HC Deb 16 July 1948 vol 453 cc1650-9

Order for Second Reading read.

11.49 a.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Frank Soskice)

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

This Bill has been prepared as a result of recommendations which were made by the Statute Law Committee. The object of the Bill, as of all Statute Law Revision Bills, is to eliminate statutes which have become obsolete, with the object of bringing the statute book in general up to date. The purpose is to publish in due course a new edition of the revised statutes. This Bill covers the centuries from 1235 to 1800. In the last century, between 1861 and 1898, some 30 of these Statute Law Revision Bills were passed and which to remove from the statute book, statutes which had been clearly shown to be obsolete in their effect.

The first edition of the Revised Statutes was completed in 1885 and it contains in 18 volumes the law down to 1878. The present edition is the second edition; it was completed in 1929 and contains in 24 volumes the law down to 1920, and there are 31 volumes in addition to that of the Public General Acts passed since 1920. In other words, there are some 55 volumes of the law in all and between them they comprise over 40,000 pages. Since that edition a number of statutes have become obsolete, or have been shown to be obsolete. A great many have been repealed, but some have become obsolete in the sense that they are no longer applicable and are never used. The present Bill starts from the beginning and removes all this dead wood, in order to pave the way for the publication of the next edition of the Revised Statutes which, it is hoped, it will be possible to publish in far fewer volumes than the present edition—the second edition.

The Bill before the House has no novel features, at any rate of any importance. It follows the pattern of the Statute Law Revision Bills passed in the latter pan of the last century. The First Schedule contains some 750 Statutes which are repealed in whole or in part; they form in their context an interesting historical commentary on the history of this country in the last six or seven centuries. The Second Schedule continues the process commenced by the Short Titles Act, 1896, giving short titles to many early Acts which at present have to be cited by their full titles—perhaps I should add, on he somewhat rare occasions when they have to be cited at all. Clauses 3 and 4 eliminate words and expressions which are found in statutes which are really obsolete or unnecessary and the reprinting of which simply serves to make longer the text of statutes which could be considerably abbreviated in their printing. The Bill originated in another place and it has already been subject in the ordinary way to scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills.

I should not like to part from the Bill without saying this: Hon. Members will see, if they glance at it, that an enormous amount of research and labour has gone to the compilation of the 750 statutes mentioned in the First Schedule and those mentioned in the Second Schedule, and I should like to take this opportunity of paying tribute, if I may, to the work of Sir Cecil Carr. It is very largely due to his unremitting labour and patience and his phenomenal erudition in the statutes which are on the statute book at present which has made possible the preparation and presentation of this Bill to the House.

I think the House will agree that the Bill, like all these Statute Law Revision Bills, is a useful one. It conduces to the very laudable object of bringing our statute law up to date, making it more intelligible—perhaps I should say less unintelligible—and bringing it in a more accessible form to the various sections of the public who have occasion these days—indeed, always have had—to refer to the various statutes which affect their daily lives. For those reasons I commend the Bill to this House for Second Reading.

11.55 a.m.

Mr. Oliver Lyttelton (Aldershot)

We on this side of the House welcome the Bill and should like to add our congratulations to those already extended to Sir Cecil Carr by the Solicitor-General. It is perhaps fitting to remark that there is nothing new under the sun, for the House has just considered a Bill about the development of inventions, and on page 95 of the Statute Law Revision Bill I find that even in those early days there was: An Act for providing a Reward to Joanna Stephens upon a proper Discovery to be made by her … of the Medicines prepared by her for the Cure of the Stone. Here was a Development of Inventions Bill which even in these days might prove very acceptable to the hon. Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest).

I am sorry to see that any Act to prevent the misbehaviour of the Drivers of Carts in the Streets in London should have been repealed and perhaps the Government will consider in an age where there is already too much legislation, introducing something in that sense later on in the next Session. We welcome the Bill.

11.56 a.m.

Dr. Haden Guest (Islington, North)

May I add a word to what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General on this Bill? One cannot, even if one only glances through the Schedules of the Bill, fail to be impressed by what one might call this "Index to History," and very much impressed indeed by what my right hon. and learned Friend has said about the phenomenal industry and learning of Sir Cecil Carr.

In fact, if hon. Members will look at the Third Report of the Statute Law Revision Bill Committee, which I have in my hand, they will see that the proceedings very largely consisted in one member or another asking Sir Cecil Carr a question, Sir Cecil stating what the facts of the situation were and the Committee proceeding to agree with him in substance. Anyone who has had the pleasure and privilege of working on the Statutory Rules and Orders Committee or the Unopposed Bills Committee will know how very much the House relies in these Committees on his advice and guidance. It seems that the organisation of knowledge and experience is one of the foundations of Parliamentary work behind the scenes. To say "behind the Parliamentary facade," would perhaps be going too far; but there is behind the work of Parliament in the ordinary way this great support of men of immense knowledge and learning on whom we rest and who guide us.

Among the Bills repealed I notice there is a Bill which originally established the registration of physicians and surgeons in the reign of Henry VIII and another which established the beginning of what is now the Royal College at Physicians, also in the reign of Henry VIII. I do not know whether I may have the information—I understand it is not relevant to the discussion to touch on the merits of these Acts—but I should like to know why the Bill which enables herbalists and practitioners of the herbalist kind to carry on has not been repealed, not amended and not brought up to date. I do not think this is an attack on the medical profession, but it is an interesting fact that a herbalist Bill going back a very long way is still on the statute book, whereas these other Bills have been repealed. It is true that the medical profession has now grown to adult status and does not depend on these Bills passed by Henry VIII, but it is interesting that a Bill passed then—

Mr. Speaker

This is rather outside the scope of the Bill, I think.

11.59 a.m.

Mr. Piratin (Mile End)

I think the whole House will agree with the right hon. and learned Solicitor-General in the desire to remove dead wood—and there are many dead-wood Acts I should like to see removed. At the same time, I associate myself with the congratulations which have been offered to Sir Cecil Carr for the work he put into this Bill, and the evidence he submitted to the Committee. I would like to quote if it is in Order from the document of that Committee.

Mr. Speaker

It is in Order.

Mr. Piratin

This is from the Committee on which Sir Cecil Carr sat, and it is in language which I cannot hope to emulate. He said: Statute law revision is a crematorium for dead bodies of law, but not a lethal chamber for tiresome invalids who are still alive. Further, he said: It is, of course, a rule of English law that a statute is not abrogated by mere desuetude or non-enforcement. The remarks I want to make on the Second Reading of this Bill arise from those comments; and I want to deal with the contents of some of the Schedules.

I would first ask—and the Solicitor-General, if he wishes, may regard this merely as rhetorical, although it is a serious and practical question: When is a law alive and when is it dead? What makes a law live, and what makes it dead? Surely, it depends on whether the State keeps it alive; if the State does not keep it alive it is dead. I now propose to refer to a law which is nearly boo years old, which is, presumably, still alive, but ought to be dead. It is mentioned in the First Schedule, page line 37. It is a law of Edward III, Chapter I, a law of the year 1361. Its title does not really describe its purpose. Its title is: Who shall be justices of the peace, their jurisdiction over offenders, rioters, and baroters?

Mr. Speaker

On Second Reading we discuss the general principle of the Bill, and an hon. Member cannot discuss every law which he thinks should be added or omitted. That is a Committee point. I do not think that on Second Reading those sorts of topics are in Order.

Mr. Piratin

May I give one or two illustrations, Mr. Speaker, of the kind of thing which ought to be contained in the revision of the law, and which, in spite of the tremendous amount of work put into the preparation of this Bill now presented, is not contained in the Bill? May I not do that, so that other things may be added before the next stage?

Mr. Speaker

Illustrations, perhaps.

Mr. Piratin

This particular law of 1361 is actually a more serious matter than many of the other Acts mentioned in the Schedule, some of which date back 600 years.

Mr. Speaker

I said the hon. Member might make illustrations. He may not discuss the merits of a particular law. That would be out of Order on the Second Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Piratin

That was just a passing comment, Mr. Speaker. In 1932 there was a trial, and the trial took place on a charge based and formulated on this Act of 1361. As a result of the trial two men prominent in the working class, Tom Mann and Llewellyn, were sentenced to two months' imprisonment. That trial was based on this Act, and the particular law was—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member may not criticise the existing law on the Second Reading of a Bill of this kind. The existing law cannot be altered by a Bill of this kind; it cannot be discussed on a consolidation Bill.

Mr. Piratin

With all respect, Mr. Speaker, I want to point out, by this illustration, that no one would expect that this law would be operating today, and yet it is; I want to suggest that it is dead, and that we should call it dead.

Mr. Speaker

It is criticism of the existing law, and as such is out of Order on a consolidation Bill.

Mr. Piratin

I knew there would be some difficulty about this, so I have got some reserves. I want the whole of that Act repealed, anyway. The next Act to which I want to draw attention is a law of James I, 1625. It is mentioned in the First Schedule of this Bill, page 59, line 18. It is called the Sunday Observance Act, 1625. It is proposed to make some Amendments to it. The only proposed repeal, however, is the repeal of the sentence. What is the sentence? That if a person does not observe Sundays he may be placed in the stocks for three hours. If the Solicitor-General wanted to show a certain ingenuity he would have proposed to omit "three" and to insert "two." Let us have some fun in life, and let us see a few people in the stocks who do not keep Sundays. This is completely out of date. It is dead. In the words of Sir Cecil Carr himself, we should regard it as dead, and give it a decent burial. What are the terms of that Act? It says: That the holy keeping of the Lord's Day is a principal part of the true service to God which in very many places of this Realm has been and now is profaned and neglected by a disorderly sort of people in exercising and frequenting bear baiting— Out of date: no one bear baits these days— bull baiting— No one bull baits these days, to my knowledge. Perhaps people do it in the country, but it is not done in urban areas— interludes, common plays— Common plays, in 1625, meant the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Jonson— and other unlawful exercises and pastimes. That is the Preamble to the law. It is not proposed to repeal it, but only to repeal the sentence. There can scarcely be one of us who does not on a Sunday profane the law by going to a cinema or show of some kind, so that we are likely to end up in the stocks. Am I unreasonable in asking for this Act to be withdrawn?

I will now give a third illustration. I have six, but in view of your patience, Mr. Speaker, I will content myself with giving three. This one relates much more to matters we discuss nowadays, and which we were discussing on Wednesday in the housing Debate. This is to be found mentioned in the First Schedule, page 89, line 29. It is The Landlord and Tenant Act, 1730. Every Member of this House with experience of matters pertaining to landlords and tenants knows quite well that a series of anomalies has developed as the result of numerous Acts passed, particularly between the wars, and that they call for revision. Yet here we are dealing with an Act of 1730, the main purpose of which was as expressed in its title: An Act for the more effectual preventing of frauds committed by tenants and for the more easy recovery of rents and the renewal of leases. We have an Act of Parliament of 1730 merely concerned with such frauds as are committed by tenants, whereas you, Mr. Speaker, and I know well—and I say this with due respect to everyone concerned in the House—that the main frauds are committed by landlords, not because they are necessarily bad, but because they have the power to commit them while a tenant is only too happy to get a couple of rooms for his family. It seems to me that the purpose of this Act is that a tenant, failing to quit premises when he has received an order under it, must pay double the rent until such time as he quits. That is an obsolete law. I am not going to challenge the Solicitor-General, who is versed in these matters, while I am not; but it seems to me, as a layman, that this is a completely obsolete law, that it is dead, that we should acknowledge that it is dead, and execute its burial.

I have not raised any points which are not in the Bill itself. I have made a slight scrutiny of the various Acts of Parliament going back to the last 600-odd years. I find it very interesting, and we should be grateful to the Government for keeping us up until three in the morning because that is the time when one can go into the Library, look up these things and get a little learning—not that one can compete with Sir Cecil Carr—but sufficient to say a few words on this Bill. I hope the Solicitor-General will take to heart what I am saying. If I can get past the Standing Orders, I hope to put down a few Amendments on the Committee stage of the Bill.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingsfon-upon Thames)

I rise with the intention not of "getting past Standing Orders" but to ask the Solicitor-General one question. As I understand it, the whole purpose of this Bill is simply to remove from the Statute Book obsolete legislation and Measures which are wholly inoperative. Among the Measures it is sought to repeal there are a number of Acts of Attainder, notably the Act, I Jac. 2, Chapter 2․ An Act to Attaint James Duke of Monmouth of high treason. The Solicitor-General will, no doubt, have seen the discussion which has taken place in "The Times" as to the possible effect of the repeal of this and other Acts of Attainder in reviving certain hereditary titles. I should be grateful if the Solicitor-General would say a word on that matter in particular, because if the repeal of these Measures does have some effect of that sort, it would seem that these are not Measures properly within the purview of this Bill.

The object of the Bill is to have no legal effect on contemporary affairs, but simply to enable the Statute Book to be reprinted in a slimmer, form than would otherwise be possible. If there is any force in these contentions which have been put forward in well-instructed quarters, there may be practical consequences of this sort. Perhaps the Solicitor-General would tell us whether that has been considered, and whether, in fact, the passage of this Bill into law would produce any unexpected effects of this sort?

12.13 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

I am sure that the House was entertained by the speech of the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Piratin), but, in reply, may I with respect say that I do not think that I can add to what you, Mr. Speaker, said in ruling on a point of Order.

The object of the Statute Law Revision Bill is, of course, only to repeal those statutes which are inoperative and, from all points of view, completely dead and obsolete. The Bill, as I intimated in moving the Second Reading, has been already scrutinised with a view to seeing how far the statutes in the Schedule comply with that test. The hon. Member for Mile End mentioned the Lord's Day Observance Act, the Act dealing with justices, and another Act. I am not saying that these Acts do or do not require amendment. If they do require amendment, the Statute Law Revision Bill is not the place in which they should be amended. They must be amended by appropriate Measures dealing with the particular aspect in which the hon. Member feels that they require amendment. With regard to the Lord's Day Observance Act, I am sure that no one in the House would say that that was an Act which complied with the test which I have enunciated—that is to say, that it is an Act which by common consent is entirely dead and inoperative.

In answer to the question of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), when this Bill was scrutinised by the joint Committee this point was discussed, and in order to prevent there being any such revival as the hon. Member apprehended might result from the terms of the Act, the words "state, degree, style, dignity" were introduced in the penultimate paragraph of Clause 1 and after "title" the word "honour," These words were introduced in order to prevent that result ensuing and if the hon. Gentleman looks at the discussion on that point he will see it on page 2 of the Minutes of Evidence taken before the joint Committee. So far as matters of principle have been raised in the Debate, I think that this was the only one.

Mr. Piratin

Will the Solicitor-General say a word about the Landlord and Tenant Act, 1730? As he is aware, many Acts have been passed since then relating to this question. Can he say why that Act, or the point in it dealing with the paying of double rent, etc., has not been repealed in the Acts of Parliament passed since then?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that that is a question which can be asked on Second Reading. I think that the Solicitor-General has explained the position quite clearly. We cannot amend Acts—and we cannot say why one particular Act has not been repealed—which have nothing to do with this Bill.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

Can the Solicitor-General give an assurance that this Bill does in fact remove all the dead, obsolete and inoperative laws now on the Statute Book?

The Solicitor-General

I should when I spoke previously have asked for the leave of the House to speak again, and may I retrospectively ask for that now. With regard to the question asked, I do not think that anyone can give that assurance; that is why there were 30 Statute Law Revision Acts in 38 years in the last century. One has to go through them and prune and reprune, and one cannot guarantee that one will not find something that has been overlooked.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next.—[Mr. Pearson.]