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4.53 pm

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): It is with great pleasure that I say that the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege has done a very thorough and complete job and we would all wish to thank hon. Members on both sides for their work.

I did not entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) when he said that he thought that privilege had been a mishmash. That was not so, and nor is it so now. In fact, the greatest of our privileges is freedom of speech, which has been guaranteed since 1689 when article 9 of the Bill of Rights made it absolutely clear, in words that bear repeating, that

That absolute privilege is of the greatest importance in a democracy. In many nations, autocratic and dictatorial regimes make it clear that any major criticism of them--in Parliament or not--will get people quickly into prison. Members of Parliament have the right of freedom of speech, which, incidentally and rather amusingly, was secured mainly through the work of our forebears and the pressure applied by peers in another place. However, we will not go into that in this debate.

I shall raise four specific points. When I was Chairman of the Procedure Committee--I held the post for 14 years--these matters arose more frequently than any other, so we must try to rectify any problems now or in

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the draft Bill. I refer hon. Members to the sub judice rule, which will always be a point of contention. Page 52 of the report states clearly that the sub judice rule is reasonable and proper. The rule provides that

    matters awaiting adjudication in a court of law should not be brought forward

when it would make it more difficult for justice to be served. However, paragraph 191 states:

    "On the other hand, Parliament has a constitutional right to discuss any matters it pleases."

The limitations imposed by the sub judice rule is, and can be, damaging. It is not unreasonable to refer in this context to the Pinochet case, which has been much on our minds of late. It is madness that, although all the media and every man, woman and child can debate that case time and again, the sub judice rule prevents Members of Parliament even from considering it. I do not believe that that is right in today's world.

It is immensely difficult--as I am sure the Leader of the House will acknowledge--to attempt to put into words exactly how the sub judice rule must work in every case. However, Madam Speaker has the power to make that decision and I suggest--if I may be so bold--that she should enforce the sub judice rule much more leniently than she has done recently.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I refer my right hon. Friend to paragraph 202--which I mentioned briefly in passing--in which he will see that the Committee has attempted to frame a resolution that addresses the points of concern that he and I share.

Sir Peter Emery: My hon. Friend should not think that I have not looked at paragraphs 202 and 200, which are the key to the recommendations. However, as it is so difficult to describe the rule, its interpretation will rest with Madam Speaker. I urge her to be--I will not say more modern as that is perhaps unkind--slightly more pliable in her application of that rule. Perhaps we might even go further. Although it might be right to make such a ruling initially, if a matter continues for a long time and there is wider discussion, Madam Speaker might feel it right to give way on that initial judgment.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the difficulties with the sub judice rule--especially in the Pinochet case--is that the House might want to explore matters related to the exercise of ministerial discretion rather than the actions of the court? However, by virtue of the blanket operation of the rule, we are prevented from exploring those matters.

Sir Peter Emery: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, although I do not want to enter into debate on that subject as it might seem that I am criticising the Chair, which I would not do at any time.

Mr. Bill Michie: The Committee examined that matter time after time. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how we can stop abuse in this place if there is no sub judice rule, or if it is relaxed? That could be quite damaging. We are not editorials in a tabloid newspaper; we are the House

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of Commons--the high court. We must have a discipline; we may not like the idea that we are restricted, but surely that is for the benefit of justice, rather than for instant television from the House when someone is being judged by their peers.

Sir Peter Emery: The hon. Gentleman makes a not unreasonable point. The only counter to it is that the media are limited in that they cannot make any comment that is prejudicial to a trial. Perhaps we should consider that point more than we have in the past, to examine how prejudicial any possible debate in the House could be. If a Member were to make a speech that appeared to the Chair to be prejudicial, we might have to give powers to the Chair such that the Member could be brought to order. Surely we must have some discipline in our House for our procedure in such matters.

In relation to bribery, it is extremely sensible that there should be a draft Bill--as the Leader of the House pointed out. I fully welcome the fact that we shall make it clear that the offences of procuring a corrupt act and of performing a corrupt act should be hit equally hard. In the most recent case of cash for questions, it seemed wrong that Members of the House were hit time and again, yet the corruptor--the person who gave the bribes--apparently got off scot free. There is something wrong in that sort of justice--it needs to be rectified.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I quite understand what my right hon. Friend is getting at, but does he agree that to suggest that our colleagues and our former colleagues, who were rightly disciplined by the House, were guilty of accepting bribes is perhaps to go beyond the conduct of which they were accused? Does he share my view that it is unlikely that any court would have convicted them of corruption? They were guilty of a breach of the required standards in this House. Is not that an important distinction?

Sir Peter Emery: I understand that. However, it seems to me that the suggestions in the recommendations go further than the implications made by my right hon. and learned Friend. I want to make certain that any condemnation should be equal on both sides. That has not been true so far. I feel strongly about that matter.

It is strange, but the interests of protection of privilege go to all aspects of proceedings in Parliament, and it is to the definition of those proceedings that I now turn. All the work of Select Committees is dealt with under the aspects of privilege pertaining to the House of Commons--with one exception: when a Committee presents its report to the country through a press conference held in a Committee Room, Members of Parliament attending the press conference are told that it is not considered a proceeding in Parliament and that there is no privilege. If an accusation is made there, it is no different from one made in the street.

It has been said that, unlike proceedings of Parliament, no record is made of such conferences, so one could not be certain of what was said. I understand that, but privilege is granted to private sittings of Select Committees, of which there is no record. Therefore,

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I believe that occasions such as I have described, which occur about 30 or 40 times a year, should attract privilege as part of the proceedings in Parliament.

Mr. Sheldon: I see no problem. At a press conference, one is limited by the report and one can quote freely from it to explain one's arguments. If one wants to go beyond that, there are clear dangers, of which a wise Chairman or any Member of Parliament attending such a press conference will be aware.

Sir Peter Emery: I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. However, I have attended many such events over the years and, time and again, heard the Clerk remind hon. Members attending the press conference that privilege does not apply to the meeting. It should be considered part of proceedings in Parliament when Committees present a report at such conferences; I see no reason why they should not be covered by privilege.

I was sorry to hear the Leader of the House speak about leaked documents. I consider the Committee's recommendations on leaked documents, set out on pages 71 and 72 of the report, to be extremely sensible. Paragraph 266 states:

That is preceded by the assertion that:

    "The primary responsibility, and therefore the more serious contempt, rests upon the person who leaked the document."

That is right, but members of the press appear to be able to get away with the publication of documents that they have acquired by one means or another--they take the "publish and be damned" approach. The report recommends that the House of Commons should pass

    "a resolution which applies to reports at any time prior to publication and to the unauthorised use of committee material, and that the House of Lords should pass a similar resolution"

condemning such actions.

We should hold responsible not only the reporter who writes the article but the editor and the proprietor who are responsible for the management of the newspaper in which it is published. If we ensured that they were held responsible for such breaches of principle and returned to bringing them to the Bar of the House, the practice would stop overnight.

I have purposely brought Hansard of 24 January 1957, when the last person to be brought before the House was Mr. John Junor, the editor of the Sunday Express. He was lectured and had to apologise to the House. He said afterwards that it was the most worrying, unpleasant day that he ever had to suffer in his life. It is not fines, however large, that will bring about what we want but the fact--the disgrace, perhaps--of being summoned here to apologise.

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