That the First Report from the Committee of Privileges House of Commons Paper No. 22) be now considered.—[Mr. Strauss.]
§ Report considered accordingly.
§ 10.15. p.m.
§ Mr. George Strauss (Vauxhall)
I beg to move,That this House agrees with the Committee in paragraph 9 of the said Report.I move the motion on behalf of the Committee of Privileges, whose conclusions were unanimous. I commend the motion to the House and hope that the House will accept it.
The issue before the House is not whether the Committee of Privileges is correct in saying that the actions of the two journalists concerned, Mr. Knight and Mr. Schreiber, were in contempt of the House. That is generally agreed. Indeed, the two gentlemen do not question it. They say that they did not realise it to the full extent at the time, although they suspected it. That is not in question. The question which the House must decide tonight is whether the disclosure of Select Committee documents should be considered as a serious matter or dismissed as a minor one, and whether the penalty proposed by the Committee of Privileges is appropriate in this case.
It is not a conclusive answer to that question to say that Parliament has always maintained the right to exclude journalists from Committees and to maintain the privacy of Select Committees. The right of privacy and making its infringement a contempt of the House is stated in a rule passed by the House in 1837. Since then until the present day the accumulated 1304 wisdom of Parliament has regarded the disclosure of matters coming before Select Committees—whether they are speeches by Members or documents—as damaging to Parliament and has considere that those responsible for disclosure should suffer some penalties.
The reasons why it is damaging for documents before a Select Committee or discussions in a Select Committee to be disclosed or published are simple. They are that Select Committees cannot function properly unless they work and act in private, and any interference with that privacy makes it impossible for them to carry out the duties imposed upon them by Parliament. Those duties are to investigate political, economic and social matters and report their conclusions to the House, and recommend the adoption of a policy.
After its investigation, perhaps including the examination of many witnesses, a Committee considers in strict privacy before reaching its final decision the arguments which its members have advanced. The whole atmosphere of privacy in which that deliberation takes place is essential, if a verdict is to be reached which has any chance of general agreement and of commending itself to the House. I think that that principle is generally accepted. When a Committee deliberates in private, Members exchange views freely. They make statements and advance ideas which they may not maintain later. They often act as the Devil's Advocate and put forward for discussion documents to which they are not bound.
If all that were to take place in public and be fully reported, members of the Committee as a whole would be subject to constant pressure from outside. The whole atmosphere would change, and the chances of a Committee sinking political or other differences and coming to a unimous conclusion would disappear.
For that reason, Parliament has always held that a Committee should be able to deliberate in complete secrecy, when all the discussions and the documents placed before it, including draft reports from Committee members or the chairman, should be treated with complete secrecy until the Committee has reported. That principle has been accepted.
1305 In this case the principle has been violated. That is admitted. The two people in question are respected journalists. One is the editor of The Economist and the other has worked on The Economist for some time. He has worked in the House with a number of hon. Members. The two journalists together agreed to the publication of a document which was the draft report of the chairman of a Select Committee and which should not have been published.
It has been suggested that no particular harm has been done in this case. That may or may not be so. It is always impossible to measure what harm has been done. The damage is that disclosure has been made. If it has been made on this occasion and no action is taken by Parliament to penalise those responsible, it is likely to be made on other occasions, perhaps frequently, and then the whole principle of privacy in Select Committees' discussions will disappear.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
My right hon. Friend seems to be suggesting that it is the normal practice for Select Committees' proceedings to be in private. My understanding is that probably a majority of the sittings of Select Committees these days are in public, with the approval of the Select Committee concerned. Is that not a fact? Is not the point here not that the proceedings of Select Committees should be open to the public but that when a Committee decided that its affairs should be kept private that decision was breached?
§ Mr. Strauss
My hon. Friend is right. A great part of the work of a Select Committee is carried out in public, particularly the examination of witnesses. But when the Committee reaches the stage of trying to decide what line to take, where the truth lies and what policy to advocate to the House, it almost invariably demands that it should operate in private and that all its activities, all the speeches made by its members should be regarded as private until it reports. When that principle is no longer observed, the work of the Select Committee will become very difficult. They will be unable to fulfil the functions that they have carried out over decades and 1306 centuries in helping this House to conduct its business.
It may be said that no harm has been done by this disclosure. However, the point is that a disclosure has been made deliberately. Unless this House takes note of it, says that this is wrong and inflicts some penalty on those responsible, disclosures will occur in the future readily and frequently.
We are all aware that journalists are anxious whenever they can to get hold of secret information, especially when it is contained in documents coming before Committees of this House. Their desire is to publish it. If they are aware that they can do so without any fear of Parliament taking penal action against them, they will do so on many an occasion.
It would have been quite possible for the Committee of Privileges to have said, "These gentlemen have committed a contempt of the House. They admitted that towards the end of our inquiries. But they have apologised for it and, therefore, we recommend that no further action be taken." If we had said that, we would not have been upholding a rule that this House has always considered to be of great importance, and the action would have become a precedent by disclosure.
§ Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)
The right hon. Gentleman has referred a number of times to the journalists who committed this offence. Is not the real villain of the piece the person who disclosed the information to the journalists?
§ Mr. Strauss
Of course he is the real villain of the piece. But we do not know who he is. We cannot get hold of him. As the House knows, the Committee of Privileges asked every hon. Member serving on the Select Committee whether he could help our Committee by telling us where the leak may have taken place. No one was able to do so. But because we cannot find the chief culprit, that does not mean that we should refrain from taking action against those who published the information which they got from that culprit knowing that it was wrong to do so.
The Committee of Privileges has to deal with matters of this kind often. It is always anxious, wherever it can, to avoid advising penal action 1307 against those responsible. Where an apology is made, the Committee accepts it. It falls over backwards in its willingness to accept any reasonable excuse. The culprit may say that he was ignorant of the laws of privilege. He may say that he was not aware of the confidentiality of the information. He may say that he was assured by some Member of Parliament that there was no contempt involved in his disclosure. In such cases, the Committee has always said, "You did wrong, but we shall take the matter no further."
Here, the situation is different. Two gentlemen knew perfectly well that they were publishing a document which Parliament said they should not publish. They admitted it. Anyone reading the evidence will see that. They said that they were not certain that they were committing a contempt of the House but that they thought they might be. However, they took no steps to check that they were.
In any event, one matter is clear. It is that they knew that they were publishing a document which Parliament said they should not publish. Therefore, their action was a deliberate breach of the rules of the House. They knew that they were flying in the face of the rules of Parliament. For that reason, we thought it right to recommend that some penalty should be imposed.
Are the penalties so harsh as to be unreasonable? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] It must be realised that the publication of this document arose because one gentleman concerned, Mr. Schreiber, works informally and unofficially in the House. In that way he came into contact with a number of hon. Members and was—we do not know how, when or where—given the document on which he based his article in the Economist which was the contempt of the House.
§ Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)
Is it not clear from the repeated answers that Mr. Schreiber gave that he denied absolutely and completely any suggestion that he received the document in any other capacity than as a journalist?
§ Mr. Strauss
I am not questioning that. Of course he is a journalist, and as such he was in contact with Members 1308 of this House—which one we do not know. As a journalist working constantly in the House he got this document.
§ Mr. Lawson
I know nothing about it and have written to the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) to say that I know nothing about it. That is the position.
Is it not wrong of the right hon. Gentleman to base a statement on an unwarranted assumption? All that is known is that the document began in the hands of someone who legitimately should have had it, and that it ended, after a chain, the length of which we do not know, in the hands of Mr. Schreiber. That is all we know. We know nothing about how many links there were in the chain or who those links were.
§ Mr. Strauss
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is quite accurate. We know that copies of the document went only to members of the Committee. Having received one document each, they were responsible for what happened afterwards. Each member of the Committee wrote to the Committee of Privileges to say definitely that his document, either through his secretary or anyone else, could not have reached Mr. Schreiber. One of them, frankly, was plainly lying.
§ Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)
Would the right hon. Gentleman clarify one point? I was a member of the Select Committee, and I do not remember any question being addressed to me in the terms in which the right hon. Gentleman says that it was put. Second, would he correct his earlier statement, that Mr. Schreiber received the document in the precincts of this place? Having read the Report, I can see no evidence to support that proposition.
§ Mr. Strauss
The hon. Gentleman is quite right on the last point. I was suggesting that it seems obvious that he received the document from some members of the Committee, directly or indirectly as a result of his association with Members working in this place. He was a frequent visitor to Parliament and that, in all probability, is how he got the document. We 1309 do not know. We can think of no other way in which it could be done.
The hon. Gentleman says that members of the Select Committee were not addressed in the terms I stated. They were not exactly the words, but they were so similar as to make no difference. So far as I remember, we asked every member of the Committee whether he could help the Committee of Privileges to ascertain the means by which this document had got into the hands of some journalist. That surely is the same thing.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)
We are in some difficulty. If it is accepted, as the right hon. Gentleman seems to be accepting, that one of a group of Members of Parliament allowed this document to get to a journalist when he knew that it should not, how can the House act against the journalist? The House is acting for the Committee as well as for itself. Therefore, the Committee is acting against a journalist when Members are to blame.
§ Mr. Strauss
The hon. Gentleman can make that point, but it does not appear to me to be valid. I can only repeat that journalists who knowingly publish documents which they know or think constitute a contempt of the House and the publication of which is contrary to the desires of the House are guilty of an offence irrespective of where they get the documents.
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it was clear from the evidence given to the Committee that the permit granted to Mr. Schreiber to enter the House was in the capacity not of a journalist but as a secretary?
§ Mr. Strauss
I am not sure whether some hon. Members who have intervened are indicating that there should be no penalty whatever for these people and that they should be told, "It is all right. Someone gave you the document. If you publish it, although it is contrary to the desire of the House and in grave contempt of the House, nothing will be done." I am not sure whether that is their argument. Perhaps they are arguing that the penalty which the Committee of Privileges recommends is too severe.
The penalty proposed is that these people should not attend the House for 1310 six months except to see their Member of Parliament on constituency matters. The House must realise that if Mr. Schreiber had been a member of the Lobby he would never have been able to do what he did and to publish this document in contempt of the House, or, if he had done so, he would no longer have been a member of the Lobby. He was able to do that because he was a freelance journalist working in the House a great deal of the time and in association with a number of Members. If we say that for six months he should not have access to the House, that seems to be a punishment—not a very severe one—that fits the crime. It is not especially onerous or heavy, but it is sufficiently onerous to indicate to journalists in general, and the whole world, that this House takes a serious view of the offence of contempt of the House. When a journalist or editor gets hold of a document which he knows to be secret and to be before a Select Committee or any other Committee and then publishes it it is a serious offence and this House will take notice and action. Therefore, the imnotice and action. For that reason, the imposition of this penalty is important, not because it is likely to have any serious effect on the two gentlemen in question.
Both these gentlemen knew that they were doing wrong. I do not think they could expect to get away with it without receiving any penalty. I suggest that if Parliament on this occasion said that it was all right, that they could be cleared, given a rebuke, and told to go away and not to do it again, Parliament would never again be able to take effective action against those who published secret documents, the publication of which was a contempt of the House. If the House turned down the unanimous Report of the Privileges Committee it would be grave and seriously damaging by the House.
§ 10.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof,while regretting the leakage of information from the Select Committee on a Wealth Tax and its publication by The Economist, considers that no further action need be taken in the matter".1311 First of all I should like to say how much I appreciate the work of the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) and the Committee of Privileges. I am sure I speak for many other hon. Members when I express our gratitude for the hard work which they have done for many years for the House. They have the respect of all hon. Members for the work they are doing and for the difficult decisions which they have to take.
If I seek to criticise the decision taken by the Committee of Privileges I hope that it will be in no way taken as a reflection upon the work of that Committee or the high standards which I am sure it has applied to this case. I shall, however, draw swords for a moment with some of the remarks of the right hon. Member for Vauxhall. He made the curious remark that if Mr. Schreiber had been a Lobby correspondent he would not have been allowed to remain a member of the Lobby. If he casts his mind back he will remember that on the last occasion this situation arose in connection with a distinguished member of the Lobby who remains a member of the Lobby to this very day.
§ Mr. Strauss
That gentleman's defence was that he had no reason to believe, and did not believe, that the document in question was a Select Committee document. He thought that it was issued by the Government for Government purposes. It was partly on those grounds that the Committee decided, by the casting vote of the chairman, not to take any punitive action.
§ Mr. Channon
I thought it was important to get the record straight and to say that what the right hon. Gentleman has told the House was not strictly accurate in that respect. The House must realise that we are debating an extremely rare event. I have been a Member of this House for nearly 17 years and during that time there has been only one debate on such an issue. The Committee must have felt that this was a case of such unique character that it had to bring it to the attention of the House and to propose a penalty of this kind.
The House must decide, in reaching a conclusion whether to adopt the Committee's 1312 Report, whether the Committee was justified in taking such a serious view. I remind the House of what the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privileges said in its Report in 1967. It said:The House should exercise its penal jurisdictionIt is in the light of that that the House should decide whether what the Select Committee proposes is reasonable.
- (a)in any event as sparingly as possible, and
- (b)only when it is satisfied that to do so is essential in order to provide reasonable protection for the House, its Members or its Officers from such improper obstruction or attempt at or threat of obstruction as is causing, or is likely to cause, substantial interference with the performance of their respective functions."
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman when he said that we should not look at the results of any case but merely examine the extent of the offence before deciding what is the appropriate penalty. That has never been the policy of the Committee of Privileges or of the House. In the past the Select Committee—and I have innumerable cases here—and the House in following or rejecting the Committee's advice, has always decided what has been the effect of the conduct of those concerned before deciding what penalty was appropriate. This is extremely relevant—[Interruption.] I am about to refer, with approval, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser). Perhaps he will listen to me with approval. It is important that we should look at what is the result of the offence.
What is the accusation against Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Wright? The first question is: were they guilty of contempt of this House? In my mind that is an extremely easy question to answer. They certainly were. The article in The Economist clearly reveals what was the Chairman's first draft report of the Select Committee on a Wealth Tax and, as the rules stand, they are in contempt of the House. That must be common ground.
The next question is: what, if any, penalty should be imposed? The first thing to ask is whether this did any damage. Having read the Report on the wealth tax and the four well-written and highly documented alternative drafts put before the House, I must ask whether it is seriously suggested that a short article in The Economist actually had the effect of changing the Report of the Select 1313 Committee. If it did, the Select Committee has a powerful point but I must say that I beg leave to doubt that this was the case. I do not believe that there was a substantial change in the Report as a result of this leak—or, indeed, any change.
The next question is this: is the offence likely to recur? The right hon. Gentleman has said that if we do nothing about this case people will do this type of thing again and again and it is therefore essential that we should mark our disapproval. I do not believe that. The last occasion on which a case similar to this arose—a Report of a Select Committee was published in a daily newspaper before the date of publication—the journalist concerned apologised to the House and no further action was taken. So far as I know no further cases have arisen. I do not believe that if we decide to take no further action in this matter either The Economist or any other newspaper is likely to act in the same way.
Before I go further I ought to declare that I have known Mr. Schreiber for a number of years but I have not seen him for at least 18 months. I have had no substantial discussion with him and no discussion with Mr. Knight about the merits of this case.
The next argument advanced by some hon. Members is that it is essential for the House to show that on occasions it can mean business, and that people who flout its rules do so at their peril. To some extent I agree with them. When there is a serious contempt, the House should rightly punish those concerned. But the House of Commons must not be a paper tiger. It should not bare its teeth and use its undoubted powers unless that is absolutely essential. I contend that in this case, in the Daily Mail case of 1971 and in the Scargill case, which also involved a very serious contempt, it was not thought right by the Select Committee of Privileges to take any further action.
I believe that in all these cases the House of Commons was right. We must decide this matter in the context of what happens about confidential documents in 1975. Is it not somewhat farcical that we should tonight be asked to express our disapproval on this matter when extensive stories were leaked over the weekend about Chrysler, dealing with whether Ministers were to resign, whether the 1314 Cabinet was split and so on? We all know perfectly well that Governments of every political complexion, and individual Ministers from time to time, leak stories to the Press when it suits them. They do so on far more serious matters than the first draft report of the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Wealth Tax. Is it not hypocritical of the House to condone one and to condemn another.
§ Mr. Peter Tapsell (Horncastle)
Is my hon. Friend not in some danger of saying that because the standards of public life may have declined in the recent past, therefore the House should condone that fact?
§ Mr. Channon
That is not what meant. I hope that the result of this debate will be that there will be no further disclosures of this kind either by The Economist or by any other newspaper.
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes
Surely the hon. Gentleman should distinguish between matters which can be properly referred to the Committee of Privileges and matters which are not the responsibility of this House.
§ Mr. Channon
I shall come to that matter.
There is one other aspect on which I draw on my experience as a junior Minister in the last Conservative Administration. The hon. Member for Salford. East (Mr. Allaun) thought it right, at the time we were discussing matters with the local authority associations, to publish a confidential document. I make no criticism of that at this stage. No one in the House suggested that he should be committed for contempt or prosecuted under the Official Secrets Acts.
The House should temper justice with mercy. I concede that this was a contempt of the House. I do not think that any substantial damage was done, although embarrassment was undoubtedly caused. The leaking of a draft is an embarrassment.
§ Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)
The hon. Member is putting forward the argument that we can be certain that this will not happen again and that therefore no further action should be taken. Select Committees operate on the basis that during their discussions their proceedings 1315 are totally confidential, as used to be the position in Cabinet before the Cross-man Diaries. Does he not think that that process would be inhibited if individual members of Select Committees were aware that their confidential discussions were at risk in that, were information or documents to come, in the course of discussion, into the hands of the Press they could be published with impunity?
§ Mr. Channon
The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on an important problem, but that is not a criticism in this case, as it was in the 1971 case. Although journalists have to bear their share of responsibility, surely far more should fall on whoever leaked the document. No one knows whether a Member is involved in this case. But if a Member were involved in either of those two cases, surely it would be the action of that Member, far more than that of a newspaper, which was inhibiting his colleagues.
I quote what my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone said in Question 151. Towards the top of page 14 he said—and I agree with him:Surely, if journalists are given access to this House they must co-operate with the rules of the HouseHe then expanded on those remarks and said:if people come into this House as political journalists working within the framework of Parliament it must be wrong to have abuses of confidence on which the committee system must work.My right hon. Friend was entirely right about that. We must not get the impression that these journalists do not recognise that they were wrong and have not apologised. They apologised and admitted that they were wrong. Under the circumstances I for one, and I hope that some other hon. Members will agree, believe that it would be wiser for the House to leave the matter there rather than to suspend a person for six months.
I understand—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition will tell us—that the precedent for suspending someone for six months and preventing him from coming into the precincts of the House was last used in 1901 when Mr. Speaker of the day declined to give the orders which he had been asked to give. The precedents are 1316 extremely rusty. It does not suit the best interests of the House and is beneath the dignity of the House to pursue the matter further. I understand that the journalists and the newspaper concerned will not offend in this way again. In the light of the debate, the Committee's Report, the debate we shall have tonight and the general discussion that has taken place, I do not believe that other newspapers will do so.
The House would be wiser, having made its views strongly known, having expressed them in this debate and having agreed that what has taken place has been a contempt of this House, to leave the matter where it is and not suspend these people for six months. I hope that on reflection the House will accept that.
§ 10.52 p.m.
§ Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)
I respect entirely the reason that the Select Committee of Privileges has put forward in its Report and the reason adduced this evening by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). He has been a Member of this House a great deal longer than I have. He probably respects the traditional privileges of this House more than those hon. Members who have been elected to Parliament in the past 10 years, as I have.
I was a member of the Select Committee and, therefore, I suppose that I am suspect. I suppose also that I have to take account of paragraph 6 of the Committee's Report which is entitledThe conduct of the person who made the Draft Report available to a journalistin which it is said:In these circumstances there is no further action that Your Committee can take on this aspect of the matter, except to report their opinion that should it subsequently transpire that the informant was someone who had had an opportunity to assist Your Committee, the House should treat that person's conduct as deserving of the utmost severity.I, like other hon. Members of the Committee, told the Chairman of the Committee in answer to his letter that to my knowledge—and one cannot say more than that—there was no way in which the Report, which was in our individual possession, came into the hands of Mr. Schreiber. I know Mr. Schreiber briefly from a meeting which I had with him at the last Liberal assembly before 1317 the publication of this Report. I have not met him since. I understand that he advises the Conservative Party, although I do not hold that against him. I know, for instance, that the political editor of The Economist is an ex-Labour Member of this House but I do not suppose that it came into Mr. Schreiber's hand from him either, although he may well have had contact with many Labour Members. Therefore, the idea that accusations should be tossed back and forth across the Chamber on the basis that somehow Conservative Members must be guilty because Mr. Schreiber seems to advise the Conservative Party is wrong, and I wish that hon. Members would shut up about that point.
I have no doubt that a breach of privilege occurred, as defined by the existing rules. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) has said that. The staff of The Economist, the editor and Mr. Schreiber, have also said it. I accept that. Therefore, the Committee had to find that this breach of privilege had occurred. What we have to consider is not whether what occurred was a breach of privilege but whether such action ought to be a breach of privilege at all and whether that action by The Economist merits any punishment, let alone the punishment which has been recommended by the Committee.
We have to consider something else, too. The rules governing contempt of the House and breach of privilege exist, I suppose, for two main reasons: first, to defend this House from becoming an object of ridicule and contempt outside; secondly, to ensure that the House can do its work effectively. The second reason is by far the more important. Indeed, I am not at all sure whether the first ought to be a reason today. I take the view that if we pursue the line that the Committee has recommended to us we are far more likely to bring ourselves into ridicule and contempt than may anything that has been done by anyone who is not a Member of this House.
However, if that is a reason and if the question of contempt and ridicule outside is a reason for these rules of privilege, we must consider the effect of our actions tonight on the reputation of this House. If, as I shall contend, the action by The Economist that we are discussing in no way diminished the ability of this 1318 House, or its Select Committee, to do its work, we shall undoubtedly make fools of ourselves if we pursue the course of action recommended by the Committee. There is no greater ridicule than self-ridicule, especially when it is unintended. Therefore, let us consider the effect that the action of The Economist had on the work of the House and particularly on the work of the Select Committee of which I was a member.
The Select Committee was set up to consider possible legislation before it was introduced. In that sense it was a fairly rare occurrence. It is a comparatively new device. It is a very important device. I hope that it will be used much more in the future than it has been used in the past. The formal Standing Committee procedure on a new tax which has already been drafted in legislative form is wholly unsatisfactory. Those of us who had to sit as members of the Standing Committee which considered the capital transfer tax experienced that feeling only too well. It would have been far better if we had had the Select Committee pre-legislative procedure before we came to consider the draft legislation.
I admit that the Select Committee pre-legislative procedure is also not wholly satisfactory. Obviously the party system which inevitably operates, whereby each party group tends sometimes to become, in the words of the Prime Minister, a tightly-knit group of politically motivated men, is inimical to free and objective discussion. Inevitably in this House it will seep into the work of a Select Committee.
There are many things that could improve the pre-legislative Select Committee procedure, but one thing that cannot improve such procedure is greater secrecy. I take issue with the right hon. Member for Vauxhall on that subject. There is absolutely no value to be attached to secrecy in the deliberations of a Select Committee. The party dimension would flourish more behind closed doors than in the open. The more the Press and the broadcasting media were there to cover the deliberations of the Select Committee the less would party play its part.
The difficulty of a member of a committee charged with investigating highly technical subjects was raised by me in a letter to the Chairman of the Committee of Privileges. I imagine that that letter is the property of he Select Committee, 1319 and I suspect that I would probably be debarred from appearing in the Chamber for six months or more, or taken to the Tower, if I were to read it—[HON. MEMBERS: "Read it".] I did not mark the letter confidential, but I have a nasty feeling that it has become confidential by a mysterious kind of transmutation. It was received by the Select Committee although it was not published in its Report.
I had a helpful, detailed and confidential reply from the chairman. I think it is a great pity that letters were written—I make no point about my own letter but I happen to know that another member of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Macmillan), wrote a somewhat similar letter to the Chairman of the Committee of Privileges—which were not published in the Report. I think that it might have helped Members who were not members of the Select Committee on the tax credit scheme if they had been published.
I shall summarise the difficulties of a member of the Committee charged with examining an extremely complicated piece of future legislation. It is virtually impossible for Members who become members of such a Committee to know every conceivable detail of the matter with which they are charged. They cannot be specialists and experts on every facet of the wealth tax, for example. That would be impossible. Therefore, they use advisers as much as they can. I freely admit that I accepted and used outside advice.
There comes the problem whether the advice that is used comes from a research assistant or from an unofficial arrangement. Not many Members can afford to pay for a research assistant but perhaps it would be better if we could, thus putting the matter on a formal basis in the same way as the American system provides.
Draft reports also raise problems. When considering whether we should draft an alternative report or make amendments to the draft report, how can we use the advice that we have been using quite openly throughout the earlier stages of the Committee? I am not at liberty to read the reply that I received from the right hon. Member for Vauxhall but 1320 I do not think he will mind if I summarise pretty inadequately the view that he expressed. He wrote that there was no reason for a member of the Committee not to use advice and no reason for an adviser not to be shown a document provided that it was made clear to the individual that it was a secret document. But if one shows a document to a third person, how can it be ensured that he does not show it to another person? It is impossible to proceed on such an unofficial basis in spite of what has been implied.
What happens if the adviser is a journalist? Most advisers write articles from time to time. They would hardly be worthwhile advisers if they did not. It is difficult for an adviser to be certain that in the course of an article which he writes he does not use information which he has gained as a result of his position as an adviser to a member or members of a Select Committee.
§ Mr. Evan Luard (Oxford)
If a member of the Wealth Tax Committee showed such a document, or the document concerned in this debate, to an adviser in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described, surely it would not be possible to write to the chairman to the effect that it was impossible to say how the document had come into the hands of the journalist. In those circumstances it would be necessary to say that the document had been allowed to get out of one's hands and that it was not possible to say exactly what had happened to the document at a later stage.
§ Mr. Pardoe
I am not saying that I allowed the document to go out of my hands. I am posing the difficulties of the work involved, and I put those problems in extenso to the Chairman a the Select Committee in a long letter which I am not at liberty to quote. I did not merely say that I had not handed the document to Mr. Shreiber. I said that I had also undertaken investigations to ensure that the document did not leak from my office or staff. That is all any hon. Member can say; he cannot go further than that. I took precautions to ensure the truth of the statement, but I can go no further than that.
If the adviser happens to be a journalist or write articles, he has to undergo a self-denying ordinance. He has to say 1321 that he will not write articles for anybody at all in that period—[HON. Members: "No."] He should at least ensure that he does not leak something that comes into his possession from a document he should not have seen. That is all I am saying.
I am in some difficulty since I have seen the letter from the Chairman of the Committee of Privileges. That makes it an unofficial understanding and such an understanding will not be satisfactory. It should be possible to have advice. Apparently it is also possible to show an adviser documents. But in my view that unofficial understanding cannot be made to work. It appeals that there is a difference between the early stages of the Select Committee and the later deliberative stages. I do not accept that distinction. Surely secrecy will not lead to agreement. If the Select Committee on a Wealth Tax is anything to go by, it was not the fact that Mr. Shreiber divulged parts of a document that was secret that caused us to produce five different Reports. There were many more complex reasons for that kind of disagreement. I do not believe that secrecy will bring agreement.
The other argument is that the chairman's report, being the Chairman's draft report, must not be discussed in the Press because it would be embarrassing to him if it were shown how far it had been amended by the Committee in deliberation. But it is possible to see how far we have amended the Report. We have published two draft reports. There is a substantial difference between the first draft report and the last draft report. Any who makes a comparison can draw conclusions. Is that embarrassing to the chairman?, I suggest that it is not. Even, if it is embarrassing, let us overcome the matter in a different way. Let us get rid of the unreal fiction that this is the Chairman's Report. It is a report drafted by the staff of the Committee, and there is no embarrassment about amending it at a future stage.
The right hon. Member for Southend, West asked members of the Committee whether the report in the Economist changed their Report in any way. I do not think it did. But even if it had done so, would it have mattered? Surely it would have been a good thing if at that stage members of the Second Select Committee had been subjected in some way 1322 to influence or arguments from outside that might possibly have changed their view about the nature of the draft report. I see nothing wrong in that and I believe that it would have been perfectly proper.
I shall support the amendment. Perhaps I should draw the attention of the House to a letter published in The Economist on 13th December from the political editor of the Sunday Mirror. He quite clearly issues a threat to hon. Members and virtually states that he will recommend his colleagues to withdraw from the Lobby and the Press Gallery if the House takes the ludicrous step of backing the Select Committee's decision. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they now?] I very much hope that if the House decides to do anything so ludicrous as to support the Committee's extraordinary recommendation the Lobby will withdraw. [HON. MEMBERS: "They already have."] This would hurt hon. Members more than the journalists. Hon. Members are often here only because the Lobby is here and for very little other reason.
§ Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
I wonder whether the hon. Member is aware that Lobby correspondents attending this House submit themselves to a very strict discipline in relation to Select Committees and the documents of the House? Mr. Schreiber and the editor of The Economist are not members of the Lobby and do not accept that discipline and are therefore prepared to be treated differently from other journalists.
§ Mr. Pardoe
I am not saying they should have done what they did or that it was not a breach of privilege, but it was useful and if it leads to a change in the rules of privilege to allow Committees to do their job effectively it will have been even more useful. If the recommendation is carried tonight, Select Committees will not be able to do their job more effectively, and we shall be diminishing their job and making the House a fool.
§ 11.12 p.m.
§ Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
It will be a long time before I ever raise a question of privilege at 3.30 p.m. It will not go unnoticed that it has taken hon. Friends and me six months to get a debate on unemployment, while it has taken only two weeks 1323 to get a debate on the breach of the rules of the club. I agree with the last sentences of the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe). I hope the rules are changed.
I ought to make clear that I had not heard of Mr. Schreiber until two weeks before the Report was published—six weeks after I had first raised the matter. I did not even know the name of the editor of The Economist, except that it was not Alastair Burnet and I wish it had been Alastair Burnet. I also did not know that the office of the Leader of the Opposition was indirectly involved, and I am prepared to apologise in public for the extreme embarrassment caused to her. It was unintentional. I did not know about Mr. Schreiber at the time. The right hon. Lady was a member of the Committee of Privileges, but she did not attend one of the meetings while this subject was under discussion.
I would not expect any journalist worthy of the name to divulge his sources of information and one cannot argue that the crime was not to give the Committee the name of who did it. This is the dilemma I face. I have read the Report a few times and I do not agree with the recommendation of paragraph 9. We are debating a recommendation that we should penalise these journalists. Everyone, including the journalists, agrees that the issue, which I first raised as a matter of contempt, is a breach of the rules of privilege of the House.
The point at issue is that a journalist does not divulge his sources. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) said, Mr. Schreiber is not a journalist. I understand that he is not a member of the National Union of Journalists, but that is not the only qualification a journalist has.
Mr. Schreiber admitted that the word "Secretary" appears on the pass he uses around this place. If my secretary, or the secretary of any other hon. Member, appeared at the Press table during a Select Committee public hearing, something would be said about it.
Mr. Schreiber said that the two journalists were originally there to report the public evidence. Mr. Schreiber's position was slightly different. He was part of the "club" because he was working 1324 for the former Leader of the Opposition, and that is how he got his pass in the first place. We are not talking about a journalist in the real sense of the word. He said many times that he obtained the information only because he was a journalist. The fact that he would not answer many questions means that we cannot take at face value the answers he did give.
The letter subsequently written by Mr. Schreiber to the Clerk of the Committee given in Appendix 3 compounds the offence, in that he was not really on the level. I do not take everything he said at its face value. That is what we are being asked to judge.
The finger of suspicion points at the members of the Select Committee on a Wealth Tax. Those who set up Select Committees should bear in mind the members who served on that Select Committee when future Select Committees are being formed. I declare a non-interest here because I have never had the honour to serve on a Select Committee.
I accept that if a Committee wishes to deliberate in private and decides so to do that decision should be respected because only the Committee is competent to judge such matters. It is illuminating that Mr. Knight, the editor of The Economist, appeared before the Select Committee of Privileges and asked that the evidence he had given about the confidential workings of The Economist should not be published because commercial aspects of The Economist would be affected by publication. That the paper does not have a lawyer at hand when it is put to bed is probably significant information in some quarters, but that request puts a different light on the answers to the questions.
We are going too far in banning the two journalists from the precincts of the House for six months. It is clearly within the rules, but I do not agree with the rules and hope that they will be changed. Within the rules there are two penalties; one is imprisonment and the other is a rebuke at the Bar of the House by Mr. Speaker.
§ Mr. Rooker
I understand that that is a parliamentary occasion. Some of us 1325 who hold marginal seats may not be here to see it, although my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) probably will. That procedure might be dangerous because of the impression it creates outside the House. Members of the public will not read Hansard or the Report of the Committee of Privileges. They will know only that we have banned two journalists from the House. I should have been much happier if the Committee of Privileges had chosen one of the two penalties within the rules. I do not presume to say which penalty the Committee should have chosen, and so present hon. Members with the precedent created in 1911. It is a long time ago. Times have changed. The composition of the House has changed.
Party political capital could have been made out of the matter, and it is to the credit of hon. Members and the Press that that has not happened. However, I cannot help thinking that it might have been different if the boot had been on the other foot, if the Labour Party had been in Opposition and a quasi-journalist working for my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister had committed such an offence. I have asked members of the Lobby in the past few weeks what they would have done in those circumstances, and they have replied that they would have treated the matter in the same way as they have treated it now—contempt of the House, a breach of privilege, a journalistic matter. But, down here, my gut feeling is not to believe that. I can write the headline now: "Wilson aide leaks Commons secrets". The slag heap affair would have had nothing on that for a raw, gut, party issue.
Those are the reasons why I support the recommendation in paragraph 9.
§ 11.21 p.m.
§ Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)
It may be of some help if I speak at this stage.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) is the real culprit. He raised the matter in the first place. I must say in passing, after his dramatic gestures just now, that he keeps his beliefs in a very odd place. He is welcome to them. I am not in the least jealous. He indicated very dramatically several times, in the full face of the House, exactly where he kept his beliefs. 1326 We were all interested in such a revelation.
It seemed that the main purpose of the hon. Gentleman's speech was to make a few party political remarks to drag in irrelevantly the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. We are not concerned with that at all. Mr. Schreiber is involved in this matter as a journalist, and nothing else.
I wonder whether we are not in some danger of making rather heavy weather of it all, and of having a protracted debate about what is not a fundamental episode. The right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), who was the Chairman of the Committee of Privileges, and who is the Father of the House and greatly respected, spoke with some force, and even at some length. He may have led us all off into the illusion that this is a matter more serious than it is.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) started his speech with such exceeding civility that we were all warned of what was to come. He doubted whether it was necessary to take the action proposed. Then he warned that the House must not be a paper tiger. I agree, but we are in grave danger of becoming exactly that. Again and again when the rules are broken—and rules exist for good reasons—we warn people in the most terrible terms, rather like those used by King Lear, who said something like this: "I shall do the most terrible things. They shall be the terrors of the earth. What they are, I know not."
My hon. Friend added that we should use our undoubted powers lightly. All right, but he did not say what our undoubted powers were. I am not very well aware of what they are, and I do not know of anyone who is trembling lest we should use them.
My hon. Friend also mentioned that others elsewhere—and he particularly referred to Government circles—are guilty of bad conduct. That must be universally accepted, but it is not relevant.
The House is considering a matter affecting Parliament. How the Government conduct their affairs is another matter. I admit that by the way they behave they cause very great difficulties for the Press, which finds it difficult to 1327 distinguish between one member of what is loosely described as "the Establishment" and another and it must learn that it is playing a different game in Whitehall from that in which it is engaged at Westminster. The rules change.
When my hon. Friend ended his splendid speech with the words "The House should temper justice with mercy" it was as if the House was about to visit upon Mr. Knight and Mr. Schreiber the most terrible of penalties. In fact, all that Mr. Knight and Mr. Schreiber are being threatened with is that they may not have the choice of attending these precincts for six months. I know of a number of Members of the House who would not feel too oppressed if they were to be deprived of that very great privilege so long as they could depart from the precincts in the guise of heroes, with, of course, their remuneration. Those Members would not feel unduly inconvenienced or oppressed, and the fact that—wherever they sat—they would be free of the attention of their Chief Whips for six months would not be too intolerable a burden for them.
§ Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)
Surely the debarring from this place for six months of any journalist must be taken seriously: it is a serious matter for a journalist. It cannot be compared with the question whether a Member wishes to be here. As it appears that no harm was done, as it has been made clear that a rule has been broken, and as it has been made clear that the journalists have apologised, would it not be better to leave the matter as it is?
§ Mr. Peyton
I do not think that it has been made clear that journalists have apologised, apart from anything else. My hon. and learned Friend may be perfectly right in saying what he said, but I beg him to understand that this is not the most dire penalty that can be imagined for people who are not Lobby correspondents.
The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) began his speech by, as I understood him, admitting that there had been an undoubted breach of privilege. He went on to make what was, in part at any rate, a very interesting speech that had very little to do with the issue. 1328 He referred to the fiction of the Chairman's report. This is one point which was of some importance in the issue, because this was a draft report. It was a report which was sent to a Select Committee for consideration. I do not know in whose name it should be sent except that of the Chairman, and that does not seem to be a very offensive fiction.
That document was described as confidential. It is up to Committees to accept or adopt what description they like for their working documents. When a document is described as "confidential", that is a warning to all concerned that it is a protected document, protected by the undoubted privileges of the House. As the right hon. Member for Vauxhall knows better than any other Member, if a Committee chooses to apply the description "confidential" to a document, it does so for a good reason—and the privileges of Parliament apply to protect the good working of Parliament. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was wrong in condemning this, as he did, as a rather useless fiction. He reiterated the dire threat of the editor of the Sunday Mirror that there would never be any journalists anywhere near this place again if the House of Commons made such a fool of itself as to adopt this course of action.
With respect, all sorts of people have made all kinds of fools of themselves in this place before. But I do not believe that we would be making wise men of ourselves if we lightly rejected rules which had been adopted over many years for the protection of the workings of Parliament, upon the efficiency of which so much depends.
I am quite prepared to accept that there are probably two words today which are not highly cherished and do not enjoy great public esteem. One is "privilege", and the other is "politician". The privilege is resented, and the politician is suspected. The combination of the two is almost universally abominated.
But do not let us hesitate on occasions like this to make it clear that parliamentary privilege is not an affair conferring upon individual Members of Parliament privileges and rights which are not enjoyed by ordinary members of the public. Parliamentary privilege is a right 1329 conferred upon Parliament in order that it may efficiently perform its duties, one of which at least used to be the maintenance of the liberty of the individual. It is this that I take seriously, and nothing else. It is the protection of the individual against the excessive power of anyone, especially the excessive power of the State, and we have to be watchful lest Parliament's powers should be further eroded and weakened.
The position of the Select Committee is that it has over the years, long before I had the privilege of being a member of it, again and again declined to help individual Members of Parliament who felt themselves outraged by scurrilous and often dirty and unwarranted attacks in newspapers, many of them not particularly reputable newspapers. We had a case the other day directed against the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden). The Committee, though expressing some sympathy with him, declined to assist and said that if he had any remedy, it lay elsewhere.
It must be made clear that Members of Parliament also can be and have been guilty of breaches of privilege. So do not let us hesitate to underline once again that the privileges of Parliament are not special ones conferring special benefits upon Members of Parliament.
I turn for a moment to The Economist. its editor, and Mr. Schreiber. I am sorry that this extremely reputable organ and two people enjoying the reputation that Mr. Knight and Mr. Schreiber enjoy should have become involved in this dispute, which I do not regard as being of fundamental importance.
But we have these facts. We have a Chairman's draft report which at that stage had not been accepted by his Committee. I think it is worth while reminding ourselves that, in the event, all that the Committee was able to agree to was not the draft report, much of which was reported in The Economist, but:Your Committee have been unable to agree upon a Report and have decided therefore to report the Minutes of Evidence, both written and oral, to the House. We have been unable to accept the Chairman's first draft report, as amended, for a number of reasons, notably the failure …and then there are three reasons.
That was a succinct and not particularly constructive report on a not particularly 1330 satisfactory proposal which had come from the Government. That is another matter and I do not want to go into it now.
The position is that there was a Chairman's draft report which had not been approved, which was marked "confidential" and which was improperly passed on. The fact that the real culprit, whoever it was, who passed it on has never appeared is not particularly relevant.
The question which we have to consider, and which the Select Committee had to consider, is what Parliament should do: stand aside and say "We do not mind" and take no notice if people outrage and break our rules, or make some gesture of disapproval? If the Committee said "We do nothing". we would be saying, surely, that anyone behaving in a similar manner in future and breaking the rules would be excused simply because others had done it before them and we would not then be justified in taking action. The Press would be left in a state of even greater uncertainty. That is intolerable. The matter needs much greater and more detailed examination than arises out of one case.
I suggest that the Select Committee of Privileges, which is, incidentally, an all-party body, and which was on this occasion, as on others, unanimous, should not be overturned without careful thought. We decided that the House would be right to make at least some gesture of disapproval and have advised Parliament to give some public notice of its concern. I believe that the Committee was right in making what I believe was only a modest gesture, or recommending that the House should make only a modest gesture of its concern that its rules, which are not foolish, should have been broken in this manner.
I do not believe that the penalty suggested by the Committee is as dire as some hon. Gentlemen have suggested. I hope that the House will be disposed to accept the Committee's recommendation.
§ 11.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Crawford (Perth and East Perthshire)
I would remind the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) that the Select Committee is not an all-party body because all parties are not represented on it.
1331 I declare an interest in this in that I am a member of the National Union of Journalists and I confess that I am surprised that the House is debating this at all, because it is making itself a laughing stock in the country. The issue is one of finance. I quote Charles Dickens who, at a meeting of the Administrative Reform Association in 1855, described thesavage mode of keeping accounts on notched sticks … introduced into the Court of Exchequer".
§ Mr. Crawford
He was. He said:I dare say there was a vast amount of minuting, memoranduming, and dispatch-boxing, on this mighty subject. The sticks were housed at Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any of us unofficial personages that nothing would have been easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood, by some of the many miserable creatures in that neighbourhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine could not endure that they ever should be useful, and so the order went forth that they were to be privately and confidentially burnt. It came to pass that they were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build two more; we are now in the second million of the cost thereof; the national pig is not nearly over the stile yet; and the little old woman Britannia, hasn't got home tonight.We are in danger of making as big fools of ourselves as he suggested was done then.
But, to be serious, my party believes in the Scottish doctrine that the sovereignty of a country should rest finally with its people and not with its Parliament. We accept that the people have a right to know how their elected representatives are conducting themselves. Hence our amendment. I find it incredible that hon. Members should think that those who elect them do not have the right to know what they are doing in any Committee or in the Chamber. I say this with the usual proviso that there should be some secrecy over matters of public safety or national security.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
So there are some circumstances in which 1332 secrecy should be protected. How should it then be protected?
§ Mr. Spearing
Is not the hon. Gentleman wrong here? Before a report is published, the draft report, as amended, is known and the public can see what the Committee is doing.
§ Mr. Crawford
But it is important to the public to know how the Committee reaches its conclusions.
I would refer the House to the much easier systems of government in the United States and Sweden and to my party's own statement on the Scottish Assembly and a future Scottish Parliament—that all Committees will be open, with all interested parties called as witnesses and all the deliberations broadcast, in the fullest sense of that word.
I agree that there has been a technical breach of privilege in this case. Many hon. Members have said that the editor of The Economist agrees with that. In a debate on this subject in July 1969, the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) said that the matter of privilege was ill-defined. He was so dissatisfied with the way the privilege issue was left that he said that he would filibuster until it was better defined.
I believe that this is only the third Select Committee of its kind to sit since the war. There is no doubt that it discussed these matters in a political way. Copies of the draft report were shown to the members of the Committee and may have found their way into the hands of the TUC or the CBI. It has been suggested that it may have ended up in the hands of the Treasury or the Inland Revenue. If so, that, too, was a breach of privilege.
But there is a deeper issue than the technicalities—that of open government. Both major parties say that they favour open government. As The Guardian said today:In the ten days since the Privileges Committee reported, we have penetrated, leak by leak, deep into the heart of Cabinet debates about Chrysler and about the level of public expenditure cuts.My party believes firmly in open government and has said so. We have said that 1333 when we get a self-governing Scotland, we shall practise what we preach. As a start, we shall vote against this motion.
§ 11.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Baker (St. Marylebone)
Before briefly supporting the Conservative amendment, I should declare an interest, in that Mr. Schreiber is a personal friend of mine and I have known him for some time. But I should be making this speech even if that were not the case.
The reason that I am opposed to the Committee's recommendations goes back to an occasion shortly after I entered the House. In July 1968—one of the debates I remember most vividly—the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) was tried by the House. It was a disgraceful and grisly performance. Having heard the whole debate, I made a personal resolution that if such a matter were to come up again when I was still a Member, I would try to persuade my colleagues to deal with these delicate matters in another way. That is why I oppose the motion.
I accept that Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Knight have breached the rules of the House—rules agreed as recently as 1971. The Select Committee of Privileges condemns Mr. Schreiber's action as wholly irresponsible and Mr. Knight's reckless. I do not disagree with that. However, what I do disagree with is that, having come to that conclusion, we are then left to impose a penalty upon them for that breach. I am not sure whether the Attorney-General or the Leader of the House will be winding up the debate tonight.
§ Mr. Baker
If the Minister manages to intervene I ask him to address himself to why we should introduce the particular penalty of excluding journalists from the precincts of the House. We have not used this penalty for over 200 years. We have to go back to the Hansard and privilege debates of the eighteenth century before we come across this sort of penalty. There are only two recent occasions when Reports of the House recommended exclusion of journalists—one in 1899 concerning The Times Lobby correspondent, 1334 and the other in 1901, again concerning The Times Lobby correspondent, who is always looking for scoops. It was recommended that they should be excluded from the inner Lobbies of the House. Those Reports lie upon the Table of the House. As far as I know they are still lying there, because our predecessors had the good sense not to take any action upon them at all.
The second point which perhaps the Attorney-General will deal with concerns the disparity of treatment between this case and the most recent case—namely, the case concerning the hon. Member for West Lothian in 1968. Perhaps I can briefly remind the House of the circumstances of that case because it was strikingly similar to what occurred over The Economist. The hon. Member for West Lothian gave to journalists on the Observer a highly confidential Report of a Select Committee. The Observer printed it on its front page. The hon. Member for West Lothian immediately admitted that he had released the Report. The Select Committee of Privileges recommended that the Member should be reprimanded, and thus there was the trial to which I referred earlier. However, the journalists, who had committed exactly the same offence as that of Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Knight, were just held to be in contempt of the House and nothing was done to them. Therefore, my question to the Attorney-General and to the members of the distinguished Select Committee who are still present is that if this were the action in 1968, what particular features of this case have caused an additional penalty to be imposed?
It would appear to an outsider that the journalists are being more heavily punished because the source of the leak has not owned up. That does not seem to be fair. I know that this is a subjective and personal judgment and that the matter was debated in 1968. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour), the Shadow Home Secretary, made a distinguished speech in that debate and put forward the proposition—with which I know some hon. Members may not agree—that the guilt was in the giving and not in the receiving of the Report. He took the view that as long as it was not against the national 1335 interest the Press should publish and, if necessary, be damned.
My third point concerns the seriousness of the offence. How serious was this offence? In paragraph 3 of its Report the Select Committee says that it wasdamaging to the work of Parliament".I can appreciate that when the Select Committee came to put its Report together it was rather egg-bound, but was this reallydamaging to the work of Parliament"?I do not believe that it was. I believe that the matter is out of perspective. In the next sentence the Select Committee says,their deliberations in Committee must be conducted in the knowledge that they are and will remain private, and free from outside pressure.Is this living in the real world? As representatives of constituencies we are constantly subject to outside pressures. What was the railwaymen's lobby doing this afternoon? In my view it is absurd to say that the members of the Select Committee would be subject to outside pressure. Knowing many of them, I do not believe that they were. We are exaggerating. The central issue concerns the need for secrecy. Several hon. Members have pointed out that there are leaks from Government day by day and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) rightly said, when it suits politicians to leak, politicians leak.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) said that even if Ministers and Governments do this, we should now allow it or encourage it in the House of Commons. I ask my hon. Friends whether the general public can distinguish leaks from a Select Committee, from the Government about Chrysler or about the Chancellor's proposals tomorrow, or a leak from the Cabinet. The reality is that these things occur.
The reason why this House has over the centuries created privilege for itself is that we must be free to stand up in this Chamber to say what we want, without fear or favour. No one can stop us. That is what our free speech as Members of Parliament means. We can speak freely to Ministers about our constituency problems and interests and no one can take action against us in any court in the land. That is the central point of 1336 privilege. That is what privilege is all about. That is why we as an institution have, over 700 years, protected that central core.
It is because that freedom is so important that infringements of it and penalties deriving from infringements are rarely invoked. I quote from my predecessor in my constituency, Lord Hailsham, who said in this House in 1969:On the whole, I consider that the majority of privilege questions raised at 3.30 in my lifetime have done more harm than good to the reputation of the House. Some have been necessary. Some have been wholly unnecessary. A great number have been in the grey area about which opinions differ."—(Official Report, 4th July 1969; Vol. 786, c. 898.]Hon. Members have mentioned the famous statement in "Erskine May" about our powers over privilege. May I remind the House what it says. It reads:Parliament should use its powers to protect itself, its Members and its Officers only to the extent absolutely necessary for the due execution of its powers.I ask hon. Members to try to put this incident in perspective. Are we not exaggerating far too much our position and the slight that has been done to us? When we impose, or seek to impose, a penalty of whatever sort, are we not in danger of putting ourselves in even greater contempt?
§ 11.53 p.m.
§ Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)
In the past 15 years, partly through the influence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment—who has already been mentioned by hon. Members—the trend in debates on privilege issues has been away from the frequently heavy-handed use of this power, with the consent of hon. Members. It is important that this matter should be debated, to some extent beyond the immediate case, so that this trend should not be disturbed or replaced.
I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not proceed with this motion. I hope that it will not be pressed to a Division. That would be the best outcome. It is much to be preferred to a vote on the amendment, which I would have to support if a Division were pressed.
§ Mr. Mendelson
I am grateful to the hon. Member.
1337 I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) has done his duty in drawing the attention of the House to this case. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) who first brought this matter before the House has very rightly expressed his doubt as to the sentence which is being sought. A consensus is gradually emerging on both sides of the House which is suggesting that we should not proceed with the proposed punishment.
It would have been quite wrong to ignore what has happened, for the reasons given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall and that is not infrequently the case. That is why the final decision always rests with the House. I did not agree with the reasons urged by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall in his description of parliamentary privilege. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) said that the term "privilege" was totally misleading and that most hon. Members wished that they could invent a better term which would be better understood by our constituents. But the purpose of parliamentary privilege has little to do with the reasons advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall.
The point of privilege is not to enable Members of Parliament to do their work in peace, or to enable agreed conclusions to be reached in a Select Committee. There is no mention in early historical documents of Select Committees achieving unanimity. That consideration was read into the history of privilege by the historians. The precise reason for privilege is to prevent people from threatening Members of Parliament in the exercise of their duties on behalf of their constituents. All our actions in these matters should be judged solely according to that criterion. All others should be discarded.
There are circumstances in which the contempt would be serious whether or not great harm was done to the public interest. Most hon. Members have been members of Select Committees and therefore can appreciate that the situation could arise in which considerable severity would have to be applied by the House. For a period I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee. If documents studied by the members of that Committee were to be revealed to non-members. I should be prepared to support a severe 1338 punishment on those who committed the breach. My point in saying that is that it buttresses my contention that it matters very much whether great harm is done to the public good or no harm is done.
We are talking about a matter as public as the wealth tax. What can be more public than the future wealth tax We are considering pioneering legislation about an entirely new sphere, so we should make it as public as possible.
The tendency in this House has always been for the Government and the Crown secretly to impose new imposts with no one having the right to write about them. It took a long time to break that down.
There has been an increasing tendency to break down secrecy. Surely we should not now march in the wrong direction. It is suggested that it is a solemn crime to disclose a first draft of a Select Committee's Report, especially one pioneering a new tax. I should have thought that the philosophical intent of greater freedom for citizens, the principle of no taxation, not only before representation but before the widest possible discussion throughout the land of those about to be taxed, is marching altogether in a different direction. Therefore, a feeble case could be built for secrecy in this situation.
Enough has been said to support my second point. A consensus is growing in the House that on this occasion although it would have been quite wrong for the principals involved to ignore the case and although it is right for my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall and his colleagues to report the case to the House and tell us about the circumstances, it would be equally right for my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General not to press the motion and for my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall to agree that it should not be pressed.
§ 12.02 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)
I hope that the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), Chairman of the Committee of Privileges and Father of the House, will proceed with the motion before the House. It is proper that he should. I also hope that the Leader of the House will give us the benefit of his wisdom on these matters.
We are moving into an area of confusion. I enjoyed the remarks made by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. 1339 Mendelson). However, we seem to be moving away from the main subject before the House, that is, the question of the privilege of this House, and concentrating on secrecy or the Official Secrets Act. I have offered to give evidence at the Old Bailey in defence of the right of people to know. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) has been proved innocent on these matters. I was not proved innocent, but at least I offered to appear before the High Court of the land to defend the right of the people to know. With great respect to the hon. Member for Penistone, that is not the issue before us tonight. It is not a question of the right of the people to know—a point made by the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Crawford). I can imagine nothing more tedious than the proceedings of Scotland under the Scottish National Party, when every jot and tittle is reported by radio and television.
It is not a question of secrecy; it is a question of the rules of this House. This is what we are debating. The relationship between the Press and Parliament, between our estate and the fourth estate, is a delicate one. There are many who say that the Lobby should be abolished altogether, because then we would have fewer leaks, becks and nods from Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition. I should like the Lobby abolished because the only good journalists that I know are those who do not get becks, nods and whispers but those who go out and fight for their facts.
However, this is quite a different matter. We in this House have this relationship with the Press. It is of a very special sort. What has happened is undoubted. The main offence against the House was undoubtedly committed by a member of the Select Committee on a Wealth Tax, and whoever that was, he was the villain. Nevertheless, in that sense the punishment of the two gentlemen concerned is not a very serious imposition of penalty. It is in a sense a vicarious punishment of that person, from whichever party, who disobeyed the instructions of the House. This is the point which was well put in a question asked by the Leader of the House, which is the only evidence that I want to quote from the Report. He said, 1340At the top of the covering page it says: 'Knowledge of the contents of this document should be confined to Members and staff of the Select Committee'.It was not even a secret document. It was a confidential document between members of the Press and Members of the House of Commons.
I am not saying that this a good way to work the system, but this is the way in which the system is worked. We know that we have had tribunes of the people, and a tribune of the Press rather than the people from Marylebone talking about the rights of Press and people against Parliament and so on. The point is to make Parliament work. The only way and the best way to make Parliament work is to stick to the rules. If we do not stick to the rules, there will come occasions when these can be abused, either by Members of the House using the Press as a leak for political reasons or by the Press putting pressure on Members of Parliament.
The great mass of the people are unmoved by these matters. Certain hon. Members have today been moved by little snippets that have appeared in various journalistic newspapers, such as The Times or The Guardian, which stick up, quite rightly, for their fourth estate, the estate of the Press. However, I warn hon. Members that if they oppose the motion moved by the Father of the House they will be doing a great disservice because they will be making an attack upon the way in which and the principles on which the business of this House is conducted.
Follies may be committed by hon. Members. We may look foolish in the eyes of certain journalists. But we shall look really foolish if we destroy the present workings of the House, which are effective and are the only way that our freedoms are preserved.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put, but Mr. Deputy Speaker withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.
§ 12.8 a.m.
§ The Attorney-General (Mr. S. C. Silkin)
This has been an extremely valuable debate—valuable whether or not 1341 the motion moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) is accepted by the House, because it has brought out the important aspects of the particular case that we are dealing with. It is a case which is not unique as has been said.
I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser) that in a debate of this kind there is a very great danger that one may fall into the trap of dealing with a subject that is different from the subject of this Report. There are different views as to the desirability of the proceedings of Committees being taken in public or in private. I must say, in parenthesis, that I am particularly pleased that in the course of this discussion, as with one of the recent Reports of the Select Committee, notice is at last being taken of the Report of the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1967, over eight years ago, in which that subject was discussed very fully.
That Committee took the view that we should move towards greater flexibility, greater relaxation and a greater degree of open government. The present position is one in which that problem does not arise. We are dealing with a document that was marked as being confidential and that was protected by the rules of the House. Whether we think that it should not have been confidential, or whether we think it should have been distributed to all Members before the Select Committee discussed it, is not the point at issue. The point at issue is whether it is right that such a document should be permitted to be published without the consent of the House and without even the most trivial of penalties.
The House is in a difficulty about penalties. It can send people to prison for the rest of the Session, although I do not think that that has been done for the past 80 years. It can go through the procedure that some of us saw when my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) was solemnly rebuked whilst in his place. I think that all of us who were present on that occasion took the view that that should never happen again, whether from an hon. Member's seat or from the Bar of the House. That is all that the House can do, except impose the sort of penalty that, in this instance, the Select Committee has recommended.
§ Mr. John Cope (Gloucestershire, South)
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that this is a good moment to invent a new and unsuitable penalty after the offence?
§ The Attorney-General
It is not the invention of a new penalty; it has been suggested before. Apart from that, the House has the right and the duty to control its own administration and to manage its own affairs. It has every right to do what is proposed in paragraph 9 of the Report.
It is not in dispute that this was an act of contempt by both Mr. Schreiber and his editor. One of the matters that I find extraordinarily difficult to understand is that journalists are saying forcefully that it is wrong that they should reveal the identity of their confidential sources while being prepared to reveal the confidential document that comes from those sources. In my view it is not a logical position for journalists or the House to adopt.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
Is it not the case that there is no doubt that there was a deliberate breach of faith by a member of the Committee, and that that breach was used by members of the Press? Is that not true?
§ The Attorney-General
The evidence suggests very strongly that that was the case. It is admitted by Mr. Shreiber and Mr. Knight that they well knew that this was a confidential document. Although they did not both say that they knew for certain that they were committing a contempt deliberately, one said that he was 60 per cent. or 70 per cent. sure and the other admitted that he knew. These were deliberate actions, knowing that what was being done was what the House forbade and what the Select Committee intended to forbid. That was the reason why the draft Report was marked as it was.
It is a free vote tonight, and I am speaking only as a member of the Committee. It is open to the House to say "We shall do nothing about it." I suggest that it is important that it should not be seen to be an offence that can readily be repeated. That is the reality of the harm that might be done. It is not the particular harm in the particular case that is involved; it is the harm of 1343 doing nothing in circumstances in which that deliberate action has been taken.
I hope that the House will support the motion to make it clear to the public, hon. Members and members of the journalistic profession that although this behaviour happened in this case it must not happen in the future.
§ 12.17 a.m.
§ Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)
I have never sought to extend privilege of secrecy. I think that I am the only Member of this House who, when practising at the Bar, has acted professionally in a case that went before the Privileges Committee—and I am glad to say that the matter was taken no further. Therefore, I have been on both sides of the fence.
I do not regard this as an argument whether one is in favour of open government or private government. That is not the issue. There is a simple question: are there circumstances in which Parliament should be allowed, in a Select Committee, to deliberate in private? In my view, the only circumstances in which one can say "Yes" is in a case in which it can be shown that privacy prior to publication of a Report is in the interests of Parliament collectively and of the country as a whole.
I remember a case that was referred to us by a former Member of this House, It was a complicated matter, which took up the time of the Privileges Committee for many weeks. We faced the great difficulty that the Member concerned could have taken action in the civil courts. We knew that there was a possibility of a distinguished political journalist being involved and also that people wanted to give evidence to the Select Committee. We were aware of the fact that if that evidence were made public we might have prejudiced the civil action, and that our deliberations might be in conflict with a civil court.
For that reason I believe that it was absolutely right that we considered those matters in private. Subsequently, we felt that we were inhibited from acting, because the matter was proceeding in the courts. Had those matters been debated in public, I cannot think that it would have occasioned a fair trial if an action for defamation were brought. We were 1344 also told that it was possible that at a subsequent stage criminal charges might arise. Again, therefore, it was right and proper that the matter should have been considered by the Select Committee in private.
I believe that recently this House acquitted itself in a sensible and proper way when an extremely difficult case came before it relating to the Yorkshire Branch of the NUM. I remember that on that occasion we would not have been able to come to a correct decision if we had not had full and frank discussions in private between all Members, representing a wide spectrum of political opinion in this House.
There have also been occasions when witnesses have asked to sideline certain parts of their evidence, because there were certain aspects of the evidence which they did not wish to be published. We said that we would have to decide whether it was reasonable. It was reasonable, it did not detract from the value of the Report, and it provided valuable background information, which assisted us in reaching our conclusions. There are occasions, provided they are used wisely, when it is reasonable to ask that a Select Committee should be able to debate in private. Government behaviour should not be the guide. If anything, we should set higher standards.
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
Surely the argument is not whether Select Committees should be able to sit in private but whether these journalists should be punished for getting hold of a story and publishing it?
§ Mr. Thorpe
I am coming to that question in a moment.
I would have thought that publication of the Crossman diaries would inhibit members of contemporary Cabinets, particularly from now on, if they felt that proceedings were being mentally noted for future use. Patients of the late Lord Moran might have felt inhibited about discussing their ailments in great detail if they knew that professional confidentialities would be breached.
The system of advance warning of the Press is profoundly unsatisfactory. With very few exceptions, Lobby correspondents honour embargoes in White Papers, but it is outrageous that they should have 24 hours' or 48 hours' notice, ahead of Members of Parliament. 1345 I would like to see simultaneous embargoes for the Press and hon. Members. There should be nothing to prohibit the Press from discussing matters with hon. Members, on the understanding that if views were reported in the Press, or on radio or television, before the embargo expired it would be an indication that those doing the publishing did not wish to enjoy the privilege in future.
We are asked whether it matters that it was the Chairman's Report. Perhaps we ought to examine what should and should not be confidential, or matters of privilege.
I think the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) was putting forward the parlourmaid argument—that she had given birth to an illegitimate child, but it was only a little one. If we ask for the right of a certain degree of confidentiality, we either defend it or we do not. If we are demanding too much confidentiality, it is for us to amend the situation.
In 1956, I was prevented from publishing certain evidence on behalf of a client on the question of Suez and the allocation of petrol by hon. Members. We have been too sensitive on this issue, but if we attach importance to the discussion of matters in private, we can prove that only by asserting that right and defending it when it is breached. That is my answer to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). The fact that we have not found out which hon. Member was involved should not inhibit the House from defending its rights.
There has been a breach. The only question is whether this is an excessive penalty to inflict on the journalists. The major penalty is obviously ruled out, and the six months' ban is the only alternative, unless we do nothing and say that we are sure that it will not happen again. I do not see how we can be that certain. If we agree that there are occasions when it is reasonable for the House to deliberate in private before releasing a Report that will be made public and will be debatable in public, are we prepared to defend that course by taking action as the Select Committee has suggested to the House? I think that the House will wish to support the Committee.
§ 12.25 a.m.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
In our system the House normally treats the recommendations of its Committees with disdain. More frequently, the House totally ignores its Committees' recommendations. I do not suggest that the House should automatically accept any recommendation of any Committeee, but there is a special consideration to be taken into account in considering Reports by the Committee of Privileges. None of us can be happy with the procedure whereby we sit effectively as a court of law, with power to impose a penalty, but are not equipped as a court of law. There is no representation, and none of the normal defences to safeguard a defendant. That is one reason why the initial consideration of the issue is handed over to the Privileges Committee and, thank God, the proceedings within the Privileges Committee are more detached, calmer and a bit closer to the atmosphere of a court than are the proceedings on the Floor of the House. Therefore, the House should always give the benefit of the doubt to the recommendation brought forward by the Privileges Committee in a case like this.
The Father of the House—the Chairman of the Committee—referred to the amusing and amazing request made by The Economist, at the end of the hearing, that part of the evidence given by the two journalists to the Committee should be protected. Had the Committee acceded to that request The Economist would have relied for the observance of that degree of secrecy upon other newspapers adhering to the rules of the House more honestly than did The Economist on this occasion. That is a rather ironic touch.
§ Mr. Michael Latham
Will the hon. Gentleman quote from the evidence the passage in which The Economist asked for evidence not to be published?
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes
If it helps the hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham), I can tell him that the reference is on page 15. In answer to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for 1347 Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo), Mr. Knight said:If it is within the discretion of the Committee what is published I would like an opportunity of making representations to you in that regard.
§ Mr. Cunningham
That is the passage I had in mind. It was clearly a request to have the opportunity to make some part of the evidence secret if, having seen it, The Economist decided that it wanted to do so. Most people who make a similar request to a Select Committee do so in that provisional way. They want to look at the first statement of the evidence to see whether they want to request sidelining. So my point stands.
We are all embarrassed that the two journalists are identified but the Member of the House who is the principal culprit is not. It would have been offensive for the Privileges Committee to subject the members of the Select Committee on a Wealth Tax to questions on oath as to what they had or had not done. If, in future, in a similar situation, it is accepted that a Member is the principal culprit but we have managed to identify only the secondary culprits, we should consider putting Members on oath, so that if they said on oath something that turned out later to be untrue they would be committing a criminal offence.
§ Mr. Michael Brotherton (Louth)
The hon. Gentleman speaks of putting Members on oath. Does that mean Members subscribing their signatures?
§ Mr. Cunningham
It is perfectly possible for Select Committees to subject Member witnesses to giving evidence on oath. If I remember correctly, doing so brings the offences under the provisions of the criminal law. In a situation like this, where a Member unknown is accepted to be the principal culprit, before punishing the secondary offenders we should subject Members to that treatment.
It has been mentioned that the document in question was marked as confidential. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) said that it was marked "Confidential", but the actual marking on the document was not in those terms. It is a consideration for the future that if we are to have secret or confidential documents of the House—as against documents of the Government—which are 1348 secret, confidential or restricted, we should adopt the traditionally accepted markings, with "House of Commons—Secret" or something like that marked on them, so that it is understood that the requirement of confidentiality is as binding as a normal security classification on a Government document.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
The hon. Gentleman raises a most important point. The originator of the leak has chosen to remain secret and those who published what he leaked have contained his secrecy. I believe that it is right that the person who leaked have contained his secrecy. I bepal conspirator, but let us be in no doubt that the protection of a conspirator, which is the position in this situation, is equally difficult.
§ Mr. Cunningham
In any situation in which people are accused of offences, it is not at all uncommon that one does not manage to catch all of them. One does not refuse to proceed against two persons whom one has identified, on the ground that one has not identified the other, even if the other has been guilty of a more heinous offence than have the first two.
I strongly agree that we have too much secrecy in British Government. I do not think that we have an excessive degree of secrecy in the House of Commons, but in respect of the wealth tax I think that it would have made sense if the Committee had held all its sittings, including its deliberative sitting, in the open. But it did not, and that was its right.
I recall a Select Committee on which I served two years ago, which decided to conduct an investigation into a very sensitive matter that has lately received much publicity, relating to the Crown Agents. We decided to take evidence in private because we knew that that was the only way in which we could get hold of confidential information, and we decided that at the end of our proceedings we would consider how much of that information to make public. Our deliberative sittings were therefore bound to be in secret, and many of our other sittings were in secret as well. One cannot protect the desirable secrecy of that kind of operation unless one always protects occasions when a Committee has decided to go secret, even if one disagrees with its judgment that this was an occasion 1349 on which secrecy was required. The decision can only be one for the Committee to take.
I suppose that in setting up a Select Committee on, say, the wealth tax, we could decide that the subject is of such a nature that all its deliberations must be in public. If we said that, the Committee would know where it stood. Otherwise, the decision must be left to the Committee.
Sufficient mention has not been made of the fact that Mr. Schreiber refused to reveal his source of information. I would not expect him to do otherwise, and in his situation I would do the same. But in his situation, I would expect to be punished for it. A journalist is entitled to say that he will make a judgment and withhold information that is legally required of him by a court of law or by a House of Commons Committee, but he must not then say that he should be let off the penalty for doing so. To be fair to Mr. Schreiber, he has not asked to be let off the penalty. But, if we let him off the penalty, the sanction will not exist in other cases in which Committees have had secret deliberations when the secrecy was far more important than it was on this occasion.
§ 12.35 a.m.
§ Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)
I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) about the importance of Members of this House receiving notification of the publication of any Select Committee Report at the same time as journalists receive it. In this case, the members of the Select Committee on a Wealth Tax knew that they would not be receiving the published report of the Committee at the same time as the journalists did. They knew that the journalists would receive it 48 hours before. The members of the Committee that had produced the Report would not have been allowed to see the printed Report. That situation needs altering. Members should have the right to see these Reports at the same time as journalists do.
I want to raise one or two matters about the proceedings of the Select Committee which I think the House his misunderstood. The Chairman of the Committee, together with an adviser employed by the Committee, produced the Report that was referred to as having been leaked 1350 during the recess. If my memory serves me right, copies were sent by post to members of the Committee. I do not know whether the Committee of Privileges ascertained how many copies of the Report were published—
§ Mr. Hawkins
In any event, copies were sent by post. It has been said time and time again that it must have been a member of the Select Committee who leaked the report, but I cast doubt on that suggestion, because there were copies of the Report floating around, and I believe that it could have been leaked in some other way.
§ Mr. Strauss
I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not want to mislead the House. There were not many copies hanging about. A limited number were printed. All but a few went to members of the Select Committee on a Wealth Tax. The few that did not were accounted for, and held back. No copies went to the City, or to any Government Department.
§ Mr. Hawkins
I was not suggesting that.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the deliberations of the Select Committee. In fact, there were no deliberations on the Report before it was leaked. The Report was made up during the recess and copies were posted to members of the Committee. It is quite possible that it was seen by someone before it was received by those who served on the Committee. In any event, it does not appear to members of the Committee to have made any difference to the proceedings of the Committee. I do not believe that in this case it has caused any damage.
I do not defend what the journalists did. I think that they did something that was totally wrong. I agree that notice of this should be taken, but this was a special case. No damage was done, and this did not affect our judgment in any way.
§ Mr. Skinner
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put, but Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.
§ Mr. Ashton
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Surely it is the practice on Fridays, after the debate has continued for two and a quarter hours, that Mr. Speaker accepts such a motion.
§ 12.40 a.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Lipton (Lambeth, Central)
I object to the attitude of certain hon. Members, who seem to think that nothing much has happened and that no action need be taken. That was the tenor of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and other hon. Members.
My main objection is to the contempt with which the Committee of Privileges has been treated by Mr. Knight and Mr. Schreiber. Those two gentlemen refused to answer the questions put to them. The Committee came to the conclusion—I do not know whether this conclusion is accepted by hon. Members who have spoken—that the conduct of Mr. Schreiber was wholly irresponsible. Whether hon. Members agree with that or not, they cannot gloss it over as a matter of no importance.
We have been told that there were no copies of the draft Report circulating except to members of the Select Committee on the Wealth Tax and to current members of the staff of the House. What strikes me as particularly odd is that neither Mr. Knight or Mr. Schreiber answered questions put to them by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) who, at Question 107, asked:You will not tell us your source. That means that all the Members of the Committee and their staff are left under the general smear of having behaved in an unsatisfactory way?The answer was:I do not wish to be asked to make moral judgments on anybody from whom I may or may not have obtained this information.After the Committee of Privileges had completed its deliberations and decided to make its Report, it received a further communication from the editor of The Economist withdrawing any imputation against members of the staff of the House. So at least the staff have been exonerated. But Mr. Knight and Mr. Shreiber were never asked whether they were prepared to exonerate any hon. 1352 Member from the charge which they withdrew against the staff of the House.
The letter from the editor of The Economist to the Chairman of the Committee of Privileges, which appears at page 19 of the Report and which is undated, obviously arrived after the Committee had completed its discussions. That is why I think that the whole position is unsatisfactory in the highest degree. The Committee was treated with contempt by these two gentlemen, and the penalty proposed is ridiculous.
The proposed penalty is that these journalists must not come to the precincts of the House for six months except for thepurpose of interviewing, in their capacity of constituents, their Members of Parliament.We do not know who their Members of Parliament are. We do not know whether one Member represents both these gentlemen or whether there are two Members.
How is the penalty to be enforced? Are they to come to the Central Lobby and hand in a green card, asking to see a particular hon. Member? Will that hon. Member be allowed to bring them into the Strangers' Bar, or into the Cafeteria?
The whole thing is ridiculous. Either one imposes a penalty or one does not. This kind of penalty makes nonsense, and I refuse to have anything to do with the whole business.
§ 12.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)
I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Lambeth Central (Mr. Lipton) in his demand for a much tougher penalty, but I agree with him that the penalty is the central issue of the debate.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) that there has undoubtedly been a breach of rules in this matter, but I believe this penalty to be a grave overreaction, and the use of a sledge hammer to crack a nut. There were several ways in which the Committee over-reacted. They were selective in singling out the Economist for six of the best, because we are living in a time when leaks are pouring out of the Cabinet to such an extent that they are flowing like Niagara Falls. This is by no means the first leak 1353 from the Committee. There was an article in the Antiques Trade Gazette on 1st November that made it clear that someone on that paper had also seen a draft copy of the Report and knew that it said certain things about what should or should not be exempt from wealth tax.
There are several examples of the ways in which the rules are infringed, and it is hard to understand why the Committee come down hard on this breaking of the rules and punish it much more harshly than the breaking of the rules in the Scargill case. It is a curious example of double standards.
§ Mr. Fairbairn
In any of those cases, did any of the gentlemen concerned refuse to answer the Committee of Privileges, and thus come in contempt of the House?
§ Mr. Aitken
I shall come to my hon. Friend's point in a moment. The overreaction has been manifested by the exaggerated prose style of the Report. The Committee accused Mr. Knight of being" reckless "and Mr. Schreiber of being" wholly irresponsible". Those epithets are unjustified. They could only have been written in ignorance of the practices of journalists and journalism. If one examines the Report closely, one finds that it it suggested that the journalist accused of the unusual crime of reckless editing should have halted the presses of the Economist at Slough where he received the article in its final form and taken legal advice on the question whether he was in contempt of the House of Commons, or whether there were extenuating circumstances, as he thought there might have been.
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes
The hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) represents the honourable profession of journalism. The Committee of Privileges has a right to call for persons and papers, and that implies that anyone who refuses to answer questions is in contempt of the House.
§ Mr. Aitken
I shall come to the question of the revealing of sources. I return now to the question of Mr. Schreiber. It might be said that he should have been more hypocritical, and should have written something like "It is understood that the Report will say …" rather than making it clear that he had actually seen the 1354 Report. He would not have been in trouble. But he declined to answer certain questions on his sources and that is regarded as a contempt of the House. No doubt it is, but is it sufficiently serious to justify this penalty? That is the crucial issue. It is an honourable and traditional ethic of journalists that they do not reveal their sources. We should respect that right. The members of the Committee of Privileges are largely lawyers. I wonder whether they would have come down hard on a lawyer who had refused to reveal confidential discussions with a client. The Committee has failed to appreciate and respect the ethics of journalism in this matter. If it insists on using words like "wholly reckless" and "wholly irresponsible", it is guilty of writing a wholly exaggerated Report.
The Committee has not noted the extenuating circumstances. No damage was done, and there was confusion on the question of the time when the curtain came down and the Report became definitely confidential. The Committee has not taken sufficient note of the handsome apology by both journalists for breaking the rules.
I understand the point of view of those who say that Parliament's interests may have been damaged—though only slightly, I believe—by this affair. But Parliament's interests must be balanced against the public interest, and it can be fairly argued that the public interest was well served by this leak, even if Parliament's interests were not so well served. Since parliamentarians are ultimately public servants, we should hesitate for an eternity before taking action that shows us to be excessively jealous of our privileges at the expense of the public interest.
§ 12.52 a.m.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
On a point of order. I thought that my bon. Friend was giving way to me.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I do not think that the hon. Member's hopes were shared by the rest of the House.
§ Mr. Short
We have now debated this matter for two and three-quarter hours, and I wonder whether the House would 1355 now be willing to come to a conclusion on it. I should be very reluctant to closure a debate of this kind, which is essentially a House of Commons matter, but I feel that all the arguments have been deployed and that every hon. Member has probably made up his mind.
I shall certainly support the recommendation of the Select Committee. This is a Committee of very senior Members, not all of them lawyers, by any means. I know of no Committee in which more trouble is taken to reach an objective conclusion, in a calm and judicial atmosphere, and in this case its decision was unanimous.
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Main Question, as amended, agreed to.
That this House, while regretting the leakage of information from the Select Committee on a Wealth Tax and its publication by The Economist, considers that no further action need be taken in the matter.
§ I must make it clear, however, that I regard this as a House of Commons matter, and it is for every hon. Member to make up his own mind. I think that all the arguments have been put and I now invite the House to reach a conclusion on this matter.
§ Question put, That the amendment be made:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 64, Noes 55.1355
|Division No. 18.]||AYES||[12.54 a.m.|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Hooson, Emlyn||Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey|
|Arnold, Tom||Hurd, Douglas||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|Bain, Mrs Margaret||Kaufman, Gerald||Sainsbury, Tim|
|Baker, Kenneth||Kilfedder, James||Scott, Nicholas|
|Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)||Kinnock, Neil||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Knox, David||Sims, Roger|
|Bottomley, Peter||Latham, Michael (Melton)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Brittan, Leon||Loyden, Eddie||Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)|
|Brotherton, Michael||MacGregor, John||Steel, David (Roxburgh)|
|Canavan, Dennis||McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)||Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)|
|Carlisle, Mark||McNamara, Kevin||Thompson, George|
|Channon, Paul||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Cope, John||Mayhew, Patrick||Watt, Hamish|
|Crawford, Douglas||Mendelson, John||Welsh, Andrew|
|Cryer, Bob||Meyer, Sir Anthony||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Durant, Tony||Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)||Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)|
|Freud, Clement||Newton, Tony||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Pardoe, John||Wood, Rt Hon Richard|
|Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)||Parry, Robert||Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)|
|Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)||Penhaligon, David|
|Grist, Ian||Price, C. (Lewisham W)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)||Mr. Joseph Ashton and|
|Henderson, Douglas||Reid, George||Mr. George Gardiner.|
|Archer, Peter||Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St)||Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||Short, Rt Hon E. (Newcastle C)|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)||Harper, Joseph||Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)|
|Banks, Robert||Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)||Small, William|
|Beith, A. J.||Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)||Snape, Peter|
|Body, Richard||Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)||Spearing, Nigel|
|Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)||Lipton, Marcus||Sproat, Iain|
|Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)||McElhone, Frank||Stoddart, David|
|Cohen, Stanley||Mahon, Simon||Stott, Roger|
|Coleman, Donald||Mellish, Rt Hon Robert||Stradling Thomas J.|
|Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)||Moate, Roger||Strauss, Rt Hon G. R.|
|Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill)||Neave, Airey||Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)|
|Crouch, David||Ogden, Eric||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Dempsey, James||Palmer, Arthur||Wilson, William (Coventry SE)|
|Dormand, J. D.||Peyton, Rt Hon John||Winterton, Nicholas|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Edward||Rathbone, Tim|
|Dunn, James A.||Rawlinson, Rt Hon Sir Peter||TELLERS FOR THE NOES|
|English, Michael||Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)||Mr. George Cunningham and|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Roderick, Caerwyn||Mr. Richard Crawshaw|
|Ford, Ben||Rooker, J. W.|