HC Deb 18 February 1963 vol 672 cc163-204

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Iain Macleod

Just before seven o'clock I was speaking to the Motion to appoint, in accordance with the advice of a Select Committee, an advisory committee to examine the problem of candidates from the Armed Forces at parliamentary elections. At the last count 496 papers were asked for from Rotherham and 175 from Colne Valley. The House came to the conclusion in December that this was likely to bring Parliament into disrepute and that the matter should be referred to a Select Committee. We now have the first Report of that Committee before us and it is to that Report that the Motion refers.

The first sentence of the Report makes clear in the words of the Committee that this subject is a great deal more complex than might appear at first sight. Although there will be a subsequent Report, and perhaps more than one, we have for the moment this interim Report. Frankly, I think it probable, although the Select Committee has not committed itself finally to this view, that only in legislation will the final result be achieved in this matter, because it is the same problem that has been worrying hon. Members on both sides of the House and which has made the Government so reluctant to act.

It is the desire to ensure that everyone, however "off-beat"—if I may put it in that way—their views may appear to be, should have the opportunity to put those views before the electorate and so seek election to this hon. House. We are all conscious that many views which have been expressed in the past, and which appeared at the time to be wildly out of tune, have later appeared to be popular and even orthodox.

It is the problem of the genuine candidate that concerns us at present. It is this problem that the House decided to refer to the Select Committee. We now have its first Report, which the Government are prepared to accept and to recommend the House to adopt. If the Motion is passed, the Services will promulgate, as a matter of urgency, the new procedures envisaged in paragraph 10 of the Report.

I wish to spell out a point which might occur to hon. Members in relation to paragraphs 10 and 11. Let me make quite clear that the procedure described will apply to officers in exactly the same way as to other ranks. They will be treated alike and we agree with the recommendation of the Select Committee that those applicants from the ranks who satisfy the advisory committee and are approved by the Minister should not have to pay for their discharge.

The only other point I make reference to is that of the names of those who might serve. To quote from the Report in paragraph 9: Your Committee have no doubt that it would be possible to choose persons whose independence and judgment would command general assent. One or more former members of this House who have retired from active political life might well be included. The chairman of the committee, and of any group into which they might divide, should have legal experience. We accept that and have proceeded on that basis.

For the moment we have invited three persons, a chairman and two others, to form this committee. If there are sufficient applications it might be necessary to extend this perhaps to the seven envisaged by the Select Committee. We are fortunate that Mr. David Karmel, Q.C., who is known to many hon. Members, has accepted the suggestion that he should be chairman. He has been Recorder of Wigan since 1952. He has had distinguished war service and is a member of the General Council of the Bar.

Mr. Karmel is also—although I hope that this particular qualification will not be necessary—a steward of the British Boxing Board of Control. As I know very well from my experience as Minister of Labour, as a member of the Industrial Court and the Industrial Disputes Tribunal and chairman of a number of committees of investigation he has given splendid service. I do not think that we could find anyone who more aptly fulfilled the requirements which the Select Committee suggested.

Of former Members of this House invited we have invited two, both of whom have accepted, "Jim" Hutchison—Sir James Hutchison, I suppose I should say, to use his more formal title—and Mr. Kenneth Younger. Both of them have had experience in the Services. Both of them have recently been Members of the House of Commons and are held in high regard by the whole House of Commons.

It so happens, also, that both have had service as Ministers in two of the Departments which are closely concerned, Sir James Hutchison as Under-Secretary of State for War and Mr. Kenneth Younger, first as Under-Secretary and then as Minister of State at the Home Office. I believe that these three appointments fulfil entirely the suggestion which was put to us by the Select Committee, namely, that we should choose persons whose independence and judgment would command general assent". This, beyond argument, is a difficult problem, but I believe that the House, first, in referring this matter to a Select Committee, was wise, and, secondly, that the Select Committee in recommending these initial steps in its first Report, whatever may be recommended for legislation in future, has taken the right immediate steps. I, therefore, express my gratitude to the members of the Select Committee and invite the House to approve the Motion.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Tom Drïberg (Barking)

We shall all agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House in expressing our gratitude to the Select Committee, who have been meeting no doubt on a number of occasions during the Christmas Recess and who have opened up what has evidently turned out to be a rather more complex constitutional problem than some of us supposed when the matter first arose.

It will be within the recollection of hon. Members that on 18th December, a few days before the House adjourned for the Christmas Recess, the Home Secretary made a long statement, which I have been recently re-reading. I am bound to say that the language in that statement was so tentative that it was very difficult to realise that the Home Secretary was not dealing with some more or less theoretical or hypothetical proposal but was actually announcing something which would take effect in the Services from that very day. He used the conditional tense throughout— If we were to do this. … In the circumstances the Government propose that we deal with this difficult problem as follows. … For the immediate future we would adopt … It was not, "We will as from today ask the Services to follow this or that procedure".

It was perhaps just a little difficult for the House to realise precisely what the right hon. Gentleman was indicating. However, re-reading his statement and his answers to supplementary questions arising from it, I find repeated one statement with which I personally agree very strongly, though it reads rather strangely now in the light of the Report of the Select Committee, of which the Home Secretary himself was Chairman. The Home Secretary said: I do not think that any Service Department or I or anybody else could seek to discriminate between the genuineness of the motives of one would-be candidate and another. Further down the same column I read: As far as I can see, it is quite impossible to distinguish between the genuineness of one applicant and another …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th December, 1962; Vol. 669, c. 1087–9.] I agree with that. I agree with the Home Secretary, although I must admit that he has now had second thoughts on examining the problem more closely, since we take it that this Report of the Select Committee is unanimous. But I agree with what he said on 18th December—it is impossible to distinguish between the genuineness of one would-be candidate and another.

I think that the Leader of the House himself slightly shied off the fact that if we pass this Motion we are introducing a new and—I personally think—a very dangerous principle into our Parliamentary and electoral arrangements. I think 'that he shied off the realisation of that by using the words about this Advisory Committee that they are to be appointed to "examine the problem". They are not. The Select Committee examined the problem. The seven wise men, as I have no doubt, in accordance with the horrible jargon which is used, they will be called, are not going to examine the problem. That has been done. They are going to vet bona fides. They are going to try to do what the Home Secretary said on 18th December it was absolutely impossible to do. I do suggest that this is a rather dangerous new principle to introduce. Incidentally, the temporary arrangements which the Home Secretary introduced in this rather oblique way and which have been operating ever since 18th December did, as it were, reintroduce a sort of property qualification, since they limited discharges from the Services for this purpose to discharge by purchase.

This new principle of the vetting of candidates is surely a very strange one. Where will it stop? Why is it fair to vet the bona fides of Service men and not of civilians? The particular difficulty which has led to this expedient is the rush of applications for nomination forms for by-elections, particularly at Rotherham and Colne Valley. We have been told already—we have been told by the Select Committee and by Ministers answering Questions in the House—that Service applications are only a very small fraction of the total number of applications which have been received by the returning officers in those two constituencies. The footnote on page 2 of the Select Committee's Report says this: It is clear … that the total number of applications to the three Service Departments for release to contest an election has been, in fact, only a fraction of the total number of applications to returning officers for nomination papers". Perhaps I may say in parentheses that it may turn out to be true, when nomination day comes in these two by-elections, that the whole matter has been very much exaggerated and that there has been a rather unnecessary panic about it, because the Town Clerk of Rotherham on 21st December, while announcing that there were indeed nearly 500 possible nominations, also said that he was— now getting a large number of letters from cranks and people who just want some nomination papers to show their friends in the local. … He also confirmed that Service applications were fewer than half the total, though lie did not know exactly how many they were.

I do not know whether the Government are next going to propose a panel of seven wise men to vet the bona fides of civilian "cranks", nor how they are going to define them, nor how they are going to vet their bona fides. Or are they going to proceed next to the proposal that is sometimes made by people who do not understand very much about Parliament—that here should be intelligence tests or general knowledge tests or tests in economics, politics, and so on, for people who want to stand for Parliament?

The more this proposal is examined the more one sees how inept and undemocratic it is, because despite all the good will that I am sure these distinguished people whom the Leader of the House has named will bring to the task, how on earth will they discern the bona fides of any would-be candidate? If somebody appears before them who is perhaps rather ignorant and inarticulate, it does not mean he is not sincere. It does not mean he has not got bona fides. It will be jolly difficult for them. What sort of questions are they going to ask—"How long have you been interested in politics?" If the candidate is a young man, he probably has to say, "Not for very long". They then at once become suspicious. They may think that he is just trying it on for the purpose of using this loophole. How on earth are they going to test the matter? One can foresee that if this catches on, if there are more applications, and if the seven wise men in their honesty feel obliged to recommend that these are bona fide applications, one can well envisage mischievous or well-intentioned people starting week-end schools or courses in the inculcation of apparent bona fides. It would not be difficult to do.

Are they to question them about their knowledge of Parliamentary procedure? Lots of us, when we first come to the House of Commons, do not know very much about Parliamentary procedure. We learn about it as we go along. How unfair it would be to say that a potential candidate was not in good faith because he could not answer a question about whether a Motion was exempted business and, if not, why not, or something of that nature.

There are, therefore, a great many dangers in this recommended procedure. I look forward with great anxiety to the further and, no doubt, longer report which we shall receive from the Select Committee in due course, in which the Committee will, no doubt, explain more fully the difficulty of reverting to what a number of hon. Members have thought the most obvious, easy and acceptable solution: that is, a reversion to the wartime practice by which there could be a few weeks' leave for a campaign and then a man would return to his unit if he were unsuccessful.

We understand, because it is in the Report, that that is not possible without legislation because of the disqualification in the 1957 Act, and so on. It would, however, be perfectly competent for this House to pass legislation making this possible, and I have no doubt that Parliament would expedite such legislation in view of the admittedly embarrassing situation which has arisen in the Services and in a few constituencies, although I think that at the constituency end it may turn out that we do not have, as the newspapers foresaw, ballot papers 5 yards long or any nonsense of that sort—because, very helpfully, the Secretary of State, in the House of Commons, reminded would-be candidates or people who want to get out of the forces that it was not really necessary for them to proceed to nomination once they got their release. The right hon. Gentleman has thus saved them their £150 deposit, which was very thoughtful of him and I am sure that they appreciate it.

Seriously, however, I think that most hon. Members, as at present advised—except by the Select Committee, of course—would prefer a reversion to the wartime practice. After all, it has been possible for National Service men to be recalled to their units after fighting an election. I do not know whether there have been any cases in which that has happened, but it is perfectly possible. Therefore, I do not see that there would be insuperable objection to the same procedure in the case of Regular soldiers.

We should not let this recommendation go through until we have rather more substantial assurances that this procedure of a panel of seven people is meant to be, and will be, only temporary. Although this has been said about it, it is not stated in the Select Committee's Report. The Select Committee states, at the top of page 3: The immediate steps to deal with this situation should, in Your Committee's view, be administrative, since legislation would involve too long a delay. The Select Committee does not, however, say in terms that it should be temporary as well as immediate. In paragraph 15, summing up the recommendation, again there is no suggestion that it is to be temporary. It might be completely permanent for all one can read to the contrary.

Therefore, we certainly cannot let the Motion, embodying, as it does, what seems to be a new and extraordinarily dangerous departure from ordinary constitutional practice, go through without at least ventilating the matter fairly thoroughly.

10.35 p.m.

Brigadier Terence Clarke (Portsmouth, West)

I am most grateful to be allowed to say a few words. The existing rules were designed to stop people like myself, and at least two others, coming into the House; but we came. I was a Regular serving soldier, and the then Labour Secretary of State for War decided—in his wisdom, I think—that people should not be allowed to stand again as I stood at that time. But we were entirely within the rules. We were allowed to put up as candidates. If we failed, we could go back into the Service; if we succeeded, we could stay here. That worked very well, and we all stayed in the House. But we might very well have gone back to where we had been in the Service.

I do not think that a Service man should be allowed to stand for Parliament and perhaps criticise the Secretary of State for War, maybe saying that he is a two-faced chap looking both ways and has not a clue what he is doing, and then go back and serve his time and pretend that nothing had happened. One cannot do that sort of thing. I made a particular point of never mentioning a Service matter during the election campaign. When I was asked about Service matters I said that I would attack the Secretary of State for War when the election was over and I had been elected to the House. Then I even suggested one night that the Secretary of State should go and cut his throat, but it was said only in the friendliest way.

It was a reasonable decision on a difficult matter in 1949 that anyone standing for Parliament would in future, after the 1950 General Election, have to resign his commission or otherwise come out of the Service first and then put up as a candidate. That decision, of course, opened the door wide and left the situation as it is today. All would be well if there was not a rush of Service men to stand as candidates, chiefly bogus, not wanting to stand at all, but some, of course, genuine. That is the situation with which the Secretary of State is faced.

I think a mountain has been made out of a molehill. These Service men are either keen politicians or keen soldiers. When they sign on the dotted line to serve for three or six years, or whatever period it is, they ought to have some clue whether they want to be soldiers or politicians. If a man signs to be a soldier, he should continue to be a soldier or buy himself out and then stand as a politician free of the Service and unable to return to it.

At the moment we have the situation, that a man may sign on for three years and then six months later see a girl whom he wants to marry and be offered a good job elsewhere at double the pay, and he may think "This is an easy way out. I will stand for Parliament. I shall not get in, but I shall not have to buy my discharge." Having signed for three years, he should either buy his discharge and stand for Parliament or buy his discharge and marry the girl. Whichever way he looks, he cannot have it both ways. But he wants to get out of buying his discharge and still wants to marry the girl, and he wants to have it as an each-way bet. I suggest that the Select Committee might think about this once more and say that where a soldier has committed himself to serve for three, six or seven years or whatever it is, he should stand by that commitment or buy himself out and then stand for Parliament, but not he allowed to have it both ways.

I am glad to have been allowed to make that small statement. I have felt for a long time that a mistake was made in those days and that Parliament is now suffering for it.

10.40 p.m.

Sir Myer Galpern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

I do not propose to follow the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke) in his wanderings in the matrimonial field of Service men. They have enough trouble without our trying to heap advice on top of the manoeuvres referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg).

Unlike my hon. Friend, I am not against the principle of this Motion. I want to consider its practical applications. It says … for the purpose of contesting a Parliamentary election. … But in the interim report of the Select Committee reference is made to "a particular Parliamentary election." Is there a distinction between the two? It seems to indicate that a Service man can say that he wishes to be a candidate at a general election as opposed to becoming a candidate at a by-election.

My submission is that the words "a Parliamentary election" can embrace the forthcoming General Election, and this raises the question of the date at which a candidate should be discharged from the Services. The Servants of the Crown (Parliamentary Candidature) Order, 1960, says clearly that a Service man shall not issue an address to electors or publicly announce himself, or allow himself to be publicly announced, as a candidate or prospective candidate for election in any constituency. I submit that the mere fact that a Service man makes an application where a by-election has been announced means that he has announced to the public that he proposes to become a candidate and that he is automatically entitled to discharge from the Services.

I raise this matter because of the position of civil servants. As soon as it appears in the Press that he has been selected as a prospective Parliamentary candidate a civil servant is required to resign his post. This has recently caused hardship in a case in Glasgow. A man was selected on a Sunday, and next morning, when the Press had carried the story, he was called on to resign from his job at £1,200 a year. The man has since been unemployed. The difficulty is that everyone knows he is a Parliamentary candidate and no one wants to employ him for only a temporary period, since the General Election can at most be only another eighteen months away and it is also known that he is likely to be returned for that seat. Does not this situation place Servicemen in a rather more favourable position than that enjoyed by civil servants, since the announcement of a prospective candidacy may be made as much as four years in advance of a General Election?

I believe that an individual who has asked for a nomination paper has gone further than the stage of a mere announcement that he has been selected to fight a constituency at a forthcoming General Election, and it seems to me therefore that all those who have applied for nomination papers, 496 of them, should, according to my reading of the 1960 Order, be discharged.

I do not want to go too deeply into some aspects of this, because I would be ruled out of order if I did so, but I should like the Secretary of State for War to deal with this point. If this Motion is passed, and if an individual in the Army applies to become a candidate at the next General Election, and the Committee which is to be set up vets his application and approves it as a bona fide application, will the individual be discharged immediately, even though the election may not be fought for another year?

10.46 p.m.

Mr. A. R. Wise (Rugby)

I think that the difficulty of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Sir M. Galpern) about General Elections has rather solved itself. As I read the Order, I do not think that a man can apply for release for an election which has not yet been put on the tapis. A man cannot obtain a nomination paper until there is an election for which he can be selected.

Sir M. Galpern

That is my point. Why is the man in the Army in a more favourable position that the civil servant who does not know when the election will take place but is still called on to resign as soon as his candidature is announced?

Mr. Wise

I sympathise with civil servants who are put in that position, but that does not seem to be relevant to this discussion.

I agree with the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg), who put forward a series of problems which require very close examination, We are doing something which is very strange in a democratic constitution, that is, allowing a body of men to decide whether or not a man really means what he says when he says that he wants to stand for Parliament.

The only parallel of which I can think was the conscientious objectors' tribunal during the last war, but the two things are not the same. In the case of the conscientious objector there was a possibility for serious examination as to whether his objections were real, and whether he was entitled to avoid the Services. In this case, suppose an honest young man is summoned before this tribunal and is asked: "Will you try to satisfy us that you genuinely want to stand for Parliament?", and he gives the simple answer, "I think that £1,750 a year is a very nice salary". Is that or is that not genuine? Who on earth will be able to say whether it is genuine or not?

I see that these difficulties are more real with an honest man than with a dishonest man. It may be possible for the tribunal to see whether a young soldier is bogus or not. It cannot possibly, in my view, tell whether an honest young soldier is honest or not. Equally, I cannot see how it can carry out any sort of examination which will justify an imputation of insincerity.

As the hon. Member for Barking said, one cannot test their political knowledge. There are quite a number of us here who might be very hard put to pass an examination, certainly at the time when we were first adopted for constituencies. Some, I might say, would probably find it hard to pass an examination now.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

My hon. Friend should speak for himself.

Mr. Wise

I hear an indignant protest from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke). I feel sure that with suitable cramming he would qualify.

Mr. Cooke

What I said was that my hon. Friend should speak for himself.

Mr. Wise

It was an indignant protest. I am frightened, with the hon. Member for Barking, that this process might be extended. I do not like the idea that any other person—apart altogether from Service men—who happens to want to stand for Parliament should be equally subjected to some form of examination.

Captain John Litchfield (Chelsea)

Is my hon. Friend arguing that any application to stand for Parliament should be accepted at its face value? I am sure he will agree that that may cause some abuse. Whom does he suggest should decide, if it is not the tribunal—the commanding officer, the Minister, or who?

Mr. Wise

That is precisely the problem we are up against. Is the bare statement of a desire to stand for Parliament to be accepted, or does the tribunal have to prove that the man concerned is a liar? If so, how will that be proved? That is the problem which I find it difficult to solve. I cannot see why we could not have had the necessary legislation passed to go back to the position as it was before the party opposite interfered with it. I am happy to see that hon. Members opposite regret their interference and are prepared to support us in this.

If the two parties, or, rather, the three parties—I beg the Liberal Party's pardon; it has three-sevenths of its strength here, which is more than can be said for the rest of us—are agreed that legislation is required it can be passed through the House at an astonishingly fast rate——

Mr. Driberg

Two days.

Mr. Wise

Two or three days, certainly. We could solve the problem in that way.

At the moment the Government's programme may be so congested that we cannot have this legislation—although I could mention one or two Bills which could be dropped—and in that case I should like an assurance from the Leader of the House on another matter, also raised by the hon. Member for Barking. There is no indication of the temporary character of this tribunal in anything that we have before us. If we had an assurance that in no circumstances would it exist for more than one year it would satisfy many of our objections.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Donald Wade (Huddersfield, West)

It is clear from a perusal of the Report of the Select Committee that it had a difficult task to face. We must sympathise with it in the complexity of the problem. The Report strengthens the view that only legislation can solve the problem. I should like to ask one or two questions before approving the proposal.

I heard the statement of the Home Secretary before Christmas. I found it somewhat puzzling, and I should like to know what has happened in the interim period. I understood that the Home Secretary was to perform some administrative functions in this field whilst awaiting the outcome of the deliberations of the Select Committee. I should like to know what has happened, if that can be explained very briefly.

Secondly, how will the procedure work, and how speedily will it work? It is conceivable that a Writ might be moved shortly after a vacancy occurred, and there is only nine days between the receipt of the Writ and the last day for handing in the nomination. Is the Leader of the House satisfied that under the procedure proposed by the Select Committee all that has to be done can be done within that time?

Perhaps the most important point is what criteria will be used. How will they be applied? Will there be discrimination? How will the Committee decide? Will questions be asked about the political views of those who wish to be released? Are we to know the terms of reference to be laid down for the appointment of this Committee, or will this Report be regarded as a sufficient indication of the terms of reference? Those are questions to which we should know the answers, for, after all, we are the guardians of our Parliamentary system.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Hirst (Shipley)

Somewhat unusually, I agree with what has been said by the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg), who indicated fairly and cogently what is in the minds of many hon. Members. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the reasonable way in which he moved the Motion. But, speaking in the direct way in which I prefer to put things, I must say that I think this is a piece of nonsense and that the Motion ought not be accepted. It is only too clearly a sort of makeshift arrangement to overcome a difficulty which, had the Government the resolution to deal with it, would not present a problem. It is a dangerous idea to appoint some committee with the superlative right to decide who shall be nominated to represent the people. I do not think that is justified by any of the excuses that I have heard or read in this Report.

What is the Committee to do? In war-time we had the O.C.T.U. system which provided a reasonable measurement by which to judge potential officer material. But what on earth will be the standard to be adopted by this Committee. I think that this is asking the impossible. I do not mind a committee wasting its time. There are a number of committees which are doing that and one more or less will not make any difference. But I do mind that this House should dare to set up a committee of this character to decide something which in the past had been decided on quite different principles.

I consider that this Motion should be withdrawn and the matter considered again. I see no difficulty about formulating legislation to deal with the subject. No Government have ever failed to get legislation passed quickly when that was necessary.

I do not think that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke) made a valid point. I do not think that a lot of people would want to come out of the Services and lose the amount of a deposit—which ought to be greater than it is considering the present-day value of money—in order to abuse the Secretary of State for War. There are cheaper methods of doing that, and I could suggest some myself.

This matter could be dealt with quite simply by legislation. Constitutional difficulties could be overcome. I beg the House not to take the sort of action suggested by this Motion. It is wrong. We know that it is wrong and we have no right to do what is wrong.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) characterised the recommendations of the Select Committee as a piece of nonsense. I do not know how he arrives at that conclusion, but there is one thing which will always make nonsense—and that it is when hon. Members know nothing about the subject and then come to the House and pontificate, taking a problem of great complexity and turning it into something simple because they have not taken the trouble to find out the facts.

As I am a member of the Select Committee, I must be as detached and objective as I possibly can, and I want to examine some of the propositions which have been put to us. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) gets none out of ten. He suggests that what is before the House is the product of a bit of sloppy thinking on the part of the Labour Party. That is arrant nonsense, because the provisions which govern the intervention of Regular officers and other ranks into politics depend upon two Orders in Council of 1950 and 1960 which are a reversion to pre-war practice. The only big change which has been made is the passing of the House of Commons (Disqualification) Act, which was carried through by a Conservative Administration in 1957.

The hon. and gallant Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke) made the proposal that if the chap wants to marry the girl he should purchase his discharge. Here we come back to square one. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have failed to address themselves to how this problem comes about. There are a considerable number of men—more in the Air Force and the Navy than in the Army—who under no circumstances can pur- chase their discharge. The position was further confused by the fact that when the Secretary of State was introducing the Army Reserve Act he said, Incidentally, concerning the Regular Army, with the exception of recruits who have a statutory right to buy themselves out during their third month of service, no Regular soldier will be permitted to purchase his release except in the most exceptional cases during the period for which we are having to retain conscripted men."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th November, 1961; Vol. 650, c. 49.] That statement was completely untrue. What he meant to say, and what his civil servants had told him to say, was that during the period of this Act a Regular soldier would be limited when he applied to purchase his discharge to the same conditions as applied to National Service men; in other words, he would have to wait six months. It is a fact that a number of chaps—particularly in the Navy and the Air Force—under no circumstances can purchase their discharge.

Let us assume for a moment that the hon. and gallant Member for Portsmouth, West and others on both sides of the House had their way; supposing the purchase of discharge were permitted. Would they accept this position: an officer—and it was an officer who started all this problem at the Lincoln byelection—applies for release and is granted it, and he walks out with his pension rights, his terminal gratuity, and so on, and an other rank who makes application has to forfeit them all and possibly to pay £250 in addition. Are hon. Members prepared to justify that to their constituents?

Let me deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg), which clearly has the support of the hon. Member for Shipley. Let us see how we can return to the war-time situation. Many of us were released to contest the 1945 election. Had we fought that election and not been elected the very next day we should have been due back to our units. If we had not gone we should have been conscripted. The sanction existed of recall under the National Service Act which does not exist at present. That is the Secretary of State's dilemma.

Hon. Member's flights of imagination then lead them to this proposal: transfer these people to the Reserve. Which Reserve? One of the safeguards of the liberty of the subject in this country has been that for 300 years Parliament has exercised the strictest control on the number of men who are serving and the conditions under which they serve. Indeed, it is only in recent times, and under the influence of the cold war, that it is being possible to call men up without coning to the House of Commons for authority. The House is rightly concerned about the Executive calling up large numbers of men who are beyond its control. The creation of a special reserve would be a breach of past traditions and safeguards.

I ask the House to consider the "easy legislation" spoken of by the hon. Member for Shipley. The suggestion would be to repeal the disqualification under the 1957 Act. How did that come about? In 1941 the House of Commons in its wisdom set up a Select Committee—it was a very powerful Select Cornmittee—to consider offices and profits. The recommendation was made that there should be a statutory disqualification on Regular soldiers from serving in the House of Commons. This was done because clearly they were influenced by what happened in Germany. Nothing which has happened since will have made any person concerned with democracy any more keen that Regular forces should take part in politics. This is the basic decision which was recommended in 1941. After the most careful examination, it was decided that a Regular officer or N.C.O. contemplating going into politics should make a decision once and for all. He was to be told, "If you go into politics, you leave the Regular forces". Are hon. Gentlemen prepared to breach that principle without the most careful consideration?

The Select Committee has recommended a safeguard to cover the individual who wants to stand for Parliament. It is the desire of hon. Members in all quarters of the House—the Leader of the House said so tonight—that the khaki-clad Hampden should have his chance, but in considering the rights of the individual we must surely stop for a moment and realise the necessity to safeguard the rights of the State. Privileges have to be balanced by obligations. We should be taking the most injudicious step, particularly at this time, if we welcomed the intervention of the Armed Forces into politics. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Sir M. Galpern) put his finger on the point when he spoke about the position of the Civil Service. The industrial worker in the employment of the State is allowed to fight an election. He can go back to his job. Does the House contemplate the possibility that the permanent secretary of a Department should suddenly walk out one day, fight a by-election, and return the next day?

I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for Barking and hon. Members on both sides. If they want to safeguard the rights of L.A.C. Snooks to go out and fight a by-election, on the principle, let us say, of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmanent, will they deny the same right to Air Chief Marshal Jones to go out and fight a campaign to double the V-bomber force? If one is admitted, the other must be admitted.

It must be remembered that until recent times this problem has never been concerned with other ranks. This has always been a problem concerned with officers. If hon. Members will spend half an hour doing a little homework they will discover that this problem popped up in the days of Good Queen Anne. The Statute of 1707 was concerned with a different problem in the State. It was concerned with the patronage of the Crown. What it forbade was not a man holding a commission or serving in the Armed Forces and being in the House of Commons. It forbade a man while he was a Member of the House of Commons being given a commission, because they were rightly concerned about the patronage of the Crown. In living memory there was a Captain Hope, an officer in the Guards, who in the 1920s was on the active list and a Member of the House of Commons. The House of Commons in its wisdom decided to put a stop to it.

If hon. Members are so concerned with the liberty of the subject in relation to other ranks, where do they draw the line? If they are going to jeopardise the security of the State, if they are going to encourage circumstances in which members of the Armed Forces can participate in politics and then expect to return to their duties, at what point do they draw the line?

One could ask, what about the Clerk of the House? Is he to be allowed to fight a political pause and the Second Clerk Assistant to fight another and then both return to the House and behave as if nothing had happened? To pose a question in that form is to answer it, and if the private soldier or the leading aircraftman should genuinely wish to find a way out he should be given the chance. Yet I think the line has to be drawn somewhere and that the Report of the Select Committee of 1941—and I repeat that it was a very powerful Select Committee—was right in ruling that a line has to be drawn. It should be on the Statute Book that there should be an absolute disqualification.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barking has not appreciated the simple point involved, nor has he appreciated the consequences of this decision. I urge him to study the House of Commons (Disqualification) Act, and, if he will do so, he will find in Section 11 that he has to sign a declaration when he is nominated that he is not disqualified. We have all had to sign it, but a member of the Armed Forces cannot sign that; if he does, then he is committing perjury. There is no legislative way out, and if the House repealed the provisions of the 1957 Act we should still be left with the Regulations as they are, debarring a member of the Armed Forces from taking part in any political election.

Therefore, in order to put things right, we have to go right back to the wartime conditions which permitted an officer or an other rank to take part in politics while still serving, but if we do that we shall be taking several steps down the slippery slope and eventually find, as this House did in Cromwell's time, that somebody will walk in and say "Take away that shining bauble".

11.12 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

As the hour is late I will not speak for quite so long as some hon. Members, but I would just mention that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke) was surely himself a frivolous candidate when he first stood for Parliament, when I understand that he stood as a Member of the Liberal Party. Since then he has become a valiant Member of our side.

The idea of a panel is no good. I had to face a panel when I became a Conservative candidate, and that panel at the Conservative Central Office did its best to dissuade me from ever taking part in politics. The best way to solve this problem is to provide that to obtain nomination papers in the first place a candidate must pay £150 deposit. He would have to go to the town clerk's office and say, "I want nomination papers and I will pay the deposit. No one but a bona fide candidate would do that, and any bona fide candidate would be prepared to provide the £150. That would also get around the legal difficulties about which the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has spoken, because one would have got one's paper as a Service candidate and yet not have committed perjury by signing until one was actually discharged.

Mr. Wigg

The hon. Member has got it wrong. At the point when a Service man signs the declaration he is committing perjury.

Mr. Cooke

One would pay the £150 in order to get the nomination papers. At that stage, one would not be doing anything illegal as a Service candidate but would, surely be showing oneself to be a genuine candidate.

Mr. Gordon Walker (Smethwick)

Does not the hon. Member realise that it is possible to withdraw at a later stage and get one's £150 back?

Mr. Cooke

I am proposing that one should not be in a position to withdraw. If that point could be put right in law, surely it would overcome all the difficulties of the present case. I should like to hear argument about this suggestion, because I regard it as worth while.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. F. M. Bennett (Torquay)

I intend to be even shorter than my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke). I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), who knows the respect which I hold for a number of his views, went so far as to suggest that anyone who took a different view had necessarily done no "homework". A number of us have been very interested in this problem. The fact that we are present to speak in the debate should indicate to the hon. Member that we have taken an active interest in the problem.

A number of hon. Members have spoken. but I am, I think, the only hon. Member in the debate so far who applied for leave in 1945 but did not get elected. One other hon. Member who has spoken was similarly released, under the wartime regulations, but he was, I believe, elected.

In 1945, I stood for a strong Socialist-held constituency and in due course I was thoroughly and soundly defeated. During that election I remember making as tough remarks about the Government who were elected as anyone could make, but afterwards I certainly was not victimised by anybody. Indeed, by a strange coincidence I was almost immediately promoted to major on my return. That was a fairly benevolent act.

The hon. Member for Dudley has made a number of admittedly telling arguments about why it is difficult to return to the position of the wartime regulations. Those, however, are arguments adduced by the hon. Member but are not arguments which appear in the Report of the Select Committee, which in paragraph 7 deals solely with the difficulties of delay in legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) said that that part of it was nonsense. I must share his view that it is nonsense for a Government to say that when there is general agreement between the parties about the objective legislation cannot be rushed quickly through the House of Commons. I have not been a Member nearly as long as other hon. Members, but I know that there have been plenty of occasions when legislation has been desired by the Government of the day and the whole thing has been done in 48 hours.

Mr. Wigg

We all know that a Government can carry legislation through in 48 hours. What we want to be told is what the legislation will do and what it is about.

Mr. Bennett

I was dealing with the arguments in paragraph 7 of the Select Committee's Report, which are not positive arguments, against a return to the immediate post-war practice. The arguments in paragraph 7 are that legislation would delay matters too long. The hon. Member for Dudley can read them for himself. The Report does not go into the arguments that the hon. Member has made. Had it dealt with some of the arguments I would have found it more interesting reading. Those, however, are not the arguments which have been adduced.

In answer to the hon. Member's last question, which was a fair one, and in the genuine dilemma in which we are placed, I have not yet heard from any section of the House, from the Government or from any Member of the Select Committee, any convincing reason why we cannot return by legislation to the immediate post-war practice by which a person was given a period of leave and if he did not succeed he returned to the Armed Forces, whether he was an officer or other rank. I have yet to be convinced that the paraphernalia which is suggested is preferable to a system which worked perfectly well and did not lead to any of the evils which hon. Members have suggested.

11.19 p.m.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

I came in to this debate with about as near to an open mind as I am ever likely to achieve on any subject. The hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. F. M. Bennett), although I am sure he listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) said, seemed not to have comprehended it. My hon. Friend proved conclusively that it would be not impossible, but unwise at least, to return to the system that prevailed during the war. That was the argument to which the whole of my hon. Friend's speech was directed.

My hon. Friend's case was conclusive, because—we are all talking about precedents developing into something broader later—he proved that there would be considerable dangers in returning to the old system. If one returned to it one would have a position in which serving officers or other ranks would be able to participate in politics in a way which this House has over many centuries tried to reject.

I think that my hon. Friend's argument on that side of it is absolutely conclusive, but where he is in error is that he thinks that because he has proved that part of the argument conclusively he has therefore put the case for this proposition. I do not think he has done that. I did not understand this before, but when he shows me the facts I think it would be quite wrong for this House to try to return to the system we had at the time of the war. But that is not an argument in favour of the proposition before us, because, just as my hon. Friend says that there are precedents that we must observe going back to the days of Queen Anne, there are many other precedents with which the House should be concerned governing the way in which this House interferes with people who put up as candidates for election. This is a very tender matter indeed.

Of course, there are provisions whereby this House makes whole categories of people who are not entitled to stand for Parliament—peers, lunatics and some others—but what we are doing here is to specify particular people who should not be entitled to stand for one reason or another. That is a complete novelty. The only comparison—I do not say it is a direct one, but it comes near it—was the Wilkes case, when the House of Commons was, in effect, saying "This particular man is not entitled to sit in the House of Commons." That is what we are doing here, except that we are giving to a committee outside this House the power to decide whether a particular man should stand or not. This is the very thing that the House of Commons should never have the right to do. The House of Commons should never have the right to point to any citizen as a particular individual and say "That man has no right to stand for the House of Commons." The House can pass laws saying that categories of people should be rejected, but to have any committee saying that a particular man is to be singled out as a person who is not entitled to stand for the House of Commons is to introduce an entirely novel principle. So far as I can see, it has never been attempted to be applied in any previous case except probably in the Wilkes case.

Mr. Wigg

Before I go outside and shoot myself as a strangler of liberty, may I remind my hon. Friend that the gentlemen he is talking about are not Wilkes? They are men who have undertaken a specific obligation with their eyes open, and they have increased rates of pay for serving longer, more for six years than for three, and more for nine years than for six—and they are very considerable sums. One needs to get this into focus. One should remember that there are contracts and obligations that are entered into, which one should occasionally be expected to honour.

Mr. Foot

All right; this is my hon. Friend's proposition. He is carrying it much further than he did before. We might have a Clause in the Bill under which these people are called up to say that one of the obligations that they have to undertake is that they shall not be able to stand as a candidate for Parliament during the period. That would cover my hon. Friends' point. That is a proposition which might be considered by the Select Committee. If my hon. Friend is so strongly in favour of that proposition he should be supporting us in allowing the Select Committee to examine the matter a little further so that he could put the case to it as powerfully as I am sure he would be able to.

But that intervention was not a denial of what I was saying. I thought that my hon. Friend was going to deal with my main proposition, that what the House is being asked to do tonight is something that it has never been asked to do before, which is to single out individual people and tell them "You, not because of your category of person, not because of your qualifications of any kind, but you as an individual are not to be allowed to stand for the House of Commons."

The fact that we are to hand over this procedure to seven wise men does not make it any better. If anything, it makes it worse. It means that power will go from this House. I am sure that the Leader of the House will attempt to define the criteria he thinks should be applied, but who is he to lay them down for the Committee? His views are not the law of the land. We are asking seven wise men to carry out an entirely unreasonable function. The dishonest applicant will have a better chance of getting through than the honest one.

I agree that what I have said does not solve the problem. Nor, despite that tremendous learning which we all respect, did my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley solve it. Therefore, since this is an entirely new principle which is possibly dangerous, the best course is for the Government to take this Motion away. But I am convinced that it is no use introducing the legislation suggested by the hon. Member for Torquay, for that was knocked on the head by the Select Committee and by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley. What has not been destroyed is the solid argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) against the proposition on which we are asked to vote.

Mr. Niall MacDermot (Derby, North)

Is my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) proposing that the House should do nothing and should allow the present situation to continue? If we take this Report away and do nothing, until some legislation is passed, anyone will be able to stand.

Mr. Foot

All of us agree that this is a very puzzling and awkward problem. The matter was referred to a Select Committee for solution, but the solution it proposes is unsatisfactory. I suggest that it be asked to think out something better.

11.28 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)

It is clear that the problem will never be resolved in this way. Finally, it must be resolved by legislation passed with the agreement of both parties. On the other hand, we are faced with the practical difficulty of doing something now. The Select Committee's Report states that the Committee intends to press on without delay in order to present a further report, and I am prepared to accept this Motion meantime, because something has to be done now. If the Committee sits again within a reasonable time and produces a solution, it is not unreasonable for the House to wait to judge what further steps should be taken then.

Hon. Members on both sides have suggested that we might go back to pre-war legislation. There is no reason why a man should not stand providing he returns to the Services afterwards and honours his contract. The Select Committee is to be congratulated on producing an interim solution, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will give an assurance that it is definitely only an interim solution and that we shall not have to wait long for the next report of the Committee, and that we shall get a chance to debate this question and finalise it by agreed legislation so that we do not have to resort again to these temporary measures.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. R. H. S. Crossman (Coventry, East)

I thought that I had done my homework and that I understood this problem, but as the debate has gone on one great alarm has grown in my mind, and it was greatly strengthened by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). My hon. Friend made a powerful speech. In fact, it was a bit too powerful because he proved to me that no legislation is possible.

Mr. Wigg

There is only one perfect solution, and that is to face the problem that has created it and introduce selective service.

Mr. Crossman

That is a rapid piece of non-partisan advice.

My hon. Friend has revealed that we have no prospect that the Select Committee in its second report will be able to produce any kind of unanimous proposal for legislation.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn). If this were merely temporary, if it were merely for the next batch of by-elections, I might say that it is intolerable constitutionally, that all the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) apply, but since it is valid for only four or five weeks, we can forget it. But my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley has told us something different. He knows. He is on the Select Committee. He says that this may not be temporary; that this may be the permanent solution and that we must not pass it this evening as a merely temporary solution.

I was puzzled by the White Paper not telling us that this was temporary. It is not written by stupid men. It makes it clear that it does not say it is temporary. If we pass this, we pass it neither as temporary nor permanent but as the law of the land. It is a recommendation of the Government, and therefore it is no good asking the Government for an assurance that there will be legislation, because they cannot assure us that the Select Committee will or will not reach a solution.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) said that he knew the right solution. It is clear that if he had his way my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley would fight to his dying breath to prevent that recommendation from going through, and it would not be the speedy measure which the House required.

Mr. Hirst

It would be speedy in spite of the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg).

Mr. Crossman

That may be so, but I suggest that there are the most serious constitutional objections to this kind of legislation. A citizen army in war time is a different thing from a professional army in peace time. It might be possible during a war to say that all citizens should be permitted to leave the Forces and fight elections, and even discuss politics, but with a country which has a distrust and fear of growing political offices, I do not think that we should laugh at the idea that we allow serving officers to have complete freedom to come out and fight for or against the independent deterrent.

The Select Committee was completely right to warn us that we are not to look forward to that as an easy solution, and to warn us that at present it does not see a solution. It was right of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley to appraise the House of the situation it faces after this interim report of the Select Committee. The situation is that the Committee started with the conviction that it would find a solution, but the more it looked at this the more awkward it found it, because it found no prospect of a unanimous solution, or any solution, which would not cause the most grievous difficulty when it came to passing the necessary legislation.

Mr. F. M. Bennett

Can the hon. Gentleman describe more precisely the evil we are trying to cure? I should like him to say what sort of people he thinks have up to now been trying to get out. Is it Colonel Blimp air marshals trying to bring the Forces into politics, or individuals using a device to get out of the Services?

Mr. Crossman

We are not discussing the past but the future. We are discussing the constitutional effect of this. If in the course of trying to cure one temporary evil, which is not very important, we were to create a grave evil, the legislation would not be justified. If, in order to deal with these problems, we pass an Act which in peace time would permit air marshals to fight each other at the hustings on a major matter of Government policy, it would be an infinitely greater evil. We would have cured a minor evil by creating a greater one.

I have said that I wholly agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley—but still I turn back to the highly significant fact that in the course of his speech, defending the Select Committee, he was not able to say a single word in favour of this proposal. He may make another speech, but he made a very long speech tonight, to which I listened very carefully. It was a most powerful speech against the belief that legislation could cure this problem, but he did not give one word of defence of the new proposal. Why? Because he is a good democrat.

He did not really think that it was a good thing that this House should set up a committee to decide on the bona fides of candidates. He would not have dreamed of recommending this if he saw any possibility of a legislative solution. It is the strength of his democratic convictions which drives him to this position. He said, "I do not want to legislate for air marshals, or let this terrible danger come about, so we will agree on this solution. It is a pretty awful one, but it is the only one that will prevent this danger arising."

There are other ways. We could tell ourselves, "Perhaps the dangers are not as great as we imagine." We could have one constitutional monstrosity, or another, which is the Select Committee's positive recommendation—or, thirdly, we could do nothing and see what happened at Rotherham and Colne Valley. That would not be satisfactory, but we would at least not be making a hole in our Constitution.

I am not saying it is right, but I agree with hon. Members on both sides of the House who say that we do not have to decide this evening. We have had this discussion; we have learnt something from it. Surely it is possible for the Government to agree that we should not decide upon it tonight, when no satisfactory defence of the proposal has been made, and we know the difficulty involved in arriving at any final solution in legislation. Perhaps there is some way out. All we know is that we do not know what that way out is at the moment. Neither in the Report nor in the kind of legislation most of us thought possible is there a right solution.

If we are convinced of this by the debate we have had, surely the right proposal is to say, "Let us think again". It is more important to do this and preserve our Constitution than to accelerate two by-elections. We can survive for a few more weeks without a by-election, but not this breach in our Constitution, which we will be making in a desperate effort to patch things up. The Government must do two things. First, they must tell us that in their view there is a reasonable chance of legislation, which would contradict the view put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley—and that is a formidable task—and then, having contradicted my hon. Friend, they must put forward a word in defence of a committee appointed by us to discuss the bona fides of a candidate and to prove to us that they would be prepared, in any other situation, to bring this proposal forward in connection with civilians or anybody else.

If the Minister cannot do either of these things—and I submit that he cannot—I beg him to withdraw this Motion, because it is just possible that we may find something or that the Select Committee can be asked to examine the matter again and try to find something less unsatisfactory than what we have at present.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. J. J. Mendelson (Penistone)

I came to this debate with a completely open mind. As a close neighbour of the constituencies immediately involved, I have known for some time of the confounded nuisance that this has been to those who are responsible for preparing for the pending by-elections, and I was looking forward to hearing a cogent case argued which would convince me that a practical solution had been found. I was completely disappointed by the case which has been put forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) said that my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) did not make out a case for the proposal. The astounding thing is that no other right hon. or hon. Member who advanced a view supporting the Select Committee's Report has made out that case either. The Leader of the House carefully avoided making out the case, and I began to be suspicious at that stage. Why should not the right hon. Gentleman have made out the case straight away and so helped the debate along?

I fully understand the force of the arguments of the hon. Member for Dudley, and I should like to be on record as agreeing with him about the dangers which he pointed out and which relate rather to the future than to the past. We have to safeguard ourselves against the danger of the Armed Forces becoming involved in the political life of the country. But, although my hon. Friend has argued that we must do something to avoid that danger, he has not started to make out the case for allowing ourselves to accept anything which limits the liberty of any citizen to decide and to accept the encouragement of his friends and associates and become a candidate for a Parliamentary seat.

I am horrified at the possible situations which this Committee of seven might have to face. Suppose a Service man said he had been in contact with a political party in a constituency in which he might be invited to stand as a candidate. Is that to be evidence that he is not a genuine candidate? On the other hand, if someone is not connected with an established political party, if he is independent and is connected with people with some new ideas, will the Committee rule that his is not a serious candidature and must not be allowed? Even to consider some of the situations which might arise makes it immediately clear that this would be a monstrous new departure, giving power to appointed people to decide something which has never yet been given to a committee to decide, but has always been left to the electorate. It must be apparent to the Leader of the House that the sensibility of the candidate, and whether he is a crank or not—assuming that he does not break the law in the way in which he signs his declaration—has always been left, and must be left, to the electorate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) mentioned the case of John Wilkes. He was interrupted and was told that it was not a true comparison. But I think the comparison is even stronger than was suggested by my hon. Friend. One of the arguments used against John Wilkes was that he was not a serious candidate and sometimes the argument was advanced by people who had other reasons to oppose him.

The case made out by those hon. Members who supported the Report has failed to convince many hon. Members that this is the time to adopt this hurried proposal. Many people are worried that the forthcoming elections will be a farce and not properly conducted. There is another point of view. It is conceivable that a large number of the candidates who are not serious about this matter will disappear before nomination day. Most of them have no intention of producing £150. Therefore, we must agree that the argument of safeguarding these by-elections cannot be decisive for rushing to accept such a dangerous new proposal. That leaves the position of safeguarding the Armed Forces in relation to politics.

This proposal ought to be considered more thoroughly and at greater leisure. Everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley convinced me that it ought to be considered carefully because it is so serious in its effect on the future of the State and the Armed Forces. I join my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite in urging the Government to reconsider it, and I urge my colleagues on the Committee not to insist on the Motion but to take the sense of the House and, without a Division, to agree to take the proposal back.

11.46 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Walker (Smethwick)

This has been a good and vigorous debate—a real debate, with an interchange of minds. It has appeared that the problem is a good deal more difficult than many people thought when they met it for the first time. The Committee was unanimous in its recommendation; there was no difference of opinion. The whole Committee, of which I was a member, felt that this was the right solution for the moment—and that is still my view, for reasons which I will give.

It is an interim solution. As is said in paragraph 7, these are immediate steps proposed to deal with an immediate problem, which is a little more urgent and difficult than some hon. Members have allowed. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) that if this were a permanent principle it would be highly dangerous and improper to introduce it into our legislation; we could not introduce as a permanent principle that any committee or anybody should decide whether someone could run for Parliament. But this is an interim, short-term solution. I assure my hon Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) that I should not dream of voting for it if I thought that it were anything but an interim, immediate, short-term solution.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) said, there are two different and distinct problems. One is the question of the by-elections, which have been postponed and postponed pending some temporary solution. Hon. Members talk of a great constitutional principle, but one great constitutional principle is that constituencies should not unduly long remain unrepresented in the House. It is very important to find a solution which will enable the Writs to be moved. They have not been moved pending some temporary solution because there is some danger—I agree that it is often exaggerated—of a rather large number of people on the poll, and that makes our electoral system very difficult to run.

But there is a further reason—that men have discovered a way of the Services which is a dodge. They merely announce their intention to run for Parliament, and they must be released, if they are to be released at all, before they pay their deposit or are nominated. If they are nominated while in the Services they are committing perjury. To enable them to be candidates they must be released, but, having been released, they need not be nominated and pay their £150. With existing legislation there is no way out of this difficulty. There are two separate problems. One is that of getting on with the by-elections and the other—it has to be a quick solution—is to prevent people from using this loophole to get out of the Services.

Many hon. Members said, "Do nothing", but I do not know whether they realised what that means. Since the Home Secretary made his statement, the Services have stopped releasing people for this purpose; there was never an absolute right to be released in order to run for Parliament, but there was an effective right. Now people who ask to be released in order to be candidates are treated in exactly the same way as people who want to be released for other reasons, for example to run a greengrocer's shop or to get married. Therefore, there is no longer any effective right to be released to run for Parliament, as there used to be. Doing nothing would mean that in practice nobody through this administrative arrangement would be released. The Select Committee came to the conclusion—it is very clearly set out—that the administrative arrangement that the Services are now working is not satisfactory, We must find some short-run temporary way of letting the bone fide man run without opening the whole flood gates of people coming out of the Services by this dodge.

Mr. Driberg

When we say "do nothing." we mean revoke the administrative arrangements announced so obliquely on 18th December, before which there was not an absolute flood of applications. There was only a trickle. It was not all that many.

Mr. Gordon Walker

First, I do not know whether Parliament without passing legislation could revoke this administrative arrangement. Secondly, it is not only the flood of people coming on to the ballot paper. It is the flood of people who might get out of the Services through this dodge, which would not correspond to the intention of Parliament. What the Select Committee has proposed are two solutions. First, to allow the bona fide man to run, which at the moment he cannot do under the administrative arrangement. The Select Committee proposes that the administrative arrangement should be altered, and the Government have said that they will accept this. The second proposal of the Select Committee is that the Services should not be allowed to decide who is bona fide and who is not bona fide.

This is the real problem we faced as a Committee. I will tell the House later why we could not quickly come to the legislative proposals. We were trying to do these two things—to let the bona fide man through and to take the decision away from the Services and make it a political one. We therefore came to the unanimous conclusion, after having thought out many alternatives, many of which have been discussed by hon. Members tonight, that the only possible way as a temporary short-run make- shift arrangement—I agree with the hon. Member for Shipley that it is a make-shift arrangement; it does not claim to be anything else—was to set up a committee. I think that the Government have chosen admirable people. I wholly agree with the names. We think it should be left to the Committee in the short period to make this difficult decision to the best of its ability, without the Government laying upon the Committee the exact way in which it should do it.

It will be difficult for the Committee to find criteria by which to judge. It would be very wrong if this became a permanent or even a long-term solution. For the reasons I have tried to give my hon. Friend the Member for Barking, we must come to a quick decision to enable by-elections to be fought and to stop this gap that allowed people out.

I am certain that the Select Committee will find a permanent solution. We are going to do it as quickly as we possibly can. It will not be done as easily as hon. Members opposite have suggested. The problem is not Parliamentary time for getting legislation through. The problem is that the Select Committee feels that the legislation is quite complicated. It needs to be looked at. There are a number of inter-related Acts. The time that is needed is not the time of Parliament but the time the Committee feels that it must have to go very thoroughly into this very difficult constitutional legislation to make absolutely certain that it will put before the House a water-tight, properly thought out proposal. I only hope that when the Select Committee report comes everybody in the House will get it through in an afternoon. It is extremely important that it should get through quickly to take the place of this interim, temporary and make-shift arrangement.

However, I am certain that it would have been wrong for the Select Committee to have come forward with a hurried report on difficult constitutional legislation. It would have been undigested. It would have possibly opened up many dangerous things. This has to be thought out. I am certain that the solution can be found. We cannot simply go back to the pre-war arrangement, for reasons which hon. Members have given. New legislation has been passed since then and it is a Regular and not a conscript Army. I am certain that we can get a permanent solution fairly soon which we can put before the House and which I hope the House will pass quickly.

It must involve legislation. There is not any other way but legislation which will give us a proper permanent solution to the problem. As it is bound to take a little time and as it would have been very wrong to go on postponing by-elections, the Select Committee felt unanimously that it was proper to put forward this not very satisfactory solution as the best we could think of. Nobody else has thought of a better one, except to go back and leave the by-elections not being fought. The best arrangements that we can think of—and we came to this unanimously after anxious discussion and after hearing a great deal of evidence—is that which is before the House. I urge my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite to accept this as an interim solution, a short-term solution, which in all the circumstances is the best.

Mr. Crossman

My right hon. Friend has said three times that he was completely certain that the Select Committee would come to a final solution. Could I ask him if that is a purely personal view or whether it is the view of the Committee?

Mr. Gordon Walker

The Committee has not discussed a permanent solution, but I am on the Committee and respectfully point out that I know more about it than my hon. Friend.

Mr. Crossman

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley was also on the Select Committee, but he made it clear that there was no permanent solution; at least, that was his view. All I ask is to be told how far what we have been told tonight is a personal view, or whether it is the view of the Committee as a whole.

Mr. Wigg


Mr. Speaker

Order. It is really too difficult to have a double reply to an intervention.

Mr. Gordon Walker

All I can say is that before long we shall find a permanent solution.

Mr. Iain Macleod

All who have heard what has been said tonight will agree that it has been a fine debate. There are three points which I wish to raise.

First, whatever view we may take, if we do decide to adopt this Motion, it has to be remembered that there has been no breath of criticism of the names which I put earlier before the House. Everybody acknowledges that they will bring independent minds and fine judgment to a most difficult task. Secondly, I must make this point. It is, after all, a rare situation—it must be—that brings together the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) and the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) on the one side, and the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) and the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. F. M. Bennett) on the other; and let me add my weight to what they have said. I believe passionately that if a man wants to argue that the world is flat and to make that the basis of his parliamentary candidature, then he has a right to do so. It is no use saying that it is for him to be adopted by one of the three parties known to this House, or one of the other parties to which some people have a certain allegiance. Let us not forget that independents have an absolute right to put their views before the electorate.

Thirdly, we are bringing this Motion before the House with considerable speed. There is no overwhelming desire on the part of the Government—[Interruption.]—no, indeed there is not—to engage in by-elections at the present time. Each of the four vacancies that there are at present are, by the traditions of this House, at the call of the Labour Party. Yet I agree that when we are considering the parliamentary position we must not forget the right of the four constituencies with which we are concerned.

If I can now turn to the individual points made in this discussion, I would say first that the hon. Member for Barking took some issue with the point of view put forward by the Home Secretary that it was difficult, if not impossible, to decide as things stand at present.

Mr. Driberg

I agreed with him.

Mr. Macleod

Yes, but the point made by the Home Secretary was that some new means had to be devised. It is not right to suggest that the administrative arrangements announced, in effect, on 18th December have constituted a complete iron curtain in this direction. I am told that so far, six people, all other ranks, one from the Navy, two from the Army and three from the Royal Air Force, have been approved for ordinary discharge, although it is not certain from that—and this is one of the problems that one has to counter—that they will necessarily come up to the starting gate when the time for these elections comes.

I should like to refer to a point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Sir M. Galpern). I do not want to go into detail on his question about civil servants, because my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary dealt with that in answer to Oral Questions on 14th February and I simply refer the hon. Member to that entry in HANSARD. The hon. Member raised, however, a question about whether people might apply to the new body, if we set it up, for release, not for a by-election, but for the general election which is ahead, if they wanted to take on, say, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War in Stratford-on-Avon.

I think the answer to that question is simply, "Yes". They could make such an application if they wished and it would be up to the committee to decide whether, and to recommend accordingly, they were bona fide in their applications.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) asked how quickly, apart from anything else, we could do this. If we pass the Motion tonight, the Services will treat the issue of new instructions as a matter of considerable urgency. A meeting is planned between the Services and the Home Office for this week. We are very conscious of the point, which has been made, that there might be conceivably be late applications, which might still be genuine, coming in at the time of the issue of the Writ. We realise this and that it means moving with immense speed, because the last day for nomination comes not earlier than four days and not later than ten days after that time. We appreciate this point and we think that the machinery which has been suggested would be capable of dealing with it.

The true question which has been raised, which was posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise), the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale and others, is whether this is a satisfactory final answer and, if not, how quickly we can replace it. The answer to the first question is, clearly, "No". I agree with, and I adopt, the words of the right hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker). This is an interim solution. Whatever view hon. Members take of it, it cannot be thought of by the House as anything other than that.

Therefore, if we pass the Motion tonight, we are in a sense chucking the problem back on to the lap of the Select Committee. The hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) will, however, agree that it is the House that is master of the Select Committee, and not the other way round. Everybody who is a Member of the Select Committee would agree with that, too.

We do not know what sort of answer the Select Committee would produce. It may be that there are firm objections to all the possibilities of legislation. As to the most popular one, however—that is, a simple return to the 1945 system, under which I myself obtained temporary discharge to fight the Western Isles constituency and finished easily bottom of the poll before I came to easier pastures nearer London—the difficulties in the way of returning to that practice are genuinely far more formidable than people realise, than those who heard, for example, the Home Secretary's initial statement on 18th December realised at the time.

So we do not know what solution, if any particular solution, the Select Committee will offer us. What we do know is that we do not take its answer today as final but we ask it to come back, and come back fairly soon—I do not want to put a term of weeks or whatever it may be on it, but this is an interim solution and I do not regard it as anything else—and tell us after it has studied and set out the complex legal matters that we know are there what it thinks the particular answer should be. If that is acceptable to the House, then I believe that the right thing for us to do would be to pass the Motion tonight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) put forward the idea that one might, in effect, pay £150 for obtaining nomination papers. That would need legislation, and so we are, therefore, straight back in that field, and all it would amount to in the end—because, again, we should have no undertaking that the man would take part in the election—would be that the net result of passing the legislation was to enable other ranks at least to buy themselves out for £150 instead of about £250; and I cannot believe that for this exercise the House would really wish to embark upon legislation. But by all means let us look at all the possibilities that there may be.

Let me sum up what has been said. Everybody here is deeply anxious that no man, whatever his policies may be, whether he belongs to a party or not, should be denied the right to put his views forward to the electorate and so seek a place in this House. That is the right of all people. There are, as the hon. Member for Dudley pointed out to us, some conflicts perhaps inherent in that statement because people have taken on obligations to the Crown and it may be that in certain circumstances those two conflict. That is the dilemma we wish to find a way round.

We have put this to a Select Committee, both sides of the House, which has given it urgent consideration and has put a recommendation to us. My suggestion to the House is that we should accept and pass the Motion, but that we should do it—I am certain that all members of the Select Committee would accept this, too—on the understanding that this is a first and interim Report, that we are not satisfied and, indeed, we are not clear—let us be frank about it—in our own minds what the final solution should be, but we feel that a solution must be found more in consonance with the traditions of the House than the one that I recommend as a temporary measure to the House tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That it is expedient that an advisory Committee should be appointed by the Home Secretary to examine every application for release from the armed forces for the purpose of contesting a parliamentary election, and to report to the appropriate Service Minister, in each case, whether or not they are satisfied that it is a bona fide application.