HC Deb 26 November 1956 vol 561 cc187-96

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Robert Jenkins.

Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)

On a point of order. I want to ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, concerning this Prayer, which you will see is coming up for discussion at five minutes after eleven. The matter which has to be discussed is one of very grave importance to the whole solicitors' profession, and, indeed, to a great number of people in the country. Perhaps I may venture to read the relevant Order—

Hon. Members


Major Hicks Beach

Then I will refer to the actual part of it upon which I rely for my point of order. I quote from the Order Paper of 7th November, 1956. which guides Members on the procedure with regard to Prayers. It says that you, Mr. Speaker, need not put the Question to the vote if, because of the importance of the subject matter of the Motion, you shall be of the opinion that the time for debate has not been adequate. I venture to suggest that many Members on both sides of the House will want to express their views on this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "We want to vote."] Hon. Members say they want to vote, but many of my hon. Friends believe in democracy and that a matter of this great importance should be discussed before a vote is taken. I leave the matter in your hands.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and gallant Member will realise that I am bound by the Order of the House referred to, which says, putting it in simple language, that at 11.30 p.m., on a debate on a Prayer, I shall either put the Question forthwith or, if I think that it has not been adequately discussed, I shall adjourn the debate to the following day. But, in this case, this is the last praying day, and for me to adjourn the debate tonight would be, of my own volition and choice, to put an end to the Prayer. That I am not prepared to do, because it is a question for the House. Therefore, I must put the Question at 11.30.

Major Hicks Beach

Does not this situation arise, in fact, because this Prayer has been put down so late?

Mr. Speaker

That may be so, but I am afraid I have no control over that. I have to deal with the situation as it exists before me.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I am wondering whether these proceedings are really in order at all. I would draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the Order itself. It is headed "Statutory Instruments," but I do not believe that it is a Statutory Instrument; I believe that it is an Order of a learned committee, set up by the Solicitors Act, 1932. Secondly, if it is an Order, as it purports to be, it has no number. It is headed "1956 No." and there is no number following.

Mr. Speaker

It certainly is in order. The Sessional Order applies just as in the case of an ordinary Statutory Instrument. In view of the limited time at our disposal, I would ask the House to proceed with the matter before I have to put the Question.

Mr. Philip Bell (Bolton, East)

With respect, Mr. Speaker, as I look at paragraph 2 of the Order of the present Session, it says that, owing to the lateness of the hour at which the consideration of the Motion be entered upon,—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have dealt with that and I must ask the House to proceed. I cannot adjourn it, otherwise that would put an end to the Order. That is not my function. That is for the House to do if it feels so disposed. I must give the House an opportunity to pass judgment on the Motion.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

The Ruling you have just given, Mr. Speaker, is very important and will be of considerable interest to all hon. Members. But may I put one point for clarification? May we take it that if in future Prayers are put down on the last available praying day then, even if the discussion on the Prayer is not entered upon until perhaps eleven o'clock or later, you will feel obliged, under the Standing Orders of the House to which you have referred, to have a vote taken on that day regardless of whether there has been a full debate on not?

Mr. Speaker

I am bound to, because if I did not take the decision of the House at 11.30 but adjourned it, that would be to kill the Prayer. That is a decision for the House and not for me, so I am bound to give the House an opportunity of pronouncing on the matter. I hope that there will be no more waste of our limited time.

11.7 p.m.

Mr. Robert Jenkins (Dulwich)

I beg to move: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Solicitors' Remuneration Order, 1956, dated 19th October, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be disallowed. I propose to make my remarks very short owing to the lateness of the hour, but I must call the attention of the House to the fact that this is not a Government Statutory Instrument. It is an Order which has been laid before the House under the Solicitors' Act, 1932, by a Committee appointed under that Act in their official capacity. The names of the members of that Committee are the Lord Chancellor for the time being, the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, the President of the Law Society and the President of the Birmingham Law Society.

I wish to make abundantly clear to hon. Members that this is not a Government Order and, therefore, hon. Members can feel quite free to vote on this Order as they think fit. Although there have been other Solicitors' Acts since 1883, this Order would have the effect of changing the Solicitors' Remuneration Order of 1883. In other words, it would change the law as to the method of payment of solicitors. There have been increases in their charges as laid down by Statutory Instruments, but this would change the law. As a result of that four local authority organisations and the London County Council were negotiating with the Law Society up to April, 1954, as to whether or not an Order of this kind should be made.

I wish to make clear that there was no legal obligation on the part of the Law Society to consult anybody, but in fact it did so. I desire to quote from a letter from the Law Society received on 13th April, 1954, as that was the last letter received by the Association of Municipal Corporations, the London County Council, the Urban District Councils Association, and the County Boroughs Association The last letter that was received was after the last time consultations took place. From that moment, and until recently, no further consultations took place between either of the parties.

It is maintained by the Law Society in a recent letter to the local authority organisations that the negotiations had really ceased; but I must detain the House for just a few more moments in order to read an extract from the last letter sent by the Law Society to the Associations. This states: The Council of the Law Society can see no likelihood of an arrangement acceptable to the Law Society resulting from these present negotiations. Then it says that it is hoped eventually it may be possible to agree a scale of charges, perhaps after the position has been clarified by a series of taxations. The letter continues: It is the intention of the Council … that is, the Council of the Law Society, to notify you in advance wherever possible of any taxations which have the backing of the Law Society. No such notifications have been received by any of the five local authority associations, and I think it is perfectly right for me to inform the House that one of the reasons why the letter was sent recently to the municipal corporations was that some members of the Committee came to the decision that they did because the Law Society had stated that the negotiations had proved abortive. They had stated that the negotiations had proved abortive, and yet it is fair and accurate to say that the negotiations had never been broken off except unilaterally by the Law Society.

Discussions have been carried on for some time between the Law Society and local government representatives. These discussions have been to agree a special scale of charges payable by local authorities in these transactions, and such discussions have been adjourned temporarily to await further evidence on the results of taxations of solicitors' bills of costs; it being understood that discussions would subsequently be resumed. The making of this Order without notice to the local government representatives appears, in the circumstances, to be at least a breach of faith.

May I say, finally, that I am speaking obviously on behalf of local authority organisations, which represent 95 per cent. of local authorities in the country. I am not arguing the merits of the fees to be paid. That is a matter which was in process of being negotiated between the local authorities and the Law Society. What I am saying tonight is that, if the Order is disallowed, then the merits can be discussed between the Law Society and the local authorities. In those circumstances, there would be the opportunity for fresh discussions to take place and for further representations to be made so that another Order could be brought in which might be similar to the one we are discussing tonight.

What I do emphasise is that we must not allow the Law Society to trample on the local authorities and to break off negotiations when, in fact, negotiations previously in train were going to come to some conclusion beneficial to all concerned.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. G. A. Pargiter (Southall)

I beg to second the Motion.

The Motion has been fairly Moved by the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins), who set out fairly the position at which we have arrived. One point should be made clear to the House as to why all the local authority associations with London County Council are seriously concerned about the nature of this Order. I wish also to deal with the point about the lateness at which this Prayer was put down. This Prayer is not an ordinary one against a Statutory Instrument in the sense that it has to be put on the list. That is the reason it has appeared quietly and was not on the published list. It was picked up—I say "picked up" advisedly—at the last moment by the associations.

The associations were naturally alarmed. They were alarmed, first, that the Law Society had not thought fit to advise them that this Order was being made after negotiations had been going on. It is true that the negotiations had been suspended, but there has never been a question of the application of the negotiation as now alleged. The negotiations were suspended and the basis on which the talks had been taking place had not proved satisfactory. The matter was left over in order that some sort of case law might be built up to see what taxation cases were available to arrive at a suitable settlement.

I am not blaming the Law Society for trying to get what it could in the way of fees and charges. After all, that is what trade unions are for, and this trade union wants to get the best deal it can for its members. One does not object to that, but this has a vital effect on local authorities. Under the Act of 1883, which fixed the scale of charges—which have been amended from time to time—local authorities are protected. In other words, they cannot be charged scale charges. One can understand why that is. Local authorities are dealers in land, and sometimes sums of hundreds of thousands are involved. Solicitors have been able to charge as part of the vendors' costs only the items necessarily incurred and not the scale charges.

Local authorities have a vital interest in this matter. I do not want to go into the details, because that is what ought to be negotiated between the associations and the Law Society. That being the case, and the fact that according to its Setter the Law Society did not regard the negotiations as being broken off but merely suspended so that certain evidence might be made available on which the parties would meet again, it was open to the Law Society at any time since April, 1954, to say, "We have not got any evidence; we are going for an Order"—an Order which they sought on many occasions, which would do justice to their members, but which we consider would do gross injustice to local authorities.

That is the position, and the reason we are asking that this Order be disallowed, not so that it shall not be presented again, but in order that there may be proper negotiations and in order that there may be good relations again between the Law Society and the local authorities.

11.24 p.m.

Sir Lancelot Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

The first thing I should like to say is how very regrettable it is that a matter of this importance, and a matter in which considerable aspersions have already been cast in a very short debate against an exceedingly reputable and representative professional body, should have come on at this late hour and with so little opportunity to dispute them or discount them or even to discuss them.

May I go straight to the basic point of the Prayer. [An HON. MEMBER: "Will the hon. Member declare his interest?"] Certainly. I am a solicitor and a member of the Law Society, and I am proud of it. For the benefit of the hon. Member, perhaps I may put to him the fact that the Order which we are now discussing restores the situation to the profession which was contained in the draft Order of 1883, from which the profession then voluntarily departed. Therefore, we are not doing, or seeking to do, anything which the then Statutory Committee did not offer us in 1883.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington) rose

Sir L. Joynson-Hicks

I do not have time to give way.

The basic point which my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Robert Jenkins), who moved the Prayer, could have made was that the merit of the Order which we are discussing is such as to justify the House in throwing out the Prayer. The line which he took was that the negotiations between the associations which he represented and the Law Society had not been satisfactory. The point which I want to put to the House is that the Order is made by a Statutory Committee which has been set up by the House, on the authority of the House, a Statutory Committee consisting of the three principal members of the legal profession plus the two principal members of the solicitors' branch of that profession, and that they considered the application of the Order in its fullness and its detail and to their own satisfaction before they made the Order at all.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

What about referring it to the Monopolies Commission?

Sir L. Joynson-Hicks

Therefore, the point I want to put to the House is whether in the course of a quarter of an hour's debate, in which it is quite impossible to discuss—

Mr. Skeffington

Withdraw the Order.

Sir L. Joynson-Hicks

—the Order or its merits or demerits, we as a responsible House of Commons are justified in overriding and overruling an Order which has been made by the body which we have appointed. That is the first thing I want the House to consider seriously.

It will amount to a sorry state of affairs if we, in our wisdom, appoint statutory bodies to make Orders and give them the power to do so and if, after they have fully considered the matter and have made an Order and come to this House for confirmation, we throw out an Order of theirs after a quarter of an hour's discussion at the end of a night.

On the second point that he made, my hon. Friend is under a complete misapprehension. There is no justification whatsoever for the argument which he has raised. The negotiations to which he referred arose in 1953. In 1948, application had been made by the Law Society for the amendment of what I will refer to briefly as Schedule 1. In 1950, as that application had not been granted, the Law Society applied again. That application was not granted and in 1952 the Society applied again for amendment of Schedule One. In 1953, as the application to amend Schedule 1 had not been granted, negotiations took place with some of the local authority organisations, but not with the nationalised industries and not with Government Departments, all of whom were equally affected, on Schedule 2, which is a quite different matter.

Those negotiations came to an end—let me not say that they were abortive if my hon. Friend thinks they were not abortive, but they came to an end—and application was again made for an amendment of Schedule 1; and it is Schedule 1 which has now been amended. I therefore ask the House to accept the Order—[HON. MEMBERS: "Divide"]—which the Statutory Committee has made and not to throw over and to jeopardise the work which it has done.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

On a point of order. I respectfully submit, Mr. Speaker, that the debate has not been adequate and that the Division should not be granted. I have a copy of the Order that was made on 7th November, and no mention is made in it of making exceptions for Orders which are prayed against on the last day. I submit that a twenty minutes' debate is not enough.

Mr. Speaker

That may well be so, but I am bound by the Order. As I have said before, there are two things which I can do. One is to put the Question, and the other is to adjourn the debate. If I were to adjourn the debate, even supposing I were to, the praying time would run out and the Order would become effective, and that is a decision for the House.

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Order [7th November].

The House proceeded to a Division:

Mr. ROBERT JENKINS and Mr. PARGITER were appointed Tellers for the Ayes, but no Member being willing to act as Teller for the Noes, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Ayes had it.

Resolved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Solicitors' Remuneration Order, 1956, dated 19th October, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be disallowed

To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.

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