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Privilege (Poster)

Volume 425: debated on Thursday 18 July 1946

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In accordance with notice, which I have already given you privately, Mr. Speaker, I beg to draw your attention to a matter concerning the Privilege of this House. I have here a copy of a poster which has been posted up in London this morning, and concerns the vote which hon. Members may record in the Lobbies tonight. I have also a photograph taken by the "Star" newspaper which shows the poster in situ, and both I myself and the photographer are prepared to certify that it is correct and accurate. The poster is published according to the imprint by an organisation known as "Face The Facts Association," of which I understand the secretary is a certain Mrs. Tennant, already known to hon. Members of this House and to the Home Secretary. If you, Mr. Speaker, will be good enough to direct that the contents of this poster be made available to the House, I shall beg leave afterwards to move that such a poster is a high breach of the Privileges of this House.

Before I can say whether it is a breach of Privilege, I think the contents of the poster ought to be read out.

The contents of the poster are as follow:

" Names of M.P.'s voting for bread rationing in the Commons on Thursday will be published here as public enemies and dictators. Face the Facts Association, 6, Lower Sloane Street, S.W.I."

After what I had to say the other day, it must be perfectly obvious that I must declare this to be a prima facie case of breach of Privilege.

The CLERK (Sir GILBERT CAMPION) read the poster complained of.

You, Mr. Speaker, having declared that prima facie this does constitute a breath of Privilege. I beg to move,

" That the Committee of Privileges do inquire into the authors, printers and dispersers of the said poster."

It is always usual when you, Sir, rule that a matter is prima facie a breach of Privilege, that the House sends it to the Committee of Privileges, and the course which the Leader of the House has taken is entirely in accordance with precedent in that matter. I should be very loth to separate myself from the course of referring the matter to the Committee of Privileges, but I trust I may be permitted to submit to you one or two observations upon this peculiar case, the like of which I have not seen in my experience of 42 years' actual service in this House. Are we really to understand that the Members of this new House of Commons, just elected by the people, fresh from contact with the people, are going to be frightened out of their wits by something like this? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Are they really? [Interruption.] I know hon. Members opposite do not want free speech anywhere. They will go further and further along the road to destroy it. Why should we suppose that Members of this House, many of whom enjoyed great majorities at the Election and are in close contact with their constituents, will be deterred from doing what they conscientiously believe is their public duty because——

On a point of Order. I would ask you, Mr. Speaker, if in view of the statement you have made and the Motion submitted by the Minister, there is anything before the House now, or what are we debating?

There is, quite clearly, a Motion before the House and I must remind the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) that it is for me to say what is and what is not in Order. Some of the points of Order he raises are really frivolous.

I really cannot conceive that Members would feel deterred from giving a vote according to their duty and conscience, because some printing firm splashes a poster of an insulting character about the walls of the metropolis. Who has ever said, "You may not put up a poster of an insulting character against anybody or anything, subject, of course to the ordinary laws of life "? Who would insinuate that this House of Commons has already got into such a dither that it is afraid of the vulgar chatter and clamour which arise in the streets? It does seem to me mere panic and that we are ill conceiving our dignity if, because a firm of printers chooses to say that our names will be published if we vote this way or that in a particular Division and applies terms of abuse such as "dictators" whichever way we vote, we suggest that the House should take action under the great procedure of Privilege. It is a formidable procedure, reserved for cases of a very special character as, for instance, if a poster were put about saying that certain Members had committed a certain crime or had certain particular advantages offered to them and which reflected upon their private honour. In that event, I quite agree there would be a breach of Privilege, but I do not see how the House can press for referring this to a Committee of Privileges when after all it is only——

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to read from Erskine May:

" Any attempt to influence Members in their conduct by threats is also a breach of privilege."

But with very great respect and I wish to subject myself completely to the Chair—the word "threats" does require some elucidation in modern terms. I mean a threat to knock a man on the head if he votes for bread rationing, is one the House could act upon at once, but a threat to call a fellow a dictator, is really one which is not good enough. I can only say that I shall not ask any of my friends on this side of the House to oppose by a Division, the Motion referring the matter to the Committee of Privileges, because I feel that you, Mr. Speaker, having given your Ruling, the matter must take that course and I do not want to offer any divergence from your Ruling as such. At the same time, I must put on record my statement to the House that they must stand up and be men. It is very unfortunate that this newly elected House should show itself so extremely sensitive and touchy. Here is the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. J. Freeman), who was a gallant officer. Are we to believe that he feels himself deterred and intimidated from doing his duty, because he is going to be called a dictator? This is a very good example of the touchiness and timidity which have already overtaken this vast and newly returned majority—[Interruption.] I am not at all disturbed by that noise; I take the rough with the smooth. Let me make it clear as regards referring this matter to the Committee of Privileges, that we on this side do not oppose the reference, because we are sure that the sensible Committee of Privileges—and who will claim that our Committee of Privileges is not sensible—will put this matter in its proper place, and allay the anxiety and thin skinnedness of some of our mighty populist and democratic leaders.

If I may say so, in a matter of this kind where the procedure of the House is very well known, I think we have had a very unhappy exposition from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill). I have very little to say and, indeed, there ought to be very little to say——

On a point of Order. Do I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is claiming the right to speak twice in this Debate?

The right hon. Gentleman moved a substantive Motion, and has the right to reply.

The procedure which is normally followed by the House is perfectly simple. My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Freeman) saw this poster, and photographs have been taken. The poster, in its wording, says that the names of Members will be published as public enemies and dictators. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, whatever other disagreements we might have had with him, was a good House of Commons man and a good Parliamentarian. In fact I have always understood that he once sat in this House as a Constitutionalist. It is open to question—and I am only raising the prima facie point—whether, if Members of this honourable House, in the High Court of Parliament, are to be branded by irresponsible people as public enemies and dictators, the rights and authority and Privileges of Parliament have not been affronted. I am only saying that that is open to question. If Members opposite think that the public have a right to do what they like in the way of threats and coercion of one sort or another with anyone who votes for the Government, that may suit their political prejudice, but it is bad Parliamentary and constitutional doctrine.

My hon. Friend the Member for Watford raised the point, for submission to your judgment, Sir, whether a prima facie issue of Privilege has arisen and you, Mr. Speaker, have ruled that a prima facie issue of Privilege does arise. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford followed with his speech, which seemed to challenge your whole Ruling. Therefore, I have moved that, in the ordinary way, this matter—a prima facie case having been ruled by you, Sir, to arise—should go to the Committee of Privileges for consideration and report. It seems to me that the right time to debate this subject is not now, but when the Committee of Privileges, calmly, dispassionately, and I am sure, fairly, have considered the matter, and reported to the House.

May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? The House will remember that two days ago, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) raised a question of Privilege on the ground that a letter which had been addressed to Members of Parliament seemed to indicate that if they did not take certain steps they would be branded as enemies of the particular association which sent the letter. On that occasion, Sir, you read out exactly the same sentence from Erskine May which you have read today, but then you found that that sentence did not lead to that case being prima facie a breach of Privilege. Can I ask, therefore, what distinguishes the case of Mrs. Tennant, today, which is, prima facie, a breach of Privilege, from the case of Mr. Muddle on Monday?

I think it most extraordinary that I should be asked to give reasons, and I must deprecate that most strongly. I gave my reasons why I did not think in the earlier case the letter in question could be classed as a definite breach of Privilege, because there was a veiled threat in it. It, however, has been brought to my knowledge that this was flaunted outside the House after what said the other day, which makes it much worse. I warned the House then that if anything of this kind occurred, I had no doubt that the House would take a serious view. This, therefore, has occurred within two days of my warning. It has been brought to my notice, and I have declared it to be a prima facie case. I suggest that this is not the time to debate a matter of this kind. The Committee of Privileges is the body to which these things ought to be referred. We can debate their report when it comes before us.

May I raise a point, Sir, which has not yet been raised, and in no way questions anything you have said? Accepting what you have said, that there is a prima facie case of a breach of Privilege which must be referred to the Committee of Privileges, the only point I wish to raise is: Is the form of words in which it is being referred to that Committee the right form? I understand from the Leader of the House that he wishes it to be open to the Committee of Privileges to say that this though a prima facie case of a breach is not, in fast, to be treated as a breach of Privilege. Instead, however, of referring it, without limitation, to the Committee of Privileges, he is referring it to them only for inquiry on certain points, which is not in accordance with the form adopted in recent years.

There are three different forms in which the Motion can be put, and this is one of them.

May we have your guidance on the following point, Mr. Speaker? You have ruled that this is a prima facie case of breach of Privilege and, of course, we accept that, as obviously it is true; but are there not precedents for this House saying that it is unsuitable to use a sledge hammer to crush a pea, and not to refer all prima facie cases of breach of Privilege to this elaborate and solemn procedure?

I do not think that has happened. It may have happened, but certainly, I cannot remember it in all my years in the House.

I wish to put one point, which I consider very important. I put it as one who has on many occasions had prima facie cases presented against him. I want to ask you; Mr. Speaker, whether the Committee of Privileges, in considering this prima facie case, will also take into account those who have incited these people to commit this act—the Front Opposition Bench?

The hon. Gentleman must leave the Committee of Privileges to conduct their inquiry in their own way.

The hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) has made the allegation——

I am raising a point of Order, Sir. The hon. Member has made the allegation that this poster, which you have ruled constitutes a prima facie case of breach of Privilege of this House, has been instigated by hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House. May I request your protection in this matter?

Surely, the best way is the way which the Leader of the House has indicated—to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges, and then they, naturally and automatically, will refute allegations of that kind.

May I very respectfully, submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that the intervention of the hon. Member for West Fife had nothing whatever to do with the question of what is being published out of doors and what is now to be submitted to the Committee of Privileges? It is a Parliamentary offence to make an insulting charge against Members sitting opposite to you, of this character; namely, that they have instigated——

I withdraw the word "instigated" and I substitute the word "incited"; the hon. Member is welcome to the difference between them— that they have incited this printer to commit this offence. I ask that that absolutely false and, if I may avail myself of the latitude which has been given on previous occasions, I will say, lying assertion——

I think it is quite obvious that the sooner we send this matter to the Committee of Privileges, the better. I would ask hon. and right hon. Gentlemen to remember that we have a fairly heated Debate in front of us. We want this House to remain dignified, and if we merely cast insinuations and expressions across the Floor of the House, we do not get very near the truth.

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered:

" That the Committee of Privileges do inquire into the authors, printers and dispersers of the said poster."