairness to the newspaper concerned, the matter ought to be considered.

In these circumstances there lie before us two opportunities, either to debate the matter now, to have a vote and reach a decision, or to refer it to the Committee of Privileges. Without making any judgment on the matter, I should have thought, judging from the extract read to the House yesterday by the hon. Member for Buckingham, that to a certain extent it is a complicated matter from the point of view of the facts and a judgment upon them. I would not feel in a position to be able to reach a decision after a debate in the House this afternoon. Therefore, I would urge that the matter should be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

In the most recent cases considered by the House, the House has accepted the investigation by the Committee and its judgment without asking for it even to be debated. I believe that the House has confidence in the Committee and its work. Therefore, although I accept that matters may be involved as a result of action taken by the Government in which the case could better be disposed of outside the House, it would be wrong for the House to deny to the hon. Member for Buckingham the remedy which exists for him under the present rules.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Peart

The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has fairly put the point of view that this matter should go to the Committee of Privileges. He asked me to respond to the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot). I respond to that plea. Obviously, differences are involved. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that even when we debated, on 4th July, the Report of the Committee of Privileges there were differences of view.

This matter goes right across party. Therefore, I could not commit myself to saying that the action would be entirely that which would be adopted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale. But I give him the promise—I thought that I had given an indication of it in July—that there will be decisions on the Committee's Report.

I will respond to the plea of the Leader of the Opposition. I have been in consultation with my colleagues already, and I hope shortly to be in a position to announce the Government's intentions. It is an urgent matter. I will speed it up as much as I can and ensure that that will come forward next Session.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale will not press the matter to a Division.

4.21 p.m.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

I want, first, to deprecate my right hon. Friend's original suggestion that this matter should be passed to the Committee of Privileges without any debate——

Mr. C. Pannell

He did not say that.

Mr. Mendelson

He said that he thought that it would be wiser for it to be done in that way.

Secondly, I disagree with the Leader of the Opposition that this is merely a matter affecting an individual case. It is also a problem which involves a matter of principle, and we have a duty to take note of growing opinion in the country that privilege is used in a way which was not originally intended by the constitution. I say that on the general principle of the matter, and do not refer to the specific case in question.

We have an unwritten constitution, but that does not mean that there are not a number of conventions which are understood by people in the country. The main reason for privilege at all is where an hon. Member is prevented from carrying out his duty to his constituents. That was always the most powerful argument for privilege. If something or someone threatened an hon. Member, hindered him in reaching this assembly, or attempted to dissuade him from acting freely according to his conscience in trying to protect his constituents against the high and the mighty and others who might threaten him, privilege was said to be invoked.

The term "privilege" is a misnomer, and it ought to be changed. It is merely the right to protect the interests of the citizen. Therefore, we have to be very careful whenever such a case comes before us and a Motion of this kind is moved by the Leader of the House in any Administration. We have to show the country by debate that we are careful to distinguish between the kinds of privilege involved.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) forces the matter to a Division, I will support him. I have never believed that we should go beyond the strict interpretation of "privilege" unless the gravest issues are involved. If an issue was so grave that the whole working of parliamentary procedure was affected, and it could be said that the working of Parliament itself was challenged, then I would be prepared to support a Motion saying that, although the case did not directly concern the protection of the rights of the citizen, it should be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Turning to what the Leader of the Opposition has just said, this is not a question whether we have confidence in the Committee of Privileges. I have complete confidence in the members of that Committee and in their workings. But that is not what we are debating, and it should be put out of our minds if there is a vote today. The only matter before the House is whether this case should be considered by the Committee of Privileges in the first place, and it would be no vote of no confidence in the members of that Committee or in their past work if we decided not to refer this matter to the Committee.

It is very important that we do everything possible to add to the prestige of Parliament. The best way of doing that is to get the electorate to understand all the time what we are doing. There are many people who are campaigning actively against Parliament, and there is not enough understanding of what we are doing a good deal of the time——

Mr. Emanuel Shinwell (Easington)


Mr. Mendelson

I know that my right hon. Friend does not agree with the case that I am putting forward. That is his right. None the less, I have the right to put my case, and it does not necessarily have to be worse than his own.

It is important that there should always be debate on such a matter It is important that we should have a clear expression of opinion. It is equally important that there should be no emotional atmosphere when we take our decision. It should be taken in cold blood. It is a matter of principle. I do not think that it is a case which should be referred to the Committee of Privileges, and, if there is a Division, I shall vote against the Motion.

It has been argued that some hon. Members are in a position to seek a remedy in the courts in cases of this kind, whereas other hon. Members are not. Again, that cannot be any guideline for our decision today. It is not a matter of protecting hon. Members. It is not a matter of social justice. It is not a matter of income levels and the ability to find the necessary money to fight in the courts. I speak without any concern for individual hon. Members. We must not burden our decision with matters that have nothing to do with it——

Mr. Shinwell

My hon. Friend wants to provide work for lawyers.

Mr. Mendelson

They will not suspect me of that, if they know me.

Every hon. Member is attacked from time to time. It is essential that most attacks should not be dealt with under the rule of privilege. I believe that to be the case, and I hope that there is a Division so that we can express our opinions on the Motion to refer this case to the Committee.

4.27 p.m.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

I am sorry to have to delay the House a little longer, but it seems to me that we are here discussing a matter of principle which is extremely important.

Usually, I find myself in complete agreement on most questions with my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot). However, on this occasion he is putting forward a case which I find totally unacceptable. During the debate which took place in July, various points of view were put forward by my hon. Friend and others who supported the Committee's Report. I said at that time that if the Government intended to put forward proposals based upon all the recommendations in that Report, a number of hon. Members would find themselves opposed to some of them.

We have had some frank talking today, and I want to be equally frank. I do not happen to be a millionaire. In view of the way in which I handle my financial affairs, I never will be one. However, I tend to be a somewhat controversial person and, on occasions, it could be that certain Press barons would object most strongly to the policies which I pursue. Because I am not a millionaire, they might decide to launch a sustained campaign against me which, in turn, would be waged against my constituents. It is all very well to tell me that I can go to the courts, but I should not be in a position to employ the best legal advice in the country to advance my case. The Press barons would be, and as a result any contest between us would be somewhat unfair.

I want to be frank and open and honest about this matter. Under these circumstances, it is the duty and responsibility of the whole House to protect its Members—not only its rich but its poor—which means protecting their constituencies and constituents. Members of Parliament hold special positions. Anyone who denies this denies the reality of the life that we live. We make speeches regularly. Not every person in this country is subjected to precisely the same type of pressures as those to which a Member of Parliament is subjected.

I hope that the House will agree that this matter should go before the Committee of Privileges. I am not saying that there should not be changes in the procedure. I read the Report very carefully. There is a good case for many changes in procedure. But let us take this specific case—because it is this case upon which we are being asked to decide. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell)—with whom I do not agree on many issues—has been the victim of a sustained campaign. I object very strongly to the fact that he has been placed in that position. I know that he is a rich man, and I know that he can fight these people in the courts on some of the things which have been said. But when his conduct as a Member of this House is brought into question it is our responsibility thoroughly to investigate the matter and to defend Members of the House.

I am a passionate believer in this House. I was not always. There was one time in my life when the views of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin) were positively reformist in comparison to some of mine. But I realise that the essence of our democracy is the basis of our rights and privileges to speak up and act on behalf of our constituents. In my view, any attack upon that is an attack upon the rights of our people.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale not to push this matter to a vote. If there is a vote, however, I ask the House overwhelmingly to support my right hon. Friend.

4.32 p.m.

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

If it had not been for the intervention of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) I would not have spoken, but I make no apology for rising in support of what the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson) said about this matter. We must get this very clear. I believe that privilege was designed—the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) will agree with me on this—to allow me, or him, or anybody else to put forward his political views. Of course, the House of Commons would fight like Kilkenny cats to prevent the hon. Member for Walton not being able to express his political views. But there is a division of opinion on this matter.

I would have thought that if the House, in its wisdom, made me Chairman of the Estimates Committee and the Press published material to the effect that the hon. Member for Ormskirk was a thoroughly inefficient member of the Estimates Committee it would probably be true, and fair comment. I do not think that it would be a breach of privilege. This is not stopping Members of Parliament from expressing their views. It is not stopping Members of Parliament sayings things that they could not say outside because it would be subject to libel. It is not stopping people espousing an unpopular cause.

This is a statement of fact. I believe that it is in this respect that we have fallen out in recent years on the question of privilege. We are extending the field of privilege to our own amour propre. It may be very nice for a Member of Parliament to feel that he can refer to the Committee of Privileges a matter in which he thinks that he has been victimised, but I do not think that the public want us to extend this field of privilege.

Although I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell), I believe that privilege should be confined to the question of expressing views in a political context. When it is a question of dealing with facts that may be ascertained I feel that no breach of privilege is involved.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

As I see it, the issue here is an allegation that a Member of this House, by virtue of his office in this House, cooked the books; that the Treasury acquiesced and, indeed, made it possible for him to cook the books, and that the authorities of this House acquiesced and made it possible for him to cook the books. I ask the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) what bigger attack does he need to be made on the honour of this House for it to be a matter of privilege?

Sir D. Glover

I do not want to detain the House in this matter but if, as the right hon. Gentleman says, the Treasury is under attack, I would have thought that the right thing to do would be for the Treasury to carry out an inquiry to discover what has gone wrong. I do not think that it is a question of privilege. It is on this narrow difference that there is a division in the House on this matter. I shall not do so with any great conviction, but if there is a Division—I hope that there will not be—I shall come down on the same side as the hon. Member for Penistone.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.