HC Deb 15 June 1972 vol 838 cc1753-5
Mr. Loughlin

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday there was a report, subsequently confirmed this morning, that Sir John Donaldson, the Chairman of the National Industrial Relations Court, had threatened to arrest and to hold in prisonleaders of the dockers at Chobham Farm container depot in East London. I attempted to table a Motion in my name and that of other hon. Members condemning Sir John Donaldson's proposed action. The Motion was returned to me by the Table Office—I make no complaints against the officers of the House—on the grounds of the sub judice rule.

I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that when hon. Members are inhibited in this way their position becomes intolerable. I do not want to enter into the merits or demerits of the case at this stage, but I ask you to reject, on our behalf, the right of any individual to prohibit hon. Members from commenting upon matters of supreme public importance. I accept that the sub judice rule can reasonably be applied in criminal and civil proceedings but I do not accept that it can be applied in industrial relations, which are continuous.

May I submit one other point? Hitherto we have been allowed by Motion to criticise the judiciary, and presumably this will continue to apply to other courts. But because of the nature of the National Industrial Relations Court, and the continuing nature of the cases presented to it, I think that privilege will be taken away from us. I ask you to rule that the sub judice rule does not apply in this case and that the Motion is in order.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for having given me considerable notice of his intention to raise this point of order. It has enabled me to consider the matter. As the House has already been told, the report of the Select Committee on Procedure has been published this morning and I hope hon. Members will read it carefully, in particular perhaps my own evidence in which I indicated my reaction to the sub judice rule. In my view, in criminal cases or in a particular kind of civil case the burden of proof should be on those who wish to relax the sub judice rule. But in other types of civil case and wider matters of industrial and political policy the burden of proof should be upon those who wish to assert the sub judice rule. That is my general reaction to the matter.

I have carefully considered this particular case, and in these special circumstances I uphold the action of the Table.

Mr. Prentice

The House has a report from the Procedure Committee and there have been demands already this afternoon for an urgent debate on it. The situation now facing us underlines the urgency of the matter. In the meantime, Mr. Speaker, will you rule in the spirit of the recommendations? What I have in mind particularly is not so much the recommendation on the Industrial Relations Act, which refers to the Government's procedures under it, but the recommendation on civil proceedings generally, which is that these matters, except in defamation proceedings, may be referred to in Questions, Motions or debate unless it appears to the Chair that there is a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the proceedings.

Is it in that spirit that you approach these matters Mr. Speaker? In view of that recommendation, will you reconsider your ruling on this point.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not intolerable that the Chair should be asked to anticipate a decision of the House? The recommendations are in a report of the Committee. They may well be well based, and they certainly represent the view of the Committee, but they do not necessarily represent the view of the House. The sub judice rule has proved over the years to be sound and proper. Whether the court in question is an industrial court of any other court, it is high court. A high court, which is a separate estate in this country, is entitled to the defence of people being quiet while it is considering its rulings. For the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that the Chair in this case should anticipate a decision of the Hose when the House is far from giving a decision on this important matter is wrong and out of order.

Mr. Speaker

One thing I am not prepared to allow now is a debate on the report of the Select Committee. I have referred to my own evidence which was published, and that was my approach. But I shall abide by the decisions of the House. There is, however, one recommendation of the Committee which I am disposed to follow in advance; that is that when I give a ruling I should not be required to give my reasons for it. The Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day.