Privilege

– in the House of Commons at 3:40 pm on 17th March 1986.

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Photo of Dr Michael Clark Dr Michael Clark , Rochford 3:40 pm, 17th March 1986

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order, of which I have given prior notice, relates to the use and possible abuse of parliamentary privilege. I seek advice and a ruling on a particular instance.

It is with considerable hesitation and regret that I raise this matter, because it refers to a Conservative Member—the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens)—who on Thursday 13 March tabled a question to the Attorney-General asking him whether he would now prosecute a doctor in my constituency in respect of a rape offence. The man was named.

At the outset, I must stress that it is not for me to comment on the man's guilt or innocence. I am content to let the law take its course. However, I feel that at best it is a breach of parliamentary convention—and possibly an abuse of parliamentary privilege— to name an individual in this way. This is a double abuse, as it is not permissible to name an accused before he is charged, and in rape cases the accused cannot be named unless found guilty.

Like other hon. Members, I wish to see all criminals, particularly rapists, and especially child abusers, brought to justice. If any hon. Member feels that the police are not being diligent or that individuals are being protected, it is right and proper that questions should be put to the Attorney-General so that he may investigate further. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth would have been doing a public service had he put his question and omitted the name, but by putting the name into the question he is now denying justice.

The full details of this case are more complex than those that have come out in the newspapers, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) may well know. The man cannot defend himself without giving more details, which would almost certainly identify the rape victim. In the absence of his defence, he is being found guilty by parliamentary privilege and newspaper headlines, and he now struggles to try to prove his innocence. This is quite contrary to English law, and led to some of the outrageous comments that we had from hon. Members last Friday.

If the police have sufficient evidence against this man, he should be brought to trial. But can he now have a fair trial? I wish to make it clear again that I am not attempting to defend this man. It is not for me to judge his guilt or innocence, nor is it the duty of this Parliament, nor any Member of this Parliament, to do just that. However, I ask whether justice is being done at the present time. Can it be obtained in the future if a trial should take place? Is parliamentary privilege being abused, and if so, how can it be stopped? I seek your ruling, Mr. Speaker.

Several Hon. Members:

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Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. If the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) wishes to raise a point of order on the same matter, I shall call him first.

Photo of Mr Norman St John-Stevas Mr Norman St John-Stevas , Chelmsford

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. Further to the point of order so lucidly put by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), may I point out that this tragic case of the rape of a child took place in my constituency and that the child is the daughter of one of my constituents—[Hon. Members: "Alleged rape."] The alleged rape. In fact, the police have indicated that in their opinion a rape has taken place, but there is doubt as to who was responsible for it.

Is it not one of the strongest conventions of this House that constituency cases are taken up by the Member of Parliament concerned? Yet there was no consultation or information given and nothing was said to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) before he tabled his question. Should there not be some protection for hon. Members in these cases?

I had taken up the case with the local police and the Director of Public Prosecutions, and their legal, impartial opinion was that the prosecution could not succeed and so should not take place. May we have some protection and guidance on that crucial point? Do you agree that the higher the privilege, the greater the sense of responsibility with which it should be used?

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) has also made allegations about a constituent of mine in north Humberside. He did so without consulting me, without reference to me, and without any discussion with me. If a matter concerning a constituent is to be raised, it is a matter of courtesy to refer it to the hon. Member in whose constituency that person resides. If that hon. Member then takes no action, another hon. Member may feel free to act in the interests of justice.

Both the alleged perpetrator of the crime and the victim happen to live in my constituency, yet at no time did the hon. Gentleman refer the matter to me. As a result of the statement being made, the press have camped out at a church in my constituency. Everybody knows who is involved in the case. The result is that a person is being tried by the media and would have been subject to a form of parliamentary lynch-law by the hon. Gentleman had he been able to speak during questions earlier. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) for the succinct way in which he asked his supplementary question.

Apart from the courtesies of the House, the matter should be referred to the Committee of Privileges because it involves the freedom, honesty and dignity of individual constituents who, no matter what they are accused of, are entitled to a free, fair and unbiased trial, which at present they are not getting.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh , Gainsborough and Horncastle

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Paragraph 3, entitled "Personal reflections" on page 338 of "Erskine May" states:

It is not in order in a question to reflect on the character or conduct of those persons whose conduct may only be challenged on a substantive motion… nor is it permissible to reflect on the conduct of other persons otherwise than in their official or public capacity. Moreover, a question introducing names (whether of persons or of bodies) invidiously or for advertisement or in any way not strictly necessary to render the question intelligible is not in order. You may rule, Mr. Speaker, that the paragraph does not cover the conduct of my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens). However, it is in your power to set a precedent, by which if, in a similar case, an hon. Member wishes to name a person who is accused but not yet charged, he should do so on the Floor of the House by reference to a letter that he has sent to the Attorney-General, in which he can mention the name of the accused. Surely it is a principle of our country that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and it is a principle of the House—this is in our sub judice rules—that we should not supplant the role of the courts of the realm as my hon. Friend has done.

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I shall take one more point of order, then I shall allow the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) to have a word.

Photo of Mr John Ryman Mr John Ryman , Blyth Valley

I wish, Mr. Speaker, to submit one further point in support of the submissions that have been made. Any hon. Member who is genuinely interested in bringing someone to justice has a perfectly easy remedy, which is to seek a private meeting with a Law Officer. Law Officers are always prepared to see hon. Members at short notice to discuss a matter and then, through the Director of Public Prosecutions, to ask the police to make the necessary inquiries. If there is insufficient legally admissible evidence in the opinion of counsel advising the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General will tell the hon. Member. Many years ago I sought the advice of the Law Officers when a local chief constable refused to prosecute. As a result of a meeting with officials in the Law Officer's Department, the local chief constable prosecuted the case, the defendant was tried, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment.

There is a disrceet and realistic way of dealing with such matters, and I support the applications that are being made to consider this a breach of privilege.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Dickens Mr Geoffrey Dickens , Littleborough and Saddleworth

It is five years since I named someone in the House of Commons, and it was a distasteful thing to have to do. I wish to be helpful. You will appreciate Mr. Speaker, that during the past five years letters have flowed to me containing allegations and details of cases that I should look into and demanding that I name various people, some very important. I always sent the files to the Home Office, which investigated the cases for me, and in many cases to the chief constables concerned. Therefore, I was jealously guarding, not misusing, parliamentary privilege.

When I was elected to the House, I thought that I could come here and speak without fear or favour on my constituency's problems and on matters of national importance, as child abuse and child protection are. My difficulty is that people offend against children in privacy, by and large, without an audience. We are in some difficulty when the victims are little children and where the courts cannot prosecute unless there is corroboration.

May I conclude, because I see that hon. Members are getting restless, by saying that children are being abused, but that such cases do not come to court because the Director of Public Prosecutions decided otherwise. I unreservedly apologise to the hon. Members who have criticised me, but I say to each of them that I have been fighting a national crusade to protect little children. I do not intend to slip in any names now, but I advise the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) that a man in his constituency is abusing children. I have named him in a question—

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. Let me deal with this matter. I am grateful to hon. Members for giving me notice that they intended to raise the matter on points of order. The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) is correct. "Erskine May" makes it clear on page 338 that the invidious use of a person's name in a question should be resorted to only if to do so is strictly necessary to render the question intelligible. I commend to hon. Members the device in appropriate cases of supplying the relevant Minister privately with the name of an individual who is the subject of a question, and I hope that wherever possible hon. Members will use that method of avoiding unnecessarily damaging references to individuals. I thank the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Ryman) for raising that point.

Freedom of speech is essential to the work of Parliament. It is the responsibility of every individual Member to ensure that he uses his freedom in a way that does not needlessly damage those who do not enjoy that privilege and in a way that does not damage the good name of the House.

Several Hon. Members:

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Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I have made a statement and a ruling. I do not think anything else can arise.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. This arises from what the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth said. I am grateful for your ruling, which the House heard with respect, and which I appreciate greatly. The hon. Gentleman said that he would not slip in any names, but he has already named my constituent in a question. May I take it that if a written question has been tabled today, the Clerks will ensure that it is altered to make sure that that man's name is not shown?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

I have no knowledge of any question, but the House may be certain that I shall look carefully at any such question if one is tabled.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

On one point, Mr. Speaker, I raise a point of order. So that no one should be misled, would it not be as well to add that following the Strauss case any such communication between a Member and a Law Officer is not subject to privilege?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Is the hon. Gentleman's question directly involved with this matter?

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

It follows from your ruling, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) said that he had tabled a question. Can you confirm that if he does not withdraw it he will be in contempt of the ruling that you have just given?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

I understand that the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth has submitted a question, but it has not yet been accepted. I shall look carefully at it.