§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.10 a.m.
§ Mr. Lionel Heald (Chertsey)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
May I first express to His Majesty's Government my thanks for their cooperation in connection with this Bill, and particularly to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General who has given me great encouragement and support at moments when things looked very black, as they often do in these cases as it would seem from reading the past history of Bills promoted by the former senior Burgess for Oxford University and others. In particular, the right hon. and learned Gentleman was most helpful in securing for me the assistance of the Parliamentary draftsmen without whose skill and experience, I think you will know well, Sir, such an enterprise as this would, very likely, be rash to the point almost of foolhardiness.
Having said that, I should make it quite clear that that does not imply necessarily the Government's support for the Bill. I mentioned it simply, first because I wish to acknowledge the courtesy with which I have been received, and, second, because it shows once more that it is possible for us in the House to work together in joint action on matters which are of public interest and upon which there is no party difference.
In view of the public interest which has apparently been attracted by this matter. I think it might be helpful to hon. Members if I said a few words to clear away one or two misunderstandings which appear exist from correspondence which I have received, and which has been received by other hon. Members. The first arose from a newspaper suggestion that the Bill repealed the Sunday Observance Act. It is not surprising that that upset one or two people, but, of course, it is only a very partial and preliminary view. I think it arose from a rather premature comment on the matter, and I am sure hon. Members with the Bill before them will have no doubt about that. After all, I have sufficient upon my plate without that, and 2080 it would be very foolish of me to rush in where I suspect even such celestial beings as the Home Secretary would fear to tread.
The Bill leaves the substantive law on Sunday observance, and indeed, the substantive law on every subject, quite unaffected. It leaves the Sunday Observance Act and all its obscurities and uncertainties untouched. It merely deals with the method of enforcement. It would be far too Augean a task for a Private Member to try to do anything with the Sunday Observance laws. Further, the correspondence which I have received, and which, I believe, has been received by other hon. Members, shows that some ardent constitutionalists have been concerned by the Title of the Bill, and have not perhaps appreciated that the words "common informer" make up a well-known technical expression which has now come to have an established meaning in our law.
After all, it is the essence of our respect for law and order in this country that every citizen should regard it as his duty to assist in the enforcement of the law and the protection and the prevention of breaches of it, and therefore, to inform the police of any significant breach of the law that may come to his notice. Therefore, not only is there no objection to giving information in the broad sense of the word, but indeed, to fail to give such information may have serious consequences, particularly in such cases as what are known as misprison of treason or felony, which are punishable very heavily indeed.
There is nothing in the least wrong with informing in the broad sense, but the Bill is concerned with something very much more limited, and the expression "common informer" is defined, in Stroud's Legal Dictionary, which bases it upon Blackstone's Commentaries, in these words:A common informer is a person suing for a penalty which goes to any person who will sue for it.The Bill is designed to abolish all those statutory provisions which enable a person who has no interest in the matter, except as a member of the public, to get paid in effect for doing his duty. The mere fact that it is the duty of everyone to give information of breaches of the 2081 law makes it all the more important that that should be done without, as it was once said by a judge, enlisting motives of private greed.
Those of us who are supporting this Bill think it is wrong that such a person should be allowed to adopt the dignified rôle of a plaintiff in a court of justice where his motives and his behaviour may lead, as some hon. Members know they have led in recent times, to the law being brought into disrepute, if not actually into contempt. It is inevitable that blackmailing methods will be adopted and will flourish when a private person is a party to litigation. He is not concerned with the redress of his own wrongs or the furtherance of his own rights, but is simply under an option as to whether he will or will not demand a penalty. The results of that are quite inevitable.
This basic objection to the common informer is by no means a new one. It goes back a very long way indeed, but, as so often happens, those who attacked this institution in the old days were before their time. I feel that hon. Members will be very sympathetic to some views expressed on this subject by a great lawyer who was one of the illustrious predecessors of the right hon. and learned Gentleman and also, Sir, was a predecessor of your own, being, I think, in the interval imprisoned in the Tower. That was Sir Edward Coke. In his great work "The Institutes," in the third volume, on pages 191–194, he refers to the common informer in language which I would like to quote.
First of all, he classifies the common informers as includingrelators, informers and promotersand he calls themturbidum horninum genus.Then he gets thoroughly into his stride, and refers to the common informer in language which is rather ahead of his time. He calls himthat viperous vermin.I think the addition of the adjective is new, but it adds to the vituperative force of the expression, and I make a present of it to anyone to whom it might be useful.
He goes on to say:The vexatious informer who, under the reverend mantle of law and justice, instituted for the protection of the innocent and the good of the commonwealth, doth vex and 2082 pauperise the subject and community of the poorer sort, for malice or private ends and never for love of justice.I think those words can be used as a proper text for this Bill today. Even Sir Edward Coke did not go so far as to propose the complete abolition of the common informer. It was far too well-established an institution in the 17th century, and all that public opinion would stand at that time was some measure of control and restraint over activities which had clearly reached astonishing lengths. I shall certainly not weary the House by giving an account of the origin of the common informer, which goes back to the very dark ages, but, as we are asking the House to agree to start the procedure whereby a very ancient institution will be abolished, I feel that it is right that the obsequies should be conducted in a fitting manner.
Hon. Members will see that the list of statutes in the Schedule to the Bill, which are some 40 in number, begins with an Act of Edward III, which I should like to mention briefly, because it gives an admirable example of the original purpose of and justification for this procedure, and helps to show why it is obsolete today. That Act, 5 Edward III, Chapter 5, was expressed to be an Amendment of the famous Statute of Northampton, which had been passed a year or two earlier in 1328, and which, among other things, regulated fairs and markets, requiring them to be conducted only in accordance with the charter. It appears from the later Act that that earlier provision had failed, and it had failed, no doubt, because information had not been obtainable as to breaches of it in country places, and, therefore, the Act of Edward III provided that any member of the public might inform of breaches and recover a part of the specified penalty, the remainder going to the Crown.
Thus it can be seen how, in those days, in the absence of police, civil servants or officials of local authorities, such as inspectors, and so on, of whom it cannot he said that there is any dearth today, it was not only useful but necessary to provide what we might call this amateur machinery, and also to rely upon incentives to a public conscience less developed than it is, in some respects, today.
2083 The same method was adopted in numerous Acts in the following centuries, and most varied subjects were covered by them, as may be seen from the titles of these various statutes. Usually, the penalty was in the form of a fine shared between the Crown and the informer, usually in the proportions of half and half, but there were also forfeitures involved, and, in some cases, actual physical sanctions. The high water mark of this kind of thing is reached in a statute of Edward VI, which, I believe, the House will find rather astonishing. I should mention that it is not in the Schedule to the Bill, because it was, in this respect at any rate, repealed at an earlier date, I am glad to say.
This was as I say about the high water mark of this kind of operation. That Act—1 Edward VI, Chapter 3, the Vagabonds Act—first of all provides the normal ordinary common informer penalty, that, if any city, town or village allowed people to be idle when they ought to be working, the common informer should bring an action and could recover part of the penalty, the remainder going to the Crown. But it went a great deal further, because it provided in this way, and in language which we might think is not altogether inappropriate in some respects today:Forasmuche as Idlenes and Vagabundrye is the mother and roote of all theftes Robberyes and all evill actes and other mis-chiefs and the multitude of people given therto hath allwaies been here wthin this Realme verie greate and more in nombre as it maye appere then in other Regions, to the greate Impouverishment of the Realme and daunger of the Kings Highnes Subgects, … that who so ever after the first daie of Apryll next following man or woman being not Lame Impotent or so aged or diseased wth sicknes that he or she can not worke, … not applying them self to some honnest and allowed arte Scyence srvice or Labour, … shalbe taken for a Vagabounde and that it shalbe lawful to … anny other parsone espying the same, to bring or cause to be brought the saide parsone so living Idelye and loyteringlie to twoo of the next Justices of peaxe there Resyaunt or abyding, who hearing the proefe of the Idle living of the saide parsone by the saide space living idelye as is aforesaid approved to them by twoo honnest witnesses or confession of the ptie, shall imediatelie cawse the saide loyterer to be marked with an whott Iron in the brest the marke of V. and adjudge the said parsone living so Idelye to such presentor to be his Slave, To have and to holde the said Slave to him his executors or assignes for the space of twoo Yeres then next following and to order the saide Slave as followethe That is to 2084 saie; to take such parsone adjudged a Slave with him and onelye giving the saide Slave breade and water or small dryncke and suche refuse of meate as he shall thincke mete cawse the saide Slave to worke by beating cheyninge or otherwise in suche worke and Labor how vyle so ever it be as he shall putt him unto;".
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
Could the hon. and learned Gentleman say when that Act was repealed? It was an Act against the poor and unemployed.
§ Mr. Paget (Northampton)
Was it not, in fact, an alternative to a War Pensions Bill, which provided for dealing with soldiers returning from the Continental wars?
§ Mr. Heald
It may well have been, but I notice that there is no provision that people should not be allowed to work if they are getting pensions.
I hope the House has not thought that it is a waste of time to refer to these matters, because they have been closely linked to the matters we are considering. One also remembers the references to common informer activities in the State trials of the 17th century, in which Coke, on one side or the other or in the dock, had a good deal of experience. That Act is not in the Schedule, but there are a number of other examples, which some of my hon. Friends may possible mention and which are very remarkable indeed. These explain why, in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, there were several Acts which recited the oppressive nature of the common informer procedure, and introduced rules and regulations to curb their activities, including one—28 Elizabeth, Chapter 5—which actually applies corporal punishment to the informer, a provision which might perhaps be revived. In 31 Elizabeth, we find:For that divers of the Queen's subjects he daily unjustly taxed and disquieted by common informers.As I have already mentioned, even Coke was not able to propose their abolition, and, even in the 17th century, they had really got back into their stride, and I believe that it is a fact that they actually became part of the local 2085 machinery in certain parts of the country, thereby anticipating a development of the present day—the paid snooper. We cannot abolish these, I am afraid, by means of this Bill, but it is interesting to note that the common informer received an official status at that time, and not only got part of the penalty but also got paid for looking out for it.
As hon. Members will see from the Schedule, in the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century the procedure was freely inserted in statutes. Of course, during that period we have the famous 1780 Sunday Observance Act, which appears in the Schedule. There seems to have been no real objection to this procedure raised again in any coherent form until 1875 when the Remission of Penalties Act was passed. That allowed the Home Secretary or the Crown to remit the penalty or part of it.
I have read the proceedings which led to the passing of that Act, and it appears to have been thought at that time that that would have a very salutary effect. But I believe the Home Secretary would be able to confirm that that is not really the case, because the Home Secretary is then faced with a most embarrassing decision as to whether the penalty, or some part of it, shall be remitted. That is a very difficult decision to make, and, in fact, is usually made in the direction of a compromise, as these things very often are, with the result that the Home Secretary remits half of it, or something of that kind. At any rate, I hope it will be agreed that that is not a satisfactory situation at all.
There has been no new enactment of the common informer procedure in the last 100 years. There is an apparent exception in 1949, the last of all in the Schedule, and that, perhaps, ought to be mentioned. It is the Representation of the People Act, 1949. That, I understand, was not a fresh enactment in any sense; it was a consolidation Measure. It was necessary, unless the common informer was to be abolished altogether, to re-enact certain provisions enabling constables to deal with possible misbehaviour at polling booths, and matters of that kind. I think that should be covered in the same way.
We have here to deal with an institution which has not been put into force in any fresh way for the last 100 years, and, 2086 therefore, some hon. Members might be tempted to say that as all this is really obsolete, why should we worry about it? Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that it is by no means obsolete. Hon. Members may have read of the activities of a certain gentleman who, before the war, was active under a rather short and not very pretentious name, and who brought one or two actions. Sometimes he was successful and sometimes not, but after the war with, I suppose, increasing skill and status in his profession, he changed his name to a very much grander one, and he has taken proceedings in a number of cases during the last few years.
For one reason or another, he was not altogether successful in the courts, but the main part of his business was conducted outside the courts. We can only go on his own statement of his activities as reported in the Press. He there stated, quite frankly, that he was not himself a Sabbatarian, that he was not interested in what people did on Sunday, but that he had had his attention drawn to the common informer procedure, and that it occurred to him that this promised quite a lucrative business if handled in the right way.
He set up in business, and, as I say, most of his valuable work was done outside the courts. It actually appears that he was able to induce people to enter into agreements with him under which an annual payment was made in consideration of his not informing. In some cases, the sum involved is said to have been as much as £250 or £300 a year, and he is supposed to have made some thousands a year out of this rather curious business. He came to an end a short time ago, at any rate temporarily, and was given notice in an action that he had brought that all these matters and certain others, which it is not necessary to go into, would be proved against him if he persisted. He failed to turn up, and, according to a recent statement in one of the newspapers, he says he has decided to go into another business, and, which is rather interesting, has decided to change his name back to what it was.
That, of course, has its humorous side, but it is a fact, as hon. Members will know—many better than I—from information they have received and which they have communicated to me, that that kind of activity has been going on, though 2087 I do not say only with that particular person. Those of us who have to deal with the law know that the more successful that kind of activity is, the less is heard about it publicly, and there has been a great deal of it going on behind the scenes.
I fully recognise that there are some people—I do not say that it is a very large number—who would like to see the Sunday Observance Act very strictly enforced. I do not for one moment question their motives or attack their sincerity in any way, but I feel and hope that they will be the first to agree that it is not desirable to have machinery of this kind which can be abused, that the motives from which a man should act should be of the highest character, and that he should not require to be paid for doing his duty as a citizen. I hope we shall find that is the view of those people. I may say that, in so far as I am concerned, I have received no objection to this Bill from anyone holding views of that kind.
It has been suggested that the matter might be dealt with merely by abolishing the penalty and allowing people to inform. But I think hon. Members will see that that does not in any way affect the blackmailing side of it. After all, the fact that the informer himself cannot obtain anything is of little consolation to the person likely to be attacked if he can be made to hand the money over to the Crown. Therefore the blackmailing side is just as possible, and no advantage would be gained.
One matter that I should mention is that in the Bill we have made it clear that not only private persons, but also the Crown should no longer, if the Bill is passed into law, bring these civil actions in the courts. That involves this rather curious situation. So far as I have been able to ascertain—it is very unusual, and in fact, I have found no precedent for it—it is necessary to provide by the Bill that it should bind the Crown, and permission of one kind or another will have to be obtained for that. I understand that if that permission is obtained on Third Reading, it will deal with the matter, but we shall, of course, in that case, have to ask for the assistance of His Majesty's Government if they are willing to give it.
2088 Finally, I wish to emphasise that we are in no way touching the criminal law. I might, perhaps, read the subsection that deals with that under the Act, although I may be out of order in doing so. It says:Nothing … shall be construed as applying to any proceedings for the prosecution of a person on indictment or to any proceedings under the Summary Jurisdiction Acts.I think that is a matter which should be emphasised for the benefit of those persons who might be concerned about the enforcement of Acts such as the Sunday Observance Act. They can see there that the matter can be dealt with according to the ordinary provisions of the criminal law, and in order to safeguard the possibility—and it is only a possibility—that a substantial case might arise where, under one of these many Acts, there is no possibility of criminal procedure as there is under the Sunday Observance Act, we have provided under Clause 1 (3) thatWhere any person would, but for subsection (1) of this section, have been liable to a forfeiture or penalty, he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds and, in addition, to any non-pecuniary forfeiture to which he would have been liable as aforesaid.I think that it will perhaps give some satisfaction to those interested in the Sunday Observance Act if I mention that under that Act there is already provision for proceedings of that kind because any place to which the Sunday Observance Act applies—places within the meaning of the Act—become ipso facto a disorderly house and can be proceeded against under the criminal law. To make sure that there shall be none of these cases left without proper remedy, we have added that provision.
There is one matter that I should mention which is of great importance. It is the question of the Parliamentary Disqualification Acts. As the House will know, enforcement of these Acts, not entirely but very largely, depends on common informer procedure. The MacManaway case was set in motion at the beginning by common informer proceedings, which were later withdrawn. In the past, these proceedings have resulted in heavy penalties. There was a case in 1913 in which £13,000 was awarded, and in another case two councillors in Morpeth were involved in a total of f1,500.
2089 It was thought by my hon. Friends and myself, when preparing the Bill, that we ought to cover that matter, because the principle is exactly the same, and it may be, although I have no evidence of it, that in the past it has been the subject of unsatisfactory and unpleasant action.
This, at one time, I am bound to confess, gave me several sleepless nights, and I was afraid that it would wreck the Bill. In the end, given the assistance of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General, we were able to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, because I was told that the Government intended to deal with the whole question of Parliamentary disqualification, and that the machinery that would be set up would not rely upon the common informer. I therefore decided that we should leave that out of the Bill, and I understand that a statement about the matter will be made today; so, although the principle will clearly cover these very important cases, it is right that they should be omitted from the scope of the Bill.
I hope that the Government will find it possible to support the principle of the Bill. In 1944, the Lord President of the Council described the common informer procedure as an antiquated and undesirable feature, and during the Festival of Britain debate the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General signified a general approval of the idea of abolishing it.
With regard to the wording of the Bill, I hope that it may be regarded as simple and plain. Certain matters must be included as I have already mentioned. Subsection 1 (1)has been drafted with reference to the Schedule. I may be said, "Why have a Schedule; why not put a few simple words in the subsection?" Having had the benefit of contact with them, one realises the very great difficulties under which Parliamentary draftsmen work, and I shall in future be careful of the way in which I criticise them after having had the advantage of working with them for a short time on this matter. It was found that to devise a form of words which would cover all the cases was rather undesirable.
The House will find that the subsection says:No proceedings for a penalty or forfeiture under any Act in the Schedule to this Act or under any local or private Act shall be instituted in Great Britain against any person after the commencement of this Act.2090 That will show that there is no doubt about it referring to older or private Acts, and that has been put in out of caution. I cannot refer to any particular instances, but in case there are any this was thought desirable. It is very difficult to look at all these Acts and it was thought desirable to cover them.
The criminal law is safeguarded. A safeguard is put in to provide for a penalty in any suitable case where it would not otherwise exist, and it is also proposed that this Clause of the Bill shall not bind the Crown. It is proposed that the Measure shall come into operation on 1st September, 1951. That may perhaps be an appropriate date because one of the Acts which is affected is the Partridges Act, 1799, under which there is still a provision which governs the close season for partridges extending from 1st February to 1st September.
I hope that I have not detained the House too long in explaining this matter, but it seemed to me that when one was proposing to abolish something which has been part of our law for many centuries it was necessary to show, first, that it had become obsolete, and, second, that it was necessary to take action to deal with it. I hope that we have approached the matter with proper respect. After all, in our law that is the way in which these things are dealt with, and I think that our methods of dealing with the law when it becomes obsolete have largely contributed to the respect in which the English law is looked up to all over the world. It is like a great tree which owes its beauty and stature to the careful and wise pruning of succeeding generations.
I hope that the time which I have taken today will not be regarded as wasted, even though the Bill comes at a moment when such great issues are at stake, because it does show, first of all, I think, that Private Members can make a useful contribution to the function of legislation in Parliament, and also that we are able, notwithstanding acute political differences, to work our free and democratic machinery and, by such a Bill as this, to show that respect for tradition and precedent are not inconsistent with ordered progress.
§ 11.49 a.m.
§ Mr. Hollis (Devizes)
Mr Speaker, I feel extremely grateful for my good fortune and for your favour in allowing me 2091 to be the next hon. Member to address this House after the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald), and, therefore, to be the first Member of this House—but I am sure very far from the last—to express to him my congratulations first on his good fortune in the draw, and secondly, on choosing this subject; and, if it be not too presumptuous for one who served under his discipline during the war, also to express my congratulations to him on what I think everyone in every part of the House will agree was an extraordinarily distinguished and extraordinarily fascinating Parliamentary performance.
It is very rare in these turbulent times that we have the opportunity of listening to a discourse of such wit and learning, and I am sure that it was a delightful experience for those of us who have been able and wise enough to be here this morning. My hon. and learned Friend has so fully covered the ground that I am sure the last thing the House would wish is for a mere layman again to go through the whole historical story. I shall speak for only a few moments, as my hon. and learned Friend has left so little to be said.
There cannot be any Member who believes apology is due by my hon. and learned Friend for having brought this matter forward at a time, as he has said, when great issues are at stake. One of the first things upon which we pride ourselves and in which we contrast ourselves with other regimes is that this is a free country, and our first criticism is of the habits of delation and sneaking that takes place in some other countries. That being so, nothing is more important than that we should take the opportunity to wipe out any reproach of this nature that there may be on our Statute Book. So far as there was any justification at all for this legislation, it was based on two factors that no longer exist.
As my hon. and learned Friend has shown, the greater part of this legislation dates back to a time before Sir Robert Peel and the existence of an effective police force. Whether or not it was necessary to have enactments of this sort in those other days is a question we need not delay to consider, but it is a complete anachronism that we should have such legislation obtaining in these days. The second historical reason is this. The 2092 reason for such legislation as the Act of Uniformity was because at a certain time, during the reigns of the last two Stuart Kings, Parliament had very little confidence in the will of the Executive to enforce the law that it had seen fit to pass. The Government were thought to be less keen on enforcing the Act of Uniformity than Parliament wished them to be.
Although there are many Members who lack confidence in the present Government, for one reason or another, that kind of situation has now passed away, and we can agree that it is pure anachronism that this sort of legislation should be on the Statute Book at this time. Indeed, this is proved by the fact that there has been no additions in recent times, except for the Representation of the People Act.
My hon. and learned Friend has made the position perfectly clear, and there can be no controversy as to what the Bill does propose and what it does not propose, nor can there, I hope, be any controversy that what the Bill does propose is something the House should accept and honour itself by putting on the Statute Book. There are plenty of differences of opinion, both inside and outside the House, as to what the law should and should not forbid. People have differences of opinion on the Sunday observance law and, no doubt, on whether or not it should be legal to play shove ha'penny. It is, I understand, at present illegal, but I am not sure by which of these Acts—perhaps there are some hon. Members who would like to make it legal.
There may also be differences of opinion about such burning issues as the Sale of Horses Act, 1555, or the Act to Prevent the Overcharge of the People by Stewards of Courte Leets and Courte Barons. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) probably has strong views on the Universities (Wine Licences) Act, 1743. But these differences are neither here nor there, because, whatever we may or may not do at another time, we are not now seeking to make legal any of those things which at present are illegal.
Nor are we seeking to prevent a citizen from performing his duty to call the attention of the authorities to some gross violation of the law when it is being perpetrated. We all agree that it is the duty of the citizen to call the attention 2093 of the police to any such gross violations of the law which may be taking place. But that is not touched by the Bill. All the Bill seeks to do is to take out the motive of private greed which at present defaces our law. It is a motive that is now ridiculous, odious, anachronistic and unnecessary. Whatever people may think about Sunday observance and all these other things, there can be no one who will not join in supporting and congratulating my hon. and learned Friend.
§ 11.57 a.m.
§ Mr. Parker (Dagenham)
I also wish to congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) for having introduced this Bill. I hope that the House will be able to give it a unanimous Second Reading. As the debate has shown, most of the Acts covered by the Bill are for the most part obsolete; either they are not being enforced, or else some sort of drastic overhaul is required if they are to meet modern needs. The fact that there will probably be strong support for the Bill does not excuse us from the duty sooner or later to deal with these obsolete Acts. We ought to get down to this job, and the Bill is no excuse for not trying to deal with them.
Some of this legislation has not been tackled through sheer laziness. Neither Governments nor Private Members have thought it worth while to tackle them But there are other subjects, such as the Lord's Day Observance Act, on which there is strong feeling. On these Members have experienced gusts of opinion or pressure from certain groups which have prevented effective action. Efforts have been made either to get the existing law enforced, or to suggest some solution that would not be generally acceptable to the House.
Let us take another example, the Act of Uniformity 1662, which has been mentioned. We must remember that part of the confusion of the law in this field is due to the fact that the House would not face up to the matter when the Prayer Book debate took place in 1927. The result was that the proposals for reform were turned down, proposals that could have been enforced, and the House insisted on keeping the existing law which cannot be enforced. These are some of the difficulties we get into by not tackling obsolete laws.
2094 We have set up a procedure for the codification of the law, but we cannot make an advance in codifying the law on many of these subjects if the House is not prepared, in the first case, to take the necessary action to repeal a certain number of them. If the House is prepared to tackle the difficult and more controversial of these Acts, then we can really get the law brought up-to-date. Unless the House is prepared to remove these anomalies, we cannot do it. I hope the fact that this House is in favour of the Second Reading will not allow us to overlook the need of sooner or later tackling these obsolete Acts.
One point I should like to raise on the Bill itself concerns the penalty. I hope it will be possible to reduce it from £100 to £50. The sum of £50 is the penalty, for example, in the Representation of the People Act for a policeman falsely canvassing during an election, and I would suggest that here it would be a more appropriate sum. There is a danger that when this Bill becomes an Act there may be a certain amount of pressure by certain sections of the public to bring some of these Acts, which have been falling into disuse, into force again, and secure the imposition of that fine of £100 in the courts. We might have a smaller penalty here.
I should like again to congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey on introducing this Bill, and I hope it will be given unanimous backing by the House. Once we have got it on the Statute Book, I hope hon. Members will have the courage to tackle these Bills which provide some of the anomalies of the law, and either clear them off the Statute Book or bring them up-to-date.
§ 12.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Hylton-Foster (York)
I hope the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) will forgive me if I do not follow him into the discussion of anomalies in the various statutes. We may have to consider that at some other time and place. I can, however, follow him in one matter, and that is in offering my enthusiastic congratulations to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) for giving the House this opportunity of delivering a mortal blow to an odious instrument of the law. It was indeed a very charming speech in which he did it, but lest our praise appear too 2095 fulsome I must tell him that his speech was most disappointing in one particular —he did not preface the more erudite passages with the phrase, "As the House will remember."
I myself made some researches, though very modest compared with those of my hon. and learned Friend. I made them, however, to find out who and when anything was ever said in favour of the common informer. I have been dismally unsuccessful, but I did find in the course of the Second Reading Debate on the Festival of Britain (Sunday Opening) Bill that the Lord President of the Council—and I sincerely hope I do him and the common informer no injustice—used words which appeared to imply that there might be something to be said for the common informer when he acted against a private person, but it would be an intolerable position if he were to act against a public and national activity.
That is not the way to look at this matter. If this is an odious instrument of the law, then his odiousness is not to be measured by the importance of the victim. The truth is, of course, that the common informer shares with the blackmailer and the receiver of stolen goods the characteristic of making a profit out of the misdeeds of others and it is revolting to justice that he should be licensed by the statute to do so.
The common informer has served very good causes in his time. The House will I hope bear with me for one moment because we have to perform the obsequies in a graceful way. We may have an antiquarian regret about the need to include the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act, 1531, in the Schedule because it gives the common informer the power to deal with an evil—the evil of the Archbishops' Courts and of people being cited in spiritual courts outside the dioceses in which they dwell, and of which there were terrible consequences. They had to pay 2s. or 20d. court fees when they got there, and 2d. a mile to the prosecutor for every mile he came to the court. Among the consequences of the Archbishop's activities which the House might desire to remember were…. to the greate occasion of mysbehaveour and myslyving of wyves women and svauntes and to the greate impeyrement and diminucion of thir good names and honesties.2096 I hope the Archbishops will not be in danger of re-creating that evil if we take away the common informer as the instrument of keeping them in order.
My hon. and learned Friend was quite right in saying that a common informer appeared from time to time as persons of unimpeachable respectability. I find that in 1680 the North Riding Quarter Sessions officially ordered a yeoman to be appointed as a common informer for the Counties of Richmondshire and Allertonshire. When one looks at the records of the Essex Quarter Session of 1719 it will be found that that county appointed for many years two officers to be known as common informers. They were chided about not taking their duties seriously enough, because they had got down to the state when they were only looking after weights and measures. They were charged to make a large inquiry over all.
I have no right to detain the House about these antiquities, but I wanted to add one point to the very complete case that my hon. and learned Friend has made for this Bill. I believe that there is even now, away from the antiquities, a very real danger that the common informer action may be used for personal spite. There is the case to which my hon. and learned Friend referred, the Morpeth case. That was an action at Newcastle Assizes shortly after the First World War. There the plaintiff got penalties against two responsible and respectable citizens—I am glad to say that the penalty was afterwards relieved—in circumstances where the learned judge found that the plaintiff was a mere puppet, and that the action was not brought in the public interest, but for revenge, in order to gratify an unfortunate antagonism that a town clerk had got for two members of his council who had opposed him.
While the common informer procedure remains, the danger of that type of action remains. I hope the House will take the chance to put an end to it. Not only this speech but the life of the common informer has been too long. We have been too long "vexed and disquieted" with his activities. I hope the House will be unanimous in giving this Bill a Second Reading.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) made a very good 2097 suggestion when he said that there should be an overhaul of the Statute Book in order to eliminate obsolete statutes from it, but that is not what we are doing here today. That is not a criticism of this Bill and in favour of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) it should be said that he does not attempt to do anything of the sort in this little Bill, which is designed to aim at one evil—the common informer. It is a very commendable Bill which, I hope, will have the support of every Member of this House.
There is no doubt that the common informer, as part of our civil and legal life, has long outgrown his usefulness—if he ever had any. The hon. and learned Member for Chertsey referred to what that great English jurist, Sir Edward Coke said, in the robust language of his age. He called the common informer a "viperous vermin" who, he went on to say, endeavoured to eat out the walls of the Church and the Commonwealth. In more modern times "Punch" has described the common informer as "that legal cad", and that was no joke. It was the bare fact.
From neither of these ponderous condemnations do I dissent in any way. The common informer is an unnatural creature of statute whose powers, limited to the particular statute conferring them, are of a contemptible kind and quite unsuitable to this age of better citizenship in which we live. It is quite inappropriate that anyone should today seek payment for doing that which is a citizen's duty. The common informer is—and always was—aparasite who is legally empowered to sue for money for which he has not worked. He is a spy and informer who ferrets out actions of others, actions which are not necessarily immoral but just forbidden by statute, and he uses the machinery of the law to make profit for himself by his spying and informing without regard to his civic duty or the interests of the State, city or village in which he resides.
The common informer has always been regarded with disfavour in past generations and many attempts have been made to get rid of him, to expel him from society and to expunge him from the Statute Book; but they have all failed. They failed for a reason which has prevented the passing of other desirable legislation, that the public opinion of the 2098 age was not sufficiently powerful to eliminate him. It is an adverse commentary on the morals and the morale of past ages that they were not able to mobilise sufficiently strong public opinion to eliminate him, and it is a favourable commentary on the morals and morale of today that there is a strong public opinion against him.
He may be said to have served some useful purpose in past ages when the Executive was weak, when civic conscience lacked the vitality which it has today, when extremes of riches and poverty discouraged good citizenship, and when the administration of the law was less efficient than it is today. Happily, we live in a better and nobler age when there is a lively civic conscience, a sense of public duty which makes the average good citizen realise his duty to the community and to the administration of justice, and when the good citizen takes the view that it would be disgraceful to take money for doing that which it is his bare public duty to do.
It is remarkable that the common informer has survived for so long. Early in the 19th century there was diversity of opinion about him. So far back as the year 1869 it was made manifest in a case in Marylebone police court by the juxtaposition of a common informer proceeding under the Sunday Observance Act of Charles II and a high-minded magistrate who very properly said of the common informer who appeared before him:It is to be regretted that private persons should attempt to enforce a statute which might very easily be turned to an instrument of extortion and oppression.But he was obliged to comply with the statute. That statute has been used for purposes of extortion and oppression, as the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey indicated in his admirable speech. It is only fair to say, however, of the Lord's Day Observance Society, to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred, that it has expressly said in relation to this statute:We do not seek money, but are earnestly bent on preventing the desecration of the Lord's Day.But this did not prevent the common informer using that organisation and other organisations to make profits out of his parasitical spying and informing, thereby bringing discredit on others as well as upon himself and outraging the gradually 2099 improving good taste and good manners of the period in which we live.
Many attempts have been made to alter the law on this matter. This is not the first attempt. In 1931 a Bill was introduced to amend the law relating to proceedings for recovery of penalties under the Sunday Observance Act, 1780. That Bill failed to pass. Later, another Bill with a similar aim was introduced, but it, failed to pass. In 1933 another effort was made to pass a Bill of this kind. Again it failed. In 1944 the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Sorensen) raised the matter on the Adjournment. Now we have the Bill presented by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey, and I hope it will pass into law.
The common informer was described in the following words by Mr. Justice Low in the King's Bench Division in 1917 in the case of Tranton v. Astor:The plaintiff is what is generally called' a common informer,' that is, a private person suing for his own profit to recover a statutary penalty. It was suggested by counsel in argument that the appellation 'common informer' was in some way a term of reproach. Although no doubt this type of litigant is not generally received with enthusiasm in the courts, I think that really the expression common informer' is only used to distinguish him from a State or official informer.I suggest, with respect to the learned High Court judge, that that was an understatement about the common informer. If we contrast ordinary informers, who are bad enough, with common informers we see how much lower and depraved the common informer is. An ordinary informer is often an alleged criminal who informs for the public good, to escape punishment for his alleged crime, and does it at personal risk to himself and after finds himself in awkward circumstances. He is not a lovable character, and I say nothing to extenuate or to blame him. But the common informer is in a different and a lower category. He engages in his spying and gives his information for his own personal profit, generally at no personal risk and not to extricate himself from any danger; generally, he is unconcerned about the public interest, and he is actuated purely by mercenary motives and his own cupidity.
There have been many examples in recent years. I will not trouble the House with more than two. In the time of 2100 William III, Parliament penalised certain lotteries and directed that the penalties of £500 on promoters should be divided between the Crown, the poor of the parish in which the offence was committed, and the common informer. Under the Larceny Act, 1916, a person who advertises a reward for the return of property and promises that no question shall be asked forfeits £50 and costs to anyone who sues for it. All the mercenary common informer has to do is to inform and collect the money.
I say nothing against the other provisions of the statutes under the common informer acts, but I do protest against the law allowing a common informer to use the law for making mercenary profits for himself. In these cases the end does not justify the means. In 1913 a common informer recovered £13,000 and costs against a Member of Parliament who had inadvertently committed a statutory offence. In 1917 a common informer recovered £29,000 against another Member of Parliament for a similar statutory offence. In 1923 a common informer recovered two sums of £550 and £800 against a member of a local authority for what was just a technical offence.
There are many other cases, but the essence of them all is that the common informer can wantonly penalise and tyrannise over others. He can make a profit by doing so. Such conduct, I submit to the House, has no place in our society today. It is a form of legalised blackmail, inconsistent with the better administration of justice, the better taste of the people of today, and the higher standard of morals in this enlightened age. The hon. and learned Member for Chertsey has performed a public service in introducing this Bill, and I hope it will have the unanimous support of every hon. Member.
§ 12.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Hopkin Morris (Carmarthen)
I join in the congratulations to the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) not only for the choice of his Bill but for the gracious, witty and learned speech in which he commended it to the House. I am not quite sure that the hon. and learned Member was right, however, when he said that there had never been a good word said for the common informer because, although he merited all Sir Edward Coke said of him, he had 2101 sometimes been of great benefit to the law breaker as well as benefiting by blackmailing him.
I think there is a statute of Henry VII which had to suppress the activities not only of the common informer but also of the law breaker who joined with him. The latter, having broken the law, chose the common informer from among his friends and his friend, having obtained judgment, shared the penalty. That activity had to be suppressed. So, once judgment had been obtained, that judgment was a bar to any further activities by another common informer. I hope the House will pass the Bill and that the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey will crown the work which Sir Edward Coke, among others, started.
§ 12.22 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)
I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, that I could not rely upon my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hopkin Morris) to speak for a little longer. However, I must congratulate him on the lucidity and brevity of his speech. I should like also to congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) on the most fascinating, witty and learned speech with which he introduced his Bill. The hon. and learned Member has been fortunate in having secured a place in the Ballot which has enabled him to present as a Private Members Bill a Measure which will remove from the legal arena an animal who at one time served sometimes a useful purpose but who is now universally regarded, as we have heard from all sides of the House, with rather general dislike.
The hon. and learned Member for Chertsey indicated how the common informer had originally come into being. It was only comparatively recently that all local authorities were obliged to have a police force. In the early days in our history, although the office of Attorney-General existed, it was not necessarily among his most important functions that he should ensure the enforcement of the law. The result was that, with no machinery for securing enforcement, Statutes might have passed unobserved had there not been an incentive provided to members of the ordinary public to set the law into motion.
2102 It was only in 1907 that the Costs in Criminal Cases Act was passed, which officially regulated costs in criminal proceedings and ensured that the prosecutor who initiated criminal proceedings had his costs paid. There were other provisions in regard to costs before that, but in earlier days it was not much good the private citizen invoking the criminal law because, although he might have the satisfaction of seeing the law breaker punished, he would also have to pay the costs in which he had been involved by bringing the prosecution, and his satisfaction might become a rather expensive one.
Therefore, in the early days the machinery of the common informer was introduced for the purpose of ensuring that from motives of private greed—a phrase which the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) adopted the other night from a judgment of Mr. Justice Rowlatt a few years ago—a motive which I was glad to hear the hon. and learned Member for York (Mr. Hylton-Foster) describe as odious, vicious and anachronistic; it was for that reason that in the early days of our legal history this machinery was provided to encourage people to bring proceedings in order to secure that the law was enforced.
It was not until 1856 that all authorities had a police force which might be relied upon to ensure that in proper cases where it was in the public interest so to do the criminal provisions of the law were put into operation. From that time the necessity for a common informer generally ceased to exist. Indeed, long before that date the policy of Parliament had been not to provide for penalties recoverable by common informers, but to provide that the matters which it was desired to prohibit were made criminal offences, were subject to prosecution in the police courts or the courts of quarter sessions and assizes, and were the subjects —except in one case—not of fixed penalties but of maximum penalties which could be adjusted according to the justice of the case by the tribunals before whom the cases were brought so that the punishment might fit the crime.
Now that we have reached the position that there is adequate machinery for securing the enforcement of the criminal law, either by the intervention of a pri- 2103 vate citizen or by the intervention of the police or by the intervention of the Director of Public Prosecutions or by the Attorney-General, the common informer procedure has ceased to have any kind of justification. So I am very glad that the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey has been able to take this opportunity of bringing forward a Bill which, I hope, will secure the final elimination of this—
§ The Attorney-General
I am obliged to my hon. and learned Friend—parasite from our legal procedure; or at any rate from our legal procedure in practically all the cases where he is still allowed to remain. I say in "practically all cases" because, as the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey has said, his Bill does not include within its Schedule the Statutes dealing with Parliamentary disqualifications. We thought that those were matters of some constitutional importance in which it was right that the Government should take the responsibility for legislation.
We have for some time been giving consideration to the disqualifications which arise from the holding of offices of profit or the making of contracts with the Crown. As hon. Members know, it is an exceedingly complex and complicated branch of the law; none of us really knows where he stands in these matters. [Interruption.] I had completely failed to observe the gesture made by the hon. Member for Edgbaston (Sir P. Bennett), otherwise I should have to look into his case. None of us knows where we are, and there have been a great many cases—
§ Sir Peter Bennett (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
An Act of Parliament was passed indemnifying me, and I had a certificate to be allowed to continue doing my war work and remain in this work.
§ The Attorney-General
I am extremely relieved to hear that, because I have quite enough on my plate already; but I must confess that it was only owing to the great efficiency of His Majesty's telegraph system that I was able to avoid falling into this trap myself when I was elected to Parliament.
2104 It is a complicated branch of the law, and one of great difficulty. We have been studying it for some considerable time. We hope to include in the Bill which we shall eventually seek to introduce a provision dealing with the method of securing that where disqualifications exist they can be brought to the notice either of the House or of an appropriate tribunal. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We did not think that the procedure provided in the present Bill, that of a criminal penalty which could be imposed in a court of summary jurisdiction, was an appropriate one for dealing with Parliamentary disqualifications. Here, matters of great gravity and difficulty may be involved and the tribunal which should be responsible for dealing with them should, obviously, be one of much higher status in the legal hierarchy.
We contemplate, when we finally draft our proposals, retaining some provision —and I think it is essential that some provision should be retained—whereby private citizens who are aggrieved by finding, or who find, that a Member of Parliament appears to be disqualified, should be able to bring the matter to the notice of the courts. It would be quite wrong to leave the matter solely within the jurisdiction of Parliament or to put the responsibility solely on the Attorney-General, who might not act. It is essential, we think, mat private citizens should retain a right of bringing proceeding in these matters, but it is not necessary that they should be encouraged to exercise that right simply by motives of private greed. Therefore, what we shall do, I think, when we introduce that legislation, is to provide for machinery but to eliminate altogether the penalty provisions that now attach to statutory disqualifications.
Having said that about the proposed Bill, I ought perhaps to say that I am not giving any guarantee as to when we can present legislation to the House. We have been making quite good progress in our studies of the matter, but I cannot promise at all what actual form the legislation will take or whether it will be possible to introduce it into the present session of Parliament. We are, however, most anxious to clarify and codify the law in regard to this particular section of Parliamentary disqualifications. When we do it, we intend to deal with this par- 2105 ticular aspect also, and I hope that we shall be able to do it without too much delay.
§ The Attorney-General
No. It is intended to deal only with what, in practice, is the most common disqualification: the usually inadvertent holding of an office of profit or the inadvertent making of some contract with the Crown. We hope to clarify and codify the law about these matters and, perhaps, make it a little more sensible than it is today, but we do not contemplate including in the Bill any provisions dealing with the other Parliamentary disqualifications. They raise, as the hon. Member appreciates, wider and more controversial issues, but this, I think, will be a quite non-controversial matter.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes
My right hon. and learned Friend emphasises that the contemplated Bill will deal with inadvertent offences. What would be the position of offences which were other than inadvertent? That would involve a question of intention.
§ The Attorney-General
I did not mean to suggest that at all. In the vast majority of cases—in fact, in every one that has been brought to my notice—the disqualification has been incurred inadvertently, but the Bill, of course, will cover the matter whether the disqualification is inadvertent or not.
§ The Attorney-General
I was not intending, in what I said, to draw a distinction as to that although there may be differences in the consequences.
§ Sir P. Bennett
Would the Bill enable the Government, during the rearmament days which are ahead, to make use of Members of Parliament as was done in the last Parliament, without their being subject to a penalty? I ask this only because the Attorney-General has said that the legislation might take a long time to prepare. We do not know how quickly at, emergency may come upon us and we may again want the assistance of such people.
§ The Attorney-General
I must not allow myself to be drawn into a discus- 2106 sion of what the Bill, which has not yet been presented to the House, may contain, but the hon. Member may be sure that I shall not lose sight of the point he has made.
§ The Attorney-General
Returning to the present Bill, I am very glad to see that some of the old Acts which are listed in the Schedule will be disappearing. I have looked through the various occasions in which the common informer procedure might be used, and I derived some interest from doing so. I had not hitherto realised, for instance, that in the reign of Henry VIII, the game of "slydethrifte," otherwise known as "shovegrote," which one hon. Member opposite called, I think, "shove ha'penny," was designated, not only on Sundays, as one of the:newe and crafty games and playesbut was made completely illegal. I am glad to think that although the statute is not being abolished, the common informer procedure will no longer place me in peril when I pursue one of my modest pastimes.
I was concerned also when I found that by an Act of 1541, "coytinge" was made illegal, as also was "logatinge in the fields." I thought at first that I had a shrewd idea of what these field sports were and I was rather alarmed about it, but I found afterwards that they were not what one of my hon. Friends behind me, apparently, thinks they were. Indeed, "coytinge" was not even courting or something worse. It meant simply the game of quoits, but it was illegal. As for "logatinge," that, again, was not what I had anticipated: it was no more than a game played by throwing pieces of wood at a stake fixed in the ground. Both these were forbidden, and both, no doubt, were a fruitful source of revenue to the common informers in those days.
The Government commend the Bill to the House. When we get into Committee we shall have to look at each of the statutes which are scheduled and which are affected by the proposals of the Bill. It may be that we shall want to consider whether one or other of them should he deleted for some reason or other, but to the general principle of the Bill—abolishing the common informer—we give our support and I am glad that the hon. and learned Member has been able to introduce it.
§ 12.40 p.m.
§ Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
The whole House will be glad to have heard from what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, that the Government give their blessing to this Bill, because, after hearing the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) we all wish Godspeed to the Bill. If brevity is the soul of wit it is also true to say that wit is one of the pillars of liberty and what attracted most of us in the speech of my hon. and learned Friend was that it veritably sparkled with liberty all the way through. It is a very significant thing that he has been able to introduce the Bill at a time like this, when we see the spark of liberty fading out in so many parts of Europe. It is also highly significant that at this time we are able to make a very real attempt to increase the liberty of the subject, when so much is being done elsewhere to close it down.
I was a little surprised that my hon. and learned Friend made no mention of a factor which, I believe, to be very largely responsible for the fact that the common informer is no longer considered necessary for the enforcement of the law. I should have throught that the incidence of the Press is one of the most significant factors in bringing that about. The Press are common informers on a major scale and, what is more, they accept payment for it. But I think the glory of the Press, as compared with the ingloriousness of the old common informer, lies in the fact that one always knows who is giving the information when one reads the daily newspaper, whereas in the old days the subject who was being reported upon by the common informer often had no idea who was giving the information. It is significant that we have been able to develop the present system of circulation of information about people, activities and things as we have done and that as we have gradually developed that system, we have been able to dispense with so much which was unpleasant.
Although I do not want to go beyond t the bounds of order, I believe that there are certain features, little practices, which are similar to those of the common informer and which, I think, are equally irksome to our people. The interference between mother and child as to whether, in a country district, when a child has a cold, an enforcement officer should be able 2108 to insist that the child goes to school, and issues threats to the mother if she does not send the child to school, is one. Those things are irksome and one would like to see them disappear.
There is one matter which I hope my hon. and learned Friend might consider including in the Bill at a later stage. That is the use which the State can make of anonymous letters. The writer of an anonymous letter is very similar to a common informer. This matter came up in the last Parliament, you may remember, Mr. Speaker, and at that time the Prime Minister was asked some Questions about it. I asked whether we could have an assurance that if any Department of State did receive an anonymous letter, that letter would be utterly disregarded and that it should be known that such letters would never be taken as the cause of any proceedings, or even inquiries. We were not given an assurance that that was So.
In these times, when, under certain regimes in other countries, neighbours inform on neighbours—in fact, it is almost their duty so to do—this Bill is a sign of the fact that we detest all that form of sneaking, to use a schoolboy phrase, for it is nothing more than that. If we could complete the process it would be so much the better. I believe that so long as it is possible for people to write anonymous letters to the police, to the State Department, or to anyone else and for action to be taken on them, we still have something in our body politic which is undesirable. I should like it to be made quite clear that not only the common informer but also the anonymous letter writer will disappear and that they should know that nothing would ever materialise as a result of their writing letters. I give my sincere blessing to the Bill which, I believe, will serve a very valuable purpose and I hope that in later stages we shall see the whole process completed to the great benefit of us all.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff. West)
I join with other hon. Members on both sides of the House in congratulating the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) on the felicitous way in which he has brought this Measure forward. It was a pleasure to listen to him and he must be glowing with satisfaction at the compliments which have 2109 been showered upon him. The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) went rather wide of the field and expressed a desire that anonymous letters should not be written any more. I presume that he is addressing his remarks to the wrong quarter when he speaks to hon. Members here. From time to time we all receive anonymous letters, but we do not write them.
Coming to the Bill before us, I think it ought to be borne in mind that the common informer has been a cause of distress to people of deep religious feeling in this country for a long time. I recalled this morning the debate we had over the question of the Festival funfair being held on the Sabbath day, when people of all parties expressed their feelings quite freely. There is a section of the community which seems to believe that the Sabbatarians—if I may use the word, although I like it not—are those who encourage the common informer.
I believe that the common informer has done more harm to the cause of those who have regard for the Sabbath day than any other person in this country. Those of us who regard the Sabbath day with any concern whatever will rejoice that when this Bill is passed no longer will the common informer be able to inflict himself on the community. When I was teaching, as I looked at my class, I used often to wonder what occupation would those lads have later in life. Someone, somewhere must have taught the public hangman and little thought that he was so doing when he had the youngster there. Someone taught the common informer. We here can make the lot of the teaching profession easier by removing this strange anachronism from our law.
The Attorney-General spoke about these obsolete Acts and ways in which people can be caught. As I understand it, the obsolete Acts are remaining and people will still be breaking the law, but the common informer will not now be able to make a profit out of pursuing their breach of the law. Unless these old statutes are repealed, I feel we shall be encouraging a disregard for the true values of the laws of this land. I rejoice that it has been left to a back bencher to bring forward this Measure, and I trust that this afternoon the House will give it a unanimous Second Reading.
§ 12.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Reader Harris (Heston and Isleworth)
I am one of the supporters of this Bill, and I should like to say how much we on this side of the House welcome what the Attorney-General has said about Parliamentary disqualification. We would welcome early action by the Government on that question because no doubt there are Members sitting on both sides of the House who have specialised knowledge and great experience on matters relating to such subjects as production, etc., of whose knowledge use could be made in the event of an emergency. We think it would be a pity if trained experience and knowledge could not be made use of merely because the machinery for dealing with the question of Parliamenetary disqualification had not been seen to. We welcome what the Attorney-General said, and we look forward to legislation at an early stage.
On the general question of the abolition of the common informer, I am particularly glad to see that the common informer procedure is now being abolished in the case of the Sunday Observance Act. Many of us still consider, despite what has been said in recent debates, that Sunday observance is a good thing, and we do not think that Sunday observance will in any way be destroyed as a result of the abolition of the common informer. In fact we hope that his abolition in relation to Sunday observance will mean that Sunday will be observed all the better because it will be done voluntarily. During the last 30 or 40 years Sunday observance has been brought into greater disrepute as a result of the actions of the common informer than by anything else.
There are societies in this country which are doing good work. I believe that even the Lord's Day Observance Society is doing good work; it has never sought to profit by the common informer procedure. We have now got rid of this frightful beast and we hope he will not come back; and that in due course it will be possible to get rid of him completely. I trust that the Bill will commend itself to the whole House, and that it will quickly pass through all its stages.
§ 12.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)
It must be a matter of gratification to the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) that the subject matter of this 2111 Bill is not only in no sense controversial but has been entirely a matter for congratulation so far as he is concerned. He certainly presented his case with considerable elegance although he was dealing with a matter which has certainly no indications of attractiveness about it. He did so not only charmingly and thoroughly but with much scholarship. He has put on historical record today material which is not easy to find in the ordinary book that is provided for the reader. In that respect and in other ways he has discharged a great service alike to scholarship, to common sense and to legal reform.
I wish in passing to refer to what the Attorney-General said about the question of Parliamentary disqualification. I do not say that he has overlooked the point to which I wish to draw attention but in the observations he made about Parliamentary disqualification there was no reference to it. I agree that Parliamentary disqualification should be dealt with in the way in which the Attorney-General indicated, but there is another aspect of the type of thing with which his remarks were concerned which I should like him to take into consideration. Whether he thinks it is entirely germane or not, whether it can be included in the same statute or not, are matters I should like him to consider.
Great injustice is sometimes done today not only in the sphere of Parliamentary disqualification but also in relation to the disqualification put upon certain members of local authorities. I should like the Attorney-General to consider whether, in dealing with this question of Parliamentary disqualification he ought not also to deal with various disqualifications which arise in connection with local authorities. Many councillors are disqualified from speaking or voting on housing questions which come before the local authority on which they sit. I agree that it is clearly a matter which must be carefully examined. I also agree that it is a matter in which the Attorney-General will wish to ensure that there is no such degree of interest on the part of the individual concerned as to make it improper for that individual being permitted to take any action in the matter, or that can cast any doubt on the propriety of his conduct in the discharge of his public duties.
Whatever may be said in support of dealing with or modifying Parliamentary 2112 disqualification which arises from certain sets of circumstances should also be carefully examined in relation to the local authority sphere in regard to the position of various councillors on questions such as housing merely because they happen to be council tenants. I know from experience in my constituency that many of the councillors, certainly, I think, the majority of the Labour councillors, are tenants of council houses; and every time there is a discussion on housing, a subject of the most primary and pressing importance to the local citizens, they are debarred from participating in the debate or voting. It is true that there may be a certain modification of that restriction by application to the Minister of Health, but only in respect of speaking, and it is only in a very rare and urgent instance that the disqualification is removed.
I wish to add my word of welcome to the Bill. It is certainly time, and long past the time, for this reform. The problem of the common informer reminds me of what Mark Twain once said, which was to the effect that everyone is always complaining about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it. During many years' experience I have constantly heard complaints and protests against the existence of this malodorous type, the common informer. I have never heard anyone say a good word for him. I have heard his actions denounced, and I believe it to be a matter of common agreement that his intervention today in the vindication of the law is absolutely unnecessary in the interest of justice, and, in the form in which his intervention comes, is absolutely wrong. The idea that a person should be able to take some action in a purely public matter in order to derive private gain must be entirely wrong.
The individual has the most ample forms of relief in his recourse to law in respect of his own rights. If he has a personal grievance, if he has suffered loss, if some wrong, some injury, has overtaken him, in whatever way his rights or property may be invaded or assailed, he has a right of action, some redress. Indeed, our law goes so far that even if he has merely an apprehension of future loss he has the right of recourse to our courts in order to safeguard his position.
Therefore, if he labours under any grievance or has sustained any loss by 2113 reason of some action which is a breach of the law he is enabled to take the fullest and most effective proceedings for compensation and in order to enforce his legal rights. Accordingly, in respect of any loss which he may suffer from some event which takes place and which is dealt with by an Act of Parliament, he has his full remedy. To go further and to say that that individual, with all those rights, both present, past and future, should also be entitled to enrichment, because some act which is against the public law has taken place in which he himself has not suffered one iota of personal damage, undoubtedly cannot be right, and is a principle which, if it exists, must be a stigma upon the law.
As an indication that it is wrong, one needs only to hark back to what appears to be one of the origins of the common informer. I have no doubt that the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey will recall this as being correct. I think the earliest origin of the informer's identity was under the designation of "common approver." That arose by some person coming along and informing upon another person who had committed a breach of the law, to which he himself was an accomplice. The common approver resorted to that course in order to give evidence at the trial and be thereby excused from the consequences of the crime he had committed; and in addition, get the compensation which went with the willingness to give evidence and the position of informer he thus occupied.
That became a freak and travesty of justice, and I think that what prompted the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey to bring forward this Bill was that it was a state of affairs which was rightly bringing disfavour of the law. It is obviously a disgraceful thing and a discredit to any legal system when such is the state of the law that these forms of legal proceedings can be brought, and accordingly it is time it was abolished.
Another consideration to which the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey gave emphasis—and it is a consideration upon which emphasis should be placed—is that this sort of action may be brought from various motives, none of which has any good purpose and all of which are indeed very bad. Proceedings of this kind may be brought out of spite, or purely for private gain or for even 2114 sheer egotism. There are few situations in life where proceedings may be brought in circumstances where all three of these motives may be combined by one who wishes to masquerade in the rôle of the performer of some service to the public. A person may in fact bring these proceedings purely and simply to do an ill-turn to a rival or competitor; and, what makes it even worse, it may have as its lever nothing more or less than pure blackmail.
Those who have experience in this form of litigation and this type of proceedings—and the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey cited a case—know that frequently these cases have either been brought for or previously lead to a campaign of blackmail. That is a condition of affairs which ought not to be allowed to continue. It is unnecessary to say that it should be clear to every hon. Member of this House that the springs of justice and legal action should, so far as possible, be moral, because the most powerful sanction of the law, if not indeed one of the main justifications for the law, is that its basis is moral.
One knows that all these fine principles have now and again to be modified. For example, where the State is in jeopardy we are well nigh entitled to do anything, whatever the motive. If there happens to be treason or some action against the safety of the State; if someone is obviously being a traitor or giving away official secrets, or doing something which must obviously cause injury to the State, it is perfectly legitimate to adopt any form of action in order to put an end to that and to bring the culprit to justice. But that seems to me to be the only permissible exception.
The Bill of the hon. and learned Gentleman seeks to bring to an end this bad practice of the common informer. But it must be remembered that, rightly or wrongly, it does not put an end to all the statutes which are catalogued in the Schedule. The law remains precisely as it was. The Bill does not eliminate the right of a person to inform. He may still continue to inform, but it takes away the incentive, the profit, from the act of informing. That is all this Bill seeks to do. It does not repeal a single statute mentioned there; it does not diminish by one iota any one of those Acts of Parliament.
2115 It is therefore important to remember that by this Bill the law is not changed at all, and a private person, far from being stopped from informing, is still entitled to do so. The only thing he cannot do is to inform so as to bring some profit to himself. That is all the difference which this Bill would make if it becomes an Act. That, of course, is a significant, substantial and very proper difference. It is one which this House ought to adopt and it is a respect in which the law ought to have been altered a long time ago. I would say to the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey that the provisions of this Bill when they are passed and put on the Statute Book will undoubtedly add dignity to the law without lessening the safeguards of the public interest.
§ 1.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)
I am sure that before going further I ought to say how difficult it is, after the very able and exhaustive review of the law given by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) for any hon. Member of the House to say anything more about this Bill. I think also that I should be voicing the feeling of the House if I congratulated him on what was a real triumph of forensic skill and knowledge of Parliamentary procedure in all its stages when he dealt very exhaustively with a Bill which the learned Attorney-General has yet to introduce. If I do not follow him in his criticisms of that Measure it is because I lack the nimbleness of wit and ability to deal with a matter which is not before us in prosaic black and white.
I congratulate most sincerely, as does every other hon. Member, the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) for taking private enterprise out of what was one of its first spheres, where, in a way, it first established itself and where it was at its purest. The common informer, after all, is not one of those people who receive subsidies from the State or who has ever received any assistance. It is a profession into which any man can enter and in which he can soon make his way by his own ability and dexterity. There is some interest in knowing that even in the 16th century such practitioners of private enterprise were, as the hon. and learned Gentleman so correctly 2116 said, described by a former Speaker of the House as "viperous vermin". If, in these rather lesser days, we have dropped the epithet, we should not be condemned on that score.
The hon. and learned Member for York (Mr. Hylton-Foster) was mistaken when he said that one would search in vain for an example of when the common informer procedure had, in fact, been approved. He also reproved the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey for not introducing the usual phrase, "It will be within the recollection of the House." If I may be allowed to correct that and put my speech in order in that respect, may I say that it would have been within the recollection of the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) and of the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), had they been here, that in 1913 the Conservative Party themselves put down on the Order Paper a Motion calling attention to the beneficent work done by the common informer. This was in the case of Sir Stuart Samuel, which has already been referred to on numerous occasions today.
Sir Stuart Samuel had, by inadvertence, involved himself in penalties payable to a common informer of some £46.500, and it was thought by the Government of the day that he should be indemnified against the danger of the common informer proceedings. But what happened? A most distinguished member of the party opposite, known—and rightly known—for the moral rectitude of his approach to all such problems, the present Lord Quickswood, then Lord Hugh Cecil, put the following Motion on the Order Paper on 13th June, 1913, in reply to a Bill designed to exempt Sir Stuart Samuel from common informer proceedings. Lord Hugh Cecil, as he then was, proposed to move this Motion:On Second Reading of Sir Stuart Montagu Samuel Indemnity Bill, to move, That this House, while willing that Sir Stuart Montagu Samuel should he indemnified from the exaggerated penalty which he has legally incurred, is yet of opinion that he should pay some moderate penalty appropriate to the negligence of which he has been guilty, and that the common informer should receive, in conformity with the policy of the Law, a sufficient reward for his vigilance and activity, and declines therefore to assent to this Bill.One will see that in those days of un-trammelled private enterprise there was a proper appreciation of the position of 2117 the common informer, and I am glad, when we are doing away with it, that we should, at any rate, call attention to the old guard of the party opposite who were prepared to defend this important bastion of private enterprise.
I should like to come to one other smaller aspect of the Bill. The hon. and learned Member for Chertsey suggested that the Bill should come into force on 1st September—a date which, he said, marked the beginning of partridge shooting. On a non-party Measure like this, I fully appreciate, and could not fail to give weight to the emphasis which hon. Members opposite place on that particular date and on the importance of seeing that this important festival is cleared from any danger of common informer action.
§ Mr. Bing
I was thinking not of the hon. and learned Gentleman's efforts to increase the ration for the rather higher-priced hotels, important though I realise it is, that morale should be maintained in this way, but of the amusements and pleasures of the ordinary people. In the month of August, and indeed in the month of July when the Wakes, and so on, take place in northern towns, there are a great many humble amusements which are still jeopardised by the common informer. Therefore, although it is purely a Committee point, I hope the hon. and learned Gentleman will look again at his date and see whether it is possible for him to make it a little earlier.
I mention this in particular because I think I can illustrate the value of this Bill to my own constituency. In my constituency and in the two neighbouring constituencies of Romford and Dagenham we have each year in the month of August what is known as the Three Towns Show. This is held on the Saturday and Sunday because, in my constituency, most of the people are working during the greater part of the week. Unfortunately, from proper motives—I can understand them —some of the clergy in the area have suggested that if the normal events in the Three Towns Show were open on Sunday, this would be an appropriate occasion for action by the common informer.
2118 For example, we had a bee-handling demonstration by a boy of 11. I understand him to be the youngest registered beekeeper in the world, and, although I am not an expert in this matter, I understand that for the purpose of handling bees it is necessary to wear a hat with a veil. The authorities have ruled that an artist may appear and may sing but may not wear any form of makeup, and that a hat or make-up would constitute a theatrical performance. Therefore, to ensure that the Three Towns Show was on the proper legal basis and would not be attacked by the common informer, it very reluctantly had to be decided that either the boy of 11 must handle the bees without his veil and hat, or else this part of the show would, have to be abandoned.
I know the clergy in my constituency. The last thing they would wish is that it should be thought that any of them were opposing this matter from a, pecuniary attitude. They regard this quite rightly as a moral question. But is it not much better, as in this Bill, that the matter should be left an entirely moral issue and that it should not be suspected by anyone that if persons proceed against the boy beekeeper of 11, they do so with the hope of getting £100 or £500, or that they do it otherwise than in the interests of true religion, untrammelled by any suggestion of pecuniary gain?
Without quoting the context of the Bill as fully as my hon. and learned. Friend the Member for Gloucester did, perhaps I may be permitted to say a few words on the subject of the omission from the Bill, for reasons which I perfectly understand, of all questions of Parliamentary disqualification and the common informer procedure in relation to that. I think the House would be well advised to accept this limitation because it is a curious fact that in the last 280 years, no common informer action has ever been successful in regard to a Parliamentary seat. Therefore, I suggest this is a matter upon which we could afford to wait some six months, and that the precedent which has been followed for the last 280 years may continue to be followed for the next six months.
While there are, in fact, no common informer prosecutions in relation to such matters, the age and the peculiarities of 2119 the Acts concerned make the action outlined by the Attorney-General one of great necessity. The difficulty is that very often these provisions dealing with the common informer have derived from Acts which originally had an entirely different purpose. In the draft of an Act made in 1922 for the purpose of consolidating the law relating to the common informer and the Parliamentary disqualification, oddly enough, the first Act, which appears in the Schedule is one which did not at that time have a long title, but which is described asAn Act for granting to their Majesties certain Rates and Dues upon Salt and upon Beer Ale and other Liquors for secureing certaine Recompenceds and Advantages of the said Act mencoed to such Persons as shall voluntarily advance the sum of Ten hundred thousand Pounde towarde carrying on the Warr against France.That war, of course, was at an end, a fact which was perceived by this present Government, because an Act was passed later altering the name of the enactment in question from a Measure dealing with the war against France to the House of Commons (Seats Disqualification) Act.
Acts of this nature containing provisions of this sort do abound, and, in my respectful submission, should be dealt with as soon as possible. The subject was dealt with in a committee in 1941 on offices of profit, and that committee urged that this procedure should be ended. In a memorandum by the former Parliamentary draftsman Sir Granville Rowe and Lord Campion, the suggestion is also made of the undesirability of a procedure which might well bring about a collision between the courts and this House.
For all these reasons, I hope that the Attorney-General will introduce a further measure as soon as possible, but I do not want to be drawn into the discussion of this matter like my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gloucester and spend a great part of my speech in discussing a Measure which has yet to be introduced. Therefore, I will end by once more commending this Measure, which, I believe, will do a great deal for the ordinary people of this country.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
Can my hon. and learned Friend say why there was the omission of the common 2120 informer procedure in regard to Parliamentary disqualification?
§ Mr. Bing
I adopt and agree with the view put forward by the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey on the point, also mentioned by the Attorney-General. It really is inappropriate to produce arguments as to what moral justification there is for including in the Bill before us some kind of penalty for somebody who comes into this House representing that he was qualified, but who intruded himself here, and possibly abused his position in the House by voting on critical matters when, in fact, he was not a Member of the House at all. It would be derogatory to the dignity of this House if such a person were to be called before a magistrate and if perhaps, right hon. Gentlemen from the Front Bench, had to give evidence to show that the man should never have been there at all and had no right to take part in that proceeding. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that it is a mistake to deal with the Parliamentary disqualification in the same case as that in which we deal with other disqualifications.
This Bill should be commended under two heads. First, that it does not, in fact, interfere in any way with the proper enforcement of the Sunday observance laws, but it does prevent that deplorable stretching of conscience among certain people who want to enforce the law. In these circumstances, a Measure of this kind will be welcomed by many of the clergymen in my constituency who are most anxious to enforce Sunday observance, but who will realise that their responsibility is at an end and that it is a matter for the State to take action. It is certain that the State will enforce the law in a proper way, and without, for instance, inflicting a penalty on the boy beekeeper, but one more in accordance with the seriousness of the particular offence.
I hope the Bill will be passed, for the reason that it is a Measure for resolving the present difficulty in the country, because it is the common informer who so often strikes, not at an organised fun fair,—even in some of the Welsh towns where one would have thought that those who opposed this would be widely available—not so much at the organised fun fair, 2121 as at comparatively harmless and innocent pursuits, organised by municipalities, political parties of all kinds and by social organisations. I hope, therefore, in these circumstances, that the House will give a unanimous Second Reading to this most excellent Bill.
§ 1.26 p.m.
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
The speeches which we have 'heard, have been unanimous in character in favour of the Bill and in recommending the Government to proceed with it and do not seem to have left very much room for further comment, but I am tempted to intervene for two or three reasons.
First, I got a very good reply, if I may say so, in the very good speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) who introduced the Bill. He was replying to an interruption which I made as to the date of repeal of the Act of Parliament which he said, and, I think, quite rightly, represented the high water mark—though, perhaps, it would be better to say the low water mark—in the history of those Acts of Parliament which are utilised by the procedure against which we are protesting today. Actually, I did not expect to learn that it had been repealed since 1945. To be frank, I did not expect to learn, either, that it had been repealed during the days when Tory majorities existed in the House of Commons. It was, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, repealed in the days of Queen Elizabeth.
That was the time when Tories—if such an opprobrious description could be given to them—were of a very different order. The Tories of Queen Elizabeth were of a very different order from the Tories of a later period. They were the people who were not prepared to leave on the Statute book an Act of Parliament that could be used by common informers and others aimed against the poor and unfortunate and the unemployed of those days, especially when the punishments accorded to them were to treat them not merely as vagabonds but to make them the slaves of anybody who was prepared to take them as slaves—a terrible chapter of the history of this country.
The days in which that Act was repealed were also the days in which the 1601 Poor Law Act was passed, which is very well described by many writers 2122 on economics as the Act of Parliament which really began Socialism as Socialism is now known in this country. Despite the fact that it was so long ago, it was the Socialist view that prevailed and made it unnecessary to keep so cruel an Act on the Statute Book.
I proceed from that point to ask a question or two about the necessity not only for proceeding against the common informer but against more of the Acts under which the common informer has gained so much for himself, and earned so much opprobrium. The opprobrium, indeed, is not due merely to his action as a common informer, but due to the fact that it has been found possible to use Acts of Parliament so completely out of date.
The Lord's Day Observance Society, which, I think, may claim the credit for putting the spark to the train that has finally led to the House being completely united on this matter, has been only a pale ghost in the discussion today. However, that Society can claim credit for having stimulated everybody into renewed thinking about this question. They have recently been pressing very hard in their propaganda on the matter about which hon. Members do not seem to have wanted to say very much today. They do not want to raise again the issue of the Lord's Day Observance Acts under which they have acted, and I assume from that, there is no desire to make any alteration in those Acts.
I am still speaking with a sense of indignation about those Acts being on the Statute Book in their present form because I believe they are a dangerous challenge to liberty in its best sense, and that, ultimately, they are a challenge to religion in its best sense. I would like to hear from the Government that there is some intention to deal not only with the common informer but with the Acts under which, particularly, such action has been taken. I am glad to say that I have received from men in religious circles, for whose opinions I have the highest regard, the explicit statement that the Lord's Day Observance Society has never benefited from the use of the common informer. They say that they had no part in stimulating the action of the common informer.
I admit that I was a little surprised to get that information, but, having got it, I would add my voice to those of others 2123 who have spoken in the debate and say that they have had no responsibility. It is true that I have had letters from the Secretary of the Society, Mr. Martin, in which he informs me that I am wrong—as I was in an earlier discussion—in assuming that they have had support from other quarters, which I thought were not very respectable. I am assured, too, that that is absolutely false.
§ Mr. Pannell (Leeds, West)
Was not that statement categorically made during the debate on the Festival of Britain by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker)? I have yet to learn that the hon. Member for Dagenham has withdrawn that statement. He stated quite categorically that certain brewery interests were concerned in the Lord's Day Observance Society. Everybody knows why he said that. It was suggested that they had a vested interest in Sunday. On what authority does my hon. Friend disclaim it? I may say that I am glad to hear it disclaimed.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)
I think we are getting a little outside the scope of the Bill.
§ Mr. Hudson
I hope I may be forgiven, Sir Charles, but very considerable reference has been made during the debate to the Acts under which the common informer has so frequently taken action. I was only wanting to be fair and to say that, so far as I was concerned, I now make no charge of that sort. As I say, I am informed that there is no justification for the charge. I have asked that there should be a publication issued by the body concerned so that everybody can see it for themselves, but I have been informed that the necessary supplies of paper are not available for this purpose.
I leave that point, and return to the particular issue which the Government and particularly hon. Members on these benches should consider. Unless there be some alteration of the Acts under which the common informer has taken his stand during the last few years, we are likely to be assailed, not only on such questions as the amusement park in Battersea, and other matters of a perhaps less serious character, but in ways in which our rights of public meeting and discussion are concerned.
At the last General Election I was asked whether the common informer was 2124 involved on this issue, and whether I would agree to bring in a new Measure in favour of the abolition of public meetings on a Sunday. I have been a member of the Labour movement for many years and have a long experience of Sunday meetings. They are often hardly distinguishable from religious meetings though political in character. Keir Hardie himself addressed such meetings in almost every town in the country, and his religious appeal was just as vigorous as his political appeal on those occasions.
Therefore, to talk about the possibility of the common informer, proceeding under Acts of Parliament, ultimately bringing about the cessation of the right to hold public meetings on a Sunday is, to me, a complete affront to democratic opinion in these days. But those were the questions put to me at public meetings. They were not sent to me as the candidate in the form of a questionnaire. I protested at the meetings that anyone should consider the possibility of such a thing in these days.
If there is to be any further right of the common informer to take action against those who organise a gathering of people simply because it is called a meeting, then some of the well-established religious gatherings that have been taking place for hundreds of years, such as the meetings of the Society of Friends, could possibly be brought to an end by such a process. I am quite certain, therefore, that there is room for the clarification of very much more than the mere technical right of a man to make profit for himself under Acts of Parliament which he is able to cite in aid.
There is need for reconsideration of all these Acts mentioned in the Schedule and many others besides. This is a very pressing need, and although I admit that the Government has more important things on its plate at the moment, I think that reconsideration should be given to these matters.
§ Mr. Hudson
There is no sign of the hon. Gentleman having very little meat on his plate. Neither is there any sign of it when people look at me, and I am not one of those making a fuss about the meat on my plate. It is the starvelings opposite who are making all the fuss. When I talk about the things on our plate, 2125 I am talking about the useful legislation which this Government has contemplated and is trying to get through.
I admit that it is difficult to force this question too far. I am however seriously suggesting that a careful survey should be made of such Acts as the Lord's Day Observance Act to bring them more into line with the needs of the present day. I hope that this Bill will be put into law, and I join with everyone in the House in congratulating the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey on introducing it and on making a speech which has interested us very much indeed.
§ 1.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
I am sure that we are all grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) for introducing this very important Measure. I found some difficulty in understanding why we had so much trouble over the Festival of Britain Bill in view of the apparent unanimity of the House on this issue of principle today. If the Government had made up their minds on that issue of principle, we might have avoided a good deal of trouble.
I can put forward a personal record on this matter which ought to give me a right to take part in the debate. When I fought my first Parliamentary election in 1929, with success, I obtained the pledge and support of two organisations only. I have regarded them ever since with some affection. One was the Lord's Day Observance Society and the other the Off Licence Holders' Society. I think that not only as a Member of this House but as a lawyer we ought to be very grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman—[An HON. MEMBER: "There are far too many lawyers in this discussion."] If I could pursue that point I should be most happy to do so. Perhaps I may summarise the argument by saying that I have never apologised for belonging to the same profession as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Lenin, Pym, Coke and the Prime Minister.
I was saying, when I was interrupted, that we should be grateful to the hon. Member for his researches into the law, because I am sure that none of us realises the fantastic opportunities for obtaining wealth, which we are missing through not knowing all the things against which one can inform. One can take steps to deal with fairs or markets, some of them 2126 late at night. One can deal with marks on silverware and collect £100 here and there on that Then there is the Disorderly Houses Act, which deals with every form of legitimate and illegitimate entertainment.
One can collect money for breaches of Sabbath observance in many forms, and I hope to direct the attention of the House to the extraordinary terms of the principal Act in that connection. There is the Sale of Horses Act, 1555, and many other Acts—the White Herring Fisheries Act, the Bank Notes (Scotland) Act, the Apprentices Act—[An HON. MEMBER: "The Red Herring Act."] I do not know about that but I know that the technical definition of a red herring is that it starts as a white herring but becomes red in the course of the appropriate process.
There is the Fires Prevention Act, the Apothecaries Act, the Partridges Act, by which the owners of partridges are protected against being deprived of their interests in the preservation of game, and even the North American Fisheries Act of 1819, although whether proceedings can be brought in Great Britain or the United States, I do not know. The fact that the Declaration of Independence occurred before this, may have made that particular statute rather nugatory.
I want to direct the House to the sort of thing with which we are dealing. We have a very untidy series of laws which require dealing with. I have selected the first statute which appears in this list. That was passed in the fifth year of the reign of Edward III in 1331. It is quite short, and I shall not be wearying the House by reading it. It states:In the Parliament held at Westminster on the Morrow of St. Michael. A.D. 1331.At the Parliament summoned at Westminster on the Morrow of St. Michael, in the Fifth Year of the Reign of King Edward the Third after the Conquest; Our Lord the King, by the Assent of the Prelates, Earls, Barons, and other great Men of the Realm there assembled, to the Honour of God, and of holy Church, and at the Request of his People, granted and established these Things underwritten; the which he willeth to be holden, kept, and maintained for ever.Also where it is contained in the Statute made at Northampton, in the Second Year of the Reign of the King that now is, that the Lords, which have Fairs by Charters or otherwise, shall hold them during the Time that they ought to do, and no longer, upon Pain that such Fairs be seised into the King's Hands; and that very Lord at the Beginning of his Fair do cause to be proclaimed and published therein how long the Fair shall endure; and 2127 in the same Statute is no certain Punishment ordained against the Merchants if they sell after the Time; It is accorded and established, That the said Merchants after the said Time shall close their Booths and Stalls without putting any Manner of Ware or Merchandise to Sale there. And if it be found, that any Merchant from henceforth sell any Ware or Merchandise at the said Fairs after the said Time, such Merchant shall forfeit to our Lord the King the double Value of that which is sold; and to recover the same, every Man that will sue for our Lord the King, shall be received, and he that so sueth shall have the Fourth Part of that which shall be so forfeited at his Suit.That is the first one, and I shall not weary the house with any repetitive comment. Even that discloses that the Act has long since ceased to be of any relevance. It would refer, quite legally, to Petticoat Lane as to any fair held within the provisions of the Act.
I wish to refer to a statute to which a certain amount of attention has been directed, and that is the statute relating to the Observance of the Lord's Day, which was passed in the 21st year of the reign of King George III, 1781. I shall deal only briefly with the appropriate matter. It says:Whereas certain Houses, Rooms, or Places, within the Cities of London or Westminster, or in the Neighbourhood thereof"—That might be a little criticised today on the grounds of certain vagueness. It continues:have of late frequently been opened for public Entertainment or Amusement upon the Evening of the Lord's Day, commonly called Sunday; and at other Houses, Rooms, or Places, within the said Cities, or in the Neighbourhood thereof, under Pretence of inquiring into religious Doctrines, and explaining Texts of holy Scripture, Debates have frequently been held on the Evening of the Lord's Day, concerning divers Texts of holy Scripture, by Persons, unlearned and incompetent to explain the same, to the Corruption of good Morals, and to the great Encouragement of Irreligion and Profaneness; be it enacted by the King's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the Authority of the same" That, from and after the passing of this present Act, any House, Room, or other Place, which shall be opened or used for public Entertainment or Amusement, or for publicly debating on any Subject whatsoever, upon any Part of the Lord's Day called Sunday, and to which Persons shall be admitted by the Payment of Money, or by Tickets sold for Money, shall be deemed a disorderly House or Place; and the Keeper of such House, Room, or Place, shall forfeit the Sum of two hundred Pounds for every Day that such House, Room or Place, shall be opened or used as aforesaid on the Lord's 2128 Day, to such Person as will sue for the same, and be otherwise punishable as the Law directs in Cases of disorderly Houses;That Statute is quite obviously offensive to every idea of modern conduct. It is directed, quite definitely, not so much against a disorderly house, as against putting forward views on religion which do not accord precisely with the views of the Established Church. I apprehend that almost any religious meeting or debate on political topics, such as the meetings I hold in Oldham on Sundays, might come under the terms of that Act, except for the fact that in the case of Oldham it does not come within the neighbourhood of London or Westminster.
§ Mr. Pannell
Does my hon. Friend not consider that this House qualified last night as a disorderly House when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was speaking?
§ Mr. Hale
I think that "disorderly" is used in another sense. I should not like to suggest that this House was disorderly in that sense, although it might be if it sat on Sundays, when it might be a place of entertainment—I am sure that when my hon. Friend is speaking it must have more claim to that title than when some of the more sober Members are addressing themselves to broad legal issues. Speaking as a solicitor, I would say that the procedure on this matter has always been repugnant to the profession.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
I have agreed entirely with almost everything that my hon. Friend has said so far, but I think he was rather overstepping the mark when he said "always." I understood from his earlier argument that it was under the conditions of today that the common informer has become obnoxious; but he used the word "always." I hope that my hon. Friend was not intending any disparaging remark in regard to the wisdom of our forefathers.
§ Mr. Hale
I am certain that no one would wish to pass any reflection on the breadth of wisdom, knowledge and learning of King George III. If my recollection of history is correct, 1781 was just before he was insane; no doubt at this time he was enjoying the respect of the community. However, I accept the correction.
2129 I was saying that in modern times there is a certain repugnance in regard to this procedure. I am not suggesting that any solicitor who acts for a common informer is doing anything that is unprofessional, but that the idea of pursuing charity entertainments, concerts and meetings on Sundays—and if Members will not breathe a word outside I will confide in them that I propose to attend one on Sunday next—does seem to me to be a matter that is repugnant to the public mind.
I do not wish to delay the discussion on this matter, or on the other matters which are to come before us later on. I shall therefore try to bring my remarks at once to a conclusion, although there is much more that I should like to say. However, I have an engagement tonight in my constituency and, although this is an important discussion, I must apologise if I am not present to hear its conclusion. Had there been any controversy I should have thought it my duty to stay and record my vote, but, in the circumstances, I think I am justified in keeping my engagement. It has been a most interesting debate, and we have had some contributions of great learning. I listened to the remarks of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) with respect and great interest, as I listened to the weighty contribution of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing). I am sorry that I missed the opening speech, which I am sure was informative and helpful to the House.
I can only repeat that we are most grateful that the Bill has been brought forward, and that we should have been even more grateful had it been introduced before the Festival of Britain, when we might have ironed out some of the difficulties. We might then have been discussing, not so much an issue of principle, but the question of the Festival of Britain. However, we shall now bury these differences and give a welcome to the Bill, and, I hope, a speedy passage on its way to the Statute Book.
§ 1.59 p.m.
§ Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)
I apologise for not having been able to be present to hear the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald). I feel a certain diffidence in speaking in this debate, because I realise 2130 that this is a matter of complicated legal history. I have been studying the Acts mentioned in the Schedule, and it is a terrifying list of enactments with which we are now dealing. I have been intrigued at the variety of laws we are apparently amending. I see that one of the enactments is the Maintenance and Embracery Act, 1540. I am wondering whether that Act is to prevent a husband from maintaining and embracing his wife on the Sabbath. There are also other most interesting Acts into which I do not consider I am qualified to go.
I am interested in this partly because I come from an area, namely North Wales, in which the Sabbath still plays an important part in the life of the community. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas), has already made a contribution to this debate, which I was not able to hear, but perhaps he followed that line of argument. In Wales we take a very much more serious view of the Sabbath.
§ Mrs. White
Might I suggest that if my hon. Friend is prepared to listen to a Welsh sermon he might revise his opinion, because we still have some of the most eloquent preachers in any part of the United Kingdom. We in Wales are still serious in our attitude to the Sabbath, and many hon. Members who have spent their holidays in that country will know that we keep the licensed houses closed upon the Sabbath day, though sometimes it is found to be a little inconvenient to tourists and visitors. A number of representations have been made to me in my constituency quite recently urging me to take the part of the licensed victuallers in the area who are anxious that the Sunday Closing Act that applies to Wales should be repealed.
§ Mr. J. Hudson
Has the hon. Lady received any representations from her constituents about the way in which the licensed clubs are kept open on Sundays?
§ Mrs. White
I have received them from all sides, and my personal attitude was made clear at election time, when I said that the present situation is probably as good a compromise as we could reach.
§ Mr. Pannell
Is the hon. Lady aware that no two seaside resorts in Wales have the same by-laws relating to the Sabbath, and, therefore, the mere Englishman who goes from one Welsh town to another does not know when he is breaking the law and when he is not?
§ Mrs. White
I am grateful to the hon. Member for what he said and in the future guide to Wales, which I understand the Welsh Tourist Board is preparing, a list might be prepared of the provisions of local authorities on this important matter of Sunday opening and closing.
§ Mrs. White
I think that is a matter we might discuss in privacy outside.
To return to my main theme—we in Wales, for good or ill according to the point of view, maintain that the Sabbath is a different day from any other day in the week. We do not even have local option in the matter of Sunday opening. I would not pretend that we are unanimous on the subject throughout the Principality, and if it were practicable it might be that local option would suit us. I understand, however, from discussions I have had with the police authorities that they would oppose local option because of the difficulties in practice.
Although my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. L. Hale) has left the Chamber, I should like to tell him of the great advantage of being a representative in this House of a Welsh constituency. Hardly ever are we obliged to keep a Sunday political engagement, because we do not in general favour political entertainment upon the Sabbath. The only occasions when most of us indulge in it is, when we are having some meeting which will attract large numbers and the only building we are able to obtain is the local cinema or theatre on a Sunday evening. In general, I find it a great advantage that I am not obliged to participate in political activity upon the Sabbath day.
In saying all this I hope I am making it clear that though the representatives of the Welsh constituencies would be among the first to take an interest in any matter referring to the keeping of the Sabbath, we also join with Members in all parts of the House in objecting to methods 2132 hitherto employed of drawing attention to the Sabbatarian laws. I do not think anyone can defend the present method, which is not only in itself a telltale, sneaking method, but one which also brings money to the private pocket of the informer. There is something utterly despicable to present day sentiment in a procedure of this kind.
I am sure that all of us are very grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey and we congratulate him upon his good fortune in the Ballot. He was extremely fortunate in being able to bring his Bill forward on one of the earlier Fridays devoted to Private Member's Bills. I am interested in a Measure which will come forward later, and I would gladly have changed places with the hon. and learned Gentleman. We are grateful to him for having brought forward a Measure which has won such considerable assent from all quarters of the House, and we hope, despite the extremely formidable list in the Schedule, that he will be successful this afternoon in obtaining the consent of the House to the passage of the Bill on Second Reading, and that he will experience a smooth and easy time in Committee.
§ 2.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
I do not feel called upon in any way to apologise for venturing to take up the time of the House for a few minutes before the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) replies to the debate, and asks the House to give this Bill a Second Reading. Nor do I intend to strike any discordant note by criticising in any way the proposals that are contained in the Bill. I support the Bill and desire very cordially to give it my welcome, but it does not follow from that that I must be held necessarily to agree with everything that has been said by my hon. Friends, who have previously spoken in support of the Bill.
This is not an unimportant matter. When a Measure comes before the House and we are asked to repeal sections of some 44 Acts of Parliament going back to the reign of Edward III, no one can pretend that we are being asked to do something lightly; on the contrary, we are being asked to take a very definite step in the transformation of our legal procedure. I have no doubt that the present system, whereby a large number 2133 of statutes can be enforced under this procedure of the common informer, is thoroughly objectionable and obnoxious to modern ideas. I think the principle was well put by a former Member of this House when he said:We should, at long last, come to realise that it is wrong for a free country to allow an informer to seek redress for his own pecuniary advantage in respect of a public wrong, in which he has no direct personal interest or concern. A wrong to the State should surely he atoned for by a penalty payable to the State alone.I think it will be agreed that those two sentences enunciate the modern doctrine in very concise form.
I ventured to interrupt the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Leslie Hale). We all listened with great interest to what he had to say, but I interrupted him because I thought he had gone too far. He appeared to me to be saying that common informer procedure had always been objectionable. In fairness to our ancestors and those who, through many generations, thought fit to pass the series of statutes which we are now being asked to repeal, it is only proper to recall the very different circumstances in which, centuries ago, the common informer procedure was adopted, when it met with general approval.
Conditions of society have changed a very great deal since the Middle Ages. The State was then in its infancy. It was difficult to enforce observance of the law. There were no regular police forces and no regular Government Departments equipped with the necessary manpower and paraphernalia to enable them to ensure that the law was observed. It was quite natural in those days that the State, being concerned to see that the law was properly enforced, should seek the aid of private persons and should be forced to offer them certain inducements. I am sure that in the reign of Edward III and the period in which those Acts were passed the common informer procedure was natural and appropriate and was regarded as the only method of ensuring observance of the law.
Sir William Holdsworth, the well-known authority on this subject and on all matters of legal history, put the position quite clearly in Volume IV of his "History of English Law," in which he explains the position of the common in- 2134 former towards the end of the Middle Ages. He says:In the Middle Ages it was a common expedient to give the public at large an interest in seeing that a statute was enforced by giving to any member of the public the right to sue for the penalty imposed for its breach and allowing him to keep some part of that penalty. This expedient was largely used by the legislature in this period both in the case of statutes dealing with trade and in the case of statutes dealing with many other subjects. But the Tudors improved on this idea.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I do not know whether my hon. Friend represents a Tudor constituency. Sir William Holdsworth also said:It might happen that no member of the public was willing to come forward and bring his action and so, to meet those cases, it became customary to give permissions and patents to certain persons to sue for penalties the whole or some part of which they were allowed to keep for their own use.The adoption of this expedient brings us a stage nearer to the modern system of paid inspectors. If we are castigating and abolishing the common informer, I hope that we shall reserve some of our feelings for the agent provocateur, who is, in a sense, the modern parallel.
Things underwent a change in the Tudor period. In those days of enlightenment certain people began to feel that it was something to be ashamed of that statutes should be enforced by common informers who had no other object than that of personal greed—a phrase familiar in yesterday's debate. It was Sir Edward Coke, in a famous passage in the annals of legal history, who classed common informers withThe monopolist, the concealer and the dispenser of the public and private laws"—as—the four varieties of"—a phrase which has a modern ring—the viperous vermin who endeavoured to eat out the walls of Church and Commonwealth.As a result of that, there was a revulsion of public opinion, and during the enlightened period of the Stuarts—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The hon. Member does not appear to be keeping his remarks to common informers of today.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I am trying to show, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, why it may be argued that, although common informers and common informer procedure was a necessity under, for example, the Simony Act, 1558, or the Sale of Horses Act, 1555, our views on the propriety of such provisions have undergone a change.
I am anxious that the House should not think that because we are abolishing the common informer the conception of the common informer was necessarily a bad thing in those statutes. It was very necessary then. It is true that during the Stuart period there was very little legislation of that nature. The Schedules of the Bill show that the first ten or so of the statutes which we are asked to repeal were passed in the Tudor period and there is then a very large gap, apart from a few isolated examples, from 1558 to the middle of the 18th century when no statutes introducing common informer provisions were passed. That is significant; it shows how fashions come and go in this matter. It is significant that during the Stuart period—
§ Mr. Fletcher
—there were different views on this matter and that no Acts were passed for us now to repeal.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
Does not my hon. Friend think it very significant that there is no reference to Scottish legislation before 1765, about 55 years after the Union?
§ Mr. Fletcher
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I had noted that. Perhaps the Solicitor-General will be able to tell us what effect the Bill has upon the law of Scotland, because it is true that since the Union matters relating to Scotland have been passed by this Parliament.
§ Mr. Daines (East Ham, North)
Has my hon. Friend noticed that Scottish hon. Members always want their share of everything which is going, even if there is nothing to share.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I do not know whether common informers were or were not part of the law of Scotland before the Union. Perhaps my hon. Friend or my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will enlighten us. However, it is quite obvious that one would not expect to find in the Schedule to this Bill matters deal- 2136 ing with Scotland before the Union with Scotland. It is even more obvious that we should not be asked to repeal Scottish laws dealing with common informers if, in fact, there were no common informers in Scotland.
I now come to the Acts passed in the 18th century. We there find a recrudescence of Acts dealing with the common informer. The one which has attracted the most attention today is the Act of 1780. sometimes called the Act of 1781. This was passed to preserve the traditional form of Sunday as it had become recognised and appropriate in the Stuart period under the influence of Puritan philosophy—
§ Mr. Marlowe (Hove)
Has the hon. Gentleman reached the stage of his argument where he is able to indicate that he is for or against the Bill, or is he merely against the next one on the Order Paper?
§ Mr. Fletcher
If the hon. and learned Gentleman had been listening to my speech he would have known that at the outset I said that I intended to support the Bill. I also said that I thought it was an important Bill but not one which the House should pass rapidly, and that there ought to be certain things present in the minds of hon. Members.
§ Mr. Fletcher
One at a time. May I also remind the hon. and learned gentleman that, as he knows perfectly well, if would be quite out of order for me to offer any observations either on the next Bill or on any other Bill on the Order Paper. I hope we can come to those when the time arrives.
§ Sir T. Moore
Is the hon. Member aware that everything he has said up to now was said earlier by the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald), who moved the Second Reading, and also by the Attorney-General, who supported the Bill? [An HON. MEMBER: "You were not here."] I was here, but the hon. Member who has the Floor now was not present.
§ Mr. John Rodgers (Sevenoaks)
The hon. and gallant Member for Ayr (Sir 2137 T. Moore) has started off the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) all over again.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I have been scrupulously careful to avoid repeating any argument made previously in the Debate—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—and to try to approach the matter from an entirely new angle. If I might proceed, in the Act of—
§ Mr. Fletcher
The Lord's Day Observance Act, passed in 1780, had a curious origin. It was passed largely under the inspiration of the French Revolution which, at that time, was convulsing Europe. It made our ancestors more and more anxious that we should take sufficient steps to preserve our Sabbath. Of course, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I do not intend for a moment to go into the long and fascinating study of how it was that the attempt to preserve the Sabbath, which is the seventh day of the week, was achieved by an Act designed to protect Sunday, which is the first day of the week. That is one of the curious episodes in English history and it could be demonstrated, if this were the time and place to do it—which I am quite sure it is not—that the idea of preserving the Christian Sunday in the same form as the old Jewish Sabbath was quite contrary to the doctrines and ideas of all the early fathers. It was an idea which would have astonished Jerome, or Origen or Augustine. However, that is a matter for theological disquisition rather than for elaboration today.
The provisions of the 1780 Act were used for a time but then, curiously enough, they fell into desuetude. It was not until a quite accidental discovery, towards the end of the 19th century, that people began to realise that the Act was still open to the common informer. It is also well known that it was the Lord's Day Observance Society which started to make use of the provisions in that and other Acts.
I do not propose to challenge the right of the Lord's Day Observance Society to take part in any propaganda they like for the observance of that day—whether they call it the Sabbath or Sunday or the Lord's Day is irrelevant—but what people 2138 deplore is that the Lord's Day Observance Society or anybody else should for their ends and purposes make use of persons such as common informers, whose real motive is not the promotion of Sunday observance but the search and pursuit for private greed. That is most repulsive to our modern conception of right and wrong.
I am supporting this Bill because, before coming here today, I satisfied myself that there was nothing in it which would take away the right of the State and the Attorney-General to launch a prosecution for any breach of the Sunday Observance Act or any other Act which they think in the interests of the State calls for a prosecution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West—
§ Mr. Remnant (Wokingham)
Before the hon. Member finishes his speech, could he tell us in what relation he thinks the common informer stands to what the Americans call a filibuster?
§ Mr. Fletcher
I do not think I can be drawn into that argument some hon. Members may think I have taken up sufficient time of the House already. It would require a wide digression, so I prefer to pass it by.
It is important that the House should realise that, although we are abolishing the common informer, we are not thereby removing the other elements from the machinery of justice which enable the State to launch such prosecutions as may be thought necessary at any time.
I would like to make a comment on the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West. He rather regretted that this Bill had not been passed into law before we had the debates in this House a month or so ago about the Festival of Britain. I think I am right in saying that even if the Bill had been enacted last year, even if the common informer had been abolished, it would stilt have been necessary—and I am glad to think it would—for the protection of the promoters of the Festival of Britain for the Government to come to the House and ask Parliament to make it quite certain that the fun fair and the other elements in the Festival of Britain for which they sought protection were legalised.
2139 One of the dangers hitherto facing people who provided any kind of Sunday entertainment was the complete uncertainty as to whether a common informer could proceed against them or not. In a great many cases they have known that the kind of entertainment they proposed to offer the public on a Sunday was innocuous and reasonable and something to which nobody could object, but they have always been exposed to the danger that a common informer might inform against them.
§ Mr. Hollis
Nothing that Parliament has done has in any kind of way made it illegal to have a fun fair at Battersea Park on a Sunday. It is perfectly legal to have it, provided a charge is not made for admission, common informer or not.
§ Mr. Fletcher
Even had the Bill been enacted a couple of years ago, it would still have been necessary for the Government to ask Parliament to pass the Festival of Britain (Sunday Opening) Bill because, even if this Bill is passed, and the common informer is abolished, there is still a great deal of uncertainty in the law of the land as to what is or is not permissible on Sundays. I hope that one day the Law Officers of the Crown will have an opportunity of codifying and bringing up-to-date all the Acts dealing with Sunday observance. Until that is done, a great deal of uncertainty exists.
What we shall be doing by passing the Bill is removing the risk that a common informer can start a speculative action for damages, but the Law Officers will still be able to launch a prosecution in, any set of circumstances where the public interest so demands. People who promote innocuous entertainment, however, will be free from the hazardous risk of action by a common informer. I apologise for having spoken so long, but I hope that for the reasons I have given the House will support the Bill.
§ 2.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Pannell (Leeds, West)
I hope that hon. Gentlemen opposite will acquit me of any desire to filibuster, because it so happened that when the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) put down his Motion, I should have put down something on comparable lines had I been successful in the Ballot. The hon. and learned Member, if he were 2140 present, would confirm what I say. I have been here almost continuously since 11 o'clock this morning.
§ Mr. Pannell
I think I have been present in the Chamber longer than the hon. and gallant Member.
From the hon. and learned Member for Hove (Mr. Marlowe) we have had some remarks about the Bill which is to follow this Bill. I was rather glad to see the hon. and learned Member in the Chamber, because two of the most prominent places where the common informer flourishes are Brighton and Hove. I should have thought that his own interests and those of his constituents might have brought the hon. and learned Member here sooner.
The man who has been referred to as the gentleman who changed his name flourished most conspicuously among the funfairs and places on the front at Brighton and Hove. He started off with the inauspicious name of. Mr. Green but later assumed the name, I think, of Mr. Houghton le Touzel. Reference has already been made to the fact that he made it a highly speculative business to go into trade and that he got as much as £300 a year from certain concerns. The only analogy to this is that of the protection gangs which waged war in Chicago under Al Capone and others. This medieval procedure has allowed to operate up and down the country a system of blackmail which could be imagined only in more lawless parts of the world.
If, as has been suggested, the debate has been rather protracted, it has been protracted by the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke), who introduced all sorts of wider considerations into the debate. The hon. and learned Member for Chertsey, although he made a long speech, did deal with the law. He surveyed it over 600 or 700 years and wanted to make sure that the common informer passed out of history in a dignified and solemn manner.
Other considerations, however, were introduced by his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely, who claimed too much for the Bill. He claimed that it showed a great increase of 2141 liberty. I hope we do not get the Bill out of perspective, because I think that the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey appreciates that this is just about as far as he could go in a small Measure. But, bearing in mind the way the hon. and learned Member spoke on the Festival of Britain (Sunday Opening) Bill, I think he would much prefer to have brought in something far wider and bigger. I think that that is a fair assumption.
§ Mr. Pannell
The hon. and learned Member does not contradict me.
The Bill does not give too much liberty at all it concerns only one small aspect. The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely claimed that the existence of a free Press largely removed the necessity for a common informer. I doubt that statement, not perhaps as far as the daily Press is concerned, but because many organs of the weekly Press rely on various types of informers, including anonymous letter writers, who, the hon. and gallant Member thought, ought to be put right out of court. He said of the Press that one always knows who gives the information. That simply is not true. From time to time there have been leakages from the deliberations of assemblies of Members on this side. We should very much like to know where the information comes from.
Another point made by the hon. and gallant Member was that he thought a stop should be put to the interference between the school attendance officer and the mother and child. I understood him to say that education authorities too often tended to rely upon a sort of common informer or anonymous letter writer. This is a quite shocking doctrine, because education committees could not work without this sort of information. Very often information comes to education authorities or to bodies interested in the care of children from neighbours who write anonymously and do not want their names revealed.
In case it is suggested that this is a bad procedure, perhaps I may quote a recent case with which I was closely concerned. We received an anonymous letter about the shocking ill-treatment of a child. It was only when that letter was forwarded to the N.S.P.C.C., since it matched two 2142 or three others in the same case, that that organisation felt strong enough to bring a prosecution which resulted in the imposition of a term of imprisonment and the removal of the child to care and safe custody.
There are all sorts of common informers, and I have no doubt that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General would not entirely wish to shut out writers of anonymous letters as far as the law is concerned. Anybody who has read anything of murder and similar cases knows this. We have heard many times in the House about the Communist menace, which lays its terror upon certain people in society, and I doubt very much whether M.I.5 would get very far without letters from anonymous sources.
There are all sorts of common informers who have interfered with the liberty of others. In parenthesis I might say, having a Scotsman sitting next to me, that I noticed in the Press only yesterday that the Chairman of our party had been prevented from speaking in Lanark on a Sunday evening. Because of information which had been given, the magistrates acted and decided that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Miss Bacon) could not speak in Lanark. Where are we getting to now?
§ Mr. W. Ross
Is my hon. Friend right in saying that the magistrates ruled that she could not speak in Lanark, or in a particular hall which was owned by the town council, and which is much more likely?
§ Mr. Pannell
This legislation was brought into the courts largely from the time when justices of the peace were the local government of the country. I believe they started about 1360, but not until Elizabethan times did they really come to full power, and it would be true to say that that power did not tend to decline until the passing of the first Local Government Act, about 1835. It is very significant that it was on the motion of two justices of the peace that men were apprehended not far from my home in 2143 Orpington in 1829, and that was the last "labourer revolt" which took place. What happened in those days was that they descended on the landless labourers and transported them, taking the cream from the countryside and Orpington has suffered politically ever since. We see what political representation it has at present.
I said something earlier about the question of Sundays in Wales. Not only have we to consider in this matter of the common informer the laws relating to today, but the fact is that there are no fewer than 700 licensing authorities in this country who all bring in bylaws in regard to the regulations of the Sabbath. I believe I am right in saying that a common informer can act against any one of them. There was a very curious case only a few weeks ago.
I think it would be generally conceded that Welsh seaside resorts are the dullest in the country, particularly on a Sunday. I may refer to the famous occasion in 1940 at Llandudno when Jack Warner was refused permission to wear a straw hat for his impression of Maurice Chevalier, notwithstanding the fact that a few miles away, at Rhyl, he was allowed to do so and that the audience was full of people wearing straw hats. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) were here. Cardiff is not exactly a Welsh seaside resort, but I would not know the difference between them. Joe Loss and his band were not allowed to play the signature tune "In the Mood" because it was thought rather salacious for a Welsh seaside place on a Sunday.
It would be true to say that the common informer could act against almost anyone pursuing his peaceful avocations. The milkman, the busman and the newsagent are all breaking the Sabbath at present and, thereby, breaking the law. Rather curiously, under the law—I am advised—the provision of meat and milk to public-houses is perfectly legal on Sundays, although not legal to ordinary households. I will dilate on the way in which the B.B.C. broadcast things sometimes on Sundays which would not be allowed on week-days. That statement is perfectly true; the B.B.C. often broadcast variety performances on Sunday that normally would not be allowed in certain 2144 places in Wales on week-days. I to not think there would be any contradiction of that. The Welsh may be rather pleased about it.
What we want is an extension of the law in regard to entertainments which would tend to bring it broadly under the 1932 Act, by which there would be an increasing measure of local option in these matters, so that local communities have the sort of Sunday they want. Then Wales could stick to the sort of Sunday it wants and other seaside resorts, such as Brighton and Blackpool, can have the sort of Sunday they want. I believe that the 1932 Act has worked successfully and that it cuts across all party questions.
I intervened earlier to contradict my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) on the question of the Lord's Day Observance Society. Hon. Members may remember that during the debate on the Festival of Britain (Sunday Opening) Bill my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) referred to the fact that the brewers were largely behind the Lord's Day Observance Society and said that, in effect, they were subsidising that society in order to keep the Sunday free for the "pubs." Therefore, the brewers had come down very much on the side of the common informer.
§ Mr. Remnant
Would the hon. Member mind producing information to support that contention, which has been definitely denied by the Secretary of the Lord's Day Observance Society?
§ Mr. Pannell
I am much obliged, but I do not think the hon. Member was here. His enthusiasm for a later Bill did not bring him into this discussion. If he had listened carefully he would know that I was referring to something which took place earlier in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, practically said that he was speaking on behalf of the Lord's Day Observance Society and he denied that suggestion, so he agrees with the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Remnant).
§ Mr. Pannell
The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport), never gives way to other people and is usually unmannerly when others are on their feet. I think it 2145 would be far better if he would allow me to deal with this for the information of those who heard the altercation—
§ Mr. Remnant
The hon. Member alleged that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) refused to give way, but if he had been in the House yesterday afternoon he would have seen that disproved.
§ Mr. Pannell
I was here for practically the whole day. I am not referring to an isolated matter, but to bad manners generally.
§ Mr. Alport (Essex, Colchester)
Perhaps the hon. Member, whose recollection of yesterday's debate is so clear, will remember that the Minister refused to give way at all to hon. Members on this side, whereas I, who followed him almost immediately after, made that point, and immediately gave way to the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), who wished to put a point to me. I would also like to say, in view of the action which has been taken by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) in dealing with this debate, that it is disgraceful—
§ Mr. Speaker
We are debating the common informer, not what happened last night. It was a pretty rowdy affair last night, I am afraid.
§ Mr. Pannell
I can only say, Sir, with very deep respect, that I was here during the whole time yesterday and that whatever sins may be laid against me in this Chamber failure to give way is not one. On the last occasion I made a speech in the House I gave way no fewer than 17 times and when I rose to make an interruption hon. Members opposite had not the courtesy to give way once.
However, I was dealing with a matter which arose earlier in the debate, about the Lord's Day Observance Society's attitude to the brewers. I accept entirely the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, denied it. I am trying to state what was said in an earlier debate in order to get at the truth of the matter, and I do not think it becomes 2146 those hon. Members who were not present then to interrupt me on a point of fact.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham said:We have to remember that there are vested interests in the forms of Sunday entertainment already allowed by law who are interested in preventing other forms of entertainment taking place on Sundays. In particular, I would mention the brewers and their families. They are some of the biggest subscribers to the Lord's Day Observance Society. That organisation has never published its list of subscribers.I suggest that it is up to the Lord's Day Observance Society to repair that omission. My hon. Friend said, earlier, that it was due to the lack of paper, but it is far too important a point for a Society such as the Lord's Day Observance Society to use as an excuse—I use that word advisably and without any ulterior motive. My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham continued:As far as the pubs are concerned, Sunday is one of the best days in the week, and therefore they have strong interests in preventing anything which might draw the people away from the pubs.The Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. G. Longden) then intervened to ask:If, as the hon. Member says, the Lord's Day Observance Society does not publish a list of subscribers, how comes it that he knows that the largest subscribers are brewers?".That was a fair intervention, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham replied:I said, 'some of the largest subscribers.' I had that on very good authority from persons connected with that organisation"—that is the Lord's Day Observance Society—and I challenge them to publish the full list of their subscribers.The hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. W. J. Taylor) intervened to ask:Is the hon. Member for Dagenham prepared to give the names of those people who gave him the information?My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham replied:No, I am not. This information is confidential.I suppose that some form of common informer had informed him. I continue the quotation:The whole tactics of this association are undesirable.There, my hon. Friend was referring to the association of brewers, The Lord's 2147 Day Observance Society and common informers. I am not associating myself with that opinion, I am merely taking up something which was said earlier. Indeed, there are friends of mine connected with the Lord's Day Observance Society whom I would not associate with that sort of thing. But a charge has been made in this House, and I do not think it is good enough for the Lord's Day Observance Society to say they have not the paper to print a list of subscribers.
We have had this difficulty of a list of subscribers previously. They are in good company; hon. Members opposite never print the list of subscribers to their political party.
§ Mr. Alport
Will the hon. Member say whether Transport House has issued a list of subscribers to their funds?
§ Mr. Pannell
All our sources are known. That point was made and established in almost the last dabate of the previous Parliament, when the hon. Gentleman was not here, but he can read it. Every one of our subscribers is named and there is a completely full list. Further than that, to deal with a point which was put in that previous debate, even the hon. Member will know that the trade union funds, including political funds are subject to the accountancy of the Registrar-General. The funds of the Labour Party are also subject to checks. It was established during that debate that all political parties, with the exception of the Conservative Party, publish a list of subscribers. I am making no point about that other than that the Lord's Day Observance Society are in good company.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member should direct his remarks to the Bill, which deals with the common informer.
§ Mr. Pannell
To return to the quotation I was giving from the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham, he continued:No, I am not. This information is confidential. The whole tactics of this association are undesirable.One can well imagine employees of brewers giving this information secretly. He went on:What they do is to practise blackmail. They say to local authorities, If you do this, that and the other, a common informer will come into action and try to get you into court.' They very rarely act as common informer 2148 themselves, or get anyone to do it, but they use the continual threat of common informer machinery. They have been extraordinarily successful in banning all sorts of things. They have stopped motor-cycling competitions. —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd November, 1950; Vol. 481, c. 558–9.]I hope that somehow my hon. Friends the Member for Ealing, North, and Dagenham will resolve this matter. It has been stated in the Press today that although common informer machinery might have been used the Lord's Day Observance Society claim that they have never made anything out of it. They have enforced the law through it because no other avenue was open to them. It would be far better if they proceeded for a better interpretation of Sunday. It is reasonable that some procedure other then this, which goes back for 600 or 700 years, should be followed.
It would be better still if we had a more modern conception of the Sabbath day itself. In this I can speak with considerable feeling because I was one of those who voted against the opening of the Festival of Britain amusement park on Sundays. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] I think I had a far better conception of liberty than those behind me who are calling out "Shame." I expect those silly remarks from the benches opposite, but not from hon. Gentlemen behind me. I voted as I did for a reason that had nothing whatever to do with the common informer, but because of a solid common sense reason which arose from the fact that I have been pestered for 12 years by a fair within a half a mile of where I live. That is a good enough reason for anybody voting as I did. In this modern age of noise and dislocation it is perfectly reasonable that everyone, whether he or she goes to church or not, should be able to have a rest from that sort of music. Sunday is more than a spiritual necessity, it is a physical necessity also, and I wish to see it different from other days, but even in pursuance of the desires and needs in which I believe I do not wish this sort of antiquated machinery to be used.
We have had a long debate today. I see upon my notes the names of all the Acts of Parliament to which reference has been made. I might have embarked on a long designation such as we had from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) but those points have already been covered. Mem- 2149 hers will appreciate that this battle has been fought in different ways before. I was associated with a local authority at the time the Sunday games controversy started at the end of the 'twenties. We were threatened with a series of actions at that time.
A distinction must be drawn between the things which happen on a Sunday which do no harm to other people—those which people do in their own capacity, whether it be going to church or playing cricket—and the organised games which interfere with other people. I should be all in favour of people being able to play golf or bowls on Sunday but I should not be in favour of professional football because of the nuisance and uproar which it causes. We require to have a far more modern interpretation of tolerance in this matter. In exactly the same way hon. Members opposite have, I know, quite conscientiously objected to Sunday night political meetings. I do not believe that it is the policy of hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. MacColl (Widnes)
I respect the feelings of my hon. Friend, but would he explain why it is better on Sunday to hear swearing on a golf course rather than to hear, "Play up, play up, and play the game," on a football ground?
§ Mr. Speaker
I should like to know what all this has to do with the common informer, which is what we are debating.
§ Mr. Pannell
I merely wished to say that my hon. Friend cannot have been on a football pitch if he thinks the language there is different from that on 3 golf course.
The trouble with the present legislation is, of course, that managers who want to do the right thing, to observe decent standards, are always at the mercy of unscrupulous persons. Most of the laws under which we are working today came into force long before the introduction of wireless, electricity, gas, gramophones, cinemas, trains, aeroplanes, cricket or bowls. In fact, one might well imagine a sort of State almost as medieval as the conception of politics of hon. Gentlemen opposite, in the days when some of these laws were made. A ten-mile journey was a considerable feat then and not to be lightly undertaken.
2150 Those laws were framed in the days when the normal connotation of a parish was a place which a man could walk around from sunrise to sunset; and a county was a geographical area across which a man could ride hard on horseback from sunrise to sunset. We are now living in the age of the aeroplane, when the world is much smaller and everybody travels on Sunday. This sort of thing is completely out of date and out-moded. I hope that objection will not be taken to this Bill, which must he regarded as a step forward towards greater liberty in this country.
§ 3.2 p.m.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
I had not intended to speak or take any part in this Debate other than adding my vote in support of what I consider a very necessary Measure. I was under the impression that we in Scotland were free from the common informer. But on looking at the Schedule to this Bill I discovered that in 1756 there was passed in this House the Fisheries (Scotland) Act, and some nine years later the Bank Notes (Scotland) Act and I am wondering if the Bill in its present form has been drafted to suit the special circumstances of Scottish legislation.
Before I agree to make any changes in the law of Scotland I would like some information as to how these things apply. I know that Scottish bank notes are not always acceptable in this part of the world. If the common informer procedure would ensure that shopkeepers in London will acknowledge bank notes—whether from the British Linen Bank, or the Union Bank of Scotland or anywhere else—I should like some further assurance that the law will not in future lack in that respect. But that is beside the point.
I am sorry that the hon. Member who spoke earlier about the historic application of this and the changes during certain influences—the Stuart Kings, the Tudors, and so forth—is not here, in order that I might point out to him the fact that before the Union of Parliaments we had no common informer procedure in Scotland. If the Festival of Britain had been held in Glasgow instead of London there would have been no necessity for this House to be concerned about when it should be open. There would have been no need to rush in Acts to obviate the 2151 practice of the common informer. The town council would decide.
I thought it was a little unfair of the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) to refer to the narrow mindedness of Scottish people. What was he asking for? We wanted more local option and local control; he was in favour of the feelings of the people there being given full rein without fear of the common informer.
§ Mr. Pannell
Nothing was further from my thoughts than to suggest that Scotsmen were parochial. I only failed by a few votes to get a nomination for a safe Scottish constituency, so that I would not suggest that they were parochial. What I was saying was that there must be something parochial about the magistrates of Lanark, or the city fathers, if they refused the chairman of a great political party, the Member for Leeds, North-East (Miss Bacon), permission to address a meeting.
§ Mr. Ross
The people of Lanark have the power to change their council if they want to. It is not a case of refusing permission to speak; it is a case of refusing the use of a particular hall. I can speak in one of the "Toriest" of Tory areas. I do not see the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) in his seat, but there is not a more Tory place in Scotland than the town of Ayr. They have no qualms about allowing political meetings in their Town Hall on Sunday nights. In fact I attended one about a fortnight ago. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) was refused by the Girvan Town Council permission to speak in the Pleasure House which is owned by them, but it did not stop the hon. Gentleman going further up the street and speaking in the Catholic Hall on the same Sunday night. Quite apart from that, the local option for which the hon. Gentleman asks exists in Scotland and the common informer question does not arise.
2152 I think it is noteworthy that only 49 years after the Union of Parliaments the pure stream of Scottish law was so quickly polluted by contact with the more unpleasant features of the English code. We had the introduction of the common informer into Scotland, on the question of fisheries and bank notes. I should like an explanation from some hon. Member opposite exactly how—
§ Mr. Ross
I think that is quite satisfactory because the common informer procedure is repugnant to my mind. I do not want my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West to think that even at the time when the common informer procedure was actively pursued by certain people in this country, we in Scotland were entirely free. Those who have followed the historical development of Scotland will know that for about 100 years after these laws were passed civil law in Scotland was really in the hands of the Church, and the Kirk Session had sufficient control over village and town life in Scotland to ensure the proper observance of Sunday according to their own lights. If anyone likes to look at the old records of any of the Kirk Sessions in Scotland they will find some things just as abhorrent as some of the things to which objection has been taken today. We have, however, managed to develop along more progressive lines since then.
This question of tying down the Sabbath observance to the common informer procedure is repugnant to the people of this country; indeed, any informer himself is repugnant. We have a healthy dislike for that undercover sort of information being given, and we trust that it will not be any different in any other Parliament that meets here, but that that kind of action, whether it be already on the Statute Book or be contemplated by anyone, will always find hon. Members prepared to object to this kind of backdoor informing on anyone. The truth is that some people who are actually doing this, as they are at the present time, are using the common informer procedure, not for the advancement of any political faith which they have, or because of a 2153 religious scruple, but often merely in the hope of pecuniary gain. It is time that this House put an end to that, and I therefore welcome this Bill.
§ 3.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
These volumes on the bench beside me were left behind by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. L. Hale), and I should like to relieve any anxiety that might be felt in the House lest I proposed to quote large extracts from them. I have sat through most of the debate today, and I heard the interesting, informative and constructive speech with which the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) introduced this Bill.
After having listened for most of the day to universal condemnation of what the hon. and learned Gentleman described as "viperous vermin," which is a new version of a phrase probably substituting one which has been in circulation for some time, I cannot help wondering why, in view of this universal condemnation of the common informer, we have not abolished him long ago. What have hon. Gentlemen in this House been doing all this time not to have abolished the common informer when it is so obvious that he has been anathema and the object of strong language of condemnation by all right thinking men and women?
Another thing that surprises me is the way in which the Government, and not only this Government but previous ones, appear to leave to the Private Member the responsibility of introducing needful measures of a non-contentious character, which, had they been given Government facilities, would have been passed a long time ago. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman who introduced the Bill will not be unduly distressed by the fact that most of the support for his Bill comes from this side of the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] It has been remarkable to note the lack of support which he appears to have received from his own side of the House.
§ Mr. Hollis
Can the hon. Gentleman give the name of a single hon. Member on this side of the House who has spoken against it?
§ Mr. Houghton
They finished their speeches so long ago that I can only 2154 dimly remember what they were about. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate the degree of agreement that there is on both sides of the House on the introduction of this Bill.
Having decided, as I am sure the House has done already, to abolish the common informer, it seems imperative that we should get on with doing it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That is the first sign there has been of any en-enthusiastic agreement for any part of this Bill or for this debate since 11 o'clock this morning. It is a serious point. Indeed, I read something in "The Times" this morning, to the effect that unless there is speed in getting this Bill on to the Statute Book, the Schedule attached to it may put all sorts of ideas into the heads of all sorts of informers who may reap a rich harvest between now and the passing of the Bill. Therefore. I make that the basis of an appeal to the Government to ensure that facilities are given for the further stages of the Bill, and that there will be no delay in getting it finally passed.
The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) referred to something which I rather expected would be commented upon by other hon. Members taking part in this debate. He drew attention to the fact that this Bill was very narrowly drawn, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) said, in a rather sweeping statement, that we objected to all kinds of informers. The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely referred to two other kinds of informers which he thought were not covered by the Bill. One was the writer of anonymous letters. However much we may despise the writer of anonymous letters. I doubt whether this Bill or any other could stop such letters being written, or stop people acting upon them if they were.
There is this distinction between the writer of the anonymous letter and the common informer. The writer of the anonymous letter may be motivated by spite, but he cannot, by the very nature of the method he uses, be motivated by personal gain. In this Bill it is proposed to abolish the informer who, by telling tales, can reap some personal reward. I shall say no more about the anonymous letter writer. He is outside the Bill, and 2155 I think he is bound to be outside, because I can see no possibility of bringing him within its scope. I am sure my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Home Department would confirm that without anonymous letters, the work of the police and of the Special Branch would be severely handicapped. We may comfort ourselves that anonymous letters do on occasion—perhaps very frequently—bring criminals to justice, but I am sure that we all deprecate the use of the anonymous letter for less worthy purposes.
The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely referred also to other kinds of informers. I fully expected to hear something about the informer who was the subject of excitable questions some time ago, the person who reports to the Commissioners of Inland Revenue cases of suspected or alleged tax evasion and receives some reward from the Commissioners for so doing. He, too, is outside this Bill. Some hon. Members may feel that that kind of informer ought to be dealt with.
By a curious coincidence, I received only this morning a letter from someone quite unknown to me stating that he had informed the Commissioners of Inland Revenue about the malpractices of his employer, and that, in so doing, he had necessarily placed himself in the position of having to relinquish his employment with that employer. He has written to me asking what compensation he may expect to get for having performed a public duty which has involved the loss of his employment. I only mention that as a sidelight on these other kinds of informers, all of whom, my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock said, are objectionable and should be abolished.
§ Mr. Alport
Will the hon. Gentleman say whether he is using the illustration of his constituent as showing an estimable action on the part of the constituent acting in the public spirit, or the reverse?
§ Mr. Houghton
In the first place, ha is not a constituent of mine. I am saying that the case of that kind of informer opens up entirely different considerations from those applying to the common informer who is covered by the Bill. I am only using that as an illustration of the difficulty which would attend the effort of the hon. and gallant Member for the 2156 Isle of Ely to include all kinds of informers in the Bill. I express no opinion on the action of this particular citizen. It is not relevant to our discussion and that matter is not before us, except by way of illustration of the difference between the common informer who comes within this Bill, and the other kind of common informer, who—at least so one hon. Gentleman thought—should be brought within the Bill. I, with other hon. Members, welcome this Bill, and perhaps the material point which I have mentioned is the need for speed in the abolition of the common informer.
§ 3.21 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)
My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) referred to the lack of enthusiasm, or rather to the lack of vocal enthusiasm, which has been shown by hon. Members opposite for the Bill. That may, of course, be due to the fact that the Bill makes one further and noteworthy inroad upon the system of private enterprise which has been operating in this country for too long, and takes the profit out of what most of us regard as an undesirable form of private enterprise. It is indeed fortunate that the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) should find himself a Member of this House at a time when a Labour Government is in power because it provides him with the opportunity of making one further inroad into what I regard, and what, I think, most of us regard, as an undesirable form of private enterprise.
I have another interest in the patter, because one of the more notorious of the common informers who has been operating for some years past, and who has made quite a lot of money out of this particular profession, came into my constituency a short time ago, not for the purpose of indulging in this particular practice, but for the purpose of indulging in an even more undesirable practice, which resulted in his being charged and fined at the local magistrates court. To whatever extent it is going to be possible to limit the activities of people of that kind, I personally am strongly in favour of the Bill.
I think that there has been a somewhat sanctimonious undercurrent, if I may put it that way, in most of the discussion which has taken place today. We are here abolishing the practice of common 2157 informers. What we should in fact be doing is o abolish or rescind the laws of which common informers have made use, and which will remain on the Statute Book even when the common informer has become a thing of the past.
What we are saying, in effect, is that there are a number of Acts on the Statute Book which we have not the courage to tackle for fear of offending the susceptibilities of certain sections of the community, and that perhaps a better and more indirect way to deal with the problem is to have a go at the common informer. But the laws which the common informer, for public-spirited reasons or for material gain, has been trying to enforce, are still on the Statute Book.
I note with some concern that the Schedule is not quite as comprehensive as it ought to be. The hon. and learned Member no doubt has reasons which he will be able to argue with some conviction for omitting certain statutes from the Schedule. I shall allude to one only, and that is the Larceny Act, 1916, under which the common informer practice will still remain. Under that Act, a person who advertises a reward for the return of property and promises that the person restoring it shall be asked no questions, shall forfeit £50 and costs to anyone who sues him. That seems to me to be a matter that might be considered on the Committee stage so as to make the Bill as comprehensive as possible.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
I am much obliged to the hon. and learned Member. It shows that some of my remarks have not been altogether unjustified.
The law is sufficiently capricious without having added to it the purely fortuitous results that can arise out of the actions of a common informer. For that reason, anything which makes the operation of the law less capricious and less subject to mere whims on the part of an irresponsible individual is something we ought to support. I am much obliged to the hon. and learned Member for indicating that, in one respect at any rate, the Bill is subject to Amendment, and that in suitable cases he will put no obstacle in 2158 the way of further improvements which some of us may find it possible to suggest.
§ 3.29 p.m.
§ Mr. MacColl (Widnes)
I had the pleasure of listening to the admirable speech made by the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) in introducing the Bill. I have not, unfortunately, been able to hear all the speeches that have followed, and I can only hope that the few remarks I have to make will not cut across anything that has already been said. I should like to congratulate the hon. and learned Member on his wisdom in introducing this Bill. There is no doubt that we all welcome the opportunity he has given us for considering this important matter today.
It is one of the pleasant features of these Fridays that it is possible to get away from the criticism often made of our proceedings that we are not able to give consideration to the Measures that come before us. Today we have been able to give long and careful consideration to this valuable little Bill, and we have been able to suggest improvements, as illustrated by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) who, almost at the eleventh hour, was able to point out to us a very serious and significant omission in the Schedule. Had it not been for the assistance which he gave to the House there might have been omitted from this Bill a very valuable and important reform.
I cannot help feeling some regret at the narrowness of the scope of the Bill. I agree with a remark made by one of my hon. Friends that the publication of this Schedule is going to cause a great deal of alarm among the people who are law abiding, and who are not aware of the daily peril which they undergo in many cases, because of these hopelessly antiquated Acts of Parliament. These people are imperilled through the common informer action, but when we pass this Bill through all its stages there will be the danger that we shall not have dealt with the substantial charges themselves, and people will still be liable to find themselves on a criminal charge for some of the offences outlined in the Schedule.
To some like the hon. and learned Member for Chertsey, that is not a very serious danger, not only because of his impeccable character, but because of his 2159 deep knowledge of the law. I have no doubt that he moves through the statutes of the reigns of Edward III and Henry VIII with the same effortless ease as that with which he moves through the standard laws of our modern age; but to the person who gets hold of a copy of this Bill and finds that he is liable for criminal proceedings under the Maintenance and Embracery Act of 1540, what is the effect going to be upon his morale? I do not know what "maintenance and embracery" means. I should think that that order is somewhat illogical.
We know that one of the myths of lawyers is that ignorance of the law is no excuse, and as a result of the publicity given to this Bill and the attention paid to it in this House, I am afraid that the effect upon the general public is going to be a very unfortunate one. I very much wish it were possible with one sweep to get rid of many of these old and obsolete Statutes. That does not come within the terms of the Bill and is something which we cannot hope to get done, and so we must be content with the Bill as it appears before us. I join with all who have expressed their pleasure at its introduction. It is an interesting example of the way in which so much social progress has taken place in this country. If the late Lord Passfield were still alive, he would have regarded with great satisfaction this illustration of the "inevitability of gradualness."
The historical background has been given to us. At one time the administrative machinery of the State was so incompetent to secure law enforcement that this field of activity had to be left in the hands of private enterprise. As is the characteristic of private enterprise, it was necessary that there should be some incentive and the common informer had to be able to obtain substantial financial inducement to carry out the important social work of seeing that the law was maintained. A stage came when the administrative machinery of the State was competent to take over this work and carry it out as a State activity, and, by degrees, public opinion has changed, with the result that people who at one time were performing a valuable social function can now be described by someone as gentle in his language as the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey as "vermin."
§ Mr. MacColl
I was interested in it from that point of view. I wonder if the introduction of the Bill and the language which has been used to support it, is an illustration of a change of outlook in tile Conservative Party. I could not help feeling a certain sympathy for the common informer. He should have the attraction to the Conservative Party that his is a profession or trade which does not lend itself to monopoly. It is one in which there is a good deal of competition as to who gets there first with the writ. As far as I know, no trade association is formed by common informers and there is no body to come to the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey to say, "We shall suffer a very serious financial sacrifice as a result of this legislation."
Surely one of the principles of the Conservative Party is that when the stage comes when something which has been left to private enterprise is to be taken over by the State the condition should apply, unless one is a Communist, that adequate compensation will be given to the people who are put in jeopardy as a result of the change. I have no doubt that many common informers are widows. No doubt many of them have had the tragic loss of one or more of their parents at an early stage of their lives. They are probably people who have taken advantage of the law as it stands and have studied in order to find out how it is possible to carry on these proceedings under the Maintenance and Embracery Act, 1540.
What is the reward for their diligence and for the hours they have spent studying tomes of law in our public libraries? They are described by the hon. and learned Gentleman as "vermin," and they are deprived of their opportunities of carrying on their profession, a profession which was at one time regarded as an honourable one. It seems a dangerous precedent. I wonder if the Conservative Party have really considered the full implications of the rather impetuous action they have taken in introducing the Bill.
I have no doubt that there are many bad common informers, just as some of us were saying a few days ago that there are some bad landlords. The Conservative Party reminded us that there were many good landlords. I do not 2161 know, but it may very well be that there are good common informers who are activated by the strongest feeling of emotion when they see someone enjoying himself on the Sabbath or carrying out "maintenance and embracery," whatever that may be. Is it really fair that because there are some bad common informers the rights of the good common informers, those firm believers in unrestricted private enterprise, those opponents of monoply, should be treated in this cavalier fashion?
I can give an answer to that question. I think it is right, but the party opposite ought to examine carefully the fundamentals of that principle before they are carried away by the hon. and learned Gentleman's emotional description of it as Tory democracy. They ought to consider very carefully indeed the significance of what they are doing. Take this one small point, the question of what has been characterised as blackmail. If you have an opportunity to bring an action, you go to the person against whom you are proposing to bring the action and say, "If you pay me £200 a year I will not bring the action." That has been described by distinguished lawyers opposite as blackmail.
In what respect does it differ from the landlord who has a large schedule of dilapidations which he is prepared to serve on his tenant? He goes to the tenant and says, "I will bring an action against you and will claim heavy damages for dilapidations, but if you pay me a rack rent of so much, I shall be prepared to waive my right of action." It seems to me that this Bill can only be regarded as an interference with the sanctity of contract which played such a large part in our discussion of the Leasehold Bill.
We are in danger of allowing ourselves to be carried away in this case because we do not like the common informer—possibly because most of use feel we could not do the job successfully. In my own profession there is strong hostility to this blackleg activity of people who are not members of the trade union. This is the most characteristic example we could see of the closed shop in action, because these gentlemen who have not become members of their trade union, are being squeezed out of business and called blacklegs.
I put forward those considerations because I do not believe it right that an 2162 important Bill of this kind should be passed by this House without its full implications being appreciated. Whereas I can quite see that my hon. Friends will have no great difficulty in supporting the Measure because our social philosophy is clear-cut and well thought out, I cannot help feeling that on the benches opposite there are people who are working their way towards a new social philosophy. They are seeing in this case an example in microcosm of the major question which divides us.
I look forward to the day, not far off, when the hon. and learned Members for Chertsey (Mr. Heald) and York (Mr. Hylton-Foster), realising that in the attitude they have adopted today they have burned their boats, will find their way over to this side of the House. I can only warn them that if they come over as paid-up trade unionists and members of the Labour Party, they will be expected to accept the principle of compensation. Therefore they should not allow themselves to deviate too far in a left-wing direction or they may find their application for membership rejected by the powers that be.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Standing Committee.