HC Deb 21 November 1974 vol 881 cc1493-9
1. Mr. Brittan

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has decided on his response to requests to recommend the exercise of the prerogative of mercy in the cases of Eric Tomlinson and Dennis Warren who were convicted in December 1973 of conspiring to intimidate workers on building sites at Shrewsbury and Telford.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

I would refer the hon. Member to my reply on 13th November to Questions by my hon. Friends the Members for Paddington (Mr. Latham), Darlington (Mr. Fletcher) and Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding).—[Vol. 881; c. 143–4.]

Mr. Brittan

I welcome the Home Secretary's written answer stating that he will recommend interference with sentences only on the basis of the consideration that the courts have not been able to take into account—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Is not this case sub judice?

Mr. Roy Jenkins

It is indeed the case, Mr. Speaker, that the two men concerned have applied for leave to appeal to the House of Lords. The matter is under consideration by the Court of Appeal.

Mr. Speaker

In those circumstances the House had better proceed to the next Question.

Mr. Carlisle

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. With respect, the Question asks the Home Secretary whether he proposes to exercise the prerogative of mercy. That may have nothing to do with the hearing before the House of Lords or the Court of Appeal, or with any application to appeal to the House of Lords.

Mr. Speaker

I think that this is a matter for my discretion. I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman would need to persuade me—and, indeed, it would take him some time to persuade me—that that is not so. I think that we had better leave the matter where it is.

Mr. Arthur Latham

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you undertake to give the matter some thought and, if necessary, allow the Home Secretary to answer the Question if you feel that the points of order are valid?

Mr. Speaker

I shall consider that matter.

Mr. Spriggs

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are not asking the Home Secretary to interfere with the judicial proceedings of our courts, which we hold in the highest respect and regard, but we are asking for the Home Secretary to exercise the prerogative of mercy. For this reason, Sir, I ask you to reconsider your decision.

Mr. Ashton

Further to that point order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the Labour Conference to be held next week, may I remind you of your previous decision regarding thalidomide? The subject was originally ruled sub judice, but the decision was afterwards altered and the matter was discussed in this House.

Mr. Brittan

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you take into account the fact that the Written Question on this subject which has already been answered relates to a similar matter, and was asked and answered at a time when the legal position on appeal was identical to the present situation?

Mr. John Mendelson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you reconsider your decision on the question whether the Minister can be questioned on the prerogative of mercy? If such questions are to be ruled impossible because of the existence of other proceedings and those other proceedings take a very long time, the exercise of the prerogative of mercy will become meaningless, because the time spent in prison will be equal to the time saved—as if the prerogative of mercy had never been exercised. On those grounds, Mr. Speaker, I ask you to reconsider the matter and allow questions to proceed.

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the basis of what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), and other comments which have been made from the Labour benches, and in view of the time element, will you give careful consideration to this matter today to enable a statement to be made either tomorrow or early next week, so that to some extent we may liaise with the Labour Party conference next week and also carry out our duties in this House?

Sir K. Joseph

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the crucial importance for this country—for all our people and not just for one party conference—of the rule of law, will you take further account of the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle), namely, that in written form this Question has already been allowed to proceed?

Mr. Speaker

I shall certainly consider all these matters. I understand that there is an appeal pending against conviction and sentence. It appears that in those circumstances discussion of the exercise of the prerogative of mercy might be damaging to the people concerned. However, I shall certainly consider the matter.

Mr. Brittan

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

I must protect the position of other hon. Members as to questions. I shall take any further points of order on this matter, if necessary, at the end of Question Time.


Mr. Speaker

I said that at the end of Questions I would allow my ruling on Question No. 1 to be raised again. Does any hon. Member wish to raise a point of order on it?

Mr. Britton

Would you, Mr. Speaker, apart from ruling substantively on Question No. 1, think it appropriate on another occasion to make a statement generally relating to the operation of the sub judice rule on matters of this kind, because, on the basis of the ruling that has already been given, the position is that a Written Question relating to these matters was answered? The Home Secretary answered my Question and the matter arose only on a supplementary question today. In these circumstances, will you give consideration to giving the House further guidance in any event?

Mr. Skinner

When you are considering the question of the precise ambits and parameters within which we can discuss this matter, Mr. Speaker, will you explain matters to the House, either tomorrow or early next week, so that we can know precisely how much can be said at Question Time and in debates on a matter which is so fundamental and important to the Labour movement? We believe that unless we get guidance of some kind it will be necessary to take care of this matter in some other form.

Mr. Latham

Before the matter gets too complicated about the sub judice rule generally, which I know is often a matter of contention, may I remind you, Mr. Speaker, that what you have been asked to do and what you have agreed to do is to consider whether you can discern a distinction between an issue of sentence and conviction and the separate issue, as many of us understand it, of the exercise of the prerogative?

It will indeed be helpful to the House if, whatever other issues are raised, we can have a fairly simple ruling in relation to that one issue.

May I ask you two further questions, Mr. Speaker? First, when you deliberate upon these points, is it something that you undertake in seclusion, or are you open to representations? Secondly, should you decide, on reflection, that there is the distinction that we are asking you to draw, can some procedure be adopted whereby this Question, which was No. 1 on the Order Paper to the Home Secretary, comes back to the House much more quickly than would be the case if we waited for the Home Office next time round?

Mr. Carlisle

As the Member who originally raised the point of order, may I say, Mr. Speaker, that although I fully accept your ruling, with respect, I believe that what followed shows that there is a considerable amount of doubt and obscurity about the actual working of the sub judice rule with regard to questions on the Order Paper? Therefore, may I support my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) and ask whether you will give further consideration to this matter and give a ruling on the limits of the sub judice rule at a later stage?

Mr. Speaker

Of course I shall carefully consider what has been said, but, if I may say so straight away, I think that the rule is very simple. It is contained in the Fourth Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, 1971–72. The Committee said: Your Committee share the view of the Committee of 1962–63 that, in relation to all courts exercising a criminal jurisdiction"— that is the difference between this case and the thalidomide case— to courts martial, and to Tribunals under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, there is a presumption that matters awaiting or under adjudication may be prejudiced by question and debate in the House. As far as I understand it, the two gentlemen concerned have been convicted. They have appealed against the conviction. I do not know whether they are guilty or innocent. It would seem to be quite contrary to this Report from the Select Committee on Procedure that I should allow any debate or question on this matter.

There are other, wider issues. I think that I ruled in the last Parliament but one that the fact that there was a criminal case proceeding against certain people should not prevent discussion of the broad national issue involved. If the issue of penalties for conspiracy and that sort of thing is sought to be debated, it certainly can be, but without reference to this specific case. However, I do not think that I want to take up more time of the House now. I shall certainly think about what has been said and consider whether it is necesssary to make a further ruling.

Mr. Spriggs

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that Questions were submitted to the Table Office relating to the prerogative of mercy. May I ask you to inform the House whether it was known at the time that the Questions—including my own—were originally submitted that the matter was sub judice, or even whether it was known officially whether an application had been made to appeal to the House of Lords?

Mr. Speaker

As regards the original answer, it is clearly stated in the Home Secretary's reply that since the Question was tabled leave to appeal had been sought.

Mr. Cryer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) specifically requested that you consider the question of receiving representations. As you have indicated that you will give the matter further consideration, I wonder whether you will make it clear now whether you are prepared to receive representations on this issue.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that you and your predecessors have at all times been willing to discuss any matter that comes within Mr. Speaker's prerogative provided that due notice is given and a proper approach has been made? I have never found any difficulty in making an approach to Mr. Speaker over the last 30 years.

Mr. Speaker

That is indeed the case. I am very willing to meet any Member or any group of Members privately to discuss these matters. I do not consider them in seclusion.

Mr. Ronald Bell

When you are giving consideration to this matter, Mr. Speaker, in relation to the Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, will you have in mind that the question whether the royal prerogative of mercy—it is merely an application of a royal prerogative to pardon—should be exercised is not a matter that is before any of the courts, that any variation in punishment could be irrelevant to whether the prerogative is exercised, and that in the past the royal prerogative has been exercised sometimes at an early stage in the proceedings?

In the past, if I remember correctly, our practice has been merely to exclude points of order or Questions about the exercise of the royal prerogative in relation to capital sentences until the sentence is carried out, but in other cases, however undesirable it may have been to ask a Question, it has not actually been ruled out of order.

Mr. Speaker

I shall be grateful if the hon. and learned Gentleman will convey his views to me, perhaps in writing, giving his precedents and views. I guarantee to consider them carefully.