§ Report [27th November] of the Committee of Privileges considered.
§ 12.11 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in their Report."
I thought that the House would wish to have an opportunity of considering the Report which the Committee of Privileges submitted last November, and if they agree with the Committee, of endorsing the conclusions which they reached on the case of Privileges which was referred to them. The practice appears to vary on whether or not the Reports of the Committee of Privileges are always dealt with by the House. I myself think if the Report of the Committee deals with these ancient and important issues of what in fact amount to Parliamentary law, it is very desirable not to leave it at the Report of the Committee, but the House should be given an opportunity of pronouncing judgment upon their recommendations. As a matter of fact even within the field of the matter covered by this Report, the Committee was a little embarrassed by the fact that on some previous occasion, which was relevant to this occasion, the Committee had made a Report but the House had never pronounced upon it. Consequently, it was a matter of the gravest doubt as to whether the recommendations as to Parliamentary law in that respect had really been properly confirmed. Therefore, I thought it right that the matter should 2178 come to the House. I gather that in that view I am supported by the noble Lord opposite, as indeed I would expect to be because he is a very keen supporter of the rights and privileges of the House of Commons as a corporate body. The noble Lord is now a Member of the Committee of Privileges.
The position, as I understand it, is that unless the Committee's Report is formally approved by the House, it has no binding effect either in the present case or as regards the future, however valuable it might be for students of Parliamentary privilege or for the future guidance of the Committee itself. It seems desirable, therefore, that the House should come to an authoritative conclusion on this case which, as it happened, raised some rather new issues. I will not attempt to go in detail through the carefully reasoned report of the Committee, but it may help the House if I briefly state the facts and the conclusions which the Committee reached upon them.
As to the facts, the Committee found that two summonses to appear before a court of summary jurisdiction to answer to two informations laid in respect of alleged offences under the Road Traffic Act, 1930, were served on an officer of the House within the precincts of the House, on nth October last at about 9.45 a.m.; that the summonses were served by a police officer on duty in the precincts of the House by direction of his superior officers; and that they were served at the request of the officer who had preferred the informations. The Committee of Privileges were of opinion that a breach of Privilege was committed, but were satisfied that no breach of privilege, or disrespect to the House, was intended by any of the officers of the Metropolitan Police concerned in the service of the process. Moreover, the extent of the Privilege of the House in the matter was not well defined and no instructions had ever bean issued to the Metropolitan Police regarding the service of criminal process upon persons, other than Members of Parliament, within the precincts of the House. They accordingly did not consider that the case called for any proceedings on the part of the House against the officers concerned.
The arguments which led the Committee to the view which they took of the scope of Privilege in relation to this case 2179 may, I think, be stated as follow. It is well that this argument should be on the records of the House. The case was novel in that the service of process was not on a Member but on an officer of the House and that, though it took place on a day when the House was sitting, neither the House nor a Committee of the House happened actually to be sitting at the particular time when the service occurred. The Committee started—this is the kernel of the argument—from the proposition that service of process on a Member within the precincts of the House, while the House is sitting, without the leave of the House first obtained, is a breach of Privilege because of the disrespect to the House which it entails. As the essence of the offence is the insult to the House, it is really immaterial whether the person on whom process is served is a Member or not.
It would, moreover, on this view, be absurd to draw a distinction between periods when the House or any Committee of the House, was actually sitting, and periods on the same day when this was not so. The rule can only be that service of process within the precincts of the House on a day on which the House, or any Committee thereof, is to sit, is sitting or has sat, will constitute a breach of Privilege.
The Committee go on to say that, in their view, the principles which apply to the service of process are equally applicable to execution of process. The Committee's views both on the particular case and on the extent of Privilege, in the circumstances, seem to me—if I may say this as the Chairman of the Committee of Privileges for the time being—to be reasonable. I speak with all diffidence on so complicated and technical a matter, but I think it can be said that in questions of Parliamentary Privilege the governing principle is the public interest, the primary consideration being the maintenance of the dignity and authority of Parliament, which is clearly of the utmost national importance. On the other hand, certainly in modern times, the House would not wish to stand unduly on its dignity, or to assert its rights without considering the public interest as a whole. In the present case there seems to be to be no doubt that, however unintentional, there was disrespect to the House in its corporate capacity, and that it is right that the authority of the House should be asserted. 2180 As the Committee point out, there is no reason to think that the immunity from the service or execution of criminal process which, in their opinion, is conferred by the law of Parliament upon all persons within the Parliamentary precincts, could paralyse the arm of the law or obstruct the course of criminal justice. I am sure, however, that the House will agree with the Committee that, in the particular circumstances, no action is called for on their part as regards the two police officers concerned.
The House will wish to know that I am informed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that a general Order has now been issued to the Metropolitan Police which should make the position quite clear for the future. My right hon. Friend has also brought the views of the Committee of Privileges to the notice of chief constables generally. I would add that in evidence the officers of my right hon Friend the Home Secretary were most courteous, as one would expect them to be, to the Committee, and said that if an error had been made they regretted it, as did the Home Secretary, though it is not quite clear whether on the state of Parliamentary law then existing, as so far interpreted, any blame would rightly attach even to the Home Office itself. Anyway, the Home Office have taken all proper steps to see that such an incident does not recur. Therefore, I ask the House, by approving the Report, to agree with the view of Parliamentary Privilege which the Committee have taken. There is only one other thing I would add, and that is to thank my colleagues on the Committee of Privileges for the courtesy, patience and attention which they gave to the matter which has resulted in the production of a Report which, in the light of our own experience, I think will be very useful to the House and the authorities of the House in the future.
§ 12.19 P.m.
§ Earl Winterton (Horsham)
I must trouble the House with rather more extended observations than those of the Leader of the House because, although I agree, in principle, with the view which he has expressed, I think I diverge from his view in some details. I think this is really a very important matter and, perhaps, more important than might have appeared from the speech of the Leader of the House. In the first place, I support the right hon. Gentleman entirely, 2181 and I am glad he drew attention to the need for all reports from the Committee of Privileges being considered by this House. I think past Governments and Members have shown themselves, in some cases, rather lax in not demanding that the reports should always be considered. They should be considered, and I hope it may now be taken as the accepted rule that they will be considered.
As to the Report itself, I do not know whether many hon. Members have the document in their hands, but it is a very interesting one. Perhaps I might make a personal and egoistic—though not egotistic—reference, and explain that, by inadvertence, I was left off the Committee of Privileges; I was not a member of it at the time, although I was a former member and am now a member. I am, therefore, entitled to criticise the Committee because I was not a member of it at the time. Membership of the Committee of Privileges is a very important function for Members to perform, and I think all of us, whether we are Members of the Government, or sit on the front Opposition bench or on the back benches, regard ourselves when we are members of the Committee of Privileges as acting in a semi-judicial capacity, and, therefore, we do not necessarily accept the views of our colleagues on the benches on which we sit. I have no reason to suppose that any hon. Members on the bench on which I sit or behind me disagree with me, but I wish to make it clear that I was a former member and am now a member of the Committee of Privileges.
I would like to draw attention to page v of the Report, in which is the following passage:The circumstance that, in this particular case, process was served by a police officer on duty within the parliamentary precincts if anything aggravates the breach of privilege, since the officers of the Metropolitan Police who are on duty within the precincts are there only for the purpose of assisting the Serjeant at Arms in carrying out the orders of the House and maintaining order and decorum within the precincts.Frankly, I think Mr. Henderson should have been aware of that fact. He is not here as a police officer. He is here to carry out the instructions of the Serjeant at Arms, whereas in this case he deliberately acted as a police officer and never consulted the Serjeant at Arms. Having said that, the Committee go on, 2182 at the end, apparently, to exonerate Mr. Henderson from any blame. They may have been right, but I must say that, in the circumstances, Mr. Henderson would have been well advised to offer an apology to the Committee, and, through the Committee, to this House, and this, I think, applies also to the deputy chief constable of Shropshire. Quite obviously, Mr. Henderson was not aware of what the Committee have properly laid down. Although he is not here as a police officer, he made himself a party to serving a summons on an officer of the House.
Let me refer to what I would describe as the slightly jejune evidence given by Mr. Barnwell, the deputy chief constable of Shropshire. This deputy chief constable took the attitude, "I know nothing about a Parliamentary procedure, I am the deputy chief constable of Shropshire." He was asked this question by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party:There are one or two things that I do not quite understand, Mr. Barnwell. This accident occurred on the 6th September?—Yes, Sir.When was it reported to you?—It came to my knowledge first of all on the 15th SeptemberThen you were given, I suppose, upon that date the registered number of the car?—Yes.And tracing the registered number of the car took you to Gloucester?—Yes.Then you got the information that it was Sir Ralph Verney?—Yes.Having obtained that information, this question was put to the witness:The Lord President of the Council has already put to you, and we know, what is the usual practice of the police?—Yes.The answer had been that the usual practice was to serve a summons not at a man's place of business but at his home.As far as it is possible to do so you avoid either writing or serving any process upon a man in his place of business?—Yes.You see, you did quite the contrary. Why did you do it?—I did not look upon Sir Ralph as a man at a place of business.I do not know what he thought this House was; perhaps he had never heard of the House of Commons.I wrote to him privately almost, although, of course, it was official—What he means by saying that he wrote to him "privately almost, although, of course, it was official," I have no idea—and I was anxious really to get this matter cleared up between myself and Sir Ralph.2183 Then the hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party continued:What was the hurry? The accident was on the 6th September; it was reported to you on the 15th September, and then on the 29th you wrote?—Yes, I think I was hoping, or at least expecting, that there would be some explanation about the offence which had been committed and that he should get a fourteen days' notice if it were possible or get notice within fourteen days of the prosecution.Incidentally, I understand that no prosecution of any kind followed. I can only describe the evidence of this gentleman as unfortunate. I am glad to hear that the chief constables of this country are not a law unto themselves and that they are going to receive very definite information as to their relationship with the House of Commons.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)
They have already received it.
§ Earl Winterton
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on sending that information.
Now let us come to the evidence of Mr. Henderson. He also seems to have been rather doubtful about things. He was asked by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House:The Committee would like you in the first place to tell us shortly and in your own way factually what actually happened when you delivered the Summons?—Yes, Sir. On 0th October at about 6 o'clock I received a message from my Superintendent at Cannon Row that correspondence had come through from the county police, Shrewsbury; it had come to the police superintendent from Scotland Yard …Then he describes the rather complicated procedure which, apparently, the police have when serving a summons of that kind. He goes on to say that on the morning of the nth he came to the Palace taking with him the papers and the two summonses referred to. I do not want to be unfair to Mr. Henderson, but I think, as I said before, that he ought to have been aware of the fact that he acts under the instructions of the Serjeant at Arms, and that before accepting instructions from a superior officer he should have gone to the office of the Serjeant at Arms and asked whether it was in order to serve a summons upon an officer of this House. I take this opportunity of saying that it would be as well if Mr. Henderson and, indeed, the whole of the Metropolitan Police Force, realised the obligations which rest on them towards this House. 2184 For example, supposing the police improperly allowed a mob to approach this House and to intimidate hon. Members, they would be answerable to the House itself. I understand that we could demand the attendance of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Force at the Bar and ask him why he had not carried out the instructions sent to him. They are instructions of this House, and have, as I understand, the force of law. It would have been a graceful act on the part of Mr. Barnwell and the Inspector if they had apologised to this House for what I regard as an unintentional but, at the same time, gross breach of discourtesy to the House itself. As I have said, I am very glad to hear that full instructions have now been issued setting out the correct position. It is only fair to say that I agree that the law of Privilege—if it can be so termed; I am not sure that that is correct—on this particular point has been in doubt.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
That this House doth agree with the Committee in their Report.