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Question Of Privilege (Lord Mancroft's Speech)

Volume 499: debated on Friday 25 April 1952

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Mr. Speaker, I wish to ask for your Ruling on a matter which, I suggest to you, raises a prima facie case of breach of Privilege. It arises from a speech which was reported in "The Star" newspaper of yesterday evening, 24th April. I will, with your permission, read the report. It is headed "Bessie and the other girls—by a Peer." It continues:

"Several Conservative M.P.s fresh (or faded) from their all-night sitting, were on the platform at the annual meeting of the Primrose League at Caxton Hall, Westminster, today. Lord Mancroft, Chancellor of the League, turning to some of the M.P.s, said: 'Unlike them, I am not paid a thousand a year for larking about in the division lobbies at night with Bessie Braddock and the rest of the girls; I have to earn my living."
I want to suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, that that is a contempt of this House which seriously affects Members of both sexes and on both sides of the House, because it really is extremely derogatory to our activities, and not only to the activities of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), whose name has been bandied about in this way. Clearly it affects every one of us, and I think it is a grave reflection upon the work of this House to suggest, for example, that the Minister of Health, instead of pursuing his considerations of the Health Bill, was larking about in the Division Lobbies with the hon. Lady his Parliamentary Secretary, the Member for Chislehurst (Miss Hornsby-Smith). [An HON. MEMBER: "And at night."] Yes, and at night.

I therefore suggest that this is a matter which concerns all Members who have at heart the preservation of the dignity of this House, and the breach is the more serious because the noble Lord, a Member of another place, one would have thought would have been more aware of the privileges and dignities of Parliament than, perhaps, someone who is not a Member of either House. I want also to point out to you, Mr. Speaker, that this is not the first occasion when the noble Lord has cast aspersions upon our activities.

I therefore suggest that there is a prima facie case of a breach of Privilege in bringing this House into contempt in the public mind and suggesting that our night's work is frivolous and, indeed, morally suspicious. In that respect, I suggest that it is a most grave aspersion, one which, in particular, women Members of this House deeply resent and which perhaps makes the extension of women's work in public life more difficult. I therefore ask for your Ruling, Sir.

Newspaper handed in.

As the extract has been read in full, I shall not ask the Clerk to read it again. It is not my duty to say whether or not a breach of Privilege has been committed. That is a matter for the House to decide. But I would remind the House that one of the acts treated as a breach of Privilege has been defined as libels on the House or on particular Members in respect of their Parliamentary conduct. It is my duty to say that a prima facie case of breach of Privilege has been made out and that the matter has been raised at the first opportunity.

Last night, in conversation with the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle), and other Lady Members of Parliament, I, as a good Parliamentarian, offered her my support in this matter. Since that time I have received from the noble Lord a letter of apology which he asked me, in view of the shortness of time, to deliver to you personally. If I may, I will hand it to you now.

Letter handed in, and read as follows:

"Dear Mr. Speaker,

I am most upset to read in the newspapers this morning that a flippant aside of mine in a speech yesterday has been considered to reflect upon the dignity of the House of Commons. I can assure you that nothing would be further from my intention than to say anything that might be considered derogatory to the House of Commons or offensive to any hon. Members personally. I very much hope that the House will accept my wholehearted apologies and I withdraw my remarks unreservedly.

Yours sincerely, Mancroft."

Mr. Speaker, in an ordinary case I think that that letter could be regarded as settling the matter, but one is bound to say that this is not the first occasion on which this particular Peer has made insinuations against the conduct of this House in a way that everyone is bound to regard as grossly offensive.

Of course, one must expect a National Liberal to take peculiar views. It was not many weeks ago that the same Peer said, in a speech at Esher, that after we vacated their Lordships' Chamber it took six months to clear out the beer bottles and cigarette ends. As a teetotaller and non-smoker, I can be absolved from having any responsibility for that condition; but it was all of a piece with the remarks for which we have now received an apology.

We are in a great difficulty in dealing with a Member of another place because we cannot call him before the Committee of Privileges. What we should have to do if we proceeded further with this matter, according to Erskine May and subject to your Ruling, would be to appoint a Committee to inquire into the matter and, if we thought a prima facie case had been established, we should have to send our report to the Lords and ask them to deal with the person we regarded as an offender.

There is the famous case in which the Earl of Suffolk, in 1628, said that Selden ought to have been hanged. Great names were then associated with this matter and Sir John Elliot, who was, after all, one of the martyrs in defence of the rights of the Commons, was responsible for making the report.

I am sure that no one wants to make heavy weather of this matter, and it depends upon what my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) thinks about this matter what course my hon. Friends and I on this side of the House would be likely to pursue. But I think it ought to be understood that for good relationships between the two Houses, at a time when those relationships may at any moment be difficult, this kind of insinuation does not make for the best working of our Parliamentary institutions.

This incident is the more regrettable to some of us who served in this House with the noble Lord's father, who was a very prominent Member of this House for a number of years. For him—although I sat on the opposite side of the House—I had the greatest affection and esteem, because on occasion, when I was a young Member of this House, he helped me with regard to Parliamentary procedure and matters that came before the House in a way that was in accordance with the best traditions of the House. It is a great grief to those of us who recollect that to find that his son should be involved in this kind of controversy.

I hope that we may take it that the letter of apology can also be taken as an indication that the noble Lord will exercise reasonable restraint in the future when his capacity for fun gets the better of his judgment as to the proper relationship between the two Houses.

We have heard read a complete apology and I am quite sure that, coming from the noble Lord who wrote it, it is entirely sincere. He said it was a flippant aside, and I think we must all of us accept that. As for other occasions, they are not in issue today. It is only what the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) has brought forward with which we are concerned, and I think that, on the whole, we would be best advised, as a House, to leave it there and to let the matter fall, perhaps it might be considered, in contemptuous silence.

I think that would be the most dignified course for us to adopt, and not to set any elaborate machine in motion, when the noble Lord has obviously appreciated that he went much too far in the so-called comic remark he made at this meeting. He has realised he did go much too far. He has told you, Mr. Speaker, in the most ample way, that that is his opinion, and I think we had better accept it and pass to the other business.

In view of the fact that this was published in the "Star" newspaper, I was wondering whether the House might not, by some sort of procedure, ensure that they publish a full account of what has been stated in the House today. I think the public should be able to read of the full and dignified way in which the House proposes to deal with this matter.

Though I say it reluctantly, there is one sentence which was uttered by the Leader of the House from which I should like to dissociate myself completely. In the first place, the noble Lord has made an apology which is almost too ample. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am entitled to my opinion and I intend to speak.

Is the hon. Member ashamed of the Empire? [An HON. MEMBER: "Keep quiet."] May I ask for courtesy in the House? For some reason it seems to be thought that the fact that I was born in Canada robs me of the opportunity and right to speak in this House.

The noble Lord made an apology—an ample apology—and then the Leader of the House said it should be treated with contemptuous silence.

No, but that our subsequent action should be one of contemptuous silence.

It seems to me that that is a most ungracious way of accepting an apology from a Member of another place, and I want to dissociate myself from what the Leader of the House said. It does seem to me—and I know the noble Lord; he has a lively wit, and somebody once called him a "joke scout," because he makes one good joke a day—that, after all, the words that were used were really a cartoon in words. It was a flippancy, but in this House itself so many harsh things are said across the Floor of the House, and there are the most absurd scenes staged in this House, that certainly the House can become so dignified that one would have thought that we were bishops in conclave or judges in the High Court.

I thought last night that the hon. Lady would have chained herself to the railings in Downing Street until the noble Lord was put in the Tower. I think the House on these things is being gravely absurd, because there is another jury that goes beyond this House, and that is the public outside. I believe that the public, when they hear of our solemn doings today and of what happened last night, will say that the House of Commons is becoming increasingly absurd.

I am bound to say that the House of Commons is becoming increasingly absurd. I think that many of the scenes in this House—I will not pursue that point, Mr. Speaker, because I see that you do not altogether agree with my point of view.

Are we to deny that today, among the public, there are great criticisms of the conduct of this House? That is a perfectly fair statement to make, and I think this utterly absurd thing today adds to the contempt with which many people regard our proceedings at the present time.

As one of the hon. Members of this House who has been here for a long time, perhaps I may be allowed to say that I have never known an occasion when the House seemed inclined to treat seriously and with dignity a difficult situation and it was spoiled as it has been by the speech we have just heard.

I speak with some admiration of the fact that the right hon. and gallant Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) has shown a sense of the importance that ought to be attached to the matter that my hon. Friend has raised. I am speaking under the influence of—[Interruption.] There are right influences, as well as wrong influences, and I am speaking with a sense of willingness to listen to the appeal made by the Leader of the House.

I must remind the Leader of the House that last night he did not look at all in the way in which he is looking at the present moment. He has looked very serious this morning, but not so last night. He and his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister then appeared to be treating the matter as a huge joke, as it was by many other hon. Members. [Interruption.] No, it was treated as a huge joke by a very large number of hon. Members last night, and it is realised now that a reference to an hon. Lady, or to a number of hon. Ladies, of the kind that was made by the noble Lord is something that does reflect on the dignity of the House, and that the House should treat it as such.

I am extremely sorry that the hon. Gentleman opposite has made it necessary for me to get up and emphasise that point, and I am sure that, if he will think further about it, he will agree that such emphasis ought to be made. I do not know what my hon. Friend feels that she ought to do. It is always difficult for a person to apologise, because that is an acceptance of punishment in itself, and there is no need to look for further punitive processes after that apology has been made.

In order to regularise the proceedings, I have taken the speech of the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) as implying the usual Motion, "That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges." The hon. Lady may later, if she likes—and I make no suggestion to her either way—take any course with regard to that which she pleases.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges."

I hope I shall always in this House keep a proper sense of proportion, and I hope that I shall have more sense of proportion than the hon. Gentleman opposite. I would just point out that the apology we have received from the noble Lord was clearly the result of my having raised the matter last night, and, therefore, I do suggest that the raising of it was the instrument of obtaining the withdrawal. It does, therefore, point out that this flippant aside could have been adhered to a little more strictly if the House had not shown a willingness to protect its own status.

However, I am grateful, on behalf of all hon. Members, to find the aspersions so wholeheartedly withdrawn by the noble Lord, and, in view of the fact that you, Mr. Speaker, have made it quite clear that a prima facie case has been established of breach of Privilege, in view of your Ruling on that matter, and of the very welcome support which I have had from the Leader of the House and from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot), I am prepared to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.