HL Deb 27 March 1931 vol 80 cc614-7

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read. a. second time. The objects will be gathered from its Title and Preamble. The Title is as follows:— An Act to remove doubts as to the scope of the House of Commons (Disqualification) Act, 1782, and of Section four of the House of Commons (Disqualifications) Act, 1801. And the Preamble states:— Whereas doubts have arisen whether the provisions of the House of Commons (Disqualification) Act, 1782. and Section four of the House of Commons (Disqualifications) Act, 1801 (which disable persons concerned in contracts, agreements or commissions made or entered into, under or from such persons as are mentioned in the said enactments, for or on account of the public service, from being elected or sitting and voting as members of the Commons House of Parliament) do or do not extend to certain classes of contracts, agreements and commissions: The Act of 1782, which was in fact applied to Ireland by the Act of 1801, was familiarly known as the "Contractors' Bill", and its. history is beyond dispute. At that time it was generally acknowledged that excessive profits were being made in a corrupt way by contractors who were supplying war material and money for the purpose of carrying on the American War. The Act struck at those who entered into such contracts and those who carried them on, and embraced two classes of such persons: (1) Any person who undertakes, executes, holds or enjoys any contract, agreement or commission made or entered into with the Commissioners of the Treasury, Navy or Victualling Office, or Board of Ordinance, or with any other person, for or on account of the public services; and(2) any person who knowingly furnishes or provides in pursuance of any such agreement, contract or commission which may have been entered into as aforesaid, any money to be remitted abroad or any wares or merchandise to be used or employed in the service of the public.

Any Member of Parliament coming within these provisions was disqualified and subject to a penalty of £500 a day as long as he continued to sit. The penalty can be sued for by a common informer and cannot be remitted except by an Act of Parliament. Although it is, I believe, generally admitted that the Act was meant to cover mercantile contracts as distinct from contracts dealing with land, the view in favour of a wide construction has prevailed and has led latterly to difficulties which it is desirable to remove. In some cases Indemnity Acts have been passed to protect a Member of Parliament who had unwittingly done something which clearly brought him within the provisions of the Act, but it is felt that there should no longer be any doubt as to the meaning of the section.

The present need arises that justice should be done in the case of Lord Cranborne, who is Member for South Dorset, but it is not only in his case that this Bill is necessary if a very strict interpretation is to be put upon the old Act. The facts of Lord Cranborne's case are as follows:—In 1912 Lord Salisbury, the father of the noble Lord, entered into an agreement with the Postmaster-General for a year-to-year tenancy of the post office building at Hatfield. Some years later Lord Salisbury's interests in a number of properties were assigned to his son. Lord Cranborne, and among them there happened to be this tenancy, for which he has properly received the rent. It has been suggested that this brings him within the provisions of the Act, though the contention seems to be somewhat farfetched, and would certainly, in my view, have appeared to be so to the promoters of the Act. It has even been suggested, though I can hardly think seriously, that if the words were strictly interpreted it might even cover the case of a contract for a telephone in the house of a Member of Parliament or to a telephone wire way-leave (paid by the Postmaster-General, who pays half a crown) in respect of a line attached to a house. This would be an intolerable situation.

The present Bill is to make it abundantly clear that the Act is directed against those cases where money or goods were being supplied for the service of the Crown by persons who were entering into contracts with Government Departments, and not to cases like Lord Cranborne's and other such cases. The Bill was rapidly passed in the House of Commons on Wednesday last without a division.

I really do not feel justified in detaining your Lordships longer upon such a matter, and I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

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


My Lords, I only rise to say that I think all your Lordships will agree with the statement which has fallen from the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack. Obviously this is a case in which the mischief which the original Act was designed to remove is something poles apart from the circumstances which have actually arisen. Since a doubt has been expressed, it is an intolerable position that members of the House of Commons should remain uncertain whether or not they may have forfeited their seats owing to a construction being placed upon an Act of Parliament which was never originally intended. The only means of getting over that difficulty that I can see would be an action by a common informer for £500 a day penalty. That would mean thousands of pounds and that again is a burden which it is not reasonable to expect any member in another place to have to face in order to determine the law. It seems to me that the Government have taken a very proper course in removing the doubt which has been raised and I certainly support the Second Reading of the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and (Standing Order No. XXXIX having been sus- pended) committed to a Committee of the Whole House forthwith.

House in Committee accordingly: Bill reported without amendment: Bill read 3a, and passed.