HC Deb 06 November 1934 vol 293 cc843-6

3.58 p.m.


I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish proceedings by way of penal action when initiated by a common informer. I beg the House not to regard the bringing in of this Bill as a waste of time, because, if the House accedes to my Motion and allows the Bill to be printed and published this Session, it will have much more chance of being brought in next Session and of becoming law than if it were then presented as a novelty. The common informer is a private person who sues to recover statutory penalties for his own benefit. Nothing in this Bill, which is a simple Bill of two Clauses, will affect penal actions initiated by the State or by a person who is himself aggrieved. It simply prevents penal actions being brought by a common informer who has no interest whatever in the action except his own cupidity. There are cases where informers have merits. There are times when informers do services to the public at a risk to themselves and perform a public duty, but the common informer has no merit whatever. He is, in fact, the complete sneak.

The reason why these actions were originally allowed to be initiated by common informers has long since passed away. They originated at a time when Parliament could not trust the Executive, and thought it was as well to give an informer a personal interest in giving information. That reason has long since passed away, but the common informer remains. He has exercised his craft in relation to a great many Statutes against which I say nothing. There is a law, for instance, imposing penalties on a Member of Parliament who votes while his firm is executing contracts for the State. I say nothing against it, but it is against public policy that a common informer should recover penalties for himself personally, as he did in a case in 1913 when he recovered £13,000 and costs against a Member of Parliament who had inadvertently offended against this Statute. In 1917, another common informer sued a Member of this House to recover penalties amounting to £29,000 for having advertised Government bonds in his newspaper. In 1923 another Statute, which enables a common informer to recover penalties against members of local authorities who sat without having returned their full expenses, led to an action to recover £550 and £800 against two councillors at Morpeth who had inadvertently offended against that Act.

The common informer has been most active in regard to the Lord's Day Observance Act, 1781. For some generations this Act was thought only to apply to theological debates. It was not recognised that it applied to ordinary amusements or entertainments. In 1869 a common informer sued for penalties under this Act with regard to some lectures upon "Science as the handmaid of religion." He sought to show that this was a public entertainment. The judges who heard the case held, "We are not amused" and the informer lost that case. In 1875 an action was brought against the Brighton Aquarium for exhibiting fish on Sundays. It was pleaded in its defence that this could not be deemed an entertainment as 17 bandsmen performed sacred music while the fish were fed. The Court held that it was an entertainment, and the informer won the penalties. In 1894 the Leeds Sunday Society were sued by a common informer for penalties in having organised a lecture by the French writer, Max O'Rell. When the Court heard that he had told a story about an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotch-man, they at once concluded it was an entertainment and awarded the penalty.

It is a very ironic thing that to-day in London people can go to see the cinema. You can travel wherever you want to go by train or car and play any game you like, but if I ask people to come to a lecture by me on, say, the blessings of the National Government and charge a penny admission, I can be shot at. It is, in fact, legalised blackmail. In August last all the stars of the theatrical and cinema world in the neighbourhood of Manchester intended to give a garden party for charity on a Sunday afternoon. A man who lived over 180 miles away gave notice to the police of the infringement of the Act of 1781, and threatened to bring an action for penalties That is what I call legalised blackmail. If the Act remains on the Statute Book, let the police and Home Office enforce it, but why should any common informer enforce it? The proper informer is someone who represents the public. The Sunday Observance Act, 1677, is still on the Statute Book. If you trade on Sunday or try to "sell or cry milk before 9 a.m." you are liable to be sued under the Act, but the penalties do not go to the common informer. The penalty of 5s. goes to the poor of the parish, and if you do not pay it you have to sit two hours in the stocks, but, the pleasure of exacting this penalty and any pecuniary result go to the State. and not to the common informer. I suggest that the time has come when spying in this country should no longer be a subsidised profession. We all know those lines in "Rule Britannia "— The nations not so blessed as thee, Shall in their turns to tyrants fall. The common informer is a very fit person to be employed under tyrants and dictators. In my submission, the time is roast when the common informer has any place in the life of a free nation, and I hope that the House will agree to the introduction of this Bill, which does not interfere with any of the Statutes at all, but simply deprives the common informer of a right to which he has no moral claim.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Gerald Hurst, Colonel Wedgwood, Mr. Brocklebank, Mr. Lyons, Mr. Hannon, Captain Fuller, Mr. Gluckstein, Major Mills, Miss Rathbone, Mr. Adams, Mr. Magnay, and Mr. Bailey.