HC Deb 29 June 1950 vol 476 cc2467-84

3.44 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, representing that the Select Committee of this House appointed to consider whether the election of the Reverend James Godfrey MacManaway to this Parliament as Member for Belfast West, is void by reason of the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act, 1801, have reported that they have heard evidence from various authorities and considered the memoranda laid before them, but that they felt that the arguments on both sides of the question were evenly balanced and that they were unable to arrive at a unanimous decision on their merits; and praying that His Majesty will refer to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for hearing and consideration the question of law, whether the provisions of the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act, 1801, so far as they apply to persons ordained to the office of priest or deacon disable from sitting and voting in this House only persons ordained to the office of priest or deacon in the Church of England as by law established, or whether they also disable from so sitting and voting other and, if so, what persons ordained to those offices and in particular whether, by reason of the fact that the said James Godfrey MacManaway has been ordained as a priest according to the use of the Church of Ireland he is disabled from sitting and voting in this House, in order that the said Judicial Committee may, after hearing argument on both sides (if necessary), advise His Majesty thereon; and further praying that His Majesty, upon receiving the advice of the said Judicial Committee, will be pleased to communicate such advice to this House, in order that this House may take such action as seems to it proper in the circumstances. It will be remembered by the House that last week there was an interchange between the Leader of the Opposition and myself and -his Motion with regard to the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Rev. J. G. MacManaway) is put down as a consequence. I think there was a disposition towards general agreement that, as the hon. Gentleman has taken his seat, the best and most expeditious way of resolving the legal argument, as far as we can see, would be to refer the matter to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, for which there is a precedent. I hope very much that in the spirit of the interchange of last Thursday the House will be so good as to agree to the Motion.

3.45 p.m.

Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (Liverpool, West Derby)

I think it would be for the convenience of hon. Members in all parts of the House if the Attorney-General would help the House on two points. The first is that we are departing from the recommendations of a Select Committee who considered this matter and reported, suggesting legislation. Therefore, I think everyone would like to know what is in the mind of the Government as to the difficulties which have prevented them taking that course.

The second point is the question of time. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman may be able to give us an assurance that the Government will do their utmost—of course it is a matter for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council—to see that the matter comes before the Judicial Committee before the end of July. They are not overburdened with work at the moment and I think that if the Government were to point out the urgency of the matter, we might get the question disposed of by an early date. I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman will help us on those points.

3.46 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

Perhaps I might just say a word as to the difficulties which led the Government to conclude that the practical solution of this matter at the moment would be to seek the advice of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as to what the law about it all really is. If the matter could have been dealt with, as the Select Committee were inclined to think, by the simple device of a Bill declaring that the hon. Member who now sits for Belfast, West (Reverend J. G. MacManaway) was qualified in law so to do, that of course would be a very easy and attractive course to take. But it really did not appear to us that the problem was quite so simple as that.

If we introduced legislation on those lines the question would at once arise—just to take one of the anomalies-should a clergyman of the Irish Church, such as the hon. Member for Belfast, West, be qualified to sit in this House, notwithstanding that he might hold, as he would be legally qualified to hold, a living in the English Established Church, whilst a clergyman of the English Established Church, although not holding a living at all, would be disqualified? Should the disqualification of priests of the Roman Catholic Church be maintained and the disqualification on clergy of the Established Church be varied, or not?

Those were the sort of problems which would be raised and obviously these matters, though of an entirely non-political character, are matters on which hon. Members on both sides of the House would hold different views which would require the most careful consideration. We thought in those circumstances that the opinion of the Privy Council might provide the practical solution without necessitating, perhaps, any general review of the law in regard to these problems. In any event, as a broad proposition, it seemed to us desirable to ascertain what the law really was before we started to alter it and, in those circumstances, I hope the House will feel able to agree, at all events as a first measure, to obtain the advice of the Judicial Committee.

We would hope, although I cannot bind the Committee at all, that that advice might be obtained perhaps this term, or, at all events, before Parliament again meets after the end of the Summer Recess; and if the House decides that the matter should be referred to the Privy Council, I would take adequate steps to see that all points of view, including that of the hon. Gentleman who sits for Belfast, West, were represented.

I propose, the House might wish to know, to appear myself to put forward, as objectively as I can, what I think to be the true view of the law; to ask the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Gage), who has made a particular study of this problem, to appear with me in order that the arguments he presented on behalf of the hon. Member for Belfast, West, should be presented to the Privy Council; to nominate some distinguished ecclesiastical lawyer to lead the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) to put the opposite point of view; and, if necessary, to give the hon. Member for Belfast, West, the opportunity of himself being represented, although, as to that, it is perhaps undesirable to overload these cases with lawyers and it may well be that, on reflection, he would consider that his position was adequately represented by the course I have indicated.

In those circumstances I hope that the House will think that we are, without any kind of disrespect to the views of the Committee, taking what is perhaps a practical course, having regard to the fact that the hon. Member is unfortunately prevented by illness from being with us at present.

Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

Can the Attorney-General tell the House what precedents there are for this House inviting the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to give an advisory opinion?

The Attorney-General

There are precedents. The last one which is directly in point, which concerned the qualifications of an hon. Member of this House, occurred in 1913, and related to Sir Stuart Samuel. That matter was referred to the Judicial Committee, which gave advice to the House upon it.

3.51 p.m.

Sir Hugh O'Neill (Antrim, North)

I should like to say a word on this Motion on behalf of the Ulster Members of whom the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Rev. J. G. MacManaway), is one. We should have preferred the recommendation of the Select Committee to have been carried out, namely that the Government should introduce immediately legislation to clarify the position of the hon. Member. It seems rather odd that the Government should have set up a Select Committee, and that when that Committee has reported and made a definite recommendation, we should now seem to be re-trying the whole matter. One of the points which the Select Committee definitely turned down was a suggestion that the matter should be referred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

I quite appreciate what the Attorney-General says about the possible un-desirability at this stage of introducing comprehensive legislation dealing with the whole matter of clergy sitting in this House. I should have thought that it would have been perfectly possible, however, to carry out the recommendations of the Select Committee and to have introduced a one-clause Bill putting the clergy of the Church of Ireland in the same position as the clergy of the Church of England under the Clerical Disabilities Act, 1870. Under that Act, if a clergyman of the Church of England resigns his preferment he can sit in the House of Commons. Many hon. Members here, including myself, knew very well in the last Parliament but one Sir Edmund Brocklebank, who sat for 20 years in this House, and who was a retired clergyman of the Church of England.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West told the Select Committee that he had relinquished his position as a clergyman of the Church of Ireland in so far as he could do so. Therefore, it seems to me that if we could amend the Act of 1870, so as to allow clergy of the Church of Ireland, if they resigned, as the hon. Member has done, to sit in this House, as a clergyman of the Church of England like Sir Edmund Brocklebank can do and has done, that would deal with the matter quite simply and expeditiously. I feel that this matter is to a certain extent an academic one. My hon. Friend has, after all, taken his seat. Whether he will be challenged or not I do not know. I and those for whom I speak would certainly not contemplate dividing the House or taking any strong action about this matter, but I feel that the House having set up a Select Committee, which made a specific report, the appropriate course for the Government would have been to have accepted that report and brought in a simple Bill, such as I have suggested.

3.55 p.m.

Mr. Donnelly (Pembroke)

Perhaps the House will allow me to intervene as I have had the unusual experience of taking part in an Irish election, where circumstances are slightly different from those which prevail here. In Northern Ireland, the position of a clergyman in politics is very different from what it is in this country. For example, no clergyman of any religious denomination may sit on a local authority of any kind in Northern Ireland. When the 19th century Acts were repealed by this House in 1926, the action taken related to this country only. The Northern Ireland Government declined to do the same, so that it might be a little discourteous of us to create this rather anomalous position of allowing a clergyman from Northern Ireland to sit in this House, whereas he would not be in a position to sit on any local authority in Northern Ireland. It might be a little discourteous to the Government of Northern Irelnad, who obviously do not wish this kind of thing to happen.

3.57 p.m.

Captain Waterhouse (Leicester, South-East)

I am afraid that I cannot share the general accord on the Government's recent attitude. Least of all can I agree with the Attorney-General when he says that this is the best and most expeditious method that can be adopted. We have now reached the last day of June. This House assembled in the first week of March. Four months have gone by and absolutely nothing has been done. If the Attorney-General takes the view which he expressed before the Select Committee, of which I was a member, why did the Government not adopt it then? Why was the matter not referred to the Privy Council at that time instead of to a Select Committee?

I submit that the Government have been wrong. They have misunderstood this affair from the start up to the present. In this Motion for an Humble Address they have incompletely stated the case as it stands. They have made it appear as if the Committee merely said that they could not come to a decision. We said that we could not come to a decision on law but we put forward a direct recommendation as to the course which the Government ought to adopt. We said that legislation was necessary. Nothing of that appears in this Motion.

The Lord President of the Council said the matter was one on which the lawyers could not decide. But surely the lawyers have to a very large extent decided? Both Law Officers of the Crown have taken the view, "nicely balanced," to use the right hon. Gentleman's words, which on balance came down a certain way. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe), who was Attorney-General in a previous Government, took precisely the same view. If we turn to a representative of the party below the Gangway we have a view expressed there also. The rhetorical question has been asked on many platforms throughout the country "What did Gladstone say in 1869?" I do not know that any answer to that question has ever been produced, but there is an answer applicable to the matter now before us, because in 1869 Gladstone spoke quite clearly on this particular matter.

He said: My learned Friends the Attorney and Solicitor-General advise me that, according to their view, sustained, no doubt, by the existence of that Clause in the Roman Catholic Relief Act, the provision contained in the Act passed in the case of Home Tooke"— that is the 1801 Act which we are discussing here— would not be understood to exclude from Parliament clergymen other than those of the Established Church. He went on to say: If that be so, the state of the law is one of anomaly and confusion still greater than I had supposed, and certainly it ought to receive the early attention of Parliament. Eighty years have gone by since then, and this is, so far as I know, the first time that this issue has been raised as a practical one. Therefore, it is not too much to expect the Government to be able to come to a proper and immediate decision. I submit in all earnestness that by taking the action which they have done the Government have been discourteous to the Select Committee and have offered a direct affront to this House, which appointed this Committee and to which the Committee made recommendations.


Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I think that the right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Waterhouse), was a little unfair and a little ungenerous in complaining that the Government had handled this matter unreasonably or wrongly. I do not know whether what the Government have done is right or wrong, but I do know that it was done with the general consent of both sides of this House; and if anything wrong did take place it would be quite wrong to place the responsibility for it on the Government. It seems to me that there is one way in which this matter ought not to be settled, with a state of law which at best can only be described as being very doubtful, and that is that the gentleman concerned should seek to jump the decision by merely coming along, and taking the oath, and going on sitting while everybody knows that the law is very doubtful indeed. Whether we ought to have done it earlier or not, we are taking the right course now in getting a proper judicial opinion.

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Churchill (Woodford)

I can well believe that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), who has just intervened and used the offensive expression, "jumped the decision," would be quite content to support any method by which a constituency of 80,000 people should be disenfranchised if he incurred any risk of having a vote given against his in the Division Lobby. But the Government have not taken that view. I think we owe a great debt to the Select Committee who sat so long on this matter and laboured hard with all the tangles and almost metaphysical points involved in the discussion. I should have been glad if, when their report had been presented to the House, the Government had said, "Very well then, we will legislate." But they did not do so. and they have the power.

That being so, I had the feeling, in view of the fact that the hon. Member concerned had taken the oath and presented himself in the House, that the question of emergency in his case no longer arose. It could not be said any longer that an appeal to the Privy Council had the effect of prolonging the disenfranchisement of an important constituency; because he had already taken his seat, and faced the possibility of the penalties which I think legal opinions on both sides show do not expose him to very great risk at the present time. The Government therefore did not encounter any opposition from us in suggesting that it should be referred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council; although that had definitely, and I think quite rightly, been turned down, if it was to exercise merely a delaying effect. by the Select Committee.

The Government having said they wish it to go to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and the Attorney-General having spoken on this point in a way which shows that His Majesty's Government and he, as their principal legal representative, desire only objective treatment of the subject; and as there is no question of the prolongation of the disenfrancisement of the constituency, I do not myself see why we should object to the solution now proposed, it being clearly understood that we are in no way reflecting on the decision of our Select Committee who we consider served the House very well and faithfully, and with exceptional acumen upon this subject.

The only thing I would venture to say is that if we fall in with the views of the Government on this I think it ought to be understood that they will legislate in the sense of, or be guided by the report of the Judicial Committee, and that processes of delay will not be invoked to prolong the present uncertainty. I can well conceive that a Bill might be shrewdly drawn which would have an easy passage through the House, and remove what on every side is thought to be a lamentable and, from some points of view, a wholly unjustifiable state of uncertainty.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Hopkin Morris (Carmarthen)

The speeches of the Attorney-General and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) both indicate the difficulties in determining the legal issue, and I do not believe that is the solution at all. We may take one view of the Act of 1801, or we may take the opposite view. We may say that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Rev. J. G. MacMana-way) was entitled to take his seat or that he was not. The Select Committee made no decision upon that point at all. The point before the House at the moment is whether this should go to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for decision without expressing any view on the position of the law.

What can the Judicial Committee decide? They can decide that the hon. Member is entitled by the law as it stands to take his seat. If they decide in that form, then very serious anomalies will result. If they come down on the other side and say that he cannot take his seat, equally serious anomalies of a different kind will result. So the Government will be left in the position that it cannot leave the law as it stands, whatever the findings of the Privy Council may be. The matter should be referred to the Privy Council with a request to them to give an indication of what form amending legislation should take. The decision is the responsibility of the Government and it is a decision which I think they should accept. Nothing is to be gained by sending it to the Privy Council because no decision can be taken without Government legislation.

4.8 p.m.

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

I should not have intervened in this Debate, as I was Chairman of the Select Committee. But two of my colleagues have already spoken and therefore I wish to appeal to the House to support the Government in this Motion, as indeed the Leader of the Opposition has already indicated—as I understood him—in the remarks he just made. There were some members of the Select Committee who would have preferred the action which the Government now advise this House to take. But in order to obtain unanimity, as we got it on one point which may eventually emerge if the decision of the Judicial Committee is given, we said quite clearly that on the legal issue it was impossible to give the House a clear and definite guide.

The Government are to try to get what I understand to be probably the highest, and if not the highest one of the most important legal authorities, to express a view. When that is given, I think it will be much easier for the Government to accept the recommendations of the Select Committee and to introduce legislation. I would go further and suggest that, after that decision is given, it may be easier for the Government to make up their minds what sort of legislation to introduce into this House that will meet, if not the unanimous opinion, then the majority opinion of this House as to the course which should be taken for the future.

4.10 p.m.

Professor Savory (Antrim, South)

I have great pleasure in supporting the view put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Sir H. O'Neill) and the right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Waterhouse). I cannot help thinking that the Government—with all respect—are making a very great mistake in this matter. Though I had not the privilege of being a member of the Committee, I did hear the whole of the evidence, and no one who read the memorandum of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) and listened to the very severe cross-examination to which he was subjected, could help being convinced as to the nature of the law.

The three eminent lawyers who gave their opinion—the present Attorney-General, the ex-Attorney-General and the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Gage)—were unanimous in stating that the law did permit the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Reverend J. G. MacManaway) to take his seat. I admit that the Attorney-General showed a certain amount of hesitation and balancing, but he did come down—and I heard him—very definitely on the side of the hon. Member for Belfast, West, being entitled to take his seat.

Surely, the matter is very simple. Before the Act of Union of 1800, the Church of Ireland was absolutely independent, but by that Act the Churches of Ireland and of England were united. Section 5 of the Act of Union clearly laid down what was said to be an essential and fundamental part of the union, and that was the preservation of that Church. The Coronation Oath was altered and Queen Victoria herself took the oath for the preservation of the Irish Church.

If, then, Mr. Gladstone, in 1869, by a purely unilateral decision without the con sent of that Church, which was a party to the Act of Union, deliberately disestablished and disendowed that Church, moved as his greatest friend the Bishop of Oxford said, by his restlessness at being out of office and his desire of get ting back into power; if he disestablished and disendowed that Church, depriving it of the greater part of its property, even forcing the parishes to buy back the rectories and the dioceses to buy back the Bishops' Palaces—

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and what Mr. Gladstone did in 1869 is just a little far away from the Motion under discussion.

Professor Savory

My point is that from the moment when that Church was disestablished, then as it ceased to be a State Church, the State no longer had any control whatever over it and, therefore, its clergy were free to become Members of this House in exactly the same way as the clergy of the Scottish Episcopal Church. That was a State Church during the reigns of Charles I, Charles II and James II, but from the Revolution of 1688 onwards the Scottish Episcopal Church was no longer a State Church. Its clergy, though episcopally ordained, have a perfect right to sit in this House.

I contend that the position in the disestablished and disendowed Church of Ireland is exactly the same as that in the disestablished Scottish Episcopal Church, and that the hon. Member has an absolute right to take his seat. Hon. Members can read through the Report in which there are a great many details. There is a great deal of hair-splitting. The right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East, put his finger on the real point. Mr. Gladstone consulted the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General and he accepted their view that once the Church of Ireland was disestablished then this disability imposed upon its clergy would no longer apply and, therefore, he did not introduce any Clause to that effect. Such a Clause was unnecessary. It was necessary in the Act of 1914 which disestablished the Welsh Church. In that case a special Clause was inserted exempting the clergy from this disability. But Mr. Gladstone was advised by the great legal authorities of the day—and there were giants in those days—that this disability would cease to exist with the disestablishment of the Church.

I deeply regret that the Government did not take the unanimous advice of their own Committee and introduce immediate legislation. A simple one-Clause Bill which would have said that from 1871, from the date when the disestablishment of the Irish church took effect, clergy of the Church of Ireland were no longer debarred and were entitled to take a seat in this House, would have been sufficient. That was what the Select Committee wanted. They asked for a clarification of the law. A one-Clause Bill of this kind would have clarified the law. It would have made the law absolutely clear and would have prevented all the delay which must necessarily be involved.

In spite of the noble efforts of the Attorney-General, and his most generous promises, there will be delay. We have had experience before of judgments of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. There will be delay and, during the whole of that period, the hon. Member for Belfast, West, will be kept on tenterhooks as to what the law is. I join with my colleagues in deeply regretting the decision of His Majesty's Government on this Question.

4.17 p.m.

Mr. H. Morrison

I hope that the House might possibly be good enough to come to a conclusion on a matter which really is not of the great, stupendous and controversial difficulty which the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Professor Savory) would lead us to believe. I have a great regard for the hon. Gentleman. We all have an affection for him, but it is a great pity that, now and again, when we are getting on fairly nicely, he comes in with a great historic harangue raising all sorts of controversies about the future which fill me with terror in case friction is going to break out, though I know that that is the last thing he wishes to happen. He took us back to Mr. Gladstone at some distant date. I gather that Sir Robert Peel had a directly opposite view. Therefore, not all were agreed The hon. Gentleman stressed the point that the Church of Ireland is not an established church, but neither is the Roman Catholic Church an established church.

I would say that we were not bursting to get into legislation, because when one starts with legislation in this field one does not know where one will finish. The hon. Member referred to a simple one-Clause Bill. I never knew an hon. Member urge legislation who did not urge that it could be done with a simple one-Clause Bill. To be frank, I have often had some of my ministerial colleagues assure me that a Bill will be a little one and non-controversial. Sometimes it comes off: sometimes it does not.

Mr. Churchill

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will say a few words in the sense that the Government would be prima facie predisposed to legislate to clear up this difficult point.

Mr. Morrison

Yes, certainly.

Mr. Churchill

We have been trying to help.

Mr. Morrison

I quite agree, and I was about to say that, on the Select Committee's Report, I would join with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in thanking the Select Committee, and in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger)—

Mr. Churchill

Hear, hear.

Mr. Morrison

—for their painstaking and competent work on a situation which is exceedingly difficult. They did recommend that we should proceed with legislation. Meantime, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Rev. J. G. MacManaway) takes his seat in the House, which he was entitled to do, taking all the inevitable possible risks in the process, but, as the Leader of the Opposition said, the situation is somewhat changed.

We think that the House would be wise to agree that this matter should go to the Judicial Committee for an advisory legal opinion. The situation is that there is some uncertainty as to what is the state of the law, because, even if three distinguished lawyers from three political parties agree, that would not indicate what the law actually is. It would mean that there is an opinion of some weight, though all three may hold that opinion for different reasons, as my right hon. and learned Friend has said. They might even be inconsistent reasons, though they led to the same conclusion. We therefore think that it is best to get an advisory opinion from the Judicial Committee, which is not a decisive court of law on this matter but which has great authoritative effect.

If and when we get that opinion, which we hope will not be long delayed—and I know that every step will be taken to get this matter considered as early as possible, and that all help will be given to the Judicial Committee in their work—when we get that opinion of the Committee, it may be—I do not know—that it will urge and advise us that the hon. Gentleman is qualified and entitled to take his seat. If that be so, the Government will accept that opinion. If, by any subsequent legal proceedings, the hon. Gentleman should get into trouble, then I quite agree that the Government, after accepting that opinion, must then face the question of legislation of some sort, if only to indemnify the hon. Member, but, of course, it might be other legislation.

The House will not expect me to commit myself as to what legislation it might be in these circumstances. I quite agree that, if the Judicial Committee gives the opinion that the hon. Member is entitled to sit, and if, subsequently, in the courts it is ruled otherwise, another situation would arise which it would be the responsibility of the Government to face it and to take what is considered to be the proper action in the circumstances.

In the circumstances, while I appreciate the valuable work of the Select Committee, there is a somewhat different situation now, and I trust that the House will be able to agree to this course, which I think is probably the wisest and most expedient in the circumstances.

Captain Waterhouse

Is it not the intention of the Government to deal with the anomalies in any case, or are they content to leave the anomalies as they are?

Mr. Morrison

I shall be content if we can settle this problem. I should be very happy to go further, but, quite frankly, I am not ready to walk into the whole field of these religious issues which may involve the Government and the House in more difficulties. All I am saying is that we have got to solve this problem.

4.24 p.m.

Mr. Nally (Bilston)

It would be absolutely intolerable if, at this stage of the argument, the Government were to be placed on the defensive. I am surprised at my right hon. and learned Friend and cannot see his justification for this proposal. I am surprised that my right hon. Friend, in his desire to get agreement and in order to push ahead with our arrangements for today, should be so easy and so simple in an endeavour to placate the Opposition, not because he has any regard for what they said, but in order to further our Parliamentary procedure. Equally, I resented the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition accusing my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) of being offensive. Usually, I find myself on the opposite side to my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne, but I should not have thought that it lay in the mouth of the Leader of the Opposition to accuse my hon. Friend of being offensive. My hon. Friend put forward a perfectly reasonable point.

What we are concerned with is a matter that involves legal precedents and legal decisions, stretching away back, on which no Government, irrespective of its political complexion, has ever been able to make up its mind. Because the case of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Rev. J. G. MacManaway) has a special significance, it is not for the Opposition to lay down that this case be dealt with by means of a simple Bill. It has already been demonstrated by an hon. Member who is no longer in his place that there are in Northern Ireland Catholic priests not entitled to take seats on a county council, but I should be out of order if I attempted to argue that point.

I am arguing that, if a Bill is being. introduced—and it may be a good Bill or a bad Bill—to make perfectly clear that the hon. Member whose case we are discussing is entitled to sit in this House, and a majority of those who are supporting that Bill are saying how much better it would have been if they had tackled this job before, we are entitled to ask the main sponsors of that Bill what they pro pose to do about clergymen of another denomination who want to sit in the con stituencies now held by the three hon. Members who have just spoken, and if a particular clergyman, a Catholic priest in this case, cannot take his seat on a county council instead of being prohibited by a law which three of the hon. Gentle men opposite—

Professor Savory

English law, or British law, not Irish law.

Mr. Nally

That was in the days when Northern Ireland landowners made the laws of Britain as well as their own. I am not interested in whose law it is; all I say is that that is the law. The law in Northern Ireland has the effect which I have stated.

Let me say this in conclusion. We have had Bills introduced into this House since 1945 to relieve certain hon. Members who sit on this side of the House and who happened to occupy certain posts. They were members of Ministry of Labour tribunals and other tribunals, receiving no pay whatever. They just happened to be members of these tribunals, and an enabling Bill was introduced in this House to permit them to take their seats. The Debate was prolonged almost into the early hours of the morning by hon. Members opposite who were engaged in pointing out what a dreadful thing it was that the Government, simply because the hon. Members concerned had served on Ministry of Labour tribunals in 1945—

Mr. Speaker

That really has nothing to do with this Motion. What happened in the last Parliament is quite outside the scope of this discussion.

Mr. Nally

I am trying to point out that, in this case, when we are dealing with an hon. Member who might have been debarred, all the eloquence and legal skill now being employed to suggest that this problem could be solved by a short and simple Measure was directed to preventing that kind of action in the earlier case.

The Government are quite right in suggesting this course, and will no doubt produce a Bill after reference of the point to the Judicial Committee, but, unless that Bill makes provision for every clergyman, irrespective of faith, to sit in this House and also to take part in local government procedure, my hon. Friends and I will guarantee to put down more Amendments to that Bill than were put down by hon. Members opposite to the Iron and Steel Bill.

4.29 p.m.

Mr. John Foster (Northwich)

May I ask the Leader of the House one question? He said that, if the decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was in favour of the hon. Member for West Belfast (Rev. J. G. MacManaway) taking his seat, and then an informer brought proceedings, the Government would bring in legislation to meet the case. What I want to ask is this. Suppose the other alternative takes place and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council finds that the hon. Member for Belfast, West, is not qualified to take his seat. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that, in such a case, legislation would be introduced as recommended by the Judicial Committee?

Mr. Morrison

I cannot go further than to say that we, having urged that the matter should go to the Privy Council, if the Council expressed an opinion to the effect—which, I gather, is being speculatively put forward at the moment—that he was disqualified, then I think there would be an obligation on the Government to indemnify the hon. Member for the past disqualification and bring in legislation to that effect, but I would not be in a position to say what legislation, if any, we could bring in to rectify the law in that case.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

I think the answer is a very clear one. In order to protect the rights of the House, may I raise this point? Presumably, there would be nothing to prevent any hon. Member, if he so desired, bringing in a short Bill of one Clause of the character referred to by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party to put the matter right. In other words, the fact that the matter is referred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in no way takes away the right of this House to legislate. That is an important point.

the moment, and, therefore, the right hon.

Mr. Speaker

The answer is that no Private Member can introduce a Bill at the moment, and, therefore, the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Sir H. O'Neill) could not introduce such a Bill. There is no Private Members' legislation at the moment.

Earl Winterton

If I may respectfully say so, Sir, that does not quite answer my point. There might be circumstances in which there was Private Members' legislation in the new Session of Parliament. I was only seeking to protect the interests of this House. This House has the right to legislate, whatever is going on in the Privy Council.

Mr. Speaker

Of course, if Private Bills are allowed, then Private Members could bring in such a Bill, but how far it would get in the time available would remain to be seen.

Question put, and agreed to.

Address to be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of His Majesty's Household.