HC Deb 13 March 1978 vol 946 cc31-44


Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I beg to call attention to the reports published in The Guardian newspaper and the Daily Mail newspaper on 8th March 1978 relating to the proceedings of the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, and to move, That the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges. I am sure the House is greatly obliged for the careful consideration which you, Mr. Speaker, have given to the submission I made. In view of your ruling on Friday, I move this motion formally.


Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I wish to oppose the motion. I am surprised that it was expected to go through virtually on the nod.

Let me give my reasons for opposing the motion. I was responsible for raising a matter of privilege in 1975 concerning The Economist. As I said in the debate on 16th December 1977 when we debated the Report of the Committee of Privileges, I then deeply regretted, and still do, the fact that I had raised the matter of privilege in the first place.

I disagree with the rules that are being used, and for those reasons I disagree with the conclusions reached by the Privileges Committee. I say this on the grounds that any journalist worth that title will never divulge his sources of information. I do not see what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) expects to gain by referring this matter to the Committee. It can only come back to this House with a report based on the information that is before it, for nobody will tell the Committee who committed the so-called breach of privilege or who gave the journalist the information in the first place.

I submit that it does this House no good whatever to go through this charade once again and attempt to bring journalists, who are only doing their job, to book when the real culprits are those who acted against the reports of Select Committees of this House. We shall not be able to find those people by means of this procedure. Therefore, it is a charade and a total waste of time to go through this whole process. At a later date when we have debated the report of the Privileges Committee I do not think we should then go through the whole procedure of the journalist concerned doing penance by coming to the Bar of the House, or being put in the custody of the Serjeant at Arms. After the experience on the last occasion, I am sure that the House will not wish to support such a recommendation. On those grounds I oppose the motion.

3.44 p.m.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I believe that it would make no sense for this matter to be referred to the Privileges Committee, and I say this for a number of reasons.

The first thing that happens when these matters go before that Committee is that it tries to find every possible way round the subject in order to avoid conflict at the end. I well recall the occasion when Arthur Scargill was alleged to have influenced some of the sponsored Members of Parliament who had voted in favour of the Common Market because that vote went against a ban in the area committee. The Privileges Committee spent a great deal of time trying to find ways not to bring Arthur Scargill to the Bar of the House. I have no doubt that if Arthur Scargill had got to the Bar of the House, he would have relished it. I do not know that I can speak for Arthur Scargill—and he cannot speak for me either, and he knows it.

The point was that the Committee sat several times, and letters were sent to officials of the union—and not only to Arthur Scargill but to Joe Gormley—to try to clarify the situation in order to avoid a head-on clash. My guess is that if this matter goes any further, it will finish up in exactly the same way. Therefore, this matter is a nonsense as well.

The subject was raised in The Sunday Times at a time when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) was not in a position to raise the matter with you, Mr. Speaker. One does not know why he did not have that opportunity. Perhaps he does not read The Sunday Times. Perhaps eventually somebody bumped into him in the corridor and said, "Hi, Fred, have you seen The Sunday Times?", and no doubt added that the matter should go before the Privileges Committee. The result is that this matter is going before the Committee in relation to certain newspapers when the newspapers who first reported it are not involved.

I do not like the idea of Select Committees anyway. I think the way they conduct their business, mainly in private, is a nonsense. For that reason, too, I do not think the matter should be referred to the Committee.

Recently we had all the fuss about the report of the Select Committee that dealt with the British Steel Corporation. Most of that was mentioned in the Press beforehand, but for some reason or other that did not merit the attention of reference to Mr. Speaker to pass on to the appropriate Committee.

I hope that the House will take all these matters into account before it votes today, because I believe that this is yet another motion that should not be sent upstairs. We should forget all about it. It is not worth the paper it is written on. When eventually, if the motion is approved, the matter comes back to the House for debate, it will involve recommendations that mean all things to all men and all women. It will have wasted the time of the Members involved. I suggest to those Members—not that they matter much to me—that they should save their time.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I should like to ask the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) two questions which are very relevant to this matter.

First, is it not the latest Privileges Committee ruling that there has to be substantial interference with the deliberations of a Committee? If the position is that after the deliberations had been completed the matter was leaked before the printers printed it, where is the substantial interference with deliberations? Is that all that is being complained of?

Secondly, is it not a fact that a week before the breaches complained of in this motion the Sun and The Sunday Times, and I think The Guardian also, gave some account of the findings of the Select Committee? If so, were they substantially interfering with any delibera- tions? If so, are they not more to blame than those concerned in what has since happened as the subject matter of this complaint? It seems to me that if the answer to that question is "Yes" and that these newspapers were more to blame, and that there was no substantial interference with the consideration of the Select Committee from the Mail and The Guardian on the occasions complained of, we are wasting our time suggesting that this matter should go before the Privileges Committee. Those whom we represent in the country will see once again that we in this place are only protecting our own tender susceptibilities and are wasting a good deal of time and public money.

3.48 p.m.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

In several earlier Parliaments, not under the present Government but when the present Lord President of the Council was an active Back Bencher, there was a series of cases following which it was beginning to be established that the process of referring matters to the Privileges Committee should not be activated without due consideration. My right hon. Friend was most punctilious that that should be the case at the time. I think that he was right, and there will be a number of Members now present in the Chamber who will remember those debates.

On one occasion my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was at the other end of the argument. He was only doing his duty, because certain Officers, such as you yourself, Mr. Speaker, have certain formal functions to perform which amount almost to a ritual, but the House itself is under no such compulsion. It is unhealthy that this power, which is so greatly misunderstood in the country, and for good reason, should be applied automatically on every occasion.

I believe that my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) are right to raise this point. However, I should like to go further and call on hon. Members to oppose this motion. First, I submit that there should be a debate and secondly, that the House should reject the motion.

At present a great many things are taking place in Select Committees which are being given a great deal of space in the Press and are being discussed on television and radio. There are a number of people—I am not one of them—both in Parliament and in the Press who demand that the powers of Select Committees should be extended. This trend may well prove to be irresistible. I hope that will not be the case, but it is possible. If that is to be the case, we shall enter a new period in which the results of our discussions and review will become even more important.

If there is a tendency for Select Committees to increase the circumference of their work—for example, if they are to be concerned particularly with matters not of accountancy rectitude in the past but of current controversy—the argument for allowing them to work in secret becomes very thin. Indeed, in my submission, it disappears altogether.

The advocates of the extension of the Select Committee system always quote as a shining example the United States Congress. Whether it be a shining example or not, the people who want an extension of powers and activities always quote Congress. It is well known in this House that only on selected occasions are Select Committees of the United States Congress entitled to go into what is called executive session. In principle, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, will confirm, normally and traditionally their work has to be carried out in public and they need a special motion to be passed to enable them to sit in secret. Indeed, together with other Members of this House, I was present on a number of occasions in Congress when such a motion had to be passed and it was not always uncontested, even among the Members of the Committee. Therefore, if we are to look for an extension of the work of Select Committees, we must also look at the conditions that obtain in other Parliaments where that extension has already taken place.

If Select Committees are to deal with matters of great current controversy, I think that it is dangerous to exclude the public. I believe that the public ought to be allowed in on those discussions.

In this respect I add one important point—the danger to the standing of individuals. That is a matter about which the House is always concerned. Why should it be kept secret that an officer of the Crown, a Minister, a civil servant, the chairman of a nationalised industry or, indeed, any humble servant of any public authority has been severely criticised? Why should we have to wait for months before anyone can say anything in his defence?

As long as Select Committees do not take it upon themselves to assume such functions, there might be a good argument for secrecy. I do not intend to rehearse the argument, but the origins of secrecy have nothing to do with any of these matters. They are to be seen in the suspicion by Members of the House of Commons that their privileges might be interfered with if ordinary citizens knew what they were about. Surely that concept can have no place in our attitude today.

I understand that the rule has been applied in the past, but I think that anyone moving such a motion as this should be under an obligation to justify it. We should establish this by case law and by convention. Unless there are overwhelming reasons to the contrary, I believe that we should reject the motion. At any rate, to establish the principle that the motion is being challenged, I am in favour of having a vote this afternoon.

3.54 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

This is the first time that the House has had to consider a motion of this kind since the new procedure was adopted. This is the kind of safeguard that the House wants. I think that it is a justification for the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) not having to explain the motion in detail. I should have thought that, under the new procedure, the majority would have felt that they were being protected from some of the trivial cases that have been put before the House in the past.

The questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) would probably be covered by the fact that these matters would have to be taken into account before you, Mr. Speaker, gave permission for the motion to appear on the Order Paper today.

I think that one matter needs to be considered. Both the hon. Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) seemed to indicate that the leak, if leak there was, came from either a Member or a journalist. But there are people other than Members or journalists. I still like to believe that, even if it were a journalist, there are people who, when the question was put by a Select Committee, would still have enough honour to say "Yes, I was responsible for giving this information to a journalist". Some hon. Members laugh, but laughs occasionally come from those who do not understand honour. There are some people who still have a sense of honour. Therefore, I believe that the right hon. Member for Sunder-land, North was right to raise this matter. In case I may be misunderstood, I am saying not that journalists have no sense of honour but that their informants have no sense of honour.

Lastly, this matter is very much allied to what many hon. Members have been complaining about in this House for four years. I refer to the release of Government documents to the Press in advance of release to Members. That matter has been raised for at least the last two years and promise after promise has been made by the Lord President in respect of it. So far talks have taken place, but nothing concrete has emerged.

If this matter is referred to the Committee of Privileges and it appears that we are discussing the premature release of a document which had been laid on the Table but had not yet been printed because of the incompetence of the printing authorities of this House, it will bring into question again why Members should not be entitled to have documents as soon as they are laid on the Table or at least at the same time as the Press. For that reason, I believe that the motion deserves support, and I shall certainly vote for it if it is challenged.

3.57 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

If we pass the motion as it stands, as I understand it, the Committee of Privileges will be free to consider only the reports which appeared in The Guardian and the Daily Mail. As other hon. Members have said, there have been reports in other newspapers in which there was speculation about the same Select Committee report.

It has not been open to anyone, as I see it, to table an amendment to this motion, because it was put down only on Friday, in accordance with the new procedure. But I for one would not be prepared to support the reference of these two newspaper reports to the Committee of Privileges unless the Committee were also free to look at other reports which appeared before them. I understand that there might have been difficulty about raising the question of reports in other newspapers if it were not done immediately after they appeared, but I do not think that there should be any objection to the Committee of Privileges being free to look at those other reports, even though it might not have been in order to raise them at the time. I seem to hear mutterings that the Committee is in fact free to look at the other reports.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Perhaps I may help the hon. Gentleman. If he had read the ruling that I gave on Friday, he would have seen that I made it quite clear that the Committee could look into any of the facts and circumstances surrounding the question, and other newspaper reports could well come within its purview.

Mr. Cunningham

Would the Committee be free to recommend to the House that some disciplinary action should be applied to those other newspapers? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] If so, I think that the wording is very curious. However, if I am assured that it means that, then that point at least falls.

I think that on this occasion, given that there have been reports in other newspapers upon which no action was taken at the time, we should not pick out these two newspapers for what they have done.

3.59 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

As Vice-Chairman of the Select Committee, I support the motion tabled by the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey). I am the last person to want to fly to parliamentary privilege, because I think it is often regarded with a certain amount of suspicion outside this House. Therefore, we should be very careful in acceding to this procedure.

The difficulty in this instance is that a Select Committee dealing with a controversial and important subject allegedly saw its findings leaked to the Press only an hour or two after its final deliberations and positive conclusions.

I think that the House will benefit from an inquiry into this type of incident. Surely it calls into question the whole of the Select Committee procedure. If we do not take such complaints seriously and do not look into them, in future the proceedings of any Select Committee, whether controversial or otherwise, may be leaked with impunity.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

The new procedure is rapidly revealing its faults. With respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunder-land, North (Mr. Willey), whereas, under the old system, the Leader of the House could formally move that something should be referred to the Committee, my right hon. Friend may not have realised that a Back-Bench Member cannot afford to act as if he were the Leader of the House but has to put his case for the House to approve the motion.

The motion has nothing to do with whether there was a breach of privilege in this case. You will be the first to agree, Mr. Speaker, that when you make your ruling whether a matter should be given precedence over the Orders of the Day, you are not ruling whether there has been a breach of privilege, but only whether there is, prima facie, a case to be considered by the House. In the same way, we are considering whether there is something to be investigated by the Committee.

I believe that there is something to be investigated, but it may not be what other hon. Members have in mind. Two hon. Members opposite have mentioned that the Committee's report had not been printed. If it had been printed, a breach of privilege could not have occurred. We all know that Her Majesty's Stationery Office has slowly become less efficient in the past 10 years since our Parliamentary Press was put in the same place as the rest of HMSO's printing facilities. It was not our fault. The decision was not taken by the House, it was taken by a previous Lord Privy Seal and a previous controller of HMSO—neither of whom is still in office.

If, when the report was laid on the Table, the House had had it printed—and these things used to happen even in the 19th century, though they do not happen in these more efficient days—the report would have appeared the next morning and would, no doubt, have been given to the Press in some form. Therefore, there would have been no breach of privilege. One cannot have a breach of privilege if a report is printed when the Committee desires to have it printed.

The Committee of which I am Chairman produced a report on the Civil Service in July, which was not printed until 15th September. We also produced a report recently on public expenditure. Conservative Members will recollect that they argued about whether it would be printed. It has been printed, but only several weeks after we made our report.

We cannot haul hon. Members or journalists over the coals for saying something which should have been printed anyway, but we can suggest that the Committee should investigate something other than a technical breach of privilege by some cheapskate little Member who wanted a headline and therefore chatted to his friend in the Press in the hope that next time his friend would give him a story with his name in it or the fact that the journalist knew perfectly well that he was committing a breach of privilege by listening to the cheapskate Member. The Committee should investigate why Select Committees cannot be the first to give the news to the public by the normal process of printing documents of the House. The Committee of Privileges should consider the matter referred to in the motion, but it should also consider the matters that I have raised.

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Frank Tomney (Hammersmith, North)

There has been much ado about nothing. The House is besotted, as usual, with its procedural and constitutional experts.

The issue has been leaked extensively in the Press and the only question that remains to be satisfied is whether the report was printed by HMSO in the normal manner. If it was, it is bound by the secrecy Acts. If not, there is no case for anyone to answer.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Wiley

I am raising this matter not on a personal basis but on behalf of the Committee collectively. The Committee is entitled to the support of the House if it feels that there is a matter worthy of inquiry.

Questions have been raised about the presentation of the case in such matters. I am precluded from doing what some hon. Members have suggested because the Committee has not reported to the House and I, like everyone else, am bound by the fact that publication of the proceedings of the Committee or its draft report would be a contempt.

This is one of the difficulties that arise. Statements are made, but the Chairman and the Committee cannot deal with them because they are precluded from doing so by the rules of privilege. The House should realise that it was for that reason that I could not deal with the substance of the complaint.

All I can do is to say that there appears to be a clear breach of the present rules. For that reason, we feel that this is a matter which should be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 133, Noes 70.

Division No. 145] AYES [4.06 p.m.
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Hardy, Peter Pym, Rt Hon Francls
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Harper, Joseph Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
Atkinson, Norman Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye) Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Beith, A. J. Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Bell, Ronald Heath, Rt Hon Edward Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham) Holland, Philip Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Bishop, Rt Hon Edward Hooson, Emlyn Sever, John
Blenkinsop, Arthur Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Silverman, Julius
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Huckfield, Les Sims, Roger
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey) Skeet, T. H. H.
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE) Hurl, John (Ravensbourne) Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Carmichael, Neil Hunter, Adam Snape, Peter
Cartwright, John Jessel, Toby Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Johnson, James (Hull West) Steel, Rt Hon David
Clemitson, Ivor Kaufman, Gerald Stewart, Ian (Hltchin)
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Kelley, Richard Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Cohen, Stanley Kerr, Russell Stoddart, David
Coleman, Donald Knight, Mrs Jill Stradling Thomas, J.
Cormack, Patrick Le Marchant Spencer Strauss, Rt Hon G. R.
Costain, A. P. Lloyd, Ian Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Loveridge, John Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Cronin, John Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson Tinn, James
Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh) McCrindle, Robert Tomlinson, John
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Macfarlane, Nell Torney, Tom
Doig, Peter MacFarquhar, Roderick Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Dormand, J. D. MacKenzle, Rt Hon Gregor Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham) Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
English, Michael McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury) Wall, Patrick
Eyre, Reginald McNamara, Kevin Ward, Michael
Fairbairn, Nicholas Mates, Michael Watkins, David
Faulds, Andrew Meacher, Michael Watklnson, John
Finsberg, Geoffrey Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Weatherill, Bernard
Fookes, Miss Janet Miscampbell, Norman Whitlock, William
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Moate, Roger Wiggin, Jerry
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Fox, Marcus Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Wise, Mrs Audrey
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St) Nelson, Anthony Woodall, Alec
Gilbert, Dr John Newens, Stanley Wrigglesworth, Ian
Ginsburg, David Orbach, Maurice Young, David (Bolton E)
Glyn, Dr Alan Park, George
Goodhew, Victor Parkinson, Cecil TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Pavitt, Laurie Mr. Mike Thomas and
Graham, Ted Perry, Ernest Mr. Alan Lee Williams.
Grant, George (Morpeth) Pink, R. Bonner
Allaun, Frank Chalker, Mrs Lynda Garrett, John (Norwich S)
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Cowans, Harry Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian (Chesham)
Ashton, Joe Critchley, Julian Goodhart, Philip
Bain, Mrs Margaret Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Grimond, Rt Hon J.
Bates, Alf Dunnett, Jack Grist, Ian
Biffen, John Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Hampson, Dr Keith
Bradley, Tom Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) Hayhoe, Barney
Brittan, Leon Forman, Nigel Hooley, Frank
Cater-Jones, Lewis Freud, Clement Hordern, Peter
Hunt, David (Wirral) Mayhew, Patrick St. John-Stevas, Norman
Jeger, Mrs Lena Maynard, Miss Joan Sedgemore, Brian
Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Mendelson, John Shelton, William (Streatham)
Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead) Moore, John (Croydon C) Shersby, Michael
Kilfedder, James Neubert, Michael Skinner, Dennis
Lamond, James Onslow, Cranley Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)
Lamont, Norman Ovenden, John Stewart, Rt Hon Donald
Lawrence, Ivan Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Taylor, R (Croydon NW)
Lawson, Nigel Price, C. (Lewisham W) Tomney, Frank
Lee, John Price, William (Rugby) Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Lester, Jim (Beeston) Prior, Rt Hon James Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Richardson, Miss Jo
Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Ridley, Hon Nicholas TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Litterick, Tom Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock) Mr. J. W. Rooker and
Mallalieu, J. P. W. Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey) Mr. Max Madden.
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Ryman, John
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
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