HC Deb 26 February 1957 vol 565 cc1069-74

4.45 p.m.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

The Attorney-General

I suggest to the Committee that, the Bill having been recast, this Clause now serves no useful purpose, and should be deleted.

As originally introduced, the Bill disqualified the holder of any paid office or place under the Crown. That provision was most elaborately defined in the Third Schedule to the Bill. If one was defining a paid office or place under the Crown, it was necessary to define what kind of remuneration should operate to make it constitute a paid office. We have had under the existing law a number of cases where the problem arose in relation to remuneration, or payment of compensation, as it is usually described, for loss of earnings or remuneration as distinct from payment for expenses incurred.

I think that until now the view has always been taken that, whereas the payment of expenses did not make it an office of profit, payment of compensation for loss of remuneration was really payment of remuneration and, therefore, made it an office of profit. That was the position in the most recent case the House had to consider, that of Mr. Beattie. It was, therefore, very necessary that some provision should be inserted in the original Bill dealing with the problem of definition as to what should count as payment.

That Bill having been transformed into the present Measure, where the disqualification is achieved by means not of a definition but of naming a list of offices, the provision is no longer necessary. It is out of place in the Bill, in fact. It does not make any difference to the disqualification or otherwise a Member whether or not the Clause as such is complied with, and it is because it does not really fit in that I am asking the Committee to consider whether it should be retained.

I am fully aware that, when the matter was considered by the Select Committee, the provision was put in the Bill as a result of a Division. I suspect that it came in as a relic of the old school of thought that it was necessary to define when payment of expenses did not constitute remuneration and to put a limit on the payment that could be made to Members of Parliament.

I would point out to the Committee, also, that there is really no sanction imposed in this Clause. If subsection (2) is not complied with, and if more is paid than the appropriate scale or rate of expenses, all that can happen is that the Comptroller and Auditor General, presumably, will draw attention to it and the Member will be asked to repay. It has no effect upon his qualification as a Member of the House of Commons.

For those reasons, after further consideration, I suggest that the Bill would be better if the Clause were omitted.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I appreciate what my right hon. and learned Friend has said, that the Clause does not appear to be altogether appropriate to the Bill. It was appropriate to the other Bill, and it is still to this extent appropriate, that the subject-matter of the Clause is being affected by the passing of this Bill, that is to say, until the Bill becomes law there is a limit on what can be paid to Members by way of allowances. When the Bill becomes law, I think I am right in saying, the limit will be removed altogether. I should like my right hon. and learned Friend to tell the Committee whether I am right about that, that is to say, whether, if such a Clause is not put in, there will be no limit whatsoever to the amount which can be paid to Members of the House of Commons at the will of the Government by way of allowances.

If that is the position, I should regard it as somewhat undesirable. It seems to me that it would open the door to the possibility of undesirable things being done. It is quite true, of course, that present-day Governments do not, as a rule, abuse their power of patronage, but that does not mean that we ought to open wide the means by which any Government at some future date, in circumstances at which we cannot guess, would be able to exercise very great power of patronage without any possibility, under the law, of their being stopped.

Therefore, while agreeing with my right hon. and learned Friend, I do feel that something should be done to ensure that this power is limited and cannot in the future be abused. I am not certain where it ought to be done, and the Attorney-General did not make any suggestion. He ought at any rate to give a firm assurance that the substance of the Clause represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government, and I hope that he will give a further assurance, that in the appropriate place and at the appropriate time some amendment of the law will be made to ensure that we are back again where we have been in this respect, which, in this one instance, I think, is right.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

For my part, I am very glad that the Attorney-General seeks to delete this Clause from the Bill. I am reminded, by reference to the Report of the Select Committee, that it was the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) and myself who were in a minority of two on the Select Committee in taking the view that this was an undesirable Clause, whereas the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) and the majority of Members on both sides of the Committee, including my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), were of the opinion that the Clause ought to stand part of the Bill.

As the hon. Member for Hendon, South has pointed out, this is a most important matter which affects every Member of the House of Commons and, to that extent, affects the relationship between the Government of the day and all Members of the House. I took the view in Select Committee, and I take the view today, that it is inappropriate to have this Clause in the Bill. Moreover, I consider that it would be an indignity towards Members of Parliament to have the Clause, because what it seems to do, according to its present terms as I understand them, is to lay down that if Members of Parliament are engaged on visits or travel, there is a limit on the amounts for expenses which they should be paid.

No one, I think, pretends that Members of Parliament are overpaid, but it seems to me to be quite unnecessary and undesirable to provide by Statute that the allowance payable to Members of Parliament who may be engaged upon important duties either in this country or overseas should be restricted by Statute to a rate not exceeding the highest rate fixed by the Treasury in relation to expenses of persons in the civil service. I do not regard that as an appropriate criterion in any circumstances. Members of Parliament go abroad for a variety of purposes, sometimes directly on behalf of the Government, sometimes partly at the invitation of foreign Governments, sometimes on visits by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and sometimes—indeed, very often—as Members of Select Committees.

When Members go officially on such visits on the business of Parliament, it is undesirable, it seems to me, that the Government of the day should be able to lay down any limit on what those Members think is necessary for them to spend.

Mr. Percy Daines (East Ham, North)

The Treasury lays it down.

Mr. Fletcher

It is undesirable that the Treasury, which is the Department of the Government concerned, should be able to say to Members of Select Committees going abroad, "You have got this job to do on behalf of the House of Commons, but you can spend only so much in travel or so much on entertaining. If you spend more than that, you may perhaps risk losing your seat in the House because there is a provision in the House of Commons Disqualification Act about it."

I appreciate that the Attorney-General has said that there is no sanction, but I do not agree. There may not be any sanction written in the Bill, but surely the Attorney-General knows as well as I do that if this Clause passes in this form, it will, in effect, become common practice for the limit laid down in the Bill to operate. I think that that is undesirable, and neither the Treasury nor the Member concerned would be a consenting party for a moment to any departure from the limits laid down in this Clause.

I do not believe that there is any possibility whatever of abuse in this respect if the Clause is omitted. What was it that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hendon, South suggested? As I understood, he was suggesting that without this Clause the Government of the day might try and exert undue pressure on a Member of Parliament by offering him some financial consideration, which could be construed only as a bribe, if he went abroad on behalf of the Government.

In my judgment, it is almost an insult to Members of the House of Commons to think that any one of them is capable of being deflected from his judgment in his conduct as an hon. Member of the House of Commons because of an offer by the Government to pay him a rate of travelling expenses when visiting abroad which might be higher than that paid to a civil servant. In my view, it would be contrary to the dignity of the House for this Clause to remain.

Mr. Wigg

Because the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) has talked tommy-rot, that is no reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) should follow his example. If I understood the Attorney-General aright in his very lucid explanation, it does not make much difference whether the Clause is in or not. If an hon. Member—

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