§ MR. HAROLD COX (Preston)
I wish to draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to what I believe to be a breach of the privileges of this House committed by the Board of Inland Revenue. The House will remember that under the Old Age Pensions Act it was provided that in estimating the income of a claimant for a pension, the yearly value of any advantage accruing to that person from any property enjoyed by him should be taken into account. The Act also authorised the issue of regulations by the Treasury for the administration of the Act. Those regulations may come before the House later, and I do not refer to them. I am referring to a series of instructions which have been issued by the Board of Inland Revenue to pension officers. These instructions were published in the Daily Telegraph on 5th September. When, however, I applied to the Board of Inland Revenue for a copy of them, I was informed that they were secret instructions. The effect of the instructions is to instruct pension officers that, in estimating the income of a claimant, they are to take into account 169 the value of free board and lodging, but not the value of furniture and personal effects, unless it exceeds £30, and they are always to deduct £30 from the value of the furniture. There is nothing in the Act or in the regulations issued by the Treasury authorising that deduction, and the effect of the deduction will be in many cases to put the claimant into a higher category for claiming pension than he would otherwise be. In other words, the effect of the instructions is to impose a charge on the taxpayer, and I submit that that is a breach of the privilege of the House. The House refused to allow the House of Lords to amend the Bill in any respect, but the Board of Inland Revenue is here claiming to do what we did not allow the House of Lords to do. I can quite see that it would be extremely inconvenient if every breach of an Act of Parliament were treated by the House as a breach of privilege; but I venture to submit that this is an abnormal case. It is abnormal in the first instance because there is no possible means by which the Courts of law can be invoked to correct it. The Act itself provides that there shall be no appeal to any Court of law, and therefore there is no means of putting the law in force. The only other possibility is the intervention of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, but that can only take place after two years, and it would be practically impossible for him to ascertain what persons have had their furniture incorrectly valued, and it would also be impossible to recover the amount. Therefore I submit that in this particular case there is no other means of dealing with the matter except to treat it as a breach of privilege of the House of Commons. I submit it is a breach of privilege, because this body is not merely committing an accidental breach of the law, but is claiming what is equivalent to a concurrent legislative power with this House.
§ *MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Member was kind enough to inform me beforehand of his intention to raise this question, and I have used the interval to endeavour to inform myself as to whether any precedent existed of a case similar to that which is now brought before the attention of the House; but I have searched in vain among the precedents of breaches of privilege for anything at all in the nature of the 170 one the hon. Member now claims to be a breach of privilege. If, as the hon. Member says, a Department of the State has violated an Act of Parliament, the proper course is to indict the Minister here for the action of his Department. That would seem to be the natural and normal course. The hon. Member says that the Courts of law are not open to him. I do not know how that may be. I would not like to give an opinion on that; but it is quite clear that it would be extremely undesirable to extend our view of a breach of privilege, as it would be extended if we were to treat as a matter of privilege every occasion on which we think that a Minister of the Crown is not carrying out an Act of Parliament in a way which appears to the House to be the proper way. Either the Courts of law are open or they are not. If they are not open there is the ordinary way of calling to account a Minister of the Crown, and I think I must leave the hon. Member to take what course he can in that respect.
§ MR. HAROLD COX
asked whether he would be in order in moving the adjournment of the House that night on the ground that this was a definite matter of urgent public importance. That it was of public importance was obvious, and, with regard to urgency, this was a continuing breach of the law, going on day by day, and should be stopped at once.
§ *MR. SPEAKER
This seems to be a matter of ordinary daily administration. The Inland Revenue Department, along with the Local Government Board, is called upon to administer this Act. I do not think it would be possible to move the adjournment of the House on a matter of that sort, otherwise, whenever a matter of so-called maladministration or improper administration was pointed out or conceived to exist, the adjournment of the House could be moved. I think the hon. Member should be left to use such means as are at his disposal to bring the matter before the House.
§ MR. HAROLD COX
May I point out that it is not a question of administration; it is a question of giving instructions which are obviously at variance with the text of the Act of Parliament.
§ *MR. SPEAKER
Whether they are at variance or not with the Act of Parliament is a point which I cannot decide. The hon. Member thinks they are, probably the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes a different view.