HC Deb 16 November 1976 vol 919 cc1126-30
Mr. Arthur Latham

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to rule upon a matter of breach of privilege and possible contempt of the House. It concerns a document—a copy of which I provided to your office last night, Mr. Speaker—which was circulated within the Palace of Westminster by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat). It is headed "House of Commons", bears the imprint of House of Commons stationery, and reads: Extract from a speech by Mr. Iain Sproat, MP (C) for South Aberdeen, at a meeting of London Scottish Conservative graduates, Chelsea, London … at 1.30 on Monday 15th November 1976". A number of Press reports based on this document have appeared today, but my complaint concerns the whole document, which had a fairly wide distribution within the Lobby and the Gallery of the House last night. I shall not burden you and the House by reading the whole document—[HON. MEMBERS: "Read it."] I shall indeed read enough to satisfy and possibly to incriminate some Tory Members. It says: The Labour Party has clearly been infiltrated to a terrifying degree "— [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I counsel hon. Gentlemen opposite to watch their cheers because this moves from the banal to the scurrilous, as they will learn— by fifth columnists who call themselves Labour, but who in fact hold views totally alien to the democratic Labour tradition. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It goes on: They have tricked decent Labour voters ".

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Speaker

Order. May I remind the House that questions of privilege are very serious and are usually heard in silence.

Mr. Latham

I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that this becomes more serious as it goes on. It continues: who would be horrified if they realised what certain of their MPs and others really stood for. Thus far, Mr. Speaker, the cries of "Hear, hear" are expected, and one might attribute those remarks to a very young Young Conservative, and a not very bright one at that. One might regard those remarks as despicable.

Mr. Younger

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) is raising this matter on a point of order. I ask the hon. Member to confine himself to the notes. [Interruption.] I shall do my best to control the House if the hon. Gentleman will co-operate with me and draw attention to the parts that he claims are a breach of privilege.

Mr. Latham

Indeed, Mr. Speaker, I submit that those remarks, without the other remarks that I intend to quote, might be dismissed as being immature and irresponsible, but it is important to quote them and to make these comments so that when those quotations are linked to the other parts of the paper which I now wish to quote to the House the scurrilous and serious nature of the matter will be better understood.

The document goes on to say: And among MPs themselves there are now at least 30 whose views are, in my opinion, virtually the same as those of Communists, assorted Trotskyite groups, Marxists and the so-called New Left, etc. It reads on: These MPs are perpetrating a massive fraud on the voters —I ask hon. Gentlemen to weigh carefully the true meaning of the words that I am quoting— by standing for Labour; they are little less than the equivalent of undercover political agents for alien political creeds. The document then goes on to name 10 Members of Parliament, but to my knowledge none of the names was pub- lished by the newspapers because their legal advisers warned them against so doing. But the fact remains that the document, with those 10 names, was widely circulated within the precincts of the House.

Mr. Lawrence

Who are they?

Mr. Latham

There is also this further allegation: The aim of these people is to turn Britain into the equivalent of a totalitarian East European state. I want to draw attention to four brief extracts from "Erskine May" which deal with this matter. At page 429, the current edition deals with unparliamentary expressions, saying: These may be classified as follows —and the first one listed is: The imputation of false or unavowed motives. I submit that this document comes clearly within that classification.

On page 153, in the chapter headed Acts or Conduct Constituting Contempt". "Erskine May" lists Reflections on the motives of a Member or a group of Members ". An interesting point arises in that there is a complaint by the 10 who are named, but there is also a complaint properly to be examined in respect of the remaining 20 of the 30—[Laughter.] That is covered in the same chapter, page 145—I urge hon. Members opposite to take this matter seriously— Reflections upon Members, the particular individuals not being named or otherwise indicated, are equivalent to reflections on the House. I submit that there is a breach of privilege or contempt in respect of the 10 named and there is also a breach of privilege of the whole House arising from the general allegation relating to a total of 30 Members.

On page 172 of "Erskine May"—I draw your serious attention to this matter, Mr. Speaker—we read: Where the matter of complaint is a charge alleged to have been made by one Member against another in a speech outside the House, it is usual, if the Member admits the correctness of the report, and states that he is in a position to prove the charge and is willing to do so, to give him an opportunity of establishing his charge and with this object to refer the matter to a committee. Where the Member has refused either to withdraw the charges or to substantiate them, the House has sometimes adjudged him guilty of a breach of privilege, and dealt with him accordingly. I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that the document that I quoted represents more than a political attack and is a disgraceful piece of attempted character assassination. Ten named Members and 20 unnamed are accused of deception and of fraud. An attack is made on their honour. It impugns their integrity and it attributes false and unavowed motives. If hon. Gentlemen come out of their facetious mood, as I think they are beginning to do, they will recognise that this document, in effect, accuses some hon. Members of treason. I submit, Mr. Speaker, that this is a clear prima facie case of breach of parliamentary privilege, and I ask you so to rule.

Mr. Amcry

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have received an application on a matter of privilege, and I do not take points of order on it until I have made a statement to the House.

The hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) is correct in that he handed in his document to my office last night. I received it this morning, and I shall follow the practice of my predecessors over a long time and give my ruling to the House tomorrow.

Sir P. Bryan

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you kindly arrange to have a copy of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) placed in the Library of the House of Commons?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will not take points of order on a privilege question on which 1 shall rule tomorrow. Let that be quite clear to the House.

Mr. Ameryrose

Mr. Speaker

Is this a separate matter?

Mr. Amery

With great respect, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will not take points of order on a matter that has been submitted to me openly in the House and to which I am due to give consideration and reply tomorrow. I must warn any right hon. or hon. Gentleman who pursues the matter that I shall order him to resume his seat.

Mr. Lawson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the hon. Member's submission, to which I do not want to refer, the hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) from a sedentary position was calling my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) and other hon. Members on this side Fascists. Will you rule whether that is in order?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House does itself no credit by shouts of abuse from one side to the other.

Mr. English

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—not on this particular issue, but in general. I hope that it will not become a precedent that such rulings should always be given "tomorrow". You spoke of your predecessors, but I believe that it was only one predecessor who did that, and I know how easily these things harden into precedents.

Mr. Speaker

I have given my ruling to the House.