HC Deb 24 March 1936 vol 310 cc1157-66

9.37 p.m.


I want to bring the Debate back to our own country. We have been debating the Constitution of Palestine; I want to deal with our Constitution. I put a question to the Prime Minister the other day asking whether it was his intention to continue to keep two of the three Defence Service Ministers in the House of Lords, and the Prime Minister's reply was, "For the present, yes." Later I attempted to raise the question of the Navy, but Mr. Speaker quite rightly held that I was out of order. It was not a matter which could be dealt with then, but might be dealt with on the Consolidated Fund Bill. I am now trying to get from the representative of the Government how far they intend to go in reference to Cabinet representation in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords.

There are now 22 Cabinet Ministers. One has just been added, the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence. Five of those are in the House of Lords—the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Privy Seal, the Secretary of State for India, the Secretary of State for Air, and the First Lord of the Admiralty. I recognise that there will have to be some representative in the Lords, and I take no objection, while the system is as it is, to the Lord Chancellor being there. Up to the moment I have never known a Lord Chancellor to occupy a seat in the House of Commons. They can have him. I do not mind if he has a seat in the House of Lords. They may also have the Lord Privy Seal, but when I come to what I call the active service Ministers, their place, I think, is in the House of Commons. They ought to be here to meet the charges and criticisms urged against the Departments. I say this without any reflection upon their understudies, but they ought to be here to meet all that is said. We should feel more assurance when we heard them give their statements on questions in the House of Commons.

I am not the only one to complain about this. In the Debate on 16th March, on the Navy Vote, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) made a strong complaint, so strong that I was expecting him to move the Adjournment of the House. I will quote his words to show the feeling of the Liberal party on this matter: I should like in the first place to register, for the third time since this Parliament met, my protest at the absence from this House of the First Lord of the Admiralty, when Estimates, so large as these and so greatly increased since last year, are before us. I think that a great spending Department bringing before us these great Estimates should be represented by its chief. There is in these Estimates an increase of £10,000,000, following upon an increase last year, if you include the Supplementary Estimates, of £8,000,000, arid I think the First Lord ought to be here to answer for these increases."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th March, 1936; col. 87, Vol. 310.] I quite agree with that. I interrupted the right hon. Gentleman to ask him whether he meant that there ought to be no Cabinet Ministers in the House of Lords, but he did not agree with that, but he did say that the heads of the chief spending Departments should be in the House of Commons. It was a speech which ought to be noted by everyone.

The next day, on the Air Estimates, the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) had something to say about the chief representative of the Air Department not being here. He said: When we have this enormous programme before us, of vital importance to the country and with a vast expenditure, we feel that it is only right that the Secretary of State should be here to answer personally for his Department."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th March, 1936; col. 288, Vol. 310.] Complaints were made, after the reply by the representatives of the Ministry, that they had touched upon the point too lightly. They did not meet the charge, but it was not their position to do that, and one can understand. Had they agreed with the criticism it might have been said that they were canvassing for the job of chief, and it was better for them to say nothing at all. What is the intention of the Government or of the Prime Minister in matters of this kind? Is it that, at any time they decide to make or promote one of the heads of the Service Departments, he is to continue as a Cabinet Minister even though he is removed from the House of Commons? That is the question that we have to ask.

Is this practice to be increased? Is there a tendency towards probably one half of the Cabinet occupying seats in the other place? Where is the process to stop? I am raising the question to get some kind of assurance as to what the Government intend to do in the future. Probably the right hon. Gentleman who is to reply in place of the Prime Minister will not be prepared to give me a favourable answer; I do not expect that he will probably the Prime Minister has not told him what he intends to do. But we, as Members of the House of Commons, have a right to raise a protest when we find, as we do now, that two of the heads of the Defence Services are not in the House of Commons. Even though I may not be able to get an explanation on this matter, I desire to make a protest, of which I hope some notice will be taken, so that a feeling may be created that those who are termed the representatives of the people shall not be put on one side by this kind of thing. I am sorry that there are so few of us present here in the House to-night. Were there a better attendance, I dare say many more Members besides myself would want to ask questions on this point.

I stand, as probably everyone knows, for the House of Commons being the representative Chamber of the people, and I cannot allow it to pass without protest when I find that the Prime Minister of the day is quietly putting into the other House some of the chief Cabinet Ministers. He may not have thought that there would be any protest, but perhaps, now that he knows that we are protesting, he will be careful before he does it in future. As I have said, I might suggest as a compromise that, if some Ministers must be in the other House, the least serviceable and those whom we can best do without should be sent there. I should not object to that, but I certainly take strong objection to the chiefs of Departments being sent to the House of Lords, and I am raising my voice in protest hoping to get some idea of what is intended to be done in the future.

8.48 p.m.


I agree with the last speaker that we might very well leave the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords, as long as there is a House of Lords, but I am very much concerned about the tendency to increase the numbers of members of the Cabinet. A little while ago we had the establishment of a new Minister, who, I think, was generally known as the Minister for Thought, and we thought he was thinking about certain things. We gather that he was thinking about the coordination of the Navy, the Army and the Air Force, and, whether he was thinking about it or not, that co-ordination has taken place, so that we have now another Minister added to the Cabinet. While I am concerned that as many members of the Cabinet as possible should be in the House of Commons and not in the House of Lords, I am also concerned that the amount of patronage should not be unduly increased. I am seriously concerned about this increased, and should be glad if we could have some kind of assurance as to how often new offices are going to be created, and whether there is any limit to the number that can be created.

8.50 p.m.


As regards the point put in his last sentence by the hon. Member for Clayton (Mr. Jagger), I think I shall be able to give him some assurance when I remind him that, under the present provisions of the Statute law which has been passed by Parliament, there is a limit to the number of Ministers without Portfolio that can be appointed. The number is three, and we may, think, be very certain that any attempt to increase the strictly limited list of Ministers, all of whom draw salaries, will always be narrowly examined by the House of Commons as a whole, because not only is it necessary for the House of Commons to vote their salaries, but, if any attempt were made to create a new office of profit beyond those at present allowed by the law, it would be necessary, I apprehend, to propose legislation expressly for that purpose.

Turning to the speech of the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker), who, as is always the case, put what he had to say very reasonably and charmingly, I should like to give him a little reassurance also. He said, and I know he said it sincerely, that he was raising this question as a matter of principle, and with no desire to institute invidious or personal considerations, but I shall show in a moment that personal considerations of a very acute kind will necessarily arise if we examine the matter as he wishes us to do. I would remind him that, so far as the Secretaries of State are concerned, there is a Statute in existence which limits the number of Secretaries of State that can sit in the House of Commons. Of course, originally, there was only one Secretary of State, and, indeed, in one sense it may be said that even to-day there is only one office of Secretary of State, because anyone who is a Secretary of State may lawfully and constitutionally perform any act that can be done by any other Secretary of State. If I may for a moment call on my own personal experience, I happened to be Secretary of State for Home Affairs at the time when Lord Kitchener made his last fatal journey from this country, and just before he sailed from these shores I had a message from the War Office asking me whether I would sign his papers until he came back. I continued to give the formal signature which it is legitimate for any Secretary of State to put upon the papers of any other Secretary of State, and I did so until the news came of his death.

Constitutionally, the office of Secretary of State is held by a number of persons who may be regarded as all one, and it was originally represented by the Home Secretary. There was, later on, a time when there were three, namely, the War Secretary—at that time he was called the Secretary at War—the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and the Home Secretary. It was not until 1858, when the East India Company's control over India ceased, that Parliament put a more direct responsibility for India upon the Secretary of State, and a Secretary of State for India was added. Since then there have been created a Secretary of State for the Colonies—who now divides his office with that of the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs—a Secretary of State for Air, and a Secretary of State for Scotland, transformed from the original Secretary for Scotland in quite recent times. At the present moment there are eight Secretaries of State, but the Statute provides that not more than six of them can sit in the House of Commons, and it will be found that there are six Secretaries of State sitting in the House of Commons now. Therefore, when my hon. Friend says that he does not desire to suggest anything invidious, I ask myself with some anxiety which of us is marked down for the purpose of being transformed as a useless person to another place in order that the Secretary of State for Air may return here? It could not be done within the law unless my hon. Friend is willing to part with one of us six. I will not trespass upon his good nature by asking which of us is marked down for destruction.

May I point out one thing more? I quite agree with my hon. Friend that it is right that the main body of Ministers should sit in the House of Commons. It is questionable, I should think, whether in the future we shall ever find a, Prime Minister holding that office in the House of Lords. Many people think that that is a tradition which is not likely to be repeated. More and more the authority of the Government has become concentrated in this House because, among other things, this House is elected, and, what is more, a vote that is taken on solemn occasions by this House will determine the fate of a Ministry, which is not always necessarily the case in the other House. As a matter of fact, during the last century there has been more and more concentration in this House of the preponderating number—I will not, say anything about personal authority—of Ministers. I am speaking without having checked it, merely relying upon my recollection, but I think when Mr. Pitt spoke at this Box he had only one other colleague in the House of Commons. All the other Ministers were in the Rouse of Lords.

It is certainly the case that the proportions have changed in a most surprising way. In the eighteenth century right down to the first Reform Bill Cabinets contained far more peers than they did commoners. I have had the particulars looked up and, even as late as the Ministry of the great Lord Grey who carried the Reform Bill, there were only four commoners and 11 peers in the Government. That was the proportion that continued, I should think, until about 1880. The Cabinets of Lord Derby had a majority of peers. But along with the democratic development of our institutions, with the spreading of the franchise and with the increased authority here, more and more you had the numbers of Ministers—it would be very invidious to deal with anything but numbers—in a larger proportion in this House, and that is quite right. Let me take for example Mr. Asquith's Cabinet as it was at the outbreak of the War. Unless I am mistaken, it consisted of seven peers and 14 commoners. That is to say, the House of Commons was to the House of Lords two to one. But that was not a situation that continued. The first Labour Government, for example, which had 20 Cabinet Members, contained 16 commoners and four peers.

Here I must reveal to the hon. Member a sad circumstance about that admirably formed administration. The four peers included the Secretary of State for Air, Lord Thomson, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Chelmsford. That is to say, exactly the same defence Ministers, so far as offices are concerned, as the hon. Member finds now so improperly placed at the other end of the corridor, were exactly the two defence Ministers who were found in the House of Lords in the first Labour administration. But there is this difference that, whereas the Labour Government had only one Minister in this House of Cabinet rank dealing with matters of defence, we have quite recently provided a second, so that the actual situation is that the present Prime Minister, in advising His Majesty, has doubt d the number of Cabinet Ministers in this House who can speak with special authority on questions relating to defence, whereas the number of Cabinet Ministers in another place in charge of one or other Defence Department is exactly the same as it was in the first Labour Government.

Though I am willing to admit the sincerity and reasonableness with which the hon. Member put forward his point—I can assure him that I am not dismissing it otherwise than quite respectfully and seriously—at the same time I think the matter really stands in general as I have tried to state it, that is to say, the law which the House of Commons has passed in effect provides that you cannot have all the Secretaries of State here. We are bound to have some of them outside the House, and both tradition and convenience really require that they should be in the other House. I think it would be a very serious matte for comment if we did not have in this House the maximum number of Secretaries of State that we can have here, but we cannot have more than six, because six is the maximum fixed by Parliament. In the second place, in fact the arrangement is in accordance with tin general principle which the hon. Member emphasised that more and more authority must concentrate in this House. Finally, in these matters of arrangement we are only following the distribution of offices which is, I believe, identical in this respect with the distribution of the first Labour Government.


Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me at what period it was fixed that there should be six Secretaries of State? It is information to me.


It arose, if I am not mistaken, at the time that the Secretary for Scotland was made Secretary of State. We have always moved it on one when we have added to the total. To state it quite accurately, I do not think it is correct to say that the total number of Secretaries of State is limited by law. I think it is constitutionally possible to have 9, 10 or 11, but you cannot have more than six in this House, and the real reason of that is, though it does not say so directly, that Parliament feels on the whole that some Secretaries of State should be in another place. A similar arrangement is made about Under-Secretaries, and the point was the subject matter of an interesting and ingenious question raised by an hon. Member on a back bench not long ago. I shall be delighted, if the hon. Member thinks it convenient, to show him a place of which I know in the Statute Book where these things are dealt with. I have tried to state to the House how it really stands, and I thank the hon. Member sincerely for raising the question, and I realise the importance of it.

9.2 p.m.


We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his interesting and informative historical survey, which it is well to have on the records of the House, but I do not think he has really met, at any rate, our criticism of the present position. I was surprised at his taking cover under the precedent of the Labour Government.


That was only an illustration.


We attach importance to the Secretaries of State presiding over the great spending Departments being in this House. We are quite willing to part with the Secretary of State for the Colonies. He has earned promotion and ennobling by long and arduous service and, no doubt, would ornament another place with distinction. I will not say that about the Secretary of State for the Dominions, but he, too, may find an opportunity to go to another place. If it is necessary to have two Secretaries of State in the House of Lords, it is more according to precedent that the Secretary of State for India or the Colonies or the Dominions should be there. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the precedent of the Labour Government making the unfortunate mistake of having a spending Department represented in another place. I would remind him that that was at a time of drastic economy in armaments, when we still adhered to the ten-year rule of peace, and when it was understood that these Departments were to be more or less static.

Why we feel so strongly is that we are now embarking, rightly or wrongly, under pressure of the international situation, upon expenditure on an almost unprecedented scale, on commitments which, up to the present, have not even been assessed. We attach great importance particularly to the Admiralty and the Air being represented by the Secretary of State in the House of Commons where we can properly criticise them in a way that is impossible when Departments are merely represented by an Under-Secretary. For that reason only we seriously object to the present policy. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) also pointed out that there was no particular reason for either of these right hon. Gentlemen being in another place. They held safe seats by very large majorities, are comparatively young men, and apparently still full of activity and energy enough to justify them in holding these two responsible positions. What seems unfortunate is that it was found necessary to translate them away from the control of the House of Commons to the calm and uncritical atmosphere of another place. The most important function still of the House of Commons is to control the purse strings. That has been our claim from time immemorial, and therefore, in spite of history and of the precedent of the Labour Government, we lodge our protest against the representatives of great spending Departments being in another place.

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