§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.5 a.m.
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The House will remember that on 11th November last my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General made a statement that doubts had arisen about the legality of charges made for certain classes of licences under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts. The Bill, which was foreshadowed in his statement, removes those doubts, first, by providing that sums already paid for licences shall be deemed to have been lawfully demanded and received by the Postmaster-General, and, second, by providing that sums due but not paid in respect of such licences shall now be recoverable. There are certain supplementary provisions dealing with legal proceedings taken after 11th November of this year and before the Bill becomes an Act.
As I said, the Bill relates to charges under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts, 1904 to 1926. None of those Acts is new in operation. They were replaced by the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1949, which was brought into operation in 1954.
I desire to emphasise two things: first, that there are no doubts about the validity of charges for those licences granted or renewed under the Act which came into force of June this year—
§ Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)
On a question of fact, the Wireless Telegraphy Act came into force in 1950, and it was the Regulations that came into force in 1954.
§ The Attorney-General
The part in relation to charges was brought into operation in 1954, because, as I shall indicate later, fees could not be charged until Regulations had been made.
Second, I wish to emphasise that under the earlier Acts, 1904 to 1926, it was an offence to have a wireless receiving set without a licence, or to have a private mobile radio service without a licence. The Bill relates to charges for licences under those Acts. It does not relate to the necessity to hold a licence for a wireless receiving set. No question arises as to convictions of those who have had wireless sets without licences. I want to make that quite clear.
I turn now to the history of the legal position under the old Acts. The 1904 Act enabled the Postmaster-General to make regulations, with the consent of the Treasury, prescribing fees to be paid on the grant of any licence. That Act also enabled royalties and rents to be charged. It did not prescribe that regulations had to be made before royalties and rents could be charged, and it did not define what was meant by the words "fees" on the one hand and "rents and royalties" on the other.
But the 1925 Act—quite a short Act—declared that the expression "rent or royalty" in relation to licences which came within Section 2 of the 1904 Act did not include fees charged in respect of the grant or renewal of such licences. Charges for licences have been made by successive Postmasters-General over a long period of time, and large numbers of licences were of course granted after the grant of the Charter to the British Broadcasting Corporation, in 1923.
The charges for those ordinary wireless licences were expressed to be fees. Indeed, when the licence was granted to the British Broadcasting Corporation by the Postmaster-General in 1923, it was a condition of that licence that the Postmaster-General undertook to issue broadcast receiving licences at an annual fee of not less than 10s., 50 per cent. of which was to go to the B.B.C.
It was clearly not then appreciated that, because no regulations had been made as required under the 1904 Act, the Post Office was not entitled to charge fees. Nor, indeed, was that appreciated when the Wireless Telegraphy (Blind Persons 1255 Facilities) Act, 1926, was passed. However, the point was appreciated in 1946, and the Postmaster-General of the day apparently took the view that what had been charged as fees could lawfully be charged as royalties.
As I have said, the 1904 Act did not prescribe that any regulations would have to be made before any rents or royalties could be charged. Of course, calling a sum a royalty does not mean that in the courts it would necessarily be held to be a royalty. Indeed, in some cases, it might be most difficult to come to a conclusion whether or not the sum paid was a royalty or a fee—for instance, the sum paid in relation to a licence for a broadcast relay station.
We feel that it is now advisable to remove all such doubts arising under the 1904 to 1926 Acts. The 1949 Act, if I may refer to it for a moment, gave power to the Postmaster-General to charge for licences such sums as might be prescribed by regulations made with the consent of the Treasury. As I have said, those Regulations have now been made, and, therefore, no question regarding the validity of the charges made since those Regulations came into force can arise. It was perhaps unfortunate that, when the 1949 Bill was being considered in this House, the opportunity was not then taken to clear up the position. Of course, if it had been, we should not now be troubled with this Bill.
I have dealt so far with ordinary wireless receiving licences. I now wish to deal with a special category of licence. Under the 1904 Act, a licence granted for certain purposes was not subject to any rent or royalty. One type of licence for which no rent or royalty was to be charged was that for private land mobile services.
I must admit that a mistake was made by successive Postmasters-General in charging what was called in the licence a "royalty" on the grant of licences for such services. This mistake first came to light when an action, to which my hon. Friend referred, was instituted against the Postmaster-General by a company called Davey Paxman and Company Ltd. That company claimed the return of the sums it had paid for licences on the ground that the sums so paid were fees or royalties. The com- 1256 pany contended that the Postmaster-General was not entitled to retain the sums so received, and that it was entitled to have its money back.
That action has been determined. Judgment was given for the plaintiffs by consent shortly after my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General made his statement to the House, and this Bill now seeks to deal—I hope satisfactorily—with the position that has arisen in consequence of the discovery of these defects.
I wish to say at once that, in my submission no matter who formed the Government of the time one simply could not face claims for repayment of all sums paid for licences under the 1904–1926 Acts. Excluding statute-barred claims the sum total of such claims might conceivably, taking it at its worst, be about £17 million if everyone who could claim did so, and if all the claims about which there might be some doubt could be established. No one, I think, would suggest that the amount paid for the ordinary wireless receiving licence, or, indeed, for licences for mobile radios, was excessive.
This Bill seeks to do two things. First, it seeks to secure that the Postmaster-General shall not have to refund any of the money which has been paid to him by way of either fees or royalties under the 1904–1926 Acts. Of course, there is no question of the Postmaster-General seeking to recover payment from Davey Paxman & Company Ltd. of the money repaid to that company.
The effect of Clause 1 subsections (2) and (3) of the Bill is to bar any action for recovery of money paid for such licences by any licence holder if the action was begun after the date of my hon. Friend's announcement, namely, 11th November, 1954. Obviously, between the introduction of this Bill and the time when it reached the Statute Book, one might have a flood of claims. Similarly, once the errors attracted publicity—which they did—one would have a flood of requests after the date of hearing of the case, which was, I think, 15th November.
I hope that I carry the House with me in saying that while, generally speaking, one dislikes retrospective legislation of any character, at the same time there is a strong case here for making an exception and validating the retention by 1257 the Post Office of sums paid to it for these licences. That is the first main provision of the Bill.
I now come to a more complicated part of the Bill, to which I wish to draw the attention of the House. When the Davey Paxman & Company case started, some payments for licences for mobile radio services were suspended. Of course, people have now had those licences for a number of years, and they have obtained them because they thought that to do so was in the interest of their business, or whatever it was, and they have had value for the money paid.
When the action started, some people suspended payment. It would be difficult to justify retaining merely the sums which others have paid for such licences while abandoning all claims on those who had merely suspended payment. This Bill, therefore, provides, secondly, for collection from those who suspended payment of the amounts which they had agreed to pay in return for getting a licence to run a private mobile radio service.
I do not think that it has ever been suggested that the charges made by the Post Office for such licences were in any respect excessive. In fact, I am informed that the sums charged were fixed to cover the expenses incurred by the Post Office in connection with the issue of licences, and in exercising control over the use of the radio by the services in question. Not to recover these sums would mean that their total, representing as it does the cost of part of the services, would have to be borne by the public in general instead of by the persons benefiting by the services.
As I say, no one likes retrospective legislation, and it is right that any proposal for legislation of a retrospective character should be closely examined. I would emphasise that this is not a case where one is seeking either to create a criminal offence, operating retrospectively, or trying to impose a new burden—again operating retrospectively—to the surprise and astonishment of the persons affected. Here, of course, no one would obtain a licence unless he wanted it. He is not compelled to do so. He knows what sum he will have to pay.
Really, I suppose that most of the people who paid for, or agreed to pay 1258 for, these licences, never had any idea at that time that there was any ground on which they could refuse to pay. All this Bill does is to enable the Post Office to retain the moneys that people have paid for licences, in the belief that they had to be paid for, and to recover moneys which some people had agreed to pay for licences, the payment of which was suspended when the Paxman case started.
I may be asked whether there is any precedent for a Bill of this sort, In 1925 the War Charges (Validity) Act was passed, and again, it would appear that charges had been made, without authority, for all kinds of licences. That, again, was an Act to validate the receipt of the sums so claimed. If one looks at the Schedule to that Act it will be seen that there was a wide variety of charges covered. Charges were imposed by the Food Controller on, among other things, licencesauthorising the brewing of additional beer for munition and agricultural workers.There were charges imposed by the Board of Tradeon licences to import or export goods contrary to prohibitions.Charges were imposed… by the Ministry of Shipping on licences to transfer ships to a foreign flagand things of that sort. I believe that some of the sums involved were very substantial.
§ Mr. J. E. S. Simon (Middlesbrough, West)
Before he passes from that point, can my right hon. and learned Friend say whether, in the 1925 Act, there was any provision similar to Clause 1 (4) which imposes a retrospective right to recover sums legally withheld?
§ The Attorney-General
When my hon. and learned Friend says it recovers "sums legally withheld" I am not sure that that is a correct description of what took place in this case, and I would not accept it as such. That was a short Act validating the payment of charges, and whether the same position arose then as arises here, namely, the suspension of payments when litigation started, I do not know, but I think it most unlikely.
In relation to the point indicated by my hon. and learned Friend, I would 1259 merely say that, in my view, there is a valid distinction to be drawn between suddenly imposing a new burden which the people concerned had no reason to anticipate—and imposing that burden with retrospective operation—and the case where, as here, the persons sought to obtain licences for these mobile radio services because they thought they would be useful; where they sought to obtain them on the terms that they would pay for those services—and for a considerable time have paid for them—and then suspended payment when the Paxman case started.
There is a great distinction between the two types of case. It would, in my submission, be quite wrong, when the Bill seeks to retain the moneys which people have, in fact, paid, not also to seek to recover the moneys which other people had in fact—impliedly if not expressly—agreed to pay, and some of whom have paid over a series of years, and merely withheld payment when this particular action started.
Perhaps I had better now give the House a somewhat more detailed exposition of the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 (1) validates all payments actually made under the 1904 to 1926 Acts, and the effect of subsections (2) and (3) is to nullify all legal proceedings begun after the date of the Assistant Postmaster-General's statement, but, of course, those provisions do not affect the result of the Davey Paxman case.
Subsection (4) is the one to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West (Mr. Simon) referred. It authorises the collection of those charges made, under the former Acts, which were due but not paid, for mobile land radio services. Those are the payments which were suspended, without prejudice, when the Davey Paxman case was started. Subsection (5), as the House will see, is formal; and Clause 2 really requires no explanation.
With those words, I commend the Bill to the House. It is, as I said, perhaps unfortunate that these matters were not cleared up in 1949, but it is the case that it was not until the Davey Paxman case started that the error in relation to Charging a royalty in respect of land mobile radio services was discovered.
§ 11.28 a.m.
§ Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made a very workmanlike speech in explanation of this Measure, with which we on this side agree. It was obviously never intended by any of the Wireless Telegraphy Acts that licence fees should not be charged for receiving and transmitting stations.
I thought that perhaps the Attorney-General would tell us why the Government think that fees are necessary for mobile radio stations, because it is as a result of the Paxman case that this Bill is now before us. It is amazing that this loophole in the law has remained undetected for 50 years, an omission which, in my opinion, does not detract either from the legal profession or from the learned Attorney-General.
As has been said, regulations were never made under the 1904 Act authorising the charging of a licence fee. Nor was that done under the 1925 Act, which was an explanatory Act. It is rather surprising that the flaw was not discovered when the Postmaster-General of that time, in consultation with his legal officers, was defining the terms used in wireless telegraphy.
The 1949 Act came into force, I think, in 1950, but, as far as I have been able to ascertain, Regulations governing wireless licences were not made until 1st June this year. What I should like to know is whether these Regulations were laid before the beginning of the Paxman case. It rather looks as if they were. I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a little unfair when he said that the matter was not put right in the 1949 Act. It was not put right by the right hon. and learned Gentleman or by this Government until the case was brought forward. It is no use arguing that the 1949 Act had not been considered by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, because Regulations had been laid dealing with matters such as interference and so on.
Many illustrious statesmen and legal luminaries have been Postmasters-General. I have been to the trouble of going through the list of all the names. I do not wish to weary the House with the list of all the famous gentlemen who have held that position. Indeed, I have been rather inhibited, for reasons which, no doubt, you will appreciate more than anybody else, Mr. Speaker.
1261 There is one person whom we would have liked to have seen on the Front Bench this morning, and that is the right hon. Gentleman the Lord Privy Seal, because he held that office from 1943 to 1945 and he is the gentleman who has been telling us that when the Conservative Party came into power all the cupboards were full of skeletons. It is rather amazing that he did not find this particular skeleton, because I am sure it must have been rattling. One can only assume that the moribund philosophy of which he is the chief exponent did not cause him to react to his ghost-like surroundings.
There is a question that I should like to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman. How many cases were involved before 11th November, and how many cases have there been since 11th November?
§ The Attorney-General
Would the hon. Gentleman explain his question a little more thoroughly? If he means, how many actions have been brought, the answer is none since 11th November, apart from the case of Davey Paxman.
§ Mr. Hobson
I am obliged to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Have there been any cases intimated as awaiting judgment since 11th November?
§ The Attorney-General
I do not think there is a case awaiting judgment. I understand that within the last few days one writ has been issued, but that is at an early stage. There may be other claims formulated by correspondence, but of that I know not.
§ Mr. Hobson
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. One serious aspect of the Bill is that this is retrospective legislation, and it is in direct conflict with the repeatedly professed concern of the present Government with regard to retrospective legislation. They have always expressed their horror at any legislation of this kind. "Fraudulent" and "vindictive" are adjectives which have been frequently used. I well recollect the virulent abuse that the late Sir Stafford Cripps had to endure when he intimated that there would be retrospective legislation with regard to the payments which had been made to Mr. Lord and Mr. Black. In fairness, we ought to say that that retrospective legislation was brought forward after warning.
1262 This is not only retrospective legislation. I am speaking as a layman, but, as far as I can find out, it is retrospective legislation over pending judgments, which would appear to be rather unfair. In other words, if there are cases awaiting judgment—and the right hon. and learned Gentleman has already admitted that there is one—it means that whatever judgment may be given, the Government will override that decision. It is like a body saying that whatever decision an umpire gives, they will not accept it. That seems to me rather unfair.
As I say, I am a layman. I do not know whether there are any precedents for this form of legislation, but it seems to me to be somewhat un-British in character when, if there are cases—and it is admitted that there is one case—awaiting judgment, the Government say that whatever the decision is, they will not accept it.
It is rather interesting to look into the background of this Bill. It is evident that it came to light that these regulations had never been laid when consideration was given to the question of finding suitable frequencies for sponsored television. It became necessary to move some of the mobile users from Band III and they objected, and rightly so, to the inconvenience and increase in cost to which this would put them.
I have raised this matter in the House, and I think that it is perfectly fair to say that this would never have come about and the felony would have continued to have been compounded if it had not been for the fact that the Government were faced with having to find the appropriate frequencies for sponsored television. As a result, I submit—
§ The Attorney-General
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is nothing whatsoever in this Bill which deals with frequencies. When the Davey Paxman case came on for hearing, there was nothing in that action relating to frequencies or Band III or anything of that sort. It was simply a claim for recovery of fees or royalties. This Bill deals solely with the validation of charges made and power to recover payments which were agreed to be made for licences. In my submission, it would be out of order in this debate to engage in any discussion about frequencies or 1263 wavelengths or the difficulties of mobile radio users.
§ Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I make a submission to you'? Had the normal and proper procedure been carried out under the Act of 1904, the Postmaster-General would have made orders and laid regulations before the House empowering the collection of these licence fees. It would then have been competent for this House to move Prayers to annul those orders. In doing so, the argument would have been advanced that before the fees were collected a certain quid pro quo, as it were, should be made, and that the proper wavelengths and the proper security of tenure for the wavelengths should be made available to the persons who were being called upon to pay the fees.
Consequently, what is happening now is that as that procedure was not followed. Parliament has never been permitted to debate the matter before the charges were made. This procedure would appear to short-circuit the right of Parliament to debate the matter if it is to be confined within the narrow limits which my right hon. and learned Friend suggests.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
May I respectfully submit, Mr. Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) was suggesting the circumstances in which the governmental mistake, which is the reason for the whole of this Bill, was discovered. I suggest that we are entitled to know and to discuss the reasons why an error persisted for so long and the circumstances under which it has now come to light. That is all he is doing. The right hon. and learned Gentleman gave his version of the circumstances in which the error was discovered. He attributed it to a particular case in court. Surely my hon. Friend is entitled to say it was not that or, if he wishes, that it was not only that but because of another matter that the error came to light.
§ Mr. C. J. M. Alport (Colchester)
In his speech commending the Bill to the House, my right hon. and learned Friend admitted that the Bill originates from a case which has recently taken place in 1264 the High Court. It would therefore be fair to the party initiating that case, the plaintiff, that his motives in bringing the case should be brought before the House and explained to the House. I submit to you, with great respect, Mr. Speaker, that is not quite such a narrow point as my right hon. and learned Friend would have us believe but that, in fact, a major principle is at stake in the protection of the rights of the individual in respect of taxation levied illegally by the Government.
The Government are asking the House to pass what is a very remarkable Bill. Generally speaking, I have no doubt that hon. Members on both sides will be sympathetic to it, but in the circumstances surely it would be in order for us to discuss the reasons for the rather extraordinary procedure which is represented by the action now being taken.
§ The Attorney-General
The only issues which arose in that action were claims for recovery of fees or royalties. Those were the only issues which arose when the action came on for hearing. There was no question in issue on the hearing of the action involving any wavelengths or frequencies or matters of that sort. One can speculate on the motives for seeking to recover payments but, whatever those motives may be, in my submission any such discussion would be out of order on the Bill. If I may reply to the ingenious argument of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) about the possibility which would have arisen had orders been laid before the House in relation to regulations under Section 1 (6) of the 1904 Act, in fact those regulations would not have had to be laid.
§ Mr. Speaker
Before this point of order arose, I had myself carefully considered what should be the scope of the discussion in the Bill, and I had come to certain conclusions upon it. As far as the speech of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) had gone when he was interrupted, I thought he was dealing with the past history which led up to this dispute; and I think that is relevant and in order as far as it goes. But I am bound to say that the Bill itself is of the narrowest description. It deals only with the validation of charges which have been made in the past and has 1265 nothing whatever to do with what may happen in the future.
It is for the House to say whether or not they will validate these past charges and for them to pass any criticisms as appear proper to hon. Members on the Government's conduct in not having discovered this loophole earlier. All that is in order, but there is nothing in the Bill about wavelengths or about the technical problems involved in wireless telegraphy. It is purely a question of legal clarification, as far as I can see. I shall be glad to listen to any hon. and learned Member or hon. Member who can shed light on the legal matters.
§ Captain Orr
May I make one further point? My right hon. and learned Friend said that these licensees had received value for their money. The Davey Paxman case was brought because it was felt by them that they had not received value for money. Can we develop an argument upon that point?
§ Mr. Speaker
I think not. The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) raised a point about the action in court, but I do not think we can fight the action here nor can we go into the merits of that action. I have heard nothing derogatory suggested against the plaintiffs, who brought their action quite properly, and I do not think it comes into the discussion today at all. As for the question of the value which they received, that is purely a question of fact and there is nothing in the Bill about it.
§ Mr. Alport
I am sorry to interrupt proceedings further, but this firm is in my constituency and I therefore have some personal knowledge of the events which led up to this case. No doubt quite unintentionally, my right hon. and learned Friend gave the impression that, in bringing the case, this company were doing so with the strict and narrow purpose of recovering the charges. That was not the purpose. Their object was to ventilate a problem which affects a great many other companies like themselves, and it was a test case for that purpose. It would be unfair to the company if we were not able to discuss that point in the debate.
§ The Attorney-General
May I make a comment on that? I based my observations on the issues remaining on the 1266 pleadings when the action came for trial, and the only issues on those pleadings which could have been discussed in court were claims for repayment of fees and royalties.
§ Mr. Speaker
if I may assist the House, I will put it as shortly as I can in this way: a certain amount of historical background is inevitable in discussing the matter if the House is to be seized of the merits of the claim for validation—a certain amount; but beyond that it does not go. I think we ought to see how the matter proceeds. I would point out that the Bill does not give an opportunity for discussing the policy of the Postmaster-General in the future in connection with wireless wavelengths, frequencies and other matters of that sort. That would be quite out of order.
§ Mr. Hobson
Thank you for that Ruling, Mr. Speaker. I was simply endeavouring to give a little of the historical background to show why the case was brought—indeed, the case which has led to the introduction of the Bill. A further point comes to my mind. Under the Regulations now being made, Regulations No. 438, which were laid after the court case, we are now to include what might be termed the legalising of the wireless licence charges levied on the whole of the population for the purposes of the B.B.C. May I suggest to you that this matter is also involved in the Bill, because whilst it has not yet been tested in court whether the charge which has been levied for wireless licences is legal or not, the Government have sought, by bringing forward Regulations No. 438, to put the matter beyond any legal query?
There has not been an action but there is not the slightest doubt that, had the Regulations not been made on 1st June, wireless subscribers could have entered into the courts and questioned the validity of the payment they had been making for licences. As a result of those Regulations and the foresight of the Postmaster-General, these licences are now valid and there can be no claim for repayment by subscribers.
§ Mr. Speaker
May I interrupt the hon. Gentleman? I am sorry to have to interrupt him again, but I gathered that the Regulations to which he is referring 1267 were made under the Act of 1949. This Bill is, by its terms, confined to charges in respect of licences under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts, 1904 to 1926. I understood from the Attorney-General, and, indeed, from the hon. Member for Keighley, that since the Act of 1949 and the Regulations made properly there-under, there is no question here of the legality of what has been going on. At least, that does not come before us on this Bill. The Bill deals only with the old licence fees charged under the Acts which are now repealed, in so far as they are, and re-enacted in the Act of 1949.
§ Mr. Hobson
I am very grateful for that Ruling, Mr. Speaker. That brings me to a question I should like to ask the Attorney-General. We are only considering the charges levied between 1904 and 1949. Would it have been possible to have recovered charges under the 1949 Act if Regulations had not been made in June, 1954? I think we are entitled to an answer to that specific question, because, if it is so, those Regulations would have applied to the 1949 Act.
To resume the continuity of my speech, I was drawing the attention of the House to the historical background of this matter. I speak now with a little diffidence in view of the tremendous number of points of order we have had in the last quarter of an hour. It is my submission that the reason the Government brought forward this Bill is the court case. The court case was brought forward by Davey Paxman and Company because of the change of frequencies for which they had to apply for their mobile radio. I do not think it is possible to get away from that.
§ Mr. Hobson
If the hon. and learned Member had listened to my opening remarks he would have known that I said we agree to this Measure. But I think it is of interest to the House to find why the Regulations were made. The Regulations would never have been made, even by the present Government, and they would have continued to compound the felony which was apparently in existence since 1904, if it were not for this law case.
1268 Another point arises, and here I do not know whether I shall be in order, but I propose to make the statement. It is fairly apparent that money for licences for broadcasting was illegally obtained by the present Government and past Governments and that some of that money is actually being used for the purposes of commercial television, because £750,000 per annum is to be paid out of wireless licences to the I.T.A.
§ Mr. Hobson
I am grateful for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. Great as is the temptation to develop that theme, apparently this Bill is so narrow that one cannot say what one would have liked to say on that aspect. We will give this Measure a Second Reading, but certainly between now and the Committee stage we shall have to have a look at it, and it might be necessary to put down one or two Amendments. In the field of wireless licensing, we regard the Government with more than suspicion.
§ 11.54 a.m.
§ Mr. Charles Ian Orr-Ewing (Hendon, North)
Mr. Speaker, your Ruling will certainly make it very difficult for some of us on this side of the House to make a speech, particularly the speech which some of us have prepared before coming to the House. However, I hope you will be long suffering, and, if I stray too far, that you will quickly intervene.
I wish to suggest some thoughts which I have put into the framework of the historical background of this matter, as that seems the only safe framework in which I may put my speech. This matter arose because regulations had not been made; and at the same time there was the subsidiary point, which was not pressed by the plaintiff company, about the shift in frequencies. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) mentioned this point. My view is that he and the Government of which he was a member were extremely vulnerable in this respect.
They went to Atlantic City in 1947 in order to set up international regulations which would apportion the conditions and frequencies all over the world for licences of this sort. They came back from the 1947 Atlantic City International Telecommunications Conference and 1269 immediately proceeded to disobey the rulings. I have here the regulations which were agreed to at Atlantic City. They laid down quite clearly that the band of 174–216 megacycles was to be reserved for broadcasting.
The Assistant Postmaster-General of the day put in a caveat which says:In the United Kingdom the band 174–200 megacycles is also allocated for the fixed service.But he did not license fixed services. The Davey Paxman licence was in fact for a mobile service, and should never have been in that frequency band at all.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member was kind enough to suggest that I might assist him by intervening when I thought he was straying beyond the bounds of order. I think the time for rendering that assistance has come. It is true that reference to the historical background leading up to the error—if it be an error—which we are asked to put right today is in order, but, if the hon. Member will excuse me saying so, I think he is painting the background in in so much detail that there is nothing left of the foreground. There is no question here about Atlantic City or the wavelengths involved. That would be much beyond the scope of the Bill.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
I am seeking to try to help the Government to get out of this muddle, which has required a Bill, and to make sure that they do not get into a muddle in the future, as the House does not want to waste time on another Bill of the same sort. I think there would be considerably less trouble in the future if regulations were laid and were debatable in this House.
§ Mr. Speaker
Regulations for the future will be made under an entirely different Act—the Act of 1949—not under the Acts whose consequences we are asked to validate. These earlier Acts are now repealed. No doubt the hon. Member is seeking to be helpful to the Government in advising them how to get out of similar muddles, but he should seek another opportunity of rendering such help, and no doubt the Government would treat his representations with great care.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
Obviously I shall have to seek another opportunity to raise the matter, but I feel that we have not 1270 had an opportunity to discuss these conditions. I could quote all sorts of papers I have here on this issue. The Government would be wise to try to take the responsibility of frequency allocation from the Post Office and leave it to an independent body. They would then have slightly to reframe the Bill, but that course would not lead to any muddle in the future. I suggest that a Royal Commission would be the best way of dealing With this question, once we have put the matter right, because we are bound to have confusion in the future, with very sore cost to many people.
The licences which we are discussing are related to the drive for increased productivity in our country. We cannot get increased productivity in so many different fields if there is to be constant change and new Bills of indemnity brought before the House. I hope that the Government will consider appointing a Royal Commission to deal with these points so that such Bills will not be needed in the future.
§ 11.59 a.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
I shall not endeavour to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing), as obviously I should be completely out of order if I did so.
I have no doubt that the Government will get this Bill, but I should not like it to be thought that a Bill of this kind can go through the House without the most vigorous protest against the action which is being taken. Of course one may make a case and say that these people have had these services and that this is a technicality, therefore—a Bill validating these charges which were illegally made and that it ought to be passed. But the fact remains that these were fees charged illegally by the Post Office for licences under the Wireless Telegraphy Act from 1904 until 1926.
I suggest that this is not a simple matter. After all, the cardinal principle, a principle which is much more important than even the return of £17 million, is the fact that no British subject can 'be called upon to pay a charge without the authority of Parliament. In point of fact, that has been done over a number of years. When it is done, what happens? The Minister, in the form of my right hon. and learned Friend the 1271 Attorney-General, comes along and says, "We will put forward a Bill which makes what was wrong right."
May I remind the House that under Section 1 (6) of the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1904, the Postmaster-General was bound to make regulations, and was bound to obtain the authority of the Treasury before he could impose the fees? How do we know that the Treasury would have given consent to the amount of the fees that have been charged? How do we know that regulations would inevitably have been made during those years authorising the charges that have been made? That has been done. The fees have been charged wrongly, and now the Government come along and say, "It is all right; let's validate them." I should like to make a protest against this sort of thing. I think that it is wrong and that it should be done only in very exceptional cases.
I appreciate that a very large sum of money is involved. But is not it really a case of negligence on the part of the Government, and do not the Government have any responsibility whatever—whatever Government it might have been—to pay for negligence, in the same way as an individual, firm or company is responsible for its negligence?
I wonder why these mistakes have been made. Is there not any machinery in the Government offices that looks into the necessity for regulations being made? Surely it is a very simple matter for Departments to have machinery checking up the necessity for regulations, and if such machinery does not exist, is not it time that the Government looked into the various Departments, whatever the complexion of the Government, to see that machinery does exist there to make sure that a mistake of this kind shall not be made again?
I pass to what I consider to be the much more serious part of this Bill, and that is the provision under Clause 1 (3) of the Bill. I know of no previous instance where a Government have come along with a provision in a Bill and have said that a judgment obtained shall be set aside and the money paid under that judgment shall be recovered. I have heard it said a good many times 1272 from the other side that no one ought to attack the sanctity of contract; but that is a small thing compared with attacking the sanctity of a judgment.
We in this country have always regarded the fact that, rightly or wrongly, when a judgment is obtained in a court of law that judgment can only be attacked in a certain way. A party to a suit has certain rights of appeal and if a mistake is made, he can exercise that right of appeal. What this Bill does is to attack the judgment, and to enact a provision that moneys paid under that judgment shall be recovered. I think that is completely wrong.
It is all very well saying that people had notice of the position. That is a small thing compared with the refusal to recognise the sanctity of a judgment. It is not as if the right hon. and learned Gentleman had in his favour the fact that a large sum of money would be paid, because we have just been told that there is only one action—that, I understand, taken on 11th November.
§ The Attorney-General
No. The hon. and learned Member has got it quite wrong. I hope that he will not mind my interrupting to correct him. The only action pending on 11th November was the Davey Paxman case, and judgment was given in that action on 15th November. That sum will be paid to Davey Paxman, if it has not been paid already, and there is no question of asking for it back. The only other writ issued was a writ issued long after 11th November, namely, on 7th December.
§ Mr. Weitzman
That fortifies the argument I have put forward. Apparently only one other writ has been issued in the Manner and on the date mentioned by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is not a case of saying that there are a great many actions pending.
We are now proposing to put an enactment in a Bill which says that, although a case has been tried in court and a judgment given, the money paid under it shall be repaid. I protest against such an enactment as strongly as I possibly can. Before this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament, as I expect it will, I hope that something will be done to remedy an offending provision of that kind.
§ 12.7 p.m.
§ Mr. J. E. S. Simon (Middlesbrough, West)
The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) paid a tribute to the lucidity with which my right hon. and learned Friend introduced this Bill, and I should like, with respect, to associate myself with that tribute; because if ever a Bill, which obviously does contain highly objectionable features—whether its general purpose is merited or not—could be presented attractively and persuasively to the House, this Bill has been.
We are told that a maximum sum of £17 million is involved. I think that we shall find, when we look at the provisions in the Bill which have met with the most objections from hon. Members on both sides of the House, that they involve considerably smaller sums. But I for one would not oppose the general purpose of the Bill. We saw my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal looking in on occasions nervously today, and the Leader of the Opposition is in the same boat, and other distinguished gentlemen who occupied the high position which my noble Friend now holds. Clearly we would not want them collectively to be responsible for some £17 million.
It is when we come to the detailed provisions of the Bill that we find a great many objectionable features, and certain features which, in my submission, could quite well be dispensed with. The hon. Member for Keighley dealt with retrospective legislation as if all retrospective legislation were objectionable. That is not so. The House has repeatedly passed retrospective legislation without any question, without any demur, and without any doubt. Such retrospective legislation, for example, as a Bill of indemnity pure and simple.
There is distinction to be drawn between retrospective legislation which does not impose any new burden or take away any accrued right, of which a Bill of indemnity is a typical example. Clause 1 (1) of this Bill comes within that principle. So far as I can see, there is no objection that can reasonably be taken to that provision.
But that must be distinguished from two other types of retrospective legislation. The first is one that takes away retrospectively a right—not a payment— 1274 which has accrued. The second is one which imposes a new burden retrospectively. Certainly, the third is highly objectionable; and the second would have to be looked at with the very closest scrutiny. We have examples of both of those types of retrospective provision in this Bill.
Clause 1 (2) takes away retrospectively a right which has accrued, and, in particular, as the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) pointed out, Clause 1 (3) takes away, not only a right which has accrued, but a right which has become crystallised in a judgment.
I submit that the taking away of a right which has accrued could only be possibly justified under the most stringent safeguards. First, natural justice must demand action of this sort. Secondly, there must be a substantial sum or point at issue; and the hon. and learned Member has pointed out that there is, as far as we can see at the moment, only one action pending which would be affected. Thirdly, clear warning must be given and the right which has accrued must have accrued since such warning was given. If we consider how far that applies in the present case, certainly my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General, in his statement on 11th November, gave no warning that any action so drastic as the taking away of rights which were crystallised in a judgment would be put forward in legislation.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I wonder whether the hon. and learned Member can help me? Has there been any judgment? I understood that there was one writ pending and that that was all.
§ Mr. Simon
That is certainly so; there is one writ pending. But if the hon. and learned Member looks at the Bill, he will see that if the action started by that writ proceeds to judgment, that judgment can be nullified by Clause 1 (3). In other words, a right which is in existence at the moment is being enforced by means of a writ. That action may pass to judgment, and that judgment may be nullified.
I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consider, at any rate, that the date in subsection (3) should not be 11th November, but should be the date of the introduction of the Bill. If my right hon. 1275 and learned Friend is right, and the only writ was issued on 7th December, the Bill having been introduced on 1st December, nobody will be affected by such a change. But in case my right hon. and learned Friend is not right about the issue of only one writ, it is most objectionable that a provision of this sort should be passed without any clear warming having been given. Certainly, from the date of the introduction of the Bill such a clear warning was given; and anybody issuing a writ after that date would be doing so at his peril. To bring the case within the principles which I have suggested should apply to this type of case, I certainly ask that that should be considered.
Now, I come to subsection (4) of Clause 1, which, to my mind, is far more objectionable, because it imposes a new burden retrospectively. When I intervened to ask a question of my right hon. and learned Friend, I used the phrase "sums which had legally been withheld" by the holders of the licence; and I think that my right hon. and learned Friend was inclined to demur to that phrase. But, in fact, that is the actual position. These sums could not have been legally demanded. The Paxman case shows that. They were, therefore, legally withheld, and what subsection (4) says is that notwithstanding that they were legally withheld, they shall now be exacted.
I hope I carry the whole House with me in saying that that is a highly objectionable provision. Is it really necessary? First of all, how much is involved? It cannot toe a very big sum, and I should be grateful if my right hon. and learned Friend can state the precise extent of the sum involved in subsection (4). My own guess is that it would be some hundreds or, at most, some thousands, of pounds. One has then to consider whether we are justified in imposing retrospectively a burden on taxpayers in pursuit of such a comparatively paltry sum—a paltry sum considering the very grave constitutional issues which are involved in the Bill.
My right hon. and learned Friend, in his very fair and able speech, quoted the 1925 Act as a precedent, and of course that is perfectly right. It is a precedent for subsection (1), but so far as I under stood my right hon. and learned Friend, it is in no way a precedent—
§ The Attorney-General
May I help my hon. and learned Friend? I am now reminded that that Act does in fact provide, under Section 1, that:(a) any sum so charged on any person but not levied or paid before the commencement of this Act may be recovered as a debt due to His Majesty …It does, therefore, contain a provision similar to the present one.
§ Mr. Simon
I am obliged to my right hon. and learned Friend, and, of course, I have no complaint that the answer he gave when he was on his feet was to a different effect, because I had not given him warning that I would ask such a question. But it shows that this is a matter on which it is highly necessary to be vigilant.
The House, generally speaking, is gravely disturbed at this sort of legislation: and how easy it is, if sufficient vigilance is not shown, for Ministers, whatever be the complexion of the Government, to come forward subsequently and say," Here is a precedent." The 1925 Act, I submit, is not a precedent that we should be willing to follow. It was passed possibly through an unawareness at the time of the constitutional issues involved; whereas today we are fully aware of the issues involved, it should not be any guide to the House in this present case.
My right hon. and learned Friend was inclined to suggest that there were no real merits in the case of the people concerned, because they had received services and had withheld payments. I gathered that it is not open to discuss that, and I gather that that is in any case controverted by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr). In any event it is quite immaterial. The merits of the people involved cannot affect the constitutional importance of the issue here.
Pym and Hampden were not to everybody's tastes. One could hardly have a more disreputable or distasteful character than Wilkes, and yet it was his stand on General Warrants which established an important stepping stone in our path to constitutional liberty. And after all, the Plantagenet barons themselves were only out to seek their 1277 own advantage. They were only out to aggrandize the sphere of their own oppressive acts. And yet it was their stand which vindicated and established the great Charter in which our fundamental liberties were established.
Therefore, I ask the House to be very chary of listening to an argument that any particular person affected may not have very much merit. The truth is that a real principle is involved here, and it is the same principle for which hon. and right hon. Members on this side of the House stood in the Lord and Black case. It is the imposing retrospectively of a burden, and that is precisely what one finds in subsection (4).
§ Mr. Hobson
Surely, by the hon. and learned Member's own arguments, it is even worse than the Messrs. Lord and Black case, because in that case no retrospective legislation was introduced by Sir Stafford Cripps until after due warning.
§ Mr. Simon
I have already dealt with that point. In any case, I am not prepared to judge between the respective demerits of two such evil castes. They are on a par, so far as we are concerned. They are both cases of imposing a burden retrospectively.
The truth is that what is here involved is the rule of law—that there s-hall not be any arbitrary interference with accrued rights of the citizen. The people of this country regulate their lives according to the law as they know it. If they find the law altered retrospectively, that means that they find necessarily an arbitrary interference with the fabric of the law, which was the context of their actions in question; they will cease to respect the law and they will cease to abide by the law. When that happens it will be a very sorry day for this country.
I have detained the House unduly, I am afraid, but this is an important issue. I would ask my right hon. and learned Friend, who, I know, takes these matters seriously, and whom we regard as the embodiment of the conscience of the law in the Government, to look at this matter again before Committee to see whether these objectionable subsections cannot be amended.
§ 12.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)
In intervening briefly in the debate, I am fully conscious of the fact that I am treading where angels fear to tread, but I have noticed that in the exposition which the Attorney-General gave of the Bill, and in the arguments advanced on both sides of the House, the term "retrospective legislation" has come to the fore. Since I became a Member of this House I have understood that legislation that demanded that retrospective payments should be made or claimed was bad legislation. A few months ago we made an appeal to a Minister of the Crown for retrospective payments for some injured workmen. He replied, "Oh, no, that would be bad." If the principle of retrospection is bad when injured workmen are concerned, it is bad when the Government are concerned.
I do hope, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) said, that there will be set up some form of machinery in Government Departments to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen again. That is of paramount importance, because this Bill, and the causes of it, will arouse consternation in the country. I hope that the advice given by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) will have some weight with the Ministers concerned.
§ 12.23 p.m.
§ Mr. C. J. M. Alport (Colchester)
I wish to try to reinforce the argument put forward by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West (Mr. Simon) in respect of Clause 1 (4). No doubt, as he has suggested, there will be an opportunity of reconsidering it between now and Committee. It seems to me that it introduces a thoroughly bad principle, even though there may be one precedent on the Statute Book, a precedent made as long ago as 1925.
That Act of 1925 resulted, as far as I can make out, from the extraordinary situation produced by the First World War, and it is not parallel with this Bill and this case. The mistake which the Bill seeks to rectify has been going on for 40 or 50 years. In any case, I feel that the comparison is not an exact one.
1279 It is as if in this eternal conflict between the Government and the taxpayer over taxation the Government, having kicked the ball into their own goal, are now attempting to change the rules so that not only that does not count against them but it actually counts in their favour and against the taxpayer. I think that the House, and all people with a sense of justice, will agree with me that that is carrying things a bit too far.
My main object is not to follow the legal arguments of my hon. and learned Friend but to follow his constitutional argument. This case, which was originally brought up by Messrs. Davey Paxman, was brought up to obtain redress of what they conceived to be a grievance, and I should say that there are many Members of the House besides myself who feel that it was a legitimate grievance, to which we have drawn the attention of the Government on previous occasions in the House. The action which that concern took was the only way in which it could have aired its grievance.
That grievance was that the Government, by administrative action, had caused the company an injustice, had caused them an expense, in spite of the fact that the Government had exacted from them a licence which they understood was reputed to give them protection against precisely the sort of action which was subsequently taken. Because it was their object to bring this matter to the notice of the public, the Government, and this House, they entered an action in the High Court, and they won that action.
They did not intend as a result of it, or wish as a result of it, so far as I know, to obtain any return of the licence money which they had paid. They were perfectly willing, as, I believe, all contributors to the licence fees would be, to pay what is an obviously reasonable licence fee, so long as they could receive due protection.
What I want to ask my right hon. and learned Friend is this. If he is now considering a Bill of this sort, a Bill of a very unusual character, to inflict—for this is what it is—taxation upon a limited section of the community, is he prepared to give some undertaking that, in return for that licence or taxation, he will take an early opportunity of redressing the 1280 grievance which this section of the community undoubtedly has? If he, or the Postmaster-General, who is really the authority in this case, would undertake that, all the arguments and all the problems about this issue and connected with the Bill would melt away.
I think it is just to the particular individual, the late managing director of the company which has been the cause of the case and the cause of the introduction of this Bill, that it should be known and understood that the case was taken to serve, not any particular interest, but general interests.
§ Mr. Mitchison
On a point of order. Is there anything in the Bill about the piece of horse-trading that is now proposed?
§ Mr. Speaker
I am afraid that the hon. Member has gone into the argument in too much detail. He said that constituents of his have a special interest in the matter, and so I was prepared to listen to his case with a good deal of the latitude I endeavour sometimes to allow, but I would ask the House not to trespass too far on that latitude. Let us get on with the Bill as it is.
§ Mr. Alport
I do not want to pursue the case any further, and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to make the point that I wished to make
§ 12.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Hamilton Kerr (Cambridge)
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West (Mr. Simon) re-marked that Wilkes, though a disreputable character, had not hesitated to stand for British liberties. Although I have far less eloquence than Wilkes, I hope I am more respectable, so I shall not hesitate to follow his example, and stand for British liberties. I submit a strong protest against this Bill of indemnity for two reasons, first, because it is retrospective legislation; and, second, because it inflicts retrospective legislation on a certain section of the community which is dissatisfied. As I gather that our remarks are confined to the past, my few sentences will be directly historical.
As hon. Members are aware, the mobile radio industry in this country has seen a tremendous expansion since the war. Mobile radios serve the community in police cars, fire brigades and 1281 ambulances, and they are also used commercially in taxis and in other industries. This home market has allowed an export trade worth over £1½ million a year to be developed. A past judgment of the Post Office has confined these mobile radios from the 17 megacycle band to 6 megacycles.
§ Mr. Speaker
I was waiting to see whether the speech of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Hamilton Kerr) would develop some relevance to the Bill, and I was about to intervene at just about the same time as did the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison).
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)
I shall be very brief, because it is getting near lunch time and the Ruling which you have given Mr. Speaker is making it very difficult for me, as it did for my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Orr-Ewing), to develop the arguments which I have in mind. I should like to join with some of my hon. Friends in paying tribute to the lucidity of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. I noticed, however, in his introduction of the Bill a lack of that penitence which I would have expected, not from him, because he is in no way personally responsible for the state of affairs which has arisen, but from the Government as a whole. The Government are blameworthy, and so are previous Governments, particularly the Government which brought in the 1949 Act, under which regulations should have been laid. The Attorney-General should have made a somewhat more abject apology to the House than he did on behalf of both Governments, and indeed of Governments long before and of some very other important persons.
It is not good enough to say to the House that this decision has arisen because something was not appreciated or because a mistake was made, without some note of apology and regret that this infringement of the Bill of Rights has been going on for so long, indeed, since 1282 before I was born. I will endeavour to say a little about the background to this matter and perhaps you, Mr. Speaker, would be kind enough to assist me in the same way as you assisted my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North if I attempt to paint the background in too great detail. I will try to avoid doing so.
The fact that regulations have not been laid was discovered in this manner. A Government decision, to which the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) referred, was made regarding frequencies which users of mobile radio felt was very unjust and did not take account of their interests. Here I must declare that, although I am chairman of Mobile Radio Users' Association, I have no financial interest whatever in mobile radio. These people felt a sense of injustice because of the general administration of frequencies. They sought to inquire what were the powers of the Postmaster-General in the matter. They assumed that the Postmaster-General had power to charge for their licences. They sought to find out whether in charging for those licences the Postmaster-General had any obligations to them of any kind. Here one should pay tribute to Sir John Grieves of Messrs. Davey Paxman Limited.
§ Captain Orr
Yes, to the barrister, Mr. Raphael Tuck, whose very patient work unearthed this irregularity.
It was discovered that the regulations had not been made and consequently there had never arisen a debate in the House on whether or not the licence fees should be charged, and the House of Commons had never had a chance to debate the conditions under which the licences would be charged. Accordingly, court action was taken and a writ was served against the solicitors for the Postmaster-General.
The Regulations were then laid—and here I can give an answer to the hon. Member for Keighley—they were laid in June of this year, under the 1949 Act, subsequent to the issue of the writ by Messrs. Davey Paxman, Ltd. I would invite the attention of the House to the very important point that, when the Regulations were laid under the 1949 Act, they made charges which were 1283 different from those which were being exacted illegally from the public. I can give one example to illustrate that. An ambulance authority had been paying to the Postmaster-General a charge of £5 for every set on an ambulance. This fee was being charged illegally, but when the Regulations were laid under the 1949 Act the fee was £3.
§ Mr. Speaker
I ought now to indicate to the hon. Member that he is going into too much detail on this matter. The issue is now quite a simple one. It is only for the House to decide whether these past payments should be validated or not. We cannot go into the merits of the Regulations under another Act altogether.
§ Captain Orr
With great respect, Mr. Speaker, I was not seeking to argue the merits of the Regulations. I was seeking to show that the Regulations which were made in 1954 under the 1949 Act did not continue in being the same charges as were feeing made illegally before the laying of the Regulations. I have made the point and will not pursue it further.
I do not care for, and I do not think that the House should care for, the general attitude of the Post Office towards this matter. Those concerned seem to regard it as a mere technicality. I want to give an illustration, which I hope is in order. A private person who is an amateur wrote to the Posit Office on 7th September and asked whether he could have returned to him the fees which he had paid, because of the judgment given in the Davey Paxman case. The relevant parts of the reply he received from an official of the Post Office read as follows:As for your claims for sums previously paid by you, your attention is called to the statement made in the House of Lords by the Postmaster-General on the 11th November and 16th November, 1954. The latter statement was that the proposed legislation for validating past charges for licences issued under the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1904 to 1926 would prevent further actions against the Post Office for repayment of charges paid by licensees under those Acts and that any new action started after the date of his announcement on 11th November would be invalidated.Here follows the important sentence:You will appreciate, therefore, that no question arises of refunding these fees.1284 Here is a bland assumption by an official of a Government Department that, because a Minister has made an announcement that legislation is going to be introduced, such legislation will, of necessity, receive the assent of both Houses of Parliament. That, in my view, typifies the general attitude of this particular Government Department.
The question before us now is whether we should or should not indemnify the Postmaster-General. In view of the large amount of money involved, it would be generally agreed that it would be an irresponsible act to vote against the Second Reading of this Bill. A great deal of money amounting to millions of pounds is involved. In connection with the mobile radio licences my right hon. and learned Friend quoted a figure of £17 million, and if the question of the validity of other licences is raised the sum would foe very much more. It would, therefore, be an irresponsible action to ask anybody to vote against—
§ Lieut. - Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)
I should like to ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman how he reconciles what he is saying now with his statement to the Press that the Mobile Users' Association would oppose a Bill of indemnity and like Measures until it had obtained redress?
§ Captain Orr
I am, in fact, opposing the Bill of indemnity, but what I am anxious to do is not to vote against the Second Reading. Indeed, I am not asking anybody to vote against the Motion, but I am endeavouring to make certain points—other points have been made by other hon. Members—that there are many parts of this Bill which require careful examination in Committee, particularly Clause 1 (3), to which reference has already been made.
Before agreeing to the Motion before the House, I think we are entitled to ask the Attorney-General for an assurance that this sort of thing will not occur again. We are also entitled to ask that the attention of the Treasury should be drawn, if it has not been drawn already, to this particular situation, because it passes my comprehension how the Treasury could have seen these sums of money going to the Postmaster-General without realising that the regulations had not been made.
1285 I hope my right hon. and learned Friend will convey to the Postmaster-General that he has important obligations towards that section of the community which has been mentioned and that he cannot, as has been clone in the past, ride roughshod over them. We also hope that there will be a greater degree of repentance on the part of the Postmaster-General when we come to forgive him later today.
§ 12.44 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General
Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House if I sought now to reply to the observations that have been made on the Bill. First, I think I should thank the hon. Member who said nice things about the way in which I moved the Second Reading. I am sorry that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) did not detect a sufficient note of penitence. I feel that in moving the Second Reading of this Bill I am in one sense appearing, not only as Attorney-General in the present Government, but also on behalf of all the distinguished gentlemen who have held office as Postmaster-General in the past.
The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson), who supported this Bill—and I must say I am most grateful for the wholehearted enthusiasm with which he did so—talked about skeletons in the cupboard and things of that sort. There were really two skeletons, one in relation to fees, the regulations not having been made, and the other this charging of royalties for licencing mobile radio stations in contravention of the express provisions of the 1904 Act.
The skeleton in relation to fees has been in the cupboard of the Post Office for a very long time, but it did not rattle until 1946. It was detected then, and the point which was involved came to light. As I have indicated, after consideration, the wording of the licence was changed from "fees" to "royalties." The skeleton about charges for mobile radio licences did not come to light until the commencement of the action by Davey Paxman and Company. So, treating them as two skeletons, I may say that one has been rattled for some time and the other one only for a very short time.
I think the House agrees that it is indeed unfortunate, and everyone con- 1286 cerned must bear a certain measure of responsibility, that once these things came to light they were not dealt with at once. I do not wish to criticise. It may have been that it was thought that the changing of the terminology in 1946 was sufficient protection. It certainly was not until the writ was issued that the charging of royalties in relation to mobile land radio licences was found to be wrong. I am sure the House will agree that it was right not to contest the claim brought by the company, Davey Paxman and Company, of which we have heard so much.
The hon. Member for Keighley asked me about the number of claims since 11th November which will be barred by the Bill. As I think I indicated, only one writ has been issued, and that was on 7th December, after my noble Friend had said in another place that any new action started after the date of his announcement would be invalidated. It is no use, once a matter of this sort has come to light, saying "We will only bar such cases when the Act reaches the Statute Book," because between the hearing of the Paxman case on 15th November and the Royal Assent to this Bill a considerable time is bound to elapse, and during that time all the people who have paid for their licences could issue writs, so that the Post Office, instead of attending to its ordinary business, would be attending to the receipt of large numbers of writs.
I hope, therefore, that the House will agree that it is necessary here, unless we are prepared to face up to the repayment of the vast sums which have been paid in the last six years, to take some retrospective action, and to bar claims made after 11th November or some specific date. One of my hon. Friends suggested that the date of barring should be the introduction of this Bill, but as only one writ has been issued nothing now turns on that. It might have done, however.
So the provision is inserted that judgments in proceedings started after 11th November shall be invalidated. That roused the ire of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), but it would be no use omitting to make provision for that type of case because otherwise the Post Office would have to face proceedings being 1287 taken, judgment being given, and large sums of money having to be paid. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me if there were any precedents for invalidating judgments obtained in actions started after a certain date, and the answer is that there is a precedent in the Charitable Trusts (Validation) Act, 1954; he will see that Section 4 is to the same effect.
The logic of the decision is clear, that those who had not spotted the defect, or, in the case of the Act to which I have just referred, the loophole, before the Government decided to block it, should not be allowed to slip through it when the Government point out that the loophole exists, or when it becomes known that there is a defect. To avoid their slipping through there has to be a provision of this sort. That is why we have the provision in Clause 1 (3). I hope that my explanation makes the point clear.
The real criticism of the Bill has been directed to two main points: one is the question of retrospection generally, and the other is with regard to the recovery of sums in relation to mobile radio licences, the payment for which was suspended.
With regard to retrospection generally, I take the view that the case of Messrs. Lord and Black and the case which the Bill seeks to deal with are in no sense comparable. It is easy to talk of the sum paid for a wireless receiving licence as taxation, but it is not, of course, in form, taxation. It is very different from Income Tax, Surtax, and the like.
In respect of a licence for wireless receiving or for running a land mobile radio service, the citizen who wants to enjoy listening to the wireless or running a service of that kind, and goes to take out a licence, makes a voluntary act. Until now the citizen who has gone to take out a licence has known that he would be required to pay something. In a large number of cases the citizens have paid. The first part of the Bill makes provision for the circumstances in which payments have been made. These people voluntarily paid for licences; they need not have had licences unless they wanted them.
However, a minority of licensees said that they desired to suspend payment pending the result of the Davey Paxman 1288 case. That was a very different thing from saying that they legally withheld payment. I feel sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) was right when he said that the mobile radio licensees were perfectly willing to pay. All the Bill does is to ensure that the one or two who might not be willing shall pay their fair share of the cost of running the service.
§ Captain Orr
My right hon. and learned Friend speaks of these people paying for the cost of running the service. Will he make clear what he means by that?
§ The Attorney-General
I was summarising what I said in moving the Second Reading as to the basis for the charges, I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend will not really want me to repeat what I said.
§ The Attorney-General
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West (Mr. Simon) made a powerful speech relating to the rights of the subject, and the objections to retrospective legislation in general. I think we are all in agreement with much of what he said, but I am not in agreement with his description of the manner in which the payments were suspended. It was not the case that they were legally withheld. They were withheld by arrangement. Payment was suspended by arrangement pending the termination of the case.
It is not right to regard the sum paid for a licence as a burden on a taxpayer, nor is it right to regard the right of recovery of sums due under licences as imposing a new burden, because the licence holder voluntarily accepted the obligation to pay for the licence when he took the licence out. He was aware of the obligation at that time. I feel sure that, just as no honest person going into a shop to buy some goods would subsequently say, "I am not going to pay although I did agree to pay for the goods," one would assume that no mobile radio licensee who had taken out a licence on the understanding that certain payments had to be made would later say that he was not proposing to make them.
§ The Attorney-General
I prefer the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, that the mobile radio licensees were, and are, perfectly willing to pay for the licences.
§ Mr. Alport
The point I tried to make was that the object at issue was not the relatively small sums of the licences, which would be willingly paid, provided the money produced the results for which it was paid. The important point is the protection of the interests of the licensees, which it was understood the Post Office guaranteed to give them in return for the licence money paid.
§ The Attorney-General
I think it was at that point, Mr. Speaker, that you rose to your feet. I hope I shall not lead you to do so again. I feel that if I endeavoured to answer that point about what quid pro quo might be offered at the present time I should certainly bring you to your feet. I hope that I have now dealt adequately with the numerous points which have been advanced.
§ Mr. Weitzman
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman also deal with a point of very great importance to the public? What machinery exists to prevent a repetition of the mistake?
§ The Attorney-General
I will deal with both points. I am sorry that I omitted to deal with them. In reply to my hon. and learned Friend, the sum outstanding is, in round figures, £10,000.
In reply to the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), naturally the Post Office, in particular, and every other Government Department will, after this, be most anxious that the error shall not recur. It is interesting to reflect that, although we had to have a Bill of this nature in 1925 covering a wide field in which charges had been made for licences without authority, between 1925 and 1954, so far as I know, there has been no other instance of such an occurrence.
§ The Attorney-General
We hope that no more skeletons will start rattling in their cupboards. While consideration will be given to the suggestion made by the hon. and learned Gentleman, I incline to the view that proper vigilance within each Department is better and more effective than an attempt to create central machinery to ensure that the provisions of numerous Acts are complied with.
I think I have now covered most of the points which have been raised. So far this morning we have talked a lot about skeletons. Perhaps the time has now come to consider something more substantial.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]
§ Committee upon Monday next.