HC Deb 05 December 1949 vol 470 cc1513-7
24. Mr. Bing

asked the Attorney-General whether his attention has been called to the large expenditure being incurred now by political and commercial bodies, contrary to the provisions of Section 42 of the Representation of the People Act, 1948, with a view to supporting the candidature at the General Election of those opposed to Socialism and, in particular, to the nationalisation of certain industries; and whether he proposes to take any action.

40. Sir Ian Fraser

asked the Prime Minister if he will introduce legislation dealing with Parliamentary election expenses.

41. Colonel Dower

asked the Lord President of the Council if he will introduce legislation to ensure that if shareholders of industrial companies enter into expenditure in opposing nationalisation of industries, such expenditure is returnable in election expenses.

63. Mr. Keeling

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will introduce legislation in the present Parliament to provide that money spent on anti-nationalisation propaganda by industries threatened with nationalisation in the Government's election programme shall be included in the election expenses of candidates opposing the Government.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

I have been asked to answer Question No. 40 to the Prime Minister and also Question No. 41 to the Lord President, and No. 63 to the Home Secretary. With permission, I will answer those three Questions together with this Question addressed to myself, and it will be convenient if I deal with the three latter Questions first.

Parliament has quite recently passed the Representation of the People Act, 1948, and the Consolidation Act, 1949. which contain provisions dealing, amongst other things, with the expenditure which is permitted in connection with propaganda calculated to promote one candidature at an election or to disparage another. As at present advised, His Majesty's Government do not propose to introduce further legislation but prefer to rely upon the operation of the existing law in relation to the matter.

I now come to the Question addressed to myself which I answer, not as a matter of Government policy, but in my position as Attorney-General. My attention has been called to certain expenditure on what may seem to be political propaganda, and I have given anxious consideration to the matter in consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions. Whilst the whole matter is being carefully watched, I do not propose to direct any proceedings at the present time, since the question of the legality of any expenditure incurred now, would have to be considered in the light of the effect it is calculated to produce if and when an election occurs. I think it is right to add, however, that whilst I can lay down no binding rule in the matter, which is one to be considered on the facts of each particular case, it is my view that the prohibition of certain expenditure on propaganda calculated to influence an election is not necessarily restricted to propaganda in which any particular candidate is expressly referred to, nor is it necessarily confined to expenditure incurred only after the dissolution of Parliament or the issue of a writ for an election or the nomination of a candidate.

Colonel Dower

When considering this matter, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman take into account the gift by the Co-operative Society of £30,000 for party political propaganda and also such gifts as those given by the trade unions, and, indeed, the money spent by the Central Office of Information on controversial problems.

Mr. John Hynd

Will my right hon. and learned Friend also consider similar undisclosed sums contributed to other political parties?

The Attorney-General

So far as the first two cases are concerned, I have not any particular information but, as my hon. Friend has just said, I see no reason to distinguish those payments from other payments, whether public or secret, to the political funds of any particular political party.

Sir I. Fraser

If before an election there were a birthday party at which the candidates gathered together to celebrate that birthday, to rejoice over past activities, and to wish themselves a happy return, would such an activity fall within the limits of which the Attorney-General has just warned us?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Member ought not to ask me, as Attorney-General, about a hypothetical case, and whether he asks it or not he will not get an answer from me.

Mr. H. D. Hughes

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider legislation making it necessary for all political parties, to disclose the source of their financial income?

Mr. Keeling

If propaganda in favour of nationalisation were included in election expenses on the same bases as propaganda against nationalisation, might it not be that the total expenditure on propaganda in favour of nationalisation would absorb the whole of the maximum expenses allowed for all Labour candidates?

The Attorney-General

I am afraid my answer has no reference to the amount of money which may be involved. I simply sought to state what is my view of the law.

Mr. Bing

Is the Attorney-General aware that at the present moment certain insurance companies are employing paid canvassers who, as well as seeking for business, are attempting to influence the political views of the people on whom they call? Will he point out to them the desirability of an appropriate sum being included in the election expenses of the candidates whom they support?

Mr. Peter Thorneycroft

Did the Lord President of the Council consult the Attorney-General before he made his recent speech?

The Attorney-General

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that it is not usual to state what communication passes between one Minister and another, but in case it should be thought that I am not prepared to associate myself with what the Lord President said, I must say that when I read his speech in the newspaper it did not appear to me to contain any proposition of law which either shocked or startled me.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Is the Attorney-General aware that many of us did not quite catch the answer which he gave to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. H. D. Hughes), and will he consider the advisability of making it obligatory upon all political parties to publish annually audited accounts in the same way as the Labour Party has always done?

Mr. Henry Strauss

Has the attention of the right hon. and learned Gentleman been drawn to the speech made by the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Piratin) to the effect that the Communists will support Socialist candidates in most constituencies? Does he think that the present law is strong enough to ensure that the Communist expenditure is included in that of the Socialist candidates they support?

The Attorney-General

The Hon. and learned Gentleman may recall that that was a matter which we discussed in the course of the Debate on the Representation of the People Bill. I said then, and I now repeat, that intervention by third parties, whether of the Communist Party or of a commercial or industrial concern, in an election, and intervention by the expenditure of money, would be within the Statute.

Mr. Speaker

There are other Questions on the Order Paper.