§ Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 30th September, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."474
§ Mr. FOOT
I wish to draw attention to a matter that was considered for a few minutes on the last, day the House met before the Recess. It was raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Linfield), and it related to the dismissal from the bench of magistrates of Mr. Dent. The facts were then gone into, and it was expected, I think, by my hon. Friend, as well as those of us who are associated with him, that some explanation would have been given by the Attorney-General for an action which, I think, not only came with surprise to Members of this House, but certainly caused astonishment throughout the country. As I understand it, Mr. Dent was appointed some time since to the bench in Yorkshire, and it was in May of 475 the present year that he was surprised to receive a letter informing him that in consequence of his being a passive resister against the education rate he was expected to resign his position, Naturally he refused to resign, and the reason I am raising the matter now is that, I think a day or two following the beginning of the Recess, Mr. Dent was dismissed from his position and ho is no longer a magistrate. We shall assume that the Lord Chancellor, whom I understand I am not entitled to criticise, will have recognised that passive -resistance has been operating in this country since the Education Act, 1902. I need only say that, whatever views may be taken in this House as to the rights or wrongs of passive resisters, many distinguished men, and certainly very many high-minded men, have felt it necessary to take that course in relation to an Act against which they protested very vigorously at the time. I believe the attitude of the passive resister is that he does not break the law and he does not resist the law, but he is unable willingly to co-operate in the administration of law which offends his religious belief. I said just now that eminent and distinguished men have felt themselves obliged to take this position, and I need only refer to the fact that a man so honoured as Dr. Clifford took that course right from 1902 up to the very time of his death. Certainly I have no wish to compare the claims of Dr. Clifford and those of the Lord Chancellor, but there are some of us who would prefer one Dr. Clifford to many Lord Chancellors.
There was another occasion when a Member of this House who had been a passive resister was honoured by being made a Member of His Majesty's Privy Council it seems strange, if a passive resister can be made a Member of His Majesty's Privy Council, that one could not be raised to the elevation of a county bench. Mr. Dent, as I understand, secured the confidence of his fellows in the district in which he lives, for he was elected from council to council, was honoured by his neighbours, and certainly the advisory committee that suggested his name for the appointment to the bench must have known that for many years he had been a passive resister. In spite of taking that course, he was still honoured 476 by his fellows. There was no surprise expressed on his appointment, because it was known that hundreds of other men throughout the country were still upon the bench although they were passive resisters. I can only think that some busybody, maybe some political enemy of his who wished to smite him in the back, communicated with the authorities and was able to get them upon his side.
My suggestion is that this course has been altogether unjust. It is unjust, in the first instance, because it is belated. If this course was to he taken, and the man was to be driven off the bench because he was a passive resister, this should not have been done in the year 1924. It should have been done in the year 1902 when the movement started. There is, so far as I can see, no justification for waiting 22 years. There are fewer passive resisters to-day than then, because there were some gentlemen at that time who were passive resisters, and, when the election came and they had the opportunity of expressing their constitutional objection, they said, very well, after that time they would withdraw their passive resistance. Some felt they must continue, so for the last 22 years there has been a large number of passive resisters in his country, and some of them have been on the bench. The right time to take the course that is now being taken was in 1902. It is a belated action.
Since 1902 the high office of the Keeper of the People's Conscience has been occupied by one Chancellor after another, and I believe the present occupant once before was himself a Lord Chancellor since 1902. He took no action then. I suppose the only difference was that he was a Lord Chancellor in a Liberal Government, and he is now Lord Chancellor in a Labour Government. Why was not action taken when he occupied this post before? My first criticism is, that it is a belated action. My second is, that it is unfair to single one man out. There was a very eminent philospher in this country years ago He was fond of referring to the eminent Sir Edward Cope, back in the days of James and Charles. Sir Edward Cope was constantly emphasising the responsibility of those who administered the law in this country, of bringing to hear the golden wand of the law and not the 477 crooked cord of discretion. We have not had the golden wand of the law; we have had the crooked cord of discretion, and one man who has committed no offence any more than the rest is singled out and chased off the bench in spite of his record. [Laughter.] It is a matter of hilarity to those who, for the time being, represent His Majesty's Opposition. I can only suggest that they themselves have been in office when this course was not taken. Why should it be taken now? I ask hon. Members opposite, who constitute themselves the special custodians of the Constitution, whether the whole principle of the Constitution is not based on this, that if you are going to apply the law, you must not apply it to one man here and there, but that if it is a fair law it must be applied all round. There is only one logical conclusion to the course that has been taken, and that is to apply to all who sit upon the bench, and who take the same attitude as Mr. Dent, the same principle. Otherwise, this is not law at all, but it is just singling out one man and chasing him off the bench as being a great achievement of recent times.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I must remind the hon. Member that criticism of the Lord Chancellor can only be taken on a substantive Motion, and not on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House.
§ Mr. FOOT
I accept your ruling, Mr. Speaker. You are aware that a Motion was put upon the Paper but, unfortunately, there was no time for its discussion. I will not transgress further in criticising the present occupant of the Woolsack. I can only say that the law ought to be fair as between one man and another. No reasonable defence can be put up by those who represent any party in this House of a system which attacks one man and punishes him and allows others to go scot free.
I do not want to say in any harsh spirit that it is unfortunate that this thing has happened under the present Government. As was said to my hon. Friend who spoke from these benches on the day before the last adjournment, this Government is the last. Government that should be associated with this sort of action. I felt bitterly and as much as anyone the action that was taken towards those who were 478 conscientious objectors a few years and who were by the crowd generally held up to obliquy and abuse because of their conscientious opinions. It is a notable fact that upon the Government Front Bench to-day we have some who themselves during the War took the attitude of the conscientious objector and suffered because of their opinions. The Government and the party which contains a large number of those who took that view ought to be the first to protest against this action. In the "Times" newspaper, in August, there was a suggestion put forward as being a defence of the authorities concerned. We were told then that the analogy between the conscientious objector and the passive resister is not complete; that in the one case Parliament has permitted conscientious objection, while in the other it has not.
That is not a fair defence, because, although Parliament did allow conscientious objection during the War, those who went to prison were assumed not to have complied with the ordinary terms of the law. That was held by the tribunals. Very often they were most unfairly treated. Petty persecution of this kind never achieves its purpose, and I ask hon. Members who object to the action that has been taken against this man to enter their protest as vigorously, as I hope we shall from these benches, against the unfair singling out of one man for disfavour.
§ 11.0 P.M.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I am afraid, although it has been skilfully done, that this is really a contravention of the Rule. It can be no other than an attack on the Lord Chancellor, which, as I have said, must be done on a substantive Motion.
§ Mr. MASTERMAN
Do the Government repudiate the action of its own Members, or is it responsible for the action of its, own Members?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
Under our Rules, the Lord Chancellor can be, criticised only after the tabling of a substantive Motion, and on that Motion.
§ Mr. MASTERMAN
With the greatest respect, surely the House of Commons has the right to discuss the action of a Member of the Government, if the Government accept responsibility for his executive action.
§ Captain W. BENN
Is not the Motion for Adjournment the proper occasion for criticism of the administration of a public Department?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
With the exception of those functionaries, for whom special provision is made. The hon. and gallant Member cannot criticise me on the Adjournment. He would have to table a proper Motion for that.
§ Captain BENN
I have no desire to do so, but I would ask, first, whether there is not a real distinction between your office and that of a Member of the Cabinet who is a Member of a party, and, secondly, whether there is not a distinction between the office of Lord Chancellor and the administration of his Department, and whether his Department enjoys any special immunity from ordinary criticism over and above any other Department?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I do not know whether the hon. and gallant Member is a diligent student of Sir Erskine May, but, if so, he will recollect that the Lord Chancellor is specifically mentioned as one of those who must be dealt with on a substantive Motion.
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
There are two matters arising on the discussion initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Foot). The first is the very skilfully concealed criti- 480 cism of the Lord Chancellor in removing a certain gentleman from the office of magistrate. I understand that you have said that that can be done only by a discussion on a substantive Motion. The other point is that of appealing to the Home Secretary to consider the wisdom of applying the law equally and removing all other magistrates who are administering the law and who are conscientious objectors as regards the Education Act. Would it be possible on this Motion for Adjournment to question the Home Office as to their action towards these gentlemen who are administering the law in other parts of the country, and who have the same conscientious views as Mr. Dent?
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
Then how can we criticise the action of the Government on the Floor of the House, with a view to securing the removal of certain magistrates on the ground that they have not the qualities necessary for administering the law?
§ Adjourned accordingly at five minutes after 11 o'clock until Wednesday next (8th October) pursuant to the Resolution of the House of this day.