§ 11.34 a.m.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Leader of the House and Minister for the Arts (Mr. Norman St. John Stevas)
I beg to move,That, notwithstanding the Resolution of the House of 21st April 1837, this House will not entertain any complaint of contempt of the House or breach of privilege in respect of the publication of reports evidence given by witnesses before select committees meeting in public before such evidence shall have been reported to the House.This motion need not delay the House very long. It is possible now to broadcast, for example, evidence that is given to Select Committees. It is also possible—and the newspapers do it—widely to report the evidence. Therefore, it does not seem to me to be sensible to continue with a provision which has been overtaken by technology and events.
I hope that this motion will be accepted by the House.
§ 11.35 a.m.
§ Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)
What is the necessity for this motion? Because of the right hon. Gentleman's natural desire for brevity, he has not told us that. I have read what the Procedure Committee said about it in the relevant paragraphs, but I am not clear why what we are seeking to do is not covered by the resolution of 16 July 1971, which, the Leader of the House will recall, formed part of the evidence of the Clerk of the House on the last matter that we discussed. It was to the effect that, notwithstanding the resolution of the House of 3 March 1762 and other such resolutions, this House would not entertain any complaint of contempt of the House or breach of privilege in respect of the publication of the debates or proceedings of the House or of its Committees, except when any such debates or proceedings had been conducted behind closed doors or in private or when such publication had been expressly prohibited by the House.
This motion refers specifically to the publication of reports of evidence given by witnesses before Select Committees meeting in public before such evidence shall have been reported to the House. That could only not be covered by the 1971 resolution if the view were taken 918 that the evidence given by witnesses was not part of the proceedings. As I understand it, it has always been accepted that such evidence is part of the proceedings and that the protection applies.
The motion seems to throw doubt on that. I wonder, therefore, whether the Leader of the House will explain why it is thought necessary to put forward this motion.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I always listen to what the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) says on these matters with a great deal of attention, and I must attach weight to what he says.
It is a fact that the first report of the Select Committee on Procedure for the Session 1977–78, in recommendation 47, put forward this proposal. Presumably there was some view that there was an element of doubt here. Even if there was not an element of doubt in the Committee's mind, doubts had been expressed elsewhere. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not think that this motion serves any useful purpose, it may be an insurance policy of some kind and justifiable on that ground.
In any event, I do not think that we shall advance the cause very much by arguing now about whether the motion is necessary. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has his point on record. I have indicated that I regard this as an insurance policy, and perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be content to let it rest there.
The old rule has been subverted by technological developments—by the ability to broadcast live the proceedings of Committees and the fact that newspapers report freely next day the evidence given by witnesses appearing in public before such Committees without waiting for the Committees to report their evidence to the House. I hope that, with the gloss that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has put upon it, we shall be able to pass the motion.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
I am grateful to the Leader of the House. I have been pressing him to bring forward the motion and also the next recommendation of the Procedure Committee. At least, I have won one of my two points. There were several 919 matters that the Procedure Committee considered to be so uncontroversial as to make it a source of puzzlement as to why they were not simply put on the Order Paper and dealt with on the nod.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) has a point, in the sense that everyone has been busily reporting the evidence given to Select Committees since the new ones were established. However, he may not realise that the Procedure Committee was amazed to find that, technically, they were all in contempt of the House. We thought that we should get rid of that sort of technical contempt before anybody recognised it and raised a claim of contempt on the Floor of the House and had it referred to the Privileges Committee.
It is rather like the last case but possibly more uncontroversial. Quite clearly, members of the press should be capable of reporting our proceedings without being technically in contempt if they are held in public. They can do so if they are on the Floor of the House. By virtue of the 1971 resolution they can do so also if there are memoranda in writing and if the Committee authorises it. But in this peculiar way technically they cannot report it if it is said. The question arises whether what is actually said corresponds to the reports.
As we know, in Select Committees a person gives oral evidence, a transcript is taken and it is typed. It contains the sort of errors that can sometimes occur when transcripts are taken and typed. It is corrected by the witness and the questioners and is then reported to the House. The House alone can authorise it to be printed. It is sent to the printer and, eventually—usually far too many weeks later—it appears. It could appear the next day, like Hansard. However those reports are prepared not by the Hansard reporters but by a private firm called Gurney's. The result of that complex procedure is that the report is published many weeks later, by which time it is long out of date. Members of the press want to be able to report the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the day that he appears before the Treasury Committee, as he did last Monday.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for tabling the motion so that we 920 may, in an uncontroversial spirit, get rid of that technicality. I only hope that, as today's proceedings are bound to end early, the right hon Gentleman will bear in mind that he could have put other business, such as the other privileges reports, on the Order Paper for debate today. As he did not, perhaps we shall end in a spirit of good cheer if he will instruct his subordinates that the refreshment facilities of the House should not close a quarter of an hour after we adjourn and thus deprive us of lunch.
§ Mr. S. C. Silkin
I assure the Leader of the House that it is not my intention to argue with him on this matter; I have made my point. But it is necessary to enlarge upon the point because it is of some importance.
The report of the Procedure Committee, in the paragraphs in question, gives no indication that, at the time when it was considering this part of its report, there was in existence the resolution of 16 July 1971 to which I referred in my intervention. I am suggesting not that the Committee was unaware of it but simply that it did not expressly refer to it in this part of the report. One would have expected it to explain why it thought it necessary to make its recommendation in the face of that resolution. To the person reading the matter in the report it would appear at least possible that the Committee's recommendations may have been made per incuriam.
§ Mr. English
It is possible that my right hon. and learned Friend does not realise that we mentioned in the report one of the consequentials of the 1971 resolution. It is mentioned in paragraph 6.25, which, in relation to the 1971 resolution, refers toempowering committees to authorise the publication … of memoranda.I recollect that that appeared in the same year, not for accidental reasons, but because of the resolution to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred. The one having been dealt with, the other was dealt with at the same time. I think that there is a slight flaw in it.
§ Mr. Silkin
The part of the report referring to Standing Order 85A plays upon a common source to the resolution of July 1971, which owes its origin to the report of the Committee of Privileges.
921 That Committee, reviewing the 1762 resolution—which was still in being and made it an offence for the House to report its proceedings—decided that after 200 years it might be an appropriate time to do away with that, and four years later the House took action with a radical departure from previous principles by the resolution of 16 July 1971. One of the matters referred to in the Committee's report was the question of the protection of witnesses. It was certainly the Committee's view—and surely it is the general view—that what a witness says to a Committee of the House is part of the proceedings of the House. If that be so, it is clearly embraced by the resolution of July 1971.
The Leader of the House is perfectly entitled to say that, none the less, it is reasonable that there should be an insurance in the form of the motion now before the House in case anyone has any doubts about the matter. The difficulty with that is that the motion itself may create doubt. If there was no doubt of it before, if we passed the resolution we are saying that previously it was considered that evidence given by witnesses before Select Committees was not part of the proceedings of the House and, therefore, not entitled to the protection that is given by the Bill of Rights to the proceedings of Committees of the House. If that result was achieved, the limited protection given by this motion would be highly self-defeating because it would appear to abolish all the other protection that exists in respect of such evidence. I agree that these are all matters for the courts. The courts interpret the Bill of Rights, and I have no doubt that they would not be too affected by a resolution of this House. But it creates that danger, which is why I have pointed it out to the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on the extent of his researches. which seem to have been wider even than those of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English).
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
The right hon. and learned Gentleman's memory is better than his as well. I am interested to hear that. I always think that it is a disadvantage to have too accurate a memory, particularly in politics, just as it is a great mistake to see too much. I think that the more defective one's faculties are, the higher one will rise in the political sphere.
Leaving that point aside, surely the point made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not valid. One cannot conclude from the recognition at this point that a doubt has come to exist that there is a necessary conclusion that that doubt existed earlier or that it casts any doubt on the validity of previous proceedings. There is no logical conclusion in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument. All that one can say is that a doubt has arisen, and this is intended to dispose of it.
§ Mr. Silkin
I am grateful to the Leader of the House. I certainly do not wish to pursue the point. By drawing attention to it as clearly as possible, and by obtaining that reply from the right hon. Gentleman, I think that I have at least secured the desired result so that anyone who consults the reports of this debate, short as it may be, in the future will be in no doubt about the matter. That is the important issue.
I was most interested to hear the views of the Leader of the House on the advantages of defects of character. I have no doubt that neither of us will be in any danger of rising higher than we have risen, having regard to the respective defects which both of us enjoy.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ That, notwithstanding the Resolution of the House of 21st April 1837, this House will not entertain any complaint of contempt of the House or breach of privilege in respect of the publication of reports of evidence given by witnesses before select committees meeting in public before such evidence shall have been reported to the House.