HC Deb 20 March 1946 vol 420 cc1886-921

Order for Second Reading read.

3.31 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

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

Several hundred years ago, in the reign of her late lamented Majesty, Queen Anne, Parliament at that time, growing in power and in independence, was very much concerned at what was considered to be the menace of having "placemen" sitting in the House, voting in the proceedings, but acting on behalf of the Crown. I apprehend that that menace, at any rate in that form, has long since disappeared, but the Statute of Anne, unlike the Queen, is still very much alive. It has been a source of difficulty in interpretation and application ever since it was passed. In these days, with the increasing calls which the State makes upon the services of private citizens in the administration of the machinery of government, the Statute has become a source of great embarrassment.

The circumstances nowadays are, of course, vastly different from those which existed in 1707, when the Statute was passed. These are times when, to an in creasing extent, private citizens are being invited, without any great expectation of significant remuneration, to assist by taking part in the activities of the various boards, tribunals and other bodies which are an essential and desirable feature of our administration. This Bill is intended to overcome the application of the Statute of Anne to three private citizens, who, having served the State in that way, be came elected to this House, in order to serve the people of the country as Members of this House, but who, under the law as it now stands, are deemed to occupy what the law, with, I am bound to say, a singular disregard of the realities of the situation, considers to be "offices of profit under the Crown."

Hon. Members will recall that a little time back this House, which is the arbiter of its own constitution in these matters, appointed a Select Committee to inquire into the three cases which are the subject of the present Bill. That Select Committee has recently presented its report and the Minutes of the Evidence which it took. Hon. Members will not desire me to deal in any great detail with the particular cases, but there were three. There was the case of Mr. James Harrison, who was appointed member of a pensions appeal tribunal established under Statute. He sat as a member of that tribunal on three, and only three occasions, all of them being before the General Election. He was paid, by a grateful Government, in respect of each of those three occasions, the not extravagant sum of 30s., a sum which, according to the evidence he gave before the Select Committee, did not, in fact, compensate him for the wages he actually lost in attending the meetings of the tribunal. He resigned from membership of the tribunal in October, 1945, when the possibility that his membership might involve some infringement of the Statute of Anne was first brought to his notice. But at the time of the declaration of the poll at the General Election, when he was elected as Member for East Nottingham, he was still on the panel of those who were called upon to serve upon the pensions appeal tribunal from time to time, and he was, by reason of that fact, in the conclusion of the Select Committee, the holder of an office of profit.

Mrs. Corbet was appointed to act as a part-time assessor to sit with the umpire who deals with hardship cases under the National Service (Armed Forces) Act, 1939. She sat twice in that capacity, both occasions being as long ago as 1943. I think she was paid altogether, in 1943, a sum of 8 8s. for her services, but although she had not sat since, her name remained on the panel of those who might be called upon to assist in the discharge of those functions. Consequently, when she was elected for North-West Camber-well, she was still, nominally the holder of what the Select Committee have concluded was an office of profit.

Mr. Awbery held a similar appointment, but had not sat as an assessor on these tribunals since the middle of 1944, and actually sent a letter resigning his appointment as an assessor before the declaration of the poll. But that letter was not answered, and his resignation was not accepted until some weeks after the declaration of the poll. Consequently, at the time he was elected as Member for Central Bristol, the Select Committee concluded that he was still the holder of what was technically an office of profit, and was, therefore, disqualified from membership of this House.

The Select Committee considered the whole of the evidence in regard to the matter, and devoted considerable study to the law. They were satisfied that in the case of none of these Members was there any appreciation, at the time of the General Election, that they were the holders of office of profit. Each of them knew vaguely that there was a Statute which disqualified holders of offices of profit under the Crown from sitting in this House, but it certainly never occurred to them that they were the holders of such offices. That is not surprising, because I am bound to tell the House that it was a matter of much doubt to my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and myself whether these were, in fact, offices of profit at all. The Select Committee, after considering the precedents and examining the law in a good deal of detail, came to the conclusion that, in fact, in the technical state of the law as it at present exists, they were holders of offices of profit. But they also concluded that this lady and these two gentlemen had undertaken those services purely from a sense of public spirit, and in no way in order to earn profits. The Select Committee consequently recommended that legislation should be introduced into this House validating these elections. That recommendation the Government, naturally and readily, have accepted, and I anticipate that the House will endorse it, by passing this Bill.

There is one further matter with which I should deal. The Select Committee made a further recommendation. It drew attention to the unsatisfactory and unclear state of the existing laws in regard to these matters, and recommended that legislation should be introduced, both to clarify the legal position and to make the legal position, thus clarified, more in accordance with our present constitutional arrangements. This, of course, is not the first time that such a recommendation has been made to His Majesty's advisers. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members opposite say, "Hear, hear," but it hardly lies in the mouths of hon. Members opposite to complain about this matter, if that is what the "Hear, hear's" indicate. In 1926 and 1927, the desirability and importance of introducing legislation in regard to this matter was brought prominently to the notice of the then Government—a Conservative Government. Again, five years later, the matter was brought prominently to the notice of the then Government—a Conservative Government. Again, another five years later, in 1937, it was brought prominently to the notice of the then Government.

Then it arose, of course, during the war at a time when one could hardly expect legislation to be introduced in regard to it. But earlier, when the Parliamentary programme was not nearly as congested as it is now, there were opportunities presented to the then Government to deal with this matter. The present advisers of His Majesty's Government realise that this is a matter which ought to be dealt with, and we propose to repair the omissions of our predecessors in the matter. In due course, at some convenient time, we propose to introduce legislation for the consideration of the House, which will seek to put this matter upon a more satisfactory and, at the same time, a clearer basis. At by-elections, I imagine, the political parties supporting particular candidates will make quite sure that this matter is taken care of, but before the next General Election—and there is plenty of time—we shall ensure that legislation has been presented to the House, in order that the matter may be clarified and in order that these difficulties may not arise again in any future Parliament.

3.43 p.m.

Squadron-Leader Hollis (Devizes)

I hope no hon. Members will be tempted to treat this Bill as a mere formality, be cause I feel that it touches upon constitutional issues of very considerable importance. Certainly, we do not want to approach these problems in a partisan spirit and to attack them as election petitions were attacked in the Parliaments of the 18th century. It would be equally disastrous, however, to approach them in a spirit of easygoing and careless bonhomie. It struck me very much in the learned Attorney-General's speech that, while he referred to other difficulties which have been met with in the interpretation of this Statute, he did not refer to what was surely most present in our minds, the Coatbridge and Springburn Act which was passed in the first days of this Parliament. Surely, the way in which most of us would approach this problem is not to waste too much time on the repetition of the arguments that were used when that Bill was being debated, but, on the other hand, to pay more particular attention to the respects in which the present situation is a great deal more serious than the situation which the House considered at that time.

This is a great deal more serious in two respects. The first point is that, in speaking on the Coatbridge and Springburn Bill, the learned Attorney-General specially recommended that Bill to the House on the ground that the circumstances were quite exceptional. The House passed that Bill on the understanding that it was highly improbable that any such thing would ever happen again. Now we find, within five months, that the same thing has happened again. That is something which surely should give us grave cause for concern The second great difference is this: Any hon. Member who has studied the report of the Commission will, I am sure, agree with the learned Attorney that there can be no question of any implication on the personal honour of either of the two gentlemen or the lady. We are very happy to be able to make that clear. It is perfectly clear that from the moment when they had the least suspicion that they had been guilty of impropriety they did not come to this House or vote in this House. There is no doubt about that Nevertheless, we are dealing with facts as they are in an unimpassioned way. The hon. Member for Coatbridge (Mrs. Mann) and the hon. Member for Springburn (Mr. Forman) had not, in point of fact, taken any effective part in the deliberations of this House.

On the other hand, we have rather different circumstances with these three people we are discussing. Mr. Harrison, as far as I understand, was warned of the situation very early on, and he did not subsequently come to this House, and, therefore, has very rarely voted in this House. Mrs. Corbet voted a few more times, but she ceased to come to the House as soon as-she understood that there was any question. Mr. Awbery came to the House, and played a considerable part in its deliberations for some time. As I say, no personal blame is to be imputed on him for doing so, because his case is one peculiarly deserving of compassion. The Attorney-General said none of these people had any suspicion that they could have been committing an offence. He was not quite clear so far as —

Mr. Speaker

I think that the hon. and gallant Member should remember that those who are under discussion should be referred to as hon. Members

Squadron-Leader Hollis

With respect, Sir, I would like a Ruling on that.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

Could we have a Ruling? I suggest that a person cannot be an hon. Member until his election has been validated.

Mr. Speaker

I think he is an hon. Member still, because if this Bill is passed he will not have to be elected.

Earl Winterton

May I call attention to the fact that the Bill itself, instead of speaking of the hon. Member refers to these gentlemen—these hon. Members; I do not know what to call them—by their names. Is not that evidence that they are not hon. Members?

Mr. Speaker

As far as I am concerned, they have sworn the oath before me as hon. Members and they should be referred to as hon. Members in this House. They are subject to a fine of 500 for every vote they may have given, but that does not stop them being hon. Members of this House.

Squadron-Leader Hollis

This is a Bill to validate their election.

Mr. Speaker

They are not incapable of voting. If they vote, they suffer penal- ties, but they are not incapable of voting, and therefore they are capable of being described as Members of this House That is my Ruling now, and I think it is right.

Squadron-Leader Hollis

I refer to the hon. Member for South Bristol, then. I say we have every reason for sympathy with him, because he seemed very well informed upon this Statute. He imagined it was his duty to resign, and in fact imagined he had resigned by writing a letter to the Ministry. He did not take into account, in the particular circumstances of his appointment, that the resignation did not take effect until the Ministry replied to the letter. His experience was an experience that may have happened to quite a number of hon. Members, and it was that a number of months elapsed after he wrote his letter before he received the Minister's reply. He therefore never suspected that he might be disqualified until the matter was called to his attention shortly before Christmas

During that time, to take one instance in my mind, we were discussing one day the decasualisation of dock labour, and there was a keen and interesting Debate upon that Bill. There was a question at some stage whether some hon. Members opposite would vote against the Government, and the hon. Member for South Bristol, I recollect, made a very powerful speech in favour of the Government, and, at the end, nobody voted against the Government. No one can tell how largely that result was the effect of his speech. If the history of the world, as we have been told, has been influenced by the length of Cleopatra's nose, may it not have been influenced by the length of the peroration of the hon. Member for South Bristol, which may have been what just turned the scale, and that the whole history of this Parliament was changed by the action of the hon Gentleman?

Mr. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

May I ask the hon. and gallant Member to correct his statement? I think he means the hon. Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Awbery).

Squadron-Leader Hollis

Yes, of course, the hon. Member for Central Bristol. May not the course of this Parliament have been changed by his speech, and by the vote which he was not entitled to give? Therefore, I say that it is a much more serious thing which the House is asked to do than it was asked to do in the case of the Springburn Election. I will not dwell so much on the compassionate aspect of this case. The fundamental axiom of our constitution is that ignorance of the law excuses no one, except the lawyer, and that principle should not be extended to include also the legislator. The very fact that it is one of our highest duties to defend our responsibilities and privileges as Members of this House makes it an equally important duty that we should not, in any way, make ourselves into a privileged class who carelessly indemnify ourselves for any mistakes we make. We have to pay for our privileges, and the price that we ought to pay should be readiness to accept the penalty when we make mistakes inadvertently. Therefore, I would not stress too much the compassionate aspect.

The reason why I do not think I would be justified in opposing this Bill is, as the Attorney-General has said, the extreme confusion of the present law. It is based on the law of 1707, and on two relevant Sections of that Act, which, at any rate at first sight, seem plainly contradictory. Section 24 says: No person who shall have in his own name …or for his own benefit any new office or place o profit whatsoever under the Crown …shall be capable of being elected or of sitting or voting as a member of the House of Commons. Section 25 says: If any person being chosen a member of the House of Commons shall accept of any office of profit from the Crown, his election … is hereby declared to be void, and a new writ shall be issued for a new election …provided nevertheless that such person shall be capable of being again elected. At first sight, these two Sections seem plainly contradictory. Of course, the lawyers over 200 years have attempted to rectify the matter by drawing a distinction between, offices under the Crown and offices from the Crown, and we have got along for 200 years on that definition. The Attorney-General is perfectly right in saying that there are a multitude of instances in which this has worked most unsatisfactorily. In 1873, when Mr. Gladstone was already Prime Minister and also First Lord of the Treasury, he thought fit to take to himself the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and applied to the Law Officers of the day to know whether he had vacated his seat. The only reply they could give him was that strong arguments could be used in favour and strong arguments against the view that the seat should be vacated. Mr. Gladstone did the only thing that he could have done in the circumstances. He took a six months' holiday and never returned to the House till the Dissolution. Mr. Asquith found himself in the same position in the last months before the last war, when Lord Mottistone resigned the Office of Secretary of State for War, and Mr. Asquith duplicated that post with the Premiership. He only escaped from his dilemma by declaring a world war—a remedy which was surely a greater evil than the disease. Sir George Cave, as he then was, when a law officer of the Crown was delegated to inquire into the workings of this Statute, and, after two and a half years diligent inquiry, was able to reach no certain conclusion, except that he himself had vacated his seat by undertaking the assignment.

As the Attorney-General has truly said, these complexities which have existed in the past have been multiplied by the many petty additions of posts which modern custom has created. There seems to be nothing that is certain about this Statute except the maxim that "an office of profit does not cease to be an office of profit because the holder ceases to derive any profit from it," and even that the lawyers cannot quite agree upon, because there was only the Pringle case, decided on exactly opposite principles in 1924, though, afterwards, they seem to have lost the papers, so no one knows why. We are really forced as our justification on to the maxim of the great Swiss jurist, Vatel, that "no man is held to the impossible."

I think the greatest question which we have to face is the question which was very acutely raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Merioneth (Squadron-Leader Roberts) on the Coatbridge and Springburn Elections Bill. What exactly is it that we are indemnifying? If we are indemnifying people for having, as hon. Members of this House, voted and sat there when they should not have voted and sat, there is a fairly limited demand, but, if there was impropriety in their not merely acting as Members of this House but in their being candidates, then we are facing a much more serious issue. What obviously happened, strictly speaking, was that no elections took place in these constituencies at the General Election. These people are being declared Members of Parliament by us though, in point of fact, they never were elected Members of Parliament. In his speech on the Coat-bridge Bill, the learned Attorney-General said there seemed to be no case in which an actual election had been validated. I am bound to say that, if I thought that to be true, I should be very doubtful whether I could support this Bill, but I am inclined to agree with this Bill because I disagree with the hon. and learned Gentleman's history. I think his history is all wrong, but that his Bill is all right.

If this was the first time we had been asked to do this, it would seem a very dangerous precedent, but, surely, it is not the first time by any means. In 1909, the Board of Trade was reconstituted and the President of the reconstituted Board of Trade became, apparently, a new officer under the Crown. Nobody discovered that until 1932, when they suddenly discovered—and there is no doubt about it—that the distinguished states men who had held the presidency between 1909 and 1932 had had no business at all to sit in this House and no business to present themselves to their various electors. In 1932 an Act was passed of which the Preamble runs: Whereas it is apprehended that since the coming into operation of the Board of Trade Act, 1909, persons holding the office of President of the Board of Trade have not been capable of being elected or sitting or voting as Members of the Commons House of Parliament. Therefore, we have a very strong precedent before us. Indeed, if the decision in the Pringle case is good law, here is a much more extraordinary position. In the Pringle case it was said that an office of profit was not an office of profit if the holder did not receive any actual profit from it. In that case all the people, throughout the whole of history since Queen Anne's time, who have received the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds have, in fact, not held an office of profit under the Crown. Every resignation has been invalid and every election as the result of that resignation has also been invalid.

The law as it stands at present is in a state of utter confusion. The argument of the Attorney-General about the sins of past Governments and political parties does not greatly concern me. if it so happened that any of the constituents of these three hon. Members had brought petitions against their election, I presume that the judge who was trying those petitions would have had no option but to unseat them. That has not happened, but I would like definite confirmation that there has not even been anything in the nature of an informal protest from constituents of these hon. Members. If there has been any such protest, however ill judged we may think it, I am bound to say that we ought carefully to consider what our action should be, because throughout history, nothing has been more disastrous than this House setting itself up in any way in opposition to constituents. I gather that we have not got that situation to meet in this case.

My hon. and right hon. Friends and myself have no wish at all to oppose this Bill, but in not opposing it we should like to make quite clear our standpoint which I hope does not differ very greatly from that of the learned Attorney-General. First, we should like to make it clear that it is far from satisfactory that this anomaly should have occurred, and that we can make no promise, whatsoever, if further instances come to light, that we shall be prepared to share the responsibility with the Government by not opposing their Bill. Secondly, we would not only agree, but would urge upon the Attorney-General, the vital importance of rapidly bringing in legislation on the lines of the 1941 Commission, or some such lines. Thirdly, until that legislation can be brought in, will it not be possible, at any rate, to adopt the recommendation of the Commission which is that every candidate should sign an act of resignation of any office of profit that he may hold, wittingly or unwittingly, under the Crown and that that act should be considered a valid act of resignation. If after signing that act of resignation he accepted any duties or payments, he would naturally become liable, but if he does not do so— as these three hon. Members did not do so —then he should be free of all liability. I would appeal to hon. Members in every quarter of the House not to consider this Bill as in any way a small matter. The whole future of civilisation depends upon the preservation of the law and the survival of the rule of law in the world depends, more than upon any other single factor, on its survival in this country and its survival in this country depends, more than upon any other single factor, on its survival in this House. There can be nothing more vitally important than that in our dealings with one another and within this House we should be strict to the point of pedantry in obeying every one of the regulations we impose upon ourselves.

Mr. Speaker

I should like to say that advice that I have just received suggests that my view was not correct. Hon. Members referred to in this Bill may be mentioned by name and not by their constituencies as I had thought.

4.6 p.m.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

I propose to intervene only for a very few moments. I am glad, Mr. Speaker, that you have given an amended Ruling, because I imagine that some of us, at any rate, thought that these people were never Members of this House. This House, together with the other House and, of course, with His Majesty's consent, is taking upon itself the right of electing Members of the House. That is a very great power to exercise. Therefore, this is far and away more important than the mere question of the liability, or otherwise, of the three hon. Members who undoubtedly acted in a perfectly honourable and upright way. The Committee of which I was a member found that they had acted in a public spirited way without any idea whatsoever that they were offending against the law. But it must be remembered that not only will they be relieved of any penalty, but that this House is exercising an important function, which is really that of the public of this country, that of electing Members to this House. That is a power which we should not exercise, except with the very greatest care.

The matter has even deeper repercussions than that, and it is time that the situation was clarified instead of being left in the way it has been since the time of Queen Anne. Government after Government have said that they would deal with this matter, but, time and time again, they have postponed it. I am sorry that even the learned Attorney-General in giving his undertaking today, implied that the matter could rest. With every respect to the learned Attorney-General, I do not think it is a matter that can rest. There are two types of persons to be considered. The only type with which the hon. and learned Gentleman was dealing today was the person who was not entitled to be elected by his constituents at all and who, although he was returned by them, and although he came to this House, never, in fact, became a. Member. But there is another type of case, the case in which a person having been properly elected by his constituents, then disqualifies himself by accepting some office which offends against the law. That sort of thing is likely to happen any day. So long as the Act remains as it is, it is difficult to stop all kinds of legal difficulties.

The hon. and gallant Member for Devizes (Squadron-Leader Hollis) to whose very interesting speech I listened with great pleasure, very rightly referred to the opinion given previously by the then Law Officers of the Crown, that strong arguments could be used, on either side, as to the true meaning of this Act. This raises the much more difficult question of the application of the law to the particular facts of a particular case. Such questions are much more likely to arise under the legislation which the Government propose than ever before. Therefore, I hope that the Government will treat this matter, not as one which can be dealt with at leisure, but as one of real urgency. It is not fair to the constituents, to the public as a whole or to the Member who incurs the penalties, that he should have to throw himself upon the mercy of the House to ascertain whether he can escape those penalties or not.

On the subject of legislation, there is one important matter to which the Committee very rightly called attention. This is not a question merely of repealing this Act and letting anybody who holds any office of profit become a Member of this House. I would refer to the opening words in paragraph 10 on page vi of the Report: Your Committee have in no way lost sight of the importance of the principle which underlies the prohibition of office-holding by Members, namely, the need of ensuring a free and independent House of Commons. I cannot emphasise too strongly those words. This legislation, which has lasted ever since 1707, was passed by the House of Commons to maintain its freedom and independence. At that time it feared the undue influence of the Throne. The Throne was creating offices and giving them to Members in order to ensure that their votes would be on the side of the party supporting the Throne. Very rightly, the House then passed the legislation which has persisted to this day. The position then exercised by the Throne is now exercised by hon. Members on the Front Bench—the Executive of the day. Even in this House something like one-seventh of the Members are Members of His Majesty's Governmen—a very high proportion—which is a matter which the House, in maintaining its independence and freedom, should watch with the greatest care lest the Government take powers under new legislation which will enable them to increase the number of Members dependent for the holding of those offices upon voting for the Government in this House. That would lead to the destruction not only of this House but of democracy itself. When they are considering this new legislation, which I trust will be introduced very soon, I hope the Government will bear in mind the need not only for the reform of this old Act of 1707, but for preserving the liberty and independence of Members of this House.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)

I hope after what has been said by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Devizes (Squadron-Leader Hollis),that nobody will think the principle raised here is not one of great importance. The principle is the old one of the relationship between the Executive and the legislature. It is true that the importance of the particular cases here appears, at any rate superficially, to be small; but the constitutional importance of a given transaction is never to be measured by the financial or other considerations that arise in it. In support of that proposition, I pray in aid the famous passage of Mr. Burke in his speech on American taxation when he said: Would 20s. have ruined Mir. Hampden's fortune? No, but the payment of half 20s. on the principle it was demanded would have made him a slave. The whole question of Ship Money arose out of a very small transaction, and many of the great constitutional principles of this country have their root in matters superficially of no greater import- ance than that which is before the House today.

Like my hon. and gallant Friend, I do not approach this matter in any personal way. So far as I know, the three people concerned are excellent people, although, perhaps, a little eccentric in their political opinions. What is a little disturbing, however, is the fact that this thing has happened again, after the Attorney-General in his speech on the Coatbridge Bill used these words: It is, of course, of the greatest importance that nothing should be done to suggest that Parliament will normally intervene in order to validate an irregular Election, but the circumstances here are quite exceptional." — [Official Report, 12th October, 1945; Vol. 414, c. 565.] I would like to know when in his view circumstances cease to be exceptional, because the House passed that Bill under the assumption that it was the end of such occurrences It would now appear how ever that the Attorney-General's idea of finality has something in common with that of the late Adolf Hitler. The last territorial demand is paralleled by the last demand which the Attorney-General is asking of this House. But, so far from being the last, these three cases them selves might not have been the last, because on the day of the publication of this Report another case was referred by the Attorney-General to the Select Committee; but, happily, no grounds for action such as this existed in that case. I would like to know how much more of this sort of thing we are to expect. How are we to know what other bureaucratic skeleton may not be lurking in the Parliamentary cupboards of hon. Members opposite? If we go on at this rate———we have had five cases, and this Parliament has only been in existence six months or so—it will ultimately be a case of there being" more joy in Transport House over 99 sinners that repent than over one which hath no need of repentance "on the benches opposite.

I am rather perturbed not by the conduct of these people but by their attitude to this matter and to what I consider the important constitutional principle involved. I would like to refer to the evidence given by them before the Select Committee.Iaddress myself in particular to the questions which were put to the Members concerned, as to how they discovered they had offended, or might have offended, against this principle, and what they did in regard to it. The action of the hon. Member for East Nottingham (Mr. Harrison) is to be found in page I of the evidence. He is asked: May I ask why you resigned on that date? He replies: I was prompted by a casual conversation with one of the junior Whips. Then the hon. Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Awbery) was asked at page 27: You did not read this report that was presented to Parliament on the previous two cases? —No. I did not see the report, but I had my case in mind. Then he goes on to describe how, later on, a Whip sent for him, and that is what brought his attention to the matter.

Mr. Walker (Rossendale)

May I ask a question of the Attorney-General? It is in reference to one of these persons. Mr. Awbery resigned from the position—

Mr. Walker-Smith

I must ask for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I thought the hon. Member was going to ask a question. He may ask a question of the hon. Member, but he cannot make a speech. A question to the Attorney-General should come later.

Mr. Walker

May I be allowed to put a question —

Mr. Walker-Smith

I was referring to the reactions of the people concerned, and I was quoting from the evidence given by them in that connection. Lastly, I come to the case of Mrs. Corbet. She was asked, at page 6: The matter was never in your mind at all from the last time you sat until when? —After the Mrs. Mann case, and we had a notice on our Whip, I think, suggesting it to me, and I thought over everything and this occurred to me. Did you read the report? —No. I did not read the report Did you attend the Second Reading Debate of the Bill?— I must confess to not having been too devout on that'' There we have three people whose con duct calls in question this great constitutional question who, though there is a parallel case taking place in October, do not take the trouble to attend that Debate or in some cases to read the report. The matter only comes out because of such things as the casual conversation of Whips in the library. This may be a sign of simplicity of mind, and I have no doubt it is, but it does look rather as if they had no very great reverence for the principles involved. Otherwise, in my submission, they would surely have taken much more care to inform themselves when the earlier matter of the Coatbridge case came under the review of the House.

I think it would be a very serious thing if this House and Members of it were other than extremely conscious of the constitutional principles here involved. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Devizes has referred to the complexity of the Act of 1707. I think that from that Act there have evolved two principle of great constitutional importance in this country. The first is the principle that people holding offices of profit "from" the Crown—that is to say political, ministerial office holders—shall be members of the legislature in order to preserve the control of the Executive by Parliament. The second principle which has emerged is that people holding offices of profit "under" the Crown shall be disqualified from sitting in Parliament. From that second principle, incidentally, there comes the independent non-political Civil Service which we have To my mind it is absolutely vital that these two principles should be preserved intact in the future development of this country. According to the learned Attorney-General the one thing that suggests itself as a cure for these ills is the repeal of the Act of 1707. In my view that is not an entire answer to this constitutional problem.

I think we would be wrong in the case of these three particular Members to strain unduly at the gnat. At the same time, I do not think the question can be satisfactorily resolved simply by the House being asked to swallow the camel; that is to say to repeal the Act of 1707. Though Queen Anne, as has been rightly observed, is dead, I think the constitutional principle which this Act embodies is or should be very much alive. I think it is a prime duty of this House to maintain those principles. They are perhaps threatened more today, for reasons that we know, than they have been in the past For that reason there is the greatest responsibility upon Members of this House to see to it that if this legislation is going to be repealed it should be repealed in such a way as to preserve inviolate those two principles, which more than anything else have made this Parliament in the past one of the most vigorous, freest and purest instruments of government in the world.

Mr. Walker

Mr. Speaker, I want to ask a question of the Attorney-General through you, with regard to the resignation of the Member for Central Bristol. I understood, not only from him but from the hon. and gallant Member for Devizes (Squadron-Leader Hollis), speaking this afternoon, that this resignation was actually put in before the date of nomination, but that it was not recognised or acknowledged by the Department until a month after. What I want to know is this. What, in law, is the correct date of the resignation? Is it the date it is sent in or is it the date it is acknowledged?

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

I would 'like to support very strongly indeed what has been said by several hon. Members, and particularly the hon. Member for Montgomery (Mr. Clement Davies), in regard to what we are dealing with at the present time, namely, that it seems to most of us that in the individual cases the offices have been quite unwittingly undertaken and we attach no blame to them. They are themselves, as far as we are concerned, genuine individuals. The fact remains that this law, as it has applied over the generations, has been for the very vital purpose of maintaining and keeping the freedom and independence of the elected representatives of the people free from interference by any outside body. Originally this was done because of the dependence of certain Members on the Crown. Today, as has been pointed out, that position is no longer a similar danger. However, there is a danger—and those of us who have been in the House of Commons for some time must have noticed, not only in this Parliament, this tendency and growing danger—that the Member of Parliament is far too much under the influence of the Government of the day. The value and the object of a representative of the people is to criticise and to control the Government of the day, and not to be controlled by the Government. That is why I think it is absolutely essential that there should be a very great deal of attention given to the problem which we have had brought before us today.

I go on from that to the point raised by the Attorney-General. He said he was going to bring in a Bill to deal with this matter. He was also kind enough to tell the House, with one of those charming smiles for which he is becoming so famous, that there was lots of time. I agree, there is plenty of time. That being the case, might not the Government, in answer to this Debate, tell the House quite clearly that they are going to get the Law Officers to go into the matter now, and that they will, if possible, bring in and pass in the very near future, any how before August, a Bill dealing with this subject? It is easy and possible. They would have the good will and help of all sides of the House. Another question about which I think it right that the House should be told is this. This is the second occasion on which we have had a Bill of this kind. I would ask the Attorney-General whether he has any knowledge of or any suspicion in his mind that there may be, any further cases. It does seem that after six or eight months of Parliament we should have arrived at a time when these anomalies ought to have been found out, the accidents put right, and the Members able to take their full part in the Debates of this Assembly. It is a very serious thing indeed for a constituency if their Member cannot take part in the Debates. I think I am right and quite fair in pressing that we should be told whether or not the Government have gone into it. It is a perfectly simple thing to do. I may be in the wrong myself for all I know. Very likely I am one of the people in trouble. That should be made clear at the earliest possible moment.

Those are the things it is absolutely essential to recognise at the present time. It is vital, in the interests of the House, that there should be absolutely no control of Members of the House of Commons by any outside or other powerful body. When these difficulties arise twice, as they have on this occasion, in one Parliament within a few months, the whole position should be cleared up as far as the individual Members are concerned, in order that they may be free to carry on their work.

Secondly, I think we ought to press for a pledge from the Government that "any old time" will not really do to bring in a Bill of this kind. It is no good saying that other Parliaments have made the same mistake; they did not, if my recollection is right, have two Bills placed before them in such rapid succession as these, and as no other Government has ever had a Law Officer on the Front Bench who has admitted that there is plenty of time; surely not even the Leader of the House can make the least possible excuse for not having a Bill very quickly.

4.31 p.m.

Mr. W. J. Brown (Rugby)

I shall vote for this Bill, if there is a Division on it, although I do not suppose there will be. I shall vote for it because I cannot find that these individuals have been guilty of anything except not knowing intimately the law on this subject I do not take the view that they have shown themselves casual in the matter, merely because it was a casual conversation that drew their attention to the fact that they were in the wrong. Indeed, it is just from such casual conversations, with somebody who knows more about the law than one knows oneself, that one does find, from time to time, that a slip has been made. I see no reason whatever in the circumstances referred to by my hon. Friend above the Gangway, for withholding assent to this Bill

With other Members, however, I attach tremendous importance to the character of the legislation foreshadowed by the Attorney-General for a later stage, and I at once say that the mere repeal of the Act of Queen Anne does not provide an answer to this problem. The problem is extremely difficult, and varies from century to century in its incidence. But the principle remains the same all the way through. At one time the independence of this House had to be protected against the King. At a later stage, it had to be protected against the corruptions of the Treasury. Toda it requires protection from corruption at the hands of the party machines. Now the element in all these situations have been the same. The constant element has been to avoid the economic dependence of Members of Parliament on the Government of the day in such a way as to deprive them of their freedom to speak and vote as they thought right. That is the root of the matter, and whether the cause of their loss of freedom was intimidation from the Crown, which it was at one stage, bribes from the Treasury, which it was at another stage, or jobs from the Government, as it now largely is, the issue remains the same throughout. It is with that issue that I want to deal this afternoon.

It was recognised many decades ago in this House that the number of Members of the House who depended for their livelihood upon the Government had reached dangerous proportions, and there was a Motion in this House by a Mr. Dunning asking the House to affirm, as a matter of principle, that at no stage should there be more than 40 Members of the House holding paid office under the Government. That number has now grown from about 40 to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100, and there are various kinds of perquisites, quite apart from the actual holding of office in the Government itself. During the war, we legalised for the time being, the holding of seats in the House by men who occupied ambassadorial and other Government posts abroad. Some of those posts have now been terminated and it may be that they will all terminate. But there is growing up in the House a dependence on the Government which I regard as dangerous to the independence of the House itself.

The question of financial consideration links up with another, namely, the growth of party control. The Cabinet system has led to the assumption that all Members of the Cabinet must vote in the same way in the House. Subsequently, that came to apply to all Members in the Ministries, whether holding major or minor offices. We are now reaching a stage where the doctrine is being bruited abroad that a Parliamentary Private Secretary ought not to vote in a sense contrary to the Minister whom he serves. You have only to add up all the Ministers, all the Under-Ministers and their private secretaries, and there is practically only me left.

Mrs. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

Not for long.

Mr. Brown

I do not know whether that is a reference to a possible resumption of my old association with my hon. Friends on the opposite benches. I can only say that one formidable obstacle has been re moved in the lifting of the Standing Orders, and all that is required is an application from the Party opposite to affiliate to me to make possible fruitful negotiations on the matter.

I regard it as of very great importance that we should not merely destroy the Act of 1707—and I cannot imagine that this can be the Government'sintention—be cause of the kind of difficulty that arises under it, with some examples of which we are dealing in this Bill. We ought carefully to consider what is to be put in its place. The danger to democracy in Britain does not, in my opinion, lie in Fascist or quasi-Fascist organisations. It lies within democracy itself. I remember that it was necessary for the Leader of the L.C.C., who is now the Lord President of the Council, when the Labour Party gained a majority on the London County Council, to Jay down in very strong and praiseworthy terms that it was above all things necessary that a Labour majority on the London County Council must keep itself free from any suspicion whatever of corruption, from any suspicion of using political power for personal and financial ends. If that is true of the L.C.C., it is true of this House. And if we are to destroy the law of Queen Anne I hope very much that we shall put something in its place which will always ensure that there is a majority of Members of this House—and a big majority—who are not dependent financially upon the Government for their day-to-day living and who are, therefore, free to bring to bear, upon the Measures and the Resolutions that come before them, an unbiased and impartial judgment, and to vote in what they regard as the best interests of the community they represent.

4.37 p.m.

Mr. Jack Jones (Bolton)

I do not intend to detain the House very long. Some of the learned Members are so learned that, as they have flourished their papers, they nave told us that an Act has been kept in being for 230 years or more, although they themselves agree that it should be altered. I speak on behalf of the three persons involved. I was the fourth, but happily I was not so implicated as were the other three, and I want to suggest to the House that, in the middle of a war when new legislation is coming into being, it is too much to ask the ordinary layman, the ordinary person drawn from the factory or even from public life, to understand all the ramifications of the law, especially when the lawyers themselves apparently do not know all about it. During the war, legislation was passed demanding a lot of new activities. Public spirited people accepted office and, I think, in all cases have proved that they were not offices of profit at all. I speak feelingly when I say that I can prove conclusively, to anybody's satisfaction, that in my case it was definitely an office of loss and not of profit.

That, however, is not the point. I want the Constitution to be maintained, hon. Members on these benches want the Constitution to be maintained, and I am rather concerned when lawyers who have prepared the brief for this proposition to day tell us that they are not desirous of gaining anything out of this. I am not so certain. I am rather inclined to the belief that behind the scene an effort is being made to get some political kudos-out of it. I am satisfied that these three-persons undertook their duties in the interests of Britain, and in no other interest whatsoever, for the purpose of effectively carrying new legislation into effect. I am satisfied that in no case did they attempt to get behind the law for any material gain.

It has been said from the opposite Benches that this is the second occasion. It is not the second occasion. It is the second Bill that has arisen out of things which happened at the same time. All these people were involved at the same time. It is unfortunate that some of the cases have been found later than the first two cases. Therefore, it would be unfair: to suggest from the Opposition Benches; that something has been hidden from this House. It may well be that there are other cases. It has been proved today beyond a shadow of doubt, to my satisfaction, at all events, that other learned people very high up in what was the Government of the country held such offices for 30 years and were not found out—people, apparently, who should have known better. This Bill ought to receive no opposition at all. These people were elected in the interest of the Party we have the honour to represent by the people of their various constituencies,and they were elected on exactly the same premises as other hon. Members, as being worthy of support from people who did not give support to their opponents. That was the true test of democracy that took place in their constituencies. I suggest that this Bill ought to go through without the slightest demur or opposition from any hon. Member of this House.

4.42 p.m.

Mr. Maclay (Montrose Burghs)

I, personally, have great sympathy with the hon. Members whose position is under discussion, because some years ago I found myself in a very dangerous position because of this same problem. I should like to add a little to what has been said about the definition of an office of profit under the Crown. What happened to me was that I found myself in a position which was not of any profit to me whatsoever, but which came under the same very strange definition of an office of profit under the Crown; and if steps had not been taken to make an honest man of me by way of a certificate, I should have been liable to pay a fine of 100 a day for every day that I continued to hold that office. I hope that in any future legislation which is contemplated, steps will be taken to define more accurately what is an office of profit under the Crown, and how such offices are to be regarded which arc of no profit whatsoever but now come under that category.

443 P.m.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

None of us on this side of the House can admit for a moment that this is a slight matter, or one that can be disposed of without full consideration. I should like, before coming to the point I want to make, to comment on the speeches that have already been delivered, and thus follow a custom which I must say, I hope without seeming to be priggish, has been some what neglected in modern usage, for nowadays hon. Members make speeches and immediately rush out of the House and are not seen again. I have taken the precaution of making notes 0f what has been said, and some interesting points have been made in all the speeches.

We on this side take no exception to the tone in which the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General introduced this Bill, but I rather regretted that he thought it necessary to introduce what seemed to me to be something like a Party bias, and to suggest that the anomalous state of the law should have been redressed in the days of Conservative Governments before the war. I agree entirely with what was said by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) in his brilliant speech about dealing with this matter comprehensively. The real strength of the hon. and learned Gentleman's charge, if there be any charge, against any Government for having failed to deal with the matter would lie in a charge against the Coalition Government, of which the hon. and learned Gentleman's colleagues were members and of which my colleagues on this Bench were members, but of which, happily or unhappily, neither he nor I were members, so that it is open to us, if we desire, to criticise any action that that Government took or did not take. That Government was presented with a most valuable report from a Select Committee of which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) and the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) were members. That Committee presented a most valuable report. I shall come to that in a moment. But I do not think it is fair to say this charge should be brought against Conservative Governments.

I turn to the most valuable speech which was made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Devizes (Squadron-Leader Hollis). I do not want to hurt the feelings of these two gentlemen and this lady who were, as it proves, improperly elected to the House. They were improperly elected to the House. Do not let us be mealy-mouthed in this Debate. We are being asked now to legitimise a piece of constitutional bastardy. These people were not entitled to be elected to the House. I do not attach any personal blame to them as individuals. The anomalous state of the law makes it extremely difficult to know how we stand in this question, which is not only a question of law, but of Rulings of the House and of Mr. Speaker. In the circumstances it is very extraordinary, as has been pointed out in more than one speech, that some of them, I understand, voted. I do suggest it would have been a gracious act if those who voted improperly in a Debate had offered some apology for doing so. I do not know whether it has ever occurred to hon. Members before that persons not entitled to vote in a Debate actually voted in a De bate. One such hon. Member did, as I think my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Devizes pointed out. Is that disputed?

Mr. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

Does the Noble Lord mean that they voted knowing they were disqualified?

Earl Winterton

Nothing of the sort.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

It makes all the difference

Earl Winterton

It does not make all the difference. The hon. Member is very fond of putting pernickety legal points. I am in possession of the House, and he is not. I want to suggest it would be a gracious act on the part of this gentleman who improperly, as it proves, voted in a Division to apologise. I think it would be proper for the hon. Member who voted improperly to offer some apology to Mr. Speaker, since he was not a Member at the time. It is not a light thing to vote in this House when one is not entitled to vote. It has never been held to be a light thing.

I turn to the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. It was a most useful contribution. I am glad he put the matter, as one might have expected from him, on a very high level, that of a sense of Parliamentary propriety. There is such a thing as Parliamentary propriety. I would venture to lay this down as a general proposition from which no one would dissent. Although in violent, angry Debates in this House—to which I have contributed myself—hon. Members speak angrily to each other, that is not necessarily in discord with the traditions of Parliament. What is in discord with the traditions of Parliament is the carrying out of our procedure in a way that is subsequently found not to be in accord with the traditional procedure of the House. These two gentlemen and this lady have been for a long time—since this Parliament was elected—Members of this House when they have not been entitled to be.

I pass on to the speech of the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) , who drew attention to the rather light manner in which these two gentle men and this lady had treated the matter. The evidence before the Committee shows that. The hon. Member for Bolton (Mr. J. Jones) seems to think that this is an unimportant matter, and that the poor ignorant Labour candidate cannot be expected to know the Rules of this House, and that if he is improperly elected, well then, it is a matter of no importance. That is not the view which we on this side of the House take.

Mr. J. Jones

I did not suggest that it was unimportant. I was speaking of the constituencies. That was the word I used.

Earl Winterton

The hon. Member thought it was not a very serious matter if someone found himself improperly elected—we say that it is a very serious matter. I should like strongly to support what was said by the hon. Member for Rugby. I have some hesitation in saying this, because it may seem effusive, but not for the first time has the hon. Member shown himself to be a staunch supporter of the constitutional principles upon which this House is based. As a party politician myself, and as one who belongs to an organised party, I say that it is absolutely right to call attention to the dangers of hidden corruption in our present system, which may not necessarily be entered into by Members with their eyes open or be due to evil intentions. I would call attention to the very strong ' criticism made in the Report of the Select Committee on Offices or Places of Profit under the Crown. In 1941, they wished to limit not only the number of Ministers in this House but the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries. During the last 10 years, let alone during the last 40 years, the idea has been growing up that the Government should have a number of janissaries, bound to them by every tie of honour and expectancy, who will vote for them in any circumstances. This would be a serious thing in the old days. It is not only my view, it is also the view of the Select Committee, composed of Members from all sides of this House, and the hon. Member for Rugby did well in drawing attention to it.

I do not know whether the Press and the public will pay any particular attention to this Debate. Any working journalist knows all about the extreme pressure on space at the present time, and it may be that no attention will be called to this matter, but I can assure the public that it is a matter which indirectly affects them very considerably, and is not merely a domestic question for the House of Commons. This Bill raises that very delicate Constitutional point, to which the Attorney-General did not refer, in addition to its domestic aspect. I hope that I may state the Constitutional point correctly; it would be better for me to put it in the form of a question. Is it not the case that a subject of the Crown who breaks the law and thereby incurs penalties, whether he be a Member of Parliament or not, cannot plead inadvertence? Has it not, again and again, been held that there is no justification for ignorance of the law, even if the law is of an anomalous nature? Have not judges said that they are very sorry for the offender, but that he must pay damages? The inadvertence may affect to some extent the extent of the damages awarded. For the second time, in this Parliament, we are being asked to treat Members of Parliament as if they were sui generis, as if Members of Parliament can commit offences without the penalties which would attach to persons outside. It is not a small matter that, for the second time, we should be called upon to grant a Bill of indemnity. But the matter goes further than that.

It has been brought out very strongly that we in this House enjoy a number of privileges. We can libel people with impunity. In the course of my long career in the House of Commons, I have heard speeches—I will not use the word disgraceful, because that might be out of Order—attacking some private individual. There are no penalties for making such attacks. We have, in certain circumstances, the freedom from arrest, and we ought, therefore, to be very careful, enjoying these privileges as we do, not to invent new privileges for ourselves. In this case we are giving ourselves a new privilege, namely, that when Members are improperly elected there will be a Bin in each case in validate the election. That creates an entirely new privilege. I do not know whether the Government will agree to my proposal,, but I hope that the Attorney-General will say that this is the last time a Bill of this kind will be introduced, during the lifetime of this Parliament at any rate, and that if it be found that other Members have been improperly elected there will not be a third Bill to allow "Mr. Muggins" or "Mrs. Benson" to take their seats in the House of Commons. We on this side of the House will support this Bill, but we look forward to the production of legislation to give effect to the recommendations of the Select Committee of 1941. It is in tolerable that we should continue much longer in the present situation, and I hope that the Attorney-General will be able to give some undertaking that a Bill of this nature will be brought in, otherwise, I am afraid, we shall have to organise some group to bring pressure upon the Government. I hope that the Attorney-General will not think I am being unfriendly, because I can assure him that I am speaking with the utmost sincerity. I have been in consultation with my hon. Friends, and we have agreed to support the Government, thereby shouldering moral responsibility in this matter, but we are doing this with some reluctance, because we think that it is a dangerous principle to have two Bills presented in the same Parliament. Our consciences would be very much relieved if the hon. and learned Gentleman would make some announcement in regard to implementing and putting into operation the main decisions of the 1941 Committee.

4.57 p.m.

Mr. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

I would not have intervened in this Debate, had it not been for the observations made by the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton), and the interjections which I made during his speech. So far as I can gather, he has the impression I was suggesting that a Member, who has been elected under conditions which disqualify him, should, nevertheless, vote in a Division in the House of Commons. That is as far from my mind as anything can be. I was anxious to correct the impression which the right hon. Gentleman had, that this Member had voted at a time when he knew that he was disqualified. I dare say that the right hon. Gentleman did not intend that inference, but that is how I understood it. I am certain that other hon. Members received the same impression.

Earl Winterton


Mr. Turner-Samuels

I apparently misunderstood the Noble Lord. I say, without prefix or suffix, that it would be wrong and irregular for any Member, knowing that he was disqualified, to stand up in this House, to sit, or to vote, or do any of the things which only a quail- fied Member can do. That brings me to the constitutional point. I do not think that any hon. Member on the opposite benches is more solicitous for the integrity of the Constitution than we are on this side of the House. It is proper, in a matter of this kind, to consider to what degree any constitutional question arises. I agree that where any person occupies an office and knows that the occupation of the office disqualifies him from candidature for this House, but nevertheless presents himself as candidate, it would be outrageous for anyone to come here and ask for that person to be absolved from the consequences of his own act. I do not think that any responsible Government, or any responsible law officer, certainly, would attempt in those circumstances to ask this House for that person to be qualified.

There must be some sense of proportion in this matter. We must see the whole field of consequences following from what was done, and what would follow if it were not put right. What is the position here? It is not suggested, and the Noble Lord clearly indicated this point, that any of these people deliberately or immorally allowed to happen what did take place. It is conceded not only that what took place was inadvertent, but that it was completely innocent. It is also agreed —the Select Committee apparently agreed —that not only did Mr. Harrison not receive any profit but that he was subjected to loss, by reason of the office that he was then filling. In each of the cases, one can see, upon reading the evidence, that it is clear there was no intention— indeed no knowledge whatsoever—that what was being done was wrong or irregular, or that it was calculated to disqualify the person who was doing it from holding a seat or sitting as a Member of Parliament.

In the circumstances, are we to refuse to give a Second Reading to a Bill designed to put that position right? Or are we to leave the position, so that the seats become vacant and all the machinery of an election, with the expenses attached to them, has to be set in motion? If the public outside are to be considered in the relationship to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, would the public not think that this House was singularly lacking in commonsense and judgment if, after these facts had been examined by a Select Committee, we did not, in these harmless and unblameworthy circumstances, take the practical course of saying that these three Members should be reinstated, and fully discharged? The Select Committee emphasise and underline the matter by saying that it would like the House to carry out the recommendation of a previous Committee, that matters of this kind should be regulated by Act of Parliament.

5.7 P.M

The Attorney-General

Perhaps, with the leave of the House, I might reply shortly to some of the points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) directed some criticism to the circumstances in which, following the Coatbridge Elections Bill, the lady and gentlemen concerned in the present case did not at once realise the difficulty of their own positions. I conceive it to be no part of my duty to make excuses for the persons concerned in this matter. We are not asking the House, out of sympathy for this lady or these two gentlemen, to pass the Bill, but unless we are all prepared to cross our hearts, and say that we read all the Parliamentary papers we receive every morning and every line of Hansard, we are doing a little less than justice to the three people concerned in this matter.

Mr. Derek Walker-Smith

I am reluctant to interrupt the Attorney-General, but as this matter has been referred to by several speakers I would like to make it clear that I made my observations about the apparently casual manner in which these matters impressed themselves upon the people concerned, as an illustration of the possibility that this House regards these great constitutional principles with less care, alertness and close attention than, traditionally, it has been accustomed to do.

The Attorney-General

I am very much obliged to the hon. Member for that intervention. I should be sorry to think that either the Members of this House, or the three persons whose election would be validated by the passing of the Bill, attach less than great importance to these matters. If one looks at the minutes of evidence given before the Select Commit tee one finds that although it might be right to describe his manner as in some senses casual, yet Mr. Harrison, on page 3 states that his casual encounter with the Whips arose in this way: He did not profess to say that he had read the Report of the Select Committee or that he had read Hansard immediately after the Validation Bill for Coatbridge had received its Second Reading. He said that, on 17th October, a letter was written in which he resigned his office. He stated: I sat in the Library on the 16th, the day before reading Hansard—the full report, and arising out of that careful reading of the report a casual conversation arose between one of the Junior Whips and myself." Then he was asked: Then it occurred to you that this might be a parallel case?'' He replied: Yes, and I immediately sought information. He had not read the documents immediately they were circulated, but he had taken the trouble, which I venture to think many hon. Members do not take— I do not myself—of going to the Library and reading past Debates in Hansard. Then he realised that his own case might be similar, and he took advice and immediately refrained from sitting in the House.

In the case of Mr. Awbery, the position was that, before the declaration of the poll, his attention was drawn to the possibility that he was holding an office which might disqualify him from election, and before the declaration of the poll he wrote resigning it. He thought, I dare say, not unnaturally, as an hon. Member behind me thought, that the writing of that letter would be effective in putting an end to the holding of that office. In some cases, it might have been. It depends on the terms of the contract governing the appointment, and the view which the Law Officers, and also the Select Committee, took in regard to this contract and appointment, was that it could not be vacated by a purely unilateral act of resignation on one side until this had been accepted by the other. Not having legal advice in a matter which was certainly doubtful, Mr. Awbery thought that, having sent his letter of resignation before the election took place, he was all right.

In regard to Mrs. Corbet, she, of course, had not sat in the office to which she was appointed for three years before the election, and she was convinced that, although she might remain a member of the panel she would never be the holder of an office unless she sat as an assessor, which entitled her to receive the small remuneration which went with that position. Even if one thought that the lady and two gentlemen concerned ought to have read the report of the Debate on the Coatbridge case, it is a little difficult to say that that ought immediately to have led them to the conclusion that their position was one in which they might have been disqualified. I was wrong about this, as hon. Members will have seen from my own opinions included in the minutes of evidence. I took the view that, on the whole, these three people were probably not disqualified. The Select Committee, in their better judgment, took the other view. I thought that it was doubtful, and that the Select Committee ought to consider it. I think that on the whole, they probably were not disqualified. Perhaps one cannot blame them too much for not themselves coming to the conclusion that a disqualification existed in their cases.

The right hon. Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) said that it would have been right and proper if they had apologised to the House. May I suggest to him and to the House that there really has 'been no opportunity for such an apology to be made. Immediately it was suggested to them that their position as Members of this House was equivocal, they absented themselves from attendance. They did not know, at that stage, whether they were disqualified or not. That being so, to apologise to the House would have been to admit disqualification, the existence of which they were not, at that time, convinced. Since that time, they have had no opportunity of coming to the House or apologising to Mr. Speaker in regard to this matter.

Mr. Charles Williams

When this Bill was printed, they could have written a letter to Mr. Speaker expressing their regrets. That would have made their case much stronger and saved a lot of talk.

The Attorney-General

I am not at all sure that it would have been a proper thing to seek to influence the House on the view which it took on this Bill by writing letters to Mr. Speaker. This was a matter on which two views could be held, and they probably felt that it was best for them to stay entirely out of the matter and leave the House to deal with it on its merits, as the House will now proceed to do. I indicated in my speech, to which attention has been called, on the Second Reading of the Coatbridge Bill, the reasons why I was suggesting to the House that the cases then under consideration were exceptional cases. I specified them in my speech, and I shall not repeat them. Exactly the same reasons exist in the present three cases. I am not going to commit myself to saying that there may not be a case in future arising on either side of the House. If such a case arose—I do not know of any and I do not anticipate any— would have to deal with it on its merits, and it would be quite improper for me, as a Law Officer, to seek now to fetter the rights of the House to deal with any such case when it arose, in a way that may appear proper at the time and in the circumstances.

Earl Winterton

May I call attention to the fact that while it is quite true that the learned Attorney-General did say that, he also said that there is no precedent for an Act of Parliament declaring a per son to be a Member of this House who has not been validly elected. Is it his argument that although two Bills have been brought in, in relation to these matters, that he can give no undertaking that a third may not be brought in?

The Attorney-General

I cannot give any undertaking of that kind. As I conceive my position, it would be quite wrong for me "to do so. It may be that some hon. Member on the other side of the House may discover—in the very con fused and uncertain state of our law— that because of some appointment that he held 10 years ago and had not heard of since, he was technically disqualified. If such a case arose, the House would have to consider it, and decide whether it was right, in the circumstances of that case, to do what we are inviting the House to do in this case. These matters must be dealt with on their merits. I cannot exclude the possibility—although I certainly do not anticipate it—that there will be some case in the future, even more unusual in its circumstances, than the cases with which we are now dealing.

The hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Horsham referred to the importance of introducing legislation to deal with this matter and to put the law on a satisfactory basis. I have given an undertaking that such' legislation will be introduced. It will be said, of course, that other Governments in the past have given similar undertakings. I do not know whether, in fact, any formal undertaking of that kind has previously been given. If it has, then all I can say is that this Government differs from its predecessors, at least to the extent that it will carry out its undertaking. I cannot tell the House when we shall introduce this legislation. It cannot be in this Session. I do not, for a moment, doubt or dispute the importance of dealing with this matter as soon as may be, but the Government have a heavy programme, and all the matters on that programme are of importance, and first things have to come first. We shall introduce a Bill in regard to this matter as soon as we can. In the meantime, the Government Departments will take care not to appoint sitting Members of the House to an office of profit, and political parties will take care that candidates at by-elections are not subject to disqualification. When we do introduce legislation, it will certainly not merely be to repeal the Statute of Queen Anne. I fully realise the important constitutional principles involved, which in no way would be solved by a repeal of that Statute, unsatisfactory as it has been. I am sure that on both sides of the House the importance of maintaining the independence of the private Member is recognised as being one of great constitutional urgency, am, it certainly should not be lost sight of, when legislation is introduced to put the law on a clearer and more satisfactory basis. In the circumstances existing, I ask the House to say it would not be right to impose not on the lady and gentlemen concerned, because their position does not matter very much but upon their constituencies the manifest inconvenience of having fresh elections' or deny to ourselves the right of securing the services of these people at the earliest opportunity.

Squadron-Leader Hollis

I should like to ask one question. Would it be possible to introduce a one Clause Bill making it a condition of election that the candidate should sign a general resigna- tion of all offices of profit under the Crown.

The Attorney-General

I do not think I could undertake to introduce legislation of this kind. One would want to look at it with a great deal of care. It would mean a unilateral act, on the part of a person chosen to stand for Parliament, who would be under a contract to which he had bound himself with same other body and would thus be freed of the contract. I do not think that legislation of that kind should be introduced for that purpose at this stage. The same result can be achieved by the political parties before they support a candidate finding out that he holds no office which would prevent him taking his seat if elected.

Mr. Charles Williams

If it is possible for a political party outside to take this care, surely it is possible for the political parties in the House to see that no persons sitting at the present time, are in the difficulty which we are trying to remedy.

Mr. Deputy - Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

I am wondering whether the hon. Member is asking a question or making a speech.

Mr. Williams

am asking whether it is not possible for the Whips to go round, and see that all Members in the House at the present time are not in the difficulty which we are trying to remedy.

The Attorney-General

I think on this side of the House we have satisfied ourselves, or we believe we have satisfied ourselves, that no such case is likely to arise.

Mr. W. J. Brown

My party is all right.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for Friday. — [Captain Bing.]