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Question Of Privilege (Mr Speaker's Ruling)

Volume 932: debated on Wednesday 25 May 1977

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I have a privilege ruling to give to the House. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) raised a complaint of privilege in regard to a news item published on the Press Association tape referring to union sponsorship. It is this complaint, and this alone, which I regard as being one for my decision.

I have considered this matter carefully, and I am satisfied that it is a proper case for me to allow a motion relating to it to have precedence over the Orders of the Day.

It was pointed out by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) that the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington raised certain other issues of a peripheral nature. I could not in any event allow precedence to these other matters since they were not raised at the earliest opportunity.

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

In view of your ruling, Mr. Speaker, I beg to move,

That the matter of the complaint made by the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
perhaps I may add that the Committee of Privileges has been considering the whole question of privilege and is preparing a report on the matter for the House which would alter—and, as I believe, would greatly improve—the procedures which we should follow for dealing with these matters. In my view, the sooner we can bring those changes into operation the better it will be for the House as a whole and the less it will be necessary for the time of the House to be taken on these matters and for me to move such a motion as I have now moved.

I very much hope that we shall bring that report to the House speedily, that we shall get it passed speedily, and that we shall be able to adopt an improved method for dealing with the whole question of privileges.

This must come as a remarkable occasion, since I agree with every word just said by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House. In that circumstance, I hope that the House will proceed on the basis which he has proposed. I am, with the right hon. Gentleman, a member of the Committee of Privileges, and I entirely agree with what he said on the other matter.

As I reminded the House yesterday, Mr. Speaker, this is a very narrow question. Invariably, when these matters arise they deal with trade union sponsorships. However, we all know that there are many right hon. and hon. Members, mainly on the Opposition Benches, and a few on these—I say a few, but there may be a few more—who get involved in sponsorships, directorships of one kind and another, consultancies and so on with firms of all descriptions.

In fact, there is a lot of shady business which is contracted to Members of Parliament, as one can see if one turns to the Register of Members' Interests and tries to examine more fully precisely what these Members of Parliament are supposed to do for the sums of money which they are getting from the firms in question. I had to deal with this matter in the Standing Committee on a Bill recently but, despite all my researches, I was not then able to uncover all the aspects relating to certain matters.

However, of one thing I am certain. Whereas, when a trade union—for instance, the one referred to yesterday—takes a decision in an open democratic fashion and decides on a resolution, it is there for all the world to see, I have no doubt that at the same time there are bound to be instances of firms which may well be uncertain and dissatisfied with the way in which Members of Parliament, especially on the Opposition Benches, are carrying out the sponsorships for which they are paid.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, trade unions by and large pay substantial amounts of money not to the Members concerned but mainly to the constituency parties. But I assume that in nearly all circumstances directorship fees go into the pockets of the Members concerned.

There are bound to be occasions when firms are so dissatisfied with the performance of their Members of Parliament, as seemingly is the case with trade unions on occasions, that they secretly, not openly, decide to stop the sponsorship or the money. In those circumstances, Members cannot raise the issue with you, Mr. Speaker. For example, the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley), who raised the issue, may not know that Holiday Inns has decided that the Member concerned is not fulfilling the object for which he is paid—namely, to assist Holiday Inns as a Member of Parliament.

Again, the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) is paid as a consultant to Trust Houses Forte. That company is engaged in trying to prevent its staff from becoming trade unionists. As you know, Mr. Speaker, the right hon. Gentleman has recently been engaged in a phoney campaign to encourage Tory members engaged in various industries and firms to join trade unions. Let us suppose that Trust Houses Forte directors—Lord Thorneycroft and a few others, including the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas)—got together and said "Let us stop this man's money because he is not pulling his weight. He is acting against the best interests of Trust Houses Forte." The money could be stopped. That might sound somewhat hilarious.

We know for a fact that it has not happened, but in certain circumstances a firm could decide that it has an idle Tory Member of Parliament, or perhaps one of those Labour Members of Parliament who are engaged in these matters, or even one of the Liberal Members of Parliament who are engaged in a multitude of matters of this kind, and therefore stops the payment of the fee. The net result would be that, as I explained, no Member of Parliament would be in a position to raise the matter.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was absolutely right when he said that this was a very wide question. Yesterday I asked you, Mr. Speaker, to look at this matter in a broader context. I know that you have difficulties because of various Committee decisions and past precedents. However, I think that it is high time that the House, and particularly people outside, understood that many Members are fed up to the back teeth with having to listen to taunts being made against trade union sponsored Members of Parliament whilst the rest of that crowd opposite seem to go unchallenged.

I hope that when my right hon. Friend made his rather abstract general remarks he was really saying—[Interruption.] I did not think that he was being very specific. He has not been all that specific since he got that job. We all do a bit of generalising at times, but when one gets on the Treasury Front Bench one has to do a lot of it. I think that you do as well, Mr. Speaker.

If my right hon. Friend deals with the matter in the manner that I have described, we shall perhaps change this business which has occurred so often in the past. We shall not in future tolerate one section of Members of Parliament who are carrying out sponsorship duties—[Interruption.] Well, some are. I have been disagreeing with the National Union of Mineworkers currently over pay policy since we have had a Labour Government. It seems that only in Opposition do I support its view. But we are sponsored Members of Parliament acting in the interests not only of our constituents but of our trade unions on occasions. It is time that those who represent firms and have consultancies of one kind and another were treated in like manner so that we can dispose of this matter once and for all and stop the business of Members coming here and making remarks of the kind which were made on this occasion.

I support the motion moved by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but with rather more enthusiasm for it than he displayed in his remarks.

This is a unique and much more serious situation than we might have assumed from the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). The resolution passed at the NUPE conference yesterday, if allowed to prevail and become a precedent, would be a dangerous intervention in the normal democratic traditions of this country.

I speak as someone who was a sponsored trade union Member of Parliament for many years. I resigned from the panel of the Transport and General Workers' Union last year because I no longer believed that the system was good or that it was relevant to modern needs.

During the years when I was a sponsored trade union Member of Parliament, I frequently disagreed, as did other members of the TGWU panel, with the union's current policy. I recall strongly disagreeing with its policy over nuclear disarmament, incomes policy, the Common Market and other issues. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said that he frequently disagreed with the NUM's policy.

If a sponsored Member of Parliament has a difference of view with the union sponsoring him—I agree that this principle should apply to those who work for private companies—his duty as a Member of Parliament is to speak out. Any union or firm which tries to put pressure on a sponsored Member not to speak out is conducting itself in a very dangerous way.

The motion passed yesterday purported to instruct six Members of this House to act in a way which was not in accordance with their convictions or to lose trade union sponsorship. I have the greatest respect for those six Members. I welcome the fact that they have publicly made clear that they will accept no such instruction. It is right that the issue should go to the Committee of Privileges. We should take this matter seriously. Trade unions and other vested interests in this country should be made to recognise that Members of Parliament are not to be bought or sold.

I wish to join my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) in opposing the motion.

There was an occasion in the 1966–70 Parliament when a former Member for Luton, Mr. Will Howie, found himself in conflict with his trade union because he took a different point of view from the union. Mr. Will Howie, being an honourable man, rather than go on receiving money from a trade union with which he was at variance, had the constitutional propriety to resign his sponsorship. There could be no complaint on either side when that happened. The union was not paying out money to a Member of Parliament to carry out duties contrary to its policy and the Member concerned preserved his freedom of action.

However, it cannot be regarded as tolerable for a Member of Parliament to accept financial sponsorship from a union, knowing the union's policy, and then to behave contrary to it. One cannot accept remuneration to carry out one brief and then take up the opposite side of the court.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover was absolutely right. I shall certainly challenge this matter to a Division if he does not.

I hope that I shall say nothing which will lose me the support of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw), having gained it so uniquely by what I said earlier. I shall do my best to avoid losing his support and that of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I think that the best course to secure that support is for me to comment as briefly as possible on what has been said.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Prentice) illustrated the difficulty of the House having a debate in these circumstances before it has looked at the precedents and the facts, which the Committee of Privileges would do. That is the reason why I moved this motion.

I repeat that many of us believe—I am sure that I have the support of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, and this accords with some of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—that the method by which the House has dealt with privilege has not been the best in the interests not only of the House but of retaining the privileges which are genuinely justified. Therefore, we believe that this cumbrous procedure should be overhauled and that some different method of dealing with most cases should be fashioned.

That suggestion has been considered by the Committee of Privileges. It makes recommendations to the House, and the House considers whether those fresh recommendations should be put into operation. If that were to happen, it would prevent the House embarking on discussions of privilege in circumstances where we do not have the facts and it would also ensure that less time of the House was wasted on these matters. It would also mean that hon. Members would be making clear to the public that they are not thin-skinned in their readiness to accept criticism and that when criticisms are made, and the matters raised, those criticisms should not always be referred to the Committee of Privileges for adjudication—even if they involve a breach of privilege.

For all those reasons I hope that the House will agree that we should refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges. I understand that some of my hon. Friends have a different point of view, and they can put that view in the Division Lobby

Division No. 148]

AYES

[4.22 p.m.

Abse, LeoCooke, Robert (Bristol W)Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)
Adley, RobertCope, JohnGeorge, Bruce
Aitken, JonathanCostain, A. P.Gorst, John
Archer, PeterCox, Thomas (Tooting)Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)
Arnold, TomCrawshaw, RichardGraham, Ted
Bagler, Gordon A. T.Crouch, DavidGrant, Anthony (Harrow C)
Bates, AltCrowder, F. P.Gray, Hamish
Belth, A. J.Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)Grieve, Percy
Bell, RonaldCunningham, G. (Islington S)Grimond, Rt Hon J.
Berry, Hon AnthonyDavies, Denzil (Llanelli)Hamilton, James (Bothwell)
Biffen, JohnDavis, Clinton (Hackney C)Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)
Boscawen, Hon RobertDean, Paul (N Somerset)Hampson, Dr Keith
Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown)Dempsey, JamesHarrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye)
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent)Doig, PeterHarrison, Walter (Wakefield)
Bradley, TomDurant, TonyHeath, Rt Hon Edward
Braine, Sir BernardEden, Rt Hon Sir JohnHiggins, Terence L.
Brocklebank-Fowler, C.Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)Hooson, Emlyn
Brown, Hugh D. (Proven)English, MichaelHordern, Peter
Buchanan, RichardEvans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Buck, AntonyEvans, loan (Aberdare)Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)
Budgen, NickEwing, Harry (Stirling)Hughes, Mark (Durham)
Burden, P. A.Eyre, ReginaldHunt, John (Bromley)
Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green)Faulds, AndrewHunter, Adam
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE)Finsberg, GeoffreyIrving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)
Cant, R. B.Fisher, Sir NigelJanner, Greville
Carlisle, MarkFletcher-Cooke, CharlesJohn, Brynmor
Cartwright, JohnFoot, Rt Hon MichaelJohnson, James (Hull West)
Chalker, Mrs LyndaForman, NigelJohnson Smith, G. (E Grlnstead)
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Forrester, JohnJones, Alec (Rhondda)
Cockcroft, JohnFox, MarcusJones, Arthur (Daventry)
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)Freud, ClementJones, Barry (East Flint)
Coleman, DonaldFry, PeterKaberry, Sir Donald
Conlan, BernardGardner, Edward (S Fylde)Kimball, Marcus

if they wish. However, I must point out to those hon. Members who are critical in these matters—as I have been on many occasions—that we wish to get the whole matter overhauled and the recommendations of the new Committee of Privileges into operation as speedily as we can. Certainly the Government will bring that recommendation before the House as soon as possible, and I hope that this will be the last occasion upon which a Leader of the House must move such a motion in these circumstances.

Question put:

The House proceeded to a Division

On a point of order. To assist the House, Mr. Speaker, will you indicate who should be allowed to vote in this Division and the necessity of declaring interests before voting? Would it be the case that all trade union sponsored hon. Members should be ineligible to vote?

All hon. Members are free to vote and they take responsibility for their own interests. I cannot stop any hon. Member from voting.

The House having divided: Aves 203. Noes 45.

Kitson, Sir TimothyNewton, TonySteel, Rt Hon David
Knight, Mrs JillNormanton, TomSteen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Knox, DavidNolt, JohnStewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Langford-Holt, Sir JohnO'Halloran, MichaelStoddart, David
Lawson, NigelOnslow, CranleyTaylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Le Marchant, SpencerPage, John (Harrow West)Tebbit, Norman
Lester, Jim (Beeston)Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)Palmer, ArthurThomas, Rt Hon P. (Hendon S)
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Park, GeorgeThorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Lloyd, IanParker, JohnTinn, James
Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)Parkinson, CecilTownsend, Cyril D.
McAdden, Sir StephenPrentice, Rt Hon RegTrotter, Neville
McCartney, HughPrice, William (Rugby)Urwin, T. W.
McCrindle, RobertRathbone, TimVaughan, Dr Gerard
McElhone, FrankRees, Peter (Dover & Deal)Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Macfarlane, NeilRenlon, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)Wakeham, John
MacFarquhar, RoderickRhodes James, R.Walder, David (Clitheroe)
MacKenzie, GregorRidley, Hon NicholasWalker, Terry (Kingswood)
Mackintosh, John P.Roberts, Albert (Normanton)Wall, Patrick
Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)Warren, Kenneth
McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)Roper, JohnWeatherill, Bernard
McNair-Wllson, M. (Newbury)Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)Wells, John
Marshall, Michael (Arundel)Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)Whitehead, Phillip
Marten, NellRossi, Hugh (Hornsey)Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinSainsbury, TimWhitlock, William
Mayhew, PatrickShaw, Arnold (llford South)Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Meyer, Sir AnthonyShaw, Giles (Pudsey)Williams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)
Mills, PeterShelton, William (Streatham)Winterton, Nicholas
Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)Shersby, MichaelWoodall, Alec
Montgomery, FergusSilkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)Woof, Robert
Moonman, EricSims, RogerYoung, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Moore, John (Croydon C)Sinclair, Sir GeorgeYounger, Hon George
Morgan, GeraintSmith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester)Spence, JohnMr. Joseph Harper and
Nelson, AnthonyStalnton, KeithMr. A. W. Stallard.
Neubert, Michael

NOES

Allaun, FrankHatton, FrankPrescott, John
Atkinson, NormanHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Richardson, Miss Jo
Bidwell, SydneyHughes, Roy (Newport)Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Buchan, NormanKelley, RichardRodgers, George (Chorley)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Lamond, JamesRooker, J. W.
Carter-Jones, LewisLatham, Arthur (Paddington)Rose, Paul B.
Castle, Rt Hon BarbaraLee, JohnSedgemore, Brian
Clemitson, IvorLipton, MarcusShort, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Loyden, EddieSpriggs, Leslie
Edge, GeoHLyon, Alexander (York)Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE)McDonald, Dr OonaghWilson, William (Coventry SE)
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)Madden, MaxWise, Mrs Audrey
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Flannery, MartinMaynard, Miss JoanTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)Mr. Russell Kerr and
Garrett, John (Norwich S)Ovenden, JohnMr. Dennis Skinner.
Grocott, Bruce

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

That the matter of the complaint made by the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington be referred to the Committee of Privileges.