HC Deb 03 April 1974 vol 871 cc1274-85

4.11 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

I beg to move, That, in accordance with the provisions of section 6 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957, this House directs that the disqualification incurred by Dr. Michael Winstanley by virtue of his employment in the Civil Service of the Crown as a sessional medical officer at the Royal Ordnance Factory, Patricroft, shall be disregarded for the purposes of that section. The motion is necessary because it has recently come to light that the contractual conditions attaching to the post of sessional medical officer at a Royal Ordnance factory, which is referred to in the motion, amount to employment in the Civil Service of the Crown in the sense that disqualifies the holder from membership of this House. Since he became aware of this, Dr. Winstanley has resigned the position, and I am satisfied that there was nothing improper about the way the appointment was made or in the conduct of Dr. Winstanley in this part-time fee-earning post.

Dr. Winstanley has attended at the factory for one hour each Monday and each Friday.

This is an appropriate case for the exercise of the power contained in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957 for the House, by order, to direct that the disqualification be disregarded. In the motion I am giving the House the opportunity to exercise that power, and I ask the House to agree to it.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

This measure is what is known as retrospective legislation. Seeing it on the Order Paper today, I turned to the editorial columns of the leading newspapers, which are commonly known as the "heavies", to see whether there was any contribution from those offices in Fleet Street, Printing House Square and elsewhere, about whether it was right and proper for Members of Parliament to permit this retrospective legislation to apply so that a previous Liberal Member, Dr. Winstanley, could take his place in this House.

Why did I expect the columns to include references to this important legislation? For one thing, the motion was to be moved by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House who has been referred to on more than one occasion in reference to so-called retrospective legislation as it affects the Clay Cross Council. [HON. MEMBERS: "Declare an interest".] It would seem to me that The Guardian, The Times and the Daily Telegraph, which at one time commented on the fact that the Clay Cross councillors were using the law too often, should have referred to this new piece of legislation.

Some people might laugh and scoff at the idea. I guess, however, that if the media did their job properly they would report upon the fact that a Member of Parliament was brought into this House through a piece of retrospective legislation when it seems to me that he broke the law—[Interruption.]—and that if he did not break the law then he cheated, and if he did not cheat. [HON. MEMBERS: "Order".] Remember, Mr. Speaker, this man was appearing on Granada Television every week in a programme called "This is Your Right", describing to viewers precisely how they could look after themselves. Yet this same man signed a nomination paper in the knowledge that he was prevented from taking his place in the House of Commons—and if he did not know that he was so prevented, he was as naive as the rest of the occupants of the Liberal bench.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

Is the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) aware that a candidate does not sign a nomination paper?

Mr. Skinner

Where ignorance is bliss—and there is a row of them. We should bear in mind the vitriolic attacks on the 11 decent councillors and at the same time remember that one Member of Parliament, cosseted by privilege, who happens to be a doctor and who never dirtied his hands in his life, is allowed to come in here because he happens to be elected as a Member of Parliament. It is like a great many more of the issues that confront our people. That is why they are cynical about some of the actions and attitudes that present themselves in this House. There are certain people in this country who are entitled to privilege, and there are those like the 11 at Clay Cross who cannot get a decent crack of the whip. This measure exemplifies to a great degree what this place is all about. It will look after some people but it will not look after others.

If my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House had done his duty today he would have brought in not one motion, but two, and he would have given these 11 councillors the same opportunity that he is extending today to a particular Member of Parliament.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

Although my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has a rather different style of speaking from myself, I think that he has a good point. The reason that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was referring to "Dr. Winstanley" is that until the motion is passed he is not the Member for Hazel Grove. We are not being impolite by referring to him in that way; we are being precise.

If the motion is retrospective, what are the consequences of that? Presumably, if the motion were not passed Dr. Winstanley would be liable in law to all the penalties pertaining to a person who, while not entitled to do so, sits and votes in the House of Commons. I do not know whether that is true, and I simply seek clarification. Possibly it is not true.

We gather that as soon as he knew the true situation, Dr. Winstanley resigned his position, as is right and proper. However, will he be collecting two sets of salaries for the overlapping period before he knew of the circumstances? We have had no information on that point, but it would be an unusual situation, not equalled since the eighteenth century, if a civil servant were also receiving a Member of Parliament's salary.

One simple question concerns me deeply, and perhaps hon. Members on the Liberal bench will answer it. In the Labour Party, before we sign a consent to nomination—this meets the point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith)—all of us are sent a document by Transport House—I suspect that the same thing is done by Central Office for the Conservative candidates—telling us to have a look at the House of Commons Disqualification Act and to make sure that we are not disqualified. I am a little concerned that that does not happen in the Liberal Party. A party which cannot organise itself cannot expect to take an efficient part in the governing of the country. If it is not done, then I believe it should be done. Whatever the Liberal Party's procedure, it did not seem to work in this case.

4.21 p.m.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I think that it is necessary to add to what the Leader of the House has already said. When Dr. Winstanley discovered that there was likely to be an irregularity, he came to see me immediately. I advised him to take the matter to the Clerks of the House. Immediately the matter came to light he absented himself from the Chamber and from the Division Lobbies. He has been removed from the one Select Committee to which he had been nominated. Dr. Winstanley raised the matter with the House authorities.

It should be made know to the House that Dr. Winstanley has held this position since 1950 in the course of his general practice as a member of a group practice. It is not a new position. He has no direct income from these sessions because, as is normal in a group practice which is engaged to carry out work on behalf of a firm—in this case an establishment of the Ministry of Defence—the income goes into the group practice. That should be made clear.

Dr. Winstanley has held this post since 1950 on an informal basis. He held it, together with his fellow members of the practice, when he was a Member of the House from 1966 to 1970. There was never any suggestion at that time that it was an office of profit under the Crown. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] If hon. Members will be quiet I will explain why the situation has changed.

During the time that Dr. Winstanley was a Member he was unable to carry out the duties, and the work was done by a partner in his practice who died in 1973. Following his partner's death, when he was not a Member of this House, Dr. Winstanley was able to resume his duties in his own name.

Because of the Contract of Employment Act, it was suggested a contract should pass between him and the Royal Ordnance Factory. That was done in May 1973. It is on the basis of that contract that judgment has rightly been made that Dr. Winstanley holds a position of profit under the Crown.

Most reasonable hon. Members will accept, given that sequence of events, and bearing in mind that he had previously been a Member of this House, that Dr. Winstanley had no reason to assume that he was in any way disqualified from membership of the House.

If the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) reads Section 6 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957

Mr. Skinner

I have read it.

Mr. Steel

Then the hon. Gentleman will have read that the House decided in 1957—and this is the first case to arise since then—to make certain provisions which would apply when inadvertently, and through no fault of a Member, it was found that there might be some minor technical matter which would disqualify him. The House then decided that it should be allowed to make up its mind whether it would be proper to set aside a technical offence.

Mr. Skinner

The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) referred to Section 6 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957. Section 6(2) says: If in a case falling or alleged to fall within the foregoing subsection it appears to the House of Commons that the grounds of disqualification or alleged disqualification under this Act which subsisted or arose at the material time have been removed, and that it is otherwise proper to do so, the House may by order direct that any such disqualification incurred on those grounds at that time shall be disregarded for the purposes of this section. That complies with the point which I was making. Insofar as such provisions disqualify councillors from local government, the penalties have now been removed because Clay Cross Council does not now exist. Therefore, the case is a parallel and complies with my previous point.

4.26 p.m.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

I rise to support my right hon. Friend. I do so because I am convinced that we are far too horrified by the words "retrospective legislation". It is not always conducive to the best conduct of public business to be so horrified. There is a good case for the motion which my right hon. Friend moved.

I also have a great deal of sympathy for the point of view which has been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who represents in a real sense, together with another Derbyshire Member, the idealism of the Clay Cross councillors.

It is relevant that on this occasion we should look briefly at the general problem. I think that my hon. Friend has done a good service in bringing another matter—namely the case of the Clay Cross Councillors—into this short discussion. We might be better advised not to oppose the motion and not to question the underlying motives—

Mr. English

I am not.

Mr. Mendelson

I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend is doing so. I said "we", whilst giving a general guide as to how the House might conduct itself on this occasion. We might be better advised not to oppose the motion. There is wisdom in the provisions of the Act. It is quite possible either for an honourable man to be mistaken about his own position or, as history has proved, for honourable men to be engaged in a campaign of principle out of their fundamental idealism against what they consider to be repressive legislation. Then, in the words of John Locke, the philosopher of the glorious revolution, all powers return to high Heaven.

We are dealing with a time-honoured radical tradition. While it would not be the same thing to argue that it should be accepted as a doctrine on which either a Government or a party should give advice, the right of individual people in public life to take the view that it is right to act in accordance with their profound principles must be accepted as good practice. We owe many of our liberties to people having done that throughout the ages. In supporting my right hon. Friend, I take the view that it is right and proper to apply the same principle to other people, such as Clay Cross councillors, who have honourably stood up for what they believe should be their rights.

4.29 p.m.

Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)

There is no question of the procedure which has been used today being used to cover the Clay Cross case which has been mentioned by the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson).

Mr. Speaker

Order. There have been passing references to the Clay Cross case. We cannot argue whether that case could be covered by a similar procedure. That is a different topic.

Mr. Mendelson

I was not arguing that it came under the same provision but that it was the same principle.

Sir D. Renton

Your intervention, Mr. Speaker, has made it unnecessary for me to take that point further.

The House of Commons Disqualification Act was passed to try to bring order to confusion and to an unjust situation which potentially affected many hon. Members. The distinctions with which the Act tried to deal were found, when we legislated, to be so artificial that we had to have the special procedure, which is an unusual one, which is used by the Government today—namely, the Section 6 procedure.

In fairness to the hon. Member, to whom I think we are entitled to refer as Dr. Winstanley, we must bear in mind that it was just for such a case that the Section 6 procedure was introduced. I am prepared to support the Leader of the House.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Edward Short

This is, indeed, retrospective in the sense that it would legitimise the membership of Dr. Winstanley from the date of the General Election. But, as the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) said, Section 6 of the 1957 Act was specifically designed to deal with just this situation. Previously an individual indemnity Bill was necessary, and the offender had to be relieved of various penalties attaching to sitting and voting when disqualified. Those penalties no longer apply under the 1957 Act, but Dr. Winstanley has not taken part in any proceedings since the matter came to light.

Dr. Winstanley was unaware that his part-time employment disqualified him until after his election. It was only after his election that the Ministry of Defence pointed out the incompatibility of his appointment with membership of the House. There had, in fact been an error. I have discussed this with the Secretary of State for Defence, and the Department has promised in future to inform candidates before the election and not after it.

This motion is not about Clay Cross. Obviously, that situation could not be dealt with under Section 6. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will shortly make a statement about that.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) said that Dr. Winstanley had held this post for several years, and we learn now that the problem arose when Dr. Winstanley signed a contractual agreement on 24th May 1973 when he was not a Member of the House. The fact that there was incompatibility was not pointed out to him until after the election.

It is a difficult situation. Dr. Winstanley has not acted improperly in any way. Had he done so, I should certainly not have brought the motion to the House.

I invite the House to approve the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That, in accordance with the provisions of section 6 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957, this House directs that the disqualification incurred by Dr. Michael Winstanley by virtue of his employment in the Civil Service of the Crown as a sessional medical officer at the Royal Ordnance Factory, Patricroft, shall be disregarded for the purposes of that section.

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