I have a statement to make to the House.
The House will recall the exchanges that took place yesterday afternoon on a judment and sentence that had recently been given in a case of rape. On reading those exchanges today, I am satisfied that I needlessly took upon myself the blame for an irregularity that did not in fact occur. There is a firm distinction to be drawn between criticism of the character and conduct of a judge, which is out of order, except on a substantive motion, and of the substance of one of his judgments, which is quite permissible.
I drew that distinction very clearly on 19 July 1977, in a ruling from which I venture to quote as yesterday it had gone from the mind of the House and myself. I said:
the rule is not so restrictive as some hon. Members may think. It is not necessary to have a substantive motion before the House to allow Members to argue that a judge has made a mistake, that he was wrong, and the reasons for those contentions can be given within certain limits, provided that moderate language is used."—[Official Report, 19 July 1977; Vol. 935, c. 1381.]
On the other hand:
Reflections on the judge's character or motives cannot be made except on a motion. No charge of a personal nature can be raised except on a motion. Any suggestion that a judge should be dismissed can be made only on a motion."—[Official Report, 4 December 1973, Vol. 865, c. 1092.]
Both the question raised by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) yesterday and the Prime Minister's reply fell quite clearly within the terms of the earlier part of that ruling.
I have felt bound to make this statement to the House today to ensure that nothing that happened yesterday will tend to inhibit hon. Members from exercising their right to criticism, which they have always enjoyed and which it is in the interests of the House that they should have freedom to enjoy.
May I express my appreciation, Mr. Speaker, for the way in which you have exonerated myself and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for the terms of my question and her reply, neither of which in my judgment was intended to impugn either the integrity or the conduct of the judge but to draw attention to the general concern about lenient sentences in such cases? As you have raised this issue, Mr. Speaker, may I ask for clarification on one point as I believe that it is of considerable interest to all hon. Members? Is my understanding correct that it is possible for any hon. Member to question a sentence as being either too short or even too long, provided that he does not refer to the judge or question in any way the conduct of that individual?
Thank you very much for that revised ruling, Mr. Speaker, which I accept as totally as I accepted your ruling in the opposite sense yesterday. However, will you confirm that although your ruling that the word "incomprehensible", which is a strong word in relation to a judge, does not stray into the territory that might be considered as reflecting on a judge's motives or ability to carry out his job, nevertheless it is undesirable for planted questions and prepared answers to be made—[Interruption.]
I, too, should like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your ruling, but I should like the point made by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) to be conveyed to the Table Office. It has been my experience over some years that it does not matter how one tries to table a question about any judge on any matter, the Table Office will rule it out, whether or not it falls within your ruling as given. I ask that the Table Office should be advised that, provided we do not attack the character of a judge and cast aspersions upon his honesty and integrity, we can pass comment and say that we believe that this six week sentence is far too limited for the crime that has been committed. We should at least be given a chance to raise questions about judges.
You are a quasi-judge, Mr. Speaker, and consider yourself bound by precedent. Until about 17 years ago all the judges in England were bound by precedent but then, as you will recollect, the then Lord Chancellor and all the judges in the House of Lords considered that they should no longer be bound by precedent because it sometimes led them into paths that were currently wrong. I wonder whether you will consult your advisers and consider whether the Speaker—in the abstract, as an office—should follow the same principle that is now being followed by all the judges in the country.