HC Deb 25 February 1932 vol 262 cc665-71

I beg to move, in page 17, line 11, to leave out the words "or to the making of a new order."

I understand that under this Clause any order imposing a duty will cease to have effect unless there has been an affirmative resolution by this House. I would like an explanation as to the exact bearing of the phrase that I have moved to omit. Does it mean that if there is no affirmative resolution in this House, the order drops; or does it mean that if the House has refused to confirm an order the order can immediately be made again and introduced into this House, and that the previous resolution has no effect at all?


The hon. Member asked whether it would be possible, when an order has been annulled by vote of the House of Commons, for another order to be introduced. I gathered from a conversation between himself and the right hon. and gallant Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) on an earlier occasion that they thought a new way had been discovered by the Treasury whereby the Treasury could govern the country by successive orders, each running for 28 days, each annulled by the House, and each order promptly reintroduced by the Treasury. That really is an Alice in Wonderland position that is not possible, and for this reason: No House of Commons would for a moment tolerate a Government that continued to introduce orders which the House had clearly shown that it did not desire to have introduced. The Treasury is not a body independent of this House. The Chancellor of the Exchequer brings these orders forward. He is the Minister responsible, and the Cabinet is responsible with him. If the Government is defeated on such an order it is clear that sooner or later a Vote of Censure would be introduced if the Government continued to reintroduce such orders, and the Government would fall.


There was the case of the Prayer Book. It came up before this House again and again.


I do not think the conditions are similar, and I would hate to introduce the odium theologicum into this Debate, as well as all the other odia which are under discussion at the moment. These words are used merely for the purpose of ensuring that the House of Commons, having annulled one such Order, the Government is not thereby debarred from reintroducing an Order in terms so modified as to meet the objects and wishes of the House of Commons, as indicated when the original Order was annulled. There is no ulterior motive of dominating the House by a series of dictatorships each running for a period of 28 days.


After that explanation I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


I beg to move, in page 17, line 12, at the end, to insert the words: and no such Order shall become operative unless and until the same shall have been confirmed by a resolution of the House of Commons. The principle underlying the Amendment is that the Orders ought to come to the House of Commons first, before going to the advisory committee and becoming operative. The object of the Amendment is to retain the control of this House over the most important matter which pertains to this House, namely, taxation. The Financial Secretary who spoke on this subject on a previous occasion seemed to think that we ought to get rid of the bother of coming to the House of Commons with these Orders. I hope that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will not make the same speech again and I hope also that I shall not make the same speech as I did when I raised the question before. I put the Amendment down again on this Clause because we had not an opportunity previously of moving it, and both the Financial Secretary and myself dealt with the matter on the Question that Clause 3 stand part of the Bill. I desire now to elicit from the Financial Secretary some response to the speech then made by the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) who expressed a view on this subject which is held by many Members of the Labour party and no doubt by many Members of the Conservative party also.

This is not a, matter of Free Trade or Protection. It is a question of the powers and control of the House over finance. We have had trouble in the past as a result of attempted interference with those powers by the House of Lords, for example, and it was laid down in a series of Resolutions in 1860 that the right of granting Supply rested in the Commons alone and that they alone had power to deal with the matter, manner, measure and time of such proposals. Under this Bill the Advisory Committee or the Board of Trade would have the power of putting a duty into operation, and Members of the House of Commons, whatever their views, could offer no opinions upon or no information concerning that duty before it came into operation. There are rumours that secret arrangements may be made by which this small body can put these duties into operation. They will then be laid on the Table of the House and they have to be either annulled or confirmed within 28 days. I ask hon. Members to whatever party they may belong, whether they are Tariff Reformers or Free Traders, do they imagine that if these duties are put into force by this advisory body there will be any chance of having them rescinded in this House? Hon. Members may have special views and special knowledge concerning a particular duty—on velvet, say, or silk, or some other commodity—but they will not have the opportunity of expressing their views on that duty before it is made operative.

8.30 p.m.

I ask the Financial Secretary if it is not possible, when duties have been agreed upon by the Advisory Committee, to bring those proposals to the House of Commons within 24 hours and have them either confirmed or annulled. Many hon. Members have expert knowledge on these subjects and would be able to contribute their quota of information and expert advice as to whether a duty is advisable or not. Under the Bill as it stands, they would be powerless. I ask hon. Members, irrespective of their views on fiscal questions, to consider whether it is not an affront to the House of Commons to reduce the ordinary Member of the House to the position of a lay figure, to infer that his opinion and his knowledge are of little or of no avail and that he need not be called upon to express any views on these subjects? During the past few days we have had Debates on such subjects as sisal and hemp and valuable speeches have been made, both for and against the inclusion of those articles. If the Bill goes through in this form, Members will be unable to express their views on any additional duty. Those duties will, at once, become the law of the land, though of course they will be laid on the Table and can be rescinded or annulled within 28 days.

The Amendment is not a wrecking Amendment but a helpful Amendment. It seeks to avoid the disorganisation which would take place if a duty were enforced and then found to be unworkable. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman is probably anxious to make this machine efficient, and he regards the House of Commons in this connection, possibly, as a nuisance, but I ask him to consider the advantage, before these duties come into operation, of having the opinions of Members of the Labour party and the Conservative party. [HON. MEMBERS: "And the Liberal party."] It is not because I do not recognise the strength of that party's case that I did not men- tion it first, but this is not a matter of party. It is a matter for the whole House of Commons. On a previous occasion, the House of Lords, an autocratic body like the Board of Trade attempted to interfere in a matter of this kind, and the Speaker of the day, who was—as I am sure you are, Mr. Deputy-Speaker—jealous of the rights and privileges of the House of Commons, ruled against the action of the House of Lords as an interference with the rights of the House of Commons and prevented that action on their part from being effective. Here we have an instance of this power being handed over by the House to an independent body like the Board of Trade, and, whatever views we hold on fiscal questions, we shall all be parties to this proceeding. The Financial Secretary did not give me much sympathy when we discussed this matter previously, but I hope that he is now prepared to admit that there is some substance in this Amendment. I know the difficulty of trying to meet my case. I know that he is anxious, as he says, to avoid forestalling, but if this Clause were amended in such a way that these Orders would have to come immediately to the House of Commons, before becoming operative, the time would be so short that it would have little or no effect in regard to forestalling.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I think the position may be summarised in this way—that before this House throws over its rights, and all possibility of examining each duty as it comes forward, we ought carefully to consider the action which we are taking. I do not think it necessary to elaborate further what has been so well and clearly said by my hon. Friend, but I would like to ask the Financial Secretary, in the light of the views which have been presented to him, to reconsider this point.


I want to ask the hon. Member one question. In the course of his speech he referred to some secret arrangement. What did he mean?


I said that it had been stated, and it lends itself to that rumour, that there may be secret arrangements made for the duties being formulated and created.


That is an extremely serious statement to make, that a body with the powers contemplated under this Bill will be a party to any sort of secret arrangement. I hope the hon. Member will tell us precisely what he means or else withdraw his statement.


In the nature of things, these arrangements must be confidential and secret.


It shows the disadvantage under which we are placed in discussing hypothetical questions on manuscript Amendments, and I suggest that there are many very important things still to come before the House which we desire to discuss. I would say in a word on this issue that it has been argued out on previous stages of the Bill, and I have seen no reason to change the view which I then recommended to the Committee, and which was accepted by the Committee, namely, that the rights of this House are safeguarded by the provision that unless an affirmative order is passed by this House within 28 days the duty lapses. The hon. Member said that this was such an invasion of the rights of the House of Commons that it necessitated a deep and thorough examination of constitutional precedents reaching away back to 1860 and, for aught I know, to the time when King Charles I came down with his gunmen to the House of Commons. Any Order made must be confirmed by an affirmative resolution of the House, otherwise it is operative for only 28 days. It is the commonest of Customs procedure, and is accepted by this House and by every other legislative body in the world, and it is accepted because of the common sense view that to put up a notice saying that in 28 days we shall impose a tax is an invitation to the whole world to bring every possible importation into our ports before that time elapses.

As for the suggestion that these orders would immediately come before the House of Commons, and that all other business would be stopped, that a crisis in India, a financial crisis, or anything else is to be immediately adjourned while the House of Commons determines whether a duty shall be put on bristle brushes or not, it is absurd. It would be impossible to bring them immediately before the House, and I suggest that, the issue having been discussed so thoroughly as it has been, and the two sides being apparently unshakeably opposed to each other in their opinions, we might pass on to the other great decisions which still have to be taken by this House before 11 o'clock to-night.

Amendment negatived.