HL Deb 14 July 1949 vol 163 cc1322-6

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think that this Bill need occupy your Lordships for more than a few minutes. It is a matter which primarily concerns another place. It did not take them more than a few minutes to pass it through all its stages. In view of the fact that we have suspended the Standing Orders, I ask your Lordships to do likewise. Clause 1 deals with the position of two Members of the House of Commons who were nominated to the General Medical Council by His Majesty on the advice of the Privy Council. The Succession to the Crown Act, 1707, Section 24, provides that no person holding an office of profit under the Crown created since October 25, 1705, should be able to sit in the House of Commons, and there are heavy penalties for sitting and voting, when disqualified. It came to the notice of His Majesty's Government that the position of these Members might be affected by the Act of 1707.

Provision is made under the constitution of the General Medical Council for payment of fees to members of the Council. They are not paid out of State funds, but out of moneys collected by the medical profession from registration fees. They were not the first Members of the House of Commons to sit on this Council, but this Bill does not provide indemnification for those other Members who in the past have been members of the General Medical Council, for the reason that claims to penalties against them are now Statute-barred. It was felt right that where there may have been a technical infringement of the law relating to this subject, through the Members holding these offices—which they cannot of course continue to hold—that they ought not to be penalised for having held them in perfect good faith.

Clause 2 of the Bill is to provide for a different case. Under another old Statute, the House of Commons (Disqualifications) Act, 1782, a member is disqualified to undertake any contract for or on account of the public service. If a member thus becomes a public contractor, the election is void, and there is a penalty of £500 for every day of sitting and voting while under this disability. Doubts have arisen as to the scope of this Act also, but it does not apply to a member who is a shareholder in, or director of, a company, even though he may be the sole member of a company, though it does apply to a member of a partnership however large that partnership may be. In the case provided for by this clause, there were eleven transactions extending over a period of twenty-one months, and the total sum involved was rather less than £100. The firm, of which the Member in question was a partner, was selected by the Home Office to supply them with certain equip- ment. They were selected because, of the various firms approached, they offered the earliest deliveries at competitive prices. The Disqualification Acts of 1782 and 1801 do not extend to incorporated trading companies, and it is only by reason of the fact that the Member concerned is a partner in a firm that he is disqualified. There is no suggestion that either the Department or the Member concerned did not act in perfect good faith, and it is considered right that he should be indemnified from the possible consequences of the breach of the Act.

This Bill is confined to the three members who are named therein, but I feel I should point out to the House, as my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General pointed out in another place, that we shall give full consideration to the question of whether further legislation is required and to the general question of the whole of this branch of the law. No one who has ever been a Law Officer of the Crown will fail to realise that this is a matter which constantly gives the Law Officers the greatest anxiety. People may ask their advice as to whether or not they have infringed the law, and no Law Officer that I have ever met has been able to advise with certainty on the difficult cases. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

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

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may say one word because I must confirm what has been said by my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack, namely, that at intervals in every Government, at any rate during the last forty years, this question has arisen. It is a very troublesome problem, arising partly because of the fact that an office of profit does not mean an office in which the holder is paid a salary but that it is the sort of office to which a salary from public funds would normally attach.

The first day I was ever in the House of Commons this was the exact question which arose. The new Government had lost one of its Whips in the course of a General Election. The result was that a Member who had already been appointed to the position of a paid Lord of the Treasury and another gentleman who had been appointed an unpaid Lord of the Treasury were moved up, and there had to be a new appointment to take the bottom position—that of the unpaid Lord of the Treasury. The problem was, which of the two had to go through a by-election, and I heard the two Law Officers of the day, who were Sir Lawson Walton and Sir William Robson, expounding this intricate point in turn. No less a person than Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, who, at that time, was leading the rather depleted ranks of the Conservative Party, intervened on a rather technical matter and put the thing with extreme clarity. With some spirit and indignation he said that the writ was being moved for the wrong man was being moved up. Ever since then it has been a most difficult subject. On one occasion I recollect that the President of the Board of Trade had to be protected by such an Act.

There is another point which I think the Lord Chancellor did not mention. A few years ago a member of this House whom we knew as Lord Hemingford, but who was then Sir Denis Herbert, M.P., was the Chairman of a Commission which examined in great detail what should be the qualification or disqualification of Members of the House of Commons. I gave evidence for the best part of a day before that Commission, having previously studied the subject—and I knew more about it then than I knew before or have known since. They made a series of recommendations, one of which was that it would be an advantage as soon as possible to carry a Bill to clear the matter up. The present Lord Chancellor has done much to try to clear up the Statute Book, but we cannot expect him to do this immediately. It would be a very good thing, however, if, in the near future, it was possible to revise this complicated and confused series of problems and deal with them in a way which would enable everybody in the other place who was offered a post to realise whether, if he accepted it, he would be in peril or not. That cannot be done now, but I am sure everybody would be very glad if it could be done soon.


I am grateful to the noble and learned Viscount for what he has said. May I carry the Hemingford story one stage forward? In the Clays of the Coalition Government I was asked to deal with this matter and to prepare a Bill. My recollection is that I did actually prepare a Bill, but I remember being told by Parliamentary Counsel that, with everything moving so quickly, new offices being created and old ones disappearing, they thought it was not an appropriate time to do it. They considered that we should wait until something like the reign of the Antonines to do it. That seems to be a long way away, but I hope we shall be able to introduce the Bill in the near future. I am grateful for what the noble and learned Viscount has said.

On Question, Bill read 2a Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of July l3), Bill read 3a, and passed.