HL Deb 23 April 1901 vol 92 cc1052-5


Order of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, In asking the House to give this Bill a Second Reading, I shall detain your Lordships but a very short time. The subject has already been very fully discussed in your Lordships' House, and the Bill is, to all practical intents, the same which was before your Lordships' House last session. My object in introducing the Bill in its present form is twofold. I am sure your Lordships will appreciate and approve of the first—it is that I might from these benches say a few words of tribute to the great work which was done in connection with this subject by my distinguished predecessor the late Lord Russell of Killowen. By the courtesy of Lord Russell's son, there were handed over to me a mass of papers relating to the subject. Those papers had not been merely collected by Lord Russell, but had been perused and digested, and all the important and salient facts and arguments both for and against the Bill most carefully noted. I shall be only too pleased to place any of those documents at the disposal of noble Lords. I am quite satisfied that the two Bills introduced by the late Lord Russell were the consequence of his having paid the closest attention to the subject, and of having devoted to it hours and days of work. I should be truly sorry if all those labours of so great a man were lost, and if there was no result from the immense industry and great ability he brought to bear on the subject. My second reason for introducing the Bill in its present form is my desire to start, so to speak, from the point to which it was brought last year.

As the result of a very considerable amount of personal work, assisted as I have been by Lord Russell's labours, I have come to the distinct conclusion that the case for some such legislation as is foreshadowed in this Bill is overwhelming. I am satisfied that the evil of secret commissions does prevail and does undermine honest commercial transactions, and from no leading authority connected with any of the great commercial industries of this country have I received any objections that go to the root and principle of the measure. If any of your Lordships have a doubt as to the necessity for this legislation, I would suggest that you should read again the speech made on the Second Reading in 1899, by the late Lord Chief Justice, for I am satisfied that the facts he then brought before the House—facts which have never been answered or rebutted—are in themselves a conclusive case for the Bill. Since then the necessity for the Bill has been rendered even more apparent. Your Lordships will remember that an inquiry took place last year before a Committee of the House of Commons respecting Government contracts. One of the recommendations of that Committee was that the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act, 1899, should be extended to all Government contracts, and to all Government officials. That is one of the objects contemplated or, rather, covered by this Bill. Since this time last year, too, there have been some most remarkable disclosures respecting the extent to which secret commissions have prevailed among co-operative societies in the north of England—disclosures of a state of things which even those who most strongly advocated this Bill had not previously thought to exist. I should have been extremely glad if His Majesty's Government had seen their way to take the subject up, and if at any stage of the Bill the Government see their way to propose Amendments dealing with what is believed to be a most pressing evil, I should be only too glad to retire in favour of their proposals. But I have a strong conviction that legislation of the kind is necessary and that it is not possible that the subject should be allowed to drop.

Before sitting down I desire to mention only two matters, to which I think your Lordships may well give further consideration, and which have been pressed upon me by important bodies who, while in no way opposing the principle of the Bill, have called my attention to certain provisions which they think go too far. The one is, that it is proposed to make it an offence to solicit corrupt bribes, even although the solicitation may not have been successful. That is already the law, under the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act, 1899, with regard to municipal officers, and when you consider the reasons that led to the passing of that Act, and the results since the Act was passed, I think your Lordships will see that, properly safeguarded, solicitation ought to be an offence. Possibly some of your Lordships noticed a few weeks ago a gross case of attempted bribery by a municipal officer which would not have been touched but for the fact that solicitation was an offence. I think that we ought to consider the safeguards under which solicitation should be made a crime, but I think your Lordships will agree that it ought not to be allowed to escape altogether. The other matter is that it has been suggested, on behalf of the insurance companies, that the Bill as now framed, particularly clauses two, three, and four, interferes with the legitimate agency business carried on by commision. That certainly is not the object of those who promote the Bill. I have carefully considered the suggestions made to me. Some of them I will place as Amendments on the Paper, and I believe that the addition of a very few words altering the onus of proof will remove the greatest part of the objections of the insurance companies. I hope the great work of the late Lord Russell will ultimately result in an effective statute putting an end to an evil which affects hundreds of thousands of honest traders and is undermining honest business. It is from that point of view, and at the same time being anxious to consider any Amendment for perfecting the Bill, that I ask your Lordships to read the measure a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Alverstone.)


My Lords, I suppose that no one will doubt the propriety of arriving at the goal which my noble and learned friend desires to reach, in order to put an end to the corrupt transactions which undoubtedly do form a very considerable part of a great many commercial transactions, very much to the injury of the honest trader, and resulting in a very undue tax upon persons who are made victims of this enforced commission. The difficulty entirely lies in the application of the proposal so that it shall only hit corrupt transactions and not the great variety of human transactions, which certainly are not within the meaning of the Bill, though they may nevertheless be within its wording. I do not deny that since the Bill was first introduced the labours of the Select Committee have resulted in very great improvements and in lessening very considerably the dangers that were applicable to the first draft of the Bill. Whether they have been completely successful in removing all the dangers I do not at present say. What my noble and learned friend has said in reference to Amendments which he proposes to introduce on the representations made to him, may, of course, remove some of the objections which occur to me. At present I can only say that it appears to me that the Bill is most useful, as certainly its design is most valuable, and I entirely support the view of my noble and learned friend that your Lordships should read it a second time.

On Question, agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday, the 7th of May next.