HC Deb 15 December 1937 vol 330 cc1298-304

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

11.11 p.m.

Mr. Benjamin Smith

We have listened to-night to a Debate on the liberties of the people in this country. We have heard arguments pro and con. To-night I wish to bring to the House a case where, I submit, the liberty of the subject has been invaded, and by authority. I refer to the case of Mr. Lant. On the 9th of this month I asked the Home Secretary the following question: Whether he is aware that Mr. Lant, an employé of the West Hartlepool trackless undertaking, was ordered to attend before a justice of the peace of the Borough of Hartlepool to be sworn in as a special constable, and was compelled to sign the required declaration, although he had not volunteered for this service."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December, 1937; cols. 551–2; Vol. 330.] I asked him under what authority this was done. The substance of the reply of the right hon. Gentleman was that this man was brought up under Section 196 of the Municipal Corporations Act, 1896, that Lant was notified before his name was submitted to the justices, that Lant raised no objection, and that had he objected his name would not have been submitted to the justices. In reply to a supplementary question, the right hon. Gentleman further said that Lant was informed, and that it was when he was called upon to make the declaration that Lant raised his objection. So that Lant did, in the Home Secretary's own words, object to being called up. Further, it was stated that after discussion with the justices and hearing the questionnaire, Lant agreed to sign the declaration and to be excused next year.

In my submission the Home Secretary was incorrectly informed on this matter. The facts are as follows: On 26th September Police Constable Whitehead, of the Hartlepool police, called at the home of Lant and inquired of his wife what was her husband's age. On being told "38," the constable said, "We are going to make a special constable of him." On Friday, 8th October, Lant found a summons in his letter box demanding his appearance at the Borough Hall on 11th October at 5.15. On the 9th he went to the police office and asked to see the chief constable. He was told he was out. He then left a message that he would be at work at the time stated in the warrant, and that he did not want to be a special constable, as it would interfere with his other work, his other work being branch secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, which I have the honour to serve. He was told that no excuse would be taken except ill-health.

On Monday, 11th October, a constable called upon him and told him to be at the police station at 10 o'clock on Tuesday, the 12th. He was there taken by Inspector Walker to the magistrates' room. He was met by the magistrates' clerk, and Mr. T. Smith, J.P. He again protested against being compelled to act as a special constable and asked to be shown the Act under which he was to join up. The magistrates' clerk showed him a copy of the summons and demanded that he should sign the declaration forthwith. Lant again refused, and was told by Mr. Edgerley that he would be taken to court and that a penalty of £5 would be imposed on him at once. Lant protested most strongly at this. The magistrates' clerk said, "I see your point of view as to your objection." Lant thereupon asked to be relieved of any obligation to serve. The magistrates' clerk said there was nothing to do but to take Lant into court. These are statements of the man himself and I am willing to produce him if it is necessary that evidence should be given. He then signed a declaration under protest. At no time has he ever agreed to be a special constable.

I wish to ask under what powers Lant was called up. It appears that there are at least four Acts of Parliament dealing with special constables, two of them with voluntary constables. There are the original Special Constables Act of 1831; the Municipal Corporations Act of 1882; the Special Constables Act of 1914 and the Special Constables Act of 1923, amending the Act of 1914. The first of these Acts gives the justices of the peace power to appoint special constables in any parish, township or place within their jurisdiction in a case where tumult, riot or felony had taken place or was reasonably to be apprehended. That Act was passed in the old days of the rotten boroughs, before the Reform Act of 1832, and before municipal corporations as we know them were set up; before there was an adequate police force and in the days when parish constables were nothing but watchmen. In 1835, four years later, the reformed Parliament set about reforming the boroughs. It established municipal corporations as we know them, and in the Municipal Corporations Act, 1835, is a provision that the justices were to appoint special constables for their boroughs.

Section 83 of the Act of 1835 is to all intents and purposes the same as Section 196 of the Municipal Corporations Act, 1882, which the Under-Secretary quoted, under which the Hartlepool magistrates appointed Lant. The justices of the peace of Hartlepool have, therefore, taken action under the provisions of an Act which was passed 100 years ago, in the days of the rotten boroughs, to cure the pretty rotten system then prevailing. It was at a time when police forces were just being constituted. The Metropolitan Police had only been founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. It is an open question as to how far it was really necessary to include in the Consolidating Act of 1882 the old provisions relating to special constables which had been embodied in the Municipal Corporations Act.

In 1914 we had another Special Constables Act, which was passed for the period of the war, and again it was decided by an Order in Council that the Act of 1831 and Section 196 of the Municipal Corporations Act, 1882, were to be incorporated for the duration of the War. Then, in 1923, we had an amending Act, which stated that the provisions applied now not only to London but to all boroughs, and that they were to last, as it were, for all time, and it was to be on a voluntary basis.

In the case of Lant, I submit there was no question of volunteering at all, and that it is an action of duress forced upon an individual who values his freedom as much as any Member of this House or any being in this country, to do a thing which you cannot force upon the Army, Navy, Air Force, Police, or Fire Brigade, all of which are voluntary organisations Yet this man has been compelled to serve for a year.

We argue that it is because of the political colour of the Hartlepool Council—[Interruption.]—Oh, yes, it has a majority of Tories—who have used their powers against a man who is active in the Labour movement in his county. That is what we believe and, rightly or wrongly, that is the belief that my union holds. It is a union with 750,000 members, and it holds very seriously that this was an encroachment upon the liberty of the individual. The Under-Secretary of State quoted the sovereign rights of Parliament. He said that this was the place in which we could make the last appeal. I submit that I have justified the claim that a member of the community of Great Britain has had his liberty assailed in such a manner, and that he brings his grievance to Parliament. I hope that the result will be a remedy of that grievance, the elimination of his declaration, and that the man will be granted again his freedom.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. Lloyd

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said, that this is one of the examples of what we have been discussing earlier in the day, in which a question of civil liberty can be raised in this House. I think it is right to say that it falls within the second class that I mentioned, that is, the power of this House to discuss any grievance whatsoever that arises in the State. The House appreciates, of course, that my right hon. Friend has no direct responsibility for the state of affairs under discussion. Before I deal with the matter in general, perhaps I might, as briefly as I can, because I want to get on to the more essential points, observe that it is only fair to say, on the party point which the hon. Gentleman raised, that this is a question not for the town council but for the justices, who have the power in this matter. It is not a question of any elected body having jurisdiction. There is no doubt about that at all.

Let me say at the outset that there is no disagreement on the general principle that if a man is to be appointed to act as an emergency special constable, that man ought to be a person who is perfectly willing to do so. There has never been an attempt by any authority who is concerned in this case, so far as I understand, or any similar case to force unwilling people to have their names entered on a list of persons willing to act as special constables, if need arose. Let me explain why that statement differs from the perfectly just case put forward by the hon. Member.

The procedure of this Act is rather complicated. What I propose to do first is to discuss very briefly the facts of the case and then pass on to the rather broader questions of principle raised in regard to the Statute, which is the operative factor in this matter.

Under the Municipal Corporations Act, 1882, justices in every borough are empowered to appoint persons to serve as special constables, if at any time an emergency should arise with which the ordinary police forces are insufficient to deal. Use is made of this power in a number of boroughs, and the ordinary procedure is that, in order to enable the justices to make these appointments, the chief constable prepares a list of persons who are willing to render service if the need should arise. We have made inquiries, and I am informed that such a list was prepared by the chief constable of Hartlepool, and among the people whom he proposed to place on the list was Mr. Lant. In accordance with the usual procedure, an officer was sent to Mr. Lant's house to inform him that it was proposed to submit his name to the justices. Mr. Lant was out at the time, but a message was left for him. A fortnight elapsed during which no objection was made by him, and it was assumed that he had no objection to his name going forward. Accordingly, it was included in the list with several others, and these names were submitted to the justices, and they appointed 180 persons to act as special constables, one of them being Mr. Lant. The Act of 1882 provides that, after the justices have appointed persons under this procedure to act as special constables, such persons shall make a declaration that they will perform the duties of a special constable. The persons appointed were reminded of this duty, and it was at this stage, according to my information, that Mr. Lant indicated unwillingness to serve or to make a declaration.

For the purpose of securing that every person appointed a special constable shall make the statutory declaration, the Act of 1882 provides that a person who fails to make the statutory declaration shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding £5. No question, however, arose of Mr. Lant being subjected to this penalty, because he told the police that he would be prepared to help them at any time, and that he would be willing to sign a declaration, but that he would rather be excused another year. It is clear, now that it is known that Mr. Lant does not wish to be appointed, that he will not be appointed in another year. No one at any time, I am informed, attempted to coerce him to undertake the duties, and no question has arisen of subjecting him to a penalty. I have complete sympathy with the hon. Member's view that if there is a risk of coercing unwilling people into being special constables, that risk should be removed. I have given special consideration to the question whether there is any such risk, and I cannot imagine that any such risk would normally arise. I cannot imagine that normally any chief constable would submit to the justices the name of an unwilling person, or that any justices would appoint a person if they knew that he was unwilling. I have gone further, however. I have considered whether there is any possibility, supposing that any justices were so unreasonable as to want to coerce unwilling people into accepting appointment as special constables, that they could do so. I am told it is arguable that the power of the justices, under this Act, to appoint special constables is not in law limited to persons who signify their assent. As far as the Home Office is concerned, we shall be quite willing, whenever an opportunity arises for introducing legislation in which any amendment of this Act could be included, to insert a provision making it perfectly clear that the power of the justices, under this Act, to appoint persons to act as special constables shall be exercised only as regards persons who are willing to accept such appointment.

Mr. Alexander

Will you release him, then?

Mr. Lloyd

I will merely say that the powers of the executive in this matter are limited. There is no such power. It is, I think, important that this matter should have been ventilated. But, as far as we are aware, this is the only case that has ever arisen under this Act, which has been in force since 1882, and so I cannot consider that it is an urgent one. I conclude by expressing the hope that the hon. Member and the House will think that in this case, the procedure of raising a subject by question and answer and on the Motion for the Adjournment, has not been followed unsuccessfully and has proved its value.

Mr. Benjamin Smith

While thanking the hon. Member for his statement, and realising that he has gone as far as he can within the powers he has, I hope this discussion will have the effect of telling the Justices in Hartlepools that this man should be immediately released.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'Clock.