I have a brief statement to make, which may be helpful to the House.
It might be helpful if I expand on the ruling that I gave last night in response to a point of order from the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about the extent to which issues connected with the publication of a book by Mr. Peter Wright are at present sub judice.
What may not now be discussed are the Attorney-General's decisions to bring proceedings against certain British newspapers and the action of the newspapers in publishing what they did. The content of the newspaper articles and the information they reveal are not sub judice, and hon. Members may continue to refer to those matters in debate and at Question Time.
In this context there is a further point to be made clear to the House. There are today no new developments by way of further details from Mr. Wright's book which would allow me to consider the exercise of my discretionary power to grant an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 20. I am bound by the requirement in that Standing Order as to the time by which applications must be made, and such an application was made yesterday. Hon. Members are familiar with the many opportunities open to them as individuals, as well as to the official Opposition and the other Opposition parties, to raise matters of their choice. We have an example of an Opposition Day today. It is important that hon. Members should pursue their wish to raise these matters with Ministers through the opportunities made available to them, and not seek to debate them with me through thinly disguised points of order when I am in no position to help.
On a point of order arising from your statement, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday morning I tabled an early-day motion calling on the Prime Minister to stop hiding behind the statements of 1977 and to deal with the new revelations of Mr. Peter Wright. That motion was accepted in the Table Office and, accordingly, in the afternoon was released to the press.
At about 6 o'clock you were informed that the Attorney-General had taken new proceedings against The Independent and other newspapers and accordingly you ruled that my motion had become sub judice. I have absolutely no quarrel with that ruling. However, the motion is open for members of the public and, indeed, hon. Members to read in this morning's newspapers. The one place they cannot read it is on the Order Paper of the House of Commons. Is that not symptomatic of what is happening to us during all these discussions? There can be widespread discussion in editorials and articles in newspapers, but the one place we cannot adequately discuss the matter is here in the House.
Is it open to you, Mr. Speaker, as our Speaker, to put it to the Government that continued recourse to the courts is hindering us in one of our most fundamental duties, which is the protection of the very democracy that we are here to represent?
The right hon. Gentleman gave me notice that he would raise this matter. It is correct that he tabled a motion yesterday morning. At that time no action had been taken by the Law Officers regarding the newspaper article on the alleged events of 1977 relating to intelligence matters. The motion was in order, so was sent to the printers. However, later in the day action was announced by the Law Officers and, as the House knows, I ruled that that brought the sub judice rule into play. This meant that the right hon. Gentleman's motion could no longer go ahead. He was so informed, but I understand that it was not until today that the relevant message reached him. It will, of course, be open to the right hon. Gentleman to decide, after any court proceedings are concluded, whether he wishes to renew that motion in its original or some other form.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The whole House, naturally, will accept your ruling and indeed applaud the way in which you have been good enough to set out in the form of a statement the thoughts that guide you and the way in which you intend to conduct affairs.
Could I refer to part of that statement—notably the following short sentence:
What may not now be discussed are the Attorney-General's decisions to bring proceedings against certain British newspapers and the action of the newspapers in publishing what they did
and address myself to what I believe to be a point of order which is fundamental to the conduct of order in this House.
First, while everyone can see the validity of what we consider to be the sub judice rule, because it ensures that not even proceedings in this House can influence the conduct of a case before the courts, when it is also the case that every newspaper in the world outside Britain, and indeed English language newspapers some editions of which are published in Britain, can to their heart's content refer to and examine the issues thrown up by the case in point, I wonder whether there is a case for a reappraisal of the traditions of the House in order to establish exactly where our boundaries of the sub judice rule are drawn in this age of very easy international communication, an age for which it is possible that — in some respects — our proceedings are not properly equipped.
Secondly, can I also put the point to you, Mr. Speaker, that it certainly is the case, as the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the Liberal party earlier said, that security is indivisible and that security and its requirements must command the general support of hon. Members on all sides of the House, elected as they are by the people of this country. There is, however, a profound question when an issue relates to security and has remained outside the public domain, and when an issue has received such breadth of coverage as to give the impression that it is the Government's political interests that are being safeguarded rather than the interests of security.
I raise these matters because they are fundamental to the relationship between this democratic House and a democratic and free press and the conduct of Government in our country. I would certainly be more than prepared to ask you to reflect further, and to have time to reflect, upon the issues raised in this particular case, since the last thing that any democrat could want is the creation of a precedent in this case that would effectively blanket out free expression in this country in the way that the Government so clearly want.
The Leader of the Opposition has raised a point of order with me and I must say to him and to the whole House that I am bound by the sub judice rule as it is operated in this House. If the House wishes to the resolutions on sub judice, it is open to it to raise that matter with the Select Committee on Procedure and no doubt this important matter will receive fresh consideration. But it might be for the advantage of the House if I were to set out the sub judice rule as referred to in "Erskine May" on page 429. It is this:
matters awaiting or under adjudication in all courts exercising a criminal jurisdiction … should not be referred to (a) in any motion (including a motion for leave to bring in a Bill), or (b) in debate, or (c) in any question to a Minister including a supplementary question:
The case brought by the Attorney-General is of a criminal character and it was set in motion by the Attorney-General's application yesterday. I am bound by that rule.
As you know, Mr. Speaker, I am seeking to move Standing Order No. 20 today in a way that does not either breach the sub judice rule or breach the rule that new material is required for urgency to be attracted to the motion. I have listened very carefully to your ruling, Mr. Speaker, but it relates to action by the Government against The Independent, and the general ruling about Standing Order No. 20 is that there should be new material. Accordingly, in the light of the Prime Minister's statement today that she would make no statement, I have sought to base my Standing Order No. 20 on that fact. The allegations that have been made and that are now in the public domain and noted in the pages of Hansard—I placed them there yesterday—are very serious in character—
I can help the right hon. Gentleman. I have received from the right hon. Gentleman an application under Standing Order No. 20 which is in different terms from the application that he made yesterday. I am quite prepared to hear it, but is the right hon. Gentleman seeking to make it now? If he is, I will hear it.
I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 20 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,
the refusal of the Prime Minister to answer a question about the new situation in relation to statements made by a former MI5 officer that he and others attempted to subvert an elected Government".
This application arises directly from the Prime Minister's refusal to make a statement about those allegations, which are now in the public domain and are quoted in yesterday's Hansard, about illegal acts by the security services, and, therefore, that information was not available yesterday. Secondly, this does not relate to the court case against—[Interruption.]the—
This does not relate to the court case. Indeed, the application goes to the root of the matter, that an MI5 officer has stated that he and other MI5 officers attempted to subvert Her Majesty's Government in 1974. Today the Prime Minister made a most remarkable statement that the Law Officers have no responsibility for enforcing the law where breaches occurred before they came into office. That is an unprecedented statement for a Prime Minister to make.
Since the allegations relate to members of all three parties, to my right hon. Friends who, along with me, sat in Government, to others, including the leader of the alliance party, who was then in that Government—and indeed some of the allegations relate to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who was the Leader of the Conservative Government—it is not a party but a constitutional matter. Given its constitutional importance and its obvious urgency, I submit that this is a matter that is uniquely appropriate for Standing Order No. 20 application and that it would be quite wrong to ask Members who raise this matter to seek a remedy through the use of Supply days.
Finally, Mr. Speaker, I appeal to you most earnestly to use your discretion under our Standing Order, to allow a hearing of these grave allegations of subversion and sedition against an elected Government, which the Prime Minister herself has an obligation to undertake, arising from her office and the oath that she has taken as a Privy Councillor.
It is on that constitutional and House of Commons basis, Mr. Speaker, that I ask you, now—or later, if you want to give it further consideration—to afford this matter the urgency that it deserves and not to push it off to what may be the party interest of those parties that have access to Supply days.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,
the refusal of the Prime Minister to answer a question about the new situation in relation to statements mady by a former MI5 officer that he and others attempted to subvert an elected Government".
I have listened with great attention to what the right hon. Gentleman said, but I regret that I do not consider that the matter that he has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 20. I cannot therefore, submit his application to the House.
In your ruling on the sub judice aspect of this matter, Mr. Speaker, you quoted from "Erskine May". I notice that you quoted the second half of the sentence. The first half of that sentence says:
Subject to the discretion of the Chair".
Therefore, I put it to you that you have some discretion according to "Erskine May" as to whether these matters should be taken as sub judice in the House. It is on that basis that I raise my point of order.
We are informed that the sub judice ruling relates to a contempt by The Independent and others about proceedings brought by the Attorney-General against TheObserver and The Guardian which will be heard in the House of Lords in June. The proceedings will be before the Law Lords. The question is: do the proceedings in the Lords deserve the protection of sub judice? Could the Law Lords truly be influenced in their judgment by public debate on these matters? Of course, your ruling would preclude debate in this Chamber—[Interruption.]
This point of order is utterly legitimate and genuine. Hon. Gentlemen would do well to listen and learn.
I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that whereas there is good reason to believe that juries can be influenced and that, therefore, sub judice considerations should determine what Parliament can be free to debate, there is equally good reason to believe that judges and Law Lords could never be influenced by public debate. This case was made during the judgment in the Attorney-General v Times Newspapers Ltd in 1974. That judgment followed upon publication of an article by The Sunday Times. The noble Lord Reid said:
But I must add to prevent misunderstanding that comment where a case is under appeal is a very different matter. For one thing it is scarcely possible to imagine a case where comment could influence judges in the Court of Appeal or noble and learned Lords in this House. And it would be wrong and contrary to existing practice to limit proper criticism of judgments already given but under appeal.
I put it to you Mr. Speaker, that the Law Lords clearly do not need or require the protection of sub judice. It is their case that they would not be influenced by wider debate. Therefore, in considering these matters, if you made your judgment on the basis that the Law Lords need protection when they examine these matters in June or July, I put it to you that you might care to reconsider the matter because they themselves clearly do not subscribe to that view. If they are correct, it would not be necessary for you to apply the sub judice rule to our proceedings on these matters.
May I deal one at a time on this matter? I read comment to this effect in a newspaper this morning so I have had an opportunity to look into the matter in great depth, which I have done. The sub judice rule is a self-denying ordinance made by the House to avoid the appearance of the Legislature seeking to influence the courts. Whether they would be influenced is a different matter. I must say to the House and to the hon. Gentleman that I have already explained the large area that remains open to debate, unaffected by the new case. I am not prepared to allow references to this case itself.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker, arising out of your statement and the points on Standing Orders which were made by Opposition Members. What the House has been treated to this afternoon is not just an abuse but a series of bogus and mischievous points from Opposition Members. Will you be good enough, Mr. Speaker, to advise them that what is wrong is not the rules and conventions of the House but the way in which they seek to table mischievous motions and raise mischievous, misleading and irresponsible points during Question Time? If they were to exercise a self-denying ordinance, no problem would arise.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order will be brief, and it springs from the fact that the answers given so far have caused a great deal of confusion among us. I want to try to get at the realities. I know that you are bound by what has happened but, having said that, surely it is obvious—at least, it is to me in probably a simplistic way — that contempt of the House is anything that brings the House into contempt. When the entire world can discuss a matter and the House cannot, I think that the rest of the world has a right to be contemptuous of the House. Therefore, I am seeking some way in which a cause of intense and massive public concern can be dealt with in the House, and I am concerned that outside the House millions of people will think, rightly or wrongly, that a device has been used to prevent the House discussing something which is of public concern.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have often said that you wish to protect the rights of Back-Bench Members. Many Back-Benchers may want to take part in the important debate on housing, which affects people, and not listen to bogus points of order about an issue which was dealt with fully by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Sir J. Callaghan) many years ago. We all know that the only person who has successfully destabilised the Labour party has been the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).
Further to that point of order, Sir. It is quite clear that the Government consider that considerations of confidentiality are more important than any examination of attempts to subvert a previous Administration. The Prime Minister is being somewhat disingenuous in saying that she can do nothing about examining these matters.
Is it not the case, however, that criminal events in the historic past can certainly be raised and enquired into by the Law Officers of any subsequent Government? And is it also not the case that if the Prime Minister really wanted to clear the air about this matter and look at the many misdemeanours of MI5 over the last few years she could establish a Royal Commission perfectly easily to examine all these issues, including the attempt to subvert a previous Government?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it not have been in order for the Opposition, any time until early this morning, to have altered the business? If the Opposition Front Bench was so concerned to have this matter debated publicly, its spokesmen could have done so within the confines of sub judice laws if they were skilful enough at debating and oratory in the House. The fact that the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen have failed to do shows clearly that they do not want the subject debated.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. What concerns me are your own words. It is quite right that "Erskine May" has the sub judice rule in it to dissuade the Administration from undue influence on the courts of this country. But there are two points here. First, "Erskine May" is not part of the Standing Orders of the House; it never has been and never will be. Secondly, although the sub judice rule is part of the resolutions of the House, I do not believe that it was ever intended to prevent the House from debating something which was more important than the role for which it was implemented.
In other words, why are we now prevented from debating a problem where someone has made serious allegations concerning the high crime of treason on the basis that a case has been brought under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, which bears a much lower penalty in a lower court? That is the difficulty in which the House finds itself, and it is the high crime of treason allegedly perpetrated by the security services to which the House wishes to address itself, but has been prevented from doing so by the actions of the Executive.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that in these circumstances hon. Members should try to help. If I may, I have got a helpful suggestion. The events that are referred to happened many years ago at the time of a Labour Government. They concerned a Labour Prime Minister. Some 10 years ago, another Labour Prime Minister made a full statement to the House saying what the circumstances were, and the whole matter was then cleared. It seems now that allegations are being made about the security services. The possibility is that the security services behaved improperly, but I would put it to you also, Mr. Speaker, that it is quite possible that the security services behaved properly and that the noble lord, Lord Wilson had some questions that should be answered. I would be grateful—
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister said that she had no responsibility because these events took place before she took office. That is not in dispute, yet in November 1979 the Prime Minister made a statement about Blunt. If she was willing to make a statement about Blunt and his treachery, and events that certainly occurred before she became Prime Minister, what possible excuse can there be for denying us a statement about the allegations that have been made? I put this point to you Mr. Speaker, because it is the essence of this debate.
We live in a parliamentary democracy. Everyone who comes here is apparently committed to the maintenance of our democracy. Allegations have been made, that not one or two but 30 officials in the security service during the 1970s were deeply involved in treachery and subversion. It may be that the allegations are just lies. It may be that Mr. Wright is not telling the truth, but, if Mr. Wright is telling the truth, if these allegations have a great deal of substance about them, how is it that the House of Commons can be denied the opportunity of any debate on the flimsy grounds that the events happened to occur before the Government took office? Are we going to be in a position that we cannot have a debate unless it is in Opposition time?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is perfectly clear to every hon. Member that you are not responsible for the failure of the Prime Minister to answer perfectly legitimate — indeed, more than legitimate — questions of major importance affecting the government of this country. If I am right, and if I am interpreting correctly your ruling, delivered some half an hour ago, Mr. Speaker, what you did deny to the Prime Minister was the possibility of her failure to answer such questions on the ground that it would be a breach of the sub judice rule. You told us clearly that the content of the newspaper articles, the information that they reveal, are not sub judice and Members can question them and they can be the subject of debate.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not clear that at least the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has little confidence in the veracity of Mr. Peter Wright's writings? No fewer than four months have now passed since the hon. Gentleman made his false and malicious accusations in the House under the cloak of parliamentary privilege, against Sir Stephen Hastings and myself, and he still has not found the guts to repeat them outside the House.
Further to that point of order. Mr. Speaker.
One of the features of the British constitution and the compilation of "Erskine May" is that, because we do not have a written constitution, the game has always been—to put it in crude terms—made up as we go along. I would remind you, Mr. Speaker—I am sure that you have looked at the evidence — that on numerous occasions when matters of sub judice have been brought before the House there have been somewhat different interpretations, according to the matter in question.
For instance, if you, Mr. Speaker, were to study the remarks made in 1971 in relation to the Industrial Relations Bill going through at that time and the sub judice aspect relating to Lord Donaldson, who was to be in charge of the industrial relations court, you would see that variations upon the sub judice ruling were made by the Chair.
I would also remind you, Mr. Speaker, that that flexibility was apparent when the Clay Cross question was brought before the courts over a period of more than 12 months—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"].. Oh, yes. However, because the Clay Cross issue was about working men and women, somehow or other the House of Commons was able, over that period of more than 12 months, to discuss—albeit with the so-called sub judice ruling appertaining—all the matters affecting the Clay Cross issue.
During the miners' strike the same thing applied. During that year-long strike several injunctions were issued and matters were brought before the courts, but I would suggest that that did not restrain many people in this House from speaking on that issue at great length. You yourself, Mr. Speaker, understood that matter. Recently the same applied to the Liverpool surcharge. I believe that it is within the recollection of most people in the House that, even though that matter went before the High Court and the Law Lords, there was never any attempt at any time by you, Mr. Speaker, or even by Tory spokesmen and women, to suggest that nobody should talk about the Liverpool issue.
What I am saying is that this flexibility has allowed the House of Commons to discuss many subjects when it has wanted to. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that this whole issue should be looked at again. It is a matter of prime importance. That flexibility that has applied thoughout our constitution should apply in this case.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware, Mr. Speaker, that Conservative Members would like to show solidarity with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)? It must be of some concern to the House, as a corporate entity, if the security services have been seeking to undermine and destabilise the Labour party or Her Majesty's Opposition. Bearing that in mind, and as the Leader of the Opposition is doing such a splendid job of destabilising and undermining the Labour party, should we not have an inquiry as to whether he is an MI5 agent?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not a lawyer, so I cannot argue on constitutional points, but it does seem to me that what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said has a great deal of validity. Certainly in my relatively short period in the House it seems to me that there is one set of rules that apply to the Labour side and another set that apply to the Tory side. Quite honestly, I think that that is extremely unfair. You, Mr. Speaker, should accept a valid argument.
For a period of a year there were members of my constituency—miners—who were in front of the courts for no crime—they were acquitted. However, time after time, day after day, Ministers and Tory Members condemned them and discussed the issues in the House when those men were in front of the courts. If there is one rule for the Conservatives what about a rule for us? I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to look very closely at what happened during the miners' strike. Then you must accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You, Mr. Speaker, have reminded us that you are bound by the rules and Standing Orders of the House in these matters. However, over a number of years, many of us have heard the Opposition raise many points of order concerning the sub judice rule, which they claim has prevented them from debating important matters before the House. If those points of order were anything other than bogus one would have expected requests to have been made to amend the Standing Orders of the House, to produce a rule that would be more amenable to what the House regards as important.
Can you tell us, Mr. Speaker, whether you have received any requests from the Opposition for a review of our Standing Orders on the question of sub judice? Could you also, Mr. Speaker, cast some important light on the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when she said that these matters arose before she assumed responsibility? What is the role of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Sir J. Callaghan) in these matters? Is his consent required for any review of the papers during his Prime Ministership? Has he given such consent?
I am the fourth. On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following the point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) the Opposition, if they wish to pursue this, are not only free, but would be advised to take the matter up initially with the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Sir J. Callaghan) the Father of the House. They might be well advised to do so in the confidential atmosphere of the Tea Room, where they may well find that they will obtain much more information and advice.
If you, Mr. Speaker, give the Opposition that advice, they can then go to another place in this building and seek out another player in this drama, Lord Wilson, who played a major part. The Opposition can then satisfy themselves as to the factual background of this matter before coming to the House and trying your patience and trying as they have, to abuse order in the House.
I think that we must now move on. I believe that I can deal with all these matters.
First of all, I am bound by the rules of the House. the sub judice rule is a resolution of the House and I have no—
I have no discretion other than the one I have already mentioned. May I say to the House, and to those who say that there are those outside who will not understand, that I am in no sense seeking to stifle this discussion. That is not the Chair's function. The House has the remedy in its hands. In my statement earlier this afternoon I said that there are many opportunities for hon. Members to raise this issue and remain in order. There was an opportunity to do so today and there are other opportunities — private Members' motions, or in Opposition time, if that arises, or at Question Time—within my ruling. I am in no sense seeking to stifle this debate.
Further to that point of order. Mr. Speaker. I doubt whether I shall ever address the House again, but may I just say that the discussion that I have heard has brought the House into such disrepute that, after 17 years as a Member, I trust that your successor, Mr. Speaker, never has to rule that we are not able to discuss a matter of such importance in such circumstances.