HC Deb 05 December 1973 vol 865 cc1291-7
Mr. Speaker

Now, at length, I come to my ruling on the matter of privilege.

Yesterday the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) drew attention to a speech made by the Lord Chancellor at the Junior Carlton Club on Monday last. The right hon. Gentleman based his complaint on a Press handout from the Lord Chancellor's Office, House of Lords, and a report of the speech in The Times, together with a judicial process signed and witnessed by the Lord Chancellor.

I have carefully considered all these documents and the other points made in the submission to the House yesterday. It is, of course, the duty of the House to deal with reflections upon the Chair or upon Members which may tend to undermine public respect for the House as an institution. It is my duty as Speaker, after considering the precedents, to decide whether I should give the matter priority over the Orders of the Day to allow an immediate debate this afternoon.

I have looked at those precedents very carefully, and, in particular, I have considered the case raised on 23rd March 1964, on which the Committee of Privileges reported on 16th June of the same year. It is my view that I would not be justified, on those precedents, in giving priority to a debate this afternoon.

Having said that, I in no way wish to prejudice or prejudge an further action the right hon. Gentleman may want to take.

Mr. C. Pannell

Thank you very much for your ruling, Mr. Speaker. I know the extreme difficulty you are in when you are commenting on matters arising from a speech made by the Speaker of the other House. That is the difficulty I face. We are dealing with the Speaker of the House of Lords, with the Lord Chancellor. We are really dealing with a judge in his own right.

Consequently, the Leader of the House will have to consider the matter, because you cannot, Mr. Speaker, give a prima facie ruling which goes back only to 1934—[An HON MEMBER: "It was 1964."] It is to 1934 that the prima facie business goes back. The hon. Gentleman should do his homework. You cannot give a prima facie case which goes back only to 1934. Mr. Speaker, as would have been the case if it had been any other Member.

It will not have escaped your notice, Mr. Speaker, although I did not make too much of the matter yesterday, that apart from the insult to you and your authority the Lord Chancellor threatened those about to take part in the debate by calling on the voters of the country to note the identity of the Members concerned, to note the party to which they belong, to sound the alarm, and ask the moderates and constitutionalists of every party and of none to stand together against any constitutional innovation of this kind. It was not a constitutional innovation.

The Lord Chancellor's speech was not made in a post-prandial fit of exuberance but had been released to the Press earlier in the day, embargoed for nine o'clock. It was a threat to Members of this House with malice aforethought, and was repeated on television.

Another point I ask you to note, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for interrupting, may I say that I think he knows already, with his great experience, that when I have given my ruling he is not entitled to make the kind of speech he would make if a motion he had put down were given time for discussion.

Mr. Pannell

I am only making a further submission to you, Mr. Speaker.

When we ask you to consider a matter for 24 hours, most of us hold our peace. I had no idea what you would say today. But the Lord Chancellor has not held his peace. He went on television again last night. How long will this go on?

Since yesterday the matter has been sub judice. A judge of the High Court should have recognised the decencies between the Speaker of one House and the Speaker of another, but they have not prevented the Lord Chancellor from doing what he has done.

The Lord Chancellor referred to the conduct of hon. Members as not decent, which is an insult in itself. When asked whether it was for the Commons to determine whether or not he was acting properly, he said: It is not for the Commons; it is for my conscience to say. The Lord Chancellor sets himself up against you, Mr. Speaker, against the House and everybody.

Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I cannot give you just the polite thanks that I should like to give you, because the offence has been perpetuated. The Lord Chancellor sets himself up against this place, and goes on like that.

I understand the situation with regard to the timetable this afternoon, but the Commons will be forced to return to the matter. The decencies of the House will force the Leader of the House to move the motion which is appropriate in this case, That the evidence be collected and submitted to their Lordships' House.

Mr. Michael Foot

Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), Mr. Speaker, may I make a further submission to you?

Although we understand that you have ruled on the narrow question of the prima facie contempt of the House as it was raised yesterday, it seems to me that allied with the submission made yesterday, and emphasised by your ruling today, is the fact that the proceedings of the House will be gravely injured by the Lord Chancellor's remarks if nothing further is done about them and if you give no further ruling.

It appears that we have a Lord Chancellor who makes up the rule of law and the rules as he goes along to suit his own convenience, and who can make speeches about the affairs of this House and cast reflections on Members of this House in any way he wishes.

If the Lord Chancellor is entitled to do that, in the House of Lords or anywhere else, Members of this House must surely be relieved of the convention, which we have always respected, that we should not cast reflections upon Members of the other House. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I submit that it is your business to rule again on the matter tomorrow, to tell us whether the rules and conventions which have always prevailed between Members of different Houses are now suspended, and whether we are entitled to comment on the antics of the Lord Chancellor in the same offensive language as he has used about us.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

You should be under no illusion, Mr. Speaker, that the submission carries with it the view of the majority of Members of this House, it is clearly simulated. The Lord Chancellor is a Member of Parliament; the Lords is part of Parliament. As a senior Minister, the Lord Chancellor has a duty to warn the nation if he thinks that it should be warned. He has not infringed the rules of either House. He did not make the statement in the other place. He would be running away from his duty if he remained silent in the face of what is happening on our Order Paper.

Mr. English

We all accept your ruling, Mr. Speaker, upon what was a narrow point, the matter of priority. But we wish an opportunity to try to explain to his Lordship, the Speaker of another place, that what our ancestors did in 1688 was to transfer the possibility of dismissal from the Crown to this Parliament.

I suggest with all humility that his Lordship, who is regarded as rather conservative in his views, should not cast aspersions on this House, well knowing if he does so that his own House has regarded privilege as defunct since the latter part of the eighteenth century, so that he cannot be challenged in his own House because its Members regard such a challenge as archaic.

Mr. Orme

When you were considering the evidence presented to you, Mr. Speaker, did you consider that the matter might be sent to a Joint Committee of Privileges, which I understand would have to be a Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons? The matter could then be examined in some detail. Secondly, have representations been made to you by the Leader of the House? Many of us feel that it is his duty to defend hon. Members, and he has not done so in this case. We are entitled to an explanation.

Mr. William Hamilton

Did your ruling take into account what the Lord Chancellor said on television last night, Mr. Speaker? Clearly, that must influence your decision one way or the other. If the Lord Chancellor has compounded what we think was a grave error of judgment, we shall regard him, and say so in the House, as just a rather expensive party-political hack.

Sir. S. McAdden

There are some of us in the House, Mr. Speaker, who believe that the original motion which appeared on the Order Paper signed by a large number of Members, which has given rise to the subsequent discussion, is worthy of comment. Some of us believe that this matter should be debated in the House. It seems that the original motion was put down in the optimistic hope of its being regarded as an expression of opinion without its giving rise to a debate. There are some of us who believe that it should be debated and refuted at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr. Jay

Whether or not we debate this matter, Mr. Speaker, will you give us guidance as to what is the proper constitutional procedure for the House if the Lord Chancellor is guilty of a breach of constitutional practice and the rule of law?

Mr. Speaker

I shall try to deal with these points so far as I think that it is appropriate for me to do so.

First, I do not think that I myself have used the prima facie formula. I have regarded my duty to say whether or not I will give priority to the matter. I think that if one says that one accepts a case as being a prima facie case, it implies a judgment on my part on the merits. I have always looked on the duty of the Chair as being to decide whether to give priority to the matter raised. I have said nothing about the wisdom or otherwise of its being debated on another day.

With regard to the position of the Chair on matters of order, I will not accept orders on that from anyone. That has been the position of the Chair of this House for centuries now, whether the orders have come from the Crown, from another place or from anyone. Matters of order are entirely for me, and what I say with regard to matters of order goes, until the House reverses my decision. That is where I stand.

With regard to matters of taste and the wisdom of people saying what they say in a speech or a Question or an Answer, I have tried to be very careful throughout my time in the Chair not to be drawn into commenting. That is why I have not commented at all on what has been said by anyone during this particular controversy.

Concerning the position between this House and a Member of the House of Lords, I think that it is stated in Eskine May that an imputation should not be made to the conduct or character of a Member of the other place except upon a motion. I say with great respect to those who have edited, or indeed, written that paragraph of Eskine May that I do not think that that passage is altogether clear. But I construe it as really meaning that imputations of a personal nature should not be made as to the conduct or character of a Member of another place except upon a motion. Upon a motion they certainly can be made.

Mr. Foot

Thank you very much for that statement, Mr. Speaker, which we greatly welcome. We were sure, Mr. Speaker that you would say that you would accept orders from no one about what goes on the Order Paper of this House. We hope that that statement from you, Mr. Speaker, will be properly observed henceforth by the Lord Chancellor of this country.

May I comment on your second remark, Mr. Speaker, about imputations being able to be made only by substantive motion? Does not that apply in the other place, as it applies here? If the Lord Chancellor wishes to make imputations against Members of the House of Commons, let him put forward his motion in another place, or wherever it may be. But certainly if we are to be bound by any such rule, the Lord Chancellor also will have to be bound by such a rule. We submit, Mr. Speaker, that the Lord Chancellor, in his statement, has broken the convention which has prevailed between our two Houses, and that if that convention is to be sustained here any longer there will have to be some form of apology from the Lord Chancellor for what he has done.

Mr. Speaker

I have quite enough trouble in trying to keep this House in order. I shall not be drawn into further comment.

Mr. Ashton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask for your advice on a final matter? Would it be in order for hon. Members of this House to put down a motion on the Order Paper criticising the Lord Chancellor's comments?

Mr. Speaker

It is unwise of me to rule on any particular motion until I see the motion. I come back to Erskine May, which says that an imputation may not be made against a Member of another place except by a motion. It is implied from that, that a Member of another place can be criticised by motion. Whether the motion would be accepted would depend on the terms of the motion.

I would be advised by the Table upon that matter, and would deal with it exactly as I would with any other motion presented.