§ Mr. Speaker
I must inform the House that I have received a telegram from the person against whom the breach of privilege is alleged. It reads:Mr. Speaker,My letter to Mr. Robert Parry MP of the 15th Dec. 1981 has been complained of, I am informed, as a contempt of the House of Commons. It was not so intended and if in any way it is so construed then I humbly and sincerely apologise to you the House and to Mr. Parry.E. Rex Makin".I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wishes to proceed, in view of the apology.
§ Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)
Yes, Mr. Speaker, I do.
The contents of the letter were published in yesterday's Official Report, in c. 639–40. In view of the important business that is to be discussed later this afternoon, I shall take no more time than is necessary. If we cannot have freedom of speech in local government in Liverpool, I hope that we can continue to enjoy it in the House.
I therefore beg to move,That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
§ Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)
I have had the opportunity, as have other hon. Members, of reading in yesterday's Hansard the letter from the firm of solicitors to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry). Without in any way attempting to depart from your ruling that it is technically a breach of privilege that could be referred to the Committee of Privileges, Mr. Speaker, I regret that, despite the letter of apology that we have just heard, the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange wishes to refer the matter to the Committee.
The House is at its worse when it attempts to claim privilege on minor matters. If I understand the letter correctly, it is an intrusion into the private grief of the Liberal and Labour Parties in the city of Liverpool. It stated that the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange, in his speech in the debate on the Scarman report, referred to the Liberal leader of the Liverpool city council, Sir Trevor Jones. I do not want to judge the accuracy of what the hon. Gentleman said, but it is clear that he said that the Liberal leader of the Liverpool city council had failed to declare an interest in a certain matter, and that, as a result, the matter had been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
On the face of it, that statement, if made outside the House, would clearly have been defamatory, and would have entitled the Liberal leader of the Liverpool city council to take action for damages against the hon. Gentleman.
What has happened is that solicitors, acting on behalf of the Liberal leader of the Liverpool city council, have written to the hon. Gentleman pointing out not only that their client, Sir Trevor Jones, takes deep exception to what was said about him, but that they have already issued a writ for libel in respect of similar remarks made by a newspaper.
I believe that the House will discredit itself if it suggests that a letter written on behalf of a client to an hon. Member taking exception to a speech made in the House by that 883 hon. Member, at a time when a writ for libel had been issued concerning similar comments made outside the House, should be referred to the Committee of Privileges. I hope that I can say that impartially. The matter concerns two political parties, of which I am not a member, and a firm of solicitors which, to my knowledge, has not briefed me and is unlikely to brief me.
What are solicitors, acting on behalf of a client, supposed to do? A speech is made in the House, which their client believes to be defamatory of him, and he has no rights in regard to defamation because of the privilege of the House. The solicitors write a letter of complaint to the hon. Member for Scotland, Exchange saying that their client takes exception to what was said. The solicitors, in the last paragraph of the letter, suggest that the reference to the matter in the House may have aggravated the damages that their client claims—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] The solicitors are saying no more than that. They are making no threat whatever against the hon. Member for Scotland, Exchange. They are merely saying that their client is deeply concerned, and that the reference to the matter in the House may have aggravated the damages.
I repeat that the House will do itself no good if it tries to refer to the Committee of Privileges a matter of this kind, which appears to be a dispute between the Liberal Party and the Labour Party in the city of Liverpool. I hope that the House, in its wisdom, will decide not to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)
I am pleased to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle). It seems to me that the gracious apology by the solicitor concerned should be accepted by the House this afternoon and that the matter should be allowed to rest there. I should have been happy if that had been the case. I am disappointed that we have to debate it in this way.
I wrote to you privately on this matter, Mr. Speaker, on 17 December, not wishing it to become public. I drew your attention to the debate on the Scarman report which took place in the House on 10 December. On that occasion, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry) said that the leader of the Liverpool city council had failed to declare an interest——
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) is speaking to the motion before the House.
§ Mr. Alton
I was present in the House that afternoon. The hon. Member for Scotland Exchange said that the matter had been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and added:so I shall say nothing more about it."—[Official Report, 10 December 1981; Vol. 14, c. 1047.]884 It would have been better if he had said nothing at all, because that allegation was completely without foundation. To the best of my knowledge, no matter involving a declaration of financial interest has ever been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. In the circumstances, clearly the reputation of the leader of the Liverpool city council, Sir Trevor Jones, who is a magistrate and a highly respected person in that community, has been brought into disrepute.
The comments of the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange were widely reported in the Liverpool Echo, and on local radio stations. Therefore, Sir Trevor's reputation has been damaged. It was for that reason that I wrote to you, Mr. Speaker, requesting that you advise me on what action he could take, because his reputation had been brought into disrepute. You were kind enough to reply, suggesting that I seek to catch your eye this afternoon. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me.
The Committee of Privileges should look at the situation whereby an hon. Member can impugn someone's character or reputation and that person's solicitor, in attempting to act on his behalf, can be considered to be in contempt for saying merely that he will bring a libel action. A solicitor has a professional duty to protect his client.
Wild allegations made without foundation do not enhance the reputation of the House. They cause great anguish and personal hurt. That has happened in this case. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Member for Scotland Exchange will reconsider his decision, that this matter will be dropped forthwith and that he will apologise for misleading the House.
§ Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)
I agree with everything said by the right hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle). I speak from a similar position, as I am not connected with Liverpool and I am not a member of either of the two main parties.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)
That is a joke. No connection? What does the hon. and learned Gentleman call the Alliance?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I can think of nothing more rude than continuous interruptions from a sedentary position as a deliberate attempt to try to put an hon. Member off when he is trying to speak. That is most unfair.
§ Mr. Lyons
I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker. In my view, such a breach is marginal. It is right to point out that if, as is alleged, an hon. Member knew that a writ had been issued for defamation and that that matter had not yet been fully litigated, it is wrong—whether or not it is against the rules of the House—for an hon. Member to repeat the alleged libel knowing that a writ has been issued claiming that the alleged remarks are false.
I hope that the Committee of Privileges will consider whether there is an obligation upon an hon. Member who wishes to repeat remarks that are the subject of alleged proceedings for libel, to tell Mr. Speaker before doing so, to see whether Mr. Speaker, in the exercise of his discretion, will allow it. My understanding is that in civil proceedings there is a discretion to regard the matter as sub 885 judice. Had you known, Mr. Speaker, that libel proceedings had already been initiated, and had you been in the Chair, it is highly likely that you would not have allowed the remarks to be made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry), which are now being complained of.
The Committee of Privileges should look into House of Commons practice in that respect, so that those who claim that things said of them outside the House are false, and who initiate court proceedings, are protected from careless repetition in the House. Hon. Members should be careful of the power that they have and the privilege that they enjoy .
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
As far as I know this is the first occasion, or almost the first occasion, when there has been a debate under the new procedure for dealing with privilege cases. The House should bear that in mind when considering how to deal with this question. I still retain the view that I held when I sat in other parts of the Chamber. I am strongly in favour of not raising questions of privilege whenever it can be avoided. Hon. Members rightly insist on the right to free speech in the Chamber, but there is a strong case for saying that they should not interfere in the right of others to free speech. Hon. Members should always take that into account.
Since you have given a ruling, I think that it would be unfair, Mr. Speaker, if this matter was not referred to the Committee of Privileges. If it is not referred, as this case is the first, every case of privilege will be decided by debate before it has a chance of being considered by that Committee. We shall set a precedent. I am not sure whether the right hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) takes that view. However, he has not the support of my former hon. and learned Friend, now the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons). The hon. and learned Gentleman says that he wants the Committee of Privileges to look at such matters.
In the light of your ruling, Mr. Speaker, and in the light of the fact that this is the first time that we have had to consider a debate in the House, the matter should go to the Committee of Privileges, which could then consider all the questions that have been raised. If we do not do that, we shall set a fresh precedent, which we do not wish to do. We shall set the precedent that matters of privilege should be dealt with usually by means of a debate on the Floor of the House. However, that is not the best way of dealing with them.
In altering the procedures on privilege, the House made a great advance and greatly limited the occasions on which privileged matters could be brought before the House. That is all to the good. However, in such circumstances, there will be hopeless confusion about how to deal with such matters if we do not accept the motion. Therefore, I hope that the motion will be supported. That does not mean that those of us who vote in favour of the motion will be prejudging the judgment of the Committee of Privileges. It will be for the Committee of Privileges to consider this first case under the new procedure. That is the wisest course for the House to take, and if the Leader of the House were here—as he should be—he might have given us the same advice.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
I fully support my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot). It has been said by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) that we should ask the Committee of Privileges to consider whether the procedure is appropriate and whether hon. Members should be allowed to "defame" others on the Floor of the House. Hon. Members can say what they like without their remarks being regarded as defamatory by the courts.
There was a Joint Committee of both Houses. Nearly every member was, like the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons), a Queen's Counsel or a Lord Justice of Appeal. They unanimously resolved that the present procedure should continue because its object is simply to prevent people from being taken to court when they justly say something in the House. If they were taken to court, the court might accept that the hon. Member involved had been free to say that. However, that hon. Member would have spent a lot of money defending himself. Hon. Members should not be forced to spend money on defending themselves. One day—who knows—the hon. Member for Edge Hill may find that our so-called privileges have a point, even in his case.
I know the senior partner in the practice concerned, which is hardly surprising since I read law at Liverpool university. The letter is signed Rex Makin and Company, and therefore not necessarily by my friend, the senior partner, but my friend is a man of considerable intellect with regard to the law. The hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West may have forgotten that the person who wrote the letter was, at least, a member of a practice headed by an able lawyer.
I do not therefore believe that the letter was written for any reason other than that of publicity. The letter begins:My client, Sir Trevor Jones, has asked me to communicate".I shall not analyse the whole of the letter because it is available for hon. Members to read. You may have given it prima facie time on the Floor of the House, Mr. Speaker, because of the last sentence, which states:in the meantime I am instructed to write to you to record my client's deep concern about your conduct and, in due course, I will revert to it in the proceedings to which I have referred, if you have not in the meantime taken appropriate steps, as aggravating those damages to which my client is entitled.''Without the last paragraph, the letter probably would have been unexceptionable. However, that is not for me to judge, nor, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) said, is it for the House to judge. The matter has been allowed time on the Floor of the House and the Committee of Privileges should consider the issue, even if, as I fear, it gives some publicity to some local councillor in the provinces.
§ Mr. Parry
With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, and in view of the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle), I must point out that I am not a legal man and have received no legal training. I took advice from a number of my hon. and learned Friends. Their view was that the writer of the letter was trying to provoke me to reply outside of privilege so that I could become liable to be charged with libel.
Legal briefs against elected members of the Liverpool city council are floating around Liverpool like confetti. Some of my friends on that council, even its Labour 887 leader, have been virtually threatened with legal action. It is important that there should be freedom of speech in local government as well as in the House.
§ Question put:
§ The House divided: Ayes 97, Noes 58.888
|Division No. 36]||[4.32 pm|
|Abse, Leo||Jay, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Anderson,Donald||Johnson, James (Hull West)|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Johnson, Walter (DerbyS)|
|Atkinson, N.(H'gey,)||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Litherland, Robert|
|Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W)||McDonald, DrOonagh|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||McKay, Men(Penistone)|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg&Sc'n)||McKelvey, William|
|Cartwright,John||Millan,Rt Hon Bruce|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S)||Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)|
|Cowans, Harry||Newens, Stanley|
|Cox,T. (W'dsw'th, Toot'g)||O'Neill,Martin|
|Cunningham, G. (IslingtonS)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Davis, Clinton (HackneyC)||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd)||Page, Richard (SWHerts)|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Pavitt,Laurie|
|Dobson,Frank||Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)|
|Dormand,Jack||Price, C. (Lewisham W)|
|Dubs,Alfred||Proctor, K. Harvey|
|Duffy, A. E. P.||Race, Reg|
|English,Michael||Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)|
|Faith, MrsSheila||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Sheldon, RtHon R.|
|Foster, Derek||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)||Spearing,Nigel|
|Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife)||Stoddart, David|
|Hardy, Peter||Stott, Roger|
|Harrison, RtHonWalter||Strang, Gavin|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Straw,Jack|
|Heffer, EricS.||Taylor, Teddy (S 'end E)|
|Howell, Rt Hon D.||Waller, Gary|
|Hughes, Mark(Durham)||Watkins, David|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Whitehead,Phillip|
|Janner,HonGreville||Wilson, William (C'trySE)|
|Winnick,David||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Winterton,Nicholas||Mr. Ernie Ross and Mr. Bob Cryer.|
|Young, David (BoltonE)|
|Alexander,Richard||Lloyd, Ian (Havant& W'loo)|
|Biggs-Davison,SirJohn||Mitchell, R.C.(Soton Itchen)|
|Carlisle, John (LutonWest)||Osborn,John|
|Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n)||Page, John (Harrow, West)|
|Costain,SirAlbert||Pitt, William Henry|
|Crouch,David||Rees-Davies, W. R.|
|Dorrell,Stephen||Rooker, J. W.|
|Fox,arcus||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Glyn, DrAlan||Spicer, Jim (WestDorset)|
|Gow, Ian||Stainton, Keith|
|Griffiths, Pater Portsm'thN)||Thorne, Neil (IlfordSouth)|
|Langford-Holt,SirJohn||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. Christopher Murphy.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.