HC Deb 04 February 1937 vol 319 cc1843-53

6.22 p.m.

Sir J. Simon

I beg to move, in page 2, line 19, to leave out "four," and to insert "three."

This Amendment was indicated in the Committee just now to be in accordance with the general wish of hon. Members. I, therefore, change the number of persons who are to certify from four to three and reduce the total number to a maximum of five and leave out the words: person who, excluding any persons disqualified under this Act from becoming Regent, is next in the line of succession to the Crown, the. In the case of the total incapacity of the Sovereign it was pointed out just now that it might be invidious for the next in succession to have to certify as to his incapacity, and in accordance with the view expressed by the Committee we are prepared, as I have indicated already, to reduce the total number of persons to five by leaving out that individual.

Mr. Lees-Smith

Might I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman could, at this stage, explain his second Amendment a little more clearly?

Sir J. Simon

Perhaps I might read to the House the opening words of the Clause as they will be if the two Amendments are made. They will then run: If the following persons or any three or more of them, that is to say, the wife or husband of the Sovereign, the Lord Chancellor, and so on.

6.25 p.m.

Earl Winterton

I hope that neither the Chief Whip nor the Secretary of State will think I am making the slightest reflection upon the procedure which we have now adopted, but, speaking generally, and except in special circumstances, it is exceedingly undesirable that we should have to consider a manuscript Amendment upon the Report stage immediately following the Committee stage. I do not think that I should be in order in pursuing this point, but that fact strengthens my case. The ordinary Member of the House has no power, so far as I know, to object to the Report stage following the Committee stage, but I hope that the procedure of taking the Report stage on any important Bill immediately following the Committee stage, and then bringing forward a manuscript Amendment, will not be generally followed. There may be special circumstances in this case, however, and I take no further exception to it.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 2, line 21, leave out from "the" to "Lord" in line 23.—[Sir J. Simon.]

6.26 p.m.

Mr. Logan

I beg to move, in page 2, line 27, to leave out "or otherwise."

At an earlier stage this evening, the question of the value of words, as herein mentioned, was referred to, and one hon. Gentleman said that in his opinion he was mad, but that the rest of the world would not have the same opinion about him. Either I am mad, or these words have no meaning. As I understand the Clause—[Interruption.] I trust that I will not be interrupted, because this matter is a little bit technical and is not in the same classification as myself. The incapacity of the Sovereign is to be determined on the evidence of physicians. A few moments ago, when I expressed my view with regard to the words "or otherwise," the Home Secretary was not too clear in his definition. My hon. Friend below the Gangway gave us a definition which we could understand quite clearly, as to what the words "or otherwise" meant. He said they meant, not the physicians, the alienists or the men trained in medicine and expert in the knowledge of the body and the mind, but that your pals, the friends round about you, ought to be able to say: "He is a bit touched," or "He is not a bit touched." That definition came not from a learned Member of the Government but from an ordinary layman, which shows how very careful one has to be in the company one keeps, in regard to mentality.

If one understands the meaning of words correctly—and in an Act of Parliament one ought so to understand them, because they ought to have a meaning. [An HON. MEMBER: "You are repeating yourself."] It is necessary to repeat in the House of Commons so that ideas can be instilled into the minds of those who may have to give a verdict. The question is whether or not we should let a matter go without discussing it. Repetition is essential in the House of Commons. My point is that—and in the repetition hon. Members will understand better my reason for proposing that we should leave out these words—if the Monarch were considered to be incapacitated, and it was felt necessary to appoint a Regent, would it be right, in so grave a situation, to decide, on the gossip of the Court or of those associated with him, that the Monarch was not sane?

If one were having a look at George Bernard Shaw's "Apple Cart," I could understand how one would enjoy the joke of these people round about the Monarch starting to consider whether he was right or wrong; but surely, when a matter is being dealt with in the House of Commons, even by one from the Scotland Division, the meaning of the words ought to be known. I contend that the words "or otherwise" have no relevance whatever to the application of this Clause. It may be all right from the legal point of view, but not from the point of view of the grammarian, if there be such a one; the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) ought to be able to enlighten us as to what the words "or otherwise" have to do with the Clause. The decision is to be taken on the evidence of physicians, and the question of "or otherwise" does not enter into it. If the mentality or the sanity of the King is questioned, it is only those who have authority and knowledge of the particular subject who are qualified to express an opinion on such a matter.

It is because I know I am on right ground that I am arguing, even against the opinion expressed by the Home Secretary, that these words should be retained. I know that Acts of Parliament have been passed in which the phraseology has been so ungrammatical that, when one is asked to give a definition of some specified portion, one is not able to understand what was really meant. In my younger days I was taught that, when there is a difference of opinion, we ought to be true in our definition, and, even when we are true in our definition, it is quite possible that we may have an argument about what we really agree to be the meaning. But there is no meaning in the words "or otherwise." What do they mean? They mean, not physicians, but other persons. If this matter were submitted to any of the great authorities on English, they would think it was we who were incapacitated. I do not want my name to go down as that of one who voted for something so nonsensical; I do not want my sons to read how ignorant their father was of English grammar.

6.34 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I beg to second the Amendment.

Earlier this afternoon, during the Committee stage, we had the advantage of hearing the answer of the Home Secretary on this subject, and I am bound to say that it left me entirely unconvinced, though I was willing to be convinced if he could have adduced any logical reason for retaining these words. I cannot understand on what these distinguished people are going to act. in deciding whether a person is physically or mentally incapable of discharging the functions of the Crown, unless it be medical evidence. The Home Secretary suggested that nurses might be called in, and that the Monarch himself might desire to have evidence produced before the tribunal. I should have no objection to that if it were medical evidence, but can it be expected that these people would allow other evidence than medical evidence to outweigh the evidence submitted by distinguished alienists? It is not to be imagined that some mere country doctor, or some quite undistinguished member of the medical profession, would be the person advising them. If there were any other cause to be assigned than a medical cause, I could understand that it might be necessary to have other than medical experts called in, but an ordinary justice who is asked to certify that a person may be removed as a lunatic for purposes of observation has, before he can sign the document, to have the evidence of a doctor submitted to him. I cannot understand why it is thought advisable in this case that these people should be able to act on something which is either not medical evidence or which, being given by persons who are not medical people, can be held to outweigh the evidence of expert medical men.

The whole problem with regard to these matters, as it is represented to us by the medical profession, of whom I am no great admirer, is that nobody but a medical man can say whether a person is insane or not—that it is entirely a question of medical definition, and that mere isolated acts, which might convince a layman that a person was not in full possession of his faculties, are not always to be accepted as conclusive evidence. I hope that for the sake of clearness of definition the Minister will be able to accept this Amendment. It is no use saying that we could trust the present Speaker of the House of Commons and the various other dignitaries mentioned. There have been Speakers in the past of whom the House itself has in the course of time been very gravely suspicious, and has thought that they have been acting, not merely contrary to the desires of the House, but contrary to the interests of the country. As to the other people mentioned, there have been black sheep in the past, even in flocks that had full-bottomed wigs.

If we are legislating here for all time, we ought to take into consideration the possibility that there might be, at some time of popular excitement, some cabal formed of which these three or four more or less distinguished people might be very prominent members, or that they might be under the influence of the members of that cabal. For these reasons it seems to me that the Monarch should be assured that he will not be virtually deposed, at any rate temporarily, and his duties handed over to a Regent, unless upon the evidence of people whose professional training entitles them to express an opinion. For these reasons I hope the Minister will find it possible to accept the deletion of these words.

6.40 p.m.

Mr. Lees-Smith

I think my hon. Friends have raised a point which is worth taking into account. I gather that what they have in mind is that conceivably a cabal might be formed against the Sovereign, and that in such circumstances the opinion of a qualified medical man might be entirely set aside and the Sovereign practically deposed, as a result of the application of these words "or otherwise." It would be possible to make the phrase "or otherwise" take the place of the verdict of medical men, and I think that what my hon. Friends are really asking is whether the Clause could not be so worded that in any case the opinion of the physicians would have to be taken into account and not set aside. That would require, instead of the words "or otherwise," some such words as satisfied on the evidence of physicians and such others. as these officials might consult. The right hon. Gentleman will see that the word "or" might exclude them, while the word "and" would at any rate ensure that in any circumstances their evidence would be on record.

6.42 p.m.

Mr. Charles Williams

A point which has been exercising my mind during practically the whole of the discussion on this matter is that these words as they stand mean that the decision will be based on the evidence of physicians or on other evidence, and the whole thing might be based on some other evidence than that of physicians. I believe that the intention of the Government, and the intention expressed in the explanation that we had earlier, is that it should be on the evidence of physicians and on other grounds, so that the evidence of the physicians would be backed up by other evidence of which instances were given earlier. I think we ought to be quite clear, before we leave this Amendment, that it cannot be done purely on the alternative evidence of other people who are not physicians; you want to couple the evidence of the physicians with the other evidence that may be of value. I hope I have made the point clear; it has been exercising the minds of several of us for a considerable time.

6.44 p.m.

Mr. Maxton

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will accept this Amendment, and not any other form of words. The Amendment as moved is to delete these two words. At the beginning the Home Secretary treated the matter very lightly, but as the discussion has gone on it has raised a whole lot of other possibilities. For instance, I have never thought of the possibility that was put forward by the hon. Member for South Kensington (Sir W. Davison), who thought that the Prime Minister would be an appropriate person whose word might be taken as to the physical or mental condition of the King. I can see great possibilities there. It is not always the present Government or the present Prime Minister who will be in office in this land. Others might be there [An HON. MEMBER: "The hon. Member for West Fife!"] That is a case in point, and one can see all sorts of situations arising if it is possible for anybody—because the words "or otherwise" open up an unlimited field—to come forward and say, "This man is not physically fit for the job"; and, according to the view that has been put up from the Government side of the House and from behind me, that type of voice may be more reliable than a medical one.

We all know in our experience cases of people saying of a person holding a particular position that he is not fit for the job and ought to be shifted, whereas no medical man would ever certify him as insane or physically incapable. Is that the situation that is intended to be created by the use of the words "or otherwise," that if at any time a monarch becomes unpopular the active political people or Court people of the day start a. bit of gossip going about him and, cutting out medical evidence—because "or otherwise" is taken as a complete alternative to medical evidence—they may put up their case to the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chancellor, the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chief Justice, and get a Regent established and to all intents and purpose depose the Monarch on the ground of physical or mental disability without any medical man being brought in at all? It might have been done on the last occasion—a convenient device perhaps—but if it is being brought forward seriously as a device and not, as I thought, a mere bit of verbiage, those who are sponsoring the Measure ought to come forward and defend more seriously than they have done the insertion of these words and tell us that they have been put in there to meet a serious contingency in a serious way.

If they are put in for a serious purpose, they are much too vague. Something more specific should be put in. If they are mere verbiage, I suggest that they be cut out. I agree that it would not do to place our destinies as individuals merely in the hands of medical men. No one would say that a medical man's dictum would be the last word even on matters of health. The Clause already meets that point by having responsible experienced laymen, in the four persons mentioned, to survey the expert medical opinion and decide whether it is of such a sort as to justify them, in addition to their own knowledge as ordinary men, in proposing that the King should not perform his functions but that a Regent should be put in his place. I seriously urge the right hon. Gentleman to accept the Amendment. Failing acceptance of the Amendment, though I cannot pretend to feel so hotly on it as the hon. Member for the Scotland Division (Mr. Logan) does, I shall be very pleased to accompany him into the Lobby.

6.49 p.m.

Earl Winterton

I must say I am rather convinced by the hon. Member's argument. I share his difficulty as to the wording of the Clause as it stands. We cannot treat any part of the Bill lightly. It is an important Bill and this is an important Amendment, and I hope my right hon. Friend will give a considered reply to this point. I should have thought that in order to express the real intention of the Clause it should have been worded in the manner suggested by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams). If, as we assume, this is a Bill for all time, is there not the faintest possibility that all four highly placed persons mentioned in the Bill might be to some extent biased for some reason? Is there not a danger of that happening under the stress of tremendous events 50 or 100 years hence, when they would be able to make a certification of lunacy without any medical attendance? Is not that really what the Government and the House are seeking, that we should take into consideration, and not merely medical evidence but other evidence as well? As worded, the Clause seems to create the possibility that they might come to their conclusion without taking medical evidence into regard at all.

6.51 p.m.

Sir J. Simon

This point has occupied some time in Committee and again now on Report. I am not complaining of it, but I am just reminding the House that that is so. I have not the slightest shadow of doubt in the world that the words as drawn, as far as I have any power to construe an Act of Parliament, are perfectly appropriate to the case. I would not lead any one to suppose that what I am going to suggest is in my view an improvement or is more than the addition of unnecessary words. I am not prepared to contemplate the proposition that some unidentified successor of yours, Sir, in alliance with the Lord Chief Justice, the Lord Chancellor and the Master of the Rolls is in any conceivable circumstances going to arrive at a conclusion of this sort except upon material which four wise, impartial people would accept. I can conceive a case of obvious infirmity of body where you would not want elaborate expert evidence. I am, however, quite prepared to agree that in another place there shall be substituted some such words as these—"declare in writing that they are satisfied on evidence, which shall include that of physicians." I think the argument of the right hon. Baronet the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) was perfectly overwhelming, but this is a deliberative Assembly and, if it is the view of the House that those words are an improvement, I am prepared to take that course, though I do not think it will make any material difference. At the worst it will only mean that in some conceivable case which we hope will never arise an eminent medical man will receive a fee for doing something which any honest human being could do.

Mr. Logan

I can give the right hon. Gentleman the retort courteous by saying, "Thank you," and asking leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

6.55 p.m.

Mr. Mander

I should like to ask the Attorney-General to give us some further explanation as to the application of this Measure to the Dominions. We had a statement from the Home Secretary on Tuesday. I daresay it was perfectly correct, but an eminent authority in the country has expressed quite a different view. Some reference has been made to a letter in the "Times." I am going to refer to a letter in the "Scotsman," the contention being to the effect that the Bill in its present form is unlimited, that its application extends to all the Dominions except those where it is limited by Statute, and that its operation will be excluded only in Canada, the Irish Free State and South Africa. That would be under Section 4 of the Statute of Westminster. The situation resulting would be that in Australia, both the Commonwealth and the States, and in New Zealand, it would not be possible to legislate. They would have no power to do so. In the case of Canada, the case is a very doubtful one, and it would be very desirable to include Canada in any legislation passing through the House at present. It is further contended that in any circumstances the Measure would extend to Newfoundland. These are serious points put forward by an eminent authority and I hope the Government will state the view that they take.

6.58 p.m.

The Attorney-General

My right hon. Friend in moving the Second Reading made a fairly full statement as to the position of the Bill relative to the Dominions. I should like to read one or two sentences. He said: I must explain to the House what is the range of this Measure and show that in drafting it we have not overlooked the principles which are now recognised as governing the relation between laws passed by this United Kingdom Parliament and the Dominion legislatures. The Bill deals with the exercise of Royal functions and the Bill will be effective, when it becomes an Act, in the United Kingdom and in the Colonies. So far as the Dominions are concerned it will be for each Dominion Government to decide whether any legislation is necessary."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1937; col. 1452, Vol. 319.] He went on to say that as far as we are aware the introduction of such legislation would not in any case be contemplated unless the necessity should hereafter actually arise. The hon. Member, says an eminent authority, has written a letter to the "Scotsman" stating a particular view as to the effect of the Bill, if it becomes an Act, on Australia and New Zealand, and he thinks the position in Canada is doubtful. I hope the House will support us in thinking it is much better that we should not make pronouncements here as to the effect of a Bill, particularly on a Dominion. The Dominions, as the hon. Member knows, under the Balfour Declaration—apart from the Statute of Westminster—are autonomous communities. With regard to this Bill, they agreed to our passing a United Kingdom Bill. The exact effect of that Bill on them is, in our view, a matter for them to consider, and, if any statement is desirable, for them to make. It would be unwise for the United Kingdom Government to make statements here on this matter. The Dominions have been kept informed of what we were doing, they fully agreed to our passing this Bill, and the exact position in regard to each Dominion is a matter much better left for them to consider, and for them to make any statement about in the first instance.

Mr. Mander

In these two cases they could not legislate.

The Attorney-General

That is a matter for them to consider.