HC Deb 04 November 1937 vol 328 cc1277-86

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

11.2 p.m.

Mr. James Griffiths

I desire to raise a matter about which I gave notice to the Home Secretary this afternoon, and I am glad to see the Under-Secretary here. It relates to a question which I asked in the House on 29th July, a few days before we adjourned for the long vacation. I asked the Home Secretary a question in the following terms: Whether his attention has been called to the action of the stipendiary magistrate for Merthyr Tydvil who at a meeting of the Carmarthen Conservative and Unionist Association, on 26th July, proposed the adoption of a certain candidate; whether he is aware that this is the second occasion upon which the stipendiary has taken an active part in political work in South Wales; and, in view of the fact, that his active participation in politics must adversely affect his work as stipendiary magistrate in an important industrial area, what action he proposes to take in the matter."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th July, 2937; col. 3292, Vol. 326.] The Home Secretary said that his attention had not previously been called to this matter, but that he would take it up with the stipendiary magistrate and reply later. I asked him, as the House would be adjourned in a few days, whether he would communicate with me what the observations of the stipendiary were upon the matter. The Home Secretary promised to do so, and on 21st August I received the following letter from him: In a supplementary question to me on the 29th July you asked me if I would communicate to you the reply which I received from the Merthyr Tydvil stipendiary magistrate who, it was suggested, had been taking an active part in political work in South Wales. Mr. Bowen Davies has been good enough to inform me that the meeting to which you referred in your original question was a private meeting of the West Carmarthen Conservative Association, of which he has been a member for many years, and that he did no more than move formally that the association should support the candidate already adopted by another association. There appears to be nothing in this incident which is inconsistent with Mr. Bowen Davies' position as stipendiary magistrate, or with any undertaking given to my predecessor. It is to these two points that I want to draw the attention of the House. The first is whether the participation of a stipendiary magistrate in politics is inconsistent with the impartial and fair fulfilment of his duties. I suggest that it is a question that cannot be discussed in vacuo but must have reference to the area over which he presides. The stipendiary magistrate presides over courts in the county borough of Merthyr Tydvil and in parts of the county of Glamorgan, notably Aberdare. It is an industrial area, populated very largely by miners, an area in which a stipendiary magistrate is called upon to adjudicate in cases arising out of industrial disputes. I know that in the last five years, during the time when I was President of the Miners' Federation, more than one case of that kind has come up for adjudication. I want to ask whether the Under-Secretary, whether the Government, whether this House thinks that it is desirable that a stipendiary magistrate in a place like Merthyr Tydvil, who will be called upon to adjudicate in cases arising from the relationship between employers and employed, should in the minds of the miners appear as a Tory politician. That is what it means. This meeting in which this stipendiary magistrate took part has been described as a private meeting. I do not know whether it was called as a private meeting but it was fully reported in the "Western Mail," the only daily newspaper in the county, and it was still more fully reported in the weekly Press circulating in the county.

The speech which this stipendiary magistrate made was widely reported and it is now known to all the miners, to all the residents in the area, that this stipendiary magistrate is a Conservative and takes an active part in Conservative politics. It is known that he moved the adoption of a Conservative candidate who will oppose the sitting Labour Member. At times this stipendiary magistrate will have to deal in a tense atmosphere with questions arising out of industrial strife, with questions that have to be very carefully handled if the dignity and prestige of the law and administration of justice is to be maintained. I suggest that it is highly undesirable that a stipendiary magistrate should take part in politics. It is being asked, What would the Government have done if the stipendiary magistrate had taken part in a Labour meeting. There are men holding judicial office in South Wales who prior to their appointment were actively associated with our party. Since the day of their appointment they have observed a strict neutrality in politics. They have kept clean out of politics which I think is their duty.

Let me say that there are some stipendiary magistrates in South Wales who prior to their appointment were active members of the Conservative party, but who to their credit have taken no part since their appointment in politics and have given no suggestion that they are in any way identified with any political party. But this stipendiary magistrate has done it and this is not the first occasion. In 1935 at the time of the General Election he wrote a letter which was published in the local Press in which he urged electors to support the Conservative candidate against the Labour and Liberal candidates. The question was raised in this House by one of the hon. Members for Dundee who called the attention of the then Home Secretary, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to the action of this stipendiary magistrate in issuing this letter and taking part in the Election. The statement of the then Home Secretary is very interesting. This is what he said: Sir J. Simon: I have been in communication with the stipendiary magistrate, who tells me that he wrote a letter in support of a candidate for a constituency outside his magisterial area, and this letter appears to have been published in a local newspaper. Although there is no general provision of the law which disqualifies stipendiary magistrates from taking part in Parliamentary elections"— I hope the Under-Secretary will note the next words— It is, I think, generally recognised that they should avoid identifying themselves prominently with party politics, and the stipendiary magistrate in question tells me that he proposes in future to follow this practice.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th December, 2935; col. 276, Vol. 307.] That was on 5th December, 1935. He gives an undertaking, an assurance, to the then Home Secretary that in future he will follow a certain practice, and in July, 1937, he moves a resolution for the adoption of a Conservative candidate, and it is widely publicised in South Wales. I suggest that. that stipendiary magistrate has broken the pledge he gave to a former Home Secretary. It may be suggested that he has not done anything inconsistent with his position as stipendiary, but I believe he has.

Hon. Members, not only of my own party but of other parties, will join with me in deploring this case. We do not raise it for any personal reason but because we want the Home Secretary to ask this stipendiary magistrate to keep the pledge which he gave. He is a man who presides over courts and pronounces sentences; is he to be known as a stipendiary who breaks his own pledges and assurances? I want to urge upon the Under-Secretary of State the full importance of that position in South Wales. Here is a stipendiary magistrate, who sits and hears cases and delivers judgment on them. He gives a pledge to the responsible Minister of the Crown in 1935, and he breaks that pledge in 1937.

I suggest that it is highly desirable that a stipendiary magistrate, who presides over courts in Merthyr Tydvil, Aberdare, or Dowlais, should become, in the eyes of the people of South Wales, a person who is a prominent and active Conservative worker. It is highly undesirable that he should be known as a man who breaks his own pledge. I hope that the Under Secretary of State will bear all these things in mind and that will indicate to the House and through the House to the stipendiary that we desire to retain the impartiality of the magistracy and the magistrate should abide by his assurance of 1935. The Under-Secretary should ask him to cease taking part in party politics in future, or to resign his position as stipendiary magistrate.

11.14 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd)

I think the House will agree that the hon. Member has raised a general question of very great interest, namely the position of a stipendiary magistrate in regard to party politics. Hon. Members will realise that in replying on this matter I have to choose my words very carefully. Every one will agree with the general principle that stipendiary magistrates should take the greatest care to avoid as far as possible public action which is liable to expose them to any suspicion of bias, partisanship or prejudice. There is no general provision of the law disqualifying justices in general or stipendiaries in particular from standing or being elected as Members of this House. Therefore, they are not in law disqualified from supporting or expressing approval of any particular candidate.

That is the strict legal position, but nevertheless there are conventions based on common sense and on the general recognition by magistrates themselves of the principle that they must not only be impartial but must do their utmost to avoid any suspicion, however unfounded, of impartiality. It is generally recognised, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, then Home Secretary, stated in December, 1935, that stipendiaries should avoid identifying themselves prominently with party politics. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary entirely endorses the view expressed by the then Home Secretary, that, if a stipendiary magistrate should identify himself with party politics, he would by so doing gravely impair the position and reputation which he ought to hold.

I am sure the House will agree that we must be quite clear that that does not mean that a man who has been associated with party politics should be debarred from being appointed a stipendiary. Any such rule would obviously limit very undesirably the selection of stipendiaries, because the kind of qualities for which my right hon. Friend looks in selecting stipendiaries are keenness and public spirit, and men who possess these qualities are just the men who have taken a keen interest in the political life of their districts. Therefore, in our view at the Home Office, it would be bad both for the future of politics and for the administration of justice if political interests were considered to be a bar to judicial appointment. We must face the fact that a man appointed a stipendiary may very often have long and intimate associations with political organisations and party activities, and, so far as these associations are of a private character ought not to be expected to sever them, because due liberty must be allowed so far as private life is concerned. A clear distinction can, however, be drawn between private activities and activities of a public character.

The House has been kind enough to bear with me while I have stated these general principles, and I would like now to turn to the particular incidents which have been raised by the hon. Gentleman. He mentioned two matters. The first occurred during the General Election of 1935, and on that occasion this stipendiary wrote a letter recommending a particular candidate to the electors. I would, however, make a certain number of points in regard to that action. First of all, I read the letter very carefully, and, although I do not wish to attach undue weight to these points, I think they are all necessary to the House in considering the matter in perspective. This letter, while it did express approval of the candidate, was in no way what anyone would describe as fiercely partisan in character. A rather more important point is that the letter was not addressed to the electors of the borough in which the stipendiary acts in a judicial capacity, but to the electors in another constituency, and that is a relevant point. Recorders may sit in Parliament, but not for the boroughs in which they act in a judicial capacity. Therefore, it is an important point that this communication had no reference to the electors of the borough in which the stipendiary acts.

Thirdly, I think the House would wish to take into account the fact that this stipendiary at that time had only just been appointed. He had been engaged in accordance with the principles I have mentioned in political activities beforehand, and he had been engaged actively in preparations for the General Election, and it was only just after his appointment as stipendiary that he wrote this letter. When it was brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend he communicated with the stipendiary, and it is only fair to the stipendiary to say that he frankly recognised the objections to such a course, and that he said he did not intend to engage in such a course in future. That was the case in 1935.

Now I come to the incident brought up by the hon. Member this evening. The hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) has told us that he objects to the stipendiary formally seconding the adoption of the candidate. My right hon. Friend has communicated with the stipendiary since, and has been informed that the stipendiary attended what he regarded as a private meeting of a political association of which he had been a member for many years, and that at that meeting he did no more than second the adoption of a candidate, already moved by another member.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Does formally to second mean to make a speech?

Mr. Lloyd

As a matter of fact, the stipendiary did make a speech. Perhaps it would be better if I quoted the exact words to the House, because I do not think they can be regarded as politically tendentious. He simply stated that the candidate was a Welshman with a comprehensive knowledge of the Welsh language, and that he appeared to have the vivacity and imagination of his race. I understand that that was the recommendation.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Read on.

Mr. Lloyd

That is the report as I have it.

Mr. S. O. Davies

Is that all?

Mr. Lloyd

I am sorry, that is the complete report as I have it.

Mr. Mathers

From whom?

Mr. Lloyd

From the stipendiary.

Mr. Mathers

A prejudiced source.

Mr. Lloyd

Perhaps I may be allowed to continue. That, I think, explains the use of the word "formally," and indicates that he did not in any way indulge in a partisan recommendation of the candidate. The result was that the meeting was widely reported in the Welsh Press, and the report gave publicity to the part played by the stipendiary in seconding the adoption of the candidate. The result is that an action which the stipendiary thought at the time to be of a private and innocuous character can be represented as being of a public party nature. The fact that this can follow is an indication that stipendiaries should observe special prudence and caution in these matters. What seems to a stipendiary a small and an unimportant action taken in his private capacity can be represented as taking public part in politics. I think it is clear that the stipendiary had no intention of doing anything which would involve his public identification with party politics, but, no doubt, could he have foreseen the consequences of his action, he would have avoided it. I put it to the House that to stigmatise the conduct of this stipendiary as a breach of his undertaking is, having regard to the facts, unfair.

I put it to the hon. Member that the stipendiary is in full sympathy with the principle which was stated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer when Home Secretary, and that he endorses all that my right hon. Friend said, and that he had no intention of departing from that principle, and will take care that he does not do so in future. I would only add that it would be wrong, as a result of this Debate, for any impression adverse to the stipendiary to go forth, but the Home Office take the view that this Debate will serve a useful purpose in so far as it emphasises how desirable it is that every stipendiary should watch carefully his public actions and public statements with a view of safeguarding himself against any suggestion that he has indulged in partisanship.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Garro Jones

I think that everyone who values the impartial traditions of the English law will have listened with dismay to the equivocal speech which has been delivered by the Under-Secretary. Surely it must have been obvious to this stipendiary that a public meeting is not a meeting from which some members of the public are excluded but a meeting the proceedings of which are given publicity in the Press. It is an amazing principle if the stipendiary is to be allowed to commit himself to the support of a political party, which involves the approbation or disapprobation of measures upon which he will be called upon to adjudicate on the bench. For example, one of the matters falling within the purview of a stipendiary magistrate may be to decide whether or not a given strike is a genuine or a political strike. That is a question upon which it is impossible for a judicial officer to adjudi- cate impartially if he has taken a prominent line either in support of the Conservative party or the Labour party.

The point of the hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. Griffiths) is not that he supported the Conservative party or that he supported any party. How impossible the position would be, for example, if this stipendiary supported the Fascist party, or the Communist party, or any other revolutionary party. It would be more in accordance with the principles of impartiality both of the Home Office and of this House if, instead of seeking to defend what this stipendiary had done, it should be laid down, crystal clear, beyond the slightest possibility of doubt, that it is outside the purview of any judicial officer, from a High Court Judge to a Stipendiary magistrate, who are all brought within certain protections from criticism in this House, to participate in party politics of any shape or kind. Speaking for myself, I hope the House will not be prepared to leave the matter until a decision has been given from the Front Bench.

Question put, and agreed to.

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