HC Deb 27 July 1955 vol 544 cc1199-211

Order for Second Reading read.

4.20 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Second Report of the Select Committee on Elections is before the House, it sets out very shortly the facts of this case, and I am sure that the House would not wish me to summarise them again in view of the other business before the House today. I need only draw attention to the recommendations of the Select Committee that legislation should be introduced at once to indemnify Mr. Holland-Martin from any penalties he may have incurred and to validate his election. It is obviously desirable that during the Recess no person should be left in the position in which Mr. Holland-Martin now is, with the risk that during that Recess proceedings by a common informer might be started against him.

4.21 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

It is in the highest degree unfortunate that the Second Reading of this Bill should be moved at this time on this day. It is true that every Member of the House is most anxious to hear the Prime Minister's report of the momentous events which took place recently in Geneva and to proceed to discuss them. It is extremely unfortunate that that debate should be delayed by a matter which, however important it may be, has no importance proportionate to that.

But it would be equally unfortunate if the House should allow itself to be, as it were—I do not apologise for the word—blackmailed into accepting a Bill of this kind on the nod, unexamined, uncriticised and not looked at or discussed at all, because we can only discus it by delaying a more important matter which the House wishes to discuss.

What is the urgency? Mr. Holland-Martin did not feel any urgency for four years. While the House might be prepared, subject to its right to amend the Bill in Committee, to give the Government a Second Reading of the Bill today, I think that if there were any intention to take the Bill beyond that, most Members of the House would feel that that was a very wrong thing to do.

I do not want to delay the House very long about this but, at the same time, I do not want to connive at the implied proposition that what we are dealing with is a mere matter of form and that there is nothing in it which the House need consider, and that the Government are entitled to the Second Reading, Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading of this indemnity Bill without consideration.

This was a very bad case indeed. There was never any excuse of any kind for supposing that the office which this gentleman held was not an office of profit under the Crown. It was plain beyond argument. For four years he held that office simultaneously with membership of the House. For four years he received the salary of both offices.

It may be that the House ought to amend the existing legislation. It may be that some day it will do so, but until it does amend this legislation the law is binding on everybody and has to be enforced by Ministers. While the House may be prepared to grant indemnities on suitable occasions when what takes place is trivial or inadvertent, it ought not to do so in circumstances like this, where the case is neither trivial nor inadvertent.

The case might be inadvertent, perhaps, if the gentleman did not know, but he ought to have known, and there have been plenty around him who ought to have known. The Government has some responsibility in the matter and they, too, ought to have known. It cannot be regarded as inadvertent, nor can it be regarded as trivial, when there is an appointment of this kind at a quite substantial salary.

I am not saying that the House would wish the very grievous penalties which would normally follow if the law were to be rigorously applied to be enforced. Five hundred pounds a day would be altogether too high a penalty and the House would readily agree, I think, to excusing Mr. Holland-Martin most—or, at any rate, some—of those penalties. But when we are asked, without discussion, without argument and without consideration of any kind, to declare that his position four years ago was the direct opposite of what the general law provides, that he is to be excused all penalties of every kind, that he is to remain in possession of the salaries of both offices and that his constituents are not to be allowed to have any say in the matter at all—because his election is to be declared valid when, in fact, it was invalid—then I say that the House, with proper regard to its own prestige and standing in the community, has absolutely no right to allow such a Bill to go through without proper and complete and full examination.

If the Attorney-General says that all the Government are asking for today is the Second Reading, I would be prepared to leave it at that for the time being; but if that really were their intention, it is impossible to understand why the Bill is put down for debate today at all. If the Government put down the Second Reading for today because they want to force the whole thing through in one day, there is some point in it although, for the reasons I have given, I would not agree with it.

If, on the other hand, the Government do not want to force it all through today and cannot possibly get the Bill until after the long Recess, what was the point of putting it down for Second Reading between a Motion for a three months' adjournment of the House, which we had to discuss, and a most important—perhaps the most important of all—foreign affairs discussion later in the day? The only possible purpose—and I say that it is an improper purpose—could have been to use the pressure of the desire of the House to get on to the more important subjects to persuade it to accept the Bill without the examination and consideration that it would otherwise have given.

I hope that the House will not give the Government the Second Reading of the Bill until at least we are assured that it is not the intention of the Government to ask us to go further with the matter today.

4.27 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), I apologise for speaking on the Second Reading of this Bill, but it has been made imperative on us by the conduct of the Government. Why should a Bill of this kind, which is regarded as important and in which important precedents will be quoted, be sandwiched between two debates of the kind that we have today, in the hope that hon. Members would not properly discuss what was contained in the Bill?

May I point out that the evidence of the Select Committee has not been in the hands of hon. Members to give them sufficient time to consider what is before them? There have been two copies of the Report of the Select Committee. The first, which was without any evidence at all, appeared in the Vote Office only late last night, and I doubt—I say this without disrespect to the House—whether a dozen Members of the House, apart from the Select Committee, have had an opportunity of examining the evidence. In the Report of the Select Committee there is a long, abstruse explanation from the Attorney-General of the law relating to Members who are bankers. I defy anybody except the most erudite legal Members of the House to make head or tail of the statement by the Attorney-General.

What are, briefly, the facts about the case of Mr. Holland-Martin? During the time in question, he has been a subsidiary director of a New Zealand bank and during this time he has drawn a quite substantial salary of £550 a year.

In Question No. 31 of the evidence given to the Select Committee, he says: I am a Director of another Bank which has a local board, and I am also a Director of one of the local boards. I submit that all hon. Members who have been, or are, bank directors will be greatly disturbed by the evidence which appears in this Report. There are a number of hon. Members who may think, "Have we committed the same offence as Mr. Holland-Martin? Mr. Holland-Martin was not only a director of the Bank of New Zealand, but he appears to have been a director of another bank." As an old bank director myself, I should like to know how we are placed.

Is every hon. Member of this House who has been a bank director since 1946 likely to incur the penalties which may be imposed upon Mr. Holland-Martin? Take, for example, the Prime Minister, who may find himself in difficulty. When he was not the Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman was a director of a bank. I am sure that the whole House will hope that the Prime Minister has not inadvertently committed an offence which would make him liable to a fine of £500 for every sitting of the House of Commons since 1946. Then there are other hon. Members who have been bank directors—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

There probably are, but this Bill deals only with one, Mr. Holland-Martin, and we must confine the debate to that.

Mr. Hughes

Yes, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I have no intention of voicing the anxieties of my fellow ex-bank directors any further.

I suggest that here is a very important Bill which is being slipped through, and that it is not such an innocuous Bill. I suggest that if the Attorney-General gets his Second Reading, we should not rush this Bill through all its stages without the position of bank directors and ex-bank directors who are hon. Members of the House being cleared up.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The Question is—

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Mr. Deputy-Speaker—

Hon. Members


Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

This is just an example of what some of us feared—that this matter would be rushed through without at least some answer from the Attorney-General, who, I think, is willing to do the House the courtesy of dealing with the points which have been raised by my hon. Friends. I am sure that if the Attorney-General wishes to give the House the information asked for, no difficulty would be placed in the way.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The Question is—

Hon. Members


4.32 p.m.

Mr. John Paton (Norwich, North)

I think that the House is entitled to have an explanation from the Attorney-General before it gives him this Bill. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been asked specific questions by hon. Members. Surely we are entitled to have that information from him. Surely also the House is entitled to have from the right hon. and learned Gentleman some explanation of the extraordinary fact which was brought out so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). Why has this Bill been produced at all today, when it could well have waited until the House reassembles in October, since the further stages cannot be taken until then? These, surely, are matters on which the Attorney-General should give the House some information.

4.33 p.m.

Mr. Herbert Morrison (Lewisham, South)

I think that the request of my hon. Friends that they should have an answer from the Attorney-General—even though it may necessarily be brief—is reasonable, and I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will make some comment on the points which my hon. Friends have raised. We on the Opposition Front Bench feel that it is not unreasonable that this Bill should go through today. There is another Bill on the stocks which will have to be considered when we reassemble, and which deals with the whole complicated problem of the disqualification of Members; and which, I may say, worried the Labour Government, who had plenty of trouble about it; and it seems to be worrying this Government.

It may be that this case is somewhat different from others, but both Governments have had the same trouble. My hon. Friends will have an opportunity of discussing matters on the Second Reading and the Committee stage of the House of Commons Disqualification Bill. The other point is that this case, with the other case which was debated, I think, at some length, or two other cases—

Mr. S. Silverman

Not this one.

Mr. Morrison

I never said this one, I said two others. They were debated on Friday at some length, and not improperly either.

But this is a case, like the others were, where the Select Committee has recommended that the appropriate action—what has become the customary action—should be taken in order to cover the hon. Member. It is said, "Let it wait until we come back." But, if I may say so, I think that when a Select Committee has recommended, it is right and proper for the House to deal with the matter as expeditiously as it can.

I am sorry that this matter happens to come up between a Motion for the Adjournment and a debate upon foreign affairs, but I have given a reason for the hurry and I think it decent that the House of Commons, when it has a Report from a Select Committee, should not leave an hon. Member in suspense without good reason. I think that the proper thing to do is to proceed with this Bill, because I do not think that we shall lose anything thereby.

I would remind my hon. Friend that when the Labour Government were in a similar trouble, the Opposition swallowed it—I forget how much they said about it, but it was nothing much—and my impression is that they were reasonable. In all the circumstances, I think it not unreasonable that on this last day we should get this Bill through, and I hope that it will go through.

Mr. Silverman

Before my right hon. Friend sits down, may I say that he has referred to cases at the beginning of the 1945 Parliament and that I know about those cases—I was a member of the Select Committee which considered them. I think that if my right hon. Friend will bring his recollection to bear on the matter—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Gentleman cannot make a second speech.

Mr. Silverman

I am not making a speech.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I beg the hon. Member's pardon. It sounded to me rather like a speech.

Mr. Silverman

I am sorry if it sounds rather like a speech, but, nevertheless, I am not making one. What I am drawing the attention of my right hon. Friend to is that there is no parallel whatever between the cases—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker


Mr. Silverman

—he has mentioned and this case.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

In my opinion, this is a speech and it must be discontinued.

4.38 p.m.

The Attorney-General

With the leave of the House, I would add a word to what has been said by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison).

This Bill was put down for all stages today, because it was understood that it was agreeable to hon. Gentlemen opposite, as, indeed, it was to the Government. The need for the Bill today is this, and I should have thought that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) would have understood it. Unless this Bill reaches the Statute Book before the Recess, Mr. Holland-Martin will be in peril of an action being started against him by a common informer.

I cannot agree with the opinion of the hon. Member, nor does the Select Committee. It has agreed that Mr. Holland-Martin acted in good faith and that the matter was raised on his own initiative. We may be able to discuss all the aspects, and no doubt we shall discuss them, when we debate the House of Commons Disqualification Bill. In those circumstances, I hope that the House will now give this Bill a Second Reading. I hope that, to make Mr. Holland-Martin's position safe, we shall be able to carry the Bill through all its stages, as it was understood that course was agreeable.

Mr. Silverman

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. May I ask your guidance on this point? If the House should give the Government the Second Reading of the Bill, for which they ask, and for which I think provision is made upon the Order Paper, is the House bound, on the Motion of the Government, to proceed with the Committee stage and Third Reading, or can that be objected to?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is a hypothetical question. The Motion for the Second Reading is the only matter now before the House. I will deal with the other question when it arises.

Mr. Silverman

My vote will depend very much on the consequences of passing such a Motion today. Therefore, it is not a hypothetical question, in view of what has been said by speakers on both Front Benches about what they had understood was to happen. Whether I vote or refrain from voting against the Motion for the Second Reading of this Bill depends on whether the consequence of giving a Second Reading would be to compel the House to proceed to the further stages. If that be so, I shall vote against it.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I do not know what is to happen, but if the Motion for the Second Reading is agreed to, and, subsequently, there is a Motion to proceed immediately with the Bill in Committee, the hon. Member can vote against that if he wants to, when the time comes.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

May I ask for your guidance on this point, Mr. Deputy-Speaker? The notice on the Order Paper is for the Second Reading of the Bill. There is no notice whatever on the Paper to indicate any proposal to take further stages of the Bill today. Can the Government propose to go further than Second Reading today, without giving notice?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It was impossible to give notice on the Order Paper of any further stage of the Bill, because it is not known yet whether the Bill will be read a Second time or not. If the Bill is read a Second time and it is then proposed that a further stage be taken today, the House can divide on that, and register its approval or disapproval.

Mr. G. Lindgren (Wellingborough)

But can we assume a Government defeat on the Question being put? You, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, put the Question and collect the voices, and the Chair usually determines that the Ayes have it, which, in the majority of cases, is reasonable; but how do we know that that will not happen on this occasion?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The Chair collects the voices, and if it thinks the Government side have the majority, it says so. Then it is up to those who disagree to disagree, and then there is a Division. There is nothing very subtle about that.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Assuming, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the Motion for Second Reading is carried, as, I am sure it will be, cannot other stages of the Bill be taken after ten o'clock tonight?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

No. That would not be possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. R. Allan.]

Mr. S. Silverman

Is this Motion debatable, Mr. Deputy-Speaker?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It is not debatable.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House will immediately resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill.—[Mr. R. Allan.]

4.43 p.m.

Mr. Silverman

I desire to invite the House not to accept the Motion. I think it would be an example of most undignified and unseemly haste and of neglect—abdication almost—of the responsibility of this House to allow an indemnity Bill of this kind to be rushed through in this fashion. What have the Government to hide? Do they want to prevent Members of the House from reading the evidence submitted to the Select Committee before they ask for the indemnity of this man? There are pages and pages of it. The Select Committee's Report was not in the Vote Office until about ten o'clock last night. Nobody has had the opportunity of reading the evidence.

Is it to be said that because there have been other cases and that because in other cases the House has given indemnity and that because a Select Committee recommended indemnity in this case, therefore the House of Commons has to act as a rubber stamp for the Select Committee? A Select Committee has no right to legislate. A Select Committee has no right to expect its Report to be accepted and acted upon without discussion. There have been times without number when Select Committees have made Reports which the Government have been unable to accept and have refused to accept. There have been other cases in which the Government have wished the Report of a Select Committee to be accepted and in which the House has had other views.

There was a very important case in 1947, when a Select Committee inquired into the case of a Member—I do not propose to mention his name, but those of us who were here at that time will remember it very well—and when the Select Committee recommended that only very lenient action should be taken, but when the House decided, as it was entitled to decide, to reject that Report and to proceed with the expulsion of the Member.

I dissent respectfully but quite fundamentally from the proposition of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) that because a Select Committee has recommended us to do it, therefore we are in some way bound to do it. We are not bound to do it. It may be true that a Select Committee's recommendation carries a good deal of authority and ought always to carry a great deal of authority with Members of the House. I would concede that the House should not lightly reject the recommendations of a Select Committee in such a case. That, however, is a very, very different thing from saying we are to adopt a recommendation of a Select Committee merely because it has made it—and that without any opportunity whatever of even reading the evidence which led it to that conclusion, let alone of considering whether we are of that opinion ourselves.

My right hon. Friend just now suggested that when this party was in the Government the Government then had the same difficulty. The four cases to which he referred were cases which the House unanimously accepted could be described as trivial and inadvertent. No one in his senses would regard this case as either trivial or in any real sense inadvertent. This is a matter which the House ought to consider very carefully. We are asked—does the right hon. Gentleman want to intervene?

4.47 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Harry Crookshank)

Certainly. I was going to say that I did not want this debate to continue in view of the very important statement the Prime Minister is to make. I was proposing that this Motion be withdrawn. I thought that might save the hon. Gentleman from continuing his speech. I shall propose that course unless the hon. Member wants to continue further.

Mr. Silverman

If the right hon. Gentleman had indicated that he desired to intervene for any purpose in a rather more courteous way than he did just now, I should, of course, have given way much earlier, and since the right hon. Gentle- man has now indicated that he accepts the arguments now which he rejected fifteen minutes ago, I shall be delighted to sit down now to enable leave to be asked for the Motion to be withdrawn.

Mr. Crookshank

I do not accept the arguments at all, but the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) made an appeal to the House to be generous in this matter. The hon. Member is, no doubt, perfectly within his rights, and I am not denying—

Mr. Silverman

Not mine, but the rights of the House of Commons.

Mr. Crookshank

—the right of any hon. Member to speak on any subject when it is in order to do so, but there are certain occasions when we try to restrain our eloquence. This appeared to be one of them.

The House generally is very generous to any of its Members and feels great sympathy with them if and when they fall inadvertently into misfortune, as is the case here. Mr. Holland-Martin, as the Select Committee has pointed out, had no idea that he was in error. However, it was he himself who thought he might be at risk, and it was he who raised the issue, and nobody else, and the Select Committee has reported in his case. That being so, and as we are about to rise for a considerable period, the Government thought, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South agreed, that it would be the right and decent and proper thing to pass this Bill through all its stages today.

However, we certainly do not wish—I am sure that nobody in the House, in the country, or indeed anywhere—to delay for one moment the important speech that my right hon. Friend is to make, even though it may cause some injustice to Mr. Holland-Martin if we put off further proceedings on the Bill. Knowing him as I do, I am perfectly certain that he would waive his own feelings in a case like this, which is more than the hon. Gentleman is prepared to do. As the right hon. Gentleman opposite says, the whole issue will be debated on another Bill later this Session.

I have, naturally, asked the Attorney-General what would be the position of Mr. Holland-Martin if, in the meantime, we left the Bill merely at the stage of having been read a Second time only. My right hon. and learned Friend advises me that he thinks that Mr. Holland-Martin is fully covered, the Second Reading having been given, but for further security he would have to advise the House, he now thinks, to insert in the Bill a retrospective Clause when we take the further stages of the Bill. That is something which the House is always very unwilling to do and, therefore, we are in that dilemma, but we will proceed on those lines. I think that it is a very great pity that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) did not take the advice of the deputy-leader of his party today, but as objection has been taken we certainly do not want to continue this debate one moment further.

Mr. Silverman

Do not be so provocative.

Mr. Crookshank

If it comes to provocation, I must say that the speech of the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne was a champion of that. I do not think that we shall need to discuss this matter any further. Therefore, I suggest that the Motion be withdrawn.

Mr. Robert Allan (Paddington, South)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Committee upon Tuesday 25th October.