HC Deb 20 April 1951 vol 486 cc2163-9

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

11.24 a.m.

Mr. Monslow (Barrow-in-Furness)

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

As I indicated on Second Reading, I am not a spiritualist but it gives me especial pride this morning to move the Third Reading of this Bill. For more than quarter of a century the spiritualist movement has been seeking what is accorded to the other religious denominations—religious freedom. The completion of our work upon this Bill will give an immense amount of joy and satisfaction to those who have laboured long to bring this aim to fruition, and will give to countless numbers of men and women throughout the country who have served this movement with fidelity, the same measure of satisfaction.

I should like to take this opportunity of paying a special tribute to my hon. Friend and colleague the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks), who has laboured so long in this noble cause. He has cause to rejoice this morning, and the movement to which he belongs owes him a deep debt of gratitude. I should also like to take the opportunity of expressing to hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House my sincere appreciation and thanks for the courtesy, co-operation, collaboration and sympathetic understanding which they have shown throughout the consideration of the Bill.

Further, I should like to express, in particular, appreciation of the work of the Home Secretary, who has shown those fine characteristics which we expect of him, and which he displays in such an unassuming way in all the spheres in which he works. I should like to couple with him in this reference the members of the Home Office staff and the Parliamentary draftsmen for the splendid service which they too have rendered.

What is being achieved today has resulted from the spirit of good will and the measure of co-operation and mutual understanding accorded, and I tender to all this expression of thanks and my very warm appreciation to each and every one.

11.26 a.m.

Mr. T. J. Brooks (Normanton)

May I be allowed to support the Third Reading of this Bill, and to add my sincere thanks and that of the whole spiritualist movement to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow), who sponsored the Bill at our request? He honoured his promise to do so if he was successful in the Ballot. The presentation of his case was most efficient, proving beyond doubt his breadth of mind, deep religious feelings and his candid opinion that religious freedom should be given to the spiritualist movement. He has earned the thanks and admiration of a great number of people. His name will be remembered and revered for the great service which he has given to the spiritualist cause. No one could have done it better or more effectively.

May I also be allowed to say to the Home Secretary how much we appreciate the great help that he has given us? He has been exceptionally helpful in every way. His kindly advice and courtesy to myself and my friends, both on deputations at the Home Office and in correspondence, has been most friendly and encouraging. The promise which he gave to us on the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Act has been fully honoured. He gave the assurance that he would give every assistance if and when such a Bill as this came before the House.

My right hon. Friend has carried out that promise in a most kindly and sympathetic way, and we thank him sincerely for his realistic and effective help in what we hope will be the removal of a real grievance and indignity suffered by the spiritualists for many years. I hope he will forgive me if I have appeared to be a little insistent in my many calls on him during his period of office as Home Secretary. If he has been in any way put out, he has concealed it very well, for I have not been able to discern it.

I would also like to thank the Home Office officials and, in particular, the Parliamentary draftsmen, whom we met several times, for all the help which they have given us in framing the Bill, and for the cordial way in which they received us and the willing and helpful suggestions on which agreement could be reached.

I would also express my deep gratitude to my friends in every part of the House who have helped me to achieve one of the dearest ambitions of my life. When I became a Member of this House, nearly nine years ago, it was my resolve to spare no effort to secure the removal of the disability under which my spiritualist friends have been labouring for many years. I have never made any secret of my hopes, and the kindness and sympathy which I have received has moved me more than I can say.

I thank hon. Members for their excellent speeches in support of the Bill on Second Reading; the kind references they made about me and the broad picture they painted, not merely of spiritualists, but of that religious freedom and tolerance which is the right of every law abiding citizen. It may be unusual but I would like also to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your very patient hearing of our case. When the British House of Commons takes time to discuss a Bill of this character it expresses real democracy and toleration. Democracy may convey a different meaning to each of us, but to all it must mean freedom, opportunity and happiness. We accept freedom of religion as a divine right under the proposition that all men are created equal before their God. Today, by this Bill, we are giving freedom to hundreds and thousands of loyal citizens in this country, and I have pleasure in supporting its Third Reading.

11.31 a.m.

Mr. Sorensen (Leyton)

In supporting the Third Reading of the Bill I would say that we all appreciate the emotion felt by my hon. Friends the Members for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) and Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks). No doubt the eulogies expressed to all concerned, including you, Mr. Speaker—and you certainly deserve them, Sir, in this connection, as in all others—will be duly noted in the circles in which my hon. Friends move. I am sure that many of those remarks were designed to show, quite legitimately, that those belonging to this particular religious community might appreciate what has been done by hon. Members of the House to extend to them the freedom which is possible within the general ambit of the law.

A good many of us thought at one time that disabilities of the kind dealt with in the Bill, although still on the Statute Book, would lapse through the greater knowledge and wider understanding of the general public. There are still one or two strange anachronisms left. I myself, many years ago, acted as secretary to a strange organisation known as the Society for the Repeal of the Blasphemy Laws. I have never attempted to introduce a Bill dealing with the Blasphemy Acts, not because I consider it impossible to deal with blasphemy but in the belief that that particular anachronism had lapsed in the course of time. It has been found necessary, so far as witchcraft is concerned, to bring in this Bill and I agree with what has been said about the need to repeal the Witchcraft Act and all that it involves.

I think that the first Clause of the Bill introduces, so to speak, a new crime and a new penalty, which I think is good. But it still leaves a certain amount of ambiguity in the determination of what is known as "fraudulent device." As one who has taken a sympathetic interest in spiritualism but who is certainly not a spiritualist, and who believes that a good many phenomena which spiritualists produce are capable of a different interpretation, I believe that the very phrase "fraudulent device" may be ambiguous. We know sufficient of the strange workings of the sub-conscious mind to realise that very often people deceive themselves. They have obsessions which they do not know to be obsessions, even though others know it full well; and sometimes, quite unconsciously, they employ all kinds of strange devices which, from the ordinary standpoint, are certainly fraudulent, but which, from their standpoint, are innocent.

I hope that in the future this Bill will not be interpreted so as to make it difficult for those who have such obsessions to remain where they are, as simple citizens, and that it will not be employed against those of strange mentality in order to make them out to be fraudulent and, therefore, capable of being brought within the penalty of the law when, actually, they are merely odd persons.

I endorse wholeheartedly the extension of this great relief to a very important section of the community. I assure both hon. Members who have moved and supported the Third Reading of this Bill that, although many of us, having studied spiritualistic phenomena, have come to conclusions other than those which they have reached, we hope that towards this particular community—and all other small and, to some people, strange communities—there shall be the widest toleration. After all, only experience, freedom, investigation and time can sort out the wheat from the chaff. Because of that, I am very glad to welcome this Bill.

11.36 a.m.

Mr. Arthur Colegate (Burton)

It would be ungracious if no one from this side of the House extended congratulations to the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks), who is so popular with us all, on the achievement of what I know is one of the greatest ambitions of his life. He has succeeded—because it is clear that we shall give this Bill its Third Reading—and I feel sure that we all rejoice that one more stone has been added to the edifice of religious liberty which we in this country value so much.

11.37 a.m.

Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)

As one of the hon. Members who have the people most concerned with this Bill in their constituency, I am glad to express, on behalf of those people, who are a body of very worthy citizens, the gratitude they must feel for what we have tried to do for them through this Bill. It is interesting to know that we have come to an end, at least so far as I can see, of the Witchcraft Act. That is a worthy thing to have accomplished after so many years of the protection that this Act is supposed to have given the community. Now, at last, we risk ourselves on the open plain without any shelter from that or similar Acts. We are very wise to give to people who have their own beliefs the opportunity to carry out their religious observances with the same freedom as other people.

I heard from my hon. Friend most responsible for this Bill high praise of the Home Office. I had not thought it possible to hear in the House such praise or a certificate of good conduct drafted as my hon. Friend's was drafted. I am evidently in need of considerable education, which I am very glad to say I humbly received this morning. It seems that there are warm-hearted people at the Home Office—and that I should hardly have thought possible—who are prepared to help the good causes which occasionally come before this House.

11.39 a.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

I share the feeling of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Mr. J. Hudson) about the Home Office. Certainly, I have never heard such eulogies bestowed on it during my period in the House, no matter what my personal relationship with that Office may have been. But at last we have been found out. I most heartily congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. T. J. Brooks) upon the success he has achieved for the people of his own faith and order in securing the passage of this Bill through the House with so little opposition. In fact, the only matter that may have caused a moment's perturbation was the fact that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary moved two Amendments in Committee to the Bill; but as they were disposed of in six minutes, I cannot help thinking that that was a help rather than a hindrance.

The passing of this Bill marks a further stage in the recognition in this country that what we need in religious matters is not uniformity but unity. We are all striving for the same end, but we are so constituted that one thing appeals to one man as the best approach to the common end, and another man finds his help and spiritual sustenance, and his opportunity for service, in another approach. It is the combination of all those efforts that will enable us to make the world a better place in which to live and to realise the highest ideals.

I belong to a denomination, like my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Sorensen), which was excluded from the Act of Toleration. In fact, I know of one famous Huguenot family who came from France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and immediately they landed they declared themselves Unitarians, so that they lost the benefit in this country of the Act of Toleration. Of course, there are some people who are determined to be persecuted no matter what may be the place in which they live.

But all that has now gone. The one remaining blot on the Statute Book was the possibility that sincere, honest, religious people might find themselves the subject of prosecution under the antiquated Witchcraft Act. That now disappears. There are adequate provisions in the Bill, agreed by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton and the people whom he represents, which prevent the use of this freedom for fraudulent purposes by charlatans or others. I commend the Bill to the House, and I hope that when it gets to another place it may have a speedy passage so that it may soon be incorporated in the Statute Book.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.