HC Deb 21 April 1983 vol 41 cc448-53 5.31 pm
Mr. K. Harvey Proctor (Basildon)

I beg to move, That this House reaffirms that to attempt to influence Members in their conduct by threats is a serious contempt of the House. The purpose of my motion is to call attention to threats reported to have been uttered by Miss Ruth Hall at a meeting held at the House in connection with the Marital Rape Bill. It is not my intention today to make value judgments on the advantages or disadvantages of the private Member's Bill of the hon. Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) or that my complaint should be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

According to a report by the distinguished chief political correspondent to the Press Association, Mr. Chris Moncrieff, on the morning of Thursday 14 April Miss Hall, a founder member of WAR — Women Against Rape—gave a warning at a press conference held in the House to mark the publication of the Marital Rape Bill.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

She is not even married.

Mr. Proctor

She is reported to have said: It takes only the objection of one Member to block a Bill. We will be taking note of any Members of Parliament who block it and we will make sure they live to regret it. When questioned, she apparently did not elaborate, saying only that it would depend on circumstances such as who the Member of Parliament was and what his weak points were.

So far as I am aware, Mr. Speaker, since this matter was raised with you, Miss Hall has not sought to deny these statements or to apologise for them. Indeed, she is reported as saying: We find it rather disturbing that these Members of Parliament seem to be more concerned about their privileges than the safety of women. It is not our sensitivities which are of concern, but the clear threat to the conduct of our work in this place. We should not have to carry out our duties under threats of this nature. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is unfair for the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) to conduct a running commentary. The hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) must be allowed to make out his case to the House.

Mr. Proctor

On balance, I think the House would be wise not to take the gravest view of this matter. Miss Hall may not have realised the import of what she was saying. Therefore, I have not moved that the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges. However, I do not believe that we can allow such threats to pass unnoticed or unchallenged. By supporting the motion, I believe that we might remind ourselves and others outside that to threaten or to attempt to influence Members in their conduct is a serious contempt of the House and contrary to our parliamentary democracy, which we all cherish.

5.35 pm
Mr. John Tilley (Lambeth, Central)

I rise to oppose the motion because I was the only Member present when the alleged breach of privilege took place. I consider that I am under attack from the motion—certainly the first part of it—because I was responsible for booking the room and for calling the press conference, which I was chairing, at which the words in question were uttered. If a breach of privilege were to be proved, I would have to take some of the blame for conniving at or, at the very least, colluding in that breach. Therefore, it is a serious matter, and I do not apologise for taking up the time of the House in defending myself and Ruth Hall and asking the House to reject the motion.

I do not question the fact that Ruth Hall said that her organisation — Women Against Rape — would try to ensure that Members who blocked the Marital Rape Bill would "live to regret it." I am not questioning the integrity or, indeed, the shorthand skill of Mr. Chris Moncrieff of the Press Association whose report led to the complaint by the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor), but those remarks are not even technically a contempt of the House.

As you will recall, Mr. Speaker, "Erskine May", in page 150, lists examples of contempt which come under attempted intimidation of Members. All the examples relate to the publication of letters or posters or the summoning of a Member to a trade union meeting. An off-the-cuff remark of the type we are discussing now is not covered by those rules.

There was no threat of a specific nature in Ruth Hall's remarks. An article in the Daily Mail—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept what the Daily Mail says—said: Miss Hall declined to elaborate. She did not say whether she intended merely to induce a sense of remorse among Members to encourage people to vote against them, which is allowable or some form of physical assault. Clearly, the private fantasies of the hon. Member for Basildon have supplied his imagination with some terrible retribution that he may suffer, but that is his problem, not Ruth Hall's.

Technically, we have a non-existent threat, not addressed to a specific Member or Members. On the face of it, this appears to be a frivolous complaint, lodged perhaps to gain a little publicity, but there are wider and, I believe, more sinister implications in the motion. It appears to be part of a growing trend—we have seen more of it this afternoon—to use, or rather to abuse, our privileges to stifle the right of free speech of those who sent us here. To raise the issue of contempt over such a vague remark is not to protect the independence of the House or Members, but to bring the procedures of the House into contempt in the eyes of the public.

It is no coincidence that the Marital Rape Bill is a matter of great controversy. Many women are deeply disturbed about the law of rape and the way it is administered. They have for a long time claimed that their views did not receive a fair hearing in this male-dominated House. Their fears will be confirmed if the House votes today to pursue this vindictive attack on a woman who was invited by me to use the proper democratic channels to give her views on an issue that is currently before the House.

We must not allow the House even to appear to be using its powers to suppress views that it finds uncomfortable or disturbing. I believe that what leads to demonstrations in the Strangers Gallery is when women who have a valid case find that they are hindered in using the normal democratic channels of free speech and the House, the fountainhead of so much empty rhetoric, uses its full panoply of powers to crush one outspoken woman.

I hope that hon. Members have noticed how this motion differs from the previous one. That asked for a possible breach of privilege to be examined and investigated by the Committee of Privileges so that a considered judgment could be formed. The hon. Member for Basildon does not call for any such procedure. In fact, he has used a form of words that has not appeared in a privilege motion, I am told, for more than 30 years. He does not ask for the matter to be sent to the Committee of Privileges. He makes an unfounded and serious allegation against Ruth Hall and me and then merely affirms in the second half of the motion the known views of the House.

Ruth Hall would have no chance to defend herself against the allegation and I have only the limited opportunity of this debate. The hon. Member for Basildon is seeking to dodge the usual procedure of reference to the Committee of Privileges because he knows that it would toss it out as a frivolous, malicious and unfounded smear. As you said earlier today, Mr. Speaker, the House cannot proceed on mere suspicion. It must have evidence, and it has had none. I suggest that the Committee on Procedure should consider whether such motions should be allowed in future.

I must refer to the irony of the claim of intimidation that is being made by the hon. Member for Basildon. In his public utterances recently he has repeatedly intimidated my black constituents——

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Sit down.

Mr. Tilley

—and all black Britons by threatening them with repatriation. Therefore, we have an extra reason for electing black British Members to this House. Then every racist remark of the hon. Gentleman will be a breach of parliamentary privilege, and the House will make sure he lives to regret it.

5.42 pm
Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

We are getting very silly now. I cannot conceive how this matter can be even prima facie a breach of privilege. What the lady is supposed to have said is capable of being hyperbole, of indicating that at some stage in future hon. Members may feel sorry that they voted against the Bill, or of indicating that some kind of pressure, which would be improper, would be put on them at a subsequent date. Until there is improper pressure, there cannot conceivably be a breach of privilege, because the words are not capable of indicating such a breach. If we were to take the motion seriously, we should really be making a farce of ourselves. Therefore, I hope that the House will throw it out.

I say that with complete conviction because when my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) introduced the Bill nobody voted against it, though one hon. Member from the Back Benches shouted out that it was rubbish; and that I am afraid was me. I oppose the Bill. I hope that the lady will not look for my weakest parts to abuse me. I suggest that the issue has not been properly thought through in relation to the Bill and, even less, the motion.

5.44 pm
Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

We should be congratulating rather than abusing the lady in question in view of the important point she made about what happens on a Friday afternoon when the Front Bench ventriloquists from the Government Whips' Office shout "Object" to everything, usually with their hands in front of their mouths so that nobody knows where the cry has come from. Anybody who really wants to put pressure on such hon. Members cannot discover who shouted "Object" because the names are not recorded in Hansard.

What the lady said was only a form of lobbying. It may have been over-enthusiastic lobbying to say, "If somebody shouts 'Object' to the Bill, we will see that they live to regret it." However, as has been said, we have lived to regret many decisions that we have taken in this House, not because of threats or promises from our wives, but because we stand on our own feet.

Women are outnumbered in this place by perhaps 30 to one. Surely they should be allowed to make threatening noises outside about what they would do if we do not support a Bill designed to help women. The hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) should not be so sensitive. He does not need any support, being 6ft 2in and built like a storm trooper. He complains because a woman has offered a threat to him. It is ludicrous. The motion should be rejected.

5.46 pm
Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)

I agree with my hon. Friends that this is a ludicrous charge to make. I had determined — as with other private Members' Bills to which I object—to be sure to be here to see who would object to the Bill when it came to be reported on a Friday afternoon, and I might have been accused of using the same words as Miss Hall.

The hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) seems to be suggesting that Ruth Hall is liable to come after him with an axe or a knife. That is ridiculous. There must have been many occasions when most hon. Members have said, "You will live to regret that." I recall during the last general election meeting people who had decided to vote Conservative. I told them, "You will live to regret it." Goodness me, several have since told me that they have.

We regret all sorts of things, and "You will live to regret it" is a common phrase to use. Many people have said to me in personal and political terms, regarding something I have done that they have not liked, that I would live to regret whatever it might have been. On the subject of capital punishment, for example, constituents and others have said that I would live to regret it if I did not support its return. Also, on the question of abortion I have been subjected to some particularly nasty threats, but I have not taken them seriously in the sense that they might result in a hostile action.

In my view, Miss Hall and her colleagues are simply striking a blow for women's freedom in society. For that I applaud them. I hope that the House will throw out this ludicrous and stupid charge.

5.47 pm
Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

The only serious point here is one which I hope you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House will look at. This procedure is relatively new. We have before us an extraordinary motion which, by its wording, is quite unexceptional. It is tied, however, to a speech about an issue to which it does not in itself relate. I hope therefore that in future, when you are giving permission for these debates to take place, Mr. Speaker, you will endeavour to use the power you have to make sure that the motion relates to the subject raised.

It places the House in a dilemma. It is possible that nearly all of us regard this particular matter as not very serious. It is equally possible that nearly all of us regard the actual wording on the Order Paper as a truism which should be voted through. Now we are in the dilemma, however, that if we vote for it—

Miss Richardson

We may live to regret it?

Mr. English

Perhaps, but not for the reason in relation to which it was said by the lady in question, who was either silly or seeking publicity.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

That would not disqualify her from being an hon. Member.

Mr. English

It would not disqualify her from being a member of the human race or even of the House of Commons. It is important that in future we should not be presented with this dilemma. The motion should always relate to the particular event complained of.

5.49 pm
Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

This motion can be differentiated entirely from the first one, because the House had specifically said that there would be a breach of privilege if a report or document of a Select Commit tee were circulated outside that Committee. That is not the case here. Indeed, looking at the words of this motion, one cannot help but recall that in page 373 of "Erskine May" there is a prohibition against what are called frivolous motions—motions that are brought before the House in a spirit of mockery. When I first read this, I thought that it must be such a frivolous motion. I realised then that it could not be, because, as you will be aware, Mr. Speaker, if any motion is put on the Order Paper, it ceases to be frivolous under our rules, although for every other reason it is.

The first two lines of the motion remind one of what is not assault in law. If ore says to another person, "I would kill you if it were not assize time" it is not an assault because it is not something that is likely to threaten the person. If one says, "I will do something, I do not know what it is for the moment, but there may be circumstances in which I might or might not," I cannot see how that can be a threat.

I regard the motion as a complete waste of the time of the House. I hope that every hon. Member will treat it with the contempt that it deserves.

5.50 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

I rise with interest not merely in the debate but in the business that is to follow in respect of Scotland and Northern Ireland. I believe that it would not be an unwise judgment of the House if it were to decide that we should proceed as decently and speedily as possible.

The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) has commented upon the motion. I believe that the debate has shown that we often have parallel debates — debates which are conducted by voice and by votes.

The motion That this House reaffirms that to attempt to influence Members in their conduct by threats is a serious contempt of the House, is beyond question. However, any vote on that motion could be subject to serious misunderstanding because of the statements that have been made.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) for giving me and other hon. Members an opportunity of affirming something that lies at the heart of our parliamentary conduct. However, running parallel with that has been what I call the debate of the voices, and those hon. Members who have been in the Chamber throughout the past half hour will judge the debate of the voices. My hon. Friend is a tough fighter in these matters. He will not have been intimidated by the speeches expressing views contrary to his. Doubtless, Opposition Members who have been advancing their views will continue their debate of the voices.

We have had our consideration of this matter. I hope that we can now proceed without a vote.

Question put and negatived.