HC Deb 29 April 1937 vol 323 cc557-61

Again considered in Committee.

[Sir ROBERT YOUNG in the Chair.]

Question again proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

4.32 p.m.

Mr. Lewis

I was remarking that while there might be much to be said for having two representatives of the War Office in Parliament, there was no justification for having a third, and I would put this specific question to the Minister who is to reply to the Debate on this Clause. If the Government take the view that an Army of our size requires three Ministers to represent it in Parliament, how many Ministers would they think necessary if we had an Army of the size of the German Army? I would be satisfied with a reply in round figures to the nearest hundred. The question of the over-representation of Departments is important to the House of Commons from two aspects. If an unnecessary Minister is appointed there is, obviously, a waste of public money; but there is another objection which, though not quite so obvious, is, in my view, equally important. Additional Ministers who are not really required extend unnecessarily the patronage of the Crown in this House. It is most undesirable that the power and influence of the executive in this House should be extended by the appointment of unnecessary Ministers. It is a bad thing for Parliamentary institutions if that be allowed. I am sorry that it has not proved possible to raise this point directly by a separate Amendment, but there is still time for the Government to reconsider the matter before Report stage if they think fit to do so, and I would urge that course upon them.

4.34 p.m.

Captain Arthur Evans

The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis) who desires to persuade the Government to reduce the representation of the War Office in this House seems to have forgotten that we are engaged on a very serious programme of rearmament and that the Regular Army and the Territorial Army are not only being remodelled but, in fact, mechanised.

The Chairman (Sir Dennis Herbert)

Owing to the interruption of our proceedings I did not hear all the speech of the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis). I am not sure that I ought not to have stopped the hon. Member for Colchester. This matter was debated, and was the subject of a Division late last night, or in the early hours of this morning.

Captain Evans

But am I not right in assuming that the Question before us is whether Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill, and that Clause relates to the Financial Secretary to the War Office, and that was the point with which I was dealing.

The Chairman

The hon. and gallant Member must remember that there is another rule, which is that if a particular point is decided in Committee, we cannot debate it again on the Committee stage, and this point was debated and decided last night.

4.35 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir John Simon)

I would ask the Committee to let me occupy their attention for a few minutes in the hope that we may shorten this discussion, because there may be a little misapprehension existing in some quarters. The real effect of Clause 2 is to limit, and not to extend, the number of persons who can be appointed Secretaries of State or Under-Secretaries. One or two of the speeches have indicated that hon. Members have thought we were doing something to extend the opportunities, but really the exact opposite is the case. The Office of Secretary of State is an old office without any authority from Parliament at all. The Prerogative could create any number of Secretaries of State, and this Clause provides that the number of persons holding office as Secretaries of State shall not be more than eight, and is, therefore, a limiting and not an extending provision. If we were to count the number of Secretaries of State at the moment it would be found that it is nine and not eight, one of them being the Secretary of State for Burma, but the offices of Secretary of State for Burma and Secretary of State for India are held by the same person. It would seem to me, following the spirit of what my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) was expressing, that the number of persons holding office as Secretaries of State should be limited to eight, and that is a definite limitation and not an extension. The same thing is true with regard to Under-Secretaries. It is quite competent to create Under-Secretaries by the dozen, and it is really a limitation and not an extension of existing powers at which this Clause aims. If the Committee have that in mind I think it may assist them in understanding the purpose of the Clause, which is not, I think, really a very controversial one.

4.37 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I should like to know whether this Clause alters the constitutional position of a Secretary of State in any other way, because I have been studying the document which the Minister of Health introduced to our notice yesterday when he was urging the Chief Whip to find a few docile supporters who could be certain to go into the Lobby in support of the Government. The Minister of Health does not appear to have extended his reading of the document to the evidence, but I have read the whole document, including the evidence, to make sure that the findings were justified by the statements made. Lord Durham, then Lord Privy Seal, was being questioned with regard to his office, and he replied: The hon. Member very well knows that the Secretaries of State are considered only as one, in point of fact, and each individual can perform the duties of all. I understand that until the introduction of this Bill that was still the constitutional position—that while for convenience we call the right hon. Gentleman opposite the Secretary of State for Home Affairs that, as a matter of fact, he could act in any other of the capacities of a Secretary of State. I find that at the time of the sitting of the Select Committee in 1830 there was some difference between the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and that when Lord Durham endeavoured to get some information out of the Home Office the officers pleaded their oaths and refused to give it to him. He said: I was met upon commencing this investigation by a refusal on the part of the clerks, who stated that they were by their oaths, unless released by the Secretary of State, prohibited from giving any information whatever, and thus the matter rests at present. The point then was whether they were able to abolish another office, called the Keeper of the Signet. Is there anything in this Bill which alters the constitutional position that a Secretary of State is not really assigned by the Constitution to any particular office, though for convenience he does, in fact, act in one office, and is there any other way, other than the limitation of the numbers, in which this Clause will operate upon this very ancient office? It is usual to refer to these officers in official documents not as Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary, but as "One of His Majesty's principal Secretaries of State." Is there any alteration as regards that?

4.41 p.m.

Sir J. Simon

The answer is "No"; there is no alteration. The hon. Member is quite right. The position of Secretary of State is, in the eye of the law, a single undivided position. That is the reason why Statutes are drawn with a phrase like "A principal Secretary of State." I think I have mentioned it before in this House, and I hope it will be the last observation that I need make about it, but when I held office as Home Secretary early in the War, and Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, started his fatal journey to Russia, I had sent over to me from the War Office a number of papers which in the ordinary course Lord Kitchener would have signed, and I continued signing them as a Secretary of State.