HC Deb 17 October 1950 vol 478 cc1882-90
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

The King in Council has considered the Report of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on the eligibility of the Reverend James George MacManaway to sit and vote in the House of Commons and His Majesty has commanded me to communicate the Report to the House. The Report, which will be available in the Vote Office at 4 o'clock today, says that, for reasons set out at length in the Report, Mr. MacManaway is disabled from sitting and voting in the House of Commons.

Mr. Eden

The right hon. Gentleman will realise that we shall have to study the Report before we make any comments on any detailed matters, but there are one or two questions I should like to ask. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us, or can the Leader of the House tell us, what action the Government propose to take in view of the Privy Council's decision, both in regard to the constituency concerned and in regard to the hon. Member himself?

Mr. H. Morrison

Yes, Sir. As the House has just heard from my right hon. Friend, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has advised that the hon. Member for Belfast, West, is disqualified from sitting as a Member of the House of Commons. If the House accepts the advice of the Judicial Committee it is for them to declare the seat for Belfast, West vacant, and we would propose to bring forward a Motion to that effect on Thursday at the commencement of Public Business. A writ for a toy-election will then be issued in the normal way.

In the statements made by the Attorney-General and myself in the House on 29th June, the Government undertook only to indemnify the hon. Member up to 29th June, when the question was remitted to the Judicial Committee for advice. In view of this statement of the Government's intention, it is somewhat surprising that the hon. Member has continued to sit and vote in the House. Despite this, however, it is the Government's intention, if the House does decide to declare this seat vacant, to introduce legislation which will give the hon. Member complete indemnity against any penalties he has incurred by sitting and voting in the House up to the present time.

Mr. Eden

I do not want to debate this matter now, but will only say, in regard to one of the observations of the right hon. Gentleman, that in my view the hon. Member concerned had a perfect right to vote up to the time of that decision. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am expressing my view. However, there is one other question which arises: what is the position in respect of the Government of Northern Ireland? As I understand it, they could not, if they so wished, pass similar legislation in respect of this hon. Member because it is outside their powers? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the Government can do about that?

Mr. Morrison

I agree that the first observation of the right hon. Gentleman was not provocative. I can only say that the Attorney-General, in the proceedings of the Select Committee which have been published, specifically warned, if that is the right word, the hon. Member that he would be unwise to take the risk of voting in the House. However, I quite agree that he did so and that it was his responsibility. I think the Government are being rather generous and reasonable in the matter, although that is a virtuous human quality for which this Government is famous.

With regard to the Parliament of Northern Ireland, that is an important point. The decision of the Judicial Committee, I am advised, will apply to the situation in the Parliament of Northern Ireland as much as to the Parliament at Westminster. Therefore, the situation is that if the Northern Ireland Parliament takes the steps we shall recommend to the House, then it will be the duty of this House to cover indemnity as far as the Northern Ireland Parliament is concerned. If the Northern Ireland Parliament did not take that course, then obviously we could not cover the Northern Ireland Parliament; but if they did follow the course we recommend, it is an obligation on His Majesty's Government by legislation to cover indemnity in respect of the past services of the hon. Member in the Northern Ireland Parliament.

Mr. Clement Davies

Although the Privy Council's advice has now been tendered to the Government, the question whether the hon. Member is a Member of the House or not is a matter for the House to decide and no one else. The question of indemnity will arise after the decision of the House. Does the Government intend to leave the matter there, or do they intend to introduce further legislation to do away with these disputes in the future, because this constituency has been unrepresented since the beginning of this Parliament?

Mr. Morrison

It may have been unrepresented, but it seems to have been functioning, including one very critical Division. I quite agree that the Judicial Committee is advisory, and that it is for the House to decide. Assuming the House decides in accordance with the Government's view, then indemnity legislation must be brought forward, but if it does not so decide, the indemnity legislation will not be brought forward, which is what I said earlier. With regard to legislation to deal with the general question of the eligibility of clergymen to sit in Parliament, that opens a very big controversial and complicated question, and I cannot give any undertaking that the Government will bring in any legislation about it.

Sir Hugh O'Neill

Is it not the case that the Select Committee of this House which was set up by the present Government definitely recommend that legislation should be brought in to clarify the position of clergy sitting in the House of Commons? In regard to the Bill which is to be introduced to indemnify the hon. Member for any penalties he may have incurred, up to what date will that indemnity hold good?

Mr. Morrison

Assuming that the House agrees with the advice which I have indicated, the indemnity will cover up to the present time but not beyond. With regard to the Select Committee, it is perfectly true that they recommended legislation. However, they did not set out in any detail what the legislation should be, which must have saved them quite a lot of trouble. The House, however, referred the matter to the Judicial Committee for an advisory opinion, which we have now got and which, I respectfully submit to the House, it is right for us to act upon.

Mr. Donnelly

While nobody wishes to say anything against the hon. Member for Belfast, West, because many of us feel that he was more sinned against than sinning, can my right hon. Friend say whether the House is going to have an opportunity of expressing its displeasure against those who persuaded him to vote on a recent occasion?

Mr. Morrison

That might arise on the Motion on Thursday. I should think it might arise even better on the Second Reading of the Bill, for quite a number of comments can be made from various points of view.

Mr. Hopkin Morris

If the House agrees with the recommendation of the Privy Council, will not the position then arise that clergymen of the Welsh Church and clergymen of the Irish Church will be in a different position, although both Churches are disestablished? There are two sections in the Welsh Church Act which make Welsh clergy eligible to sit in this House; and do not the Government think that legislation should be brought in to put the Irish Church clergy in the same position as those of the Welsh Church?

Mr. Morrison

The hon. and learned Gentleman has illustrated to the House how complex this subject is, and why, on, the whole, we had better keep out of it.

Mr. Bing

Is the Home Secretary aware that this Parliament has laid down that the qualifications for membership of the Northern Ireland House of Commons shall be the same as those for this House; that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Belfast, West, has sat for a number of years in the Northern Ireland House of Commons and that the Northern Ireland authorities have taken no steps whatsoever to investigate his qualifications? Would he, therefore, draw this advice to their attention and, in view of the duties imposed by the Government of Ireland Act, make representations to them as to how undesirable it is that hon. Gentlemen, who are not Members of the Northern Ireland House of Commons, should sit and vote there?

Mr. Ede

I can only express my regret that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) has never been a Member of the Northern Ireland House of Commons, for then this long continued trouble in Northern Ireland might never have arisen.

Sir Ronald Ross

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that a large working-class constituency should be permanently deprived of the services of its Member because of the reluctance of the Government to interfere with an Act passed some years before the Battle of Trafalgar?

Mr. Morrison

I cannot see why this constituency should have legal preference over any other constituency in this category. It will not be permanently disfranchised. It will elect another Member, who may be as good as, or better than, the hon. Gentleman who was elected earlier this year, or may be not as good.

Mr. Bowles

Does not my right hon. Friend agree with the view that if the opinion of the Privy Council, that the hon. Member for Belfast, West, has never been a Member of this House, is accepted, an election is not necessary at all, for surely the runner-up at the last Election should be automatically elected? [Laughter.]

Mr. Morrison

My hon. Friend's point has been received with laughter, but he has an arguable case and it should not be treated with contempt. On the other hand, this being a warm-hearted, generous and kindly Government, we think perhaps that it would not be quite right that the electorate should not be given the opportunity of electing whom they like.

Sir Ian Fraser

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether, under the legislation which he has promised, it will be possible for the hon. Gentleman for Belfast, West, to stand as a candidate at the next Election, having regard to the fact that the Government promised he would be indemnified, and indemnification for financial penalties is not the only indemnification that is necessary?

Mr. Morrison

If I may say so, this is going too far. I undertook that in certain circumstances we would indemnify the hon. Member against what may be held to be a piece of irregularity, but indemnity does not carry us to the point of altering the law to enable a new category of people to stand for Parliament.

Mr. Hayman

Will the Government be prepared, if fresh legislation is introduced along those lines, to provide that county council employees shall not be debarred from sitting in this House under the Act of 1899?

Professor Savory

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Speaker of the Northern Ireland House of Commons, on being asked a question, declared that the hon. Member for Belfast, West, was eligible for the Parliament of Northern Ireland, and presumably the Speaker of the House of Commons of Northern Ireland would make the same careful inquiries as Mr. Speaker would in this House? Secondly, I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the indemnity allows the hon. Gentleman who was elected for Belfast, West, to hold the salary both of this House and of the Parliament of Northern Ireland up to the present date?

Mr. Morrison

On the point of the Ruling of the Speaker of the House of Commons of Northern Ireland, naturally I have great respect for all Speakers, including the Speaker of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, but notwithstanding that, I think I must put the opinion of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council even higher than the opinion of the Speaker of the House of Commons of Northern Ireland. I am afraid that must rule. The other point about drawing a salary by a Member who is now advised he ought never to have been a Member is a tricky point, and we shall have to consider it. It is difficult both in respect of this Parliament and of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, and I do not know whether it is possible for a Member, who is now judged on very high opinion not to have been a Member, to draw a salary and whether the people who paid the salary should have paid it. We shall have to consider that in connection with the Indemnity Bill, but I am not quite sure what we will do.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the proposed Bill to indemnify the hon. Member who was elected for Belfast, West, sets a bad precedent in view of the contumacious conduct of the hon. Member, and will my right hon. Friend reconsider his decision on this point?

Captain Waterhouse

Does not the opinion of the Privy Council provide a different opinion from that held by the Law Officers of the Crown, and to save the face of the Law Officers would not the Government consider introducing legislation?

Mr. Morrison

If ever in this country we arrive at a time when eminent legal luminaries cannot have a difference of opinion, life will be almost as dull as it would be if the House of Commons could not have them.

Mr. Leslie Hale

I should like to put two points. First, is it not a fact that the law at present is that where a disqualified candidate, whose disqualification was known at the time of the election, is returned, the runner-up automatically succeeds to the seat? As that is the law at the moment, the Government may have to consider the matter before the issue of the writ on Thursday. Will my right hon. Friend also consider whether the Indemnity Bill ought to be left to a free vote of the House, in view of the grave issues of principle which are raised by the actions of the hon. Member for Belfast, West, since 29th June?

Mr. Morrison

I do not think my hon. Friend's point should be treated with contempt. There is substance in it, and I will think about it, but we are inclined to take the broad, democratic view that the electorate should have an opportunity of deciding whom their Member should be. I always think very carefully about free votes. I have a little experience of them and sometimes they run us into chaos. I should like to be a bit cautious.

Sir H. Williams

May I ask the Lord President of the Council to remember the case of William Preston, who was elected Member for Walsall in 1924? It subsequently appeared that he was a contractor to His Majesty, and so the seat had to be declared vacant. The William Preston Indemnity Act was passed, but a new election took place. In that, I think, the right hon. Gentleman will find the precedent which will satisfy all the doubts which have arisen in his mind.

Mr. Morrison

I follow that point. I think that there are at least two other precedents, one Parliamentary and the other London County Council, which tend the other way. However, I have indicated the view of the Government, which we think is broadly the right and fair course.

Mr. S. Silverman

Does not my right hon. Friend consider that there is a great difference between indemnity before 29th June and indemnity after, in view of the fact that Mr. MacManaway—who was party to the decision to submit this matter to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council—while this matter was then sub judice and having been warned that there was no guarantee of indemnity, nevertheless thought fit to take part in a Division in this House? It happened to be a critical decision where the Members of the House were evenly divided. In those circumstances, will not my right hon. Friend consider again whether the indemnity ought not to stop on 29th June?

Mr. Morrison

I have no complaint about the point made by my hon. Friend. It is a perfectly fair point. On the other hand, the world did not come to an end with that Division—though that was not the fault of the hon. Member concerned. On the whole, we think we had better be kindly about it. Nevertheless, I fully agree that my hon. Friend is fully entitled to make that point.

Mr. Eden

Whatever the legal points, may I ask the Lord President of the Council whether it is not a fact—I not being a lawyer, nor he either—that very valuable legal advice from both parts of the House has turned out to be contrary to the view of the Judicial Committee?

Mr. Morrison

Yes, but let us be careful. There was some very firm advice on that side of the House from an eminent legal Member of the Front Bench. There was some very balancing advice from the Attorney-General, who said that it had not to be assumed that the hon. Gentleman was entitled to sit. That is true, but that has nothing to do with the case. The House sought the advice of the Judicial Committee, and I am sure that the House will treat that advice with respect