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Privilege

Volume 35: debated on Wednesday 19 January 1983

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

Before I call the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) I must tell the House that I have received a letter from Mr. Ken Livingstone, headed

"Members Lobby, The County Hall, London"
I propose to read this letter to the House.

"Dear Mr. Speaker,
I understand from the media that some members of Parliament have raised an issue of privilege. I am enclosing a copy of the minutes of the GLC's Policy Committee which met on 12 January 1983 and decided:—
Agenda Item L(iv) Capital Allocation 1983/84
'…that lists be prepared of projects which are at risk in each constituency and that these be provided to MPs, who would be asked if they were willing to support an increased capital allocation for the GLC. It would also be made clear that decisions on which projects would proceed would not be based on how MPs voted but on the needs of London.'
You may also find helpful the press coverage of our press conference which preceded the Policy Committee (whose minute I refer to above) for although most papers give contradictory and confusing quotes both the Daily Telegraph and the Newsline both quote accurately the comment of John McDonnell:—
'…support us and we will implement this in your area, and your refusal to support our programme will mean this will not go ahead.'
You may also have seen an unusually accurate article in the Evening Standard which says:—
'Mr. Livingstone now claims that people "got the wrong idea" over remarks made by councillors. He said: "Of course the GLC will continue to allocate resources on the basis of need. To do otherwise would be to penalise the working people of London.'
I hope this letter will resolve an otherwise confused situation. I also hope that you will not mind my having given copies of this letter to the media as I am sure you will understand that there has been considerable media interest in our response to the issue raised in the House this afternoon.
Yours sincerely,
Ken Livingstone".

3.58 pm

I beg to move

That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of privileges.
The purpose of my motion is to call attention to words spoken by Mr. Kenneth Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council, and Mr. John McDonnell, chairman of the finance and general purposes committee of that body, indicating an intention to restrict the provision of new servuices in the constituencies of any London Member of the House who failed to support the provisions of a forthcoming Greater London Council money Bill.

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your courtesy in sending me a copy of the letter you have just read out, which I received this afternoon.

I had intended originally not to discuss the merits of this case as that is not the purpose of my asking it to be referred to the Committee of Privileges. I am not involved in the alleged threat because I have never voted against a money Bill since I have been in the House. I have no intention of voting against a money Bill. It is for local government to make and defend its own case.

I believe that it is in the interests of Parliament that hon. Members should never be put in a position such as this by anybody. There was a precedent in 1981 when an employer attempted to put pressure on a Member of Parliament. I submit that no one is in a position to offer any Member of Parliament money to vote in favour of a Bill, which is bribery, or to threaten to take action against him if he fails to vote in a certain way, which is blackmail. It is wrong to put pressure on a Member of Parliament in that way.

The press reports seem to suggest that pressure was being exerted. If the Committee of Privileges could examine this case hon. Members could be safeguarded from such pressure.

After hon. Members have voted, they must stand their corner. If an hon. Member has voted for or against a particular issue, he is subjected to all the criticisms and all the pressures from outside that anybody wishes to place on him. I accept, underline and approve of that behaviour, but the situation is different before the hon. Member votes.

The letter from Mr. Livingstone to you, Mr. Speaker, does have certain features about it and it goes some way towards clarification because it quotes from the agenda item, which was never quoted before. It says:
"It would also be made clear that decisions on which projects would proceed would not be based on how MPs voted but on the needs of London."
That was never quoted.

Another quotation which you, Mr. Speaker, also read out, purports to start with the word "support". However, the press report of what was said begins:
"We will be saying you either support us".
Those words are left our of the quotation given to you, Mr. Speaker, by Mr. Livingstone. The words put a different connotation on the point. The suggestion is that we either support the Bill or certain projects will not go ahead and that does not conform with the previous item on the agenda. The two items are incompatible.

Mr. Livingstone could have clarified another quotation which reads:
"We will write to every MP in London. We will put forward a positive victimisation policy. We will tell them what will happen if they do not support us."
I do not want to discuss the merits of the case. Your ruling yesterday, Mr. Speaker, leads me to believe that there is a prima facie case for giving precedence to the motion. I believe that it is right for the episode to be examined by the Committee of Privileges. When the Committee has reported to the House we shall be in a position to discuss the matter.

4.2 pm

Yesterday you, Mr. Speaker, explained to us that on the facts as given to you there was a prima facie case that could go to the Committee of Privileges. You did not say that the matter had to go to the Committee because the House would decide. That was yesterday. On the facts as we now know them a different situation has arisen. For that reason I would find it impossible to vote for the motion. I shall vote against it.

The motion is totally incorrect since it calls attention to words allegedly spoken by Mr. Livingstone, which he did not say, and which the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) admits he did not say. It refers to Mr. McDonnell, a councillor representing Hayes and Harlington. The Member who represents that area is the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson), a distinguished member of the Social Democratic Party. If he voted against the Bill, Mr. McDonnell would have to penalise himself and his constituents. That would be nonsense, but he would have to do that if this matter were taken seriously. The House has a great deal more important work to do than to bother with this matter.

4.4 pm

As a London Member I wish to explain how the issue has affected me in a direct and personal way, which does not involve hearsay. Last Thursday I was invited to take part in a debate with Mr. Boateng of the GLC on a breakfast television trial run. Mr. Boateng put to me, in front of the cameras, what Mr. McDonnell had said. He said that in practical terms Mr. McDonnell had said that if I did not support the GLC money Bill, it was possible zebra crossings, among other things in my constituency for which the GLC has responsibility for erecting—slow though it is in doing so—would be at risk and would not be proceeded with.

I told Mr. Boateng that that was political blackmail against a Conservative Member of Parliament by the Labour GLC and unacceptable. He persisted in saying that that was what the GLC was saying to London Members such as me. A transcript will show that. I reminded Mr. Boateng that kings had fallen before the House of Commons on the question of Supply and that they should be careful. I repeat that warning to the GLC, Mr. McDonnell and anyone else involved.

4.6 pm

The remarks by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) show what a charade and farce this whole business is. I speak as a Member who has been before the Committee of Privileges, so I know what I am talking about.

When an hon. Member is called before the Committee word goes round that if he grovels and apologises and says that it will not happen again he is bound over to be of good behaviour and nothing more is heard. Alternatively, the defendant can decide not to grovel but to go for the publicity and television cameras and take part in the charade.

The Committee of Privileges is the most unfair committee of inquiry in the British Isles today. The onus is put on the defendant to decide whether to make a personal appearance before the Committee. If he decides not to appear he submits his evidence in writing, a long and tedious business. If he decides to go before the Committee he faces top QCs and receives no legal aid or help with the cross-examination. There is no transcript or Hansard report at the end of the trial. The press and public are not admitted. The jury meets every Wednesday afternoon and can come and go as it pleases. It is not necessary for the same jury to be present at the same trial every week. The verdict is announced without the defendant being told.

I was severely censured by a Committee of Privileges when I alleged that MPs were making their services available for hire. Two years later three Members, Mr. Cordle, Reggie Maudling and the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. Roberts) were found guilty. I was never pardoned. I did not receive an apology in any shape or form. There was no question of an apology.

In Britain we have freedom of speech. Mr. Livingstone was exercising his right to free speech. We have a free press. [Interruption.] Government Members who are shouting should look at the front page of today's Guardian which describes how the Soviet Union is putting Mr. Roy Medvedev on trial for criticising and slandering Soviet politicians. He could face seven years in prison. Will we get to that position here? The nonsense of referring matters to the Committee of Privileges just because someone feels aggrieved and wants to make a political point has gone on for too long.

The Diplock decision on political slander made in the House of Lords on 30 January 1974 states that if statements are made outside in the public interest by people who believe them to be true and believe that they have a duty to the public to say so, the privilege of free speech is not lost.

The GLC has the right to criticise the House of Commons and the right to free speech. It has the right to say what it likes about us. What the GLC advocates is no different from what the Government do when they give big grants to Tory constituencies for farming or defence while penalising steel towns by refusing to help them. The House should reject the charges which are made for political purposes by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch.

4.8 pm

When bringing the matter to your notice, Mr. Speaker, I was concerned solely with the issue of principle and not of personality. The question for the House is—were threats made against hon. Members to do other than what their conscience or judgment dictates? The House must decide whether the threats were made publicly.

I sent you, Mr. Speaker, copies of the popular press which contained statements showing exactly what occurred. It is a matter of great concern to the House.

In Britain we win political arguments by debate, not by threats. I do not believe that it is right that London Members should be told that if they do not vote in a certain way their constituents will suffer accordingly. That is the issue upon which the House must vote.

4.9 pm

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) was defending a breach of privilege that has not been determined. The matter should go to the Committee of Privileges, if only to clear up what appears to have been an ambiguity as to whether GLC members were saying, as they apparently now say, that if the House did not supply money that money would not be available for London, or whether, as the reports at the time said and which were apparently not cleared up until the press conference yesterday, there was a suggestion or threat that individual constituencies would be treated differently, and that that would be determined by how the Member of Parliament voted.

I do not believe that we should follow the line of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw and say that this is a breach of privilege that the House should pass over. We should refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges to decide.

4.10 pm

I do not want to discuss the merits or demerits of the issue. Will you, Mr. Speaker, consider the points that arose towards the end of the statement that you read? I do not have a copy, but no doubt you and the House will recall that you used words to the effect that Mr. Livingstone had said that you would not take it amiss if he informed the media.

Mr. Livingstone ought to know that he should not presume to inform the media of a matter that he knew was in the possession of the House. I am not worried about Mr. Livingstone. I am worried about the principle. This is not the first breach of privilege case. It has happened many times before, but I have never known of any person or organisation against whom complaint has been made writing to Mr. Speaker and, before Mr. Speaker receives the letter, going on the radio and television and telling Mr. Speaker that he was sure that Mr. Speaker would not take it amiss if the media were told.

We should tell everyone—whether the National Front, Mr. Livingstone, the Labour party, the Tory party or anyone else—that, if the matter is in the hands of Mr. Speaker, courtesy, custom and practice are that the will of the House should not be interfered with. Mr. Speaker is the custodian of the will of the House. Mr. Livingstone knew that the letter had been sent, and the matter should have been left there. We should have it made absolutely clear to everyone that when Mr. Speaker has been written to no one——

Who is grovelling? If the hon. Gentleman had done only half as much for the working class movement as I have, and if he knew my record, he would know that I never grovel to anyone, be it Right, Left or Centre, Chief Whip or no Chief Whip—[Interruption.] I am not grovelling to anyone. Why should I grovel to Mr. Speaker? He is not a man who would accept grovelling. Mr. Speaker has the right to protect the House. The House has the right to decide the issue.

Will you look at this matter, Mr. Speaker, so that all people—whoever they may be—can be advised that, when Mr. Speaker is writtten to, courtesy, custom and practice require that the matter be left until after the House has decided. After the matter has gone to the Committee of Privileges they can say and do as they like. It is a matter of precedence because otherwise there might be prejudice.

4.14 pm

In a succession of reports the Committee of Privileges has pointed out that the House should not take itself too seriously. When there appears prima facie to be a breach of privilege it ought not to be taken seriously by the House so that the members of the Committee of Privileges, having had to decide that a breach of privilege took place, should then have to recommend that the House should take no action.

This is a classic such case. No one has been seriously impugned. The freedom of individual Members to vote as they wish has no more been threatened than in any other kind of polemical interchange that takes place between parties throughout the country. On that basis at least, we should not refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges.

4.15 pm

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. John Biffen)

The motion in the name of the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) is of course debatable. This afternoon the House has taken advantage of that to express a number of views. The debate has been enriched by being wide-ranging. It is my job to recall the House to the narrower consideration of whether this matter should be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has reminded us, the matter of privilege has been treated traditionally as one of the utmost gravity. The House will also be anxious to place in the balance a sense of realism and proportion in all these affairs. The choice of where that balance lies is one that requires the collective wisdom of the House. It is my task to say that I believe sufficient opinions have already been expressed to enable the House to proceed to that function.

Question put:

The House divided:— Ayes 203, Noes 162.

Division No. 45]

[4.15 pm

AYES

Adley, RobertGorst, John
Alexander, RichardGow, Ian
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelGower, Sir Raymond
Alton, DavidGrant, John (Islington C)
Atkins, Robert(Preston N)Greenway, Harry
Banks, RobertGrieve, Percy
Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay)Grimond, Rt Hon J.
Benyon, W. (Buckingham)Grist, Ian
Berry, Hon AnthonyHamilton, Hon A.
Best, KeithHamilton, Michael (Salisbury)
Bevan, David GilroyHampson, Dr Keith
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnHannam, John
Blackburn, JohnHaselhurst, Alan
Boscawen, Hon RobertHawkins, Sir Paul
Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W)Hayhoe, Barney
Bowden, AndrewHeath, Rt Hon Edward
Braine, Sir BernardHeddle, John
Bright, GrahamHenderson, Barry
Brinton, TimHiggins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Brittan, Rt. Hon. LeonHill, James
Brooke, Hon PeterHogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Brotherton, MichaelHolland, Philip (Carlton)
Brown, Michael(Brigg & Sc'n)Hordern, Peter
Brown, Ronald W. (H'ckn'y S)Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Buchanan-Smith, Rt. Hon. A.Howells, Geraint
Budgen, NickHunt, David (Wirral)
Cartwright, JohnHunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Channon, Rt. Hon. PaulIrvine, RtHon Bryant Godman
Chapman, SydneyJenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)
Churchill, W. S.Jessel, Toby
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n)Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Johnston, Russell (Inverness)
Cockeram, EricJopling, Rt Hon Michael
Cope, JohnKaberry, Sir Donald
Corrie, JohnKellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Costain, Sir AlbertKershaw, Sir Anthony
Crawshaw, RichardKimball, Sir Marcus
Crouch, DavidKing, Rt Hon Tom
Dickens, GeoffreyKnight, Mrs Jill
Dorrell, StephenKnox, David
du Cann, Rt Hon EdwardLang, Ian
Dunlop, JohnLawrence, Ivan
Dunn, Robert (Dartford)Lee, John
Eggar, TimLe Marchant, Spencer
Elliott, Sir WilliamLennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Rutland)
Eyre, ReginaldLloyd, Ian (Havant & W'loo)
Fairgrieve, Sir RussellLoveridge, John
Faith, Mrs SheilaLuce, Richard
Farr, JohnLyell, Nicholas
Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'gh N)Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W)
Fox, MarcusMabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson
Fraser, Rt Hon Sir HughMcCrindle, Robert
Gardiner, George (Reigate)MacKay, John (Argyll)
Garel-Jones, TristanMaclennan, Robert
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir IanMcNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)
Glyn, Dr AlanMcNally, Thomas
Goodlad, AlastairMcQuarrie, Albert

Magee, BryanRost, Peter
Marten, Rt Hon NeilRumbold, Mrs A. C. R.
Mather, CarolSainsbury, Hon Timothy
Maude, Rt Hon Sir AngusShaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Mawby, RayShepherd, Richard
Mawhinney, Dr BrianSilvester, Fred
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinSims, Roger
Meyer, Sir AnthonySkeet, T. H. H.
Miller, Hal (B'grove)Speed, Keith
Mills, Iain (Meriden)Speller, Tony
Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)Spence, John
Mitchell, R. C. (Soton Itchen)Squire, Robin
Moate, RogerStanbrook, Ivor
Molyneaux, JamesSteel, Rt Hon David
Monro, Sir HectorSteen, Anthony
Montgomery, FergusStewart, A.(E Renfrewshire)
Morgan, GeraintStokes, John
Murphy, ChristopherTaylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Myles, DavidThompson, Donald
Neale, GerrardThorne, Neil (Ilford South)
Nelson, AnthonyTownend, John (Bridlington)
Neubert, MichaelTownsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)
Newton, TonyTrippier, David
Owen, Rt Hon Dr DavidViggers, Peter
Page, John (Harrow, West)Wainwright, R.(Colne V)
Page, Richard (SW Herts)Wakeham, John
Parris, MatthewWaller, Gary
Pawsey, JamesWatson, John
Pitt, William HenryWellbeloved, James
Pollock, AlexanderWells, Bowen
Porter, BarryWells, John (Maidstone)
Powell, Rt Hon J.E. (S Down)Wheeler, John
Prentice, Rt Hon RegWhitney, Raymond
Price, Sir David (Eastleigh)Wilkinson, John
Prior, Rt Hon JamesWilliams, D.(Montgomery)
Proctor, K. HarveyWilliams, Rt Hon Mrs(Crosby)
Rees-Davies, W. R.Winterton, Nicholas
Renton, TimYounger, Rt Hon George
Rhodes James, Robert
Rhys Williams, Sir BrandonTellers for the Ayes:
Ridley, Hon NicholasMr. John Roper and
Rippon, Rt Hon GeoffreyMr. A. J. Beith.
Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)

NOES

Allaun, FrankDouglas, Dick
Archer, Rt Hon PeterDubs, Alfred
Ashton, JoeDunwoody, Hon Mrs G.
Atkinson, N.(H'gey,)Eastham, Ken
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Edwards, R. (Whampt'n S E)
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyEllis, R. (NE D'bysh're)
Benn, Rt Hon TonyEnnals, Rt Hon David
Bennett, Andrew(St'kp't N)Evans, loan (Aberdare)
Bottomley, Rt Hon A.(M'b'ro)Evans, John (Newton)
Bray, Dr JeremyFlannery, Martin
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Brown, R. C. (N'castle W)Foster, Derek
Buchan, NormanFoulkes, George
Campbell-Savours, DaleFraser, J. (Lamb'th, N'w'd)
Canavan, DennisFreeson, Rt Hon Reginald
Cant, R. B.Garrett, John (Norwich S)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Golding, John
Clarke, Thomas(C'b'dge, A'rie)Graham, Ted
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S)Hamilton, James (Bothwell)
Cohan, StanleyHamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife)
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.Hardy, Peter
Cowans, HarryHarrison, Rt Hon Walter
Cox, T. (W'dsw'th, Toof'g)Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Crowther, StanHaynes, Frank
Cryer, BobHealey, Rt Hon Denis
Cunliffe, LawrenceHeffer, Eric S.
Cunningham, Dr J. (W'h'n)Hogg, N. (E Dunb't'nshire)
Dalyell, TamHolland, S. (L'b'th, Vauxh'll)
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)Home Robertson, John
Deakins, EricHomewood, William
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Hooley, Frank
Dewar, DonaldHoyle, Douglas
Dixon, DonaldHughes, Mark (Durham)
Dobson, FrankHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Dormand, JackHughes, Roy (Newport)

Jay, Rt Hon DouglasRichardson, Jo
John, BrynmorRoberts, Albert (Normanton)
Johnson, James (Hull West)Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldRobertson, George
Kerr, RussellRobinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Kinnock, NeilRoss, Ernest (Dundee West)
Lambie, DavidSheerman, Barry
Leighton, RonaldSheldon, Rt Hon R.
Lestor, Miss JoanShore, Rt Hon Peter
Litherland, RobertSilkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)
Lofthouse, GeoffreySilverman, Julius
Lyon, Alexander (York)Skinner, Dennis
McCartney, HughSmith, Rt Hon J. (N Lanark)
McDonald, Dr OonaghSnape, Peter
McElhone, Mrs HelenSoley, Clive
McGuire, Michael (Ince)Spellar, John Francis (B'ham)
McKay, Allen (Penistone)Spriggs, Leslie
McKelvey, WilliamStallard, A. W.
MacKenzie, Rt Hon GregorStoddart, David
McNamara, KevinStott, Roger
Marshall, D(G'gow S'ton)Strang, Gavin
Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Straw, Jack
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Martin, M(G'gow S'burn)Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Mason, Rt Hon RoyThorne, Stan (Preston South)
Maxton, JohnTorney, Tom
Maynard, Miss JoanVarley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Meacher, MichaelWainwright, E.(Dearne V)
Mikardo, IanWalker, Rt Hon H.(D'caster)
Millan, Rt Hon BruceWardell, Gareth
Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)Watkins, David
Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)Weetch, Ken
Morton, GeorgeWelsh, Michael
Moyle, Rt Hon RolandWhite, Frank R.
Newens, StanleyWhitehead, Phillip
O'Neill, MartinWhitlock, William
Orme, Rt Hon StanleyWigley, Dafydd
Palmer, ArthurWilley, Rt Hon Frederick
Park, GeorgeWilliams, Rt Hon A.(S'sea W)
Parker, JohnWilson, William (C'try SE)
Parry, RobertWinnick, David
Pavitt, LaurieWoodall, Alec
Pendry, TomWoolmer, Kenneth
Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Prescott, JohnTellers for the Noes:
Race, RegMr. John Tilley and
Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)Mr. Nigel Spearing

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recollect that when I made my remarks a few moments ago on a matter that has now been disposed of I raised a point that I think has substance. I regret and apologise for the fact that I have not given you notice, but I had no intention of raising the matter at that moment. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I know that you will not have had time to consider it. However, several hon. Members have come to me since to say that they think that we should ask Mr. Speaker whether at his leisure, when he has had an opportunity to look at what I said in Hansard, he will go into the matter to see whether my point was valid and what action should be taken on the general principle for the future. May I ask you to deal with this matter in whatever way you think best, either as a reply to a point of order or perhaps in a statement if you think that the matter is worthy of that at some future date?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you consider the matter, will you take account of the fact that there are hon. Members who have quite a different view and who believe that in that respect certainly the House would be taking itself much too seriously if it went up that path?

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis), who raised the point of order. Not for the first time he has shown a concern about the rights and dignities of the House. I will of course look into the matters that he has raised and will write to him or make a statement in the House.