Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1976 Nov 1 Mo
Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Conduct of Members (establishment of Select Committee on Poulson)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [918/979-89]
Editorial comments: 1556-1623.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3395
[column 979]

3.56 p.m.

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)

When James Callaghanthe Prime Minister announced his provisional decision to set up a Select Committee to consider this matter, he undertook to consult the other parties in the House. He has done so, and I am very grateful to him for it. I should now like to explain in my own words why, in general, although this is a House of Commons matter, the Opposition support a great deal of what he says and his broad conclusions.

It has involved a great deal of study, because a small amount of conclusion often involves a great deal of preceding study. There are many other cases to [column 980]consider, and many more matters such as the blue-covered Salmon Report of 1966 as well as the red-covered Salmon Report of 1976 to be taken into account.

The purpose of the inquiry is, of course, to ensure that the high standards which are expected of a Member of Parliament are upheld and that thereby we retain public confidence in Parliament as a whole. This means that, from time, to time, we have the distasteful task of inquiring into cases about which there is some public disquiet. We have this task in common with other members of other professions, and we have to find the best way of carrying it out.

I agree with the Prime Minister in his choice of a Select Committee as a proper vehicle for this inquiry. He quoted from the blue-covered Salmon Report that we should not set up a tribunal of inquiry except where there was very grave public disquiet and public lack of confidence. I do not believe that that is so in this case.

The right hon. Gentleman has chosen, I believe rightly, very wide terms of reference for this Select Committee. I have been through as many of the other Select Committee Reports as I could manage to read during the weekend, and I can find none comparable in the breadth of its terms of reference with this one. Most of them have referred to single specific instances which have been thoroughly investigated by the Committee concerned. But they have been specific. They have referred to existing Members of the House. I understand that this resolution may go wider and take into account those who were previously Members of this House. This is the only resolution that I have been able to find which is so wide in its terms of reference, and it means that it takes on some of the character of an inquisitorial proceeding in the same way as a tribunal of inquiry is an inquisitorial proceeding. That means that we have to take special care to protect those who are innocent, because by its nature an inquisitorial proceeding is rather alien to our laws of justice in this country.

The blue-covered Salmon Report pointed out that it is a quite different procedure from any in a court, in regard to which there have been previous inquiries, and where specific allegations are put down in writing. The person accused knows exactly what the allegations are, [column 981]and depositions are taken from witnesses. There are two sides, with either prosecutor and defendant or plaintiff and defendant.

There is nothing of this kind in a tribunal or in a Select Committee proceeding. It is an inquisitorial proceeding in which allegations emerge as the inquiry goes on. This renders it specially liable to hurt the innocent person—and in particular, if there is a long time elapsing between the allegation and the conclusion, the reputation of the innocent person may never recover. I believe that this puts a very special duty on us to ensure that, while all the relevant evidence is published, no one is subjected needlessly to injustice.

This brings me immediately to the point about the publication of evidence, and to the particular motion on the Order Paper, which is in rather strange wording and not easy to understand. I believe that the best way to achieve these two aims—namely, to bring out all the relevant evidence but to protect the person who is innocent—is to see that every single bit of evidence is published at the time the finding is made by the Select Committee. If by any chance there is then some evidence which goes against a person who is innocent, at least there is the immediate antidote of the finding of the Select Committee.

It is not possible always to have 100 per cent. protection for the innocent in carrying out an inquiry of this kind, but we must make the protection as absolute as possible. This has been done in many past cases. I have been through the Allighan case and all through the Boothby case. Those were single cases. The evidence in the Boothby case ran to some 290 pages. Every single bit was published. The evidence in the Allighan case ran to 122 pages. Every single bit was published. There has been no question about the publication of all relevant facts.

There may from time to time have been discussions about what the House did concerning those relevant facts, but on the whole there has been no criticism that the relevant facts have ever been withheld. Every single thing has been published. How can there be a cover-up when every single bit is published? It is all published and it is all available [column 982]for the House to consider when it comes to debate the matter, and it is the House that decides. It is not a Select Committee.

I now turn to what I believe is a misunderstanding which has arisen from the wording in the Order Paper concerning publication. What I think the words mean, and are intended to mean, is that all oral and documentary evidence shall be published in as much as it is proper evidence. Most of us would not wish to consider improper or irrelevant evidence, because it could only be prejudicial.

Mr. Skinner

rose——

Mrs. Thatcher

May I just finish? I recognise that the hon. Gentleman feels very strongly about this. So do I. If we look at the reports, we find that all the evidence has been published. I remember only one case where an hon. Member has moved concerning suppression of evidence. That case was taken to the Committee of Privileges. It was a very long time ago. That is why I think it is important to have all the evidence published. For my part, I should be very happy to stand by the normal rules relating to Select Committees.

I notice that the Prime Minister said that the word “inadmissible” is not understood in a parliamentary sense. I believe, with respect, that that is not quite right. I believe that it is understood. I spent some time over the weekend learning a great deal from “Erskine May” .

Mr. Skinner

rose——

Mrs. Thatcher

May I read out the appropriate paragraph relating to the publication of minutes of evidence by Select Committees? I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Skinner

I appreciate the right hon. Lady's point, but does she understand that the crucial point here is not that we must satisfy hon. Members? The people we have to satisfy are the millions who elect us and put us into this place. Indeed, we also have to satisfy those who have been involved in Select Committees dealing with other matters.

Does the right hon. Lady know, for instance, that Alan Grimshaw, one of the people partly responsible for the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries [column 983]making an investigation of the National Coal Board's buying of roof supports and so on, is extremely aggrieved at the result of that investigation? The Select Committee did not publish all the evidence which he believed—as distinct from the Committee's view—should have been published. That is the point at issue. Although the House may be happy that all its Members have been safeguarded, the real question is whether a Select Committee in this form, if it decides not to publish all the evidence, can then satisfy all the people outside.

Mrs. Thatcher

I understand that the direction here relates to all “relevant” evidence, that is to say, all evidence that is relevant. I believe that the next words on the Order Paper,

“and such as may fairly be taken into account”

really mean all evidence that is admissible. But in deciding what those words mean, I believe that the proper authority is “Erskine May” other than the Officers of the House. May I read out the rules relating to the publication of minutes of evidence of Select Committees? On page 650 “Erskine May” goes into what is proper and also deals with what is “inadmissible” . That is why I think it is a term understood in the House. It says:

“If a question, which, on being objected to, is decided to be improper or inadmissible, has already been inserted in the minutes, the question is expunged.”

It is, therefore, expunged in terms of existing practice if it is improper or inadmissible—and people do not want improper or inadmissible details to be in the evidence. “Erskine May” then goes on to say:

“Other matters which have been expunged by the order of the committee have included answers which, properly speaking, were not evidence and ought not to have been received as such; part of, or certain words in, a witness's evidence; questions and answers relating to a case, of which the witness subsequently admitted he had no personal knowledge” ——

and so on. In other words, all evidence which is proper and relevant has to be published, I understand, according to the motion before the House. If that is not so, then most of us would be prepared to say that, provided it is published absolutely at the end, when the findings come out, all evidence should be published if any case is to be raised concerning the [column 984]suppression of evidence. I believe that it is more important to get it all out—but to have none of it coming out until the findings are made—than it is to risk any question about suppression of evidence. But I understand the wording on the Order Paper to mean—and I hope that the advice we shall get is that it means that the Select Committee will take it to mean—all evidence which is relevant and admissible——

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

rose——

Mrs. Thatcher

—and that if it is not admissible it ought to be stopped. It sometimes is—as the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon), who is a lawyer, well knows—but it is not always easy to stop it before it has come out and some damage has been done.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I think, with respect, that there is a difference between what “Erskine May” calls inadmissible and the wording used in the motion, which is

“upon consideration … shall appear to be relevant” .

What is inadmissible may be, for example, abuse which may not be regarded as orderly in the House and which would be similarly inadmissible in a Select Committee. But it may be that a Select Committee would think that a false allegation against an innocent Member of the House is irrelevant to its general consideration whether some people were guilty of contempt of the House. The Select Committee may think that it would be better in the circumstances not to have such evidence at all. In the one case it would fall within the terms of the motion and would be strictly admissible according to the “Erskine May” test.

I agree with the right hon. Lady's general approach to the problem, and would be anxious to follow her line in dealing with the evidence. I think it is very important, therefore, that we should get it right here and now and not leave it to the Select Committee to decide according to its own test.

Mrs. Thatcher

I do not believe that false allegations against hon. Members which are irrelevant should be published. It is far better to have them published at [column 985]the end of the day than have the proceedings in public or published in the Press all along. I believe that this means what I believe it to mean and I hope it will be made clear to the Select Committee what the House means. All the evidence put forward, if inadmissible in the ordinary usage of the term, should be stopped at the point given or expunged from the record. As we have inquisitorial proceedings here, we can do that.

I believe that the right attitude to take is that all the evidence should be published at the time of the findings, so that there is no great gap between the allegations being made and the findings being given. Then there is no question of a cover-up of any kind. If that is done, I believe that we shall have the full facts put before the House and it is the House, not the Select Committee, which decides what is to be done on the findings.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

The right hon. Lady has referred to the bluecovered book of Lord Salmon, but only in passing to the red-covered book. In the latter, Lord Salmon, who is fully seized of the facts to come before the Select Committee, and certainly of the evidence which has precipitated this debate today, came to the conclusion, for reasons he has given, including problems about inadmissibility of evidence, that the Select Committee was an unsuitable vehicle. He recommended that every hon. Member should be placed in the same position as a member of the public before the law in a criminal trial. Why has the right hon. Lady not referred to the recommendation specifically made by Lord Salmon that a Select Committee of this kind is highly unsuitable to deal with these matters which we are trying to lay upon them?

Mrs. Thatcher

With due respect to the hon. Gentleman—and I recognise that he is a distinguished lawyer—only a Select Committee can inquire into matters of contempt of this House. No tribunal or other body can do it. The other matter into which the Select Committee is to inquire is whether the standards of conduct fall below those expected of hon. Members. This cannot be a trial, or a criminal trial, and the Prime Minister referred to this matter early on. My understanding is that either before or after the Select Committee has reported, the matter [column 986]referred to in Lord Salmon 's red-covered Report, whether there should be a change of law, must be put through this House in the proper way with proper consideration. That is quite separate from what we are doing now. We do no service to anyone to confuse these two issues.

I shall address a few words to an amendment which I think will be moved later about whether the Select Committee should have the right to go in and out of public proceedings. I do not think the Select Committee should be given that discretion at this moment. There will be, at the beginning, quite a number of allegations which come before the Select Committee, and some evidence will be heard. If the Select Committee is given the power to go into public proceedings at its own discretion, one thing will be certain—the public will not have all the evidence at the same time. It will have some evidence and it will not have other evidence, and therefore it cannot have the means of judging the whole thing. Immediately there are two sorts of evidence created—one sort which is published at the end with the findings and one sort which is published at the time the allegation is put and the hearing conducted. That would lead to confusion, and would create suspicion, not allay it. It would be quite wrong to give such discretion at this time.

On the ordinary procedure of Select Committees, followed in the Boothby case, if the Committee wants extra powers it can come back to the House and ask for them. In the Boothby case, Lord Boothby was given the right to appear or be represented by counsel and the Select Committee was given the right to hear counsel. The Committee had thought that its powers were not enough, so it came back to the House, put its case and got the powers it needed.

None of use knows, apart from S. Silkinthe Attorney-General, what is contained in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's files, and none of us knows the allegations which will come before the Committee. But if, after several weeks, the Committee wishes or thinks it proper that some of the proceedings should be held in public, the correct and appropriate thing to do is for the Committee to make such a resolution, come back to the House and seek further powers. Then the decision [column 987]whether some of the evidence should be in public and some in private rests with the House. There is nothing in the Committee proedures to preclude that from happening, and it is the right way to go about it.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

In her desire to protect every Member of this House, the right hon. Lady spoke of consideration being given for six or seven weeks or more. But has she thought that no one can prevent hon. Members or the Press from waiting in the corridors outside the Committee Room to see who goes in and out? Inevitably there will be some conjecture about who goes in and for what purpose. If the Committee cannot call for factual evidence from one hon. Member to clear his name, there is a danger that anyone called to the Committee will have the stigma, or at least the suspicion, attaching to his or her name. If the Committee could hear this evidence in public his name would be cleared.

Mrs. Thatcher

That is quite different from any allegation being published. I am not certain about the parliamentary law relating to reporting comings and goings in corridors of the House. There have been privilege cases about reporting what goes on in parts of the House which are not the Chamber, and other cases may be referred to the Committee of Privileges. I believe that the mode of operating which the Minister has put forward is, indeed, the best one.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

But is there not a practical difficulty if, as the right hon. Lady has suggested, the Select Committee comes back to the House and asks for discretion to sit in public? It would have to disclose to the House the reasons why it wished to sit in public and that would raise all kinds of problems. If it had the discretion from the start it could exercise that discretion.

Mrs. Thatcher

It is not right to give a discretion to the Select Committee to hear part of the evidence in public and part in private. That ensures that there are two different sorts of evidence and I think that would create suspicion at the outset.

The procedure which we followed in the Boothby and Allighan cases was that [column 988]the hearings were in private, but the public knew everything at the end because everything was published. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) cannot say that there is any cover-up when every word of the evidence is published, because there is no cover-up at all.

I have given my views on what it means, what I believe it should mean, could mean and will be intended to mean. It is far better that we should proceed in this way than by the only alternative, which is for allegations to be published one by one with a very long time between the allegations being made and the findings being published. This is the worst of all possible worlds.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

There are three categories of evidence and they diminish in significance. First, there is “all the evidence” , which my right hon. Friend says she favours publishing—and I agree with her. Secondly, there is “all the admissible evidence” covered by the definition in “Eskine May” which my right hon. Friend read out. Thirdly, there is a still smaller category, which the Prime Minister mentioned, which is “all the relevant evidence” —which means the evidence considered relevant by the subjective tests of the Committee. Which of these groups of evidence does my right hon. Friend favour publishing?

Mrs. Thatcher

The only evidence is evidence which is related to the case. All the rest is not evidence; it is just scurrilous gossip and rumour. The only evidence, by the nature of the word, is evidence relating to the matter which is before the Select Committee. I hope that there will never be any question of using the Select Committee as a means of propounding gossip or scurrilous rumour, if that is what it is, or as a means of seeing that such gossip is published and uttered beyond the House.

If one has any confidence in a Select Committee surely one can trust it to publish all the evidence that truly is evidence and to make an objective assessment. If we do not have that confidence there is no point in setting up the Select Committee.

I am sorry that I have taken longer than the Prime Minister, but at least I have been supporting him this time. [column 989]I believe that what he proposes is the right way to go about this matter, and I hope that the Select Committee will be speeded on its way and will get down to what is for it a very difficult task.