HC Deb 09 December 1941 vol 376 cc1408-12

Order for Second Reading read.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Captain Crookshank)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

I think it is 12 years since the House has been troubled with an indemnity Bill, and I hope that in accordance with precedent the House will pass the Bill through all its stages forthwith, in order that we may have the benefit as soon as possible of the counsel and assistance of Mr. Arthur Jenkins at our meetings. The circumstances are these: Under the Essential Work (General Provisions) Order, 1941, certain local appeal boards were set up, and in this particular case it was represented by all the parties who are likely to be concerned, that is to say, the workpeople and their employers, that a suitable person to be chairman would be Mr. Arthur Jenkins and he accepted that appointment. If is not an appointment to which there is a salary attached in the ordinary sense of the word, but there is a certain small sum payable per sitting, as in the case of the chairmen of similar boards. I understand that although Mr. Jenkins sat a good number of times as chairman, he did not take that fee, but for all that there is no doubt that, as the law now stands, it is an office of profit under the Crown, though it is not in the colloquial sense an office at all, and in this particular case, though the fee was payable, it was not accepted, so there was no profit for Mr. Jenkins. But as a result of accepting such an office he automatically vacates his seat as a Member of Parliament and becomes liable to very heavy penalties if, after acceptance of the office, he sits and votes in this House. I am not sure whether he has actually sat and voted. I should think perhaps not, because there have been very few votes, and, in point of fact, he accompanied the Lord Privy Seal to the United States and therefore was not even in this country for a good deal of the period.

However, it is clearly right that we should put this matter straight, and for that reason this Bill is. introduced. We are not helped by the legislation that we passed a little time ago under the name of the House of Commons Disqualification (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1941, because all that Act did was to exempt from the operation of the general law with regard to offices of profit under the Crown Members who had accepted appointments between the outbreak of war and the passing of the Act, so that does not cover Mr. Jenkins. In subsequent cases that Act provides that if the First Lord of the Treasury issues his certificate to a Member of Parliament, he may then continue in the office, but in this case, as I hope I have made clear, Mr. Jenkins is technically not a Member of Parliament, because he has technically vacated his seat by accepting an office of profit under the Crown. Therefore, to get over all these difficulties this Bill, which is in the usual form on such occasions as this, is presented to the House.

I do not know that it is necessary to say anything further on this, except that the introduction of the Bill does give the occasion for saying that the history of all these complicated and ancient pieces of legislation is on record for the future in the very admirable Report of the Select Committee on this subject presided over by the Chairman of Ways and Means. Whatever action this House may take on that Report, the fact does remain that it has brought to our notice a very fine review of the whole story, and I think all of us, as Members, should be grateful to our colleagues who undertook that very difficult piece of research for us. The moral of the whole thing, if there is a moral, is that if any Member of Parliament is approached to take any kind of appointment, indeed, if any Department offers any kind of appointment to a Member, it will be as well if he takes the earliest opportunity, before accepting it, of consulting either myself, as representing the Treasury, and therefore the First Lord of the Treasury, or the Attorney-General, in order that we may have no more difficulties of this kind.

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I do not want to oppose this Measure, but I wish to enter a mild protest against the Government finding themselves under the necessity of compelling the House to pass a Measure of this description over such a trivial matter. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman made some very kindly references to the Select Committee which sat to consider the question of offices of profit under the Crown. I have no right to speak for the Committee as a whole, but as one humble member of the Committee, who spent arduous weeks on the task, I thank him personally for the tribute he has paid to myself among the others. But I hope that is not all we are to get. If the Government had done the Committee the honour of operating that Report, it would not have been necessary for them to come forward with this very clumsy process. It seems preposterous, when we excuse Members of this House for holding offices of profit with salaries of £3,000 a year attached to them, that it should be necessary to introduce a Bill to exonerate a Member for accepting an office with a fee of £2 10s., which the Member in question never received. It seems to me that it is just silly. I hope the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will convey to the proper quarters the representations that I have made. and ask the Government to provide facilities for the Report of the Select Committee to be discussed on the Floor of the House, and the necessary legislation passed to make this kind of thing quite unnecessary.

Captain Crookshank

I will certainly convey that view to my right hon. Friend. It is only right to point out that here it is a question of the date of this particular offence. The automatic vacation of the seat occurred before the Select Committee had reported.

Sir William Davison (Kensington, South)

My right hon. and gallant Friend said that the object of this Bill was to indemnify Mr. Arthur Jenkins for holding an office of profit under the Crown. I understand that he is not making any profit out of holding this office. It is rather a misnomer to say that people incur heavy penalties by reason of holding offices of profit under the Crown when they may incur those penalties by holding an office in which there is no profit whatever. If he would make that point a little clearer, I think it would be of interest to the House. We understand why it is desirable that a Member should not hold an office of profit, because pressure might be brought upon him if he were holding an office of profit from which he was making gain; but when a Member does an unprofitable task to himself, though performing very useful work in the interests of the community, it does seem hard and unnecessary that he should be pilloried by losing his seat and incurring penalties.

Mr. Lewis (Colchester)

The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) appeared to suggest that because Mr. Jenkins was entitled in this case to only a very small payment it did not in the least matter if hon. Members held offices of profit under the Crown. I should like to protest against that suggestion. I think there is a very considerable danger in the present state of affairs, in which so many Members of this House are holding offices of profit under the Crown. I hope the practice will not increase. If this House is to continue to perform its proper functions, it is, in my view, of first-rate importance that there should be a considerable majority of Members who do not hold any office of profit under the Crown.

Mr. Maxton

May I be allowed to intervene again to correct a very gross misstatement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis)? I did not for one moment suggest that hon. Members of this House should be allowed to take offices of profit under the Crown. The hon. Member has obviously not read the Report of the Select Committee.

Mr. Lewis

What the hon. Member said was that it seemed absurd, when Members could accept £3,000 a year and continue to sit in this House, that we should be troubled with a case like this, in which only a small sum was involved. To my mind, that clearly suggested that he felt that it did not matter about Members holding offices of profit under the Crown so long as they did not get too much.

Sir W. Davison

May we have a reply from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to the question I asked, whether it is immaterial as to its being an office of profit or not?

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Attlee)

I am sure that my hon. Friend will find an answer to the point which he has put if he will read the very exhaustive account of the whole matter in the Report of the Select Committee. He will see that the essence of this trouble is the technical nature of the office of profit under the Crown. I thought my right hon. and gallant Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury made that position quite plain. It is technically an office of profit under the Crown, because, if held by somebody else in other circumstances, it might bring profit. In reply to the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton), I assure him that we all remember that very valuable Report, but I have not had it in my hands for very long, and a good many of us have to get on with the war.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Resolved, That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee on the Bill."—[Mr. James Stuart.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee.

[Sir DENNIS HERBERT in the Chair.]

Clause 1 amended, and agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Title amended.

Bill reported, with Amendments (Title amended); as amended, considered; read the Third time, and passed.