HC Deb 22 October 1971 vol 823 cc1086-9
Mr. Speaker

I must rule now on the matter of Privilege which was raised yesterday.

The hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) asked for my Ruling or an article in the Daily Mail purporting to disclose Government proposals for a revision of the Civil List. As the House will be aware, the Civil List is under consideration by a Select Committee which was appointed following the Gracious Message presented to the House on 18th May this year. The Committee has not yet reported. As Speaker, I have no greater knowledge of the proceedings of the Committee than any other hon. Member. Therefore, I do not know whether the article in question discloses proposals made to the Committee, nor whether the figures mentioned are accurate. If, however, they did reveal proposals made to the Committee, they would constitute disclosure of Committee proceedings, which has on previous occasions been held to be a contempt of the House. In my view, accordingly, the matter must merit further inquiry, and, therefore, I rule that the complaint may have priority over the Orders of the Day as a matter of Privilege.

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

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has asked me to apologise for his absence.

In view of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, I beg to move, That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges. Those who have moved this Motion in similar circumstances before me have often added that probably it would be in the interests of the House as a whole if the matter were decided more or less at once. Certainly I do so on this occasion, as it would be the wish of the House to let the Committee get on with the work that this Motion asks it to undertake.

Mr. Atkinson

I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would not push the Motion in that way. While I understand the basis of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, that this is a breach of privilege if it is proved that there is some substance in the report which appeared in the Daily Mail, the result of proceeding in this manner might mean that the paper which it is alleged was submitted as a document to the Select Committee could never be debated by the House. If it is ruled ultimately to be a breach of Privilege and if, together with that, the Select Committee does not publish the whole of the evidence that it has considered, it may be that large sections of the work of the Committee and of the evidence submitted to it may never be debated by the House.

I understand your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, but we now have a situation where it is suggested in a newspaper that this sort of document has been put before the Select Committee. If you were to rule that it was a breach of Privilege, obviously that would prove that possibly the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is Chairman of the Committee, had himself submitted proposals for the Committee's consideration. That in turn would prove that this was now Government policy and that the Treasury was recommending that these figures we adopted.

That may not be so, but the point is that unless the Select Committee is prepared to recommend that the whole of the evidence that it has discussed can, at some future date, come before the House, and that the House shall have minority reports and access to any information given to the Committee by the Inland Revenue and other Departments, this House cannot consider in detail the many aspects of the Royal finances now being discussed by the Committee.

Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you would care to comment on this, in order to give some assurance to the House—[Laughter.] It may amuse hon. Gentlemen opposite, but, ultimately, it could result in a denial of the rights of hon. Members to discuss in detail the whole matter of the Royal finances. Mr. Speaker, can you assure us this morning that, whatever happens in the Committee of Privileges, this evidence will not be excluded from the debate which ultimately will take place in the House? May we have an assurance that, unlike previous considerations of this sort, we shall have access to this information and that even if the Committee of Privileges rules that there has been a breach of Privilege these documents ultimately will be put before us so that we may debate them?

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Further to that point of order—[Interruption.] I am sorry to hear those expressions of disapproval from hon. Members below the Gangway opposite, but we are entitled to comment on this matter.

The difficulty is that we have a Select Committee sitting now, and presumably it will have to be re-formed after the House opens for the new Session. At the same time, we shall have the Committee of Privileges looking at evidence which has been, supposedly, put before the Select Committee, some of which, it is suggested, has leaked out to the Press.

What is the situation of the Select Committee now? Can it continue to receive evidence, consider papers and come to a decision while the Committee of Privileges is looking into the complaint? There do not seem to be precedents for this. It is an extraordinary situation. It occurs to me to wonder whether this matter cannot be left until the Select Committee has reported. The Press story which appeared yesterday is perhaps a hazard. Mr. Speaker, you have been unable to tell us because you yourself have not been able to inquire. Again, I ask whether it would not have been better if the Speaker of the House could have made inquiries as to how far the Select Committee had got and what papers had been submitted to it?

Mr. Speaker

Both the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) and the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) have attempted to involve the Speaker in this. I must say that many of these matters are not for me. I have ruled simply that there is a case for further inquiry. What the Committee of Privileges does and what the Select Committee on the Civil List does are quite different matters. The Question before the House is whether further inquiries should be made into the matter raised by the hon. Member for Fife, West.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Further to that point, Mr. Speaker. The difficulty is that it will go to the Committee of Privileges and that Committee will report. Will the Committee take witnesses? How long, therefore, will it be before the Committee reports to the House? Which comes first? Does the Committee of Privileges make a decision, and, in the meantime, does the Select Committee on the Civil List continue?

This is not the first Press comment on what has been going on in the Select Committee on the Civil List. There has been no other suggestion of leaks, but there has already been an indication in the Press and by the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) that he is putting in a minority report. The House is now in great difficulty on the proceedings of both the Select Committee on the Civil List and the Committee of Privileges.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

While fully subscribing to the wish expressed by my right hon. Friend that the Motion should be expeditiously disposed of, may I give my support to it and associate myself with the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton), who I think has done a service to the House in raising this matter.

The proceedings of the Committee so far have been remarkably secure, despite some forebodings which were expressed earlier. I deplore this sensational and inaccurate article. I am referring not to the figures given but to the reference that the Queen is asking for a pay rise. She is not. She has asked for means to discharge her functions. It is important that that fact should be realised by the public.

Question put and agreed to.

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