HC Deb 16 January 1978 vol 942 cc31-2
Mr. Speaker

On Thursday last, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) asked me to rule on a matter of contempt involved failure to provide documents when a Select Committee asked for them.

I have given careful consideration to the matter raised by the hon. Member. It is not for the Speaker to define the limits of contempt nor to say in a particular case whether a contempt has been committed. My predecessors in this Chair were always particularly careful to avoid giving an opinion one way or another on such matters. It is for the House itself both to pass general resolutions on the matter of contempt and to decide whether in a particular case a contempt has been committed.

The function of the Speaker is strictly defined to decide whether complaints raised as matters of privilege should have precedence over the Orders of the Day. I am quite certain that he should go no further than that. It is, therefore, not for me to express a general view on the matters raised by the hon. Member.

In his point of order the hon. Member referred correctly to pages 644 and 645 of the current edition of "Erskine May". Cases where disobedience to orders of a Committee have been found to be contempt are also cited on pages 139 and 140 of "Erskine May". I think, however, it might be helpful if I reminded the hon. Member of the passage on page 647 under the heading Limitations on the power of select committees to send for papers. This refers back to the powers of the House itself, which are described on pages 255 and 256.

I understand that the Select Committee on Procedure proposes to examine this whole question and in the circumstances it would be wiser for me to go no further than to draw the hon. Member's attention to those passages. When the Select Committee has advised the House, it will be for the House itself to come to a conclusion.

The hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) raised the question whether there was a limitation on the persons and papers that may be required by a Select Committee. The reply that I have given deals also with his point.

Mr. George Cunningham

I am most grateful for your ruling, Mr. Speaker. You will remember that the reason why I asked for such a ruling was that the Lord President of the Council, in the course of the exchanges, had made an ex cathedra statement that the non-production of documents, when required by Select Committee, was not a contempt unless the House itself had so ordered—

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)


Mr. Cunningham

I am glad to hear the Lord President indicate that that was not his assertion. It was certainly what I understood his assertion to be.

Mr. Foot


Mr. Cunningham

If that was not his assertion, I think that the House will be satisfied with matters as they stand.

Mr. Higgins

I am grateful for your ruling, Mr. Speaker. It is a matter of some concern that the words used by the Lord President the other day seemed to impose a further limitation on the exact extent to which specific papers and persons could be sent for. Given that that is so, may I ask whether it will be possible for the proceedings to be debated? I think that it is important, because otherwise we shall not know which papers may and may not be sent for by Select Committees.

Mr. Speaker

I advise the hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) to study what I have said. Of course, the whole House knows that the Lord President expressed his own opinion. The House has not passed any opinion on the matter.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May we have clarification from the Lord President of what his statement the other day did mean, since he has been saying no all the time?

Mr. Speaker

Not now—if ever.