HL Deb 05 June 1923 vol 54 cc392-7

Order of the Day for the Second Beading read.


My Lords, owing to causes which, I am sure, all your Lordships will regret, the Lord Chancellor is not able to be present here this afternoon to move the Second Reading of this Bill. It is the Lord Chancellor's own Bill, and I regret that he is not here to do justice to it. Your Lordships will remember that during the past few months there have been several discussions in your Lordships' House on this question of transactions connected with the granting of honours. There was one on March 7 last which will be fresh in your Lordships' recollection. On that occasion the subject was discussed under two heads. The first was the question of appointing a Committee of three well-known members of the Privy Council, in order to assist and advise the Prime Minister in nominating persons for political honours. That Committee had already been set up by the late Prime Minister, and therefore I need say nothing upon that portion of the business. But upon that occasion the Leader of the House, the Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, stated that the Government intended to bring in a Bill founded upon another proposal of the Report of the Royal Commission to deal with certain transactions connected with honours with regard to the obtaining, or promising, or giving a consideration to try to obtain, honours for certain persons.

This Bill, entitled the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Bill, is intended to carry out certain recommendation contained in Paragraphs 31, 32, 34 and 35 of the Report of the Royal Commission. Those recommendations were to the effect that a short Act should be passed, which would impose penalties on any person offering to become instrumental in the securing of an honour for another in return for a money payment or valuable consideration, or on any person promising payment or consideration in order to receive an honour. The honours which this Bill is intended to cover and to which it refers are personal distinctions winch are conferred by His Majesty as the fountain of honour, and the proper description of these distinctions is "dignities" and "titles of honour." The dignity means the honour conferred and the title of honour is the description of the person who bears it. Those dignities and titles of honour include the various degrees of nobility, baronetcies, knighthoods of the various Orders of Knighthood, and Knights Bachelor. The drafting of the Bill follows to some extent the precedent of the Prevention of Corruption Act of 1906. That Act deals with wrongful transactions on the part of agents which might have been the subject previously of civil action, and brings them for the first time within the criminal law.

The present Bill deals with transactions which, however reprehensible, are not criminal and probably could not be the subject of civil proceedings. As to the name which ought to be given to this particular class of transactions, it seems that the subject of the present Bill could hardly be described as corrupt so as to justify the expression "corruptible" or "corruption," either in the body or the title of the Bill since the term suggests a definite breach of public or private duty. Therefore, your Lordships will see that the short title of the Bill is the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Bill, and that the long title is "An Act for the prevention of abuses in connection with the grant of honours."

Following again the precedent of the Act of 1906, offences against the Bill are made misdemeanours and are punishable either on conviction on indictment or on summary conviction. The maximum penalty in the former case is imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine not exceeding £500 or both, and in the latter case imprisonment for a term not exceeding four months or a fine not exceeding £50, or both. Now under the Act of 1906 a prosecution could not be instituted without the consent of the Attorney-General, but it was thought that it would not be either necessary or advisable to include such a provision in this Bill. If your Lordships will turn to the Report of the Royal Commission on Honours you will see that in paragraph 19—and it is very satisfactory, I think, to read their words—the Commissioners say— We put the question "— that is, the question about payments being received or money being offered for honours— to each Prime Minister in turn, whether he had ever been cognisant of any bargain or promise to the effect that an honour would he contingent on a contribution to Party funds. We received the answer that we expected, that they had not. That question was also put to Patronage Secretaries and Party managers and the answer was of exactly the same kind as that given by the Prime Ministers.

It is clear therefore that, whatever may or may not have gone on in connection with these transactions, the Prime Ministers, the Patronage Secretaries and the Party managers were entirely ignorant of all this underworld of management and of brokerage to which reference is made in a later paragraph of the Report, where the Commissioners go on to say:— Nevertheless, there is no doubt that there, have been for some time, and recently in increasing numbers, persons who, fur want of a better name, we may stigmatise as touts, who have been going about asserting that they were in a position to secure honours in return for specified payments. It is against that class of person who is denounced as a "tout" in the Report of the Royal Commission and referred to also under the same name in this Bill that the penalties in the Bill are directed.

Your Lordships may say, possibly, that a Bill of this kind will not put a stop entirely to these transactions and that the one thing that can stop them and this sort of brokerage is a vigorous and healthy public opinion. That, no doubt, is true. At the same time I think your Lordships will also agree that the severity of the penalties which under this Bill are to be laid upon persons who either promise to obtain honours or are ready to pay sums to those who will attempt to procure honours for them will probably have a very salutary effect in putting a stop to this disreputable and discreditable trade. I beg, therefore, to move that the Bill be now read a second time, and I trust that your Lordships will pass it into law.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Peel.)


My Lords, there is no possible objection to this Bill, and there may be a rare case in which it will have some operation. For myself I expect to see it operate as did the Prevention of Corruption Act of 1906 on which it is founded, and that is very seldom indeed. Those who are interested in this subject are not fighting against cases of corruption. There are very few cases in which the tout comes and says: " Give me so much and I will get you a particular honour, "though that has happened. I have had first hand evidence of that from persons to whom a tout has gone and made an offer. When you can catch him by all means convict him. But that is a very small class of case. Nor do you deal with the evil by the appointment of the Committee suggested by the Report.

We discussed all this on the last occasion on which the matter was before your Lordships' House, and I am not going into it again, but it was then pointed out that the Committee on behalf of the Prime Minister would look out and take notice of such things as could be regarded as public scandal against the person in question or matters which could be taken hold of on the ground of their amounting to something more than mere gossip. What you want to do is to raise the standard on which judgment is passed in regard to the question of whose name the Prime Minister should submit for an honour. Some Prime Ministers have been very particular, but other Prime Ministers I am afraid have not always been so particular, and names have been sent up which were sent up for no reason which right-judging men would account sufficient.

When we discussed this question on the last occasion it was suggested that until one got quite away from the idea that mere legislation such as this Bill contemplates, or mere reference to some Committee of Privy Councillors, will be sufficient, you will make no progress. What is wanted is a higher standard applied in considering the recommendations which the Prime Minister will make to the Sovereign. The Prerogative of the Sovereign certainly exists to this extent, that when the Prime Minister makes a recommendation to him the Sovereign can ask, and can insist upon knowing, what are the reasons why this name has been brought up and whether there are or are not certain objections to it which are suggested, it may be, by the breath of rumour or, it may be, on more tangible grounds. That, I think, requires that both in the case of the Prime Minister and of the Sovereign there should be a somewhat close consideration of these matters. It is not to be taken as of course that the Sovereign will assent to the recommendation that the Minister makes to him in a matter so delicate as that of an honour. The Sovereign is within his constitutional rights in demanding to know what the reasons are for which the recommendation is put forward, and I for my part trust that in the future the Sovereign will inquire very closely into those things.

I am certain of this: that it is only through a higher standard of opinion about these things that you can be safe—opinion of the kind I have spoken of, opinion which does not go upon the existence or non-existence of criminal conviction, opinion that does not go merely upon public scandals associated with a name or things of which a Committee of Privy Councillors could properly take hold, but a public opinion that demands that no name shall be sent up for an honour unless that name is beyond reproach, and unless the recommendation is founded upon some service rendered or some quality which makes it desirable that that person shall be distinguished beyond his fellows. If that is done, and the standard is high, then you need not trouble even about this Bill, or even about the Committee, or about anything else. But until you get to that stage and standard of opinion you cannot be safe, or any better off, in substance, than you are to-day.

Therefore, while I offer not the smallest objection to this Bill. I desire to say that I attach just the same importance to it as was attached to the Prevention of Corruption Act of 1906. Everybody said about that Bill: "What a splendid thing"; yet everybody knows that to-day, notwithstanding that Act, corruption goes on very much as it did before the Act was passed. So it will be after this Bill is passed, unless the higher and stronger step which I have suggested becomes one which is adopted by the insistence of public opinion.

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.