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Question Of Privilege

Volume 890: debated on Monday 21 April 1975

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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to raise with you a matter which, I submit, constitutes a prima facie breach of privilege and an attempt to harass me in and deter me from the execution of my parliamentary duty. Indeed, the complaint I make is that the breach to which I shall refer amounts virtually to blackmail in that it seeks, under the threat of legal action, to cause me to retract certain allegations and comments which it is alleged that I have made. Were I to accede to that threat, I could not then in good faith supply to a Minister information pursuant to a reply on 16th April this year which that Minister has requested.

The history of the matter is this. I asked a number of Questions, and replies thereto have been given, on 5th March, 10th March and 16th April concerning the activities of a body which uses seven different names, these names ranging from God's Light Infantry to the International Federation for Victory over Communism, but which is commonly known under the title of the Unification Church. After tabling the latest of those Questions, I was telephoned by the Press on Sunday 13th April, and numerous newspapers have sought to contact me. Without prejudice to whether or not I made certain of the allegations or comments—some of which are entirely unknown to me and some of which, indeed, pre-date the conversations—I explained to those who had reason to ask why I had tabled the last of my Questions; namely, the one replied to by my hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Security, the Question referring to medical remedies and techniques of persuasion, all the evidence about which is available to the Minister and is in my possession in this file, as well as in the possession of the courts. I have today received a letter from a solicitor purporting to act on behalf of this body, which invites me to let him have by Tuesday next—that is, tomorrow —not later than noon,
"a full apology and retraction of all the above mentioned allegations or comments; your agreement to pay our clients' indemnity costs; and your proposals for compensating our clients for the serious damage done to them by your statement.
"If we do not receive a satisfactory reply by noon of Tuesday, we shall institute proceedings against you on Tuesday afternoon, 22nd April."
Although the threat is nominally confined to articles appearing in the Press—one of which, as I say, pre-dated the matters complained of by four days—I submit that there is none the less a clear breach of privilege here and an attempt to restrict my freedom of action in a number of ways in carrying out my duties in Parliament and also outside Parliament in fulfilling my duties which flow from membership of the House of Commons. In respect of Parliamentary Questions, there is absolute privilege, and a retraction in the terms demanded would, in effect, prevent me from pursuing matters already raised or, indeed, future matters such as the conviction of a member of that organisation last week and the threat made by the leader of it to the prosecuting solicitor at proceedings last week.

In respect of comments outside the House and reported in the Press arising from the Parliamentary Questions, I maintain that the threat prevents my explaining my actions in the House and carrying out the activities necessary both to obtain information and to supply information to the Minister who has an interest in this matter and that I have a duty so to do.

I refer to The Times Law Reports of 10th February 1971. in which is reported a case which is well known to you. Mr. Speaker, concerning my hon. Friend the then Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson), in which Mr. Justice Lane said:
"It would be a sad day when a Member of Parliament or where any other member of the public had to look over his shoulder before ventilating to the proper authority criticism about the work of a public servant or of a professional man who was holding himself out in practice for the benefit of the public which he honestly believed to be true."
In my submission, the same is true by analogy in respect of an organisation in this case holding itself out to be an authority and which sells goods—this is admitted in the letter—commercially. It similarly admits the marketing of a certain beverage for which extravagant claims are made in respect of its effect on cancer.

My submission is, therefore, that the letter and the threats contained therein are, first, an attempt to prejudice the out-come of the consideration of a Parliamentary Question requesting an invesigation by the Department of Health and Social Security into this body. Secondly, they are an attempt to prevent my exercising my duties in Parliament in supplying such information; and, thirdly, outside Parliament in obtaining such information. Fourthly, they are an attempt to prevent my speaking to the Press in order to clarify the nature of the allegation in the Parliamentary Question.

The body concerned, which has many millions of pounds—it is run by a multimillionaire—threatens an individual Member of Parliament who has not individual resources to match it. That is a threat to the freedom and integrity of a Member of Parliament and the Press and a gross and flagrant violation of parliamentary privilege.

Copy of letter handed in.