HL Deb 29 June 1925 vol 61 cc817-28

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I do not think it will require many words of mine to recommend to your Lordships the Second Reading of this Bill, because the circumstances out of which it arises are comparatively fresh in the recollection of nearly everybody who is now listening to me. A few years ago, public opinion in this country was profoundly concerned at certain scandals which had arisen in connection with the distribution and conferring of honours. It appeared that there were several cases in which insufficient care had been taken in recommending persons for the receipt of honours to His Majesty. There were grounds for thinking that pecuniary considerations entered into the reasons for the conferring of these honours in a way in which they ought not to have done, and the country became convinced that a matter which ought to be above suspicion had become discredited. It was resented in the country, and properly resented, as an insult to the King and as an outrage upon decency.

It had this further effect—this want of care in the distribution of honours—that there was evidence to show that a number of persons had grown up who were prepared to exploit the insecurity which seemed to belong to the distribution of honours and they put themselves forward, entirely without justification, of course, as being in a position, for pecuniary considerations, to put forward certain names and to secure their selection for particular kinds of honours. What my late noble friend Lord Curzon described as "this ignoble phenomenon" was, I think, one of the very reasons which led to the appointment of a Royal Commission, presided over by my noble and learned friend Lord Dunedin. The Commission was entrusted with the duty of considering the matter and making recommendations so as to prevent those mischiefs to which I have alluded. That Commission sat and made a series of recommendations. One of them was the appointment by the Privy Council of a Committee of their own body, whose business it should be to examine the names of proposed recipients of honours before they were submitted to His Majesty. That has been done by every Government which has been in office since Lord Dunedin's Commission reported. They also recommended that, in order to deal with these persons who professed that they could manipulate honours for money, the traffic in honours should be made a criminal offence. A good deal of evidence was laid before your Lordships on this matter, notably by my noble friend the Duke of Northumberland, who made one or two speeches which made a great impression upon this House and the country.

This proposal was made and, in consequence of it, the Government which succeeded Mr. Lloyd George's Government, the Conservative Government of 1923, introduced a Bill and passed it through your Lordships' House, making this traffic in honours a criminal offence. This Bill, with the exception of very small changes to which I shall call your attention in a moment, is practically a repetition of that Bill which has already passed this House. It was sent to another place, but, owing to pressure of time and other work, it was not proceeded with, and so it still remains to be carried into law. There is, in fact, of course, no difference of opinion in all political Parties as to the propriety of this Bill. I feel a strong conviction that both the noble and learned Viscount the Leader of the Opposition and the noble Lords who sit above the gangway opposite will agree in considering that this traffic in honours is ignoble and that public opinion ought to be vindicated by pronouncing it to be a criminal offence.

Of course, speaking as I do at the end of June, amongst an audience who are familiar with Parliamentary proceedings, there is no chance of this Bill being carried into law—although I have no doubt your Lordships will agree to it—unless there is a general consent that it ought to be enacted. I have a hope that if the noble and learned Viscount the Leader of the Opposition uses his influence with his friends in another place, and if the noble Earl, Lord Oxford, also uses his influence with his friends in another place, then the universal feeling of reprobation of this practice will be sufficient to carry the Bill through as an unopposed measure in another place; otherwise, I am afraid, it has no chance in the; present Session. I am aware that, although I am quite certain the noble and learned Viscount agrees in reprobating these practices, he expressed a doubt the other day, when we were discussing a Motion in the name of Lord Selborne, moved by Lord Danesfort, whether a Bill of this kind would be altogether effective in preventing such a practice. Of course, it is quite true that in all these matters of corruption, and practices allied to corruption, where the corruptor and the corrupted are agreed together that they desire to break the law, it is always very difficult to bring home the offence. That has been the experience in respect of electoral corruption, as everybody knows, but at the same time I would suggest to your Lordships that there is a real and independent value in marking the sense of reprobation of Parliament and the country in the form of an Act of Parliament.

After all, there are many laws—I was going to say most laws—which would be more or less ineffective unless they were supported by the weight of public opinion, and it is the combination of public opinion and the crystallisation of public opinion in the solemn form of an Act of Parliament which has a great effect in a country like ours. It sets, as it were, upon these practices the seal of ignominy. Everybody knows henceforward that the highest authority in the country has solemnly pronounced that to buy an honour, or to be concerned in buying an honour, which ought to be the reward of merit—to do it for the squalid consideration of money—is an ignominious act and it will operate, I am convinced, as a strong deterrent from the pursuit, of these practices.

I feel very strongly, if I may say so, that your Lordships would fail in your duty if you did not carry out the recommendation of this Royal Commission. No doubt we all forget, and even in the four years which have elapsed since these scandals a little of the feeling has evaporated, but still sufficient remains. I am quite sure that public opinion expects that these things shall be reprobated, as I have suggested that they ought to be. It is therefore with great confidence, and in the hope that our action may result in adding this Bill to the Statute Book, that I move the Second Reading of the Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (The Marquess of Salisbury.)


My Lords, the noble Marquess who leads the House has appealed to me and so far as I have any influence he certainly has not appealed in vain. The Labour Party does not like honours in general. It was very, very sparing in distributing them when it was in power and it certainly is favourable to the most stringent application of such a law as is contemplated in the Bill. If I have any doubt, it is not about the principle' of the Bill, but as to the possibility of getting hold of all the people who indulge in the practices which the Bill reprobates and proposes to punish. I have myself seen the system at work. I have known cases, and known them in detail, when, if there had been such a law as this, it would, I think, have been easy to obtain a conviction.

But there is another class of case which I have known which is more difficult to get at. To me it seems almost as disgraceful that anybody should ask for an honour on the ground of services which he proposes to render or has rendered as to work for an honour in consideration of some pecuniary payment. It has happened to me, and I dare say it has happened to others of your Lordships who have been in office, to be asked openly and blatantly for a reward, a knighthood or something of the sort, as a consideration for rendering some public service. I need not say that so far as I am concerned the applicant always had short shrift. But that there is a great deal of that I have not any doubt, and I am not sure that this Bill wholly reaches it.

This Bill may create a public opinion which will be operative against that more subtle class of case, but it does not wholly cover it. There are cases which I have seen which the Bill will cover, but the more delicate thing is the attempt which is made by persons who desire honours, or by persons who are acting in their behalf, to put forward quite unworthy considerations for the granting of the honour. It is not the Prime Minister who is responsible for these things; he is the victim. The Ministers are generally the victims. But down below there is a class of persons who are quite unscrupulous in these matters, who go and say: "I can get you a knighthood or a baronetcy if you will only put yourself in my hands." There is not much discussion of the reward at the time, but the reward is discussed afterwards, and the result of what is done is that various subtle means are resorted to for creating a favourable attitude towards the claim of the person con- cerned. That happens on a very large scale, and I am afraid it will not wholly cease to happen even if this Bill becomes law.

But this Bill will do something to stop the more flagrant cases. I think the condition of its success is that the Public Prosecutor, to whom the matter will pass, should have instructions that he is to be very strict in applying the law and in prosecuting wherever he gets decent evidence on which to proceed. Everything lies in the execution of a law such as this, and I trust that if the Bill passes, which I hope it will do without any opposition, the Government will do their part by giving the most stringent instructions that these cases are to be looked out for and prosecuted without mercy.


My Lords, I rise only to say, in a few sentences, that the appeal which has been made by the noble Marquess the Leader of the House has certainly not fallen on deaf ears on this Bench. Anything that we can do to facilitate the passage of the Bill will naturally be done. I confess I join issue somewhat with the noble and learned Viscount who has just spoken in regard to the probability of this Bill being frequently used. I think it is more likely that no prosecution will ever take place under the clauses of this measure. It is extremely difficult to prove a secret commission and evidence which would perfectly satisfy us in our private capacities would probably fail to satisfy a court of law. Evidence sufficient for that purpose will, I am afraid, be exceedingly difficult to secure. However, this Bill will remain as a deterrent, as the noble Marquess said, and mark the sense of reprobation which we feel towards practices of this kind. It is regarded in that light that my noble friends and I will be happy to support it.


My Lords, I Have often listened to somewhat unreal discussions in this House and discussions upon unreal Bills, and I am not without a lingering hope that this particular discussion may be invigorated and vitalised by a contribution from, say, one of those gentlemen the conferring of the distinction of an honour upon whom excited u certain amount of criticism not long ago. How far more interesting this debate would be if some of those gentlemen could be induced to come forward and tell the House exactly what took place under the circumstances.

This Bill, I imagine, emanates from the Report of the Royal Commission which has been alluded to in such flattering terms. For my part I feel quite unable to speak in flattering terms of this particular document. To be quite candid, I do not think that I ever read a document of a more disappointing and more unconvincing nature, and I say that with all the more regret because I expected a great deal from my noble and learned friend Lord Dunedin, with whose ability and capacity and energy I am well acquainted. Really the only important part in this Report is the Minority Report of Mr. Henderson. Mr. Henderson is a person with whom I do not often find myself in agreement, but on this particular occasion he seems to me to have been absolutely right. Mr. Henderson appears to have conceived the notion, which I am inclined to share myself, that this particular Commission was never intended to do any business at all He observes with great truth that the Commission might with advantage have been much move searching in its Inquiry and that the omission to examine persons who had asserted that they were in a position to obtain honours and also those who had been approached "has left unexplored one of the gravest abuses." Faced with this charge the majority of the Commissioners took refuge in the terms of reference, asserted that they were precluded and prevented from inquiring into anything in the past, and claimed that they were concerned solely with the future.

But this tame, colourless and anæmic Report of the majority is not altogether without interest in itself. There is one page at all events in it which excites my interest, and it so much excites my interest, that I cannot forbear reading it textually to the House. The majority of the Commission reported:— We put the question to each Prime Minister in turn, whether he had ever been cognisant of any bargain or promise to the effect that an honour would be contingent upon a contribution to Party funds. We received the answer that we expected, that they had not. Answers to the same effect were given by the Patronage Secretaries and Party managers. Then the Report goes on:— The existence of Party funds is notorious and the necessity for such existence under modern conditions as to the conduct of elections is equally so. Indeed, two of the Party managers with great frankness informed us, giving actual figures, as to the sources of supply. They were at the same time emphatic that, so far as they were concerned, no bargain of the sort alluded to had ever taken place. The first portion of this extract, that which deals with the statement of the Prime Ministers, does not surprise me at all. Prime Minister would be an exceedingly simple person—and I do not suppose, we have ever had a really simple Prime Minister—if he had any cognisance of any question of this kind. He would take the greatest possible care, naturally, not to know anything about it. Why should he?

But when I turn to the second part of the statement, where you have Party managers and Party Whips laying their hands upon their hearts, so to speak, and saying that in no single instance within their recollection had they ever known of an honour being conferred in return for some contribution, I can. only say that I am filled with amazement, and I expect that many other people must be filled with amazement, too. In fact, it makes my brain whirl when I read statements of this kind and I might almost ask the House to attach no importance to what I am saying because it strikes me as such a perfectly amazing statement. But my surprise hardly equals that of the Party managers and Party Whips; because their surprise must have been mingled with extraordinary satisfaction, unexpected satisfaction, since what we are led to assume is that the whole question of the bestowal of honours and the return of some consideration is a pure coincidence.

Apparently, in the opinion of the majority of the Commissioners, the Party managers and Party Whips are altruists, who go about the country in search of merit. They search the highways and the byways, they search the backwoods, and occasionally they come across a gentleman who is considered worthy of an honour, and, by another strange coincidence, this gentleman generally happens to be very rich. What must be astonishing to these innocent and ingenuous people is that they select a man for an honour and, perhaps, a few days afterwards, they receive a handsome cheque. I can imagine the correspondence that takes place:—"Dear Mr. So-and-So," or "Dear Lord So-and-So, When I recommended you for an honour to the Prime Minister the last thing that ever occurred to me was that any money should pass. But as you are evidently anxious to devote this money to patriotic purposes, I am ready to accept it and to make any use of it that you may approve."

I confess that I am not much of a believer in coincidences. I expect that the enterprising gentleman from America who landed here the other day would tell you that it was a pure coincidence that he discovered on the pier at Southampton a detachment of Territorials who were good enough, by a pure coincidence, to take charge of his tin box on its way to London. I remember a case not long ago in which a gentleman was tried and convicted of having murdered his wife by drowning her in a bath. The question was asked him:—" Did not your two previous wives also die by drowning in their baths? "And he replied:—" Well, yes, it is quite true they did, but it wag only n singular coincidence."

This theory of coincidence is really too thin. And it is buttressed up by another explanation which also carries no conviction at all to me. We are asked to believe that there are a number of people in this country who make a livelihood, and apparently a dishonest one, by going about and getting money from people on the ground that they are in a position to obtain honours for them. I have not much belief in these people I am rather inclined to class these so-called touts with "hidden hands," international spies, vampires and the usual creations of people's fancy. But even supposing they exist, even supposing these touts are actually living people of real flesh and blood, how on earth can they procure an honour? A tout may come to anybody and promise him anything that comes into his head; but surely nobody believes that he is in a position to carry out his promise?

Who confers these honours? The tout does not. He is not in a position to give them at all. These honours are distributed by the Government, by means of its Patronage Secretaries and Party managers and, finally, the Prime Minister. In that case it seems to me perfectly idle to contend that the Government have no responsibility at all and that the blame attaches to these mythical beings who, for the sake of convenience, are described as touts. I have no personal experience of these gentlemen. Nobody ever tried to bribe me, except a gentleman of Levantine extraction, who gave me some cigarettes and then wrote to me and said that he would like to be made an English baron. If anybody made a serious proposal to me I do not know how I should take it, but let us assume, for a moment, that I am a person who is very anxious to be made, for example, an M.V.O. or to become a Viscount.

Under the theory of the Bill I go to some noble friend of mine, for choice, possibly, shall I say, to my noble friend Lord Younger, and I say or write to him:—"Dear Younger, I am very anxious to become a Viscount, and if you will secure this for me I am prepared to contribute a handsome sum towards the building of the new ladies' dining room at the Carlton Club, for which I gather funds are urgently needed." Presumably, that is how I should act under the Bill. Of course, Lord Younger, Lord Banbury, or whoever it might be, are law abiding people and it would be their duty to inform the Public Prosecutor, or the Attorney-General, or some important person of the sore and denounce this. Under the Bill I should be liable to a penalty not exceeding £500 and, possibly, to two years' imprisonment. But I am not so simple as the members of this Commission. I should not set about it in that way at all. I should approach Lord Younger or Lord Banbury in some secluded place, possibly in this House-there is not usually much congestion here—and I should do it verbally, and it would be impossible to convict me, because there would be only my word against his, and they would be just as likely to believe me as either of my two noble friends.

It is just as well, it seems to me, that we should recognise certain facts in connection with this matter. I think the first act that we ought to recognise is that the Government administration of this country is much less corrupt than it is in any other country, and the integrity of our permanent officials is infinitely higher than that which prevails in countries elsewhere. I can call to mind a notable instance, which probably has occurred to many besides myself. Only a few days ago there died one of the most distinguished public servants this country has possessed in the person of Sir Eyre Crowe. I observe that he left the miserable pittance of something like £1,300. I have no hesitation in saying that if a person occupied Sir Eyre Crowe's position in some foreign countries which I will not name he would, in such circumstances, have died a multi-millionaire.

Another fact which is worth bearing in mind is that there is really nothing disgraceful in contributing to Party funds. It is certainly a much lees objectionable procedure than bribing individual Ministers, which is done in many countries that I need not mention. As has been pointed out in this Report—about the only sensible thing in the Report—it is a necessity, because political organisations cannot be maintained without private subscriptions. The fact is that it is a kind of non-official political levy which is recognised, and we do not particularly resent it unless it is carried to excess, or, as my noble friend Lord Salisbury observed just now, unless there are outrages upon decency. Provided it is carried on in moderation it is like everything else—like drinking in moderation, or betting in moderation, or overcharging by tradesmen in moderation. You submit to it up to a certain point; it is only when the thing becomes a scandal that your indignation is aroused and you rebel. And a very good thing, too. I think one of the most useful things that ever was done here was the action of my noble friend Lord Harris, who I regret is not present this afternoon, in preventing the elevation to the Peerage of a gentleman whose reputation was of a somewhat dubious character.

This Bill, it seems to me, is a very poor attempt to whitewash the people who, if there are offenders at all, are the real offenders—that is to say, people in Governments. This is an attempt to divert attention from them, and to make us believe that this imaginary race of villains exists who are debauching our public life. Personally I do not think it matters in the smallest degree whether this Bill passes or not. I think that things will go on as they have gone on in the past, and I do not regret it, provided, as I say, the thing is not carried too far. As regards the Bill itself I do not believe it can have the smallest impression on any man, woman or child in the country.

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

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