Hon. Member for Mid-Ulster

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd July 1970.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Latham Mr Arthur Latham , Paddington North 12:00 am, 3rd July 1970

I wish, Mr. Speaker, to submit a point of order and seek your guidance as to the position of the newly elected Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin) and a number of very important constitutional questions that seem to a number of hon. Members to arise from the present position.

I appreciate that there are certain questions which it might be proper to address to the Home Secretary, but the submission that I wish to make to the Chair this morning is to you, Mr. Speaker, in your capacity as the guardian of the rights and privileges of this House and its Members.

It is fairly clear that constitutional questions arise, because if we had a situation in which 30 hon. Members opposite had been convicted of a bank robbery, the very Government of the country might be in jeopardy. Similarly, in the period 1964–66, if three or four hon. Members on the Labour side had been in the position of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster, again the Government would have been in jeopardy.

Yesterday, in asking a question about the letter which you, Mr. Speaker, read to the House, I questioned whether the letter had been sent to you as Speaker by the court concerned with the immediacy that is required. I have since studied the letter, as published in HANSARD, and would wish to draw your attention to the fact that, so far as I can understand from what is printed in HANSARD, the letter which was addressed to you by the resident magistrate does not contain notification of the imprisonment of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster. I would add, therefore, a further submission on that point to the one that I raised yesterday.

So far as the date of notification is concerned, the action was taken on 26th June and the letter addressed to you was dated 29th June, which means that there was a three-day delay. I submit that that in itself is an important point, because, if it is to be open to the magistrate or judge concerned to notify the House at his convenience and leisure, the period of notification might be beyond a three-day delay. It could, for that matter, run to 30 days or a still greater delay in notifying you, Mr. Speaker, so that you may draw the facts to the attention of this House.

Reverting to this point, in trying to find previous precedents it was suggested to me that the case of Mr. Shapurji Saklatvala in 1926, who was arrested, might be a useful guide. I would draw attention to the correspondence at that time. There were two letters, one notifying of arrest and the other notifying of imprisonment. Both those letters were dispatched by the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street on the very day that the action was taken. In both letters the words, I have this day committed and a Member of the House of Commons, has been arrested and brought before me this day were used. I submit that establishes my point that there is a requirement and a precedent for more immediate notification than has taken place in this instance. I also accept for the purpose of my point of order, and for that purpose only, that the conviction was proper and that the sentence was just and appropriate. Some of us may wish to debate that subsequently, but for the purpose of the point of order I accept those three points.

I also submit that the present position of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster, so far as I can establish, is without precedent. It is not possible to find an exact parallel. Although hon. Members of this House have in the past been imprisoned, such imprisonment has taken place after the Member has been duly sworn in as a Member of the House of Commons.

There have been other Northern Ireland elections where Members who were in prison were elected who were not desirous of taking their seats. Therefore, the question of denial of opportunity to be sworn in did not arise, because it was not their wish to take the Oath.

In the case of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster, not only is the hon. Lady prevented from attending this House, but, by virtue of the timing of her arrest and imprisonment, she is denied the opportunity of being sworn in until expiry of her prison sentence. As I understand it, had the hon. Lady been sworn in she would have been able to exercise a number of rights and privileges as a Member of Parliament, although imprisoned, and would have been able so to function short of actual physical attendance at this House of Commons. I understand that a Member who is is imprisoned is enabled, having taken the Oath, to correspond with Ministers and to table written Parliamentary Questions. I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, as to whether the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster is able to exercise these rights having been denied the right to take the Oath.

There is a rather interesting point which is perhaps beyond the submission that I should make to you, Mr. Speaker. It might be argued that the prevention by any person of a Member from taking the Oath of Allegiance to the Sovereign could be regarded as an affront to the Crown.

I know that there is a jealously and zealously guarded distinction between the administration of justice and the making of the law. Courts must not interfere with Parliament and Parliament must not interfere with the courts. But I submit that there is a difference between the imprisonment of a Member who is already a full Member of this House and one who has been prevented from taking her seat.

In particular, I wish to draw attention to the timing of the implementation of the court decision which results in the hon. Lady being unable to perform the functions that she would otherwise be able to perform from prison, having been sworn in. One particular question that I put to you, Mr. Speaker, is whether arrangements can be made for the hon. Lady to attend this House for the purpose of taking the Oath or, alternatively, whether it would be possible for an Officer of this House to visit Armagh Prison to administer the Oath there so that the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster could exercise the rights to which I have referred.

Mr. Speaker, you may also wish to consider whether an issue of privilege arises. The point here would not be to challenge the right of a court to imprison a Member of Parliament for a criminal offence, but whether, in the case of a duly-elected Member of Parliament legally entitled to take her seat with no question of disqualification arising, any court or prison governor has the right to prevent that Member coming to this House to take the Oath of Allegiance and thus be enabled to fulfil his or her duties.

May I make one further submission in relation to the right of access of constituents to their Member of Parliament? I understand from a Press report that the Home Secretary was successful during his recent visit to Northern Ireland in making arrangements for some constituents to visit the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster in prison. The question there arises, how many constituents, which constituents, and who is to decide who shall be permitted to visit their Member and who shall be denied that right?

There are at least two precedents which might be quoted in this respect. Under the Mental Health Act, 1959, a patient who is detained can have the dispatch of post refused by the Post Office. But there are certain exceptions, and one significant exception is that the withholding of mail does not apply to correspondence addressed to a Minister or any Member of this House of Commons. Similarly, in relation to the Armed Forces, a right of access is granted to Members of Parliament, at least by correspondence, which no power can withhold.

My further submission in this regard, therefore, is that there may well be a breach of privilege and a breach of the rights of constituents if they are denied access to their duly-elected Member of Parliament, even though that Member of Parliament may for the time being be imprisoned. Since there seems to be some confusion and some overlap of law and regulations, I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, as the guardian of this House and the rights of its Members, will give us a definitive, full and authoritative statement of all the constitutional issues which arise in the case of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster and all the other related matters.

I have noted, Mr. Speaker, that you traditionally claim the right for Members of this House to freedom from arrest other than in criminal matters. With recent changes in the law, I am beginning to wonder whether that traditional claim on behalf of the House is meaningful any more.

I hope, therefore, that you will be able to offer guidance to the House so that hon. Members may clearly understand what is the position of Members of Parliament and what are the rights which may be exercised by the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster during her period of imprisonment.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

The hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham) has made a submission to me with care and with moderation on what he claims to be very important issues involving the privileges of Parliament. In accordance with the usual rule, the House allows me time to consider the application. I will therefore rule on the matter on Monday.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

Further to that point of order. First, may I express my gratitude and, I am sure, that of all other hon. Members for the response which you have given to the submission so excellently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham)? When you are making your report to the House, would you also give some guidance on a number of matters further to those which my hon. Friend has raised and which, in my submission, are linked with it?

I agree with my hon. Friend that a whole series of irregularities seem to have occurred in this respect. The letter does not appear to be in the proper form. As my hon. Friend has suggested, that could be a serious matter, since it says specifically in Erskine May that a failure of the magistrate concerned to inform the House properly could lead to a breach of privilege. Both in the date and the form of the letter, there appear to have been serious irregularities. If there have been such irregularities, can you advise the House to whom the House must look for the rectification of them? Does that lie within your power as Speaker of this House, has action to be taken by the Home Secretary, or would it have been fitting, when it was discovered that the letter was in an irregular form, that the Home Secretary should at that time have taken action?

There are a number of previous cases. For example, when Mr. Peter Baker was imprisoned and a letter was sent, the Government of the day, according to precedent, took further action to discover the details of the matter. It appeared that responsibility rested also with the Home Secretary to see that proper protection should be given to people who were duly elected to this House.

Mr. Speaker, we are grateful to you for the report which you have promised us. Some of us regard this as a matter of the very highest importance, since the people of Mid-Ulster have as much right to be represented in this House as anyone else, and they have made it clear who they want to have representing them. Among other matters, we want to know whether the law has been manipulated in Northern Ireland to interfere with the proper representation of Mid-Ulster.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

All that the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) has done is to underline the submission which his hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham) made so clearly.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Barking

Further to that point of order. [Interruption.] This is quite an important matter. There is one point which has not been mentioned arising out of the latter part of the submission made by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham). On this question of correspondence and access, it is well understood that a Member of Parliament cannot take his seat in this House and act in Parliament until he has taken the Oath of Allegiance. Does this apply to correspondence, for instance, the writing of letters to Ministers, to constituents, the receiving of letters, and so on? I ask the question because it seems to me not only probable but almost certain that, in the period between polling day and the swearing-in ceremony, a number of hon. Members may well have written to Ministers about urgent matters in their constituencies which have arisen during the course of the campaign. If that is so, are all those who have done so out of order, or is the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin), duly elected, entitled to write to Ministers?

Photo of Mr Stan Orme Mr Stan Orme , Salford West

That is a good point.

Photo of Mr Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Tottenham

I am sorry to try your patience further, Mr. Speaker, but this matter is extremely important. When you have considered these questions and come to report to the House, will you include in your statement some comment about the salary rights of the hon. Member who has been imprisoned?

As I understand it, whenever the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin) takes the oath, her salary will be backdated to 19th June. On the other hand, a number of difficulties may arise, and I understand that they have arisen in the past.

If, during her stay in prison, the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster is in receipt of any moneys from the Government by way of earnings or the equivalent in food or stay, will you rule that that is not considered a reason for excluding the hon. Lady from receiving her salary from 19th June? I therefore request that, when you make your statement, you give an undertaking to the House to ensure that the rights of the hon. Member are protected, that when she takes the oath her salary will be back-dated to 19th June, and that any of the moneys earned or equivalent values in food or otherwise are not taken into consideration when matters of this sort are decided.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.