HC Deb 16 February 1945 vol 408 cc555-63

Order for Second Reading read.

12.34 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Home Security (Miss Wilkinson)

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

The chief purpose of this Bill is to give full trustee status to Northern Ireland Government securities and securities guaranteed by that Government and make further provision for the eligibility of such securities as investments for funds of savings banks. These are objects which can only be effected by legislation in this Parliament, and I do not think that anyone will question their desirability. The Bill contains a number of other provisions on matters upon which the Parliament of Northern Ireland is not competent to legislate. All these are of an uncontroversial nature, and are, indeed, concerned with the clearing away of technical difficulties, and I need hardly say, of course, that the Bill has been prepared in consultation and in full agreement with the Northern Ireland authorities.

Because the Bill is of a miscellaneous nature, it is not possible to give a general description of it, and I think it would be best, therefore, if I referred very briefly to each of its Clauses. With regard to Clause 1, criminal law of Northern Ireland is generally a matter for the Parliament of Northern Ireland. That Parliament is debarred, by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, from legislating with regard to excepted or reserved matters. It follows, therefore, that any amendment of the criminal law by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, cannot apply to offences in connection with excepted or reserved matters. The Parliament of Northern Ireland desires to make certain amendments of that criminal law, in matters of procedure by bringing it up-to-date and also by bringing it more closely into line with the criminal law of England. Hon. Members will see, therefore, that it would be very inconvenient, if the old and out-of-date provisions had to be kept in force, merely for the purpose of dealing with offences in regard to excepted or reserved matters, which, of course, cover a very small field of criminal law.

If the House would like an example, the Parliament of Northern Ireland desires to legislate on the lines of our Indictments Act and thus modernise their law. This Act, which was passed in this Parliament in 1915, simplifies the forms of indictment, and that, of course, applies to all indictable offences in England, including coinage offences. It would be very inconvenient if the corresponding Northern Ireland Act did not apply to such offences. The Clause, therefore, enables the Parliament of Northern Ireland, to make amendments to the criminal law of Northern Ireland applicable to all criminal offences, but the Clause is subject to the provision that the punishment for any offences relating to any excepted or reserved matters, shall not be affected, except in order to bring it into conformity with the punishment provided for such offences in England and by English law. So much for Clause 1.

Clause 2 deals with functions, with respect to matters within the legislative competence of Northern Ireland which are, from time to time, transferred by Act of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, from one Department of the Government of Northern Ireland to another. For example, functions relating to health and local government have recently been transferred from the Ministry of Home Affairs, to the newly constituted Ministry of Health and Local Government for Northern Ireland. There exist functions in connection with reserved matters, which have been placed, by Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom, upon the Ministry of Home Affairs, as being at that time the appropriate Department, in view of its health and local government functions. For example, under the Therapeutic Substances Act, 1935, therapeutic substances may not be imported into Northern Ireland, unless the Ministry of Home Affairs is satisfied that they conform to the required standard. Under the existing law, such functions cannot be transferred to the Ministry of Health and Local Government except by an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom. The object of the Clause is to enable, in such circumstances, the Governor, by Order in Council—made, of course, with the consent of the Secretary of State—to transfer, from one Department to another of the Northern Ireland Government, the functions placed upon the first Department by an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

On a point of Order. May I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that the right hon. Lady is reading this speech?

Miss Wilkinson

I am extremely sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I think the House will realise that this is a highly technical Bill, and that it is dealing with matters of which it is quite impossible to speak at large.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham, South)

As that point of Order has been raised, and the question has been raised before, I think it is due to the House that a Ruling should be given.

Mr. Speaker

The Rule is that use may be made of notes, but that speeches may not be read. I can see nothing from here, because there is a Box in the way, but the right hon. Lady is reading something, and I expect they are notes.

Mr. Butcher

I am very grateful for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, but I think that, if the position of our seats were reversed, your Ruling would be different.

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

Has it not always been understood that a Minister, dealing with highly technical matters, should be allowed to make use of notes?

Mr. Alexander Walkden (Bristol, South)

Will my hon. Friend opposite accept my assurance that the right hon. Lady was looking at us, more than at her notes?

Mr. Speaker

Statements sometimes have to be made by Ministers on difficult and technical matters, and, in those circumstances, it is usual that the use of notes is allowed.

Miss Wilkinson

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will now deal with Clause 3, which is, perhaps, not so technical, and on which I can expand a little for the benefit of the hon. Member. It makes provision, on suitable occasions, for the use of an embossed seal instead of the Great Seal of Northern Ireland. On such occasions, it will be possible for documents to be sealed by affixing to the document a single-sided impression of the Great Seal. The authority given by this Clause will be particularly useful where a considerable number of documents have to be passed under the Great Seal and have to be issued at the same time. For example, in the case of election Writs, the elaborate procedure provided for the attachment of a double-sided wax impression of the Great Seal is hardly justified. I would like to point out the exact amount of labour involved. I think there are some 50 constituencies for the Northern Ireland Parliament.

Mr. Silverman

Will the right hon. Lady please address Mr. Speaker?

Miss Wilkinson

It is necessary for each of these Writs to have affixed an impression of the Great Seal, on which the Clerk of the Crown would have to spend a large amount of public time. I believe that, on occasions, he has even had to bring his wife into the matter, and spend many hours making sets of wax impressions of the Great Seal, to produce for each document, a double-sided impression of the Seal. I am sure hon. Members will realise that that is a considerable waste of public time, to say nothing of the time of the good-natured lady concerned. Therefore, instead of going to that amount of trouble, we are proposing that these impressions shall be made so as to give a single-sided impression of the Great Seal. I can assure hon. Members that there has been a provision in English law for the use of a substitute of that kind for the Great Seal of the Realm since 1877. So much for Clause 3.

Now we come to Clauses 4 to 7. These are to give effect to what I have described as the main purpose of the Bill. Clauses 4, 5 and 6 will result in trustee status being given in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, to securities issued by the Government of Northern Ireland and to the securities which are guaranteed by that Government. Clause 7 will remove certain restrictions which at present apply to the investment of funds of savings banks in these securities. Clause 8, as the hon. Member who intervened, will be pleased to know, provides for the winding-up of the Lunacy Fund, which was established for the defraying of the expenses of the Lunacy Office in Ireland and it is made up of percentages charged on lunatics' estates and certain other fees. In England the expenses in connection with lunacy administration are borne by the Exchequer, and this Clause provides for the same practice to be followed in Northern Ireland.

Clause 9 deals with a very technical matter, and I must be forgiven if I read exactly what I have in my notes and I am sure when hon. Members hear what I am going to say, I shall be forgiven. The effect of paragraph (a) of Sub-section (1) is to enable the owner of a charge, when exercising the power of sale, conferred on him by the local Registration of Title (Ireland) Act, 1891, to apply to the court in a summary manner, for possession of the land or any part thereof. Paragraph (b) of that sub-section enacts what has always been assumed to be the law in Northern Ireland and what has in practice been acted on namely, that on a sale of land by the registered owner of a charge, the charge and all burdens inferior to the charge are discharged. Clause 10 makes the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland the legal depository of duplicates of conveyances and other instruments relating to Crown lands in Northern Ireland. It has, in fact, been the depository for some time, since the burning of documents in Dublin in 1922. Finally, Clause 11 corrects a drafting omission in the Northern Ireland section of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939. References in this Act to the Lord Chancellor and to the High Court should, in Northern Ireland, be references to the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, and to the High Court of Northern Ireland.

12.50 p.m.

Professor Savory (Queen's University of Belfast)

I should like to thank the right hon. Lady for her very lucid exposition of this extremely complicated Bill. I have every sympathy with what she says with regard to the question of seals, because I am informed that, at present, in order to use the Great Seal for the 52 Writs of the Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland, it requires for each Seal half a pound of wax. I may perhaps relate my own experience in this connection. I was returned for the constituency which I now represent on 2nd November, 1940, and as I was its a hurry to take my seat, I asked to be entrusted with the Writ but I was very much afraid, as it was such a huge great seal, that it might get broken before I could get it to the House of Lords and deposit it in the hands of the Clerk of the Crown. However, I discovered, that so far from the Seal being wax, it was made of guttapercha and it had served on all sorts of occasions for many documents.

To come to more serious matters. Clauses 2 and 3 refer to the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. That Act is the Act which established our Constitution, and it is proposed to alter that Act and to extend it in various ways as shown in these two important Clauses 1 and 2. It must be remembered that the Government of Ireland Act set up the only sample that we have of a federal system inside the United Kingdom. You have a Parliament sitting in Northern Ireland composed of two Chambers, the House of Commons and the Senate, yet at the same time sending representatives here to the Imperial Parliament. Obviously, the Government of Ireland Act tried to lay down as far as possible what are the prerogatives of the Government of Northern Ireland and what functions are "reserved" or "excepted" for the Parliament of the United Kingdom. You have in Clause 2 a very interesting example which refers to criminal legislation. Criminal legislation is not a reserved service. It is within the competence of the two Houses of Parliament for Northern Ireland, but criminal legislation may refer to certain matters which are reserved services, and therefore any Bill introduced into the House of Commons of Northern Ireland could not refer to these matters, and the object of Clause 2 is to widen the powers in that respect of the Government of Northern Ireland.

As this question is brought up here today it may be pointed out that there are certain other matters on which this bears. There is a very important Subsection in Section 4 of the Government of Ireland Act to which I would like to call attention. The Parliament of Northern Ireland cannot deal with relations with other parts of His Majesty's Dominions. What is the result of that? It is impossible for us, within our own powers, to interfere, in any way, with the penetration into the country of certain undesirable elements. All that we can do is, when they have entered the country, to instruct our police to take such measures as they can for the defence of the country. This is exceedingly unsatisfactory because we cannot stop anyone crossing the border, nor can we prevent goods from being brought across the border. The result is that we had, as hon. Members may have read in the papers only the other day, a very glaring example of a huge dump of arms which was discovered in the Falls Road district of Belfast. Would it not have been far more satisfactory if the officials of the Government of Northern Ireland had been allowed to prevent these arms from being brought in there instead of waiting until they had been dumped into the country?

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. Gentleman is going far too wide in discussing disputes between Southern and Northern Ireland. The hon. Member is distinctly out of Order in this matter.

Professor Savory

With respect, I would suggest that I do not want to be misunderstood. That was not really my intention. I am confining myself to the Bill, and I did not refer to Southern Ireland at all. I desire only to try to get some further slight amendment of this Bill, so as to give us the powers which are really essential for our own defence.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham, South)

If people came across the border then they must have come from Southern Ireland.

Professor Savory

I am only dealing with the people actually in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Speaker

That is the whole point. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the border, and there is no other way to cross the border except into Southern Ireland. He must, as I have asked him, stick to the purposes of the Bill.

Professor Savory

With the utmost respect I would point out to you, Mr. Speaker, that when the Defence Regulations expire, as they will expire after the war, then the various measures which have been taken, for instance that relating to residence permits, will disappear, and the Government of Northern Ireland will have no power to deal with the matter. I really do feel that as the Government of Ireland Act is now being called in question in this Bill, I am entitled to point out—and I am not referring to Southern Ireland at all—that there are some slight difficulties as between the Imperial Government and the Government of Northern Ireland as to how far the powers of the one or the other extend. I have brought up a number of questions in this House, put them to the Home Secretary, and he has replied to me "This is a matter for the Government of Northern Ireland." I have said "No," and asked him if he is not aware of Section 5 in the Government of Ireland Act with reference to reserved services and that he himself is the only person who could deal with these matters.

The Members of the Northern Ireland Parliament are very concerned about this, because there is scarcely any matter that can be brought before the House of Commons and the Senate of Northern Ireland which, in wartime, does not come under the Defence Regulations, and therefore is a reserved service. The result is that there is a growing feeling among the Members of frustration, and they really feel that there is very little for them to do at Stormont. Practically the only important subject which comes within their jurisdiction is the subject of education and even here there are certain restrictions. Therefore, I do feel that, as we seldom get an opportunity of discussing these matters, and as the Government of Northern Ireland Act is being called in question in this Bill, I ought to be allowed this opportunity of pointing out the difficulties that have arisen. I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not in any way in favour of Dominion Home Rule, of making Northern Ireland into a Dominion—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is, as I have already told him, going far too wide. He is discussing all sorts of things on a Bill which merely deals, as it clearly states, with miscellaneous provisions, and on which one cannot discuss Home Rule relations and questions of that sort. I must ask him to bring himself to Order.

Professor Savory

I am bound to bow to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, but I would like to point out in conclusion that in spite of anything that I have said, my one object is to improve as far as is possible the relations existing between the Government of Northern Ireland and that of the United Kingdom, and to bring them closer together, because we ourselves are proud to form part of the United Kingdom.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

As I raised a point of Order, I find it very difficult not to intervene. The right hon. Lady in charge of the Bill referred to me and therefore I feel that it would be both discourteous and ungenerous of me if I did not congratulate her on having brought this Bill before the House. It is, to her, the crown of a political career. Here she is bringing in a Bill dealing with substitutes for the Great Seal, giving full trustee status to securities, making alterations in the winding up of Lunacy Funds and making further provisions for the Public Record Office. I should not wish this great day in her political life to pass without adding my word of appreciation from these benches.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House.—[Mr. Beechman.]

Committee upon Tuesday next.