HC Deb 10 November 1978 vol 957 cc1356-9
Mr. Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) to move his motion, may I remind the House that it deals with the narrow question whether Hansard was quoted without the permission of the House and that no reference to the case under way will be permissible.

Mr. Christopher Price

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The letter conveyed to me by the Clerk of the House said that no reference to the merits of the case was permissible. The case was referred to in your own statement.

Mr. Speaker

I do not know what correspondence the hon. Gentleman has had with the Clerk of the House. I want to make sure that the House does the right thing by a case which is before the courts. We must not seek to prejudice it.

Mr. Price

I certainly do not wish to prejudice it.

I wish to call attention to the production of, and reference being made to, Hansard, without the leave of the House having been obtained, at the Central Criminal Court in the case of Regina v. Aubrey, Berry and Campbell, and I beg to move, That the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges. The issue in question concerns the quoting of two passages of Hansard at the Old Bailey on 8th November this year. They were columns 1567 and 1568 of Hansard for 18th November 1976 and columns 495 and 499 of Hansard for 16th February 1977, and they concern statements made in the House by the Home Secretary giving some of his reasons for the deportation of Agee and Hosenball.

To my knowledge, one other parliamentary paper, about which I make no complaint, has also been mentioned in the case without a petition being presented to the House asking for leave to quote from it. That concerned the evidence of Sir Donald Somerville, the then Attorney-General, to the Privileges Committee in 1938 concerning the then Mr. Duncan Sandys and the Official Secrets Act.

The reason why I have asked leave—I am very pleased to have been given leave —to move that this matter be sent to the Select Committee is that I believe that we in Parliament should be quite as meticulous as the courts are in maintaining our privileges. Article 9 of the Bill of Rights lays down directly: Freedom of speech and debate or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place outside Parliament. It is very important to maintain that. Fundamentally, it is our rule, not the courts', but it is also true that the courts have acquiesced in our rule.

I draw attention to the comments of Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, quoted on page 86 of "Erskine May": It would be impracticable and undesirable for the High Court of Justice to embark upon an inquiry concerning the effect or the effectiveness of the internal procedures in the High Court of Parliament or an enquiry whether in any particular case those procedures were effectively followed. I am not saying that this case is exactly the same as that, but I think that broadly our rule is right.

There may be differing opinions about the rule in the House that the courts should ask for our permission to quote Hansard if they want to quote it, but it is a rule and, in my view, the judges should be as assiduous in protecting our privileges in Parliament as you, Mr. Speaker, are in protecting theirs in the courts. There has to be a two-way agreement.

I should not have brought up this matter if I had thought that it was trivial and could be brushed aside, but the case in question is very important and goes right to the roots of fundamental civil liberties, about freedom of communication and about the words in Section 2(a) of the Official Secrets Act: …a person to whom it is in the interest of the State his duty to comunicate something.

It is for just such a case as this that we in Parliament keep rules of this kind, insisting that the matter should be brought to us, so that, at the very least, we are aware if the courts want to use matters raised in Parliament to make their decisions. I am particularly anxious that we maintain this arrangement so that, if the courts wanted to use statements by Ministers in reinterpreting statutes or common law in ways which could stand for decades to come as part of the law of Britain, we should at least know about this. When Mark Hosenball wanted to appeal to the Court of Appeal, I moved a petition in the House and that was accepted by the House.

I hope that the Select Committee takes this case. It may want to review the whole rule and it may find it convenient to add this inquiry to its present inquiries. As I understand it, the Committee can go wider than the motion on the Order Paper if it wishes.

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

I make no comment on what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), but I believe that the best way for the House to deal with this matter is to accept his motion and to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges. Then, if the House wishes to comment afterwards, when the Committee has produced its report, it will be open to the House to do so.

On that basis, I strongly support the motion.

Sir M. Havers

It does not seem at first sight that the breach, if any, is of any great gravity, but I agree that the matter should go to the Committee of Privileges. Particularly, it would give the Committee a chance to review whether this rule is still necessary and should be maintained and perhaps advise the House accordingly.

For those reasons, we support the motion.

Mr. English

I am sure that all who have spoken are absolutely right, but we cannot let this occasion pass without pointing out that the whole of this business gives one the distinct impression of incompetence. I am not blaming the Attorney-General—he does not personally conduct this trial—but to deal with nine charges and to end up finding that even the evidence—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now going too far. All we can discuss is the question whether Hansard should have been quoted without permission of the House and whether the matter should go to the Committee of Privileges. We have had advice from both Front Benches, and I hope that the House will soon come to a decision.

Mr. English

I was about to end by saying—to find that even the evidence could not be produced in court without the approval of this House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges.