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Clause 19—(Disqualification Of Justices)

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 10 May 1949

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I beg to move, in page 11, line 41, to leave out from the beginning to "a," in line 2, in page 12, and to insert "he is."

This Amendment relates to the disqualification of a licensing justice and those hon. Members who were Members of the Standing Committee will remember that we had some discussion upon it. It is rather a difficult point because, if I may put it quite broadly, the scheme of the Bill is to say that if the licensing justice has any share, even to the smallest number of shares, in a company which is dealing with brewing or cognate matters to anything except a very small extent then he is disqualified. When we were considering the matter in Committee we thought that one might also look at the small extent of the shareholding, that if someone had only one share or five shares or 10 shares or 20 shares in a company of 100,000 shares dealing with brewing that did not seem to preserve him from disqualification.

We received a broadside on our flank from my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing), who said that if. we once considered the small extent of the shareholding, we might have to consider the whole question of the financial position of the various justices. Therefore, we are left in what is a rather unsatisfactory position, but still one which we have to investigate. I think I am expressing the view of everyone on the Committee when I say that we hoped the Home Secretary would have a further look at our problem and would let us know the result of his further look at this stage of the Bill. It is for that reason, so that the House should know the result of his examination and reflection, that I move the Amendment.

This is, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said, a very difficult matter to resolve. One does not wish to exclude from the bench any person whose advice would be of assistance to the bench, and who has taken the oath to discharge his duties as a justice without fear or favour, affection or ill-will. In dealing with the extent to which a man's interest in this trade may influence his decisions, it is' very difficult to lay down a hard and fast rule. It has, I think, defied the wisdom of successive Parliaments that have attempted to deal with this matter. I approached the matter in all humility myself. The Amendment would make the Clause run thus:

"… unless the justices appointing him are satisfied that he is a proper person to be a member of such a committee."
I cannot help thinking that words like that would put a very invidious task on the other members of the committee, for they would give them no guidance as to the test which they ought to apply. This is a matter on which the justices ought to have some guidance from the House.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman moved a similar Amendment during the Eleventh Sitting of the Committee upstairs, and he then expressed the view that the extent of the shareholding should also be taken into account. As he has just said, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing) suggested that a test based on the extent of the shareholding would really need to be supplemented by a comparison with the other means of the justice. For instance, a man might have a comparatively small holding in one of the companies, and this would make his interest subject to review; but that might be a very small holding in a small income; and what would be a matter that would not influence one man very much might influence another man very considerably. Therefore, it is quite clear that anyone's mathematical efforts would have to be pretty complicated and would have to have regard to each justice who might be concerned. I think it might give rise to very nice and difficult discussions in the justices' room. A man with a very substantial income who has, perhaps, let us say, £50 coming in from the licensed trade quite clearly would have only a small part of his income concerned. Let us assume a man had only a couple of hundred pounds of his own and £50 came from the trade. One could hardly put the two men in the same category.

Again, in order to justify a man sitting he might be asked to disclose particulars with regard to his own private income other than an income from the trade, and he might not care to discuss that with his colleagues even in the justices' room. Personal difficulties of that kind might arise. We have therefore come to the conclusion, after very carefully examining it—and I would assure the House that in all the matters on this Bill I have given very close personal attention to the issues—that the tests and guidance that we have applied in the Bill are the best that can be offered. They meet the main practical difficulties which have arisen, and reduce to a minimum the extent to which the justices will be called upon to disclose their private affairs.

I have had a conference with the Magistrates' Association and the Justices Clerks Society, and the representatives of both those bodies were unanimous, after examining all the possible alternatives, in thinking that the wise course was to follow the line that we had taken in the Bill. Therefore, I am bound after consulting them, to advise the House to let the Bill remain as it stands. I should like to thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who spoke on this matter in Committee and who have since given serious thought to it. It is one of those delicate matters where it is necessary to give some guidance. Perhaps one cannot make the guidance as explicit as one would desire, but we can rely on the good sense of the magistrates when they are meeting in their own room to select the licensing committee to follow the guidance which the House gives them.

I am, of course, personally interested in this matter, and I should declare it to the House. I confess I feel a little touchy about it. What we are aiming at in this Bill is to get justices who are impartial, honest and incorruptible people. I cannot see that the proportion of a man's shareholding in any of these nefarious undertakings really affects his corruptibility or his incorruptibility. As I understand it, the purpose of this Amendment is to give fellow justices wider scope in the exercise of their own personal judgment whenever someone is suitable for this sort of post. I believe that a precise mathematical computation of a person's interest in an undertaking is not necessarily a guide to his corruptibility or incorruptibility. I should like to see my right hon. Friend persist in this Amendment, because I believe fellow justices are far better able to judge of one of their colleague's corruptibility or incorruptibility than anyone else can be. If one has confidence in the commission of the peace and in a bench they should be left with the widest possible discretion. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend will not withdraw this Amendment.

9.45 p.m.

I cannot for the life of me see how the right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) can possibly insist on this Amendment, seeing that it is in these terms:

"To leave out from the beginning, to 'a, in line 2,"
and in view of the further fact that the word "a" occurs twice in line 2. Is it not fair to ask the Opposition whether they refer to the first word "a" or to the second word "a"? If it refers to the second word "a," the Amendment makes sheer nonsense.

If the House will give me leave to speak for a very short time I should like to say one word, in deference to what has been said by my hon. Friends. I should like to point out that, like the Home Secretary, we have considered the matter very carefully. The difficulty I see is that this is not a question of confidence in the magistrates. That is why I have risen to speak again. It is a question of giving them an objective test. What one wants to avoid is having dispute or argument in the magistrates' room which can only be resolved on a subjective test, on the view of one's fellow magistrates. That would go against the harmonious working of the bench and the general administration of licensing work.

Therefore we have had to face an objective test. The Government suggested the activity of the company. We thought that one might add to that, or consider as well as that, the extent of the shareholding. One of my hon. Friends raised a difficulty there, when he said that once we considered the extent of the shareholding we should have to consider the extent of the income of which it is a part. I have given fresh consideration to the matter and I regretfully am of the opinion that we cannot persist in our suggestion leaving the matter as a subjective test. We must try to give guidance to magistrates on the lines that the Secretary of State has suggested. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.