HC Deb 22 April 1932 vol 264 cc1773-6
The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir Thomas Inskip)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove the incapacity of the President of the Board of Trade for being elected, and sitting and voting, as a Member of the Commons House of Parliament, and to indemnify certain holders of that office from any penal consequence which they may have incurred by sitting or voting as Members of the said House at any time while they were not capable of so doing, as being holders of that office. This House has from time to time had occasion to consider various Acts of Parliament passed in the reign of Queen Anne with reference to the incapacity of certain persons to sit in the House. Professor Trevelyan, in a book recently published, called attention to an Act passed in 1703 which disqualified all persons except owners of land of a certain value from sitting in this House, and pointed out that that was only robbed of its potency by the devices of lawyers and only repealed in the reign of Queen Victoria. Unhappily, an Act passed four years later, the Act of 1707, the Succession to the Crown Act, has never been repealed, and it is that Act which is responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves to-day. I can find no escape from the conclusion that since my right hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) left in 1910 the office of President of the Board of Trade, which he then held, every succeeding President of the Board of Trade has been incapable of sitting in the House of Commons. In 1707 the Act to which I have referred, the Succession to the Crown Act, enacted that No person who shall have in his own name any new office or place of profit which since 25th October, 1705, shall have been created or shall thereafter be created shall be capable of being elected or of sitting or voting as a Member of the House of Commons. The penalty for infringing the Act was £500 every time it was done. Hon. Members will observe that this is not the incapacity, with which we are more familiar, which requires a person who receives an office to be re-elected, but that it is a complete and enduring incapacity which prevents him from being elected. The history of the Board of Trade, with which we are alone concerned, is to be traced through a number of statutes. It first came into existence in the year 1660. In 1675 the control of trade returned to the Privy Council. In 1695, however, the Board of Trade and Plantations was created, and continued thus till 1781. It was then abolished, but by Section 15 of the Act which abolished it it was provided that the business of the Board of Trade should be executed by a Committee of the Privy Council, and that the members of the Committee were not to have any salary or reward. By another Section of the Act, Section 2, it was provided that if any office thereby abolished—that is, by that Act—should be established thereafter, the same should be deemed and taken as a new office. The House will remember that the Act of 1707 spoke of a new office of profit, but it is quite clear that the Act which I have last mentioned made the office of President a new office which only wanted a salary to be attached to it to make it a new office of profit and so a complete disqualification for sitting in Parliament.

Until 1826 the office of President of the Board of Trade had no salary attached to it, and, therefore, it was not a disqualification, but in 1826, by the Board of Trade (President) Act the Treasury were empowered to direct that the President should receive a salary not exceeding £2,000. There was, however, a vital condition to that. The Section went on to say that the office should not by reason of the salary be deemed to be a new office. Therefore, the House will see that the operation of the Act of 1707 was avoided by that provision. Thenceforward the President of the Board of Trade was perfectly capable of sitting in the House of Commons, he drew his salary under the Act of 1826, and all went well until 1909. Then there was a new Act for the complete repeal of the Act of 1826, abolishing his salary but providing a new salary to be payable as Parliament might determine. Unfortunately, the Act of 1909, having repealed the Act of 1826 and enacted a new salary, omitted to indicate that the office should not be deemed to be a new office for the purpose of the Act of 1707. The draftsmen and Parliament may be forgiven for the oversight, having regard to the long and complicated story, of which I have been able to give only a few details, connected with the Board of Trade, but in the circumstances it appears inevitable that the holders of the office did suffer that incapacity. I hope that in all parts of the House there will be a willingness to pass the necessary Bill to indemnify those who have sat and voted, to remove the disability for the future, and, consequently, to enable my right hon. Friend once more to take his accustomed place in this Chamber, and, at the same time, to relieve of their anxiety other right hon. Gentlemen who may have been in some fear lest the Common Informer should resume his activities.

If leave is given to bring in the Bill it will be found in the Vote Office, and I only desire to ask the further indulgence of the House to this extent. I hope hon. Members will forgive me if, in the circumstances of haste under which the Bill has been drafted, I have to ask them to amend it in Committee so as to insert a provision making it quite clearly retrospective. We do not want to have a second mistake, and I apologise to the House that this should be necessary. To satisfy any curiosity as to how this mistake was discovered, I may tell the House that it happened that a writer who was preparing a text book was curious to know how the President of the Board of Trade was qualified to sit in the House of Commons. He asked that conundrum of one of the Parliamentary Counsel, who thought there was an easy answer, but discovered that the answer was the wrong one. He immediately informed me, and upon my being satisfied as to the position one day this week I informed one or two persons, and the consequence is that I now have the duty of informing the House.


In the case of the penalties, to whom does the money go? Does it go to the Exchequer?


No, it goes to the common informer.


I only wish to say that, if my hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) could have been here, he would have expressed his consent to the course which has been suggested by the Attorney-General.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General.