§ Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether you could give the House some advice on the rules in "Erskine May" about hon. Members criticising judges. The matter arises out of an early-day motion, of which you will be aware, in the names of myself and certain of my hon. Friends in relation to the Master of the Rolls, Sir John Donaldson, after his judgment in the "Spycatcher" case. I subsequently wrote to the Prime Minister about this matter, and then, to my surprise, I received a letter from Sir John Donaldson. I had copied my letter to the Prime Minister to Sir John Donaldson. He wrote to me and told me that he had written to the Prime Minister. Sir John Donaldson, the Master of the Rolls, has gone outside what he said in the court and, as it were, entered the affray.
As I understand the rules of the House, we may attack judges only by way of an early-day motion, but if a judge were to go outside the courts —for example, if a judge were to launch a criticism of a Member of Parliament in relation to his judgment in a newspaper article — the emeritus professor of law at the London School of Economics, John Griffiths, says that that might well place a totally different complexion on things.
I ask you to look at the matter, Mr. Speaker, to see whether, in view of the fact that the Master of the Rolls, Sir John Donaldson, has gone outside the courts by writing to myself and the Prime Minister about his judgment, we may criticise him on the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member is quite right to say that it is not open to hon. Members to criticise a judge, except by an early-day motion. He has correctly done that. What he alleges —the possibility of a newspaper article —is pure speculation at the moment. I have no knowledge of that. I shall look carefully at what the hon. Member said.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner
(Bolsover): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In reply to my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) you mentioned the possibility of letters, and so on. It is not a question of speculation.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I hope that the House did not misunderstand me. I was referring to the possibility of an article in the newspapers.
§ Mr. Skinner
That is exactly the point that I was making. It is not a possibility, and it is not speculation.
The Master of the Rolls, Sir John Donaldson, has brought the matter into the public domain. He wants to have his cake and eat it. We are not allowed to criticise judges on the Floor of the House, because they are not able to criticise Members of Parliament except in a court of law. If judges have the right to attack Members of Parliament outside the courts, we should have the right to attack judges in the House. That is the point that my hon. Friend made. It was not about a speculative effort. It is about the fact that Sir John Donaldson has put it in writing and put it in the public domain.
§ Mr. Speaker
As I understand it, if I heard the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. 23 Sedgemore) correctly, the letter was written to the Prime Minister. It is not a question of its being in the public domain.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. What about retired judges, or judges who have gone to the House of Lords? For example, last night I watched Lord Denning in a television programme, "Rough Justice". He said that it is unfortunate that some innocent people are in prison—it is just too bad. Am I not allowed to criticise Lord Denning for making such an idiotic statement? If innocent people are in prison, they should be released. If "Rough Justice". or any other television programme, helps that end, surely it is important for democracy and the rule of law.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Gentleman knows the rules about that, too. Peers—Lord Denning is a peer—may be criticised only by motion.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), did you not make it clear that the letter was not in the public domain? Surely a Prime Minister's letter written, as I understand it, to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) is in the public domain. This is not exactly a peripheral matter, as some hon. Members seem to think. The Master of the Rolls has gone on record as saying that certain actions that the rest of us might consider illegal are legal in relation to the security services. That is a highly controversial statement, and to say that his letter is not in the public domain is giving the benefit of the doubt away from Parliament.
You, Mr. Speaker, have been the protector of Parliament. Do you not think that, in this context, you should see your role as the protector of the House of Commons against a Master of the Rolls who is doing what no other Master of the Rolls has done in the history of the office?
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It cannot be correct, as you 24 said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore), that we cannot criticise judges when they make such extraordinary statements. Yesterday Lord Denning appeared on a television programme and engaged in an argument. Any hon. Member should be entitled to make any comment that he wishes about Lord Denning or any other judge.
Secondly, is it not true that, whether they are judges or not, it is perfectly open to Members of this House to criticise members of another place? They must do it in certain ways, but they are entitled to do so.
Thirdly, Mr. Speaker, will you make a statement on the subject to the House tomorrow? Lord Donaldson's judgment was an exceptional event. He said that something that is happening now is beyond the law and he called on Parliament to regularise it. Something is happening that is a breach of the law and he is inviting Parliament to change it. That is not a judge acting as a judge. It is a judge acting as a politician and saying, "We want the matter to be decided by Parliament."
Will you make a statement on those three matters to the House tomorrow? If the rulings were upheld, it would be a grave infringement of the rights of debate in the House.
§ Mr. Speaker
I have already said that 1 will look into the matter, and I will do that. As for Lord Denning, the question is whether he was acting in his official capacity, or in another capacity, but I shall look into that matter, too.