HC Deb 20 April 1972 vol 835 cc761-9
Mr. Speaker

Yesterday there was a considerable exchange of views on how far the House should go when a matter was sub judice, and the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) suggested that I should think the matter over and perhaps say something to the House today about it.

I do not think there is much I can usefully add to what I said yesterday. On 23rd July, 1963, the House agreed to a resolution dealing with references to matters sub judice which laid down, among other things, that: matters awaiting or under adjudication in a civil court … should not be referred to in any question to a Minister including a supplementary question, from the time the case has been set down for trial or otherwise brought before the court, as for example by notice of motion for an injunction". The Industrial Court is a civil court, and the resolution clearly applies to proceedings before it.

But the resolution goes on to state that its provisions cease to have effect when the judgment has been given. In the present instance the judgment has been given; therefore, the matter is no longer sub judice.

Sir Elwyn Jones

Thank you for giving that guidance to the House, but may I put this matter for your appreciation, Mr. Speaker, and perhaps that of the House.

Does not the power of the Minister as an administrative act to initiate proceedings before the Industrial Court and, therefore, become a litigant himself create particular problems in regard to the application of the sub judice rule, and is it not proper that perhaps this matter should be referred to the Select Committee on Procedure for consideration?

Secondly, may I draw attention to one possibility which might in the meantime get round some of the difficulties that the House faced yesterday? Is it not the case that for the Minister to place in the Library of the House a copy of any application he might make to the Industrial Court as soon as practicable after he had submitted it to the court would not be a breach of the sub judice rule? If that had been done yesterday it would have resolved some of the difficulties that arose.

Finally, may I for the guidance of the House put this matter to you, Mr. Speaker: that it would be perfectly proper for Questions to be directed to the Minister on the wisdom and expediency of any future application he might make to the Industrial Court? I submit that that would be perfectly proper and within the ruling.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Whilst it might be perfectly proper according to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I wonder whether it would be fair, for this reason. When a case is submitted to the court, not only is the application for what the Government want—in this case 21 days' cooling-off period—submitted but part of the argument in support of the application is attached to it. That would mean that there would be prior publicity for the argument of one side without equal publicity for the answer. I would think that the fair time for there to be publicity would be when the answer has been put in by the other side.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order. May I refer to your remarks a moment ago about this rule, Mr. Speaker. You said, in fact, that whilst the matter is before the court it is sub judice; then you went on to say—I am speaking from memory—that of course a Member may not put a Question to a Minister or table a Motion. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) made the point that he tried to table his Motion yesterday afternoon when it was agreed that the matter was sub judice. But—this is the vital point he is making—the order came through from the court in the early afternoon and the Table Office was still preventing his puting the Motion down—even though the court order had been given. It was not until midnight last night after he left the House that the Table Office gave way. Therefore, in fact, the Table Office was in contravention of the ruling that you have just given.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is the House not in real difficulty about the 1963 resolution here, and do you not yourself have power as the Speaker to make a further ruling? I say that because since 1963 the law about the sub judice rule in relation to other citizens and, in particular, to comment by the Press has been expounded by the Court of Appeal to the effect that unless there is real danger of the court's position being affected by the comments there can be no breach of the sub judice rule. Therefore, there is a different situation for the earlier proceedings, which may be before a jury, and proceedings later, which may be before a Court of Appeal.

That contradiction clearly affects the situation in relation to the National Industrial Relations Court because there is no jury there and it is very unlikely that the court would be affected by any outside comment. Since the object of any proceeding in this House is to affect the mind of the Government and not the mind of the National Industrial Relations Court, is it not time that the whole sub judice rule of this House was reviewed so that it was just as lenient for the House as for the Press or any other citizen outside commenting on proceedings in court?

Mr. S. C. Silkin

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not correct that the resolution of the House to which you referred when you gave your ruling is: subject always to the discretion of the Chair Is it not most important in a matter of this kind that the rights of Parliament, which are exercised through the Chair, should be asserted and re-asserted and should be paramount?

Mr. Atkinson

I have some trepidation in treading in this field of lawyers' landmines, Mr. Speaker, but I do not think that the answer that you have given to the House is a very satisfactory one, nor is your ruling acceptable to many of the industrial lads on this side of the House.

The point is that there is a discussion at the moment about law and order and the selectivity as regards where this should apply. There is also some criticism by members of the Cabinet, and Lord Hailsham in particular, implying that the employers are bringing the law into disrepute by their disregard particularly of industrial relations and, again particularly, in regard to people like Sir Arnold Weinstock who now reject the law and, therefore, do not apply it. But in this case your ruling has underlined the pre-cariousness of the whole position because you have not said that the sub judice rule applies here in the absence of a conclusion by the Industrial Court, which could mean that if we are dealing with a nationalised industry, as in this case, the court has every right to defer the decision for as long as it sees fit. What you are now saying is that the House of Commons is incapable of giving instructions to the Minister for Industry in order to take a decision with the chairman of the particular board in order to make greater resources available, or whatever the question may be.

Surely it is wrong to discriminate against the nationalised industries in particular by putting them in this position. If your ruling is to stand for ever more that the whole matter is sub judice and the House cannot discuss questions before the court in advance of a decision being made by the court, it gives a very unfair advantage indeed to Ministers representing the nationalised industries against the interests of the workers they employ.

Mr. Speaker

First, if it were decided by the House that this matter should go again for consideration by the Select Committee on Procedure. I should welcome that because, as has been said by more than one hon. Member, this is rather new ground in view of the Industrial Relations Act.

Secondly, if the Secretary of State were to take the course suggested by the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) and put a copy of the Notice of Motion, or whatever it is, in the Library, I do not think that would be a breach of the sub judice rule. It is not a matter for me, but in my opinion it would be helpful.

Thirdly, in reply to what was said by the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson), I would remind the House that if it does not accede or agree with a ruling of mine, it must say so, but I believe that I am much wiser to deal with each particular situation as it arises. Although it may sound arrogant to say so, I have no doubt that the action I took yesterday was right, because the hearing was at that time taking place before the court and the decision of the court was available later in the afternoon. In that situation, I think I was right to say that the matter was at the time sub judice. But I am not laying down any binding precedents. There is a discretion in the Chair, and I will deal with each situation as it arises in what I think to be the best interests of the House.

Mr. Callaghan

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. None of us would want to come in collision with the Chair on a matter like this, nor would anyone wish to embarrass you. The Opposition would like to take up your suggestion, in support of that made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones), that there should be discussion on the matter. I hope that the Leader of the House will take this into account.

You are quite right in saying that we have disposed of the present case. It was disposed of in a few hours. But where a Minister is himself a litigant, he can remove a matter from the cockpit of Parliament, although it may involve most serious issues with which Parliament thinks it should concern itself, by making such an application. It could quite well arise that such an application might be before the court for several days. You would then be in the embarrassing position of saying that the House could not discuss the matter because it was sub judice. We should then be getting into tremendous confusion if economic and social disputes of great importance were removed from the arena of this House while the whole country was discussing them but we were denied that opportunity. I hope that the Leader of the House will be willing to enter into discussions with a view to referring this new problem to the Select Committee on Procedure for further consideration.

Mr. Heffer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) said and I would like to make an additional point to underline it. Section 138 of the Industrial Relations Act deals with the emergency procedures. One of the important questions relates to what is referred to as the "national interest". There may well be a political argument as to what is considered the national interest. This is a matter which is not in the normal run of court procedures. In these circumstances, pending a final decision and discussion, I hope that you. Mr. Speaker, will take that point into consideration when dealing with each case on its merits.

Mr. Orme

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you also take into account that this issue is a highly contentious political and industrial issue, that the trade unions do not recognise the NIRC, are not attending it, and do not recognise this law, and that you have a responsibility to see—I say this with due respect—that views that are contrary to the NIRC and this law are represented in the House?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that any of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) are for me and I must not express an opinion about them.

With regard to the earlier points made, however, it is true that I have a certain discretion. It is a heavy burden to place upon the Chair in the situation which has arisen, and for that reason I would like some help from the Select Committee on Procedure as to how that discretion should be exercised.

Sir Robin Turton

Further to that point of order., Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) suggested that the matter should be referred to the Select Commit tee on Procedure. I am Chairman of the Committee and I would point out that there is no need for such a reference, since our terms of reference are sufficiently wide to review the ruling of our predecessors in 1962–63. Naturally, I cannot bind the Committee, but I can promise that I will put the matter before it at its meeting next week, with the suggestion that we should review this procedure.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not think that you attempted to deal with the point which I put to you. May I both repeat it and go, perhaps, into more detail? You said that you would deal with each case as it arose. My point was that yesterday, rightly so, the Table Office told my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) that he could not put a Motion down——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I was not given notice of this point. I would prefer it to be left where it is. I have promised to look into it. I have had no opportunity of investigating the facts in the case of the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs). Once I have done so, perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentlemen.

Mr. Lewis

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for agreeing to give the matter consideration. I do not seek a reply now, but I should like to bring the case up to date. It is a vital point, as you will appreciate when you hear it. My hon. Friend wanted to put down a Motion yesterday, and it was out of order then because it dealt with a matter which was sub judice. That is clear. But—and this ties up with the point which you have made—once the court gave its decision the matter ceased to be sub judice. Now, here comes the point both on this case and on the general issue. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] The object of a Motion is not to get it debated but to draw public attention to the matter contained in it. My hon. Friend wanted to get publicity, and good publicity, for the railwaymen, so yesterday afternoon he wanted to put down a Motion in order to obtain Press publicity. He was not able to do that. It was not until after midnight that he was informed that the Motion would be accepted, but by then it was too late for any publicity.

I do not say that this action was taken deliberately by the Table Office. [Laughter.] It is no laughing matter because this sort of thing can happen on any other issue. If a matter is to be held up until the Press has gone to bed, it can defeat the point one is making. I am in no way reflecting on the Table Office, but I ask that, when such issues arise, as soon as the sub judice ruling is lifted, the Table Office should inform the hon. Member concerned, whoever it may be, so that he can then get his Motion on the Order Paper and give it to the Press, which was the object of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens in this instance.

Mr. Speaker

I had understood the hon. Gentleman's point the first time and I have said that I will go into what happened. I am however rather interested by his idea of the purpose of a Motion on the Order Paper and perhaps the Leader of the House will have noted it as well.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robert Carr)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I very much welcome what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir Robin Turton), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure. I assure the House that it is not the wish of the Government that we should be any more restrictive about this than is genuinely necessary for the proper protection of the law and its processes.

Perhaps I can help on the facts. Some of the confusion we have heard about was caused by the fact that whereas the court's judgment was delivered relatively early yesterday evening, the court's order was not made available to the parties until almost midnight. There must obviously always be a short time-lag between the judge speaking in court, delivering his judgment, and the formal making of the order.

Mr. Frederick Lee

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I submit a point which has not yet been covered? I support the idea that we should refer the matter to the Select Committee on Procedure. No matter how we now look at the terms of reference sent to the court by the Secretary of State for Employment, it is highly probable that the result from the court will condition industries which are not before the court at this moment. I can cite, for instance, in yesterday's terms of reference, issues which will concern other industries. If under the sub judice rules in this House we are forbidden to raise such issues until after the cause is decided, great industries will be conditioned by the ruling given by the court.

I support what my right hon. Friend was asking for—that we should look at our own rules of procedure to ensure that the practices of other industries, which at the moment are not before the court, are not brought into being by a ruling given in respect of an entirely different industry.

Mr. Speaker

These seem to me to be matters for the Select Committee when it considers the subject. We cannot have a kind of irregular debate on this matter now.

Mr. Spriggs

May I raise a point? May I speak for myself? I did not table the Motion to which we have been referring, on the sub judice matter, with the object of getting it into the Press. The object was to expose the ham-fisted handling of the railway dispute and the methods used in connection with it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is becoming an abuse. I must try to protect the business of the House which is the Second Reading of the Finance Bill.