Members of Parliament.

– in the House of Commons on 2nd July 1924.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to limit the giving of donations and subscriptions by Members of Parliament. My aim is two-fold. In the first place, I wish to assure that the relationship which exists between a Member of Parliament and those who elect him shall be based upon mutual respect and esteem, and, in the second place, I desire to assure that anyone with the necessary qualifications shall be able to be elected to this House, irrespective of whether he be young or old, rich or poor. It will generally be conceded that the best qualification for a Member of this House is his capacity to do the work of the State energetically and honestly, and that capacity is not necessarily determined, or even evidenced by his affluence. I do not desire to suggest that every Member of this House who gives a gift, donation or subscription in his Parliamentary division is inspired by the corrupt motive of desiring to influence the recipients of his generosity to record their votes for him, but I do say in many instances these presents are given with the desire that votes previously obtained shall not be lost. Particularly is it the case that pressure is exerted upon a Member to give, if he lays himself open to the charge of meanness or of lack of sympathy with an object of a charitable character. I do not in any way desire to reflect upon the organisers or beneficiaries of the appeals which are made. They, naturally, believe that the objects which they have in view are the most exemplary in the world, and they are naturally willing and anxious to have them subsidised from any source which may be available. But this system which now prevails in this country puts Members of Parliament in a very invidious position, particularly, as I say, when they are laid open to the charge of lack of sympathy or lack of generosity.

The worst aspect, however, of this system is that it operates as a discouragement to many who would otherwise enter into public life, and the State is deprived of fresh and vigorous sources of assistance to which it has the right. It is commonly said in this age that we have careers open to the talents, but the talents ought not to be current coin of the realm: personality rather than purse should count! I have been much struck by an anomaly in our legislation. The Corrupt Practices Act makes the type of gift which I seek to penalise an offence if given during the period of an Election; but what possible distinction can there be in principle between giving a bun to a baby between the issue of the writ and the declaration of the poll, and giving a cot to a children's hospital either prior to or subsequent to the actual contest? That is the anomaly that I had in mind in drawing up this Bill, which I hope I will be given permission to introduce. I have sought to bring the subscriptions of Members of Parliament and their gifts and donations into the category of corrupt practices in exactly the same way as they would be if committed in the course of an Election. I have made certain exceptions which, I think, are sufficient to cover every legitimate enterprise. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not the candidate?"] An hon. Friend near to me asks: "Why not the candidate?" I have excluded candidates for two reasons: because it is very difficult to define a candidate; and, secondly, so long as a constituency knows that a candidate who is in the habit of distinguishing himself by his munificence must cease to give from the moment that he is elected a Member of Parliament—that the source will be cut off—they will be disposed to keep him for ever as a candidate.

It may be argued that in this way I am penalising one of the finest human instincts—that charity which blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. But there is another kind of charity which is degrading both to the donor and to the recipient. This Measure does not deprive any Member of Parliament of such solace as he may be able to give to his soul by charity, because he can give away as much as he likes in anybody else's constituency, and this must be a far greater discipline to his soul, as it must be a far greater satisfaction to him. This House has always been jealous of the integrity of its Ministers. It has provided by custom that upon accession to office a Minister must relinquish his directorships in public companies. I have no doubt that the business life of the community suffers from this subtraction of brains and ingenuity, but it is one of the penalties that the community pays for having Ministers, and I think that Members of Parliament ought equally to be free from the taint of the suspicion that they are deriving any advantage whatsoever from their wealth. It is because I have felt that this House would desire to remove every obstacle that stands in the way of youth and ability, and because it will be scrupulous of the honour, alike of its Members and of their constituents, that I feel sure—or at any rate I hope—that hon. Members will pass this Bill into law so that it may henceforth determine the habits of this land.

Photo of Mr Ronald Allen Mr Ronald Allen , Leicester South

I cannot imagine that this House will very seriously consider the proposal which has just been made. I believe it is the practice of this House—so I have understood in the short time I have been here—that a First Reading should be given to Bills brought forward under this Rule with the idea that they should be printed. I do want, however, to submit, with the greatest possible respect, that the House will not enhance its reputation by giving its imprimatur to the First Reading of so fantastic a proposal as this. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] In the time at my disposal I will endeavour to say "why not," and why I think as I do. There may be many reasons advanced in opposition to this suggestion, and any one of them, I venture to submit, is conclusive in itself. As I listened to my hon. and gallant Friend, I was reminded of the story I heard when a small boy, and in relation to small boys. A boy and his elder brother were going to school one morning and, as they happened to be rather late, the younger suggested to his elder brother that they should kneel down by the roadside and pray that they might not be late. The elder, however, replied that it was better to hurry up, and get to school as quickly as possible. It occurred to me that the thought embodied in that story might be borne in mind here in regard to a good deal of the legislation that is brought forward in this House in these days. In my opinion there is an increasing tendency to ask Parliament to do what we can do for ourselves. I submit, with the greatest possible respect, that this matter of contributions is one of the things we can deal with ourselves. I do not want to include any present Member, and I think there are very few here who are in the habit of buying their constituencies. I would, however, venture to suggest, without entering into detail, that there is probably no Member, except those who refuse to give a brass farthing, who in the course of his Parliamentary experience has given less to his constituency than I have. It is true I have the honour to represent part of a city which was well trained by the present Prime Minister, and possibly it is not typical of the kind of constituency which the hon. and gallant Member for Devonport (Major Hore-Belisha) has the misfortune to represent. I have taken the line that while I considered it a high honour to represent the city of Leicester in Parliament I had no ambition whatever to be the relieving officer of that city. I believe, and I think it is the conviction of a large number of Members of this House, that if we take that line we do not sacrifice anything by doing so. I have spoken to hon. Members here who have distributed in the course of their Parliamentary experience large sums of money. I find that almost without exception they tell you that they have the greatest doubt whether it has been worth anything at all to them. One of the things that has surprised me here, speaking particularly of hon. Members who sit around me on these benches, is the large number that have told me that they have resolutely declined to subscribe anything, and yet they are here. There are hon. Members on these benches who last December captured seats which almost from time immemorial had been held by hon. Members who sit on the benches opposite, and they did it, not by reason of the generosity of their giving, but because they stood for principles which the electorate considered sound. Hon. Members above the Gangway will, I am sure, exculpate me from any wish to patronise them, but I would venture to suggest that every one of them is a living witness that a Bill of this character is absolutely unnecessary. They have done the right, thing, and hon. Members opposite and hon. Members on these benches can do the right thing in exactly the same way.

There is a further consideration. I would like to remind hon. Members who are disposed to support the Bill that when all is said and done this form of giving to charity is one of the crudest and most elementary forms, shall I say, of bribery, and it is one that is seen through at once. If the House is going to give its imprimatur to a Bill like this, there are other reforms which it seems to me would be necessary. What are we going to say of that bribery which takes the form of rash and hopelessly wild pledges? Certain hon. Members, apparently, are under the impression that I am referring to any one section of the House, and I hasten to add that all parties are equally blameworthy. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Let me just remind hon. Members of certain pledges which are fresh in our memory. There are Members of this House who, I understand, were returned to Parliament because they promised they would reduce certain rents in a certain great city. How are you going to deal with promises like that, which, looked at from our standpoint, are absolutely indistinguishable from the particular form of bribery to which the hon. Member has just made reference? And what about the other rash promises made by hon. Members in all parts of the House, though less, I believe, by Members on these benches? If you start on this line, there is no knowing where you are going to end.

The hon. Member, as I understand him, exempts subscriptions to political organisations. He is as anxious as I am, and as we all are, that young men who are without means shall find their way into the House of Commons, but I would remind him that he leaves what is still the greatest obstacle. There are large numbers of constituencies in this country where a young man without means stands no chance, because he is unable to find the funds that are necessary in order to keep the organisation going from year to year. I am not suggesting that we should prohibit these things, but I say with confidence that you cannot draw the line between the one and the other. If your idea is to let in the young man who has not the means, then you must do what I understand, according to newspaper reports, the hon. Member wants to do. He wants ultimately to attain such a state of affairs that no man gives anything to any political or charitable organisation. It does seem to me that these considerations, being as they are, only point and emphasise what I said at the beginning, that it is impossible to deal with this sort of thing by legislation and that we only make ourselves foolish by trying to do so. We have already given ourselves our railway expenses, much to the consternation of many of our electors, and, if we go on with this procedure, ultimately the position of a Member will be that he gives nothing—when he goes down to a little church social he will not be allowed to pay half-a-crown for his tea—but that on the other hand he is a recipient raking it in all along the line.

Question put, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to limit the giving donations and subscriptions by Members of Parliament.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Major Hore-Belisha and Sir James Remnant were appointed Tellers for the "Ayes"; but, there being no Members willing to act as Tellers for the "Noes," Mr. SPEAKER declared that the "Ayes" had it.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Major Hore-Belisha, Sir Arthur Shirley Benn, Sir James Remnant, Duchess of Atholl, Rear-Admiral Sir Guy Gaunt, Mr. Kirk-wood, Mr. Mosley, Mr. Sexton, Mr. Arthur Henderson, jun. (Cardiff), Mr. Masterman, Mrs. Wintringham, and Mr. Ramsay Muir.