HC Deb 06 May 1981 vol 4 cc239-45

Order for Second Reading read.

10.5 pm

The Solicitor General (Sir Ian Percival)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is so plainly worthy of being adopted by the House that, strictly speaking, it is unnecessary for me to say more, but I should be discourteous to the Law Commission if I did not say a word about it. We are very much indebted to the Law Commission for the work it does.

The Bill is the latest instalment arising from the work of the Law Commission for England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission to promote the repeal of obsolete and unnecessary enactments, thereby cutting out the dead wood from the statute book. It was annexed to the tenth report in the series of reports of the Law Commission in this task presented to Parliament in December last year. It proposes the repeal of 119 whole Acts and the removal of redundant provisions from 123 others. The nine previous reports have already resulted in the repeal of over 2,000 enactments, including 947 whole Acts. That represents a formidable volume of obsolete statutory material that has been removed from the record.

Some of those present will know that this work is promoted by the Law Commissions. When they have drafted a Bill including all the provisions that they think should be repealed, the Bill goes to the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills. I often have the opportunity to express the appreciation of the House of the work done by that Committee. It relieves us of the burden of that work and does us a great service which I am happy to acknowledge on behalf of the House.

The Bill was considered by the Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills, which reported— They are of the opinion that the enactments proposed for repeal in the Bill are obsolete, spent, unnecessary or superseded, or are no longer of practical utility. The Committee approve the repeal of those enactments and consider that there is no point to which the attention of Parliament should be drawn. I endorse those conclusions and accordingly commend the Bill to the House.

10.4 pm

Mr. Jeffrey Thomas (Abertillery)

I endorse what the Solicitor-General said about the Law Commissioners. I am sure that my hon. Friends will wish to join him in thanking them for the extremely arduous tasks which they undertake.

One of the 119 Acts which are being repealed by this measure is the infamous Unlawful Oaths Act under which the Tolpuddle martyrs were convicted. It is ironic that it falls to the Conservative Party to introduce legislation to do away with that disgraceful statute. After much suffering the Tolpuddle martyrs were granted a free pardon and brought home at public expense. That case played a memorable part in the history of the Labour Party, and we welcome the Bill on those grounds.

10.10 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

It is a matter of satisfaction to hon. Members representing Northern Ireland that the work of the Law Commission for England and Wales and of the Joint Committee on Consolidation extends to the consideration of statutes affecting Northern Ireland. In that connection, I wish to make an observation of which I have given notice to the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-General. It is not, I must confess, the first time that he has heard me make this or a similar observation. When a section of the citizens of this country feels that it labours under a grievance, the House must not be surprised if reference is made, sometimes with tiresome iteration, to the existence of that grievance.

The grievance to which I refer is that this part of the kingdom is not legislated for, in all respects, as is the rest of the United Kingdom. Part of the legislation that affects it—both the revision of existing law and the making of new law—is made by the process of Order in Council under the 1974 Act. Governments have hitherto insisted on maintaining this form of legislation because it is contended that there is something inviolate about the Northern Ireland statute book, that is to say, the totality of the enactments made by the Parliament of Northern Ireland within the scope of subjects that were devolved to that Parliament under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Of course, that Parliament was suspended in 1972 and ceased to exist in 1973.

Nevertheless, the fiction has been carried on from that time that we are about to witness what not everyone in the Province or anywhere else would wish to see, namely, the resurrection of such an institution. Therefore, these volumes, as they stand upon the lawyers' shelves, together with the new volumes added in the form of relevant Orders in Council, should not be tampered with by any other sort of legislation. Whenever we want to do anything in the House that falls within the purview of the no-longer existent Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland, we should not do it by Act of Parliament, which is the proper way of making and changing the law within the United Kingdom; we should do it by Order in Council.

When hon. Members representing Northern Ireland, especially Unionist members, find exceptions to that rule, they take some delight in drawing attention to them and pointing out that a certain element in the Northern Ireland Office is contradicted out of its own mouth. The Bill now placed before the House does the undoable, dares the undareable and attacks the inexpugnable by actually touching legislation on Northern Ireland made by the Parliament of Northern Ireland.

I should like to draw attention to those statutes affecting Northern Ireland which are repealed by the Bill. The first is to be found on page 9. Curiously enough, by a happy mischance, it is the House of Commons Disqualification Act (Ireland). This is a subject that most hon. Members did not suppose would become so actual as it is at present. I would point out, however, that it is the House of Commons Disqualification Act (Ireland) 1793—an Act of Grattan's Parliament of 1782 to 1800, now being removed from the composite statute book in which the totality of the statute law affecting Northern Ireland must be sought.

Excited by that discovery, one moves to page 17 to find that the Matrimonial Causes and Marriage Law (Ireland) Amendment Act 1870 is to some extent being repealed. That is an Act passed in respect of Northern Ireland by the Parliament of the Union during a happy period, legislatively, in which between 1800 and 1922 this House legislated on all matters in respect of Ireland, as it did in respect of all other parts of the United Kingdom. That too is within the purview of the exalted bodies to which we owe this legislation and the Bill.

I come to the pièce-de-résistance. It is to be found on page 18. It is an Act of the Parliament of Northern Ireland. What from the point of view of the Northern Ireland Office are sacrilegious hands are being laid upon an Act of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, regardless of the alleged necessity of keeping that legislation untampered with and of dealing with it only in series by Order in Council so that a solicitor in Northern Ireland may be sure that, whatever law he wants will be found only in the Northern Irelandstatute book. The Government have dared to propose that the Children and Young Persons Act (Northern Ireland) 1968, of the Northern Ireland Parliament, now defunct, should be amended by the removal of two sections.

I hope that nobody supposes that I am making much of little for the sake of doing so. It is serious that any part of this kingdom—and the years lengthen during which this has taken place—should have its law made by different processes from those by which the law is made for the rest of the kingdom. Not only do practical inconveniences, of which the Patronage Secretary is well aware, follow from that practice, but it is a mark of separation, placed and maintained on that part of the kingdom which contributes in no wise to stability and confidence in a province to which all parts of the House wish to see stability and confidence restored.

Therefore, I have taken the opportunity once again—and I hope that the Solicitor-General has not begrudged it—of drawing attention to the fact that the House is capable conveniently, and with no loss of convenience to those practising the law in Northern Ireland, to make and to amend the law applicable in Northern Ireland as it makes and amends the law which applies to the rest of the kingdom.

10.17 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

The Bill is a regular ragbag of measures that the House has approved in the past which, rightly, we are doing away with. I can declare a personal interest in one measure—the proposed appeal of sections 35 and 36 of the 1806 Act which prohibits the standing or plying for hire of hackney carriages in the vicinity of Bloomsbury Square.

As I live close to Bloomsbury Square and have, on occasions, hailed and got in and out of hackney carriages in Bloomsbury Square, perhaps I should declare that I am an accomplice or conspirator.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Michael Jopling)


Mr. Dobson

The Patronage Secretary should know since he moves among felons all the time.

I understand that the legislation was introduced at the behest of the Bedford Estate, which did not want to lower the tone of the area by allowing hackney carriages to ply in the square. I suppose that because of the likes of me living in or near the square it is felt that the tone is already so low that stopping hackney carriages will make no difference. I am sure that my fellow residents welcome the measure as do the London cabbies who did not even know that the law existed.

We cannot end the involvement of the House in the plight of the Dorset labourers without reference to what happened to them and to the disgrace that some measures that we are repealing brought upon the House, the establishment and the judicial system.

The Patronage Secretary said that that is part of the Labour movement mythology. It is not. It is part of the Labour movement historical fact. Although the Bill refers to the administration of justice, for the people who sought to combine to protect their interests in friendly societies and trade unions at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was the administration of injustice and nothing less.

We are being asked to repeal the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797. Apart from my general interest, in that I believe that the effects of that measure still affect the attitudes of the Labour movement, I have a special interest to declare—a constituency interest—in that the great campaign to get the Tolpuddle martyrs freed, pardoned and back from their seven years' transportation to Australia was mounted from Charlotte Street in my constituency.

The six labourers whose names and problems featured in innumerable debates in the House—unfortunately, never resulting in a majority of that then unrepresentative House of Commons supporting those oppressed people—George Loveless, James Loveless, John Stanfield, Thomas Stanfield, James Hammett and James Brine, joined together, along with others, to try to establish a friendly society or trade union to raise their poverty level wages. As the result of an Act of Parliament, about which they knew nothing, the oppressive activities of Lord Melbourne and the then Government and what amounted to no more or less than a conspiracy between the Government and the justices in Dorsetshire—as it was then called—including a new judge who was trying to win his spurs, and a grand jury which included two relatives of Lord Melbourne, those poverty-stricken labourers were crushed by all the force of law, and lack of law, that could be obtained. Perhaps the Solicitor-General should check that the Cabinet still wants to remove these measures, which were intended to oppress trade unionism, from the statute book, in case they are needed again some time in the near future.

Even if the Patronage Secretary describes the measure as mythology and even if we are getting rid of it, as I am glad we are, we should honour those six men and the people who fought to get them back from Australia and fought successfully to get them a free pardon. Perhaps we should dishonour the people who sent them there in an oppressive effort to keep themselves in privileged wealth at the expense of the poor.

I can do no better than quote what George Loveless himself said to the court, when invited to speak by the judge before the sentence was pronounced: My Lord, if we have violated any law, it was not done intentionally; we have injured no man's reputation, character, person or property; we were uniting together to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children, from utter degradation and starvation". Then they were found guilty, and possibly to quote the words of George Loveless is the most appropriate way to describe that sentence: Not for anything we had done, or as he could prove, we intended to do, but as an example to others, he considered it his duty to pass sentence of seven years' transportation across His Majesty's high seas upon each and every one of us". All that arose because they swore that they would not disclose what they were doing in their friendly society. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) referred to open government. That happened at a time when the Duke of Cumberland administered unlawful oaths as a member of the Orange Lodge. Then, as now, there was a law for the poor and a law for the rich.

There are other measures intended to oppress working people when they combine that we are asked to set about repealing tonight, including other Acts relating to unlawful oaths introduced to oppress Luddites and others involved in the Captain Swing machine breaking on the farms. At the risk of breaching normal parliamentary etiquette, I must record that the Luddites referred to the hammers with which they broke the machines as "Enoch".

It is also noticeable, and a lesson that we might draw from, that in the case of two laws it has taken 184 years for one and 170 years for the other before it has been decided that they are redundant and useless and should be repealed. That is how long measures intended to oppress working people stayed on the statute book. I contrast that with the speed with which Acts of Parliament intended to prevent criminal activity in Rhodesia were set aside by this Parliament. Rich and powerful people, Ministers of the Crown, senior civil servants and senior executives of international oil companies breached the Rhodesian sanctions. As soon as a settlement was achieved there was no question of allowing those clear statutory duties to remain on the statute book or to pursue those who had committed crimes by breaching the sanctions. About 20,000 people in Rhodesia were killed in a war which was protracted because of sanction busting. There was no question of that legislation staying on the statute book for 184 or 170 years.

An amnesty was slipped through. The Lord Privy Seal denied that there was an amnesty in the legislation. Nevertheless, the amnesty took place and the people who had committed the crimes were cleared. It was a peculiar amnesty because one did not have to declare that one had done wrong before one was entitled to be cleared. That is what happened. We have learned the lesson that penal law can be repealed quickly—I suspect that that applies only to penal laws that affect the rich and powerful, whereas penal laws affecting the poor will no doubt remain on the statute book for evermore.

A final lesson could be learned by Ministers—those who have managed to be present tonight—namely, that it was the clear view of everyone in the Labour movement at the time of the Tolpuddle martyrs and the writers in the radical newspapers that the oppression of the Tolpuddle martyrs and the six innocent labourers was an absolute godsend to the trade union, Labour and radical movement. The natural response of ordinary working people throughout Britain was to say "If you are going to push our sort around, we will push back. Even if we do not have the vote"—and they did not have the vote at that time—"we will get the wrongs put right." There is a final lesson in that for the Government.

If the Government set about the trade union movement and try to reduce the living standards of working people, the working people will fight back. If the Government are trying to cut the unions down to size, as they see it, their actions may prove to have the effect of the pruning knife. If they attempt to cut back the strength of the Labour and trade union movement in the coming years, they will find that it will grow stronger because of their efforts and not weaker.

10.30 pm
Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

The Bill evokes echoes of our history. It repeals a series of turnpike Acts which governed access to about 11,000 miles in Britain as late as the 1830s. Those travelling along Britain's roads 150 years ago found themselves paying tolls, allegedly for the maintenance of stretches of road, before Governments and local authorities took it upon themselves to maintain the highways to a decent standard. We are getting rid of that part of our history.

We are dealing also with two Acts which were famous in their time. The first Act was introduced in 1797 because of a mutiny at Spithead. The Act that was used against the Tolpuddle martyrs was introduced for a different purpose. It was improperly used to introduce severe punishments for taking secret oaths and making secret promises to do certain things. It is encouraging that attitudes have changed considerably since that Act was made law. It has been dormant since 1834. Presumably the main purpose of repealing it is to save paper by making it unnecessary to print it in future and to save lawyers reading excess pages of statute that no longer serve a useful purpose.

The other Act—the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1812—was never implemented. Its purpose and likely effect were much worse than the Act under which the Tolpuddle martyrs were charged. The 1812 Act was introduced in response to Luddism, the wrecking of industrial machinery, and featured the death penalty for taking an unlawful oath. If a person promised to damage property, he could be sentenced to death. Happily the Act was never implemented, and in 1837 the death penalty for taking an unlawful oath was abolished.

I have not read Hansard for 1837, but I imagine that some hon. Members strongly urged the retention of the death penalty for making an unlawful oath and opposed the reform. When a reform is proposed, the instinct of many of us initially is to react and to say "This is against the status quo. This has always been so. Why should we change it?" Laws are made to mirror contemporary attitudes. Attitudes that seem so permanent at the time appear ludicrous, harsh and inhuman to succeeding generations.

Therefore, tonight we are celebrating the passing of those parts of our history. Those Acts were oppressive to ordinary working people and were inhumane and cruel in their intention against anyone who might have been charged under them. Acts such as the Turnpike Acts were relevant to our social history and to the way in which we lived our lives 150 years ago.

It is right that we should express our gratitude to the people involved including the Joint Committee on Consolidation of Statute Law, on which I served for many years, for doing the work that was necessary to bring such Bills before the House. The Solicitor-General was on the Consolidation Committee with me for a long time. That Committee never receives publicity. What is said there is never quoted in the press. No pressman ever attends it. The work is done by diligent Members year after year, in an unsung fashion. Nothing is more irritating to members of that Committee than to be asked what they are doing in the House of Commons, when they know that they are spending many hours on such work.

Therefore, I thank those who were responsible for doing the necessary work and for bringing the Bill before the House.

10.36 pm
The Solicitor-General

I shall comment on one or two matters. I am glad that everyone has acknowledged the work done by the Royal Commissions and by the Joint Committee. It is such a help to us in our work here.

I am also glad that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) approves of what is being done and that he was good enough to say so. I was amused by some of the lighter parts of his observations. If it means what I think it means, I am happy to attack the inexpugnable, but I am not sure what is the right word to use to describe the result. Inevitably one begrudges his taking time on those parts of his speech which are of serious interest, but, by the same token, I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman would expect me to comment upon them on this occasion.

We have heard the new mythology according to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson). It is interesting to sit still and listen to history being rewritten. I shall not venture in any detail into what the hon. Member said, but I remind him that the Government about whose actions he complained so bitterly were weak—they were a Liberal Government. If the Act was to suppress the working class, I regard it as a feather in the cap of the Conservative Government that it has taken a Conservative Government to repeal it.

I am glad that we have removed the restrictions on the movements of hackney carriages in the Bloomsbury Square area. I hope that in order to enable the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South to make early use of that change and to take a hackney carriage or some other sort of conveyance to Bloomsbury Square at an early moment, the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Goodlad.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.