HC Deb 12 March 1957 vol 566 cc1071-82

Amendment made: In page 32, line 22, at end insert:

12, 13 & 14 Geo. 6. c. 68. The Representation of the people Act, 1949. In section one hundred and fifteen, in subsection (2), the words "or is a member of the Commons House of Parliament".
12, 13 & 14 Geo. 6. c. 90. The Election Commissioners Act, 1949. In section one, in subsection (4), the words "be members of Parliament or".

—[The Attorney-General.]

8.0 p.m.

The Attorney-General

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

I commend the Bill to the House as a good Bill. Although it is apparent that some hon. Members would have liked it to have covered a wider field, in the field which it does cover it clears up the position, in my view satisfactorily. There is a long history behind the Bill and I should like for a moment to remind the House of it.

It was sixteen years ago almost to this day when the then Lord Privy Seal, now Earl Attlee, moved for the appointment of a Select Committee with these terms of reference: To inquire into the law and practice governing the disqualifications for Membership of the House of Commons by reason of the holding, or the acceptance of, Offices or Places of Profit under the Crown, and to make recommendations. That Committee is commonly known by the name of the Herbert Committee and we still have with us two hon. Members who sat upon it—my hon. Friend the Member for Carlton (Mr. Pickthorn) and the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker). I am sure that the House will agree that that was a valuable Report.

It was as long ago as 1943 that the first draft of a Bill to achieve this purpose was prepared. At least, that is the first draft which I have seen—one prepared in 1943. I gather that the view was then expressed that a final draft in a complete and perfect form would be ready within a month, but that degree of optimism was not justified in the event.

After the war the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) did a great deal of very valuable work on this problem. Indeed, the problem then had an added urgency, for the House had to pass a number of Acts to validate the election of various Members and to indemnify others, in all, I think, eight Members.

We then produced a Bill based very largely on the right hon. and learned Gentleman's work, which was kindly made available to us, but when the House discussed that Bill it made clear its preference for a list of disqualifying offices instead of having a definition, as we had had since 1707. A Select Committee was then appointed under the chairmanship of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens), and I am sure that the House would like me now to pay a tribute to him and also to all his colleagues on that Committee.

I know from the amount of work which I have had to give to these problems how difficult they are, and I can pay with a greater degree of knowledge a very sincere tribute to them all for their work, done at great speed. They had very difficult problems to tackle, and although there was a division of opinion about reverse disqualification, and matters of that sort, I believe that they reached the right solution of nearly all these problems. I am sure of one thing—that the whole House is indebted to them for the work they have done.

The result of their labours is shown in the Bill. If I may, I should also like to express our gratitude to the Parliamentary draftsman of this Bill who, curiously enough, was, I believe, the Parliamentary draftsman of the first draft produced in 1943. Last but not least, I should like to pay my tribute and express my thanks to my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State to the Home Department, who joined us rather late in helping to get this Bill through, but whose assistance has been valuable for all that. I should like to thank all those who have assisted us in the passage of the Bill.

The Bill makes two revolutionary reforms in the law. It sweeps away a disqualification which had existed since the eighteenth century with respect to recipients of certain Crown pensions and contracts. What is much more important, it gets rid of the troublesome phrase, "office or place of profit under the Crown," a phrase which has given rise to a great deal of trouble for a considerable number of hon. Members. The Bill substitutes a list of offices the tenure of which is incompatible with membership of the House. Of course, it does not follow that Members of the House are always suitable as holders of other offices; membership of the House may be incompatible with the tenure of those other offices. But this Bill makes it quite clear what offices the House of Commons regards as incompatible with membership of the House.

The phrase of which we are disposing led to many troubles and difficulties. I think that no fewer than fourteen Members of Parliament have been entrapped by it since the Socialist Government came into power. We had five Acts validating the elections of nine Members and we had three Acts indemnifying five other Members. We have also had one Act in relation to six Members of the Northern Ireland Parliament. I hope that the Bill will achieve its object and lead to the House not being troubled by such Measures in future, and I hope that it will also achieve what I think is its major object—making it possible for those who wish to stand for Parliament to know before they stand whether they should free themselves of any offices which at that moment they possess.

As both the right hon. and learned Member for Newport and my hon. and learned Friend have said, the administrative arrangements will be extremely important, but if it works as I believe it will work, then I think the Bill will reduce the uncertainty and fear of the law, which in the past has been very tricky and uncertain in its operation.

8.8 p.m.

Sir Frank Soskice (Newport)

I should like, if I may, to associate myself very cordially with the tributes which the Attorney-General paid, except the tribute which he paid to me, for which, if I may, I should like to thank him very cordially.

I would add one other tribute—to the Attorney-General and his hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who helped him in the preparation and presentation of the Bill?

The Bill makes a revolutionary change in a most important aspect of our constitutional law. I think that all lawyers and all hon. Members have over and over again been perplexed by words, apparently simple in their context, contained in the previous Statute law on the subject but which, on examination, are shown to be full of startling ambiguities. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said, those words have led to repeated situations of perplexity centering upon pure mistakes on the part of hon. Members who, either owing to quite excusable inadvertance or to a misunderstanding of wording as difficult to construe as these words were, have found themselves apparently in peril of disqualification.

From now on it should be perfectly easy for candidates and hon. Members to know exactly how they stand. They have to look at a list, and they do not have to apply a difficult definition section. That is a very great improvement, and the whole House, and, if I may say so, the country, should be grateful for this far-reaching change in the law, which preserves what is valuable, and, I think, removes what was dangerous, in the preexisting Statute law on the subject.

I am very glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman paid tribute to those who collaborated in producing this difficult Bill, which has a new and important concept embodied in it. We have made a big step forward tonight in reaching the Third Reading stage and I shall be very glad to see the Bill on the Statute Book.

8.12 p.m.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

Contrary to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General, who began by saying that in his opinion this was a good Bill, I am of opinion that it is a bad Bill, but before I give my reasons for saying that it is a bad Bill I should like to refer to two other matters.

One of them is a matter which has distressed me and, I am sure, a number of my colleagues here. It is that so little interest is taken by hon. Members in this very important Bill. Here is a Bill which deals with qualifications for membership of this House, with who may become Members and who may not, and which is settling that matter not merely for this Parliament or probably the next Parliament, but possibly for a whole series of Parliaments.

It was very noticeable that when the Bill came forward for Second Reading, after it had received long consideration by the Select Committee, the only Members present besides the Attorney-General were those hon. Members who had actually sat on the Select Committee, Nobody else seemed to take the slightest interest. We had a few more to take an interest in certain aspects of the Committee stage, but here we are again, with an almost empty House, for the Third Reading of this very vital Bill.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

The most important Members are present.

Mr. Davies

Perhaps the hon. Member will speak for himself. I am sure that the rest of his colleagues will judge accordingly.

The other matter I want to mention is the tribute which has very rightly been paid by the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens). He was tireless in his energy and devotion to the work, and all of us who had the honour of sitting with him would desire to express here, in public, our gratitude for the way in which he steered the whole matter.

Why do I object to the Bill? I object to it in principle. So far as it clears up any anomalies that used to arise on the question of what was an office of profit under the Crown it certainly is an improvement upon that aspect of the subject, but I object to the Bill in principle because what it does is to crib and confine membership of this House so as to exclude people who really ought to be entitled to come here and assist us in our deliberations.

I regard this House as not only the most important institution in this country, but the most important institution in the whole world, because it is not only regarded as the Mother of Parliaments, but it should be the pattern of all Parliaments. At present, as one has had occasion previously to point out, democracy today is in a very different position from what we thought it was fifty years ago. It is actually fighting for its very existence, and its success will depend upon the effect that this House will have upon opinion throughout the world.

The effect that it will have will not be influenced at all by the sanctity of its ancientness, or the fact that it has had certain constitutions laid down for it and has followed certain traditions throughout the centuries. Not a bit; it will depend upon the quality of its Members from Parliament to Parliament.

The strength of Parliament will depend upon the people whom it can attract from every walk of life. No one ought to be forbidden to come into this House, and the wider the scope the better for the House and the better for the country, but nowadays, when we are in this great difficulty with regard to the future of democracy, we are confining membership of the House to a smaller number than ever before in its long history.

Year by year, I can almost say month by month, new posts are being created for the administration in this country, and presumably the best people are chosen to fill those posts. If they fall within this very long Schedule to the Bill they are then told, "You may take this post, but, from now on and for ever afterwards, so long as you hold that or a similar post, you will be excluded from membership of the House of Commons. If you think that the time has come for you to offer your services to a constituency, before you do so, and before the actual election, you will have to resign your post and chance whether you will be elected or not."

This so impressed me as a wrong approach that when I put forward this view in the Select Committee, it so appealed to my colleagues that an instruction was then given, and it will be found in the Report, for a Bill to be drawn up in what we call the reverse form, because under the terms of this Bill membership of the House is subordinate to the post which a man holds. The post is more important than membership of this House, because when the two clash and are incompatible, it is not that the man loses his post, because that remains.

What he does lose is membership of this House, whereas I should have thought that by far the better principle would have been that, once having been elected by a constituency and having had that honour and great privilege conferred upon him, in duty bound he ought to respect the wishes of that constituency, treasure the fact that he was a Member of this House and do his duty as such a Member, and the post would go.

Surely that is the right approach to this matter, instead of the one in this Bill, for what we are doing is to repeat, with certain slight amendments, what this House regarded as necessary as long ago as the reign of Queen Anne. The Attorney-General referred to what was done in 1943. All that really happened then under the then Mr. Deputy-Speaker, Sir Dennis Herbert, was that a Select Committee collected what the law was and reported accordingly, without suggesting any change of any kind whatever. That merely meant looking into the history of the membership of this House from the time of Queen Anne.

What was then the position? At that time there were two parties in the House; there was the King's party or the Queen's party, and those who did not belong. Those who acted on behalf of the Throne assembled round Mr. Speaker's Chair and the question of whether they would succeed in their proposal to bring forward a Bill and get it accepted as an Act of Parliament depended on their control over the other Members. Thereupon, they had the idea that the best thing to do was to create posts for these Members, "jobs for the Members"—not much of a job but very good pay—until they had a large party of that kind. Then the House, realising the danger that it might become a rubber stamp for any proposal made on behalf of the Throne, decided to bring in a Bill, which became an Act of Parliament, excluding those who held an office of profit under the Crown. It even excluded Ministers of the day, but the error of that was realised and an amending Bill was brought in a year or so later.

That was what was best for the protection of the House at that time. But surely that is not the protection which the House needs today. There is not a Government that would dare to try to keep themselves in office by sheer bribery. Nor would any hon. Member today lend himself to such a thing. It would bring unbearable disgrace upon him and those who bribed him, and would mean the end of the Member and probably the Government, or his party. Those days are gone, and now we are faced with an entirely new situation in which, all the time, we are taking more and more steps to interfere with the ordinary affairs of individuals in this country.

The men who are asking to take charge of those sort of offices are the best we can find, but after all the experience which they acquire we now tell them, by the terms of this Bill, that they can never take part in the deliberations of Parliament; that their experience will count for nothing, except, perhaps, that they may be able to tender advice from outside the Chamber. With the whole of democracy fighting for its existence, I should have thought that this House should be open to men from every walk of life who possess the highest possible qualifications, and that the only reason for exclusion would be that a man might find that the office he held, owing to the difficulty of fitting in times, or whatever it might be, was incompatible with proper service in this House. Were that so, I would say that membership of this House should go and that the office should be retained. In that way, I think we should not only preserve the great traditions of this House, but enhance its reputation and quality before the whole world.

8.24 p.m.

Sir Patrick Spens (Kensington, South)

It would be ungracious of me not to acknowledge the tributes paid to myself and the members of the Committee. I wish to associate myself with the tributes to my fellow members and, above all, to those who served us so well. If I may pick out anybody in particular, I would refer to the Parliamentary draftsmen whose work was invaluable, not only on this Bill but on the reverse disqualification Bill. The Parliamentary draftsmen were given a great deal more work by this Committee than Parliamentary draftsmen usually are.

We started out as a Committee with the intention of endeavouring to disqualify as few people as possible. Yet when we had finished our labours we had pages in the Schedule containing every sort and kind of office. One must remember that none of the people mentioned is a civil servant, because civil servants, under the provisions of Clause 2, are excluded en bloc. The people mentioned in the Schedule are not civil servants but those who hold offices which we think should disqualify them from membership of this House.

I differ from the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies), who said that they are disqualified for ever. At any time they can offer themselves for election to this House, provided they give up the post which they hold. While it is true that many of these posts are great posts, which few men would be willing to sacrifice to come into this House—I hope that the occasions for so doing will be very few—the great bulk of them are trifling posts; although in our opinion men holding such posts would find their duties incompatible with membership of this House. But, if they are prepared to give up their posts, the holders may stand at any time for election as Members of this House.

I hope that in the days to come the tendency will be to reduce the number of such offices and not to add to them by Orders in Council. During the weekend I spent some time wondering whether there was any avenue which would lead to a reduction in the number of these posts. I came to the conclusion—in this I think I have the understanding and sympathy of the Joint Under-Secretary of State—that there were a great number of appellate bodies of one sort or another which have arisen under different Acts during the last half-century and which deal with appeals against the refusal of this or that benefit.

I believe that it might be possible to establish one administrative appellate body to which all appeals of that sort might go, instead of having a vast number of tribunals of various sorts, the members of which we have disqualified from membership of this House. I throw that out merely as a suggestion, because I think that in future attempts should be made to reduce the number of the offices contained in the Schedule and not to increase them.

8.27 p.m.

Mr. Ede

The right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) described this as a bad Bill, but I do not share that view. I take the modern view that it is the best Bill we have got. It is a great improvement on the law which it replaces. While I should have preferred the reverse disqualification, I do not think that there are many people disqualified under this Bill who were not disqualified under the previous law.

Some of them might have been in the category of people who entered the House in all honesty and then, through an indiscreet conversation in the Dining Room, as happened in one case—or some other accidental disclosure, as occurred in the case of the auditors, found themselves disqualified, although they quite genuinely thought that they were perfectly safe in entering the House. I join with the right hon. and learned Member in hoping that the number of disqualifications may be reduced, possibly in the way he suggested in certain cases, and in others by the administrative machine becoming rather less clogged up with personnel than it is at the moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), whose absence this evening detracts from the gaiety of the proceedings, at one time in the Committee hailed the Attorney-General as a radical. I noticed at the time that the right hon. and learned Gentleman bore the imputation with some sadness. I can assure him that I have never regarded him as a radical. But he comes here this evening and boasts that he has submitted to the House a revolutionary Measure. It may be revolutionary to a lawyer, but to me it is evolutionary. It is bringing the procedure of the House in this respect into line with modern requirements, in ways which are easily understood by people who take the trouble to look into these matters. I should not regard this as a revolution. It does not immediately exclude hon. and right hon. Members opposite from membership of the House. We await the next General Election with every confidence that it will do that.

I would like to join in the tribute paid by the right hon. and learned Member to the work previously done by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice). I think that I am the only person now present who was associated with him in the preliminary work that was then done. The Bill has imposed upon a few people an amount of detailed research and adaptation of knowledge thus acquired that Members of Parliament can rarely have been called upon to undertake in the past.

The labours of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) in that respect are not even known, although they can be fairly surmised by his colleagues in the Committee, for he would meet us when the Committee sat in the afternoon with the results of labours that must have taken him, privately, many hours—and in conjunction with the draftsman he was able to guide us through most of the intricacies of this Measure without any really serious difference of opinion. Those of us who served on the Committee probably realise better than anybody else the great amount of very hard and painstaking work that he did.

I also want to join my tributes to those which have been paid to the draftsman for the ability with which he produced, at comparatively short notice, forms of words to deal with the most complicated provisions, which look very simple now that we see them in the Bill but which enshrine in the law the result of many hours of work and prolonged discussions in Committee.

The one thing I regret is that the Bill wipes out the old law dealing with contracts held by Members. I admit that the old contracts had very little relationship to modern life, and that the development of industries and joint stock companies have made the old law as dead as Queen Anne—although I believe that this was the law that came into operation during the reign of George III. I moved an Amendment in Committee asking that the House of Commons should be recommended to give its attention to the position created by the alteration in the law of contracts as applied to Members of this House. I sincerely hope that that will be done.

One heard on occasion in the Committee that if a Member did anything despicable in this respect the House of Commons should deal with it. I dislike personal debates involving the expulsion of Members for conduct unworthy of the House and which has not been the subject of decision in the courts. There was an occasion in pre-war days when two Members were expelled from this House. We were assured by the Attorney-General of the day that the evidence against them was not such as would have stood up to trial in the courts. I abstained from attending the House on that day because it seemed terrible for people to have to pronounce on colleagues on a matter that would not stand up to investigation in the courts. Let us realise that in personal matters of that kind this House is hardly the body to constitute itself a court of honour or a tribunal of any kind.

I hope that one result of the passing of the Bill will be that the Government will give attention to the question of contracts between Members of the House of Commons and the Government, and that in considering the matter and in making recommendations the Government will have regard to the requirements of modern practice in industry, in the professions and in the law dealing with joint stock companies. The Bill ought to make the task of candidates and agents easier. I hope it will relieve the House of the detailed considerations which, on so many occasions since the end of the war, we have had to give to the private concerns of people who were in the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.