HC Deb 05 February 1985 vol 72 cc747-8 3.31 pm
Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 28 January the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised with you a point of order concerning the remarks of a Member of another place about the pending case of Osprey v. British Shipbuilders. He quoted the following remarks of Admiral Hill-Norton: 'One cannot help feeling that, like the Clive Ponting case, they are doing it to suppress something which may be damaging to the reputation of Government Ministers and officials. The whole thing stinks'." — [Official Report, 28 January 1985; Vol. 72, c. 36.] He sought your ruling on the matter and you replied that you would certainly do that. I understand that you have written to the hon. Member, but you have not ruled in the House.

First, it is presumably not a matter for you what a Member of another place says, but what is a matter for you, I submit with respect, is whether the fact that this case is not yet set down for trial enables us in this House to ask questions about the background to the case. Perhaps you would also comment on the leader in The Times this morning and say whether it has got the sub judice rule right, as I believe it has.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) did raise that point of order on Monday of last week. He asked me to reflect upon the issues raised in the comments made publicly by a Member of another place on matters at present before the courts of law. I went into the matter in great detail and I wrote to the hon. Member giving my conclusions. There was nothing secret about what I wrote. Nevertheless, when I write letters to hon. Members I do not expect copies to be given to the press, at any rate not without my authority. I must say in fairness to the hon. Member for Linlithgow that he has apologised for doing that.

So that there should be no ambiguity about the matter, I will arrange for the publication of my letter in Hansard, in accordance with the statement made by my predecessor on 5 November 1981 about the publication of private rulings from the Chair.

Mr. Steel

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The point on which I am asking you to rule is whether it is correct that it is open to hon. Members to ask questions relating to this case until such time as it is set down for trial.

Mr. Speaker

I think it would be wise for the right hon. Member, and indeed for the House, to see my letter in detail. I will say this in clarification. Matters awaiting or under adjudication in a civil court may not be referred to from the time that the case has been set down for trial or otherwise brought before the court. The Select Committee of 1971–72 drew this point to the attention of the House when it said that the House should not expect to see documents in the possession of the court and that the House should be aware of the power of the court over the disclosure of documents submitted to it.

I remind the House that it remains open to any Member to pursue general points about the discovery of documents or in camera hearings in any parliamentary way open to him. Indeed, several hon. Members have already used these procedures.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. While I do not want to prolong matters, may I ask how a Member can know when a case has been set down for trial, it being a matter between the solicitors on both sides?

Mr. Speaker

There are means of finding that out.

Mr. Ryman

There are?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is a lawyer. He should know.

Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You said that you did not expect private letters written to hon. Members to find their way to the press. May I have an assurance that once you have retired from your present job the details of any private conversations that you have had with hon. Members will not, certainly until 30 years are up, find their way into various publications? Although I had no objection to two private conversations of mine finding their way into a book, I raise the matter because the principle involved should be of concern to the House.

Mr. Speaker

I know to what the hon. Member is referring, but it is not a matter for me. It may be of comfort to the House to know that I have no intention of writing anything.