Clause 3. — (Power of Parliament of Dominion to legislate extra-territorially.)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 24th November 1931.

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Photo of Mr Edward Marjoribanks Mr Edward Marjoribanks , Eastbourne

The Bill is described as a Bill To give effect to certain resolutions passed by Imperial Conferences held in the years 1926 and 1930. This is a subject which I wish to clear up at the very outset. I read in the report of the Conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation and Merchant Shipping Legislation, 1929, the following on page 9, paragraph (b): The practicability and most convenient method of giving effect to the principle that each Dominion Parliament should have powe0r to give extra-territorial operation to its legislation in all cases where such operation is ancillary to provision for the peace, order and good government of the Dominion. It is clear that there was a wise Conservative Government in power, or at any rate that some of them were wise enough to put that important proviso upon any extra-territorial powers which were given to the Dominions. It is interesting to see that this was agreed to by the other Dominions; at any rate there is no record on the proceedings that that safeguard in regard to peace, order and good government by the Dominion should not be reserved. I my-self, perhaps, think that that would have been the best way to have moved this Amendment, except that it would have been so vague and would have led to a greater conflict of law than it was in- tended to avoid. However, it was a wise reservation, but difficult to work out. Now we find, according to the latest re- commendation, which was the result of a hopelessly discredited Government, the last Socialist Administration, who were responsible for this report now being laid before Parliament, that that safeguard and reservation with regard to peace, order and good government of the Empire is withdrawn—a safeguard which might have preserved some semblance of unity. We read on page 16, at the bottom: With regard to the extent of the powers so to be declared [on extra-territorial matters] we are of opinion that the recognition of the powers of a Dominion to legislate with extra-territorial effect should not be limited either by reference to any particular class of persons, or by any reference to laws ancillary to provision for the peace, order and good government of the Dominion.' That shows a very strange falling off from the original safeguards given by the Conference of 1927, a falling off which is utterly to be deplored. It is difficult, of course, to work out a conservative safeguard. The way in which it has been worked out is simply to cut it away. In the first place, some explanation should be given by the Solicitor-General of that change of front, which was a most important change of front. The third Amendment on the Paper certainly expresses the true intentions of even the last Imperial Conference. You will find, if you look through these documents, that there is again and again embodied in these reports the principle that you should have uniformity of laws pertaining to extra-territorial matters throughout the Empire. Indeed, on certain matters, merchant shipping especially, there has been machinery set up to create uniformity. But there is nothing about it in this Bill.

In the three Amendments which we are to propose we ask the Government to suspend the operation of this Bill until they can get a convention of the British Empire set up to create uniformity. As regards merchant shipping, there has been a convention already agreed, and it only awaits ratification. Why make confusion worse confounded by passing this Bill and destroying that uniformity before you build up a new uniformity? I am prepared to subscribe to the principle that the old order has passed, and that a new order has come into being, upon which you can make Imperial laws only by agreement between the Dominions. I take that step reluctantly but with conviction. But before we destroy the uniformity of the old we must build up the new.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council to consider whether this is not an inopportune stage at which to destroy the old uniformity. I ask him to consider the statesmen of Dominion statesmen on this matter. I know that he would respect and honour the opinion of Mr. Latham in the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. Mr. Latham said: I believe that if an Imperial Statute declares that a Parliament of the Dominion has full power to make laws having extraterritorial operations, and this were recognised as putting the Dominions and Great Britain on the same footing, serious confusion might arise. I suggest that it is unnecessary, and indeed impossible, to put the Dominion Legislatures in the same position as the British Legislature in this regard, and that it would be unwise to endeavour to do so. That is the opinion which he, as an Australian statesman, held. I go further and I think that this Committee is en- titled to go further than that. Let us build up the new uniformity, but not destroy the old uniformity. You are destroying the old uniformity if you pass this Statute word for word. Those who put forward these Amendments are not committed to any form of words. We are not like the Government in that respect. We have had this Statute hurled in our faces at the last minute. We have had no power or opportunity to consult expert draftsmen, as the Government have had for years past. Those of us who have been keenly interested in this matter, whose feelings of Imperial patriotism have been aroused sufficiently for them to take an interest in this Statute at all, have had to sit down and work the matter out and try to get the best Amendments we could in the time at our disposal, and I assure the Committee that we have done our best. But, as I say, we are not committed to any form of words. These two Amendments, the first and the third, embody a most important practical safeguard. I believe that you would find agreement with them in this country, if only the issue became well known, and, not only in this country, but in every part of the Empire.

Why should we paralyse ourselves in these times when the gales of world corn-petition are blowing in upon us from every quarter—it is madness to do so—in order to pass a Statute to which apparently everybody is committed, but which nobody likes? We are asked to approve of the Staute in this Committee because of reasons of policy in the past in regard to which we are not committed. The proper position and importance of this Statute have not yet been appreciated in this country or explained by those organs of public opinion whose duty it is to explain to the people what is happening in such matters. I am, perhaps, transgressing on more general lines again, but I wish to emphasise the fact that this point about extra-territoriality is one of extreme importance to the British Empire. When I read in the "Times" that no agreement made between the various Governments at the Conference could deprive Parliament of the right to discuss the Statute as fully as it pleased, and make any amendment it desired, I was delighted because I thought that this question of extra-territoriality might be thrashed out and that there might be some opportunity for people to understand it and for Members of the House of Commons to understand it. But of course in the following week I read in the "Times" that some Members of the House of Commons were asking that two days should be devoted to discussing the Bill in Committee and were threatening to propose nearly a score of Amendments. I am amazed at the strange changes which take place in the life of a great newspaper. They are beyond the intelligence of a poor private individual who holds the same opinion sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months, sometimes even for years on end.

What we have been fighting for in this matter is to have the Statute properly understood. We wish that its technical aspects should be properly explained. We hold that a Committee of the Whole House is an unsuitable tribunal to discuss extra-territoriality. It is a question which ought to be submitted to the finest lawyers in the world, who are collected along the passage there. Everybody knows that. You, Sir Dennis, will perhaps forgive me if I conclude on the same note of irrelevance as that with which I began. I repeat that the House of Commons is an unsuitable tribunal to discuss this technical question of law and that the responsibility lies on the Government for having taken the course which they have taken.