Skip to main content

The Right Honourable Member For Walsall, North

Volume 885: debated on Tuesday 28 January 1975

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

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before the Leader of the House moves the motion on the Order Paper, I ask for your guidance on a matter of some importance of which I have given you notice.

Does the High Court of Parliament constitute a court of law in the context that debate, either by the House on this motion or by a Committee set up pursuant to the motion, of actions by an hon. Member which might constitute infringement of the law of this country would or might enable the hon. Member concerned to plead either autrefois convict or autrefois aquit in bar of trial at subsequent criminal proceedings in the normal course of justice outside this House?

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for having given me notice of this matter. Whether the notice was adequate, or ever would be adequate, I am not sure. I am not prepared at this point to give my views on the nature of the High Court of Parliament, nor is it for me to give instructions to a Select Committee, should it be set up. However, I do not see how this House, either by debating the matter or by agreeing to the motion, can bind any court of law. In any case, should any right hon. or hon. Member appear before a court of law, it must be entirely a matter for that court to decide upon its jurisdiction and the issue before it.

As the hon. Gentleman has raised a point of order, may I add this. We have quite a difficult discussion before us, and I should like to remind the House of the rule on pages 361 and 362 of Erskine May that
"no charge of a personal character can be raised"
against a Member in debate
"save upon a direct and substantive motion to that effect".
That remains the position. There is no motion on the Order Paper making charges of a specific nature. Nevertheless, it would be almost impossible to have this debate without referring to various allegations which have been reported in the Press. Hon. Members must confine themselves and, if I may say so with great respect, perhaps rise to the occasion in accordance with the best traditions of the House, by being very careful about what they say. One of our colleagues is being discussed without substantive charges being made against him on a motion.

4.14 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Edward Short)

I beg to move,

That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the position of Mr. John Stonehouse as Member for Walsall North:
That the Committee do consist of Ten Members:
That Mr. Arthur Bottomley, Mr. Edward du Cann, Sir Michael Havers, Mr. Cledwyn Hughes, Mr. Sydney Irving, Mr. John Peyton, Sir David Renton, Mr. David Steel, Mr. Michael Stewart and Mr. George Strauss be Members of the Committee:
That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records; to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House; to report from time to time; and to report Minutes of Evidence from time to time:
That Three be the Quorum of the Committee.
I am very sad indeed to have to move the motion standing in my name, which proposes that a Select Committee be appointed to consider the position of Mr. John Stonehouse as Member for Walsall, North. This is a time for very few words. The point of order of the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) underlines the importance of that: at least, it raises a rather big question mark. I therefore propose to move the motion very briefly. If it is accepted, we shall later have a full opportunity to debate the Select Committee's report. However, I shall be ready, if necessary, to reply to any points made this afternoon.

There will, I think, be widespread agreement that the sequence of events in which the right hon. Gentleman has been involved raises questions and creates a problem which the House would wish to have considered. This is essentially a matter for the House as a whole and not for the Government. I suggest that much the best and fairest way to establish the facts of what has happened and to find the right course to take is to refer the whole issue to the corporate wisdom of a Select Committee.

There is a number of precedents for referring personal cases to a Select Committee, some of them relatively recent. After careful consideration and consultation with a large number of right hon. and hon. Members, I think that this is the better course to take than referring it to the Committee of Privileges for which, of course, there is also a number of precedents.

Reference of the right hon. Gentleman's case to a Select Committee will enable him to give his own account of what has happened and will allow the facts to be thoroughly and impartially examined. At the moment the facts are only partially known, largely through Press accounts. I hope that the House will agree to await the Select Committee's report before attempting to discuss them in any detail.

Is it intended that the Select Committee should sit in public and that the public should know what evidence is being given to it—which is as a court would hear evidence—or is it intended that it should sit in private? Or is this a matter for the Select Committee to decide?

The Leader of the House said that the setting up of a Select Committee would give the right hon. Member the opportunity of giving evidence to it. Can he say whether the right hon. Member has given any indication that he would be prepared to return to this country to give evidence to the Select Committee?

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I quote from a letter which I have received from the right hon. Gentleman today:

"I welcome the proposed composition of the Committee. They are all men of integrity, and I respect their judgment. Apart from adding another eminent Privy Councillor, I could well have chosen them myself. Although I do not intend to return to the United Kingdom, I will co-operate fully with the Committee in its inquiries, as I believe the Committee might establish some valuable points from my experience which would help to obtain protection for parliamentarians from blackmail and deliberate, calculated Press smears."

4.18 p.m.

It is, fortunately, a rare occurrence for the House to have to consider the position of one of its Members in relation to his or her colleagues, and, inevitably, as the Leader of the House has said, it is a sad occasion when the House is requested to do so.

Fortunately, in the last 50 years, since just after the end of the First World War, there have been only three occasions on which such consideration has led to the Member concerned leaving the House—two for legal reasons which occurred outside the House, and once because of a decision by the House. But I believe, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, that when the House considers such a matter, it should do so on the fullest possible information. Therefore, that is the justification for the motion proposing that a Select Committee be set up to examine in detail and thoroughly, as Select Committees do, the position of the right hon. Gentleman.

I suppose that the two questions which we have to ask ourselves as a result of the motion are: do the circumstances of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) justify setting up a Select Committee; and is the timing of setting up the Select Committee right?

There are varied views about these matters, and that is why I posed two specific questions. I believe that they merit consideration.

The Government have taken the initiative. I agree with the form of the motion. It is a broad motion to consider the position of the right hon. Gentleman. There can be no implications in it such as those which, rightly, worried my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) when he put his point of order. It behoves the Leader of the House to move the motion because it refers to a member of his own party, the Government having taken the decision.

When one asks oneself the precise reason why this should be done, it is difficult to define. The Leader of the House and many other right hon. and hon. Members no doubt feel that the real reason is the confused and contradictory position as we understand it. It is perfectly true that no charge has been preferred against the right hon. Gentleman as far as I am aware, and the Leader of the House has given no indication that there has been any charge. The right hon. Gentleman has been away from the House for a certain time, but we all know of instances when an hon. Member is away for a considerable time—for example because of sickness—and his colleagues together help to look after his constituents and their interests. In neither of those cases would there appear to be a clear reason for setting up a Select Committee.

I return to the point that the situation is an extremely confused and contradictory one. The right hon. Gentleman apparently said, first, that he wanted to ask for the Manor of Northstead and then that he did not. He said that he might come back to this country, but said later that he wished to make his life elsewhere. The position is so confused and contradictory that I have come to the conclusion that a Select Committee should be set up to examine the matter. Some, I know, will put forward the view that the timing is too soon and that we should have waited longer before considering such a motion. But I do not oppose the motion, because the House will still maintain control of the position after the Select Committee has reported.

In dealing with a matter of this nature a Select Committee is bound to take a certain time. I know from my experience of the Committee of Privileges as Leader of the House that that is often inevitable. I take into account that, as we have just heard from the Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman wishes to co-operate with the Committee but not to appear in person. That means that there will have to be a process of correspondence. This is not the first occasion on which a matter has been dealt with by correspondence. In the last Parliament, the previous Parliament and the Parliament preceding that the Privileges Committee dealt with one matter by a process of correspondence. But that process takes considerably longer, and by the time the Select Committee reaches the end of its proceedings it is inevitable that a considerable time will have elapsed.

I take into account that the House will have control of the timing when the Select Committee finishes its proceedings and reports to the House. If the matter is to be dealt with by correspondence, by the time that period has elapsed the House will, I think, have come to the conclusion that it should reach a decision.

I have no desire to indicate to the Select Committee how it should conduct its proceedings or the matters that it should consider. In view of the question which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton, I am sure that with the legal advice that is available through its membership the Select Committee will take every precaution not to do anything to jeopardise the position of the right hon. Gentleman in the House should he return to this country and should any matters legally be raised with him.

The right hon. Gentleman has said publicly, if the reports are correct, that he will not return to this country and does not wish to return to the House or to appear before the Select Committee because he does not believe that he would receive fair play or justice here. May I say this to him—if my words ever reach him? I and many others in the House ask him to reconsider his attitude. Of course, he may proceed by correspondence if he so wishes, but we in the House understand full well the weaknesses and frailties of our fellow human beings. Above all, we understand the consequences of strain and conflicts in individual personalities. The House is widely known to be compassionate and understanding in difficult personal matters of this kind. To my mind there is no question of the right hon. Gentleman not receiving every consideration by the Select Committee, if it is set up, and afterwards by the House, and I believe that he should have no justifiable fears about receiving fair play and justice in this difficult matter.

If the right hon. Gentleman has come or comes to the conclusion that he wishes to start life afresh either in this country or elsewhere, surely, on consideration, he would prefer to do so after personally clearing up these matters once and for all with his colleagues in the House. Surely he would prefer to start again with a mind which is clear of the cares and the conflicts of which he has spoken in Australia. I very much hope that that will be his decision after he has considered the matter.

I support the Leader of the House, and ask my hon. and right hon. Friends to do so, although, of course, it is entirely a matter for them. I support the Leader of the House in setting up the Select Committee and very much hope that the right hon. Member will decide to co-operate by coming back to his colleagues to enable these matters to be disposed of in a way which is acceptable to the House.

4.26 p.m.

After the speech which has been made by the Leader of the Opposition there is little I wish to add. I should like to emphasise and agree with everything he said. Such episodes as this are fortunately rare, and it is not a happy episode because we are discussing one of our colleagues. Since 1927 there have been only four references of matters relating to colleagues in the House to a Committee of this sort.

I would not presume to give advice to the Select Committee save that, as we are setting it up, it might perhaps be appropriate to indicate how we hope it will approach its task. I say that as one who has complete confidence in the right hon. and learned Members who have been selected to serve on the Select Committee. I hope that the members of the Select Committee will proceed with extreme caution, because collectively we are considering one of our colleagues and by doing so we shall create a precedent for the future. The right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) is a colleague in respect of whom no offence has been charged; still less has he any conviction.

It is true that a charge or conviction has not always been necessary for action to be taken. As far back as 1856 when a true bill had been found in the case of James Sadleir in respect of fraud, the House refused to take action because it wished matters to proceed along normal lines. Only when, a year later, the Crown Solicitor and the officers of the constabulary established that they had made efforts to apprehend him and bring him to trial and had failed did the House of Commons bring action and expel him.

There are those who say in the somewhat old-fashioned sounding phrase that Members can be investigated if their conduct is "unbecoming the character of an officer and gentleman "—which sounds extremely nineteenth century. That is the view of "Erskine May". But of the two cases that are recorded, those of Colonel Cawthorne in 1767 and Mr. Verney in 1891, the first had already been convicted of embezzlement by court-martial and the second had been sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment by the Central Criminal Court. Although it is not necessary for charges to have been preferred or brought, that has been the usual practice.

I make only one plea: that when the Select Committee proceeds the standard of proof it demands will be no less strict than that which would apply in a court of law. Clearly, what has been reported in newspapers is not evidence, and no body of men and women have less need to be convinced of that than do hon. Members.

There are matters which have been mentioned and allegations which have been made, and I shall go into none of them. If those matters are to be investigated, they must be proved by evidence adduced either by individual witnesses coming forward or by the right hon. Member for Walsall, North writing or, if it be thought proper, perhaps even by the taking of evidence on commission in Australia.

I have every confidence in the members of the Committee who have been selected. I am fortified by the fact that the right hon. Gentleman himself appears to show a confidence in those of our colleagues who are on the Committee. I ask them to remember that they will be creating a precedent in which we in this House shall sit in judgment of one of our colleagues. That being the case, whether it be in adducing evidence that comes before the Committee or the whole way in which its members comport themselves, they must be no less strict and determined to see that justice is done than would any court of law.

4.32 p.m.

I believe that the motion—and this applies to its timing and presentation by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—is the best way in which to deal with what to us all is a distressing situation. I should like to echo what was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition about my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse). I have made similar utterances, but I hope that full cognisance will be taken of the way in which the matter was put by the Leader of the Opposition.

The events involving the right hon. Member for Walsall, North leading up to the consideration of today's motion, have possibly plucked at the most human emotions ranging from grief and anger to shock, amazement and frustration.

In the early days of this bizarre chronicle of events it was inevitable that conjecture, allied to premises real and imaginary, would play a significant rôle. When, in the language of journalese, the story "broke" and rapidly developed, for those who at some time had worked for or with the right hon. Member in one capacity or another it became a period of anguish and bewilderment. Neither was it an easy period for the Press, which had a duty and responsibility to fulfil. Regrettably, in some instances there was occasional tarnishing of standards, but the issue was fraught with such possibilities. Ultimately, for some of us, a situation had been reached where, in Burke's words
"An event had happened upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to be silent."
It became necessary not only to show that innuendo and rumour could conceivably and ultimately receive the accolade of truth but that at the time they were merely innuendo and rumour.

Furthermore, there was a history of public endeavour on the part of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North wnich belonged very much to the honourable and credit side of what was being reported. In this connection the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister ended serious and distasteful speculation and brought much-deserved comfort to the mother and family of the right hon. Member. There is also marked appreciation for the manner in which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has handled this worrying and almost unique situation—with coolness coupled with fairness, and also with determination, patience and throughout with the quality of fair play.

Therefore, I support the motion as the best means for the House to be able to reach a just, honourable and informed determination. I hope that we shall take as our guidelines the words of that great lawyer and advocate of the eighteenth century, John Philpot Currun, who said:
"I know that truth is to be sought only by slow and painful process. I also know that error is in its nature flippant and compendious. It hops with airy and fastidious levity over proofs and arguments—and perches on assertion which it calls conclusion."
I hope that we shall accept the motion because I believe that, whatever the outcome of the examination and the searchings of the Select Committee, in the interests of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North and his constituents and all those who have worked with him and assisted him in the past, his family, and, indeed, for the people of this nation and for the honour of the House of Commons, this is the best way to deal with the situation. I trust that detailed and careful inquiry will ascertain the true situation and that innuendo and rumour will in the end give way to the triumph of truth. I hope that justice may be done in a manner that is honourable, and that in this way the great traditions of the House of Commons will be upheld for our nation and for all the world to see.

4.38 p.m.

It was said by Mr. Speaker at the beginning that this debate was a difficult one. There cannot often have been a more severe understatement, for this debate in many respects goes to the root of the independent position and right of individual Members of the House and of the sovereignty and independence of the House itself.

It is true that in form we are discussing only a motion to set up a Select Committee, but we would be humbugging ourselves if on that ground we pretended that in deciding to do so we were not taking a great decision which, as the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) said, may well create an important precedent.

We should not be considering whether to set up a Select Committee if we did not think that it was in present circumstances within contemplation that the House would wish to take steps in regard to the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse)—to be more blunt about the matter, to take steps which would cause him by the action of the House to cease to be a Member of the House. Therefore, it is the question whether such steps ought to be in contemplation in present circumstances that must underlie the decision of the House on the motion.

Indubitably, this House is the arbiter of the behaviour of its Members as Members of the House. It is the guardian of its privileges not only against the outside world but also where those privileges are in any way damaged and when its respect is in any way insulted by one of its Members. But the privileges of this House and the contempts against which it has the right and duty to protect itself are not something at large. They are privileges and contempts fixed and determined by precedent. We cannot suddenly invent new privileges, nor can we suddenly discover that behaviour which previously was not a contempt to the House has suddenly become a contempt of the House and, as such, censurable and punishable. Like our privileges, like our own existence, the right to defend them depends on precedent.

Whatever may have been the case in earlier centuries, within relevant modern times there is no requirement upon a Member of this House of attendance at the House. It has never within relevant time been considered to be a ground for expulsion from this House that an hon. Member has ceased to attend the House. I know that quotations may be found on this point, that antiquarians may discover instances, where in former centuries the attendance of Members has been required upon penalty. But it would be as proper for us to appeal to those antiquarian data as it would be constitutional for Her Majesty to refuse her Royal Assent to a Bill passed by both Houses on the ground that Queen Anne did so in 1707.

The fact we have before us is that, rightly or wrongly, absence from the House is not a ground for a Member being expelled from this House or ceasing to be a Member of it. It so happens, though I make no special point of it, that another hon. Member in this Parliament has been absent from the service of the House longer than the right hon. Member for Walsall, North. We do well, therefore, to consider what we do, if it is on grounds of absence, however protracted, that it might be in our contemplation to deprive the right hon. Gentleman of his seat.

It might be said that we have a duty in this House to have regard to the relationship between the House and the electorate, to the duties of hon. Members to their constituents. I agree. Of course, it is implicit in the character of a Member of Parliament that he attends the House to represent his constituents, and incidentally, that he takes such steps as may properly render him available to his constituents to know what is their mind. But there is a proper way to reform any abuses which the House may think exist in such a matter. If requirements are to be imposed upon hon. Members in the public interest, in the interest of the principle of representation, they cannot be imposed by an extension of the notion of contempt of this House. They cannot be imposed by the unilateral private action of this Chamber. They can be imposed only by law.

If we think it appropriate that those who are elected to this House should perform, as a condition of belonging to it, certain services to the House and their constituents, let us lay that down, as we lay down other requirements for being Members of this House, in the proper way—by law.

If we do not, the most grotesque results will follow. If we are to cause an hon. Member to cease to be a Member of this House because of his absence, the House will find that it will have to inquire jealously into the circumstances and background of every protracted absence of hon. Members. It would have to know whether the absence was approved by the hon. Member's constituents and whether he had indicated at the election that he intended to be absent. We enter an absolute maze when we attempt in this way to substitute a decision of this House to discipline its own Members for what, if it is right at all, ought to be a matter of law.

It may be said that in this case we are not concerned with simple absence. I do not know what would be the meaning of "simple absence"; for every case of absence is in its way unique. There has been mention of an hon. Member being absent by reason of sickness; but there is sickness and sickness, and there are causes of different kinds which are very difficult to classify and determine. As I was saying, it is said that this case is not only one of absence, however complex and difficult the notion of absence may be if it is to be defined. It is said that the fact of absence is somehow cumulated or aggravated in this case by what are alleged to be the actions and what are to alleged to be the offences of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North.

It has been given as a ground for setting up this Committee that we should determine through a Select Committee what those actions are. If those actions were simply actions which went to the respect of this House, actions which if proved would constitute a contempt of this House, then it would be right and proper that, as with other matters of privilege, they should be investigated and reported upon; for there exists no other authority or court to judge contempts against the House. The moment we permit another court to judge contempt against the House, we become subordinate.

But the nature of these actions—if not all of them, then the most part—is that, if they are as alleged, they are or might be offences against the law of the realm. Here, too, precedent is very clear. I accept that there is a certain penumbra around this to which the right hon. Member for Devon, North referred; but broadly speaking, there are certain offences and circumstances in which, when hon. Members have been duly tried by process of law and convicted, they are removed from membership of this House. However, the relevant condition there is "duly tried and convicted by courts of law". We have no right to say that this is a case in which that is inconvenient, that it is a case in which it does not look as though that will happen or in which we do not see how it can happen, and that therefore this House is justified in breaching one of the most important constitutional barriers.

Of course, there have been times in the past, though they have been evil times for this House, when the House has purported to act as a court of law, to judge offences against the law of the land; but I think it has for long been accepted that the judgment of offences against the law of the land or of actions which might be such offences belongs to the courts and not to this House. That is why it was a cause for great anxiety when the Leader of the House said that it would be the business of the Select Committee not only to advise the House on the right course to take but to "establish the facts". That was underlined when the right hon. Member for Devon, North expressed the hope that the Select Committee would require proof, procedure and evidence "no less strict than in a court of law". For, indeed, the Select Committee would be acting in supersession of a court of law and would be arrogating to this House and to a Committee of this House the function, long wisely forsworn, of determining the facts of a case where those facts bear upon the commission of an offence against the law.

The Leader of the Opposition put before the House the question whether the motion is timely. There may come a time when the setting up of this Select Committee will be appropriate, when it will involve none of the evil precedents which it inevitably brings with it at present. All that I have said about the motion is related to circumstances as they stand.

When the right hon. Gentleman says that the time may arrive, does he not agree that in the context of what he was saying it could only be after the next election?

I do not know when the time may be, or how circumstances may change. What I know, and what I submit to the House, is that in present circumstances to proceed with the motion, knowing what it implies for the course of action in contemplation by the House, is a dangerous incursion upon the rights of individual hon. Members and a dangerous breach of at least two constitutional principles as to the functions of the House.

That is why I appeal to the Leader of the House to take back the motion for the time being, because to persist with it at this time brings with it the risk of creating for the future precedents the consequences of which we cannot foresee, but which could be damaging and even irreversible.

Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down, may I make it clear that I do not accept the implications on which he based his speech? I do not accept that there is any implication in the motion or in anything I said in my speech. But I do not see any other way in which a matter which, we must say quite frankly, many people outside regard as a public scandal can be clarified and dealt with.

If the Select Committee were to say everything the right hon. Gentleman has just said, I for one should say that it had put forward substantial arguments why the situation should remain as it is. Therefore, I must make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the allegation that there are implications in the motion that the House will expel this man.

The right hon. Gentleman, in his intervention, has made exactly my point, because he included the words "and dealt with". The whole meaning of the motion is that in certain circumstances as things stand, and upon certain reports from the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Walsall, North would have to be dealt with.

4.54 p.m.

As one of the three Members representing the town of Walsall in the House, I support the setting up of the Select Committee. I hope that the motion will be accepted, because the issue that has arisen in respect of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) cannot be ignored by the House.

The actions of any hon. Member reflect upon the whole of public life. The great tragedy of the circumstances surrounding the actions of the right hon. Gentleman is that there has been far too much speculation and that far too little evidence has been produced of precisely what has occurred.

Having dealt in "surgery" with many of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, I know very well that they feel a sense of bewilderment moving through disillusionment towards outrage at what has happened. Their feeling of anger and disillusionment will not go away if the House simply ignores the problems which have arisen because of the right hon. Gentleman's actions. Those constituents have repeatedly told me that they need an active Member of Parliament.

As the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) has said, it is not a rule of the House that a Member should attend. It is not a rule that he should be a good constituency Member or that he should speak in a certain number of debates. If such criteria had existed, the right hon. Member for Walsall, North could have been argued to have satisfied all of them up until his disappearance.

The point is that the right hon. Gentleman has taken actions which give grave cause for concern. As far as we can ascertain, he has deliberately gone to two widows, Mrs. Markham in my constituency and Mrs. Mildoon in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George)—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of Mr. Speaker's injunction at the beginning of the debate is what the hon. Gentleman saying in order?

I see nothing to be gained for the House by reciting what the Press has told us. I hope that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Edge) will bear in mind Mr. Speaker's words.

I was anxious to correct a statement put around by the Press that the right hon. Member for Walsall, North used the names of his own constituents. It should be on public record that that is not so.

The allegations are serious and need to be examined in full by a Select Committee. I do not wish to prejudge the Select Committee's findings. It could well tell the House that either on the grounds put forward by the right hon. Member for Down, South, because of illness or for other reasons, the House should take no action against the right hon. Member for Walsall, North. I shall accept the findings of the Select Committee because I have the greatest respect for the proposed membership. They are Members who are very well versed and well experienced in the practices of the House.

We cannot continue with the present situation. The right hon. Member for Walsall, North is in Australia, allegations appear in the Press—one of which I have demonstrated is inaccurate—and the right hon. Gentleman's constituents are left in a state of complete uncertainty as to whether they have a Member who will return to the House to be active or a Member who intends to resign. For the House to take no action in such a situation of uncertainty would be undesirable.

It is time for a Select Committee to investigate the full details of this confused affair and then report to the House whether any breach of the procedure of the House has taken place. There may well be matters which give concern to the Select Committee but which are in no sense outside the law of the land, being merely outside the conventions of the House. I should be disturbed if the Committee involved itself deeply in matters which are properly the concern of the courts. Its job is to establish the facts and consider behaviour which is properly the concern of the House.

Therefore, I should welcome the setting-up of the Select Committee. I am sure that all the people in Walsall, North will—

Before the hon. Gentleman goes any further, can he distinguish between matters which he thinks are the proper concern of the House as regards the conduct of hon. Members and those which are not? This is an important consideration to be borne in mind.

It is really a matter for the Select Committee, but in my view it would be improper for the Select Committee to pry into the business affairs of the right hon. Gentleman. I do not believe that that is a matter of concern for the House. If it is a matter of concern for anyone, it is a matter of concern for the courts.

I consider that the allegations of the visits to two widows at a distressing time for them is a matter of concern. It is a matter of concern to my constituents. If Conservative Members dared to speak to my constituents—I speak to them every weekend—they would be able to judge their anger and reaction. They would be able to judge their reaction on, as they see it, the failure of the House to take action.

What does the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) want me to do? Does he want me to go to the widow in my constituency and tell her that the House is not concerned with what might have occurred? Does he want my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South to go to the widow in his constituency and tell her that the House is not concerned with what occurred affecting her?

If the Select Committee decides that the right hon. Gentleman has used the name of the widows' husbands in the way alleged, that is properly a matter of concern for the House and one which will bring the House into disrepute. That is why the Select Committee needs to consider that matter. I do not suggest that such behaviour is actionable in a court of law, but it is a matter of concern for hon. Members.

If we allow such behaviour to go unexamined and the facts of the situation to go unestablished, we shall bring the House into disrepute and add fuel to the fire of all those who already hold Parliament in contempt. That would be regrettable. That is why I welcome the setting up of the Select Committee. I look forward to the careful and balanced report which I am sure it will produce.

5.2 p.m.

I very much agree with the excellent speech of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). I knew the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) a bit but not very well. I merely regarded him as a colleague sitting on the Labour benches. What I feel most strongly is that the House is acting far too quickly. I ask the Leader of the House to think again and perhaps to take the motion off the Order Paper for some weeks.

I do not know what has been happening or what the right hon. Member for Walsall, North has been doing in Australia. We have only the newspaper reports, and they may all be wrong. I do not know the exact position, but it seems that there is a possibility of criminal charges. In any event, I want to wait because I do not believe that the House should take action at the moment. We would be well advised to wait to see whether criminal charges are laid and convictions made.

5.3 p.m.

So far the debate has shown a deep division of opinion and some serious argu- ments on both sides of the House. I think that the arguments put forward by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) were powerful and appealing. I am bound to say that I have not such powerful reasons in support of the motion but will support it.

The difficulty the House now finds itself in is that we have a Member who has not been found guilty of any offence. That has been the precedent for expulsion. The right hon. Member for Down, South clearly points the way by saying that absence is not the means by which we should establish a precedent for expulsion. The issue that now faces the House is whether we should take action. Such action might not be felt wise and it might not fit in with precedents but this is a matter of great concern outside the House. That is the position not only because the Press have made comment but because of the statements that have come from the right hon. Member for Walsall, North. His statements and his letters to the Prime Minister and to other people have established the points at issue with which the House should concern itself.

I shall make one or two points that I hope will be considered by the Select Committee. I have confidence in the way that the Select Committee will consider these matters. At this stage it does not have terms of reference but the motion leaves it open to the Committee to make its own decisions. It is open to the Committee to interview the right hon. Member for Walsall, North as a means of ascertaining the truth of the situation. I hope that by taking that action we shall be able to have an impartial opinion.

One issue of the utmost importance is that there are several issues which the Select Committee can also consider. One such issue is the interests of Members outside the House. That includes matters outside a Member's parliamentary duties. It is clear that there are issues involved arising out of the pursuit of employment outside parliamentary duties and that a Member of Parliament has been subjected to pressures which, according to the right hon. Gentleman's own statement, include blackmail. That is also clear in the letter that the right hon. Gentleman wrote to the Prime Minister and to the Leader of the House. As was said at the opening of the debate, the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to advise the House of those pressures.

It would, of course, take a considerable time for a prosecution of any nature to be entered into and completed in the courts if warranted. In the meantime, the country will be concerned that the House takes no action. It is important that it should take action. I hope that the pressure of blackmail will be seriously considered by the Committee. That does not necessarily arise or reflect upon the issue concerning the right hon. Member for Walsall, North but it is relevant to the general trend of influence outside the House.

I wished to make that point because it was reported in The Times. on Saturday that there is now a group of people who are making it a business proposition to inquire into the business background and other interests of Members of Parliament and to make that information available on a commercial basis so that others can add to the sort of pressures which the right hon. Member for Walsall, North has described as a blackmail.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that what he is saying is outside the terms of reference of the Select Committee and the motion now before us. The motion is:

"That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the position of Mr. John Stonehouse…".
The matters to which the hon. Gentleman has referred are of great relevance in another context but they do not fall within the motion that we are now discussing.

I think that my point has been strengthened by what the hon. Gentleman has just said. Cardinal to the position of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North is the allegation he makes that the actions that he took arose out of certain pressures. I do not know whether those actions were illegal. That is a matter that will be pursued outside the House. What is cardinal to the position of the right hon. Gentleman is that pressures built up on him arising out of employment other than his parliamentary duties. I hope that the Select Committee in considering this matter will look seriously at the right hon. Gentleman's allegations as I believe it is an important matter. It is particularly important as there are organisations outside the House which are prepared to use such matters to undermine the reputations of Members of Parliament and, inevitably, the credibility of the House.

5.8 p.m.

One cannot be a Member for 10 years without having great regard for the powers of oratory and eloquence of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). However, our respect and regard for those powers should not prevent us challenging the assumptions that he made in his speech today if, as I believe it to be the fact, the right hon. Gentleman's speech clouded the issue which we are considering and took us away from facing the real question of how the House should now deal with this matter.

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman's words that the wording of the motion inevitably creates and raises imputations against the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse).

We cannot discuss the motion in isolation when considering the purpose for which the Select Committee is being set up and its possible effect. To a certain extent it is unreal to attempt to conduct the debate without some consideration of matters which have been reported in the Press and referred to outside the House.

I do not believe that it is right to say that to comment in any way on this issue is necessarily to pre-judge the result of the Select Committee's proceedings. What we should attempt to do is distinguish between what one might call merely newspaper gossip and that which, although reported in the Press, appears to have independent support from outside—namely, either statements made by the right hon. Member for Walsall, North himself or other proved facts.

Clearly, the only purpose of setting up a Select Committee is to show that we face the fact that there is, in the view of the House, as far as the right hon. Member is concerned, a case to answer, although it may well be that the result of the Committee's deliberations is that the case is not shown to be proved. Without using some of the emotive words used by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Edge), I want to set out what I consider to be the basis of the case on which the Select Committee should be formed. There are certain facts, each of which, although not necessarily indisputable and not necessarily undeniable, clearly creates the framework of a basic case.

It appears from statements made by the right hon. Member himself that he has assumed the identities of other people for the purpose of obtaining passports and has pursued that attempt to success. He achieved passports in the names of people other than himself, on which he then chose to travel across the world. On the face of it, there appears to be an allegation that he has committed a criminal offence.

Secondly, it would appear, on the evidence as we know it, for reasons which at the moment do not concern me, that the right hon. Member appears to have chosen to fake his own death with the purpose of disappearing. That probably is no criminal offence. Thirdly, we know that, after his appearance in Australia, he has made certainly the most contradictory statements—if they be contradictory I think that they are nevertheless clear—to the effect that he has no desire to return to this country and proposes, according to his own words and actions, to remain resident in Australia.

It has been said that if it be right, as appears from the evidence, that the right hon. Member has obtained passports in false names, he has committed the act, presumably, of either forgery or perjury and, therefore, it is a matter for the courts. Were the right hon. Member present in this country and allegations of this kind were being made in this House, I would agree that it would be a matter for the courts and should be dealt with by the courts. But we cannot ignore the fact that the right hon. Member himself has chosen, by his own volition, to remove himself from the jurisdiction of our courts, and, therefore, we cannot say that, although part of the acts he has done may, if they prove to be true, be a criminal offence, since he has taken himself out of the jurisdiction of our courts there is no action that this House can take. That would be an absurd position.

But, it will be said, there is power of extraditing and bringing back to the courts of this country to stand trial a person who is apparently alleged to have committed a criminal offence in this country. That is true. But one cannot ignore the fact that, whilst the technical power to extradite and, perhaps, to bring a person to trial, may exist, for many reasons there may not be the wish to carry out these extradition proceedings at this time.

I am with the hon. and learned Gentleman so far, but there is the question of the timeliness of the motion. Should we not first investigate whether the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) should be extradited? If that were to be done, everything would follow in logical order. If the hon. and learned Gentleman were right, and in practical terms we could not think that the right hon. Member would be returned from Australia, there would be greater strength in his case. But what reason have we to think that if the normal proceedings for extradition were to be taken they would not succeed?

Extradition is a two-way process. It is not only a question of starting extradition proceedings in this country. Equally, a decision whether to extradite rests in Australia. One cannot be sure what the outcome will be of extradition proceedings.

I have deliberately tried to draw a distinction between what might be called gossip-rumour, on the one hand, and proved or apparent fact on which a case can be based, on the other, and have pointed out that there may be reasons why at this moment there may not be anxiety to extradite.

I was not going to say this, but, since the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) has mentioned the point, I suggest that one must remember that in law one cannot in the courts of this country ever charge any person for any offence on which he has not been extradited from another country, if one does extradite him. At a time when—I do not prejudge in any way—major Department of Trade inquiries are going on into companies with which the right hon. Member was involved, there may be very good reasons why the authorities do not wish to use their power to extradite at this moment and thereby close the door at all times to any proceedings they might wish to bring.

Surely the question of extradition need never arise, because the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) owes the security of his position in Australia, as I understand it, to the fact that his illegal entry there was, it was later discovered, legal because of his privileged status as a Member of this House. It is his exercise and enjoyment of that privilege which affords him security of domicile in Australia. Were that to be properly considered by a Select Committee, the question of extradition need never be followed up.

I was coming to that point. I will leave the point about criminal charges and turn to the second argument, which is one of the bases of the case to answer—the apparently voluntary absence of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North from the House.

I agree, of course, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South that absence in itself—"simple absence" was the phrase—has never been, or necessarily should ever be, a right to deprive a Member of his membership of this House. But one has to look at the circumstances of the absence. In this case, there is, on the face of it, absence from the House combined with a clearly stated determination not to return to the House, and surely in the circumstances the House, if it is to have any power, has the right to say that it has to give thought and consideration to the rights of any Member of the House to represent those who elected him in the belief that he was proposing to carry out his responsibilities as a Member.

There is the further consideration, certainly on some of the statements eminating from the right hon. Member, that it would appear that he has chosen to use his membership of this House not for the purpose of pursuing the views of his constituents but for the purpose of giving himself a privileged position towards obtaining his ability to stay in Australia, and, therefore, for the purpose of not intending to come back as a Member of this House.

I believe that this House is right to set up the Select Committee to inquire into those facts. It assumes, to my mind, a case to answer, but it is a case which has been created and already exists. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition says, let us be realistic. It is thought of by many outside the House as a form of public scandal. It is a case which should be inquired into. The House will then have the opportunity, having heard the Select Committee's views, to decide at that stage what action to take.

As the right hon. Member for Down, South said, absence through illness is no justification for taking steps. He said, rightly, that there are various types of illness. It is no prejudging of that issue, any more than it is a prejudging of any other issue, to set up the Select Committee, as it is issues of this kind which are matters which will have to concern that Committee in its deliberations.

5.20 p.m.

The House has every right to be jealous of its good name. If we acted upon the advice of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and left this matter in abeyance, presumably he meant that it would thereby be solved when the next General Election came around because the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) would then cease to have the protection that he now has in Australia and we would probably be able the better to deal with this case.

But the one thing that we must try to understand and appreciate is the feeling of the general public. I am certain that they will come to the conclusion that this place is the best club in the world and that once again we are trying to cover up, to shove matters under the carpet and to conceal something which does none of us any good and which, unless it is dealt with, is bound to leave some further mark upon what I would call the general integrity of this House. It is the integrity of the House which is suffering in these circumstances. It affects every Member; some of it rubs off on him.

No one can pretend that this is an issue in which the House should not be deeply involved. A man in the North-West was sentenced to six-months' imprisonment a fortnight ago, for instance, for forging a passport.

All right—but he was imprisoned. I do not think it is fair to say that we are not entitled to discuss the matter. The whole of the Press has discussed it. It has been discussed on television. It is not fair to say that the House somehow must not say one word on this issue.

Our standards may be a bit higher. I should hope that they are sufficiently high to ensure that a Member of the House of Commons has no greater preference when it comes to being dealt with by the law than an ordinary outsider. The significant thing is that if this matter had involved not a Member of Parliament but an ordinary member of the public, everyone knows that he would have been dealt with. It is precisely because of the privileges which attach to this House, as the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) has said, privileges which have given the right hon. Member sanctuary in Australia, that he is not facing the same obligations and possibilities as would have to be faced by an ordinary citizen.

May I correct the right hon. Gentleman on one fact? As I understand it, being a Member of the British Parliament enabled the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) to enter Australia without the normal immigration procedures. I shall be corrected if I am wrong, but, as I also understand it, that does not prevent him from being extradited from Australia. He is in exactly the same position as would be any other citizen of this country—which is what the right hon. Gentleman is asking.

The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. Once the right hon. Member for Walsall, North was able to prove to the Australian immigration authorities that he was a Member of this House, they did not take the steps against him which they would have taken in relation to anyone else.

That is not the point. He got into Australia because, perhaps, he was a Member of Parliament. But the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) is the valid point. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will accept it. The right hon. Member for Walsall, North can be extradited for offences, irrespective of his parliamentary status, if charges are preferred against him.

The hon. and learned Member for Runcorn made it perfectly clear that extradition involves a two-way traffic. One can only extradite if the country from which one wishes to extradite is prepared to let one do so. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) can speak for the Australian Government, all well and good. I am not in a position to do that.

Among the ordinary people with whom I have discussed this case there is a feeling that if any one of them had such charges preferred against him in the Press and on television as have been made against the right hon. Member for Walsall, North, he knows full well that he would have been brought to trial and that there would not have been a great deal of sympathy for him in the House of Commons. The general public are not prepared to extend to a Member of this House any special privileges.

The right hon. Member for Down, South said that we cannot invent new privileges. We are not tied by the past. This House can, as and when it so determines, decide that something is against its honour and integrity. That is what I am in favour of its doing. That is why I am in favour of what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has proposed. As I understand from the correspondence which my right hon. Friend read out that the right hon. Member for Walsall, North has every faith in the integrity and fair-mindedness of those who will make up the Committee, I cannot see where or why there should be any objection to this proposal in the House.

5.27 p.m.

Like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have been a Member of the House for many years. We have seen this happen previously. I want to make a few short observations.

This House is very careful to have no control over who comes into it as a Member. We should think very carefully before we decide whether we shall start, in its early stages, any process which might lead to deciding who should leave the House. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) made the point, perfectly clearly, that absence from the House has never been an offence. Were that to be an offence and were absence for a few months to be a ground for the setting up of a Select Committee, one or two hon. Members who are still in the House might find themselves in some difficulty over that.

My second point is about the courts of law. Nothing has been alleged at any time by any court, by Her Majesty's Government or by the Director of Public Prosecutions, or by anyone else, against the right hon. Gentleman whose future we are discussing. We have had mentioned the question whether he is extraditable or not extraditable for an offence about which all one can say is that it appears that he may have committed. We have no information in the House beyond that.

The House is entitled to more information than has been given already by the Leader of the House. Did the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) apply for the Stewardship of the Manor of Northstead and then withdraw his application? Are there any proposals by Her Majesty's Government or the legal authorities to take any step whatever to bring him to the bar of justice for crimes which they think he may have committed? In the absence of any such efforts, this proposal is pretty threadbare.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that we could act only on the fullest information. We have not had that information. We have had speculation in newspapers. I know what the right hon. Member for Walsall, North is supposed to have said in one newspaper but when I read another newspaper I find that he has said something different. We read what his wife has said, what his secretary has said and what his secretary's husband has said. But there is nothing of authority.

No one will come to the House—and this is what the Leader of the House should do—and tell us what has happened. As the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) has said, evidence in the newspapers is not enough. If the Leader of the House will, in his closing remarks, give one word of evi- dence of something for which the right hon. Member for Walsall, North should answer, then I will vote for the motion. In the absence of such evidence I cannot.

5.32 p.m.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) has rightly indicated some of the difficulties in this case, about which hon. Members generally agree. No one can take part in this debate without a sense of the personal tragedy which is involved and, on the other hand, a sense of the historical importance of the subject we are debating, which goes to the roots of our parliamentary institutions. Here I agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell).

For this reason, although we have been enjoined to be brief, it is right for hon. Members to speak their mind and not merely to pass this motion formally. Naturally hon. Members must have regard to the sorry predicament of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) and his family. I do not wish, if possible, in any way to add to their sense of pain. At the same time, the House must give thought to the constituents of my right hon. Friend. We must also give some thought to what the Leader of the Opposition said about the considerable level of public concern. Otherwise this case could become a scandal. Even more importantly in a sense, we must have regard to the good name and dignity of the House. Although I have my reservations, I welcome this motion to set up a Select Committee. The problem confronting the Committee is important and complex. As I shall show, it would be all too easy to come to simple but incorrect solutions which could set dangerous precedents for the future. I trust that the Committee will deliberate carefully and thoroughly.

I was away on a short holiday over Christmas, so I did not properly follow the end-of-December Press comments. I believe that I am not being unfair to the Leader of the House when I say that he would have wished not to have to table this motion. He believed that the problem could be solved in one of two ways. I am in agreement with him about the first way but have my reservations about the wisdom of the second.

The first solution enunciated by the Leader of the House was for my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North to return to this country and assist those agencies currently involved with his affairs. This would in any case have involved the House. Whether this would ultimately have affected his membership of this House I would not know. The second solution, and, naturally, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was concerned about the constituents in the division of Walsall, North, was for my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North to apply for the Chiltern Hundreds or the Manor of Northstead. I have some reservations as to whether my right hon. Friend is right about this.

The precedents on this sort of case are by no means clear-cut. Plainly, the House has to have a resignation procedure, although I remind the House of what Sir William Harcourt said in 1893, that it was very desirable that another resignation system should be established. We have done precisely nothing about that. Under the system we have, the Chancellor of the Exchequer bestows an office of profit on a Member who wants to go. History shows that Chancellors have bestowed the appointment without inquiry into the general character or fitness of the applicant.
"The worse his general reputation, the more advisable it is that by his resignation the House and his constituency should be rid of an undesirable Member."
Sir William Harcourt used these words, which I paraphrase, when he was questioned as to why, in view of his vast frauds, he had granted the Chiltern Hundreds to Mr. Jabez Balfour, who later fled to Buenos Aires.

History shows a number of similar, parallel cases. For the Chancellor to refuse to grant the Chiltern Hundreds could be held to be an act of vindictiveness. But there have been precedents the other way. There is a consideration which I feel the Lord President has not fully borne in mind. The Select Committeee reported in 1894 on the subject, saying that it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer's duty to refuse to grant the appointment either if the House directly enjoins him to do so or else if the Member's resignation would anticipate proceedings, whether imminent or actually pending, in the House for censuring or punishing him. I will not go into greater depth here, although I could.

I would have thought that the Leader of the House might have been aware of the possibility that the House might at some stage rule, and I must choose my words carefully because I go by Press reports, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North in his dealings with two widows over his passport documentation had engaged in conduct which had effectively brought the House into contempt. I am driven, and I am not a vindictive man, to the point of view that there could have been something imprudent in the over-speedy granting of the Chiltern Hundreds. For that reason alone I welcome the motion.

Coming to the motion and to the appointment of the Committee, I am sure that my colleagues will do their work thoroughly and independently, because the constitutional issues now raised are considerable. I agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South that it is necessary to make it clear that a Member can retire or resign from Parliament only by his own free will and not at the urgings of the executive or a party caucus outside.

Of course, this may present severe problems for the Member's constituents and the Government of the day. I remind the House that this case is not unique. Constituents and the Patronage Secretary have had this sort of problem before. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North is apparently now playing hard to get with his resignation letter of 13th January. To my mind that is a declaration of intent. But many people in life withdraw their resignations before they take effect. The Patronage Secretary did so before Christmas, and one reads, in memoirs, of Cabinet Ministers who have sometimes had their resignations on the table practically permanently.

John Maynard Keynes, in his "Essays in Persuasion", wrote about a member of the other place who employed two footmen, one fleeter of foot than the other, who was employed to retrieve any precipitate letters of resignation which the noblemen might have sent out by the first. Resignations are not always swift affairs. I mention two precedents showing where the intent took some time to realise. To show my impartiality in this matter I will take one example from each side of the House.

The first concerns Captain Gee, V.C., Conservative Member for Bosworth, and the second example concerns Francis Noel-Baker, Labour Member for Swindon.

With regard to Captain Gee—I hope that hon. Members can follow the dates involved, which are germane—The Times of 25th November 1926 said:
"There has been uncertainty of late concerning the whereabouts of Captain Gee, VC, MP. It now appears that Captain Gee arrived in Western Australia four months ago and stated that if he could settle on the land he might remain there and vacate his seat in the House of Commons."
On 10th January 1927 The Times reported that the Conservative Association had adopted Brigadier-General E. L. Spears as prospective candidate,
"in place of Captain Robert Gee,
"the present Member, who is resigning."
Col. Atkins, Chairman of the Association, said that Gee
"had left England owing to ill-health and was settling in Australia. He would shortly apply for the Chiltern Hundreds but the date of the election could not yet be fixed."
According to my researches, it took about a year for this case to be cleared up.

Francis Noel-Baker, whom many of us knew, resigned his seat in March 1969, but he said in a letter to his local party on 8th March:
"It had been my intention to resign in December or January but as you know I became ill and was not able to act until now."
Mr. Noel-Baker had originally announced his intention to resign in February 1968, and the local party adopted a prospective candidate in June. Mr. Noel-Baker said that his intention had been to resign in about October 1968. The Noel-Baker case took about 18 months to settle, slightly longer than the Gee case.

In fairness to the record, in the first case Mr. Baldwin refused to move the writ and in the second place Mr. Noel-Baker was pressurised by his own Whips not to resign. It was out of the control of both hon. Members involved; it was a question of how the House itself reacted.

I was about to say that both those Members delayed their resignations to suit their parties, in this case the Government, although it is worth adding that there was retribution in both cases, at the polls. Therefore, on precedent, it does not seem to me that the understandable concern of constituents and the Patronage Secretary to secure a resignation from my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North would be sufficient justification to convert a declaration of intent into a resignation.

It goes much further than that. The right hon. Member wrote to me on 13th January. The last sentence in his letter, which has been published, read:

"Will you please therefore set in motion the formalities required for my resignation as the Member for Walsall, North?"
Had the Chancellor of the Exchequer not been in Washington, that would have taken effect that day.

My right hon. Friend has anticipated what I was about to say. As I see it, my right hon. Friend in his letter to the Leader of the House had not passed the point of no return. I would even venture to say that if the Chancellor had jumped the gun by bestowing the Chiltern Hundreds, the House would have had to act to cancel the writ.

We are on surprisingly dangerous ground here. I would remind hon. Members and I would seriously remind the Leader of the House that Lord North actually wanted to bestow the Chiltern Hundreds on an unwilling recipient in order to be rid of a political foe. So we must be very careful to observe the proprieties. It is vital for the safety of democracy that Minister's rôles regarding the Chiltern Hundreds should be purely passive. I would make a suggestion that the House might like to consider. Clearly, we need a new resignation procedure which would leave Ministers absolutely out of the matter—a statutory declaration by the Member concerned which could be brought to Mr. Speaker.

All sorts of allegations have been made about my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North. There is a Department of Trade inquiry, the police are apparently making inquiries and there could also be private writs. As other hon. Members have said, however, all these matters and their possible consequences—bankruptcy or imprisonment—which might constitute grounds for automatic disqualification or expulsion from the House are purely hypothetical at this stage, and provide little for us to inquire into.

There have been Members under police investigation who have remained Members of the House. This must be within the memory of all of us—

and some who have actually served prison sentences, including Miss Devlin, not so long ago. But it takes six months to disqualify a Member who has been adjudicated bankrupt. So for many reasons this will not be the easiest of investigations for the Committee. Judging from his latest letter, my right hon. Friend may not come back to Britain to see the Committee.

The state of my right hon. Friend's mental health has been mentioned. The 1959 Mental Health Act is unlikely to assist a summary decision on his status. A man who is undergoing voluntary psychiatric treatment, as my right hon. Friend appears to be, should not forfeit his membership of the House on that account. The 1959 Act gives as the criterion detention in an institution. I would interpret that to mean—the statute is unclear—that this could apply only to a Member in respect of whom an order had been issued that he was a danger to himself or to others or—this is a case where the statute is deficient—that if he were a voluntary patient he nevertheless fell within this category. I should be most surprised, judging by the letters which have passed, if my right hon. Friend, who is probably a sick man, falls within that category.

So I return to the issue of contempt, which has worried me throughout my study of the case. One should not comment on hypothetical court proceedings. One should ask the Committee to consider whether, in his dealings with the two widows, Mrs. Mildoon and Mrs. Markham, there might not have been a contempt of the House. "Erskine May" says:
"Other acts, besides words spoken or writings published reflecting upon either House or its proceedings which, though they do not tend directly to impede either House in the performance of its functions, yet have a tendency to produce this result indirectly by bringing such House into odium, contempt or ridicule or by lowering its authority, may constitute contempts."
Hon. Members enjoy a fiduciary relationship with the electorate which, putting it at its lowest, my right hon. Friend appears to have damaged and jeopardised. The Committee may find this too.

Although I support the motion and will vote for it, I still have doubts that we shall see a clear outcome of the case at this stage. Perhaps there may be some disappointment outside, but we are not here to gratify the sensationalists. Something much more important is at stake. It is Parliament's duty to watch over its privileges, which are a trust on behalf of our constituents. I would remind hon. Members what Lord Pannell, when right hon. Member for Leeds, West, emphasised many times in his speeches on matters of this kind. When one crosses the road outside the Palace of Westminster and one asks for the traffic to be stopped, one is claiming a privilege not for oneself but to discharge one's duties to 60,000 electors.

The implementation of that principle may lead us to defend the membership rights of an individual who has, let us face it, behaved unworthily. We should not shirk affirming our privileges on that account. It is right that it should be made extremely difficult for a Member to leave this House except of his own free will. It may well be in this case that restraint and patience by the House will be justified and that we should wait until the inexorable actions of the law and related processes work themselves through.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North will either return to this country voluntarily or by extradition or, alternatively, will be permitted to settle in Australia.

Meanwhile, I support the motion.

5.51 p.m.

The House has listened to a very informative and interesting speech by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Ginsburg), who has done a great deal of work on this case.

I find myself in a quandary on the motion. I am troubled as to whether the motion is timely. There is no doubt that, on the face of it, and in the state of information as we have it today, the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) has behaved not only in a strange but in a scandalous way.

The right hon. Member wished the House to believe that he was dead when he left his clothes on a beach in Florida. That, to say the least, was an act of extreme eccentricity, if it was nothing else. We have learned that he obtained a passport in another person's name and had made the necessary inquiries to do that. That was the matter that brought this House into disrepute. We have to avoid immediately the suggestion that a Member of the House of Commons can get away with that.

On the other hand, the problem has been raised by the right hon. Member as to his state of mind when he did that. That is a matter which it will be extremely difficult for a Select Committee to decide. For example, I know, from my experience at the Bar, of a medical certificate or a medical report relating to an accused man which on the face of it disclosed a certain state of affairs. However, when the medical expert was questioned and cross-examined thereafter, a totally different state of affairs was disclosed. How would a Select Committee, for example, be able to judge and assess a medical report from an Australian psychiatrist who was not present to be cross-examined by the Committee? That medical issue might be the very issue which the House would eventually be asked to decide. I can think of many difficulties that would face a select committee now.

As regards mental health, I think the 1959 Act is clear. Mr. Speaker can arrange for the appointment of two doctors, nominated by the Chairman of the Royal College of Physicians, to examine the Member, but the provision would operate only if he were detained in an institution. For the rest, there is nothing wrong in being mentally ill.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his informed intervention. However I think that he does not deal with my point as to how a Select Committee would deal with this matter, which may be the very matter at issue.

The third matter of scandal is this. The right hon. Member is absenting himself from the House and is in a position, whether he has done so or not, to draw the salary and allowances paid to a Member of Parliament for the duties which he has chosen, for reasons best known to himself, not to perform.

This last issue, which gives rise to feelings of concern and scandal outside, is whether the House, without any reference to a Select Committee, can take steps to suspend any payment of salary or allowances to the right hon. Member until the matter is cleared up at a later date. I would have thought that that could and should, be done immediately.

Another matter which causes concern was raised by the right hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough), about the feelings of people outside the House that a Member of Parliament should not be dealt with any differently from anybody else. The House should always proceed carefully in defence of its own privileges, which are the privileges not so much of a Member as an individual as of a Member of the House. The House should be careful not to extend a cloak over an individual within the House to let it appear to the public that he is being dealt with differently. However, what would normally happen in this kind of case if this were an extraditable offence, as the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) indicated? No doubt the hon. and learned Member has carefully investigated that aspect. I also rather think that the disclosed offence is extraditable. In normal circumstances a person who has committed an offence would be extradited to this country.

However, a practical problem arises, which is the whole nub of this matter. I understand that inquiries are being conducted by the Department of Trade and by the police into other matters concerning the right hon. Member for Walsall, North. If the right hon. Gentleman were extradited from Australia he could be tried here only on the matter for which he had been extradited. If the inquiries by the Department of Trade—which may, of course, prove that there was nothing of concern—established a prima facie case of a crime, the right hon. Member could not, if previously extradited, be tried on that matter. I do not think we should keep this aspect under the carpet, because it seems to me to be the only practical problem that we face. If it did not arise there is no reason whatever why the right hon. Member for Walsall, North should not be dealt with like any other citizen.

The real questions for the House are: how long is the Department of Trade inquiry likely to take, and how long are the police inquiries likely to take? if the right hon. Member for Walsall, North persists in being a Member of the House whilst those inquiries are going on—they may take a year or two—I think that is more than the public would be prepared to stand.

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that on the question of how long the inquiries by the Board of Trade take into matters of similar kind, it seems that if we look at the London and Home Counties inquiry, which started in November 1973, we have a long way to go yet?

The hon. Member no doubt has a detailed knowledge of those matters because he is always inquiring into such objects. I do not know. I have known Department of Trade inquiries take a relatively short time. The length of time taken depends on the nature of the inquiries.

This is a practical problem. Perhaps the Select Committee will itself take months over the matter referred. I do not see that that can be avoided. However, why should we depart from the normal proceedings at this stage? Why should not we wait until the Australian Government take a decision on the application of the right hon. Member to remain in Australia? If that application is refused, we may find him back here in a relatively short time. If so, why is it necessary to set up a Select Committee now.

The right hon. Member for Jarrow made a valid point, that people outside the House feel scandalised that the House is not taking immediate steps. Citizens often feel scandalised, for example, when a serious crime is committed and a man is arrested for it. If they could take the law into their own hands they might deal with him expeditiously and immediately on the assumption that he was guilty. Yet in a few months' time when the trial is held totally different considerations might apply and a different light might be shed on it.

On the face of it, the right hon. Member's behaviour appears to be entirely scandalous. However, let us not forget that he served this country for many years, apparently entirely honourably, and was so highly thought of in the Labour Party that he occupied a very prominent position in the Government. It is right to assume that it may well be that there is some medical explanation for his behaviour. The House should not assume that there is not.

I cannot see how a Select Committee in the course of the next few months, on what it appears will be entirely written evidence, will be able to decide this issue. It appears highly likely that this is the major issue which will concern the Select Committee. Therefore, at this time I have come to the conclusion, despite the very eloquent and persuasive speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Runcorn, that I shall vote against the motion.

6.0 p.m.

I associate myself with almost everything that was said by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson). It is not the function of the House to whitewash anybody. It is not the function of the House to pretend that deeds have not been committed which may have been committed. Equally, it is not the function of the House to presume that a man is guilty before he has been proved guilty. It is not the function of the House to usurp the functions of the courts of the land.

I believe that the one question to which we should address ourselves today, which was referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery and was touched upon most eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), is whether this is the proper moment to pass the motion. I believe that it manifestly is not.

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, this is an understanding House. It is compassionate. It has a proper regard for human frailties and the pressures under which busy men frequently operate. If that is true, as I profoundly believe it to be, is it not all the more reason for our deferring consideration of the motion?

There are very few facts that we do know, but one fact that we know is that medical investigations are at present in train with regard to the state of health of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse). We know for, a fact that there are certain police inquiries. We know for a fact that certain inquiries have been instituted by the Department of Trade.

It may well be—I do not know—that the right hon. Member is charged with extremely serious crimes. It may well be that he is held to have done things which are indeed a contempt of the House. Equally, it may well be that he knew not what he did. It may well be that his state of health was such that he had no proper control of his actions. I do not know. Neither does any other right hon. or hon. Gentleman. Neither can the Select Committee be in a position to pass judgment in that regard.

It is an absolute certainty—again this was referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery—that this right hon. colleague of ours for many years sat in the House and served his constituents well. He was—he is, because he is still a Member—a near neighbour of mine. I know full well that he was held in high regard by many of his constituents and by many people in the West Midlands who cannot understand what has happened since.

The House could take a lesson from The right hon. Member's agent, who throughout this sorry and perplexing business has continually protested "This is not the John Stonehouse that I know" and who has continually defended his reputation as a constituency Member. We do not need to defend the right hon. Member's reputation as a Member of the House because, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery said, he held very high office in Government and presumably was considered to be a fit person to hold the high offices to which he was appointed.

I believe that it would be quite wrong if we in the House today were precipitately—I remind the House that the right hon. Member has not been absent for three months—to set up a Select Committee which may well find itself frustrated when it comes to make the most important inquiries which it will have to make.

After all, there is an hon. Member who, although I understand that he has taken the oath, has not appeared in the House since the election in October.

Once, to take the oath. I do not pass judgment on that hon. Member. He is not guilty of any breach of our regulations and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South said, absence is no crime. It is a strange logic which allows us, knowing that, knowing that absences are frequent and that the causes for absence are not always admirable, to pass judgment this afternoon on the right hon. Member for Walsall, North.

I submit to the House that we are to some degree passing judgment upon the right hon. Member if we approve the motion. I believe that we are in fact usurping the proper functions of the courts of the land.

Now the hon. Gentleman is libelling the members of the Select Committee.

I am not libelling anybody. That is the very opposite of what I seek to do. I submit that nothing will suffer, that the reputation of the House is more likely to be enhanced and that our privileges are more likely to be safeguarded if we wait a little longer and see what the inquiries which are currently in train produce.

Surely the hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. It is within the powers of the Select Committee collectively to decide that it would not be proper for it to undertake investigations at present, for any of the reasons which the hon. Gentleman has outlined, and so to report to the House.

I accept that completely. However, it is our function today—the hon. Gentleman, who is very jealous of the privileges of the House, will readily agree with me in this—to decide whether it is proper to set up a Select Committee in the first place.

I submit to the House—not because I seek to whitewash, not because I seek to make any comment on alleged conduct—that now is not the proper time.

Would my hon. Friend be prepared to comment in this respect on—I think that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) mentioned this—the leaving by the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) of clothes on a beach in Florida as deception and tramping round his constituency getting confidential details of his constituents?

No, I would not be prepared to comment in detail on those two matters, save to say that I do not know—neither does my hon. Friend—the state of the right hon. Member's mind when he was doing those things.

Such facetious comments from a sedentary position do not enhance the right hon. Member's reputation. All we know is that it would appear that these things happened. If they happened and if they were the result of calculated manoeuvring by a man totally in possession of his faculties, they would deserve censure. But it is not for us to pass judgment on these matters this afternoon.

The very intervention made by my hon. Friend from the best of motives illustrates the pitfalls into which we should be plunging if we were to pass the motion today. The time is not ripe. In two months it may be ripe. Merely because it is convenient to fill a vacancy, merely because it may be convenient to have a by-election two months sooner rather than two months later, is no reason for our rushing through the motion today. I sincerely hope that the House will think again and that it will debate this matter this day six months.

6.9 p.m.

I have known the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) for four years. His peg was next to mine; his letters were next to mine; his office was near mine. I had many short conversations with him. He was always extremely kind and courteous, particularly when I was a new Member.

That is not the point. When I heard that the motion was to be proposed I wondered about its effect, not on the right hon. Gentleman concerned, but on the rights of all hon. Members. I promise to be brief and, not being a lawyer, I shall adduce no legal arguments, but I support emphatically those hon. Members who have questioned seriously the timing of the motion. This has been a most painful and difficult subject and, for those of us who are Members for the West Midlands, it is unfortunately a topic of daily conversation which is given, I believe, much too much publicity by all the media.

What we are deciding will affect the rights of everybody here. As I have said, I am worried about the timing of the motion. I do not believe that we should give way to party pressures, or—dare I say it?—to public opinion. In matters of this kind it is this House, and this House alone, which must judge what is right and proper, not only for the effect now, but for the effect on future generations of Members. I therefore believe that we should proceed with great care and circumspection. I have heard nothing in the debate to convince me that the Select Committee should be set up.

6.11 p.m.

I came to the debate with an entirely open mind, as, no doubt, did many hon. Members. I hoped to be persuaded one way or the other on whether the Select Committee should be set up. I have come to the conclusion that I shall vote for the setting up of the Select Committee.

I thought that the most persuasive speech was that of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), but it seemed to me that it contained two fundamental weaknesses. The first was that it contained unfounded assumptions. The point was made, notably by the Leader of the Opposition, that the assumptions were undoubtedly unfounded. It seemed to me that the right hon. Member for Down, South was trying to make a point that the Select Committee would have some purpose other than that contained in the motion. In other words, although the purpose might not necessarily be perverse the Select Committee would commit the House irrevocably once it was set up. That is not a correct view.

The second weakness in the speech of the right hon. Member for Down, South was that it took a somewhat precious view of the nature of the House of Commons—the view of a purist. This is a political assembly, and I like to think that it is a civilised assembly and that it has constraints of custom and rules which, rightly, keep us within civilised bounds. I am as aware as anybody of the privileges, rights and respect which the House jealously guards. Nevertheless, the job of the House is to deal with political situations which are practical, down-to-earth and day-to-day situations. It does not work in a vacuum, discussing on an academic level, within rigid legal constraints, problems which have no relation with the passions which wrack the hearts of men.

Essentially we are discussing the kind of problems which G. M. Tyrrell once called divergent problems. We frequently discuss rights and issues like questions of discipline and freedom which are very different from the so-called convergent problems of the scientists, economists and lawyers. It is precisely because of this basic function of the House that, although we must always be prepared to safeguard the rights, customs and privileges of the House, we must also be prepared to meet situations as they arise.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South that the House cannot suddenly create a privilege and that it cannot then and there revoke a right, but if he implies that the House must now and for ever be as it is he is creating an absolutely impossible position for the House. The House must respond to the practical realities of life. An obvious practical reality which is implied—no more is implied—is that we should set up a Select Committee "to consider the position". The right hon. Gentleman said that we would be "humbugging" ourselves if we took that to mean what it said. It seems to me simply to mean that the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) is in an unusual position. No one would dispute that simple fact.

I did not say that new privileges or new offences could not be created. I said that that could be done only by law and not simply by declaration of this House.

I took the right hon. Gentleman's point when I said that he stated that privileges could not be created suddenly—that is, by statute. The point which I was making was that the House continually must readjust to the facts of life. I say no more than that.

The fact that the situation is unusual puts the House in the position in which it should be. It should be a flexible instrument to deal with situations as they arise. If a situation arises which has never arisen before, the House must deal with it. That is what the House is doing in the most careful way.

The motion is non-committal. It proposes the setting up of a Select Committee simply "to consider the position". When it has done that, it will, no doubt, report to the House. It may find its job easy or difficult. It may take a short or a long time to report. When it reports we shall have gained time, to discover what the difficulties are, and the House will be in a position to debate its report. For those reasons, therefore, I shall support the motion.

6.17 p.m.

It will now be apparent why I raised a point of order with Mr. Speaker before the debate began. The legal question which arises is: if in the House or in a Committee upstairs we discuss matters which would be germane in a criminal trial, could not the hon. Member concerned plead in bar of trial autrefois convict or autrefois aquit—the common law plea in bar of trial?

There is a further consideration apart from that legal point. Many countries will not grant extradition if they are satisfied that the person concerned will not receive a fair trial once he or she has been extradited. If a Parliamentary Committee has already examined factors germane to a criminal trial—namely, have certain events happened or not, and what was the state of mind of the person concerned at the time—a substantial argument can be adduced that there cannot subsequently be a fair trial.

That was why I raised a point of order with Mr. Speaker. Sure enough, views have been expressed in the debate about whether an offence has been committed, and, if so, whether it is an extraditable offence and, if it is, will the Australian Government be prepared to extradite? We have already started upon the course of action which I wished us not to start upon precisely so that the right hon. Gentleman could be treated before the criminal courts of this country, if that circumstance should arise, in exactly the same manner as any other citizen. I believe that that is basically what public opinion would wish.

Several decades ago the House of Lords got rid of the procedure, generally agreed to be archaic, whereby Members of the House of Lords could be tried before the House of Lords by their peers instead of undergoing the normal criminal processes in the courts. How odd it would be if we were now to adopt the reverse position, and have what is in effect a trial of fact on certain matters which, concerning one of our Members, are germane to the courts of this country, which should try those same facts de novo, not already being aware that the issue has been examined either on the Floor of the House or in a Select Committee.

I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman said, but will he not bear in mind that the analogy which he drew with the House of Lords is not germane, because the House of Lords is a court with power to sentence? The Select Committee has no such powers, and whatever it may recommend will be debated by the House of Commons. Would not it be better for the House to refer to a Select Committee the activities of a Member relating to his behaviour within the House or as a Member of Parliament, but not activities which could possibly be the concern of any court of law?

First, the inquiry has to do with the establishment of facts, those facts also being relevant to a trial in a normal court of law. Secondly, the House has power to punish. The House has power to imprison and to fine, and powers of disqualification and admonition. The House has power to punish. Whether or not it cares to exercise it is another matter. That is why my question to Mr. Speaker started in this way:

"Does the High Court of Parliament constitute a court of law in the context that debate, either by the House on this motion or by a Committee set up pursuant to this motion …"
The first question with which I am concerned is this. Should we take any steps that will prevent somebody, even a Member of Parliament, from being subjected to the normal criminal processes of this country, unprejudiced by previous investigation or report to which no other citizen of this country would be subjected?

I understand my hon. Friend's acute feeling on this. I recall sitting on two Committees of the House in which this specific matter was one of the main items. In one case action was already being taken and in another case it was clearly recognised that action might well be taken in the near future. There are some colleagues in the House who sat with me on those Committees. The Committees were perfectly able to handle such a situation, particularly the case in which action was already being taken.

Yes, but my right hon. Friend has, I think, missed the point. By setting up a Committee of this kind we automatically prejudice other legal processes through the courts, both civil and criminal. We cannot help doing so. If the Committee is precluded from investigating the facts and the mental condition of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse), pray what is the purpose of setting it up at all.

I think that my hon. Friend is arguing that any preliminary inquiry into the matters which might give rise to a criminal offence would prejudice the the right hon. Gentleman's possible trial in the future. In the coroner's court there is sometimes a preliminary inquiry into matters which give rise to criminal offences, but that does not in any way prejudice a man's later fair trial before a jury.

But this is not a coroner's court. If it were a coroner's court it would be subject to the normal law of the land. We have not set up a coroner's court. What is suggested is that we should do something specific outside the normal law of the land. A coroner's court functions pursuant to the law of the land, and does not need a special resolution of the House to undertake its normal legal functions.

I did not say that it is unlawful, but a Select Committee is outside the normal provisions of the law of the land and that is why it is necessary for the House to pass a resolution to set it up. It may be that the House should set up a Select Committee to decide whether hon. Members who have been absent for more than a certain period of time should be paid, and other questions of that kind. That should not be done ad hominem but on the general issues, it should not be done in the specific context of a Member who may be called upon to stand trial and to undergo civil proceedings in the courts.

It is extremely inconvenient for the electors of Walsall, North that their Member of Parliament should have been conducting himself in this, fortunately unusual, manner, but that is primarily something for which they have a responsibility. It was they who elected him as their representative to the House. The House did not select him to come here. Electors have to suffer some of the consequences of their actions. The ambition of the electors of Walsall, North was to return the right hon. Gentleman as their Member of Parliament.

There might come a day when the electors of Walsall, North—or of any other constituency—might wish to continue to represent them in the House of Commons a Member whom the Government of the day found extremely inconvenient, or whose own political party found extremely inconvenient. If we seek to relieve the electors of the circumstance which they have been more responsible for bringing upon themselves than anybody in the House we may do them at some future date a real disservice, which the constituents have never merited, by inaugurating a process to deal with a specific case with consequences with which we would not care to live in the future.

That is no reason why at some point in time we should not set up a Select Committee to discuss matters of this kind in general but not related to a particular case. Is it timely to set up such a Committee while the right hon. Gentleman's case is still sub judice in the sense that, presumably, the police are deciding whether or not to take certain action that is within their power?

If it is the case, as one understands, that the right hon. Gentleman's presence in Australia continues because of his status as a British Member of Parliament, that is not something which inherently follows from being a British Member of Parliament, but one which follows from the domestic law of the Commonwealth of Australia, for which we have no responsibility whatever. If the Australians choose, wisely or unwisely, to pass a law that Members of the British Parliament can enter their country and remain in it without observing the normal immigration controls, that is a matter for them, the consequences of which they are now experiencing. However, it is nothing inherent in being a Member of this House, and it is irrelevant from the point of view of the Select Committee or of any other Committee of this House which inquires into it.

I do not wish to refute the hon. Gentleman's argument, which I find impressive, but surely to some extent it is handicapped by the fact that the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stone-house) has not taken advantage of appearing to answer charges either in this House or in the courts of the land?

The hon. Gentleman says that the right hon. Member for Walsall, North has not appeared to answer charges. To the best of my knowledge, no charges have been made; there are no charges to answer. I am not aware that the police have gone to any magistrate and laid any information whatever.

No charge has been made. The question whether or not the right hon. Gentleman will appear before the courts of this country without extradition, should the question arise, or whether he appears before a Select Committee of this House, is something to which we do not know the answer. But we must not slip into talking of charges when no charges have been made.

Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that the whole august process of a Select Committee, or the possibility that one is to be set up, amounts in this context to a very grave charge indeed?

I can honestly say that I hope that is not the case. If the passing of the motion is tantamount to making a charge, that would be an entirely adequate reason alone for voting in the "No" Lobby. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House has made no recommendation on those lines. Indeed, he made no charge in his speech, and he was not saying that if the House passes the motion it will constitute the making of a charge against anybody.

Is not the movement to set up a Select Committee to determine whether or not the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) is or is not suitable to remain a Member of this House a charge in itself?

Order. I must intervene. I made an appeal that hon. Members should be careful to remember that the House is considering "the position of"—no more.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Does not the motion mean precisely what it says, no more and no less?

I was saying to the hon. Member, who originally came from that particular part of the antipodes, that if I were to agree with the point he made that would be an additional reason for voting against the motion. However, I do not agree with his point and I do not include that matter among my reasons for opposing the motion.

I do not believe that we should treat this man any differently from the way the law treats any other person who may or may not have committed a civil tort or offence. The proper place to try the facts is in a court of law, and indeed the proper place in which to establish his mental condition is in a court of law, because mental condition may well have a part to play in his defence, or indeed may comprise the whole of it. There is even to be considered the question whether he is fit to stand trial if criminal proceedings were started. It would be utterly wrong for a Select Committee of this House to inquire into matters of that kind, which could not fail to prejudice a court of law in this country which sought to inquire into the same facts. It might well endanger extradition procedures because the Australian Government might feel a fair trial to be prejudiced.

It leads me to the conclusion not that there should not be an inquiry into certain general propositions about Members of Parliament on a number of issues which have already been raised but that we should not appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the position of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North in advance of the normal criminal and civil procedures of this country, even though it is admittedly inconvenient to the electors of Walsall, North. That is an inconvenience which they must suffer pursuant to their own choice.

Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the people of Walsall, North elected the right hon. Member in good faith and now feel themselves to have been betrayed? Does he suggest that they have no redress?

The right hon. Member was elected to serve for this Parliament. [Interruption.] The constituents are not innocent; they elected him.

If a court of law finds, on examination of the facts, that circumstances have arisen which disqualify any Member of this House, then that Member is disqualified, whatever constituency he or she may represent, and the constituents then have the redress of a new election, but if we seek in an individual case to judge the facts which ought to be judged by a court of law, and apply tests whether such a Member should continue as a Member—in addition to those laid down by law—that surely would endanger, in a real sense, the continued existence of the back-bench Member of Parliament as an agent who cannot be got rid of at the behest of a Government or political party, but who can only be got rid of as long as he remains within the law of the land by his constituents at the next election.

6.39 p.m.

I promise not to take up a great deal of time of the House, because about three hours ago in the Tea Room I expressed the view that we should get it all done with in a couple of minutes, send the matter to the Committee and let its Members deal with the matter there. But having heard many of the statements which have been made this afternoon, I thought that perhaps I should say a few words about some matters which I feel need clarifying.

I believe that the issue is largely centred on the question whether the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stone-house) is in a fit state of mind when he makes the various statements he has made from time to time both on television and in letter form to my right hon. Friends.

We are placed in a predicament today and for several weeks to come because we are in an institution which by and large plays things by ear. I do not attach a great deal of importance to the point of view expressed by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) when he spoke about the fact that there is no precedent for matters of this kind. In an institution which has no written rules, apart from Standing Orders relating to the actual business of the House, its rules are made on the basis of circumstances such as those we are discussing tonight. Precedents are set as a result of incidents of this kind. It may well be—I believe that it should be—that arising out of this situation a precedent or series of precedents may have to be set.

We might have to follow the example of local authorities. When a Member is absent for more than six months without due cause, whether he was swimming from Miami to Australia or whether he was in South Africa, paired, the rules would apply. My guess is that most of the rules of the House have been devised precisely because the House has been placed in a predicament. It would be most sensible that we should devise instruments which take us away slightly from the kind of clubby atmosphere that this place has. In a way, therefore, the consequences that arise from this situation might not be so terrible.

I pass on to the question which has been uppermost in my mind throughout the debate, which is whether the remarks by the right hon. Member for Walsall, North and his actions over the last several months were made while he was of a clear and balanced state of mind. That is an issue of which the Select Committee must take cognisance. The right hon. Gentleman has consistently said, as I and others have reminded the House, that he no longer wants to stay in this country. That has been one of his most consistent remarks. My view is that that statement, recurrent as it has been and provided it was made by a man who knew precisely what he was doing sums up the whole question. We have to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to show that the right hon. Gentleman is making these statements and carrying out these deeds in a balanced state of mind.

Perhaps I may list some of the actions which bring me to the conclusion about how I shall vote tonight. Initially there was the question of the passports. I do not want to go into all the details because that would be wrong. The fact is, however, that my right hon. Friend—[AN HON. MEMBER: "It is not a fact. We do not know."]

Order. I hope that hon. Members will respond to my appeal at the beginning of the debate. I do not think that the House should do or say anything which appears to prejudge any of the matter which the Committee will have to decide. Up to now the hon. Member has been entirely in order and has spoken appropriately, but I hope he will not go into issues of fact on which I do not think it is wise or fair for the House to express opinions at this stage.

You have been absent from the Chamber for quite a time, Mr. Speaker. I feel that I should therefore point out to you that many hon. Members have raised the question of the passports and of a whole series of incidents. I shall make the point without going into the details. I am not considering the question of whose passports they were, but it is evident that one passport was used. There is also the question of the cheque-book journalism, which is a fact. When BBC television has to announce that it is broadcasting photographs from Australia by kind courtesy of the Daily Express, that is enough for me to suggest that the right hon. Gentleman, or someone very closely attached to him, was of a sound enough state of mind to get involved in that. Therefore, on the basis of this kind of consistency—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This surely cannot be in order. These things may well be true but they are not facts at the moment and I put it to you that it is not in order for the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to talk in these terms.

To suggest that anyone receives a payment for a television appearance or a newspaper article is not a suggestion of a criminal offence.

That is precisely what I am saying, Mr. Speaker. You are making my argument for me. I am trying to indicate that we have to consider whether the right hon. Gentleman's consistent statement that he does not want to return to this country, quite apart from the question of his saying on one occasion that he wanted to apply for stewardship of the Manor of Northstead and on another that he had changed his mind, should be treated seriously. We all assume that by not returning to this country he could not represent his constituents. If we can conclude to some extent, or to a very large extent, that he was of sound mind when making these statements, we can afford to go into the Lobbies, perhaps timorously, to support my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. We could do so in the knowledge that there is a long-stop to take account of whatever may emerge from the inquiries.

The right hon. Member for Down, South tried to advance his argument not the basis of the House taking command merely on the basis of precedent but on of these inquiries outside a court of law. He then went on to say that time was a factor too. My view is that the time taken by the Select Committee will perhaps be helpful in deciding that particular issue. It is for that reason that, somewhat incautiously perhaps, I come down on the side of the Leader of the House in favour of setting up a Select Committee. I do so in the knowledge that there is one further long-stop to cover all contingencies in the event that the right hon. Member for Walsall, North is found not merely by us but by the Select Committee, and subsequently by the House when the Select Committee reports back, to have had a raw deal. In the event that everything that has been said in the Press over the course of the last several months is completely wrong, which I very much doubt, the further long-stop which will decide it for once and for all is that he will be able to stand for election again and have another chance.

6.48 p.m.

The debate has shown the difficulty facing the House. We have had a thoughtful and in some ways a heart-searching debate, and I appreciate the spirit in which it has been conducted.

First, in view of the interjection by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr), I must make clear that there were no imputations and that there was no prejudgment of any kind in what I said or in what the motion says about anything which may become a matter for the courts to decide. The Leader of the Opposition said the same in his speech.

However, it is common ground that there is a considerable and worrying problem surrounding the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) on which there are different points of view. It is that problem which I am suggesting we refer to a Committee of senior, experienced Members. Most hon. Members—at any rate, those who have written to me and have been to see me—want it considered now. Judging from my postbag and the Press, I believe that the public also want it considered. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brown-hills (Mr. Edge) put the views of the people of Walsall, and I believe that the House should take account of those views.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) emphasised the constitutional importance of the debate. I agree with him that it is of considerable constitutional importance and interest. The right hon. Gentleman said that no one should be expelled from the House on grounds of absence alone, and of course I agree with him. We would all agree with that proposition. He added that no one should be expelled on grounds of alleged criminal offences alone, offences which may or may not have been committed. I agree with that proposition.

But the problem surrounding the right hon. Member for Walsall, North has many ingredients, as the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) said in a thoughtful and accurate speech. For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has just said, there is the indisputable, clear, oft-repeated assertion that the right hon. Gentleman will not return to this country under any circumstances. Many hon. Members have talked about evidence. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) asked whether there was any evidence. The one fact on which there is a mass of documentary evidence in letters to me is the right hon. Gentleman's assertion that he will not return to this country. I have quoted two of the letters today.

The right hon. Member for Down, South said that by setting up a Select Committee and asking it to establish the facts the House would be in some way arrogating to itself the consideration of matters which are properly the concern of the courts of law. If the right hon. Member for Walsall, North were willing to return to this country to answer any charges which might be brought against him, we might well not wish to proceed in the way now proposed, but he has made it clear beyond any doubt—there is clear documentary evidence of this—that he has no intention of doing so. Therefore, it is not a question of waiting for a period to see whether he is willing to return. He has made it absolutely clear that he intends to remain in Australia for so long as the authorities there will allow him to do so. In those circumstances I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn that it is, sadly, necessary for us to consider what action should be taken.

A number of hon. Members raised the question of extradition. The hon. and learned Member for Runcorn rightly referred to some of the difficulties. If I may say so to an eminent lawyer, the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) explained the difficulties absolutely correctly. It would be wrong to discuss the extradition issue today but I hope that hon. Members, whatever their views on the matter, will understand the difficulties stated by both hon. and learned Gentlemen.

A question of crucial importance on the timeliness of the motion is how long the right hon. Gentleman thinks that the investigations into other matters, whatever their result, will take. That is crucial in deciding whether we are taking the right step. Surely the Lord President will have made some inquiries of the Department of Trade and the police as to the likely length of their inquiries before they can report.

In talking to the media or in speaking in the House I have never referred to the other matters, as the hon. and learned Gentleman describes them, and I do not intend to do so today. I am sorry that they have come into the debate at all.

I do not believe that the motion is premature. It is a matter of judgment, and some hon. Members take a different view. The right hon. Member for Walsall, North has been absent from the House since 18th November. He has been in Australia for some weeks, and has said over and over again that he will not return. There is great public concern.

I read to the House today two or three extracts from my exchange of letters with the right hon. Gentleman, and if the Committee is established I shall make the whole of that correspondence available to it, although I think that most of it has been published already.

I recognise that the matter presents us all with a great difficulty, but I feel that the time has come when the House should examine it and that a Select Committee is the most appropriate way. I have every confidence that the Committee will carry out its task with fairness and justice to the right hon. Gentleman, bearing in mind the long tradition of the House in safeguarding its privileges and the security of Members of Parliament.

Division No. .74]

AYES

[6.56 p.m.

Allaun, FrankEyre, ReginaldMolloy, William
Ashton, JoeFairgrieve, RussellMorris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
Atkins, Rt Hon H.(Spelthorne)Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)Fletcher-Cooke, CharlesMulley, Rt Hon Frederick
Bain, Mrs MargaretFookes, Miss JanetMurray, Rt Hon Ronald King
Baker, KennethFord, BenNeave, Airey
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Forrester, JohnNeubert, Michael
Barnett, Rt Hon JoelFowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)Newens, Stanley
Bates, AlfFreud ClementNewton, Tony
Bean, R. E.Garrett, John (Norwich S)Noble, Mike
Bell, RonaldGeorge, BruceOakes, Gordon
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)Gilbert, Dr JohnOnslow, Cranley
Bidwell, SydneyGinsburg, DavidOvenden, John
Blenkinsop, ArthurGolding JohnOwen, Dr David
Boardman, H.Goodhew, VictorPage, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
Body, RichardGoodlad, AlastairPalmer, Arthur
Booth, AlbertGourlay, HarryPavitt, Laurie
Boothroyd, Miss BettyGow, Ian (Eastbourne)Peart, Rt Hon Fred
Boscawen, Hon RobertGraham, TedPerry, Ernest
Bottomley, Rt Hon ArthurGrant, George (Morpeth)Peyton, Rt Hon John
Bray, Dr JeremyGray, HamishPhipps, Dr Colin
Brittan, LeonGrimond, Rt Hon J.Prescott, John
Brotherton, MichaelHamling, WilliamPrice, William (Rugby)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Hardy, PeterRadice, Giles
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)Harper, JosephReid, George
Buchan, NormanHarrison, Walter (Wakefield)Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Buchanan, RichardHatton, FrankRichardson, Miss Jo
Buchanan-Smith, AlickHavers, Sir MichaelRippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Budgen, NickHayman, Mrs HeleneRoderick, Caerwyn
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Heath, Rt Hon EdwardRodgers, George (Chorley)
Campbell, IanHeffer, Eric S.Rooker, J. W.
Canavan, DennisHenderson, DouglasRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Carlisle, MarkHooley, FrankRoss, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Carmichael, NeilHoyle, Douglas (Nelson)Ryman, John
Cartwright, JohnHuckfield, LesShaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Castle, Rt Hon BarbaraHughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)Shepherd, Colin
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)Hughes, Mark (Durham)Short, Rt Hon E. (Newcasle C)
Clemitson, IvorHughes, Roy (Newport)Sillars, James
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)Jackson, Miss M. (Lincoln)Silverman, Julius
Cohen, StanleyJay, Rt Hon DouglasSkeet, T. H. H.
Colquhoun, Mrs MaureenJenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd)Skinner, Dennis
Conlan, BernardJessel, TobySmith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)John, BrynmorSmith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W)Johnson, James (Hull West)Snape, Peter
Corbett, RobinJohnston Russell (Inverness)Spearing, Nigel
Costain, A. P.Jones, Alec (Rhondda)Spence, John
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Jones, Dan (Burnley)Spriggs, Leslie
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill)Kaufman, GeraldSproat, Iain
Crawford, DouglasKerr, RussellSteen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Crawshaw, RichardKnox, DavidStewart, Donald (Western Isles)
Cryer, BobLambie, DavidStewart, Rt Hn M. (Fulham)
Cunningham, G. (Islington S)Lamont, NormanStoddart, David
Dalyell, TamLee, JohnStott, Roger
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)Luard, EvanSummerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Davies, Denzil (Llanelli)Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)Temple-Morris, Peter
Davies, Ifor (Gower)MacCormick, IainThomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford)McElhone, FrankThompson, George
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Macfarlane, NeilThorne, Stan (Preston South)
Dean, Paul (N Somerset)MacFarquhar, RoderickThorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Doig, PeterMackenzie, GregorTierney, Sydney
Dormand, J. D.McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)Tinn, James
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesMadden, MaxTomlinson, John
Duffy, A. E. P.Magee, BryanVarley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Dunn, James A.Marks, KennethWainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Dunnett, JackMarshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Durant, TonyMarten, NeilWalker, Terry (Kingswood)
Eadie, AlexMates, MichaelWard, Michael
Edge, GeoffMawby, RayWatkins, David
Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE)Mayhew, PatrickWatt, Hamish
Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)Mellish, Rt Hon RobertWellbeloved, James
English, MichaelMikardo, IanWelsh, Andrew
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)Millan, BruceWhite, Frank R. (Bury)
Evans, John (Newton)Miller, Dr M. S. (E. Kilbride)White, James (Pollock)
Ewing Harry (Stirling)Mills, PeterWhitehead, Phillip
Ewing Mrs Winifred (Moray)Miscampbell, NormanWhitelaw, Rt Hon William

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 237, Noes 30.

Wigley, DafyddWoodall, Alec
Williams, Alan (Swansea W)Woof, Robert
Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)Wrigglesworth, IanTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)Young, David (Bolton E)Mr. John Ellis and
Wilson, William (Coventry SE)Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)Mr. James Hamilton.
Winterton, NicholasYounger, Hon George

NOES

Biffen, JohnHowells, Geraint (Cardigan)Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
Bradford, Rev RobertHutchison, Michael ClarkRidley, Hon Nicholas
Churchill, W. S.Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)Ross, William (Londonderry)
Crouch, DavidLamond, JamesRost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Drayson, BurnabyLangford-Holt, Sir JohnStokes, John
Dunlop, JohnMcAdden, Sir StephenTebbit, Norman
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)Moate, RogerWarren, Kenneth
Fell, AnthonyMolyneaux, James
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)Morgan, GeraintTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hannam, JohnPardoe, JohnMr. Patrick Cormack and
Hooson, EmlynPenhaligon, DavidMr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop.
Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch

Question accordingly agreed to.

Ordered,

That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the position of Mr. John Stonehouse as Member for Walsall, North:
That the Committeee do consist of Ten Members:
That Mr. Arthur Bottomley, Mr. Edward du Cann, Sir Michael Havers, Mr. Cledwyn Hughes, Mr. Sydney Irving, Mr. John Peyton, Sir David Renton, Mr. David Steel, Mr. Michael Stewart and Mr. George Strauss be Members of the Committee:
That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records; to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House; to report from time to time; and to report Minutes of Evidence from time to time:
That Three be the Quorum of the Committee.