HC Deb 21 January 1986 vol 90 cc206-7 4.51 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Mr. Speaker, I rise to seek your guidance on a matter of privilege.

Late last year I was invited to give evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Sub-Committee, which is examining the relations between civil servants and Ministers following the Ponting case. I was sent a questionnaire, to which I responded at length, and in the course of my reply I drew attention to the document issued by every Prime Minister to all Ministers entitled "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", and I attached a photocopy of that document, sent to me by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) when he formed his Administration in April 1976. However, because that document is classified as confidential I laid claim to parliamentary privilege for it, both in respect of its status as evidence submitted to a Select Committee, and for myself as a member of the House, in submitting it.

This document lays down in great detail the rules which hon. Members of this House, who happen to be Ministers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries in any Administration, are required to obey, and yet the nature and extent of those rules are kept secret from other Members and from the public. Because one of the questions to which I was invited to respond related to the operation of the Official Secrets Act, this particular document was, and is, directly relevant, and constitutes an integral part of my submission. I am due to give evidence, in public, tomorrow afternoon.

Last night I received a letter from the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) who is Chairman of the main Committee, referring to my evidence and to the document, which he points out is classified as 'Confidential' and subject to the 30 year rule". His letter continues: The Committee has not yet decided whether it would be appropriate or not to report and publish this in whole or in part. Consequently, if in the course of oral evidence you wish to refer to, or quote from the annex, the sub-committee propose to hear such evidence in private.

Thus, Mr. Speaker, if I refer to or quote from a document which is absolutely central to my evidence, the public hearing may be terminated, hon. Members of the House, who are not members of the Sub-Committee, but who are present, and the public may be excluded. Ministers, civil servants and others sometimes give evidence in secret for reasons of state or commercial confidentiality, but I do not know whether there are any precedents for Select Committees hearing evidence from private Members in secret.

However, I accept that it must be entirely a matter for the Sub-Committee whom it invites to give evidence, whom it hears, whether to hear them in public or private, and what it does with any evidence submitted. Similarly, it must be entirely a matter for me to decide whether I should agree to give evidence in secret on the question whether the present Official Secrets Act should be allowed to protect the type of rules imposed by successive Prime Ministers on other Ministers. If I agreed to do so, I might myself be in breach of the privileges of the House if I subsequently disclosed the nature of the evidence which I had given in secret session. These are not questions that I can put to you, Mr. Speaker, but the questions which I submit concern the whole House, and you, Sir, relate solely to the status of the evidence submitted to Select Committees by Members, where that evidence is heard in private, when it may neither be alluded to nor published in the report of the Committee. The evidence I submitted was explicitly sought by the Sub-Committee, not volunteered by me.

I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on these questions. First, is evidence submitted by Members to Select Committees privileged? Secondly, are Members or others who submit such evidence to the House protected from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act? Thirdly, will you authorise me to place a copy of my evidence in the Library of the House, an act which requires your approval, and which would constitute publication? Fourthly, what is my position if I publish my own evidence in full, and claim privilege for it?

I appreciate that these are difficult questions on which I cannot expect a ruling today, but I would be grateful if you could give a ruling before my appearance at the Sub-Committee tomorrow.

Mr. Speaker

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of the questions, because it has enabled me to look into the matter.

He has asked for guidance on a matter of privilege. It is not the function of the Chair to take up the time of the House by giving guidance to Members on matters of privilege or procedure, because hon. Members can obtain such advice outside the Chamber. That deals with the right hon. Gentleman's questions Nos. 1, 2 and 4. His third question was about my authorising him to place a copy of his evidence in the Library. I will look into the matter and let him know my findings.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker., Have we not reached a tidy state of affairs? Over the past few days, documents have been leaked right, left and centre. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to whom you referred in your previous ruling, was paraphrasing from Cabinet documents. One thing led to another, yet here we have a Back Bencher who wants to submit evidence to a Select Committee that is dealing with open government, and he has been told he has to give his evidence in secret. The whole thing is a farce.

Mr. Speaker

What goes on in a Select Committee is not a matter for me, and the hon. Gentleman knows that.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's point of order. I regret that he was not in the Chamber at the time, but I have dealt with it and I have nothing to add.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I apologise for not being here. I was in a meeting of the Select Committee on Members' Interests, where indirectly it might be said that the matter that I am about to raise was being dealt with.