Orders of the Day — Welsh Courts Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 14th October 1942.

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Photo of Mr Robert Richards Mr Robert Richards , Wrexham

I would like to add my tribute of thanks to the Home Secretary and to the Lord Chancellor, as has already been indicated, for the great interest and courage that they have shown in this matter. Colleagues of mine have already referred to the fact that they have attempted to remove this great deterrent to justice, but they have not succeeded until to-day. It is important, when we are talking at large about the principles of the Atlantic Charter and things of that kind, that we should really be able, in concrete instances, to apply those principles to countries like India one week and Wales another. I am certain that Wales will be delighted with what is happening on the Floor of the House of Commons today.

I was particularly interested in the historical incursions indulged in by the Home Secretary. It was very illuminating, and I think he was quite right to go back to the Act with which we are dealing to-day in order that we might secure something of the background. I would like to remind the House, as the hon. and gallant Member for Carnarvon (Major Owen) reminded it, that we are dealing today with the oldest of the Dominions that have been associated a long time with this House of Commons, with the Imperial Crown, as it is mentioned in the Act, and it is an act of justice that is being done to a very old Ally that has been associated for many centuries with this country. It is obvious, if we read the Act, that the intention was that, despite the Welsh-speaking on the part of certain people in Wales, they were not to suffer any disability on that account. The Act refers to the fact that there is a considerable amount of Welsh-speaking in Wales, but it notes it in this way: That all and singular persons born in the said Principality shall have, enjoy and inherit all and singular freedoms, liberties, rights, privileges and laws within this realm. The intention of the Act was quite clear, that despite the fact that many of them spoke a tongue other than English, they should not thereby suffer any legal disability. Unfortunately they did not realise that the introduction of the Clause to which reference has been made to-day in the course of time did lead to a particular disability being felt by certain Welshmen, and so we are at last removing that disability.

I would like to point out too how long and intimate the connection between Wales and this country has been. Our reading of history from this point of view is very frequently incorrect. For example, I was very interested to find, I presume it is true to say, that the most distinctive Anglo-Saxon governmental institution was the Witenagemot, the meeting of the wise men of the nation and the realm, and, as the order goes, everything that was enacted was enacted with the counsel and the teaching of the Witenagemot. This was the usual formula in old Anglo-Saxon Acts of Parliament. I was interested to find that in the Witenagemot that was held as early as the year 931 there were two Welsh princes present. It was not a great assembly. It consisted of about 100 members. The two archbishops and the two Welsh princes are mentioned and, if I remember rightly, 17 bishops. In the year 934 there were four Welsh kings present at the Witenagemot. It is important that we should remember when we are discussing these questions the very intimate part that Wales has played in building up the British Constitution, and when we come to the struggle for constitutional reform, there is no doubt at all about the very active and prominent part that was taken by the Welsh Prince Llewellyn the Great. There are two Clauses in the Great Charter which refer specifically to the services that he had rendered in that respect, and to the fact that he was entitled to justice as well as the Welsh-speaking people.

The conquest of Wales in 1282, to which the Home Secretary referred, really made very little difference to the legal position of the majority of Welsh people. It is important that we should remember, when we speak of the Principality in those days, that it included only three counties— Anglesey, Carnarvon and Merioneth. That was the Principality and the Statute of Rhudlan, which dealt with the newly conquered, probably dealt merely with that part of Wales. The rest of Wales was entirely outside the scope of the Statute of Rhudlan, and even in the case of the Statute of Rhudlan Edward I was sufficient of a statesman to recognise that certain practices and customs of longstanding in Wales should be continued, and they are incorporated in that Act. But outside that, I would point out to the House, Welshmen did enjoy their own customs and practices and had the right to carry on their own legislation. If we turn to the history of the period with which we are dealing to-day—the history of the reign of Henry VIII—a very quaint history of that reign was written by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and he made this very interesting remark: As the Kings of England heretofore had many times brought armies to conquer that country, Wales, defended both by mountains and stout people, without yet reducing them to a final and entire obedience, so they resolved at last to give all that could be gained there to those who would attempt it. That is the beginning of the Lord Marchers having failed to conquer Wales, and it is important that we should remember these historical facts because they have a bearing upon the particular Act we are discussing. They gave it over practically to the Lord Marchers to take what they could and to keep it, with this result in the marchers. As the learned Attorney-General well knows, the English law did not run. It had no effect at all. Every Lord Marcher did what was right in his own eyes, and the reason why Henry was particularly anxious to assimilate Wales to England was not because of the riots and the murders that were taking place in Wales, but because he was unable to deal with these Lord Marchers and consequently he introduced an Act to relate and to connect more securely what he called the Dominion of Wales with England, particularly with various shires in England and with shires in Wales too, in order, as I have indicated already, that he might put down what was happening not in Wales itself but in the marshes. This is what he says: And for as much as there will be many and diverse Lordships Marchers within said country, and being no parcels of any other shires where the laws and due correction is effected. … and within and among the said lordships' manifold and divers detestable murders, burning of houses, robbers, thefts, routs, riots and unlawful assemblies. … it be enacted that divers of the said lordships marchers shall be joined to divers of the shires of England and several to divers shires of Wales. That was the object. I think that sometimes we forget the object we had in view. It was to get law and order instituted, particularly on the Borders of Wales. It was to establish peace and good government in Wales, particularly on the Border. It was the intention of the Act that Welshmen should share to the full in the benefits of the peace that it was expected would ensue, but by a chapter of accidents, as we have seen, it so happened that it led to certain disabilities being placed upon certain Welshmen. I am glad, indeed, that the House of Commons, after hundreds of years, has at last seen in its wisdom that it ought to remove this disability.