Skip to main content

Complaint Of Privilege

Volume 692: debated on Monday 23 March 1964

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

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to raise a matter arising from a speech delivered by the Lord President of the Council at a meeting in Chatham last Thursday.

A report of that speech appeared in The Times and, for greater accuracy, I have obtained a copy of it from the Conservative Central Office. I have, of course, given the right hon. and learned Gentleman notice of my intention to raise this matter. It may be of help if I first read the words about which I complain. They are:
"No honest person since we came into power can accuse us of pursuing a reactionary or illiberal policy."

Order. May I suggest to the House that on these occasions, when a complaint of breach of privilege is made against an hon. Member, we assume something like quasi-judicial functions? It is probably essentially fair that both the hon. Member making the complaint and anyone being heard in explanation or exculpation should be quietly heard.

I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, but I am not seeking your protection. The words I wish to quote are:

"No honest person since we came into power can accuse us of pursuing a reactionary or illiberal policy. Nevertheless, our elbows have been jarred in almost every part of the world by individual Labour members' partisanship of subversive activities. This is the party which is now seeking power."
On page 125 of Erskine May there is some guidance for the House which I submit for your consideration, Mr. Speaker. The relevant text in Erskine May states:
"Both Houses will punish not only contempts arising out of facts of which the ordinary courts will take cognizance, but those of which they cannot, such as contemptuous insults, gross calumny or foul epithets by word of mouth not within the category of actionable slander or threat of bodily injury."
In this case no such matter could arise because no individual hon. Member is named, but, fortunately, those who have gone before us were aware of this possibility, and on page 117 of Erskine May there appear these words:
"Reflections upon Members, the particular individuals not being named or otherwise indicated, are equivalent to reflections on the House."
It is my submission, Mr. Speaker, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, having asserted that some of my hon. Friends were engaged in subversive activities, is guilty of a gross calumny and, therefore, has committed a contempt against this House.

If the hon. Member is proceeding on a document I hope that he will be good enough to bring it to me.

Copy of document handed in.

I hope that I am in order, Mr. Speaker, if I may, with respect, submit a divergent point of view from that to which the House has listened from the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg).

I understand that in cases of this kind you wish to take time as a rule to consider the submissions which are made, Mr. Speaker. In order to have before you a divergent submission, I would put before you one or two considerations in the opposite sense.

An attempt to raise by way of proceedings for breach of privilege a complaint about a speech of either an hon. Member or a member of the public is, of course, a challenge to his right to say what he said. It is not an objection to the views which he expressed as being incorrect or the facts which he stated as not being in accordance with the facts. It is a challenge to his right to say what he said, whether or not he believed it or whether or not it be correct.

I submit that in coming to a conclusion about whether or not a prima facie case has been made out, you will, Mr. Speaker, reflect that if the hon. Gentleman's contention be the correct one there would be a very serious infringement of the liberty of the subject. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] A Minister in this matter has no rights which a member of the public has not got, or an ordinary hon. Member of this House.

If the hon. Gentleman's contention is correct, then I submit that what follows—if this is a prima facie example of contempt of the House—is that any member of the public, any hon. Member of the House, or any writer in a newspaper who expressed opinions about the party to which he was opposed, in comparable language, could be liable to be brought up here for proceedings for contempt; and I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that this would be an extremely dangerous precedent for the House to set.

I was mounting an attack and I admit that I made a full frontal attack on the Labour Party—

Order. I think that it is fair on these occasions that an hon. Gentleman speaking in explanation or exculpation should be heard quietly.

On a point of order. I wonder whether you would be good enough, Mr. Speaker, to clear up one or two points.

As I understand the procedure, an hon. Member, whoever he happens to be, brings to your notice certain facts. You then take 24 hours to establish the relatively simple point, not of the substance, but of whether a prima facie case has been made out. I have not the least objection to the rules being altered in the middle of the game. I have become quite accustomed to that. If the rules have been altered, would it be in order for me later to submit my full case against the right hon. and learned Gentleman?

Perhaps I may explain the situation. It is not complicated.

In days of not so long ago Mr. Speaker was required to rule at once and the practice then was that it a complaint were founded on a document against an hon. Member, then directly that document had been handed to the Table he, the accused Member, was allowed to be heard in explanation or exculpation.

The present position is that I should inevitably ask for 24 hours to consider before ruling on the proposition, aye or no, does the complaint disclose a prima facie case—that and no more. Since, in those circumstances, I should have thought it right to allow the hon. Gentleman to submit that he was raising a prima facie case, I thought it perfectly right to allow the other hon. Member to submit that he was not, because he would not have another opportunity in certain circumstances. It seems to me to be absolutely necessary in order to be fair.

I was, by way of explanation, Sir, simply saying that I was mounting a frontal attack on the Labour movement. I was not attacking the Parliamentary Labour Party as such, or any member of it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I was attacking the Labour Party in the country as a whole and that was the case I was presenting. My case was that it was so crevassed and inter-penetrated by various elements which I, at any rate, regard as subversive, but which hon. Members opposite do not, that it was quite unfit to be elected to power should a General Election take place.

I appreciate that it is obvious that hon. Members opposite do not agree with these views, but I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, that they are not held alone by myself and that they are sincerely held by myself. What is under challenge is not whether they are correct, but whether I am entitled to put them forward. I claim the right to be entitled to say of a party to which I am opposed—not of the Parliamentary party, but of the whole movement—that it is so inter-penetrated by these elements as to be unworthy of power.

Mr. Speaker, my submission to you is this. It is not every reflection that can be held to be a breach of privilege. The subject of privilege has been very widely defined, but I submit that the wisest general statement of it appears on page 109 of Erskine May. I crave the indulgence of the House while I read the paragraph, which is in these terms:
"It would be vain to attempt an enumeration of every act which might be construed into a contempt, the power to punish for contempt being in its nature discretionary. Certain principles may, however, be collected from the journals which will serve as general declarations of the law of Parliament It may be stated generally that any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any member or officer of such House in the discharge of his duty, or which has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence."
Particular cases, too long to enumerate, are set out on pages 124 and 125. I submit that it appears quite plainly from the nature of the cases set out on those pages that it is only those particular statements which can have the effect referred to in the general rule of which the House will take notice of this kind. I would submit that there is no prima facie case that any words amongst those quoted by the hon. Gentleman could possibly be said to be acts or omissions or words which obstruct or impede—
"either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any member or officer of such House in the discharge of his duty, or which has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results"—
and, therefore, should not be prima facie treated as a contempt.

Mr. Speaker, I would submit that the facts are that the House should allow a very wide range of freedom of speech to its Members and to members of the public in attacking the other side, so long as they put forward views which are within the rule which I have read. All I can say is that, if I have been guilty of any kind of breach of rule, or if any prime facie case is made out, I have a large number of quotations which will give me a very distinguished band of companions in the Clock Tower. I submit not only that no prima fade case has been made out, but that the hon. Gentleman's attempt to prove that there has been is itself an attempt to intimidate the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone.

On a point of order, I think that it does arise, Mr. Speaker. I have always understood that when a matter of privilege is under discussion the said matter had to be raised at the earliest possible moment. I just want you to consider that for the last 12 years I have been making speeches similar to that of my right hon. and learned Friend. [Laughter.]

The hon. Lady may have been lucky. I am not ruling about her good fortune or no.

I will rule on the hon. Member's complaint tomorrow.

Order. No point of order arises on the hon. Lady's matter now—just none at all.

Further to the point which has already been made. The hon. Lady cannot be correct in her statement—

Nothing arises on the hon. Lady's statement. The hon. Gentleman's complaint does not relate to it.

May I ask a question which is designed to elicit an explanation by you, Mr. Speaker? When your Ruling is made tomorrow will there be an opportunity for us to make further points at the moment?

Further to that point of order. I wanted to refer to the speech by Mr. McGovern, at Los Angeles, when he made similar allegations.

The hon. Gentleman may want to refer to all sorts of things—Hamlet or other works of Shakespeare. The point is this: should I come to the conclusion that there is no prima facie case, then there will not be an opportunity tomorrow. If I come to the opposite conclusion, there will be. That is all there is about that.

The comment I wished to make was this, Mr. Speaker. When hon. Gentlemen were lost in laughter about previous speeches made by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) they overlooked the tact—