I beg to move,
That the said Report be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
I sincerely hoped that there would be no opposition to this Motion, in view of the fact that it comes from a Committee that has taken an unanimous decision. But having regard to the fact that apparently there will be opposition to it, I think it essential that I should make a statement on the matter.
Let me say, in the first place, that when I was coming into the House on 9th July I was approached by a number of people who apparently knew me but whom I did not know, and who asked me if I had read the attack made that day in the "Daily Express" on me. I had not read it. I immediately went to the room of the Manager of the Refreshment Department and secured a copy of the "Daily Express," and read the letter that had been written by Mr. Barkley. The letter is set out in the Report, and, therefore, hon. Members will be fully familiar with it.
I immediately inquired whether the alleged facts as stated in the letter were true, and I was informed that, so far from their being true with regard to the allocation of cigarettes, the real position was as set out very clearly in the Report. Consequently, I immediately wrote to the "Daily Express" indicating that the statement was absurd, stupid and untrue. That was written on 9th July. On 11th July the Kitchen Committee met and I was then informed that if I did not raise the matter some other hon. Member would. The letter written by Mr. Barkley was reported to the Kitchen Committee. The Committee decided that the facts should be inquired into and submitted at its next meeting.
In the meantime, on 12th July, my letter appeared in the "Daily Express," and that letter had obviously been shown to Mr. Barkley, for he added a rejoinder. The rejoinder—which I will not weary the House with reading—was to the effect that what he had stated previously was true, and that the only cigarettes that were not Co-operative cigarettes consisted of a cigarette that I as Co-op. chairman had given him out of a non-Co-op. packet. Subsequently the Report was drafted and submitted to the Kitchen Committee on 18th July, and the Committee unanimously adopted that Report, which is now before the House.
I will not detain the House for long on the facts. In the first place, the decision to have Co-operative cigarettes on sale in this House was apparently taken in November, 1945—exactly five years before I was associated in any way whatever with the Kitchen Committee. Speaking in the presence of members of the Kitchen Committee, I can most solemnly state that on no occasion during the whole of the period that I have been Chairman has the question of Cooperative supplies in general or Co-operative cigarettes in particular been raised, either by myself or by any other Member of the Committee. Therefore, the charge is fundamentally and basically untrue. Apart from that, I have never raised with anyone the question of cigarettes supplies in this House, except on one occasion when an hon. Member put a Question on the Order Paper asking me specifically if it was possible to get some of the more popular brands in the House. I raised that matter with the Manager, and asked him if he would make inquiries. I think everybody knew what were the popular brands referred to. In view of the fact that I have the honour to represent part of a city which is the headquarters of one of the biggest tobacco firms in the country, I suppose any malevolent person could accuse me of using my influence to further my own interests by trying to get popular cigarettes from Bristol for the House. However, I merely did that in the course of my duty, following that Question. Apart from that, this question of Co-operative cigarettes has never been raised. Why the allegation is made, I frankly do not understand. Hon. Members should remember that this House has provided unique facilities for the Press who are allowed to attend here. The House has graciously consented to provide the Press with a dining-room of their own, with a bar and a tea room—
I do not want to introduce any feeling in this Chamber. I merely state exactly the position.
We provided those facilities. I was about to indicate, as dispassionately as I could, that the Press Gallery has a committee of its own dealing with its own amenities, and that they can make the appropriate representations to the authorities of the House if they feel any grievance. In addition to that, they have a sub-committee which deals with the catering amenities, and it is a well-established practice that if they have any grievance whatsoever they are entitled to make direct representations to the Kitchen Committee in order that such grievance may be considered, together with any suggestions they may care to offer.
I must just say this in self-defence. Mr. Barkley, as an experienced member of the Press Gallery, is well aware of those facilities, because on one occasion I was invited officially to meet representatives of the Press, and I indicated very clearly to them that, if they wished at any time to make representations to us, if they would put them in writing I would undertake that the Kitchen Committee would consider them.
I submit to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that it is absolutely impossible to be more impartial or more fair than we have been in this particular matter. Therefore, having regard to these facts, members of my Committee apart from myself, can come to no other conclusion but that it is a deliberate attempt on the part of a person, who should know better, to try to discredit me in the eyes of hon. Members of the House and in the eyes of the whole community.
I should like to support the Motion and the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee in his remarks. It is most unfortunate that a letter of this description should have been placed in the paper concerned, as it was. It was, indeed, a very heavy brick to hurl at the Chairman of the Committee, although he did get a half brick or even a whole brick back at him in the letter he put in the paper in reply. I must confirm that, to be perfectly fair, throughout all the time I served on the Kitchen Committee I have never heard the Chairman make any reference at all to any supplies from the Co-operative Society.
I myself, on this particular day, counter-signed the cheques made out for payment on cigarettes for that particular period, and I must say the amount for Co-operative cigarettes was very small indeed compared with other cigarettes over that period. It is grossly unfair that imputations should be made and not thoroughly cleared up, and I sincerely hope the House will agree that this matter should go to the Committee of Privileges, even if they have had another job given to them previously.
I suggest to the House that they are making heavy weather of this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I hope hon. Members will allow me to proceed. I maintain that the reputation of the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee is good enough to put up with these pinpricks. No one in this House who knows him would accept for a second—[Interruption].
No one would dream for a second that he was ever actuated by any motive but the most honourable. I am perfectly certain it needs no Committee of Privileges to keep his reputation as unstained as it is. If he believes that his personal honour is impaired, I withdraw my opposition, but I hope he will not. I believe that Privilege is a very powerful weapon, and that it should only be used in cases of some magnitude. By continually invoking Privilege in minor cases—and I am not trying to beg the question by saying that this is a minor case—we shall reduce the dignity of the House and the power of the weapon when we really want to use it on a big matter. It has been the practice to raise a question of Privilege, have it declared to be a prima facie case, to bring it to the notice of the House and the public, and not to proceed to the further stage of having it remitted to the Committee of Privileges. I suggest that if the hon. Gentleman takes note of the unanimous verdict of all his colleagues on the Committee he will have fulfilled his object by calling attention to this matter.
I should have thought that the speech of the hon. Gentleman, in view of the line he took, would have wound up with a declaration that he thought that this letter of which the Committee complained, should receive the censure of the House.
There can be no doubt that this was a very gross personal attack on the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee. No one can read this letter without seeing in it the insinuation that because he is a Co-operator, that he has been called by his colleagues on the Kitchen Committee to the chair of that Committee, that he has used his position there to ensure for three weeks a monopoly of the cigarettes provided by the institution of which he is a member. I suggest the House cannot overlook such an accusation against a Member whom the hon. Gentleman opposite himself says is not held guilty by this House of any such practice as is alleged.
I tried to go as far as language would take me in expressing my esteem of the hon. Gentleman. I did not say I did not hold him guilty. I am prepared to support any proposal for condemnation of this letter, or even punishment, but I do not think that the matter should go to the Committee of Privileges.
The hon. Gentleman is being helpful to me in the course I am going to suggest to the House. There is no doubt in the mind of the hon. Gentleman that this is a most gross and unwarrantable attack on a Member who, irrespective of party, we all hold in esteem. In such circumstances, it has been the practice of the House not to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges, but to express its opinion that the letter—[Interruption]. I wish my hon. Friends would allow me just to complete a sentence. It has been the practice for the House to say straight away that the statement is a gross libel on the Member concerned. If you would accept it, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I would move the following manuscript Amendment: to leave out all words after the first "the" and to insert:
this House declares the letter of Mr. William Barkley a gross libel on the hon. Member for Bristol. North-East.
I do not think that the proposed Amendment will do, and I propose that it be submitted in this form: to leave out from "said" to the end of the Question and add:
letter in the Daily Express by Mr. William Barkley constitutes a gross libel on the Chairman of the Select Committee and a contempt of this House.
Amendment proposed, to leave out from "said," to the end of the Question, and add "letter in the Daily Express by Mr. William Barkley constitutes a gross libel on the Chairman of the Select Committee and a contempt of this House" instead thereof.—[Mr. Ede.]
Until the right hon. Gentleman had completed his speech I was not aware of what he was going to propose, but there is ample precedent for wishing to take immediate action in a matter of this kind. I think the best course to take is to adopt the Amendment put before the House by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House, which makes it clear that in the opinion of every hon. Member the letter was a gross libel on the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Coldrick). I think that on reflection he will be satisfied with what I am sure will be the unanimous verdict of the House.
As it has been proposed by the right hon. Gentleman in such strong terms, I hope for my part it will be accepted and that this matter will not have to go to the Committee of Privileges which would, presumably, not come to any very different conclusion. It would be considering the dignity of the House to come to this decision. We do not know what the Committee of Privileges would decide, but it may well come to this conclusion; I do not see how it could come to anything very different, after the speech the right hon. Gentleman has made.
I would add one slight consideration. The House has already remitted a matter of considerable complication to the Committee of Privileges, which, obviously, will have a good deal of work to do on that. The Session is coming to an end and should this matter be referred to it, I doubt if the Committee would have time to deal with it before we rise. In view of the imputation made on the hon. Gentleman, it would be better if the matter could be cleared up here and now in the terms of the Amendment. I think I speak for my hon. Friends when I say we would support the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary.
I understand that we are now face to face with two alternatives. One is to accept the Motion that the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges and the other is to accept the manuscript Amendment submitted by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House records that what was written in the letter in the "Daily Express" represents a gross libel on my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee.
I should like to make one or two observations I think I am entitled to make. The hon. Lady the Member for Wythenshawe (Mrs. Hill) has been associated with the catering trade for many years, rather more lucratively than my hon. Friend, and in Manchester she is one of the foremost municipal figures. I think she has done the proper thing, the straightforward thing. We shall debate this for a considerably less time than was given to a previous matter, which I regard as being of less importance.
The House should be informed of the circumstances in November, 1945, when, for the first time in its history, Co-operative cigarettes were sold in the House. As hon. Members opposite should bear in mind, there was a General Election in 1945, and a Labour Government was returned. Some of us who came into the House at that time were accustomed to smoking Co-operative cigarettes.
Do I understand that the House is suddenly asked to debate an Amendment moved by the Home Secretary? Surely, with great respect, it is open to my hon. Friend to give the House some background of the circumstances on which we are asked to pass an Amendment very different from the Motion on the Order Paper.
I am still in doubt and will be grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. We have before us a manuscript Amendment. After all, my right hon. Friend, in a previous debate, made an apology for a private conversation he had had. We have had no notice of the manuscript Amendment. I submit that I am entitled to discuss the relative merits of the Motion on the Order Paper and the manuscript Amendment.
Surely it is not a rule in this House that any Amendment submitted in the way this has been submitted shall kill, so far as discussion is concerned, the original proposition. May I point out that on an Amendment to any Clause of any Bill in this House both the Clause and the Amendment can be discussed. The same should take place in this case.
The question is, "That the words proposed to be left stand part of the Question." I was misleading the House in what I said a moment ago. I beg the pardon of the House.
I was trying to confine my remarks to give background to this debate. The Co-operative movement, to which I have the honour to belong, decided to make certain small supplies available to Members of the House. This fact was well known not only to Members but what is more important, to members of the Press Gallery. What I am distressed about, in relation to the letter in the "Daily Express" is the fact that Mr. Barkley, a journalist of wide experience and great reputation among those of us who are journalists, a man who those of us who are journalists admire and respect [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense"]—put into the "Daily Express" what he knew to be untrue at the time [HON. MEMBERS: "How does the hon. Member admire and respect him then?"] If I may say so I do not admire the pluck of contributors to the "New Statesman and Nation," who do not even sign their names to their articles.
Mr. Barkley not only wrote a letter for the "Daily Express" that he knew must have been untrue, but the procedure adopted was one which, from a journalist's point of view, was dubious in the extreme. It is only on very rare occasions—and I can only think of four over a long number of years—that a journalist occupying a position of great prominence on a newspaper, instead of publishing what would have been a first-class news story had it been true, writes it in the form of a letter which appears in the correspondence columns.
That leads me to the conclusion that not only did Mr. Barkley know what he was writing was untrue but, in the general newspaper practice, in order to protect the newspaper it was published as a letter from him in the same way as any letter from one of us. In my view this letter not only constitutes a serious attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Coldrick), who is Chairman of the Kitchen Committee, it is even worse than that. It shows the journalist referred to in one of his worst lights in that he took certain precautions to protect himself against what he knew to be untrue.
Therefore, it seems to me that the manuscript Amendment will not do. All it proposes is to record to the House that the letter was libellous. After that nothing at all happens. I suggest that the proper course is that the whole matter should he referred to the Committee of Privileges, exactly like we did in the other case tonight. It is a proper matter to be so referred and it is my sincere hope that the manuscript Amendment will not be accepted and that the Committee of Privileges will consider and report upon this matter.
One objection against the manuscript Amendment is that it condemns a man unheard. It seems a shocking principle of justice that the House should make a decision about the letter and what it constitutes without letting Mr. Barkley be heard. I take the letter as a joke. I did not laugh at it as a joke. [An HON. MEMBER: "The hon. and learned Member is a lawyer, That is why he took it as a joke."] But it may well be that Mr. Barkley meant it as a joke. I think it is shocking to see rows of hon. Members opposite taking the views they do about this matter. I do not say that it was a joke. I say that is one of the possibilities and I think the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. Nally) would agree that is one of the possibilities—he is very fair-minded. But the Home Secretary is quite prepared to condemn a man unheard.
I admit it may have been a joke If so, it was a joke in appalling bad taste, with very serious consequences. I should like to know at what time, in what condition and in exactly what frame of mind Mr. Barkley wrote that letter.
The Home Secretary is quite prepared to condemn him unheard and to let it go out to the country that the House of Commons is certainly losing its sense of relevant importance, that it is always raising points of Privilege. In this case where it is proposed that instead of condemnation going out the man should be heard the Home Secretary says, "Oh No! Let us agree now to say it is a gross libel and leave it at that."
That makes it very much worse. Will the Home Secretary say what he proposes to do? I really think that in fairness to the House he ought to say what he means by that. Will the Home Secretary get up and say what he means?
If the House carries the Amendment for which, as the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) said, there are plenty of precedents—of course, I know that the hon. and learned Member always regards a precedent against himself as a bad precedent—it will be for the House to consider what action should be taken. I would propose that a Motion should be put on the Order Paper so that the House should have an opportunity of deciding what would be the appropriate action to take. But after the speech made by the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson)—I do not know whether the hon. and learned Member was in the House when the hon. Member spoke—I can think of no reason for the House not passing, in accordance with precedent, the Amendment, dealing with a most outrageous attack upon the probity of a respected Member.
That is an extraordinary proposal by the Home Secretary. He now proposes to condemn a man unheard, and then to decide what sentence he shall inflict. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The ranks of the Labour Party shout "Hear, hear" because that suits their attitude to justice very well. But surely the Home Secretary is the Minister who should be the first to support the principle of justice that no man shall be condemned unheard.
There were precedents in the past, when justice was not so far advanced as it is nowadays, of the House condemning people unheard. There were cases, as has been said in the course of this debate, of people being put in prison—a couple of judges, the printers, Stock-dale and Hansard. Though he still has not informed the House, I suppose that the Home Secretary has in mind what step he intends to take against Mr. Barkley. Will the Home Secretary tell us what he has in mind? [Interruption.] When the hon. Member for Bilston spoke he was given a silent and courteous reception on this side of the House. But hon. Members opposite have for the last two hours tried to stop every one hon. Member on these benches from speaking. It was not until the Home Secretary intervened and appealed to his stooges to keep order that a fair hearing was obtained by the hon. and learned Member for Norwich, South (Mr. H. Strauss).
This is an important matter, and it is a matter which will look very odd tomorrow when it is seen that the Home Secretary proposes to condemn this man unheard, and then to put down a Motion in the House and yet not say what he has in mind to put into that Motion. After all, he is Leader of the House, and he must have in mind something. He is not going to toss up if the House accepts his manuscript Amendment, which I hope it will not do. There cannot be a Motion without any content. The Home Secretary does not see fit even to acquaint Mr. William Barkley as to the course he proposes to take against him.
I suggest that if the House of Commons accepts the Amendment it is preparing to take a very dangerous step. It is no good appealing to the precedents of the past. It must be wrong to condemn a man unheard. [An HON. MEMBER: "Write a letter to the 'Daily Express'."] Well, that raises another point, of whether the House is not attaching too much importance to the whole matter. The Chairman of the Kitchen Committee did write to the "Daily Express," and it is obvious to me, from the debate so far—
I cannot agree with the hon. Member, because if he regarded this as a serious reflection on him, intended seriously—[Interruption.] It is all very well for all this noise to go on; hon. Members opposite are not listening to what I am trying to say. But then this business is brought on at this late hour, and hon. Members keep on interrupting because they do not like discussing subjects late at night. That is not my fault; the Government so badly arranges its business that these things are brought on in the middle of the night, and matters are seen in a very curious light.
What I was saying was that if the hon. Member regarded this as a serious reflection on himself—and by that I mean seriously intended—then it was a matter of Privilege which he should have raised at once. What he thought at first I do not know; but he apparently took no more notice of it than to write to the "Daily Express" and point out that the statement was not true. If he took it seriously, as meant seriously, then he could have raised it at once. But that did not happen; the matter was sifted through the Kitchen Committee, and eventually the House is considering it at this hour of the morning. I say that the Home Secretary's manuscript amendment is unjust, and will have very serious consequences if accepted.
It is very late, and I do not propose, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to say much. First. I am not a journalist, nor am I a Minister; I am not, on this occasion at any rate, splitting hairs, nor engaged in being a party politician. I am speaking as an ordinary back-bencher, and as such, it seems to me that this statement is a gross libel on a respected hon. Member of this House. I fail to see the justice or good sense in the suggestion that the man who made the statement is being convicted without hearing or trial. The statement speaks for itself.
Unless we are to disbelieve the hon. Member immediately concerned, as well as every other hon. member of the Kitchen Committee, then this statement is as we are asked to declare it—a gross libel. We are not concerned with what is to follow; we are not concerned with what might have been done if this matter had been brought up at this time, or that time, but with the bare point that, quite obviously, an hon. Member whom we all respect and who is discharging his duties on a Committee of this House to the best of his ability, has been grossly libelled in a daily newspaper.
We are not merely concerned with the opinion of this House, because we all know the hon. Member concerned and we would not believe it for a minute. What we are concerned with is to vindicate our own dignity as a House and the honour and good faith of an hon. Member who has been grossly libelled in this way. This seems to me to be an absolutely simple matter and I regard it as wholly ridiculous and undignified to make the kind of speech the hon. and learned Member for Northwich (Mr. Foster) has just made. I have known him long enough for him to allow me to say that.
I rise to support the Amendment proposed by the Home Secretary and, in particular, to support what was said earlier by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank). We have decided to submit to the Committee of Privileges what seems to be an extremely important matter and I should have thought that one ought not to submit another matter to the same Committee at this stage of the Session, if another equally good course can be found. In my view, the course which the Leader of the House has recommended is a perfectly reasonable one.
I was amazed to hear the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. Nally) say that, in his opinion, this matter was more important than the complaint of the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. J. Lewis), which we decided to submit to the Commitee of Privileges. Without wanting to go over that matter again, I should have thought a question arising out of an action which is both regarded by the police as a crime and claimed by an hon. Member as a Privilege, is considerably more important than a dispute as to whether or not non-Co-operative cigarettes can be obtained in this House. But in any case, I cannot see why there is any need for objecting to the Home Secretary's proposed Amendment.
I find myself, for the first time since I have been in this House, in the fullest agreement with what the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) said. He was fair in saying that there is no reason why we should not declare this letter to be a gross libel. I cannot see what defence Mr. Barkley can have. It is the kind of letter written in a foolish moment. It is a gross libel and I hope the House will accept the Amendment proposed by the Home Secretary.
I shall not delay the House more than a few moments except to support the Leader of the House. This is the right course to take, though I should like to feel sure that we shall not simply pass this Motion, but that some action will follow later. I cannot help feeling that this particular event has a considerable importance. After all, the importance is that the libel having been published and a reply having been given, there was no withdrawal of any sort. On the contrary, there was an actual repetition of the libel all over again.
It certainly does no good to journalists to have that sort of thing done in a newspaper with 4 million circulation. It is no good hon. Members opposite saying, "After all, we all know the hon. Member so well here that no damage is done." Millions of people outside the House will assume, if no action is taken, that there is something in it. Some of this will always stick, whatever action we take. Here is a completely outrageous libel, not only on an individual, because that is not the object of the libel, but on a movement.
I think it is fair to say that this is all the more serious because it is published as a systematic campaign of vilification and deliberate discrediting of the Co-operative movement which has been carried on by the "Daily Express" year after year. All that we have had confirmed in this instance is that when they cannot get anything true with which to tarnish the Co-operative movement they invent plain lies in order to do it. Surely the House must take cognisance of that fact.
The hon. and learned Member for Northwich (Mr. Foster) said we were condemning unheard. The Kitchen Committee, which is not composed only of Co-operators, and not only of Members on this side of the House, has unanimously decided to make this recommendation.
Or justifying it. That opportunity was not taken. The Committee inquired into the truth or falsehood of the allegations, and there was no need to get Mr. William Barkley before it to discover the facts unanimously reported here, that there was not one vestige of truth either in the first allegation or in the reply to the letter which denied it. I cannot see what the Kitchen Committee would have gained by inviting Mr. Barkley there, since the Chairman had already given him the opportunity of making the abject apology he should have made when the denial was given.
I would only say to the Home Secretary that I hope that something very drastic will be suggested to the House; but I do hope something even more, and that is that people outside the House will anticipate the action of the House by defending their profession by doing the necessary thing which should be done before the House orders them to do it.
I had no intention of intervening because I am one of those Members of the House who know very little about the things we are discussing—questions of Privilege, and so on. I must confess that when the Home Secretary's proposal was made, supported by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) I was perfectly content with it. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Northwich (Mr. Foster) has raised in my mind considerable doubts. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am merely asking for guidance and information on this matter.
We are told there are precedents for passing an Amendment like the one before us. It is, I am sure everyone will agree, a fairly stiffly worded Amendment. It condemns a man for having perpetrated a gross libel. I am not saying whether that is right or whether it is wrong, and I have no doubt that the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee is entirely innocent of everything alleged against him. But is this House really to accept this position, that we not only condemn this man unheard, but, having done that, go on to sentence him without giving him any chance of making any plea in mitigation?
It does not seem to me quite true to say that there is no need to hear him because he is obviously guilty. That is surely not the principle which applies in any other form of trial in this country today. A man may be clearly guilty, but he has the right to plead "Not guilty" and to be heard and to make his case; and if he pleads "Guilty" he has the right to make a plea in mitigation. I only ask the House whether this is really what we are going to do tonight—to condemn this man and then to go on to pass sentence on him?
I do not propose to speak for very long, but I feel that I cannot possibly support the manuscript Amendment. I must support the Kitchen Committee, because my view is that unless we support the Motion on the Order Paper in the names of the six members of the Committee they stand condemned by the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am expressing my personal opinion. The House appointed these six hon. Members because they were thought to be fit and proper persons to serve on this Committee. I got the impression from reading this letter that people who read it would think that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Coldrick), was not a fit and proper person to be the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee.
It is no use saying, as was said by the hon. Member for Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) that, because some other question —to my mind a much less important one —has been referred to the Committee of Privileges, to refer this matter to them as well and give that Committee two jobs to do would be to give them too much. I admit that there is not the same immediate urgency about this matter as there was about the previous matter. I feel that a person should not get away with a gross libel, but if we knew what were the intentions of the Home Secretary with regard to the Motion he intends to put upon the Order Paper I should not be in the dilemma I am in at the moment. It is not enough merely to say that what has been said about an hon. Member of this House is a gross libel—
The manuscript Amendment moved by the Home Secretary is simply an expression of opinion through this House that what appeared in the newspaper was a gross libel upon the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee. What does that mean? What does it convey? What will follow that? That is what I want to know. I should prefer the person concerned to be examined by the Committee of Privileges.
I have been in this House since 1945, and it has been strange to me to notice, when matters are referred to the Committee of Privileges, that the only time we had a division or a fight in the House is when a Conservative is reported to that Committee. That was certainly so on the last occasion, in connection with the bishop. Hon. Members will remember the fight that took place on that occasion. I do not think we are treating the Chairman or the Members of the Kitchen Committee, or the Members of this House, fairly if we accept the manuscript Amendment without any further information from the Home Secretary.
I do not smoke cigarettes, and, therefore, am not so expert about this as other hon. Members. But what is the libel about which we are talking? The letter in question names the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee; it says he belongs to the Co-op. and what constituency he represents; it then goes on to say that
prices have gone up—that is true—and adds:
for three weeks there have been no cigarettes on offer in this palace except Co-op. brands".
To say "in this palace" was inaccurate, but in the part of this Palace in which Mr. Barkley could buy cigarettes I believe it was true, for this very simple reason. Very few hon. Members of the party opposite buy Co-op. cigarettes—[HON. MEMBERS:
"Nonsense."] I have taken some trouble to find out about this today. There is a certain ration of cigarettes of all kinds. Many Members of the party opposite get in rather early when they come from the provinces and buy up most of the ordinary proprietary brands, and what are left over are the Co-op. cigarettes, which become virtually an un-saleable commodity.
Let us be honest about this. I did not know there was such a thing as a Co-op. cigarette until I read this document. I have not yet met anybody who smoked them with any satisfaction. Do not let us be humbugged about this. For some reason the Kitchen Committee buys more Co-operative cigarettes than anyone wants to smoke, and for that reason Mr. Barkley —I have known him for 20 years—[An HON. MEMBER: "Of course."] It so happens that Mr. Barkley was educated in my constituency, and is very highly thought of there. He has not communicated with me and I have not seen him to speak to for over a month.
I have discussed this with a number of his colleagues, who have access to only one place where they can buy cigarettes —[An HON. MEMBER: "That is not true."]—and that is in their own bar. For a substantial period in that bar they could not buy any cigarettes except those they did not want to buy. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] I may be talking nonsense, but I am expressing what a very considerable number of members of the Press Gallery have said to me.
In other words, the only cigarettes available to Mr. Barkley in this Palace for a substantial period were those manufactured by the Co-operative Society, which the bulk of hon. Members opposite will not buy. Since this matter was raised there has been a very marked influx in the smoking rooms to which Members opposite have access, of the other kind of cigarette. Hon. Members, if I may say so with due respect, are making rather fools of themselves on this charge.
If I heard the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) aright he has just asserted that the Committee has made a completely untrue statement. He has asserted that the Press Gallery had only Co-operative cigarettes, although it is clearly stated in this Report that the Press were given 13,390 cigarettes, of which only 3,600 were Co-operative. Therefore, he has clearly announced that in his view the unanimous report of the Committee is a plain lie.
The right hon. Gentleman does not understand the difference between a point of order and a point of information.
During this period so many cigarettes were issued, but the point is that the bulk of cigarettes people wanted to buy were bought up in the earlier part of the period, and at the end of the period only those cigarettes no one wants to smoke were left. I had the information that the bulk of the cigarettes made by private enterprise are brought up in the earlier part of the rationing period by hon. Members of the party opposite, with the result that there are very few left. [AN HON. MEMBER: How does the hon. Member know? He is not in the Press Gallery."] No, but I have made some inquiries. Hon. Members opposite must take their medicine. I think that the whole thing is a lot of nonsense. I hope that the Home Secretary will withdraw his Amendment, and that the Motion will also be withdrawn. This is the most foolish nonsense I have ever heard in the House.
I think that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) has introduced a peculiar strain into the debate because every previous speaker, I think, has agreed that the statement complained of constitutes a gross libel on the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Coldrick). I think, first of all, that it would be very wise for the House to accept the proposal of the Home Secretary, and not pursue the matter further. It would be wise for the reasons originally stated by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson). It would settle the matter, and make clear to the country the views of the whole of the House about the statement made by Mr. William Barkley, and the way in which he conducted himself following it.
But I am disturbed by the further suggestion of the Home Secretary that following the passage of this Motion some further action is to be taken. I do not think it is a good thing that the decision as to who is to sit in the Press Gallery should be made by the House of Commons. I think it should be made by the newspapers concerned. It would be a very dangerous principle if we were to have a series of Motions put forward, deciding which particular kind of cases perpetrated by journalists are going to decide which journalists should sit there.
I think this is a gross libel written in the "Daily Express," but it is not the first I have seen written in the "Daily Express," nor the first I have seen in several other newspapers. I could give a list of several journalists who could have been expelled if the House of Commons had thought fit at the time. Many were more famous than Mr. Barkley. Mr. William Hazlitt would have been expelled, and a whole lot of other journalists who have written libels, regarded as such at that time, would have expelled if the House had passed Motions deciding who should sit in the Press Gallery.
I was strongly opposed to his expulsion. I did not think that the House of Commons had any such right.
Just as I was opposed to the House of Commons taking that action so I am opposed to the House of Commons deciding who should sit in the Press Gallery. It is a pity that the Home Secretary should have suggested that there is to be some further action without specifically saying what that action is to be. Surely if we are to judge in this matter we ought to judge all at one time, and not take action, first of all, which prejudices some further action which we may take at another time. I hope the matter will be decided by accepting the Home Secretary's Amendment, because I think it would most conform with the dignity of the House if we thereafter let the whole matter drop.
With the leave of the House, I would like to say that, quite frankly, I moved the Amendment because I thought after the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) there could be no doubt as to what the mind of the House was, and I was anxious to save the time of the House. But I am quite certain that if the Committee of Privileges is to discharge the duty already committed to it by the House today it would not be possible to deal with this matter as well.
May I deal with the point raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Northwich (Mr. Foster). Erskine May is quite emphatic on this point. On page 140 it states:
It has been objected that to adjudge that the offence has been committed before hearing the accused party is a very serious deviation from the common course of criminal justice. As, however, the question whether the writing is defamatory can, in most cases, be determined from the terms of the document without recourse to extrinsic evidence, and as the falsity of the libel is not an essential element of the offence, if the defamatory character of the writing is apparent on its face, no explanation which might be offered could alter the decision of the House on that point, though it might materially influence the House in deciding what punishment, if any, to inflict upon the parties responsible for the publication. Moreover, it is only in cases where the words which form the subject of the complaint are too grossly libellous to admit of any satisfactory explanation that this course is followed.
I suggest that on the arguments we have heard here this evening, including the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Hardy), that position has been established.
Whether right or wrong, I maintain that the gross part is capable of explanation. Let us suppose that on the first two days of the three weeks the whole 13,000 cigarettes were bought and for the rest of the 21 days Mr. William Barkley, not knowing that the 13,000 had been bought, had only had Co-operative cigarettes offered to him. That is capable of argument. Suppose Mr. William Barkley knew that before he wrote that letter, we would look fools. The Home Secretary must realise that although prima facie it looks like a gross libel, it may not be.
I asked for leave of the House and no objection was taken. I do not think anything the hon. and learned Gentleman has so far said detracts from the weight of the paragraph I read from Erskine May on this matter. I agree with the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot). I would be the last person to attempt to exclude anyone from the Gallery of the House. I understand that the precedent in these matters is that the person with regard to whom such a Motion is carried is asked to attend the House, when Mr. Speaker informs him of the Motion that has been carried. That would give him an opportunity of expressing his wish to apologise to the House and to the hon. Member who had been libelled and, in this case, it may also enable him to say, as suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Northwich (Mr. Foster) that it was all a joke.
I do not know whether the hon. Member would accept that explanation. I suggest to the House that, in spite of what the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) said, the obvious intention of this letter was to suggest that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Coldrick) had used his position as Chairman of the Kitchen Committee to further the trade of an institution with which he was connected, and this intention was not disowned in the subsequent note appended to my hon. Friend's reply. If it did not mean that, it did not mean anything at all and was quite pointless.
I hope that the House will now feel that it can come to a decision in this matter. I still think that, in the words of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank), we should best be consulting our dignity by declaring that this is a gross libel on a well-respected hon. Member of the House and a contempt of the House. If that Motion is carried, I should move, if you will accept it Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that Mr. William Barkley be ordered to attend on this House this day, so that the censure of the House can then and there be conveyed to him.
I have not been present on a similar occasion, but here is a Motion of which we have had no prior notice. It may be that the Motion we have just carried was right. Now we are being asked, without any notice, to pass a further Motion, not on the Order Paper, without any proper consideration to give what appears to be a censure. Surely we must have some sense of justice. [HON. MEMBERS: Oh!] Hon. Gentlemen who interrupt me do not believe in democratic institutions, but only in the complete system of dictatorship—[HON. MEMBERS: "The 'Daily Express'."]—and would have us pass another Motion, without any consideration or without any notice having been given, summoning someone to the Bar tomorrow. In my judgment, if this was the course the Government intended to pursue, there ought to have been proper notice on the Paper, and it seems to me utterly wrong that this should have been done towards this gentleman. I think it is a little monstrous, and I appeal to the Home Secretary not to press his second Motion of which no notice has been given.
I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) in the arguments he has addressed to the House and in the appeal he has made to the Foreign Secretary. [Laughter.] Well I think the Home Secretary has been associated perhaps with some matters which are foreign to English principles of justice in this debate.
I wish to record my protest also against the House being asked to decide matters of this kind at three o'clock in the morning when they have not appeared on the Order Paper. It means that many hon. Members who might wish to be here and have strong views on matters of this kind have not had the opportunity of being here. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because they had no idea that anything of this kind was to be moved or a decision of this nature taken. In a serious matter like this, a Motion should appear on the Order Paper of the House of Commons in order that people may have time to think it over and those who wish to be present make it convenient for themselves to be present. I protest against matters of this kind being decided at this time in this way.
I do not wish to detain the House for very long at this hour. Protests have been made against the Motion now before us and I must say I had no knowledge whatever of it. It seems to me extraordinary that the House should be asked to decide without any previous notice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) has said, it is unfair that without due notice this gentleman should be brought to the Bar of the House to give an account to the House of why he published that letter. This House would be taking a retrograde step in dealing with a subject of this kind in the manner it is proposed it should do.
The last three speeches demand a word in reply. The hon. Members who delivered them did not challenge the decision of the House. An Amendment has been carried that. a gross libel has been committed. Surely it is not going to be left at that. If nothing else is done, the "Daily Express" need not even report that decision. Apparently the gentleman concerned can go scot-free after the House, by a decisive vote, has decided that he has been guilty of a libel. It does not make sense. Therefore, for the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams), the hon. Member for Bucks, South (Mr. Bell) and the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) to protest against any action being taken is a reflection upon the decision of the House.
As I understand it, the House is now being asked to perform the judicial duty of pronouncing sentence. The previous decision of the House—and it would be out of order to say anything about it—was, as it were, a finding of "Guilty." I really wonder whether the House is in the mood at this moment for the performance of the very delicate duty of deciding upon sentence.
The point I should like to put to the House is whether, after a debate which has been somewhat animated at times and in which strong feeling has been shown, we are really now in the mood to perform that judicial duty of deciding sentence. [An HON. MEMBER: "You ought to be."] That intervention strengthens the submission I was making to the House. Nothing would be lost by postponing dis- cussion of this Motion of which, as has been said, no notice has been given on the Order Paper.
Nothing would be lost by letting it appear on the Order Paper for the later Sitting today and discussing it and, if necessary, deciding upon it then. Having listened to this Debate, I am bound to put on record that I do not believe that this House would be performing its high judicial functions in the right way, or in the right mood, if it were to come to a decision on sentence at 2.55 a.m., after a debate of this character.
I do not think that this is altogether a small matter that we are discussing. We are discussing the relations of the House of Commons with the Press. On many previous occasions when journalists have been summoned to the Bar of the House of Commons, it has been a big matter. I do not think that this is a matter to be decided at such brief notice. As for my hon. Friend on this side of the House who said that it was inconsistent for anyone to protest against this Motion if he had not protested against the previous Amendment, I would only say that when I spoke on the previous Amendment I said that that Amendment should be passed and that no further action ought to be taken.
On the Order Paper of this House this morning I saw a Motion suggesting that this matter should be referred to the Committee of Privileges. It may be that many hon. Members have gone home to-night. I do not think that those hon. Members who are present should condemn them, because those who have gone home have taken the view, naturally, I think, that this matter would automatically be referred to the Committee of Privileges, and would therefore come back to the House, when they would have an opportunity of discussing it. [Interruption.] Other hon. Members happen to have sat here tonight—[An HON. MEMBER: "Happen to have sat here?"] Yes. I happen to have sat here tonight.
Certainly no hon. Member of this House of Commons this morning could have known that at three o'clock a Motion was to be passed summoning a journalist to the Bar of the House of Commons, which I say, far from being a small thing, is an important matter. I say, too, that we ought not to use so awe-inspiring a summons as that to deal with such a miserable incident as this— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes, a miserable incident. If hon. Members think that it is of no importance to maintain not only the rights of this House but also of the Press Gallery, they are making a great mistake.
If hon. Members will go away and read their history, they will learn that there have been cases in the history of this House when the liberty of this country was protected by the Press against the House of Commons. Those are the facts. Therefore, I say that it is a miserable incident, because I think there was a miserable libel perpetrated by the journalist concerned, and I do not believe that summoning that journalist to the Bar of the House of Commons is the right way to deal with it. I said that on the previous Amendment, and I have the right to go on saying it, whatever hon. Members on this side of the House may say. I voted in favour of the Amendment because I thought there had been a gross libel, but because I thought that, it does not mean that I think it right that at three o'clock in the morning the House should make up its mind whether it is going to invoke the whole machinery of summoning someone to the Bar upon an important matter.
Some hon. Members on this side of the House who interrupted me seemed to suggest that whenever this kind of libel is committed—and I believe it has been committed by the Press more frequently than some hon. Members imagine—we are going to summon people to the Bar of the House of Commons. I think that would make a farce of the whole procedure. Even if I am wrong on that—though I do not believe that I am—I do not think that it is right for the House of Commons on a manuscript Motion—and following the previous manuscript Amendment—to decide at three o'clock in the morning that it is going to use the machinery of summoning a person to the Bar. For that reason, if this Motion is put, I shall certainly do my best to divide the House against it.
We have now considered this matter for a very long time, and the House has already come to certain decisions. For my part, I have tried to find out whether certain action had to follow the proposal of the Home Secretary or not. Sometimes, as with the Closure Motion, the House has no option; but so far as I can see from looking at the records, and from such conversations as I have had, it is not obligatory that we make a decision. Therefore, there is certain time, and the House is not bound here and now.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept the suggestion that we stop discussing this matter any further, and come back to it, if the House thinks fit, on another day. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] For the reason that has been stated by my hon. Friends. The Business of the House was to consider whether to refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges. The House decided not to do that, but accepted another solution. But hon. Members—and especially those who were not here earlier—may be surprised tomorrow to find that we have taken the matter further without calm reflection; and some of the interchanges of the last two hours have not been of the most calm and sedative nature. Therefore, I suggest that we adjourn the debate—
I was going to say that there seem to be two courses open to the House. Either we can withdraw the Motion altogether and start a debate on a similar Motion tomorrow, or we can adjourn the debate, which would mean that this Motion would appear on the Order Paper. From the last few speeches which I have heard, it would seem that the Government would not be definitely committed to the wording of this Motion, but I leave that, of course, to the wisdom of the right hon. Gentleman. I do suggest, however, that the House accept one of the courses I have proposed.
This is a Motion to which I have the right of reply for a second time without asking the leave of the House, but if I may be permitted, in view of the hour, to say a few sentences, I should like to point out that I am impressed by the desire of a good many hon. Members not to proceed further tonight after the unanimous decision of the House on the main issue. That, I think, was a very satisfactory ending to a debate which had some animated passages. Therefore, it would be as well if, at this stage, as the right hon. and gallant Member for Gains-borough (Captain Crookshank) points out, we did not proceed further tonight. It may be possible to put something, fully considered, before the House, and I shall ask the leave of the House to withdraw the Motion, so that anything we decide to do can be fully considered.
I share very largely the views expressed by the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot). I am the last person who would wish to do anything which would interfere with the liberty of the House, or with reasonable criticism of the House or of any hon. Member of the House by the Press, but the House has decided tonight, without a dissentient, that this particular matter went beyond the limit. I hope that it might be possible that the writer might consider the decision of the House so far, and that it might be possible in that way to arrive at a solution which would not infringe any of the principles which were urged by the hon. Member for Devon-port. I hope the House, therefore, will allow the Motion to be withdrawn. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.
On the question whether the Motion be withdrawn or not, might I, before the House reaches a decision, ask the Home Secretary if he would clarify one point? I understand there is a general desire to do two things. On the one hand, as far as I can gather the sense of the House, particularly on these benches, there is a very general desire that the Motion which the House has carried should not be left where it is, but should be followed up by one of the consequential measures which usually follow when a Motion is carried condemning a gross libel on an hon. Member of the House.
On the other hand, equally, I gather, there is a feeling that it would not be consonant with the dignity of the House and the judicial nature of the procedure of the House to take a decision without a Notice appearing on the Order Paper. Will the Home Secretary give an assurance that if the Motion now before us is withdrawn—
As I understand it—[Interruption.] I have spent some time this evening trying to enable the House to come to a decision upholding its privileges and asserting its dignity. I have had no other motive than that. If I may be allowed to say so, I resent some of the insinuations which are behind the objection to the course that I last proposed. I am not concerned with shielding Mr. Barkley or anyone else from the full effect of any offence they have committed against the House, but I hope we may be allowed to consider our own dignity in the matter.
I am willing to make a suggestion, as the House cannot now agree to the Motion being withdrawn because it has been once objected to. Therefore, I cannot ask permission to withdraw and the House cannot give me permission to do so; but if an hon. Member will move that the debate be adjourned, that will keep the matter on the Order Paper, and I shall then consider with the persons who are interested what will be the course likely to be most acceptable to the House to make the previous decision of the House effective. I would suggest that this course would enable the House to feel that its decision will be implemented in a way that will cause the least offence.