§ Second Report from the Select Committee to be considered forthwith.—[The Attorney-General]
§ Considered accordingly.
§ 3.32 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller)
I beg to move,That Mr. Beattie, returned as a Member for Mid-Ulster, having at the time of his election held certain offices of profit under the Crown, was incapable of being elected or returned as a Member of this House, and that this House agrees with the recommendations contained in the Second Report from the Select Committee on Elections.This Motion is in two distinct parts. The first part relates to Mr. Beattie's return as a Member for Mid-Ulster and asks the House to accept the view that his return was invalid as at the time of his election he held certain offices of profit under the Crown. Under the Act, that would mean that he was incapable of being elected or returned. The second part asks the House to agree with the recommendations contained in the Second Report form the Select Committee.
I do not think that the House will find it difficult to come to a conclusion about the first part of the Motion. As the Report of the Select Committee shows, at the time of his election Mr. Beattie held three offices. He was a member of a local tribunal panel under the National Insurance Act (Northern Ireland) 1946, a local appeal tribunal panel under the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act (Northern Ireland) 1946, and an appeal tribunal under the National Assistance Board Act (Northern Ireland) 1946.
The first two appointments are indistinguishable from the offices held by the hon. Member for Perry Barr (Mr. C. Howell) under the corresponding United Kingdom Acts. The third office was not a very simple problem, but the Select Committee, after considering that case, decided that that also was an office of profit under the Crown.. In those circumstances, it is in my submission clear that Mr. Beattie at the time of his election was disqualified from membership of this House, and I accordingly ask the House to endorse the conclusions of the Select Committee in this respect.
1505 There is one point on which I ought perhaps to say a few words before I deal with the second part of the Motion. The majority of votes cast at the Mid-Ulster by-election were not cast for Mr. Beattie. It will be remembered that he petitioned the court in Northern Ireland under the Representation of the People Act, 1949. The court decided that Mr. Mitchell was incapable of being elected as a Member of Parliament and was not duly elected or returned, on the basis that his disqualification was so well known to the electors that the votes cast for him were to be treated as votes deliberately thrown away or spoilt. That conclusion meant that Mr. Beattie, the only other candidate, was the only candidate left with votes cast for him, so the court went on to declare, as the statute required it to do, that Mr. Beattie was duly elected and ought to have been returned.
That certificate is, by statute, final to all intents and purposes, but in my view that statutory provision does not operate to validate the election of someone who was himself disqualified. The election court determines the validity of the votes cast, and the qualifications of a candidate are relevant only so far as the court is concerned with that question. The court held that the votes cast for Mr. Mitchell were thrown away because he was disqualified, and because the fact of his disqualification was known to the electors at the time of voting. The validity of the votes cast for Mr. Beattie was not challenged in those proceedings. Indeed, if it had been challenged, the challenge would have been unlikely to have been successful, for the mass of the electors could hardly have known that he was disqualified when he himself obviously did not know it.
§ Mr. Frank Bowles (Nuneaton)
Might I put a point to the right hon. and learned Gentleman? He did not seem to know the answer during the hearing by the Select Committee, when he gave evidence. Surely Mr. Beattie was a member of three tribunals practising in the area. That was known to other hon. Members, and that is why the Government are not recommending that this election be validated. This man's opponent was disqualified. Why was not this man also disqualified by the court?
§ The Attorney-General
I had hoped the hon. Gentleman would have listened to what I was saying, that the validity of the votes cast for Mr. Beattie was not in question in those proceedings. The petition was brought by Mr. Beattie against the return of Mr. Mitchell, and the return was the matter in issue, on the basis that the votes cast for Mr. Mitchell were thrown away and spoilt because Mr. Mitchell's disqualification was known to the electors. If Mr. Beattie's disqualification had been known to the electors, a petition against him, within due time, if he had been at the top of the poll, would have been successful.
The point that I was trying to make clear when I was interrupted was that there was no question at issue in those proceedings as to the qualification or disqualification of Mr. Beattie. That is why I expressed the view I did before the Select Committee. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) found the evidence which I gave puzzling. I was addressing myself to the effect upon Mr. Beattie of the offices which he held and whether or not they were offices of profit.
Now, the certificate of the court is final to all intents and purposes so far as the question relates to the votes cast for Mr. Mitchell. The consequences of that certificate were that the court declared that Mr. Beattie was elected. I do not for one moment believe that the certificate of the court that Mr. Beattie was elected can, in fact, be held to validate the election of someone who was himself at that time disqualified from election.
I will now come to the second part of the Motion. The Select Committee recommended that a Bill should be brought in to indemnify Mr. Beattie from any consequences of having acted as a Member. If, by passing the Motion, the House declares that Mr. Beattie was incapable of being elected, a Bill with that object in view will be introduced. No doubt, as the Committee found, Mr. Beattie acted in complete good faith. He received no payment while a Member of the House for the performance of those minor public duties. I think that the House will agree that it would be out of the question to leave him at the mercy of the common informer and liable to heavy financial penalties. I therefore hope that 1507 the House will agree that he should be indemnified against that risk.
The Select Committee also recommended that in this case steps should not be taken to validate Mr. Beattie's election. Before the Recess I announced that the Government accepted the Committee's recommendations and a Bill will not be introduced to validate his election. I do not think that the House would want me to reiterate the reasons why the Select Committee came to that conclusion. They are set out in detail in paragraphs 7 and 8 of the Select Committee's Report. It is for those reasons and on those grounds that I ask the House to accept the Motion and, by accepting the Report of the Select Committee, to declare that Mr. Beattie is disqualified and to express the view that the other recommendations of the Select Committee shall be carried into effect.
§ Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman one question about a part of the Select Committee's recommendations which he has not mentioned? He has told us about there being no recommendation to validate the election and about an indemnity to protect Mr. Beattie from the common informer. However, there is another recommendation about which the Attorney-General has said nothing. It was that Mr. Beattie should be allowed to return the salary which he received as a Member of the House. Would the Attorney-General care to say a word about that?
§ The Attorney-General
The recommendation of the Select Committee was that a Bill should be brought in to indemnify Mr. Beattie from any consequences of having acted as a Member of Parliament from the time of his election, until the Bill receives Royal Assent. It is not necessary to indemnify him from any liability to repay his salary which he received during that period, for instance, as no proceedings would lie to recover it.
§ Major W. J. Anstruther-Gray (Berwick and East Lothian)
May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend a question? When he said that he accepted the 1508 recommendations of the Report, did he include therein paragraph 11, which says:Your Committee have been impressed, during their examination of several recent cases, by the complex problems presented not only by the law in its present state, but by the changed and changing circumstances under which public service is now rendered. In the light of the growing body of experience which has arisen during this Parliament, your Committee consider that these changed circumstances should be fully recognised and dealt with before Parliament parts with the House of Commons Disqualification Bill now under consideration."?
§ The Attorney-General
That is not phrased in the form of a recommendation, but I am only too glad to answer my hon. and gallant Friend's question. I can assure him that the point touched upon in paragraph 11 will be fully and very carefully considered before Parliament parts with the House of Commons Disqualification Bill.
§ 3.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
This Motion represents the latest, but not the last, of the difficulties in which the House has been involved as a result of the desire of the party opposite to get a couple of seats in Northern Ireland against the wishes of the electorate. What will happen as a result of the passing of the Motion we do not know, but we do know that Parliament has been brought into considerable contempt and some difficulties as a result of that effort.
The Manchester Guradian, last Friday, in its "Westminster Notes," said:Mr. Ede is to speak for the Opposition on Tuesday, and will certainly not object to any proposal to declare vacant a seat held by a Government supporter.The Manchester Guardian has no racing correspondent. If it had, and he could be as sound an adviser on future events as is the writer of that note, I am quite certain that the Manchester Guardian's circulation would enormously increase.
I see no reason for dissenting from the first part of the recommendation. A friend of mine in Northern Ireland sent me a copy of a cartoon from a newspaper circulating there. It showed two gentlemen setting off to attend a Conservative conference to select a candidate. One is saying to the other, "There is no difficulty about getting a candidate to stand. The problem is to get one who will be able to sit." He should have added the words, 1509 "With the assent of the majority of the electors in the constituency." That would have been closer to the facts.
Let none of us make fun of Mr. Beattie's actual position, for the result of all these recommendations from the Select Committee in recent years is to warn all of us not to be too certain of our own positions. "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he" cannot sit down. I take up the point made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Major Anstruther-Gray). That is a reinforcement of the need for a clear statement to be understood by laymen showing the position of people when they are asked to stand for admission to the House of Commons.
The holding of the type of office which has invalidated Mr. Beattie's election—invalidated the election of certain hon. Members on this side and, in certain circumstances, of hon. Members on that side, like the hon. Member for Hallam (Sir R. Jennings), who merely acted as auditor of British Legion accounts—has illustrated the fact, borne out by the wording of the paragraph which the learned Attorney-General has read to us, that the social circumstances of our time have created a series of booby traps for people who have been giving voluntary services in which they have proved that they had some administrative capacity and also, in the case of a good many of them, a sound judicial temperament. For membership of a court of referees, to be successfully performed, involves both of these. A man must be a capable administrator, and must on occasion have the courage to take a line that he knows may very well be unpopular with the people when he reaches the decision that ought to be carried out as a result of the evidence he has heard.
I, and, I am quite certain, all my hon. and right hon. Friends, endorse the statement made in the last paragraph of the Report in front of us, and I think that the Bill, which has already had its Second Reading, should receive very careful consideration as to whether it could be so worded that when the wayfaring man reads it he can be quite certain what his position is. Nearly everybody—in fact, the decision of the Committee has been everybody—who has been caught out by the existing law has been acting in good 1510 faith and unaware, when he was a candidate and when he was elected, that he was not capable of sitting. Therefore, 1 join with the Committee, and so do all my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side, in hoping that very serious attention will be paid to the last paragraph of the Report and the Bill before the House.
There is no doubt that Mr. Beattie was incapable of being elected. I am not sure what was the date of Mr. Beattie's election. I do not think it was the date in May when most of us here now were elected. I think it was the date when the judges declared him to be elected.
§ The Attorney-General
There was a by-election, and I think I am right in saying that his election would date from that date, because the court has corrected the return from that by-election.
§ Mr. Ede
1 am sorry, but I have not stated the point as I wanted to do. It dates from 11th August, the date when the poll was taken, or from 12th August, when the result of the poll was declared, and he was not then declared elected. Mr. Mitchell was then declared elected, and Mr. Beattie, as he was entitled to do, went to the court and asked the court to say that Mr. Mitchell was not capable of being elected. At a later date, then the court declared Mr. Beattie to be elected.
§ Mr. Ede
Well, to have been elected. Would it have been possible then for a petition to have been presented against Mr. Beattie? Do I understand that the opinion of the Law Officers is that it could not be questioned by a petition on the grounds that this House has now found Mr. Beattie to be incapable of being elected?
§ The Attorney-General
The petition could only lie against the person who had been declared returned as the Member; that is, in this case, Mr. Mitchell. Even assuming that a petition could have been brought against Mr. Beattie, the difficulty, as I see it here, is the difficulty of establishing that Mr. Beattie's disqualifications were known to the electorate at the time of the election.
§ Mr. Ede
I am not concerned with any difficulty that might arise in proving the petition, but whether it would have been 1511 possible to present a petition against the return made by the judges, because that might be of some importance in a future case on similar grounds. Of course, Mr. Beattie is in a different position from that of the people involved in every other case, as far as I know, that has come in front of us. Here, we are faced with the position that was envisaged by Shakespeare, when he wrote:For 't is the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petar.The principle on which Mr. Beattie defeated Mr. Mitchell has now been applied to Mr. Beattie and he is declared to be incapable. One has to bear in mind when considering what ought to happen in such circumstances that, at the two polls that were taken in this constituency during the past year, the more the electorate knew of Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Beattie, they more they preferred Mr. Mitchell to Mr. Beattie.
In May, Mr. Mitchell polled 29,737 votes, and in August 30,392, an increase of 655. Mr. Beattie polled 29,477 in May, and 29,586 in August, so that in August Mr. Mitchell's majority, ineffective as it was, was, at any rate, 546 votes bigger than it had been in May. To that extent, the efforts of the party represented by hon. Members opposite to make an impression on the constituency have been a growing failure.
I cannot help thinking that it would not be possible for this House to allow to remain a Member a man who had unseated another man, twice declared elected by the returning officer, on the grounds that he was debarred by statute from sitting, and allow that man to become a Member when it was proved that he was similarly, although not under exactly the same Statute, debarred from sitting. Therefore, I think that the House could not expect this case to be treated in the same generous way in which it has treated the previous cases in which Members have been found so guilty.
Now, we come to what is to happen as a result, in view of the powers of the common informer. You, Mr. Speaker, said the other day that Mr. Parnell was a great parliamentary authority. I am afraid that it has been a long time before that has been recognised as far up. the Chamber as where you sit, and Mr. Speaker of his day might have felt that 1512 he could hardly endorse such a statement. It is said that Mr. Parnell was once faced by a man who had voted twice, although he had forgotten to take the oath. He was a member of the Irish Nationalist Party. Parnell said to him, "How often have you voted?", and he replied, "Twice." Parnell then said, "You go on voting as long as you can, because the English are a peculiar race. You are worth about £1,000, and if they get two £500 out of you, they might regard it as a good practical joke; but make it several thousand pounds and they are a forgiving lot and will find some way of validating your position."
I have taken the trouble to find out exactly what penalties Mr. Beattie may have incurred. There were 32 Divisions, from numbers 30 to 61 inclusive, in this Session, in which Mr. Beattie could have participated. He voted 19 times and was absent 13 times. That would make the penalty for voting £9,500. I think that a few weeks' membership of this House can hardly represent an office of profit under the Crown if those fines were exacted. While I take the view that most of the penalties are thoroughly archaic, and have no real connection with modern circumstances, I am quite sure the unanimous opinion of the House would be that a man who could vote for this Government 19 times, and who supported the present Leader of the House through an all-night sitting on the occasion when he managed temporarily to destroy the Finance Bill, has a sufficient strain on his conscience to be a punishment for him as long as he lives. I therefore hope that the feeling of the Committee that no further penalties should be exacted may be shared by the House.
But there is one matter to which I should allude. My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), whose zeal for the privileges of this House is so well known—and occasionally to a Leader of the House, I speak from personal experience, can be an embarrassment—spotted, a little too late, that some comment had been made on this matter in Northern Ireland. He quoted from the Belfast Telegraph of 3rd December. He told us:On the front page there appears a paragraph which is headed: 'M.P. Pilloried over quibble'.1513 Then he proceeded to read the paragraph to us.In a reference to the threat of disqualification of Mr. Charles Beattie, M.P., for Mid-Ulster at Westminster, the chairman of North Tyrone Unionist Association (Mr. E. T. R. Herdman) said Mr. Beattie had their wholehearted support.He told the Association's meeting he could not understand how anyone could consider Mr. Beattie's membership of an Appeals Tribunal a post of profit under the Crown. He thought it'"—and then my hon. Friend said:the next few words appear within quotation marks, which seems to mean that they are the actual words used—' disgraceful that a person who served the community in such a way should be pilloried over some legal quibble.'"—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 6th December, 1955; Vol. 547, c. 202.]Of course, this may have provoked inquiries elsewhere in Northern Ireland and it would appear that the same difficulties that confront us confront a number of most distinguished members of the Northern Ireland Parliament——
§ Mr. Ede
I said "most distinguished" and I hoped that it would be sufficient to draw to the attention of the House what I think everyone well knows without naming any particular one of the five people who are involved there.
This reinforces the need for the disqualifications, preventing people successful at an Election from being valid Members of the House when they present themselves to take the oath, being so clearly set out that there shall be no doubt. I sincerely hope that in the further proceedings with the House of Commons Disqualification Bill Her Majesty's Government will try to get into that Bill—so that it shall be there when it becomes an Act—a list of these offices which good citizens may not fill, so that they shall be known; or, better still, that the definition of an office of profit needs now to be very carefully reconsidered so that good men—and women—and true, who give up their time to the locality in which they live shall not find that that service disqualifies them.
It may even be an advantage to us if some hon. Members were still members of those tribunals, just as I think it a good thing that some hon. Members remain members of local governing bodies. Then, when an Act is administered, we may have first-hand knowledge 1514 of those small practical points which in administration sometimes defeat the clear intention of the House when it passed a Measure.
On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends I wish to say that in the light of the Report of the Select Committee— we thank the Committee for the care with which it investigated this problem and the meticulous way in which it dealt with small points which happened to differentiate this case from other cases— I hope the House will accept the Motion, and that the Bill, which, I understand, we shall see shortly, may have an unimpeded passage through the House.
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ Sir David Campbell (Belfast, South)
I do not propose to follow the remarks of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) except to say that, while I do not share it, I fully understand his obvious annoyance at the wisdom shown by the great majority of voters in the Six Counties when they go to the polls.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has dealt fully with the various legal points arising from the report of the Select Committee. Even though I might wish to do so, I am not capable of arguing any of the points which he has advanced. I would, however, draw attention to the fact that in the Report it became clear that my right hon. and learned Friend had the greatest difficulty in reconciling the cases of Mr. Hewitson and Mr. Howell, both similar to that of Mr. Beattie, and that he found it impossible to reconcile the case of Mr. Pringle with that of Mr. Howell. When my right hon. and learned Friend has difficulty in appreciating the various Reports made in the past by the Select Committee, it is easy to understand how a layman, or someone not dealing day by day with matters of qualification or disqualification for membership of this House, may be led astray.
My purpose in addressing the House is merely to deal with the position as it affects Mr. Beattie personally. When the Select Committee was considering this case, and for some days prior to its meetings, I was in the closest contact with Mr. Charles Beattie. There is no doubt whatever—and this is acknowledged by the Select Committee—that he acted at all times in perfect good faith. He 1515 accepted and held the offices he did hold in order to serve the community of his local area.
The official letter setting out the terms of his appointment stated specifically thatServices on the bodies referred to is regarded as voluntary and unpaid.Further, for some years prior to his nomination as a candidate for this Parliament Mr. Beattie had not claimed, and was not paid, any sums in respect of expenses or allowances, and, as he pointed out when giving evidence before the Select Committee, even if he had claimed them he would not have been eligible to draw them.
There are two points in the Select Committee's Report to which I should like to draw attention. Paragraph 8 says:The question of disqualification must have been a prominent issue at the Mid-Ulster by-election. …It certainly was, but it was a question of disqualification because the successful candidate—Mr. Mitchell—was a convicted felon, serving a term of imprisonment for an act of violence against the State. In my view, such a disqualification would not suggest to anybody that a person holding the offices held by Mr. Beattie would be disqualified from being a Member of this House. Taking into account all the circumstances of the case, 1 trust that all hon. Members will agree that no blame whatever can attach to Mr. Beattie.
The other point to which I wish to refer relates to the Committee's recommendation in paragraph 11 of its Report. This has already been referred to by my right hon. and learned Friend and the right hon. Member for South Shields, and I fully share the Committee's view that it is essential that before the Bill finally passes through the House it should be so worded as to put an end, once and for all, to any doubts about the circumstances which render a candidate qualified to take his seat in this House, or disqualified from doing so. I trust that before the end of this Session the Government will introduce legislation to render it impossible for a convicted felon, serving a term of imprisonment, to be nominated as a candidate for representation in this House.
§ 4.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
The rather lamentable story of which the House is now considering the latest, but probably not the last, chapter, began on the occasion when the Government moved a Motion declaring vacant the Mid-Ulster seat which, so far as the votes were concerned, at any rate, had been won by Mr. Mitchell.
It will be within the recollection of many hon. Members that I then advised the House not to accept that Motion. I suggested that the House would best consult its own dignity by ignoring the matter altogether and leaving it, for better or worse, as the electors of Mid-Ulster had left it. When one considers everything that has happened since, I think I am entitled to say that that advice was not wholly mistaken. Let us consider what has, in fact, happened. We declared the seat vacant, a writ was issued, and Mr. Mitchell—as everybody knew in advance would be the case—was re-elected, this time by a rather increased majority, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has pointed out.
On that occasion his defeated opponent decided to do what he had deliberately and advisedly decided not to do upon the previous occasion. The petition which he brought against Mr. Mitchell's election in August could have been brought in May. I believe that at the time of our first debate upon the matter we were told that he had decided not to take that course in May. However, upon this occasion he did so, and went to a court in Northern Ireland from which he sought a declaration that his successful opponent was disqualified by Statute from being either a candidate or a Member of the House of Commons.
As we now know, upon that occasion Mr. Beattie had no right whatever to be heard. It is all very well to say— and it is true as far as it goes—that the question of the validity of the votes cast in Mr. Beattie's favour was not in issue in that court, but, whether or not that is so, the situation was that the unsuccessful candidate, being himself disqualified by Statute from standing, claimed that the successful candidate was also disqualified by another Statute from standing—and he won. One disqualified Member was, therefore, unseated and replaced by another disqualified Member.
1517 I would invite your attention for a moment only, Mr. Speaker, to what subsequently occurred. The appropriate Minister tabled a Motion in this House declaring that Mr. Beattie was duly elected. The ground upon which he invited the House to accept that proposition was the certificate of the High Court which, by the Statute, is expressed to be conclusive, to all intents and purposes. Upon that occasion I again ventured to offer to the House reasons why the Motion should not be accepted. We then found ourselves in an extremely anomalous situation. We were advised by you, Mr. Speaker, that while it was perfectly in order to oppose the Motion, to vote against it and, ex hypothesi to defeat it, it was impossible to give any reasons in debate for opposing or not passing it. As you said, Mr. Speaker—I am not quoting you verbatim—it was impossible to imagine any reason which would be in order for discussion upon that occasion.
It now seems that there was a reason after all. The Motion recognised the fact that a man had been declared by the High Court to be a Member of this House but, as we now know, he was not entitled to be a Member. He was disqualified. He was not merely not a Member, in spite of the High Court certificate; he was not even a valid candidate.
The whole situation has brought the House and Parliamentary institutions—I will not say "into contempt"—into a position where they have, at any rate, lost moral authority. Representative, democratic Parliamentary institutions derive no credit from it at all. That is due to neglect by this House of two plain, simple, elementary principles. The first is that the right of a majority in a constituency to determine who shall represent the constituency in the House of Commons includes the right to decide that nobody shall do so. If a majority of qualified electors in Mid-Ulster decide that they want to elect a man, not merely who is in gaol and could not come to the House of Commons but who had fought his election campaign on the express basis that even if he were free to come he would not come, and do so with their eyes open, they must be held to have expressed a democratic preference against being represented in the Imperial House of Commons.
I am not saying a single word on the merits of their decision or whether it is 1518 desirable. That is not my business or the business of anybody here The House of Commons does itself and the principle of Parliamentary representation no good by insisting that a constituency which has decided that it does not want to send a representative here shall send somebody else who manifestly does not represent it at all. I do not know what the position may be in the next by-election in Mid-Ulster, but I hope that after the history of the last few months we shall decide that we had better let ill alone.
What is the other principle that was ignored? The reasons which prompted the House of Commons to declare a man incapable of sitting in it if he held an office of profit under the Crown are well known, though, in the opinion of most hon. Members and of the vast majority of the public who know about it, it is applied under the existing law in a wide variety of trivial cases where it need never be applied at all. We should not allow that fact to obscure the main object of the original disqualification, which was to prevent the Government of the day from making their position in the House of Commons easier by having a number of Members dependent upon them for profit, or indeed for office. It was an Act against placemen. I am among those who think that we ought to do a great deal to amend and clarify the law, but the principle on which the law is founded is essential and necessary, and will become all the more necessary by cutting off the extravagant excrescences to which it has become customary to deem that it applies.
The other Statute, which disqualifies a man who is serving a sentence for felony, is also based upon a perfectly understandable principle. It hardly needs stating. I said on the first occasion and I venture to repeat now that it is not for the House of Commons and certainly not for the Queen's Bench Divisional Court to distinguish between one Statute and another because it attributes to one a degree more of validity than it does to the other. When Mr. Mitchell's case first came before the House I suggested that it ought to go to a Select Committee like all the other cases; that there was nothing automatic about it; that the Statute was exactly the same in both cases; and that the House could, if it chose, validate an invalid election, whether the invalidity was under one Act 1519 or under the other and we were wrong to try to distinguish between them.
To those who said that a trivial office of profit was one thing and felony was quite another, I replied then as I reply now that it is a mistake to assume that all felonies are the same. It has been said repeatedly here that Mr. Beattie acted in perfect good faith throughout. No doubt he did. I hope no one will smile when I say there is no evidence whatever to show that Mr. Mitchell did not act in equal good faith throughout. You may think him wholly and disastrously wrong and misguided in what he did, but he did not do it for profit or for any selfish, unworthy motive. A man does not do a thing like that and go to gaol on political grounds for a long time without deserving some recognition, some tribute of respect from all of us.
§ Mr. Silverman
I find the antithesis unreal. Some political grounds are criminal. This one was. Some criminal grounds may be political. We are not entitled to distinguish. The Act in one case says, "If you do it, you are disqualified," and the Act in the other case says, "If you do it, you are disqualified." The House must treat both Statutes as involving an automatic prohibition, or must in both cases allow distinctions to be made between one case and another. We are not entitled, and it is not reasonable to claim, to draw distinctions between one case under one Statute and not under the other Statute. If we do it, we land ourselves, as the House has landed itself, in the muddle in which we have been ever since.
There might be a great deal to be said for altering one Statute or altering the other Statute. I welcome, as everybody who has spoken has welcomed, that part of the Select Committee's Report which invites the House not to pass the Disqualification Bill which is before us without clearing up anomalies, but while the Statute remains the law of the land the House of Commons must apply it in exactly the same way as with any other Statute. If the law is wrong let us change it. We are not entitled to act as if it were not and leave the Act unamended on the 1520 Statute Book. That is all that I want to say about the general issue.
On the particular case with which we are concerned, I should like to say this. In most of the other cases with which the House has had to deal where we have passed validating Statutes and indemnity Statutes there has been overwhelming reason to believe that the Member concerned acted not only in good faith, which I concede completely to Mr. Beattie in this case, but also in complete ignorance of what was the position. With all respect to the Attorney-General and to the recommendations of the Select Committee, that really cannot be claimed in this case.
The Attorney-General, replying to an intervention this afternoon, said that if Mr. Beattie's election had been challenged in the High Court of Northern Ireland, one of the two issues might not have been decided in favour of the challenger. He reminded us that there were two issues—? one was whether the man was, in fact, disqualified, and the other was whether that fact could have been sufficiently known to the public in the constituency as to lead to a fair inference that they had deliberately spoiled their papers.
I am sure that he was right in saying so in his statement on the law, but I am not sure that he was right in what he said about the circumstances of that issue here. When Mr. Mitchell's case was first before the House of Commons, we had a debate lasting several hours. In that debate this whole matter was discussed at some length and with great care. In particular, the fact that one could be disqualified by holding an office of profit under the Crown, and the relationship between that kind of disqualification and the other kind of disqualification that affected Mr. Mitchell, were very fully discussed.
I know, as anyone can find out who cares to inquire, that that debate was very fully reported in the constituency. I find it extremely hard to believe that, after all that had happened in this House, when Mr. Beattie submitted himself at the by-election he did not know, and the electorate did not know, about offices of profit under the Crown. Of course he knew. Any suggestion to the contrary would be, in my opinion, sufficiently met by the public statement made by the chairman of the Unionist association, the sponsoring body of this candidate, when 1521 he said that it was quite disgraceful to challenge Mr. Beattie's position at all, and that all that was involved was a mere triviality.
It seems to me that, even if they knew, they would have done nothing about it, and Mr. Beattie's candidature would have gone on just the same, because they would have regarded it as too trivial or alternatively too disgraceful to tell Mr. Beattie that he ought not to stand in such circumstances. This does not mean that I am against the recommendation which would protect him.
§ Sir D. Campbell
On this point of knowing or not knowing whether Mr. Beattie held an office of profit under the Crown and, therefore, would be disqualified, I can assure the hon. Gentleman, as I said earlier, that I was in close touch with Mr. Beattie and that he had no idea whatsoever that he could be disqualified, or that the offices he held were offices of profit under the Crown. The moment that the suspicion entered into his head, when he read of the disqualifications from this House, he came to me and said that it had occurred to him that he might be in difficulty and asked my advice. I told him to consult the Attorney-General at the earliest possible moment.
§ Mr. Silverman
If the hon. Member, who knows his friend so well, says that he was so naive and innocent as that I can only believe him—I do believe him —but, in that case, I should say that he was altogether too innocent to be a politician, and certainly an Irish politician. If he really were quite so naive as that, it becomes a matter of some wonderment why he ever got so many votes at all.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
My hon. Friend seems to defeat his own argument. One point which he made with great force was that a constituency had the right to send a Member to the House or to decide not to send him to the House. Is it not on the verge of impertinence if he is now saying that somebody is too good to be a Member?
§ Mr. Silverman
My hon. Friend is very much a man of the world, and I am sure that he will appreciate that there is a significant distinction, on the one hand, in being too innocent and, on the other, 1522 in being too good. They are by no means the same thing. The point which I was coming to—and I want to make this my final point and leave it at that—is that in those circumstances, while I entirely agree with the recommendation that Mr. Beattie should be protected from the savage penalty which he would be liable to on a common information, I do not appreciate for what reason the Committee recommended that he should be allowed to retain the salary which he received as a Member of the House.
The Attorney-General says that this is a matter entirely for him. No doubt it is a matter for him, but I would not have thought entirely.
§ Mr. Silverman
No. 1 am afraid that I expressed myself clumsily I do not mean that it is a matter for him, the Attorney-General, but for him, Mr. Beattie.
I think that what Mr. Beattie thinks right is certainly a matter for Mr. Beattie to decide, but I am not dealing with any opinion that Mr. Beattie may form as to what is the right and honourable thing to do in the circumstances. I am dealing with the expression of opinion of the Select Committee, which might possibly influence Mr. Beattie's mind, and, I think, influence it in the wrong direction, because it seems to me that, although not much is involved here, we have a plain case of a man who, on no conceivable view, could have been properly a Member of the House of Commons.
He had been twice defeated in the constituency. If he was legally a Member of the House of Commons at all, he was so only by taking advantage of the legal disqualification of the candidate whom the majority of electors preferred. If, in those circumstances, he was himself not qualified, I should have thought that it was not a proper thing to remain in possession of any of the profits of that untenable office.
§ Mr. Bowles
He also won a petition in the High Court of Ireland, and probably got an order for costs. He must have cost the ratepayers or taxpayers of Northern Ireland a lot of money. Has he any conscience about repaying some of that?
§ Mr. Silverman
I do not want to deal with matters not within the competence of the House of Commons, and I am dealing with this matter only because the Select Committee thought it fit to make a recommendation about it. I do not agree with that recommendation, but I do not propose to labour the point or deal with it any further. We may have an opportunity to do so when the Bill comes up for the Committee stage. The important thing to derive from this matter is the proper lessons, so that the House of Commons does not allow itself to be made a fool of again, and certainly does not itself contribute to its own discomfiture as it has done throughout the whole of this incident.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Major W. J. Anstruther-Gray (Berwick and East Lothian)
I should like to follow the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) in his last remark, in which he attached importance to this House deriving the proper lessons from this unfortunate occurrence. I think that we must look upon the Beattie case as a thing of the past but, as a Member of the Select Committee I should like to say a word about our work and about my impression of Mr. Beattie.
The Select Committee decided—I am sure rightly—to deal with this case not at all on party lines and we approached it as fairly and as judicially as we could. Although, in the event, it turned against the interests of the Government side of the House and has cost the Government temporarily—it may be permanently—a seat, the Government members of the Committee had no hesitation in arriving at what they thought to be the right conclusions.
As the House will know, our Report was unanimous, and I was in no doubt that we were correct not to recommend in this case—as we have recommended in previous ones—that the House should validate the fact that an hon. Member had not been qualified and allow him to take his seat. We did not do that in this case. There was all the difference in the world between this and previous cases, because this by-election had arisen out of an objection to the qualifications of the elected candidate.
It was, therefore, incumbent—doubly incumbent—on the other candidate who was seeking election as a result of that 1524 objection to make sure that he himself was entirely correctly qualified. I say that he himself should have made sure, but I at once accept the difficulty that a layman has in these matters and say that the gentleman in question would have been well advised to have taken legal advice at a very early stage. Unhappily, he did not do so, and the results are before us now. I should only like to add my own definite opinion that Mr. Beattie acted in the best of good faith, and certainly did not appreciate the difficult position into which he was running himself.
I should like now to turn, if I may, to the speech of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede). He directed so much of his remarks to the future--I thought rightly—and to the last paragraph in the Committee's Report relating to improving the House of Commons Disqualification Bill before it comes back to us again. The fact is that although that Bill has had a Second Reading I am not satisfied that, as it stands now, it will meet the objective which all of us seek, which is to know where we are.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
It is in order to refer to the Bill, but to deal with the details when the Bill is before the House would not be in order on this occasion.
§ Major Anstruther-Gray
Thank you very much, Mr.-Deputy-Speaker. I accept that Ruling readily, but 1 think that I am in order in repeating a point which has already been made.
What all of us require is to know where we are in this matter, and before the Bill reaches its final stages I hope that the Government will make it as clear as is possible, either by a list of offices, as was recommended by the right hon. Member for South Shields—who was not ruled out of order—or by adhering to the recommendations of the Herbert Committee that Mr. Speaker should be enabled to set up a committee not only to consider cases as we have considered the Beattie case—when they have taken place—but to consider other cases which might arise in the future.
I see, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you are stirring uneasily, so let me hasten to the consideration of another paragraph of the Report—the recommendation in paragraph 6, page 4, which goes right to the 1525 root of so much of the misunderstanding that has taken place. Many hon. Members—and Mr. Beattie was in the same position—have accepted appointments from a Government Department—perhaps on pensions tribunals, perhaps on agricultural executive committees—and the wording of the letters they have received has quite categorically said that no remuneration will be paid. In spite of that, we have been faced with the fact that those appointments are regarded as offices of profit.
I was puzzled for a long time by that until it was explained by my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General in the proceedings of the Select Committee. His explanation can be found in page 13, and reads:… whatever the terms of appointment may be, what one has to construe are the terms of the statute. The terms of the appointment here exclude any possibility, so far as I can see, of what I might call a profit payment. The terms of the appointment exclude it because they are confined to compensation for loss of earnings and compensation for expense. But the statutes themselves make provision for payment of remuneration, and when the statute has made that provision the Executive is not barred by memoranda of this sort from changing the arrangement and, therefore, one has to consider the problem quite apart from the particular arrangements made with particular persons. It depends on the wording of the statutes.When that is pointed out my layman's mind can just comprehend it, but I do not think that it is readily comprehensible to the man in the street.
I would, therefore, like to turn now to paragraph 6, which reads:Your Committee note, however, that Mr. Beattie did not receive any profit from his appointments and that he had neither claimed nor been paid any expenses since at least March, 1953 … They note, further, that, as in previous cases, the actual letter of appointment stated that no fees were payable…They have drawn the attention of the House to the terms of such letters of appointment before, and the Attorney-General went so far as to agree, in his evidence on this case, that the wording of such letters was misleading. This misleading feature of letters of appointment has been commented on by your Committee in previous cases"—I had the honour to serve on the Committee in the previous cases when we made that comment—and they consider it desirable that, so long as the law remains as at present"—1526 and it does remain as it is at present until we approve the House of Commons Disqualification Bill—such letters should in future be differently worded and that a covering letter should be sent, where appropriate, drawing attention to the words of the statute and to the opinions of Law Officers which have been expressed from time to time.I should like to ask the Attorney-General whether he can give an assurance that Government Departments have been circularised to that effect, and whether the Government will undertake that, in future, no more such misleading invitations will be sent to innocent persons anxious to do a voluntary piece of unpaid work which may finally land them in the trouble into which Mr. Beattie has been landed in this unfortunate case.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)
The House may ask what qualification I have to speak about disqualification. I was one of those who came to the House in 1945 and was disqualified. I was horrified as well as disqualified when I found myself in that position.
During the war certain people were called upon to do work to help, so we were told, to win the war. Laws were introduced in war which we do not like in peace. I was invited by the then Minister of Labour, Mr. Ernest Bevin, to act as chairman of a works tribunal upon which one had to take difficult decisions, often against one's own trade union membership. One was paid a salary but lost two days' work in order to attend one meeting, and thus lost money by doing the job; so how on earth that became an office of profit I do not know.
The farcical situation is that under the present law, under the Noah's Ark set of rules and regulations which operate, people can be selected to do such a job to help to implement the law and, through doing it, can find themselves disqualified from coming to the House in order to help to make the law. It is about time that that state of affairs was altered. If it is to continue, the short list of qualified people able to come here will become shorter still. Others, because they are working for the State or because they have been selected for the various committees in its wide sphere of activities, will be denied the right to become Members of Parliament. The sooner the whole state of affairs is altered the better for Britain.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)
I am in complete agreement with the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones) on the need for a change in the law. That feeling is quite general, I think, on all sides of the House, and it endorses paragraph 11 of the Report of the Select Committee which says that the sooner this question is reviewed in the light of events the better.
This is not the first time that this part of the United Kingdom has come before the public eye. As long ago as 1914, when the Home Rule Bill had been passed and was about to come into operation, the question whether the Counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh, of which Mid-Ulster forms a part, should or should not come within the scope of the Bill was discussed at the Buckingham Palace Conference.
Hon. Members who have read the great history of the First World War by my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), The World Crisis, will remember that when this question was being discussed at the Cabinet, suddenly the calm, steady tones of Sir Edward Grey were heard dealing with much graver issues, namely, the news which had been received that Austria had delivered an ultimatum to Serbia. Then in my right hon. Friend's words,the parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded into the mists and squalls of Ireland.This part of the United Kingdom has re-emerged from what I suppose my right hon. Friend would now call the mists and squalls of Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) made some remarks with which I am very largely in agreement, but I think he was a little unfair when he said that the purpose of the Petition presented by Mr. Beattie to the election court was to enable the Government to get two extra seats in the House. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) reminded us very properly that Mr. Beattie did not petition immediately after the General Election, as he might well have done, and that it was only as a result of the decision of the House last July to declare the seat vacant that he had no alternative and was obliged to lodge his petition.
1528 The right hon. Member for South Shields has also posed a question whether a Petition could not have been presented against Mr. Beattie at the same time as he presented the Petition against the nominal Sinn Fein victor, Mr. Mitchell. I should have thought that although technically it might have been possible for that to be done, in fact it could not have been shown that the electors of Mid-Ulster who voted for Mr. Beattie were aware, when they did so, that he held offices of profit under the Crown. They might have been aware that he acted on the various appeals tribunals, but, from my knowledge of the constituency, I do not think it could have been shown that they knew that these were offices of profit under the Crown.
The findings of the Select Committee seem to be quite unexceptionable, although the effect will be that Mid-Ulster will have to face its third election within nine months. I feel that Mr. Beattie has to some extent been the victim of circumstances. He acted throughout, as has been generally admitted and very strongly expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Sir D. Campbell), in good faith; there is no doubt about that. The fact remains, however, that he became a Member of the House by demonstrating before the election court that the nominal Sinn Fein victor at the by-election last August was disqualified. Now that he has himself been shown to have been disqualified at that time, he can hardly expect to be allowed to remain a Member of the House, and one can scarcely quarrel with the Select Committee for declining to recommend that his election should be validated. I hope, however, that it is the feeling of the House that in the circumstances it would be unreasonable not to indemnify him.
A little information has been given about how these proceedings started. If hon. Members look at page 8 of the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee during the examination of the Attorney-General, they will see that it was because of information which he had received in the shape of a rumour that my right hon. and learned Friend thought he ought to look into Mr. Beattie's qualifications. We have also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South that, consequent upon what Mr. Beattie said to him, he thought 1529 he should advise him to consult the Attorney-General.
That seems quite clear. I would only say that it puts me in mind of the wartime poster, with which most hon. Members are familiar, which said, "Careless talk costs lives." I wonder whether a slightly modified version of the poster should be placed in the precincts of the House. I suggest that it might read, "Careless talk costs seats."
Mention has been made of the position of the returning officer in this case, and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South has referred to the returning officer's inability, under the present law, to refuse to accept the nomination of a candidate who is a convicted felon. I know that it is argued that to do otherwise would be to place judicial functions in the person of the returning officer, but I should have thought that some formula might be devised whereby—when it is known that a candidate is a convicted felon and when a certificate of conviction can be produced within the time allowed for objections after nominations have been received—the acceptance of an authenticated certificate of conviction might be held to disqualify the felon, thereby avoiding the possibility of going through the almost farcical proceedings which the electors of Mid-Ulster have been subjected to during the last nine months.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I do not think the observations of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) are in order on this Motion, though they may be in order on the Bill to be considered later.
§ Mr. Hyde
Of course I accept that, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I would only say that I have not made any suggestions of gerrymandering in Northern Ireland, because I do not agree that there is, or has been, any gerrymandering in Northern Ireland.
I would once again stress the need for a revision of the law so that at least a candidate at a Parliamentary election cannot be disqualified on the ground that he is holding such an office of profit as Mr. Beattie held, which in his case, as 1530 has appeared, far from being an office of profit, has been a complete and dead loss.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Mr. F. J. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)
I intervene for only two or three minutes, as one who also sat on the Select Committee, to make a remark apropos of what was said by the hon. and gallant Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Major Anstruther-Gray). He seemed to take a little more than necessary comfort in the fact that Government members of that Committee—and, of course, by implication, Opposition members of that Committee—had not acted in any partisan way. I hope that when this House sets up a Select Committee, especially to deal with issues of this kind, such a Committee will always consider matters—particularly affecting an hon. Member of this House—in an impartial manner.
§ Mr. Bellenger
We are about to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Those days were perhaps somewhat different owing, possibly, to the fact that the Labour Party was not represented so strongly in the Opposition then.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
I am not sure that I quite understand. Is it suggested that the Select Committee which inquired into the Marconi case was partisan? Does that mean that only one side was partisan, or both sides?
§ Mr. Bellenger
Certainly I think it is clear to those who read history that it was a partisan Committee. However, perhaps I had better not stray too far into the past, but keep on the firm ground of the present and, perhaps, the future as I want to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman a question about the intentions of Her Majesty's Government. I am not so sure as, apparently, my hon. Friend is that Crown patronage—which, after all, is at the bottom of these investigations—has ceased to exist. This Select Committee was considering a case which arose under an Act of Parliament, called the Succession to the Crown Act, of more than 200 years ago. We know that we can speak with a certain assurance in saying that in those days there was very 1531 acute partisanship—and on the part of the Crown also. Probably that Act is inappropriate today, and that, presumably, is why the Government have introduced the House of Commons Disqualification Bill.
I am not going so far as to say either that we can define in an Act of Parliament specifically all offices of profit under the Crown, or that even in these days it might not be possible for Crown patronage, possibly through the Government, to exist. In the case of the public corporations which we have set up, Members of Parliament are, of course, excluded from membership, but 1 could think of one or two national institutions—although not Government institutions—which could exercise considerable Crown patronage if it were thought necessary to do so.
I would remind my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones) that Mr. Beattie was a member of an appeal tribunal under the Northern Ireland National Assistance Act, 1948. I do not wish to impugn Mr. Beattie's bona fides or his integrity at all. I listened to all he said in evidence, and I am convinced, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) certainly was, that he was a gentleman of considerable naïvetè, if not innocence. I wonder whether, in some of the answers to our questions, he really considered the implications of those answers.
All I am saying is that in an Act of that nature it might be possible, on certain occasions, for individuals offering themselves for election to Parliament to be able to exercise some influence on their electors to enable them to win votes. Therefore, I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it would perhaps be wiser if he applied his mind to some sort of document which could be drawn up and submitted for the attention of all candidates standing for Parliament, and of all returning officers also. We know that the returning officer is not concerned with any disqualifications affecting a candidate who submits himself; all he is concerned with is that the candidate is validly and properly nominated.
I think that the Government ought to consider these points; and Government Departments should also consider them. We found that Government Departments issued most misleading documents when 1532 they appointed Mr. Beattie and other hon. Members to tribunals. If these matters were considered it might save the House and future Select Committees a lot of trouble.
I want to ask only one specific question of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The fifth Order of the Day today reads "House of Commons Disqualification Bill: Committee." The Government have had that item on the Order Paper for a long time. I think that the Government should now make up their minds and inform the House—I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will do so today—what are their intentions with regard to that Bill, particularly in view of the way in which the Select Committee expressed views on the matter in paragraph 11 of its Report. I am not at all sure that the Government might not find it necessary even to set up a Select Committee to consider this question. I do not think that the Herbert Committee has said the last word on this disqualification Measure. I hope that before we conclude this business today, the Government will indicate their intentions quite clearly to us.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
I am very glad that the hon. and gallant Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Major Anstruther-Gray) has spoken, for it gives me the opportunity to apologise to him. When, on the night of 9th November, we were debating the House of Commons Disqualification Bill we got into a controversy about the situation as it used to exist governing Regular officers of the Armed Forces. The hon. and gallant Member's memory was better than mine, and 1 apologise to him. He was right; I was wrong.
§ Major Anstruther-Gray
I thank the hon. Member very much for that. Somebody has to be right and somebody wrong, and it so happened that time that the hon. Member was wrong and I was right.
§ Mr. Wigg
I should have gone back and looked at the Royal Warrant as well as the King's Regulation's as they were.
On the matter which is before the House, I think we ought to be generous to Mr. Beattie. We ought to accept the Select Committee's Report. We ought 1533 to indemnify Mr. Beattie. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) when he suggested that we should ask this man to pay back his salary. That is a bit mean. The House of Commons is a generous place. After all, if we said that Mr. Beattie must make up for what had been spent, where would it end? We should have to have a Select Committee to inquire how many free papers he had had from the Vote Office and how many railway warrants had been issued to him, and then somebody might discover that his meals had been subsidized.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne said something quite wise. He said that we should not make worse something which was bad. Let us forget it as far as Mr. Beattie is concerned and turn to the really important matters in connection with the Report, namely, paragraph 11. I hope to keep strictly in order, and perhaps I might dwell on what has taken place in connection with the House of Commons Disqualification Bill, where it has got to and how it got there.
I am delighted to welcome today my right hon. Friend the Member for Basset-law (Mr. Bellenger) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones), who have discovered the great virtues in the House of Commons Disqualification Bill. I remind the House that this Bill, this very important Measure, which affects the composition of the House of Commons and, therefore, democracy itself, was planned to be slipped through as the result of a plot between the Government and the Opposition by the medium of the operation of the usual channels.
It was planned to slip the Bill through on the afternoon of 22nd July, not even as the first Order. It was to go through as the Second Order after we had disposed of the Second Reading of the Validation of Elections Bill. Indeed, on 9th November, when we debated the Bill itself on Second Reading, the Home Secretary complained of the action of my hon. Friends and myself and of the wise action of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) in stopping the Government from this trick. Today, of course, the Government are grateful that we did it, which shows once again the importance of not allowing the Government, or the Front Bench on either 1534 side of the House, to take control of affairs when a House of Commons matter is being discussed.
This is a House of Commons matter. It is not solely a matter for either the Government or the Opposition. It concerns every Member in the House. I am very glad to say that I have taken some part in it. I have tabled Amendments to the House of Commons Disqualification Bill on fundamental questions.
I shall not incur your wrath, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, by going into the merits, but I think I am well within the bounds of order in saying that on 22nd July the Bill was, if possible, to go through on the nod. We would have had the Bill's Second Reading, Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading all in one afternoon had the Government thought they could get away with it. But now the Bill has gone underground. We waited for Second Reading until 9th November. It has been committed to a Committee of the whole House, and we have never heard a word since. Yet I venture to say that there is no more important matter that the House ought to consider than this one, because it opens up the composition of the House and how the House can do its job I should like to hear from the Attorney-General or from the Leader of the House just what are the Government's intentions about paragraph 11 of the Select Committee's Report. Certainly, back benchers are in some difficulty. Having had the Second Reading of the Bill, we cannot question the Government, we cannot put Questions on the Order Paper, about the matters which have been raised by the Bill. To do so is out of order. All that one can do is to put a Motion on the Order Paper, wait until Thursday and, if one is fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye, ask the Government what their intentions are. That is not good enough. I hope the House will be generous. I hope it will accept the Report of the Select Committee and will not accept the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne, and that it will indemnify Mr. Beattie; but the House ought to be told when we are to proceed with the Committee stage of the Bill.
As always, I want to help the Government. They are in difficulties and I want to help them. Quite clearly, if I am in 1535 difficulties about tabling Questions, the Government also are in difficulties because of the Amendments which are on the Notice Paper. I venture to tell the Government that so far we have only scratched the surface of the subject.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The hon. Member is traversing the frontiers of order very skilfully. Very often, I am not certain on which side he is.
§ Mr. Wigg
I congratulate myself on having managed to keep going so far, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I can only hope that my luck will continue.
I want to help the Government, and 1 make this suggestion. The original Bill was concerned with the recommendations of the Herbert Committee. That was as long ago as 1941. When we considered the Bill on Second Reading, we did not, of course, know that Mr. Beattie's case——
§ Mr. Wigg
I was going on to say that when that happened, we did not, and could not, know that Mr. Beattie's case would arise. 1 suggest to the Government that if they cannot give the House a definite undertaking about the progress they hope to make with the Bill in Committee, at least they will say that the matter is under active consideration, or use some formula of that kind, and that they will not rule out the possibility of adopting the suggestion, made from these benches today and on previous occasions, that they should have a further Select Committee to consider the matter of contracts.
I have managed to say what 1 wanted to say and if I continue any longer, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I should be told to sit down. I therefore anticipate your Ruling and resume my seat.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)
This is primarily a Parliamentary matter, and I assure the hon. and gallant Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Major Anstruther-Gray) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) that when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) 1536 was expressing thanks to the Select Committee for its work, he was speaking for many Members on both sides of the House.
The work of the Select Committee is, perhaps, the one bright, redeeming feature of the whole of the sorry story of Mid-Ulster. The Select Committee has considered the matter painstakingly and judiciously and, as the hon. and gallant Member himself pointed out, has not hesitated to come to a conclusion even if it is a political disadvantage to the majority, or Government side, of the Select Committee. One would hope that that principle would govern the work of Select Committees whenever matters of this kind are discussed, and I associate myself with the thanks that have been paid to the Select Committee whose recommendations we are now debating.
I should imagine that the House would be unanimous at any rate on two points. One is that we would not wish to validate the election of a man who was not only bottom of the poll in two elections but who himself became a Member of the House by invalidating the candidate who had secured the largest number of votes in each of the two elections. The House of Commons can swallow many things, but 1 doubt whether hon. Members on both sides of the House could swallow a validation in those circumstances.
Secondly, I think that the House would be unanimous in its desire not to inflict pains and penalties upon Mr. Beattie. This is by no means a personal matter. If there is any fault it is not in Mr. Beattie but in the quality and calibre of his advisers, and if there are any pains and penalties to be inflicted by anyone on anybody they ought to be inflicted on the Northern Ireland Unionist Party and not on the innocent Mr. Beattie.
After having said that, I would say that critical points arise in the debate. They have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) in this and in every debate in which we have discussed this matter. The wheel has indeed come full circle this afternoon, and the Government's supporters in Northern Ireland can congratulate themselves on having made the Government look ridiculous.
I should like to remind the House of the simple facts of the case. Mid-Ulster had an election and returned as its 1537 Member of Parliament Mr. Mitchell, who was, and is, in gaol for criminal offences. Therefore, the Government carried a Motion which declared that Mr. Mitchell ought not to have been elected to Parliament, and they ordered a by-election. When they did that, my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne and others of my hon. Friends warned the Government that they were doing the wrong thing.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has again pointed out this afternoon that the criminal offences of Mr. Mitchell are in essence political, that he wanted a United Irish Republic, and so did the people who voted for him in both elections. By voting for a man who physically could not come here and politically would not come here, I believe that they were exercising their undoubted rights as free citizens, just as Wilkes won the battle long ago for the right of a constituency to send to the House a Member of Parliament who was an anathema to the bulk of members.
§ Mr. R. Chichester-Clark (Londonderry)
Surely there were plenty of other candidates for the choosing who would have been abstentionists and equally an anathema to Members of this House. After all, there were plenty of Sinn Fein candidates who were not felons who could have been chosen.
§ Dr. King
If I may say so with respect, the hon. Member is begging the whole question. I am claiming the right of a constituency to select not only the political colour of a candidate but the actual candidate they send here. I suggested six months ago that these people were perfectly logical in choosing a candidate who politically would not come here, and who had shown that political faith so intensely as to commit crimes which made it impossible for him to come here. I suggested that that decision and choice should be in the hands of the constituency.
§ Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)
Would the hon. Member go so far as to say that the constituency would be entitled to send to the House someone who was adjudged bankrupt if it so wished?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The Motion before the House does not deal with Mr. Mitchell. It deals with Mr. Beattie.
§ Dr. King
I must endeavour then to tell the story of Hamlet, without mentioning the Prince of Denmark.
At any rate, in the second election, Mr. Beattie decided to stand. He lost the election, whereupon the Government decided that Mr. Beattie should be the Colonel Luttrell of this modern Wilkes story and, not having been elected, should be taken as having been elected.
§ Dr. King
I was about to refer to the decision of the court of elections in Northern Ireland, as quoted in the Minutes of Evidence. It reads as follows:We hereby certify that at the conclusion of the said trial we determined as follows:—(a) That at the date of the said Election on the 11th day of August, 1955, the said Thomas James Mitchell was incapable of being elected as a member of Parliament and was not duly elected or returned; and (b) That the said Charles Beattie was duly elected to serve in the present Parliament for the said Constituency of Mid-Ulster and ought to have been returned.Now we are seeking solemnly in the High Court of Parliament to overturn the solemn decision of the election court, whose decision was supposed by Section 124 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, to be:final to all intents and purposes.We have had before the Select Committee the legal opinion of the Attorney-General that the finality of the decision of the election court referred only to the invalidity of Mr. Mitchell being elected to Parliament and not to the validity of Mr. Beattie being elected.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
Does my hon. Friend not consider it possible that the true answer may be that the proceedings of the court in Northern Ireland were a complete nullity from start to finish because the only man who had the right to bring that petition and challenge Mr. Mitchell's election was a validly nominated and defeated opponent, which Mr. Beattie was not, for he was not validly nominated?
1539 Dr. King: I am not a lawyer. 1 am a layman and I am not competent to discuss the validity of the decisions of the election court. All that I am commenting on is the fantastic position in which an election court has decided that somebody is validly elected to the House, by powers given in an Act of Parliament which states that those powers are final, and now we have to revoke at least half of the decision of that court.
If anything were needed to complete the Gilbertian nature of the election it is what I think is the perfect innocence of Mr. Beattie. Although he suffers because he held an office of profit under the Crown, it seems quite clear from the Select Committee's Report that the only profit he ever obtained out of the committees on which he served was when in 1948, long before he was a Member of the House, he obtained 3s. 6d. travelling expenses. One would imagine that he spent most of that travelling and that the profits would be extremely exiguous.
When the Select Committee discussed the question of profits we had certain legal statements from the Attorney-General, a little confusing to the layman and, in view of today's debate, particularly confusing to thousands of laymen who themselves may be dreaming of some day standing as candidates for Parliament. I quote from paragraph 3 on page 2 of the Minutes of Evidence in the Select Committee's second Report. The Attorney-General said:Now, I think it is clearly established that an office may be an office of profit even though no profit is in fact received.On the same page the Attorney-General is reported as quoting the following from the Report of another Select Committee:A series of precedents supports the view that the receipt of remuneration by the holder of office is immaterial.As far as Mr. Beattie is concerned, that seems clear from the evidence on page 3 of the Select Committee's Report where it is stated:Now the actual terms of Mr. Beattie's appointment excluded the payment of compensation for loss of remunerative time as distinct from compensation for loss of earnings.Therefore, if Mr. Beattie could have got anything out of this, it could in no sense be regarded as profit as he could merely get a sum which he could offset against 1540 the loss of earnings. Moreover, he claimed no such money.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne, I believe that the situation in which we find ourselves this afternoon arises from two fundamental causes. One is the disbarring of candidates because they hold offices of profit under the Crown. Here, as very rarely indeed, I part company with my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne. In this modern day and age I do not see any danger of either the Crown or anybody else, by means of financial controls of people who may be potential members of Parliament, attaining the hold on Parliament which the corrupt Executive managed to hold for two or three centuries in the past.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
I did not say it would.
Dr. King: 1 must have misunderstood my hon. Friend. I thought that he was still worried about the danger of patronage.
§ Mr. Silverman
I only meant to express the view, which I think is still held by every hon. Member of the House, that the time has not come when we should discard altogether the principle that the man who holds an office of profit under the Crown can at the same time be a Member of the House of Commons. 1 never suggested that in the middle of the twentieth century we could re-enact Lord North's Parliament. I am sure we could not do so.
§ Dr. King
As I said, this is where 1 part company with my hon. Friend, and indeed other hon. Friends, in that I am much more jealous of the right of free British citizens to share with other free British citizens one of the rights and privileges of free men, namely, the right to stand as a candidate for Parliament. I should be very jealous of interference between a free citizen and that right to put himself before the electors and ask to be elected to Parliament.
I do not want to pursue the details of what ought to disqualify a citizen because we may discuss that when we come to the Committee stage of the House of Commons Disqualification Bill, but I would say that all this debate has shown that whilst there may be difference of opinion, as there obviously is, as to what 1541 kind of job should disqualify a man or woman from standing for Parliament, it has become almost tragically, certainly tryingly, patent that every British citizen has the right to know where he stands. Parliament becomes humiliated if year after year we need to have indemnities, and the excusing of men and women who in good faith have served on public committees—service on which gives them the right to claim travelling expenses—Select Committees having ruled in the past that, even if they did not claim travelling expenses, the fact that they could do so was a disqualification for Parliament.
It is clear from this debate and from this set of incidents that we can only end the kind of Mr. Beattie story and the story of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones), if, first, we make it clear what are the disqualifications and, secondly, if we ensure that every British citizen has an opportunity of knowing exactly where he stands.
A more fundamental point is the question of interfering with what I believe ought to be the unfettered right of a constituency to choose whatever candidate it wishes. I believe that sooner or later we shall have to concede to Mid-Ulster the right of choosing a rebel, the right of choosing someone not to sit in Parliament if that is the opinion of the majority of Mid-Ulster citizens. Now that both candidates at the last election have been declared, in the old historic phrase of the Wilkes' days, that they ought not to have been elected, I feel certain that Mid-Ulster will make in this third election, the decision it made in the previous two. I believe that the British Parliament must face that fact that it is acting in accordance with its best traditions not when it supports an unpopular opinion—I am not supporting Mr, Mitchell and I certainly do not share his views—but when it supports the right of the most unpopular opinion to try to achieve democratic representation in this House of Commons, or, as Mid-Ulster seems to want, democratic representation even not in this House of Commons, and allows that opinion to be expressed without the interference of Parliament
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newing-ton and Hackney, North)
I agree entirely that a constituency should have the right to choose whoever it wants to represent it in the House of Commons, 1542 and if it desires not to be represented at all by anyone, it should not be represented. I rise because 1 am anxious to speak about one matter that troubles me.
As a result of the election petition an order of the court was made declaring Mr. Beattie the elected representative, and it will be remembered that by the words of an Act of Parliament that order was… final to all intents and purposes.I know that the Attorney-General has given his opinion on the meaning of these words, and I would be the first to pay deference to the value of that opinion, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman said in reply to a question in Committee that there was no authority for the view which he put forward. I offer only a humble opinion, but it appears to me that those words "final to all intents and purposes" are entirely unambiguous in their scope.
I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be the first to agree with me that whatever may have been the intention of Parliament when the matter was debated and when the provisions of the Act were discussed, if the words are clear and unambiguous no court would look at the intention of Parliament, and no court would look to see whether it was reasonable or unreasonable. Of course, one would be the first to concede here that it would be entirely unreasonable to read these words in any other way than that suggested by the Attorney-General, but that is really not the question.
If, as I have said, the words are clearly unambiguous, how can it be said that the right way to read them is to limit them to the "intents and purposes" of the issues raised in the case? With the greatest respect to the opinion of the Attorney-General, I should think that a court might well hold that the result of the order made was that, whether Mr. Beattie was disqualified in the first instance or not, as a result of the order made by the court under Act of Parliament, he was entitled to sit in this House. That shows the Gilbertian situation into which we have got.
I rise only to draw attention to the danger resulting from that interpretation, and I suggest respectfully that when this matter is considered further, as it must 1543 be, some attention might be paid to that point so that any doubt may be removed with regard to the meaning of the words.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General
I will now seek to reply to the points raised during the debate, which has covered a fairly wide field. I would first say in reply to the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), who disagreed with the opinion that I expressed on the construction of Section 124 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, that there has been no decision on that Section that I can find, nor can I find any authority which throws any light on the problem. However, while one bears in mind the character of the words "to all intents and purposes," one has still to construe them in their context and to bear in mind that what was being enacted was that the decision of the court on the issues before the court should not be subjected to further challenge.
The only issues before the court in the present case were those to which 1 have referred, namely, whether Mr. Mitchell was disqualified, and whether that disqualification was so notorious that the votes cast for him were to be regarded as spoilt votes. If the court came to that conclusion, which it did, the consequence follows that the return would have to be corrected by declaring Mr. Beattie to be returned.
I do not think there is much point in pursuing that matter further here, but it is my view that the interpretation which would be placed by the courts on the Section, taking it in its full context, would be that:… final to all intents and purposes:was limited to the decision of the court in relation to the votes cast for Mr. Mitchell.
§ Mr. Weitzman
Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, at any rate, it is a matter in which there is a doubt, and that the doubt should certainly be removed?
§ The Attorney-General
It could, of course, be removed by litigation, but I do not think one wants to encourage that— at least, not everyone wants to encourage it
§ Mr. James H. Hoy (Leith)
I first raised the question in the Select Committee, and the Attorney-General stated that the Act provided that the certificate should be final to all intents and purposes, and that Parliament had to abide by that law until it was changed. Did the right hon. and learned Gentleman, when he replied to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), mean that it is the intention of the Government to effect clarification in the disqualification Measure now before the House?
§ The Attorney-General
That provision is in the Representation of the People Act, 1949. I should not have thought at first sight that it would come within the scope of a House of Commons disqualification Measure.
§ Mr. Ede
The 1949 Act was a consolidation Measure; the Section referred to goes back a very long way, I believe to 1867 or thereabouts. Do I understand the Attorney-General to say that there has been no litigation or decision on the phrase since it was first incorporated in an Act, or was he limiting himself to the period since 1949?
§ The Attorney-General
I could not find any decided case on that Measure or any other Measure which would assist me in the interpretation of the provision. So much depends on the context in which the words are used.
I now seek briefly to cover the various points which have been raised, without transgressing, I hope, the frontier which the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) found so embarrassing from time to time. A good deal has been said, in passing, about the Motion for the issue of a new Writ after the disqualification of Thomas Mitchell was made clear to the House. All I want to say about that, in reply to the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), who reminded us of the advice which he gave us, and the hon. Member for Itchen (Dr. King), is that they ought not to seek to attribute the decision to move for the issue of a new Writ to anything in the nature of party politics. I want to make that quite clear.
1545 It is laid down in page 186 of Erskine May, for what it is worth, that:The House is, in fact, bound to take notice of any legal disabilities affecting its Members, and to issue writs in the rooms of Members adjudged to be incapable of sitting.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
I did not say a word on this occasion or previously to suggest that the Government were influenced in the matter by any party motive. I quite accepted that they were not. The point in relation to Erskine May was taken in the original debate. The point which 1 then made, and which I think has now perhaps rather more force than it seemed to have at that moment, was that, although Erskine May says that, it does not say it in respect only of disqualifications under the Treason-Felony Act. It refers to any disqualification. What 1 said was that we ought not to distinguish between the two Acts, and, instead of passing the Motion, should have referred the matter to a Select Committee, as we had done all the other cases. Had we done so, it is possible that the Select Committee would have recommended us to take no further action.
§ The Attorney-General
I remember the hon. Gentleman's speech on that occasion. I think I heard the whole of it. I do not think we should resuscitate that debate. I think that in these cases there is a reference to a Select Committee where there is a doubt about the facts. There was no doubt about the facts in the case mentioned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) drew attention to the way in which this case had come to light, and coined the phrase "Careless talk costs seats. "I want to make it clear to him and to the House that it is all very well to speak in that way, but any hon. Member who holds an office of profit is running the risk of incurring very substantial penalties. Therefore, when I heard rumours of that kind, I felt bound to make inquiry and to speak to the hon. Member.
In this connection, I can say something which supports what was said by the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) and by my hon. Friend about Mr. Beattie's position. In view of the doubts originally expressed by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne, I would point out that when I first saw Mr. Beattie, he was, as my evidence before 1546 the Select Committee makes clear, extremely vague and uncertain as to the nature of the appointments that he held. It was perfectly clear to me that at that time not only did he not know precisely what offices he held but the idea that they were offices of profit had not really been appreciated by him at all. Consequently, I think one can say with some confidence that Mr. Beattie had acted throughout in perfect good faith and without knowing at all, till the last, of his awkward position.
I do not think it is necessary for me to reply to any further points in relation to Mr. Beattie's personal position, but I should like to add that I sincerely hope— perhaps one is being unduly optimistic— that this is the last of these cases in relation to a Member of this House which will trouble this Parliament. These cases have given a great deal of trouble to my predecessors and to me. It is no pleasant task to have to advise a Member of Parliament, no matter on which side of the House he sits, of the perils of his position, nor is it pleasant to have to move a Motion of the type before us today.
What of the future? We had a very interesting and important debate on the Second Reading of the House of Commons Disqualification Bill. I do not accept the historical reminiscences of the hon. Member for Dudley as being entirely accurate. The hon. Member will remember that the Second Reading of the Bill was put down as the second Order of the Day on a Friday, by agreement, after two Motions relating to a disqualification. There was no intention of slipping it through. A Bill like this would never be slipped through Parliament, but I wish that we had been able to get the Second Reading some time ago, because we would have been able to have made more progress by now.
However, it has now had its Second Reading, and we had the most valuable Second Reading debate, there being remarkable unanimity of opinion from both sides of the House about what was desired. Many hon. Members urged that the Bill should be clear and precise so that candidates should know without doubt where they stood. I think that everyone would agree about that. There are problems connected with it. If one tried to make a list of the various categories of what might be offices of profit under the Crown——
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not go too far into the subject of the Bill.
§ The Attorney-General
I hope that I am not going too far into the Bill.
I hope that I am not going too far in dealing with the difficulties of legislating on this subject, but, in view of the recommendation of the Select Committee in paragraph 11, I thought that I would be in order, without referring to the provisions of the Bill, if I gave just a general indication of the problem. It is that if one is to make a list, is it to be' a list that is so long that it will be like a telephone directory, and involve a long search before one can see whether one's particular office is included? A precise statement would, however, be most helpful.
I am not in a position to make any statement today about what is being done with that Bill and what its further progress will be, apart from assuring the House that very careful consideration has been and is being given to the many problems involved, and saying that it will not be very long before an announcement, which I hope will prove satisfactory to hon. Members, is made.
§ The Attorney-General
I thought that I had left the issue raised by the hon. Member for Dudley. May I thank him for expressing a desire to help the Government and say that I am sure that, if he persists in that, it will be most useful.
I should like to say, in answer to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for 1548 Berwick and East Lothian (Major Anstruther-Gray), that it is most important that memoranda which are sent out should not be misleading. Of course, they are not misleading to persons who are appointed to those offices, but who have no intention of standing for Parliament. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that steps are being taken to make it clear to those who are appointed to those offices that, notwithstanding that they receive no remuneration, they may still hold offices of profit under the Crown which, if they were contemplating Parliamentary candidature, they might find embarrassing under the law as it now stands.
§ Mr. Bellenger
All sorts of papers are issued to candidates at elections. Would it not be possible for somebody to issue some form of memorandum to indicate clearly to the candidate that certain things would disqualify him from sitting in Parliament, if he were elected? Could it not then be left to the candidate himself to decide whether he should give up such offices before being nominated as a Parliamentary candidate?
§ The Attorney-General
The answer is that if one provided in a memorandum a definition of offices of profit under the Crown, that definition might be entirely accurate, but I should be awfully sorry for the lay candidate who had to read it. It might be extremely lengthy and one might still leave out what was his office of profit, and again a trap would be constituted. We have to do all we can to make the law clear and certain over as wide a range as we can, and leave the smallest marginal area of doubt.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. Beattie, returned as a Member for Mid-Ulster, having at the time of his election held certain offices of profit under the Crown, was incapable of being elected or returned as a Member of this House, and that this House agrees with the recommendations contained in the Second Report from the Select Committee on Elections.