House of Lords Question (Member's Complaint)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd July 1952.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East 12:00 am, 22nd July 1952

I rise to ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on a matter of which I have given you previous notice. It is a matter which falls within the general question of Privilege. It has more properly to do with the good relations between this House and another place.

The matter with which I am concerned arose out of the decision of the South African Government to arrest a Mr. Sachs, the General Secretary of the Garment Workers' Union, as a result of which a letter of protest against this action was compiled and dispatched from this country signed by 108 Members of this House and eight Members of another place. As a result, I imagine, of that, a Question has appeared on the Order Paper of another place in the name of Lord Barnby which, with your permission, I will read. It says: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have noted the protests of certain Socialist Members of Parliament in this country against the arrest of Mr. Sachs, the Trades Union Leader in South Africa, by the direction of the Government of the Union of South Africa, and whether they do not consider these protests a serious attempt to intervene in matters concerning the internal policy of another Commonwealth country. I can well understand the attitude of lion. Members opposite. Yesterday a Motion in identical terms with the protest to which I have referred was put on the Order Paper by 73 hon. Members of this Ho use.

[That this House most strongly protests against the action of the South African Government in the proceedings which it has taken and is taking against Mr. E. S. Sachs, the General Secretary of the Garment Workers' Union, and other prominent trade union leaders; and regards this as a deliberate attempt to undermine trade unionism and political freedom in South Africa.]

The position now is that tomorrow, when another place comes to consider that Question, the action of Members of this House in signing the original protest and in putting a Motion on the Order Paper in this House will be brought into question and answer, and even, according to the provisions of procedure in another place, may be the subject of debate.

I venture to submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that if that were to occur it might well constitute an infringement of the rights of this House. I cite to you three points. The first is the Ninth Article of the Bill of Rights, which says: … the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be … questioned in any court or place out of Parliament. To that Erskine May adds the footnote on page 50: This provision not only protects freedom of speech in Parliament from outside interference, but also indicates the method by which it may be controlled … by each House for its own members. This unquestionably comes within the category of proceedings of Parliament, in that Erskine May on page 61 indicates that the meaning of proceedings is extended to any formal action of this House, including the giving of notices of Motion. I would also submit to you. Mr. Speaker, that in signing the original letter of protest it is opened to question—and I seek your guidance on this point—that the Members who signed that original protest were taking part in action so closely related to matters pending or expected to be brought before this House that they formed part of the business of this House.

I cite as the authority for that the Report of the Select Committee on the Official Secrets Acts which went into this question before the war. I should be grateful if you would indicate whether you would regard a debate in another place on this Motion tomorrow as being an infringement of the rights of Members or, at any rate, sufficient to constitute a discourteous act by one House against another.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The hon. Member was good enough to give me notice that he intended to raise this point, and I have given it careful consideration. The wording of the proposed Question to be asked tomorrow in another place does not refer to actions of this House, nor does it refer, nor can it refer, to the notice of Motion which the hon. Member placed on the Table last night, because the notice of the Question appeared in the Minutes of another place at an earlier date than that.

Therefore, the action that the hon. Member complains of does not in my view come into the category of words or acts which appear to implicate one House in discourtesy to another. It is in effect, as I read it, a criticism in another place of conduct which is outside Parliament altogether. Therefore, it is not a Parliamentary proceeding so as to bring it within the rules of Privilege. As the hon. Member has correctly quoted from Erskine May, it is for each House to control its own Members so as to maintain those good relations which exist between the two Houses. It seems to me that the matter which the hon. Member has raised is a matter for the other House—a matter for the other place—and I personally would deprecate any proceeding calculated to impair the good relations which exist between us.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East

Would you give it as your Ruling or your opinion, Mr. Speaker, that in principle it is appropriate for a Question or a debate in one House to take place based on the actions of Members of another House? Would you not agree that that constitutes a discourtesy to one House by Members of another?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I understood from the hon. Member himself that this manifesto or protest, or whatever it is called, was signed by Members of both Houses. Therefore, I cannot construe this Question placed on the Paper in another place as in any way an attack upon this House.