HC Deb 23 February 1976 vol 906 cc36-8
Mr. Gorst

In raising this matter, Mr. Speaker, it is not my intention to criticise the judiciary. My purpose is to ask you whether a breach of privilege is involved as a result of an order which has been imposed by a judge, and, if not, whether the importance of the precedent which has been set by the order requires the consideration of the Committee of Privileges.

The matter in question arises from the following situation. On 13th January a constituent of mine, a Mr. Donald Smith, was sent to prison for contempt of a court order forbidding him from seeing his two sons. Two days later I visited him in prison, and thereafter I tabled some Early-Day Motions which became the subject of Press reports the following day. Thirteen days later my constituent was released from prison but was ordered not to have any contact with the Press on the subject of his two sons.

Last Friday, when Mr. Smith was granted custody of his two sons, the judge ruled: There will be an injunction restraining both parents communicating directly or indirectly to the Press, or any other media, things related to the wards of court. I understand that counsel's opinion is that the judge's ruling means that I, as Mr. Smith's Member of Parliament, cannot speak to the Press about this subject as it would be "indirectly" discussing the children.

It is not a new thing for injunctions to be imposed restraining people from making statements, but I submit, Mr. Speaker, that an injunction of the courts which has the effect of inhibiting or regulating freedom of speech or communication between a constituent and his Member of Parliament is in a different category from any other court ruling, since it surely affects the rights, privileges and responsibilities of a Member of this House.

I believe that we have a duty not only to respond to public opinion but also to consult, discuss and, if necessary, mould it in places outside the precincts of the Palace of Westminster.

The position as I see it is that my constituent can no longer, after three and a half years of doing so, discuss his case with me. Apart from this, there are several aspects of my constituent's case which touch upon matters which have been raised in the recent Committee on One-Parent Families.

I do not believe that it is in the public interest that Members of Parliament should be prevented from making references to actual cases, especially when the demands of their constituents dictate otherwise. Nor is it right that the only forum for the discussion of public issues should be this House. For example, it would surely be rightly resented if either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition refused to make any speeches outside Parliament. The public expect speeches to be made outside Parliament.

Consequently, Mr. Speaker, I ask you for your guidance on these three points. The first is whether the matter of the judge's ruling can be investigated as a breach of parliamentary privilege. Secondly, if it cannot, can the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges for it to consider the implications of a ruling which, in effect, prohibits free communications between a constituent and his Member of Parliament and between a Member of Parliament and the Press? Finally, now that the two boys are my constituents, as a result of the judge's order, is it a breach of privilege for the courts effectively to deny them access to their Member of Parliament or to deny their Member of Parliament access to them?

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. Following previous practice, I shall give my ruling tomorrow.

Mr. English

You will recollect, Mr. Speaker, that apart from the Attorney-General I am the only remaining Member of this House who served on the Joint Committee on the Publication of Proceedings in Parliament. If the facts are as stated by the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst), I hope you will realise that he has made a very grave case indeed.