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Complaint Of Privilege

Volume 641: debated on Sunday 7 May 1961

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3.32 p.m.

Mr. Speaker, I seek to raise a matter of Privilege, of which I have given you written notice. It arises from column 62 of the OFFICIAL REPORT of 5th June, which was published on 6th June. It is a Question by the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter), set down for Written Answer, and the Written Answer by the Attorney-General.

I have delayed raising this matter because I have attempted to communicate with the hon. Gentleman. I have written to him, telegraphed him and, indeed, telephoned, but I have only just learned that he left this country for abroad. I deeply regret that he is not present now, but the fact that he was not present at the time when the Answer was published plays some part in my submission.

I accept that often the rule is that Members are solely responsible for what they put in their Questions or comments. This Question was not expressed to seek confirmation of certain facts. It inquired whether the Attorney-General was aware of certain definite facts. These facts, if true, meant that a citizen was guilty of a serious crime and infamous conduct and, if false, must have done that citizen very grave injury.

The facts which the hon. Gentleman stated were that a gentleman called Mr. Frederick Beezley, as an officer of the Attorney-General's Department, was engaged in a certain investigation and that he deliberately delayed the investigation
"in order to make it impossible to take legal action against the company".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th June, 1961; Vol. 641, col. 62.]
This is obviously an extremely serious charge against a person who, it appears, was an officer of the Director of Public Prosecutions and was a premise to a Question alleging that he had obstructed the course of justice.

From the Answer which was published in the OFFICIAL REPORT it appears that Mr. Beezley was not an officer in the Attorney-General's Department, but was in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions; that he was not concerned in the investigations at any stage; that there was no delay in the investigations, which were completed in time to permit the institution of criminal proceedings; and that the hon. Gentleman had produced no evidence to support his allegation.

In my submission, the Question and Answer in that form raise an important matter of principle. I want to make it plain that I do not know the citizen concerned. I have had no communication from him or with him. Where an hon. Gentleman formally accuses a citizen in circumstances which attract much publicity and which, if false, must do the citizen grave harm, and does this by means of seeking a Written Answer only, and then, by leaving the country precludes himself from taking the earliest opportunity—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] He precludes himself from taking the opportunity if he wishes to withdraw and apologise, because as he posed the Question it might be that the Answer showed that he was wrong. If he was wrong, he would doubtless wish to apologise and withdraw.

In my submission, privilege ultimately means the protecting of the rights of Members, which exceed those of the ordinary citizen, solely in order that that we can perform our functions as Members of the House. These rights carry responsibilities not to set out matters recklessly, otherwise other citizens suffer, Parliament suffers and the reputation of the House is lowered in the eyes of the country if redress cannot be given to an injured citizen.

Where this differs from many other cases and amounts, I regret to say, to a contempt is that if, in a debate, a reckless charge is made an hon. Member is in a position immediately to withdraw it and apologise if he thinks fit. However, where an accusation calls for a Written Answer and the hon. Member is then absent, there is no opportunity for the spirit of the House to prevail upon the hon. Member to withdraw.

In my submission, this presents a prima facie case of an abuse of the privileges of the House. Alternatively, I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, as to how the House can, in the interests of its own reputation, request either that the hon. Gentleman speedily produces the evidence which he did not care to produce before he absented himself from the House or, alternatively, speedily and honourably withdraws so that the citizen can get from the House the redress which he cannot get from the courts.

On a point of order. Is it not unfortunate that the hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Mr. Rawlinson) should say that an hon. Member has left the country, in a rather remarkable connotation, when my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) is visiting the United States on a very important County Council Association visit representing a very important council in Britain?

On a point of order. We are discussing the propriety of these matters. If the hon. and learned Gentleman wanted to make a statement of this kind concerning my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter), was it not his duty to find out where my hon. Friend was and, if he was not available, to postpone this accusation until he was here?

On a point of order. With great respect, without commenting at all upon bringing in names in a Question—I certainly would not wish to defend that practice in any way—is it not an abuse of the proceedings of the House to raise as a matter of Privilege something which the hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Mr. Rawlinson) knows, and we all know, has nothing whatever to do with Privilege?

I lost a word which the hon. and learned Gentleman addressed to me. I ask him to be good enough to repeat it.

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. Is it not an abuse of the proceedings of the House to raise as a matter of Privilege on an occasion such as this a matter which the hon. and learned Gentleman and everybody else in the House knows has nothing whatever to do with Privilege? The procedure is perfectly clear. Where the conduct of an hon. Member, within his rights, in the form of a Question he tables, is considered improper, the procedure is to put down a Motion to that effect. To raise it as a matter of Privilege when it has nothing to do with Privilege is an abuse of the procedure of the House.

I must rule on this—if I have now escaped from further advice in the matter. I am very anxious that nothing I should say should be thought—it would not be thought in the House, but might be thought outside—to mean that this House would not, in certain circumstances, be alert to protect the citizen against the activity of one of its Members. I am not saying that. Supposing there was a case—I am not saying that it is this one—where an hon. Member knowingly and deliberately put a false and defamatory allegation about a citizen into a Question, and thereby used the procedure and paper of this House to give publicity to the allegation while he himself was protected, I imagine that it might well be that the House would think that there was an abuse of procedure such as to constitute a contempt, and that the House would undoubtedly think it right to deal with it, because such a statement could only be challenged here in the House, and the House would want to look after the rights of its Member, on the one hand, and the rights of the citizen, on the other. That is what I would feel about it.

It seems to me that what I have to do is to rule whether or no the hon. and learned Gentleman's complaint raises a prima facie case of contempt, a breach of Privilege in the form before me. All I have is the allegation against the individual which the hon. Member put in his Question, and for which he takes responsibility, and the assertion of the Attorney-General in his Answer that there was no evidence to support that allegation.

I cannot judge between the hon. Member and the Attorney-General—only the House can do that—so I am quite unable to rule whether or no the statement was prima facie untrue or not, and even if I had material on which I could say that the statement was prima facie untrue, I have, of course, no material whatsoever on which to say that the hon. Member, in making that assertion in the Question, did so knowing its falsity, and deliberately, in such a way as to constitute an abuse of the procedure of the House.

I therefore rule that the complaint does not raise a prima facie case of contempt or breach of Privilege. The House and all else will understand that my so ruling has no more effect than this: that the complaint cannot take priority over the Orders of the Day. Whether or no the House thinks fit in due course to investigate the matter further by any means it thinks fit is left quite unrestricted by my Ruling. For my own part, I must say that I would be astonished if the House were to do anything about it before the hon. Member was back and present.