§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.6 a.m.
§ Mr. Monslow (Barrow-in-Furness)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
In presenting this Bill for the consideration and, I hope, the support of this House, I think it necessary to clarify my own position. I am not a Spiritualist, I am a Methodist. Incidentally, this Bill is supported by Members on both sides of the House of various religious faiths—Unitarians, Congregationalists, Methodists, members of the Church of England, Roman Catholics and members of the Jewish faith. That demonstrates quite clearly that there is a measure of unanimity in favour of clearing away what is regarded as an injustice.
The House will appreciate that what we are asking hon. Members to accept is that there shall be no restraint or restriction on the right of every person in this country to enjoy the freedom of religion which was one of the causes which we espoused during the last war. During the General Elections of 1945 and 1950, the Spiritualists National Union and other organisations submitted a questionnaire to candidates in the respective constituencies, and 200 elected Members of this House gave unqualified support to what this Bill seeks to do. I feel that no hon. Member desires to shrink from the undertaking which he then gave. Here is an opportunity to redeem that pledge. I am confident that no Member of the House gave that assurance for any electoral advantage; I believe that it was a desire manifesting itself to distinguish between the genuine and the fraudulent, the false and the true.
I would remind the House that over a period of years many deputations have made representations to the Home Office to remove the grievances of Spiritualists, and they have been sympathetically received. I should like to pay my tribute to the Home Office because on this occasion they have given valuable assistance in the drafting of this Bill, which, if passed, will go a long way towards relieving Spiritualists of the feeling that they are breaking the law. Spiritualists have undertaken, 1455 and will do all that is humanly possible, to eliminate fraud, which is as harmful to Spiritualists as it is noxious to our civic life. It is clearly recognised that fraud must be eradicated and impostors punished. The practice of fraud in the imitation of mediumship is a cardinal offence which needs to be dealt with by public exposure or by action through the courts.
May I now recite the Spiritualists' grievances? They arise from the Witchcraft Act, 1735, and the Vagrancy Act, 1824. The dates of both these Acts prove that they are being used for purposes that were neither intended nor contemplated, when it is borne in mind that mediumship was first practised in this country in 1853. It might be suggested that the Witchcraft Act is capable of dealing with impostors, and that I do not deny, but I think the most salient fact is that the complaint is that it catches in its net impostors and innocent people alike. The Witchcraft Act, worked in conjunction with the Vagrancy Act, 1824, has the effect that no medium, however innocent, has a reasonable chance of escaping conviction, not under the law, but on account of the present court procedure. I think the classic case, which I do not propose to recite, is that of Hill v. Duncan, in which the accused was not allowed to demonstrate even before a jury.
The Spiritualists National Union and other organisations have clearly indicated over a long period of years that integrity in mediumship is essential, and the goal at which they are aiming will not be reached until this has been attained. The only way to attain that objective is that such legislation as is proposed in the Bill which I have submitted today should remove from the Statute Book the last vestiges of the Witchcraft Act. Both the Witchcraft and Vagrancy Acts, as at present interpreted, operate in a very restrictive and repressive way in connection with mediumship, and consequently are both harsh and inimical to the religion and practice of Spiritualism.
A long-standing grievance has been the use in the past of what are known as agents provocateur or police agents to contact persons whom they suspect of having committed offences and persuade them into committing the offence in the presence of the agent, obviously with a 1456 view to obtaining a conviction. I think all hon. Members will agree that that is a feature which is obnoxious in the extreme. The honest mediums need protection, and should not, as in the case at the moment, be at the mercy of ill-informed persons and be treated as rogues and vagabonds. They should not be what one may describe as the pariahs of society.
The Spiritualist movement has given a pledge to take all possible measures to eliminate impostors and to expose charlatans, but they do ask, in the name of British justice, that mediums should be relieved of what they regard as the onerous and out-moded provisions of both the Vagrancy and Witchraft Acts.
§ Mr. Paget (Northampton)
Will my hon. Friend allow me? He has said that the Spiritualist movement has given a pledge. What does he mean by that? What is the Spiritualist movement?
§ Mr. Monslow
I shall now come to the point which my hon. and learned Friend is raising, and with which I was about to deal when he asked his question. What is the strength of the Spiritualist movement? There are 1,000 churches; they are affiliated into two main organisations, the Spiritualists National Union and the Greater World Christian Spiritualist League; and the active membership is 50,000. In addition, there are thousands of adherents who attend Spiritualist services but who are not actual members of the Spiritualist Church. Indeed, I think one might claim that all denominations have people who are members of their respective churches and also have a large number of other people who attend the services and other functions but who are only adherents and not members.
The Spiritualist movement is not only a movement which operates in Britain, but is a world-wide one, recognised by the State in many countries. At the international conference held in London in 1948, it is interesting to note, no fewer than 41 countries were represented, and we are today discussing a subject which is vital and of fundamental importance to a large section of our community. I have no desire to speak at undue length, because I am conscious that a number of hon. Members wish to take part in this debate. I shall therefore attempt to summarise what I have tried to say.
1457 As represented by the Witchcraft and Vagrancy Acts, the law and the machinery operated under it are clearly prejudicial to the interests of Spiritualists. In the past, prosecutions have shown that no medium, however innocent, has a reasonable chance of escaping conviction. It is agreed that there have been no recent prosecutions to which Spiritualists could take exception, and this is due to the fact that the Home Office itself has advised the police to institute proceedings only against persons whose activities have been the subject of complaint by members of the public, and where there is evidence that the person concerned is an imposter and is taking money or other valuable considerations.
I would, however, respectfully suggest that there is no guarantee that every chief constable even today will always act on this advice, although I recognise that we have in the present Home Secretary a man who is indeed most sympathetic, who has always been anxious to place no restraint or restriction on any person in this country enjoying freedom of religion. None will deny that my right hon. Friend is a man of many excellent qualities, a man of sympathy, understanding and toleration, whether he is dealing with matters in the realm of the secular or indeed in matters of religious controversy. He is one who has the necessary qualities to keep a balance of mind and give a measure of justice. I appeal on behalf of a large number of people in this country who are Spiritualists in order that they may be allowed to worship God in their own free way, without any feeling that they are breaking the law, or that they may come under a cloud and be condemned as vagrants and vagabonds.
To conclude the express purpose of this Bill is to separate the imposters from the law-abiding citizens of this country so that they may have freedom to practise their religion and to hold their religious opinions without any interference by the law. I hope that by this Measure we shall secure that freedom which should be available to all law-abiding citizens in this country. I wish to express my thanks and warm appreciation to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the very courteous way in which they have received my observations, and to express the hope that the spirit of toleration and mutual 1458 respect which is so cherished in the precincts of this House will be extended to those from whom today we seek to remove an injustice. All they desire is to share the same understanding, the same mutual respect, and the same measure of toleration and sympathy that we enjoy here.
There can be no doubt, in my view, that freedom and toleration must be the watchword so far as this movement is concerned. I hope we shall remove the disabilities from which these people suffer, that we shall amend the law and thus redress a grievance which has been felt for far too long. The opportunity presents itself through this Measure to give these people that basis of equity and justice which all other denominations enjoy.
§ 11.22 a.m.
§ Mr. T. J. Brooks (Normanton)
I beg to second the Motion.
May I express to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) my deep appreciation and that of the whole Spiritualist movement for his excellent speech this morning. He has displayed great courage in sponsoring this Bill. He has faithfully carried out his promise to do so if called upon. It is very fitting that an officer in the Methodist Church should be so broadminded as to plead for religious freedom for others. We are very grateful to him, and hope that he may not only have the pleasure of getting a Second Reading for this Bill, but of witnessing the Bill going through all its stages to the Statute Book. Thousands of people will revere him for his courage and help this morning.
The objects of the Bill are twofold. The first is to repeal the Witchcraft Act, 1735, and the application of the Vagrancy Act, 1824, to Spiritualist mediums. Both these Acts are terrible Measures to apply to decent folk. The second object is to provide heavy penalties for fraud in imitation of mediumship. I am told that, strictly speaking, the second object is not necessary since the ordinary law against fraud and false pretences would be sufficient. But we are glad to put special provisions in this Bill, if only to mark our special detestation of this particular kind of heartless fraud.
1459 Let me read what leaders of the Spiritualist organisations and other prominent Spiritualists, including myself, had to say about this in an open letter to the Spiritualist Press last August. They said:To Spiritualists, the practice of fraud in imitation of mediumship is a cardinal offence which merits the severest penalties—whether by public exposure or by action through the courts. Fraud of this kind is designed to prey upon the most cherished feelings of the human heart, and in some unfortunate cases upon the depths of human misery; for it is through genuine mediumship that comfort has been given and the certainty achieved of the continued interest of our loved ones after death, and of the reality of the Spirit World. Though frauds are comparatively rare, they cause intense suffering and undermine confidence. Exposure of fraud is therefore not enough; positive action is also required to safeguard mediumship, which we regard as a sacred trust.The letter then goes on to mention the positive action required, and ends thus:As representative Spiritualists, we ask all who have the welfare of the movement at heart to join with us in this effort. Fraud must be eradicated and imposters punished. Mediumship must be protected from abuse and exploitation as well as from persecution.But because we have such a detestation of fraud is no reason why honest and decent people who have mediumistic gifts and wish to use them for the benefit and comfort of their fellows should live under the shadow of these ancient Acts. I myself have every reason to know that spiritual gifts such as were recorded in the Bible are to be found to this day in people we call mediums. I have over 40 years' experience of them, personal and intimate, and know them to be what I have said, honest, decent folk.
Hon. Members may not agree with the conclusions I draw about the meaning of their powers, but at least I feel I am justified in asking every one to recognise that mediums and Spiritualists believe intensely in communion with the spirit world through mediumship as the basis of their religion. More than this, we claim that in this we are restoring a basis which has been fundamental to all religions in their beginning, Christianity included. Immortality is the basic principle of all religions.
I myself have presided at many Spiritualist services of worship. We yield to no one in our claim to bring joy and comfort into darkened lives and to 1460 draw people back from the abyss of despair, or materialism, to a recognition of the goodness of God and the spiritual quality of His universe. And let us make no mistake, Spiritualists are not just ignorant, deluded people. Some of the keenest intellects in this and other lands have ranged themselves by our side, from Robert Owen, one of the founders of the Socialist movement in this country, and President Abraham Lincoln in America, to such scientists as Alfred Russell Wallace and Sir William Crookes, such literary men as Thackeray, Ruskin and William Howitt, and such lawyers as Judge Edmunds in America and Marshall Hall over here.
If I may be permitted an old form of quotation, let us see what Mr. Gladstone said as long ago as 1884. He said that the investigation of mediumship in psychical research was:the most important work which is being done in the world—by far the most important.It was about that time, too, that Lord Balfour—then, of course, Mr. Arthur Balfour—became deeply interested. So our claim today is quite non-party and we are in good company. But all this has not made it easy to get any Government to recognise that the removal of our disabilities was a matter of immediate Parliamentary importance.
One Home Secretary after another has been sympathetic. In 1930, for example, Mr. Clynes gave encouragement to a deputation led by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But the Private Member's Bill which was introduced as a result had to face a dwindling House and got no further than the Second Reading stage. I am sure our lot today will be happier. Hon. Members are much more tolerant in the House today, for which I am very grateful. In 1943, the right hon. Member for Leeds, North (Mr. Peake). then Under-Secretary for the Home Department, received another deputation on behalf of the Home Secretary. At this meeting three hon. Members of this House and one former Member, together with Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, as well as leaders of the Spiritualist Movement in this country, presented the case for relief for mediums from the odium of these Acts.
During the war, the Government found difficulty in dealing with a matter of this kind, but the present Lord President, who was then Home Secretary, did what he 1461 could to help us by addressing a letter to Chief Constables on the matter. It is, perhaps, an ironic commentary that within a few months there occurred the first recorded prosecution under the Witchcraft Act. After the war, in 1946, the present Home Secretary sympathetically received a further deputation, which the Dowager Duchess of Hamilton and my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Leslie Hale) also joined. The Home Secretary himself told a Committee of the House something about that deputation in connection with an Amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which I moved in 1948.
May I remind the House what the Home Secretary said on that occasion? Here are his words:It is anomalous that in these days proceedings under the Witchcraft Act should be taken against people in this country. Any mischief that may be prevented by the continuance of the Witchcraft Act, or the application of the Act of 1824 to this kind of case"—He was referring to mediums be it noted, and the Act of 1824 was the Vagrancy Act—should be dealt with … by some rephrasing of the old law, bringing it into line with modern conditions and modern requirements."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 4th March, 1948; c. 1332–1333.]I was much impressed at the time, by the Home Secretary's remarks, and I readily withdrew my Amendment on the Home Secretary's promise.
I can say now that since that time the Home Secretary has assisted us in any possible way he could; and I should like to express my appreciation and gratitude, and that of the whole Spiritualist movement, for the kindness and courtesy and sympathy with which the Home Secretary has met us and listened patiently to our representations. This Bill is the result of his promise in 1948 and of his co-operation since then, and we present it to the House with every confidence on that ground.
May I add a few words about the Vagrancy Act which, to us, is far more obnoxious even than the antiquated Witchcraft Act? It was drawn up originally to deal with such odious people as persons selling indecent prints, persons living on the immoral earnings of prostitutes, and persons who expose themselves in public places. It is with people such as these that our mediums have been 1462 classed, not indeed by the Act itself, for Spiritualism was unknown in this country until 1853, 30 years after the Act had been passed, but by a court in applying certain words in Section 4 of the Act to mediums.
It was even held at one time that the mere claim to be a medium was sufficient of itself to prove guilt. We have been assured by the Home Secretary that that would not be the case in these days, but, of course, his assurance would not be binding on a court. That is one reason why we think it vital to do as the Home Secretary advised in 1948 and make suitable provision by legislation. Perhaps I may be permitted to add in this connection that, in spite of what the Home Secretary said in 1948 about the Witchcraft Act, a charge under that Act was actually made by Scotland Yard in a case this year at the Old Bailey.
It is just intolerable to us that mediums should be liable to be classed with all those obnoxious people I have mentioned as "rogues and vagabonds" or as "incorrigible rogues," which are the ugly titles given by the Vagrancy Act. We ask that Parliament, in common justice, should take away this stigma from those who, with the highest religious motives of serving their fellow men and women, use the special faculties which God has given to them. May I close on the note which is a cardinal factor in the Spiritualist movement? We can never finish the noble task of life. We can never cease to work. We can never cease to be. No period is set to our being, for it is eternal. It is my privilege and great pleasure to ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Speaker
Perhaps I should inform the House that, on these Private Members' days, it is optional to have a seconder. It is not necessary to have one, but if the promoter of the Bill likes to have a seconder he is always entitled to have one.
§ 11.36 a.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Colegate (Burton)
I am glad to have the opportunity of supporting this Bill, especially in times when every time we open our papers, we read of intolerance and persecution of religion in different parts of the world. It is to me a very great pleasure that the House 1463 of Commons in these difficult times should be engaged once more upon the task of extending the toleration that we are prepared to give in this country to all sincere people, whatever their views may be.
It is not necessary for me to discuss the merits of Spiritualism. It is quite sufficient for me, in supporting a Measure of this kind, that a number of reputable citizens should hold sincerely any particular views. They are entitled to hold those views and to engage, as they do, in the church activities of which we have heard this morning. The mere fact that my old friend the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks) is a Spiritualist is quite sufficient for me to believe that there is something in it which many worthy people would like to practise and enjoy.
But there is one great danger in Spiritualism, which is not so obvious in connection with other religions. I mention this because, in my opinion, the Bill has very wisely provided against a particular abuse to which Spiritualism is open. This is that there is a great temptation, especially in times like the last generation, when we have had two terrible wars with terrible casualties, for the Spiritualist medium to offer to put distressed relatives in touch with sons and daughters or whoever it may be. Those who have lost relatives in this way naturally realise the tremendous temptation there is to seize upon any chance whatsoever of getting into touch with those whom they have lost. That is where the promoters of this Bill have been very wise. They have made it perfectly clear in the first Clause that they are prepared to take every possible step against fraudulent mediumship of that kind, and therefore I feel that the House should be quite satisfied on that score.
I wish to be very brief, because the merits of the Bill are on the surface. There are only two Clauses—the one with which I have dealt, and the second Clause, which deals with the Witchcraft Act, 1735, and the Vagrancy Act, 1824, which, perhaps, ought to have been repealed years ago. Anyway, today we have the opportunity of doing so. I do not quite understand why the Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland, but perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) can explain that.
1464 However that may be, here we have a Bill which renders justice to a very large number of people who sincerely hold certain religious beliefs for which they are liable to prosecution under the existing Acts. That being so, it should be not only our desire but our duty to repeal those Acts and substitute the Bill which is now before the House. I hope that the Bill will receive its Second Reading and that the Home Secretary, who, I believe, is sympathetic in this matter, will ensure that the Government will give every possible assistance in seeing that the Bill becomes an Act at no very distant time.
§ 11.41 a.m.
§ Mr. Rogers (Kensington, North)
I support the Bill and, in view of the large number of Members who wish to speak. I do not propose to detain the House too long. If this Debate serves no other useful purpose, it has finally resolved the mystery of what Mr. Gladstone said in 1884. I am sure that for killing that long-standing Parliamentary joke, hon. Members will be grateful or otherwise to the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks), who seconded the Motion for the Second Reading of the Bill.
We are sometimes very fond of talking among ourselves about the number of cranks in this House. One has heard the hon. Member for Eatanswill say that the hon. Member for Dingley Dell is a crank, and a week or two later the hon. Member for Dingley Dell says that the hon. Member for Eatanswill is a crank. It is true that we generally regard people who do not share our views as cranks, and although they look upon us as cranks, we regard ourselves as eminently reasonable and intelligent men. On this issue, perhaps, there are more people who will say that Spiritualists are cranks than will say that of people in the United Kingdom who hold any other form of belief. But it is not generally understood how many people there are who believe in this movement today, and how many people there are who believed in it in the past.
I say this not in order that we should debate the merits or otherwise of Spiritualism, which do not come within the scope of the Bill, but merely to illustrate that there are arguments to support the validity of the beliefs held by Spiritualists. For instance, St. Paul, in his letters to the Corinthians, said: 1465Now, concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.He goes on to say:But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.For to one is given … the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits.Then we have had various inquiries by the Church of England into the subject. The Lambeth Conference, over 30 years ago, appointed two archbishops and 35 bishops to report on the Christian faith in relation to Spiritualism, and was told:It is possible that we are on the threshold of a new science which … will confirm us in the assurance of a world behind … the world we see, and that a limit could never be set to the means which God could use to bring man to the realisation of a spiritual life.Later, in 1938, Archbishop Lang appointed a committee to inquire into Spiritualism. The majority report was signed by seven out of ten members. That report has since been published and reveals that the investigators were satisfied that the communication of spirits with people on earth is a fact. Mass Observation conducted an inquiry in January, 1947, and published their report saying that 35 out of every 100 people contacted in their inquiry believed in Spiritualism—a very substantial number; 36 per cent. believed in ghosts; 51 per cent. in second sight—that is, clairvoyance; 64 per cent. in intuition, and 86 per cent. in telepathy. There is obviously an enormous number of people who do believe that there is some validity in the claims of the Spiritualists to be able to demonstrate the reality of the after life.
There are numbers of Members in this House who occupy, in some cases, very prominent positions in the councils of the nation, who themselves have conducted inquiries into the arguments of the Spiritualists and have come to believe that they are able to demonstrate the reality of the after-life. But they are not anxious to associate themselves publicly with this movement, partly because of the odium placed upon them by the operation of the Witchcraft and Vagrancy Acts, and because, in the belief of many people in the country who do not share the views of the Spiritualists, a Spiritualist is not only 1466 a crank but is something rather distasteful and unpleasant. As the last speaker said, in the Acts referred to, Spiritualists are associated with pimps, people guilty of indecent exposure and mothers who abandon their illegitimate children in the streets.
We have tried for a very long time, since the Witchcraft Act came into existence, and long before, to improve our code of law in the search for an impeccable justice, and in almost every sphere of law we have seen improvements in our method of determining crimes and in our method of trying those who are accused of them—with almost the one exception of the way in which Spiritualists are treated. These people are sometimes accused of furtiveness, a hole-in-the-corner attitude, towards their beliefs, and it is a fact that many politicians would not admit belief in Spiritualism because they are afraid, perhaps justifiably so, that they would lose support in strongly orthodox religious constituencies by doing so.
I therefore feel that the House ought to enable Spiritualists to lift up their heads as free men, proud of the belief which they share with a burning sincerity. Indeed, so deeply do they hold this faith that many of them would be prepared, like the martyrs of old, to go to the stake in defence of their principles. Fortunately, that ultimate sacrifice is not necessary in a day and age when people are so much more liberal to the strange beliefs of minorities.
I, therefore, ask the House finally to remove the stigma from Spiritualists. We are humble occupants of this place, which, for generations, has been built into the greatest citadel of liberty in the world by famous men and by men whose names are unknown. As the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) said, this is a demonstration of our desire for the freedom of minorities and for the extension of that freedom. I ask the House not to oppose a Bill which is desired so ardently by so many thousands of our fellow citizens, but to give it a Second Reading without a Division.
§ 11.48 a.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander R. H. Thompson (Croydon, West)
If, as I hope, the House gives a Second Reading to this Bill today we shall be doing rather a remarkable 1467 thing. I do not speak as a Spiritualist, but in my view we shall be reaffirming an outlook and a point of view very necessary in an increasingly material age. In 1735 the Witchcraft Act brought to an end officially what had, in fact, been at an end for some years—the belief in the reality of witchcraft. Witchcraft had been practised from the very beginning of time; during the 16th and 17th centuries there was tremendous activity in England and on the Continent, but with the dawn of the "age of reason," so called, belief in the reality of witchcraft faded.
I think I am right in saying that the last execution for witchcraft in England was in 1704. In Scotland it was in 1722. By 1735 the official view was that these powers no longer existed, whether they were good or evil, and we have been committed to a sort of official scepticism ever since that day. It has taken 215 years for use to realise the reality of what has been called, in one of those hateful, long and involved phrases, extrasensory perception.
If the House gives a Second Reading to the Bill I shall welcome it not only because it removes from Spiritualists the stigma of prosecution under the old Vagrancy Act—I agree that that is necessary—but because it will also reaffirm that we honestly admit that there are powers given to some people in the community which enable them to do things which, for 215 years, we have not believed were physically possible.
§ Mr. Sorensen (Leyton)
Does the hon. and gallant Gentleman mean to suggest that all those who vote for the Bill accept the claims which are made on behalf of extrasensory power? The fact is that those who vote for the Bill will do so because they want liberty for those who believe other than they believe themselves.
§ Lieut.-Commander Thompson
I am not suggesting that everybody who supports the Bill necessarily believes in these powers but I believe that in passing the Bill we shall show that we are not completely materialist in our outlook, as otherwise might be supposed.
Unquestionably, the Bill enlarges the area of religious toleration. As other hon. Members have said, nothing is more necessary than that in a world which is becoming increasingly materialistic and 1468 in which various believers are apt to be very apprehensive of others who do not share the same beliefs. Nothing is more necessary than that we should enlarge this area of religious toleration and I hope, therefore, that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 11.53 a.m.
§ Mr. G. Lang (Stalybridge and Hyde)
I am very glad to be present today to support my hon. Friends in their presentation of this Bill. It is over 20 years ago since I was elected to this House for the first time and in those days I often found myself in conference with the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle upon this question. Near these precincts he had a place called a psychic museum. He never convinced me that his point of view was correct, perhaps because he had often hoodwinked me with his clever Sherlock Holmes stories, but he convinced me that there was a genuine case for inquiry and, after inquiry, for the removal of disabilities.
Much has been said this morning—and said very well and very reasonably—about the freedom of religion. At that time I did all I could to support my hon. Friends, some of whom now know the reality of things about which we can only guess, who were here in the House and who pressed their cause. I am still not convinced that Spiritualism is all that its believers claim. But that is not the main point at issue. The best of us have only partial sight and none of us will be perfect until somehow, some day, we come into the full sevenfold light.
I am sure that the House is in its best tradition when it gives freedom to people, even to those people with whom it is not able entirely to agree. I thought there was very much in what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks). I congratulate him upon what must be a very happy day for him. As the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Colegate) said, the very fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton is a member of this movement and a supporter of it, is evidence that there must be a great deal of good in it. He himself is its best recommendation here.
It is important that there should be no restraint placed upon people who have honest beliefs. The foundation for that was laid down long ago, as was pointed out by the hon. and gallant Member for 1469 Croydon, West (Lieut.-Commander Thompson). If this is of man it will come to nought; if it is of God it will prosper. That is the only test that we should apply, and if we were to apply any other it would be the test of fruits and not of roots. We have no right to dig up any movement to see where it began. It is sufficient for us, with our partial judgment, to be able to say what happens. The people who belong to a movement are always its best recommendation. There are more things in our philosophy than this world dreams of, and who among us would dare to say what might or might not happen in that strange borderland between this mortality and immortality?
There are those who inquire anxiously and who have not themselves been able to find an answer. There are others of us, I think, who must admit that we have no special psychic powers at all. The only time when I gazed into a crystal I saw things from the past which I would rather not have seen and nothing at all about the future. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote me a letter, which I still possess, before the 1931 Election and in it he said that the spirit world would look after me and that I need not worry about the next election or any other election. Unfortunately, his friends were not on the Register of Electors, or it may be that, as I was a young and innocent lad at the time, they thought it would be better that I should be spared from this House for some time. At any rate, at the subsequent election I had the heaviest defeat that I have ever received. I still hope that I can get all the help which I need very much indeed in every direction.
I was glad to hear what was said by the hon. Member for Burton about the dangers. We have had two world wars, and there are few things more pitiful than the way in which sadly bereaved people look for some kind of certainty. That is particularly so in war, when there are not to be found the ordinary sad reminders—the funeral and the body; there are none of those things which convince people that death has occurred. When people have none of these visible signs they find it extremely difficult, as I have experienced as a Minister in dealing with them, to believe that death has occurred and they turn with pitiful and understandable anxiety to others in order 1470 that they might know something for certain. For most of us, we are not able to get very much further.
If people can find comfort and can be re-established in a sanity of belief, I am in favour of those who help, whoever they may be, but it is essential that nothing should be permitted which might exploit those grievances and make a commercial thing out of it. Indeed, I am obliged to say this because it has sometimes happened that the inquiry has sent people further into the realms of insecurity and, indeed, insanity. It is important that there should be adequate provision to prevent any sort of fraud. Fraud of any kind is to be deplored and, of course, is dealt with by the courts, but fraud in these matters is almost too reprehensible to mention.
In conclusion, I would emphasise that I believe in freedom of religion and that I desire to extend to others the freedom which is extended to me. It is the same belief in freedom which has enabled me, as a Protestant, most earnestly to support for the last 20 years the claims of Catholics for State help for the education of their children. That same belief in religious freedom brings me to the side of my hon. Friend in support of this Bill, and I hope the House will give it a Second Reading.
There is only one question I have to ask before I sit down. Perhaps the Home Secretary, with his usual ability, will be able to clarify this awkward point and be able to help me in this. Clause 1 (2) says:The foregoing subsection shall apply only where a person acts for reward; and for the purposes of this section a person shall be deemed to act for reward if any payment is made in respect of what he does, whether to him or to any other person.I do not know whether that would preclude the holding of a seance at which there was a collection which went to the funds of the society who might themselves pay the preacher. Let me say at once that I have never had the privilege of being paid as a preacher on a percentage basis of a collection. If I had, I should have been able to help the Treasury more. It seems to me that there may be some difficulty about that subsection, but I have no doubt my right hon. Friend will be able to explain to us. I am glad to support this Bill.
§ 12.2 p.m.
§ Mr. L. M. Lever (Manchester, Ardwick)
I, as a member of the Jewish faith, desire whole-heartedly to support the Measure which is before the House. I regard it as part of the process of religious emancipation which commenced in the 19th century, and I am very glad that today we are presenting a charter so far as the Spiritualist community are concerned. I think nothing could be finer, at the present time, than that we should proclaim to the world our own British way of life—our sense of respect for the religious beliefs of others. I am certain that this proclamation today, when the world is so sorely troubled in so far as freedom is concerned, will enable the British people once again to give a lead to the world, and enable us to play a worthy role in the counsels of the nations.
I am always, as a member of the legal profession and a citizen of this great country, of the belief that the law should reflect the wishes and the spirit of the community in the period in which it is living. Obviously, the Witchcraft Act, 1735, and the Vagrancy Act, 1824, are anachronisms which long ago should have been abolished, instead of subjecting our fellow citizens who believe in Spiritualism to the danger of imprisonment.
The Act of 1735 refers to the mere pre[...]ence:to exercise or use any Kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment or Conjuration, or undertake to tell Fortunes or pretend from his or her Skill or Knowledge in any occult or crafty Science to discover where or in what Manner any Goods or Chattles, supposed to have been stolen or lost, may be found; every Person so offending …. in that Part of Great Britain …. shall for every such Offence suffer Imprisonment by the Space of one whole Year without Bail …. and …. be obliged to give Sureties for his or her good behaviour.I ask the House, in all earnestness, what the relationship is between the terms of this antiquated Act and the practising of Spiritualism in the respected way in which it is practised today. How can we relate one to the other.
The Act of 1824 seems all the more absurd. Section 4 talks of those:…. committing any of the Offences herein-before mentioned after having been convicted as an idle and disorderly Person, every Person pretending or professing to tell Fortunes, or using any subtle Craft, Means or device, by Palmistry or otherwise to deceive…. any of His Majesty's Subjects"—1472 It might even include politicians, if we took consideration of this Section too far—every Person wandering abroad and lodging in any Barn or Outhouse.…The Act goes on to talk of the practices of that section of the community whom the State would condemn because of the dangers and evils that they constitute to society.
I ask the House, in all seriousness, what the relationship is of Spiritualism and religious worship, and the employment of a medium, with that Section of the Act of 1824. I specially refer to that Section, because it is only by reference to that Act that one can see how preposterous and absurd is the implied relationship between it and modern Spiritualism as we know it today. The mere "pretence" is condemned, and not merely condemned according to the ordinary processes of the law as we know it today. According to Section 6:It shall be lawful for any Person whatsoever to apprehend any Person who shall be found offending against this Act, and forthwith to take and convey him or her before some Justice of the Peace, to be dealt with in such Manner as is hereinbefore directed, or to deliver him or her to any Constable …. if the Place where he or she shall have been apprehended …. and in case any Constable or other Peace Officer shall refuse or wilfully neglect to take such Offender into his Custody, and take and convey him or her before some Justice of the Peace, or shall not use his best Endeavours to apprehend and to convey before some Justice of the Peace any Person that he shall find offending against this Act, it shall be deemed a Neglect of Duty in such Constable …. and he shall on Conviction be punished.….All that has been amended by the Criminal Justice Act, 1948. Therefore, if it was deemed right that the processes referred to in that Section 6 should be brought up to date or eliminated in this way, because they had no relation to the circumstances of our present times, how much more should that Section 4, which had reference to a different era, be eliminated in its relationship to Spiritualism.
The Spiritualists are a very earnest and conscientious body in the community, who believe in their faith, and I respect men and women who believe in their faith. Indeed, I think that there is not enough religious freedom and toleration today, and that we want more. These earnest men and women have been prosecuted, and haled before courts under this ancient Statute, and it seems to me that 1473 it has done injustice to those who were prepared to suffer for the faith which they held dear.
Today, every psychic demonstration at Spiritualist churches registered as places of worship is exposed to the danger of prosecution under these Acts. This is a short Bill, though a very worthy one because it asserts the principle to which I have referred. For the first time, it clearly asserts and recognises Spiritualism as part of the enacted legislation of this country. At the same time, Clause 1 condemns those who are fraudulent and those who intend to deceive.
I do not think we need be greatly alarmed about subsection (2) on the question of reward, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Lang) referred, because in that respect there must be the intention to deceive, and by no stretch of the imagination can it be suggested that anyone who is part of the religious worship of Spiritualism has any intention to deceive if he acts or is known to operate in relation to his particular place of worship.
The virtue of this Bill is that it provides a safeguard against the arbitrary, narrow-minded views of some who may wish to seek or condemn Spiritualism, because the possibility of arbitrary or wanton prosecution is removed by Clause 1 (4), under whichNo proceedings for an offence under this section shall be brought in England and Wales except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.The Director of Public Prosecutions is a worthy officer who is anxious to safeguard the law and to take steps to condemn those who prey on society. He will have ample opportunity, with the aid of his officers, of investigating any complaint in relation to these matters, and he will be able to judge whether there is any intention to deceive, or whether any reward should be payable in respect of that intention. He would clearly be able to assert the rights of democracy and of our common citizenship in protecting the good and condemning the evil.
For those reasons, I welcome this Measure, which has come before the House not too soon. It should have come before the House long ago, but perhaps we should welcome it today as being better late than never. We can continue, in this great country of ours, 1474 that process of emancipation, of safeguarding sound religious conviction and condemning those who in the past have put religious conviction to personal advantage. I therefore take this opportunity of wishing the Spiritualist community every good fortune. I hope that those who have, in years gone by, played a worthy rôle as citizens of this great country will, in common with all of us, rejoice at this new blow for religious freedom and toleration. I earnestly trust that this Measure will receive a wholehearted Second Reading, and will continue unhindered and unhampered until it reaches the Statute Book and becomes part and parcel of the law of this great country.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Viant (Willesden, West)
I support this Bill, not as a member of the Spiritualist Church, but as one who is keenly anxious to see religious liberty given to all. From time to time, like others who have spoken, I have read reports in the Press of various prosecutions that have been brought in the courts of this land when mediums have been charged with fraud, and I have often asked myself the question: In what way are the courts of this land equipped to judge whether a medium is a fraud or otherwise? Mediums cannot possibly prove their ability to do certain things without the opportunity of giving demonstrations, and our courts are not equipped for that purpose; and I very much doubt whether the ordinary jury is capable of giving a fair judgment in that regard.
I am not a member of the Spiritualist Church, but I am persuaded that there is a great deal more in the world today of which we are not aware than we imagine, and we should be prepared to keep an open mind on these subjects. If we are not convinced that Spiritualism has a fundamental reality, we ought at least to be prepared to admit that it is conceivable that others might possess powers denied to us. I therefore say that we should keep an open mind on this subject.
I know of no form of persecution so bad as religious persecution. It is one of the worst possible forms of persecution. I can reasonably conceive that many mediums who have been brought before the courts and convicted have been wrongly convicted because the Acts under 1475 which they have been sent to prison have been long since outmoded. I am delighted that this Bill has been received in such a favourable atmosphere this morning, and I am hopeful of its reaching the Statute Book, where it will be another demonstration of the religious tolerance and liberty for which this country has been known in the past.
We cannot afford to dismiss Spiritualism in an easy manner. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks) in seconding the Second Reading, some of the finest intellects throughout the world have been converted to Spiritualism. One has only to think of the late Dr. Alfred Russell Wallace, who started as a physicist, and who, as a result of his studies and investigations, became converted to Spiritualism. Again, there is no less an authority than the late Sir Oliver Lodge. In the light of these facts, I re-assert that we should keep an open mind on this subject and permit those who undoubtedly have greater knowledge and a vaster experience than ourselves, to have the opportunity of practising their religion in accordance with their own faith and ideals. I have much pleasure in supporting the Bill.
§ 12.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Paget (Northampton)
We have heard a great deal about freedom. I am afraid I am a little cynical when I hear people talking about freedom, particularly when their method of bringing about freedom is the introduction of a Bill to create new crimes and new grounds for sending people to prison. I do not for one moment doubt the sincerity of everybody who talks about freedom so long as they are referring to their own freedom. We all believe intensely in freedom. Religious people believe in their own freedom perhaps even more than others, even to the length of believing in the freedom to burn all people who do not agree with them. I think it was the "Economist" which referred to a party of the extreme centre, whose members had very moderate views indeed but who believed in shooting everybody who disagreed with them.
One has to look with a certain suspicion when one finds freedom advanced as the ground for inflicting new penalties upon 1476 people. It is rather remarkable that we were dealing with the question of religious freedom as recently as last Tuesday. We were concerned with a restriction, which imposed penalties on people in the name of religion under an obsolete Act if children rode on a roundabout. It is a most curious thing that, with the single and most honourable exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Lang), all those who today have spoken in favour of religious freedom and tolerance, were against it on Tuesday.
From just behind me I heard a passionate appeal for tolerance from my hon. Friend the Member for Ardwick (Mr. L. M. Lever). His view on this subject on Tuesday was to shout out very loudly—I was aware of it because I was sitting beside him—"Vote, Vote" when my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) wished to express a view with which he did not agree.
§ Mr. L. M. Lever
I do not know whether my hon. and learned Friend recognises that the vote of those who opposed the opening of the fun fair on Sunday was out of respect for religious convictions—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is not tolerance."]—and for religious tolerance. [HON. MEMBERS: "Intolerance."] It all depends on the way one looks at it.
§ Mr. Paget
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but a proposal which prevents Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Mohammedan children from riding on a roundabout on Sunday, is not my definition of religious tolerance. I was a little alarmed when my hon. Friend the Member for Ardwick was in favour of the idea of providing this religious freedom by creating a new crime, guilt or innocence of which should be decided not by a jury or by a judge but by the public prosecutor. That surprised me a little, particularly as it was put forward in the name of liberty. For my part, I am extremely suspicious when a new crime is created not by a Government but by private individuals. I believe that there are few things more mischievous than the creation of big and ill-defined crimes.
§ Mr. Paget
If my hon. Friend will wait for them he will get them. I am dealing with this Bill and these Acts which create crimes. I have different views from those of my hon. Friend and when it comes to repealing or amending antiquated Acts which create obsolete crimes and cast limitations on the individual, I shall vote for their amendment as I did on Tuesday and as I propose to do again.
Let me now turn to the new crimes that are created by this Bill. The first Clause says:Subject to the provisions of this section, any person who with intent to deceive purports to act as spiritualistic medium or to exercise any powers of telepathy, clairvoyance or other similar powers….How does that affect a conjuror or a stage performer? The conjuror or stage performer is there to deceive. The quickness of the hand deceives the eye. There was a very remarkable husband and wife act which came recently to this country from Australia, known as the Piddington act. Their act was to read each other's thoughts. Does that or does it not come within the terms of this Bill? Again, clairvoyance acts are perfectly well known on the music hall, and it is certainly very arguable whether they come within this sort of definition. Are clairvoyance and telepathy going to become monopolies of the Spiritualists? Is this an instrument to prevent others doing it?
While the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) was speaking, I asked him a question, to which I do not feel I have had any answer at all. He said that the Spiritualist movement supported the Bill. I asked him what was the Spiritualist movement, and he replied that he was coming to that. He then told us there were 50,000 of them. There may be 50,000, but have they any representatives to put their point of view? Have they a governing body to control this sort of matter and to give guarantees on their behalf? Are they at one or are there divisions in this church? Certainly, in so far as they have newspapers, those newspapers at times violently attack each other. I remember one of their papers supporting a medium as genuine and another Spiritualist newspaper denouncing him as a fraud. Is this new crime to be used as an instrument of internecine war between the Spiritualists? I should like to know.
1478 I do not think that we should create crimes where no crimes existed before. I would say to the seconder, whom I am glad to see coming back into his place, that on the Committee stage he should drop Clause 1. The law of this country against fraud is adequate. It is a law against obtaining money by false pretences. Let the people who do that be prosecuted according to the established common law of the land. Do not let us create in a casual way new and ill-defined crimes which can operate only as a limitation upon liberty and may be used as an instrument of internecine strife.
§ 12.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Parker (Dagenham)
I support what was said by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). What strikes me, in the first place, is that almost every hon. Member who is backing the Bill voted against religious freedom the other day in the House. Both the mover and the seconder said a great deal about toleration, but I would point out that it means toleration for the non-religious as well as for other sections of religious opinion, for those who do not agree with us as well as for those who do agree. It means toleration for the non-Sabbatarian Christian to do as they want on the Sabbath day. Perhaps hon. Members may realise that their toleration ought to have a rather wider basis than they have given it today.
I do not feel that the Bill is quite satisfactory. Take Clause 1, dealing with clairvoyance, etc. Does it mean that it will still be illegal for a gipsy at a fair to tell fortunes? We know that they are not taken very seriously but rather as a form of amusement, although fortune telling has been punishable in the past, if people have cared to enforce the law.
§ Mr. L. M. Lever
I think that would be excluded under subsection (5) of the, Clause, which says:Nothing in subsection (1) of this section shall apply to anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment.
§ Mr. Parker
Cases have been brought in the past against people who have attempted to tell fortunes, which is not always done for the purpose of entertainment. Many people take it semiseriously. Most people however would assume that fortune telling is not very harmful at most of the fairs where it takes place.
§ Mr. Colegate
May I point out that no proceedings can be taken under the Bill without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, who is not likely to act so frivolously as to allow prosecution of music hall performers, gipsies at fairs, and people of that kind. Subsection (4) says:No proceedings for an offence under this section shall be brought in England or Wales except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
§ Mr. Parker
Prosecution has occurred in the past. I would like to know what the position will be after the Bill is passed.
§ Mr. Colegate
Prosecution will only be brought with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
§ Mr. Colegate
Not without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Can the hon. Gentleman cite any instances where the Director of Public Prosecutions has agreed to the cases that he has mentioned? He will find that they were not such as are covered in this Clause.
§ Mr. Parker
I accept the hon. Gentleman's view of the matter, because I have no information to the contrary. I was only pointing out that there have been prosecutions, but not necessarily with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I should like to know what may happen in the future.
§ Mr. Paget
This question of the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions is a nugatory provision. If there is a prima faciecase that an offence has been committed, application can be made to the High Court for a writ of mandamus. If there is no prima facie case then the whole thing becomes much more difficult.
§ Mr. Parker
I do not belong to the legal profession, so I will leave that matter for the lawyers to argue. We are considering giving greater freedom to Spiritualism, repealing the laws against witchcraft and legalising spookery and everything that has been associated with spiritualism.
§ Mr. L. M. Lever rose—
§ Mr. Parker
I shall not give way again.
Everything that can be called Spiritualism, including the raising of 1480 spirits, will be legalised if the Bill is passed. When proposing to do that, we should think seriously where we might be going. When Mustapha Kemal repealed different laws in Turkey in order to allow full religious freedom, particular exception was made of anything connected with Spiritualism. He made very strict laws on this subject to prevent people from being deceived. I do not think that the proposals in the Bill are adequate to prevent people from being deceived, especially those who may not be very well educated. The Spiritualist Church may be satisfied with the rules here being laid down for the control of mediums, but we have to think not only of the Spiritualist Church but of the wider public. I ask the House to consider whether there are sufficient safeguards in the Bill to protect the public against the forms of fraud which may arise from the repeal of these various Acts of Parliament.
I do not want to oppose the passing of the Bill, but in Committee we ought to consider very carefully whether parts of the Bill are adequate. We should look at the Bill more widely than in relation to the Spiritualist Church. In concluding, I should like to rub in the point which I made at the beginning, that it is illogical of hon. Members who are asking for toleration, that they should have voted against religious freedom when that issue came before us earlier this week.
§ 12.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Woods (Droylsden)
I do not want to become involved in a struggle between my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) and the hon. Member for Ardwick (Mr. L. M. Lever), nor in any question of logic applied either to religion or to law. I should also be out of order if I tried to debate the proposal which was before us last Tuesday. I am speaking in support of the Bill mainly because it is definitely a further step in the extension of toleration applied to the laws of this land, whether or not what was done on Tuesday by certain hon. Members was illogical. I know of no better source of culture than the spread and the application of the spirit of toleration.
The Witchcraft Act was an attempt to end an ancient custom by law, but in spite of that, there are many people who still 1481 believe that they can communicate with evil spirits. It is interesting to note that 100 years after that attempt to deal with this age-old problem by legislation, we are attempting to overcome evil with good and to open up the right of men and women to communicate with the good. I have no immediate knowledge of Spiritualism. I have attended meetings and have studied the subject, but I still have an open mind. However, I am convinced that there is such a thing as clairvoyance, that some men and women are gifted with faculties which, in the majority of people, are not normally active. I am also convinced that in another civilisation and in a different environment, other faculties or capacities can be evolved, just as individual capacity and ratiocination have been evolved throughout the centuries.
I believe that anything which makes for study and understanding and appreciation of invisible values is all to the good. We all know from experience that this has been exploited, however, and that men and women have made a living by exploiting credulity. But that is no condemnation of Spiritualism. Even on the racecourses today it is still possible for people to perform the three-card trick and other confidence tricks and get away with money—
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)
They may make money by it, but if the police apprehend them, they are liable to penalties.
§ Mr. Woods
There was a case only last week in the courts which shows how easily people can be led astray by the hope of making a fortune on the Stock Exchange. Although I have every sympathy with the points made by two previous speakers, I am concerned not to add to legislation which involves penalties. In this case, legislation which I believe is a disgrace is being removed from the Statute Book.
I am satisfied that to many people the Spiritualist Church provides by its services a religious experience such as has been assured down the ages. Furthermore, although Spiritualism, as such, has only a connected history for 100 years, most of the major religions of mankind have sprung from an assumption which is the basic assumption of Spiritualists, namely, of communication with the 1482 spirits of the departed. It is interesting to remember that Islam sprang from the assumption, true or otherwise, that Mahommed was able to communicate with the Archangel Gabriel. Another religion which had a spiritualistic basis was that of Swedenborg, who gave some remarkable illustrations of communication with the dead, both ancient and modern. So that although the organisation of the Spiritualist Church is a modern development, the essential experience behind it is as old almost as mankind.
The hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) interjected a question on the Spiritualist Movement. It is quite true, as he said, that even in Spiritualism after 100 years there are different sects. That is to be expected in all religious developments but, under the law, other religious organisations, such as the Nonconformists, have the right to certify their accredited ministers and there is recognition of them by the State. I believe that by modifying this Bill in Committee along those lines we shall overcome the objection of the two hon. Members who questioned the Clause which applies to fraudulent mediums.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) and for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks) on the able manner in which they moved and seconded this Bill, and I hope sincerely that facilities will be given so that it will reach the Statute Book at an early date.
§ 12.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
As one who voted for religious toleration the other evening, I would like to add a few words in support of this Bill. I am sorry that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has left the Chamber, for I wanted to join issue with what he said in his speech, namely, that the Bill would create a new crime. If what he meant by that is that we are trying to do away with an old crime and to substitute a lesser one for it, he may to some extent be right. That is a practical way of dealing with the matter and it is important to look at the real position.
Hon. Members have spoken about the Bill as an immense step forward towards religious toleration. I do not quite agree 1483 with the ecstacy they have shown, but undoubtedly this is a step towards the recognition that certain classes of people should not be prosecuted in a certain way. We ought to remember that the crime of witchcraft was first an ecclesiastical offence, and that in the reign of Henry VIII an Act was passed which made it a felony punishable by death. When the Witchcraft Act was passed in 1735 people undoubtedly thought it was a tremendous step forward, because in place of punishment by death it enacted what was in comparison a minor punishment.
I was a little troubled when I first saw the Bill, because I saw that the Witchcraft Act was to be abolished. I thought, "Good heavens, if that is abolished, the Act of Henry VIII is still on the Statute Book, and in that case I am sure my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would be very much troubled with the question of capital punishment in the future, particularly with regard to witchcraft." However, I do not think we need trouble about that, because it was a statute making a felony punishable by death and I gather that under the Interpretation Act that has gone.
The real trouble in regard to the Witchcraft Act is that the relevant words in it, which were read out by one of my hon. Friends, refer to the "pretence" of "practising" certain things. To the layman the word "pretence" might convey a certain meaning but quite clearly it is the law that anyone who carries on the practice of Spiritualism, or any of the other matters referred to in the Witchcraft Act, is, ipso facto,committing an offence whether he honestly believes in what he is doing or not. There is no question of intent to deceive.
Therefore, in the Bill being put forward today we are doing one very important thing. We are doing away with what was an offence committed by a person who quite honestly believed what he was doing in the way of Spiritualism or anything of a similar kind. It is obviously right that that should be done and that a person who is honestly doing something in that way, where there is no question whatever of intent to deceive, should not be liable to be hauled before the court and punished.
1484 I support the Bill because it abolishes prosecutions under the Witchcraft Act and substitutes a Measure making it obligatory to prove intent to deceive. No one will be able to prosecute a Spiritualist, or anyone carrying on similar practices, unless it is proved to the satisfaction of the magistrate or jury that there has been intent to deceive. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton referred to the law with regard to obtaining money or goods by false pretences. That ought to be looked into in connection with this Bill.
It is true that if we merely put in a Clause abolishing the Witchcraft Act we would be left with the Larceny Act, 1916, dealing with obtaining goods by false pretences, and it would be perfectly open for anyone to be prosecuted under that Act. But he could not be prosecuted under that Act except it were proved that it was an offence of obtaining something by false pretences, and of course, the "false pretence" would be an essential ingredient. The important part of the Bill is the abolition of the Witchcraft Act. The penalty is something which is now substituted under this Bill or an alternative method of punishment to the punishment under the Larceny Act, 1916.
§ Mr. L. M. Lever
With the exception that under this Measure it is necessary to obtain the permission of a responsible officer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, which was not so under the Larceny Act of 1916.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I was about to deal with that. It is true that there is a precaution under the Bill, and I think it is a very valuable one, that it is necessary to have the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before one may initiate a prosecution. But the anomaly still remains. Supposing someone engages in Spiritualism, or something similar, and obtains something by false pretences, such a person can be prosecuted without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions under the Larceny Act, 1916, and that is a matter which ought to be looked into.
My hon. Friends who moved and seconded the Second Reading and other hon. Members, have referred to the Vagrancy Act. The mischief under the Witchcraft Act did not exist under the Vagrancy Act, under which it is necessary 1485 for there to be intent to deceive. Under the Witchcraft Act there was no need for intent to deceive and under the Vagrancy Act there was. The real trouble with regard to that Act—and I quite appreciate the way in which my hon. Friend raised the objection—is that the association under the Vagrancy Act is with all sorts of objectionable people as provided in the words of Section 4 of the Act. It must be remembered that under this Bill the crime is very much the same, except for punishment and one or two other things, as the crime under the Vagrancy Act.
I am glad that under this Measure a person guilty of an offence may be punished by a fine not exceeding £50, or a term not exceeding four months' imprisonment. I take it that the reason for that is to preserve the right to go before a jury, for any offence making one liable to a term of three months' imprisonment or more gives the right to go before a jury. It is a good thing that that right has been preserved.
In regard to the criticism about people on the stage being subject to prosecution. I take it that subsection (5) of Clause 1 has been specifically designed to deal with such cases. The words are quite clear. It applies to anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment. I heard my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton say something about the meaning of entertainment. After all, in this country we are used to the common sense of juries in the interpretation of words and sometimes to the common sense of learned magistrates. I think we may take it that the word "entertainment" will be defined in such a way that the person who is merely performing tricks and providing entertainment will not be prosecuted. One has the protection of the subsection under which proceedings can only be commenced with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
I think the Bill is a valuable one if only becaues it abolishes the horrible method of punishment under the Witchcraft Act where no intent to deceive is required. It should certainly be supported by the whole House.
§ 12.57 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)
I think it is time I gave some indication of the views of His Majesty's Government about this Measure. Of course, I am not seeking to close the discussion, but we have had so many speeches—and, if I may say so, they have been so brief and relevant—that I think it may be assumed that the feeling of the House has been reasonably well displayed.
I should like to thank my hon. Friends the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) and the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks) for the kindly references they made to my officers and myself in connection with the protracted negotiations which have taken place over the drafting of this Bill. The Bill which was introduced by the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. de la Bère) before the war in regard to divorce is generally known as the "A. P. Herbert Bill" because Sir Alan Herbert, Mr. Herbert as he then was, persuaded the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South, to give his place in the Ballot to the Bill that Sir Alan had prepared.
I am quite certain that, should this Bill ever reach the Statute Book, it is more likely to bear the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton than that of my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness. I know how long and earnestly my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton has desired to secure reasonable toleration and freedom from vexatious prosecution for the people who share his views, and I am quite sure that he would like me to thank the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness for giving us the opportunity of discussing this matter today.
I want to make quite clear from the outset that we are not today determining whether or not Spiritualism is a reasonable point of view for people to hold. We are not concerned with that issue at all, but I think, in spite of what was said by two hon. Friends, that this Measure is a considerable advance in the direction of religious toleration. Neither do I think that there is anything inconsistent in my voting on Tuesday in the way I did, against my two hon. Friends, and today expressing the view that this is a matter of toleration.
1487 I do not want to repeat anything that occurred last Tuesday because my views were, after all, expressed by the Lord President of the Council on the Second Reading of the Bill with which the House was then concerned, when he stated both points of view. When Lord Brougham declared his belief in the Thirty-nine Articles, when he took his degree at Oxford, he was asked whether he believed them all. He replied, "They contain all I believe, and a great deal more." That was true of the Lord President's speech on the Second Reading of the Festival of Britain (Sunday Opening) Bill so far as I was concerned.
I think that in this country no one has the right to make people who hold certain views very sincerely feel that their views are affronted by the conduct either of the State or their fellow citizens. May I state the way in which I have myself applied that belief? I have always been in favour of the opening of cinemas on Sunday, but I have never been in favour of opening them on Good Friday, because to do so gives great offence to Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics in this country, and I do not think that I have the right to do a thing or to sanction a thing which imposes such a feeling on other people.
By having their mediums subject to the Vagrancy Act, Spiritualists undoubtedly feel that they are placed in a category in which people who sincerely hold religious views ought not to be placed. That is why I feel, while admitting that this Bill must be carefully examined in Committee, and the points that have been made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), fully investigated, that the House ought today to give the Bill a Second Reading, and send it to a Committee.
It is not the first time that a proposal to amend the criminal law affecting Spiritualists and mediums has been made. Successive Home Secretaries have met and discussed this matter with various deputations over the past 20 years. A Private Member's Bill was introduced in 1930 for the purpose of exempting Spiritualists and persons engaged in psychical research from prosecution under the existing law, but it was counted out on Second Reading. No previous Home Secretary has 1488 spoken in the House on a Bill about this subject. I think it is about the only subject that comes within the purview of this House on which no Home Secretary has previously spoken.
It has long been recognised in this country that it is no concern of the Government what people believe and how people worship or conduct their religious services, so long as their behaviour is not an offence against law and order and public decency. Our civilisation is built up on toleration. I was reading in the Library the other night, when the debate in here appeared to be rather dreary—it certainly was not on Tuesday—a recent issue of the "Saturday Evening Post," and in a work of fiction published in that periodical. I came across these words:It is only when we learn to tolerate each other's visions we can claim to be civilised.I wish to put that point of view emphatically to the House.
I have never had any experience which corresponds to what Spiritualists say they can achieve and enjoy, but that does not prove that such experiences are unreal. It only proves that I am not susceptible to something to which they may be susceptible. I happen to be tone deaf, but that does not make me feel that everything which my friends who enjoy music explain to me is unreal, and that they are just imagining these things. I see that, according to the fourth leading article in "The Times" today, the Lord President of the Council has excited consternation in the Old Kent Road by singing "God Bless the Prince of Wales" there. My difficulty would be that unless I could hear the words I should not know what he was singing. I can only hope that he sings in tune, because I should not be able to put him right in that respect.
One has to be careful, even in dealing with what may appear to be the most common attributes of humanity, not to feel that because we do not respond to something other people are, therefore, not genuine when they say they can respond. Not only in this country, but wherever our civilisation has carried, this toleration of a vision which one does not share has been our particular pride, and a standing proof of our liberty of spirit and toleration. Some people hold strong views about unorthodox beliefs. There is nothing surprising in that.
1489 A Government should refrain from expressing views for or against any unorthodox belief. Their main duty in this sphere is to protect the public against fraud. In every large community there are numbers of ignorant and credulous people who can be too easily exploited by the fortune teller or the fraudulent charlatan. My hon. Friend the Member for Droylsden (Mr. Woods) alluded to the gentleman who asks one to "Spot the lady" on Epsom Downs. Having been born in Epsom, I have seen that trick performed a great many times. I have always thought that I could have spotted the lady, but I have never risked any money on it. My father always held the views that the persons who should be prosecuted were those who risked their money, and not the persons who took it. I was once sitting on the bench at Epsom when a man was brought before me charged with gaming on Epsom Downs. He had been playing nap. When he was asked to plead guilty or not guilty, he said "Not guilty: Nap is a game of skill, as I will demonstrate to the Bench if they will allow me." I said, "With your pack of cards, I presume?" He replied "Certainly, Sir."
Our present law seeks to protect against exploitation such ignorant and credulous people as those to whom I have referred, and if the law is to be changed this protection ought to be preserved in any new form the law takes. The promoters of this Bill have recognised this; it has, in fact, a very limited scope. What it does is to restate in terms of today what has for some years been the practice of the police in enforcing the existing law. What the genuine Spiritualist objects to is to be regarded by the law as a fraudulent imposter and classed with that varied crew of vagabonds set out with old fashioned frankness in Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, 1824, or with those who pretend to "witchcraft, sorcery or conjuration" in the Witchcraft Act, 1735.
In recent years, Spiritualists have made no complaint about the way in which the criminal law is administered. In 1943, the police were advised by my right hon. Friend the Lord President that proceedings should be taken only against persons whose activities were the subject of a complaint by the public, or where there was sufficient evidence that the person was an impostor or was taking money or other valuable consideration. Two 1490 years later, they were advised that, to secure unanimity of practice, they should consult the Director of Public Prosecutions before taking proceedings against a Spiritualistic medium. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton alluded to a prosecution which took place this year, and I think that, in view of what he said it would be as well if I recalled the case to the House.
It was a case in which Charles Botham was convicted on 20th June, 1950, on three counts of false pretences. There were also two counts of conjuration under the Witchcraft Act, 1735. The jury was discharged from returning a verdict on them, so that, in fact, they never came before the court. What happened in that case was this. Botham persuaded a widow to place sums of money of the order of £1,000 and £500 on a chair, with the story that the spirit of her late husband would dematerialise them and apply the money to medical charities. The notes were not dematerialised, but, in a very material form, reached Mr. Botham's own wallet. The charges under the Witchcraft Act were added in case the widow insisted that she believed her husband's spirit was going to come into the room. The jury, as one would expect, were not concerned with that part of the case; they said they were quite sure that the whole show was a fraud.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
While I agree with every word which my right hon. Friend has said, it should be stated that Spiritualist organisations were not concerned in that case at all, and that the man himself was not recognised as a Spiritualist.
§ Mr. Ede
I thank my hon. Friend for making that quite clear, but the case was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, and I should not like it to be thought that anything had been done contrary to the policy of the Home Office under the Lord President of the Council and myself.
Such prosecutions as there have been under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act in recent years have been confined to palmists, fortune tellers and the like, and may I say that these are not the gipsies on Epsom Downs or Hampstead Heath, but the people who set up establishments in which they undertake, in a very different spirit, to be able to advise young 1491 women about their matrimonial ventures and carry on similar practices. In 1949, only 39 people were prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act for this kind of offence, and 21 were in the Metropolitan police area. No complaint about any of these prosecutions has been made to the Home Office.
This Bill sets out to repeal the Witchcraft Act, 1735, in its entirety, and to exempt persons purporting to possess spiritualistic powers from prosecution under Section 4 of the Act of 1824. That Section will remain to deal with the ordinary fortune teller and palmist. If the Bill passes, it will substitute a new penalty for the offence of trying to impose on the public for reward, but it will not touch the person who goes in for genuine psychical research. The change to be made by the Bill, therefore, is of name rather than one of substance, but it is a change, none the less, to which the Spiritualists attach great importance. What to some men are illusions, are, to others, the supreme realities. I do not go so far as to say that Spiritualism is an illusion. I do recognise that to certain people it is the supreme reality, and those of us who, somehow or other, are not able to share these experiences, should, I think, recognise that fact.
It may seem surprising to some that the Spiritualists of today should be in any way embarrassed by two such ancient and differing Acts as the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and the Vagrancy Act of 1824, but anyone who has perused the late Sir James Frazer's "Golden Bough" will realise how prevalent all over the world among all races has been a belief in spirits, and, as that book points out, many of our present day superstitions and customary fêtes and practices are linked in the past with some primitive belief in spirits, good or bad. Today, perhaps, there is a tendency to believe in good spirits rather than bad. In the 17th century, many people certainly believed in and were afraid of bad spirits.
Curiously enough—and to this point I would draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), whose valuable speech we all heard with great interest and respect—the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was in its day a most enlightened Measure, well in advance of 1492 public opinion, because it abolished prosecutions for witchcraft and said that there was no such thing as witchcraft, and that, if any person pretended to be a witch that person should be prosecuted for making a pretence to something in which no sensible person would believe. In fact, the Preamble of the Act says:An Act to repeal the Statute made in the first Year of the Reign of King James the First, intituled, An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked Spirits, except so much thereof as repeals an Act of the fifth Year of the Reign of Queen ELIZABETH. Against Conjurations, Inchantments and Witchcrafts, and to repeal an Act passed in the Parliament of Scotland in the ninth Parliament of Queen MARY, intituled, Anentis Witchcrafts, and for punishing such Persons as pretend to exercise or use any Kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment or Conjuration.It was a declaration in the early 18th century that we no longer believed in them. It substituted the comparatively mild penalty of one year for pretending to be a witch, and it enacted that, once each quarter during that year, the person who had proclaimed herself a witch should stand in the pillory. It was designed to bring to an end the reign of terror caused by the official and unofficial witch hunters of the previous century. As one wit of the day put it:The Parliament had, in effect, decided that there were no evil spirits. He was afraid they would declare by another Act that there are no good ones.In particular, it tried to undo the great harm done by an earlier statute of King James I, who disliked "sorcery, witchcraft and enchantment" so much that he wrote a book condemning them. I have a very beautiful copy of this volume in the Home Office Library: it was printed in 1616. In this book, King James remarked:It appears that there are more sorts nor one that are directly professors of this service.And, later:This is an over large field ye give me, yet I shall do my good will, the most summarily that I can, to run through the principal points thereof.As anyone who has browsed over the accounts of the witchcraft trials can discover for himself the Witchcraft Act, 1735, closed a very disreputable part of British history. One unfortunate woman called Temperance Lloyd in 1682 was charged with bewitching Lydia Burman while this lady was brewing ale in the house of a gentleman at Bideford. The verdict 1493 of the jury was "Guilty." which is evidence of the public opinion of the day, and Temperance Lloyd was hanged.
The previous history of Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, 1824, is not so lurid, but is interesting. It can be traced in a chain of Statutes to Tudor times, and no doubt has earlier roots. That part of the Act dealing with fortune tellers seems to have been aimed atall persons pretending to be gipsies or wandering in the habit or form of Egyptians or pretending to have skill in physiognomy palmistry or like crafty science or pretending to tell fortunes.In the words of an Elizabethan Statute:All idle persons … fayning themselves to have knowledge physiognomye, palmistry or other like crafty scyence or order pretending that they can tell destenyes fortunes or such other like fantasticall imagynacions …. shal be taken adjudged and deemed rogues vagabonds and sturdy beggers.The mischief aimed at in this set of statutes was not the peril of man's soul and body, but danger to his property from strolling gipsies and their like.
I think that the subject of this Bill is a proper subject for a Private Member's Bill because it deals with issues on which widely varied views may be held, quite divorced from party politics. While the Bill may give satisfaction to many, it may not do the same for all—it obviously does not for my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), but a Bill which would give him satisfaction could only be drafted by angelic draftsmen. It is not for the Government to take sides in a matter of this kind, and it is best that the Bill should be left to free discussion and a free vote. The attitude of the Government is one of benevolent neutrality, but we do commend to the House the necessity of keeping alive the great spirit of toleration in these matters which has been increasingly shown in this House during the last 200 years or so. If the Bill is given a Second Reading, I undertake to follow with great care any later discussions which may follow on the Committee stage, and I shall welcome any criticisms and advice that can be offered on that stage.
I am bound to say that I do not share the view of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton about the place of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I thought he was being exceed- 1494 ingly legalistic when he suggested what is undoubtedly true, that it might be something approaching common practice for someone to go to the High Court to get a mandamus directing the Director of Public Prosecutions to undertake a prosecution. There are many Bills which have received Royal Assent in recent years in which this provision has been inserted because of the fear of this House that too legalistic an interpretation of some of their Clauses and of the scope of the offences that might be brought within them would endanger not law but justice. I think it is wise in this matter where religious and personal prejudice might be too easily aroused for us to have the safeguard that no prosecution shall be undertaken except with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
We have had an interesting debate which I have no doubt will continue, and I want to thank all those who have participated in it for the way in which the arguments have been marshalled and for the spirit in which this Measure has been approached. I sincerely hope that in some form or other we may through this Measure be able to release some of our fellow citizens from an indignity to which at present they feel they are subjected.
§ 1.26 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)
The words with which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has commended the Bill to the House will, I am quite certain, give great satisfaction to all those who have for so long wished to see some such Bill as we are now considering on the Statute Book. In his remarks, he made reference to the three-card trick on Epsom Downs, to games of nap and other forms of gambling. That recalls to my mind the very interesting fact that it is as a result of a complete fluke or gamble that we are discussing this Bill today at all, because, as is well known, a Private Member only gets the opportunity of introducing a Bill like this if he is lucky in the Ballot.
The Ballot, as many hon. Members know, is a most speculative affair, and some of us wish, particularly at election times, that the Ballot was not so speculative as it sometimes works out to be. Nevertheless, it is a fact that were it not for the result of a pure fluke this 1495 House would have no opportunity of discussing this Measure at all. It strikes me as somewhat unsatisfactory that it is only as the result of pure chance that this House should be given the opportunity of discussing legislative proposals which otherwise would never get an airing.
However, let us be thankful that fortune has so smiled upon those who are keenly interested in this matter as to provide this House with an opportunity for rectifying what must be admitted, I think, to be an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Like many other hon. Members, I am not a Spiritualist, but I think that Spiritualists may rest assured that there are quite a number of hon. Members in this House who have viewed for a long time with considerable dissatisfaction the unhappy state of affairs, from the legal point of view, in which Spiritualists are involved.
I am glad that this Bill has been brought forward today for a more personal reason. I remember that when I first embarked upon my election campaign in 1945 I invited questions from my constituents in the course of the first open-air meeting I addressed. Some questions were addressed to me on this very subject. I was asked whether I was in favour of the repeal of the Witchcraft Act and the Vagrancy Act. For some considerable time prior to 1945 I had been otherwise engaged, and was therefore unable to recall to what those particular Acts referred. But as long ago as 1945 I gave an assurance to those people whom I met casually in the street that if on examination I found that Spiritualists had a case, and if ever the opportunity presented itself I would gladly support any steps that might be taken to remove their particular grievance.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks) that after five years I am now provided with an opportunity of redeeming a pledge I gave to people who did not strike me then as classifiable in any of the degraded categories with which Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act deals. There are quite a number of decent, honest people who derive great satisfaction from their Spiritualist beliefs, and I am convinced the time has come when the present unsatisfactory state of affairs should be 1496 amended. That is why I welcome this Bill.
I am sorry that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) are not present, because I should have liked to join issue with them on one or two matters they raised. They endeavoured to score a debating point by comparing certain events which took place in this House last Tuesday with what we are discussing today. I do not know to what extent that debating point was relevant or not, but they seemed to hold themselves up as protagonists of freedom and toleration to a degree which, in their view, other hon. Members could not lay claim.
They reminded me somewhat of a speaker I once heard in Hyde Park, who was declaiming on the benefits and advantages of freedom and toleration and working himself up to quite a passion on the subject. He noticed that there were one or two hecklers in the audience, and at one time he was moved to say. "If there is anyone in this audience who does not believe in freedom and toleration, I will come down off this rostrum and knock his block off." That was the extent to which he was carried away by his belief in freedom and toleration. I rather thought that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton and my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham were, in their way, trying to emulate that person.
The Home Secretary made an interesting point in referring to the difference that sometimes exists between what is a law and what is justice. This Bill provides an opportunity of bringing law and justice closer together, so far as the Spiritualist communion is concerned. I was most interested to receive a copy of a recent issue of a Spiritualist paper which invited hon. Members of this House to record their votes for religious freedom. What struck me as a very relevant point made by that paper was that the two Acts we are repealing and amending today were obviously not designed to refer to modern Spiritualism. They were placed on the Statute Book before modern Spiritualism began in this country.
Another valid point, in my view, was the remark that, "frauds exist because they have something genuine to copy." 1497 That explains why certain people, for illegal or selfish motives, have endeavoured to cash in on the genuinely held benefits of Spiritualists. The Spiritualist movement is just as much concerned to weed out these fraudulent impostors as anybody else. This Bill enables that to be done. No encouragement is given to those who seek to exploit the feelings of mourners, or of those who seek spiritual solace from their belief in Spiritualism. Therefore, I gladly welcome this opportunity to associate myself with the promoters of this Bill, and to wish the Bill a successful passage on to the Statute Book.
§ 1.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Deer (Newark)
I rise to support the Bill for two reasons. One is because I welcome it as a sign of a step towards further toleration, even though I do not agree with a good many of the views my Spiritualist friends hold. Like other speakers, it is not for me to say that they are wrong because I cannot enjoy what they enjoy and have not the gifts they have. However, I know many people, some of them hon. Members of this House, who have played a prominent part in the development of modern thought in this country and who hold views I do not share. Nevertheless, if I may say so, they will be with us in spirit in this Debate.
There is, however, one point I want to make about what I think is a weakness in this Bill. I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) who pointed out that genuine Spiritualist people desire to weed out the fraudulent person, just as much as the non-Spiritualist desire to do it. But I wonder whether the Bill as framed will meet that point.
If the House will bear with me for a minute, I should like to give an experience I had in my more youthful days, when I attended a Spiritualist séance in North Lincolnshire. Because I have been pressed by certain people that I was missing something, I was genuinely seeking some advice and assistance to see if there was really anything in this. The service at this séance was conducted with reverence. I have not a word to say about the way the business was done, but there were two significant things that happened, which I do not think would come within this safeguarding Clause.
1498 The first thing was that, at the normal Spiritualist séance, the person who did the medium's work and who gave messages from the other side gave nothing but messages of despair, warnings, gloomy forebodings and no good things whatever. I could not understand it. This was many years ago, and I very nearly said, "In the good old days of Tory misrule," but I will forget that, as this is a non-controversial matter. Later I discovered that, after the séance was over, the gentleman who had acted as a medium slipped outside into an ante-room and there, practising as a medical herbalist, sold pills, potions, salves and medicines, to ward off the dangers of which the spirits had warned the congregation.
The point is, would he be acting for reward in his Spiritualist activities, or would he be acting for reward in the secondary role which he practised as a herbalist, selling these particular goods in order to ward off what he alleged were message of foreboding and of difficulties to come? I am certain that does not typify the general Spiritualist movement. I am sure it is an exception. Then there is the man gifted with telepathy and the rest of it, who does a very good job on Sunday but on Monday does a bit of fortune telling on the side.
§ Mr. Brooks
I would point out that the purpose of this Bill is to destroy the very thing which my hon. Friend is complaining about.
§ Mr. Deer
I accept that from my hon. Friend, but my trouble is in understanding whether this act of reward to which I have referred arises out of selling herbal remedies after the service and doing a bit of fortune telling on Mondays, and whether the sort of people who do those things will come within the scope of this Bill.
I shall watch with interest the passage of this Bill through its Committee stage in the hope that we shall get adequate safeguards against charlatans of this kind. I believe in religious toleration, but I also believe it is bad that many decent people should be imposed upon; and because I believe that practice should be removed I support the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ 1.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Mellish (Bermondsey)
I should like to say how much I appreciated the speech of the Home Secretary. It was a 1499 brilliant speech and was typical of the sort of contribution he gives to the House on occasions such as this. I welcome the fact that the Government intend to support the Bill and assist it to become law.
Speaking of the Home Secretary reminds me of a report which appeared in the "Nottingham Evening News" of July, 1945, about some remarks of the present Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. It said:Squadron Leader Geoffrey de Freitas has been asked if he will support the repeal of the Witchcraft Act of 1735. He has replied that he cannot promise to do so as Parliament will be fully occupied with more important matters. He believes that planned large-scale production of vacuum cleaners could so reduce the price that the broomstick will be replaced in all homes. This, he thinks, is the real answer to the witch problem.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr Geoffrey de Freitas)
If I may intervene I would say that I well remember the incident which my hon. Friend recalls. I had been talking at a meeting during the 1945 election, and we had been discussing the mass production of household equipment. Somebody asked a question, very suddenly, about the Witchcraft Act. My mind was not in any way directed towards this aspect of it, and I said facetiously that the way to solve the witch problem was not by legislation. The proper way was to mass-produce household equipment such as vacuum cleaners—get away from brooms and broomsticks and ground the witches. My views on this Bill are exactly the same as those of the Home Secretary. I am not opposed to the Bill, and I never was.
§ Mr. Mellish
I am glad that I gave my hon. Friend the opportunity to clear up that matter. If I may say so, one can well understand why foreigners regard us British as peculiar when one considers that last night we were discussing a matter of great importance—the crisis in Korea, the possibility of war, and so on—and this morning, when we pick up our newspapers, we find that the whole of the front page is devoted to the Test match in Australia; and now we are discussing the Witchcraft Act. Incidentally, I think that we in this House ought to send out congratulations to our fellow Englishmen in Australia for the brilliant performance they put up yesterday. Just as they have 1500 vindicated themselves and confounded their critics by their performance yesterday, so, in this Bill, the Spiritualists and those who believe in such matters have vindicated themselves against many of their critics.
As my hon. Friends who have moved and seconded the Motion are probably aware, there is a great deal of scepticism; there are many people in this country who do not believe in Spiritualism. They think it is a fraud, and many of them base their belief on their experiences at some of these séances which undoubtedly have been "phoney." I recall a séance which was attended by a friend of mine. They went so far as to tip him the winner for the following year's Derby, for which they charged him 5s. entrance fee. Of course, the horse did not win, and he was convinced that Spiritualism was a fraud. That is the sort of thing that Spiritualists themselves want to remove.
My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks) is the type of person whom it would be deplorable to describe as a vagrant, but the sort of people who run these "phoney" séances must be dealt with. My own view is that in Committee we must make sure that we sufficiently protect those who are sincere, against those who are frauds, in fairness to the mover and seconder of the Motion. I think the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), who intervened, tried to get his own back on those of us who voted against the proposed opening of the Festival of British fun fair, but had no real complaints against the Bill. He is a lawyer, but I did not think he was too convincing. I should say that the whole intention of the Bill is to protect society against frauds. I should have thought that was very obvious, and I think my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) made it quite clear when he said that there should be no prosecution when there was no intention to deceive. I think that is the important factor.
There are many forms of entertainment which one can get out of the reading of cards, and so on, and they should not be confused with Spiritualism. I am one of those who, because of my religious faith, have never attended a Spiritualist meeting; indeed, my religion lays it down 1501 that I should not do so. Of one thing I am certain, and that is that the principle of all Christian faith is the belief in an after life. I think that is demonstrated by all Christians, whether they are Protestant or Catholics or whatever they may be. They believe there is another life. Those who believe in Spiritualism believe that they can have contact with those who are in that other life. I have no right to criticise those people, because I do not know. If I want to find out, it is up to me to go to one of the meetings and find out for myself.
This much I do say. From my own experience of those who are sincere in this belief, we have a right to protect them and make sure that the enactments of the past, which are completely out of date, and which are in a sense victamising many people who are sincere in these beliefs, should be removed. It is for that reason that I support the Bill and I should like to congratulate the seconder on the excellent way in which he has fought for his cause all down these years. He is a credit to the people who believe in this movement. When the Bill becomes law I think it will be said that this is the Bill which became law because of the great efforts of a Member of Parliament who never gave up fighting for the cause in which he believed.
§ 1.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Gibson (Clapham)
Like nearly everybody else who has spoken in this debate, I should like to offer my support for the Bill. It has been introduced and sponsored by people who accept the Spiritualist faith; nobody can object to that, although I personally have never been able quite to accept the views they hold. If I may make a personal interpolation, I would say that I read everything Sir Oliver Lodge wrote on the subject and was not persuaded by it. I read everything Hannen Swaffer wrote on the subject and, again. I was not persuaded.
In supporting the Bill to give people freedom to express their views in the way they think best according to their philosophy, I am doing so without in any way committing myself. I do not know why they should not have complete freedom. If the practices of the Spiritualists are wrong, then there are some practices of other churches which, from logic and commonsense, would seem 1502 equally to be wrong, yet nobody would attempt, in these days, to interfere with them by law. It seems to me that it is particularly wrong that an Act passed over 200 years ago, to deal with quite a different situation, should be interpreted in these modern days so as to make it possible for people who have sincere and strongly held religious beliefs, which they want to express in their own way, to be prosecuted for doing so and to be charged with being all sorts of vile and terrible things.
I think it is right that all men and women should be free to express their own personal points of view, whatever those may be. That is why I often disagree so strongly with what is said by hon. Members opposite. I would allow the Communists to represent their point of view. I would allow the Fascists to represent their point of view. I would allow any church to express its point of view and to preach it. The answer to the false philosophies which, in our view, they may have developed, is not to make it illegal for people to express them, but to preach a better philosophy. The real cure of the things with which the Witchcraft Act attempted to deal is to extend complete education and knowledge in wider and wider circles.
Let people learn about new ideas. Give them the opportunity of knowing all the latest thought on the subject and let them come to their own conclusions. If they can do that, they are much more likely to accept the philosophy which I hold than that which is preached by some others. At any rate, they will have the opportunity to be free to reach their own conclusions. It should not be possible to call in the law to deal with them merely because they express their thoughts. If they do something to damage the interests of the country in a physical way, or to create a fraud, our present law will catch them, but it is fundamentally wrong and out of line with all the country has stood for in the development of free thought that an attempt should be made to suppress ideas by Act of Parliament.
I support the Bill on the general principle that there ought to be complete freedom to express one's thought, to preach one's philosophy and to try to persuade others to accept it in whatever way one feels that can best be done, so long as one does not take away from others the right also to express their point of view, 1503 to organise themselves and to give their opinions in the quarter where they can be effective, which is mainly in this House.
I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading so that we may, as a Liberal Member once said—and I forget who it was—widen the bounds of freedom. I believe that that is in line with the general development of thought and freedom in this country. No doubt the one or two more or less minor points of criticism which have been raised will be dealt with on the Committee stage. I believe they can be dealt with, but I hope the principle which lies behind the Bill will be endorsed with a unanimous Second Reading.
§ 1.55 p.m.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
Like many who have spoken today, I cannot claim to be a member of the Spiritualist faith, but I think it is recognised by all hon. Members present this morning, and by the country, that the law, as instanced by the Acts which it is sought to amend, is very much out of line with the desires of the majority of the people. In a genial and very pleasant speech the Home Secretary showed us once again that if powers of witchcraft could be ascribed to anyone they could be ascribed to him, because once more he admirably conjured up, out of his personal experience and wealth of knowledge, apt illustrations of the case he was advancing.
We are extending the liberty of the subject. I know that, as my right hon. Friend said, the Act of 1735 was at that time progressive, but is it not about time, after another 200 years, that we took a further step forward—one which is necessary as a result of the interpretation now applied in England to a faith which, in 1735, was not even known? I think I am right in saying that the passing of this Bill will bring English practice into conformity with Scottish practice. It has been stated that the reason behind the Bill is the application of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 to certain Spiritualist mediums. I am sorry that there are no legal luminaries here from Scotland, who could either offer me their agreement or challenge me on the matter, but I believe it is true that the Witchcraft Act has never been applied in Scotland, certainly not within recent years, and that any prosecutions to deal with the type of fraudulent medium who would 1504 still be culpable after the Bill was passed have been under the Vagrancy Act of 1924.
I welcome the Bill, for we are extending the religious liberties of the subject. I come from a part of the world in which we hold religious liberty very dearly because we had to fight for it, and not in an unselfish way. We fought for it not only for ourselves but for others as well. Although I am not a Spiritualist, in my younger days I attended a Spiritualist seance. I was unimpressed, so I have never sought to go to one again. But I believe that these people—and I know many other people think so too—are inoffensive people, sincerely believing in their faith, and I would urge the House that they should be freed from this sort of psychological stigma, and this fear of the application of what is generally recognised as an out of date Act of Parliament. I certainly commend the Bill to the House.
§ 2.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
I must apologise sincerely to the House for rising to take part in a discussion the whole of which I have not heard. I have been in the curious and awkward position today of one with business to do in a court of law and in the House of Commons. I have been, as it were, poised on a springboard, which is a situation of some acute discomfort. I must declare to the House that I have an interest in witchcraft, for I have for some years been the solicitor to the Spiritualist National Union. My services have been retained not for any special knowledge of their study, but because of the possibility that Spiritualists might be prosecuted and a defence might be required. In point of fact, as the Home Secretary has said already, as a result of representations made to him and to his predecessors no prosecutions have been made, and so my financial interests have not been very greatly advanced by that association which I regard as a quite considerable honour and one of which I am rather proud. The House may consider it a remarkable example of self-abnegation on the part of a solicitor that he should be ready to help stop proceedings at law.
However, I want to rise on two or three points. I am hoping that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) will return to the Chamber, because I want to deal with 1505 one or two points that he made and I do not want to do him any injustice. I am hoping he will be back in a few moments, because I understood that he made one point which certainly wants dealing with. I understood that he said that it was not a good step in the cause of liberty to create new offences. I entirely and completely agree with him, but this Bill does not create new offences. It is right, I think, that we should deal with the dilemma in connection with that.
I propose to deal with the Duncan case a little later, but in the taking of any case there is always this dilemma. On the one hand, the prosecution may be under the Witchcraft Act, in which case the persons concerned are exposed to the most unfair type of charge in respect of the point argued, because, although the Duncan case did not have to go as far as that, it was certainly argued in that case for a considerable time that the word "pretend," in Section 4 of the Act, did mean "claim." Therefore, any claim to be a Spiritualist would be indictable under that Act.
If, on the other hand, the prosecution is not under the Witchcraft Act it has to be proceeded with under the law relating to false pretences, and then the prosecution are in difficulty, because one thing, at any rate, is almost certain to happen: that they have been sending informers, spies, observers, call them what you like, to collect evidence in a suspected case of fraud, and the defence is always, "You were not deceived. It is no use saying there were any false pretences so far as you were concerned, because you never believed in them at all."
So there has been formed the union to which I have referred, the Spiritualist National Union, which is a body—I think we have reached the stage now at which, when referring to Spiritualists, it is hardly necessary to say this; indeed, it sounds almost patronising to say it, but, still, I will say it—comprised of men of the utmost integrity and of considerable ability in many walks of life, and in divers forms of activities, and whose object in forming it was to try to secure some method of control so as to eliminate fraud. The whole object is to stop fraud, and, of course, their whole ambition in the course of the negotiations has been directed to removing these two particular and most extraordinary Acts 1506 which are drafted in such a way as almost to convey an imputation on anyone who is charged under them, even though he be innocent.
I think the House ought to consider what is involved in the repeal of Section 4, because repeal of that Section does not only concern Spiritualists. My right hon. Friend said it had not been used in recent years, but it really is a very remarkable procedure. I think every lawyer in the House will agree that to raise a completely new indictment in an Act of this kind and two different charges—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)
Preparatory to an introduction to a speech it might be excusable.
§ Mr. Hale
Section 4 reads as follows:And for the more effectual preventing and punishing any Pretences to such Arts or Powers as are before-mentioned, whereby ignorant Persons are frequently deluded and defrauded; Be it further enacted …, That if any Person shall, from and after the said twenty-fourth Day of June, pretend to exercise or use any Kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment or Conjuration, or undertake to tell Fortunes, or pretend from his or her Skill or Knowledge in any occult or crafty Science to discover where or in what Manner any Goods or Chattels supposed to have been stolen or lost, may be found; every Person so offending…Clearly, this is very comprehensive and could cover many sorts or any sort of crafty science, and might even be applied in that recent and most important suggestion in "The Times" that a memorial to the late Mr. Sherlock Holmes—or even to the living Sherlock Holmes, because there are two accounts of the matter—should be erected in connection with the Festival of Britain. Really, it is quite 1507 impossible, without some crafty science in the case of the late Mr. Sherlock Holmes—
§ Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)
Surely Mr. Sherlock Holmes is not dead. Moreover, Mr. Sherlock Holmes did not pretend to any occult powers.
§ Mr. Hale
Now I wish to refer to the Duncan case. I was not professionally engaged in the case, but I had at that time a close and intimate friend in the leading counsel for Mrs. Duncan, who discussed the matter with me on many occasions in the long period between the conviction and the appeal. I make no observations about Mrs. Duncan at all. I will say this, however, that if the jury believed the evidence for the prosecution then the jury should have convicted, and if they believed the evidence of the defence they should have acquitted. It was entirely a matter for the jury.
I know that many Spiritualists take quite different views about Mrs. Duncan's guilt or innocence. But the method of proceeding in that case really did deprive her of words that could be put in the defence. It is a very serious matter for this House to consider, whether we should permit to continue a statute which, in fact, makes the carrying on in an ordinary form of an accepted religious belief, which many thousands of people accept, a criminal offence. The whole argument in the Duncan case was not on that proposition; indeed that proposition was clearly accepted in the course of events.
It may be within the recollection of the House that Mrs. Duncan's counsel asked leave for her to give a demonstration of her powers of the occult. The court refused that, and I think that probably the court was right in so refusing. It would lead to a very unfortunate position if there were an investigation of that kind. But that did mean that she was being tried for the exercise of what purported to be her religious beliefs, by a jury who 1508 presumably did not share those beliefs, and without being able to demonstrate them at all. I think that is a serious matter.
I listened to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I know I am speaking for every person connected with the Bill and with the Spiritualist National Union, when I say how greatly we all appreciated his infinite tolerance on the occasion of his receiving a deputation, and the kindness of approach that he has always made to this problem. I do not want to misrepresent him, but I think he made the point that virtually the Witchcraft Act has ceased to exist, and that it does not come into operation. We are grateful for that, and there cannot be any better reason for repealing an Act than that it is a dead letter; there can be no more effective argument.
I think I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend concerned himself more strongly with the Witchcraft Act than the Vagrancy Act, and I should like to point out to the House the implications of proceeding under the Vagrancy Act. This Act is still in use, and I should like to see it go. My right hon. Friend will no doubt say at once that we would have to pass a substituting Measure for prosecuting many offences detailed in Section 4; that we could not let them go in the full sense.
§ Mr. Hale
That the criminal law of the country should be settled by considering from what particular forms of crime my right hon. Friend has suffered himself, seems a curious criterion. However, I quite accept that we should not just repeal this Act and let it all go.
1509 Nevertheless, I suggest that it is phrased in such archaic and sometimes disgusting terms that a certain amount of horror must pass through a court when a highly respectable person is being charged under this particular Section with one of the vast variety of offences that it covers. Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act says:every Person committing any of the Offences hereinbefore mentioned, after having been convicted as an idle and disorderly Person; every Person pretending or professing to tell Fortunes, or using any subtle Craft, Means or Device, by Palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of His Majesty's Subjects; every Person wandering abroad and lodging in any Barn or Outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied Building, or in the open Air or under a Tent, or in any Cart or Waggon, not having any visible Means of Subsistence, and not giving a Good Account of himself or herself; every Person wilfully exposing to view, in any Street, Road, Highway or public Place, any obscene Print, Picture or other indecent Exhibition; every Person wilfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely exposing his Person in any Street, Road or public Highway, or in the View thereof, or in any Place of public Resort, with Intent to insult any Female; every Person wandering abroad and endeavouring by the Exposure of Wounds or Deformities to obtain or gather Alms; every Person going about as a Gatherer or Collector of Alms, or endeavouring to procure Charitable Contributions of any Nature or Kind, under any false or fraudulent Pretence.".There is a lot of detail with which I do not want to waste the time of the House. It goes on to say:every Person having in his or her Custody or Possession any Picklock Key, Crow, Jack, Bit or other Implement, with Intent feloniously to break into any Dwelling House, Warehouse, Coach House, Stable or Outbuilding, or being armed with any Gun, Pistol, Hanger, Cutlass, Bludgeon or other offensive Weapon, or having upon him or her any Instrument with Intent to commit any felonious Act; every Person being found in or upon any Dwelling House.…
§ Mr. Frank McLeavy (Bradford, East)
Could my hon. Friend give us a more detailed explanation of the effect of this Section? It is very easy for him to go through it so quickly, but I think he ought to dwell a little upon the various points and tell us, from a lawyer's point of view, what they do.
§ Mr. Hale
I am speaking on a matter on which I am deeply committed. I am speaking on a Bill in which I have had some hand. I have not assisted to draft this Bill, but I have assisted on a previous occasion. I am speaking on a matter of religious conscience. I do not want to waste the time of the House, but 1510 I do want to put my point of view, and I wish to do so as speedily as possible. In order to speak on this issue I have stayed away from an important engagement in my constituency, in view of the pledges I have given.
To charge a respectable Spiritualist medium under the Vagrancy Act and to read out that language in court is a monstrous thing, and it really should not happen. It ought to have gone long, long ago. There is not very much more I want to say, and I apprehend—
§ Mr. Paget
Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, perhaps I might just put this to him, because I do not think he was here when I spoke. The objection which I took to Clause I was that if it is left, we create a new offence of obtaining by false pretences. As is very often found in religious thought, the probability is that there will be two bodies within the Spiritualist faith, each claiming to be the only one that is genuine, each claiming to be the repository of the only real truth, and this Clause will be an instrument of internecine war. For that reason we ought not to create a new offence here. The present law of false pretences should be quite sufficient.
§ Mr. Hale
My hon. and learned Friend does not appear to have read subsection (4) but I should like to deal with the point, which is a perfectly fair one, and to answer it. The protection in subsection (4) is that no proceedings under the Clause can be taken without the permission of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
§ Mr. Hale
Well, it may be. In any event, such a procedure is so rare and is virtually so unlikely, as to be capable of being dismissed from consideration.
1511 May I put the real point? The Spiritualist National Union have certainly sought, and will seek, either by Royal Charter or in the appropriate manner, to have some power of dealing with their members. That is nothing to do with this Bill, but it is an exceedingly important step to be taken. Last year the House accepted that hairdressers should have a similar power until a last and rather desperate moment at about three o'clock on a Friday afternoon. In general, I think the House is most anxious that every reputable organisation should have some power of self-control, and some limited power of discipline.
§ Mr. Hale
Shop stewards, yes. The normal way of dealing with anyone whose standards of repute or decency do not rise to the accepted very high standards which they are seeking to lay down, would be mere expulsion from membership of the association. I do not apprehend that there is likely to be internecine strife between two rival associations, and I think my hon. and learned Friend is being a little fanciful in his suggestion in that respect. He is probably thinking of the early history of the Scottish Church, to which we have had such an approving reference by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross).
§ Mr. Hale
Now we are embarking on an area in which strife is almost incessant. I do not think we can possibly apply that to a sect.
The House last Tuesday considered for a long time an issue of religious liberty. It is perfectly true that many people came to the wrong conclusion about it after having considered the matter carefully, but the House is always anxious to give the maximum possible liberty to believers anywhere. I have never been at a Spiritualist séance myself. I have never seen a materialisation. I have no beliefs 1512 in the matters one way or the other, but I know that many hundreds of thousands of my fellow countrymen are convinced of the accuracy of these manifestations and many of them receive solace and consolation from them. Many hundreds of thousands of people regard this as a normal and ordinary form of worship. Churches are established in nearly every large town and village, and it would be monstrous for the House to say, when we have arrived at that situation, that the exercise of one's religious principle should be a criminal offence, because in 1735 an Act was passed which was intended to stop prosecutions for witchcraft. I accept what my right hon. Friend said about the Bill repealing certain Acts, though I do not necessarily believe it and I think that that has already been dealt with.
§ Mr. Hale
There is not much in the point that the simplest Amendment in Committee cannot put right.
Speaking not as a solicitor for the Spiritualist Association, but as hon. Member for Oldham, West, I have tried to put the point of view to the House, as I have done on every occasion when I got the opportunity, that there should be freedom of faith. It is one of the four cardinal points to which we are committed, and the House ought to welcome every opportunity of giving the greatest freedom to faith. I have only one more remark to make and it is this: my Spiritualist friends would say, quite frankly, that there is a dreadful temptation for the genuine medium to deceive. Powers begin to fail and a medium gets the reputation of not being completely reliable. They accept that, but they are anxious to deal with it.
Those who, today, still regard Spiritualism as a curious myth or aberration of the mind are the lineal descendants of the people who were saying the 1513 same things about hypnotism 60 or 70 years ago. Thirty years ago, very few people believed in the possibility of telepathy. I do not think that even today that is established. But a growing number of people now accept the genuineness of this faith, and it may well be that these respectable adherents of the Spiritualist faith are serving as great a purpose as those who do not accept the creed. I have pleasure in giving this Bill my blessing, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) for having taken the opportunity of introducing a Bill which I regard as an important one.
§ 2.25 p.m.
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Leslie Hale), I have no sort of interest to declare in this matter, but I was interested in the learned disquisition that he gave us on the law of vagrancy and witchcraft, and vitally interested in what he had to say at the end of his speech about the rights of Spiritualists to enjoy in the community at least equal rights with other religious denominations when practising their faith. I know what is involved in this matter, and I am thoroughly in support of the Bill. Like my hon. Friend, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) for having brought it forward. Indeed, when this Bill first came to be discussed I stated I would give it my support if any opportunity came to discuss it in the House.
My support is given to this Bill mainly because the Spiritualist medium however important his part may be in this faith, can if he wishes gain lucrative results for himself, but that can be said equally of every type of religious observance. We know that humbugs can emerge from almost any sort of religion, and that men and women, unfortunately only too easily, find that by certain professions and practices they may win for themselves economic support. This sort of thing, again and again, involves one of the largest obstacles to development of a purer and better religious life in the community, and is beyond the power of legislation to eradicate.
It ought not to be held against the Spiritualists, even if it were proved, that 1514 in the past some of their members have been charged under these various Acts. These disadvantages and obstacles should not be applied to the Spiritualists. I am no Spiritualist myself, but I know that they have a great appeal and in the matter of life and death, particularly of death, they bring great comfort to their followers. There has been a long search by man for consolation in the thought of a life hereafter, and men and women try to find solace in this life by the thought that they have met again those whom they have lost. Spiritualists have earnest and sincere support from great numbers of our fellow citizens and may well receive greater support still. Though I cannot accept their view or believe in their principles, I feel that they have been able to give to many who have been associated with me, that sort of solace that I should want were I in a time of sorrow and tribulation.
When we talk about the spirit, we are talking about something that cannot be produced by any pseudo-materialist process. I cannot find in that examination—this is my personal view—any justification for the strength and help that one may need in a time of trouble. However, the Spiritualists do find it. They are satisfied that they have found a solace. There is no doubt about it. Many of my own constituents with whom I have discussed this matter are extremely anxious that they should continue to receive the full rights of members of a religious community, equally with other religious communities.
It is a disgrace to us that those people should be labouring under the disability of legislation that was designed against the sort of malefactor shown in the list which has just been read out to us, as those who could be dealt with under the vagrancy laws. If we have not the skill as politicians and legislators, to devise legislation under which religious communities may be freed from such a stigma, it reflects very greatly on our ability and our power to give to others stigma, it reflects very greatly on our selves.
It is with those considerations in mind that I have got up to say what I have always told my hon. Friends and my constituents who are interested in these matters, that I certainly will do my best to support the Bill so that they may be 1515 able, without let or hindrance, to find solace for themselves and for those whom they may be able to persuade, in relation to the many problems of life and death.
We have been reminded that we were dealing last Tuesday with another aspect of this religious issue when we were discussing among ourselves what ought to be our attitude to questions of Sunday observance and the application of religious law. We found that there are people in the community who are prepared to make of Sunday observance a lucrative profession, utilising the law of the common informer, which is extremely favourable for those who know how to use it. We were able to turn our backs upon that sort of pressure—at least I hope we were —and every hon. Member voted fairly for giving freedom to those who wished to practise their religion in their own way. I acted in that way, and with that in my mind, I can do nothing less now than allow to the Spiritualists what I wish for myself, full freedom to exercise observance of religious faith.
§ 2.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Pannell (Leeds, West)
I deplore that, throughout the whole of this discussion, there has been a tendency to mix it up with the proceedings in this House last Tuesday. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) thought that there was something inconsistent in people who voted as I did last Tuesday supporting a Bill of this kind. What he and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) lost on the swings last Tuesday they now want to make up on the roundabouts. What they lost in the Lobby on Tuesday evening, they want to regain on Friday afternoon.
I do not think that there is any incongruity. Last Tuesday we were voting for the right of people to observe Sunday in their own way. I did not vote on any religious grounds in regard to Battersea Park, but because I live less than half a mile away from a fairground. Anybody who knows the noise that can come from a fair will know that it is not conducive to Spiritualism, Roman Catholicism, or anything else of that kind. I think I voted far more for religious toleration than did those who wanted to impose on other people all the noise that there would have 1516 been. Assurances were given by the Lord President of the Council and others, but they were completely beside the point—almost as much beside the point as my remarks on the Bill at this moment.
I came into close contact with this matter in the place to which we all have to go before we can come to this House. I did not know that there was a Witchcraft Act of 1735 until I attended the selection conference in the Dartford Division in an effort to become its Parliamentary candidate, in 1945. At that conference the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) was the successful applicant. At the end of the conference, the chairman asked, "Are there any questions to the prospective candidate?" A very earnest lady got up and said: "Are you in favour of the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, 1735?" That was not the type of question that we expected, just after we had finished the greatest war in history and when all the social consequences of it were surging around us. I played for safety, and on the assumption that anything done in the days when the classes represented by hon. Gentlemen opposite were in power must be evil, I said, "Certainly" with the greatest confidence. I found out afterwards what the Witchcraft Act was.
Let me proceed on a rather more serious note. The mere fact that one was asked that question at a meeting attended by 70 delegates brought out the considerable importance the matter had to a very earnest section of the people. Several hon. Members have referred to the association of my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks) with this matter. As a fellow Yorkshire member I join in congratulating my hon. Friend in what we hope will be an extremely successful day. When all is said and done, he is not the type of person whom ignorant people might associate with the Spiritualist movement.
§ Mr. Pannell
Both movements have excellent qualities. I would not associate him with the Tory party, however. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton is an extraordinarily practical person. Some ignorant people, of course, have a tendency to suggest that Spiritualists are 1517 cranks. Quite early in my career I was told by a wise headmaster that a crank is a person who has a great enthusiasm for something with which you do not happen to agree. I think that is a fair definition. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton has been connected with the mining industry for 40 years, for 25 or which he worked at the coal face, and he has the honour of being the Vice-Chairman of the Spiritualist National Union.
Since 1945, when the lady I have mentioned raised this question with me, I have attempted to take an intelligent interest in the Spiritualist religion, as I do in the religions of other people who are my constituents. I am much struck from time to time by the fact that a man's religion is older, and stands completely apart from his politics. Hon. Members have testified to the fact that they have risen not in agreement with the Spiritualist view but simply because they agree with broad religious tolerance.
It is curious that, since my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness announced his intention to bring forward this Bill, I have had two or three letters from Spiritualists in my own division who previously did not advertise their religion but were earnest members of the Socialist movement. They are thoughtful, persuasive letters, not like those illogical ones we receive from the Lord's Day Observance Society, not those self-interested letters which we receive from the Sunday Amusements Association. They are letters of earnest people who believe that this Bill should be passed if we are to be considered a civilised nation.
This is not a matter in which there have been a great number of prosecutions. It is not a matter over which Spiritualists need fear a great deal of persecution. Rather it is a matter on which they feel that the mere presence of an Act so old is in itself a slur upon the religion they practice. One by one I hope we shall sweep from the Statute Book these relics of byegone days. I hope this will apply to the common informer and to all those legalistic instruments which arose at a time when men were completely intolerant. It is easy to say that we believe in freedom of speech; it is another thing to devote time to giving that freedom. There are many other things that 1518 will have to follow this. There are the blasphemy laws, for instance. And freedom is not only a matter of freedom for the Spiritualists; it is freedom for those people who differ from the religionists. It needed at least three by-elections to allow some of us to go to that Box and to affirm rather than take the oath. And affirmation did not affect only irreligious people; it affected people like the Quakers as well.
Therefore I hope that today will see a triumph for the Spiritualists, and that they, in their turn, will lend their aid to a wider conception of freedom which allows a man to think what he likes as long as he does not impinge upon the freedom of others. I commend the Bill to the House, and I commend especially my hon. Friend the Member for Norman-ton who has an extremely honourable record in this House.
§ 2.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Janner (Leicester, North-West)
It seems to me that there are a number of hon. Members, Mr. Speaker, who still wish to express their views on this Bill. One can readily understand that on a matter of this description people desire to make it known throughout the country that tolerance on religious matters is one of the most important things with which we have to concern ourselves. Some of us have had the knowledge of persons facing a considerable amount of persecution and misunderstanding over their own religious beliefs. Hon. Members, and others outside this House, who have belonged to sections professing certain faiths to denominational beliefs which have been confronted with that kind of treatment particularly, will want, as far as possible, to extend the right of free religious thought and expression to every person in the country.
The Acts which this Bill desires to repeal do not belong to this age. In some parts of the world where intolerance is still rife, Acts of this description would no doubt be retained on the Statute Book and in legislative provisions. But in a democratic country like ours it is highly desirable that they should be removed from the Statute Book, not merely because they are not put into practice but also so that the world should be shown that we are determined to take away any appearance of restrictions, whether those restrictions are carried into 1519 effect or not. We should make it clear to everybody that there is a desire in this country to appear to be correct in these matters as well as to act in a manner which is correct.
For that reason many of us are anxious that what the Home Secretary has said today shall be implemented and that the Government will give their blessing to the Bill and will do all they can to put it on the Statute Book. Our Statute Book is heavily loaded with a large number of Acts which might well be removed. From time to time we see cases being raised in courts concerning Acts which everybody thought had been repealed. We find proceedings being taken in respect of alleged offences under Acts hundreds of years old which should, by this time, have disappeared from the Statute Book.
The Government feels, and previous Governments felt, that it was necessary, in the first place, to enact consolidated Measures because many Acts existed in relation to certain cognate matters. Partly, the intention was that when these Acts were consolidated one could see what kind of matters should be removed in future from those Acts. The result, in respect of those consolidated Acts, has been that improvements have been brought about by further legislation which has dealt with anomalies.
The Acts to which this Bill refers come within that category. They have no real relevance today. It is true that proceedings could be taken under them, but they are not taken except in respect of such offences as are to be dealt with by the present Bill. Anyone understands that if fraudulent methods are used by people with a view to representing that they are mediums, they should be dealt with by the law and that that should be considered a criminal offence. But the abuse of a right ought not to be regarded in the same category as the right itself. To remedy an abuse one ought not to retain Measures which, in effect, bring a proper right into disrepute and retain the possibility of prosecutions of people who genuinely and honestly are practising a religious practice which they believe to be correct and which they are conscientiously entitled to regard in that light.
In my constituency a number of people have approached me on this 1520 matter. I do not say that they form a very substantial portion of the population, but in my view that does not matter. It is the question of the individual or of a collection of people having an equal right to have their conscientious scruples properly protected. I firmly believe that from all parts of this House—with such Amendments as may become necessary in the Committee stage on detailed points —this Bill will be welcomed as a means of removing something which at present is a blot on the Statute Book.
§ 2.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Smith (Nottingham, South)
I will not detain the House for very long, but I think I should begin by declaring my interest because the Bill is concerned with the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which Act was aimed at various members of my family. My great grandfather was a Romany gypsy and he and his wife found their method of getting a living greatly impeded by the Vagrancy Act. They went around the country and he was prepared to take on anyone with his fists and be paid for doing so, while my great grandmother used to practise the art of clairvoyance.
I shall vote for the Second Reading of this Bill for the same reason as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner). He has been approached by constituents and so have I, some very good people—some, I am sorry to say, supporters of the party opposite, but that does not make any difference. They have approached me and I have promised to support the Bill. But I think the Bill is imperfect and incomplete. I understand that the Vagrancy Act, which was subsequent to the Act of Union of 1801, applies in Northern Ireland, but this Bill would not apply to Northern Ireland, and I submit that it is imperfect and incomplete. I commend that point to my hon. Friend for consideration on the Committee stage.
§ Mr. de Freitas
Perhaps I may deal with that point now. Legislation dealing with mediums, clairvoyants and such matters is not specially reserved by the Government of Ireland Act and, therefore, we cannot legislate for them.
§ 2.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
I will not detain the House for many minutes and I will try to avoid mixing up secular freedom, which we were discussing earlier this week, and religious freedom, which we are now discussing. One thing which the last fortnight has shown me is that I represent more Nonconformists than Spiritualists. I am not complaining of that, but only mention it to show that I am not supporting the Bill because of any constituency pressure.
I do not remember being asked at either of the two elections I fought in the Sower-by Division whether I was in favour of the repeal of the Witchcraft Act. Had that question been put to me, possibly I should have been in the same position as the candidate who was asked whether he was in favour of abolition of the Decalogue, and who said, "Yes, with all my heart." When the commotion had subsided he asked, "What have I done?" and was told, "You have only promised to abolish the Ten Commandments."
What I have learned about the ancient law of witchcraft I have learned from my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks) and, but for the luck of the Ballot, it might have fallen to me to move the Second Reading of this Bill, since I undertook to do so should I be successful in the Ballot. It is, as hon. Members have said, something of a reproach to Parliament that this ancient and vexatious law has not been repealed long ago. I am sure we are living in a more sophisticated age, when the community is able to distinguish between that which is a real and emotional part of religious experience and that which is entertainment.
I am sure there are many people in Britain who will be glad to see that the Piddingtons are fully protected by this Measure. Subsection (5) of Clause 1 specifically excludesanything done solely for the purpose of entertainment.Were it not so, much that is part of our entertainment now, might come under very much the same threat and dangers as we are seeking to remove from the genuine spiritualistic medium. Personally, I confess to being a sceptic in some of these matters, but that has nothing to do with the case. It is a question of whether others should be allowed to follow what is real 1522 to them, an experience which we are in no position to deny or question, and to do so without the risk of the application of the law, probably by a malicious person, to impede what they wish to do. I believe that the House will give a Second Reading to this Bill, and if it does so, I trust that the Government will give the necessary facilities to pass it through its later stages.
§ 3.0 p.m.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
I must confess that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), I am a sceptic in these matters, but like other hon. Gentlemen I have been approached by constituents, highly respectable people, who obviously hold, very sincerely, views which subject them to the penalties of the Witchcraft Act, 1735. One of the most prized possessions of the people of this country is religious freedom. Indeed, I would say that there is nothing that goes to make up our national character more than the fact that men and women can practise their religious beliefs free from the threat of prosecution, and certainly free from the threat of being regarded as rogues and vagabonds.
Therefore, I shall certainly vote for this Bill, if it goes to a Division, which I hope it will not. The Bill is doing, very belatedly, something which is in accord with the conscience of our times, and I am sure that hon. Members on all sides of the House will find no great difficulty in giving the Bill a Second Reading. It may well be that, in Committee, the Bill will require to be amended, and I have no doubt that the Home Secretary will give his advice or will put down the Amendments which he considers necessary.
I am sure that the principle of the Bill is sound. I am quite convinced that those who have come to me feel very sincerely and strongly about the Measure. Accordingly, although, as I say, I stand on the other side of the fence, I should have been failing my duty had I not come to the House this afternoon and put on record my view that the Bill should be given a Second Reading.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Standing Committee.