§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.15 a.m.
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Hon. Members will recall that my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, on 29th June, informed the House that doubts had arisen with regard to the validity of the election of John Clarke George as Member for the Pollok division of Glasgow, and that on 5th July my right hon. Friend informed the House that doubts had also arisen as to the validity of the election of Sir Roland Jennings for the Hallam division.
A Select Committee was appointed to consider Mr. George's case, and later the case of Sir Roland Jennings was referred to it. The House will be aware that the Select Committee has now reported, and I am sure that hon. Members would like me to express our gratitude to the members of that Committee for having produced so speedily such a clear and concise Report.
The Report shows that Mr. George was named in the articles of the Scottish Slate Industries Limited as a director of that company appointed by the Minister of Works. In February, 1947, he was appointed chairman of that company by the Minister. The company was formed in 1947 and received a loan from the Minister of Works of £125,000.
Under the articles of the company, Mr. George could have received remuneration. In fact, on two occasions he drew certain sums as expenses. The evidence which the Select Committee received shows that Mr. George accepted this office only on a completely voluntary basis. In lending the money, it was the object of the Government to help to revive a Highland industry, and the evidence shows that in accepting this office Mr. George acted in the spirit of performing a public duty. Also, the evidence reveals that, so far as he personally was concerned, it was not in fact an office of profit but rather an office of loss. Nevertheless, it is clear, as the Select Committee found, that the tenure of this office constituted an office 724 of profit under the Crown, it being an office from which he might, though he did not, derive profit. Consequently, it follows that his election was invalid.
Now I turn briefly to the case of Sir Roland Jennings, which is somewhat different. In 1923 he became what is generally known as a public auditor, solely for the purpose of auditing the accounts of the Cotherstone British Legion and Village Club. He did so to save the club expense, for he found that he could not audit those accounts unless he became a public auditor. He charged the club a guinea a year, a sum which in fact involved him in a loss, and he made that charge only because something had to be charged. The Acts under which he was appointed made it possible for him to be remunerated by the Treasury. In fact, he received remuneration from the Cotherstone British Legion Club and from no other source. It is clear from the evidence received by the Select Committee that it never occurred to him that his tenure of this office was tenure of an office of profit. The Select Committee has reported that it was an office of profit, and I think the House will agree that it rightly came to that conclusion.
And so the Select Committee has concluded that the elections of both these gentlemen were invalid. It has expressed the view, which I am sure the House will accept, that both these gentlemen acted by inadvertence and that both of them accepted these posts in a public spirit and not for profit.
The Select Committee recommended that legislation should be introduced immediately to indemnify these two gentlemen from any penalties that they might have incurred or to which they might be liable, and to validate their election. The Government accept these recommendations. Hence this Bill, which carries the recommendations into effect. The Bill is in accordance with the precedents after the 1945 Election.
More than once it has been said that the old Act of 1707 can prove a snare and a trap to hon. Members. I think the House will agree that it has certainly proved to be so in these two cases. I hope that very shortly we shall be able to proceed to discuss another Measure which, if it does not entirely eliminate, will at least materially reduce, the risks which hon. Members run.
725 I would add just this in conclusion. The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), who has spoken more than once on these matters, seems to assume that it is part of my duty to inquire into the private affairs of hon. Members of this House to see whether or not they are disqualified by the Act of 1707. I should like to assure him that is not part of my duty to do so, and I am very glad that that burden does not fall upon my shoulders.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)
Since the Attorney-General has made a reference to me, I should like to ask him whether he has read the Report of the Select Committee and the advice to Government Departments that they should look into the affairs of hon. Members to discover whether they are indeed hon. Members? Is it not true that, if it is not his function to scrutinise the offices of hon. Members, it has been referred to various Government Departments?
§ The Attorney-General
I am fully aware of the contents of the Report of the Select Committee, and I am sure that Government Departments will take note of it. The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong in the statements he has made on two occasions that it is my duty to inquire into the occupations of hon. Members, and that in some way I had been neglecting my duty in not having ascertained that those two gentlemen held those two offices.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
I also should like to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman a question. He has referred to the Act of 1707 as a trap for unwary Members of Parliament. Has not that Act been inquired into on many occasions? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain why the Government have left the introduction of this Bill until the eve of the summer Recess?
§ The Attorney-General
That is a subject which we can properly debate, perhaps, when we consider the next Measure on the Order Paper.
§ 11.23 a.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
I wish, on behalf of hon. Members on this side of the House, to join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in expressing the thanks of the House to the Select Committee 726 which inquired into these two cases, and particularly to the Chairman of the Select Committee. He is a Member of the House who has been here a very long time and has sat occasionally as Deputy-Chairman of Ways and Means and Chairman of Ways and Means in your Chair, Mr. Speaker, and we know that he is exceedingly jealous of the proper discharge of the functions of Members and the correct procedure for all that happens in the House. I think that the Committee was fortunate in having him as Chairman.
Bills of this kind come before us with a frequency that deserves some comment. I do not want to be too severe in anything I say because I am sure that anyone who has sat in this House for many years must often have wondered whether there was not a trap into which he might have fallen at some time or another, and, perhaps, wondered whether he had managed to camouflage himself inadvertently and successfully so as not to excite the notice of the people who watch for these things. It is astonishing that from time to time the House is called on to discuss Bills such as this. However, I think that these two cases differ from most of the cases we have had in recent years, because a little investigation would have revealed to these two gentlemen that they were incapable of sitting after election.
The astounding thing is that Sir Roland Jennings has fought seven contested elections at none of which could he have been validly a candidate. We all know the temperament of Sir Roland Jennings. I recollect how, when he was sitting on this side of the House, on many occasions we heard his somewhat strident and metallic voice ejaculating the words "Jobs for the boys." I suppose he is somewhat more than a boy, but this is a warning that one does have to be very careful how one proceeds.
I wish to examine with some care the evidence which was submitted to the Select Committee and the comments the Committee has made on that evidence. The Committee started by having two of the Law Officers of the Crown before it, and started by investigating the case of Mr. George. The Chairman of the Select Committee, knowing that this was a Scottish Member, and seeing there a 727 Scottish Law Officer, addressed himself to the Scottish Law Officer, who replied:I am afraid that I am in complete ignorance"—
§ Mr. Ede
I advise my hon. and gallant Friend to read the evidence.
Among the things the Select Committee investigated was one alluded to by the right hon. and learned Gentleman at the conclusion of his speech: how do these things come to light? Mr. George had his suspicions and they fell on one of the Parliamentary Secretaries. This new Member was rash enough to take lunch at a table at which so exalted a person as a Parliamentary Secretary was sitting. The event induces me to recall my early days in the House in 1923. Then, the Dining Room was divided into two parts, and one did not dare to sit in one part until one had been a Member of the House for five years. In these days, we are more egalitarian, and, as long as one keeps away from the Ministerial table, and the table which is supposed to be reserved for Members who sit on this Opposition Front Bench, one can now apparently sit where one likes and choose one's companions.
However, Mr. George was at the table where was the Parliamentary Secretary to 728 the Ministry of Works, whom I am glad to see in his place, and said to him, "It is no good your talking down to me, because as chairman of this body dealing with Scottish slate I have met all the big noises in the Ministry of Works." Then the Parliamentary Secretary, who seems to know more of these legal matters than the Lord Advocate, said: "That may be an office of profit." It is always difficult to ascertain when a Scotsman sees a joke. At any rate, on this occasion Mr. George thought that this was a joke. In fact, he says that the Parliamentary Secretary said it jocularly. No doubt the Parliamentary Secretary was trying to let Mr. George down lightly and just warn him that he had to be careful how he stepped.
At any rate, some days afterwards, Mr. George had a telephone message from the Patronage Secretary. It appears from the answer which he gave—No. 59 in the Report—to have treated the warning which he had been given by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works very lightly. My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) asked him:Mr. George, before the Chief Whip got in touch with you, you had no idea that there was any doubt about your election?The answer was:No. None at all.That was the weight which Mr. George attached to the very sound opinion that had been expressed by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works.
The Select Committee was good enough to submit as appendices to the Report a great deal of information about this office that Mr. George held. When one examines this case, it is quite clear to anyone who has read Article 83 of the company's Memorandum and Articles of Association, and who is familiar with what has happened previously in the House in other cases, that this was an office that would be held to be an office of profit. In fact, the Attorney-General, in answer to some Questions by the right hon. Member for Kelvingrove (Mr. Elliot), demonstrated quite clearly that Article 83 provided that at any moment there might be remuneration for the directors. It is true that, until the loan has been paid off, that has to be done with the sanction of the Minister of Works, but, after the loan had been paid off, 729 at any meeting the directors could have voted themselves salaries. Therefore, anyone who has studied the ways in which these things have happened in the past would have realised that this was far more clearly an office of profit than a great many of the offices for which Members have been ruled ineligible in recent years.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
My right hon. Friend is repeating a heresy in putting forward the question whether profit in the normal sense of the word attaches to the office. I say that that is wrong. It does not matter whether there is a profit in £ s. d. The profit could have disappeared from it long since. But it is still held to be an office of profit. The Attorney-General obviously does not understand that.
§ Mr. Ede
I do not mind being accused of heresy, for I am a Nonconformist and if there is any heresy that I have not yet believed in I should like to know what it is. But my hon. Friend, of course, as the high priest, is quite right in complaining at the length of the junior curate's sermon, but I was going to get to the point.
§ Mr. Ede
But all true sermons proceed with at least, "Firstly, secondly, and thirdly," and very often a great deal further down the order of numbers, and I shall get there. It is, of course, one of the anomalies that we use this word "profit" in this connection in a way that does not accord with modern Tory philosophy.
§ Mr. Ede
The real trouble with these two gentlemen was that they thought they were doing something which is alien to Tory philosophy. They were serving the public, they thought, for nothing. There was no profit motive behind it, and then they suddenly discovered that they had blundered into it.
I think that the case of Mr. George requires considerably more justification than we have yet heard before the House agrees to pass the Bill in so far as it relates to him. I cannot think that anyone who had followed Parliamentary procedure and who had read Article 83 could 730 have imagined that he was holding anything other than an office of profit under the Crown, as defined for our purposes. Therefore, I think that we are entitled to know exactly what steps are taken in the various Government Departments to keep a check on offices that may be given to people who stand as candidates or who are elected to membership of the House.
I recall that when I was in office my Permanent Under-Secretary came to me one morning and said that an hon. Member who had been recently returned to the House at a by-election had a small contract with the Home Office for the supply of certain stationery. This was apparent as soon as the next order was about to be placed with the hon. Member. Perhaps I am wrong in saying that it was a contract. Goods were bought from him by one of the branch offices of the Home Office for the ordinary running of the office.
There can be no doubt that, as far as Mr. George is concerned, the Ministry of Works must have been aware of this arrangement with him, for this is not a small thing like the matter that I have just mentioned. Here is a case where the Ministry wrote a letter in 1947 to Mr. George asking him to accept this office and pointing out its importance. There is a letter of 7th February, 1947, in which he accepts. Did not this come to light until Mr. George had this pleasant conversation with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works who, he says, said jocularly to him that that might be an office of profit under the Crown? What happened after that? Did the Parliamentary Secretary go back to the office and say, "What has happened about Mr. George?"
We get no light in the Select Committee's proceedings on the exact way in which this matter originally took the form which has been so disastrous to Mr. George's membership of the House. We ought to have from the Attorney-General, or possibly from the Parliamentary Secretary himself, an account of the way in which the Ministry of Works set the wheels in motion that led to the pronouncement in the House by the Lord Privy Seal and the appointment of a Select Committee.
Now I turn to the case of Sir Roland Jennings. He became a public auditor in 1923. He was, of course, a fully qualified 731 chartered accountant, a man holding the esteem of all members of his profession. To protect the friendly societies, there is a law which requires that they shall have their accounts audited by persons who have been approved for the purpose by the Treasury. I imagine that the idea is that it would save them from getting into the hands of persons who might claim to be auditors but who might be very incompetent.
Any of us who have been connected with clubs affiliated to the Working Men's Club and Institute Union, all of which are registered under the Act, know the way in which these accounts are audited and the way in which we have to get the job performed by one of these public auditors, who charge fees the scale for which is set out on page 17 of the Select Committee's Report. There is no mention of a guinea. The lowest fee is a couple of guineas, and whether this is a modern list that takes account of the cost of living or whether in 1923, when the job was first undertaken, a guinea was the correct fee, I do not know.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
If my right hon. Friend will look at the top of page 17, he will see that they are maximum fees. There is, apparently, no objection to taking less.
§ Mr. Ede
I wish the same was true of one branch of my hon. and gallant Friend's profession, which reminds me of the story of the lawyer who had allegedly taken too small a fee, and who said "Well, I took all the man had, and what more could I get?".
I think that all of us must feel great sympathy with Sir Roland Jennings in this matter. All of us who served in either of the two wars, and particularly those who served in the First World War, know the way in which various organisations were formed after the First World War, which organisations we joined, and which started clubs in order to keep the men together. Most of us were asked to give our services in some honorary capacity or another, to help the club to operate.
Sir Roland Jennings was approached, as he tells us, by an old soldier in Barnard Castle about this particular club, and he agreed to audit the accounts. At that time, he may possibly have had no 732 idea that he was to be a Parliamentary candidate, because it was not until eight years later that he did, in fact, become a Parliamentary candidate. He charged this club a guinea, and the club had the distinction of having its accounts audited by a most reputable firm of auditors, and everything went along quite happily. The club had a first-class audit for a very small fee, and Sir Roland Jennings could feel that he was standing by his old comrades and helping them with his professional ability.
Then, in 1931, Sir Roland Jennings became a candidate for the Sedgefield division of Durham, and, 1931 being a year in which Tory candidates had very great difficulty in being defeated, he was elected. He stood again in 1935, when it was not so hard for Tory candidates to be defeated, and he was defeated. He then stood for the Hallam division of Sheffield in 1939, and was elected. He stood again in 1945 and was elected, and again in 1950, 1951 and 1955, on each of which occasions he was elected.
He sat in this House, and the number of times he has voted and performed acts in the House must have involved him in a cumulative penalty that only a chartered accountant could calculate, unless he bears in mind, as the learned Attorney-General pointed out to the Select Committee, that it is only what has happened in the last two years for which he can be brought to book. However, the figure must be a substantial one, even for the last two years, because I imagine that very few hon. Members have caused the Patronage Secretary fewer wakeful nights than Sir Roland Jennings. [An HON. MEMBER: "He is making up for it now."]
What I am going to say involves both sides of the House. The Treasury had this gentleman's name on their books as a public auditor, but no action was taken until somebody else, being an accountant, apparently, and a public auditor—and accountants and public auditors are generally cautions people, and this one was particularly cautious—inquired of the Treasury whether he would be eligible to sit in this House if he became a candidate.
The Attorney-General did not disclose the name, and I am not asking that it should be disclosed. The query did not come from the candidate who was opposing Sir Roland Jennings at that election, 733 though I understand that some people have been suggesting that this matter has arisen because the man was defeated and he did this to take it out of the successful candidate. But I am not asking for his name.
§ The Attorney-General
I do not wish to give the name, but I should like to confirm, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that it was not the opponent of Sir Roland Jennings. I should make that clear. It was a candidate in a constituency which is, I think I am right in saying, far removed from that particular one.
§ Mr. Ede
I gather that it was an excess of caution, because we have not yet seen the gentleman's face in this Parliament.
Surely this must reveal a weakness, in which both sides of the House are involved. Here is a man whose appointment is renewed annually until 1951, and, therefore, it must have come before somebody—I do not suggest anybody very high up in the Treasury—every year from 1923 to 1951, when this appointment was confirmed, and from 1951 it was subject to three months' notice. I think it should be the duty of someone in Government Departments to see that these matters are brought to light a great deal more certainly and a great deal more quickly than seems to have been the case.
§ Mr. Ede
No, I am not suggesting that it is a job for the Attorney-General. I do not think it is the job of the Attorney-General to examine the names of 630 people submitted by the Clerk of the Crown to the Clerk of this House, who have been elected to this House, and then to start inquiring into their private affairs. In fact, I do not know what authority he would have for doing it, and I imagine that, if he approached his right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary and asked for the assistance of the police and the Special Branch in doing that kind of thing, he might be told that they are fully occupied in dealing with ordinary miscreants.
§ Mr. Ede
I do not think that Home Secretaries generally are as blunt as that to their colleagues, but no doubt that opinion might be conveyed in more diplomatic language. I suggest to the Government that this is a matter which deserves some consideration so that some action can be taken to prevent this kind of thing happening.
Another thing that appears to have happened which also calls for some comment is that this notice reached Sir Roland Jennings when he was in County Durham, a couple of days or so after the Election. He says that he offered to resign at once and, although three months' notice is generally required, the Treasury agreed, in the circumstances, that it would accept his resignation straight away, and it was received and acted upon on 4th June. Then Sir Roland Jennings seemed to think that this was a complete exoneration for all that he had done, because he said that he had tried to get it done then so that he could be here to take the oath when Parliament sat.
I hope that his case will make this plain at least, that there is no such easy way out of the difficulty into which a Member has managed to get in this matter by inadvertence. He was not eligible to stand, to be elected when he stood, and no action of his subsequently can make him eligible for this Parliament on the strength of that election.
Some explanation is required in this case. When did the someone in a sufficiently high position in the Treasury to be able to act actually find out that Sir Roland Jennings was a public auditor? Presumably the other case occurred some time before nomination day. A query was sent in and that query apparently started some mechanism working in the Treasury which finally discovered that there was a Member of Parliament who had been a Member for many years whose name was on the list of public auditors. The House ought to be told frankly how and when the machinery started to work inside the Treasury which has placed Sir Roland Jennings in the position in which he is today.
I hope it will be an instruction to all Government Departments that they should try to keep a check themselves, because the mischief must be known to them rather than to the Attorney-General. 735 That is why I differ from my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) in thinking that the Attorney-General is the person who has the responsibility. Surely it is the Government Department which knows that the man holds this office which ought to take as early steps as it can either to warn the man before the Election that, if he is elected, his election may be held invalid or, at least, soon after the Election, and not let a man sit in Parliament from 1931 to 1955, with a break of four years, really being ineligible all the time.
The case of Sir Roland Jennings differs considerably from the case of Mr. George. I could not advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against this Bill on Second Reading because that would involve continuing invalidation of the election of Sir Roland Jennings. Therefore, I hope that a Second Reading will, be given to the Bill but, unless something better is said in defence of the position of Mr. George, I shall ask the House, during the Committee stage, to delete his name from the Bill.
I hope that this discussion, which I know some of my hon. Friends are anxious to continue, will bring into full light the difficulties that beset Members of Parliament in these matters. I do not want to prevent discussion of the Bill that it is hoped we may reach later today, but I hope that the final result of this inquiry, and the difficulty in which these two gentlemen have been placed, may enable us to get stated quite clearly what are these various traps and snares, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman calls them. I believe that people ought to be able to see on the face of an Act of Parliament whether the positions they hold do, in fact, disqualify them or not.
I want to end as I began, by thanking the Committee which considered the matter for the care it gave to these two cases, and to express the hope that Government Departments, irrespective of who may be in office, will take more energetic action in keeping a watch on people with whom they are in contractual and other relations, so that men and women desiring honestly to serve the country in this House may not find themselves subjected to the anxieties and disabilities that present procedure allows them to incur.
§ 11.57 a.m.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
I wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend on his wise and learned speech. This Bill is not, as the Government seem to think, a small affair that can be slipped through on the nod on a Friday. It is a very important matter indeed. I have the greatest possible sympathy with the two gentlemen who have been caught—and I think they have been caught. I accept without hesitation the view that they acted inadvertently, and I would go a little further than my right hon. Friend and would give the Bill a Second Reading and remove the disability from which they suffer.
Having said that, however, I want to look at the two cases and at the action of this Government in this matter. Choosing my words carefully, I think it is a constitutional outrage that this Bill was available in the Vote Office only thirty-six hours ago. I have no great regard for the Leader of the House. At no time did the right hon. Gentleman show any Concern for the reputation of the House of Commons, and it is no accident that at the present time the House of Commons is not held in as high regard in the public mind today as it was when the Leader of the House took on that job. The sooner the right hon. Gentleman goes, the better it will be for the House of Commons, and the better it will be for democracy, because no Leader of the House with any regard for the proprieties of it, whatever the merits of the Bill or of the second Order today, would have tried to slip this Bill through on a Friday in the hope that no one would be concerned about it.
The case of Sir Roland Jennings is quite different from that of Mr. George, and although Sir Roland has been elected several times, I am sure that he accepted the job which is the cause of the trouble, and continued to hold it, because he was concerned with good works and that he had not the slightest idea of the consequences. I am sure it came as a surprise and a shock to him to find that his feet had strayed. It would be very wrong indeed if he were prevented from giving his services to this House for a single second longer than necessary.
However, Mr. George, like the AttorneyGeneral—except that he is not a lawyer but the Attorney-General is—did not really seem to understand what it was all 737 about. The Attorney-General this morning said that it was not an office of profit, in the sense that any Tory would look at the question, no money having been transferred to Mr. George.
§ The Attorney-General
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is trying to quote me correctly. I said that it was clearly an office of profit under the Crown.
§ The Attorney-General
I said that for Mr. George personally it was, in fact, an office of loss and was so regarded by him, and not an office of profit. However, from the point of view of the law, I hope I have made it clear, even to the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), that it was clearly an office of profit under the Crown.
§ Mr. Wigg
The introduction by the Attorney-General of the question whether Mr. George was in pocket or out of pocket has nothing at all to do with the argument. Mr. George held an office of profit. On the evidence, clearly the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works knew that it was an office of profit and he so advised Mr. George. It is true, of course, that if Mr. George had been a Member for some time the conversation might have hit him a little harder than it did.
I do not want to be put off what I have to say by the Attorney-General. I want to return to the point. While I join my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields in thanking the Select Committee for the work it did, one thing which I cannot understand is why it did not call the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works. I hope very much that before we leave the Bill we shall have a statement from the Parliamentary Secretary about the action which he took following the lunch conversation when he told Mr. George that he thought he held an office of profit. We ought to know what took place inside the Department. If something took place in the Department after the lunch, why was not similar action taken when Mr. George stood as a candidate in 1950?
738 I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that it is not the job of the Attorney-General. The Attorney-General has a lot for which to answer in connection with this Bill and the later Bill, but I do not think that he can be held responsible for seeing that this job is done. The responsibility clearly rests upon the Department.
In the case of Mr. George, the Ministry of Works fell down on the job. I do not believe that the Parliamentary Secretary fell down. He is the one person who comes out of it with the greatest possible credit. However, I do not know why the Select Committee did not call the Parliamentary Secretary before it and ask him what happened, and whether he went back to the Ministry and saw the Minister or the Permanent Secretary.
If the Select Committee did not do that, can we hear it from the Parliamentary Secretary now? If the Parliamentary Secretary wishes to intervene, I shall be glad to give way to him. If he would be kind enough to do so, it would probably save time if he told the House what transpired after the lunch. Would he care to accept my invitation?
Apparently not. I am sorry, but if the Parliamentary Secretary will not intervene to tell us what took place, then it looks to me as if the Government are taking advantage of the fact that the Select Committee did not call him to conceal from the House what transpired when it became known to the Department that something had gone wrong. The second question which remains unanswered is why the Department did not do something about it before.
I have another point to make in connection with Mr. George and the evidence which he gave. Even when the matter is in the full light of day, and even when he appears before the Select Committee, it never occurs to Mr. George, on the basis of the evidence, that he has any responsibility at all in the matter. I should have thought that any hon. Member, however new he might be, would realise that, although the House of Commons is a generous place, it expects people who have erred, whether their erring is conscious or not, to come and ask for the pardon of the House. Never at any stage did Mr. George say to the Select Committee "A mistake has been made. I did not know anything 739 about it. I am very sorry for the trouble I have caused." No, Mr. George imagines that he is the offended party.
If I were to attempt to describe Mr. George it would be in the language of a music-hall comedian—"Big 'ead." He has completely failed to appreciate the position. He thinks that he is doing the Government, the Ministry of Works and the House of Commons a good turn. He will probably come back here, and I hope that when he has been here for a while he will realise that the one thing that we expect is that when people have made a mistake they should say something about it. Mr. George has still not realised that he has made a very big mistake indeed.
It is also perfectly clear that the Government, through the voice of the Attorney-General, have not realised what all this is about. The reason it is necessary to go into these matters is that over the last 200 or 300 years certain people have been tempted from time to time to "stack" the House with their own men. At one time it was the Crown. Later it was those operating beneath the Crown. Times have changed, and we are no longer afraid of the machinations of a corrupt and incompetent Monarchy seeking to achieve its will by putting its people into key places, but, although the conditions of the eighteenth century have passed, we have similar dangers in the middle of the twentieth century.
The danger here does not arise on the basis of whether or not Mr. George happened to take his fees and made money out of it. The danger arises of the House of Commons becoming a place, not of free men saying what they honestly believe, but of time-servers. There are plenty of hon. Gentlemen opposite who are serving interests outside the House which never see the light of day. That is the danger seen by those who are concerned about Parliamentary democracy. An hon. Member opposite is laughing, and I can understand why that is, for one knows that he is not concerned about Parliamentary democracy, but those who are concerned about it are failing in their duty if they do not give such a Bill as this the most careful examination, and the Bill which is to follow even more careful examination.
740 We must accept the fact that the institution of Parliament does not today hold as high a place in the esteem of the public as it has done in the past. The last General Election was a warning to both sides of the House. If esteem for the institution of Parliament dwindles here, it may dwindle over much wider areas. Therefore, all of us must be concerned not to regard this as just another Bill to be slipped through we must recognise that Parliament has failed, and both sides of the House have failed, to keep the institution up to date.
The Report on which the Government are taking action was presented to the House nearly fifteen years ago by a Select Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Dennis Herbert. Nothing has been done for fifteen years. Time could have been found for it if there had been a sense of urgency. Because that Report has not been looked at and has not been implemented, a couple of gentlemen have inadvertently been caught in the trap. Although they honestly thought they had been legitimately elected to the House, they have found their feet caught in the trap.
The fault lies not only with the two gentlemen. It does not lie only with the Government. It lies with every one of us who has failed to keep our institution up to date. Keeping our institution in high regard in the public mind is a duty which rests upon all of us. To the extent that I have failed—I am conscious that I might well have taken some action in the past to try to get the Report considered—I share the guilt, and for that reason, if for no other, I shall not oppose a Second Reading being given to the Bill.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)
I cannot agree with all that the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has said about Mr. George. After all, Mr. George has not yet even had an opportunity of making his maiden speech and has had a very long and arduous struggle to get to the House of Commons. I have known Mr. George in public life longer than anybody here, and he is a man of great pertinacity. He has all the pertinacity of Bruce's spider. Hon. Members will remember that Bruce's spider tried, tried again to do something. Mr. George has been trying hard for a good many years 741 to serve his country in the House of Commons. Almost before Mr. George had an opportunity of making his maiden speech, the Attorney-General introduced a Bill about Mr. George.
I think it must be a constitutional precedent that before a Member has made his maiden speech the Attorney-General has introduced a Bill dealing with him in the discussion of which he is unfortunately not allowed to take part. For many years Mr. George was a constituent of mine. He tried unsuccessfully to get on the county council. He was a colliery manager and was opposed by a very formidable miner called McTurk. There was an election and Mr. McTurk won. That was the first discouragement that Mr. George received in public.
He then showed his determination to represent his fellows in a public capacity by becoming the Conservative candidate for South Ayrshire. [HON. MEMBERS: "How dare he?"] That was in 1951. I did not know at that time that if I had been defeated, I should have done a bad service to Mr. George, because the first time he came to the House of Commons he would have been liable to a fine of £500 for his action in what the Attorney-General has described as holding an office of profit under the Crown.
§ Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
Had that happened, my hon. Friend could have unseated Mr. George by presenting an Election petition in the High Court declaring that the election was invalid and that my hon. Friend was the successful candidate, unopposed.
§ Mr. Hughes
That prospect does not hold out any satisfaction to me. I do not want to go to the High Court. I have been there before. It was an unfortunate experience that did not encourage me to go there again, especially as the Attorney-General might be there in opposition to me.
Let me refer to the appearance of the Attorney-General in the debate. Here is a Scottish Member of Parliament who has now succeeded in becoming the Member for the Pollok division of Glasgow.
§ Mr. Hughes
I do not want to base my case on all these legal technicalities, or I shall never finish it.
742 Here is a case of an offence, presumably committed in Scotland, and here is the Attorney-General brusquely brushing aside the Law Officer of the Crown for Scotland, the Lord Advocate, and taking upon himself the prosecution of a Scottish Member. This is a precedent. Supposing a Scottish Member is charged with high treason. Who prosecutes him? I hope that it is not the Attorney-General. If I committed the offence of high treason, I should infinitely prefer to be prosecuted by the Lord Advocate. I do not want to meet the Attorney-General in his professional capacity, and if it comes to high treason, the last person I want to meet is the Home Secretary.
I want to enter a protest on behalf of Scottish Members at the way in which the Lord Advocate, who is the recognised Law Officer of the Crown in Scotland, has been so discourteously treated in his own sphere of duty. The Lord Advocate appears to have been brought into the first sitting of the Select Committee, and to have said:I am afraid that I am in complete ignorance, apart from what has appeared in the Press.Surely, that is a curious way of treating the Lord Advocate. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works should at least have recognised that the Law Officer in Scotland is not the Attorney-General.
The Attorney-General seems to think that he is the superior Law Officer of the Crown for Scotland, and asks what the Lord Advocate has to do with this. He does not even telephone the Lord Advocate to ask about it. He does not even inform the Lord Advocate and the first time that the Lord Advocate knows that a Scottish Member of Parliament is in serious trouble is when he reads it in the "Daily Mirror," or the "Daily Express."
The Lord Advocate appeared in the proceedings twice, and I am very much surprised that he is not here today. When we have a Bill affecting a Scottish Member of Parliament, surely the Lord Advocate's name should appear on the Bill. The only names on the Bill are those of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House of Commons, the Attorney-General and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. As this affects a Scottish Member, both the Scottish Law Officer 743 of the Crown and the Scottish Member should have been treated with greater respect than that.
Apparently that occurred to the hon. and gallant Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Major Anstruther-Gray), who was a member of the Committee, and who asked, in Question 23:Should this case be decided on the opinion of the Attorney-General or on the opinion of the Lord Advocate, in the event of the two opinions not being identical?That was a possiblity. It is a possibility that the Lord Advocate's opinion might not coincide with that of the Attorney-General, but the Attorney-General answered:That is entirely hypothetical and contemplates a situation which, if I may say so, is not likely to arise.How can the Attorney-General know that? Here he is trying to establish an omniscience and infallibility.
§ The Attorney-General
The hon. Member is trying to read into that words which are not there. I am only trying to show the complete unanimity between Members of the Government.
§ Mr. Hughes
It is another new doctrine that on all matters of law there must be complete unanimity.
When we go further into the matter, we realise that, far from being ignored in this matter, the Lord Advocate had had some experience, because he told the Committee in evidence that he himself had been disqualified before election, but had taken the precaution of resigning some office under the Crown. When the Lord Advocate thought about the possibility of being fined £500 a day for every time he appeared in the House of Commons, he naturally beat a speedy retreat. So he knew the dangers, but apparently did not advise Mr. George.
When the right hon. and learned Gentleman thinks that he is going to advance steadily into Scotland and take over the legal problems of Scotland, he is entering on very doubtful territory.
§ Mr. Bellenger
I would call the attention of my hon. Friend to Question No. 24, where the Chairman of the Select Committee asked the Lord Advocate if he would have a look at the papers and signify his agreement or disagreement 744 with the opinion of the Attorney-General. One might assume from that that the Lord Advocate was in agreement with the Attorney-General because he did not notify the Committee that he was in disagreement.
§ Mr. Hughes
What could the unfortunate Lord Advocate say at that stage of the proceedings without causing a split in the Government? This is a very important point. I am sure that the Scottish legal profession will be 100 per cent. behind me when I say that there is a different law in Scotland, and that the Lord Advocate should have been consulted at the different stages and should have been asked to give his advice. He should not have been treated as though he were a mere subordinate of the Attorney-General.
§ The Attorney-General
Would the hon. Gentleman note—I do not know whether he has already done so—that the penalties are recoverable only in the courts of England?
§ Mr. Hughes
That is an obscure point. I should like to have the opinion of the Lord Advocate before I could accept that.
The attitude of the Attorney-General throughout has made me exceedingly sceptical about the legal advice that he tenders. English Members are welcome to the Attorney-General: I am all for the Lord Advocate, who is an excellent adviser of this House. He is the best Lord Advocate to sit in this House since 1951.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes
In presenting this argument has my hon. Friend had regard to Questions 25 and 26, which seem to support his argument. The answer to Question 25 says:I think in the Springburn and Coatbridge cases, which again were both Scots cases, the Attorney-General of the day was the only person then consulted.The Chairman said:That is almost asking us to send for you again!Question 26 supports that view.
§ Mr. Hughes
This matter is getting complicated. We have had English and Scottish lawyers, and now an Irish lawyer seeks to be helpful. Personally, I get on much better without consulting lawyers at all.
745 I turn to the substance of the Report. It is an exceedingly interesting Report. Every sentence, every word, was fascinatingly interesting to me. This is not just a question of law; there is a question of profit as well. Here we have on record the fact that a Scottish businessman offered voluntarily, without seeking any profit at all, to resuscitate an important Scottish industry. That is an act of unparalleled generosity for which there is no precedent south of the Border.
The result is that, after having served as a director of Scottish Slate Industries Limited for nine years, this is the reward of the hon. Member for Pollok. He has received scarcely any expenses, he has had no payment, he has not even had a miserable O.B.E. This is a very definite point which hon. Members should consider when they are discussing the nationalised industries. This was a socially-minded, patriotic business man, prepared to preside over what was a partially-nationalised industry without asking for high remuneration. Mr. George should get credit for that.
We have frequently been told, in discussing the nationalised industries, that it is impossible to get directors to direct the affairs of those industries unless we pay them at least £5,000 or £7,500 a year; but here is Mr. George coming forward to rescue the Scottish slate industry from private enterprise, and he offers to do it for nothing. His reward for doing this—it was not compulsory—is to be temporarily exiled from the House of Commons.
The ramifications of Scottish Slate Industries, Limited, about which we are to hear more from the Minister of Works, are very interesting. Apparently £150,000 was sanctioned by the Government as a loan to the company.
§ Mr. Hughes
My hon. Friend says that it was £125,000. I quote this fact to show what a good businessman Mr. George really is. I should like to quote from the Report from the Committee on Public Accounts on the Scottish slate industry.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I think that the hon. Member is now exceeding even the wide limits of a Second Reading debate. We are not discussing the Scottish slate industry today.
§ Mr. Wigg
With respect, Mr. Speaker, we are discussing Mr. George's relations with the Scottish slate industry. If my hon. Friend has evidence to show Mr. George's connection with the industry, surely that is something about which the House ought to know before we give a Second Reading to the Bill.
§ Mr. Speaker
That may be the opinion of the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) but it is not mine. There are limits beyond which it would be wrong to extend the scope of the debate.
§ Mr. Hughes
It is very difficult indeed to discuss the Report of the Select Committee on Elections, which devotes two pages to the memorandum and articles of association of Scottish Slate Industries Limited, and which also contained a memorandum by the Treasury, if I am ruled out of order.
§ Mr. Speaker
I think that the hon. Member was in order when he was referring to the Report of the Select Committee on Elections, but I gathered that he was about to refer to the slate industry in general when I ventured to intervene.
§ Mr. Hughes
No, Sir. Your apprehension or your premonition was slightly without material evidence to back it. I apologise if, in unfolding the story of this interesting company, I was travelling into realms which are out of order, but I can understand that, not being an expert on company affairs, I may have said something which made you think that. The Scottish slate industry has already been considered by a Select Committee, and at that time Mr. George was Chairman of Scottish Slate Industries Limited.
I am trying to make a defence for Mr. George. He showed considerable business acumen, and I suggest that a man who showed such acumen on matters of detail of this kind ought perhaps not to have fallen into the error of assuming that this was not an office of profit under the Crown. This slate company came under discussion by the Committee of Public Accounts, which says that the company received a loan from the Ministry of Works and that the company first placed the £50,000 on deposit receipt with a bank.They lent it with other unused moneys to a Scottish Burgh Council at 2¾ per cent. interest. It is now invested in 3½ per cent. War Loan, giving the Company a return of 4½ per cent. on the purchase price.747 Mr. George has thus shown his business capacity by getting money from the Government and lending it back to the Government at a profit which caused alarm to the Committee on Public Accounts. The Committee says about this transaction:Your Committee were surprised to learn that the Department did not consider the possibility of entering into a supplementary agreement to meet the desire of the Company that payment of the final advance of £50,000 should be postponed …It came to the conclusion that this company was far too enterprising in its financial transactions and that it was using money, which was supposed to be used to develop the slate industry of Scotland to make a profit out of Her Majesty's Government.
§ Mr. Speaker
In spite of the hon. Member's lucid explanation, I still fail to understand what bearing his argument can have on the Question before the House, which is whether or not the election of Mr. George should be validated.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
May I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that the connection is possibly this: that one question with which the House is concerned is whether this was an office of profit under the Crown in the narrowly technical sense, or whether it was an office of profit under the Crown in something more than the narrowly technical sense. If my hon. Friend is hoping to establish that the company was seeking some day to make a profit; that, in order to get itself on its feet, it was borrowing large sums from the Government; that as soon as it did make a profit it could pay a salary to its chairman without the Minister's consent, then it becomes very important indeed that the chairman appointed by the Government for this purpose should not at the same time sit as a member of the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Speaker
I am obliged to the hon. Member for his speculation as to the possible termination of the drift of the argument of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), but it seems to me that his interpretation is a little inconsistent with the desire of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire, as I understood it, to defend and to vindicate Mr. George.
§ Mr. Hughes
I will terminate this part of my argument out of respect to the Chair. If the appetites of hon. Members are already whetted by the figures I have given about this company, all I can do is to suggest that they turn to the Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, where they will find a fascinating story of the financial transactions of this Scottish slate company with the Ministry.
I suggest that Mr. George has been treated in a very cavalier manner by the Minister of Works. Just imagine. The Parliamentary Secretary pointed out that he had jocularly told Mr. George at lunch that he might get into trouble as a result of this matter. It is not a very jocular thing to meet a man at lunch and to say to him, "Old man, you know you are liable to a fine of £500 every time you sit in the House." That is more than even a Scottish director of a slate company could be expected to tolerate. The wonder is that Mr. George did not decide to apply for the Chiltern Hundreds on the spot.
I suggest that this innocent businessman—who is a very acute businessman from some points of view—is not yet as constitutionally enlightened as the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). Not only should this Bill be passed, but I believe that Mr. George is entitled to ask for compensation from the Crown for the way in which he has been treated. I suggest that such compensation could be obtained by deducting the amount from the salary of the Attorney-General. On the other hand it could be adjusted by deducting from the money which Mr. George received as a compensated coal owner the amount for which he would be liable as a result of any penalty which he may have incurred.
The Attorney-General seemed to be rather sensitive about my suggestion that it was his duty to keep the House right in these matters. I invite the right hon. and learned Gentleman to turn to the recommendations of the Select Committee, because the Committee recommends that all Government Departments should at once examine their lists of public appointments in order to determine whether there may be other hon. Members who should be warned that there may be a doubt about the validity of their election. I agree that I may have made a mistake in suggesting that 749 this should be the job of the Attorney-General. I should like to ask hon. Members who sat on the Select Committee to explain to the House exactly which Government Department is to do this. Is it to be the Department of the Home Secretary in England and the Secretary of State for Scotland in Scotland?
It seems to me that that recommendation will give a great deal of trouble to the civil servants in all the different Government Departments. I understand that if every company director is to be examined in this way it will cause a great deal of work among our civil servants, not only at the Treasury, but at the Admiralty, the Air Ministry and throughout all the ramifications of Government Departments. Permanent officials will have to consider this recommendation from the Select Committee and set to work to examine the relations of their Department with hon. Members of this House, which will be an enormous task.
I understand that out of 345 hon. Members opposite, no fewer than 150, or 43 per cent., are, or were formerly, company directors. That, surely, will cause a great deal of trouble, especially if it is recommended that a questionnaire be sent to all the hon. Members to find out what exactly are their relations with all Government Departments. At a later stage I could go into details about the different directorships held, and the possibilities of making a profit not under the Crown but out of the Crown. But I will leave that to the Committee stage.
I suggest that the time has come for the Government to introduce a new Bill to clarify the law; that Mr. George has been treated with great injustice and ingratitude; and that the best thing to do would be to pass this Bill in order that Mr. George may at least have the opportunity of addressing this House himself, instead of being represented here by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire.
§ 12.40 p.m.
§ Mr. M. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)
I have listened attentively to the speeches that have been made this morning on this very important question. I hope that the House will deal with this matter in a way which will contribute to the dignity of the House as well as to the solution of the problem.
750 The issue is perfectly simple, although it is unfortunate. The two Members who are involved have been elected to the House in circumstances in which the elections have become invalid. What is sought to be done by the present Bill, very properly, is to validate those elections, if the circumstances are such that the two persons are absolutely innocent and there is no such serious breach of the Constitution as would make it wrong to give them this measure of indemnity.
There is a preface to this particular matter that ranges over many years and involves the House of Commons and all parties in the House over a lengthy period of time. The matter has been operating under the aegis of Governments of both parties, otherwise steps might have been taken long since to shut out the possibility of occurrences such as those with which we are now dealing.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), whose performances in the House are always entertaining but not always as informative as debates of this kind require, suggested that in some way or other the responsibility for avoiding these occurrences should fall fairly and squarely on the broad shoulders of the Attorney-General. If my hon. Friend would look into that suggestion further I think he will find that its effect would be that the trap would grow larger rather than smaller. It is impossible for the Attorney-General to keep in contact with activities and circumstances that ultimately lead to these difficulties.
The sensible and responsible thing, which ought to be accepted by everybody, is that each Ministry should be responsible for an occurrence of this kind, if it affects that Ministry. I cannot see how such a matter is to be detected or cured, unless the Ministry which is involved is active in examination and detection of a case when it arises. The function of the office of the Attorney-General is such that he would no doubt have the matter referred to him in those circumstances, and it would then be his duty to advise whether the case was such that a breach of the law had been committed. To ask that the Attorney-General or his staff should initially interfere with matters of this kind might be opening the door to a very serious constitutional situation. An Attorney-General might be found busy-bodying himself with matters with which 751 he ought not to be concerned until asked to advise upon them.
If these two hon. Members with whom the Bill is concerned have been occupying offices of profit which invalidate their sitting in this House, what is the House to do? We must confirm what the Select Committee has advised and the Attorney-General has not hesitated to affirm that these are a priori offices of profit under the Crown. The House is, therefore, so to speak, presented with an accomplished fact. It is the next step that matters.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes rose—
§ Mr. Turner-Samuels
What is the right thing to be done? My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) said that the regard that the country has for this House has fallen below what it ought to be, and he made a reference to the Leader of the House. I do not agree with a single word that he said on that. Whatever opinion anyone has of the Leader of the House, I do not think that he has done anything which has brought discredit upon the reputation of the House. I should, in the present political situation of the House, which from my own viewpoint I should have liked to see otherwise, be as ready to leave the reputation of the House in the hands of the present Leader of the House as in those of anyone else. I say to my hon. Friend that the way to enhance the reputation of this House is for people who listen to or read the debate to be able to say, "The House has met and discussed this matter and has looked at it fairly and squarely, and it is going to do what is proper and just". In regard to informers, whenever an informer has been involved it has always been the practice to give an indemnity when that was the proper thing to do.
The Bill seeks to do two things. Let me state the second first. It seeks to give an indemnity to the two men who were elected in these circumstances that are known to the House. The other thing is to validate what has been done so that these two persons may sit here as Members of Parliament. Apart from the facts we are discussing, there is no reason in the world why these two men should not sit in this House, be sworn, draw their salaries and act as Members of Parliament, except that a purely technical breach has deprived them of the right of doing so.
752 Therefore, what should influence this House in deciding this issue? Should it not ask itself, is there here any corruption? Is there any wrong that these people have done? Is it not merely a case of innocent error, of oversight, and of a technical slip? If that is so, Hon. Members should ask themselves, not merely as sportsmen but as responsible and just men, whether there are any grounds why the Bill should be rejected and those involved refused the validation which is necessary in order that this slip may be corrected. There is nothing really particularly difficult about the problem. It is not a question of party, and in any case the number of people involved is so small that even if these two seats were vacated the Government majority would remain almost unaffected.
If I am asked to go into the Lobby on this issue, the question which I shall present to myself, as a responsible Member with, may I add, a sense of decency, is this: are the circumstances of this case, in which there is no corruption and no real criticism can be made against these men—there may have been a little carelessness but certainly there was nothing really wrong about it—such that I should support the validation of their election in order that they may establish and continue their membership of the House; or am I to act irresponsibly merely for the sake of opposing what the Government are asking the House to do, by voting against the Bill? I must and I shall, I hope, act responsibly, and I also hope that everybody else will do the same.
§ 12.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
I do not look upon this matter in the light in which the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) looked upon it in his last few sentences, nor would I admit for a moment that anyone who thought this Second Reading ought not to be carried must necessarily be inspired by a less respectable motive than that of my hon. and learned Friend who thinks that it ought to be carried. If my hon. and learned Friend wants to know what wrong these two men have done, it is this: they have committed, if that is the right word, an act which was made wrongful by Statute—a Statute more than 250 years old.
§ Mr. Silverman
It is as old as the entitlement of the present Sovereign to rule in this country, which derives from the same Act.
§ Mr. Turner-Samuels rose—
§ Mr. Silverman
My hon. and learned Friend thought there was something perhaps harsh or oppressive in holding a man bound by the Statute of the Realm.
§ Mr. Silverman
If my hon. and learned Friend did not say so, then I say it for myself.
If there is anything wrong in that Statute, then the Statute must be amended by Parliament, and until it is amended by Parliament it is binding upon everybody. No man has a right to say, "My illegal act was committed by inadvertence. I have been committing it by inadvertence for 16 years. I have been committing it by inadvertence through five or six General Elections. The inadvertence of other people in the same circumstances has been continually brought to my attention during that period by Select Committees of the House and by indemnity Acts passed in their cases, but I went on doing it, and now I am entitled, as a right, to ask the House of Commons to pass a special Act of Parliament in my personal case in order to secure, not merely that the Act which applies and continues to apply to every other citizen of the country shall not apply to me, but that the Act shall be deemed never to have applied to me for 16 years."
Nobody has a right to demand that of Parliament. Parliament may think it right in some cases to do it and in other cases not to do it, but it is quite improper to suppose that anyone who thinks that in any particular case the indemnity should not be given is committing something unworthy or not quite fair.
One general ground on which many of us welcome the Bill is that it makes clear once and for all that Parliament remains 754 responsible in these cases and can act in any particular case as it thinks fit. The reason I say that is that the proposition seems to have been doubted or almost frowned upon by the Attorney-General on Monday. On that occasion we were dealing with the case of a man who, like these two men, had been declared by Statute—a different Statute—to be incapable of being elected to the House of Commons or of sitting here. One appreciates the difference between the two Statutes and one appreciates the difference between the kind of breach of Statute involved in the two cases, but what is common to the two cases is that in both of them men were elected here, or seemed to have been elected, by having attained a majority of the votes, although they were men who by Statute could not be elected.
What the Government are doing today and what many previous Governments have done in similar cases is to say, "The circumstances in these cases are such that we will invite Parliament to pass an Act of indemnity not merely relieving the people concerned of the penalties which they have incurred but, more than that, declaring that the incapacity which attaches to them shall be deemed not to have attached to them." I think it is right that Parliament should declare that it has the power to do that, that it will exercise that power in suitable circumstances and that the only question is not whether there is an Act of Parliament which makes the election invalid but whether the circumstances are such as to persuade Parliament not to insist on the penalties or on the invalidity.
I am sorry that the House did not take that view in the other case. We are not debating that now, and as there was a majority otherwise, that is the opinion of Parliament and we must all accept it; but what I regretted on that occasion and what has been put right on this occasion is the doubt which the Attorney-General appeared to be casting upon the proposition that, by whatever Statute and in whatever circumstances a man's election was invalid, Parliament could, if it chose, take other action than merely to declare the election invalid and to move for the issue of a new Writ.
We are being asked in these two cases to go a very long way—no further, no doubt, than we have gone in other cases, but the other cases were less serious than 755 either of these. I regard the case of Mr. George as a very serious case indeed. Here is a man who is directly appointed by the Crown as a director of a company and, having been appointed, becomes chairman of the company. The company is a State-fostered institution. It employs State-loaned capital. It is enjoined to put itself into a sound economic position and to make a profit; that is the object—to make the industry profitable and to make the company profitable.
The chairman of the company may get a salary even when the company is losing money, provided the Minister agrees. In other words, if the Minister agrees, this nominee director, Mr. George, who becomes chairman, may receive a capital out of fees loaned by the Government. If the company succeeds, gets on its feet, becomes self-supporting and makes a profit, the chairman may get a salary from it without asking the Minister at all.
A clearer case of an office of profit under the Crown is scarcely imaginable. I should have thought it clear beyond argument that a man who held that office ought not to be a Member of this House of Commons at the same time, or, if he is, let us abandon the pretence—by amending legislation generally—that we want to keep some distinction between those who hold offices of profit under the Crown and those who sit as hon. Members in the House of Commons.
If we want to retain the distinction at all, obviously it must apply to the chairman of this company. Whatever the House does with this Bill, Mr. George ought clearly to make up his mind whether he wants to be a Member of the House of Commons, or chairman of this company, because it would be publicly indecent for him to be both at the same time.
§ Mr. Silverman
He has resigned.
In the other case obviously there is not so clearly the characteristic of an office of profit, at any rate, the profit is much harder to define, but it went on for a very long time with the clearest possible indication in Parliament after Parliament as to what the dangers might have been. 756 I would regard that case, although not nearly so serious as the case of Mr. George, nevertheless, in view of the length of time, as by no means a trivial one.
I want to dissent from the view, which is implicit in the Bill, that the disqualification and the penalties are on the same footing. It seems to be assumed by the Bill and by the Government that if a case is a proper case for excusal we must excuse both the penalty and the invalidity. I do not think that that necessarily follows. I think there is a clear distinction between saying that the circumstances of a case are such that a man ought to be relieved from the very heavy financial penalties which normally would follow, and going so far as to say—as we do say if we pass this Bill—that in spite of the Statute he shall be deemed to be capable of being elected now and shall be deemed always to have been capable of being elected, as though precisely the Act of Parliament which declares the exact contrary had never been passed.
I think we ought to distinguish between the two cases. In the case of Mr. George, as well as in the other case, I would support an indemnity limited to the penalties, but I see no reason why, in either case, we should go beyond that and say that what the general Act of Parliament declares to be the general law shall not be the law in regard to these particular individuals and shall be deemed retrospectively, in one case for sixty years, never to have been the law.
A little more fortunate than Mr. Mitchell in the case with which we dealt on Monday, both these gentlemen were able to give their explanations to the Select Committee and their explanations are now before the House of Commons. I think that that is quite right. I think it would have been wholly wrong—I think it was wrong in the case of Mr. Mitchell—to have proceeded to adopt Parliamentary action, final, conclusive Parliamentary action, without the man concerned ever having the opportunity of being heard.
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;
§ House counted, and, 40 Members being present—
§ Mr. Silverman
I was saying that it seemed that there was an important difference of principle between an Act of indemnity to relieve a man from financial 757 penalties on the one hand, and an Act of indemnity on the other hand to declare that never to have been the law in his case when it was the law for everyone else. I was saying in support of that contention that Mr. George and Sir Roland Jennings both had the opportunity—of giving their explanations to the Select Committee and, through the Select Committee Report, to the House of Commons.
Of course, the House of Commons ought to take full cognisance of the explanations which have been given, but do not these men owe explanations elsewhere? Is it only to the House of Commons—I almost said, "to their fellow Members," but that would have been a wrong expression in the circumstances—that they owe an explanation? I should have thought that in both cases explanations were due in the first place to the electors who had been misled into doing a legally invalid thing, misled into electing to represent them someone who by Statute was incapable of representing them. I should have thought that explanations were due in the first place there.
A Bill of indemnity excusing them from financial penalties but not going beyond that, if, in addition, two hon. Members—I should have hoped Government hon. Members—had moved the kind of Motion that was moved last Monday stating the obvious legal fact that these persons were incapable of being elected, that the seat was vacant and moving for the issue of a new Writ—that, I should have thought, would have been the proper way of dealing with the matter, if the circumstances were such that the House thought no financial penalty ought to be involved. I hope that when the Committee stage comes along opportunity will be taken to separate the two things, to relieve either or both, as the House may see fit, of the financial consequences, but not to deprive the electors of the constituencies of voting for those whom they wish to elect as their representatives in the circumstances that have occurred.
I know that later today we are to deal with a number of these questions—not before time. I do not think that the Bill with which we are to be asked to deal later is sufficiently far-seeing. It includes some things which ought not to be there, and others which should—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
The hon. Member is now departing from the Bill which is before us.
§ Mr. Silverman
I was not proposing to discuss the other Bill at all, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. No doubt when we come to it those matters can be disposed of, but, until we do something to alter the law, I hope that no one will go on supposing—as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gloucester appeared to suppose—that because there was no dishonest or deceitful intention, therefore to stand for election and to sit in the House of Commons when, by Statute, one is not entitled to do so is a mere technical triviality from the consequences of which one is entitled to be relieved on demand.
§ 1.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
Grave questions of principle are involved in this Bill, affecting our business, public, private and Parliamentary life. Those principles were in danger of being lost sight of until they were recalled by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), and I congratulate him and the House on recalling the attention of hon. Members to the serious questions of principle involved. My hon. Friend has done that with his customary clarity and logic. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) tended to confuse the issues by introducing the word "corruption", which really is not relevant to this debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne emphasised, the word used in the Report of the Select Committee is "inadvertence."
Another observation which I should like to make at the outset is that I do not agree with suggestions by one or two of the later speakers in this debate that the House should necessarily or slavishly follow the Report of its own Select Committee. This House is sovereign in these matters and it is a matter for the House itself to consider what it will do about the Report of a Select Committee or of any Bill based upon such a Report, as this Bill is.
The interesting argument of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) seemed to point to the fact that the Select Committee was 759 wrong in finding that Mr. George was guilty of no more than inadvertence. My hon. Friend sought to discuss the company with which Mr. George was associated in order to show that Mr. George is a careful and experienced business man and director and an able money earner, and, therefore, unlikely to be the type of person who would in an important matter such as that arising on the Bill be guilty of inadvertence. For that purpose, my hon. Friend sought to investigate the affairs of Mr. George's company to prove Mr. George's ability and success in business and to indicate that his character was such that he was the type of man who would be unlikely to be guilty of inadvertence.
I approach this matter in a different way. I want to deal with one important principle and I submit that the Government have shown that they have not paid sufficient regard to the questions of principle involved. Indeed, I think I am not doing the Attorney-General an injustice if I say that he did not emphasise questions of principle at all. He confined himself to dealing with the facts of the Report as they related to the facts of the Bill.
I feel very sorry for the plight of the two gentlemen who were elected for the Pollok division of Glasgow and the Hallam division of Sheffield. The circumstances of those two elections have placed each of them in a penal position. But that is a comparatively trivial matter arising on the Bill. The important thing is the manner in which those circumstances affect, not these two gentlemen, but the prestige, dignity and effectiveness of Parliament.
Those circumstances have had many manifold and diverse results. They have caused trouble and expense. They have affected the validity of the two elections. They have contravened Statute law. They have necessitated the appointment of a Select Committee. They have involved the Treasury in expense. They have caused public inconvenience. They have used up the time of civil servants. They have diverted, and are diverting, the energies of Members of this House and—perhaps this is the most important of all—they have for a time disfranchised the citizens of those two constituencies. In my submission, these are the important 760 matters which affect our democratic system and they should have been so treated by the Government in relation to their effort on good administration, which has not been mentioned by the Leader of the House or by the Attorney-General, and for the sake of the good name of Parliament. But they have not been so treated by the Government.
I make no attack upon the two gentlemen concerned and I make no criticism of them, because they are in misfortune as good citizens it having been found that they have contravened the law even though they did it unintentionally. Therefore, I say, let them have their indemnity to protect them against the consequences of their unintentional illegal acts and breach of law. I am sorry for them and sorry for any good citizen who finds himself in such a position.
That may end the matter so far as these two persons are concerned, but not so far as the Government and the Bill are concerned. Four things have been found by the Select Committee, on whose Report the Bill is founded. The first is that these gentlemen contravened the law—a very grave matter. Secondly, they are disqualified from acting as Members of Parliament for valid reasons, stated in the Report to be technical reasons, which are none the worse for that because this is largely a technical matter. Thirdly, the Committee find that their elections should be validated, and fourthly, that they should be indemnified from the penal consequences. That, as the Attorney-General said, is the origin and foundation of the Bill.
I now come to the question of principle involved: namely, that care should have been taken to ensure that the House of Commons should be and remain independent of the Executive by not having place men among its Members. That Executive is administered by the present Conservative Government, in whose interest it is to secure the passage of the Bill to validate the two elections of two Conservative Members and so add two more votes to the Government in the Division Lobby.
It is right to point out that the Report of the Select Committee did bear in mind that aspect, for it said:Your Committee consider that the principle underlying this disqualification is still important in order to ensure that the House 761 of Commons acts independently of the Executive, and because it is essential that the House should not contain an excessive number of persons holding Government offices and depending on the will of the Executive.That, in my submission, is the very essence of these two invalidities. Both of these hon. Gentlemen held Government offices, and they escaped the loss of their seats and heavy penalties because the Select Committee, in its wisdom, found that they did so by inadvertence. It is only just and fair that I quote what the Select Committee said about that:They are satisfied, however, that both Members acted by inadvertence in standing for election and that the posts they held were taken in a public spirit and not for profit.Therefore, says the Select Committee:… legislation should be introduced at once to indemnify Mr. George and Sir Roland Jennings from any penalties they may have incurred and to validate their elections.That is what the Government are seeking to do today, but that does not end the matter, because the Select Committee, very properly, went on to comment in an adverse way upon the haphazard conduct of the Government in this important sphere. In paragraph 11 of its Report it says that it has… noted the fortuitous way in which the cases … have been brought to notice.That paragraph refers to the evidence in the case of Mr. George at Question 66, and so refers toa casual conversation.It refers also to Questions 67 and 71 anda casual discussion at lunch.It refers, in the case of Sir Roland Jennings, to the evidence in answer to Question 89, which says:It came to light in a rather curious fashion.Question 88, to the Attorney-General about Sir Roland Jennings, was:Since January, 1923, when he was appointed, has he done only one audit?That I cannot give any definite information about. The only information I have is that contained in his letter of resignation. Perhaps I could assist the Committee, if they wanted it, as to how this first came to light.Now we come to this significant question and answer, Question 89:If you please.It came to light in a rather curious fashion. There was a candidate (I do not think I need mention of which political party) who, during the course of the Election, apparently raised this question, he being a public auditor 762 appointed under one of these Acts, and that caused investigation to be made into the position, and then the conclusion was reached that he was not qualified for election. That fact coming to light, it was then thought that there was yet another category which might come within the scope of the 1707 Act; further inquiries were, naturally, made to see whether any others might be affected.That seems to be a strange way for so important a matter to come to light. The word "casual" is not misplaced in this Report. The Select Committee, as a natural result of this strange and unusual disclosure, expressed its suspicions and made a recommendation, and here is its recommendation:They cannot overlook the possibility that there may be, amongst present Members of the House of Commons"—we all shudder—some who might be found to have unexpected technical disabilities. They consider that all Government Departments should at once examine their lists of public appointments in order to determine whether there may be other Members who should be warned that there may be doubt about the validity of their election.I say nothing about the obscure English in which that is couched, but the meaning seems to be that the Government should have done something at an earlier stage. The Government, the House will agree, have the responsibility for that Executive, and if they had taken the obvious and simple precautions which are indicated in that paragraph of the Report, this situation might not have occurred. There would not have been the inordinate delay and the considerable expense which the nation now has to face.
I say "inordinate" delay, because delay is a comparative term. It is one thing for delay to occur in the building of a house; it is another thing for delay to occur when a wounded man is bleeding to death and awaiting a doctor; and it is a serious matter for the Government to delay in a matter which involves the disfranchisement of two constituencies for a month at the very least, as has occurred in this case.
Accordingly, my next criticism of the Government is that, because of the grave question of principle which is at stake, there has been undue delay. The Government have not acted expeditiously. Even now they are treating this problem in a piecemeal way, and they have not acted in the way that the Select Committee Report indicates they should have 763 acted. They have not followed the precautionary measures which any intelligent business man, such as Mr. George perhaps, would have followed in his own private affairs or in his own company affairs.
Let us consider the dates. This new Parliament was elected on 26th May, which is now nearly two months ago. This new Parliament assembled on 7th June, seven weeks ago, but it was not until 29th June in the case of the Pollok division and 5th July in the case of the Hallam division that the invalidities and disqualifications which have made the Bill necessary were even mentioned to the House.
The odd and peculiar features of this matter go even farther than that. The disclosure about Pollok having been made on 29th June, the Select Committee to investigate it was appointed the next day, 30th June. Very properly, there was only a day's delay there. Then came the second disclosure, that about Hallam, on 5th July, whereupon the Select Committee was on 6th July instructed to include Hallam in the investigations which it was already undertaking in the case of Pollok. On 11th July the Select Committee concluded its labours with commendable celerity and ordered that the results be reported to this House, but it was only today, 22nd July, eleven days later that we have the Bill for Second Reading.
The Bill is more or less a Bill of common form. It was quite easy to get the form and draft the Bill, but eleven days elapsed during which those two constituencies were disfranchised. They are disfranchised still. I suggest that there has been inordinate delay, having regard to the importance of the matters involved.
The House is, therefore, entitled to ask the Government questions, and I put them categorically. First, why were these long periods left to expire—two months after the General Election, seven weeks from the assembly of Parliament—before these matters were even mentioned in this House? Secondly, who discovered them and how? Thirdly, why were both not mentioned together? Fourthly, why were both together not submitted to the Select Committee? Fifthly, why was there a delay of eleven 764 days between the completion of the work of the Select Committee and the Motion for the Second Reading of the Bill? It must be remembered, as I have said—
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton rose—
§ Mr. Hughes
Just a moment. Please do not interrupt the full flood of my oratory.
It should be remembered that during all that time those two constituencies were disfranchised and tens of thousands of people in those two places were deprived of having their rights and needs articulated in the House.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
There is a further question which my hon. and learned Friend could very well raise with the Government. There is a third constituency, that of Ludlow in Shropshire, which is at present disfranchised. What is happening to the unfortunate gentleman who was elected for that constituency nobody seems to know.
§ Mr. Hughes
Delightful as it would be for us to visit the charming constituency in Shropshire, I am sure that, technically, Mr. Deputy-Speaker would regard me as out of order if I ventured to discuss any constituency other than the two with which the Bill is concerned. Therefore, much as I like Shropshire and regret that Shropshire people are disfranchised, I cannot discuss the matter.
I want to say a few words about these two particular cases. They are not identical. They have certain similarities and certain dissimilarities. The similarities are that both gentlemen are business men. One is a company director and the other a chartered accountant. They are both highly placed in the business world, occupying positions of financial responsibility and trust. It is a fair inference from that that they are both educated in a business way, and possibly in other ways as well. Yet, in face of that, the Select Committee takes the view that when they did not disclose the affiliations which bring them within the Statute they did it by inadvertence.
I will not contest the finding of the Select Committee, but I say that this House is not necessarily or slavishly bound by the finding of a Select Committee. This sovereign body will decide for itself. It is fair to expect that both these gentlemen were fully cognizant 765 with the positions which they held in various spheres of human endeavour at the time when they were nominated for Parliament. It is fair to surmise that they knew the nature and scope of their duties and that they were sufficiently methodical to disclose them for purposes relating to insurance and Income Tax, if not for purposes relating to their nomination and election to Parliament.
The differences between these two gentlemen include the fact that one was never a Member of Parliament before. Perhaps he may be excused on that ground, but the evidence that has been adduced and the speeches that have been made indicate that though he never rose to the dignity of being a Member of Parliament he was at least a very astute business man and a company director who was able without inadvertence to make money in industry, trade and commerce.
The other gentleman has been for many years a respected Member of Parliament. Having regard to the differences between them, one would have expected that the Select Committee would have dealt with them differently, but the Select Committee did nothing of the kind. The Select Committe has dealt with them both in the same way, and as a result of its recommendations the Government have brought forward this Bill to validate the election of both of them and to indemnify both from the penal consequences that are involved.
For the reasons that I have given, I do not oppose the Bill, but I submit that the House should scrutinise the Report and the Bill with the very greatest care and make up its own mind in a deliberate and judicial way before deciding what it will do with the Bill. The one thing that emerges from the Report and the Bill and from the whole of this discussion is that, however we may excuse the two gentlemen involved, we cannot excuse the Government who have been culpable in this matter.
§ 1.38 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General rose—
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
On a point of order. I take it that the fact that the Attorney-General is about to address the House now does not necessarily mean that discussion of the Bill is thereby automatically terminated.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)
No, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman will speak only by leave of the House.
§ The Attorney-General
I was about to ask for the leave of the House to reply now to points raised—that is, those raised by those hon. Members who have been attending the debate.
The first thing I should like to say in answer to the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), and I hope that he is not leaving the Chamber—
§ Mr. Hector Hughes
The right hon. and learned Gentleman speaks so softly that I cannot hear him. I am simply moving from my seat to enable me to hear him.
§ The Attorney-General
I waited a long time to hear what conclusion the hon. and learned Member would arrive at. I was glad to hear him say eventually that he did not propose to oppose the Bill.
I thought that a view of this matter was very well expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels), who seemed to put it very clearly and in its true perspective. Those who have been in the House, whether they be lawyers or not, have acquired some knowledge of the difficulties which arise consequent upon the 1707 Act. To most of us, it is clear that one can hold an office of profit without receiving any reward or remuneration, but to the laymen the words "office of profit" do not generally have the same connotation as they do to hon. Members. If one asks a layman whether he is holding an office of profit he would promptly reply that that depends on whether he is receiving some remuneration.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) sought to draw a distinction between the two cases of Mr. George and Sir Roland Jennings. I ask him to bear in mind that although, as we know, Mr. George has stood for Parliament before, he is new to this House. The right hon. Gentleman, in relation to the case of Sir Roland Jennings, drew attention to the fact that eight years had elapsed between the appointment of Sir Roland as an auditor and his becoming a Member of the House. There is very nearly the same 767 period between the appointment of Mr. George as a director and his becoming a Member of Parliament.
It may be my fault, but I was not quite clear as to the reason why the right hon. Gentleman sought on this occasion to make some critical observations in relation to Mr. George. I should have thought that it was absolutely clear from the Report of the Select Committee that Mr. George accepted the office in this company with a desire to help this very important Scottish industry to revive and, as the evidence makes clear, without any thought of any remuneration to himself. I should have thought that Mr. George was deserving of our sympathy, and not our criticism.
The right hon. Gentleman drew attention to the shorthand notes of the evidence before the Select Committee and to the presence of the Lord Advocate. It is only right that I should make it clear to the House that both the Lord Advocate and I attended that meeting at very short notice indeed. In the past, it has been the practice for the Attorney-General to look into these cases when they are brought to his notice. Indeed, I think the reason for this is clear. It is that it is only in the courts of England—though I do not know why it is so—that proceedings can be brought for penalties.
In regard to the Coatbridge and Springburn Elections (Validation) Bill, 1945, affecting two Scottish constituencies, both were cases where it was clear that offices of profit were held by hon. Members of this House. Both were cases in which it was clear that they were disqualified. There was again a Select Committee, which reported on that occasion that these two Members of the party opposite had acted completely inadvertently and in good faith. The Select Committee in that case recommended that legislation should be introduced validating the two elections and relieving the two hon. Members of any penalty.
The findings of the Select Committee are the same here. I would draw attention to the fact that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) sat on that Select Committee. The hon. Gentleman also spoke in the Second Reading debate on that Bill, when very few hon. Members spoke; the debate occupied only a short time and there was 768 no Division. On that occasion, the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne said:I wish to make it clear that the recommendation in the Report had my full approval and consent."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th October, 1945; Vol. 414, c. 574.]There is really not very much difference between those two cases and these. In both cases, the Select Committee found that they were inadvertent, and in both cases recommended that immediate action should be taken to validate the elections and to indemnify the hon. Members against the risk of penalty.
I quite agree with the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne that it is possible to indemnify against the risk of penalties and not validate the elections. The course which has been followed from 1945, when the party opposite formed the Government—not only in regard to the Coatbridge and Springburn elections, but to three others also dealt with in which the error was inadvertent—was to take both steps, to indemnify against the penalties and to validate the elections; and that seems to me and to the Government, as it did to the Select Committee, to be the right course to take.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes rose—
§ The Attorney-General
No, I am sorry I cannot give way. The hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North spoke for half an hour, and I think that he said all he could say in that time. I see no reason why I should give him a further opportunity now. I am sure he will forgive me if I carry on with what I was saying.
§ Mr. Hughes
On a point of order. I have asked the right hon. and learned Gentleman to give way, and he has referred to the fact that I have spoken myself. He refuses to give way, but is he not speaking a second time by leave of the House, and, if he is speaking by leave of the House, should he not extend the ordinary courtesies of the House by giving way when asked to do so?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is speaking by leave of the House, but no one took exception when he asked for leave to do so; otherwise, it would not have been granted. Having obtained the leave of the House, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has the same rights as anybody speaking for the first time.
§ The Attorney-General
I should like to carry on with my speech, but not to 769 take as long as did the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North.
The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), who, I am sorry to say, is not in his place, said that he accepted that the two persons concerned acted completely inadvertently. As he accepted that, I think it is somewhat inconsistent and, indeed, unfortunate that he went on to make some derogatory remarks in relation to Mr. George, who is not in a position to reply to them. I think it was an unfortunate observation on his part, and that it was completely unjustified for him to make it.
The other point with which I ought to deal is that raised about the Government's inquiries. Just as people in ordinary life do not always consider whether or not an office which they hold is an office of profit, new candidates may not consider it perhaps as seriously as they should, although efforts are made to bring the matter to their attention. So, quite naturally, Government Departments are not looking the whole time through lists of people who hold appointments to see whether or not one of them is a candidate for Parliament.
As soon as Mr. George's case came to notice, action was taken. It is rather curious to notice that it really came to light in much the same way as did the case of the hon. Member for Nottingham, East, whose case was dealt with in 1945, who was prompted to resign from his post by a casual conversation with one of the Junior Whips. Here, the casual conversation took place in the Dining Room, and immediate action was taken on it. The appointment being so long before—eight years—I do not suppose that at that moment anyone, either in the Ministry of Works or indeed Mr. George himself, had it in mind that it could possibly constitute an office of profit.
In future, I hope that the occasions on which we shall have to discuss measures of this kind will be much reduced, if not eliminated, as a result of the Bill which is due to be discussed today. As far as Government Departments can, I am sure that they will do all they can to guard hon. Members, and, indeed, candidates, from falling into the trap created by the Act of 1707.
In regard to Sir Roland Jennings, in view of the requests for information which I have received, perhaps I should add 770 that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields drew attention to the fact that it was a candidate who raised the question of the public auditor, and that was in the course of an election for another constituency. Sir Roland Jennings resigned his appointment to the Treasury, but reported the matter to the Registrar of Friendly Societies, and the Registrar, realising that, if the Treasury view was correct, Sir Roland Jennings was affected, spoke to him on the telephone on 2nd June. Sir Roland Jennings then wrote immediately resigning his office, and his resignation was accepted as from 4th June.
At that time, it was apparently thought—of course, quite wrongly—by the Registrar, and I think perhaps also by Sir Roland Jennings, that as he had not taken his seat, his resignation before taking his seat in the House would put things right. Naturally, the whole question was then quite properly brought to the attention of the Treasury Solicitor, who immediately brought the matter to my notice. As the right hon. Gentleman opposite said, if a person stands for Parliament when disqualified, there is nothing he can do to put the matter right, and these are unfortunate and inadvertent steps.
The Select Committee has said that both hon. Members acted in inadvertence in standing for election. The Committee found that the posts were taken in a public spirit and not for profit and, in these circumstances, following the precedents set by the Socialist Government in 1945 by the two Bills which they introduced, which this Bill follows, I hope we shall be able to follow the other precedent on that occasion and give this Bill a Second Reading without a Division.
§ 1.50 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has, perhaps, made his speech prematurely and, certainly, he has not been sparing in the comments he has been making about hon. or hon. and learned Members who spoke previously. I will not say much about these two cases which were found by the Select Committee to be cases of inadvertence. I would not think that there had been a deliberate instance of a breach of these penal provisions for a very long time indeed. It seems to me almost inconceivable that 771 there should be one nowadays, and, therefore, every case is likely to be, for one reason or another, an inadvertent one.
I am bound to say, however, that if Mr. George had not been a new Member, I should have regarded it as a remarkable piece of inadvertence. He was appointed by the Ministry and, whatever the motives were, he was appointed in circumstances when he could, under certain conditions, have been paid as a director. Due to what he describes as an internal rebellion among his fellow directors—no doubt he knows the difference between an internal and an external rebellion among directors; I do not—he found himself obliged reluctantly to claim expenses which he received. I should have thought that it was tolerably clear, if he had long experience, that he was, at any rate, near enough to the line to make some inquiries and to get himself reassured about it. However, he did not do so, there has been a finding that it was inadvertence, he is a new Member. Let us, for the moment, leave it at that.
The case of Sir Roland Jennings seems to me to raise a much more serious matter, not as regards Sir Roland himself, because his seemed to me to be a thoroughly excusable piece of inadvertence. I am not really clear about what was the form of the society which required a public auditor for its accounts. It does not matter and I am sure that many hon. Members of this House must, on a voluntary basis, at some time or another have audited the accounts of a local body or have done something of that kind to help them. Frankly, I asked myself, would it ever have occurred to me to consider that an office of profit under the Crown, and my own answer, and the honest one was that I would never have thought of it.
It is a different matter when we come to consider the position of Government Departments in relation to that position and there is a recommendation in this Report that something should be done in that respect. Now, Sir Roland Jennings has not merely been excused and indemnified as regards the two years during which he was at risk but he has been indemnified entirely to make the matter tidier. I am glad to see the Leader of the House in his place, because I remember when he was Minister 772 of Health and it was he who found the skeletons in the corridors of Government Departments. The skeletons he found on that occasion had some relation to the doings or the misdoings of the previous Government, but it seems to me that this legislation and this matter must have left a quite incredible number of skeletons among the Government Departments.
For one case that comes out, if these are typical cases, there must have been many which escaped notice, with perfect good faith on the part of all concerned. As regards another case that is at present before the Select Committee, at least one parallel in the past occurs to me. I will not say any more now because the matter is under consideration, but it is exceedingly important that the Government Departments themselves, whether under the legislation as it now is or as it is going to be, should take the action that was recommended by the Select Committee.
I agree that it is not a matter for the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He cannot go round all the Departments with a duster, but they can open the cupboards and have a look. And it should be done not just when the question crops up, not just in the case of the more obvious and responsible offices, but in the cases of the very small things, if they still subsist, as I believe they will, after the next Bill we are to consider. It should be done in all cases, and done as an important and serious matter.
We ought not to be troubled time and time again to consider this kind of case. We ought not to have to know, as we all know, that for the few cases we consider there may well be many that we never hear of and that no one hears about. As long as any legislation of this kind subsists, I suggest that it is the duty of every Government Department to assure itself that it is not promoting, allowing or encouraging a breach of what is, after all, penal legislation.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been giving some of us a lecture today. He might direct some of his activities to seeing that the Government Departments do this job and he might make it his business to assure himself, since he has a certain responsibility by virtue of his office, that this is done, done at once, and done thoroughly, so that we do not get honest and respected 773 Members of the House—in this case a member of his own party—going on year after year, election after election, breaking the law at the risk of £500 a time for the common informer.
Even if we abolish the common informer it does not make the matter any better. It is the business of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, therefore, not merely to lecture us in this House about our conduct, but to see that the law is carried out, and carried out by Government Departments in this respect. He has had a straight request to do it from the Select Committee, and I hope that he will do his own business better and more promptly in future.
§ 1.58 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)
Having listened to most of this debate, I want, at the outset, to dissociate myself from the almost unanimous opinion expressed by all preceding speakers. They have all joined, in greater or lesser degree, in paying a tribute to the work of the Select Committee. I find that I cannot join in that tribute because in my view the Select Committee did not conduct the necessary inquiries into these two cases with that care, with that detailed accuracy, which we, as Members of this honourable House, have a right to expect from any Select Committee appointed by the House.
First, I want to refer to one or two matters in which the Chairman of the Committee himself was involved, and in this connection I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) is not in his place. I want to draw attention to the first question in the minutes of evidence, when the Lord Advocate said:I am afraid that I am in complete ignorance, apart from what has appeared in the Press.That answer was given in reply to the following Question from the Chairman:How did this case arise and how did you find out about it?Notwithstanding the fact that the Lord Advocate confessed ignorance about the whole matter, we find the Chairman of the Committee putting another question to him later, Question 24. The Chairman wanted to know whether the Lord Advocate disagreed with the Attorney-General. He said: 774If he agrees he will say that there is no disagreement.The Lord Advocate replied "Yes."
Right at the very beginning of the Select Committee's deliberations, the Chairman had, I thought, established beyond any shadow of doubt that the Lord Advocate knew nothing at all about it. Yet a little later in the proceedings, knowing as he must have done that the Lord Advocate knew nothing at all about the case, he invited him to say whether or not he agreed or disagreed with the Attorney-General.
It strikes me as very odd that the Chairman of the Select Committee should conduct himself in that fashion. It does not seem to me to make a very useful contribution to the kind of investigation for which the Select Committee was appointed.
§ Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)
In fairness to the Lord Advocate, as well as to the members of the Select Committee, it ought to be pointed out that the request to the Lord Advocate was whether or not he would agree to look at the papers. It was merely that and nothing more.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
In that case, I apologise to the House and to the Select Committee. If the suggestion was merely that the Lord Advocate should look at the papers, then what he said was completely justified.
However, there is a point with which my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor) has not dealt. In Question No. 24 the Chairman used these words:If he agrees he will say that there is no disagreement.I interpret that statement to be virtually an inquiry of the Lord Advocate whether or not he agreed or disagreed with the Attorney-General and not whether he agreed to look at the papers or disagreed. In those circumstances, it may be that my hon. Friend has misunderstood the meaning of the remarks that I was making. There would be no point in the Chairman asking the Lord Advocate whether he agreed or disagreed if it was merely for the purpose of suggesting to him that he should have a look at the papers.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes
Is it not a possible explanation that the Chairman of the 775 Select Committee was not satisfied with the conduct of the Attorney-General and needed the Lord Advocate's further advice?
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
If that is so, it strengthens the point that I am trying to make.
The Attorney-General said that the Government had acted with the utmost possible dispatch in the matter. I disagree with that as emphatically as I possibly can. The evidence discloses that on some date unspecified—the date is by no means clear—there was a conversation between Mr. George and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works. In any court of law where a matter of this kind was being examined, the first thing the court would want to know would be the date when the lunch occurred and Mr. George was advised for the first time that he might have brought himself within the scope of the provisions of the 1707 Act and was thereby ineligible.
All that the Select Committee was able to get from Mr. George was this. Question No. 68 was:What was the date of that conversation?The answer was:Very soon after the House assembled. I could not give you the exact date, but within a week.If the Government wish to convince the House and the country that they have acted with some dispatch, they should at least provide the evidence on which that claim is based. We still do not know the date on which Mr. George was informed for the first time that he had probably been occupying an office of profit under the Crown.
Again on the question of the Government's efficiency and dispatch, I would draw attention to the fact that in Question No. 72 Mr. George was asked whether the conversation that he had with the Parliamentary Secretary had taken place before he received a message from the Chief Whip, and Mr. George replied:Yes, quite a week prior to that.In those circumstances, it is justifiable to inquire why a whole week apparently elapsed between—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. 776 Langford-Holt) wish to intervene? If he does not, let him keep quiet.
I should be the last person to stand in the way of any hon. Member opposite willing to make a contribution to the debate. We have not had the advantage of any intelligent comment from the Government back benches during the whole discussion. It has been left to hon. Members on this side of the House to vindicate the rights of Parliament and to establish the rights of hon. Members in this matter.
A whole week elapsed between the Parliamentary Secretary's lunch with Mr. George on an unspecified date and receipt of the message from the Chief Whip. We are entitled to know what action was being taken during that period. Why should a week elapse and then the first action to be taken in the matter be a message from the Chief Whip? Why was there not some official communication? Did not the Parliamentary Secretary report the matter to his Department, or did he report it to the Minister of Works and no action was taken, or was there some delay before the Minister of Works notified the Attorney-General?
The Attorney-General himself was not quite sure about the whole thing when he appeared before the Select Committee. In Question No. 3 he was asked by the Chairman how these cases were discovered, and he replied:This particular case of Mr. George came to light, I think, through the Minister of Works consulting the Treasury Solicitor …The Attorney-General was not sure. Obviously he went before the Select Committee without having armed himself with the information necessary to enable him properly to discharge his duty before the Select Committee.
There are other incidents in connection with the hearing which, I think, substantiate my argument that the Select Committee did not do its job at all well. At the end of the first day's hearing, when the Chairman was putting Question No. 36, the last of the day, the Attorney-General excused himself on the ground that he had given evidence at very short notice, without having prepared a written memorandum, and went on to say:… and without, indeed, bringing my papers with methen in parentheses are the words:They have only just arrived.777 So these very important papers, on the basis of which the Attorney-General is presumably basing his case, had arrived only at the end of the first day's hearing.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
From where they had arrived is not very clear. It may be possible, by examining the other questions, to discover from which source the documents were expected.
All I am saying is that here we have the Attorney-General, the leader of the English Bar and the principal Law Officer of the Crown—
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
—as far as England is concerned—at any rate, second in command to the Lord Chancellor—at the first session of the Select Committee—does the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) still wish to intervene? If so, I will give way. The hon. Member has reached the bad stage when people begin talking to themselves.
§ Mr. J. Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I never do so normally, but he has invited me to do so. I was merely remarking to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Beresford Craddock) that if I ever go to court of law—I believe that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is a lawyer—I hope that he will never have to defend me.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
I would never accept a brief which made it necessary to defend the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes
Will my hon. and gallant Friend bear in mind that if he is ever accused in a court of law, he may be accused by the Attorney-General and he will therefore be sure to get off.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Lipton
It would be a great help to have the Attorney-General on the other side.
When the second day's hearing opened, the first question put to Mr. George by the Chairman was:Do you in any way dispute what the Attorney-General has said about the legal side of this case?Mr. George's answer was:I do not know what he has said.It seems most extraordinary that at the end of the first day we have the Attorney- 778 General apologising because he has not prepared a written memorandum and asking for an opportunity of checking the transcript before it is published—… in case I have not expressed myself clearly.—and on the second day the Chairman asking Mr. George, who has been hardly treated in this respect, whether he agrees with what the Attorney-General said about the legal side of the case.
The Chairman was so surprised when Mr. George said that he did not know what the Attorney-General had said that he put another question, Question No. 38:You have not had it made known to you?The answer was "No." We are forced to the conclusion that the matter has been handled in a very slipshod and haphazard fashion which is not consistent with the dignity of the House and with the efficiency which we have the right to expect from Select Committees. There are big gaps, an absence of dates and other factors to which I do not have time to refer; if any hon. Gentleman opposite wants to follow me in the debate, I do not wish to exclude him.
For all those reasons, I want to dissociate myself from the laudatory tributes paid by preceding speakers to the work of the Select Committee. I hope that the experience which we have gained on this occasion will lead to a higher standard of efficiency in such future inquiries as a Select Committee appointed by the House may have to make.
§ 2.15 p.m.
§ Mr. F. J. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)
I should not have risen had it not been for the ungenerous remarks of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton). There is a great tradition of Select Committees and it is very seldom that I have heard, if at all, in my 20 years' experience in the House, hon. Members criticising their own Select Committee. In the absence of the Chairman, I am bound to say, as a member of that Committee, that every step was taken to present the House with a fair record of the proceedings so fat as we could by eliciting the facts, as far as we could ascertain them, and the legal opinions of the two Law Officers who very kindly appeared before us.
779 I think that my hon. and gallant Friend is in a minority of one in his remarks about the Select Committee He is trying to destroy the value of the Committee's Report on which the Bill has been based. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has advised his hon. and right hon. Friends to give the Bill a Second Reading. May I explain what happened about the two Law Officers who appeared before us? Certain Scottish Members—and this will please my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes)—asked that the Lord Advocate as well as the Attorney-General should be present. When they both appeared, it was quite obvious that the Lord Advocate was unprepared for the proceedings at which he had been asked to attend.
The Lord Advocate was given every opportunity, if he so desired, of expressing his point of view, particularly if it did not coincide with that of the Attorney-General. Questions were put to the Lord Advocate and the Attorney-General about their legal status in advising the Select Committee. The Scottish Members, particularly the right hon. Member for Kelvingrove (Mr. Elliot), tried to uphold the principle, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire has put, that the Lord Advocate is supreme in Scotland. However, the Attorney-General said, in the presence of his right hon. and learned Friend and without any contradiction whatever, that the Attorney-General takes precedence in law matters in advising the Crown.
We examined the Attorney-General and obtained his opinion, which was very precise, and invited the Lord Advocate to express his disagreement, if he felt the need to do so. The Lord Advocate promised to look at the papers, and as he expressed no disagreement with the opinion of the Attorney-General, the Select Committee could only accept the opinion of the Attorney-General as being the opinion of the Lord Advocate too.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes
Would my right hon. Friend not agree that it was very unfair to the Lord Advocate to present him with these papers, a sort of fait accompli, after the Attorney-General had given his decision? Surely he did not expect the Lord Advocate to be so discourteous as to turn down his right hon. 780 and learned Friend. That is not the way in which legal business is conducted in Scotland.
§ Mr. Turner-Samuels
The constitutional practice is quite clear. It is not a matter that affects Scotland only. This is a matter that affects Parliament, and the senior Law Officer is the Attorney-General. No one but the Attorney-General, probably with the co-operation of the Lord Advocate, could intervene in this matter ex cathedra in order to give an opinion on it.
§ Mr. Bellenger
I agree, and I think that that is sufficient answer to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton and also to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire.
It was quite sufficient, for the purposes of the Select Committee, to have the opinion of the Attorney-General, especially when his opinion was so precise. The members of the Select Committee are subject to the same limitations as any other hon. Members inasmuch as some of us are not trained lawyers; but we are Members of Parliament concerned with the rights and privileges of Parliament. All we were asked to do was to ascertain whether the election of these two Members was invalid or not; and we have said that they are invalid. Because of that these two gentlemen are no longer Members of Parliament.
It would be within the rights of the House, or Mr. Speaker perhaps—I am not sure whose prerogative it is—to order new Writs to be issued for new elections. We have not said that, and we have gone on precedent here in that there have been somewhat similar cases although the degree of inadvertence may be greater or lesser. We have said that these gentlemen should not only have their elections validated but that they should be exonerated from the penalties which might lie in an action started by a common informer. So much for the position of the Select Committee.
One feature concerns me, as a member of that Committee, about which I think the Government should have done something. Just as I have said to my hon. and gallant Friend that the Report of a Select Committee should be received with respect, so I think that the Government have been somewhat lacking in paying attention to the view we express. Government Departments, which are the dis- 781 pensers of patronage, should take the initiative in finding out whether hon. Members are disqualified or not. We paid great attention to that consideration, and I regret to say that Government spokesmen do not seem to pay the same regard to it as did the Committee. This was the unanimous Resolution of the Committee.
How do these cases come to light? We know from the Report of the Select Committee that they are purely fortuitous; certainly these two cases are. But there is a third case which is to come before this House in a Report of the Select Committee, and I think that I am entitled to mention it because the Report has been presented and any hon. Member can obtain access to it. That Report discloses that one hon. Member sat for years in this House while holding an office of profit under the Crown as chairman of a board, for which he drew several hundred pounds a year.
How can these cases be found out? Under the old Acts of Parliament provision was made for the common informer to start an action. It is undignified for Parliament to be at the mercy of common informers who can start actions in the courts outside to show that an individual sitting in this House is not validly qualified to sit here and, not only that, possibly mulct him of heavy damages because that individual does what he thinks is his duty to his constituents.
Therefore, in the presence of the Lord Privy Seal, I say that the Government would be well advised—even if the House approves the Second Reading of the next Bill, the House of Commons Disqualification Bill—to put on Government Departments the onus of ascertaining whether any other similar cases are likely to occur. That is where the initiative should start and end. I hope that the Leader of the House and the Government will pay more regard to the Resolution of the Select Committee.
§ 2.25 p.m.
§ Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)
I, too, would not have intervened in the debate but for the speech of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) who, I suspect, was indulging in a piece of leg-pulling rather than in a serious contribution to the debate.
§ Lieut. -Colonel Lipton indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Taylor
I cannot for a moment believe that my hon. and gallant Friend would seriously suggest that he means, on the few remarks that he picked out of the Report, to make the charge against the Select Committee that it was not so efficient as we as Members of Parliament should expect.
I was a member of that Select Committee. It was the first Select Committee of this House on which I have had the honour to serve. Therefore, I have no standard against which I can judge the efficiency of other Select Committees. However, I can say, as one who has had long experience in dealing with the affairs of my fellow men in more or less quasi-judicial capacities, that I was struck with the care and attention which my colleagues on the Committee gave to their duties.
Further, there are one or two considerations in the working of the Committee which are worthy of some thought. We are on the eve of a very long Recess, which, in my opinion, is much too long. It is a Recess of three months. These matters came to light within a week or two of the beginning of the Recess. It seemed to members of the Committee that, provided we could complete our duties satisfactorily and thoroughly in sufficient time to enable our Reports to be considered carefully by the House before the Recess began, it was up to us to work with some speed, remembering always that we had to be satisfied that we were working with thoroughness, caution and care.
I believe that we did that. I believe that, with the help of our experienced Chairman and the experienced members of the Committee, we succeeded in working with care, thoroughness and due attention to all detail and with reasonable speed. My hon. and gallant Friend has criticised the standard of the work of the Committee. On what evidence does he base his criticism? He takes two single instances and chides us for not discovering precisely a date which the evidence clearly shows was not discoverable. Why should we waste our time trying to discover the exact date of something which did not matter anyway, even if we had discovered it?
783 We were concerned about how this matter began, why it began and how it was discovered, but the date did not matter very much. We tried to find it, and we found the precise date in the succeeding case, but in the first it was not possible to discover it because it was a matter of memory. The witness was not very sure. It may have been Friday or Thursday and, in any event, it did not much matter for the purpose of the Report.
The second point on which my hon. and gallant Friend bases his criticism is that the Lord Advocate had not got his papers ready. The Lord Advocate was under the same disability as the members of the Committee at that stage, the beginning of the deliberations. The Committee had summoned, by telephone, the Lord Advocate from a meeting of the Home Office, and he immediately dropped his business and came along in deference to the wishes of the Committee. I think it fair that these things should be said to show that in my view—although perhaps I should not say it as a member of the Select Committee—this Committee did its business with dispatch, thoroughness, care, attention and efficiency, and I commend its findings to the House.
§ 2.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)
I should be discourteous were I not to say a word at this point. I wish to thank the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) for the extremely nice things which he said about myself and my fellow members of the Committee over which I had the honour to preside.
I wish to confirm what has been said by hon. Members. We did, in our Report, in paragraphs 11 and 12, express two strong desires that the Government should take the initiative in the matter of looking up further cases. I think it only fair that I, as Chairman, should say that that was the unanimous wish of the Committee. We also laid down that we should have legislation on the whole position. We can hardly blame the Government because they initiated legislation even before our Report was out. All we can do is thank the Government for their forethought and wisdom in coming to a decision which might well have been taken and acted upon some while ago.
784 May I now say a word upon the controversial subject of the position of the Lord Advocate? The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor) paid a tribute to the quickness with which the right hon. and learned Gentleman responded to the request of the Committee. The position was that this is British law, upon which it would be impossible for three or four people to deal with one case. It is necessary to have an authoritative person at the top to do that, which was the Attorney-General. I say that because we had the very curious and interesting position—which is worthy of commenting upon, and which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for South Shields—that, for the first time in history, we had the Lord Advocate and the Attorney-General sitting side by side and being cross-questioned by a Parliamentary Committee. That, at any rate, shows that the authority of Parliament is very strong and very real.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]
§ Committee upon Monday next.
§ 2.33 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Harry Crookshank)
I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.
It had been the intention, which had the approval of the Opposition, that the two Orders down for today should be taken today because, among other reasons, they are cognate matters. The Select Committee recommended that action should be taken by legislation and, as a Bill was available before the House, it had been thought that it would be a good opportunity for the two matters to be ventilated on the same day. However, the debate on the first Bill has lasted so long that I think it would not be at all suitable to embark upon discussing the second Bill, the House of Commons Disqualification Bill, now, knowing perfectly well that, in the end, the debate would have to be adjourned.
It is impossible to think that a matter of this importance could be dealt with in under an hour-and-a-half. While there are precedents for a debate being started and adjourned, in this instance it would have meant, owing to the interruption of the Recess, that it would have been 785 adjourned for so long that it would not be Parliamentarily sensible—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad to have the assent of hon. Gentlemen opposite.
I do not wish anyone to be under any misapprehension that we do not consider this to be a Bill of great importance. It is a Bill which has had a very interesting history, as will be disclosed during the debate on the Second Reading. It has been a long time in drafting, a great deal of care was taken before it ever saw the light of day, and it would be unsuitable now, in the circumstances of today, to go forward with it. Had the debate on the first Bill taken the length of time which I had anticipated, and which, I think, the usual channels had anticipated, it would have been all right. But, that not having happened, I see no useful purpose in proceeding with the second Bill now.
§ 2.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has acted wisely in accepting the position in which we now stand regarding the second Bill. The right hon Gentleman will recollect that when, on 14th July, he announced that it was proposed to take this second Bill today, I pointed out that it was a Measure which raised very important constitutional issues and that it did not seem to me to be the right kind of Bill to discuss on a Friday.
At that time the right hon. Gentleman rather minimised the importance of the Second Reading and said that in a Second Reading debate we dealt only with principle, and that we could dispose of that on a Friday. I understand, from what I was told, that the usual channels flowed with some vehemence on this question and that in the latter part of this week they were making representations—I am only saying what I was informed, and if I have been misinformed the deputy Chief Government Whip can make certain. On this side of the House we do not stand in such awe of our Whips, and I can make my views known.
We desired that this Bill should be taken on a day other than a Friday. I share the belief, which has now been expressed by the right hon. Gentleman, that this is a very important Bill. I hope that it will not be taken on a Friday in the autumn, because surely what has happened in the two cases before us today 786 indicates that these are matters requiring the most careful consideration, both in principle and detail. I should regret it if an attempt were made to get the Second Reading of this Bill completed in the short time available on a Friday. I welcome the step now taken by the right hon. Gentleman and I hope that when we meet in the autumn it will be possible to have a full discussion on this Measure.
§ Mr. Speaker
Before I call the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) I would point out to him that, if he is proposing to raise the case of Mr. Wilkes, as I imagine he intends to do, well and good. But if the hon. Gentleman intends to talk on some other topic I would remind him that he cannot talk twice on the same Motion.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker. I was aware of what are my rights in this matter and also the limitations. I propose to do both—to say a few words on this matter and then to proceed to the matter of the Adjournment debate of which I have given notice.
§ Mr. Crookshank
If that be the case, and as I do not wish to get mixed up with the case of Mr. Wilkes, or whatever be the subject which the hon. Gentleman proposes to raise, may I now make one comment on the speech of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede)?
I have noted what he said and I was not aware of the representations to which he referred. I cannot accept his general proposition that Government time on Fridays cannot be used to discuss important matters. I must enter that caveat not only in my own interests but because it is what the right hon. Gentleman would have done had he been occupying my position.
§ Mr. Crookshank
That was not my point. That may or not be the case. But I was putting in a caveat against the expression used by the right hon. Gentleman, which implied that Government time on Fridays must not be used to discuss matters of importance.
§ 2.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Wigg
I hope, now that the Lord Privy Seal has once again been led by the House into a proper path, that he will stay for a moment to contemplate the possibility of having a debate upon the Herbert Report before we come to the Second Reading of the Bill. It was monstrous to ask the House to dispose of the House of Commons Disqualification Bill as the second Order on a Friday. I must confess that I am astonished to hear that such an arrangement was made with the agreement of the Opposition. Perhaps I am old-fashioned and have been in the House for too long, but I have always thought it was the business of the Opposition not to facilitate Government business but to oppose it.
It is clear that from what my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has said that it was never the intention to give the Government this business automatically at 4 o'clock. Now that the Government have once again been taught their manners, I hope they will come back and learn the lesson to advantage. Let us have a debate upon the Herbert Report, which is already fifteen years out of date. It discusses a situation which existed in 1941 in the light of a principle laid down in the eighteenth century. We are now in the fourth Parliament after the war, and we ought to be looking at questions like the disqualification and the rights of Members and the efficient working of the House of Commons in the light of conditions today.
There is very valuable material in the Herbert Report and it would be of advantage to the Government, before we had a Second Reading, if we could debate that Report rather than have a Select Committee going into the whole matter again.
Had the Second Reading come up today, that was a point I would have made. We ought not to have a Second Reading until there has been a much more careful examination of the Herbert Report. It is clear that the Government put the Disqualification Bill down as a sort of sop to Cerberus. They said. "Fifteen years have gone by, so the House will readily agree to accept half the recommendations of the Herbert Report. The Government may have a tame lot on their side, but we are not a tame Opposition. I hope that the Government will have second thoughts.