Hon. Member for Mid-Ulster

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th July 1970.

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Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen 12:00 am, 6th July 1970

The House will remember that on Friday last the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham) raised as a matter of privilege the position of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin), about whose detention I read a letter from a resident magistrate in Northern Ireland the previous day.

The Rule of the House is that the House must be informed when a Member is detained from service in Parliament. I read the letter on 2nd July, which was the opening day of this present Parliament and so, quite clearly, the earliest moment at which the communication could be made to the House. The resident magistrate's action in the matter was entirely in accordance with the rule, which I quote: Any criminal offence is brought before the House by a letter addressed to the Speaker by the committing judge or magistrate. On these occasions, the first communication to the Speaker is made when the Member is committed to prison, bail not being allowed. I emphasise that my duty in communicating such a letter to the House allows me a measure of discretion and that I exercised that discretion in not reading the whole of the enclosures which the magistrate sent me referring to this matter. I will, however, cause copies of these to be placed in the Library so that hon. Members can see for themselves that the communication from the resident magistrate was fully documented and that it complied with precedent.

I have given very careful study to the supporting submissions by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) and the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg). I cannot find in those several submissions anything which would entitle me to rule on the issue as involving privilege. My duty in respect of these inquiries on the position of an hon. Member is limited to saying whether a prima facie case of breach of privilege has been made out to the extent that I could allow the matter to be given priority over the Orders of the Day this afternoon and to accept a Motion for an immediate debate.

Having carefully examined all the questions raised, I have to rule that none of them would justify me in taking that course. In saying this, I do not in any way prevent hon. Members raising such questions by such other parliamentary means as may be open to them and on which they may obtain advice from the Table Office in the ordinary way.

Finally, I would refer to an inquiry made by the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) about the salary position of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster following her imprisonment. I am afraid that it is not the practice of the House for salary questions affecting individual Members to be raised in public, and I am sure that this is a salutary rule. I think, however, that it is sufficiently well known that when an hon. Member has taken the oath the salary will be back-dated to 19th June, when the result of the election was known. I cannot, however, go further than that in discussing publicly the financial position of an individual Member.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

Whilst expressing my thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, for the Ruling which you have given us so clearly, might I say that some of us—my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham) and myself—were not only seeking to raise the question of privilege, although that was obviously the immediate question which had to be dealt with, but that we were also raising the question of whether you could give us guidance as to what are the rights of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin) in the reception of parliamentary papers in communication with her constituents in making sure that she is able to carry out a whole series of her parliamentary duties.

Whilst it may very well be, as I am sure it is when you rule, that no question of a prima facie case of privilege is involved in such matters, we would further wish you to give us guidance on how these matters can be dealt with, because we are not sure—at least I am not sure—whether we should proceed in questions to you about these matters or whether we should ask to have a debate to try to ensure, as some of us said the other day, that the rights of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster and of her constituents should be properly protected.

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

I have said in my Ruling that there may be other parliamentary means of raising some of the issues which were submitted to me on Friday. All that Mr. Speaker can do is to rule on the issue of privilege, and even in ruling on privilege he is not ruling whether a breach of privilege has or has not occurred: he is ruling whether a prima facie case of breach of privilege has, in his opinion, been established so that it might take precedence in debate over the Orders of the Day. The hon. Member must pursue the other questions in other various ways, some of which he has mentioned in his submission.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Barking

With the greatest respect, Mr. Speaker, may I ask whether you could advise us a little more on the question of correspondence, which was also a point mentioned by my hon. Friend just now? Would it be in order for us to table Questions on that matter—Questions to the Home Secretary?

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

As to whether Questions are in order, I will have to judge, and the Table will have to judge, when they are submitted. I would remind the House—not that the House needs reminding, but the public may need reminding—that the last time, in the case of Mr. Shapurji Saklatvala in 1926, my predecessor ruled: A Member of this House is, with regard to the criminal law, in exactly the same position as any other person."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1926; Vol. 195; c. 602.] This is the classic position. The difficulties which have been raised are difficulties not for Mr. Speaker to solve; they are matters of law, or matters to be taken up with the Government.

Photo of Mr Arthur Latham Mr Arthur Latham , Paddington North

Thank you for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, in relation to matters of privilege, but could I, with the utmost respect, emphasise what my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) has said? In my submission, along with the question of privilege, I did submit a number of other matters on which I have sought your guidance as the guardian of the privileges and rights of Members of this House. I think it would be wasteful of time if I were to restate those various matters, but could I, with the utmost respect, having listened to what you said about privilege, ask you to give further study to the submission I made in order that we could have some guidance on other points which I raised and which I did submit as points of order and which it would not be appropriate to address to a Minister in this House?

For example, as I understand it, the governor of the prison in which the Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin) is being held is not responsible to a Minister who is responsible to the British Parliament. That in itself presents difficulties. I would also ask whether you could advise us as to arrangements which might be made for the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster to take the Oath, and also whether the fact that she was denied the opportunity to take the Oath would in any way interfere with the exercise of her rights as a Member of Parliament. I will not take your time with the other points, but I would, with the utmost sincerity and respect, ask if you would look at some of these submissions as matters of order rather than as matters of privilege and whether you would consider making a further statement to the House on them.

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

Nobody in the House questions the utter sincerity and utter courtesy of the hon. Member in pressing the points he is making. I can only rule as Mr. Speaker. Some of the matters he has raised are matters of law, and a politician cannot interfere with the process of the law. This, again, is a basic principle of British political life. However, there are parliamentary ways in which the very problems the hon. Member has mentioned can be raised. I did pay careful attention to every point he made in his submission. These are points not for Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker can only rule on a prima facie breach of privilege.