HC Deb 15 July 1971 vol 821 cc737-44
Mr. Speaker

I said yesterday that I would rule on the submission on a matter of privilege raised by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel). I have considered his submission and the precedents carefully.

I must make clear what in my view is the position of the Chair. It is not part of my duty to deal with the substance of a complaint. It would be quite improper for me to pronouce on the merits or the degree of importance to be attached to a particular submission. I simply have to say whether I will give precedence to a Motion dealing with the matter. What happens to the Motion, if moved, is not a matter for me : it is for the House.

I have decided in this case to allow a Motion to be moved now. That is the extent of my decision.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

In view of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, it falls to me, in accordance with practice, to move. That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges. It would, I suggest, be in the best interests of the House as a whole if we decided that no further debate should take place at this stage.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Despite the last few words of the right hon. Gentleman, there is a point I wish to make, though the House will recognise the difficulty in which the Leader of the House is placed. It is his duty, after a Ruling such as you have just given, Mr. Speaker, which no hon. Member would be disposed to challenge, to move a reference to the Committee of Privileges. However, as the House will recognise—this should be said and this is why I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman—that tomorrow the House will be asked to reach decisions about the procedure in privilege cases.

It is not competent for any of us to say what decisions the House will take on the Motions which the right hon. Gentleman will be submitting, some of which may well involve a different procedure in such cases from that which is at the moment the procedure binding on the Leader of the House.

I am making no comment on the validity of the complaint which has been made. When a matter is referred to the Committee of Privileges, the members of that Committee would not wish to prejudice the situation in advance. However, I suggest that as tomorrow the House will be asked to take decisions which could lead to a different procedure, the right hon. Gentleman might care to consider withdrawing his Motion today and then on Monday consider the position again in the light of whatever decision the House has taken. If the House has by that time laid down a different procedure, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will have the full backing of the House in following that procedure, whatever it may be.

If, on the other hand, the House in its wisdom tomorrow were to reject his own proposals as Leader of the House so that the present procedure has to be followed, I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will use your discretion to allow the right hon. Gentleman to move this Motion again, in which case I am sure that he would get the assent of the whole House, and the matter would be referred to the Committee of Privileges in accordance with the rules we now have, but which might be different on Monday after tomorrow's debate.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am, of course, very ready to respond to what the right hon. Gentleman says, but we are now placed in some difficulty. I am entirely in the hands of the House, and I certainly wish to know, if other views are expressed, the feeling of the House as a whole.

The problem is simply this. If the new procedure were passed tomorrow, such a complaint at this would have to go straight to the Committee of Privileges, which would decide whether it was a case that ought to be brought to the House as a prima facie case of breach of privilege. That decision would be for the Committee of Privileges in that situation.

I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition that it is very awkward that this problem should come up now. Now that you, Mr. Speaker, have ruled that this is a prima facie breach of privilege, it would be difficult for the Committee of Privileges under the new procedure to rule otherwise. That is why I thought that the best way would be to move to refer the complaint to the Committee of Privileges, where over a long period of time these matters have been dealt with, I think, very fairly, and to the great satisfaction of the House as a whole.

Mr. Michael Foot rose

Mr. Whitelaw

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I understand his feelings, but I think that he owes something to me in that I am bringing before the House tomorrow matters that he has been very keen to have brought forward. I think I am owed that.

I realise the difficulties. I am in the hands of the House, but I thought it right that I should point out the difficulty we are in.

Mr. David Steel rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Perhaps I might help the House a little. I very deliberately did not use the phrase "prima facie case". All I said was that I would allow the Motion to be put. I did so because I was aware of the circumstances.

Mr. David Steel

Without in any way going into the merits of the case at all, I am very sympathetic to what the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has said. But he will appreciate also that as of yesterday one had recourse only to the existing procedure of the House. I say at once that if it were possible to anticipate decisions which the House might take tomorrow and have the matter referred next week to the Committee of Privileges under the new procedure, if accepted by the House, I would accept that, but I must plainly say that what I am not willing to do is to agree to any suggestion that we should defeat the Motion which has been moved by the Leader of the House and let the matter drop entirely. If I can be assured that it would be dealt with under the new procedure next week, and that it would be possible for me to refer it in writing under the new procedure, I would not press the point now ; but not otherwise.

Sir Robin Turton

I do not quite follow the difficulty mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. Quite clearly, Mr. Speaker, the effect of your decision is to give the matter priority. Either we as a House can say that this is a very grave breach of privilege and make our own decision, as has been done in certain cases, or we can remit it to the Committee of Privileges. The only difference, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said, is that under the new procedure cases of this nature would in future be considered earlier by the Committee of Privileges. The Committee of Privileges is formed of some very responsible people, such as the Leader of the Opposition. Surely, on the matter being referred to them, they would act taking into account tomorrow's debate.

I cannot therefore see what is the objection to the House doing as it always has done, which is, Mr. Speaker, directly you have made your Ruling to ask for a Committee of Privileges to be set up to look into the matter.

This is a very important question. It is a question of arm twisting, with financial implications. We may all have different views on different forms of arm twisting, but in these circumstances I should not like the country to think that we were sweeping this complaint under the carpet—[HON. MEMBERS : "No."] That might be misinterpreted—

Hon. Members


Mr. Harold Wilson

No. I said that the House should remain in command of the situation ; and that the alternatives were either to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges now, when we are bound by the old rules, or on Monday. I said that when the House has determined its procedure the right hon. Gentleman should be free either to refer the complaint to the Committee of Privileges under the new rules or, in the light of anything said in tomorrow's debate, to which he will listen—and the House will decide—he should be free to refer it under the old rules, so that the Motion comes back to the House on Monday. There is no disagreement about that.

Sir R. Turton

I say that it should be sent to the Committee of Privileges. Here is a certain matter alleging arm twisting, with financial implications. With the debate coming on next week, we want to get the complaint to the Committee of Privileges as quickly as possible, bearing in mind that we are nearly at the beginning of the Summer Recess. I therefore very much hope that on reflection the Leader of the Opposition will realise that the correct course is to agree that the matter should go to the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down, let me say that there is no suggestion by anybody that the matter should be swept under the carpet. All we want to do is to deal with the matter in the way that the House feels right after tomorrow's debate. We think that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House should be free to come back on Monday, in the light of that debate, and take whatever decision fits in with it. Everyone feels that the question will have to be referred in one form or another, but I suggest that it should be left to the Leader of the House to bring it to the House on Monday.

Mr. Whitelaw

I think I have the sense of what is going on in the House. My trouble lies in whether tomorrow's Motion will be acceptable to the House, because I have specifically said that I shall not wish to press it tomorrow if there is substantial opposition to it. I therefore cannot say whether or not the new procedure will be accepted. I do not know whether there is a way out of this difficulty, but I suggest that one way would be to agree that if tomorrow's Motion does not go through I shall be entitled to move just this present Motion again on Monday. If that were allowed, it might be a way out for the House. But I would have to be allowed to move the Motion again on Monday if tomorrow's Motion were not carried.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Perhaps, as the Leader of the House has spoken more than once, I may have leave to speak again on this point. That is exactly what I have proposed, Mr. Speaker. If you in your discretion can give priority to the Leader of the House on Monday, he should be free then to move whatever Motion seems appropriate in the circumstances.

I would add that because of these special circumstances in which the House is placed, Mr. Speaker, you yourself gave a Ruling different from the Rulings we have known in the past, in that you did not speak of a prima facie breach of privilege. In those circumstances, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House had to act without precedent by moving a Motion for reference without a Ruling from the Chair that the complaint constituted a prima facie breach of privilege. The right hon. Gentleman took the only step open to him, but without the usual cover from the Chair about prima facie breach.

Surely, in the circumstances, common sense should rule that when the House has taken a decision on procedure tomorrow the right hon. Gentleman should have absolute freedom, Mr. Speaker, within any discretion you can use—and if there is no such discretion, I would be prepared to put down a procedural Motion for the House to allow you that discretion—to do on Monday whatever he thinks appropriate, so that the matter is not swept under the carpet.

Mr. Whitelaw

I must make one point quite clear. If the Motion for the new procedure is passed tomorrow it would not necessarily be under that new procedure that I would come to the House on Monday, because it might be that under the new procedure the Committee of Privileges might decide that this was not a matter which should come before the House at all. The House should know that, because it is within the new procedure.

Mr. Thorpe

I should like to be helped on a procedural point which troubles me. If it could be solved, the very real point made by the Leader of the Opposition would be met. As I see it, if the new procedure is agreed tomorrow there is no alteration in the substance of the complaint ; the merits or demerits of the case are precisely the same under whichever procedure we pursue these matters. But it is within the knowledge of the House that in making a complaint speed is of the essence, and any delay in making that complaint puts the right hon. Gentleman out of order, out of court, on that matter.

I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker, or perhaps that of the Leader of the House, as to what is the effect of delays when you have given the Ruling that you have on this matter, which you consider should have precedence, no more and no less, and then that matter is deferred for three days and a further procedural Motion arising out of that appears on the Order Paper. If delay is not fatal, it seems that we can meet the very proper objections of the Leader of the Opposition. If delay is fatal it seems that we have no alternative but to proceed in one way or another under the existing procedure.

Mr. Speaker

I am in a difficulty. I am longing to give evidence with regard to the prima facie point. I would like to make a speech on the general issue but all I am allowed to do is to give a Ruling. So far as my Ruling is concerned, if it is the general wish of the House, it would be perfectly in order for a Motion to be moved on Monday. Therefore, I will put the matter formally.

Is it your pleasure that the Motion be withdrawn?

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. C. Pannell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We cannot make rules as we go along. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but nothing is carried and I have as much authority as anyone else. I do not want the House to get into a procedural mess. What I want clearly understood is that notwithstanding anything that we have done today we can consider the matter de novo on Monday. That is the point which is important. It should be pointed out that under the new rules you, Mr. Speaker, are not necessary on Monday. It would go automatically to the Committee of Privileges. That has to be clearly understood. It is only for the sake of clarity and because of a deep interest in this matter that I do not want the House to be misled.

Mr. Speaker

As I understand the position, I have ruled that the matter can be considered de novo on Monday on a Motion moved by the Leader of the House ; in other words, that I will not take the delay point in this instance, as I think that it is the general wish of the House that I should not take it.

Mr. Whitelaw

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman knows so much more about this subject than I, and I am very nervous about proceeding further. But I think I am correct in saying that the procedure which we are now following leaves all options open to us, dependent upon what happens in the debate tomorrow, either under the new or the old procedure.

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