HC Deb 04 November 1986 vol 103 cc812-4

4.1 pm

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. You will know that bogus points of order are not entirely unknown in this Chamber. Normally we tolerate them, because often they add to the gaiety of nations and augment the public stock of harmless pleasure. But that is not always so. You will know, Mr. Speaker, that the hon . Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is the king of the bogus point of order, and that he has recently—

Hon. Members

You can't say that.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman can say it, but it is a bit provocative.

Mr. Hamilton

You will know, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Member for Workington is not the king of the bogus point of order.

Recently, through early-day motions and points of order, the hon. Gentleman has raised matters on the Floor of the House that attach to parliamentary privilege. He has used that means to utter various libels against me and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), which were recently accepted by the BBC in a statement in open court as being totally without foundation. But as a result, of course, the newspapers have been able to pick them up, and with the use of qualified privilege have been able to repeat them. The BBC has thus with impunity, and on the basis of documents selectively leaked to friendly journalists by it, been able to try to refight through the newspapers the battle that it lost in court. All that is done without the protection afforded to litigants by the law of evidence. This has become trial by media on the back of what we might charitably call an extension of parliamentary privilege.

My point of order for you, Mr. Speaker, is to ask you whether there is no way in which you can protect the good name of the House and prevent the privileges of free speech in the House being used to impugn the integrity of its Members, under the cloak of parliamentary privilege.

Mr. Speaker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for having given me notice that he intended to raise a point of order. As the House knows, an hon. Member cannot reflect on the conduct of another hon. Member, except on the basis of a substantive motion which admits of a distinctive vote of the House. I can say only that in making his allegations, the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) followed that course. What he has done is, in House of Commons terms, in order.

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

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I personally have no cause to question the commitment of the hon. Members identified in my early-day motions to democratic principles. I personally know the hon. Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) and, in particular, for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton). Any suggestions that motions that I have tabled are to be interpreted as criticisms of their integrity or of their support for democratic arrangements are totally fallacious. References to incidents in Berlin are not intended to imply a connection with anti-democratic views. I have heard it said that what happened in Berlin may well have been a caper that went wrong, thus nearly causing a diplomatic incident. I do not know — and we shall never know because the BBC settled out of court and halted the trial.

But I do know that great emphasis is being placed on the importance of the conflicting statements allegedly made by the hon. Member for Tatton. I think that the variations in his statements are unimportant, as they were made at different times, in different circumstances and under very different conditions. The activities of the hon. Members for Tatton, for Gainsborough and Horncastle and others are not important. They have never been the central issue in this affair.

The issue that concerns me is the reaction of Conservative Central Office to the revelations in the "Panorama" programme, and the heavy-handed and ruthless actions that Central Office took to deal ,with allegations of political extremism which it believed were potentially highly damaging to the Conservative party, and were therefore to be taken very seriously. That is the central question in this whole matter.

Central Office set about an elaborate attempt to interfere directly with potential witnesses. Attempts were made to manage and rig statements by Mr. David Mitchell. I repeat what I have said previously, but additionally I am able to say today that there is a tape in existence that confirms the nature of the conspiracy to hide the truth, and which identifies persons. Today I have sent a transcript of that tape to the Attorney-General. I have to inform you, Mr. Speaker, that it is but one of two tapes. I await a transcript of the second tape.

My reason for tabling early-day motions 1226, 1227 and 1238 is that they identify a person whom I know was nobbled by Central Office. It is unfortunate that, in the tabling of the early-day motions references had to be made to matters raised in the courts. That is where the hon. Member for Tatton and his hon. Friends have unfortunately had to be drawn into this matter by me. Nevertheless, it may have to happen again and again as further information will have to be brought into the public domain if I am to be able to prove interference with witnesses.

Hon. Members may ask why, after so much time, this should be important. It is important because the decision taken to nobble witnesses in the "Panorama" trial is linked directly with the decision of the Conservative party to squeeze and undermine the BBC's confidence and morale. It is the nobbling of witnesses that in part contributed to the withdrawal by the BBC and to the settlement out of court. BBC journalists today are looking over their shoulders in fear—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going into great detail. Will he come to a conclusion, as he has raised a point of order in answer to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton)?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I accept what you have said, Mr. Speaker.

The attacks of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) are disorienting the BBC's attempts at objective reporting. I and my many hon. Friends are deeply concerned that the great tradition of a totally free and independent BBC that is respected in every part of the world, is being eroded by crude intimidation from senior Conservatives. The whole nation should now rally in support of the BBC's independence.

Finally, this whole campaign to reveal interference with witnesses will continue while the right hon. Member for Chingford insists on destroying the BBC's independence. It is most unfortunate that the hon. Members for Tatton, for Gainsborough and Horncastle, and others should be drawn into this affair in this way.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) and I have been steadfast in our care throughout these legal proceedings not to abuse our position in the House in order to advance our case—a case which you will know put us at risk to the extent of £750,000.

I seek a ruling from you, Mr. Speaker, that you will not allow the abuse of privilege in the House. If that is not to be the case, we shall use the privilege that is afforded to us perhaps to reveal other things — [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—that may not have emerged so far.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Do it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) will have heard the measured reply that I gave to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton). When such early-day motions are put on the Order Paper, the greatest care is taken to ensure that they are in order and, indeed, they will not be on the Order Paper unless they are. What the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) did was, as I said, in House of Commons terms, in order, but every hon. Member must measure carefully and take responsibility for what he does in making accusations in motions about hon. Members, or in accusing others outside the House.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Does not your ruling demonstrate a point that many of us have tried to raise with you? We recognise that you have no powers, but for weeks or even months on end we cannot directly question the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Even when it is his turn to answer questions, it is for only five minutes. It demonstrates that when Parliament has been frustrated in this way there is no opportunity to question the Minister, or to debate the bullying and intimidation carried out against—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is not for me to decide the length of questions to Ministers. If the hon. Member feels strongly about the matter, he may take it up through the usual channels, because it is through the usual channels that the allocation of Question Time is arranged.