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Question Of Privilege (Mr Speaker's Ruling)

Volume 931: debated on Tuesday 10 May 1977

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Yesterday the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) raised as a matter of privilege certain expressions allegedly used about his fellow Members by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) during the course of a radio broadcast on Wednesday of last week.

Before I rule on whether I am able to give this complaint precedence over the Orders of the Day, I must explain both to the hon. Member for Sowerby and to the House that I am bound by the practice of my predecessors, which has now become a firm rule of the House, acknowledged by the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege of 1967–68. That is, that a Speaker can afford precedence only if a complaint of privilege is raised at the earliest opportunity.

It would be a departure from that rule if I allowed a Member to wait until a broadcasting authority supplied him with a copy of a transcript of a broadcast before deciding whether or not to make a complaint. Statements broadcast by radio are in this sense no different from any other statements; they must be raised as soon as possible.

In this particular case, I find that the words complained of by the hon. Member for Sowerby were reported almost word for word in at least one national daily newspaper on the day after the broadcast and could have been raised with me last week.

I must therefore rule that I cannot give the complaint precedence over the Orders of the Day.

Having said that, I think I would be failing in my duty as Speaker if I did not condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of such language by the hon. Member for Antrim, North about his colleagues in this House, if he has been correctly reported. Expressions of this nature should not be used by any Member about other hon. Members, whether inside or outside the Chamber.

I regret that I have to say this in the absence of the hon. Member for Antrim, North. I would much rather have said it in his presence, if that had been possible.

I shall take points of order, but I hope they are not challenging my ruling.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following that ruling, it would be helpful to the House if we could have guidance on one point. As I understand the practice, in the past Speakers have preferred, after an hon. Member has made a verbal complaint of breach of privilege of this nature, to have the original source of record handed to the Speaker on which to investigate. If it is to be the case that in future Mr. Speaker prefers a second-hand reference, and not a primary authority of the words recorded, it would be helpful if this were explicitly stated from the Chair, because I think many hon. Members were genuinely under the impression that the Chair preferred to have an authentic record of the words said, spoken or written on the first occasion when they were available rather than a second-hand record of words which had been spoken elsewhere and which might not be a correct record.

I respectfully submit that if the Chair adopts the preference of a second-hand report this might involve the Chair in having to rule on words which have not in fact been spoken and which could be inaccurate in the second-hand report. Not with reference to this particular case, Mr. Speaker, but on the general principle, I would be most grateful if you would give consideration to this point of general principle and share your thoughts with the House when you have considered it.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Michael Foot)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I support what the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) has said in the sense that I believe that it would be desirable to look at this aspect of the question? Possibly, since the Committee of Privileges is looking at another general aspect of the matter, it might look at this aspect as well and include some reference to it in the report which the Committee is preparing for the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I shall in no way challenge your statement, because I think it reflects the difficulties in which all of us are placed with regard to matters of alleged breach of privilege which are broadcast as opposed to those which are published in newspapers. I would ask whether you would allow consideration to be given to a modification of the rules under which we work at present, because I believe we are placed in considerable difficulty.

I understand the need to bring matters of privilege to your notice at the earliest opportunity. Equally, I think we must always have an accurate record of what is said, and I think it must also be borne in mind that matters of alleged breach of privilege which are broadcast are not necessarily published correctly in newspapers and in some cases are not reproduced at all in newspapers. Therefore, if we are to have two classes of privilege, as it were, it would seem that matters which are broadcast have a very good chance of escaping our notice while those which are published in newspapers can be brought before you at the earliest opportunity.

Therefore, in view of the difficulties which many of us have in promptly obtaining accurate transcripts from the broadcasting authorities, I would ask whether you could give consideration to this matter which, I believe, is one which will concern us increasingly in future.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and Sowerby (Mr. Madden) and to the Lord President for what they have said. I have the feeling myself, as I approach this, that it is wrong for the House to be defeated on a technicality from pursuing a question which it might wish to do. But, on the other hand, I am the guardian of the rules of the House, and I certainly undertake to look into the matters raised by the hon. Members and the suggestion made by the Lord President.