§ Amendment proposed [10th April]: In page 1, line 14, to leave out from "authority" to the end of line 17.—[Mr. MacDermot.]
§ Question again proposed, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Bill.782
§ 1.58 p.m.
Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)
When the House adjourned on Friday, 10th April, we were in the middle of discussing what I should describe as one of the most important Amendments on the Notice Paper. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) had just moved the Amendment and we had heard some interesting views. When the House adjourned, we were listening to some interesting observations from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) who, I am sorry to see, is not able to be here today. We shall all very much miss the contribution we were looking forward to hearing. However, there are other supporters of the Bill present, and no doubt they will deal with this very important matter in their usual clear way.
Put quite briefly, the effect of the Amendment, which has my full support, would be to ensure that particulars of the payment of Estate Duty or particulars of Estate Duty which has been levied are published in the newspaper. It would be fair to say that different views are held in this House about the incidence of Estate Duty, but I cannot see, from the point of view of the promoters of the Bill, how it can possibly be suggested that the publication of particulars of Estate Duty, whether one approves of it or not, is not in the general interest of the public.
I am one of those who believe that Estate Duty is one of the most virulent in existence. It has always been my wish that at a future date a Conservative Government will abolish the incidence of Estate Duty altogether. On the assumption that I am right or perhaps that I have a good cause, surely it must assist the cause if the Press are allowed to publish these vast sums which are being levied in Estate Duty.
I have two real objections to Estate Duty. First, it is unsound to have a form of taxation under which capital is taxed and used as income. In putting forward this proposition, I should have thought that I would have full support of all my hon. Friends. I am only speaking from memory, but the amount which is seized from the public through Estate Duty every year is approximately £180 million. That is being used as income where it is capital and should be used in some form of discharging the capital indebtedness of this country today. I 783 should have thought that the more publicity given to this position the better it would be for assisting my cause, which is the eventual abolition of Estate Duty. As I have said, it is likely that hon. Members opposite will not agree with my view on this problem.
The other economic unsoundness of the present assessment of Estate Duty is that it is contrary to encouraging saving. I think that every economist agrees with that, whatever political party he may belong to. I was proposing to give a few extracts from the Press illustrating the vast sums of Estate Duty which is paid, but I have not them with me to give to the House. Whenever one opens The Times or the Daily Telegraph one reads about the vast sums which are being taken from the general public in Estate Duty and I feel strongly that it is right that those sums should be published. Other principles may be involved. Some hon. Members opposite may think it right that people's savings should be taken to pay Estate Duty. If they think that, surely there should be full publicity given to it.
I do not see how any real objection can be taken to the proposal that the figures of Estate Duty should be published in the Press. As I said, I regret the absence of the hon. Member for Gainsborough because he was in the middle of making some interesting observations. I do not know which promoter of the Bill will reply, but I hope that we shall have a detailed answer on this specific point. In referring to this Amendment, the hon. Member for Gainsborough said on 10th April:Acceptance of this Amendment would undermine the whole principle of the Bill. In this debate we have, perhaps, rather lost sight of the simple purpose of the Bill. It is that the reporting of wills must be accurate. If we were to accept the Amendment the reports could not be accurate, as they would publish only half the truth about someone's will.I confess that I do not quite understand what that means. The purpose of the Amendment is to ensure that one quite simple issue is brought to the attention of the public, namely, that particulars of Estate Duty paid by individuals when they die are published so that the public knows what is going on. I do not suggest that the hon. Member for Gainsborough was not perfectly sincere in what he said. I think that he merely misunderstood the 784 position. I do not think that he appreciated the purport and object of the Amendment.
The hon. Member went on to say:If we were to accept the Amendment the reports could not be accurate …Why not? If, as is often the case, reports of duty paid are published, everyone knows that they are always subject to adjustment when the estate is administered. What is known as a corrective affidavit has to be put in. Sometimes more debts or more assets come to light. The hon. Member went on to say:That is a fundamental principle of the Bill, so it will be appreciated that I cannot possibly accept the Amendment.Then the hon. Member made a better point. He said:Another very simple principle, and one that has certainly been forgotten, is that our purpose is to give to everyone who lives in this country the right to the same privacy over their affairs when dead as they had when they were alive.I suppose that the hon. Member means that because a person does not have to publish in the Press the amount of an estate annually or half-yearly while he is alive, he should not have to publish details of the estate when dead. That is not true, because if by any unfortunate occurrence a taxpayer is involved in a dispute with the inspector of taxes which eventually goes to the court, which we all know constantly happens—as a lawyer perhaps I should say fortunately, because it is apt to happen in certain taxation matters—straight away the details of a person's estate can be published through the medium of the courts. Therefore, there is nothing to worry about there.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough continued:I will not refer now to the debate on Second Reading, but if the hon. Member for Lewisham North (Mr. MacDermot) looks at column 784 of the OFFICIAL REPORT "—which I have no doubt the hon. Member has done—he will see that all these points were then fully discussed. He has said that a probate figure is published as soon as probate is lodged "—in fact, it is published three or four days later, but in general terms the hon. Member is correct—but is there a record of any paper at the end of, say, five or seven years, when eventually the value of a large estate is ascertained, publishing a correction "—785 Here the hon. Member for Lewisham, North intervened and said:The hon. Member himself quoted an example on Second Reading."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th April, 1959; Vol. 603, c. 603–4.]As we proceed with the debate on this very important Amendment, I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Lewisham, North will have some observations to make on that point.
I cannot see any valid argument why details of Estate Duty figures should not be published. 1 support that by saying that, in my political belief, it is quite right that the general public should know how this Estate Duty taxation is working—quite unsoundly, I believe, from the economic viewpoint. I also believe, on the other side, that if we have Estate Duty, the ordinary taxpayer should realise what is being taken from people and what will be used as revenue.
We have had a long discussion on the Bill and it looks like going on for a long time on Report, so long as the rules of order allow. We have, however, been discussing a number of Amendments, all of which raise extremely good points. The present one is one of the most important for discussion on Report. I very much hope that after the lapse of time from 10th April until today, the promoters of the Bill have had an opportunity of thinking the matter over. We all recall that from Committee to the beginning of Report they had a number of changes of mind. On Report, we found that a number of Amendments which had been put down had been adopted by the promoters. Although the present Amendment originally stood in my name, I hope that we shall have another example of sinners repenting and that the promoters of the Bill will acknowledge the need for it and commendably accept it.
§ Mr. F. P. Bishop (Harrow, Central)
I, also, hope that, in spite of what my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball) said last time this matter was discussed, it may still be possible for the promoters of the Bill to accept the Amendment. The hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot), who moved the Amendment, pointed out that paragraph (b) of subsection (1) has no relation to the main purpose of the Bill. Its main purpose, understand, is to make it illegal for 786 newspapers to publish particulars of the dispositions made under a person's will.
Paragraph (b) has nothing whatever to do with what may be the dispositions made in a person's will. It deals with something quite different and much wider in scope. It seeks to make it illegal to publish any estimate of the amount of the estate of a deceased person or of any duty or estimated duty payable in respect of such estate.
I suggest to my hon. Friends that in seeking to include a Clause like this in their Bill they seek to do something that violates human nature too severely. It is quite impossible to attempt to prescribe by legislation that nobody should be allowed to publish in a newspaper any estimate of what a deceased person's estate may be or the extent to which the revenue—which means the taxpayer—may benefit in consequence.
I realise that paragraph (b), in the same way as paragraph (a), is subject to the proviso that it applies onlyin any case in which any will executed by such deceased person contains an express wish that such particulars or such amounts should not be so published".That, however, creates an additional difficulty and a serious one. Obviously, until a will is admitted to probate and is registered and is available for inspection at Somerset House, it cannot be known whether it contains such a request. Therefore, it would be impossible for anybody who wants to publish an estimate or make a guess at the estate of somebody who has died, to know whether he may be committing a crime by publishing such an estimate until the will itself is available for inspection after being admitted to probate.
I put this hypothetical case to the House. Imagine that a person known to be very wealthy dies. It might be the head of one of the great international banking companies, or of one of the great landowning families. The newspapers may publish paragraphs about his life story, his background and his good works during his life. In addition, there may be a paragraph to say that on the best-informed estimates, the disposable estate which he has left must be at least of the order of £10 million, and that if this is so the taxpayer will benefit to the tune 787 of so many millions as a result of the disposal of such a vast estate.
It is asking rather a lot of human nature to demand that it shall be made illegal for anybody to publish guesses or estimates of that kind when a person of very great wealth dies. There is, however, a further point, to which I hope one or other of the hon. and learned Members who are much more experienced in the law than I am, will reply. Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General himself may be able to help. What would be the position if, when such a person died, a newspaper published that kind of paragraph, which would be prohibited by subsection (1, b) of the Clause if the will executed by the deceased person contained an express wish that such particulars or amounts should not be so published?
The newspaper publishing that paragraph could not possibly know at the time it was published whether it was committing an offence in publishing such an estimate. Nobody could know. Not even the executor of the estate could know whether an offence was being committed until the will was admitted to probate and it then became apparent whether the will contained a definite request by the deceased person that such particulars or amounts should not be so published.
What is the position of the newspaper which has published such a statement in those circumstances? When the statement was published, it was certainly not an offence—it could not be, because the conditions making it an offence could not then have been realised. It is an extraordinary provision in the law that we can by statute create a situation in which a person can do a certain act but cannot possibly, at the time he does it, know whether it is an offence against the law. That becomes apparent only many months later when the will is admitted to probate and it is known whether the condition laid down in the Clause applies. I should like to ask my hon. Friends or any of the hon. and learned Members who are taking an interest in the Bill if they can relieve my mind on that question, as to what the situation would be in such a case.
Beyond that, I agree with those who have supported this Amendment on the broad principle that it is desirable in the 788 interests of the public as a whole that particulars of estates of the kind which I have just been referring to and the possible effect of death duties on such estates should be published and should be made known. We are all of us beneficiaries in such cases.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) has referred to cases which are reported day by day in The Times and the Daily Telegraph, and, indeed, in other papers, and I myself, in earlier stages in our discussions of the Measure, have referred to many such cases. There was one just the other day in The Times, of 30th April, under the headline:£1,016,000 in estate duty".It referred to a widow who had left an estate of £1,278,000, and the paper said:Because of the 80 per cent. duty on fortunes substantially above £1 million, the Treasury receives £1,016,683.All that, £1,016,000, out of a net estate of £1,278,000!
When it says that the Treasury receives this benefit, it means that you and I, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and all taxpayers of the country are the beneficiaries. It seems to me to be quite ludicrous to say that the Press should be forbidden to publish facts of this kind. It is obviously, to my mind, desirable that we as beneficiaries should know what benefits we are deriving from an estate of this kind.
I understand perfectly well the view of my hon. Friends who are promoting this Bill about the desirability of preventing pain and distress to people who leave small estates and to the beneficiaries under such small estates. We must recognise that there are such cases and that there can be such difficulties, but we in this House have to consider what is the balance of advantage to the community as a whole, and I have no doubt at all, apart altogether from the technical, legal problem which this paragraph seems to raise, and about which I hope someone will be able to give me an explanation, that the balance of advantage to the community as a whole is that the publication of facts of the kind I have been referring to should be permitted. For that reason I support the Amendment.
§ Mr, Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)
I intervene because I do not 789 know why the hon. Gentleman the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Bishop) expressed such a hope in his concluding sentences. I have been studying the Bill and I notice that it was presented by Mr. Kimball. He, presumably, is responsible for the Bill, but I cannot see the hon. Gentleman present. I see that he is supported by Mr. Russell, Mr. Speir—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] I am merely citing the words at the front of the Bill. He is supported by Sir P. Joseph, Mr. Mellish, Mr. George Jeger, Mr. Pargiter—
Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles NlacAndrew)
Order. We must speak about the hon. Members by the names of their constituencies. The hon. Member is out of order.
§ Mr Willey
I am obliged, Mr Deputy-Speaker I was merely calling attention to the hon. Members who presented the Bill.
I have already, in an earlier discussion, complained about their lack of responsibility. I do not think that it is treating the House properly at all to bring forward a Measure and expect it to be discussed in the absence of its promoters. I would avoid any invidious reference to the promoters of the Bill, but I would generalise. None appears to be present—except the hon. Gentleman the Member for Billericay (Mr. Body). While we are obliged to the hon. Member for his attendance, I do not think that the House ought to treat seriously a Measure which is brought forward through the Private Member's Bill machinery if those sponsoring it are not prepared to be hereto see the Bill through. I can only by a process of elimination suppose that the hon. Member for Billericay is in charge of the Bill.
§ Mr. MacDermot
On a point of order. Is it in order to ask who is in charge of the Bill, as the hon. Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball), who, I understood, was in charge of it up to now, is not here?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The Member in charge of the Bill has the right to reply, which other Members have not—
§ Mr. MacDermot
I hope, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I have the right to reply to the debate on the Amendment, which I moved. I thought that an hon. Member who moved an Amendment had the right to reply to a debate upon it if he wished, and to speak twice.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The hon. Member has the right to reply, too, but the point is that it is only one Member in charge who has the right to reply. The hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) has that right upon his own Amendment.
§ Mr. Willey
Perhaps I may raise the matter on a point of order, since it would certainly assist us in future discussion, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, by inquiring who is in charge of the Bill? In view of what you have said, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, it would obviously assist us to know, and it would assist you to know.
§ Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) has explained that he would be unable, since he has another engagement which he had to keep, to be present here this afternoon, and I undertook to look after the Bill far him. To that extent, I suppose, it can be said that I am in charge of the Bill.
§ Mr. Willey
That merely illustrates how confusing this is. We now have the hon. Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radolyffe), who is not one of the Members backing the Bill, telling us that he is in charge of the Bill. It seems to place the House and the Chair in an extraordinarily difficult position, because I had assumed that the solitary Member here from the ranks of the supporters of the Bill, the hon. Member for Billericay, would now be in charge of the Bill. Apparently he is not.
§ Mr. Richard Body (Billericay)
I was waiting to answer in due course the very few arguments which have been adduced in favour of this Amendment.
When there are two contenders representing themselves as being in charge of the Bill, it becomes particularly important to know who is in charge of the Bill.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
As far as the Government are concerned, one Member can speak for another, so that the whole 791 Front Bench can be in charge. Only one Member can be in charge of a Private Member's Bill. I do not know for certain who it is, so I cannot answer.
§ 2.30 p.m.
§ Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)
When the House was last considering the Bill, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) was speaking when the debate stood adjourned. He was giving an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot). He was in process of arguing against the Amendment when the debate stood adjourned. It is a very odd thing that he is not here to continue the argument. We are left up in the air, as it were.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
He may be here yet. I do not know. I have not had notice that he would not be here.
§ Mr. MacDermot
Do I understand, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that your Ruling is that there is no one in charge of the Bill at the moment? I do not understand how, in the course of considering one Amendment, which we are discussing, two different hon. Members in succession can be in charge of the Bill.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I understand that the hon. Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe) has been put in charge of the Bill at present. If the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) were to come back, no doubt he would take his duties up again, but it is only one hon. Member at a time who has the right of reply.
§ Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)
Further to that point. Will you accept a Motion to adjourn the debate, Mr. Deputy-Speaker?
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present—
§ House counted, and, 40 Members being present
§ Mr. Willey
I was discomfited by the fact that it is not clear who is in charge of the Bill. Nevertheless, I will resume the point which I was making. I take it that two hon. Members opposite will reply on behalf of those who put forward the Bill. There is a great deal in the argument and that is why I wanted to hear 792 what the promoters had to say about it. I do not go the whole way with the Amendment, but there is a substantial point behind it. The words that worry me are "or estimated." I should have thought that this was a difficult matter to define and that it puts those who publish at unnecessary risk.
It makes things said up to the point of death unlawful if they are said after the point of death. One could say something about a deceased person which might be construed as an estimate of the amount of the estate of that person. I think that that is undesirable. That is why I think it improper to proceed with discussion of the Bill unless those who are promoting it are here to answer such a point. A case has been made out that even if one accepted the purpose of this provision it goes unnecessarily wide and ought to be amended.
There is also possibly a distinction between the amount of the estate and the amount of the duty. I concede at once that Income Tax is not disclosed but, rightly or wrongly, Estate Duty is disclosed and this affords information of public interest and public advantage. If we are to legislate about something like this affecting the Estate Duty we ought to be advised by the Government about it. We ought to have a reply from the Solicitor-General. We are not asking for a reply here about interpretation but about substance.
The information which is accorded about the instance of death duties in a particular case is important. It is proper information which ought to be made available. For that reason, I should have expected a reply from those responsible for the Bill, on these two points. The first is the important point that this could bring unnecessary risk and probably a risk which the promoters themselves have not envisaged. Secondly, if we are dealing with the question of publication of information about duty payable on an estate, it is a matter which goes wider than the responsibility of a private Member and we ought to be entitled to the Government's views about it.
§ Mr. Kirk
I think that all hon. Members will agree that the Amendment is one of the most important that we have to discuss. I, too, regret the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball), though I quite 793 understand that he was unable to be here today. I regret his absence because of the rather curious short speech which he made on 10th April when we last discussed the Bill, and the paragraph from it which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) quoted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough objected to the Amendment on two grounds. This was the first speech that he made against the Amendment and, therefore, I assume that these were the general grounds on which it was not acceptable to the sponsors. First, my hon. Friend objected because, as he said.… the simple purpose of the Bill … is that the reporting of wills must be accurate.I find this a very curious state of affairs in which it is possible to argue semantically that by not reporting wills one is accurate—because there are no reports and there cannot be inaccuracies—but if the subsection is left in the Bill one is liable to inaccurate reporting, because people may make a guess.
This brings us to the second of the two principles which my hon. Friend enunciated, when he said:… our purpose is to give to everyone who lives in this country the right to the same privacy over their affairs when dead as they had when they were alive."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th April. 1959; Vol. 603, c. 603–4.]The Bill does not do that. It gives greater privacy when people are dead.
While I am alive, anyone is entitled to guess the amount of my capital and my income, and they probably do not have to guess very hard to find the answer. But once I am dead they cannot make a guess. Incidentally, I, too, would like some guidance on the words "or estimated". Does that expression mean a correct estimate, or an incorrect estimate? Is the man who guesses right fined £100, whereas if I guess wrong it is all right because I have not guessed the estimated amount of the estate? Apparently, one can still guess when the person is dead, provided that the guess is wrong, whereas when I am alive anyone can guess right or wrong and is safe. Nobody can stop him. He can publish his guess, but the provision in the Bill stops his publishing a guess when I am dead if that guess is right.
I do not know whether the words have been construed by Act Parliament and 794 interpreted in the courts. We do not know whether they mean an accurate or an inaccurate estimate. Is a guess within 5 per cent. of the right figure correct and, therefore, within the ambit of the Clause? If that is so, there is nothing to stop a newspaper making a guess incorrect enough to be outside the provisions of the Bill, which would give the newspaper the protection it would require. It seems to me that the promoters are getting into;very deep water with this subsection. I hope that they will reconsider it.
The main point made on Second Reading was that the object of the Bill was to spare grief and pain caused to small people by the knowledge that money was being received by somebody, much more than the pain and grief which could hardly be caused to someone who was dead by public knowledge of what he had left. Though I am opposed to the Bill, I concede that the arguments of the promoters are fully met by the Bill as it stands on the question of pain and sorrow caused by publication by keeping in paragraph (a).
There is the further point, which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham made so ably, about the need to expose the evil of Estate Duty in the country. I see no better or fairer way of doing so than by publishing the amount. To my horror, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Bishop) mentioned a sum of £1,016,000 in Estate Duty on an estate of £¾million, and I am sure that he wishes the public to know the amount of money taken by the Treasury in these cases. Unless we get some more substantial argument than those which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough gave, we shall have to ask the House to divide on this Amendment.
§ Mr. Nigel Fisher (Surbiton)
While I agree that this is a very important Amendment, I would also say that it is a wrecking Amendment, because the amount of the estate is one of the salient omissions from Press publication which the Bill requires. We who support the Bill take the view that the publication of the amount, or, indeed, an estimated amount, may be completely misleading to the public and to anybody else interested, and that is one of the things which the Bill will permit by the omission of subsection (1, b).
795 After all, quite large sums of money may be said to be bequeathed by someone, but, in fact, as a result of the debts and liabilities being worked out and taken into account, the whole amount may be vitiated and there may be a debit balance, so that in the end the recipient of the legacy may receive nothing in cash at all. This Amendment would wreck the whole Bill, to which, after all, we have given a Second Reading in principle, and would vitiate its whole purpose if we left out subsection (1.b)
As my hon. Friend has said, the publication of details of small wills could be embarrassing to the people concerned, since the details of the will may relate, for instance, to someone who may have kept up a very good position, though he may have had some difficulty in doing so. When it is seen that he left only a few hundred pounds, that is likely to cause considerable embarrassment and pain to his family. I cannot help feeling that the omission of the subsection would wreck the whole concept and principle of the Bill, and I therefore hope that the House will reject the Amendment.
§ Mr. Body
May I, first of all, apologise, on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) for his absence? Several hon. Members have commented on the fact that he is not here today, and also on the fact that he was speaking when the House adjourned when dealing with this Amendment on the last occasion. He asks me to say in his absence that he had said substantially all that he intended to say on that occasion, and that it is through no discourtesy to this House that he has to be elsewhere today on an engagement which is of importance to him and his constituents.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach), at the beginning of his speech said he supported the Amendment, because of the virulence of Estate Duty, and because he felt that the virulence of that duty should be made known to all of us. I am surprised that a solicitor of such tremendous experience as he should put forward that argument, because he must know that these estimates of the duty are more often than not quite wrong. He knows as well as any hon. Member in 796 the House that the application for the grant of probate is made at the earliest opportunity.
Major Hicks Beach
That is a very grave slur on the profession to which I have the honour to belong. When a solicitor submits an application for probate, he does so on the basis of all the information then available, and it is not correct to say that they are often quite wrong.
Major Hicks Beach
I thoroughly disagree with my hon. Friend. Taking these cases by and large, I think that the figures submitted on application for probate are in a very large number of cases very nearly accurate, but one cannot always get them absolutely accurate. The whole thing has to be done on oath by the person making the affidavit, and the figures are usually accurate. I think I can claim to have at least as much knowledge as my hon. Friend in this matter, and I say that it is grossly misleading the House to suggest that in nine cases out of ten the figures are inaccurate.
§ Mr. Body
I should like to take the argument a stage further. My hon. and gallant Friend's point would be a valid one if the figure set out in the first affidavit were correct, because then he would have some estimate of the incidence of Estate Duty, but, even so, that is only some partial help to him, for this reason. Each year, we know the total amount of Estate Duty that is collected, and I would have thought that anyone who wishes to oppose Estate Duty—and I share the sentiments of my hon. and gallant Friend in the matter—can find enough facts in the annual returns which set out the total amount of Estate Duty paid each year.
§ Mr. Body
I agree that it does not show the individual duty.
797 May I come back to the original point that the original affidavit is so frequently wrong? Only this morning, on leaving a court, I was giving an explanation why I was leaving, and the solicitor to whom I was speaking, who is one of great experience, told me that his estimate was that nine out of ten affidavits had to be wrong, for the very good reason that one cannot, in the very early days immediately after a death, make a wholly accurate calculation, and that is accepted by the Revenue authorities as being the position. That particularly applies in cases when we have any business or profession or the sale of any goodwill held by the deceased.
I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Bishop) who said that we had some right to have this information, because we were the beneficiaries of Estate Duty, and I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk) agrees with that. What that right is was not amplified, but if my hon. Friends are to be logical about is I should have thought that they would have also to extend it to the incidence of Income Tax. I know that this is an argument which has been brought forward already several times in the debates on this Bill, but if the public, as the beneficiaries of Estate Duty, have a right to know the individual amounts of Estate Duty paid by different people, likewise, if one is to be logical, one should apply that to the payment of any other class of revenue, be it Income Tax or any other kind of taxation imposed upon individuals.
I oppose the Amendment, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) said, it goes to the very roots of. the Bill. It is a wrecking Amendment, and it is for that reason also that I oppose it.
§ Mr. MacDermot
In exercising my right of reply, I must say to the House that I feel I must press this Amendment. In saying that, it is only right that I should try to state the reasons why I would urge the House to reject the arguments put forward against it.
We are all sorry not to have with us here today the hon. Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball), who has up to now handled this Bill in his usual courteous and modest fashion. I was somewhat surprised to hear the hon. 798 Member for Billericay (Mr. Body) telling us that the reason why the hon. Gentleman could not be here was that he had to fulfil an engagement in his constituency. It was the hon. Member for Gainsborough who opted for this day for the adjourned debate to continue, and I can only think that, if he made an engagement in his constituency, he had lost heart after our proceedings on the previous occasion and was not envisaging that this adjourned debate would be resumed. Otherwise, I find it difficult to understand why he would have made an engagement in his constituency for today.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I am afraid that does not advance the explanation. The hon. Gentleman knew, when he selected this day, that there were two other Bills before his, and he can hardly have thought they would be Bills which would go through on the nod, particularly as the first one had not been discussed on the Floor of the House until today. So the mystery deepens, but, whatever be the reason for his absence, we all regret it.
I am placed in the difficulty that I cannot understand who is now in charge of the Bill. Perhaps it does not matter so much on this Amendment because, as I have intimated, I propose to press the matter. Frequently when discussing Amendments, if one is given assurances at times from the person who is really in charge of the Bill, one is prepared to take a certain course, but how can we do that today? Two hon. Gentlemen opposite have risen to intimate to us that they consider themselves to be in charge of the Bill. We do not know which of them really is in charge, nor do we know whether either has any authority from the hon. Member for Gains-borough to give any assurances or to bind him by any undertaking.
§ Mr. Fisher
The hon. Gentleman is slightly misrepresenting my hon. Friends in the discussion which took place earlier on this point. In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Sir C. MottRaclelyffe) said clearly that he was in loco parentis today in regard to this Bill, and I can confirm this is correct because 799 I heard the hon. Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball) asking him to do what he could to look after the Bill for him in his absence. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Body) did not claim to have any control over the Bill. He is merely a supporter of it, as I am.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I understood that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe) was in local parentis, in the sense that he had been handed the baby, but he did not give us any indication of what authority or what parental powers had been conferred upon him, and it was to that point my remarks were directed. The hon. Member for Billericay is the only hon. Member whose name is on the back of the Bill who is present today, and he has told us that he proposed to answer my arguments on behalf of the sponsor of the Bill. Be that as it may, it may be more helpful if I turn to the arguments adduced by the hon. Member for Gainsborough on the previous occasion, in his short reply to my opening speech in support of the Amendment.
The hon. Gentleman put forward two arguments. He said, first, that if this Amendment were accepted the result would be that the reports which the newspapers could publish would not be accurate as they would publish only half the truth about a will. That argument is based on a misconception. Paragraph (b) of Clause 1 does not deal with the contents of the will. The amount of the estate, the amount of the estate which has been left, the amount of Estate Duty which may have to be paid are not part of the contents of the will. They have nothing to do with the will. The will merely states how the person proposes to dispose of such property as he may leave, and often the will is drawn at a time when his assets may be far different from what they are at the time of his death.
The Bill sets out to do two things: to place a prohibition on publication of the contents of the will and to place a prohibition on publication of the amount of the estate and the amount of Estate Duty. We who support the Amendment say that the two things need not be interdependent, and if the House is disposed to accept the argument in favour of 800 restriction or prohibition of the publication of the contents of the will, there ought not to be prohibition of publication of the amount of the estate or of the Estate Duty. So the suggestion that, by limiting publication in some way, the newspapers will be able to give a false report by giving only a half truth about the contents of the will, is misconceived.
The second argument put forward by the hon. Member for Gainsborough was what he called another very simple principle which he said had been forgotten, that everyone who lives in this country has the right to the same privacy over his affairs when he is dead as he had when alive. Again this argument is based on a misconception. If the Bill is passed in the form in which it stands without this Amendment, the answer is that a privacy will be conferred upon a person at his death which he did not enjoy when alive.
For example, the newspapers are entitled to publish an article showing that Mr. Blank is a millionaire, that Mr. Blank is believed to be worth £2 or £3 million, that Mr. Blank owns such-and-such properties and estates, that Mr. Blank is the owner of such-and-such a company. If the Bill is passed without this Amendment, the newspapers will not be allowed to state that. If Mr. Blank has expressed a wish in his will that these matters should not be published, the newspapers will not be allowed to state that Mr. Blank, who died the other day, was a millionaire. Everyone may know it, but they will not be allowed to state it.
What the newspapers will be allowed to state is a matter of considerable conjecture and great difficulty for the newspapers. Will they be allowed to state that Mr. Blank's property is believed to be worth six figures? Will that be an estimated amount of his estate or will it not? This would produce a farcical situation. In any event it certainly would not be merely preserving a right of privacy which existed during Mr. Blank's life, it would be conferring a new privacy which does not now exist.
I challenged the hon. Member for Gainsborough when I moved this Amendment by saying that I thought the Amendment in many ways provided the acid test of the true intentions of the sponsors of the Bill, or at least some of their intentions. I thought one of their 801 main objects was to try to prevent publicity being given to the fact that very large estates are still passing on death and also of the amounts which are being paid by way of Estate Duty. I also thought they wanted to conceal at times the extent to which Estate Duty was avoided by people making the arrangements they can make to dispose of property during their lifetime deliberately to avoid death duties. I believe this is a matter of great public importance.
These arguments have not been answered and no attempt has been made to answer them, except in a very indirect way. The hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) said he considered this would be a wrecking Amendment. Perhaps in the sense in which I put it forward it would be a wrecking Amendment if that is the true intention of the sponsors of the Bill, but this argument accusing me of making a wrecking Amendment was by the hon. Member related to the argument of the hon. Member for Gainsborough with which I have already dealt, the half-truth argument. This is a quite separate issue, the publication of details of the estate and Estate Duty. If the hon. Member wants us to believe that this is a wrecking Amendment, I take that as an admission that one of the true intentions of the sponsors of the Bill is to prevent people knowing the fact that large estates are being passed and to prevent people knowing what sums are or are not being paid by way of Estate Duty.
§ Mr. Fisher
Not at all. I drew attention in the few remarks I made just now to the position of small estates, which I bracketed with big estates. There is no desire to prevent the publication of details of large estates as such, but we object to the publication of details of any estate, large or small.
§ Mr. MacDermot
Again, there was an opportunity to test this matter in Committee when there was an Amendment suggesting that the Bill should be restricted to small and medium-sized estates and to exclude its operation from large estates. That Amendment was rejected by the sponsors of the Bill. I am not impressed by this argument about small estates. I do not believe it answers 802 the gravamen of the charge I am putting forward in support of this Amendment as to the true intentions of the sponsors.
Finally, we had resurrected by the hon. Member for Billericay the argument about the misleading nature, or alleged falsity. of the information published and derived from the original provisional affidavit put in by the solicitor at the time of application for probate. There is nothing misleading about this. When it is only an estimated amount of the estate that is stated in the Press as an estimated amount. When it is a question of the estimated amount of Estate Duty, that is stated, too. Very often there is only one affidavit and it is the final one, but in cases where it happens that after some years in the case of a large estate the amount is different, that figure is also given. If the relatives are worried and think there has been a misunderstanding as a result of what has been published, they can make arrangements to have the matter corrected in the Press. That seems an argument without force.
The hon. Member compared the position about the publication of the amount of Estate Duty to that of the amount a person pays by way of Income Tax. This raises the interesting question of whether that should be published at all. In some States of America and in Sweden the amounts which all citizens pay are available for all members of the public to learn. They do not consider that the amount of a person's income should be a matter of privacy. There is a great deal to be said for that argument, but let us confine ourselves to this question in hand, of what should be published in the Press. If the Press find what my income is and what I have paid by way of Income Tax they are perfectly free to publish it—
§ Mr. MacDermot
—or to guess at it. Sometimes they do guess at what is to be paid. There is no restriction on that.
Do not let us be misled. What the sponsors of the Bill are trying to do is to obtain privacy for a man as a corpse which he does not have when he is alive.
I cannot accept this argument and I must press my Amendment to a Division.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
I do not think that the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot), or my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach), need make too heavy weather of the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball), or of the question of who is in charge of the Bill in his absence. As I explained in an interruption earlier, I undertook on behalf of my hon. Friend to be in loco parentis of the Bill when he had to leave shortly after one o'clock to undertake an engagement that was quite inescapable, and which, to the best of my knowledge, he could not have known about when he selected this particular day for the Report stage of the Bill.
I do not think the hon. Gentleman can complain that my name is not on the Bill as one of the promoters. All hon. Members know that I supported the Bill on Second Reading and in Committee, and I am supporting it now. I want to tell the House briefly why my hon. Friends and I cannot accept the Amendment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) said, if the Amendment were accepted it would cut right across the principle of the Bill which, briefly, is that when a testator makes his will he should have the right to choose whether or not he wishes the contents of his will to be published when he dies.
§ Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe
If the total size of the estate, or the amount of Estate Duty, were published, which is what the Amendment would allow, that would be a considerable inroad into the privacy which we think a testator ought to have if he so wishes. The mere fact of publishing either a gross amount, or the amount of the Estate Duty, can in
§ certain circumstances give a very accurate figure. In other circumstances it can be quite inaccurate. It is not deliberately so, but it is inevitably so. I am of course not making any suggestion to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham that the legal profession has any dishonesty in mind. All I am saying is that in certain circumstances the publication of the gross estate, and the publication of the amount of Estate Duty, cannot help being very considerably inaccurate.
§ I know of a case not long ago where a very rich old bachelor died. He left his entire fortune to his butler who had been with him for thirty years. The Press came out with the headline "Butler inherits £100,000 from former employer ". The butler was very pleased. His postbag was very large. All sorts of people rang to congratulate him on his windfall, and all sorts of other people asked for a little bit of money for a charity towards this or a help towards that.
§ What the Press did not know was that the deceased's liabilities were very considerably in excess of his assets, and, far from leaving £100,000 to his faithful butler, all that the butler got out of a nil estate, when the sum was finally done, was a old walking-stick and an even older rug which, for many years, had been chewed by the dog.
§ I give that only as an illustration of how inaccurate what purports to be a perfectly accurate statement by the Press can turn out to be. We cannot accept the Amendment, for the reasons I have given. It cuts right across the general principle of the Bill, and for that reason my hon. Friends and I will be bound to resist it.
§ Question put, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Bill:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 9, Noes 36.805
|Division No. 102||AYES||[3.12.p.m.|
|Body, R.F.S||McAdden, S.J.|
|Gibson-Watt, D||Prentice, R.E.|
|Hall, Rt. Hn. Glenvil (Colne Valley)||Redmayne, M.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Hobson, John(Watwick & Leam'gt'n)||Russell, R.S.||Mr. Fisher and|
|Legh, Hon, Peter (Petersfield)||Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe.|
|Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.)||Crossman, R.H.S.||Gresham Cooke, R.|
|Bishop, F.P.||Davies, Ernest (Enfield, E.)||Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly)|
|Boyd, T.C.||de Freitas, Geoffrey||Hicks-Beach, Maj. W.W.|
|Braine, B. R.||Fitch, E.A. (Wigan)||Holman, P.|
|Brown, Rt. Hon. George (Belper)||Georege, J.C. (Pollok)||Hunter, A.E.|
|Hynd, H. (Accrington)||Molson, Rt, Hon, A.H.E.||Skeffington, Arthur|
|Hynd, J.B. (Attercliffe)||Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon)||Stewart, Michael (Fulham)|
|Irvine, A. J. (Edge Hill)||Parker, J. (Dagenham)||Warbey, W. N.|
|Janner, B.||Peart, T.F.||Willey, Frederick|
|Jones, David (The Hartlepools)||Reid, William||Younger, Rt. Hon. K|
|Lucas, Sir Jocelyn (Portsmouth, S.)||Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)|
|MacDermot, Niall||Silverman, Julius (Aston)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Mallalieu, E.L. (Brigg)||Silverman, Sydney (Nelson)||Sir Leslie Plummer and Mr. Kirk.|
Major Hicks Beach
I beg to move, in page I, to leave out lines 18 to 20.
The intention of the Amendment can be simply stated. It is to ensure that, if by an unhappy chance the Bill reaches the Statute Book, all persons will be in exactly the same position as regards [he publication of particulars of their wills. The Bill as drawn provides that, to prevent the particulars of one's will being published in the Press, one has to state that specifically in one's will. By my Amendment I suppose that I am, to a limited extent, assisting the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) and the promoters of the Bill by rather enlarging its scope.
I do it for this fundamental reason. It cannot be right to have one law for the person who happens to make a will and remembers to provide that particulars of his will shall not be published, and another law for the unfortunate person who dies intestate or, when making his will, omits to state specifically that he does not want particulars of his will published.
Will forms can be purchased from almost any stationer, and it is beyond dispute that the number of people making their wills without assistance of a solicitor is increasing. Let me hasten to say that from the legal point of view that is no disadvantage because, by and large, there are very few home-made wills that do not, at some stage, lead to litigation.
There is the story of the distinguished practitioner in my profession who was told by his articled clerk, in great despair, "Do you know that Mr. So-and-so, one of our biggest clients, has just told me that he has made his own will? "The reply was, "Thank heavens for that." I may say that that is an absolutely true story, coming from a member of a very distinguished firm.
If the purpose of the Bill is right, it must apply universally—although, as I say, I hope very much that it will not apply at all. As drawn, the Bill would mean that full particulars of the estate of an intestate would be published by 806 the Press. That seems rather hard. A person might make a will in which lie expressed the wish that the details should not be published. The will might later be held by the court to be void—and there are quite a number of reasons for declaring a will to be void. The estate would then become intestate, and then, in spite of the testator's expressed wish that he did not want publication, the particulars could be published.
This all shows how hopeless the conception of this Bill really is. I only hope that the promoters will say that they are prepared to accept the Amendment, which is only tabled to try to help them in case, by an unhappy chance, the Bill reaches the Statute Book.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I beg to second the Amendment.
I am a little at a loss to known just where we have now reached. The last Amendment, which has just been carried by the House, was described by one—I am not sure whether he is now the sponsor in loco parentis, or what loco he is, but at least, by a supporter of the Bill —as a wrecking Amendment. If that is so, we are now discussing an Amendment to a Bill that has already been wrecked.
If, in their own eyes, the promoters consider that the Bill has been wrecked, I wonder whether they might not think this a proper time to reconsider whether further debate on this Measure would be profitable. There are other Bills in which I know a number of my hon. Friends are very interested, and which they would like to discuss. If it truly is the sponsors' view that the Bill is wrecked, I appeal to them to take a course that would enable the time of the House to be spent, perhaps, more profitably. If not, we must persist in our consideration of the Measure in the form, wrecked or otherwise, in which it now stands.
It may seem curious that this Amendment should have been tabled by an hon. Member who, in general, has been opposing the general spirit and tenor of the Bill, as it would omit completely the requirement that before any ban would 807 operate on the newspapers the testator should have expressed in the will the wish that particulars of its contents should not be published. That may at first seem very illogical, but what we are seeking to do is to point out the illogicality of the Bill as originally drafted. If the sponsors really think that some evil is being caused to dependants and relatives of deceased persons as a result of this publication, ought not the evil to be swept away completely? Why should the protection be dependent upon the whim of the testator? If harm is really being done to poor widows and children by the publication of these details, the harm will be there where the testator has remembered or has been advised to include a provision in his will.
We expressed the view on Second Reading that if the Bill were passed it would be common form to find in wills a clause expressing the wish of the testator that no particulars should be published. The promoters of the Bill ridiculed that idea and thought that it would not be common form at all. The hon. Member for Cheltenham said that these printed form wills are becoming much more common, and I should have thought that if the Bill were passed we would find that this provision would be put in those printed wills and that the vast majority of wills would have such a provision.
If protection is to be given to beneficiaries under wills, it seems to me most illogical that the existence of that protection should be dependent upon such chancy factors as whether or not a person made his own will, which particular type of form he happened to purchase from the stationers or what solicitor, if any, happened to advise him in drawing up his will.
This is a thoroughly bad Bill from start to finish. If, regrettably, it does appear on the Statute Book, we think it is better that it should appear with some semblance of logic rather than leaving such an anomalous state of affairs.
Sir C. Mott-Radelyffe
I can tell the hon. Gentleman briefly that my hon. Friends and I cannot accept this Amendment. The whole principle of the Bill, as I have said before, is that a testator 808 should be allowed to opt as to whether or not he wishes his will to be published. If we were to accept this Amendment it would straight away exclude the testator's right to opt to make that choice. For that reason, we are not prepared to accept the Amendment.
§ Mr. Bishop
I have been in some difficulty in deciding whether or not I ought to support this Amendment. I have come to the conclusion that I must do so if it is pressed.
My difficulty has been that I recognise that my hon. Friends, in bringing forward the Bill, have included this condition requiring the deceased person to put an express wish in his will in order to make it illegal for the particulars to be published. They have sought to overcome one of the difficulties and objections connected with the Bill in its earlier form. On the whole, and on balance, it seems to me that the effect of this provision is to create a very bad principle indeed. It must involve the wish of the testator being the deciding factor as to whether the publication of particulars of this kind should be illegal or not.
It appears to me that it does not rescue the Bill from the objections which I, in common with other hon. Members, have felt against it from the beginning. Indeed, it rather adds to the difficulties created by the principle of the Bill itself. So, while recognising the effort that has been made to meet the objections taken to the Bill in its earlier form, when it was previously presented, I must say that I find that I shall have to support the Amendment.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Willey
I am glad that, earlier, I took the course which led me to discover who actually was responsible for the Bill. We have had an explanation from the hon. Member which we can now assume represents the view of the promoters, and with that I wholly agree. I think that this is a stupid Amendment and I hope that those who put it forward will shortly withdraw it and let us get on with the Bill. If we take out these words, surely the hon. Members who have been opposing the Bill will realise that this will make it, from their point of view, worse than it is. I hope that they will be reasonable about this and withdraw the Amendment.
809 I can appreciate the point that if we are legislating in this way we should decide how far an individual himself should take a decision which affects these matters. We cannot put that forward by way of this Amendment; it would have to he a consequential Amendment. I think that, having made the point, we should agree that this Amendment should he withdrawn.
On the general point as to whether a person should have power to decide whether there should be publicity or not, I have an open mind. I do not think that it is a matter on which one can generalise one way or another. If we accept the case of the promoter of the Bill. I think that we can quite properly argue that the deceased himself should leave an expression of his intention about this because he may have felt that there were reasons why, in a particular case, there should be publicity.
§ Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)
Surely the whole case for the publication of a will is that the publication is in the public interest. In that case, it should not be the person most closely concerned who should decide what is in the public interest.
§ Mr. Willey
My hon. Friend has not his usual lucidity in approaching this problem. What we are dealing with is not that, but the position which would he altered if the Bill became law. We cannot argue from such a principle on this Amendment. We are presupposing that the law has been changed. If the law were changed, I can see that it might be right and proper to allow a person to opt. I do not wish to be drawn any further. I hope that those who have put forward the Amendment will be content with the expression of view that they have made and allow the Amendment to be withdrawn.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I cannot follow this argument. We were told by the promoter of the Bill, in his Second Reading speech, about the daughter of a very wealthy man. The newspapers had published the fact that she had been left a large sum of money. That rich heiress had been plagued by the publicity which resulted from this and he wanted to protect her from that situation. If she needs protection, why should that pro- 810 tection depend on whether or not the testator chose to put a Clause like this in his will?
§ Mr. Willey
I have an affection for the hon. Member responsible for the Bill. I have no responsibility for it. There are two hon. Members opposite who accept some responsibility, one of whom has spoken and exhausted his right to speak again on this matter; but, no doubt, the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Body) will answer my hon. Friend's question.
§ Mr. Kirk
I find myself in some difficulty here. I appreciate the case made for the Amendment, but if we take out the words we make the ban on publication absolute and it will not be possible to publish anything at all. This is something I do not want. I wish to see everything published.
In the circumstances, if the Amendment is pressed to a Division, I shall have to abstain. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach), having aired his views, will withdraw the Amendment so that we can pass on to other Amendments which go more to the foundation of the matter.
Major Hicks Beach
I regard the Amendment as a good one but, as the matter has again been aired, and there is virtually no chance of the Bill ever reaching the Statute Book, I shall be only too pleased to withdraw it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Mr. MacDermot
I beg to move, in page 1, line 18, to leave out "such deceased person"and to insert:a person dying after the passing of this Act.This is not one of the more important Amendments on the Notice Paper and no doubt we can deal with it at no great length. The point is this. As from what date is the Bill to operate, in other words, in respect of what wills? At the moment, if a person, at the time of the passing—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)
Order. This is really consequential and there is no point in dealing with it. It is consequential on a previous Amendment.
§ Mr. MacDermot
If you please, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I have formally moved it, and I will leave it there.
§ Amendment agreed to.
Major Hicks Beach
I beg to move, in page 2, line 2, to leave out "twenty-five "and to insert "twenty."
§ Sir L. Plummer
May we discuss at the same time, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the Amendment in my name to leave out "twenty-five "and insert "ten "?
Major Hicks Beach
The purpose of the Amendment is comparatively simple. The proviso to Clause 1 reads:Provided that this Act shall not apply—(a) if the publication takes place not less than twenty-five years after the death of the deceased person; or …All I seek to do is to substitute for twenty-five years a period of twenty years, and I understand that the Amendment being discussed at the same time is designed to reduce the period of twenty-five years to ten years.
In Committee, there was considerable discussion on this matter. The hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) moved an Amendment to reduce the period to five years. It is interesting to consider the reply of the promoters of the Bill when they refused to accept that Amendment. My Amendment today is intended as a compromise to meet the point raised in that reply. My hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball) said:We have looked very carefully at this Amendment because we should like to be able to accept it. I feel I must tell the Committee very clearly the reasons why, after consideration, I cannot accept it. The first reason is that it is not always possible to settle an estate within five years.That, I think, is a matter of argument.That probably happens most frequently in the case of larger estates, in which often there is locally much public interest, but one of the main points of the Bill is to try to insist 812 that we have some accuracy in reporting on people's estates, whether they be large or small, and it is not always possible within a five year period to assess the true amount of an estate.As I say, the Amendment seeks solely to try to overcome the difficulty which the hon. Member felt. He went on to tell us about a story which was told to him by a distinguished Scottish solicitor which I will not repeat.
Then we come to the hon. Member's other argument. At the bottom of col. 58 he said:There is another argument I ask the Committee to consider. One of the main purposes of the Bill, as I have said all along, is to protect some girl who receives a sum of money, perhaps from a God-parent or a near relation, at a very early age. I think it fair to give that child the chance to clock on the age of 21 or even her 25th birthday. Someone said it would reduce her marriage prospects if she did not know what money she had been left …".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 21st January, 1959; c. 58.]The whole purport of the hon. Members argument, as I understand it, was that he thought that the period of five years was too short. Therefore, I have ventured to suggest the period of 20 years. I should have thought that that was, if anything, much too long a period. However, I am quite prepared to meet hon. Members and I very much hope that they will feel able to accept the Amendment.
I feel very strongly on this point, and, unless my mind is changed in the course of further discussion on the Bill, I should be inclined to press the Amendment to a Division if it is not acceptable.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I beg to second the Amendment.
That was my chief object in rising, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I would not wish it to be thought that it was my only object, but it was certainly my primary object.
I am glad to have the opportunity of seconding the Amendment so ably moved by the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach). It raises a point of considerable importance and principle in connection with the Bill. I 813 have not previously had an opportunity of saying that I am wholeheartedly opposed to the Bill. It is a mischievous Bill and is thoroughly ill conceived. It is contrary to the public interest and to the interests of freedom and information in which I believe. I therefore gladly seize the opportunity of seconding any Amendment which, like so many others which I have not had the opportunity of either seconding or supporting, seeks to mitigate the mischief of the Bill.
If we look at Clause 1 as amended in Committee, we are faced with a proposition which I find abhorrent, namely, that there would be an absolute restriction on the publication of the contents of wills and the amounts of estates. I object to that. If we turn to page 2, we find a series of provisos couched in a form calculated to reduce the mischief of the operative parts of Clause 1.
The Amendment seeks to carry a stage further the mitigation of the objectionable features of the Bill. As I understand it, the Bill would impose a period of 25 years before publication of the details of a will was permitted. The hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham said that 25 years was far too long and that the period should be 20 years. I gather that my hon. Friends the Members for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer), Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) and St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) would go even further. They think that it should be not 25 or 20 years but 10 years. In my opinion, ten years is far too long. It ought to be 10 months or even ten weeks or ten days.
Whatever the period, I support the Amendment because the shorter the period, the better. I am against any delay in this respect.
§ Mr. K. Robinson
If my hon. Friend is against any delay at all, does he appreciate that by seconding the Amendment he has deprived himself of the opportunity of seconding the Amendment to reduce the period to ten years?
§ Mr. Fletcher
I certainly had not appreciated that. Until my hon. Friend intervened, nobody had pointed that out to me. Nor can I understand why it should prevent me from seconding the later Amendment.
§ Mr. Fletcher
In that case, when my hon. Friend's Amendment comes to be moved, as I hope it will be, in the unlikely event of there being nobody else to second it I shall be happy to do so. At the moment, I am seconding the Amendment of the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham because this is the first opportunity I have had.
I desire to take the opportunity, either on this or on anybody else's Amendment, of saying that it seems quite fanciful to suggest that there is any magic about a period or 25 or 20 years or even 10 years. Either a will should be published as soon as the normal procedures have been followed of making it available in the Probate Registry for publication, or it should not be published. I am in favour of publication. That has always been the rule in this country. It is a matter of public interest. I am against any interference with the freedom of the Press and the freedom of the subject as we have hitherto enjoyed it.
I regard the Bill as misconceived and couched with a view to preventing publication. If we have to descend to a discussion of what is the most relevant period of waiting before we get publication, I think that 25 years is far too long. Twenty years would be preferable, but I much prefer the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North for ten years. My only regret is that, as far as I had been able to study the Order Paper, there was no Amendment which proposed reducing the period to fifteen years, ten years, five years or, as I have said, ten months or ten weeks. My position on the Bill is faute, de mieux. I support and second the Amendment and I hope that in the course of our discussion other Amendments will be proposed which I can support with equal, if not greater, vigour.
§ Mr. Kirk
I am sure that we all welcome this formidable accession of strength to those of us who oppose the Bill, the accession of strength which has conic in the person of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher). Like him, I find myself in slight difficulty, because the Amendment proposed by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for 815 Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) comes before that of the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer). I understand that we are considering both together, but it seems unlikely that we shall get much further today than considering them and that the discussion will have to be resumed on another occasion, when we may have separate Divisions upon them.
This matter was discussed in Committee, on a proposal by the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine), to bring the time down to five years. The first answer by my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball) was that five years was quite often not long enough to wind up an estate. The second was the curiously Victorian argument that young ladies' marriage prospects might be affected if they were not protected by the Bill. His argument was that if a young lady's parents died when she was in infancy she needed to be protected by the Bill until she had reached an age at which she could hook a man on her own merits, without consideration of the amount of money she had been left.
While once again regretting the absence today of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, although I quite understand it, I hope that we shall have from the sponsors of the Bill a fuller explanation than that as to why the time should be twenty-five years. The number of estates which it takes more than ten years—or less—to wind up must be minimal. The number of estates about which within that period one cannot get a fairly accurate idea of their size, and of the amount of duty to be paid upon them, a detail which, with other details, it is now possible to publish, must be very small indeed.
I incline to support the Amendment of the hon. Member for Deptford, rather than that of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham, not out of any lack of respect for my hon. and gallant Friend, but because the shorter the period may be the better I shall be pleased I think that there is an important point of principle here. If the only arguments against the Amendment are, first, the length of time for winding up an estate and, secondly, the difficulty 816 over the marriage portions or marriage possibilities of what must be a very small number of young ladies who were infants at the time that their parents died, it seems to me that there can be very little serious argument against the Amendment at all.
§ Mr. K. Robinson
I am reluctant to forestall my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer), but the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk) made a statement which needs a certain amount of elucidation. He said that when we resume discussion of the Bill at another time we shall be able to have two Divisions upon the Amendments. What I should like to ask you, Mr. Speaker, is, what happens if both Amendments are carried by those Divisions, the Amendment to reduce the period from twenty-five to twenty years, and the Amendment to reduce it from twenty-five to ten?
§ Mr. Speaker
The Question I shall put is, "That 'twenty-five' stand part of the Bill." If it is decided that "twenty-five "stand part, that will exclude any other number.
§ Mr. Speaker
In the event of "twenty-five "not standing part it will be for the House to turn its attention to what figure should go in.
§ Mr. MacDermot
Surely, Mr. Speaker, if the first Amendment is carried, so that the word "twenty" is written into the Bill, the words "twenty-five" will no longer exist in the Bill but be left out. Is not the true position that if the first Amendment is carried on a Division it will be impossible for the House to vote upon the second Amendment?
§ Mr. Speaker
There are two Questions. The first thing to decide is whether or not the words "twenty-five "shall stand part of the Bill. If it is decided that they shall stand part of the Bill, that is the end of that. If, however, it is decided that they shall not stand part of the Bill it will then be for the House to decide whether "twenty" or "ten "should go in. Those in favour of twenty would probably vote for that, and those in favour of ten would vote against it. 817 It can be decided by the normal process of a Division which figure should be used to fill up the blank which the House will have created. I hope that that is clear.
§ Sir L. Plummer
I am obliged to my lion. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) for having elucidated the position and saved us from getting into some trouble. I would make an earnest appeal to the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) not to press his Amendment and to let mine stand. We have shown a great spirit of co-operation on the Bill. An earlier Amendment moved by the hon. and gallon Member for Cheltenham was attempting to do something with which I did not agree, nevertheless, I did not want it thought that we were trying to hamstring the Bill or were showing a spirit of non co-operation with its sponsors. I do not assume that we shall get very far in the next four minutes, but when this matter comes up again I would ask the hon. and gallant Member—and I put it no more strongly than that—to consider whether he will withdraw in favour of my Amendment. I should be very grateful if he did so.
The reason why I say this is that between the Amendment moved so ably in Committee by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) and the twenty-five years contained in the Bill there is a considerable gap. My Amendment to reduce the period from twenty-five years to ten years is an attempt to find a compromise between the two. The hon. and gallant Member's Amendment is not. I think that he has been a little naughty and has proposed to reduce the period of twenty-five years to twenty years to give himself an opportunity of expressing his views.
I do not believe that anybody is concerned about what happens in the ten-year period. It will be within the memory of the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) made a great deal of play at one time about the effect on the legatee who inherited £800. He mentioned the queues outside the house and the Press 818 interest and so on. It is inconceivable that over a period of ten years a continued interest would be shown.
Furthermore, in a ten-year period the people responsible for probate would have room for manceuvre and time to produce a second affidavit, because there would be no great hurry. It is true that in the case of a great estate there would be still some interest up to ten years, but I think that ten years is the suitable time. Therefore, I hope that this suggested compromise between the two extreme points of view will be acceptable and that the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham will give sympathetic consideration at the appropriate time to the point I have made.
§ Mr. Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)
I had not intended to intervene in the debate, but I have been considerably surprised that on a Private Members' day a Bill of this importance is being discussed and Amendments of such a nature are being put forward. I agree with the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) when he suggests that ten years is a much more suitable time than twenty-five years to be regarded as the time after which publication of a will shall take place. I certainly think that even ten years is an exceedingly long period. The hon. Member has rightly said that the interest exhibited by the general public in what has been left by certain individuals is great at the moment of the death of those individuals, but it seems inconceivable that the public would sustain that interest for a period of ten years.
I have known the hon. Member for Deptford for a long time, and I am surprised at the modesty of his Amendment. It may be that he has been extremely modest in the Amendment because he hopes to take with him in his views hon. Members on both sides of the House who might have strong feelings on the subject. I very much doubt whether—
§ It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed upon Friday, 12th June.