HC Deb 02 August 1935 vol 304 cc3087-92

3.49 p.m.


Only a few minutes remain before we break up for the Summer Recess, but I should like to use them to raise one matter with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General. A few days ago I put a question to the Prime Minister asking whether he was prepared before the end of the present Parliament to give the House an opportunity of discussing the report of the Committee on Ministers Powers. The Prime Minister replied that owing to the congestion of Parliamentary business it would not be possible to give the House that opportunity. I raise this question partly because I think it is very important that the House should have a chance of discussing that report, and, secondly, because the Prime Minister's reply is in keeping with the attitude of evasiveness which has been adopted by the Government towards this report ever since it was produced in 1932. It was an exceedingly strong Committee, representative of all three parties in this House and including some eminent jurists from outside. It produced its report after some two years spent in interviewing witnesses, and it is a report, and I know that my view is shared by a great many Members who are not here now, of the highest constitutional importance. In spite of the fact that three and a half years have elapsed since that report was produced the House of Commons has never had an opportunity of discussing it.

If they had been fortunate in the ballot, a number of Members would have put down this question for a private Member's day, but that has not arisen this Session because the Government have taken all the time of private Members. It is not possible to raise the matter on a Supply day because it is very difficult to discuss this question without suggesting legislation, and for the same reason it is not possible to go into the merits of the proposal upon the Motion for the Adjournment. There has been no way in the present Session by which the conclusions of that report could be discussed, except by the Government being ready to give time. It is rather serious that the House of Commons should be precluded from being able to consider or debate issues of first-class importance such as are raised in the report.

I have been told from the Government Front Bench that although the Government cannot deal with the report as a whole, the conclusions of the committee are nevertheless being borne in mind. I do not know what the Government bear in mind, but it is not true to say that much regard or any regard is paid to the conclusions of the committee when the Government draft their legislation. If I am to allow time for the Solicitor-General to reply, I have not time to go into the details of the report, but I would briefly mention one or two of the recommendations. The committee protested in most emphatic language against the conclusive evidence Clause—the Solicitor-General will understand what I mean—being included in legislation, and they said that where it was necessary to have finality in any matter there ought to be a period during which a Ministerial order, could be challenged in the courts, preferably six months and at least three months.

Within a short time of the report being produced, the Government introduced their Agricultural Marketing Bill in which they included that clause in the precise form against which the committee had protested, and it was only because of a protest that came from these benches that a small period of challenge, 28 days, was allowed. On the depressed areas Bill the Government gave only 28 days as a period of challenge instead of the three months suggested by the committee. The committee suggested that a standing committee of the House should be set up to inspect all Bills which proposed to give Ministers powers of this kind, and to inspect all ministerial orders made in pursuance of Statutes which had been laid on the Table of the House. Those recommendations did not need legislation, but the Government have never moved to carry them out. The committee proposed that, after public inquiries had been held under Housing Acts or similar statutes, the report of the inspector who made the inquiry should be made available to the parties concerned. On recent Housing Bills, the Ribbon Development Bill and other Measures, the Government have expressly turned down amendments put down to that effect. The committee recommended that any party aggrieved by a judicial decision of a Minister or a ministerial tribunal should have a right of appeal to the High Court on any point of law which arose. No effect has been given to that recommendation.

I hope I have said enough to show that several of the main recommendations of the committee have either been ignored or even deliberately flouted by the Government in drafting legislation which they have brought before the House. It should be one of the first concerns of this House at all times to scrutinise very jealously any increase of executive power. I should like to see us debate once again the Motion brought forward by Mr. Dunning in 1783: That the power of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought, to be diminished, but if Mr. Dunning were alive to-day he would probably find that he would not only have no sympathy from the Government for his resolution but that the power against which he was really protesting had so close a stranglehold over the time-table that he would not even be able to bring his resolution forward. I hope that we may have an assurance from the Solicitor-General that, in what will remain of this Session when we come back at the end of October, the Government will endeavour to give the House time to debate the conclusions of the committee.

3.55 p.m.

The SOLICITOR-GENERAL (Sir Donald Somervell)

I have only a very few minutes in which to deal with the points that my hon. Friend has made. No one, of course, disputes that the report of this committee deals with a very important subject. My hon. Friend's main complaint has been that no day has been set apart for a general discussion of the committee's findings, but I think it is worth pointing out that, although that is true, there have been many occasions upon which the committee's recommendations have been discussed in the House and in Committee. The report makes a number of recommendations as to the form which legislation should take. The Government may or may not adopt those recommendations. My hon. Friend gave two examples of cases in which they had not been adopted, or, at any rate, not in the first instance. I could, if I had time, give him examples of cases in which they have been adopted. But, in any case where they have not been adopted, it is, of course, open to any hon. Member to draw the attention of the House, whether sitting as a House or in Committee, to that fact, and I think there is no doubt that, as long as we have my hon. Friend with us—and I hope it will be a long time—that opportunity will be exercised. Even in my own short experience in the office which I occupy, I have on two occasions, and possibly on others, met arguments based on the recommendations of this committee with arguments which at any rate seemed to me to be good arguments. Therefore, it would be quite wrong if the House were left with the impression that this was a report which had been put in a pigeonhole and had not been discussed in our proceedings. It has been discussed on many occasions, and, indeed, arguments were based on it only the other day, when we were discussing the Ribbon Development Bill.

My hon. Friend referred to the suggestion made by the Committee that Standing Committees of this House should be set up to examine Bills, and also to examine regulations and Orders. Those who are familiar with the report will remember that the Committee recommended that these Committees should not report on the merits of the Regulations or Bills, but only on their principles, and personally, although, of course, I am not expressing any authoritative view, I think it is a matter for both serious and long, or at any rate close, consideration whether it would be really practicable for committees of that kind to separate principles from merits in this way, and whether it would really assist the House in the difficult task which it has in dealing with complicated matters of legislation. My hon. Friend hoped that I might be able to give an assurance that a day would be set apart for the discussion of the report of the Committee when we return in October, but I think that that hope was expressed in a spirit of high and meritorious optimism, and that he did not really expect an assurance from me to that effect. I can, however, assure him that the Committee and their recommendations are constantly before us. The Government have not always adopted their proposals, but, when they have not done so, they have been ready to justify the course they have taken. At what time and on what occasion it will be possible, if the House so desires, to debate the report by itself, is a matter upon which, I am afraid, I cannot make any pronouncement.

3.59 p.m.


I desired to raise a Scottish matter concerning a woman who is in prison, but obviously it will not be possible for me to raise it now, although the Secretary of State for Scotland is here. I trust that, when we have adjourned, the right hon. Gentleman will see me and concede the request that I wish to make. That will be some compensation to me for having waited all day, and I regret very much that the right hon. Gentleman should have been kept here, too.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Four o'Clock, until Tuesday, 29th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.