§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Just over a year has elapsed since my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary moved the Second Reading of a Bill with the same Title as this one. On that occasion he acknowledged, and I would like to repeat that acknowledgment now, the debt of gratitude which we owe to the Herbert Committee of 1941, upon whose recommendations the first version of the Bill—and, indeed, much of the present version—was based.
The House will recall that the unusual step was taken of committing that Bill to a Select Committee of the House and, subject to a few points of detail to which I shall refer later, it is the Bill as reported by that Committee which is now before the House.
I am sure that the House would wish me to pay the warmest of tributes to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) who was Chairman of that Committee, and to the other right hon. and hon. Members who served with him on it. I feel sure that it will be agreed on both sides of the House that high praise and our gratitude are due to them for the care, patience and thoroughness with which they went about the very difficult task entrusted to them and that the present Bill, which is the product of their labour, is, in many respects, a marked improvement on its predecessor.
If I may speak for myself, my only regret is that there was not time for the Bill to be passed into law last Session. That this was not possible is, of course, no fault of the Select Committee. I should also like to say how much Her Majesty's Government appreciate the despatch with which the Select Committee completed its work.
As I have said, we have thought it right to reintroduce the Bill in almost the identical terms in which it was reported 1281 last July. There are a few very minor amendments, one example of which is the removal from Part II of the First Schedule of the references to the Road Haulage Disposal Board, which, as the House will remember, was abolished in August. At a later stage, we may wish to suggest a number of detailed Amendments for the consideration of the House, but I am happy to be able to say that Her Majesty's Government gladly accept all the main recommendations of the Select Committee.
The Bill now before the House differs in three important respects from the version which was submitted to the Committee last February and the version on which the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) did a great deal of work. It is right that I should say something about the three important respects in which this Bill differs.
The first and, perhaps, most important, of these is that the Bill substitutes a detailed list of individual disqualifying offices for the former reference topaid offices or places under the Crown".The object of this change is to avoid the sort of problem we have been so troubled with in recent years. It should now be possible for any Parliamentary candidate or Member to look at the list of disqualifying offices enacted in the Schedule and made available by virtue of Clause 5 (4) of the Bill and to see quite clearly whether he has incurred, or is likely to incur, disqualification by the acceptance of an office.
The list, as the House will see, will be kept up to date by Order in Council made in pursuance of a Resolution under Clause 5 of the Bill, and perhaps it will be for the convenience of the House if I explain now that we shall later wish to suggest Amendments designed to simplify and improve this Clause, a Clause which is, perhaps, open to certain criticisms in its present form. As it stands it would not permit the transfer of offices from one part of the First Schedule to another; nor would it permit any addition to the Schedule of any office now in suspense which is revived after the Bill becomes law.
As the Select Committee pointed out in its Report, under this Clause… substantive changes in the constitutional law of the country will be able to be effected without the need for a new statute.1282 The Government agree with the Select Committee, however, that, in the absence of any satisfactory alternative, the Bill must include some provision on these lines if we are to enjoy the manifest advantage of specifying the disqualifying offices, and we think that the provision whereby an affirmative Resolution of this House must precede any Order in Council will, in practice, constitute an adequate safeguard against improper changes of the constitutional position. It is for this reason that we shall later wish to suggest another Amendment, providing that all Orders in Council under the Clause shall be subject to affirmative Resolution procedure.
The House will also note that the Committee has recommended that in future the onus shall be placed on candidates of satisfying themselves before nomination that they are not subject to any disqualification. The relevant provision, the House will see, is in Clause 12 of the Bill.
I have spoken so far of the first important change, namely, the change to a list of disqualifying offices. The second important respect in which this Bill differs from the Bill introduced last Session is the repeal, without replacement, of the existing statutory disqualifications of certain contractors and pensioners. This is achieved by Clause 9 of the Bill. I think that the House will agree that this is a bold step.
Perhaps the House will allow me the indulgence of quoting from the Memorandum which I submitted to the Select Committee in which I described—I hope accurately—the provisions relating to contractors in the following terms:… the provisions are, in their present form, indefensible: their effect in law is obscure; and their effect in practice is both anomalous and absurd.The Government agree, therefore, with the Committee's dislike and rejection of the anomalous and archaic provisions of the present law, and we agree, too, with the Select Committee's conclusion that comprehensive provisions dealing with them would be both impracticable and unnecessary. The House will have seen from the evidence given to the Select Committee by the Clerk of the House that no case involving any sort of scandal in connection with a Government contract has, so far as is known, occurred during the last one hundred years, and that 1283 applies to all Crown contracts, whether they fell within the existing law or not
If that is so, surely this is a matter which the House can deal with itself, should any such scandal, which, in view of the past, is unlikely to arise, arise in future. I should like, therefore, to take this opportunity of saying that we accept the Select Committee's recommendations for reconsideration, with a view to early improvement, of the rules and practice of the House relating to the disclosure by hon. Members of any pecuniary interests when they are speaking or voting. The Select Committee drew attention to this, and we are now considering how best to give effect to its recommendation.
The third of the three important respects to which I referred is that the Bill no longer disqualifies members of the Reserve and Auxiliary Forces upon their embodiment or recall. We welcome this change for two reasons, both of them, the House may agree with me in hoping, theoretical reasons: the first, that it removes any possibility of abuse of the power of selective recall; the second, that it would leave membership of the House unaffected in the early stages of an emergency when Parliament would be particularly busy with such tasks as emergency legislation.
Before I turn to the other detailed provisions of the Bill I should like to say a few words about Clause 1 (4). This Clause embodies the recommendation of the Select Committee, expressed in paragraph 4 of its Report, that the Bill should not adopt what it called the reverse method of disqualification, that is to say, the provision, common in a large number of Acts of Parliament, disqualifying Members of this House from holding certain offices instead of disqualifying the holders of those offices from membership of this House.
We agree with the Committee's recommendation for a number of reasons. One of them is that if the disqualification attached to offices by definition instead of by name it would operate to nullify appointments made by virtue of the Royal Prerogative, for example, by a Royal charter constituting a new body corporate and making the first appointments of its officers.
That objection would not, of course, apply if the disqualification, the reverse 1284 disqualification, were effected, as it is in this Bill, by listing the offices concerned, but even so that system would be of only limited application. It could scarcely, for example, apply to a serving soldier since it would enable him to obtain his discharge by obtaining election to this House.
Perhaps a still more cogent argument against that suggestion is this, that it would make it impossible for this House to exercise its present jurisdiction to decide questions of disqualification. It is one thing for this House to say that one of its Members should be indemnified for acting as such. It is quite another thing for it to indemnify a man for his acts in the performance of functions outside the House; and if we adopt the system of reverse disqualification we could scarcely give the House a power of the kind conferred by Clause 6 (2) to waive the consequences of an inadvertent disqualification.
I must, however, make it clear that the Government, while accepting the Committee's rejection of reverse disqualification and the embodiment of its recommendation in Clause 1 (4), do not regard the British general, or that Clause in particular, as derogating from a Minister's right to exclude active supporters of political parties from appointments within his jurisdiction.
The Bill settles the question whether the holder of a particular office may properly sit as a Member of this House; it does not settle the question whether a Member of this House may properly hold an office, and any decision on an individual's suitability to hold a particular Crown post must clearly remain the responsibility of the Minister concerned, who must be free if he thinks fit to exclude anyone publicly known to be an active supporter of a political party. This object will be achieved in the ordinary case by making the original appointment to the office concerned conditional upon the holder offering his resignation on being nominated as a Parliamentary candidate.
Clauses 2 and 3 have been simplified as a result of the adoption of the list system. The House may wish to consider whether Clause 10 should be retained in its present form. It was included in the Bill introduced last Session because it was appropriate to the paid office provisions 1285 which have now been discarded. It was inserted by the Select Committee in the present Bill with a view to preventing the payment to Crown office holders of unreasonably generous expense allowances, but I submit to the House that it should perhaps consider whether it is really appropriate to include that Clause in the Bill in its present form as the Clause has no effect now, if the Bill is passed as it stands, on the question of disqualification.
The House will note that the Select Committee took the opportunity of making amendments to the Bill in what are now Clauses 7 and 15, on the lines suggested a year ago by my right hon. and gallant Friend, in order to remove any risk of conflict between the House and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council under Clause 7 and to bring the whole Bill into operation on the date of the Royal Assent.
Like the original Bill, this Bill is mainly concerned with disqualifications arising from the holding of public appointments. It does not extend to other disqualifications, such as those of aliens, bankrupts and minors. It is limited to those sources of disqualification which have proved most difficult and troublesome in practice to me as Attorney-General and to many of my predecessors and others, and particularly troublesome during the last ten years or so. I do not think it necessary to say any more in warmly commending the Bill to the House. I hope that its passage to the Statute Book will not be long delayed and when that is achieved we shall have done a great deal to clear up a very intricate and involved piece of law which has long required clarification.
§ 4.22 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
The reason for the Bill is the long-standing anxiety of the House to avoid two things. One is undue patronage and the other is incompatibility between membership of the House and the holding of other offices or the doing of other things, an incompatibility which may be an incompatibility of duty or the physical incompatibility of being unable to perform both functions properly. But the occasion of the Bill is, I think, a considerable number of cases in recent years where persons have been elected to membership of the House and have then been found to hold 1286 trivial offices which certainly involved no public mischief as a result of their election, but which were in fact such as to disqualify them.
The question whether offices of that kind disqualified them has often proved to be a difficult one. If it was answered in the affirmative the result has had to be proceedings of a Select Committee and of the House with which, unfortunately, by now we are only too well acquainted. The substance of the matter in every recent case has been that there was really no conceivable public mischief in the instance involved. To take one case from the other side of the House, I well remember an hon. Member who had become an auditor under the Treasury for a perfectly good charitable purpose, and received a nominal fee, far less than the charitable work he was doing, and had to be indemnified on that account.
It is because of the existence of that kind of case and the quite frequent occurrence of it that I am sure we shall all welcome the provision in the Bill, following the views of the Select Committee on this matter, to have a list instead of the type of general definition which formerly existed concurrently with the list and gave rise to most of the trouble in these cases.
It is hound to be a long list, of course, but, at any rate, it is something that a candidate can read and can see quite easily whether or not he comes within it. I cannot regard it as unreasonable that he should be compelled to do that since for a long time those who stand for local government offices have been compelled to declare, even without the existence of a list, that they were qualified to stand and accept the office. We are doing no more, though within a larger field, than has been the practice with local government elections for some time. I am sure that every right hon. and hon. Member would feel that it was a much better alternative to have to read a list carefully and satisfy themselves on that, than to have to incur the risks so often incurred in the past, sometimes with the unfortunate consequences that I have mentioned.
The second major change, to which the Attorney-General referred, was the question of reverse disqualification, as the Select Committee called it. I was a member of that Select Committee and I 1287 have been refreshing my memory by looking through its Report and its proceedings. It is quite true that on this particular question there was a difference of opinion in the Committee, and it so happened that the members of the Committee who sit on this side of the House differed from members of the Committee who sit on the other side of the House. Nevertheless, though, no doubt, principles can be found in it, I feel that in the last analysis this is really a question of convenience of practice.
There are, no doubt, considerations of principle both ways, and there are conveniences and inconveniences of practice both ways but, as the Select Committee's Report states, this was very fully discussed by the Committee. I am not sure that it was not more fully discussed than any other question, with the possible exception of one to which I shall refer in a moment.
Certainly, a conclusion was reached, and we on this side of the House would certainly not regard the difference of opinion which arose on that occasion as a reason for dividing against the Bill. Perhaps I am speaking to some extent for myself in this, but I do not regard the distinction between the two methods as substantially more than a question of convenient practice. I agree, however, that arguments of principle can be adduced on both sides, and no doubt some of my hon. and right hon. Friends may well wish to adduce them on this occasion.
I assure the House that I shall not take long on this subject, because the general matter has been discussed before, but the third point to which I should like to refer is the question of contracts and the quite minor question of pensions. What happened about pensions was that on the evidence it became quite clear that we were dealing in this respect with a very limited class of quite small pensions and there was no possibility of mischief and remarkably little possibility of the question ever arising in practice. It was a quite minor matter.
Contracts, of course, raise serious questions, and I am well aware that there are differences of opinion on this matter. I state my own opinion in these terms: I, personally, regard the existing provisions as to disqualification on grounds of contract as, to take the words of the right 1288 hon. and learned Gentleman himself, anomalous, indefensible and, I think he said, absurd.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I would accept all that. They arose, as the epithet "archaic" implies, from particular scandals in the eighteenth century, and the Bill which started them was called the Contractors Bill.
We have discussed all that before on the previous Bill, so I will not repeat it, but matters have now reached the absurd position that, under the law, an atomic energy station can be built by contract for the Government and—if one may take an absurdly extreme case for the sake of illustration—a single hon. Member of this House might contract to do that and not be disqualified. Yet, if he provided £110 worth of bricks to build it, or furniture to put into it, he would be disqualified. That cannot be right and the distinction arises out of the difference between the sale of goods—I think the phrase is "the sale of wares" in the old legislation—and services rendered in some form or another.
Now, services rendered are at present not covered, and considerable anxiety has been felt by some of my hon. Friends about the possibilities that this opens. They have directed their particular attention to the legal profession, of which I remain proud to be a member. At the same time, lawyers are not entitled to any particular advantages nor, on the other hand, should they be subject to any particular disabilities. The professional difficulty is, of course, notionally the same as the rather absurd and extreme instance I have just taken, that a man being a Member of this House might act as a lawyer occasion by occasion but not as standing counsel for the Government. Or a man might act as a consulting architect, or in some other professional capacity, and not thereby be disqualified.
I was much impressed on the merits of the matter by two things that emerged during the evidence given before the Select Committee. One the right hon. and learned Gentleman has already referred to, the complete absence of any occasion during the last century on which this question arose or could possibly have arisen or was supposed to arise. The second was in particular relation to the question of Crown briefs. I hope that 1289 the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not mind my mentioning his own evidence, in page 89 of the Report of the Select Committee, which gave the exact figures of the number of Crown briefs allotted to Members of this House over a considerable period. The proportion was very small, and further figures showed that, as between the hon. and learned Members who sit on one side of the House and the other, there was clearly no discrimination.
We would all accept not only the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but also his predecessors in office, as scrupulously honest in a matter of this kind. I do not expect that it even occurs to them on which side of the House a Member is sitting but, be that as it may, it is always better for the benefit of the outside world that figures should be given and should support that contention in what seems to me to be an almost irrefutable form. That, however, is my own personal opinion, and some of my hon. Friends or hon. Gentlemen opposite may wish to indulge in the national sport of having a crack at the lawyers. There is something to he said for it. It has its advantages as well as disadvantages and it is always great fun, I hope, on both sides.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
It is, of course, always much more financially rewarding for the lawyers than for those who chase them.
§ Mr. Mitchison
Not in this House, I think, and it was this House that I had in mind for the moment. Perhaps we shall be sitting in Committee later.
I turn for a minute to what I mentioned just now, to what seems to me to be the very serious side of contract; that is, that we are removing existing prohibitions. They may be anomalous and indefensible, but we are putting nothing in their place. That disturbs me, because if it were possible to substitute something practicable, I should dearly like to do it; not because of the existence or of the likely existence of any scandal in the matter. I do not believe that there has been any scandal within reasonable memory—a hundred years or so—or that there is likely to be any, but because I am very anxious—and I am sure every right hon. and hon. Member of the House is equally anxious—that we should not appear to people who do not know an 1290 enormous amount about these somewhat technical questions—and I mean people both at home and abroad—to be opening the door to any possibility of undue patronage or to any possibility of the votes of Members of this House being influenced in that way.
I think that I can speak for all the members of the Select Committee in saying that, because of this anxiety, they searched their individual minds and consciences for a long time as to whether anything practicable could be done, not principally by way of an actual safeguard, but so as to make it quite clear what is the attitude of the House in a matter of this kind and, I repeat, to make it clear both at home and abroad. We failed to find any practicable alternative. I myself put forward an alternative of disclosure. It met with singularly little support from the rest of the Committee and I appreciate fully the strength of the objections which were raised to it. They were based mainly on the ground that it really did not do very much at the end of it all.
Be that as it may, that is a point which we shall be able to consider in Committee. If any right hon. or hon. Member of the House could suggest anything really practicable on these lines, and anything that would be fair as between one case and another in accordance with the general principles that we all have in mind, I am certain that I carry the Attorney-General with me in saying that we should all look at it with the closest attention, and sympathetically. So far, in my view, a suggestion of that kind has not emerged, though many other suggestions have been made.
I welcome most sincerely the corollary to what has been done about contracts; that is to say, the Government's acceptance of the recommendations of the Select Committee in connection with disclosure in this House. I will not go into that question now—it is hardly before us at the moment—and I think it sufficient to say that the Committee were, according to paragraph 7, in page lxvi of the Report, not altogether satisfied that the rules and practice as to disclosure were up to date, comprehensive and clear. I cordially agree with that opinion. While, again, I do not believe that there is or has been for a century any scandal in this matter, I think it most advisable that the rules should be made up to date, 1291 comprehensive and clear, and that, where there is any doubt on the matter, we should lean on the side of disclosure rather than on the side of non-disclosure.
What struck me as significant was that, as I understood the rules and practice, the practice had gone far beyond the rules, because hon. Members themselves felt an obligation to disclose in cases where, if they had looked at the matter closely, they might well have come to the conclusion that they were under no strict obligation to do so at all. I feel certain that, there again, I should carry with me the right hon. and learned Gentleman in saying that the bias ought to be that way, and that it is, if I might pat ourselves on the back for a minute, a testimony to the feeling of the House that hon. Members have so carried it out.
Therefore, the substance of what I have to say today is that there are vary real points upon which individual opinions in the House will no doubt differ, particularly in connection with contracts—I include Crown briefs for this purpose—and perhaps also in connection with the question of reversed disqualification. However, my hon. Friends and I do not regard that second question as a sufficient reason for disputing the giving of a Second Reading to the Bill. As regards contracts and the other minor matters to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred, I understand that the Committee stage of the Bill will take place on the Floor of the House. Accordingly, those matters can be dealt with by right hon. and hon. Members by Amendments and otherwise during the course of those proceedings.
I hope that in those circumstances we may be able to dispose of this very important Bill with reasonable dispatch today. I trust that I myself shave not taken up too much of the time of the House.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)
I regret that more interest is not taken by hon. Members in this very important Bill. If one looks round the Chamber, one finds that the interest is very largely confined to those of us who sat upon the Select Committee. It is true that the Bill, as drafted, re-enacts to a very large extent the law as it is at present and as it has been for many generations, but it concerns a matter of great principle, namely, 1292 the membership of this House and its composition, and I should have expected much more interest to be taken in it than apparently is taken in it judging by the attendance.
I want, shortly, to raise a point referred to by the Attorney-General and by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), namely, which is the right approach to this question. I raise it shortly for two reasons. First, I realise that we want to finish the debate fairly quickly because of the very important one which is to succeed it secondly, it is no good shutting my eyes to the fact that at present it looks to me as if I am alone in strenuously maintaining the position which I held before the Select Committee, which is that the reverse proposal is the preferable one.
There is one objection that I have to what was said by the hon. and learned Member. He seemed to think that this was a question which could be reduced to a convenience of practice. I do not think so at all. It goes much deeper than that. It is necessary to look at the origin of all this.
It began when the parties were not divided as we are today and as we have been for practically a couple of centuries. It arose in the days when there were the Monarch's Party, or the King's Party, and those who did not belong to the King's Party. Those who did not belong became frightened that in the course of time they would be in a complete minority and the House would be merely a register of the desires and wishes of the monarch of the time. That being so, they initiated, and succeeded in getting on the Statute Book, the Act of Queen Anne, by which persons holding certain offices were disqualified from being Members of the House. They realised that they had gone too far so far as old offices were concerned and that they were excluding even Ministers and would have spoilt the whole composition of the House and altered our whole Constitution, and they amended it. However, in the main, it has continued down to this day.
What does that really mean? It is that the House is subordinated to the office. The office is more important than membership of this House. I, on the other hand, take the exact contrary view. To my mind, this House is not only the most 1293 important institution in this country, but the most important institution in the democratic world. If his House fails, then democracy fails, and the question whether this House succeeds or fails will depend largely upon the quality of its membership. Therefore, it ought to be drawing its membership from the very widest possible area. The House always gains by the experience that individual Members have had in such offices as they have held, or such work as they have been engaged in before they entered the House, or during the time they have been in the House.
That being so. I should have thought that the right approach to this was that membership of the House was the important matter, and if perchance it was felt that the holding of a particular office was incompatible with membership of the House, then it ought not to be the membership that goes, as it will be going and as it has been going. It is the office which should go. The office should be subordinate and not the membership. A Member holding an office or being offered an office which is incompatible with his membership of the House would at once realise that he could not hold that office, but could remain here and be a Member of the House.
Moreover, I should have thought that the Member himself would recognise that. A Member knows the tremendous amount of work which is put in by those who hold the same opinions as he does, and he knows the loyalty which they show towards him. When a man is offered two positions, membership of this House or an office which will be of assistance to himself, he should choose the office and reject the greatest honour that can be paid to a man, namely, that of being elected by his fellow citizens as a Member of the House of Commons.
It was for that reason, therefore, that I put forward an alternative, with the strong support of right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House—and I thought at one time that I also had with me some of the Members who sit on the other side of the House. We felt so strongly about it that everyone agreed that we should assist by getting a Bill framed in the alternative. That was produced to us, and it is well worth the study of hon. Members so that they can see that it is possible to draft that Bill and, in fact, to work it just as simply as the Bill now being presented 1294 to us. It will be found in the first appendix printed immediately after the Select Committee's Report. There it is—a full Bill with all the Schedules and everything else.
May I, therefore, as I have said that I will be very brief, refer to the two matters of objection which were put forward by the Attorney-General, namely, the Royal Prerogative and that those who were appointed to offices by Royal Prerogative would find themselves in a difficulty. The Attorney-General himself provided the answer immediately. There is no difficulty whasoever in putting those offices which are subject to the Royal Prerogative in the Schedule in just the same way as we have already a schedule which includes, for instance, Her Majesty's judges. The other objection, that it would be depriving the House of its power over its composition and depriving it of its control over individual Members, really surprised me.
I should have thought that by this time even the House itself would realise the value of putting the composition clearly in the written constitution of an Act of Parliament and of allowing any question that arose of interpretation of that Act to be settled by Her Majesty's courts of justice.
I would remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman of the troubles which the House got into when it thought that it ought to be controlling the question of who is elected to this House and trying election petitions; but at least we had the wisdom to say that that was sheer nonsense and passed an Act of Parliament that allowed that question to be decided by the courts of justice. In the same way, it would be perfectly easy for any question arising whether a man can take an office, or whether he is to be deprived of the office, to be settled by the courts of justice. That is the point. I think that it is a sound one. I deeply regret that my colleagues did not take the same view.
While I am on that matter, may I take this opportunity, on behalf of all of us, of adding to the tribute that has been paid by the Attorney-General to the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kensington, South (Sir W. Spens), who was indefatigable and spared no pains in bringing this matter to a conclusion.
1295 There is the principle, and it was for the reason that it could be put in that way that I, as can be seen in the Report which is set out in the appendix and in page lxvii, moved the Amendment. I moved it in the most general terms so as not to take up the time of my colleagues by going into all the details once again. I think that it was better; although I realise that if I had carried it, we would then have had to go into a considerable amount of detail and get a great number of matters changed. I thought it best, so as to bring it to the attention of the House and focus attention on this, to put it in that shortened form.
It is for that reason that I deeply regret that more support has not been given to what I consider is the true principle, namely, that this House, especially at a time like this, when democracy is on its trial, should not be attracting the best Members it possibly can from every part of the country. That office should be taking the premier position over membership of this House is, to me, the wrong principle of approach.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)
Although last Session a Bill with a similar Title to the present one received an unopposed Second Reading, I think that there is quite a considerable body of opinion which is inclined to think that it may well be possible to get rid of disqualification altogether; indeed, I myself thought that that was the view of the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies). I thought that that was included in his draft Special Report to which he has just referred. Be that as it may, although I think that all of us have a great deal of sympathy with that view, we cannot bring ourselves to accept that logical conclusion.
We can say, of course, that if membership of Parliament adversely affects a person's performance of his duties in some other post, then the right remedy is to dismiss him or to release him from that post, or simply to refrain from appointing him to it. Conversely, if a Member of Parliament fails in his duties as such because of his other work, or if he is deflected from the disinterested performance of his duties by consideration of what is generally known as patronage, then the remedy should lie 1296 with his constituents. They can refrain from re-electing him.
No doubt these considerations are generally true but they are not universally true, and in constitutional matters it is the exceptions which are usually the most important. For example, if an official who had fallen foul of his superiors sought to enter Parliament, it might be extremely difficult to dismiss him, it might be over some controversial question, and allegations of penalisation might quite easily be made. I do not say that he would not be dismissed but it would give rise to difficulties of a sort which we should all deprecate. Again, all constituents are not always proof against electing weak and undesirable candidates. Unfortunately, nowadays, the personal character of a candidate counts for much too little in elections. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree with that proposition. Therefore, it is necessary for us to preserve some part of the law of disqualification. The principle has to be retained. That is what this Bill does.
As has been said, the Bill differs from its previous form in substituting a precise list of disqualifying offices for a general definition of such offices which was contained in the Third Schedule of the original Bill. However, it is still true that the list is founded upon certain general principles. Indeed, a great deal of the time of the Select Committee was necessarily involved in discussing what should or should not be included in the list in the light of what we thought those principles should be. Reference to the principles is made in page lxiv of the Committee's Report:… Your Committee have recognised that certain offices are incompatible with membership of the House of Commons, sometimes for physical reasons, in cases where a person literally cannot be in two places at once, and sometimes because of a conflict of duties.That definition is somewhat vague and somewhat incomplete.
We certainly had other considerations when we came to formulate what is now the First Schedule to the Bill. It does not very much matter what is said in the Report itself because we have produced the Schedule and it is the Schedule which we have to approve or disapprove. However, the principle on which that Schedule was drawn up will be of the greatest importance to Clause 5.
1297 As the House knows, it is Clause 5 which provides for the amendment of the Schedule and that amendment can be made by a simple Resolution of the House of Commons. I was glad to hear the Attorney-General say that he intended to propose certain Amendments. Even so, it will still remain possible, without legislation and merely by the use of Resolutions, to amend the law so that any office under the Crown can be made to disqualify the holder from membership of the House.
Of course, the expression "Office under the Crown" is nowhere defined and, as we know from past experience, is capable of very wide definition. Therefore the power to amend a part of the Constitution by Resolution will be very wide indeed. It is a power not only to disqualify, but to qualify, because under Clause 5 it will be equally possible to take certain offices out of the Schedule; in other words, to qualify for membership of the House those who would now be disqualified if the Bill became law immediately.
I am in no sense criticising the machinery of Clause 5. That sort of machinery is absolutely essential if we are to proceed by way of a precise list and not as originally proposed in the Bill introduced last Session. I am sure that that is right. I am saying that it is of the utmost importance that we should be quite clear what will be the principles in accordance with which that machinery will be applied.
That machinery will not be for occasional use, but something which is constantly used. Nowadays we constantly see a multiplication of State activity and, whichever party is in power, we shall see a continuation of that sort of activity, a continuation of the creation of offices which it may be desirable to make offices which disqualify the holder from membership of Parliament. No doubt after Clause 5 has been used a number of times, a certain case law will be built up, but it is of great importance that when we begin to operate the Clause and begin to build up the case law, we should be clear that it is laid on firm foundations.
It was for that reason I moved an Amendment to the Report which is set out in page lxviii. The Amendment would have read: 1298borne in mind four general considerations, namely:—That, of course, refers primarily to judicial offices:
- (1) that the duties falling to be performed by the holders of certain offices or appointments are incompatible with participation in active politics because the holders ought to be free from any suspicion of bias or prejudice;".(2) that the duties falling to be performed by the holders of certain offices or appointments demand such a degree of responsibility for decisions on matters of public policy that., if such holders sat in the House of Commons, they would be in an embarrassing position vis-à-vis the responsible ministers,—that refers primarily to civil servants and to holders of offices in national boards, etc.—(3) that the holders of certain offices or appointments may be required to perform duties which are incompatible, as regards either time or place or both, with membership of the House of Commons.The obvious example is a Regular soldier, someone serving in the forces:(4) that the power of financial patronage on the part of the Executive, even though not abused, is capable of placing members tinder undue or unfair influence.One or more of these considerations is generally present in the case of any public office or appointment, but Your Committee has nevertheless not thought it necessary that the holder should be disqualified in every case: the criterion which they have applied is whether or not there is a substantial degree of incompatability in each case having regard to all the above considerations.I have read the Amendment to the House because it is of the highest importance that the House should have in mind that there are definite principles which must he applied, and that it is not open and should not be open to pick and choose these offices as we please. If we do, in time no doubt the tendency will be to warp the Constitution in just the kind of way which the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery fears.
The Committee itself preferred more general words. I think that it is true to say that it did not reject my Amendment because of what it contained. I hope that when the Government come to take the initiative in formulating their policy about Clause 5, they will either accept some such principles as I have stated, or, if not, will themselves formulate principles and firmly adhere to them.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
I hope that the speeches will not be confined to members of the Select Committee. I therefore apologise for following two other members of the Committee.
First I would join with the Attorney-General and the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) in saying how much the Committee owed to the self-sacrificing work of its Chairman, who must have given up an enormous amount of time in getting some of these issues put before us so simply that we could deal with them with reasonable dispatch, long as was the time that we took. I very much doubt if we could have completed the job during the last Session unless we had had the great advantage of his assistance in that way.
I differed on a great many points from the decisions of the Committee, and mainly on the question of contracts. May I follow the bad example of the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) by reading an Amendment that I moved, and which will be found on page 1xx of the Report of the Select Committee? I voted against the deletion of the original Clause dealing with contracts, and was the only member of the Committee who did so. I thought that if we left it in, the Government might be compelled to face the issue, whereas by leaving it out and apparently saying that it did not matter, we relieved the Government of the responsibility.
I moved an Amendment to paragraph 6 of the Chairman's Report, and was supported in doing so by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles), in the following terms:Nevertheless, the high reputation at home and abroad of the House of Commons for disinterestedness and incorruptibility ought not be put in jeopardy by the seeming indifference to dangers that complete silence in the future law with regard to contracts between the Government and government departments and members might he taken to imply. In the event of the repeal of the existing archaic and anomalous law being enacted, Your Committee recommend that the immediate attention of the House should be given to the framing of legislation to deal (in the light of modern commercial, trade and professional conditions and practices) with the situation thus created.I understand that the Government propose to go some part of the way to meeting the points raised there by alterations of the rules and customs of the House 1300 with regard to disclosure. I am not quite sure how to deal with the customs of the House.
During a short stay in America I was struck by the number of occasions on which people interested in public affairs referred, without any inquiry on my part, to what they regarded as the superior standards of this country in the matter of incorruptibility in public affairs, compared with what prevails over there. For instance, there has recently been elected to the State Legislature of Massachusetts a gentleman who, during his previous term of office in that State Legislature, was convicted of making out false Income Tax returns. I am sure that the standards obtaining here would have meant that not only would this House have regarded him as unsuitable but that any constituency would have regarded him as unsuitable to stand for election again.
This standard that we have maintained can quite easily be lowered, in the altered circumstances that arise through the creation of joint stock companies and similar arrangements. One of the weak features of the previous Bill was the way in which it would have been easy by evasion, and by the formation of companies in which a person would not have a controlling interest but would be very near to having it, through quite obvious devices, to drive not merely a coach-and-four but a modern express train through the Bill in regard to this matter.
I hope that the Government will have some regard for this matter. I welcome the fact that they have gone a little further than the Committee, and that they propose to bring something before the House which will have regard to the altered circumstances of the House when the old law of contracts, ridiculous and anomalous as it was, will no longer be part of our statute law.
I hope that when a case of suspicious conduct by an hon. Member is brought before the House it will be possible for something other than discussion to take place, something more definite than anything which appears likely at the moment. Merely to discuss a particular contract and a particular Member seems, in the light of the circumstances of the day, to open up an endless possibility of Select Committee inquiries into the conduct of Members, the kind of Committee that 1301 sat, let us say, to consider the Marconi allegations a good many years ago. In the end it certainly did not reflect any great credit on the House, because it was suggested that one lawyer on the Committee was briefed by some of the people whose conduct was under investigation. I hope that there will be something that will enable such a matter to be decided not by a Select Committee of this House but by the courts, for the reason that was given by the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery with regard to the old practice of election petition.
I am strongly in favour of what is known as the reverse disqualification. I do not intend to labour this at any length because my views were admirably and succinctly stated by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I know there was some feeling among the lawyers, although it was not shared by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that we might have the case of a High Court judge being returned to this House as a Member without anybody having noticed it—neither his electors, the Government or the judiciary. He might go on sentencing people to death and dealing with highly complicated contracts in civil law for a couple of years before it was discovered that he was a judge of the High Court who had been accidentally elected to Parliament. That seems to be stretching matters a very long way.
There might be cases of minor posts held by people dealing with, say, unemployment benefit, but I am certain that the resources of civilisation are sufficient to enable such an unusual state of affairs to be dealt with. The list should be available and will be available in Government Departments. If they found that a candidate for Parliament on their list of members of any semi-official committee had failed to read the list, one could expect that either before the Election they would see the list of candidates, or certainly upon the Election the person concerned would be informed, if the reverse disqualification existed, that he had ceased to hold office because it was the subject of reverse disqualification.
I sincerely hope that during the Committee stage we may be able to get this matter dealt with. After all, the Chairman's Report was carried only by three votes to two against the Report of my 1302 right hon. and learned Friend, and he and I were the two who so voted. I do not want to make any comparisons with other people, but it seems to me that in a case, where two Privy Councillors, not necessarily always in agreement, came down on one side, their opinion might be given a little weight when it comes to a discussion in the House.
As one who has had to deal, in one way or another and on one side of the House or the other, with a good many of these cases in recent years, may I say that I hope that this will mean the end of the petty annoyances which good citizens elected to this House have had to endure in recent years because of their discharge of some public duty which did not appear to be in any way detrimental to their office as a Member of this House. I trust that before Elections. Members of Parliament, candidates and party agents will examine the list, and the positions occupied by people who are candidates.
I proposed the Clause which had been put down by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) relating to lawyers. I listened to what was said about that proposal by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr., Mitchison). I remain quite unabashed by what he said. It is a good thing for a dog to have fleas, because it enables the, animal occasionally to forget that he is a dog. I hope that when on occasions lawyers in this House are subjected to criticism from those of us who are not lawyers, they will realise that criticising lawyers is not so much a national sport as a national duty, and that it will give them an opportunity to remember that they are very much of the same flesh as the rest of us. I still think that my hon. Friend's Clause was sound, and should the opportunity occur, I hope to join my name with his and put it down again for consideration during the Committee stage discussions.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)
I wish to associate myself with the congratulations extended to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) on the way in which he presided over the Select Committee. Apart from the one particular issue which has been discussed, the question of the 1303 reverse disqualification, the voting was always across the floor. On no other occasion was voting on party lines; for that Committee was dealing with House of Commons problems. Party considerations did not enter into the discussions at all. Their successful outcome owed a great deal to the chairmanship of the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
As a Member of the Select Committee, I certainly say that this Bill is a much better Measure than the one which was before the House last Session. It has been enormously improved as the result of the Committee discussions. We tried to make the position of the law as clear as possible to anybody desiring to stand for Parliament, and in doing that we also trial to remove as many disqualifications as we could. We used a toothcomb in going through all the possible jobs which might lead to disqualification and we cut out as many as we could. I am certain that was the right way to approach the matter. We endeavoured to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to enter the House of Commons, and to remove any troublesome disqualifications which might prevent them from doing that.
I do not consider, however, that we have done all that is required to be done. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) said that he would like to see as many people as possible in the House of Commons from the whole range of the nation, and that they should be disqualified only if there existed a special reason for that being done. We have tackled that problem in part but there are two points which at some time will have to be faced and which have not been dealt with in this Bill.
I wish to refer first to that hoary question of payment of Members. If we are to have the use of all the talent available in the nation the problem of a satisfactory payment to Members must be resolved. Secondly, it should be made as easy as possible for individuals working for private firms to be able to become candidates for Parliament without there being an undue number of obstacles placed in their way. I suggest that sooner or later some kind of code must be drawn up and operated; that all firms employ- 1304 ing, shall we say., more than 500 people should enable their employees to stand for Parliament and be able to get their jobs back if they are defeated at a subsequent Election.
I do not think that in the case of small firms we could insist on such an obligation, but I consider that the general practice now observed by local authorities like the London County Council and organisations like British Railways should become general. They, allow people to stand for Parliament and as their normal turnover of staff is large they can make arrangements to take them back again into employment if they are defeated in an Election. I think that some such code should be drawn up for this purpose similar to that which obtains in regard to National Service at present. It should be accepted by industry as a whole and thus enable ordinary men and women wishing to take part in public life to be in a position to do so without detriment to their normal career.
There are two small points which are not dealt with in this Measure but which will have to be dealt with at some time. I am sorry that the Committee did not deal with them. One is that the opportunity should be given to persons succeeding to a peerage to be able to continue to sit as Members of this House, if they so wish. That problem does not arise very often, although there have been one or two occasions recently when it has done. It may arise again in the future, and I think that there should have been a Clause included in the Bill to enable Peers to renounce their right to sit in the House of Lords and to retain their seats in this House, if they so desire.
In the Committee I raised the point about the need to clear away the anomalies regarding clergymen becoming Members of Parliament, and I wish to refer to it again today. I note that the Manchester Guardian, in reviewing our Report, took the point of view that it was a pity that we had not cleared up this matter. I am not enthusiastic about the election of a large number of clergy as Members of this House, but if those of some denominations can become Members I think that the opportunity should be given to all. There exist anomalies in this matter in our present law, particularly with regard to the Church of England. It is in order for 1305 an Anglican clergyman in Wales to be elected to this House but he cannot be elected if he holds a benefice in this country, or in Northern Ireland, or, apparently, in Scotland.
Under the Welsh Disestablishment Act it is in order for an Anglican clergyman to take a curacy in Wales for a few months and then to be elected as a Member of this House, so that an Anglican clergyman can get round the law, if he wishes to do so. Owing to an oversight on the part of Gladstone, when the Irish Church was disestablished Parliament did not remove the disqualification against Anglican clergymen of the Church of Ireland being elected Members of this House. The position would be very awkward if an Anglican clergyman holding a benefice in Southern Ireland were suddenly to be elected to this House.
An ordinary citizen of the Republic of Ireland can vote in this country and can sit in this House if he happens to he elected, but what is the position of an Anglican clergyman from Southern Ireland? We had a recent decision in the MacManaway case. From that we know that a clergyman holding a benefice in Northern Ireland cannot sit here, but we might well have difficulty in the case of a clergyman from Southern Ireland. The disqualification of clergy of the Roman Church is a hang-over from the anti-Catholic legislation of the past. I suggest that it is a great pity that we did not take the opportunity to sweep away all these anomalies at this time when we are removing others, especially as, when we had a special inquiry in the MacManaway case, it was laid down in the Report on that case that it was desirable not to deal with it as a special case but that it should wait over until the law as a whole was revised. Therefore, when we looked at the law as a whole, we ought to have dealt with these anomalies. I hope that the Government will treat these matters sympathetically if they are raised in Committee.
In conclusion, I wish to say that I consider that the Bill is a very big improvement, and I hope that it will speedily be put on the Statute Book.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
I apologise for addressing the House, especially as I am not a Privy Councillor, not a 1306 member of the Select Committee and not a lawyer. I feel that it is almost out of order for me to venture to speak, but I have some responsibility for the Bill.
I did not intend to speak until I heard the Attorney-General mention the word "principle". When I heard him mention that word it brought back to my mind the circumstances in which the Bill came into being. On 22nd July, 1955, a Friday be it noted, the House of Commons Disqualification Bill was put down as the second Order, and it was the intention of the Government—and may I say their hope—that the Bill should slip through "on the nod".
Despite protests through what are called the usual channels, the Government, so high was their regard for principle in the composition of the House of Commons, persisted in the attempt to get the Bill through by those dubious underground methods. But, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, there are ways, and the ways were exercised, and the Government did not get their Bill "on the nod". On 9th November, 1955, they were forced to do what they ought to have done in the first instance. They were forced to have a full-dress debate on the principles upon which the Bill is based.
We had that debate, and subsequently the Government discovered that there was even more in the matter than they thought. Indeed, sonic hon. Members opposite discovered that it was a Bill of high constitutional importance. They did not think so on 22nd July, but by 9th November they had become converted to the fact that this was a matter of high constitutional importance. I will not quote what they said, but their names and statements are to be found in the OFFICIAL REPORT.
We had a full-dress debate, and the Bill was going forward to the Committee stage, when the Government found that that stage was likely to be rather prolonged. It became inconvenient, judged from the point of view of Parliamentary time, so they remitted the Bill to the Select Committee. Now it has come back and, without a word about the past history, the Attorney-General gets up, pats himself on the back and says that this is a better Bill than the one that first saw the light of day on 22nd July. Of course it is, but that is not due to hon. and right hon. Members opposite; it is due to me.
1307 If I had my way the next edition of the Bill would be even better than this one, because I do not think very much of this.
I looked at the composition of the Select Committee. Of course, it would be grossly out of order for me to comment on the composition of the Select Committee, but if it is a national sport to chase lawyers I would say that a lot of lawyers were run to ground on that Committee. They were there in full force. I do not mind if every lawyer in the House earning £10,000, £15,000 or £30,000 a year has all the preferment he wants. The Attorney-General, the Home Office and all the Government Departments can give every lawyer every brief he wants. All I say is that if they have all this preferment the public should know. Contracts can be given to any of these hon. Gentlemen so long as it is known. Then the public can choose.
What I object to is the giving to hon. Members of this House of recorderships which enable them to deprive other citizens of their liberty, when hon. Members know in their heart of hearts that the persons who have been given these jobs are quite unfitted for the posts. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I said it on the Second Reading of the previous Bill, and I repeat it now. It would be unfair for me to mention names, but there are hon. Gentlemen who hold recorderships which I assert they would never have got had they not been Members of the House of Commons, yet these recorderships enable them to deprive other men of their liberty. To apply my standard of judgment, I would not make them unpaid lance-corporals. That is what I think of them.
It is quite wrong that membership of the House of Commons should give to one particular class—the lawyers—recorderships which they would never have got had they not been Members, because obviously it is testing human nature to the very breaking point. Do hon. Members think that in the course of the history of this House of Commons there have not been hon. Members whose voices have not been muted, whose opinions have not been influenced, by the thought that one day if they kept quiet they would get a Government brief?
Let me give the example of one of my friends—I use the word "friend" in an unparliamentary but in a very sincere 1308 sense. I refer to Mr. Geoffrey Bing. How many briefs did he get when he was a Member of this House? Any? Yes, he got one in the MacManaway case. They could not help that; but was that because Mr. Geoffrey Bing was not a good lawyer? Of course it was not. He happened to be awkward, so he did not get any jobs. That is the kind of influence to which I object.
I object even more to this fantastic, hyprocritical use of the word "principle." Let us look again at the question of the clergymen. What principle is involved there? It may be said that way back in antiquity there was some principle known to our forefathers which made them decide, in their wisdom, that it would be improper for clergymen of the Church of England to sit in this House. What are the facts? I beg the pardon of the House, because I propose to quote from a speech which I made myself. On a previous occasion I said that:In 1801. the Government of the day under Prime Minister Addington was most anxious, in his own words, not to 'diminish the purity and impart the independence of the House of Commons'."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th November, 1955; Vol. 545, c. 1897.]So he came to the House of Commons and got a Resolution through to upset the election of the well-known Radical, the Rev. Horne Tooke, who had been elected for Old Sarum. He got him disqualified because he did not want him in the House of Commons, and only for that reason. I hold no brief for the Rev. Horne Tooke or the Rev. Tookes of the present day. I want to see in the House of Commons not "yes men", but men of strong opinion. If clergymen can persuade a sufficient number of the electorate to send them here, the House of Commons should have as many Church of England clergymen or any other kind of clergyman as are sent. But if we keep them out, let us not say that we are acting in the name of principle merely because we have not got the guts or because it is inconvenient to make the alteration.
Look at the hypocrisy involved in this. At the other end of the corridor legislation is carried out and influenced by the bench of bishops, so obviously there is nothing against Anglican clergymen as such. But, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), it does not make it right that because bishops should sit there Anglican clergymen should come here. But if Anglican 1309 clergy cannot come here bishops should not sit there. All I am saying is that it is rather straining logic or integrity to argue that it is some great principle which keeps Anglican clergy out of the House.
I want to see a House of Commons which is vigorous, which reflects the life of the nation, and which is in no sense a collection of "yes men". I do not indulge in the national sport of chasing lawyers, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) puts it. I do not value lawyers enough to treat them as an object of sport. They have their place in their offices, or even on the bench, and they can indulge in honest toil, letting the six-and-eightpences roll in. But I object to a House of Commons organised to suit the convenience of the legal profession. I should be out of order to go into this matter in detail now, but before many weeks are out I hope to seek an opportunity of describing, perhaps not in the House of Commons but in Committee, the way in which the new pension schemes have worked out as a result of the concessions made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I shall show how they have worked out for members of the legal profession—the schemes themselves owe their origin to a deputation from the legal profession—and how they have worked out for the rest of the community.
I charge nobody with doing these things consciously, but after a while they assume a certain pattern, and the Bill, if it does nothing more, illustrates an opportunity which has been lost to the House of Commons of taking steps which would bring some fresh air into the Chamber and tap new sources of membership, rather than depend upon the old ways.
There was an attempt to slip the Bill through, but it did not come off. We now have the testimony of the Attorney-General that it is a better Bill for that. There is no pressing need for the Bill, because it does not operate in this Parliament. Both sides of the House could have waited, and we could have had a full day in which to debate it. To that extent the Government are doing what people often do when in difficulties, namely, rely upon the decency of hon. Members not to filibuster or drag out the proceedings, because many hon. Members want to speak on the debate on 1310 Hungary which follows. Perhaps I can pat myself on the back in that respect.
I notice that the Government have once again used a Parliamentary device to limit discussion on the Bill. I accept that limitation; indeed, I was not at all sure that I was going to speak, but I was provoked into doing so when the Attorney-General made no reference to the background circumstances. In Committee, perhaps, I can join with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields —the only other radical left in the House besides myself—when, by the application of our radical principles and adherence to our radical faith, we may yet save some of the foundations of what we hope will become, in the not-too-distant future, a radical House of Commons.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
I rise as a lawyer—an unashemed one—as a member of the Select Committee, and also as a recorder. Certain things have been said about hon. Members on both sides of the House who hold offices in various parts of the country. I only wish to say that none of them—some may be here at the moment and some may not —will pay the slightest attention to what the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has said. They will treat his remarks—if I may say so without undue offence—with the contempt which they deserve.
§ Mr. Doughty
The other thing I want to say about the hon. Member's activities on the Bill is that he put down certain Amendments after the Second Reading of the original Bill, and the Select Committee was directed to examine them. All I need say on that matter is that they did not prove attractive to the Committee and were all rejected. If he chooses to think that he brought the Bill to a conclusion he is certainly welcome to do so.
The important work of the Committee, which took a large number of sittings, was to bring up to date the law on disqualification which, for centuries past, had always held that people should be disqualified from sitting in the House for reasons which varied from time to time, according to changed conditions. Substantially speaking, the conditions in which we are operating in this House, 1311 and will be operating until the next Parliament, are those which operated in the reign of Queen Anne.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I would assure the hon. and learned Member that personally, as a member of the Select Committee, I valued the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). I regarded the Amendments which he put down on the Order Paper as serious questions. If, on balance, they were rejected by the Committee, I none the less regarded them as constituting a really useful contribution to our discussions.
§ Mr. Doughty
I say at once, in reply to the hon. and learned Gentleman, that I agree with every word that he has said. I merely said that the hon. Member's suggestions did not prove attractive to the Committee, meaning, by that, the majority of the Committee. They were fully discussed and voted upon, and they were rejected. I have nothing to add upon what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, except to say that I entirely agree with it.
For the last few years the position has been very unsatisfactory. As hon. Members are aware, a number of cases have brought the old rules almost into contempt. If hon. Members had looked at the Bill, they would have seen that the greater part of it consists of Schedules. The Select Committee spent a great deal of time upon those Schedules in an endeavour to clarify the position for the benefit of those who would seek election in any future Parliament. Every one of a number of positions and offices were gone into to see which should be disqualified and which should not.
I think that all members of the Select Committee will agree that the Bill represents the best which could be done—and probably the best that ever can be done—to solve that very great difficulty. Future candidates will know that if they hold certain offices on the list they cannot stand for Parliament.
I have only two more things to say, and I shall mention them briefly because I know that hon. Members wish to discuss the next business. The first point concerns the question of contracts. I agree with hon. Members on both sides who have already expressed doubts about 1312 removing the question of Crown and Government contracts altogether. This matter was fully discussed and it has been considered quite impossible, under modern conditions, with limited liability companies and considerations of that sort, to put in words in relation to Members who have contracts with the Crown—especially since the Crown nowadays operates in the commercial field so much more than it used to—which would really have any genuine effect.
My last point concerns the question of disclosure. My right hon. and learned Friend told us that there were to be new proposals dealing with this matter. I shall read them with great interest. Although the practice of disclosure in the House is well known, it applies only in respect of Members who speak upon a Bill. Other Members may have an interest in the matter under discussion but if they do not speak upon it they do not have to disclose that interest. If that and other difficulties can be overcome I shall certainly view the proposals with interest.
The Bill is a very great advance upon the present position. It will make the situation far clearer and enable all Members and would-be Members to know their position in the years to come, that is to say, in the years following the present Parliament.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Sir Frank Soskice (Newport)
My only excuse for intervening in this debate is that on a Bill of this importance it is perhaps appropriate that there should be a winding-up speech. As I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) I found myself able to be in cordial agreement with him about one thing, at any rate. That was that many hon. Members are anxious to take part in the debate which is to follow. The inference I draw from that is that I should make my remarks shorter than they would be otherwise.
This Bill originates from the fundamental difficulty, which has always confronted this House, particularly the lawyer Members, arising from the fact that so important a constitutional principle as we are now considering rests upon words so imprecise in their meaning asoffice of profit under the Crown".1313 As a former holder of the office at present held by the Attorney-General, I have shared with him over and over again the difficulty of trying to attach any precise meaning to those words and of advising hon. Members whether, in the event of their undertaking office in a most valuable form of public service, they might incur the risk of bringing themselves within the scope of those words.
The words sound simple, innocent and anodyne enough, but, looking more closely at them, if one considers to what they refer, it becomes apparent perhaps that the word "office" in that context may or may not include a variety of different appointments. For example, we have had to consider before now whether membership of a panel can constitute an office. Equally, difficulty has arisen in construing the words, "of profit". Still more difficulty has constantly arisen in trying to ascertain precisely when an "office", if it is an office, "of profit", if it is of profit, is or is not held "under the Crown". I think that all hon. Members will agree that if we consider closely the implications contained in those words "under the Crown" we may well understand the difficulty which has faced lawyers in particular—and not only lawyers, but members of the public quite apart from the legal profession—who have put to themselves the question whether, in any given circumstances, those words are brought into operation.
Constantly, hon. Members and would-be hon. Members have been anxious and willing to undertake useful public service and, lest it might be held by a court that by doing so they had infringed the inhibition contained in those words, they have had to refuse to do so. As the House knows, the consequence of a wrong judgment has given rise to many indemnity Bills. It is from that initial but perplexing difficulty that the Government have now brought forward this Bill, which I think the whole House is willing to accept on Second Reading. That is not to say that, in Committee, a number of important points of principle will not be raised for further consideration later on Report and Third Reading.
Speaking for myself, while I quite recognise the extreme difficulty of drafting, I think that the elimination of reference to contract in the Bill is a subject 1314 which will require further consideration. If I may say so, I cordially agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) that when we exclude from the provisions of the Bill reference to contracts, and put nothing in its place, we are perhaps treading on dangerous ground. On the other hand, as he pointed out very clearly in his speech, the provisions which, formerly, were in corporated in the law—indeed, I think the provisions in the Bill examined by the Select Committee—did lead to manifest absurdities. If one wished to eliminate absurdity it perhaps would be necessary to expand inordinately the scope of the words referring to contracts.
The problem of reverse disqualification has evoked some feeling in speeches made this afternoon. Quite clearly, if it is in order, that is a topic which will require reconsideration in Committee. I would not add further to what has been said on that very important point. Obviously, the House, in Committee, may desire to consider the particular offices as described in the Schedules attached to the Bill. It may desire either to leave out offices or to add others to those Schedules, or to move them from one Schedule to another. As I understand that the Committee stage of the Bill is to be taken on the Floor of the House, interesting debates will no doubt arise on the details of the Bill.
Looking at the Bill as a whole, I myself welcome its scheme. It removes the words to which I referred:offices of profit under the Crown.It substitutes lists of ascertained and described offices for those words. It introduces the necessary elasticity and adaptability into the Bill in Clause 5, which provides that those lists at present included in the Schedule—and, ultimately, we hope, to become part of the Bill when it is enacted—can be added to, can be altered, or diminished in number. That seems to be a very workable scheme and one which is preferable to a retention of the old definition, even if we tried to refurbish it into a new and more intelligible form.
The provision enabling the House to grant dispensation in certain cases is also an extremely useful provision, which should certainly be retained in the Bill. In cases of inadvertence it will be often— 1315 perhaps "often" is rather an optimistic term in this context—occasionally, it will be very useful for the House to be able to grant dispensation to a Member who has inadvertently offended by transgressing the provisions of the Bill when ultimately it becomes law.
Bearing in mind the advice that I gave to myself, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley gave the House, I feel that I should now bring my remarks to a close and help to make way for the very important debate that we are to have later this evening.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General
I speak again, with the leave of the House, to reply to the remarks made in the course of the debate.
I listened with interest to the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) and I am grateful to him for his observations. But I am disappointed to this extent. Before he spoke I thought I had at last discovered something in common with the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), namely, that he and I were the only two hon. Members who have spoken in this debate who were not members of the Select Committee. The right hon. and learned Member has deprived me of the opportunity of saying that.
I think it true to say that the Bill has been generally well received. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth), quite rightly, drew attention to the flexible provisions for adding to and taking away from the list. Of course, that is the penalty of having a list—there must be some flexible machinery for doing that.
One of the other two topics which have been the subject of most consideration and debate was the question of reverse disqualification. The right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) put the case very forcibly for that, and was supported by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede). I should like to put this argument before them for their consideration. If we had 1316 that reverse disqualification it would be very difficult to retain Clause 6 in the Bill. The right hon. and learned Member for Newport attached great importance to the House having power to dispense with disqualification in certain cases. To dispense with disqualification for membership of this House by Resolution is a very different thing from dispensing with disqualification of a member of a board outside this House in circumstances of which the House may not be fully aware.
In regard to contracts, everyone will agree, I think, that one cannot leave the law as it is. It has either to go or to be replaced. Replacement would involve a great deal of complexity, a great deal of difficulty and would lead to a massive Bill with provisions which might not be wholly effective. That is the choice. I do not think that we are losing anything by getting rid of the archaic law on this subject. I should not like it to be thought that by abolishing that we are getting rid of the standards of conduct expected of Members of Parliament. I believe that the right answer is the opinion of this House.
As the law stands now, if a scandal arose in relation to a Government contract which did not come within the old provisions of the law, the House, I am certain, would see to it that that scandal was properly dealt with. I would much rather leave it to the House, should such an instance arise, to deal with it as it would than seek to construct a complex code which might not be wholly effective. It has to be borne in mind that we have had no difficulties over that branch of the law for a very long time.
With those observations, I hope that I shall be thought adequately to have replied to the points which have been raised. We shall have a further opportunity for discussion in Committee.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Godber.]
§ Committee Tomorrow.