Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540
TUESDAY 10 MARCH 1998
Sir Patrick Cormack
540. We are of course in a new era in that we
have this continuous feed cable television and for a modest subscription
people in many parts, if not most parts, of the country can see
everything that happens, certainly in the House of Commons as
it happens and a great deal of what happens in the House of Lords.
It is with the continuous feed of the proceedings in Chamber that
I am concerned here. Do you think that there is a case for our
recommending to the House that we should pass resolutions that
would strengthen the hand of the Speaker in these instances on
a line with the resolution that we already have which governs
the sub judice law? Do you think we ought to move in that
A. Given that we have got cable television and
the Parliamentary Channel, and I perhaps should declare an interest
in that I am Chairman of the Parliamentary Channel, I think that
the BBC is also likely to put on at least a sound broadcast and
maybe when we get digital television it is quite likely that we
shall have a channel specifically devoted to parliamentary proceedings.
This of course does open up this whole question as you have so
rightly said. I think your Committee is going to have an extremely
difficult task in deciding what kind of resolution you would need
to pass to protect the Official Secrets Act, bearing in mind the
right of a Member to speak freely in Parliament. It is a terrible
dilemma. At this stage I must say to the Committee that my belief
is that the Members' right should take precedence.
541. And of course there is another thing we
have to consider. Only yesterday, Lord Weatherill,you may
not know thisthe Modernisation Committee of the House of
Commons produced a report and among the recommendations in the
report is that we should do away with the device of "spying
strangers". We know why they are recommending that, because
it is a procedural device that has been so often abused, and they
are suggesting a substitute. But the fact is that the proper use
of "spying strangers" enables the House to go in
camera and therefore shut off any transmission, and if this
recommendation by the Modernisation Committee were accepted that
would go from the House.
A. That would go. I understand "spying
strangers" was in operation in the last war. On several occasions
that is how the House went into secret session. I only once saw
it done in my time, I think by Sir John Wells, on a Friday morning
to demonstrate to some of his constituents what actually happened
when you did "spy strangers". I think it did not do
him much good. In a way, "spying strangers" is a kind
of mumbo-jumbo which the general public find very difficult to
understand, so that I suppose you could have a motion on the order
paper saying that the House would go into secret session, of course
bearing in mind that all motions are debatable.
542. We have touched on the sub judice
position. Did operating the existing rules cause you any difficulty
whilst you were Speaker?
A. Only on the Zircon affair really.
543. A permanent injunction must have caused
A. Not in my recollection.
Sir Patrick Cormack: Would it be helpful, my
Lord Chairman, to Lord Weatherill if he dealt with the Zircon
544. Would you like us to go on to that?
A. It touches on so much of what the Committee
is putting to me that I think that perhaps we ought to deal with
it now. I imagine the Committee has read the evidence of what
happened at the time. If I may put it in my own words, the Government
of the day took the view that a programme to be shown on television,
"The Zircon Affair" I think it was called, was detrimental
to our national security. Sir Michael Havers, who was then Attorney
General, attempted to get an injunction stopping it being shown
in Parliament. I think he did get an injunction stopping the television
broadcast, but the judge concerned refused to give him an injunction
regarding Parliament, saying that this was a matter for Parliament.
Sir Michael came to see me, expressing the hope that I would uphold
the prohibition in the House of Commons, to which I had to reply
that I could not do that, specifically because of the Bill of
Rights. Some few weeks before I had been talking to the Commonwealth
Speakers' Conference on this very matter of the Bill of Rights,
Article 9, so it was very much in my mind. It was a fortuitous
coincidence. When I refused to do this he then asked, or told
me,asked me, I suppose, it would be fair to say,if
I would accept a Privy Council briefing on the matter. I suppose
I could have said no. I can recollect times when I was a Whip
when the leader of the party in opposition was offered Privy Council
briefing and the view of the Whips' office was that he should
not accept it, on the basis that if you do you are neutered. However,
I thought that on this matter I should. As the Committee will
know, I cannot possibly explain or tell you exactly what happened.
In relation to what he had said to me, I agreed to stop this film
being shown in one of the committee rooms. I think it was Robin
Cook who was the Member who booked the committee room. Of course
that would not have been a proceeding of Parliament, I have to
say, what was shown in a committee room. However, I agreed to
uphold this ban, pending a decision of the House. My recollection
is that the Government put down a motion saying in effect that
the Speaker was quite right to ban this offending video. I was
very unhappy about it but I think Jim Callaghan first challenged
me on this and then eventually Tony Benn asked me if I would accept
a manuscript amendment on the basis that the motion had not been
on the order paper in writing until the evening before and therefore
could not be amended in writing, and I said that I would accept
Tony Benn's amendment, which was to send the matter to the Committee
of Privileges. It was my best example, I have to say, of a single
Member's speech swinging the House of Commons, and I have many
examples of that. It is one of the myths that speeches do not
matter. During my 10 years in the Chair I used to keep a list
of speeches that in my judgment had definitely changed things,
but this was the best example. Tony Benn's motion was eventually
carried and the matter went to the Committee of Privileges and
it is a matter of record exactly what they said about it.
545. But were matters raised on the floor of
the House which could have amounted to a breach of the Official
Secrets Act? Leave aside all the technical and procedural matters.
Did somebody get up in the House and reveal what appeared to be
secret information about Zircon?
A. I cannot recollect that that happened.
546. I think they did, in which case you are
really fortifying what you said earlier, that that was an example
where you did not intervene. Whatever you did about the committee
room, you did not intervene when material relevant to Zircon was
actually mentioned on the floor of the House.
A. Unhappily I have not got the Hansard of that
particular debate with me today. The matter, if I may put it bluntly,
is engraved on my duodenum! It was for the House to decide and
the House did so decide.
547. Have you any further reflections you would
like to make on that matter after the lapse of the years?
A. I have refreshed my memory about what the
Committee of Privileges said on this matter. It was highly contentious.
It was probably almost a unique situation because there was not
a precedent for it. The Speaker can always take refuge in precedents,
but I could not on this particular occasion. I was comforted by
the fact that on balance the Committee agreed with the decision
I had taken.
548. While we are considering your powers as
Speaker, Lord Weatherill, you of course exercised on behalf of
the House, with the assistance of Select Committees, a substantial
degree of control over what went on in the precincts of the House
of Commons and the services provided and so forth. At the moment
all that is entirely free from scrutiny by the courts. Do you
believe that this should continue?
A. I do, yes, my Lord Chairman. I remember in
my time there was a very considerable uncertainty as to what exactly
constituted the precincts of the Palace. Could a Member be restrained
as he entered St Stephen's entrance? I think in the end it was
decided that the precincts of the Palace did include the pavements
leading to the St Stephen's entrance. This was really on a matter
of a Member being stopped from getting into a debate by the police
when there was a heavy demonstration. I think yes, the answer
is that I think the Speaker should continue to have control over
that sort of thing.
549. We were discussing the question of scrutiny
by the courts. What do you feel about the degree of protection
which the privileges of the House give in practice, first of all
from interference by the courts, and, secondly, from interference
by the Government?
A. I am not a lawyer, of course. A Member cannot
be arrested in the Palace of Westminster, but a Member is subject
of course to criminal law. I cannot remember in my time that the
question of a possible arrest in the precincts of the Palace ever
really arose. I can remember cases where some Members were arrested
for a criminal offence and there was no privilege concerned, except
that of course the House has to be informed of the matter. I think
that is also true in the House of Lords because some two years
ago one of the cross-bench Peers was arrested on a criminal offence
and I remember the Lord Chancellor advising the House of the fact.
Sir Patrick Cormack
550. Perhaps the most notorious case during
your time was the Stonehouse affair.
A. I was not the Speaker.
551. Of course, it was just before you became
Speaker. Nevertheless, it was probably the most notorious case
in the recent history of the House of Commons. Of course, John
Stonehouse was at no time accused of any offences that directly
related to his parliamentary activities. He was indeed arrested
and in fact he was ultimately sent to prison for serious criminal
offences. The Home Secretary is rather keen that we should recommend
a degree of waiving of privilege when it comes to accusations
of bribery. I wonder if you could address yourself to that question
and tell us what you think on that particular issue.
A. Does that need to be amended? After all,
I recollect one Member of Parliament, I do not know whether he
was arrested but he was certainly charged with accepting a bribe
and the case went to court.
552. That is the Greenway case which we have
discussed in this Committee, and ultimately Mr Greenway was acquitted
and charges were dismissed. But that was because the judge placed
a certain interpretation on the events which led to the charges,
which I think some members of this Committee feel was a controversial
decision, and the Home Secretary certainly takes that line, and
he would like to see the matter clarified beyond any doubt. He
would like Members to be subject to the full rigours of the criminal
law if bribery is the accusation. The counter view is that there
should be a sifting process and that only after the House authorities
have decided that the matter is too complex for them to deal with
should a Member be handed over to the criminal courts. Even that
raises all sorts of other problems as to who can and cannot be
subpoenaed to give evidence and so on. I wondered if you had any
views on what I would call the Home Secretary's proposal.
A. I was Speaker at the time of the Greenway
case, and I know the agony which Mr Greenway suffered as a result
of this and the legal cost to him, which would have actually bankrupted
him if he had not been acquitted. My reflection on that question
would be that there would be a good case, in order to prevent
similar agonies, for having this matter clarified.
553. In which way would you like to see it clarified?
Would you like to see it clarified so that there is no doubt that
the Member should be handed over to the civil authorities, or
would you like to see it clarified so that there is no doubt that
Parliament should have its own specific process for dealing with
A. I think your Committee is going to have a
very difficult problem on this. Basically, I have to say that
my instinct is that the House should decide on matters concerning
itself. On the other hand you have already mentioned the other
complications that would arise from that. I think it is an extremely
difficult question to answer in a yes or no manner. I think it
would need very careful consideration. Nevertheless, I repeat
what I have said to the Committee. I think that a clarification
would be wise today, given that we have had one case and others,
sadly, although they did not actually come to court.
554. It is possible that if corruption charges
were tried in the criminal courts, some modification of the Bill
of Rights would be necessary. I do not think it is certain, but
it is possible. May I ask you about your attitude to the Bill
of Rights, because we have had really two schools of thought developing.
At one end there are those who regard the Bill of Rights as something
rather exceptional as a piece of legislation, obviously because
of its historical connotations, and therefore an Act that is only
to be modified if absolutely necessary and only to the very minimum
extent necessary to achieve the purpose. At the other end of the
scale I think there are those who regard the Bill of Rights as
a statute just like any other statute which can freely be amended
by Parliament if it chooses to do so.
A. Of course it can be amended by Parliament
if it chooses to do so. I think it would need very careful consideration.
I understand that the Australian Parliament has codified the Bill
of Rights and the extent to which it should operate. That seems
to me to have a degree of merit. Given that we live in a society
now which is much more open than has ever been the case in the
past, I think what is extremely important from the point of view
of Parliament is that it is always seen to be acting above suspicion
and certainly not having rules which pertain only to itself in
order to protect the rights and privileges of Members of Parliament
which are not given to other people. I think there probably is
a case for examining very carefully, to ensure that we do not
to any major extent neuter a Member's undoubted duty to speak
his mind in Parliament. I think there is a case for just looking
very carefully at that, given the changed circumstances of today.
Lord Archer of Sandwell
555. I follow that we need to protect Members'
rights of free speech in order to ensure that Parliament's work
is not impeded, but would it impede the work of Parliament in
any way to protect people from allegations of criminal offences
such as corruption?
A. No. I think the public has an absolute right
to know that Members of Parliament behave in the highest tradition.
If a Member of Parliament were to do something which would be
subject to the criminal law if he were a member of the ordinary
public, I think that he should be subject to the criminal law
if he is a Member of Parliament. My feeling is that if we pass
laws which are binding upon members of the general public, it
is not very principled to exclude ourselves.
556. Then there would be no reason presumably
why allegations of that kind should not be tried in the ordinary
A. I am not a lawyer, I repeat. Of course we
have here the problem of some malicious constituents who might
seek to get at their Member of Parliament. All of us who have
been parliamentary representatives know that we have constituents
who threaten legal action and want to take us to court. I think
if we were subject to that sort of thing I would be very cautious
about it, that this place might be very largely empty with Members
spending most of their time in court.
Sir Patrick Cormack
557. It is not just that. May I put a hypothetical
case to you, Lord Weatherill, and I do not want to be thought
to be referring to any recent incident. Let us suppose that the
Member of Parliament for Barchester was accused of receiving a
bribe. First of all, there is the question of the person who is
alleged to have offered the bribe and how he is dealt with. Let
us further suppose that the man who has offered the bribe then
decides, the case having come to court, that he wants to subpoena,
having read all sorts of wild allegations, a whole range of other
Members of Parliament. Is it not a significant breach of parliamentary
privilege if Members who have no connection with the Member for
Barchester then find themselves summoned to appear in court to
give evidence and be cross-examined on their parliamentary speeches?
A. Absolutely right. It is a major danger. If
you take again a hypothetical case, Lord Waddington and I were
both Whips and we both know that Whips know a great deal about
what goes on here. The Chief Whip has things regularly reported
to him. In that case, does the Chief Whip get summoned to say
what he knows about the allegation, who told him about these allegations,
what he knows about them? It is a very dangerous situation. I
think one has to be extremely careful in making these changes.
I have to say to the Committee that I am not against changes but
my view is summed up by something said by Frank Haines, that I
am all in favour of progress as long as it does not mean change.
Progress in this field would have to be extremely carefully thought
out. Nevertheless, I think in equity, and I have to repeat what
I said before, if we make the rules then we must keep them.
558. I am not a lawyer either; I am my party's
Chief Whip, so I entirely agree with the position you are commenting
on. I am struck by this statement which was echoed by the Commons
Privileges Committee in 1987, echoing Mr Enoch Powell. There was
nobody more sensitive to the privileges of the House than Mr Enoch
Powell, when he said that the precincts of the House should not
be treated as a sanctuary from the operation of the law. I think
that is what you are saying now in reflecting the concern that
would be in the general public's mind if parliamentarians were
given some privileged position in relation to the normal operation
of the law as related to their personal conduct rather than their
parliamentary duties. Is that a fair summary?
A. I think that is a very fair summary indeed.
I think we are all concerned, those of us who love Parliament
and have a deep respect for it, about the allegations that have
been current recently and the absolute requirement to repair the
damage and to put Parliament back in the highest esteem amongst
the general public. That is where I start. I spend a good deal
of my time going round the country trying to encourage esteem
for Parliament. Parliament is a searchlight which exposes exactly
what is going on. We may not like it but that is what is happening.
It would not be possible for a Speaker to change its direction
or even neuter it, if he or she held a personal view on anything,
but that is not the case. It is terribly important that the public
should know exactly what is going on and the public has to date
known exactly what is going on. I do not think we should have
special privileges in regard to what would normally be considered
criminal offences, but we have the right to speak our minds here.
559. If alleged criminal offences were investigated
by the police so far as Member of Parliament are concerned, would
any practical difficulties arise out of the police wanting to
have access to the Palace to interview Members, to interview staff
and so forth?
A. I think Sir Patrick has made the point really,
that if the police were investigating a case they would have to
interview other people. Presumably, taking a hypothetical case,
they would have to start with the Whips and so on. I really do
think it is a very difficult matter. It is very difficult to say
to the Committee that you could give a very clear yes or no to
a question like this. It is bound to be qualified because there
are other implications which arise.