HC Deb 23 July 1929 vol 230 cc1253-64

Motion made, and Question proposed "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Kennedy.]


I do not desire to detain the House for more than a few moments, but I do wish to take this opportunity, the first I have had, of raising a matter which I conceive to be of considerable public importance, and upon which, I happen to know, the public mind has been rather widely exercised. I have intimated to my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary for the Home Department the nature of the matter I purpose to raise, and the extent of the information which I have at ray command. Perhaps he will allow he to congratulate him upon the position he now occupies and to wish for him a happy, a useful and a successful term of office, and I hope it may not be thought out of place if I suggest that he should inaugurate that happy and useful term by doing what I want him to do. The matter I desire to raise has to do with a prosecution which was instituted at the Barnsley Petty Sessions and was heard and determined on 7th June. I mention it in that form at present, because I want to make two observations of a prefatory nature in order to avoid any misunderstanding.

I want to say that I desire to deal with this matter with all restraint, as, indeed, it is incumbent upon me to do, owing to the fact that I am not in possession of all the facts of the case. I have no original documents, the depositions in the case, or the notes of the learned clerk to the justices, and my purpose in any observation I make is in no sense to pass any final judgment In this matter but, rather, to ask whether it be possible for the Home Office to take action which would result in that fuller and authentic information being forthcoming which would permit a final and dispassionate judgment to be made. The second observation I would like to make before I deal with the facts is this—that I would like to tell my hon. and learned Friend that I have well in mind the position of the Home Office in this matter, and—though no doubt he will do it—it is scarcely necessary to remind me of the distinction between the powers of the executive and the powers of the judiciary. If I may say so, I think it would be a lamentable thing if the powers of the executive were extended in that sphere at all. Therefore, I am very careful to say with regard to this matter that the request I make is not that judgment should be passed here and now, but that the Home Secretary might think it right to make an inquiry into this matter, as he has the undoubted right to do. If any question arises about that, I will say a word upon it in a moment.

I have in my possession facts which are undeniable and which certainly warrant the question being raised in this form at this time and in this place, and I will try to state them quite shortly without bias or passion. As I understand it the ease for the prosecution was that a boy named Wilfrid Carpenter, of the age of 13 years, on polling day in the recent election at Barnsley, was minded to wear political colours. They happened to be the Liberal colours, but I trust that whatever colours they had been I should have raised this matter had I had an opportunity in this House. Two men, one named Hirst and the other named Bradder pursued this boy, and Bradder caught him and held him until the other man arrived. They then desired the boy to discard his colours, which he refused to do. Thereupon Hirst, it is alleged, twisted his arm with such force that the bone was wrenched at the elbow. One report says it was wrenched off at the elbow, but the case for the prosecution was that the X-ray photograph produced in evidence showed that the arm was, in fact, broken, and the medical man who was called as a witness for the prosecution, in answer to the specific question, said that the force necessary to produce that result was brutal force. As I understand it, that was the case for the prosecution. I think I should be entitled to say this, that everybody who hears that record would agree that in temperate language one might describe that assault as unprovoked, unjustifiable, brutal and cowardly.

I would like to say a word about the defence. If I may interpolate a word here, as one not unaccustomed to presenting defences, good, bad and indifferent—or perhaps it would be better to say presenting defences which do not always meet with that measure of approval one would wish from the tribunal to which they are submitted—I look upon all defences with an extremely benevolent if somewhat critical eye. The defence raised here would appear to be no defence at all. It did not even purport to be a defence. Hirst said in evidence that it was the boy's own fault because he twisted. He denied that the boy screamed with pain, and he said that he did not believe that the boy had been hurt at all. According to my information that was the only defence. I think I am justified in saying that it was no defence at all and it did not purport to be a defence, in fact it was not even a mitigation but a savage justification. There we have the facts with regard to the prosecution and the alleged offence. The punishment was that Hirst was fined two pounds including costs and Bradder was fined one pound including costs. Those are the bare facts as I know them. I should not be treating this House with the frankness I should desire to treat it if I did not say that those facts which I have just outlined have occasioned a great amount of disquiet in the public mind, and there can be no possible question about that. I want to add this not from any desire to add it but I think I ought to do so lest it may be said I had concealed a fact of very considerable importance—that much of the disquiet arises from the fact that the political complexion of the bench was the same as the political complexion of the defendants. I do not desire to raise the matter in that way.


It would be out of order to criticise the bench, except by a Motion put down specially for that purpose.


May I point out, Mr. Speaker, that your predecessor in the Chair, when a question of this kind was being raised on a former occasion, ruled that it could only be raised by a direct Motion censuring the bench. I want to ask in view of past Rulings in regard to cases of this kind if it has not always been the custom and practice of this House before criticising a bench of magistrates to proceed by a Motion censuring the judges or the justices trying the case.


That is very true. The only way in which this House can bring criticism to bear upon justices, or judges, or the bench in general is by a substantive Motion put on the Order Paper for that purpose. I do not understand that this Motion is of that nature at all. I do not think it is. With regard to this Motion, I have looked up all the rulings on it and I think the ruling I have just given as regards criticism of justices is the right one.


I desire to keep within the four corners of your ruling, Mr. Speaker. I had considered with the greatest possible care how this question could be raised without offending against the Rules of Order and what is equally important without offending the susceptibilities of any hon. Member of this House. I only mentioned the last matter lest it might be said that a most material factor had been omitted and that I had misled the House. That was the only reason why I raised it. I have passed, at any rate, what may be regarded as the danger point in regard to your ruling. Let me say, upon these facts, why I conceive it to be a matter of importance to all parties in this House that this question should be raised in this form. I should have thought it was elementary that—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Parkinson.]


I was about to say, and I trust that I shall carry the House with me in a few moments, that there are two matters which I think make this question extremely important to all parties in the House. The first is this: It is, of course, in the last resort, upon an instructed public opinion that the true administration of justice and of the law depends. While I expressly disavow any desire at this time to pass judgment, it is of the utmost importance, if there be facts in connection with this matter which ought to be known, that they should be known. I do not say that the facts which I have presented are the full and final facts, and I am really here to ask if this is not a case in which, on the facts I have raised, the hon. Gentle-man ought to ask for fuller information. There can be no doubt that he has the power, and he does not need to be reminded by me of the authorities that would support him in that behalf. Harrison's case is an authority for the fact that the Home Secretary has full power in any case in which he cares to make inquiry with regard to the proceedings of justices, either on the bench or outside, I would ask the hon. Gentleman whether he does not think that the facts which I have raised are of sufficient importance for him to undertake a further inquiry to ascertain what the true facts are. It may be, and doubtless it would be, the case that the fuller inquiry would reveal that the facts which I have stated are quite partial, that they do not represent anything like what the true facts of the case may be.

If I am right in the point which I have made, namely, that there is some public disquiet, I do suggest to the hon. Gentleman that it is highly desirable that that dissatisfaction, if any exist, should be delayed. That is the only point that I want to make to-night. I know that some hon. Gentlemen may think that I am raising this matter for some peculiar party purpose—[Interruption.] In order to disavow that, I would ask this question: What earthly purpose of advantage to this party could possibly be served by raising this matter in this form? There is none. I disavowed it, but added the proviso that I recognised that my disavowal would probably meet with some doubt on the part of hon. Gentlemen opposite. Let me again reaffirm it, and let me say that there can be nothing more important to all parties than that it should be made clear, if it be doubted in the public mind, that, with regard to political opinions held by anybody, whatever they may be, their open and frank avowal ought to meet with no disability whatever. That battle, I trust, has been won, and the price of the maintenance of that liberty which has been gained, as of every liberty, is eternal vigilance. Therefore, while I do not desire to magnify the matter, I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to do this. Will he not have the depositions of the learned clerk to the Justices, or the notes if there are no depositions. Will he not send for the medical evidence that was given, and if he thinks the facts I have brought to his notice are amplified and developed by the official information, will he consider whether or not it is his duty to send it to the Lord Chancellor for his consideration?


I do not want to discuss this case in the House at all. There is the hon. and learned Gentleman on one side and I represent the division on the other side. Neither I nor the hon. and learned Gentleman was present and saw what happened. If the House believes there ought to be an inquiry, I support it, not here but on the spot. I have a report of what happened and I have kept it to myself. I am not going to use it in the House. I take the hon. and learned Gentleman's charge to be not only that of injuring the boy but a charge against the magistrate.


Had the hon. and learned Member made any criticism of the action of the justices I should have called him to order. What I did was to warn him against doing so.


I took it as a reflection and I thought I was in justice bound to retort. I allow the matter to rest there. I agree that there ought to be an inquiry and I do not believe in sending the evidence to London at all. Let the inquiry take place where the people are and let power be given to send for them. I have evidence and I know the hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong on one point, but I leave it till the inquiry takes place. He may have his evidence, but I am not divulging what I have been told. Let us have the inquiry in the town itself, where the witnesses can be cross-examined.


I think it desirable that in all cases affecting the judiciary we should approach the matter with some measure of calmness and free from passion. I think the House is to be congratulated that the presentation of the case has fallen into the hands of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for East Nottingham (Mr. Birkett). He has discharged a very difficult task with some skill and effect. While I do not complain that he has thought fit to take advantage of the procedure of the House to raise this matter, such incidents, fortunately, are rare in our election contests. Our political fights are carried on with good conduct and good sense.

Miss LEE

And victimisation afterwards.


In all parts of the House we appreciate and value political freedom, and I take it that we are all equally anxious to guard that freedom. The facts in this case are not in dispute. I am, of course, familiar with the case of Harrison v. Bush referred to by the hon. and learned Member. If I may say so, with all deference, that case is not germane, and I do not think that it strengthens his demand for the inquiry for which he is asking. The facts in that case were in dispute and the Home Secretary, at that time possessing machinery for an inquiry, was prepared to make possible such inquiry. In this case the facts are not in dispute and consequently, in the judgment of my right hon. Friend, the case will not lend itself to the treatment which the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests.

Some reference has been made to punishment, and I shall certainly be very guarded in any statement I make upon that issue. We have no complaint to-night respecting the severity of the sentence. Consequently, there is no call for the exercise of the prerogative of mercy. [Laughter.] Well, perhaps hon. Members will see my purpose in mentioning that aspect of the matter when I come to deal with another point.

On the question of leniency, let me add that for a long time past it has been the practice of all Home Secretaries to refuse to address admonitions on the subject of leniency whether to a particular bench or to benches of magistrates in general. It would be a very grave mistake on the part of my right hon. Friend to attempt to interfere with, or to bring anything in the nature of pressure upon, a particular bench or benches of magistrates, so far as the carrying out of their duties are concerned. There appears to be some little misunderstanding respecting the powers of my right hon. Friend in connection with these matters. I therefore venture, for the benefit of those who are not perhaps so familiar as are some of us with these powers, to explain what they are. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Some of us have been long enough here to learn a great deal about those powers and to discover what they are. They are clearly set out in a short paragraph in a very admirable book by Sir Edward Troup, of the Home Office, in which he says: The Home Secretary has no power, except in the exercise of the prerogative of mercy, to interfere with any judicial decision or sentence. He cannot reverse an acquittal or a dismissal of n case, nor can ha increase the severity of any sentence. All appeals to him on these points, whatever their merits, have to he rejected as beyond his powers. I do not propose, nor do I think the House would desire me, to express any opinion upon the merits or the demerits of this case, but I am prepared to say this, and I trust that my hon. and learned Friend and the House will be satisfied with what I am about to say, namely, that while my right hon. Friend does not think that this is a case which lends itself to the inquiry which has been suggested in the Debate to-night, he is prepared to see that what has been said to-night is brought to the notice of the Lord Chancellor. I trust that that statemen will meet the wishes of my hon. and learned Friend, and satisfy the House.


This is one of those acutely moving personal questions in regard to which the whole House has opinions irrespective of party. We are all on the same side on the main issues of this case. We all wish to respect in every way the inviolability of the judiciary from partisan comment of any kind in the House. We all wish to safeguard in every way the full freedom of the expression of political opinion at election times, and we all wish to stigmatise, as it should be stigmatised, brutal action and cruelty perpetrated by the strong upon the weak and the young. These matters are common ground between all parties, and I am glad that the representative of the Government on this occasion has said that he cannot let this matter rest where it is now; clearly he cannot do so. This matter has to be fought out. I have the greatest respect for the chairman of the bench of magistrates in question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name!"] I do not intend to introduce his name, but I will if hon. Members desire it. Otherwise, I do not intend to mention it, because I think it would not be appropriate. I think it is due to him as much as to any of the other parties concerned, that the matter should be probed. We must trust the Government in that matter. We trust to them to act in a loyal spirit and to make sure that the House is satisfied, clearly satisfied, that justice has not been denied, and that all has been conducted in a proper manner. The hon. Member says that the papers will be referred to the Lord Chancellor. I think that may be very right as the first step, and very prudent as the first step, but only as the first step. We shall require to know everything. There is no hurry about the matter. Justice moves slowly and remorselessly upon its path, but it reaches its goal eventually. It is right that the matter should be referred to the Lord Chancellor. The hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Potts) has made a speech with which I entirely agree. He said that the matter should be inquired into on the spot. We are not going as far as that. That is not the demand. The demand is that the depositions, the evidence and the notes in the case, shall be brought to the notice of the Lord Chancellor as the highest judicial authority in the country. With that for the moment we are content. We shall not take it further, but when these matters have been so presented and the Lord Chancellor has considered them, we shall require the facts to be fully laid before the House, together with the opinion of the Lord Chancellor upon them.


I have been very much touched by the speeches of the hon. and learned Member for East Nottingham (Mr. Birkett) and the late Chancellor of the Exchequer in their desire to prevent brutal attacks by the strong upon the weak. I also sympathise with them in their desire to raise a question of such brutality arising out of the heat of political conflict, but I also recognise the strict purity of their motives. Everyone with a good heart would sympathise with them in their endeavour to stop, even in the height of political conflict, the brutality of the strong upon the weak. The Under-Secretary in his researches into this matter might take notice of a similar case which happened at Barrow —in-Furness. A woman physically weaker than her husband let it be known that she had voted for the Labour candidate and against the Tory candidate, and her husband promptly and brutally assaulted her and she was turned out of her home. That was a brutal attack of the strong upon the weak for expressing what the law of this country has given her a perfect right to express—her political opinions as an individual. Unfortunately there was no protection at law for this woman unless she proceeded against her own husband, and possibly destroyed the family life. [Interruption.] I rather expected to find that the purity motive was not quite so deep, and I am rather reinforced in that opinion by the interruption from the Liberal Benches.


A boy of 13!


If hon. Members on the Liberal Benches, in their desire to make up for the smallness of their numbers, would not be quite so vociferous in their interruptions, we should get on much better. But while we are dealing with political brutality, it seems to me that, if the House is going to inquire into one case, it might as well inquire into other cases. In the case I have mentioned a few working women met this man who had assaulted his wife and expressed their opinion of him in public. They were proceeded against in the court and mulcted in costs.


What was the charge?


The charge was one of intimidating this very gallant fellow who had struck his wife for voting against the worn-out opinions which he happened to hold. I take it from your ruling, Mr. Speaker, that the political colour of the bench cannot be referred to, and I have no desire to trespass upon that ruling. But I join with the hon. Member who raised this matter and with the last speaker in the desire for any inquiry and the taking of any steps within the bounds of reason to prevent these brutal happenings. I only mention this case so that sight may not be lost of the fact that there are faults on all sides, and that it is our duty not to make political capital out of them, but to protect the weak against the strong irrespective of the colour of their label.


I only rise to express my gratification, and that of my hon. Friends, at the answer which has been given by the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs. He has acted in a way which is in accordance with the traditions of the great Department which he represents in this House. This matter has been the subject of judicial investigation and I assure the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Bromley) that if he had brought forward a case of the same kind of an assault upon a poor woman who voted Labour, it would have had exactly the same support from hon. Members here. He is quite inaccurate in suggesting that there was any laughter from the benches here when reference was made to that brutal assault. We are here dealing with a judicial matter where the facts are not in dispute and the Under-Secretary has acted in a way which is exceedingly gratifying, not merely to hon. Members here, but to all who desire that our Elections should be conducted in a manner in which brutality and violence shall not overcome judgment.


May I suggest that if inquiry is to be made into cases of cruelty, the Lord Chancellor should also make inquiry into cases where men who dared to express opinions and to vote Labour are turned out of their employment?

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.