HC Deb 21 April 1948 vol 449 cc1818-26

3.40 p.m.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

I beg to move in page 41, line 1, to leave out from "sixteen," to "cockades," in line 3, and to insert: in so far as it prohibits. The purpose of this Amendment is to exclude payments for bands of music, torches, flags and banners. There is a good deal to be said for allowing payments for cockades, ribbons and marks of distinction for the excellent reason, if for no other, that it is almost impossible to check the practice of making payments for them. The position in regard to bands of music, torches, flags and banners is altogether different. If there is one thing we wish to avoid it is turning elections in this country into the kind of thing that we have seen taking place on the Continent. In those countries it has become easy to organise processions headed by bands, with a large number of banners, and to create general excitement of the population which wholly prevents them using their judgment. The primary object of elections is to enable people to use their judgment in as calm and collected a manner as possible. Nor do we wish to see in this country the kind of organisation which goes in for the use of bands and processions. Those are practices which are wholly alien to our customs. It will be to the benefit of the country as a whole to continue to exclude payment for music, torches, flags and banners to the extent that it has been done in the past.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

view this Amendment with mixed feelings. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson) has put a case for retaining the prohibition in many cases. Although it is a good thing to prohibit band music in processions in England, Scotland and Wales, it should not be prohibited in Northern Ireland as it is there a custom of the country. There is already enough noise in this country at election time. I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree with me that bands are rather apt to divert attention from the opinions of the candidate.

As there is a shortage of fuel it would be completely and utterly wrong to remove the prohibition on torches. When we are not allowed properly to light up a shop window, it would be wrong to use oil, coal or wood for making torches. We then come to flags. Surely there can be no harm—my hon. Friends might agree with me in this—in having flags at an election time. The removal of the prohibition would be a good thing. I should not like to say that there is any great distinction between flags and banners. What about cockades? They have rather gone out of fashion and I doubt whether it is worth the while of this great Socialist Government, with its enormous majority, taking up the time of the Committee to bring in a special part of a Bill to deal with cockades. Cockades may be fashionable in some places, and it might be that this is the new mode of dress, but it is hardly necessary to deal with them in this Bill.

3.45 P.m.

As to ribbons, very few hon. Members, including those austere right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite, can say they are entirely innocent of ever having worn a ribbon at an election, and it seems rather ridiculous and absurd to prohibit ribbons. The last few words: …and other marks of distinction seem to me to be going rather wide in some ways, and I would like an interpretation before I am called on to vote of the precise legal idea about "marks of distinction." A few years ago we used to hear a certain amount about shirts of this or that colour. It would not necessarily be a good thing in these days of clothing shortage to encourage the use of various forms of material in that way.

I have put these few points because, when we are legislating on a matter of this kind, which in all probability the House is not likely to discuss for some while, it is just as well that we should know the Home Secretary's mind on the various definitions which, undoubtedly after long and mature deliberation, he has decided are worthy of mention in this part of the Clause. Before I am called upon to divide on this matter, I would like some definitions and reasons why these marks and various forms of material are mentioned in paragraph (b).

Mr. J. S. C. Reid (Glasgow, Hillhead)

This does not appear to me to be in any way a political question. It may well be that all my hon. Friends will not agree entirely with what I am about to say, and it may equally be that all hon. Members on the other side do not exactly like the present form of the Bill. I agree with the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson). It is a great pity to introduce into elections in this country display as against argument any more than we can help. It is well known that if we get bands and banners and torches and all the rest of it, we get far too much drill and far too little thought. We had to prohibit uniforms before the war in connection with political demonstrations, and we may at some time—I do not say where the difficulties will arise; it may be from the extreme Right or from the extreme Left—find it essential again to emphasise the civilian nature of elections in this country and the fact that they are very much more a matter for argument than are elections in foreign countries where display and organisation sometimes take the place of argument.

I see no objection to cockades, ribbons or other marks of distinction. They are small things and sometimes the existing prohibition was not strictly adhered to and no great harm was done. Therefore, I see no real objection to making it possible to buy cockades, ribbons and other marks of distinction or, indeed, to give them away as Subsection (4) provides, although that is perhaps getting on to more debateable territory. However, I think we are unwise to relax the existing law with regard to the more blatant forms of display. The Committee will observe that Clause 16 seeks to prohibit only payment, or contracts for payment, on account of these things. If anybody chooses to come along with them without asking payment, apparently Clause 16 does not prevent him from doing so. What it does prevent is the candidate making this a stunt in his election, and I am sure that the less stunts we have on either side the better.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

I have no very strong feelings on this matter. The Carr Committee recommended that these prohibitions on payment should be withdrawn in this piece of legislation. As the right hon. and learned Member said, there is nothing to prevent a band being used now. All that happens is that the candidate cannot pay for it and, as far as I know, no one else can pay for it. If, however, one of the candidate's supporters is the president of the local band or vice-president, and he likes to turn out without asking for payment, there is nothing to prevent that. I was reading only this morning the account of the famous Eatanswill election where, when Mr. Fizkin addressed the electors, the band that had been provided by the Honourable Samuel Slumkey struck up so that Mr. Fizkin's remarks to the electors at the hustings should not be heard, and I understand they succeeded fairly well in their fell purpose.

Carrying this Amendment will not prevent the use of these things. The only thing it will prevent is the candidate paying for them. I share the view that the less of this kind of thing there is, the better, but I do not feel at all strongly on the matter. The question of the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams), "What is a mark of distinction?" has given election agents and others considerable cause for doubt for a long time. If a small card is supplied to an elector which is so shaped as to make it convenient to insert in his hatband, that is a mark or distinction. If it contains the candidate's photograph, there might be occasion when it would be something other than a mark of distinction. If, however, it is shaped so that it does not conveniently fit into the hatband, but he nevertheless puts it in his hatband, that, it has been held, is not a mark of distinction. In these days I do not think we want to get concerned in trivialities of that kind. We are cutting down severely the amount of money that can he used on election expenses, I think quite rightly. After all, the candidate who pays money for bands and other things will not be able to spend the money, which will probably be quite tight enough, on the other things. However, I think I shall meet the spirit of the Committee if I agree to accept the Amendment.

Mr. C. Williams

I thank the right hon. Gentleman sincerely for the immense amount of time and thought which he has obviously given to the points that I have put before him, which I am sure will give gratification everywhere.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

My hon. Friends and I are glad that the right hon. Gentleman has accepted this Amendment, but could I put a personal view to him? It is not a matter of a single band in a village which has been troubling us, but the prospect of a repetition of Nuremburg in this country, with organised torchlight displays and all the paraphernalia that goes with them. At the moment these things are permitted, as the right hon. Gentleman said, but I hope we shall have in him one who will, either by persuasion or otherwise, seek to prevent any possible expression in this country of the kind of unfortunate display that he understands has been used in other countries.

Mr. Ede

I am sorry that my offer to accept the Amendment has not been met in a better way. With reference to the remarks of the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. H. Stewart) let me make this quite clear: if a candidate likes to spend money on these things he will be unseated, but if his supporters like to get up a huge torchlight procession, there is nothing in the existing law to prevent them.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. N. Macpherson

I beg to move, in page 41, line 28, after "of," to insert "or disparaging."

The point of this Amendment is fairly simple. I hold in my hand a communication sent out in the last election which does not aim, so far as one can see, at promoting or procuring the election of a candidate but at preventing the election of another candidate, which is not the same thing. It might be the same thing if there were only two candidates but, if there were more than two, one cannot say that by disparaging one candidate the election of another one is procured. In that case it is difficult to prove definitely. One could say that one was seeking to prevent the election of the person one disparaged. It might be in favour of any one of two or three other candidates also standing for the election. The point is simple but necessary.

Mr. Ede

This Subsection relates to documents distributed for the purpose of promoting or procuring the election of a candidate, and the Amendment seeks to add the words "or disparaging." There is a case in the courts in which it is held that a prohibition on doing something to promote or procure the election of a candidate includes a prohibition on doing something to hinder the election of another candidate. Therefore we are advised that this Amendment is unnecessary. Further, the phrase: for the purpose of promoting or procuring the election of a candidate occurs frequently in the Corrupt Practices Act, and if the words "or disparaging" were added here, it would throw doubt on the meaning of the original words in every other case where they occur in the statutes. Therefore, if these words were added, we should have to promote a general provision giving statutory effect to the decision of the court which I have mentioned. A court decision is, in this kind of matter, a much more flexible instrument than a general provision in an Act of Parliament, and I am advised that what the hon. Gentleman means to do by his Amendment is, in fact, the law as it is. To put the words in here would be to throw doubt on numerous other Acts of Parliament. I hope, therefore, that he will feel that it is not necessary to press this Amendment.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. N. Macpherson

In view of the clearly expressed explanation of the Home Secretary, it appears that the point which I was trying to make is already covered. I beg to ask leave, therefore, to withdraw the Amendment. I would like in passing to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Mr. J. S. C. Reid

I would like to inquire about one point which, though comparatively small, might give rise to a good deal of difficulty. It concerns the inter-relations of Subsections (5) and (6). Subsection (5), quite properly I think, requires that every printed document distributed shall bear the name and address of the printer and publisher. Sub- section (6) goes on to say that "printing" includes any process of multiplication—for example, taking half a dozen copies from a typewriter. A great many documents are distributed—even if the number is as low as half a dozen—for the purpose of promoting the election of a candidate. It will be very difficult if the name and address of the publisher of the half a dozen carbon copies must always appear on every such copy. It is true that on the first copy of a letter, though not always on subsequent copies, the name and address of the election agent generally appears; but there may well be carbon copies and so on which do not carry those particulars.

When one is circulating small numbers of quite inoffensive documents which are, strictly speaking, promoting the election of a candidate, it will be difficult to make quite certain that every one bears the proper heading. For one reason, stamped notepaper is not as easily come by or as cheap as some of us would like; further, one could not make as many copies on that type of paper as on flimsy paper. I think, therefore, that this matter needs to be looked into again. People may unwittingly get into trouble in doing something which the right hon. Gentleman does not want to put in. I agree that if printed, or even Roneod, documents are being distributed, there may be a lot to be said for having the printer's name included on the document, but not when it comes out of one's own office merely as a carbon copy.

Mr. C. Williams

I have been extremely interested in following the course of the discussions and the case that has been made for the typewritten document. I will give an example of what I think might well happen. Let us suppose that I have a letter from the Home Secretary enclosing a copy—which is a document—which I agree to send by the usual courtesies. That is a copied document "other than by hand." There may, of course, be some legal definition, of which I do not know, that typewriting in those circumstances could be by hand, but I have known of several copies being done in this way. If this happened, proceedings might possibly be taken. I do not think that is what the right hon. Gentleman really means by the words suggested. Even if a good explanation is put forward now, I think that it might be better for an Amendment to be made at a later stage.

Mr. Ede

I think that the requirement in the Clause is sound. It is true that the document may be inoffensive, but six documents containing something with which a malicious person desires to smear the character or party of an opposing candidate might be highly offensive; the six copies might be sufficient to do a great deal of harm. I always observed this rule when I was au agent, as have my agents when I have been a candidate. In any document which we have duplicated, even as a carbon copy, we have always taken the precaution of putting at the bottom: "Printed and published by" the election agent for the time being. It is not the inoffensive document that matters, but it is difficult sometimes to decide whether a document is offensive or inoffensive, a document that may be issued in good faith, in the belief of its accuracy, may in fact contain a substantial inaccuracy, and the document ought to enable the printer and publisher to be traced. I should have thought that it was desirable to retain this procedure.

With regard to the case made by the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams), where he passes on, for example a letter which he had received from me about a constituent of his who happen to have a boy in an approved school and he wanted to know whether it was possible to release the boy I would not have thought that the carbon copy of the document I sent him came within this Subsection. I very much doubt whether the carrying out of his ordinary duty as a Member of Parliament could be regarded as something done in the promotion of his candidature.

Mr. C. Williams

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said and am in full agreement with him on that matter. I am not concerned so much about the kind of example which has been quoted, but it is well worth having the definition properly in front of the Committee, and I am glad that I raised the question. I ask the right hon. Gentleman, however, before the Report stage to look again into the actual question of typewriting, in case it may have a wider application than that of which he has thought so far. If he will do so I shall be satisfied.

Mr. Ede

I will look into the question raised by the hon. Member. If he were to take the copy of the letter to which I have referred, and if his agent were to have it duplicated and distributed in, for example, these terms: "See how a Member looks after the interests of his constituent. This is a letter he has just received from the Secretary of State showing his concern for this poor boy who was in the approved school"; that undoubtedly would then become a document which ought to bear the name and address of the agent.

Mr. Williams

I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman in that respect. Any document which I sent out would in all probability be correct in every detail. I am thinking of hon. Gentlemen opposite who may not always be quite as accurate. They sometimes get into all kinds of trouble. I realise that I am only human and that we are all liable to make mistakes, but I think I ought to put forward also the points of view of other people. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the courtesy with which he has treated this matter and also for enabling hon. Gentlemen opposite to know how hard lie works to keep them free and innocent of any offence. As I understand it, as long as we all put our names and addresses on such documents, even the hon. Gentleman below the Gangway might feel quite safe in the future although he never has in the past.

Mr. Alpass (Thornbury)

He can look after himself.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.