HC Deb 12 November 1979 vol 973 cc903-4
35. Mr. Ryman

asked the Attorney-General which of the recommendations of the Phillimore report, relating to the law of contempt, he intends to implement in forthcoming legislation.

The Attorney-General

I must ask the hon. Member to wait for that information until the Bill is published.

Mr. Ryman

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that short and rather imprecise reply. Bearing in mind that it is now a long time indeed since the Phillimore report was published, and that it is even a long time since the previous Government, as their excuse for taking no action whatever, published a discussion paper, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm what was set out in the Gracious Speech at the beginning of the parliamentary Session, namely, that there will be legislation to clarify this difficult branch of the law by removing many of the anomalies in it? Will he kindly confirm that there will definitely be legislation this Session to implement the principal recommendations of the report? Does he, like his predecessors—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I fear that the hon. Gentleman was not present earlier, when I said that it was the will of the House that we should have one supplementary question rather than three.

The Attorney-General

The shortness of my reply reflected that, Mr. Speaker, but it also reflected the precision in which it was termed. I give the undertaking to the hon. Gentleman. The Bill will be introduced, but not before the new year.

Mr. Jeffrey Thomas

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the present state of the law amounts to a real containment of the right to free expression? Is he aware that television companies and newspapers are muzzled and intimidated by the vagaries of the law of contempt, the chief evil of which is its uncertainty? Finally, does he agree that the spirit of the European Court's judgment in The Sunday Times case calls for root and branch reform?

The Attorney-General

One cannot, of course, say that every recommendation in the Phillimore report will be accepted by the Government, but many will be. I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that it is the uncertainty that has been the difficulty up to now. I hope that the Bill will resolve the uncertainties.

Mr. Christopher Price

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that where no jury is involved but simply a judge, and as all our judges are completely incorruptible and unaffected by any public comment, it is right that reasonable comment should be able to be made in those circumstances and that that situation should also apply to the sub judice rule in this House?

The Attorney-General

It is difficult to be sure about where one draws the line. I think that it is clear now—it has been accepted, perhaps, ever since The Tunes "butterfly on the wheel" leader after the Rolling Stones case—that it is not accepted that judges in, for example, the Court of Appeal will be influenced by anything that they read in a newspaper. But so many of these cases end up before a jury. That is where the problem lies. A decision will have to be taken on the point at which contempt will start. That will be set out clearly in the Bill.

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