HC Deb 15 June 1933 vol 279 cc331-4

Order for Second Reading read.

3.41 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill has a very important title, broad enough to lead to suppositions that its contents are more far-reaching than they really are. It is important that the House should realise at once the scope of the Bill, and the reasons which have led to its introduction. The Bill has been introduced in order to enable provincial Governors to extend the lives of their legislatures until such period as the new Constitution may come into force. The reason why this matter is one of urgency is that the Bengal Legislative Council, which was originally elected on the 1st July, 1929, and which in the normal course would have expired on the 30th June, 1932, has already been extended for one year, under the present Government of India Act, to the 30th June of this year, when normally it will expire. Under the present Act the Governor has the power to extend, for a period not exceeding one year, the life of his legislature. Section 72B of the present Government of India Act reads as follows: Every Governor's legislative council shall continue for three years from its first meeting"— and Sub-section (b) says: Such period may be extended by the Governor for a period not exceeding one year by notification in the Official Gazette of the Province. As I have explained, this power has already been used by the Governor of Bengal, Sir John Anderson, and, while the matter is, therefore, of some urgency in this particular Province, it also arises in the case of some other legislatures. For instance, the Assam Council, which has already been once extended, will come to an end in September. Owing to the state of uncertainty as to when the new Constitution will come into force, it has been thought inadvisable, in this interim period, to plunge any province into the trouble and expense of an elec- tion, particularly when it is uncertain at what exact date the new Constitution will come into being. The object of this Bill, therefore, is to bridge the gap between the present time and the period when the new Constitution comes into operation.

Some hon. Members may feel that it is wrong to imagine that consideration of the vital, extensive and important problems which are involved in Indian constitutional reform will be finished in a period within which a new council elected now might be expected to terminate its normal life, but, without wishing to forecast in any way the time that this consideration of reforms may take, and, most emphatically, without wishing to interfere in any way with the discretion of Parliament, I think it is possible to say that some decision of some sort must be taken in the reasonably near future. It has been thought inadvisable, therefore, that an upheaval should be indulged in at the present moment, in a period of financial stringency and in a period of uncertainty as to political development such as I have described, or to bring into existence a council which might not, if it were elected in these circumstances at the present time, conclude its normal term of life. Other hon. Members may, perhaps, say that the powers which we are seeking in this Bill are too general. If hon. Members will refer to the Bill, they will see that we propose to leave out of the existing provision, which I have already read, in the present Government of India Act, the words: for a period not exceeding one year. This will leave the choice open to the Governor, and he will not be limited to any particular time. We have thought that the introduction of a particular time limit might be tendentious. For instance, if we were to insert a short time limit within which the Governor would have the privilege of extending his legislative council, it might be thought that we were pre-judging the time within which Parliament would decide on this important problem. On the other hand, if we were to insert in our proposal a long period of time, it might cause unreasonable anxiety to Indians and others who are looking to Parliament to come to a decision, and might make them doubt whether we intended to come to any de- cision at all upon the important problems before us. I hope, therefore, that the House will agree that the general powers that we seek to take are the most sensible way of dealing with the contingency which has arisen. I might add that, if anything unforeseen occurs, the situation will naturally have to be reviewed, and it is not our intention that these general powers shall be held by the Governors for an indefinitely long period. It may be of interest to hon. Members to know that powers similar to those which we propose as regards provincial councils are already held by the Viceroy for the Central Legislature, and the Viceroy has already exercised those powers in extending the life of the Assembly. If, therefore, hon. Members give us their support on this Bill, they will be giving to the provincial Governors the same powers which the Viceroy has at present vis-à-vis the Central Legislature.

In conclusion, I would beg hon. Members not to exaggerate the scope of this Bill, but to regard it as being, as I have said, a common sense Measure which does not seek in any way to fetter the liberty of the House in deciding upon these vital problems. Rather does it leave the House and Parliament more free to continue their discussions and consideration of these problems in an atmosphere uninterrupted by elections in India. I have been glad to see that at least one paper in India considers that this intervening period might be used for the development of those chances of administrative and social reform which are within the present competence of the Indian Legislatures, and, if the councils co-operate with the local governments in pushing forward their task of nation-building, which is no more important anywhere in the world than in India, in an atmosphere from which the uncertainty of the life of the councils has been removed, I think it may lead Indian administration to proceed along its career of usefulness until Parliament in its wisdom has decided what sort of Constitution shall come into being in the future.

3.50 p.m.


We do not intend to offer any opposition to the Second Reading of this Bill. I recognise that in present conditions it is necessary to con- tinue the life of the provincial legislative councils. I also recognise that, although this is putting a very extended power into the hands of the Governors, it is not intended that it should be used for anything except to get through a transition period. Although this is a very small Bill, one has to realise that from a constitutional point of view it is extremely far-reaching. It means, in fact, the suspension of elections to provincial councils indefinitely, in accordance with the Governor's will. We should have liked to see this limited to a definite period, but we recognise the difficulty of putting in any particular time limit. A short time might raise unjustifiable expectations and a long time might have a depressing effect. Therefore, probably the only thing is to leave it open. We think that the sooner we can get through the transition period the better, and we shall offer no objection whatever to the Measure.

3.52 p.m.


In normal circumstances there could be no support to a Measure which gives to a Governor such considerable power as this Bill gives, but it is clear that we are not in normal circumstances in relation to India and that we are passing through a period which is very exceptional in its history. It would in the circumstances therefore be preposterous if while we have in this country representatives of public opinion in India, there should at the same time be all the turmoil and disturbance arising either from an election or from the preparations for an election. Again, in normal circumstances one would want a time limit during which the Governor was to be possessed of this great power, but I think the reasons put forward by the Under-Secretary are unanswerable and are fair to all sections of opinion in the House—fair equally to those who want the transition period to be very short and to those who would like no changes at all to be effected. In the circumstances, I hope that upon all sides of the House this can be looked upon as a non-controversial Measure and that it may be speedily passed into law.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next.—[Mr. Butler,]