§ 3.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Speaker
There are two complaints of Privilege with which I have to deal.
First of all, there is the matter raised by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot). In my view, neither of the letters which I received from Lord Hailsham, which were personal and private letters, in any way infringed the privileges of this House, and my conclusion, therefore, is that the hon. Gentleman's complaint does not, prima facie, raise a matter of breach of Privilege.
As the House knows, my conclusion on the prima facie position does not debar the House in any way from taking a different view. All it means is that I cannot accord to the hon. Gentleman's complaint precedence over the Orders of the Day.
1135 I was asked to consider whether I would make available the letters, so that the House could judge. The difficulty is obvious, and I have given prolonged and anxious consideration to my duty. In this matter, as in all others, I am the servant of the House and take the direction of the House if and when it should be given to me, but I would ask to be acquitted of any sort of discourtesy if I said that unless so directed I would decline to make public a part of my personal and private correspondence.
The fact is that we all, as Members of this House, have to receive from time to time communications in circumstances of confidence. I myself receive them from time to time from hon. Members, officers, officials, members of the other House, and so forth. It seems to me to be a necessary part of our Parliamentary life that one should be able to do so. Therefore, until the House otherwise me directs, I would not think my duty required me to do that which would destroy the confidence in which such communications are made.
§ Mr. M. Foot
As you have indicated in the first part of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, your Ruling does not mean that hon. Members are deprived of making the decision that in their view the matter should be referred to the Committee of Privileges, but that the matter does not take precedence over other business.
Therefore, what hon. Members will have to consider is whether they should put on the Order Paper of the House a Motion asking that this complaint should be referred to the Committee of Privileges. But for the House to be able to do that, it would surely be desirable that hon. Members should be able to judge for themselves what is the verdict on these letters.
There have been cases where the Monarch has attempted to communicate with the Speaker, and where a previous Prime Minister, Mr. Baldwin, took up the matter with the Monarch and protested very strongly against a confidential letter being sent by the Monarch to the Speaker—which, I should have thought, had a parallel in this case. [Laughter.] Maybe I have made an error; it is the only office to which the 1136 noble Lord has not yet aspired. [Laughter.]
This is a very serious matter. It is a matter for the House to judge, but I should not myself have thought that communications between hon. Members and yourself, Mr. Speaker, were on the same level as communications between a member of the Government and Leader in another place and yourself, apparently referring to business that had been transacted in this House.
My first point, therefore, is that I would ask you very seriously to consider all the precedents of confidential or attempted confidential exchanges between people outside this House and Mr. Speaker and where, in the end, Mr. Speaker has had to agree that the letters should either be read to the House or placed in the Library.
A second point arises. At one point, however reprehensive some of us may have thought it, these exchanges were confidential, but they ceased to be confidential. I am sure that the whole House would acquit you, Mr. Speaker, of "leaking" the letter, but someone has done so. My original complaint, and the reason why I raised the subject as a matter of privilege, was that, if this exchange of letters was a matter of confidence, that confidence has not been maintained.
The story going round—I cannot vouch for it—is that the noble Lord had written a very sharp letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons. I should have thought that when such things as this are rumoured it was of paramount importance that the House of Commons, to protect its dignity, should sort out the whole matter.
I therefore think that the next decision that this House must make will be whether a Motion is to be placed on the Order Paper. If such a Motion is placed on the Order Paper it may be pressed, and a debate take place upon it. If that debate takes place, a demand for the publication of the letters will occur and, with the greatest of respect, I should have thought that it would be serving the interests of the whole House much better if you agreed to publish the whole correspondence.
§ Mr. Wigg
Before you rule on this point, Mr. Speaker, there is a point that I should like to make. Over three hundred years ago, one of your predecessors 1137 in the Chair told this House that he had neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak but as this House was pleased to direct him. I respectfully submit to you, Sir, that you cannot have private correspondence with the Leader of the House of Lords on something that concerns the business of this House.
With the greatest possible respect to you personally, and to the Chair, I ask: will you not take into account the feelings of the House and enable it to come to a decision either by your reading this correspondence or making it available in the Library, so that some of us will not be forced to take the very unpleasant decision of placing a Motion on the Order Paper in terms which reflect upon you?
§ Mr. Speaker
I thank hon. Members for the respectful manner in which they have stated their argument. I am grateful to be acquitted of a "leak". I cannot take the view that the revelation in a newspaper that private correspondence existed renders public the contents of the correspondence. I do not follow that argument.
For the rest, the difficulty is obvious. I suspect that many hon. Members will feel the difficulty which I had about what is my right duty to this House. I am content to take the direction of the House about it, but I am not content to make part of my private and personal correspondence available unless so directed by the House.
Mr. H. Wilson
No Member of the House, Mr. Speaker, will want to interfere with your private correspondence, and I am sure that it will be the general desire of the House that we should not be faced with a Motion on the Order Paper either raising the Privilege question or, still less, raising your conduct.
But I should like to submit the further point to you that surely any letter sent to you, whether marked "Private" or "Confidential", or not, relating to the conduct of business in this House, cannot be other than an official letter. We are all of us familiar, when drafting Questions in the Table Office, with the problem of whether action taken by a Minister is in his private capacity or in his official capacity. That is why the word "official" is so often inserted into the Questions.
1138 If these letters related to any Rulings you gave, or somebody else outside the House thought you ought to have given, surely that is a reflection on your official conduct of this House and a reflection on our proceedings which no one outside this House has a right to make. Surely, throughout all history we have protected our rights against interference from outside, and that includes interference from another place.
Therefore I would ask you, Mr. Speaker—and I am sure that this reflects the view of a large number of hon. Members—whether you would reconsider this matter and consider whether it is possible for any letters, if they refer to your Rulings, to be anything but official in that they deal with your official conduct as the servant of this House.
I would, therefore, ask you whether you would treat them, or, in any case, whether you would state to the House if the letter you received, whether sharp or otherwise, in any way called into question any Ruling you gave or did not give in this House. If the letter contained any such reflection or attempt to interfere with your conduct in the Chair, this is an unwarrantable interference with this House. One recognises your unwillingness to publish it, but the House is entitled to know whether this correspondence related to your official conduct.
§ Mr. Speaker
I think that whether or no the letter is such as to deprive it of its label and category of "Private and personal" must depend upon the character of the letter, and I am in the unhappy position of having to exercise personal judgment about that. I can only say that I thought it was, and I think it is, a personal and private letter, and if that is so it is no good giving a partial description of its contents and the like. I want the direction of the House about this. If the House wants the letters to be revealed I must obey. If not, I do not want to do it.
I am sure that no one wants to produce any sledge-hammer Motions on this matter, Sir, and that we do not want to be put into that position in order to carry it further. That is why I am sure that the House would be grateful, Mr. Speaker, if you could elucidate your last few words. Does 1139 this mean that your advice to the House would be that it would be in order for hon. Members—perhaps the Leader of the House—to table a Motion requesting you to make this information available without its being any form of censure upon you?
§ Mr. Speaker
I would treat a request from the House as equivalent to a direction from the House. I would like, as a matter of form, in case there is a snag at the moment which is veiled from me, to have an opportunity of answering the question not "off the cuff", but I imagine at present that that would be all right; and if the House requested it I would feel that my duty followed.
§ Mr. C. Pannell
May I put another point to you, Sir? If a letter is sent to you, is it not proper, in all the circumstances, to answer, as Mr. Baldwin did, and to send the letter back and say, "This is a letter which should not have been sent"? Was that the nature of your answer? If it was, I suggest that the House would be easily satisfied.
§ Mr. Bowles
May I remind you, Mr. Speaker, that this is the second time this year that the Press has alleged that Ministers of the Crown are using you and your great office for the purpose of Government business or Government protection? I hope that the Leader of the House, recalling what he said just before Easter on the same matter, might consider the request of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that we should see what steps the Government or members of the Government are trying to take to influence you in your great position as our Speaker.
§ Mr. Speaker
I can relieve the hon. Member of anxieties. If anybody or any newspaper is so foolish as to suppose that I take my directions about my duty in this House from anyone but the House they are very evilly and fundamentally mistaken.
§ Mr. Hale
No doubt you will have looked at all the precedents, Mr. Speaker. There was a very direct precedent in the famous case on 9th April, 1810, of a Member being held in contempt in 1140 respect of a letter to Mr. Speaker reprobatory of the conduct of the House, but not of Mr. Speaker, in relation to a personal matter.
It was the famous case of Sir Francis Burdett. The House declared that letter to be a high breach of Privilege and the only reason why it did not commit Sir Francis Burdett to the Tower was that he was already there for a breach of a previous Order of the House and had, indeed, been escorted there by half a regiment of Foot Guards, most of the police of London, the Serjeant at Arms and various other officials, to the enthusiastic cheers of the people of London.
I do not say that the circumstances are precisely similar, but when one who is not only a Member of another place, but a member of the Government and one of Her Majesty's personal servants, endeavours to write to Mr. Speaker—and we do not know whether the letter was approbatory or reprobatory of what was said in the House, or of the conduct of the House; there is a suggestion that it was not wholly approbatory—this raises a serious question whether this is appropriate conduct for a Cabinet Minister at all, without the authority of the Cabinet. It raises the question whether it is appropriate for a Member of another place at all to express views which he asks you, Mr. Speaker, to keep in confidence and not to give publicity to them.
I hope that you will consider these matters, Sir. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said, I do not think that any of us, if we can avoid it, wants to provoke a contentious discussion, particularly in view of the Ruling which the House made in 1952, or, rather, the statement made by the Leader of the House, that in his view the appropriate conduct would be for this House to report the matter to another place, where it would be debated, and we would hope that justice would be done.
§ Mr. Robert Cooke
Are you aware, Mr. Speaker, that there is a marble bust of Sir Francis Burdett at the Members' entrance to the House?
§ Mr. Speaker
These "threats" must cease. I am greatly obliged to hon. Members, but I should like to pass on to other matters soon, if I may.
§ Mr. Speaker
I have not expressed any wishes. I have said how I would act unless the House otherwise directed or requested me. I cannot add to this. I have given this matter the most anxious consideration. The position is extremely difficult from my point of view. I am sure that everybody would realise that I am not to be involved in this.
§ Mr. J. Griffiths
We all understand your difficulty, Mr. Speaker. Would it help to resolve it if your correspondent agreed to release the letters?
§ Mr. Speaker
I do not propose to make any request to be relieved from confidentiality, for the very reasons I have given with regard to the whole matter.
§ Mr. Grimond
Mr. Speaker, apart from any question arising as to whether a communication from a member of the Government can be strictly confidential of itself, I think that what the House will find some difficulty over is how the existence of the letter came to be made public. If it was a confidential letter, we can understand your difficulty, Sir, if I may say so, in making public a confidential communication, but it is difficult to see how it can be treated as confidential when the existence, if not the contents, of the letter must have been made public by the writer. I cannot see who else can have made it public. Therefore, it cannot be treated by him, I should have thought, entirely as a confidential matter.
May I ask you, Sir, whether you have received any further communication from the writer or any explanation of how the letter came to be made public, or perhaps an apology for the fact that it did become public?
§ Mr. Speaker
I have received no further communication from the writer. I cannot assist the right hon. Gentleman about the circumstances in which the matter was revealed. I have no knowledge.
Mr. H. Wilson
Obviously, Mr. Speaker, the House wants to get on, and, also, it does not want to see you in this position of being constantly pressed. Surely, by this time, the Leader of the House, either in his capacity as a member of the Government sharing collective responsibility with the noble Lord for his action, or as Leader of the House, owing a responsibility to both sides of the House, could now give some advice to the House as to how he thinks that this difficult matter can be dealt with.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order that all this should take place by way of argument about your Ruling on whether there is a prima facie case of breach of Privilege and whether the matter should accordingly have priority over the Orders of the Day?
§ Mr. Speaker
I dare say that it is not strictly in order, but the circumstances are peculiar. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am not being frivolous in the least. It is because the subject matter on which the House has to judge is exclusively in my possession. Proud as I am of myself, I do not like to wander forth saying, "Accept my pronouncement exclusively, without any check on it." That would not be very sensible, and that is why we are looking at it.
§ Mr. Iain Macleod
As I understand the position—I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will agree—when you rule on matters of Privilege, Mr. Speaker, there are then two tasks which may fall upon the Leader of the House. If you rule that it is a matter of Privilege, then, unless the House agrees that it is such a slight matter that this course need not be taken—nobody has taken this matter lightly at all, whatever views we may hold about it—it is the duty of the Leader of the House to move that the matter complained of be referred to the Committee of Privileges. This is well understood by the House.
Equally, the second position is perfectly well understood. Your Ruling does not prohibit, the House, if it wishes, from, in due form and by Motion, returning to the matter. Your Ruling is that you do not consider that this matter of Privilege 1143 raises a case which should accord it precedence over other Motions and the Orders of the Day. Everyone in the House must recall a score of examples of this sort of Ruling being given by Mr. Speaker. The question is then considered by those who may wish to put a Motion on the Order Paper. But that is their duty. With respect, in the circumstances of the Ruling which we have had very clearly from you, Sir, it is not one which falls on the Leader of the House.
Mr. H. Wilson
Yes, but will the right hon. Gentleman not at least consider this? His rôle is not purely passive in this matter as Leader of the House. He ought to take an initiative when a difficulty arises.
May I put this point to you, Mr. Speaker? Since you have indicated that, if, to get out of the difficulty, a Motion were put on the Order Paper requesting you to publish the correspondence, you would, naturally, comply with it, might not the Leader of the House at least agree now to have discussions through the usual channels and with all hon. Members concerned to see whether an agreed Motion might be put down—[Hon. Members: "No."]—in order to comply with the, I thought, quite clear statement made by you, Sir, a few moments ago? Would not that be the best way out of it? Or does the Leader of the House really want this matter to have to be handled in a more heavy-handed manner than any of us think necessary?
§ Mr. Macleod
With respect, I think that the Leader of the Opposition ought not to take that line. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] I think that the whole House agreed with what I said a few moments ago about the duty falling upon the Leader of the House in the two sets of circumstances, one in which a breach of Privilege of which the House wishes to take notice is regarded by Mr. Speaker as a prima facie case, and the other in which he says that it should not have precedence.
The Leader of the Opposition will understand—I shall not use any polemics in this, and I am not referring to the letters at all—that I do not agree with many of the things which have been said today, but, naturally, we should be prepared to have the usual discussion which always takes place if 1144 there is any difficulty. Perhaps, on that basis, we can proceed.
§ Mr. Wigg
May I pursue my point of order with you, Mr. Speaker?
The Leader of House has just submitted to you, Sir, without correction, that his duty in a matter of Privilege is to move that it be committed to the Committee of Privileges. This is not so. This is the duty, if he cares to exercise it, of the hon. Member who raises it in the first place. We have accepted your Ruling that there is no prima facie case here, and we know that we shall have to put a Motion on the Order Paper.
The point at issue and the difficulty here is this; I am sure that I speak for my hon. Friends on this point. The last thing that we want to do—though we shall not shirk our duty, and I certainly shall not shirk mine—is to put down a Motion critical of the Chair. We do not find ourselves able to accept the Ruling that letters about the business of the House written to you in your capacity as Speaker are anything else than the property of the House.
On this basis, Sir, we are asking you for guidance, and we are asking the Leader of the House to exempt the Chair from controversy in this matter by putting down a Motion, which, if he likes, he can then leave to a free vote of the House, to decide whether these letters should be published or not.
§ Mr. Silverman
I only wish, Mr. Speaker, to draw your attention to a comparatively recent event which seems to have many parallels. In 1949 or thereabouts, there was an occasion when a constituent wrote to an hon. Member of this House. The Member sent it to the constituent's superior, to the bishop, I think it was.
This was raised as a complaint of breach of Privilege here, and Mr. Speaker of the day ruled as you have ruled in this instance, but the House was not content with that and a Motion such as can always be put down in the circumstances was put down. The Leader of the House found time for it, and the question involving a breach of Privilege was discussed on the Floor of the House, it being decided in the end that there was not a breach of Privilege.
The matter did not go to the Committee of Privileges, but the point was discussed and decided on the Floor of the House. Is not that a precedent which could be followed in this instance?
§ Mr. Speaker
The House can do as it likes. It can either not deal with the complaint, send it to a Committee, or do as it wishes. We really must get on.