Clause 10. — (Extracts from Parliamentary Reports.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Defamation (Amendment) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th June 1952.

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Photo of Major Geoffrey Bing Major Geoffrey Bing , Hornchurch 12:00 am, 27th June 1952

I must apologise for not arriving earlier to deal with this Amendment. As far as I am concerned this Clause has had an unfortunate Parliamentary history. It was moved in my absence and now I understand that consent to its deletion has been given in my absence by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale). It would not be proper for any of us to seek the opinion of the Stationery Office permanent officials. What I did was to secure the opinion of my right hon. and learned Friend the former Attorney-General and my right hon. Friend the former Financial Secretary to the Treasury. I did not feel in the least inclined to accept the point of view of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West.

This is a most important matter. It means that every hon. Member's speech is, or can be, submitted to the Attorney-General for censorship if the Stationery Office so desire. That has, in fact, taken place. I hesitate to mention it in his absence, but I understand that one hon. Member opposite at one time was refused the reprint of a speech on an important public matter on the ground that it might contain reflections on hon. Members on this side of the House. Well and good. Let the hon. Members who are affected take their own remedy.

The object of this Clause is to prevent the submission of Members' speeches to the Attorney-General for the purpose of his expressing a view on them one way or the other. It really is absurd that the Attorney-General should defend that point of view. If he is prepared to say, "I will give instructions that the Treasury Solicitor will not be advised to examine any hon. Member's speech" then, in view of the indemnity form contained on the form which is filled in by hon. Members when they ask for their speeches to be reprinted, it would be right and proper for the House to agree to this Amendment. Otherwise, I should never agree to this Clause being removed.

The legal position is simple and obvious. Every Member is responsible and can be proceeded against for libel for his speeches in this House. It was once thought by an ingenious Member of the House of Lords that it was possible to make a speech in Parliament and to send it to the newspapers for the purpose of general dissemination and, in that way, to escape the dangers of a libel action. He had had some quarrel with his solicitor—probably justified I should think, in view of the speech just now by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West. He thought fit to make a speech about this gentleman's conduct in the House of Lords and to send it to the newspapers for publication.

The solicitor, like my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West, being not only inclined occasionally perhaps to overemphasise his own point of view and that of his hon. Friends, was also an extremely good solicitor. He immediately took libel proceedings and it was held that the speech was not privileged. The same situation arose in the case of Mr. Creevey, the diarist, who was in a worse position. His speech was misreported. He sent out a corrected version and was, therefore, proceeded against for libel on the corrected version though the uncorrected one might have been protected.

1.30 p.m.

As a result of that, the legal situation was that, until now, under the orders of this House, hon. Members could secure reprints of their speeches. If they did that, of course, they were—and they still will be, if the Bill is left as it is—liable for any libel which occurs in that speech. They will be personally liable. Of course, the copyright of that speech resides in the reporters who take it down—the OFFICIAL REPORT—and, therefore, in order to reproduce the speech textually in that way, the hon. Member has to secure the permission of the OFFICIAL REPORT. What the OFFICIAL REPORT says is that the speech will be reprinted by them if the hon. Member will fill in a form, and it can be reprinted quite cheaply, because the type is already set up.

This matter first came to my attention in the days of the late Administration, when I had occasion to make a speech on the rather technical matter of street planning in my constituency. I used various material provided for me by a local source of the highest repute, which was afterwards published in the minutes of the Hornchurch Urban Council, though it had not been published at the time that I used it.

Somebody, quite properly, looking at that speech said, "It might be libellous on somebody; supposing these things are not true?". He proceeded to submit the speech to the Treasury Solicitor. I said that I understood that everything in the speech was true, and that I would be very pleased to see the Treasury Solicitor, bearing all the authority in the matter, and prove that I was correct, but the answer I got was that it would be improper for me to see the Treasury Solicitor. I prepared it on the advice of someone not personally concerned at all.

This is the position at the moment. As I understand it, so difficult and so unfair did the former Attorney-General find the position that he consulted with Mr. Speaker, and it was suggested that this task of deciding whether hon. Members should or should not have their speeches reprinted should be left to Mr. Speaker, but Mr. Speaker and his Committee refused to undertake this task. That is the present position; let us be quite clear about it.

Now that we have the Financial Secretary to the Treasury here, perhaps he can tell us. He is the responsible officer for the Stationery Office. Does he or does he not want to be in the position of having to censor the speeches of hon. Members? It is a most invidious position and a stupid one, because if an hon. Member wishes to circulate his speech, all that he needs to do is to buy a number of copies of HANSARD and send them round. If he is poor, or if he wants to give it a wider circulation, if he gets his speech reprinted, he has not got the same freedom of circulating his speech in reprint form as in HANSARD.

The matter is even worse than that, because, in the particular case in which I desired to circulate my speech, I also had secured the permission of the Minister to circulate his answer, and that, in fact, comprised the whole debate, so that this was a fair, accurate and complete report of the whole debate. Yet I was prohibited from circulating the whole of that debate, not because there was anything libellous in it, but because the Treasury Solicitor could say that he was not prepared, in those circumstances, to consult or make any further inquiries whatever.

That is a most unsatisfactory position, and I cannot possibly see how the Attorney-General can come to the House and defend his right to censor an hon. Member's speech without even consulting the hon. Member concerned, but that is the present position. It is no good saying that the Stationery Office would like to have this power. This is political power which does not. exist always on the opposite side of the House.

Normally, a Minister is held to be responsible for his Department, and the Minister who should answer is the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. If an hon. Member does not get a speech reprinted, presumably, he ought to be entitled to ask the Financial Secretary to the Treasury why it was not reprinted, but the answer that he will get is that the Stationery Office were advised by the Treasury Solicitor that the matter was libellous, and, when they are asked whose opinion they took, the answer will be that they took the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown, and yet the only person whom the Law Officers of the Crown do not consult at that time is the hon. Member concerned.

In these circumstances, an hon. Member is in the position in which he really cannot have his speech reprinted at all. The Attorney-General tries to make a joke of this, but it is not a joke at all.