HC Deb 21 June 1984 vol 62 cc485-9 3.58 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recollect that, as reported in column 289 of the Official Report yesterday, I raised the question of parliamentary language and in particular the remarks reported in column 286 about miners being "common criminals". You will have seen the quotation— because"— said the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone)— that is what they are."—[Official Report, 20 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 286.] Have you, Mr. Speaker, had the opportunity to reflect upon that, or have you received a request by the hon. Member to apologise to the House?

Mr. Speaker

I undertook yesterday to look at the Official Report, I have studied it with care. I say again to the whole House that when we discuss these matters we must do so with extreme care because of the sub judice rule. Having studied the Official Report, I am bound to say that the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing)—in column 292—went very close indeed to drawing attention to an individual case. I can only say again to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that when we deal with such matters we must exercise extreme caution.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You were kind enough to mention my part in the exchanges yesterday when I referred to an individual case as one of the 736 cases to which the Solicitor-General for Scotland had referred. I claimed that each of the 736 cases' had been prejudiced by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone)—a lawyer who should know better—who described the people as "common criminals" before they have been tried.

I must put two matters to you, Mr. Speaker. First, some restrictions in Scots law do not apply in English law, particularly in relation to cases before they come before a court. The matter has been compounded by the BBC which this morning—in bad judgment, I believe—transmitted verbatim the question put by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South. There can now be no doubt that the trial of every one of the 736 people to whom the Solicitor-General for Scotland referred yesterday has been prejudiced as a result of what the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South said.

You, Mr. Speaker, have not ruled that this case is sub judice, but there will be other cases in future. It would be in the best interests of the House, since the House has sole control over the broadcasting of proceedings, if you rule that the BBC should not transmit what you rule to be sub judice. Such transmissions merely compound the felony such as that committed yesterday by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South. We should have your guidance on that.

Secondly, in the presence of the Leader of the House and of the Solicitor-General for Scotland, may I ask the latter to come to the House some day next week, when he has had time to consider the matter, to make a statement about the position of the 736 miners, and some of their wives, to whom he referred yesterday?

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful for the fact that you have given some thought to this matter. As you will be aware, the position in Scots law is that prosecutions are considered by the procurator fiscal. I am sure that no one in the House would want to challenge his independent right to apply the criterion of sufficiency of evidence to an incident reported by the police, and then to decide whether it is in the public interest to prosecute.

There is an enormous distinction between a man charged and a man convicted. In the intervention by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone), it appeared that he was making a fundamental confusion between the two positions. He made what appeared to me to be a rash and unpardonable assumption—surprising from one of his experience as a solicitor—that someone charged was a common criminal, that he was assumed to be guilty and should be treated in the same way as someone who had been convicted.

Two points arise. One, which has been fairly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing), is that trials are pending. The High Court of Parliament is the last place where such assumptions of guilt should go unchallenged. I accept that it is possible to argue that no sheriff is likely to be influenced by a passing intervention by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South and that, therefore, we are going over the top on this issue. However, the matter is of fundamental importance. There is nothing more important in the courts of Scotland than the presumption of innocence, and I believe that applies in the courts of England. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, it is important that you rule on the matter.

The second point is personal to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, and relates to his subsequent attempt to clarify the matter. He suggested that he had not made the conclusion to which I referred and that he was being wrongly challenged. It is clear from Hansard that he said to the Solicitor-General for Scotland Can he also assure the House that they will be treated in the same way as other common criminals, because that is what they are?"—[Official Report, 20 June 1984, Vol. 62, c. 286.] The challenge was perfectly fair; it is on the record and was on the basis of what had happened.

I accept that, on occasion, people say things in the heat of the moment and perhaps do not formulate their thoughts accurately. It is unfortunate if, after that, they refuse to accept the reality of what they said. I give the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South credit for not wanting the confusion to remain on the record. I am sure that the House would be grateful if he made that clear and accepted the distinction that I have made, which he singularly refused to accept yesterday.

Mr. Gerald Malone (Aberdeen, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The intended meaning of my intervention during questions to the Solicitor-General for Scotland yesterday was, in my view—I hope—made perfectly clear in my subsequent intervention finally allowed by you during points of order. In the absence of any indication from you, Mr. Speaker, that I was in breach of the sub judice rule or any of the Standing Orders of the House, I see no need to withdraw or qualify any of the remarks that I made yesterday.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a very heavy day in front of us, with an important debate. I have looked very carefully at this matter and I am satisfied that nothing was said by the hon. Gentleman yesterday to contravene the sub judice rule.

Nevertheless, I am bound to say to the House and to the hon. Gentleman—he is, after all, a Scottish lawyer—that the language that we use in this House and the allegations that we make under privilege should be made with extreme care.

Mr. Malone

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If I did not make the position crystal clear to Opposition Members, I wish to take this opportunity to say that miners who have been convicted of offences on picket lines are, in my view, common criminals; miners who have not yet been so convicted are not. There, I believe, the matter rests. I do not think that I can make my views any clearer than that.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is an interesting precedent for exactly the same sort of incident. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), when he was Prime Minister, referred to the arrest of two criminals—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]—two people who were arrested, who, as subsequent events proved, were criminals. They were arrested following a chase. My right hon. Friend said that the two guilty men had been arrested. He later apologised forthrightly. I suggest that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone) simply and directly apologises to the House, especially for the implications for the 736 people involved.

Mr. Speaker

I have no authority to persuade the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South to do that. The whole House has heard what he has had to say on the matter.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Could I seek your clarification on remarks that you made on this matter yesterday, Mr. Speaker? You said in Hansard that you were concerned only with accusations that are made about hon. Members."—[Official Reoprt, 20 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 289.] The accusation yesterday was made about people outside the House. Therefore, are we to presume—I hope that I am wrong—that there are first and second-class citizens in these matters and that hon. Members cannot be accused but that people outside can be accused? There is no doubt——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must stop the hon. Gentleman, as he is straying into rather dangerous territory. I remind him that I said yesterday: I listened with great care for reference to sub judice matters, but no individual names or cases were mentioned at all in the exchanges this afternoon."—[Official Report, 20 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 289.] There is no question of first and second-class citizens.

Mr. Hamilton

I want to ask for clarification, because this matter will be raised during the next few weeks and months. If the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South and others can get away with making a charge and accusation about a group outside the House, however extravagant the language——

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

They are a bunch of crooks.

Mr. Hamilton

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South is under no obligation either to moderate his language or to withdraw his allegation. He is still adhering to the view that the miners are common criminals. That was the undoubted implication of what he said yesterday. It is a scandal that he does not have the guts to withdraw that remark.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the point of first and second-class citizens, during your study of column 286 did you notice the remarks of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), who referred to bloody pitched battles provoked by hooligans in uniform ', sing truncheons and horses' hooves to beat the miners into submission?"—[Official Report, 20 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 286] That appeared to raise a number of questions not dissimilar to those being raised by the Opposition.

Mr. Speaker

In view of the number of hon. Members who wish to take part in the next debate, it would be a pity if we were to pursue a matter on which I cannot really say any more.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone) has given his explanation and said that he is not prepared to withdraw. There is no way in which I can force him to do so. He must take his own responsibility.

Mr. Canavan

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. "Erskine May" is quite clear on the matter. It states on page 343: By a resolution of the House matters awaiting or under adjudication in a criminal court or a court martial, and matters set down for trial or otherwise brought before a civil court may not be referred to in any debate or question. Therefore, it is clear that what I referred to, and what was said by the hon. Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Henderson) does not fall within the sub judice rule because, unfortunately, none of the hooligans in uniform have been charged.

"Erskine May" continues: If the subject matter of the question is found to be, or becomes, sub judice after notice of the question has been given, the Member is asked to withdraw it. Surely, it is within the spirit of that resolution of the House that if, during a supplementary question, an hon. Member refers to a case or a collection of cases—the number and whether the names are mentioned are irrelevant, although there are 736 cases—he should be obliged to withdraw.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone) made some attempt to explain himself today in an unsatisfactory manner, in the same way as he tried to explain himself in an unsatisfactory manner yesterday. You, Mr. Speaker, seemed to gain the impression that he had withdrawn his statement yesterday, as you will see if you look at your remarks in column 292 of the Official Report, when my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) suggested that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South be made to withdraw his remark. You said: The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone) has already done that. Clearly he did not, for in his statement reported in column 291, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South said: I made no allegation about people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial. That is an untruth because earlier, at column 286, the hon. Gentleman said in reference to the prosecution of miners arrested while picketing: Can my hon. and learned Friend"—— the Solicitor-General for Scotland— assure the House that they will be treated in the same way as other common criminals, because that is what they are?"—[Official Report, 20 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 286, 291–2.] As other hon. Members have said, the fact that his words have been widely reported in the media in Scotland will possibly prejudice the trials of those 736 miners. I urge you, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that he withdraws the remark because I am sure that if I or other Opposition Members had made a similar statement about people awaiting trial, we would have been forced to withdraw it.

Can a communication go from your office, Mr. Speaker, to the office of the Lord-Advocate, who has responsibility for all prosecutions in Scotland, pointing out the possibility of the trials of these 736 miners being prejudiced by the intemperate remarks of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South in referring to them as common criminals before they have even had the opportunity of a fair trial?

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The principle behind the sub judice rule as it applies to prosecutions in Scotland is to protect the presumption of innocence, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said. The ratio of how that law is applied is to prevent any further discussion which advertises what may be thought to have been a contradiction of the presumption of innocence, and the more that it is discussed in this House in the sort of language just used, the more the presumption——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I agree with those wise words, and I think that we had better leave it there.