HC Deb 20 March 1984 vol 56 cc914-5
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Friday, the Attorney-General made a long statement in the form of a written reply which, in part, stated: there is no doubt that if a constable reasonably comes to the conclusion that persons are travelling for the purpose of taking part in a picket in circumstances where there is likely to be a breach of the peace, he has the power at common law to call upon them not to continue their journey and to call upon their driver to take them no further. Any person who fails to comply with a police request in those circumstances will be committing the offence of obstructing a police officer in the course of his duty. The Attorney-General added: I hope that this re-statement of the legal position, which the Lord Advocate agrees reflects the main principles of the law of Scotland also, will serve to remove any doubts that might remain in any quarter about the strict limits within which pickets may seek to press their views on their fellow-citizens."—[Official Report, 16 March 1984; Vol. 56, c. 279–80.] It seems curious, Mr. Speaker, that the Attorney-General did not seek an opportunity to make a statement to the House either on Friday or yesterday. You rightly stopped questions on this issue this afternoon on the ground that the matters in question were sub judice. As the courts are looking for the latest guidance from Law Officers and their attention will be drawn to the Attorney-General's statement, which was made in the form of a written reply to a written question, I hope that it will be possible for you, Mr. Speaker, again in the interests of the House, to make representations to ascertain whether the Attorney-General would be prepared to answer questions on these matters from the Dispatch Box. To many of us, his statement in a written answer represents a considerable reduction in civil liberties and the powers to picket as many of us understood them.

Secondly, Mr. Speaker, notwithstanding your actions today in stopping questions on the ground of the sub judice rule, will you be prepared to give advice to the Table Office to enable those of us who are concerned by the substance of the statement made by the Attorney-General on Friday to table questions in the hope that we shall be able to clarify the legal grounds on which his view rests? Many of us do not believe that the statement provides a satisfactory explanation of the law as many of us understand it to be.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I am bound by the sub judice rule, as are all other Members. I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman has said on the interpretation of the law will have been noted and heard by those sitting on the Treasury Bench. It is not for me to say whether a statement should be made or not made.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am concerned about the sub judice rule. It seems that a number of those outside the House can take part in discussions while we are not allowed to ascertain, for example, why there are certain rules that the police can adopt in, for instance, escorting those who decide to take part in a National Front demonstration in a city wich has a high proportion of black people living within it. What are the rules that apply to football coaches travelling in this country from areas which suggest that violence may take place? The same considerations apply to those travelling abroad for international matches. It seems that these matters can be discussed by people outside the House. On "The World at One" today, Sir Robin Day and a professor of law from I think, the London School of Economics took part in a longish discussion about why the Kent miners could in some circumstances manage to win the case yet in other circumstances would be unable to do so.

It seems strange that, in these circumstances, the House is subject to the sub judice rule. We would like to ask the Attorney-General why those who decide to participate in National Front demonstrations are escorted by the police whereas the Kent miners are not allowed to leave Kent. There are many other instances in which a significant part of the population would argue that a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned and yet restrictions are not imposed. However, the Kent miners and their friends are being kept away from other counties. This is a strange interpretation of the law. It is strange also that Parliament has received from the Attorney-General only a written answer to a written question.

With the exception of a few comments that some of us managed to make during yesterday proceedings, it appears that the Government will not be questioned on this severe incursion into the civil liberties and freedoms of our people, which are to be further reduced. It is a matter not just for the miners but for the many constituents in every constituency who are concerned about it. It is therefore imperative that we have a statement from the Attorney-General, or from another Government Minister, so that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members can put questions.

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is nothing to prevent a general discussion on these matters. What we are inhibited from discussing is specific cases that are before the courts. That we cannot do.

Mr. Madden

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to you for your tolerance. I raised earlier a second issue, whether the Table Office would accept questions relating to the statement made on Friday by the Attorney-General. Would you be prepared to inquire into the acceptability of such questions? It would be helpful to all hon. Members I think, to have your guidance on this matter.

Mr. Speaker

The Table Office is also bound by the sub judice rule. That is the problem that faces us. However there are ways of getting questions in order, and the hon. Gentleman, as an experienced Member of the House, will probably know how to do that.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not right that the sub judice rule applies not only to this House but universally, and the points that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) raised regarding discussions of what could happen, that is hypothetical questions, would not come within the sub judice rule anyway as it applies only to matters which are pending before the courts?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman explains, rather more clearly perhaps, what I have already sought to say.