HC Deb 25 March 1976 vol 908 cc637-40
Mr. Skinner

I wish to raise with you, Mr. Speaker, a question arising out of the same debate to which reference has just been made—namely, the Second Reading of the British Transport Docks (Felixstowe) Bill. It was made abundantly clear on at least a couple of occasions, and on one occasion specifically by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch), that European Ferries Limited had made a substantial offer to buy the shares of the Felixstowe port and had inserted within that offer an additional 15p on the basis that Members of Parliament would vote the Bill down.

I regard that as a breach of Privilege in the sense that the proposer of the offer, European Ferries Limited, was inducing Members of Parliament to vote in a certain way, and I suppose it could be argued that, if some of those Members had shares of their own, they could benefit themselves. References were made to Members of Parliament holding shares in the Felixstowe Company and having sold them on the basis of the offer.

The relevant paragraph in this offer document states: Provided that the British Transport Docks (Felixstowe) Bill in its original or any modified form … currently before Parliament does not receive the Royal Assent, Ordinary Stockholders who accept the offer will be paid an additional amount of 15p in cash for each Ordinary Stock unit of Felixstowe Dock within 21 days of the Bill being withdrawn or otherwise lapsing. I think that you, Mr. Speaker, will appreciate that, based on the vote last night, the Bill is still proceeding. But, as you know, it has now to go through a process of deliberation in Committee and in this House where it can still fall. On that basis, I think that the situation needs to be scrutinised by you.

As you will also appreciate, other breaches of Privilege have been raised in this House on the basis of certain statements made by various trade union leaders in both the recent and long past regarding the possible inducement of Members to vote in a certain way, and some of them have been established in a prima facie fashion for the Committee of Privileges to examine. Therefore, on that basis, I think that you should look at this offer document and consider whether a breach of Privilege has been caused as the result of its publication has been to influence Members of Parliament to vote in a certain way on a Bill before the House of Commons.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has presented his question of Privilege. I will, following precedent, give my ruling tomorrow.

Mr. Sedgemore

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether, in view of the proceedings which took place yesterday on the British Transport Docks (Felixstowe) Bill, you could—not today, but on some future occasion—give the House some advice regarding the voting procedures on Private Bills.

Certain hon. Gentlemen opposite declared an interest—some declared a direct interest—in the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company. If the voting lists are to be believed, some voted and others did not.

You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that votes have been disallowed on Private Bills where hon. Members had sometimes an indirect and sometimes a direct interest. Indeed, if you think back to 20th May 1825, when this House was debating the Leith Docks Bill—that is wholly appropriate to the subject of yesterday's debate—one Member who voted on that Bill said he had done so inadvertently, and his vote was subsequently expunged from the record. I could quote other cases, but in view of the time I will not do so.

As it appears that Private Bills are being whipped on both sides of the House and Members are therefore being encouraged to go into the Lobbies, it would seem appropriate that you should give some advice and guidance on the way in which Members should conduct themselves over these matters.

Mr. Speaker

It is dangerous for the occupant of the Chair to guide Members as to their conduct within the Division Lobbies, because the rules of the House are there for all right hon. and hon. Members to read. The facts are largely as the hon. Member stated them regarding 1825, when the vote was disallowed by the decision of the House because the vote of that particular Member was challenged immediately after the Division. In this instance, if there were a challenge, it should have been raised immediately after the Division last night. I will consider what the hon. Member said, but I doubt whether there will be much advantage in my making a further statement on the matter.

Mr. Ridley

Further to those two points of order, Mr. Speaker. We are in a dilemma. If the Bill did not pass, we understood, there might be benefit to shareholders in the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company. On the other hand, if the Bill passed and in due course became law, there would be damage to all right hon. and hon. Members, because it would involve another sum of £5.28 million which would have to be raised in taxes. That would equally be a personal financial disadvantage to all hon. Members.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has long experience. I expect that he has a point of order coming along, but he has not yet reached it.

Mr. Ridley

Surely it does not matter whether the pecuniary advantage is through having lower taxes or higher prices.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not involve me in arguments between the two sides of the House. I shall be looking at the question of Privilege. I do not want to discuss anything related to it until I have considered it.

Mr. Buchan

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You referred to the precedent of the 1825 Leith Docks Bill and the fact that the vote by one Member was challenged immediately after the vote. I do not understand the procedures prevailing in 1825, but I am aware of the procedures prevailing in 1976. We had no means of knowing who had or had not voted until the lists formally appeared in Hansard today. I ask you to keep that point in mind so that we do not accept the precedent as a total precedent but perhaps as a guide to action. This is the first occasion on which this matter could have been raised in this fashion.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that no challenge has been made against any particular Member. A general statement has been made.

Mr. Burden

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a fact that, unless Members had shares in the particular company and, therefore, if the Bill failed, would receive an extra 15p for every share they had, and that such Members voted in the Lobby against the Bill, the whole of this allegation would be completely destroyed?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The time has come to be fair to the Irish. Their debate will last only until seven o'clock. I will consider all the matters which have been raised.