HC Deb 20 April 1948 vol 449 cc1723-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Mr. J. S. C. Reid

There is one point on Subsection (2) of the Clause to which I should like to direct the right hon. Gentleman's attention. That is the use of poll cards to which we all agree. I think that we all agree that some sanction is necessary to make certain that this does not produce abuses. The words are fairly wide—that no person is to issue a document so closely resembling an official poll card as to be calculated to deceive. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is extremely common to print on the back of one's election address, or elsewhere, something that looks something like a ballot paper or poll card. One puts one's own name on it in thick type, with a big cross against it, and the other man's name in small type. I have not the least doubt that this is a practice common to all parties. It may, of course, be that in certain parts of England this practice does not apply, but I do not think that there is any political difference in those parts of the world of which I have experience.

I do not suppose that it is the right hon. Gentleman's intention that the practice should become illegal in any way. I think that it is a very fair practice, and it draws the attention of people who do not read a great deal to what one would like them to do. They see the same of the other man, and, at least, they see where they are. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman wants to stop that practice. Let me assume that he does not. If he does not, I am a little nervous about the words: … document so closely resembling an official poll card as to be calculated to deceive. I am inclined to think that the sort of thing I have described would not fall under those words, but it seems a rather doubtful question, and one on which it is quite possible that a court may take a different view. Therefore, I suggest that between now and the Report stage, this point might be considered, and words a little narrower in meaning to those that now occur might be substituted in order to prevent a perfectly legitimate practice of this kind being thought to be illegal, and, possibly, being followed by legal proceedings.

Mr. Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

Would the right hon. Gentleman tell us his opinion about the poll card issued normally at most elections, even local elections, and whether it is intended that it should now be excluded because of this Subsection?

Mr. Ede

The Clause does not apply to local government elections. It applies only to Parliamentary elections.

Mr. Keenan

The poll card is now used. It is important to know whether in all elections it will continue to be in use or not.

Mr. Ede

The hon. Member himself mentioned local government elections.

Mr. Keenan

Yes, I did.

Mr. Ede

I am not sure whether I am interrupting the hon. Gentleman or he is interrupting me. What I want to make quite clear is that the remarks which I have to offer on this Clause are confined to Parliamentary elections. I cannot think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hillhead (Mr. J. S. C. Reid) ever did anything at an election which was calculated to deceive. I cannot understand why he should be nervous about the wording of the Clause. Clearly, these words have a distinct meaning. Poll cards have always been a matter of great anxiety to election agents, because if anything inaccurate manages to get on to them, it can be made the basis of an election petition, and very considerable damage to the election campaign may result. The Speaker's Conference recommended that a poll card should be issued by the returning officer.

9.0 p.m.

I think the poll card will indicate where the person is to vote, his number, on the register, and will give him particulars regarding the exercise of his vote. I have no doubt that it will give also a list of the names of the candidates, but I cannot see that an officially printed poll card is likely to print one name in very thick type or another in very small type. Personally, I have never put anything on my election address—but I have had a little space at the back showing my name and a cross beside it—that advertises the other candidate, even in small type. It has always seemed to me to be his job to advertise himself.

I do not think that even the printing of, let us say, the three names in order, with some indication of the way in which the issuer of the address hopes the voter will record his franchise, would be a reproduction of the poll card. I will, however, take care to make sure that the Clause is so worded as to make that quite clear.

What clearly would be something calculated to deceive would be to issue a card like that issued by the returning officer with some false information about the place of voting or the hours of the poll. I think that is the kind of thing which is aimed at here and I have no doubt that hon. Members have experienced the difficulty that, where a school is used as a polling place, it may have entrances in two separate streets. Let us say that it is on a corner site, and sometimes it is known as the school in the main street and sometimes as the school in the flank street. It is desirable, of course, that only one name should be used. Hitherto, candidates sometimes have not known the description which the returning officer is giving to a particular polling station until almost at the last moment in which they could get their poll cards printed. All that will be avoided in future.

I think it is highly desirable that the returning officer should do this and that we should make it quite clear that it will be his duty; and that the kind of thing to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman alluded, of putting something on the back of the election address which indicates the way in which the voter will record his vote, ought not to be made something that brings one within any penalties as a result of a breach of this Subsection; or that nothing inaccurate is, in fact, printed with that particular matter. If a wrong indication of a polling station or something like that was included, then I think that would bring the person within any mischief that attaches to this Clause. Apart from that, I would not think that the kind of thing which the right hon. and learned Gentleman indicated would be regarded as being outside the law.

Mr. Marlowe

In view of what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman I do not intend to pursue this matter. I would urge upon him, however, that it does need looking at, because there are election documents which might come within this Clause. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman if he would help us with another point in this Clause which I think is a little misleading. The first Subsection makes it an offence for anybody to broadcast from outside the country to within, except by arrangement with the B.B.C. Would the right hon. Gentleman give us some idea how he envisages this working as an operation of law? As the right hon. Gentleman knows, anybody doing that will be beyond jurisdiction. I cannot see how this Clause can have any meaning. The person broadcasting from abroad would be beyond jurisdiction, and I cannot see how the penalty could he enforced. I would therefore like the right hon. Gentleman to elaborate the point.

Mr. Keeling

In connection with Subsection (1) how does the right hon. Gentleman justify any arrangement being made with the B.B.C. for the reception of such propaganda? How could it be right for propaganda about an election to be directed against this country from outside, even with the approval of the B.B.C.?

Mr. N. Macpherson

I am not a technician in these matters. I plead complete ignorance. I do not know whether hon. Members will accuse me of inflammation of the imagination, but it seems to me that we are still on the outskirts of wireless. We are committing ourselves here to a policy which may not be enforceable in the future. I see nothing immoral, irrespective of whether it be legal or not, in broadcasting from abroad upon definite wavelengths. It probably would be unwise, because one might create prejudice against the very cause one was trying to establish.

I am not clear whether it can be established technically from where a broadcast is coming. Is it possible to say definitely whether a broadcast upon an unknown or irregular wavelength is coming from outside the country? If we make such broadcasts illegal why should not we do the same for local broadcasting from within this country, experimental broadcasts upon odd wavelengths? I daresay there is a perfectly good technical answer to this question. Surely it is possible to broadcast upon experimental wavelengths inside the country. That is susceptible to very considerable development. Can the right hon. Gentleman say anything about the possibilities, which look rather farfetched at the moment.

Mr. Ede

The Clause is inserted to deal with broadcasting as a result of the 28th recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference. As recorded in Mr. Speaker's letter of 20th July, 1944, it stated: It should be an offence for any British subject to promote or aid in promoting any broadcast affecting a Parliamentary election from wireless stations outside the United Kingdom. The Conference felt that, having regard to the impossibility of forecasting future developments it would be difficult for them to make any regulations with regard to the regulation of broadcasting within the United Kingdom for election purposes. I think it is clear that if the kind of broadcast to which the hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) alluded took place on behalf of a particular candidate, and the broadcast took place inside the United Kingdom, it would be something which should be included in the election expense of that candidate and should only be undertaken with his consent.

Offences committed outside the jurisdiction are dealt with in Clause 67 (1) where it is laid down: Proceedings … in respect of an offence alleged to have been committed outside the United Kingdom by a British subject may be taken before the appropriate court in the United Kingdom having jurisdiction in the place where the person charged is for the time being. I take it that that means, "is for the time being when he is charged," quite clearly I do not think it can mean, "a court having jurisdiction in the place where he was when he committed the offence," because ex hypothesi the court has no control there.

It is desirable that this subject should be dealt with. I have no doubt that when we come to Clause 67 I shall be asked to say something further on it, and I will endeavour by the time we reach that Clause to be informed of the proper answer. Clause 35 (1) is to be made enforceable by proceedings under Clause 67 (1). This matter is admittedly difficult, and is one in which we are in the area of experiment. This is an effort to deal with the matter. The Speaker's Conference itself did not give us any very strong lead. We have endeavoured to find ways and means of dealing appropriately with the problem, and I have no doubt that as experience grows it may be necessary from time to time to reconsider the law on the matter, but I commend Clause 35 (1) to the Committee as a first experiment.

Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite

I am sure the Committee is grateful to the Home Secretary for his explanation, but may I suggest that there is raised here an issue which goes a good deal wider than the observations which he has been good enough to submit to us? The right hon. Gentleman rested himself with some comfort and assurance on the Speaker's Conference. One would be glad to see him resting himself with equal confidence on other sections of that Conference.

On this issue of what one might call wireless interference with an election campaign, we are in the age of experiment. These recommendations were made in 1944. May I suggest that we have since moved into the area of experience? Suppose, for instance, that when a general election takes place in this country a certain important, influential and numerous body of political opinion in Italy was anxious to reciprocate certain good wishes sent to them from a body of political opinion less numerous and less important in this country, and there were to be let loose upon us from Italy broadcasts advocating the candidature of certain hon Members in this House or a group of them at the general election, obviously inspired from an important foreign Power outside Italy. What sanction does the Home Secretary propose should be applied?

9.15 p.m.

May I suggest that what is really opened up by this Clause is not a domestic matter at all? Followed to its logical conclusion, this Clause opens up the whole question of the extent to which one Power should interfere with the domestic elections in another country. The Government cannot deal with this matter unless they examine it from that aspect. In 1944, when the war was drawing to a close, we envisaged an era in which Fascism would be extinguished. We have now moved into an entirely different one when there is a definite body of opinion in this House sympathetic to an ideology which we in this country are anxious to resist, which will have at its disposal the whole apparatus of the ether, the whole broadcasting apparatus. It is true that this Clause seeks to confine these activities to the B.B.C., but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman can see the loophole which would exist were the example which was given to us last week-end to be followed, were any important political groups in any country to seek to make an impact upon our election at home and we were to retaliate in the same manner. I hope that the Home Secretary will bear that in mind before the Report stage, and give us a Clause which is entirely watertight against that sort of thing.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I do not think that the Home Secretary has dealt fully enough with this potentially enormously important subject. The possibilities it raises are clear in the minds of hon. Members. We are only at the beginning of a period of mass radio propaganda, and it is important that before we part with this Clause we should be satisfied that it is adequate to deal with this enormously important subject. May I put this example forward? The Home Secretary has dealt so far with this sort of interference on the part of British subjects. I should like to know how this Clause will operate where, as is equally likely, that interference is effected by foreigners. If broadcasts are made by foreigners, deliberately designed to influence an election in this country, is it intended under this Clause to make the persons responsible for those broadcasts criminally liable if they should at some later stage put themselves within our jurisdiction? If that is so, it is a new development in our criminal law, under which foreigners are to be made answerable to British courts for crimes committed abroad. If it is not so intended, so far as foreign broadcasts are concerned this Clause is sheer bluff.

It is important to know what, if foreigners undertake these broadcasts, are to be the consequences to the persons for whose benefit or apparent benefit those broadcasts are made. Are they to have the validity of their elections affected? There again important considerations arise. It may well be said that it would be grossly unfair to a candidate who has received wholly unsolicited foreign aid to be unseated because that aid was given. That might be unfair. Equally one has to consider the enormous potentialities of that foreign aid. One has to consider that all the machinery of the whole of this Bill may be made comparatively ineffective if all the wealth and resources of a great Power are released on the ether in support of a particular party or candidate in this country. The consequences are potentially enormous but this Clause simply tinkers with the subject. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has said that when we reach Clause 67 he proposes to say something more about it, but that Clause would appear to relate only to broadcasts by British subjects, to offences committed by British subjects. That is an important, but a relatively small part of this problem.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman, not necessarily tonight, but before we part with this Bill, fully to consider all the objections that arise from this matter and to present to the House, as I suggest is his duty, some proposals which will enable this enormously important problem to be dealt with. If he does not do so it is really making a mockery of this Bill. It is no use limiting a candidate's election expenses to a few hundred pounds if we are leaving open this enormous door of intervention from overseas. I appreciate the difficulties of the Home Secretary in dealing with what is a new problem. References to precedents in the past do not help very much, but, on the other hand, the fact that it is a new problem does not free him from the obligations fully to consider it. We are now considering the new code of election law and it would be scandalous if this Committee were to part with this matter without taking some steps to protect future elections from what is a potentially real menace.

Mr. G. Lang (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I do not wish to pursue the interesting speculations which have been raised. I wish to ask if the Home Secretary can help me with a particular matter which might affect a great many of us. It is possible now for people to make a record in this country which can be broadcast from a station abroad. It is sometimes done at the Christmas season or for special appeals, and it is done in connection with religious services and for the advocacy of certain orders. I wish to know whether, if I felt it desirable to introduce a novel feature and to arrange for the broadcast of a record, which I had had made at home, say on a certain day at a certain time, so that people who could not get to my meetings could hear my voice, I should be committing an offence? It may well be that I might want my constituents to hear a broadcast somewhat different to the official broadcasts which are no doubt wisely chosen. I want to know whether, if such a record were made at home, and commercially broadcast from, say, Luxembourg, that would be an offence within this Clause.

Mr. Emrys Roberts (Merioneth)

I hope that the Home Secretary will not be led astray by the red herring of hon. Members from the benches above the Gangway. It constitutes a very dangerous doctrine that the nation should be sealed off completely—

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I understand that as a reference, however oblique, to my speech. May I say that I did not suggest that this nation should be sealed off? I merely suggested that it was not quite right, when considering the election law of this country, to ignore provisions to deal with what is a very real possibility. I specifically did not make recommendations.

Mr. Roberts

The whole implication of the speech of the hon. Member was that we can deal by the pressure of the English criminal law with broadcasts made by the subjects of a foreign State. I suggest that the object of this Clause is to prevent a candidate for election in a British Parliament from making use of the services of foreign broadcasting stations. What foreign subjects may do might be a matter of regulation by treaty between His Majesty's Government and the foreign Government, but it would be quite wrong to try to insert in this Bill any provision making it criminal for a foreign subject to broadcast. It might be wrong for them to broadcast at the time of an election—

Mr. Marlowe

Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that we are pointing out that that is exactly what this does do?

Mr. Roberts

I think that when read in conjunction with Clause 67 the object is quite clear. The hon. Member cannot have it both ways. If he says that the Bill achieves the object, then what is all the fuss about? I hope that the Home Secretary will recognise the dangerous doctrine implicit in the remarks of hon. Members.

Mr. Paton

I was surprised at the extraordinary remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe). Apparently he assumes, in considering the meaning of the passage to which reference has been made, that when we say: No person shall … we are, for the first time in my experience, interpreting that as: No person in foreign countries shall … Obviously the first phrase has no meaning except to persons within British jurisdiction. I was astounded to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman put a point of that kind. I agree with the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Emrys Roberts) that a great deal of what we have heard has been complete nonsense and of no relevance to this Clause. In a Clause in a Bill of this kind we cannot deal with relations between Governments. We could not deal with a broadcast from Russia in a Clause like this. If it could be dealt with at all, it would be by entirely different methods not relevant to a Representation of the People Bill. Here we are dealing with something which is a real and serious danger. We might get wealthy individuals or groups of individuals in this country who would buy time for broadcasts from the Continent and use that time to "push the barrow" of a certain candidate or party. That is feasible. The purpose of the suggestion from the Speaker's Conference, to which this Clause tries to give effect, was to prevent that kind of thing. I do not know whether this provision will be effective, but I agree that we should attempt to make it. If the Clause can be improved, we should welcome it.

Mr. Keeling

The Home Secretary claimed to be carrying out a recommendation of the Speaker's Conference, but he has departed in a serious manner from that recommendation. The Conference said: It should be an offence for. any British subject to promote or to aid in promoting any broadcast affecting Parliamentary elections from wireless stations outside the United Kingdom. That recommendation was absolute: there should be no broadcasting from outside the United Kingdom in a Parliamentary election. That was a perfectly proper recommendation. Again I ask why the Home Secretary has provided for an exception to this rule to be made by an arrangement with the B.B.C. Suppose that at the next election the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Platts-Mills), having failed to capture the Labour Party, should capture the B.B.C.—a by no means possible contingency—and should then proceed to arrange with them to broadcast to the people of this country a message from Senor Nenni advocating his candidature in the election here, that would be most improper. Why does the Home Secretary propose to make any exception to the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference in favour of broadcasts approved by the B.B.C.?

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Peter Thorneycroft (Monmouth)

It seems to me that the hon. Member on the Benches opposite has failed to understand the clear meaning of this Clause, which does raise a most important matter. It says that no person shall broadcast outside the United Kingdom. That includes everybody, not only a British subject; it includes an Italian. It means, in other words, exactly what it says. The first thing we want to know is, what is to be done about these broadcasts? It is perfectly true that the people may remain outside the United Kingdom; on the other hand, they may not. Is it intended to proceed against an Italian subject who broadcasts during a British election if and when that Italian subject comes within the United Kingdom and therefore within British jurisdiction?

The second point is that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Let us suppose that this law which we are now trying to enact was, in fact, the law of Italy at the present time. What would be the position of Signor Nenni in his election? Would it be voided on the ground that he had solicited assistance over the British Broadcasting Corporation, which, in fact, took place, in advocating his candidature in the Italian election? Let us take the even clearer and much more important case of Signor Saragat and Signor Lombardi, Who got the support not of a small group of the party, but of the official Labour Party in this country. If this law which we are now initiating was the law of Italy, I imagine that the elections not only of the Nenni Group, but of the whole of the Italian Socialist Party, would have been voided. Is it intended that that should be the position in this country with a similar sort of broadcast by a member of an Italian party?

I ask the Home Secretary not to make up his mind finally upon this matter, which is far wider than seems to be appreciated by the right hon. Gentleman up to now, and, certainly, by the hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. Paton). It should be looked at very carefully, and the Government might also look at their own conduct in the cases of elections in other countries than our own.

Mr. Ede

It is hard enough for a layman to deal with the intricacies of English law, and I am not going to accept the invitation of the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. P. Thorneycroft) to deal with hypothetical cases that might arise if the law of Italy were something other than it is. After that patronising speech which he made to me just now, I am not going to be such a mug as to do that. If a person commits an offence outside the jurisdiction of British law and then comes within its jurisdiction, it will be the duty of the Government of the time to decide what, in all the circumstances of the case, they will do, but I do not regard—

Mr. Thorneycroft

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me? Despite the "patronising speech" to which he has just referred, may I ask him to remember that it is not a question of the Government of the day, but a question whether, in fact, the man who places himself within our jurisdiction should himself be liable to conviction before the courts. It is not the Government, but the man himself.

Mr. Ede

I would have said myself, subject to any advice that I can get from my right hon. and learned Friends—

Mr. Thorneycroft

That will not be much.

Mr. Ede

It will be better than any I get from the hon. Member. I would have thought that, if he had committed the offence and came within the jurisdiction, he would be liable to prosecution, but it would depend upon the responsible people of the day whether the prosecution was made or not. They would have to have regard to all the circumstances of the case. I do not myself—

Mr. Marlowe rose

Mr. Ede

No, I am not going to give way. I generally give way, and on occasions recently I have observed that that habit of mine has been unduly played on by some hon. and learned Members opposite. I would prefer to take one lawyer on at a time. I do not regard the electorate of this country as being so foolish as to be other than able to assess at its proper value any broadcast which is made to it by a foreign station at the behest of a foreign power, and I have no doubt that in other countries other peoples assess the value of broadcasts to them from foreign countries in the way which they think best suited to their own national interests. I believe if any political party in this country relied on a broadcast from a foreign power, it would probably do itself more harm than good.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Lang), if he did what he suggested he would undoubtedly be committing an offence. If he wants to get his speeches broadcast from a record, he must do it from inside this country. With regard to the point of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling), the exception is made in the case of arrangements made with the British Broadcasting Corporation because there might be abroad at the time of an election a leader of British political opinion whose party might desire to include him in their team in the arrangement of political broadcasts. He might be a member of the Government or a member of one of the opposition parties. A member of the Government might have to go abroad on duty during a general election and it might be desirable to include a broadcast from him in the series of broadcasts which the Government were putting out. Similarly, a leading member of an opposition party might be abroad, recuperating from an illness or for other reasons which are quite reasonable, and it might be desired to include him. That was the point of including the phrase: arrangements made with the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Mr. Keeling

Might I interrupt with one sentence about that?

Mr. Ede

Well, the hon. Member is not a lawyer.

Mr. Keeling

Would it not be a good thing to add that these permitted broadcasts from abroad should be by a British subject? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would consider that before Report stage.

Mr. Ede

I will consider that although, of course, British subjects include a great many people who are not politicians or statesmen in this country. With regard to the use of the air by foreign broadcasting stations, to use foreign speakers and foreign ideas, that is not a matter for a Bill of this kind. Quite clearly, we cannot pass a Bill here and make effective a statement that no broadcast shall be made to this country in the course of a general election from the United, States of America, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or from Italy or any other country. This is directed at individuals.

I was asked by other hon. Members opposite to deal with propaganda by foreign Governments. That, obviously, is a matter for the Foreign Office and for diplomatic representations, and, I imagine, it would have to be done on some basis of give and take. This is the first effort to deal with the problem—the hon. Member for Monmouth is interrupting again.

Mr. P. Thorneycroft

I coughed.

Mr. Ede

The cough followed something else. This is the first effort to deal with this subject. I am grateful to hon. Members for pointing out the difficulties of the case, and I can assure them that I shall pay strict attention to every criticism that has been made of this Clause. We have to face the fact that, as the aeroplane has abolished the protection that we had from the English Channel, so the conquest of the ether by Signor Marconi and those who have followed him has presented us with a set of new difficulties with regard to the infiltration of ideas. Generally speaking, I am in favour of as many ideas as possible infiltrating into this country, as long as we know whence they come and are able to discern the objects with which they are being put forward. This power does, however, require consideration. I do not think, in spite of what the hon. Member for Twickenham said, that we have departed seriously from what was suggested by the Speaker's Conference. I hope that between now and later stages of the Bill we may be able to improve the first Subsection of the Clause, and I hope the Committee will now feel that we can have the Clause.

Mr. Marlowe

I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman did not give way to me. I wanted only to point out an additional difficulty, and I think that, as I initiated the discussion by drawing attention to this Clause, he might have done me the courtesy of hearing me. I was concerned only with the purely legal aspects and difficulties which the right hon. Gentleman is going to meet. He has rightly shown that the hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. Paton) is quite wrong in his interpretation.

Mr. Paton


Mr. Marlowe

A person under this Clause can be of any nationality. I also accept that the right hon. Gentleman is right when he says that the Clause itself does not create an offence by a foreign Power. It would, however, create an offence by the individual who actually did the broadcast on behalf of the foreign Power. Then it follows that the legal position would be that if that individual, whether what he did was done on behalf of the foreign Power or his own behalf, came to this country—according, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, to Clause 67—he could be proceeded against at the place where he was for the time being. The right hon. Gentleman sought to dispose of that by saying it would be for the Government of the day to decide. I presume he meant, decide whether action should be taken against the individual or not.

He must remember that prosecutions are not initiated by Government Departments. Nor are they always initiated either by the Attorney-General or the Director of Public Prosecutions. We have in this country a system of private prosecutions, and there is nothing to prevent any individual, if the offending foreigner came to this country, from laying information against him where he was for the time being, under Clause 67. This is a difficulty—one of the many difficulties with which the right hon. Gentleman is faced. I fully appreciate he is exploring an entirely new field, and that it does present difficulties, but I hope that he will bear them in mind when the Bill reaches another stage.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.