HC Deb 19 January 1968 vol 756 cc2163-76

2.1 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Harold Lever)

I beg to move,

That Schedule 1 to the House of Commons Disqualification Act, 1957, in its application to this House, be amended as follows: —

1. In Part I (Judicial Offices)—

  1. (a) the following offices shall be added: —
    1. (i) Commissioner (other than an ex officio judge or additional judge of the Central Criminal Court) exercising jurisdiction under Schedue 1 to the Administration of Justice Act, 1964;
    2. (ii) Commissioner (other than an additional judge of the Central Criminal Court or the holder of any office mentioned before the entry relating to that office in the Schedule) exercising jurisdiction under section 1 of the Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1956;
    3. (iii) Chief or other National Insurance Commissioner for Northern Ireland;
  2. (b) in the entry beginning ' Commissioner exercising jurisdiction' the reference to the Commissioner exercising jurisdiction under section 70 of the Supreme Court of Judi- 2164 cature (Consolidation) Act, 1925 shall not include a reference to the holder of any office preceding that entry in the Schedule and the reference to section 1 of the Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1956 shall be omitted;
  3. (c)in the entry beginning ' Judge of a County Court for the reference to proviso (6) to section 11(1) of the County Courts Act, 1934 there shall be substituted a reference to proviso (b) to section 12(1) of the County Courts Act, 1959; and
  4. (d)in the entry beginning ' Resident Magistrate', the reference to the Summary Jurisdiction and Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland), 1935 shall include a reference to the Magistrates' Courts Act (Northern Ireland), 1964;
  5. (e)the offices of National Insurance Commissioner for Northern Ireland and Deputy National Insurance Commissioner for Northern Ireland shall be omitted.

2.In Part II (Commissions, Tribunals and other Bodies of which all members are disqualified)—

  1. (a)there shall be added: —
    1. (i) the Agrément Board;
    2. (ii) the Lands Tribunal for Northern Ireland;
    3. (iii) the Ministry of Defence (Army Department) Teachers Selection Board; and
  2. (b)in the entry beginning ' A Development Corporation', for the reference to the New Towns Act, 1946 there shall be substituted a reference to the New Towns Act, 1965;
  3. (c)in the entries beginning ' A Medical Appeal Tribunal' and ' A Medical Board' for the reference to the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act (Northern Ireland), 1946 there shall be substituted a reference to the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act (Northern Ireland), 1966;
  4. (d) the Iron and Steel Board, the Leather Industries Export Corporation, the National Assistance Board for Northern Ireland, the National Incomes Commission and the War Office Teachers Selection Board shall be omitted.

3.In Part III (other disqualifying offices)—

  1. (a) the following offices shall be added: —
    1. (i) Chairman, Vice-Chairman or member of the executive committee of the Land Settlement Association Limited appointed at a salary;
    2. (ii) Chairman of the Post Office Users' Council;
    3. (iii) Director of the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation Limited nominated by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    4. (iv) Director of Beagle Aircraft Limited nominated or appointed by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    5. (v) Director of the British Petroleum Company Limited nominated by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    6. 2165
    7. (vi) Director of the Cereals Committee Limited appointed by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    8. (vii) Director of the Compagnie Finan-ciçre de Suez et de L'Union Parisienne appointed by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    9. (viii) Director of any company in receipt of financial assistance under the Distribution of Industry Act 1945, the Distribution of Industry (Industrial Finance) Act 1958, or Local Employment Acts 1960 to 1966, being a director nominated by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    10. (ix) Director of Fairfields (Glasgow) Limited nominated or appointed by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    11. (x) Director appointed at a salary of Industrial Advisers to the Blind Limited;
    12. (xi) Director appointed at a salary of the National Building Agency;
    13. (xii) Director of National Cold Stores (Management) Limited appointed by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    14. (xiii) Director of S.B. (Realisations) Limited nominated or appointed by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    15. (xiv) Director of the Scottish Agricultural Securities Corporation Limited nominated by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    16. (xv) Deputy Industrial Insurance Commissioner appointed under the Industrial Assurance Act (Northern Ireland) 1924;
    17. (xvi) Member of the Countryside Commission for Scotland (other than the Chairman) in receipt of remuneration;
    18. (xvii) Member of the Council of the National Computing Centre appointed at a salary by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    19. (xviii) Member of the Permanent Joint Hops Committee appointed by a Minister of the Crown or government department;
    20. (xix) President, or member of a panel of chairmen, of industrial tribunals established under section 12 of the Industrial Training Act 1964;
  2. (b)in the entry beginning ' Accountant appointed ' for the reference to section 73 of the Education (Scotland) Act, 1946 there shall be substituted a reference to section 78 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1962;
  3. (c)in the second entry beginning ' Chairman or Reserve Chairman' for the reference to the National Insurance Act (Northern Ireland), 1946 there shall be substituted a reference to the National Insurance Act (Northern Ireland), 1966;
  4. (d)in the entry relating to the director appointed at a salary of the National Institute of Houseworkers Limited, for the words 'of Houseworkers' there shall be substituted the words ' for Housecraft (Employment and Training)';
  5. 2166
  6. (e) in the first entry beginning ' Member of an Agricultural Marketing Board' for the reference to section 1 of the Agricultural Marketing Act, 1949 there shall be substituted a reference to Schedule 2 to the Agricultural Marketing Act 1958;
  7. (f) in the second entry beginning ' Member of an Agricultural Marketing Board' the reference to section 2 of the Agricultural Marketing Act (Northern Ireland), 1933 shall include a reference to section 3 of the Agricultural Marketing Act (Northern Ireland), 1964;
  8. (g) in the entry beginning ' Officer or other Member of the County Court Service', for the reference to the County Offices and Courts Act (Northern Ireland), 1925 and 1933 there shall be substituted a reference to the County Courts Act (Northern Ireland), 1959;
  9. (h) in the entry beginning ' Registrar or Assistant Registrar appointed', for the references to sections 16 and 25 of the County Courts Act, 1934 there shall be respectively substituted references to sections 18 and 19 of the County Courts Act 1959;
  10. (i) the following offices shall be omitted: —
  1. (i) Chairman or Reserve Chairman of a Local Appeal Tribunal constituted for the purposes of the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act (Northern Ireland), 1946;
  2. (ii) Official Arbitrator appointed under section 1(2) of the Administrative Provisions Act (Northern Ireland), 1928;
  3. (iii) Referee appointed under section 1 of the Safeguarding of Industries Act, 1921 or member of the Panel constituted under section 10 of the Finance Act, 1926; and
  4. (iv) Temporary Commissioner appointed under paragraph 2 of Schedule 2 to the Tithe Act, 1936.

The Motion proposes a long string of amendments to Schedule 1 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act, 1957. This is the Act which sets out the categories of occupation which disqualify hon. Members of this House from remaining Members of this House. We have to bring it up to date from time to time by a Resolution of this kind which enables Her Majesty to make an Order in Council amending the First Schedule to the Act.

It is perhaps as well to set out briefly the general considerations we had in mind in deciding what occupations should result in a disqualification. The first class is of those where some money benefit results from an appointment by the Crown. That may be called the patronage point. The second reason for disqualifying an hon. Member of this House from serving is a particular Government-appointed job where the nature of the work was such as to prejudice his fulfilment of his Parliamentary duties. The third ground we have to have in mind is where the nature of the work is of a kind unsuited even to the suggestion of political bias.

These sorts of considerations are always in mind although it is difficult in any individual case sometimes to apply them when we prepare up-to-date amending Resolutions of this kind, although there have been two previous cases, in 1961 and in 1963. On this occasion we have taken the opportunity to clear up some inconsistencies and anomalies which on examination have been found to apply in disqualifying hon. Members in relation to directorship by Government nomination of various companies. We have decided that disqualification is now to be applied in so far as this was not already the case to Government-nominated directors of commercial companies where these were ordinary trading concerns.

Thus, for example, for the first time, it may surprise hon. Members to know, directors of B.P. can no longer remain in the service of this House if they are directors of B.P., whether paid or not. That will apply to companies such as British Eagle Aircraft and the Suez Canal Finance Company. It might make a reasonable change if, instead of an hon. Member applying for stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds, he applied for a directorship of B.P. or the Suez Canal Finance Company. That might seem a more sophisticated alternative to the residual methods provided for leaving this House. For the first time that will be the effect if the House passes this Resolution.

Where the companies to which the Government-nominated directors are not in the ordinary run of trading concerns the principle applies as if the Member concerned is appointed at a salary. That applies to a whole range of companies which are not commercial concerns in the ordinary way and where the opportunity for some public service is not at all inappropriate to hon. Members of this House. Of course there there is no pay, otherwise there would be disqualification even in that case.

There is also the position of members of the Countryside Commissions for England and for Scotland. The question is whether disqualification should apply to all members of those Commissions whether or not remuneration is paid, or whether we should keep the disqualification in those cases where there is remuneration. There has been some discussion on this point in Standing Committeee on the Countryside Bill. We have come to the conclusion that in this case it would be right to apply for disqualification only in the event of remuneration. That is not a general principle, but a decision I have come to in that particular case.

I have tried to give the purposes and principles on which we are acting. In general, as it falls to my office normally to consider these cases, I have operated the rule; when in doubt leave them out. I think where there is a danger of patronage or a danger of too much incursion into an hon. Member's time which may not appear to be consistent with the due fulfilment of his Parliamentary duties, or some undesirability on the grounds of possible political bias, one should err on the side of disqualifying an hon. Member rather than on being over-flexible in these matters. I hope the House will feel able to pass the Resolution, imbued as it is with the spirit of the approach I have made in formulating it.

2.7 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

Having created something of a record by keeping in order on two consolidation Bills consecutively, which I do not think I have achieved before, I shall endeavour to keep in order in discussing this Resolution.

I think that there is great merit in the form in which Parliament accepted the House of Commons Disqualification Bill, which became the Act of 1957. By a Schedule the disqualifying offices were listed, and precisely listed, so that any hon. Member who can read—and, despite what some of our constituents say, I believe all hon. Members can read—and know exactly whether or not they are disqualified by reason of some public office.

Since 1957, there has not been that vague phrase, "an office of profit under the Crown". We have been certain what they are, but it has been necessary to make this list flexible as new offices were created, new appointments made and new spheres in which the Government of the country was taking part. So there is this further merit in the method which was adopted under the Act that the list can be kept up to date by Resolution of this House, following which Her Majesty can make an Order in Council in accordance with that Resolution.

If I understand the Resolution correctly, it seems to amend all three parts of the Schedule to the 1957 Act. There were four parts but the fourth part deals with disqualification for particular constituencies and we are concerned only with the first three parts. The first part deals with judicial offices; the second with commissions; tribunals and similar bodies; and the third is the miscellaneous one of other disqualifying offices.

I endeavoured, by looking at Amendments which have been made and the Amendments now sought to be made, to discover how far we had altered the Schedule as it was originally laid down in 1957. Roughly, I found that under Part I,:he judicial offices, in the course of time we have deleted 13 and added 14. It is now proposed to delete two and to add three. Therefore, there has not been a substantial change in Part I.

Although the changes which the House is now asked to agree to may be of importance to certain individuals who might otherwise take their place on the judicial bench as assistant judges, and so on, I do not think that Part I has any wide application and I would not wish to detain the House by discussing that part of the Motion for any length of time.

In the past, Part III has been very substantially altered. Seventeen comissions or tribunals have been deleted and 39 have been added. On this occasion we are not doing very much; we are adding three and deleting five. Although Part II has been a very important part of the Schedule in the past when we have set up new commissions or tribunals, it is not of such great importance today.

Part III has considerable importance, because, as the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said, it is on this occasion a departure from the principles laid down previously, if principles ever were laid down. Perhaps I ought to say that new principles are now being laid down, or that principles are being laid down for the first time, as to what should or should not be included in Part III which deals with disqualifying offices other than judicial offices or commission or tribunal offices.

In the past, we have deleted 12 offices from Part III and added 15. I calculate that the Motion seeks to add 22 new offices. There are many more individuals than that. I am merely taking the names of offices. We are deleting five, counting deputies, assistants, members of committees, and so on. Nearly all the new offices which are to become disqualifications for membership of the House are appointments to industrial and commercial concerns. The list is something of a commentary upon the extent —indeed, the increasing extent—of government interference in commercial activities.

I can put my points into two questions. First, many of these appointments named in the Motion have existed for a long time. The Financial Secretary mentioned the British Petroleum Company Limited and the Suez Company. Others, such as the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation Limited, the Post Office Users' Council and the Land Settlement Association Limited, have been going for a long time, too. Only now are they being brought into the list of disqualifying offices. The hon. Gentleman said that this was being done either because in these there was some money benefit to the Member, or because the office was of a nature which, if the person concerned carried it out properly, would prejudice his Parliamentary duties, or because, with the natural political bias that he should have as a Member, he would not be fitted to undertake an office of this sort.

I suppose that those are fairly reasonable principles to apply, but we have got on pretty well in the past without disqualifying directors of the Suez Company, or of B.P. Limited, or of the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation Limited. I do not know any hon. Members who run into trouble over this or any persons from those concerns who have wanted to stand as Members of Parliament Therefore. why has it suddenly been thought necessary to include them? Has some issue arisen which has made it necessary to bring these rather ancient offices into the disqualification Schedule?

Apart from those old ones, there are many new offices set out in paragraph 3 of the Motion. Again, I find some difficulty, not only in understanding why these have been selected, even though the Financial Secretary has explained his criteria to the House, but also why certain have been omitted. Some offices come to mind in matters with which I particularly deal in the House. This is why I remember them. I am thinking of people who serve on the Land Commission, rent assessment committees, the National Board for Prices and Incomes, the Housing Corporation, and of the Registrar of Building Societies. Why are these people left out of the list?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

Order. It is not competent on this Motion to refer to matters which are not in the Motion. It is not competent to consider why any offices not mentioned in the Motion are excluded.

Mr. Graham Page

I will certainly abide by your Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and try to make my point by using other examples.

I wonder why certain offices are excluded and why certain are included. Those which are included seem to be a mixed bag. It is questionable whether there is a good reason for including all these. In my experience, an hon. Member with an outside interest brings knowledge and experience with him which make him better able to contribute to the deliberations of the House. I do not hold the belief that every hon. Member should be a professional politician with no outside interests. I see little difference between having an outside interest to which one is appointed by the Government and having one which is one's own concern.

It is fantastic to suggest that an hon. Member would be influenced by an appointment by the Government to, say, the National Computing Centre. He would be very proud to be so appointed, but I doubt whether it would influence him in his deliberations in the House or make him feel beholden to the Government. It is rather an anachronism to think of such commercial men as what used to be known as "The King's Men".

Is there any purpose in suddenly including these offices in the disqualifying Schedule? Has any trouble arisen? Have any difficulties arisen in this connection? Is there any intention of making use of these offices? The Financial Secretary suggested that those who wished to retire from the House in future might apply for membership of the board of the Suez Company, for example, instead of for the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds. Is he suggesting that last night's 25 rebels be appointed to membership of the Permanent Joint Hops Committee? Or is he suggesting that an escape route should be provided for Ministers by it being possible to put them into National Cold Stores (Management) Ltd.? Or, if it was desired to retain them in their advisory capacity to the Government, is it visualised that they be appointed as Industrial Advisers to the Blind Limited, which is (x) in paragraph 3. Why should these suddenly be introduced into the disqualifying Schedule of the 1957 Act? I cannot believe that somebody has just thought up a new principle on which to expand that Schedule.

What sort of precedents are we laying down here? In the future, on the basis of this Motion, are all Government-nominated directors of ordinary trading concerns, whether paid or not, to be disqualified from membership of this House? This is the proposition which the hon. Gentleman has put before us. [Interruption.] I made a note of the phrase the hon. Gentleman used. He said that all Government-nominated directors of ordinary trading concerns, whether paid or not, should be disqualified from membership of this House— or, the other way round, that Members of this House should be disqualified if they take an office of that sort. I must say that this is going too far.

I do not want to encourage political patronage in any way, but if one makes a general rule of that sort we may be depriving this House of the benefit of knowledge and experience in these sorts of concerns which we see listed in front of us—knowledge and experience which might be of the greatest use in the deliberations of the House, in the same way as many hon. Members bring benefit to the House by their experience outside the House in private undertakings, commercial, industrial and professional. I cannot feel that the hon. Gentleman has really justified paragraph 3 of the Motion on the sort of principles which he has put forward.

2.22 p.m.

Mr. Harold Lever

I believe that I need leave to speak again, and I hope that I may have that leave.

I can understand the hon. Members anxiety that we should not apply this rule of disqualification in a way that would deprive the House of the services of useful hon. Members or would deprive hon. Members of this House of an opportunity to enlarge their own connections with the outside world, particularly in commerce.

But, of course, I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's implications that there is something novel and undesirable in the principles that I have enunciated today. It is, in my view, novel and entirely unacceptable that the House should have hon. Members who, at Government nomination, are appointed to offices of profit. This would be a startling innovation and I would be very surprised if it was found acceptable to hon. Members.

The hon. Member said that he cannot see the difference between appointment to outside concerns where this occurs in the ordinary course of the commercial practice of private firms, and appointment of hon. Members to paid jobs in Government trading concerns. If he cannot see the difference, I am bound to tell him that centuries of Parliamentarians have been keenly aware of the difference and I for one see a very fundamental difference. It is not merely a question of actual patronage. I share the hon. Members high opinion of his colleagues on both sides of the House. I do not suppose any hon. Members are likely to be swayed by being made paid directors of Government concerns. It is, however, not merely a question of assessing any particular Member at any particular time. It is a question of maintaining a consistent pattern of behaviour which is acceptable to public opinion in this country.

When the hon. Member reflects upon it, I think he will agree that he would be venturing well outside the consensus of public opinion in this country and of all political parties if he were really to say that we should make no distinction in disqualifying hon. Members whether they had directorships of companies whose shareholders had appointed them or directorships of companies where the Government had appointed them to offices of profit.

There are other problems which the hon. Member appears to ignore. I can see the attraction to hon. Members of accepting Government appointments to trading concerns without money. But, as I told the House, my view is that Members should be disqualified when they are appointed to any ordinary trading concern by the Government, even though they get no salary. The hon. Member seems to think that this is objectionable. Here again I invite him to reflect upon the consequences of not having a rule of this kind.

If we had an hon. Member of this House acting as a director of a trading concern, in the nomination of the Government, we would cause embarrassment to the hon. Member himself, whose impartiality would be at risk in many ways. It would raise the whole general question of patronage and propriety in a trading concern having a Government nominee who is a Member of this House. Also it would cause very considerable embarrassment to the hon. Member himself when any matters directly related to the affairs of this company or board were to come before the House for discussion. The hon. Member would have a vested interest, not entirely independent, such as would prevent him in the freest way exercising an independent judgment, and it would appear manifestly to the public and to his colleagues that he was not able to exercise an independent judgment.

Mr. Graham Page

Is it not recognised that hon. Members disclose their interests and that they are frank to the House about them? The House accepts such hon. Members as being biased to that extent but accepts, too, their knowledge and experience in that sphere?

Mr. Lever

But the retention of those interests is not dependent upon the good will or affection or admiration of the Government of the day. There is all the difference in the world between, on the one hand, a man coming here and discussing the chemical industry—say, a director of LCI.—and declaring his interest as a director, and, on the other hand, a person appointed to the Coal Board, whether salaried or not, speaking in this House, when the fuel policy is being discussed. We would not feel it adequate simply that such a person should declare his interest as a member of the Coal Board, or the Electricity Board. It would be unsuitable that people engaged in trading concerns and nominated by the Government should participate in decisions taken in this House.

I can only say that this is a matter of judgment and good sense which this House always applied in judging these matters. I assert that where any office of profit lies at the discretion of the Crown, it is absolutely essential that we should disqualify hon. Members who hold such an office of profit. I assert, moreover, that even where no salary is paid, it would be quite unsuited to the discharge of an hon. Member's duties in this House and to the conviction of independence which is a necessary adjunct to the performance of those duties, if, where there is a trading company the nominations to the board of which are at the disposal of the Government, any Member nominated to the board of such a trading company —it may be B.P. or the Suez Company or perhaps a company like Beagle Aircraft—were to accept such a directorship. It would be neither seemly nor desirable. Where there is any doubt about the question of patronage or of seemliness of an hon. Member discharging such functions at Government nomination, the doubt should be resolved in favour of disqualification, and not the other way round. For me this is not a party political matter at all.

I now deal with the last point raised by the hon. Gentleman, the question why we have brought in all these categories such as B.P., the Suez Finance Company and so on for the first time. The answer is that, when we started to deal with the question of the Beagle company, Fairfields and the like, we thought it right to have a good look at existing companies, and we found that, anomalously, though purely, I think, as a result of oversight and there having been no occasion when the question had arisen, we had not disqualified people who were directors of B.P., Suez Finance and companies of that kind.

I came to the conclusion that there ought to be a consistent policy in this matter and we should make the necessary arrangements to disqualify directors of Beagle Aircraft and Fairfields and at the same time disqualify from Membership of the House those holding other such directorships. It followed logically and, I believe, it followed as a matter of principle.

No great harm has occurred in the past on this account, I understand, simply because, by happy chance, no one who was a Member of the House was on the board of any of these other companies. However, had the question arisen, I am sure that the House would have wanted to take the view to which we give effect in this Motion, namely, that membership of these boards is not entirely consistent with Membership of the House of Commons. I hope that I shall carry the hon. Member for Crosby with me when he reflects upon the principles which we have discussed.

Question put and agreed to.