HC Deb 18 February 1919 vol 112 cc791-804

Notwithstanding anything in any Act, a member of the Commons House of Parliament shall not vacate his seat by reason only of his acceptance of an office of profit if that office is an office the holder of which is capable of being elected to, or sitting or voting in, that House:

Provided that this Section shall not apply to the acceptance of any office mentioned in the First Schedule to this Act, nor shall it affect the provisions of any Act imposing a limit on the number of Secretaries or Under-Secretaries of State who may sit and vote in the Commons House of Parliament.

(2) The enactments mentioned in the Second Schedule to this Act and any enactments amending or extending those enactments are hereby repealed.

(3) This Section shall be deemed to have had effect as from the first day of January nineteen hundred and nineteen.


With reference to the Amendments standing on the Notice Paper to Clause 1, it appears to me that several Amendments are aimed at the same thing in different ways, with different periods attached to them, varying from six to twelve months. I think if hon. Members look at the Paper they will agree with me that, from the point of view of drafting, the one standing sixth in order, namely, that in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for Hendon (Major Greame), and the hon. and gallant Member for Durham (Major Hills), is the best form of drafting, and that, of course, will be capable of amendment if it is desired to insert any other figure. I suggest to the Committee to consider, when I call the first Amendment, whether it would be convenient to come to that later one and take the discussion on it.


I am sure the whole Committee will at once defer to your views as to what Amendment is in the best form of drafting. I at once agree to your suggestion, provided that the other hon. Members who have their Amendments down before the one to which you have referred also accept your suggestion.


The Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for South Hackney is quite distinct from all the other Amendments, as it makes the Act only operative for this year. I rather gathered from the speeches on the Second Reading that the purpose of hon. Members who spoke then, and who have put down Amendments, was the same, only differing in the extent of time. I was proposing to ask the hon. Member for South Hackney whether he would agree to take the discussion on the subsequent Amendment of the hon. and gallant Member for Hendon?


I am in your hands, Mr. Whitley.


Does the hon. and gallant Member for Bury St. Edmunds agree?

Lieutenant-Colonel W. GUINNESS

I agree, Sir.


I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), after the word "House" [" sitting or voting in that House"], to insert the words Provided that such acceptance has taken place less than six months from the declaration of the polls at a General Election. I appreciate the delicate compliment in the matter of drafting, and the acceptance by the Leader of the Opposition of this Amendment as a convenient form in which to take the discussion. Also, I suggest, it is, perhaps, the most convenient Amendment to meet the sense of the Committee upon its merits. I do not wish to waste time by again going over the arguments which I adduced yesterday in support of a time limit, but I take just three points which make this Amendment a convenient one in substance as well as in form. In the first place, as against the Amendment proposed by the hon. Member for South Hackney, if it is right at all to have a new general rule on this subject which puts a time limit upon the date of the election of Ministers, I think it is very convenient to get the thing settled once and for all, and to fix that time limit, and let it apply continually whenever the question comes up. The time limit of six months, which I venture to suggest to the Committee is convenient because I do not think that the limit we put upon this ought to be too long. In various quarters the suggestion has been made that the Government may possibly be reconstituted at a later date. I express no opinion as to the merits or demerits of that, but I think it would be convenient to take a period of six months, because I think we ought to ensure that we cover the period before that new Ministry comes to birth, unless it is an extremely premature birth.

4.0 P.M.

Generally, then, I would, in that spirit, submit this Amendment to the consideration of the House. As to the arguments against it, I submit that the whole need of the present situation is met if Ministers now who are about to accept office are relieved of the obligation of returning once again to their constituents. There is very great value in keeping the old established custom, so that, at a later date when the whole situation has completely changed, Ministers may have to submit themselves to the suffrages of the electors on taking office for the first time. I should like, if I may, to express my gratitude, and that of those who have thought with me in this matter, to the Leader of the House for the broad-minded way in which he yesterday met us and undertook to leave this question to the unfettered judgment of Members. I venture to think that neither he nor any other member of the Government will regret it, nor will the country, if a time limit is maintained. Ministers will thereby refrain from taking advantage of the position in a way which it might cause it to appear, although I am sure it is not their intention, that they were claiming a kind of perpetual right. This, I am certain, they would really be the first to disclaim.


I infinitely prefer the Amendment of my hon. and gallant Friend to my own, for it avoids the need of a constant resuscitation of this matter. It enunciates once and for all the principle that is in consonance with the almost unanimous feeling of the House yesterday, whilst the general protection given by this Act of Queen Anne to the electorate is, in normal circumstances, worth preservation. There may be special circumstances, especially immediately after the General Election, when these provisions may be relaxed. Therefore I willingly obliterate my own Amendment in favour of that of my hon. and gallant Friend. We thank the Leader of the House for his sympathetic spirit and his offer of a compromise on the question. When a General Election has taken place, and a new Parliament has come into existence, it may be assumed—though logically it may be unsound—that every Member returned at the General Election, inferentially in the opinion of the electorate, is qualified for office in the new Government. I have much pleasure in supporting the Amendment of my hon. and gallant Friend.

Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)

I appreciate the spirit in which this Amendment has been moved and supported. I think I showed yesterday to the House that we, as a Government, had no desire to do anything against its wish, even it we had a majority; that we desired to carry the House with us. I should like to make a suggestion which goes a little further than the offer I made yesterday on behalf of the Government. I really do not know in which way the vote will go, but my hon. Friend said that the House was unanimous. I do not know, as I say, what the decision will be, but it struck me that there was a sufficient amount of feeling against a complete change. I may be doubtful whether now we should carry the proposal we have put forward, even if a majority were in favour of it. The view I am now going to express is personal. I think it will be the experience of hon. Members here that the House is very jealous of anything which seems to change old customs and which appears to be for the advantage of the Government of the day. I do not think that this particular case does in any special way advantage the Government of the day. Whatever the situation in front of us, if some of the alarming things said about the House of Commons and the Government wererealised, then, indeed, there might be an advantage to some of those who are supporting the proposal. I, therefore, do not put it at all from the point of view of the Government. I put it as my view—as to what we thought was best in the general weal. As I said, I should be sorry to carry, even by a majority, or even without a Division, this matter if the House were against it. Perhaps it would be better on the whole to have two bites at the cherry, to make this proposal now and the other later. The compromise I am prepared to offer is this: I think six months, even from the point of view of those who have advocated the change, is rather short, especially if the six months be from the date of the election. I am, therefore, prepared, if it is the general wish of the House, to agree, on behalf of the Government, without a Division, to accept this Amendment if a time limit is made of nine months.




I should like—[Hon. Members: "Agreed!"]—I will not intervene for more than two or three minutes, but it appears to me that the question of a time limit, as it is put now, is no better in regard to the principle of the Bill. The original Act was passed to provide against a change of opinion brought about by the prospect of office. That change may come quite suddenly. Conversions have been extraordinarily sudden. Paul was converted in a moment when the dazzling light appeared in front of him. The point here, the whole assumption here, is that future General Elections are going to result in the same sort of thing as the past election has resulted in; that is to say, in the election of a Government with a great majority about whom there will be no doubt at all in the country. That may not at all be the case. You may in the future have a General Election which may result in the election of a number of groups to this House, and no one group may be in a position to carry a preponderance of votes. As a result you may have a Coalition after the election instead of before the election. In the present case the Coalition was before. Everything was perfectly fair and above board. The public know that any man on the Coalition side appeared with a certain programme, and if he takes office there is no doubt about it. But, as I say, you may have a number of groups after the election and all sorts of promises and bargains made on behalf of the Government, and possible members of it. A Government of that kind can be easily formed in the future, but we are dealing now with emergency matters. We are all willing to give the present Government this concession because we can trust it, but we might not be willing to give this concession to another Government. Why should we legislate for the future? If some Government in the future requires this concession, let them come to the House of Commons. I think we should give what they want in this emergency—that is, the twelve months'grace—and leave future Governments to deal with it themselves. I suggest that we should pass this Bill, with the twelve months' grace allowed for, and I think if the hon. Member for South Hackney sticks to his Amendment that will meet the sense of the House, and convey the right impression to the country. My Constituents will be asking me what have the Government done, and I shall have to reply that the first thing they have done is to take away my rights as a private Member, and the second thing is they have taken away the rights of the electors. That is not the sort of thing we want to do. The country accepts these proposals as emergency legislation, and I suggest that we should not accept what has been suggested.


I desire most heartily to support the Amendment which has been moved, although I have no objection to nine months being substituted. As one who has had some experience of different Parliaments, I ask the House to settle this question once for all. I do not know whether it was mentioned yesterday, but there is another point which could be brought forward. The contingency just mentioned by the previous speaker is not sufficiently likely to occur or sufficiently important to overweigh the advantages of the proposal now before the House. I have seen a good many Governments formed after elections, and it is advisable that they should be able to select the best men for important positions, and new Members for minor positions who may be able to do valuable service to the State, and yet the Government is constantly hampered in their selection by the size of the Member's majority. A Government, as a rule, will not select within a few weeks of a General Election a Member who has got in by a few hundreds or a few tens of votes, and it has often occurred that appointments have gone to the men with the largest majority, although they are not necessarily the best qualified. After a General Election has been held and the man has won by a small majority, that ought not to stand in his way of being offered an office which he could satisfactorily fill. I hope the House will accept this solution of a very vexed question, and at any rate give it a trial.


May I substitute the words "nine months" for the "six months" in the Amendment which stands in my name?


May I say, without consulting my Leader on the right, that I accept the Amendment in lieu of my own Amendment?

Amendment to the proposed Amendment: Leave out the word "six," and insert instead thereof the word "nine."—Agreed to.

Proposed words, as amended, there inserted.


I think that covers the next Amendment on the Paper, but I understand the Government have some consequential Amendments to propose.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir Gordon Hewart)

I beg to move, in Subsection (1)), to leave out the word "First" [First Schedule to this Act."]

This Amendment is necessary in consequence of the Amendment we have accepted to clause 1, and it will necessitate a further alteration in the Bill as it now stands. The existing provisions contained in Section 52 of the Representation of the People Act, 1867, and the corresponding Scottish and Irish Acts, permit Minsters who hold certain offices to pass without re-election to certain other offices. Now the operation of the present Bill is to be limited to a period of nine months, and I shall therefore have to propose that the First Schedule be omitted.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: Leave out Sub-section (2).—[Sir G. Hewart.]

Viscount WOLMER

I beg to move to leave out Sub-section (3).

It is a very important principle that any proposed change in the Constitution should not be made retrospective except in very exceptional cases. Of course we know perfectly well that an Act similar to this Bill was proposed and carried with retrospective effect during the continuance of the War, but I do not think that that in any way invalidates the principle which I believe has always been maintained in our procedure in these matters. The War did present very exceptional circumstances, and of course it was not reasonable to pay as much attention to constitutional reforms in war-time as I think it is right and proper to do in peace time. If this Sub-section is left in it will have the effect of relieving certain members of the present Government from the necessity of seeking re-election, which they would otherwise be bound to do.

I should like to say I am very sorry to have to do anything that will inconvenience those Ministers who are affected because they are all my personal friends, and no doubt an election at this time would be a very great nuisance, but I do think that it is an important principle that the Constitution should not be altered with retrospective effect if you can possibly avoid it. That principle has not been maintained in our history for nothing, and it is a very great bulwark against jobbery. Of course, there is no suspicion of jobbery in this case, but that is all the more reason why we should enforce this principle. The forms of this House are not unimportant, just as the fact that the Speaker wears a wig or we have a mace on the Table have their meaning, and it does seem, to me to be important that we should maintain our traditions. I think the right hon. Gentleman has insufficient sympathy with the traditions of our Constitution in matters of this sort, and he has got so used to D.O.R.A., and the powers conferred on the Government during the War, that he is inclined to ask us to "Take away that bauble!" It is extremely distasteful to me to do anything personally inconvenient to those Ministers affected, but I move this Amendment because I doubt if the right hon. Gentleman can quote a single precedent for the alteration of the Constitution, with retrospective effect, in favour of certain individuals.


Does not the Amendment which the Committee has already accepted cover this point?


I do not think so. We have been dealing with the future, and this Amendment applies to the past. Therefore I do not think it is out of order.


I quite understand why my Noble Friend has raised this point, and, indeed, I feel it is quite right, as a matter of protest, so to speak, that the House of Commons should be asked to realise what it is doing. There can be no doubt that any measure with retrospective effect is in itself a bad thing and should certainly not be lightly passed by the House of Commons, but, on the other hand, I think my Noble Friend will agree that in substance the hon. Member for South Hackney (Mr. Bottomley) was right in saying that the Amendment just carried does in effect have this result. If this Amendment were adopted, the Bill would become absolutely useless, though the House has agreed almost unanimously that so far as the present is concerned it is not desirable that Ministers should have to go back to their constituencies for re-election. All I would say further is that, although it is a convenience to those Ministers, and a great convenience, it was not on that ground that the Government decided to introduce the Bill, but it was on the ground which I gave to the House yesterday. Heavy burdens are falling upon some of the Ministers, as, for intance, the Minister for Labour, and nothing could be worse from the point of view of the public interest than that we should ask these Ministers to go away to their constituencies and neglect the very urgent duty which they are now called upon to do in order to seek re-election. I hope, under these circumstances, that my Noble Friend will not press his Amendment.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir F. HALL

Naturally, we do not want to send these Ministers back to seek re-election, but if, as my Noble Friend has stated, this Bill is brought forward owing to the present congested state of Parliamentary work, why not bring in a small Bill making it unnecessary for these Ministers to go back to their constituencies and not deal with the general principle at all? We had the same question with regard to Ministers during the War and it was perfectly easy to pass such a Bill. If there is a vast amount of work, then I think we might have a Bill brought in dealing with the present circumstances only.


The right hon. Gentleman always seems to deal with legislation as though it were a sort of hand-to-mouth matter affecting the Government of the day only. This is a measure to be put on the Statute Book for all times and to confound the Amendment we have just carried with the Bill is quite ridiculous. The Amendment which we have just carried is that after every General Election there should be a period of nine months during which Ministers can take office without going to their constituencies. The present Amendment says that this legislation shall not be retrospective, and it affects merely the immediate Parliament. The Amendment already carried applies to all future General Elections. The real vice of the Sub-section is that it is retrospective and creates a very bad precedent. Once you allow your legislation to be retrospective in this way there is no end to the amount of jobbery that may take place in future Governments. I remember that in the last Parliament there was an hon. Member who did great good work for the Government in fixing up the silver difficulty by purchasing silver for the Government. Unfortunately, he was a Member of this House at the same time that he had dealings with the Treasury, with the result that he incurred enormous penalties wholly unwittingly. That was brought by a public informer to the notice of the Courts, and he was made to pay over £50,000 in costs. If ever there were a case where the Government should have brought in retrospective legislation to save a man from enormous expense, that was a case in point; but in spite of that, Sir Stuart Samuel had to pay those costs, his lawyers' costs, and the costs of two or three actions, because two or three public informers were turned down before the lucky one got the money. The Government did endeavour to bring in a Bill to put the matter right, but failed to pass it, partly because it was retrospective and partly because there was no time. It was a very strong case for legislation to indemnify a man who had really committed no crime and who was perfectly innocent. Here we have four Members who wish to get re-elected without the necessity of going to the country. Really, a relief Bill is brought in for those four Members, and it is converted into a bad precedent for another Act of Parliament.


I have listened with sympathy to my Noble Friend opposite (Viscount Wolmer) and to the hon. and gallant Member (Colonel Wedgwood), but I do not think that they have quite done justice to the point which my right hon. Friend made when he pointed out the fact that the Bill does make a prospective change in the law. That does very considerably modify the degree of abuse which arises from retrospective legislation. It is one thing to interfere retrospectively for a particular case without altering the law prospectively—that is exceedingly objectionable, and that is the course which would have been taken if Sir Stuart Samuel had been relieved from the penalties which he had incurred—but it is altogether another thing to alter the law retrospectively when you are at the same time altering it for the future. That is very little more than following sound form. I may be mistaken, but if I correctly understand the position even if the Amendment were carried, the effect would be that the Ministers would be obliged to resign their office and be reappointed after the Bill had passed into law. If they were reappointed after the Bill had been passed into law, then under the provisions of the Bill they would, be relieved. I am not sure that would not be the better way of conducting the matter, but it would only be a question of form, and I therefore suggest to my Noble Friend that it is not really worth while pressing the Amendment.


I should like to ask the Leader of the House one question. As I understand it, the Amendment just passed provides that for nine months after a General Election a Member is free to accept office without again submitting himself to his constituents. What is the effect of that with regard to a by-election? Supposing a man enters the House for the first time at a by-election, and then within a week or so of his taking his seat he is appointed to Ministerial office? Apparently, if that took place nine months after the General Election he would have to go back to his constituents and undertake the very process which we all recognise is undesirable in the present circumstances. I wish the Leader of the House would tell me whether that is so or whether it is intended to do so?


I am very largely in sympathy with what my hon. and gallant Friend has said, but the point was really raised by you, Sir, in deciding that this Amendment should be discussed. The Amendment of my Noble Friend, intends to do exactly what my hon. and gallant Friend desires. I have tried to find some principle, or something as near principle as we could get in dealing with a matter of this kind. Personally I think the sound principle is to say that we will abolish it altogether, but I do not wish to do that without carrying the whole House with me, and, if we do not do it, then it seems to me that the only possible solution is the one which was expressed by some hon. Member and which was, I think, accepted by the House, namely, the fact that a General Election has just taken place and a majority has been returned for a particular Government is proof that the country at the time is in favour of a man supporting that Government. A by-election might take place two or three years after the General Election, and the country might not then be in favour of the Government as a whole. There is a great deal to be said for the hon. and gallant Member's point of view, but it would not apply in a great many cases, and I am really trying to find something which will carry the House with me. Of course, it is in the nature of a compromise.

Major WOOD

I only rise for the purpose of asking my Noble Friend opposite (Viscount Wolmer) to yield to the request of my Noble Friend on this side of the House (Lord Hugh Cecil) and to withdraw his Amendment. I would emphasise what my Noble Friend has said with regard to the effect upon our judgment of being engaged in passing permanent legislation. After all, we are engaged in dealing with a Statute that has been on the Statue Book since about 1700. If, therefore, we project our minds forward and realise that this Statute may be on the Statute Book in 2100, I think my Noble Friend opposite will see that it is rather a small point as to whether he should insist on four particular Ministers submitting themselves for re-election. I submit that it would be unfair upon these particular individuals, in view of the fact that we are laying the foundations for the next two centuries, to insist upon penal legislation in their case.


I hope the Committee will accept the position as passed by the Amendment which has already been accepted, because it was certainly not only implied but also expressed that the Amendment was intended to cover the present circumstances as well as apply generally.


My hon. and gallant Friend (Major O'Neill) has pointed out an absurdity which necessarily arises from the position resulting from the acceptance of the Amendment. The Leader of the House recognises it and attributes it, as I understand him, to the selection that was made by you, Sir, among the various Amendments. It is, however, admitted that it has given rise to an absurd position.




In my opinion, the position shown by my hon. and gallant Friend is about as absurd as anything can possibly be. At all events, my right hon. Friend accepted the Amendment, in order, as he said, to get a solution which would carry the whole House, or the greater part of the House. I listened with the greatest possible regret to the acceptance of this Amendment by my right hon. Friend. He himself, at the very beginning of the sitting, pointed out that there is no possible worse guide to the opinion of the House than the speeches made, and yet he has allowed himself to be guided by the fact that among the speeches that were made upon the Second Reading there was no voice raised in favour of the Bill as it stood. My belief is that if the right hon. Gentleman had maintained the position which the Government took up when it brought in the Bill, they would have had as large a majority against every one of these Amendments as they had in favour of the Second Reading. By accepting the Amendment they have rendered the Bill futile and absurd as a permanent piece of legislation. [Hon. Members: "No!"] They have made it effective for dealing with the immediate inconvenience and nothing more, and I can only say that I hope my right hon. Friend is not always going to allow himself to be guided by half a dozen speeches when probably the great bulk of the House is prepared to support him.


That is a point which really should have been raised when we were on the Amendment. It should not be brought up now.

Viscount WOLMER

I shall be willing to withdraw my Amendment after the appeal made by the Leader of the House, but I should first like to draw attention to one point. If this Section is not kept out, it seems to me we shall be in a very difficult position. The Clause says that any Member who is elected at the General Election shall be free from having to seek re-election for nine months. Then this Section goes on to say, "this Section shall be deemed to have had effect as from the first day of January, 1919."But the last General Election was held in the summer, and it seems to me that if those words are not left out, it might have an effect entirely opposite to that which the Government intend.


I cannot help thinking that that criticism is a little wide of the mark. The importance of this particular Section is not its reference to the date of election, but its reference to the date of acceptance.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause, as amended, agreed to.