§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 1.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is not a new Bill, but it has been substantially altered from the Measure that my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) introduced some years ago. It is, in fact, the third time that it has come before the House, and I hope that we shall have an opportunity for a fairly long and full debate on it this afternoon.
The Bill has a very long connection with the Gainsborough Division of Lincolnshire. It was the intention of my distinguished predecessor in that Division to introduce such a Measure many years ago, when this House passed the Judicial Proceedings (Regulation of Reports) Act in 1926. However, as he spent some twenty-six out of his thirty-three years of service to this House in some office, he was denied the rights of a private Member.
This Bill was first introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe), and I am very much indebted to him for his work on it, and for his original draft, which I have cribbed to help me with my own draft. I am also very greatly indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton and his supporters who have helped and encouraged me so much and have allowed me to benefit from their previous experience. I am also extremely grateful to hon. Members opposite, who have advised and supported me and have signed this Bill so that it shall not founder, as did its predecessors, from want of support from that side of the Chamber.
Unlike its predecessors, this Measure puts the onus on the testator for saying that his will must not be published. It does not affect that rather admirable and somewhat Victorian character—somewhat common in the North—whose wish it is to be seen to "cut up for a tidy sum". Such people genuinely wish to have their wills published, and I cannot agree with the second leading article in The Times this morning, which says that it will 746 become standard form in drafting a will for the testator to say that he does not want publicity. I believe that people will add that only when they feel that it is necessary; or that non-publication will advantage the beneficiaries, as is so often the case. I do feel, however, that the right of a person to say that he does not want his will published is one that the House should give to everyone who sets about the important and very personal business of making his will.
There are provisos in this Measure covering the publication of gifts to charities; interesting judicial procedures; and of wills of historic interest. There is also a special proviso allowing executors to publish a will if they think that the publicity will help them to trace a beneficiary. And it does nothing whatever to stop the right of a solicitor, creditor or interested party going to Somerset House, paying 1s., and examining a will.
In this third draft, we have attempted to meet all the objections made to previous Measures while, at the same time, trying to give to the individual the same right of privacy in regard to his own private affairs when he is dead as he enjoyed during his lifetime. When a man is alive—and unless he commits a crime—his bank account is not published. The Income Tax, even the Surtax, authorities do not need this publicity in order to collect their dues. Why, therefore, should it be argued that the Estate Duty Office requires publicity in order to ensure that it gets its just dues?
It is by the publication in the local paper of the smallest wills that the greatest harm and pain is often caused. I have a letter from a solicitor in the Midlands—he was, in fact, a constituent of my father's—who deals with very many small estates. He says that in seven out of ten cases the first request he gets from the testator is that no details whatever of the will should be published in the newspaper. I have been amazed by my postbag since I was fortunate enough to draw a place in the Ballot and announced that I intended to introduce this Bill. I have had letters from Penzance to the North of Scotland, and I have had the most tremendous support in my own constituency.
747 It is worth bearing in mind—because so much of the opposition to this Bill seems to come from newspapers that circulate in the heavily-populated areas—that life and society in the country districts and villages is so much more personal and intimate that even the publishing of the smallest legacy may have unhappy and, perhaps, disastrous consequences. I have been accused, particularly by The Times this morning, of wishing to protect the "poor little rich girl." I can only say that the poor little rich girl, whatever advantages she may have, surely has the right to the same protection and consideration during her tenderer years as has the poor little criminal.
There is one very famous case concerning my own county which is a very good example to quote. Hon. Members may remember that when a distinguished Lincolnshire peer died his heir was conceived but not born, and there was naturally a great deal of speculation about the future of the estate, The publication of that will and fortune has led to a very difficult existence for the daughter of the marriage, whose main news value to the gossip writers of the newspapers today has been her father's modest fortune.
In considering the Bill, I certainly think that the House ought to remember the vast increase in newspaper gossip writing during the last three years. I must, however, point out, in fairness, that certain newspaper groups have always made a point of not publishing wills or, if they have published them, have done so in the greatest possible detail available when probate of the will has been declared. Even so, that is really only the presentation of half the truth; and even if some groups do their very best to respect the wishes of people in regard to their wills, that does not apply to the actions of their competitors.
I will, if the House will allow me, read from a letter that I have received from the managing clerk of a firm of West Country solicitors. He has been in that job for forty-four years, and he says that he has long experience…of considerable pain being inflicted on parties concerned by the publication of such details.748 He continues—and this is important:The reasons for dispositions made by Testator are his own affair entirely, and in numerous cases when they appear to inflict hardship in certain directions or preference in others this has been done after the most careful thought and with adequate cause. Press reports, too, are so frequently misleading and it is not unusual for damaging gossip to arise from such.It is this publication of a half-truth, the insinuations about a wife who has been left out but who has already been adequately provided for—it is this, and this harmful tendency, that I hope by this Bill to counteract. I had pointed out to me by the son of a former Liberal Member for the Gainsborough division, a large newspaper proprietor in the eastern counties, that in his view and that of his group of newspapers, the publication of with affecting very large estates was a matter of public interest because very often, particularly in country areas, the whole way of life depends on the future of an estate and naturally at the time of death there is terrific speculation about whether it is all to be sold and broken up.
I am not trained in the law, but I have checked very carefully with one of the leading firms of solicitors who handle big estates what exactly is the procedure when a very rich person dies. The important point to bear in mind is that the value that appears in the newspaper, the value that is shown at the time when probate of the will is granted, is only a nominal value. It does not take into account the value of any land or the colossal value that there may be attached to timber on the estate, or the value of historic chattels, of foreign real property or of gifts made within the five-year period. Therefore, it is necessarily only a temporary figure. Surely the publication of a temporary figure at a time when so much interest is involved—a totally inaccurate figure which may represent only one-third of the estate—can be nothing but misleading and cause doubts in the minds of people who are interested.
That is why I feel that the second leading article in The Times is wrong for a third time this morning. It goes on to say:After probate a will is a public document which anyone may see. This is in the public interest and so is the right of the Press to publish what is, in effect, already public.749 The point against that is that what is already published at the time of a person's death, particularly in the case of a large estate, is inaccurate and reflects nothing like the truth.
Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)
Surely any papers dealing with the grant of probate are sworn to by persons making the application.
§ Mr. Kimball
I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend, who is an extremely famous lawyer. I hope I did not create the impression that any member of his profession in declaring probate does other than declare the true value of the liquid assets in the United Kingdom. The trouble is that in view of these other sources of income to which I have referred it is not always possible to make a proper assessment. The Estate Duty Office does not charge interest on these things in the first year, and that points to the fact that it does not get the details very quickly.
§ Mr. Niall MacDermot (Lewisham, North)
The hon. Gentleman is opposing the publication of what he admits to be a matter of public interest—namely, the disposition of estates. How can the fact that information relating to a foreign estate or gifts made within five years may not be available have any bearing on that point?
§ Mr. Kimball
Timber is a very large part of an estate, and its value is surely one of the most important things in an estate.
Perhaps I may be permitted to continue my argument. I should like to draw attention to a case that was mentioned yesterday in the Daily Telegraph of a very large Cumberland land owner who, fourteen years after inheriting an estate from his uncle, was able to make a statement about what the future of that estate would be. He was able to say what Estate Duty had been agreed and what was going to be done with the estate, but it had taken fourteen years to get the matter cleared up.
There are other examples of the length of time required to clear up an estate, but I have not had time to get in touch with the executors and ask permission to mention those cases in this House. I think, therefore, that the House should take the example which appeared in the 750 Daily Telegraph yesterday and realise that there are many other similar cases, and that it can take as long as fourteen years to obtain the details of any large estate and publish them.
No great democratic freedom is involved. The publication of small estates particularly in local newspapers is harmful, unpleasant and embarrassing. It only satisfies a local sense of curiosity. The publication of all large estates must, because of the reasons which I have given, necessarily be inaccurate. What this simple Bill does, therefore, is important. I hope that the House will allow it to have a Second Reading and so allow every Englishman the right to leave his money to whomever he likes without feeling that that inheritance will be an embarrassment or a millstone round somebody's neck. In short, this Bill gives all Englishmen the same rights over their private affairs when they are dead as they enjoy while they are alive.
§ 1.16 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)
I beg to second the Motion.
Even the bitterest opponents of this Bill could not complain of the courteous way in which the hon. Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball) has introduced it. He has had some advantage in that there has been an attempt on two previous occasions to obtain the Second Reading of such a Bill and he was therefore aware of some of the criticisms which one might expect to be raised.
I wish to deal first of all with the large issue involved. It is said that the passing of this Bill will be an infringement of the democratic rights of our free Press. What the hon. Gentleman is trying to do is to deprive the British Press of the right to give a certain sort of publicity. I want to make it clear that I believe that our democracy is the greatest in the world, and we all know that this has not been achieved very easily. Indeed, it is something for which there have been civil wars. I would be the last in this House to wish to do anything that would weaken that democracy. When one is abroad and makes comparisons between the way of life in this country and in other countries one knows that our way of life is much better. I do not believe that this Bill will be a great barrier against British democracy, as has been suggested.
751 I should like to quote a small article which sums up the attitude of the British Press to this Bill. I quote from the Star, which said:The Private Bill to restrict publication of wills, which comes before Parliament on Friday, is clearly an attack on British Press freedom.I personally have a great affection for the Star, having read it for thirty years. It is the only leading Radical paper in London in the evening. If I believed what the Star apparently believes about this Bill I should not be supporting the hon. Gentleman today.
I think we ought to define what we mean by the freedom of the Press, and put it on record. Freedom of the Press means that we should have, as we do have in the country, a whole range of newspapers reflecting every point of view in this country, from the Daily Express on the one hand, whose viewpoint by and large is that of Lord Beaverbrook—and some of those views are quite out of date and futile in this modern world—to the other extreme of the Daily Worker, which is the voice of Communist Russia. It admits it; it says so.
One could query a number of factors associated with this great British Press of ours. We could ask a number of pertinent questions, which would be in order during the Second Reading debate on this Bill. We might well ask, if this Bill is said to be an attack on the British Press, where the Daily Worker gets its money from. It tries to convey the impression that the money comes from voluntary subscriptions, but when we take into account the cost of issuing a publication of that size, of course we have every reason to doubt that. I do not believe for a moment that the Daily Worker gets its money from Britain. It is an absolute fraud to say so, and one day we shall be able to prove that it is.
The Daily Express is dominated and run by Lord Beaverbrook. Quite faithfully and properly it interprets the viewpoint of his lordship, whatever it may happen to be at the particular moment. Between those two, the Daily Express, on the one hand, and the Daily Worker, on the other, there is a range of newspapers covering every political point of view in this country in every possible way. Many of them are quite openly prejudiced and 752 biased. My own newspaper, the Daily Herald, is, of course, the Labour Party paper, and it quite properly slants its news in order to suit the Labour Party point of view. The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have never hidden the fact that they regard the party opposite as the best political party which has ever existed. They colour their news in every way they possibly can.
All these things we expect in a democratic free Press. We do not have to buy any particular newspaper. I do not take the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail. I do not like either of them, and I do not like their political views. But this is all part of the democracy about which we speak. To say that this Bill is intended to put another nail in the coffin of our free democratic Press is stuff and nonsense. What is it that we wish to do? As the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) quite properly said, we are trying to keep private those matters which are private. I shall give examples of how the Press, because of its freedom, has brought unhappiness and misery to many people. After all, there are already some restrictions on the Press which we have learnt to apply. For example, we do not allow the Press to give the names or addresses of juveniles who come before the courts. We say that that shall not be allowed. That is an infringement of the freedom of the Press.
Why should the Press not print the story of little Johnnie Smith who stole some money from a gas meter and give the name, the address and all the sordid details? How the newspapers would love to do it if only they had half a chance! Would they not make a good story out of it? We say, however, that they shall not do it. No one today says that this restriction is a gross affront to our democratic free Press. We say that there shall be this restriction because, in a democracy, it is right that things of that kind shall be kept private.
As the hon. Member for Gainsborough very properly said, when a person is alive his private affairs are his own. I hope that I shall not worry you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, by referring to you, While you are alive, what money you have in the bank is none of my business or my concern. Whether you have invested your money or whether you have it in the bank, if you have any money—I do not 753 know whether you have—and what stocks and shares you may have is none of my business. Moreover, when the time comes, as it comes to us all, when you go to a much better and happier world, as I hope you will, it will again be none of my business to whom you leave your money or how you decide it shall be shared. All this is none of my business, and neither is it the business of the British public.
The British public, by and large, are good people. They do not really want to know these things. But, of course, some sections of the Press—I do not want to indict them all—always gleefully accept the challenge which is issued on the publication of a will and really "go to town", making people's lives really unhappy and miserable.
I will quote one instance. Reference has been made to large wills, and I will deal with that, but what about small wills? I will give a story which is closely relevant to this argument, a story of a lady whom I knew very well. I will not go into the details of the names or the area in which the people lived, because they have had enough pain and suffering already. This lady died and left£800. It was money she had worked for all her life. She left a husband and five children, but in her will she bequeathed the£800 to her eldest daughter. She did not include her husband, and she did not leave any money to the rest of her children.
The will was published in that form, and the local Press took it up. The story was then bruited about among the neighbours and everybody that there had been unhappiness between the husband and the wife, that the other children had been disowned; they obviously had not been loyal to her, and there was really only one person deserving of the money, namely, the eldest daughter.
I have some personal knowledge of this case, and the truth about it was that the will was made after discussion in the whole family. The eldest daughter was to receive the money, and she was to look after her aged father. It was as simple as that. I can tell the House now that that story was not believed, and even today it is not believed locally. That is the harm which was done by the publication of that will. What right has the British public or the local Press to have 754 published those things in that way? No explanation was given. That is the kind of way in which most sordid conclusions are drawn from the publication of details of money which is left.
I will bring my example right up to date. I do not want to cause any more harm or do any more hurt, but I will mention now the kind of reporting which has followed the death of Robert Donat, that very fine and great actor. He left about£24,000, and it appears that he has not included his present wife in his will. I ask hon. Members to look at today's Daily Express—that brilliant and kindly newspaper. Let us read what it says:Robert Donat's widow, actress Renee Asherson, sat alone in her dressing room last night after hearing that her husband had left her nothing in his£24,752 will. Callers were told that Miss Asherson was so upset that she could not even see close friends. But I was told: 'She is not upset about the will. She has been a sick woman since the death of Mr. Donut.'What a despicable story! None of us knows the reasons or the background of the matter. None can say whether there have been private arrangements made. For my part, I do not want to know. I do not think it is my business to know. If there is pain and suffering, as there undoubtedly is, it should not be exploited; but exploited it is again and again.
It is said that the Bill is aimed at curtailing the freedom of the individual, keeping these details out of the public knowledge, that it is an affront to the great free, British democracy, and that it is only the first step towards much greater restrictions. My answer to all that is just, "Bosh! I do not believe it."
Let us look at another aspect of the matter. I have had discussions with reporters about this. I claim to be as friendly with the Press as any Member of Parliament. I always believe in good public relations, and it is a foolish Member who does not. I know a number of reporters reasonably well. I will not mention any names or newspapers, because it would not be right to do so, but I can generally say that my experience in talking to reporters, whether they be experienced men or just cub reporters, is that this is the one job they hate. When a will is published and certain family details are thereby disclosed, the news desk says, "Go and get the dirt on that story". The reporter's job is then to pry into the 755 private lives of people to find out why the money was left in this way. If they do not come back with a story, they are in trouble with the news editor concerned. Reporters, like the rest of us, have a job to do, and in many cases theirs is an unpleasant and dirty job. I pay them tribute. By and large, they do the job as well as they are able.
We are all aware of the fact that, particularly in politics, if we do anything wrong, the Press is down upon us. That is fair enough. If we get ourselves involved in criminal proceedings, it is right and natural that publicity should follow; it is, in fact, part of the punishment. How often does a magistrate say, when sentencing someone to imprisonment, "You have already been punished because of the publicity". That is fair enough. We must expect it. But that is no argument against this Bill. By the Bill, we are, in fact, trying to maintain a little privacy in these other matters.
I ask the House to consider for a moment the occasion when details of wills are published. It is a time when, already, a family is bereaved and distressed. It may be that a will is harsh, that for some reason certain action is taken which leaves people miserable and dejected. This is surely not the time for further publicity which will hurt people over again.
One of the arguments advanced against the Bill is that large wills are of very great interest to the public. I have never been a nosey sort of person. Why is it suggested that everybody is so nosey about these matters? I am well aware that when one of the Wills family dies a lot of money will probably be left. I have no doubt that when one of the Guinness family dies a lot of money may very likely be left. Whether it is a million or two million does not really matter to me. As a matter of fact, I do not think it matters much to my constituents. They still go on drinking Guinness and they still go on smoking. But some hon. Member might suggest that publication makes us all say, "You see what happens. We will do something about it. We will stop smoking and we will stop drinking Guinness". So what? My knowledge of the Exchequer is that after it has stepped in there is very little money left anyway, and to say that the 756 publication of big wills is of great public interest and is so necessary, therefore the Bill should not be passed, is not a valid reason.
I am mainly interested in and concerned with small people. So much harm is done by the publication of wills because so many scandals arise from it. One could give a whole list, but I want to finish on the note with which I started. I hope I am as good a democrat as any hon. Member present. I think that we all agree that the Press has its faults. Some of the papers make me sick. Let us take, for example, the Sunday Express. For the freedom of the Press we have to read Cross-bencher, whose life has been devoted entirely to finding out what dirt he can about M.P.s at the behest of his lord and master, Lord Beaverbrook. I think it is the most nauseating column there is. I hope he does not inquire into my private life or I will be in trouble one Sunday.
All these things we must take as British democracy. It is about time that we fought back. All I hope is that one day the Sunday Express will publish something about me so that I can sue for libel. No cheque will ever be received more graciously and gratefully. I read that column, in which some of my colleagues on both sides of the House have been pilloried, with absolute disgust. But this is democracy. These are some of the abuses that come from democracy.
What the papers ought to learn from this debate is that there is a limit to how much people can take from a so-called free Press. The newspapers ought to have sincerity and decency, and this leads me to the point that I ought to have made earlier. It is said that we are dealing in the Bill only with the Press and why should we not deal with the B.B.C. and I.T.V.? It will be said that they can put over the wireless or television details of wills and so on. But they do not in fact do it. I give notice here and now that if ever it reached the stage of their publishing details about little wills and hurting people on a national basis—although I do not think they ever will—I hope that somebody will introduce a Private Member's Bill to stop them, too. But there is no use in passing a Private Member's Bill for something that is not going on.
757 I think it is right to say that there is only a certain type of Press that in fact enjoys what I call the luxury of other people's misery and degradation. However, I do not propose to go into the full details of that matter.
I hope that the Bill will get a Second Reading. I do not know what the Government will say. I only hope and pray that they will say something intelligent. I realise their difficulties. It will be like walking a tightrope. As I have said, I hope the Bill gets a Second Reading and passes through all its stages. I am convinced that at the end of the day it will give a privacy to our people at a time when it is most needed. I sincerely wish the hon. Member luck on Second Reading and on the Bill's future stages, and congratulate him once again on a first-class Bill.
§ 1.34 p.m.
Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) on promoting the Bill and on the extremely fair way in which he and the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) put forward the case in its favour. But let me say at the outset that I am opposed to the Bill.
Before passing to my main reasons for opposition, I want to clear up one or two misunderstandings about the technical side of the mater of probate which may have arisen in some hon. Members' minds as a result of what my hon. Friend said. He intimated that details about land would normally not become public through the probate courts. That is not quite correct, because an application for a grant dealing with land is normally made at a stage later than the main application for probate, and so it does become available to the public, possibly a few months later. I do not think that that is a valid argument for the Bill. In addition, my hon. Friend mentioned timber. Normally, timber is included in the settled land grant and details of the value become available to the general public in due course.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey spoke about the reporting of cases concerning infants in the juvenile courts. I entirely agree with what he said. It is perfectly proper that there should be no reports of proceedings which would in any way embarrass infants, and I would 758 certainly never support a proposal to change the current practice. The Bill, I think, raises a different issue, because, in spite of what the hon. Member for Bermondsey said, I do not think that there has been any real abuse by the Press in the publication of wills. As a practising solicitor, I have dealt with matters of probate for a great number of years, and I do not remember a single instance where there has been what I call real abuse. If there had been, I would give careful consideration to the Bill.
§ Mr. Mellish
I expect that, like nearly everybody else, the hon. and gallant Member reads the News of the World, which has a circulation of 8 million, and much of that newspaper is devoted to wills.
Major Hicks Beach
I take the News of the World every week, but I still say that I do not think there has been any real abuse. That is my view as a practitioner of a great number of years' standing.
The hon. Member also mentioned the B.B.C. Of course, when I read the Bill that was one of the first points that occurred to me. I do not suggest that the B.B.C. or I.T.V. would do anything improper, but if the Bill were passed, one of the items on the 6 o'clock news may well deal with the publication of details of certain estates. It would he much better if these details came through the Press in the normal way.
I realise that I must not get outside the terms of the Bill, but, in passing, I would say that one of the most useful objects which the publication of wills serves is that it draws the attention of the public to the inequities of Estate Duty. As one looks at the papers every day and sees the particulars of wills published, one's attention, and I hope also the general public's attention, is drawn to the vast sums taken away by the Inland Revenue from perfectly good estates—money which has been earned and which would be very much better used elsewhere and not taken as revenue for the Government. I will leave the question of Estate Duty there, and merely comment what a terrible harm Estate Duty is doing to our economy today. As I say, the Bill does not apply to the B.B.C., but if the Bill goes to Committee this is a point which can be dealt with then.
759 Speaking as a legal practitioner, I say that the probate of a will is a document of record, and, in my view, documents and records should be available to the public as it is proposed that wills will be under the Bill. Not only should they be available to the public, but I see no reason why their particulars should not be published in the Press. It is true that there is legislation at the moment on the Statute Book which prevents certain information about divorce cases, the example, being published, but it does not prevent publication of the judgments. That is an important difference. Obviously, we must keep out of the Press unpleasant details.
Major Hicks Beach
That happens to be the law at the moment. Certain parts of divorce cases are not allowed to be published, and I believe that that is right, in general. Legislation to provide that documents of record should not be published in the newspapers is a very dangerous precedent, because it amounts to muzzling the Press. To enable me to support the Bill, I should want very strong evidence to satisfy me that there had been sufficient abuse by the Press of its privilege to publish particulars of estates.
There is another interesting point. Again, I speak as a legal practitioner. There have been a number of cases where the publication of the details of a will has led to the discovery of a second and later will which is, in fact, the one eventually accepted by the court. I know of one case where application for probate was made by a very reputable firm of solicitors—not my own—which rightly thought it had the last will and testament of the testator. It obtained probate, and details of the will appeared in the Press. In due course a firm in Scotland indicated that it had another will, and the original grant was revoked. That arose from the publication of the details of the first will. The beneficiaries under the second will were quite different from those under the first, and hardship could have arisen if the details of the first will had not been published, so bringing to light the second will. That is an important point to remember from a practical point of view.
760 If the House is to give the Bill a Second Reading and there are to be prosecutions under it, I cannot see the point of Clause 1 (3) which says that no prosecution for an offence under the Bill will be commenced without the consent of the Attorney-General. That provsion is often inserted in Bills, and it is intended to be a protection to the public, but I have always been very doubtful about it and think that if an offence has been committed it is the duty of the authorities concerned to commence prosetion. I am against such a provision appearing in a Bill.
I heartily congratulate the mover and seconder of the Motion upon the able way in which they have submitted the Bill. I regret to say that I regard it as quite unnecessary legislation and, as a practising solicitor, do not see any necessity for it to go on the Statute Book.
§ 1.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Niall MacDermot (Lewisham, North)
I am sure that no one who opposes the Bill, as I do, would complain at all at the way in which the Motion was moved and seconded. The modesty and charm with which it was moved and the way the arguments put forward were supported by the aggressive wit of my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) must have attracted the whole House.
I find myself in something of a quandary, because I have among my other heavy responsibilities the responsibility of representing my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey, for he is one of my constituents. One often finds oneself in the difficulty of being unable to support one's constituents' views, but it is unfortunate when one has to disagree with them publicly in the House.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I am grateful for that reassurance.
I feel confident that my hon. Friend is misguided in the views which he has formed about the Bill. We should start from what surely is the right starting point in considering any Bill which attempts to limit in any way the freedom of the Press, which the Bill undoubtedly does. It attempts to introduce what 761 would be a novel and, I think, unique form of censorship of the Press.
It is always easy to make out a case against the Press in relation to some particular abuse, because we all know that at times the freedom of the Press is abused and one could point to the hardship which results from that. But in any argument of that kind it is very easy to lose sight of the far greater dangers that arise once one starts to eat into that freedom and to accept the idea that it is proper to make legislative restrictions about the freedom of the Press. This seems to be a particularly unfortunate instance in which to try to reduce that freedom because the subject matter of the Bill is something which is already public at the time when it is published by the Press. Once probate has been granted, a person's will becomes a public document. Any citizen has the right to find out its contents. He has the right to obtain a copy of it. At the cost of Is. he can inspect it at Somerset House. It is an astonishing proposal to me that the Press should be prohibited from publishing something which is already a public document.
§ Mr. Kimball
Would the hon. Gentleman develop that argument a little further? Surely, when one pays one's 1s. at Somerset House one examines the full will with all its provisos. What we are worried about is the "Other People's Money" column, just the publication of the fact that Mrs. So-and-so receives, say,£800. Will the hon. Gentleman deal with the point about the full details as against what the Press publishes, which is just a gossipy snippet?
§ Mr. MacDermot
Surely it is the other way round. If all that is published is the amount of the estate, then one does not know the amount which Mrs. So-and-so receives. It is only if the individual bequests and the full details are published that any question of what a particular person has or has not received becomes published. My local paper in Lewisham makes a practice of publishing only the amount of the estate of deceased persons and not the amount of individual bequests. I do not see that the extent to which the contents of a will are published affects the principle at all.
As far as I know, there is no precedent for any limitation of this kind. There are, of course, certain precedents for 762 limitations on what the Press can publish in relation to judicial proceedings, and those are well-established exceptions to meet obvious injuries to the public interest which can result if those things are published. Mention has already been made of the provisions concerning salacious details of certain divorce proceedings. The reason for limitation being placed on them is a simple matter of public decency. It is not in order to protect the privacy of the persons concerned.
There is also the case of the interests of a child brought before a juvenile court. It is obvious that the injury which could result to the child in its future as a result of some minor peccadillo in its youth is such that it is obviously in the public interest not to publish the details. I cannot believe that any case has been made out comparable to those in relation to the present proposal.
One wonders why the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) has selected this Bill to introduce out of the wide range of possible Private Members' Bills available. He has told us that there is a great deal of public interest and agitation about the matter. Until the Bill was published, I was unaware of this as a public issue. It is not a matter on which I have received any representations as a Member of Parliament either before or after the publication of the Bill.
The hon. Member says that he has had letters from John o'Groats to Lands End, but he has not told us how many there were. He said he had received representations in large numbers from his constituency. Again, he has not told us how many there were. If this were a matter provoking widespread interest, one would have expected to find correspondence in the Press, some kind of public agitation and campaign about it. However, as Members of Parliament we have not received representations about it to any widespread extent, and I have received none whatever.
§ Mr. Nigel Fisher (Surbiton)
There has always been much controversy about this Measure in the Press, not only on this occasion, but on the occasions when my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe) and I submitted Bills in similar spirit in 1955 and 1956. If it helps the hon. Member, I can tell him that I received more than sixty letters on the 763 subject two years ago, when I introduced a similar Bill.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I read the report of the debate on the Bill which the hon. Member introduced two years ago, when he gave the figure of the number of letters which he had received—as he said, sixty. I do not know how many he has received since then. Perhaps he will tell us.
§ Mr. Mellish
I hope that my hon. Friend will not take this argument too far. On the hydrogen bomb issue, I have received only ten letters, while on the subject of cats and dogs I have received an enormous number. The number of letters is not relevant one way or the other.
§ Mr. MacDermot
If my hon. Friend has received only ten letters on the hydrogen bomb, he is in a unique position and very fortunate.
I do not know whether the hon. Member went to the Lord Chancellor's Department, as some hon. Members do when they are fortunate in the Ballot, to see if there was support there for the Bill. Certainly in its earlier history this Measure did not receive Government support. I understand from earlier debates that in 1920 support was refused for a Bill on these lines by two successive Attorneys-General. I shall be interested to hear what the Solicitor-General says today. Hon. Members can rest assured that we shall have an interesting speech from him. I am sure that the Bill is misguided, and I shall be interested to hear the Government's views on it.
It would also be interesting to know what complaints, if any, have been received by the Press about the publication of wills, in particular since the matter last received so much publicity when a former Bill was introduced in 1956. There is now a Press Council. Has anyone referred the matter to the Press Council and made a complaint about it?
The hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Bishop) said in 1956:When the matter arose some years ago Sir Linton Andrews brought it before the Guild of Newspaper Editors, a very responsible and respectable organisation representing the editors of the leading provincial newspapers throughout the country. The record of its proceedings shows that in May, 1950, it passed a resolution on the subject saying:'The Guild Council, in view of the recent public discussion on the publication of wills, 764 believes that it would be against the public interest to give up the long-established right of the Press to publish wills and probate news, but it is willing to receive and carefully consider any representations from the Law Society or similar organisations for the more considerate reporting of these items of news.'I am not aware whether any such representations have been made, but I was informed by the Secretary of the Guild this week that it had met again to consider the terms of the Bill and had reiterated its opposition to it in principle."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd March. 1956; Vol. 549, c. 1675.]
§ Mr. MacDermot
I am much obliged. It would be interesting to know whether that invitation has yet been accepted, that is to say, whether any representations on the subject have been made to the Guild of Newspaper Editors, or the Press Council, or any other Press body.
I took the trouble to inquire of the editors of my local papers whether they had received representations on this matter, since the advocates of the Bill suggest that it is a protection not for persons interested in large estates, but for those interested in small estates, and it is mostly, if not entirely, in local newspapers that such information will be published. I was assured that the criticisms or complaints had been so few as to be insignificant and that if there were any complaint, it was at the speed with which a matter was published. Sometimes, the figures for the amount of the estate are published before some of the interested persons know of it.
A reason far that is that there are certain Press agencies which specialise in this matter. Presumably, they examine all wills at Somerset House and then distribute to local newspapers particulars of wills of persons connected with the areas of the newspapers concerned. In that way, the newspapers get the information very quickly. If that causes any hard feelings or embarrassment or concern, I am sure that it is the kind of matter on which representations, which would be seriously entertained, could be made to the Press.
There is possibly a case for further delay in the publication of these items, perhaps another three months after the granting of probate, or a certain period after the time of death. That is entirely 765 different from completely prohibiting publication.
If we are to introduce Measures to restrict the freedom of the Press, it would be better to approach first those matters which have been given full consideration and which have been thoroughly debated. For example, there are the recent recommendations of the Tucker Committee on the publication in newspapers of the committal proceedings of indictable crimes.
The House will remember that, after hearing very full evidence from both sides, that Committee came to the conclusion that a case had been made out for imposing a limited restriction on the Press, in that the Press should be allowed to publish details of committal proceedings only when a matter had finally been settled by the accused person not being committed for trial, or after the trial itself had taken place.
There was a Committee presided over by a very distinguished Lord of Appeal which received evidence from all the bodies concerned before giving a considered opinion in a unanimous Report. We have had nothing of the sort in this case, and it would be most unwise to give a Second Reading to a Bill of this kind until the matter had been fully explored.
The arguments in favour of the Bill are a little specious. We have been told that the Bill's object is to protect the widows and children of persons leaving small estates. I wonder whether that is the true object. Is not the true object of the Bill to try to conceal from the public view what happens to a few large estates—which still exist in our property-awning democracy? That is unchallengeably a matter of public importance and public interest.
Our society is still one in which there are very great accumulations of wealth in. private hands. It is a fact that 50 per cent. of private property in this country is concentrated in the hands of 3 per cent. of the population. That is a very large proportion for a very small percentage. It is a matter of the greatest public importance and interest to know what happens to these concentrations of wealth, because they carry with them very great power, as all wealth does. Is it to be said that these massive fortunes may be disposed of secretly, without any publication being given to them at the time?
766 My hon. Friend thinks that what happens to the Guinness or any other fortune is none of his business, but I consider that it is my business, as a Member of Parliament and as an ordinary citizen. I want to know what happens to the great concentrations of wealth.
I also support, but for different reasons, the argument of the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) that the public ought to know what is happening in respect of death duties. He thinks that it is iniquitous that so much money should be levied in death duties. I take a different view, but I agree that it is important that the public should know what is happening in the way of the evasion of death duties, because it is well known that many rich people now dispose of their wealth towards the end of their lives hoping that they will survive for five years after the disposition of their wealth by gifts inter vivos, in order to avoid death duties. When a very wealthy man, with a large fortune and large estates, dies, and one reads the publication of his will and finds the amount of his estate to be rather small, one knows that he has been successful in taking measures to avoid death duties. That is a matter of very great public interest.
Only yesterday I was told of a solicitor in the Midlands whose father was reputed to have considerable wealth, but, to everyone's surprise, when the father died and the estate was published it was found to be worth only£1,500. The son received much commiseration from his friends because he had been left such a very small inheritance, but the son said "I do not consider it small at all. My only complaint is that it was£1,490 too much." It was clear in that case that matters had been arranged so as avoid the payment of death duties, and the only way in which that situation can come to public knowledge is by making public the particulars of these estates.
§ Mr. F. M. Bennett (Torquay)
Irrespective of what the hon. Member is saying, I am sure that she will agree that, leaving aside the payment of death duties, if one takes the best legal advice it is possible to make arrangements for the contents of one's will to be kept secret. There are many such devices, which the hon. Members knows well, and which have nothing to do with the payment of 767 duty. His whole argument that this Measure is designed for the benefit of a very few rich men falls down, because if a very rich man wants to make use of legal advice he can take adequate steps under the present law to have inserted in his will several clauses which will make sure that the details are not published.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I was not aware of that. I am very interested to hear it. Perhaps we shall hear more about it in the course of the debate.
The point of principle put forward in support of the Bill is that the publication of these details is an unwarranted interference with the privacy of the individual in a matter which is essentially personal and private. Let us have that argument put upon a fair and square basis. In certain sections of the Press there is a good deal of unwarranted interference in personal privacy. That is something which my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey referred to exceedingly forcefully and effectively. We all know about that.
But that sort of thing happens in many cases other than in the publication of wills, and it happens much more harmfully. We know of the very sad cases which can occur of people who are afflicted with some personal tragedy being descended upon by a flock of newshawks, who proceed to badger them quite mercilessly until they get the information they want for their news stories. This action is caused by pressure from on high, and it must be as distasteful to the newsmen as it is to the subjects of their attention.
Such a case was brought vividly to my attention shortly after my election to this House, as a result of a murder in my constituency. The persons concerned were badgered by certain of the national newspapers, although the local newspaper treated them with consideration. We all know of this evil, and that its existence was one of the reasons why the Press Council was set up. Some may feel that the Council has not done enough to keep this evil in check, but to say that it is something which should be dealt with by legislation, by curbing the freedom of the Press, is an entirely different matter. It would be of the greatest danger, and quite wrong, to use this as an argument for putting legislative control on the freedom of the Press.
768 My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey mentioned the case of the publication of the will of a film star, and said that the circumstances in which this occurred had caused some distress. I do not think that he selected a particularly happy example, because such people as film stars, who live and make their reputations by courting publicity throughout their lives, and by inviting the whole of their life's activities to be the subject of newspaper gossip, can hardly complain if publicity follows them to the grave.
§ Mr. Mellish
My hon. Friend must get this clear. We do not want to go into individual cases, but I do not think we have the right to know what was in the mind of a person who has left money. It may be that there is an adequate answer to the insinuations made in the Press, but the people concerned feel that they cannot give this answer because it is so private. I regard the newspaper's action in such cases as dastardly.
§ Mr. MacDermot
My hon. Friend does not do full justice to the newspaper concerned in the case that he cited. The article of which he complained went on to give the very explanation for which my hon. Friend was asking.
The second answer to this question of privacy is that the publication of wills is not entirely a private matter. The question of the transfer of property at death can be a matter of great importance, chiefly in connection with these very large estates, but not only in that connection. Let us take the example of a bequest made to a political party, or made for some political activity or for propaganda purposes. It may be of great interest and importance to know the source of the wealth lying behind that activity. My hon. Friend said that it would be interesting to know the true source of the finances of the Daily Worker, and I entirely agree with him, and if any other newspaper manages to find the answer to that, it would be entitled to publish it. But if it so happened that that information came about by way of a will my hon. Friend says that the newspaper ought not to be allowed to publish it.
§ Mr. MacDermot
That may be unlikely, but it may not be so unlikely that a wealthy and distinguished Fascist may leave his money for the dissemination of his insidious and horrible ideas in some newspaper, in the pretence that they are something quite different from a. Fascist argument. That has happened in this country in the last few years. If an instance of that kind happens, it might be of very great public importance to know that the money which lies behind such and such a weekly newspaper was derived from a bequest by such and such a wealthy, distinguished and prominent Fascist who died only a few years ago. If the Bill were passed, that would not be allowed to be published, and it would be a criminal offence to do so.
Let us realise that there is another side to this coin. To my mind, real dangers are involved in refusing to allow these particulars to be published. The greatest danger of all, it seems to me—and this argument was not raised at all in the previous debate on the question—is the one of improper pressure being brought to bear upon testators. We know from recent cases which have obtained a lot of publicity in the Press that it happens that wealthy elderly people may have improper pressure brought to bear upon them, perhaps by their legal adviser or by their medical adviser, to make dispositions sometimes in favour of the legal or medical adviser.
This is an evil which has been known for centuries, and, of course, one of the reasons why wills are made public documents is in order to prevent that evil spreading. One may say that there is no danger in it, because the relatives who have been dispossessed as a result of the improper pressure will themselves challenge the validity of the will and in that way bring the matter out into the open. But not all elderly people who die have relatives.
It is not wholly exceptional to find the case of an elderly spinster with considerable sums of money who dies and who has no near relatives at all. Obviously it is in such cases that there is the real risk that some evil-minded adviser will bring pressure upon people to leave a very large part or the whole of their money to the adviser. The one safeguard in such cases at the moment is publication.
770 If the local Press is liable to publish the fact that Mrs. So-and-so died leaving£50,000, a lot of it to her solicitor, that is something that will cause a lot of inquiry. But if the solicitor is able to slip into the will a clause saying that his client does not want the will published, then it becomes an offence for anyone to publish it at all. That means that unless someone, by accident, happens to look up the will in Somerset House the matter will never be made public at all. It appears to me that a very real evil and mischief would be created by the passing of the Bill.
Another danger that I think can result is that there would be a much greater temptation to testators to disinherit their near relatives so as to avoid the responsibilities which, I think, we all feel that they have towards their near relatives in order to favour instead perhaps a mistress or a paramour acquired in recent years. We know that this sort of thing goes on and that the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act was introduced to protect the family in such cases.
Surely, the fact that the particulars of such a will may receive, and are likely to receive, widespread publicity in the Press must act as a deterrent to people who are inclined to make that kind of will. Again, I feel that there would be a real danger involved in that direction.
A third way, I think, lies in the field of gossip. The supporters of the Bill used as an argument for it that great evils result from the gossip which follows from the publication of a will. But what about the gossip which would follow from its non-publication? Some very mistaken ideas exist concerning the wealth of neighbours. I have had experience, and I think that most people at the Bar have had experience, of cases of brutal assaults being made on elderly people by thieves who listened to local gossip that so and so living in a caravan at the end of the lane was a miser who had£1,000 hidden away.
People sometimes have completely mistaken ideas in this regard, and if we do not allow publication of the circumstances of a person's estate when he or she dies that gossip can continue and spread, and, equally harmful, misleading and unpleasant rumours can pass round resulting from ignorance. Surely it is better, if we have to choose, to come down on the side of publication of the true facts. If those 771 true facts lead people to draw mistaken conclusions, that can be remedied by a latter to the Press.
I do not propose to analyse in detail the actual terms of the Bill itself. I think that it is open to many criticisms in various directions, but I would rather confine myself to the broad and general principles upon which the Bill should be rejected. I will only quote in conclusion from the leading article in The Times today which summarises very succinctly my views on the matter. It says:So open a threat to the established working of our democratic society is too serious, in its implications, to be carelessly exposed to the hazards of a private member's bill.I do not feel that in a few hours' discussion today among a handful of Members the really important principles and issues underlying the Bill can be adequately or properly considered. I therefore invite the House to reject the Bill. If the matter really is of public concern and public importance, it is one which should be investigated by a Committee, perhaps on the lines of the Tucker Committee, in order that the arguments for and against it may be fully, properly and dispassionately considered on the basis of the full knowledge and examination of all the considerations.
§ 2.18 p.m.
§ The Solicitor-General (Sir Harry Hylton-Foster)
I think it might be for the convenience of hon. Members if I intervened now to indicate the position of Her Majesty's Government about the Bill. But I could not begin to do that without adding to the cumulative list of congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) for the graceful speech with which he proposed the Second Reading and to the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) the vigour and wit of whose speech gave our discussion today a good start off.
It seems to me, I must confess, a little difficult to paint the portrait of a will as a private document. It has been a public document at least since 1598, and this Bill will leave it such. As far as publication of details in newspapers is concerned, I have to do whatever is the reverse process of disclosing an interest. Personally, I rather envy those people who can find time to read little bits in 772 the newspapers about their neighbours' bequests and other good fortunes. It is very difficult to find time to do that in detail in the ordinary tribulation of public life.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey hoped that the Government were going to say something intelligent. As he seemed to be looking in my direction, I hope that that was part of his aggressive wit or else that he meant not "intelligent" but "intelligible". I would hope, in respectful return to him, to be intelligible at least on one point. I venture to think that if we are trying to decide whether or not it is right to give the Bill a Second Reading, a wrong reason to take into our calculation, whatever fun it may be, is any desire to hit back at the Press.
The view we present to the House is that there is a nice balance of public advantage to be assessed on this problem, and it is not one where the Government feel that they should, or indeed will, venture to sway the views of the House either way. They would prefer simply to be guided by the opinions expressed by hon. Members. We do not think that there is any obstacle to the enactment of the substance of this Bill should the House think it worthy of a Second Reading. But I must warn the House that, should hon. Members take that view, clearly there are some provisions which may have to be looked at with some care at a later stage; notably the proposed penalties involved and the provision requiring the consent of the Attorney-General to a prosecution.
Having said that, I now proclaim myself at the service of the House should there be any question about which anyone wishes my help. Apart from that, I consider it to be the duty of speakers from this Box on Fridays not to stand in the way of Private Members' discussions.
§ 2.21 p.m.
§ Mr. A. J. Irvine (Liverpool, Edge Hill)
I ask the indulgence of the House in speaking for the first time from this unaccustomed position at the Opposition Dispatch Box. I wish to intervene shortly to say that a very interesting point is raised by the Bill, and to join in the congratulations which have been extended to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) and to my hon. Friend the 773 Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) on their speeches. I also wish to thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-General for indicating the attitude of the Government on the matter.
The Bill deals with an interesting point about which, as was said by the learned Solicitor-General, differing views can reasonably be held. The division of opinion which exists here is unlikely to be along party lines. As it happens my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) has expressed my views on the matter in language so clear that it enables me to cut short my own remarks.
No doubt it is true that embarrassment may be caused by the publication of the contents of wills and that the information which such publication offers to the public may give rise to a good deal of gossip and tittle-tattle of an undesirable kind. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey, in an eloquent and persuasive speech, gave examples of that kind of thing. There is also the point that information published in this way may be deceptive in cases where a deceased person has distributed a substantial portion of his wealth before death, or in cases where sufficient provision has been made for persons who are not mentioned in the will at all; and where the impression may be created that a member of the family has been disinherited when in fact he has been well and sufficiently provided for.
On the other hand, and after bearing all those considerations in mind, in my opinion this Bill is a censorship Measure and has, therefore, to be watched very carefully. It is, let us face it, an encroachment on the freedom of the Press. One feels it may be the thin end of the wedge. I submit that it is not a very long step from a Measure of this kind to a Measure which prohibits the publication of, say, transactions in the property market, the prices at which houses or private property are bought and sold. Publication of that kind of information—and one can think of other instances—also can give rise to gossip, tittle-tattle and embarrassment. Indeed, were we to eliminate from the newspapers all material likely to give rise either directly or by implication to misunderstanding, gossip and tittle-tattle, there would not be much left in the news-sheet or periodical.
774 In keeping this type of information out of the newspapers, we may also be depriving the serious student of social problems and affairs of interesting and important information. For reasons which have nothing to do with gossip or tittle-tattle, this information is of interest. It is useful to know in what quarters and in what industries and activities fortunes are being accumulated, and how the disposal of wealth by industrialists compares over the years with the disposal of wealth by landed interests or professional men. It seems to me that the answers to such questions are of legitimate and not unimportant interest.
What is proposed in the provisions of this Bill is, quite clearly, discriminatory censorship, discriminating against the Press. It would be possible without penalty to broadcast information about wills in sound broadcasts or television programmes. It would also be possible without penalty to publish such information in a book. This seems hard to justify, and I do not think the point is entirely met by what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey. that at present this kind of information is not broadcast in radio or television programmes. Though that may be so, for a Bill to become a Statute and to contain such provisions as are contained in this Measure would constitute an anomaly in the law and a discriminatory treatment of two methods of distributing news which it would be hard to defend; and might quite well result in information not at present broadcast or televised being disseminated in that way.
One has to balance the arguments. Each hon. Member must form his own view and conclusions upon the matter. My own conclusion is that the weight of argument is heavily on the side of those who oppose the passage of this Bill. The restrictions upon the reporting of judicial proceedings, with special reference to the proceedings for the dissolution of marriage or nullity, seem to me to be defensible on grounds far more substantial than those relied on for introducing the present Bill. The harm which may be done by the publication of such material as that would seem to be far more widespread and corrupting in its effect. The limits imposed on the reporting of proceedings in juvenile courts have obvious advantages in that they avoid the placing of unfair burdens upon young people 775 in trouble. No equivalent or comparable benefits can be said to be provided by the present Bill.
§ 2.30 p.m.
§ Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)
I would first congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) on what is, I think, his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. We all hope we shall be able to hear him again at the Dispatch Box on many occasions, provided he remains on the Opposition side of the House.
I have in one sense a vague paternal interest in the Bill, because I tried to introduce it four or five years ago. It was taken over later by my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher). I support the Bill, which is an almost exact replica of my own, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) and the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) upon speeches which I think the whole House enjoyed.
I listened carefully to the arguments adduced by hon. Gentlemen on both sides against the Bill, and I frankly say I thought they were pretty thin. The hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) said it was a short step from preventing the publication of wills to preventing the publication of sums at which property changes hands, but there is no publication in the Press of these sums and the prices are not known except at a public auction. If I sell something to the hon. Gentleman or he sells something to me the price at which the commodity passes is not disclosed to the Press.
§ Mr. MacDermot
There is no ban on publication of the figures in the Press, which is at liberty to find out what the selling price was.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
I do not think there is any method of finding out except-by asking one or other party to the sale to disclose the price. In fact, that is almost exactly what the Bill provides in respect of wills. There is no objection to a will being published if the testator so specifies. [Interruption.] I do not want to become involved in legal arguments on this matter, since I am not a lawyer. I do not want to argue with my hon. and 776 gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) about the extent to which a probate valuation is or is not on a hit-and-miss basis. I do not know. I felt that the hon. Member for Bermondsey proclaimed the simple truth when he said that how a man disposes of his wordly goods was his own personal and private matter. If he likes to favour a distant relative or a younger child instead of the eldest, that has nothing to do with anybody. The motives which prompt him to do this or that may be morally good or bad, but it is nobody else's business. Neither Press nor public is the keeper of any man's conscience.
It is undeniable that frequently embarrassment and great distress are caused by the publication of a will for the reason that the facts are sometimes twisted and distorted, whether deliberately or not. The most powerful argument in favour of the Bill was that which was produced, albeit unconsciously, by the hon. Member for Lewisham, North, about the Midlands solicitor who was known to be a man of very considerable substance. He told the House that when this man died his will was proved at£1,500. The beneficiary was stated to have said that the figure was£1,499 too much. That is a supreme example of what happens when the Press give completely distorted figures of what a man is worth, and we are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that argument. He did so a great deal better than I could have done and it carried much more force.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I gave the accurate figure of what the solicitor was worth at the time of his death.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
Nobody knows how much the gentleman in question was really worth. If the hon. Member would like a discharge, so to speak, of the second barrel he can have it. The illustration he gave shows that a man of substance has far greater facilities for disguising what his real wealth is than has the man of humble means. Any idea that the Bill is solely intended to hide from view the amount of money that a very rich man leaves is absolute nonsense.
In this context I want to quote a letter which I received when I was trying to introduce my Bill. It came from two 777 journalists who wrote jointly the following to me:Widows and children of deceased are telephoned or visited by anything up to a dozen or more newspapers if the 'story' is considered good enough. Photographs are sought and, if necessary, snatched. When reporters fail with relatives, servants, neighbours or almost anyone are interrogated. If there is the slightest suspicion in a will that, for example, a man has left a considerable sum to somebody who is not his wife or relative, most newspapers leave no stone unturned to discover all possible details, particularly if they smell something 'unsavoury'. If very young children are beneficiaries, their school teachers are badgered and even the children themselves are questioned whenever possible, and all this, we would like to emphasise, is a daily occurrence. If the correct amount of a legacy cannot be worked out from the will, the highest possible sum is invariably published. We give this brief picture as two working journalists who, in the course of our jobs, are obliged to make inquiries on wills.…
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
That was sent to me four years ago when I was trying to introduce my Bill. From correspondence later I do not think that the picture has changed in any way. I cannot understand the argument that it is in the public interest to know how much a man is worth when he dies but not to know how much he is worth when he is alive. Take the case of Robert Donat's widow, the actress. She no doubt knew the contents of her husband's will through the solicitors. I just wonder whether it was in the public interest, and one of the essential features of democracy, to publish that she was found crying in her dressing room and for the audience to know all about it. I should have thought we could have found a better definition of democracy and freedom of the Press without going so far.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bermondsey is not here now, because I enjoyed his speech so much. He said that he might one day be libelled by the Daily Express and might be awarded a substantial sum. If he disposed of that sum however he liked while still alive no one would be any the wiser, but if he disposed of it in a will when he died everyone would know exactly what he had done with the money. That seems a very strange principle.
Nor do I understand the theory put forward by my hon. and gallant Friend 778 the Member for Cheltenham that because a will is a public document in the sense that it is registered at Somerset House therefore it ought to be published. Of course, a will must be a public document in the sense that it is registered and available for inspection. Otherwise, I quite agree that all sorts of people who might anticipate bequests under a will would be debarred from knowing whether they were included. The question is not whether a will is a public document but whether the Press should have the right to publish it.
I hope someone will correct me if I am wrong, perhaps one of the learned hon. Members on either side of the House, but to the best of my belief, a birth certificate is a public document. I believe it is registered at Somerset House. So far as I know anyone can go there and look at anyone's birth certificate, but I do not think the Press can publish details of birth certificates.
§ Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)
The Press could not only publish the details but can get a photostat copy.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
I should have thought that if it were the birth certificate of someone whose parentage was in doubt it would be a very doubtful matter for the Press to publish the photostat copy. The Press would lay itself open to all sorts of penalties, I should have thought. If the argument applies to a will, it must similarly apply to a birth certificate.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, North said that the public must know how rich men obtain their money over a period of years and how they dispose of it; that is a matter of great public interest. Would he apply that to football pools?
§ Mr. MacDermot
Most certainly there is no ban at the moment on the Press publishing the results of football pools. Sometimes the Press has difficulty in finding the information, but if it can be found it can be published.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
I was a little afraid the hon. Member would fall into that trap. Very large sums of money are won on football pools. I have no objection to that at all. In fact, the winner need not have his name published by Littlewoods unless he specifically says that he does not mind that being done. Suppose a man receives a letter one day by which he learns that he has won£70,000 in a football pool and he does not wish his name to be published in a newspaper. It is not considered in the public interest that anyone should know who he may be. Suppose that on going out to celebrate his luck or skill—or a combination of both—in winning that very large sum he is run over by a bus. Then, within a matter of hours, apparently, it is in the public interest that the fact the man was worth£70,000 should be published in the papers. That seems the supreme futility of the argument, that when a man dies what he is worth is of public interest and can be published in the papers, but while he is alive his private affairs are a personal matter.
I hold the view that occasionally a man's private and personal affairs should remain so. I hold the view that one of those occasions is when he makes his will. I have the greatest pleasure in supporting this Bill and I much hope that when we come to the Division we shall achieve a Second Reading for it.
§ 2.45 p.m.
§ Mr. F. P. Bishop (Harrow, Central)
I should like to join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball), not only on the moderation and modesty of speech in introducing the Bill, but also on his success on much more practical points, the first of which is in getting a debate on the subject at all.
This Bill is in danger of becoming one of the Friday regulars. This is the third time the Bill has come before the House, and the subject has been before the House on occasions years ago. As one hon. Member reminded the House, it was discussed in Question and Answer as long ago as the 1920's. When my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Sir C. MottRadclyffe) introduced his Bill three or four years ago there was no debate. Two years ago when my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) introduced 780 the same Bill it got a very truncated debate, the great disaster of which was that on that occasion my speech was cut off by a count being called.
§ Mr. Bishop
I am not making any accusations; I do not even remember who was responsible. Neither am I prepared to say whether it was a good or a bad thing that it happened. Now my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough has succeeded in getting a debate on this subject, which I agree is an important one and one upon which the House ought, if it can, to come to a decision.
I congratulate my hon. Friend also on having drawn from the Government spokesman what I can only describe as an absolutely model speech for a Friday on a Private Member's Bill. It was certainly intelligent, if I may say so respectfully, it was certainly intelligible, it was brief in the very best and highest degree, and it was also completely indefinite. Whether anyone can ask more from the Government spokesman on a private Member's day I do not know. At least we back benchers are left to express our own minds on this important matter without the sort of pressures that so often we feel in this House.
In the Bill before the House today there is one important change from the Bill as it appeared in the House before. In this Bill, publication of particulars of a will is to be prohibited only if the testator himself inserts an express direction to that effect in the will, whereas in the previous Bills which have come before us it was the other way round; publication was prohibited unless either the testator himself or perhaps the executors gave permission. On the face of it, that appears to be an important change, but I submit that probably it is more a change in form than in real substance.
What would undoubtedly happen is that those people who are generally responsible for the drawing up of wills would come automatically to insert the provision forbidding publication. In that event, the only people who would derive no benefit at all from the alteration in the terms of the Bill are the very people whom, I believe, my hon. Friend 781 and his supporters mainly wish to help and to protect: that is, the people leaving very small estates, who are the people whose wills, generally speaking, are liable to be "home-made", made without the advice of a professional adviser.
One of the great objections to the Bill as I see it is the possibility of that professional adviser being able to take advantage of a provision which secures him against publication of the terms of a will which he may draft. There have been many cases of what are called undue influence by solicitors, or it may be by doctors who have found themselves in the position of advising people who were, perhaps, incapable of exercising a clear mental grasp of what they were being asked to do in the drafting of their wills. There was a case in the House of Lords only the other day in which that kind of suggestion was made. It had led not only to legal proceedings, but to some physical proceedings also, over a number of years.
Is it not dangerous to encourage a situation in which, by writing into a will a simple sentence forbidding publication of the details of that will by the Press, people who may have evil motives, a design to feather their own nests at the expense of someone else, should be put in the position of being able to rely upon what they are doing being done in darkness instead of in the light that publicity affords?
Apart from this one alteration in the Bill, I have looked again at the report of the debate which took place something over two years ago. As I have said, my own speech was cut short and I have no means of knowing how it would have ended or how long it might have continued. What I have read of that part which found its way on to the record in HANSARD, however, seemed to me to have been very sound indeed, and there is little new that I can say on the subject of today's Bill.
All I can do—it has already been done effectively by hon. Members on both sides—is to try to summarise once again, if the House will bear with me for a few moments, what I consider to be the basic objections to this well-intentioned Bill. It has been said, and I venture to say again, that it is a censorship Bill. Although that may not condemn it out of hand, it requires that it should be 782 examined with very great care. It is not a major attack upon the freedom of the Press—it would be an exaggeration to put the matter in any such way as that; but it is, I think, what The Times, in the article to which reference has already been made, called another small process in the nibbling away at the freedom of the Press, the freedom of the Press being, as one can never be too often reminded, the right not only of editors and newspapermen, or not even of editors and newspapermen, but the right of the public, which needs to be maintained in the interests of the public.
Secondly, it has been said—and again it is true—that this is a discriminatory censorship. It is a censorship which is to apply only to newspapers and to those periodical publications which appear at intervals of less than 36 days. In other words, one must not publish these particulars of a will in a daily paper or in a weekly paper or even in a monthly magazine, but one may publish them in a quarterly journal. They may be published in Northern Ireland. If we like to subscribe to, as I think I said last time, the Belfast Telegraph, or perhaps I should say, the Northern Whig, in order to give an alternative, we should then be subscribing to a paper which is not subject to this restriction. Furthermore, of course, the restriction does not apply at all either to the B.B.C. or the I.T.A. or, indeed, to any other form of publicity or publication that one can think of.
Clause 1 (2) states:Provided that no person shall be liable to be convicted under this Act except a proprietor, editor, master printer or publisher of the newspaper.Here, surely, is a new sort of crime that the House is being asked to create, a crime which depends not upon the act done, but upon the question of who does it. If it is done by one man it is permissible and not punishable. If it is done by somebody else, under the terms of the Bill he can be punished by a heavy fine or, for a second offence, by a term of imprisonment. That is something that the House should consider with great care before consenting to agree to the imposition of such a discriminatory Measure as this.
Not only is this a censorship Measure, not only is it discriminative; it is a Measure designed to prohibit that limited 783 section of the Press to which I have referred from publishing facts that are not in themselves in any way secret or private but are essentially public facts; and facts that the law requires should be made public and available for inspection to anybody who cares to take the trouble to look at them, whether or not he appears to have any interest in the matter.
Those of us who are opposed in principle to this Bill must take issue with its promoters on whether or not a will really is a private document; whether or not the disposition of a man's estate by his will is something entirely private concerning only himself. It is, surely, true that a will is not a private but a public document. From the days of the old ecclesiastical courts right down to our present times, the law has taken the greatest possible care to ensure that the details of a will and the facts about a man's disposition of his property shall be made public so that anyone can see what he has done.
One understands the feelings of people who find themselves exposed to public comment on things that touch them very closely and about which they may feel very sensitive. Instances have been given of certain organs of the Press using the most outrageous methods to give publicity to these facts to the greatest distress of private people. Nobody wants to defend that sort of thing at all. That there may be abuses I do not deny, but the possible distress to individuals by the action of those newspapers that do not exercise a responsible attitude must be weighed against the disadvantage to the public that would result from refusal to permit publication of these documents.
There are, and probably always will be, many individuals who have an interest in the will of someone but who may not know of that interest until the facts are published. There is then the possibility that the fact that the publication of the information can be prohibited might give encouragement to those who have an interest in concealing the facts from those who ought to know. Concealment can lead only to abuse and suspicion. I suggest that in this respect as in so many others publicity is the real safeguard of the public.
784 I urge the House to accept that here it is a necessary principle that the public interest must override the feelings of pain and distress that may sometimes be caused to individuals, although the House should do all it can to discourage those newspapers, magazines and other publications that use their present freedom in a way that is unnecessarily distressing to private people.
Apart altogether from the possible interests of private people who may have a direct concern with a will, many bequests are in themselves matters of very great interest to the public and about which the public should know. It would be very easy to give examples of the sort of anomaly—even absurdity—that could arise if this Bill were passed in its present form.
As one hon. Member has already said, one can imagine some wealthy person leaving the whole of his fortune to one of the political parties. Such a thing could happen—he might not necessarily be ruled as being of unsound mind on that account. If such a thing occurred, surely it would be a matter of public interest and something about which the public should know. It would unquestionably be referred to on the 9 o'clock news. The B.B.C. would certainly report the facts, as, I suppose, would the I.T.A.
It might very well be that the matter would be of such interest that the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. would think it worth being the subject of discussion in one of their Brain Trusts or similar programmes. If the B.B.C. did arrange such a discussion they would be perfectly free to do so, and nothing whatever in this Bill would make it impossible for them to refer to the facts. But if the B.B.C. subsequently wished to print a report of this discussion in The Listener, that by this Bill would be completely prohibited. That is the kind of absurdity that could arise.
In the debate two years ago I started giving the House a number of instances of this sort of absurdity that could arise, from paragraphs that I had picked out of the papers over a week or two before the debate. As I say, I was cut short before I had completed my list and I have not, I confess, brought it up to date for the purpose of this debate. Anyway, I would not wish to go over all that old ground again.
785 I want to draw attention particularly to the fact that this Bill is objected to, so far as I know, not by those organs of the Press which are regarded normally as being the less responsible, the more inclined to seek circulation by giving facts about other people's private lives; so far as I am aware, the only organs of the Press which have objected to this Bill and have put themselves on record as doing so are The Times, the Guild of Newspaper Editors to which reference was made earlier, and the most responsible organs of the Press generally.
I have not changed my mind on this matter, although I have listened with great respect and interest to all that has been said in support of the Bill. I hope, however, that the House will reject it not necessarily by the method that applied before but by a clear decision against adopting a Bill containing what I regard as being these objectionable principles.
§ 3.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)
I followed with great interest the speech made by the hon. Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball) in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. I have come to the conclusion that the only thing that he and I have in common at the moment is that we have the same Christian name. Apart from that, I find nothing in what he said with which I can agree.
I also listened with great interest to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), who, I am glad to see, is back with us again after an absence from the Chamber. I was beginning to be a little alarmed about him, for in supporting this Bill his heart was beating so much for a variety of unspecified persons that I felt that perhaps he had done himself an injury and had had to retire from the field of combat.
I must say that, although I have every respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey, the arguments which he adduced today were so confused and contradictory that if only he had stayed in the Chamber a little longer and had heard the subsequent speeches he would by now be convinced that there is no case whatsoever to be made out for the Bill.
§ Mr. Mellish
Will my hon. Friend just allow me to put this on the record? I 786 heard my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot), who made a brilliant speech, and he was opposed to the Bill. I think I can say that I have clearly understood the arguments of those who are opposed to the Bill.
§ Mr. Lipton
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey has said that. If it comes to the vote, he will no doubt go into the Lobby against the Bill. He is a man of open mind, who is willing to listen to arguments. I am glad he made that statement soon enough during the course of my speech to make it quite impossible for me to claim that any of my arguments had had any influence on him whatever.
The Bill is definitely not in the public interest. It strikes me as a very novel and odd doctrine that it should be said that we may have information published in one way which may not be published in another way. In effect, what happens is this, as hon. Members have pointed out. When a will is admitted to probate, it becomes a public document, and it is, in that respect and to that extent, published. The Member for Gainsborough is asking us to agree to this proposition. He agrees, he says, that a will is a public document; it ought to be published at Somerset House and it ought to be available to anybody who wants to go along and spend 1s. in order to examine its contents. But, says the hon. Gentleman, it must not be published in any other way. Heaven forbid, he says, that it should be published in a document which can be purchased for 2½d. outside an underground station in the evening or for 2½d., or a little more, perhaps, if one wishes to have a daily newspaper in the morning. I can see no logic or sense in that kind of proposition.
I was particularly impressed by the argument of the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach). The hon. and gallant Gentleman is, I think, the only one of the few practising solicitors in the House to take part in the debate today. It may be that, while I was out of the Chamber on other business, other practising solicitors addressed the House, but I rather think not. The point I wish to make is that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, if this problem involved so much hardship and created so much distress as the 787 hon. Member for Gainsborough contended, surely, by now, the Law Society would have expressed an opinion on the subject or would have made representations to the authorities.
I think I am right in saying that, despite the alleged magnitude of the problem and the alleged distress to large numbers of innocent people, the Law Society, which can speak for all solicitors practising in this country, who are, of course, in close touch with such matters, has never thought fit to make any representations to anybody on the subject. This leads me to suppose that the problem is of nothing like the distressing magnitude portrayed by the hon. Member for Gainsborough and by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey, before he changed his mind.
§ Mr. Lipton
The impression I got from the intervention of my hon. Friend made in the course of my remarks was that he had been so impressed by the arguments in subsequent speeches that he felt that he had to give way to those arguments, and, to that extent, modify the attitude he had adopted in supporting the Second Reading.
§ Mr. Mellish
May we have this on record? I simply said that I had, in fact, heard the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot), who made a very brilliant case for his point of view in opposition to the Bill. I said that merely because my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) was trying to convey to the House that I had not listened to the debate, which is not true.
§ Mr. Lipton
My hon. Friend still leaves the position a little obscure. He has admired the speech made by his Parliamentary representative, the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot). I think that the impression he was trying to convey in his first intervention was that he was greatly impressed by the logic and arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North. If he means what he says, then it is clear that to that extent his views on the subject have been modified since he seconded the Motion. That is all I am trying to say. I shall gladly give way to enable 788 my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey to put something else on the record if I have misrepresented in any way what he said today.
§ Mr. Lipton
The danger in being a party to any form of censorship is that it inevitably means concealment, as the hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Bishop) rightly pointed out. As he also said, concealment not only leads to abuse and suspicion, but it can also lead to gross injustice. Only the other day a case was fought very gallantly by an Army officer right up to the House of Lords, where he won.
If that kind of will were kept secret, then it is quite obvious to me and to most people that the next of kin could be subjected to very considerable and grave injustice. After all, we hear from time to time of undue influence being exercised. What is the best weapon that can be employed to ensure that undue influence is not exercised? Surely it is publication. Publication is quite the best defence for the public and for the next of kin, who may be involved, against danger and injustice arising from undue influence when a will is drawn.
What will happen if the Bill should ever find its way to the Statute Book? Cases do occur in the solicitors' profession in which the solicitor is asked to draw up a will on behalf of the client. They are not all of the high standards, repute and honesty of the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham. Cases have been known in which solicitors, when drafting a will on behalf of a client, have somewhow or other found themselves to be considerable beneficiaries under the terms of the will. What will happen in a case of that kind? Surely the solicitor will take advantage of the Bill and make absolutely certain that, whatever else may be published about the will, information about his share of the swag will not appear in the newspapers. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gainsborough will agree that it would be most undesirable to allow that sort of thing.
§ Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)
I have listened with interest to what the hon. Member has said, but surely he would agree that in those 789 circumstances the will could still be contested in the courts.
§ Mr. Lipton
I quite agree that the will could be contested in the court, but the chances of that happening, if such a legal proceeding becomes necessary, are immeasurably assisted if the will is published. That makes it very much easier for anyone with an interest in the matter to take the necessary action.
That leads me to the next argument that I want to bring to the attention of the House. I think that it has been mentioned before. The publication of wills has helped to trace the real beneficiaries in quite a number of cases. It is most unjust that somebody who may be entitled under the terms of a will to claim a legacy, bequest or inheritance—it may be a distant relative—should, simply because that person may not have heard of the death of the testator—
§ Mr. Lipton
I do not think it is. The subsection leaves it entirely to the executor or administrator of the estate to publish or authorise the publication of the particulars, and if the executor or administrator has some reason for not wanting to publish, he exercises the privilege which he is given by the subsection and nothing is disclosed to the outside world. The intervention in no way detracts from the force of the argument which I am asking the House to accept.
Under the present system, the publication of wills is a check on undue indolence, it helps to trace beneficiaries and it enables a man to give recognition, if he wishes to do so, to those who have helped him through his life. The Bill is bad and vicious in principle because it supports secrecy and privilege against what most people regard as an established freedom, namely, the right to know what a will contains as quickly and as conveniently as possible after the will is admitted to probate and becomes a public document. It has already been published and, as I have pointed out, it is illogical to argue that some dangerous result might follow if publication is allowed other than through the established channel of Somerset House.
790 The Solicitor-General was particularly cautious in his remarks. A fair construction of what he said would be "Throw the Bill out. I shall have no compunction whatsoever if the House decides to throw it out." I do not think I am putting an unfair construction upon the Solicitor-General's words. I do not believe that he would have a sleepless night tonight and I do not believe that the Attorney-General would berate him if his intervention today had the result that the House decided to have nothing whatever to do with the Bill.
§ The Solicitor-General
So that there may be no illusion in any mind, even that of the hon. Member, I would point out that the position that I desired to present was one of complete cold neutrality.
§ Mr. Lipton
When I am anxious to get something through and someone comes to me and says "My attitude is that of cold neutrality", I immediately write him off as not being a supporter. That is all I am trying to suggest in this case. If a person that one meets when canvassing in a Parliamentary election says I am not interested in politics", one can mark him down as a Conservative Party supporter, especially if he goes on to say that he does not know anything about politics either. I am not in the slightest perturbed by the remark of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The House is capable of putting a proper construction on the words he used.
It is remarkable that every now and again the House likes to attack the Press and to pick holes in the Press, whereas without the Press reporting of what we say and do here, as a recent experience showed, we would be very poor fish. As a matter of fact, when the other night part of our proceedings had to be conducted in private, the proceedings went through with incredible speed. No one knows exactly what was said during that virtually secret session, and I do not think that the general public was very interested in what was said during that part of our proceedings. If we extend that argument, it leads to saying that the less and less that people know, the more we shall be living in a happier world. and yet that is the argument of the hon. Member for Gainsborough.
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
As one who strongly agrees with my hon. 791 Friend, and who is strongly opposed to the Bill, may I ask my hon. Friend now to allow us to have a vote, so that half an hour may be available for discussion of a very valuable Bill which is to follow?
§ Mr. Lipton
It is not for me to decide when and in what circumstances the House shall proceed to express an opinion on this or any other matter.
In conclusion, if that will help my hon. and learned Friend and other hon. Members who, unfortunately, have to listen to what I am saying, there is an impressive unanimity of opinion against the Bill.
Reference has already been made to the editorial in The Times today. I
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).