HC Deb 26 June 1984 vol 62 cc807-9 3.31 pm
Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have had an opportunity to study yesterday's Official Report, and you will have noted most carefully what the Under-Secretary of State for Transport said about the cause of the railway accident at Morpeth: The cause of the accident seems likely to have been excessive speed on entering the curve. The reason for this has not yet been established. Later I said to the hon. Gentleman: Will the Minister withdraw his outrageous and scandalous remark?"—[Official Report, 25 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 688–90.] It seems to me that it will be difficult to have a free, independent and fair inquiry after the Minister has prejudged the situation. Do you not think, Mr. Speaker, that the Minister, while he must admit to having uttered those words, should come before the House and say that he has committed an error in making those remarks in view of the fact that it is now impossible to have a free and independent inquiry into the reasons for the railway crash?

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As this tragedy occurred within a few miles of my constituency, I should like to support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes). I give notice that I should like, to argue the matter fully tomorrow at 3.30 pm because, in my respectful submission, there has been a breach of the sub judice rule——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not give me notice about an argument that he might seek to make tomorrow at 3.30 pm. He must put a point of order to me today.

Mr. Ryman

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to say that yesterday's statement by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, when he announced the establishment of the inquiry, contravened the sub judice rule of the House because of the manner in which the announcement was made. Would you kindly hear my argument, Mr. Speaker, and rule upon it?

In my respectful submission, the rules of sub judice and the rules of procedure in the House prevent comment by a Minister upon a matter that is sub judice. Sub judice is dealt with by the rules of criminal and civil cases. The establishment of a board of inquiry to investigate the serious railway accident comes within those civil rules. Therefore, the Minister was wrong in law and in breach of the rules of this House to state before the inquiry began to take evidence what the cause of the accident was.

The hon. Gentleman's announcement alleged that the cause of the accident was excessive speed by the train, which inhibits an inspector conducting the inquiry subsequently from establishing the cause of the accident. The Minister made the whole point of the inquiry useless because of the way in which he announced it. He announced the result of the inquiry and suggested the reason for the accident while he was establishing the inquiry. That constitutes a serious breach of the sub judice rule in civil cases.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the driver of the train, Mr. Peter Allen, is one of my constituents, I shall add my voice to the expressions of anxiety of my hon. Friends. I implore you to do what you can to protect individual citizens from indiscretions of the sort made by the Minister.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The press published remarks made by the Minister after his statement which suggest that he realised that he had made a mistake. For the good name of the House and in keeping with our procedures, that is all the more reason why he should atone for his mistake on the Floor of the House. If he were prepared to do that, it would clear the matter and show that he had been exceedingly careless. It would also mean that his remarks would not have great bearing on the inquiry, which must inevitably take place into questions of such dimensions.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Inquiries into aviation accidents could provide a precedent. It is often said that such accidents are caused by height, speed or weather.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member and the House must realise that the points raised, although important, are not matters for the Chair. I remind the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Ryman) on the subject of the sub judice rule that the Minister in his statement said that he would appoint one of the Department of Transport's senior inspecting officers of railways to conduct the inquiry. It is not a matter before the courts.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not the question whether the sub judice rule was breached a matter for you? In the light of our representations and the serious prejudice that may arise, will you consider the matter afresh and find out whether the rule was breached? If it has been breached, it is a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Speaker

It is not before any court. There is to be a departmental inquiry. If the matter was before the courts, that would be a different matter.

Mr. Ryman

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. With great respect, that is not right.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Distinguished lawyer though the hon. Member is, he must not say such things to me.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I rise only because I believe that no proper distinction can be made between a court of law and a tribunal which is appointed with the same functions as a court of law. I therefore believe that the distinction that you drew between the two is one that, on reflection, you would not wish to sustain. If that is so, and if the tribunal is as capable of being prejudiced as a court of law, it is a matter upon which you are duty bound to give a view.

I was in the House yesterday and listened to the exchanges. First, the Minister referred to what appeared to be the cause of the accident. Secondly, he referred to a previous case, as though it were analogous with the present one, on that stretch of line where an accident had occurred because the driver had exceeded the authorised speed limit.

In the light of the Minister's remarks, it is right that, if he has been misunderstood, he should make it plain that he is making no such suggestion or allegation.

Mr. Speaker

I must repeat what I said before. The sub judice resolutions passed on 23 July 1963 provide that matters awaiting or under adjudication in either a civil court or a criminal court should not be referred to. This is a departmental inquiry. The Patronage Secretary is present and he will have heard what has been said about the Minister's statement yesterday.