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Privilege (Speech, West Belfast Election)

Volume 481: debated on Friday 24 November 1950

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Yesterday I apologised to you, Mr. Speaker, with very real sincerity for having to raise at very short notice a matter which I thought was of importance affecting the dignities and privileges of this House. I feel it my duty now once more to read to the House sitting today, the facts to which I referred your attention yesterday and the additional facts which I have in my possession.

I draw the attention of the House to a report in the "Manchester Guardian" which refers to a speech made by a Labour candidate quoting statements alleged to have been made by the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland. The report said:
"He said that the Unionist Press today had reported the Attorney-General as saying at an election meeting in West Belfast last night: 'One thing stands out crystal clear. If Mr. MacManaway had been elected as a Socialist, he would still be a member of the Imperial Parliament.' Mr. Warnock had also stated at the same meeting that Mr. MacManaway's ejection from the Imperial Parliament was a 'dirty political trick,' and that he had not been put out because he was a clergyman, but because the Socialist Party saw a way of using an old Act of Parliament to increase their slender majority from six to eight. Mr. Warnock had said that he wanted the people of West Belfast to 'burn with indignation at this treatment.'"
Since that statement there has been placed in my hands a copy of the "Belfast News-Letter," which appears to be the newspaper report upon which the information given by the Labour speaker was based, and, therefore, it may be for the convenience of the House if I add a brief extract from the "Belfast News-Letter" before I hand it in. It says:
"West Belfast fight.
Attorney-General and a 'Dirty Trick'
'One thing stands out crystal clear—if Godfrey MacManaway had been elected as a Socialist, he would still be a member of the Imperial Parliament, said Mr. Edmond Warnock, Attorney-General, at a meeting in Sandy Row Orange Hall. Belfast, last night, in support of the candidature of Mr. T. L. Teevan, Unionist candidate for West Belfast."
He went on to say:
"Mr. MacManaway's election from the Imperial Parliament was a dirty political trick, and if the people of West Belfast were going to allow their representative to he put out and not put in another man of the same kidney, they were not the people he believed them to be."
Later the report adds:
"Mr. Warnock declared that Mr. MacManaway had been put out of Parliament, not because he was a clergyman but because the Socialist Party saw a way, by using an old Act of Parliament, to increase their slender majority from six to eight."
On those facts, Mr. Speaker, I respectfully ask for your opinion whether a prima facie case of breach of privilege has or has not been made out.

Copies of newspapers delivered in.

The CLERK (SIR FREDERIC METCALFE, K.C.B.) read the passages complained of.

Having heard the statement, I have now to declare that in my opinion a prima facie case has been made out. But it is my duty to inform the House that I have this morning received the following telegram the contents of which may assist the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Leslie Hale), in framing the Motion with which he should conclude his complaint. The telegram is addressed "Speaker of the House of Commons, Westminster, London." It reads:

"I understand that a speech delivered by me at Belfast on Tuesday last is to be brought to your notice on a question of privilege. In Thursday's evening Press I caused the following statement to be published:—
'On Tuesday night last when speaking at a meeting in support of the candidature of Mr. Tom Teevan, I made certain charges against the Socialist Party in regard to the proceedings which ended in the disqualification of Mr. MacManaway as a member of the United Kingdom Parliament. My Speech was widely reported and I am satisfied on reflection that my allegations were unjustifiable and that I ought not to have made them, and I want to withdraw them as publicly as I made them. I am very conscious of my fault and I deeply regret it. The words were spoken in the heat of political controversy. They should not have been spoken.'
You may perhaps consider, though I hope you will not, that my speech reflects also upon the House of Commons or on the propriety of its actions. Whatever view you may take, I would assure you that when I was speaking nothing was further from my thoughts or intentions, and I cannot adequately convey to you in this telegram the sorrow which I feel at having allowed myself to fall into the error of using the language which I did use. If my words do in your view reflect either upon the House of Commons or on any of its Members, then, Sir, I will tender to you and through you to them a very humble and a very sincere apology.—Edmond Warnock."

In the limited time available I have tried to consult the precedents as to the course which should be taken. It is unfortunate that the archaic rules of the House appear to place on me the responsibility of endeavouring to suggest to the House the decision that ought to be taken. We have had very little opportunity of properly ascertaining the views of the House, but one view of the House, I think, is always well known, and that is that this honourable House would always wish to be generous and, in the case of an apology freely made and fully and frankly offered, in general it is the desire of the House that it should be taken.

I have consulted the precedents. There are two precedents, one in 1845 and another in 1880, in which the House by Resolution, without referring the matter to the Committee, recorded its opinion that a breach of Privilege had been committed, and recorded that in the Journal of the House, but decided that, in view of the apology, no further action should be taken. It is right that I should say to the House that both those cases concerned Members of the House, and I think I should be putting the matter quite fairly if I said that they were not grave cases of breach of Privilege. It is right that I should say, too, that as far as I have been able to ascertain, the apology tendered to the House by the learned Attorney-General was made publicly through the Press before I raised the matter in the House, but after he had received a letter from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) informing him that the matter would be raised in the House. I think that that is a fact which is material.

I do not wish to add a word in reprehension, but I think it should be remembered that this gentleman occupies a quasi-judicial capacity in connection with the very matter he was discussing, because he would probably be called upon to advise the Crown as to the quali- fication of the gentleman referred to by the Attorney-General of Northern Ireland. In those circumstances it does seem that this is a somewhat exceptional case. At the same time, I feel that an apology has been offered.

It is now open for me to move one of two courses, either to move that the matter should be referred to the Committee of Privileges, or to move, in accordance with the precedent to which I have referred the House, that Mr. Edmund Warnock is guilty of a breach of the Privileges of this House, but that this House, having regard to the full and ample apology that has been offered to the House by him, will not proceed further in the matter.

My own view—and I wish I could have some expression of the sense of the House before I move it—is that the House would consult its dignity and maintain its reputation for generosity if I were to move the latter sort of Motion I have just mentioned. If it is the common view of the House that that should be done, then, with your leave, Mr. Speaker, I beg to move:
"That Mr. Edmond Warnock is guilty of a breach of the Privileges of this House, but that the House, having regard to the full and ample apology offered to this House by him, will not proceed further in this matter."

I beg to second the, Motion.

I hope that the House will adopt the generous course towards the Attorney-General of Northern Ireland, and that we shall have unanimity of view in not proceeding further in this matter; but I think it would be wrong if we were to part from it without just setting out in this House what are the true facts of the matter, because the suggestion of the Northern Ireland Attorney-General is that there was some form of "dirty trick," or, in other words, that there was an attempt on the part of those Members who have been associated with the matter to conceal the facts of Mr. MacManaway's disqualification, until such time as they could make political capital out of them.

I hope the House will permit me to say, since I was in some degree concerned in the matter's being raised, at the earliest time that I knew of Mr. MacManaway's disqualification I took the opportunity of raising it in this House. That was of course long before the election in which Mr. MacManaway was a candidate, and in time for his position to be reconsidered. On 12th July, 1949, I said in our discussion on the House of Commons (Indemnification of Certain Members) Bill:
"So far as the Church of Ireland is concerned, there is a complete and absolute disqualification, and as hon. Members opposite have a candidate who is a member of the Church of Ireland, I thought it would be desirable before the General Election that there should he some opportunity of presenting them with the position in which their candidate could go forward to the polls."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th July, 1949; Vol. 467, c. 298.]
Here I was suggesting that that opportunity should be taken to amend the law so that Mr. MacManaway could go forward as a candidate. So it was known that if they put this gentleman forward as a candidate he might well be disqualified. The matter was subsequently raised in an article in "The Times" and discussed at some length in the Belfast Press, and the position was perfectly well known, but Mr. MacManaway decided to go forward even though he knew there were serious legal doubts about his right to do so.

I want just to add this—a thing I have not thought necessary to mention to the House so far. If there are accusations of this sort, I should like to say that it must have been well known to Mr. Warnock that before the matter was ever raised in this House, but after Mr. MacManaway was elected, I wrote to him setting out the whole of the law, and I supplied all the legal points of view which I took, with a note of my opinions to the Ulster group of Conservative Members, so that they could have the first opportunity of considering them before the matter was raised here at all. I think those circumstances must have been known to the Attorney-General of Northern Ireland. I think it is a gross abuse of his position to make such a statement as that, when he knew it to be completely and absolutely untrue.

I want to add this final word. This is the High Court of Parliament. We are a part of the High Court of Parliament, and we are entitled, in my respectful submission, to exactly the same respect in our actions in our judicial capacity as any other branch of the High Court. I think the Government of Northern Ire- land should take careful account of the position of an Attorney-General who, had he made such a comment about the judicial determination of any judge, could no longer occupy his position.

Perhaps the House will allow me to say a word on behalf of the Ulster Members. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Leslie Hale), who has brought up this Motion, has done so most admirably, and has shown a spirit in conformity with the traditions of this House. The only thing about the Motion is that it does actually admit that a breach of Privilege has been committed, which, I think, on the whole would probably be the conclusion which the Committee of Privileges would reach. In the circumstances I, personally, and my colleagues from Ulster here have no further observations to offer.

I submit that there is another precedent for a case of this character. I remember sitting in this House and seeing a member of my profession—the journalistic profession—being brought to the Bar of the House and severely reprimanded for an offence which, I submit, was less heinous than this, in so far as this has been committed by a legal luminary. I do not see why an eminent lawyer should he treated differently from a journalist, who is not supposed to know so much about constitutional law.

I submit, though a non-legal Member of the House, that this legal luminary of Northern Ireland should be brought to the Bar of the House in the same way as was the editor of the "Evening News." Not the least heinous thing about this occurrence is that it saps our hitherto unbounded confidence in the legal profession, and this is really an encouragement to journalists to attack the Privileges of this House. I do submit that a legal officer of the Crown in Scotland would never have been guilty of this sort of thing. In the circumstances, this Attorney-General should be treated in exactly the same way as the editor of the newspaper, and brought to this House and disciplined in the correct manner.

I should not have said a word about this except for the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). I beg the House to remember that these circumstances were the circumstances of an election. I should find it very difficult myself to sit here with my hand upon my heart, were anybody brought to the Bar for something that he said during the heat of an election, and act as a very impartial judge with a wholly unblemished record in that respect. I hope the House will accept the Motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. L. Hale), which I believe to be right.

I admire the Christian charity of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Lang). Whilst all of us, perhaps, may be carried away in the heat of an election, I think all of us who have any sense of responsibility as Members of this House would be sufficiently guarded in our conversations to see that we did not say anything that brought this House into disrepute.

I am concerned with what my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has said, and I would ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, as to what method we could adopt to bring about the procedure which he has suggested would be most desirable. I, for my part, can see no reason for any differentiation between the treatment of some one in Northern Ireland, or the Attorney-General of Northern Ireland, and the treatment of any Member of this House or an editor of a London evening newspaper.

The contempt which is shown in this statement of the Attorney-General of Northern Ireland is very much greater than that shown by either of the two gentlemen who were brought to the Bar of the House, and I think that the right and proper thing should be done in this case to maintain the dignity of this House, and that this man, not by telegram, but by personal appearance at the Bar of the House, should purge himself of the offence which he has committed. I would ask you, Mr. Speaker, in what way we could achieve this, and whether you would accept an Amendment in those terms to the Motion before the House.

The hon. Gentleman asks me a question on the matter of procedure. The only way in which that can be done is by moving an Amendment to leave out all the words after "That" and to insert the words "the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges."

May I, with your permission, suggest that course be adopted?

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the Motion, in line 1, to leave out from "That," to the end of the Question, and to insert instead thereof:
"the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges."

I beg to second the Amendment.

The point has been made that this was said during the heat of an election. The Attorney-General of Northern Ireland, however, was not a candidate, and what a candidate says in the heat of an election is one thine, but what his supporters say in the heat of an election is another. I think that that is quite a fair point. [Interruption.] I have never noticed the Christian charity of the Members from Ulster when other interests were concerned which were opposed to them. We have not even had an apology from the official spokesman from Ulster this morning. He has not associated himself with the apology. He has addressed the House in a most graceless manner.

I want to point out, too, that nowhere in this telegram, which is a wholly insufficient apology, is the point brought out that this decision of this House rested on a decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It cannot be suggested by any stretch of imagination that this was a manoeuvre of hon. Members on this side. I also want to bring out the part that has been played by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Bing). We believe that he has pursued this matter as a matter of public duty. In the end he has been proved right. He has been subjected to considerable insults in the process. He has been concerned with the legal position, but it has always been suggested by the other side, and in every place, that he has been motivated by malice.

I hardly think that the type of apology we have had is adequate. The type of Motion that we have is hardly adequate for this at all, and it does seem to me—

Will my hon. Friend forgive me? I put myself in the hands of the House, and before I moved the Motion I specifically asked hon. Members to indicate their approval or disapproval. No hon. Member made an interjection. There was no expression of opinion from any Member of the House. In those circumstances I think that to raise criticism of the course I have taken, when I specifically said that I had no views, and placed myself in the hands of the House, is a little ungenerous.

No. My hon. Friend said that he had to consider the matter in haste. We have all had to gather our thoughts in haste this morning, and I scarcely knew of the matter in detail until I heard my hon. Friend this morning. I think he is acting in an over-generous manner in this regard, and I support the Amendment to bring the Attorney-General of Northern Ireland to this House to purge himself of his offence in an adequate manner.

May I say a word or two on this matter, in which I am specially interested in a way because the course taken by this House was taken largely upon my advice? I believe that I did give the advice impartially. Indeed, looking back on it I sometimes think that, subconsciously, I was influenced in favour of my political opponents rather than the other way.

The case that has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), and which arose in the last Parliament, was really a quite different case. That was a case of breach of privilege by, I think, the "Evening News" in making payment to a Member of Parliament. There was a question whether there had been a breach. The Editor of the "Evening News" did not therefore apologise in advance. The matter was sent to the Committee of Privileges, and after some considerable investigation, the Committee of Privileges came to the conclusion, the matter having previously been in doubt, that a breach of Privilege had been committed, and it so advised the House, and in the result the Editor was called to the Bar of the House to make his apology after the breach of Privilege had been established. He then behaved, if I may say so, with complete propriety and dignity, and the breach of Privilege having been established, it having been previously in doubt, he apologised.

I think that we were all a little reluctant perhaps that it had been necessary, not through his fault at all, but because of the uncertainty of the law about the matter previously, to call him to the Bar and go through this rather solemn ceremony. I think that was the difference from the present case. Here is a matter which quite obviously is a breach of Privilege, and the Attorney-General of Northern Ireland has immediately recognised it to be a breach of Privilege. He has sent at once a full and complete apology in regard to the matter, and I hope that we shall feel that we ought not to make too heavy weather of this and that we should accept that apology.

I have a fellow-feeling for the Attorney-General of Northern Ireland—no, not because I belong to the same trade union, but because I remember a case when also in the heat of an election and in the heat of the moment, I made a foolish and rash statement for which I had to apologise. On the whole—it was not of course a matter of Privilege—I was treated generously by those concerned in the matter. I think that it is generally right that whether it is a matter affecting the House or not, if a full and frank apology is made it should be accepted in a generous spirit, and I hope that the hon. Members who have moved and seconded the Amendment will see fit to withdraw it, in view of the distinction between the two cases.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved:

"That Mr. Edmond Warnock is guilty of a breach of the Privileges of this House, but that the House, having regard to the full and ample apology offered to this House by him, will not proceed further in this matter."