HC Deb 29 January 1971 vol 810 cc1113-8

11.4 a.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

On a point of order. I wish to raise with you, Mr, Speaker, a possible breach of privilege and to submit to you the details upon which I would ask you to rule whether a prima facie breach of Privilege has indeed been committed. I should like to put it to you on three bases, and first of all on the facts, which, I believe, are incontrovertible.

You and I and the House know that Mr. Speaker is the First Commoner in the land and as such is elected by the Members of this House. His first job is not only to protect the interests of hon. Members on both sides of the House but, by so doing, to protect the interests of the people of this country. Once Mr. Speaker is elected, no one—but no one—is entitled to question his Rulings or his instructions, unless a substantive Motion is placed on the Order Paper. He has supreme authority subject to the rules of the House, and what he does is the will of the House.

If Mr. Speaker is not here he delegates authority to various other people, including Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Chairman, Deputy Chairmen, and the Officers of the House. He has the excellent help and service of the honourable and gallant Gentleman the Serjeant at Arms. All this is incontrovertible and no Member in the House would in any way question that. Equally, when Mr. Speaker, or any of his appointed agents, gives an order, or asks for any action to be taken, whatever those actions may be those agents or servants, whilst so acting, are carrying out Mr. Speaker's instructions and are in fact acting for and in the place of Mr. Speaker.

This also applies when Divisions are called. You or your appointed Deputy, Mr. Speaker, will call upon the Clerk to take certain action, and you call "Clear the Lobbies" and "Lock the doors". By so doing you instruct the Serjeant at Arms, who, in turn, instructs his officials to do certain duties, which I shall not bore the House by enumerating. On behalf of all Members I would say that they do an excellent job, and we are all extremely proud of the honourable and gallant Gentleman the Serjeant at Arms and his officials, of whom you, Mr. Speaker, are in charge.

Every Member and every Officer of the House knows what happens, or should happen. Every hon. Member knows—or, again, should know—that according to the rules a Member has six minutes in which to get into the Lobby, whether the "Aye" or the "No" Lobby, and you, or your appointed agent, will say "Lock the doors" after six minutes, and immediately that happens it is really you yourself who will lock the doors but, of course, you yourself cannot physically do that and you ask the officers of the House to do it and they go into the physical process of locking the doors. All this is factually true and no one can dispute what I have said.

Incidentally, I would here interpose that it makes no difference if the official acting in accordance with your instructions does that in one minute or two minutes or three minutes or ten minutes. Provided that he does it under your instruction you, I say with great respect, are responsible whether the rule is or is not being carried out properly.

Having given the background, I will deal with the incident which I wish to report to you, which happened early this morning. The OFFICIAL REPORT is not yet readily available, but I have checked a proof copy to make sure that what I am saying is correct. I pay tribute to the excellent HANSARD staff. How they keep up with us I do not know, but within minutes of incidents happening our excellent HANSARD staff give us a verbatim report.

At or around 1.10 a.m., your Deputy, Sir Robert Grant-Ferris, acting with your authority, as he always does, gave orders for the calling of a Division. In accordance with normal rules and procedures, he later called for the locking of the doors. The Officers of the House, on the instruction of the Serjeant at Arms, proceeded to lock the doors of the Division Lobby. One of the two officers in the process of doing so was physically assaulted, pushed around and shoved by several hon. Members, who forcibly tried to push their way past him into the Division Lobby. Those hon. Members were preventing him from carrying out his duty to the House and your order, given through the Chairman, your Deputy. Whether or not the order was given at the correct time is not material at the moment.

It was later reported—no doubt by those hon. Members, but that is not material—to the Chairman that he had not allowed the normal time to elapse before calling for the locking of the doors. The Chairman apologised, and said that he had inadvertently made a mistake and had called for the locking of the doors before the expiration of the six-minute period which is laid down.

I pay tribute to the Chairman that he apologised to the Committee, and the Committee, as it must do, without question or query, accepted his apology. Whether or not there was a mistake on his part he did say, "Lock the doors", but even if only a minute had elapsed before he gave that instruction, hon. Members were in duty hound to carry it out. They can afterwards raise the matter with the Chairman, failing satisfaction, with you, and that has happened.

If any person, whether he be a Member of Parliament, an Officer of the House or the most important police inspector in the country, knowingly or unknowingly, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or by accident, flouts the will of Mr. Speaker and his appointed agents while they are carrying out their duties, he is flouting the will of Parliament and committing a serious breach of privilege. No hon. Member has a right to take the law into his own hands or to take the rules of the House of Commons into his hands, and no Member of Parliament, be he a Privy Councillor or an ordinary back bencher, from the Prime Minister downwards, has the right to question your order or physically to assault one of your officials when carrying out the duty which you, Sir, through the House, impose upon him.

No hon. Member, whether he be one of 20 or 30 years' standing, or one who entered the House by election last June, can plead ignorance or say that the action was unintentional or accidental, or give any other excuse. Every hon. Member knows that the attendant would not be locking the door unless he had received instructions so to do. Even if the attendant were to break the rule of the House and to lock the door without your instruction, it is no part of the duty of an hon. Member physically to assault him and try to get into the Lobby. The duty of the hon. Member is to raise the matter with you, or with the Chairman, who would then decide that the Division had been wrongly called or that he had wrongly ordered the locking of the doors, and say that he would call another Division, which is what he did.

There is a precedent, although it was not quite so serious an occurrence, which concerned a Communist Member of Parliament, Mr. Phil Piratin. I refer you, Sir, to the complaint which he made on 19th December, 1946, when he claimed that he was in the process of a fracas. I will not go into the details, because the complaint was referred to the Committee of Privileges on 19th December, 1946, which sat on 3rd February, 1947. A fight took place between an hon. Member and a member of the public, not within the House or the precincts of the House, but in a bar of the House. This was not a case of an hon. Member using physical violence against an appointed Officer of the House acting on your instruction.

There is a great deal of violence in the country now, students are accused of using force unnecessarily and it is wrong that we in the House of Commons should use force. I have not mentioned any hon. Member by name. It makes no difference to me, and it should make no difference to the House, whether it be the Prime Minister, a Minister, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition or any other Member of Parliament. No hon. Member has the right to try forcibly to prevent the carrying out of instructions given by Mr. Speaker.

It is no answer to say that this was done accidentally, without thought, or without knowledge that the attendants were locking the doors. This is exactly what the students are saying, and the strikers.

I ask you to give serious consideration to this matter, Mr. Speaker, because it is very serious. Hon. Members must above all be seen to be doing the right thing, and they must be told that they must not attempt to use violence to upset Mr. Speaker's Ruling. Therefore, I ask you to have the matter investigated, to look into the details which are available, and to rule that prima facie this is a breach of privilege.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his submission. It is not part of the duty of the Chair to deal with the substance. I simply have to decide whether this is a matter which should be given precedence over other business. Having regard to the hon. Gentleman's submission, I am satisfied that the matter he has raised is of a kind which can be given precedence over the business. It is therefore open to an hon. Member to move a Motion.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Francis Pym)

I beg to Move, That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the Patronage Secretary.

May I now raise another matter? I do not want to push this question, but I think that it is essential.

The normal rule on privilege, as I have understood it for very many years, is that an hon. Member who feels that he may have a prima facie case must raise it on the very first conceivable opportunity when the House is sitting. When the Committee adjourned to report progress at 5 o'clock this morning, and the House resumed, I tried to raise the matter immediately, because I felt that the rule was that I had to do so. But I was advised that I did not have to do it then but could do it at 11 o'clock today, which, of course, was another sitting day. This matter should be looked into, because my understanding has always been that such a matter should be raised immediately. In years gone by, hon. Members have even interrupted business to report a possible breach of privilege. Probably in the early hours things may have gone wrong, but for precedent may I ask that you look into this so that we may see just what the position is for the future.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot make hypothetical Rulings on circumstances that have not yet arisen. It is the normal practice of the House that matters of privilege should be raised after Questions or after Ministerial statements. I think that the hon. Gentleman was perfectly proper to raise the matter when he did this morning, and I so rule.

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