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Questions To Ministers (Tribunal Of Inquiry)

Volume 667: debated on Tuesday 20 November 1962

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May I raise with you, Mr. Speaker, a point of order in relation to two Questions, which I sought to place on the Order Paper, in connection with the Ministerial responsibility for security, and evidence before the Tribunal?

As I understand, the first Question, which sought to ascertain from the Prime Minister whether he would offer to give evidence before the Tribunal, has been accepted as being in order. I understand that the second Question, which it would be out of order for me to read but which sought to obtain information from the Government of the evidence which they would offer, has been ruled by you as being out of order. I understand that your decision is based upon a statement made by Mr. Speaker Lowther on 21st March, 1921, in col. 2268 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, in which he ruled that as the matter before a Tribunal had been referred to that Tribunal it should not be raised and discussed in the House.

May I submit for your consideration, Mr. Speaker, that the Ruling given by Mr. Speaker Lowther was on the Second Reading of the Ministries (Cessation) Bill, and the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Bill, which was the authority for setting up the Tribunal, did not receive the Royal Assent and become law until three days later, on 24th March. In those circumstances, Mr. Speaker Lowther, speaking in the past tense, used the word "undesirable" when he was seeking to give guidance and in those circumstances your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, on the second Question is not applicable. Would you be good enough, therefore, to reconsider it?

Surely it is a matter of the utmost importance to the House that Ministerial responsibility in connection with this matter should be established as being a matter proper on which the House can question the Executive to ensure, first, that the Prime Minister appears before the Tribunal to give evidence and, secondly, that the House should know what evidence he will offer on behalf of the Government covering their responsibility in this matter.

I am greatly obliged to the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) for enabling us to reach a position where I can rule, because I think that it is for the general convenience. I say nothing about the Question which I have allowed.

The reason why I disallowed the hon. Member's second Question was because I thought that it related to a matter referred to the Tribunal. My Ruling is—and I make it as a considered declaration of principle—that when the House has resolved that it is expedient to set up a Tribunal under the 1921 Act to inquire into a matter, and a Tribunal has been set up, it is not in accordance with the practice of the House to allow Questions to Ministers upon the matter of the inquiry.

I base myself on the Ruling of my predecessor, Mr. Speaker Lowther, to which the hon. Member for Dudley has referred. If hon. Members want to look at it, it is in Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 139, col. 2268. The hon. Member is quite right in saying that at that time the Bill, which ultimately became the 1921 Act, was not already law. The position was that the Bill was brought into existence to help the House to inquire into allegations which had been made by an hon. and gallant Gentleman and the House resolved to refer that specific matter to a Tribunal before the Bill was law, in anticipation of the Bill becoming law.

Following the words of the Bill, the House will recall that the Statute reads now by reference to a Resolution
"… whether passed before or after the commencement of this Act …"
In these circumstances, I do not regard the fact that Mr. Speaker Lowther was ruling before the Bill became law as in any way reducing the cogency of my predecessor's Ruling binding upon myself now.

May I ask the Leader of the House whether the Ruling which you now give, Mr. Speaker, and the Ruling given by Mr. Speaker Lowther, will be matters which will be referred to the Select Committee on Procedure?

Yes. I think that the Leader of the House said that the other day, but before the hon. Member asks him, may I indicate that I would not be disposed to argue on this Ruling of mine now because it is a considered one, on the best advice I can get and think about.

On the matter to be referred to the Select Committee, I would make it my business to see that there was made available to the Committee, in such form as it would like, every single matter that I have considered in this context.

In accordance with the undertaking I gave last week, I am putting the appropriate Motion on the Order Paper today, Mr. Speaker, and would invite the House to take it tomorrow. A full note is being prepared which will be available to members of the Select Committee on Procedure and it will include, in particular, the Ruling of Mr. Speaker Lowther, to which the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) referred.

Is the hon. Member rising to a point of order, or does he want to ask a question of the Leader of the House?

I rise on a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

As this is the first definitive Ruling on the subject that has been given in the House since the actual enactment of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, may I ask for a little further clarification on one point of your Ruling? It is quite clear that if the House had referred this matter to a Select Committee of the House, obviously we could not have raised questions about it. Equally, if the matter had been referred to one of the normal courts of justice outside it would still have been protected from discussion in this House under the sub judice rule.

But does not a Tribunal under this Act occupy a somewhat middle and anomalous position? It is not a Select Committee of the House of Commons—or a Committee at all of the House of Commons—and it is, confessedly, not a court of law. How, then, can it be subject to the principle we have always applied to those two kinds of institution, but to no others?

I think that it was because I realised that it was distinct from a Select Committee, and wholly distinct from a court of law, that I was greatly assisted in my labours in finding that my predecessor, Mr. Speaker Lowther, had ruled expressly upon this type of Tribunal. I think that it would not be any discourtesy to the hon. Member, or to the House, if, in this peculiar circumstance, I did not elaborate my reasons here and now.

May we take it from your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, on the two questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), that whereas matters referred to the Tribunal are debarred, questions about who is to appear before the Tribunal are permissible?

I should like to look at each Question, because there may be peripheral matters which I shall have to consider. My Ruling at present is precisely phrased in relating only to the matter of the inquiry referred to the Tribunal.

May I ask the Leader of the House, on tomorrow's business, whether the Motion that is then to be moved by him will be fully debatable in the House?

It is debatable, of course, but when the Government put down such a Motion we naturally hope that such debate as there is will arise after the Select Committee has done its work—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Well, the answer is, "Yes, the Motion is debatable".

In view of what the Leader of the House has just said, will he put down the Motion he is to propose tomorrow at such time as will enable some debate to take place upon it, because there are a great many of us who believe that this is the wrong time to refer the question to the Select Committee on Procedure?