Complaint of Privilege

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th November 1960.

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Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster 12:00 am, 16th November 1960

Yesterday, the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) raised with me a complaint of breach of Privilege. I have carefully considered the complaint he made to me. He asked me to consider the position in two ways. He asked me to consider the position that the allegations of the writer of the letter in The Times were untrue. Without in any way judging of the facts myself, I have not felt called upon to rule upon that position because, prima facie, there is nothing before me to suggest that they were untrue. On the contrary the hon. Member himself, in making his complaint, cited the relevant passage in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

The hon. Member then asked me to consider the conduct of the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) in using the words which are recorded in the OFFICIAL REPORT. The substance of the complaint is this: that the hon. Member for Kidderminster, under the protection of that privilege against action at law which attaches to words spoken in this House, spoke words which, in the context in which they were spoken, defamed a person who is not a Member of either House of Parliament.

It is not for me, but for the House, to say whether or no such was the effect of the words used, but, assuming for the purpose of my present Ruling that such was their effect, in my view the speaking of these words does not, prima facie, give rise to a case of breach of Privilege of this House. As stated in Ansen's Law and Custom of the Constitution, Fifth Edition, Volume 1, page 172, Speech and action in Parliament may thus be said to be unquestioned and free. But this freedom from external influence or interference does not involve any unrestrained licence of speech within the walls of the House. I end my quotation there, and would add that, because hon. Members are protected by Privilege, the House has always been jealous to see that that Privilege is not abused. But to abuse Privilege is not in itself to commit a breach of the Privilege of this House, and it has never been so regarded, although the House has, from time to time, punished Members for offensive words spoken before the House.

Accordingly, my conclusion is that the complaint is not one to which I am entitled to give precedence over the Orders of the Day.

Photo of Mr George Thomson Mr George Thomson , Dundee East

While thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for the trouble which you have taken in considering your Ruling on the point I raised yesterday. I will, if I may, make this submission. Although it may not be a breach of our privileges to abuse our privileges in the House, this is a matter that should, perhaps, receive further consideration.

Before I consider whether I ought to pursue the matter further, I hope that the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) might feel, on reflection, that the words he used in the heat of the moment—we all use words in the heat of the moment in this place—might now be withdrawn in the interests of the preservation of the privileges of this House and in the interests of those outside the House.

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

I did not know what the hon. Gentleman was going to say to me when I called him. I think that he has wandered out of order on this point.

Photo of Sir Gerald Nabarro Sir Gerald Nabarro , Kidderminster

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a personal statement in this matter and on the topic on which you have ruled.

I did not realise, when I made the intervention on 9th November, 1960—last Wednesday—during a speech being delivered to the House by the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Lee) and I employed the form of words to which the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) referred yesterday, that such form of words could represent any abuse of Parliamentary Privilege. I did not realise that when I used the words. The topic then being debated was an extremely controversial one, and my intervention was made immediately following the hon. Member for Newton accusing the entire Conservative Party, as I understand it, of political cowardice.

Mr. Hamilton:

Is there anything wrong with that?

Photo of Sir Gerald Nabarro Sir Gerald Nabarro , Kidderminster

The word "cowardice" was strangely reminiscent to me, having regard to my activities during the last few weeks. As I have unintentionally—I emphasise "unintentionally"—been guilty of an abuse of Parliamentary Privilege, as you have just ruled, Mr. Speaker—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—I should like to seek your permission and the permission of the whole House unreservedly to withdraw the words referred to, though I recognise that they cannot now be expunged from the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Photo of Mr Frederick Bellenger Mr Frederick Bellenger , Bassetlaw

Mr. Bellenger rose——

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

I do not know to what the right hon. Gentleman is rising, but I could not allow any debate or discussion on a statement in personal explanation.

Photo of Mr Frederick Bellenger Mr Frederick Bellenger , Bassetlaw

What I seek to raise, Mr. Speaker, relates to your statement and not to anything that the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) has said. What I want to know is whether the inference to be drawn from your statement to the House is that the word "coward" is disorderly, because if it is——

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

No. I think that the right hon. Gentleman had better read what I said. It could not conceivably bear such an interpretation.

Mr. Lee:

As I am somewhat involved in this, perhaps I might intervene. The hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) did not know whether I was accusing the whole Conservative Party or merely the Government of political cowardice. Perhaps I might make it abundantly clear that I accuse the whole Government of that.