§ [SECOND READING.]
§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ SIR JOHN GORST
said he did not want to interpose in the Second Reading of this Bill but merely to enter a caveat. There was a very important question to be raised in Committee stage of this Bill as regarded its operation, particularly with regard to the great insurance companies. The agents of the insurance companies in many instances derived their remuneration not only from a commission on the original premium paid by the assurers, but also on the subsequent premiums. If the Bill as it now stood were applied to this particular business it would greatly interfere with the excellent and valuable operations of all the great insurance companies and would render it necessary for them to communicate to all their insurers the fact that these commissions were being paid. Several suggestions had been made by the companies to meet the difficulty, which obviously ought to be met. He believed that the last proposal was that there should be a regular tariff of the amount of the commissions paid by the insurance 1584 companies to agents, and that the companies who paid their agents according to that tariff should be exempted from the operation of the Bill. He did not know whether the Government were prepared now to make a statement on the point, but he mentioned it because it was an important public question, which would have to be dealt with in order that a great and valuable business should not be interfered with.
§ MR. RITCHIE
thought his right hon. friend would hardly expect him to make an absolute declaration of the opinion of the Government, but he could assure him that the matter to which he referred was quite familiar to the Government, and that it would receive the most careful consideration.
§ MR. HALDANE (Haddingtonshire)
said that while he was very anxious that this measure should pass, alterations had been made in another place which would render it necessary that its provisions should be most carefully looked into, otherwise the Bill would do more harm than good. He had received communications from many gentlemen with whom he did not agree, but the points to which they referred well deserved consideration. Certain clauses, as they stood, opened up a prospect of unlimited blackmailing. The House would not be satisfied until considerable modifications had been made in the way in which even some of the great insurance companies did their business. There were many objectionable features, but there were also features which were quite legitimate. Nobody desired to see the latter struck out or the business hampered. They did desire, however, that the principle of the Bill should become law, and until it did public opinion would not be satisfied that our commercial morality was as it should be. He would be quite satisfied if the Government would undertake that sufficient time should elapse between the Second Reading and the Committee stage to enable these matters to be thoroughly gone into.
§ MR. CRIPPS (Lancashire, Stretford)
agreed that the Bill was an extremely important one, and one which certainly ought to be passed, but, with the right 1585 hon. Gentleman who had just spoken, he believed in its present form it would do more harm than good. It was too stringent in certain directions, and its details required careful consideration. He understood, however, that the Government admitted that such examination was necessary.
§ MR. E. B. FABER (Hampshire, Andover)
said he desired to say a few words from the bankers' point of view. As regarded the Bill itself no one wished to shield the guilty. Everyone had suffered from the baneful effects of commissions, and they would be glad to see the Bill as a whole passed into law. At the same time he felt confident that nobody wished to interfere with a legitimate trade, and he ventured to think that if the Bill was passed in its present form the banking interest must at any rate suffer. Bankers every day were instructed by their customers to buy certain stock for them. The banker purchased the stock, and sent the broker's note to the customer, setting forth the commission of half-a-crown, which was divided between the banker and the broker. The bankers held that under such circumstances, there being no secrecy at all, that notice to the principal should be enough to take action of that sort out of the purview of the Bill; and they would ask the Committee carefully to consider the insertion of words that were originally in the Bill, in line 1, section 1, viz., "If any agent corruptly and without the knowledge of the principal," etc. If those words were inserted he should be thoroughly well satisfied.
§ MR. CHANNING (Northamptonshire, E.)
said it was perfectly reasonable that the fullest opportunity should be given for the consideration of Amendments, but he hoped the Government would not postpone the Committee stage, so as in any way to endanger the passage of the Bill this session.
§ SIR WALTER THORBURN (Peebles and Selkirk)
said the Bill affected a great many interests, and required careful consideration. Unless materially altered it would place the insurance companies in a most awkward position. He strongly 1586 desired to see the Bill become law, but as there was not time on the present occasion adequately to discuss its provisions, he moved the adjournment of the Debate.
The Motion failed to find a seconder, and therefore dropped.
§ MR. JOHN BURNS (Battersea)
said that, according to Clause 1, any person serving under the Crown was an agent within the meaning of the Act. He desired to know whether the description applied to municipal officials. If it did not, he thought they ought to be included.
§ MR. RITCHIE
said he could not be expected to give off-hand an exact definition of what that particular clause would include. The matter could be considered in Committee, and, if necessary, amended.
§ MR. LOUGH (Islington, W.)
pointed out that nobody had the least notion that this important Bill was coming on, and the Government were incurring an enormous responsibility by rushing the measure forward so unexpectedly. Many clauses required careful consideration on the part of the commercial classes, and certain expressions would need a great deal of definition. He thought this Bill was one which should not be sprung upon the House suddenly in this way.
§ MR. COHEN (Islington, E.)
said he was far from saying that the word "absolute" carried out the intention of the clause. Although they wished to take care that these abuses were remedied, they did not want to do it in a way which would interfere with legitimate and honourable commerce.
MR. LAWSON WALTON (Leeds, S.)
said it was impossible to resist some feeling of sympathy with the hon. Member who had expressed surprise that a Bill of this radical character should be introduced without notice. Many hon. Members interested were not present because they did not expect the Bill to be taken at this hour. This Bill was a proposal for entirely altering certain accepted principles, not in the definition of the law, but in the rules of evidence by which, legal liability was to be established. There was an extraordinary provision 1587 in the Bill which provided that, in proving a corrupt motive on the part of the person accused, he should be deprived of giving the most obvious and conclusive evidence to establish his own innocence. That was a provision which ought to be considered by the whole House. A provision of that kind involving such inconsistency ought not to be considered as a mere mater of detail. There was another provision which cast upon the accused person the burden of proving his own innocence. If the prosecutor said he was not aware that a commission had been taken, it would be necessary for the accused person to prove that he had not taken it. Take any solicitor who had received the usual commission, and a solicitor or agent said he was not aware of it. In the first place the accused person could not prove that it was the ordinary custom of the profession to take those commissions; and in the second place, the burden of proving his innocence was cast upon him. These alterations were very serious, and the House might very fairly complain of not being allowed a fuller opportunity of discussing them.
§ Bill read a second time.
§ MR. WHITLEY
asked what was the state of the business before the Grand Committees. They were anxious to see this Bill passed, and as they had just sent a contentious Bill up to one of the Grand Committees, he thought it might interfere with the success of this measure. It was very undesirable that this Bill should be put behind an extremely controversial Bill.
§ MR. RITCHIE
I understand that the Grand Committee on Trade has two Bills of great importance before it which are likely to take up some time. The Grand Committee on Law has also an important Bill before it, but only one—namely, the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill. I think that it is likely to take up some little time. I do not regret that, because in accordance with the views expressed by many hon. Members it is 1588 desirable that there should be some little interval in regard to it. I think this Bill would have a better chance before the Grand Committee on Law than before the Grand Committee on Trade.
§ Bill committed to the Standing Committee on Law, etc.