HC Deb 19 March 1956 vol 550 cc951-6

Order for Second Reading read.

9.33 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Harry Hylton-Foster)

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

Hon. Members know all about the need for the Bill. They will recall that my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal informed the House on 8th March of the disqualification of four Members of the Northern Ireland House of Commons, including the Speaker, and of two Northern Ireland Senators. The facts were laid before Parliament in a White Paper, Cmd. 9698, which contains all the relevant information and incorporates the Reports of the four Select Committees of the Northern Ireland Parliament.

By Section 18 (2) of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, the law for the time being relating to disqualification from Membership of this House applies also to Members of both Houses of Stormont. and the Parliament of Northern Ireland has no power to legislate on this subject. Her Majesty's Government have received representations accordingly from the Government of Northern Ireland proposing the passage of the necessary indemnifying and validation legislation at Westminster.

The White Paper shows that for varying periods since 1944 the Members and Senators concerned held offices of profit under the Crown and were therefore incapable of being returned. I would call the attention of the House to the fact that all four of these Select Committees of the Northern Ireland Parliament were satisfied that those disqualified were unaware of or failed to appreciate the legal complexities involved. The Committees also recorded that, with the exception of the small sums received by the late Mr. Henry Fleming, no remuneration or expenses were at any time applied for or received by any of the persons concerned. It is, hon. Members would think, a wholly lamentable matter that these persons should find themselves in this predicament just because they had the patriotism and the self-sacrifice to undertake additional public work without reward.

This Bill does not include any specific provisions to validate the actions of the Speaker, Sir Norman Stronge, and of Sir Wm. McCleery during the time that he held office as a Minister, because the validation of their elections puts that matter right automatically. I would only venture to say that we have had five Bills on this sort of topic in this Session, and I do not doubt that hon. Members are tired of the process and regard the present activities of the Select Committee, to which this House has thought fit to refer the House of Commons Disqualification Bill, as of the utmost importance.

9.36 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I do not know why the learned Solicitor-General should have looked so fiercely at me in the more emphatic parts of his speech, because I am still living in the hope that I have never done anything that will disqualify me, though, as case succeeds case, my hope becomes less and less.

In the first place, I think we ought to express some sympathy with the relatives of the late Senator Henry Fleming, about whom this matter arose at a time when he was so seriously ill, as the medical evidence given in the report indicates, that a long life of service was being terminated in circumstances which, I am quite sure, we must all regret. I think we ought also to express our thanks to the Northern Ireland Parliament and its Committee for the care with which they have gone into these matters.

A fresh point emerges here, which I do not think really arose in any except one of all the cases we have in front of us. Most of these Members, when they had their attention drawn to their position as long as a couple of years ago, immediately took steps to resign from the offices which they had held, and which, as the learned Solicitor-General said, were in every case offices to which a person had every reason to feel some pride in being called, as they indicated that they were persons capable of exercising a judicial temperament, which is a very great testimonial that one can get in any part of Ireland.

I join with hon. and learned Gentlemen in the hope that the Select Committee, on which the House did me the honour to appoint me as one of its members, will be able to find a way in which perfectly reputable citizens serving the community in a number of ways that are very essential shall not be subjected to the worry and almost the indignity of finding themselves virtually suspended from the service of this House or of either House in Northern Ireland through this kind of inadvertence. I hope that we shall be able to find a way in which it will be possible for a person to know what his position is, and that it will also be possible to take some steps to avoid the repetition of this kind of thing.

Let us take the case of Dr. Nixon. This is a part of the evidence: Did you then think that your position as a Member of Parliament was regularised?—I did not. I did not think my position was irregular. I think you misunderstand. After you had signed that letter did you think that as regards being a Member of Parliament you were in a regular position?—That I was in a regular what? Would you repeat the question, because it might be important? After you had signed the letter and resigned as a factory doctor, in your own mind did you think that you were quite valid and regular in your position as a Member of Parliament?—Because I signed that letter in the Ministry's room here had no effect one way or another on my mind, because prior to signing the letter I had given the position no thought whatever; and having signed it I regarded it as a routine thing that had been done by the Ministry official. I did not approve or disapprove of doing it, and I did not take into my consideration the effect of that letter. I can only say that he was a very honest witness.

I am not saying this in any way to pillory him, or to say anything about him that could be regarded as offensive. I am sure that that represents the state of mind in which many of our colleagues, whom we hold in the highest respect, have found themselves when confronted with this matter. We have stumbled across an archaism in the law of this country which, in every way, it is desirable we should remove. But let no one think that in so doing we desire to see an increase in the influence of the Crown, as at present represented by the Executive, over Members of the House not in the Government.

The origin of these troubles was in Parliaments that were very different from that which we now have. On the other hand, it is still important that people should realise that the Executive's power to influence private Members of Parliament should be limited to its powers of argument and not to the granting of favours and offices. That was what gave rise to the legislation which now gives us, in very different circumstances, quite undeserved trouble. My right hon. and hon. Friends hope that the Bill will have the speedy passage which we understand the Government desire it to have. We sincerely hope, although the hope is somewhat faint, that this is the last of the Bills of this nature that we shall have to consider.

9.42 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)

I shall detain the House for only one minute in order to underline what the Solicitor-General had to say and to call attention to the fact that none of the ladies and gentlemen whose election we are validating received any money from the offices of profit they are supposed to have held. I want to call the attention of the House to the Reports of the Select Committee on Election one by one: Your Committee are satisfied that Dr. Hickey acted in all good faith and without any knowledge of the legal complexities involved, and that at no time did she apply for or receive any remuneration or expenses of any kind whatsoever. We are satisfied that Sir William"— that is, Sir William MoCleery— never acted as Assessor and neither claimed nor received either remuneration by way of fees or otherwise, or expenses. Your Committee are satisfied that Sir Norman Stronge acted in all good faith and without any knowledge of the legal complexities involved, and that at no time did he apply for or receive any remuneration or expenses of any kind whatsoever during the period he was Chairman … Your Committee are satisfied that Lieut.-Colonel Richardson acted in all good faith and without any knowledge of the legal complexities involved, and that at no time did he apply for or receive any remuneration or expenses of any kind whatsoever during his chairmanship. Your Committee are also satisfied that while acting as Appointed Factory Doctor Dr. Nixon did not at any time receive any fees or emoluments from the Ministry of Labour and National Insurance. The fact that these people received no sums of any kind shows how ridiculous it is that in this modern time and age we should have to indemnify them for a crime which they never committed. I hope that the work of the Committee will at some time prevent Parliament from having to put right the case of men and women who have done no wrong whatever.

9.45 p.m.

Sir David Campbell (Belfast, South)

I wish to thank my right hon. and learned Friend and the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) and the hon. Member for Itchen (Dr. King) who have spoken in support of this Bill. I would emphasise the public service rendered by these six people to the people of Northern Ireland. I cannot do better than read an extract from a letter addressed by Mr. Maginess, who was then Home Secretary, to the Speaker, Sir Norman Stronge: The Council, consisting of an independent Chairman with equal number of employers' and workers' representatives and a number of persons representing other interests, was set up under the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act (Northern Ireland), 1945, and it is, as you know, charged with the duty of advising and assisting my Ministry in matters relating to the employment, undertaking of work on their own account or training of disabled persons generally. The sympathetic working out of these matters will mean a very great deal to disabled persons and especially to disabled ex-Service men and women, and in view of the importance of having the right Chairman it would give me a very great pleasure if you would accept the appointment. I am well aware how busy you are and of the many calls which are made upon your time, but I do not think that the demands of the Council would be onerous, and I am looking forward to receiving a favourable reply. It may be said that similar remarks would apply equally to all the other persons involved in this matter. They performed public service to our people in Northern Ireland, and none of them, with the exception of the one Senator who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, received any emoluments of any sort.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Oakshott.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without Amendment; read the Third time and passed.