Letters to Members (MR. Speaker's Ruling)

– in the House of Commons am 12:00 am ar 9 Mawrth 1954.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury 12:00, 9 Mawrth 1954

I wish to give a Ruling about a question raised on 23rd February by the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths).

The facts of this case appear to be as follows: In the debate on the Christmas Adjournment in 1952 the hon. Member for the Exchange Division of Manchester drew attention to the activities of the Hollins Permanent Building Society of Manchester whose chairman at that time was a Mr. Murray. In replying, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government suggested that the details be sent to the Registrar of Friendly Societies. The correspondence, including letters from constituents, was sent to the Registrar, who last July took successful proceedings against the Building Society and Mr. Murray for failure to keep certain records as required by statute. From questions addressed by the hon. Member to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 23rd February, it appeared that, in the course of the investigation which this communication had led the Registrar to make, a constituent's letter was seen by Mr. Murray who now threatens the constituent with a libel action.

In so far as any question of Privilege arises, it is probably unnecessary to remind the House of the different senses in which that word may be used. Privilege has a special meaning in the law courts where the confidential character of a communication or the special relationship between sender and recipient may prove a successful answer to an action for defamation. "Privilege" in that forensic sense is a matter for the courts; it certainly does not fall to me to expound it, though I recall that the decision in the case of Rex v. Rule favours the proposition that such a special relationship does exist between a constituent and the Member who represents him.

There is a different use of the word "privilege" more familiar in our proceedings here, namely, Privilege in the Parliamentary sense. I could not hold that Parliamentary Privilege could apply to this threatened litigation between parties who are not Members of Parliament. This House long ago agreed that no new Privileges are to be created.

Hon. Members are naturally and properly concerned to protect the communications which pass between them and those whom they represent. Be that as it may, a complaint of the use made by officials of a constituent's letter sent them by a Member is not a matter either of order or of Parliamentary Privilege. It must be settled in the same way as any other complaint against the conduct of an officer for whom a Minister is responsible.

Photo of Mr William Griffiths Mr William Griffiths , Manchester Exchange

I thank you for your statement, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that my Question on 23rd February was addressed, as you say, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and from his replies on that day and from the statement which you have been good enough to make to the House today it seems to me that two facts are made clear. First, the inquiries carried out by the Registrar of Friendly Societies into the affairs of the Hollins Permanent Building Society have re- vealed breaches of the law sufficient for the Registrar successfully to prosecute the Society and Mr. Murray, its former chairman. Second, the correspondence received by me and sent by me to the Registrar on the advice of a Minister was passed on to the Society without my permission and is now quoted against my correspondent and accompanied by threats.

It seems to me obvious that there was some justification for my correspondent's action in writing to me, and it is also obvious that the Minister's advice was well founded in so far as successful legal proceedings were carried through against the Society and its chairman. But due to the indiscretion, as it appears, of someone in the Registrar's Office, unpleasant threats, however impossible they may be of being carried into effect, are made against some correspondents, whose action was in the public interest. Therefore, I hope that what is said today about this matter will not frighten people from writing to their Members of Parliament and will not shake their confidence in the discretion generally exercised by Government Departments. If that should happen, all Members would be seriously concerned. I think that the public should be reassured. It may be that the House might wish, at an early date, to consider its position in this important matter.

If you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, I should like to quote, as summarising my view, a view expressed on 21st March, 1951, by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) when a previous complaint of breach of Privilege was before the House. My right hon. Friend was then Leader of the House and he was anticipating this kind of situation arising. He said: There is no doubt that the great growth of the electorate, and the much wider range of intimate concerns which the electorate find themselves compelled to ask Members of Parliament to deal with, have created a situation which really ought to be investigated. As I said earlier, we all get letters, some written by very illiterate people who are trying to do their utmost, and who are often under great physical and mental strain in putting their ideas on paper … I think it would be a good thing if we could consider the modern relationship of a Member of Parliament with his constituents so that we could have some guidance on this matter, and I should have thought myself that the Committee of Privileges was probably the best body to give such advice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st March, 1951; Vol. 485, c. 2525–6.] I rest myself on that.

As you suggested that I might do, Mr. Speaker, I shall pursue the matter of the disclosure of the letters to Mr. Murray by taking such Parliamentary action as is open to me. I feel that throughout this matter I have tried to act in a manner proper for a Member in seeking to protect his constituents from what he regards as dubious practices.

Photo of Mr Reginald Paget Mr Reginald Paget , Northampton

On one point of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, I should like to ask for further guidance. You said, and of course we all accept it, that this House cannot add to its Privilege. But one of our most ancient Privileges is the right of the representative to communicate with his selectors, and I take it that any interference with that right would be a contempt of Parliament. Whether the issue of a writ in any particular case might be an interference with that right is a matter one would have to consider when it arose, but it could be.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I am obliged to the hon. and learned Member. I purposely confined my Ruling to the facts of this particular case and I would not desire to say anything that might prejudice any action which the House, in a future case on different facts, might wish to take.

Photo of Mr Gilbert Mitchison Mr Gilbert Mitchison , Kettering

No one would ask you, Mr. Speaker, for one moment to rule on questions of legal or forensic privilege. Equally no one would wish to deprive some fortunate member of my profession of the chance of a fruitful cross-examination of Mr. Murray, but it is the case, is it not, that the Ruling that you have just given leaves the question of legal privilege entirely open, subject, of course, to the case you yourself mentioned and to the general rules of law on the matter and, therefore, the letters in question may well be privileged from a forensic point of view? I am, of course, not asking you to rule on that whether or not there is any question of Parliamentary Privilege.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The hon. and learned Member is quite right. I referred to the common law privilege in actions for defamation because I thought it was relevant, although it is not for me or this House to pronounce on those matters.

Photo of Mr Francis Bowles Mr Francis Bowles , Nuneaton

Although you said that it had been decided a long time ago that this House cannot add to its Privileges, Mr. Speaker, you will appreciate that there are a large number of hon. Members who do not accept that as binding on the present House of Commons, or a future House of Commons. With the alteration in responsibility of hon. Members as disclosed by this case and part of your Ruling, I should like to ask whether you agree that what you said is not binding on a future House of Commons. It might be necessary for this House some time to assert a Parliamentary Privilege in a matter like this, and I should like to know whether you agree to keep that part of the matter open.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I was merely pronouncing on the facts presented to me, and my Ruling is carefully limited to those facts. I will not attempt to prognosticate the future or to pronounce on any hypothetical case.

Photo of Mr George Porter Mr George Porter , Leeds Central

I should like you to amplify the reference in your statement to the question I submitted to you on the previous occasion, Mr. Speaker. On that occasion I asked whether, in giving consideration to this matter, you would determine the actual relationship between the Minister concerned and the hon. Member who wrote to him. I suggested on that occasion that correspondence between an individual and an hon. Member might not be confidential, but when that correspondence was sent by the hon. Member to the Minister my submission was that it was entirely confidential. The point I am putting is that every hon. Member in sending correspondence to the Minister of a Department definitely confines that matter to the named Minister. I want to know whether you gave consideration to how far that Minister named is responsible for that communication sent to him even though it goes into the hands of people in his Department for the purpose of eliciting an answer.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Certainly the Minister is responsible for all actions in his Department. I thought I had covered the point by saying that it was not a point of order or of Parliamentary Privilege. I think it is a matter of ordinary administration and conduct.

Mr. I. O. Thomas:

I understood you to say and to mean, Mr. Speaker, that the field of Privilege is now a closed field. I am not sufficiently a forensic expert to say whether that is correct, but I am not the only one who should confess that he is not a forensic expert in this field. Can you assert the definite authority on which you have come to the conclusion that the field of Privilege is now definitely closed? If at any time in the future this House feels that the rights and Privileges of hon. Members of this House are being invaded, as in this case, and it is felt that the Privilege should be reasserted, or a new Privilege asserted, what action, if any, can the House take in asserting its position?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I was only dealing with the present situation. At present we are governed by a Resolution passed by this House—I will find the date of if and give it to the hon. Member later—saying that this House will not add to its privileges. That was the authority for what I said, and if the House cares to take another view in the future, that is a matter for the House and not for me.