HC Deb 18 November 1914 vol 68 cc529-34

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

This Bill is introduced in order to secure that Members of this House who have accepted Commissions in His Majesty's Forces shall not on that account be compelled to seek re-election, but that they should be entitled to remain Members of tins House. Very few words are needed to explain how that situation has arisen. There is a Statute of 1707 which is generally referred to in this connection as the Statute of Anne. This is the Statute in consequence of which Members of this House have to seek re-election in certain cases where they accept offices of profit under the Crown. It is under that Statute, for example, that a private Member, if he is appointed a Secretary of State, or to certain other Ministerial offices, has to seek re-election at the hands of his constituents. But the Statute of Anne made this distinction. It said that with regard to what are called old offices, that is to say, offices which were known to the law at the time the Statute was passed, the Member of Parliament accepting such an old office should have his seat at once vacated, but he might be re-elected, while on the other hand it provided that, as far as new offices were concerned, that is to say offices which Parliament created after the Statute was passed, the acceptance of such new office should not merely vacate the seat, but should render the holder of it incapable of being re-elected. When from time to time we create a new office, which none the less ought to be held by a Member of this House, for instance, such an office as the President of the Local Government Board or the President of the Board of Agriculture, both of which have been created since the Statute of Anne, we at the same time in terms provide that though it is a new office, the Member who is appointed to it may none the less be reelected to this House. But subject to such special provision the acceptance of a new office disqualifies the holder from remaining a Member of this House. So far as regards the ordinary commission in the Regular Army, that undoubtedly is an old office, and consequently if a Member of Parliament has been elected as a civilian here and then in the course of his time as a Member of Parliament accepts a commission in His Majesty's Regular Army that undoubtedly does, under the Statute of Anne, cause him to vacate his seat and expose him to the need of re-election if he intends to continue a Member of this House. That is not so in the case of Members of this House who become officers in the Territorial Army, because by express terms it is provided in the Territorial Forces Act of 1907 that that shall not be so, but as regards the acceptance of a commission in the Regular Army it is so and it is so to this day. By this Bill, the acceptance of a commission as an officer in His Majesty's Forces shall not "vacate and shall be deemed not to have vacated the seat of any Member returned to serve in Parliament." As this Bill is presented to the House and circulated, it might appear to be a Bill of general application, and not merely one of those emergency measures passed in connection with the present War, and might appear to involve a permanent change in the law. I think it is highly undesirable at this time needlessly to provoke criticism of general policy, when all we are engaged in doing is to make the provision necessary for the emergency in which we stand. Therefore, I propose, when the Bill reaches Committee, to insert the words "during the continuance of the present Parliament." The effect of that will be that this relief from the necessity of re-election will only apply during the lifetime of this present Parliament, which, as we know, is necessarily now approaching its last year, and any general change in the law will therefore have to-be dealt with at another time.

I would point out that many people think that the present law does not allow an officer on the active list of His Majesty's Army to sit in the House of Commons at all. Many people imagine that an officer in His Majesty's Army is like a judge in the High Court, or a clergyman in the Church of England, who cannot be elected and sit as a Member of the House of Commons. That is not so. It has never been any part of the law of this House, it has never been part of the Constitution of this country, that an officer who is on the active list of His Majesty's Army cannot be a Member of the House. What happens is this: If anybody who has hitherto been an officer on the active list gets elected to be a Member of this House it is not owing to the law of this House, it is owing to a regulation of the Army, that he ceases to be on the active list, and he is put on half-pay or is otherwise dealt with. Consequently this measure does not in the least alter the right of Members of this House to be officers in His Majesty's Army, and it will, so far as this present Parliament is concerned, preserve Members of this House, who in a patriotic spirit have accepted commissions in the Army in view of our present emergency, from being exposed to the necessity of re-election. The Bill, as I think, is so framed as to make it quite clear that none of those not very admirable persons who make it their business to sue for vast penalties in, as they suggest, the public interest, shall be able to exercise their ingenuity at this time to the great expense of Members of this House who are doing their utmost to serve their country.


I thank the Attorney-General for his very clear exposition of this Bill. I wish I were quite as certain as he seems to be that it will have the desired effect. I do not think there can be anything which would cause any hon. Member to be in disagreement with the object of the Bill, which is that those of our colleagues who have sought and obtained commissions in the Army to serve our country should not be liable to any penalty nor forfeit their right to sit with us. But I am not quite clear that the Bill, as drawn, accomplishes that. The seriousness of the position seems to me to be that any Member of Parliament who has accepted a commission at once vacated his seat, and from that time until now, and from that time until the Royal Assent is given to this measure, he is not a Member of Parliament at all. On September last—the Attorney-General did not refer to this point, which I think it is a serious one—the quarterly payments for the salaries of Members of Parliament were sent, and undoubtedly in dozens of instances must have been sent out to Members at a time when they were not Members of the House any longer. I presume the payments have been made by the Treasury. I do not for a moment want to challenge those payments, or to deprive any Member of his salary as a Member of Parliament. What I am asking is that these payments should be beyond challenge. The only retrospective words I find in the Bill are that the acceptance of a commission as an officer in His Majesty's Army shall not vacate, and shall be deemed not to have vacated, the seat of any Member that serves in Parliament. We are legislating that he be deemed not to have vacated his seat, but I do not think that that alters the historical fact that he did vacate his seat, and that he is not a Member of the House.

What I ask is that the Bill should, if possible, be made a little clearer and stronger than it is now. In this House we desire to afford the relief in a way that it will be beyond question in the Law Courts. I think it would be regrettable, as this is our intention, that there should be anything which would give rise to future question, and therefore I submit that there should be some words preserving those Members from any of those actions to which reference has been made, unless we get a distinct assurance that such words are unnecessary. But it does seem to me that the receipt of these payments of salary in September rather alters the position, and is something in the nature of a Vote. There have been no Divisions in this House since the War broke out, and I hope that we may be able to defend our country without having to vote "Aye" or "No." I trust that we shall be able to see eye to eye, and stand together, on account of the effect it will have upon our soldiers who are fighting our battles. I think the House would be quite willing to insert words which would meet the point. I am not a lawyer, and I cannot suggest words, having no confidence in any phrase I might use, but I think it is within the power of the Attorney-General to insert words which would put the matter beyond doubt, and prevent our colleagues from being persecuted by vicious actions. I thank the Attorney-General for his intimation that he will insert the words, "during the present Parliament." At Question time I indicated to the House that there would be consider- able opposition to this Bill in its present form; that opposition was not meant against the object of the Bill; and we now have the suggested Amendment by the learned Attorney-General limiting the measure to this present Parliament. My own suggestion was to put an Amendment down that the Bill was to be during the War, or whilst His Majesty's Government was in a state of war with foreign Powers. On reflection, I think the suggestion made by the Attorney-General is the better one. I think it is best that we should legislate with regard to our own Parliament, leaving to the next Parliament to consider whether or not it will continue the Act.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for to-morrow (Thursday).

The remaining Orders wore read and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. DEPUTY-SPKAKEB, pursuant to the Order of the House of 12th November, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."—Debate arising.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes before Nine o'clock.