HC Deb 04 February 1937 vol 319 cc1832-43

5.38 p.m.

Mr. Pickthorn

I beg to move, in page 4, line 3o, to leave out from "Crown" to the end of the Sub-section.

I do not wish to discuss at any length—nor am I sure that it would be in order to do so—the wisdom of the general policy of endeavouring in this Bill to provide for all future contingencies. But I wish to make one remark upon that general policy. It clearly involves the risk that you may think you have been more successful than in fact you have been. There is the risk that if you think you have legislated for all possible contingencies, you may then go to sleep on this question and may find yourself suddenly faced with a contingency for which no provision has been made. As the Committee has accepted the general policy of legislating on this occasion, so to speak, ad infinitum instead of ad hoc, as has been usual in this connection, we ought to be particularly anxious to avoid the risk involved in principle which I have indicated. The words which I propose to leave out are: or if the number of such persons next in the line of succession is less than four, then all such persons. I do not wish to discuss, because I do not think it could usefully be discussed except at great length, the meaning of the words "line of succession" and I shall only offer this remark. The form of words in the Bill may, not unreasonably I think, excite in some minds the suspicion that one view of "line of succession" is being taken for granted and that not at all clearly the better view. The purpose, no doubt, of these two lines in the Sub-section is to avoid the necessity of making or even considering further provision when a particular position has arisen. The position envisaged here is this—that the Sovereign, on the hypothesis of the Clause, is absent or ill and that there are fewer than four persons who are obviously, and by general agreement, next in the line of succession. The Bill proposes that when such a situation has arisen, things shall go on without any further consideration, although the Sovereign is absent or ill and although there are fewer than four, it may be only one or two persons, obviously in the immediate line of succession.

I submit that that is precisely a situation in which, at least consideration should be given to the question of making further provision. If we leave these words in the Bill it will be easy to say, "Now, all the contingencies in connection with the Regency and the possibilities of the total or partial incapacity of a Sovereign have been thought of and arranged for, and we need do no more about it." If the words are omitted however, it will not be possible to work the Measure unless it is certain that there are four, five, or more persons in the line of succession. The effect of omitting the words, I think, would be that if we got to a point at which the Sovereign was absent or ill or likely to be absent or ill, and if at that time we were not clear who was third or fourth or fifth in the line of succession, then, so to speak, an alarm bell would automatically ring somewhere. I imagine that someone in the Home Office at that point would feel it his duty to remind his Parliamentary chief that this Measure would be unworkable unless further provision were made and that thereupon the Cabinet would consider what provision should be made.

What I am inviting the Committee to do is to consider whether such automatic warning be not highly desirable. God—if I may be allowed to use that convenient monosyllable to denote whatever force beyond our control influences human events—moves in a mysterious way, and Azrael is the least predictable of his ministers. When you get to a point at which you do not know, beyond two or three, who are in the line of succession, you may suddenly be deprived of anybody who can exercise the functions of the Crown and at that point, there ought to be an unescapable and automatic warning that the matter requires examination. In some circumstances, I can imagine that even at that moment further provision would not be necessary, but that is precisely the moment when the responsible authority ought to be, I will not say compelled to make further provision, but at least confronted with a reminder that the question requires consideration. I therefore move this Amendment.

5.43 p.m.

Mr. Maxton

It may be convenient to the right hon. Gentleman if I ask a question on this Clause now. The functions indicated here are not, I imagine, of a very important kind. Presumably in the circumstances for which this Clause provides, the Sovereign is within call and fit to perform at least the task of speaking to some of the people who are close to him. But in considering the point just raised by the hon. Member, I was not concerned with the long-term considerations which he mentioned. I simply want from the Home Secretary some information, for myself and for people outside who may be interested, as to who would be the Counsellors of State at this moment should this contingency arise. There is the wife of the Sovereign and four other persons. I can think as far as two, but beyond that my ideas on the subject are vague, and I should like to know who are the five Counsellors of State as persons when we set out to meet these particular circumstances.

5.45 p.m.

Sir J. Simon

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) has taken a very fine point, and I hope that I understood it correctly. First, he points out that it is extremely unlikely that the number of persons next in line of succession will be at any time less than four. I agree that that is so, but, at the same time, it is as well that the possibility, remote as it may be, should be legislated for. There is always a danger when making a general enactment intended to cover every conceivable case that in the course of time there might be some possible development which has not been provided for. The hon. Gentleman's second point, as I understood it, was that these words gave some support to the view that the line of succession of those who claim to be of Royal blood was limited.

Mr. Pickthorn

As I am invited to interrupt: the point I was making was that not only is the possibility very remote of there being less than four in the line of succession, but I am inclined to think that there is no such possibility at all. By legislating against such a contingency you seem to me to run the risk of two evils. One evil is that you make it more likely that it may be assumed without question that the possible lines are fewer than they properly are, and that only descendants of Sophia can possibly succeed. The second evil is that if it is right to suppose you can get down to less than four, then you may do so and still go on believing that every contingency has been provided for when, say, the Sovereign goes to India to attend the Durbar, and there are only two persons left in the line of succession; but the Sovereign may be drowned on the way home, and, of the two persons at home, one may be run over by a bus and the other run over by a taxicab and there would be no means of getting on at all.

Sir J. Simon

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend who has made his point a little clearer to me, but I must say that the better course seems to me to be to provide against this contingency, even if it is remote. It may be that you cannot be certain of preventing that situation and that if it came to a situation of that kind, Parliament would consider it and deal with it. But that is no reason why we should not make the best provision now that we can devise. In answer to the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton), I think that at this moment the five Counsellors would be Her Majesty the Queen, the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent, the Princess Royal and Princess Arthur of Connaught.

5.52 p.m.

Mr. Croom-Johnson

I want to put another point of view. As I understand, what is suggested by the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pick-thorn), we are legislating for an extremely remote contingency. It is so remote that it is apparent that something quite unusual and unexpected will have to happen. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says that we ought to legislate for that. I beg to suggest that that is just the case we ought not to legislate for. Something so remote and unusual would obviously have to happen to produce what is envisaged in this Subsection, that it is an occasion that we ought to leave to be dealt with at the time when it comes up, and that we ought not to take this leap in the dark. I put this converse argument to that which has been addressed to the Committee, and I hope the Home Secretary will again consider it.

Mr. Pickthorn

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: In page 4, line 35, leave out, "not being less than three."—[Sir J. Simon.]

5.54 p.m.

The Attorney-General

I beg to move, in page 4, line 40, at the end, to insert: so, however, that in relation to a Regent Sub-section (2) of this Section shall have effect as if after the word 'next,' where that word first occurs therein, there were inserted the words 'after the Regent.' This and the previous Amendment will make it clear that where there is a Regent and the occasion arises for the appointment of Counsellors of State, the Regent should not himself be included by the terms of this Bill as one of the Counsellors. In the earlier Sub-section we considered the case of the Sovereign going abroad, and his Counsellors of State would naturally include the person who would be Regent. This Amendment will bring the earlier Clauses into line in the event of them having to be used in the case where there is a Regent.

Mr. Pickthorn

May I ask whether it will be possible, before the Bill is finally passed, to rearrange the drafting so that we shall not legislate by reference from one sub-section to another?

Mr. Lees-Smith

That was a point I was about to ask the Attorney-General to consider. The reason for the Amendment is logical, but it makes the last section of the Bill almost unintelligible, and I should like to ask the Attorney-General whether he can so arrange it as to make the Bill simpler to follow.

5.56 p.m.

The Attorney-General

I appreciate that when one first sees the Clause, it looks a little obscure. On the other hand if we read sub-section (2) in the case where a Regent appoints Counsellors of State and after the word "next," insert the words "after the Regent" it naturally excludes him as a Counsellor of State, and it is not very difficult to follow. This is not one of those Bills that large numbers of people all over the country will have to consult and construe in order to know how to run their daily businesses. It does not deal with very frequent or likely circumstances, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman might allow us to have it in this form, for when it is printed and set out it will not be very obscure.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

5.57 p.m.

Mr. Mander

I wish to draw attention to a matter that I endeavoured to cover by an Amendment, namely, the provision at the end of Sub-section (1) where the Sovereign has power to delegate to the Counsellors of State all his powers with two exceptions, namely, the dissolution of Parliament and the creation of peerages, although in the former case he can do it by telegraph. My suggestion is that the Clause in its present form might not work satisfactorily, and that the Home Secretary should consider whether the creation of peerages ought not also to be possible by telegraph. I will give two instances where it might be convenient. The first is not very serious, but the second might be. Suppose we had a situation in this country by which it was necessary again, as happened in 1832 and 1911, in circumstances well known to my right hon. Friend, in which the Prime Minister thought fit to advise the Sovereign to create peers in order to over-ride the obstruction of another place. It might be very difficult if the Sovereign were in Australia for the constitution to function in such a case. I know that it may be said that such a situation would be foreseen for a long time ahead, and that we should gradually approach it, and that the Crown would take good care not to be out of the country. That is possible, and I do not press this case.

I think that the other case, however, is a much more serious one. Suppose we had the circumstances of the dissolution of 1905. When the Conservative Government resigned and the new Liberal Government took office, with a general election in January, 1906, the Conservative Government no doubt had certain dissolution honours which they desired to confer. The new Government certainly desired to put some of their Ministers in another place and to retain others in the Commons, in order to keep a proper balance. Circumstances of that kind may well arise again. Surely it would be very awkward, if the Sovereign were in Australia and the dissolution had not been foreseen—because dissolutions sometimes come suddenly—that while he could grant a dissolution by telegram he should be unable to give permission by telegram to the retiring Government or to the new Government to create new peerages. I think that might present a practical difficulty, and I hope that my right hon. Friend, who was so conciliatory about my other suggestion, will be good enough to consider this point also.

6.2 p.m.

Mr. Logan

A few days ago I raised a point in regard to these words: which may be conveyed by telegraph and although I mentioned it then in connection with certain coupons, which may not have been appropriate to the case I was discussing, I want to point out that if the instructions for a dissolution are to come by telegram there is no provision for making certain that it was the Sovereign who had sent the telegram. It is apparent from what we are doing that we want to bring ourselves up to date, but may I suggest that if we are really to be up to date we must be sure of the authenticity of these communications, especially when it is a case of the dissolution of Parliament. That is a very important matter, and if sanction for a dissolution is given there ought to be no doubt whatever that the telegram is a genuine one. Would it not be possible for a special courier to be sent by aeroplane carrying the mandate of the Sovereign for a dissolution? I am not concerned with the question of conferring honours, but if the dissolution of this House were brought about by a bogus telegram it might have a startling effect. If my memory serves me aright there was once a red letter which brought about a dissolution of Parliament, and I have never yet been able to solve the riddle of that red letter, but the fact remains that a dissolution took place. In these days, when it is possible for a monarch to be certified under the phrase "or otherwise," it is possible that telegrams may be authentic or otherwise, and we might have one sent which was not authentic. There are many jesters nowadays, a multiplicity of them, and they are not all on the stage, and it would be a great practical joke to go down in history if some practical joking politician were to send an order for the dissolution of Parliament.

The hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) was forecasting circumstances in which the occurrence of three deaths might lead us into a quandary. One telegram might create a quandary. It is not beyond the realms of possibility for a bogus telegram to be sent. We may wish to modernise our methods but let us not try to move too quickly. I do not think it ought to be within the power of anybody, by the use of the morse code or any other form of telegraphy, to bring about a dissolution of this House and get rid of the lot. If the Monarch were absent, surely there would be accredited messengers attached to his Royal person, there would be couriers. When we are dealing with the affairs of this House and of the Constitution we really ought to know where we stand. It may suit the right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of the Bill to be able to get on with the business, from the point of view of despatch, but I think that between now and the Third Reading consideration ought to be given to the question whether this particular paragraph should be differently worded. I should like to see the words "which may be conveyed by telegraph" deleted and something more appropriate put in their place.

Sir John Withers

I should like to point out that in any case such a telegram would, without doubt, be sent in private code. It would not be sent openly. There must be a private code which the Sovereign would use in communicating with the Home Office.

6.6 p.m.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) expressed his appreciation of my right hon. Friend's attitude towards his earlier suggestion. My right hon. Friend thinks that this time his turn has come, and he does not feel that he can accept the suggestion which is contained in the hon. Member's Amendment. The Committee have heard two speeches, in one of which it was suggested that more use ought to be made of the telegraph and the other taking the view that it ought not to be used as much as is proposed in the Bill. Between those conflicting views we hope that we have hit the happy compromise. The question of a dissolution is one which might arise at short notice. In these days, in whatever part of the world the Sovereign might be, there would probably be facilities for actual conversation over the telephone between him and his Prime Minister, but there might be places from which the Royal authority could only be sent satisfactorily and in an authentic manner by telegram. Such a telegram would, of course, come in code, and in these days there can be little doubt as to the authenticity of information obtained by telegraph. There is a general impression abroad that England has lost the last test match and that is the result of a telegraphic communication.

The Committee will recall the important Preamble to the Abdication Act, which referred to the Assent of the Dominions having been obtained, and that, assent was secured as the result of telegraphic communications. Therefore, in answer to the point put forward by the hon. Member for the Scotland division (Mr. Logan), we think that to meet the case where a dissolution might be required at shorter notice than would enable a personal communication to be made we should retain the words which allow assent to he given by telegraph. We do not think there is the slightest risk of receiving a forged or bogus authority in answer to a request by the Prime Minister for authority for a dissolution. The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton wants to extend the use of the telegraph, and he mentioned two cases in which it might be used. One, which he did not press very much was concerned with a possible creation of peers in similar circumstances to those in which peers were not, in fact, created either in 1832 or 1911.

Mr. Mander

Their creation was authorised.

The Attorney-General

They were not in fact created, but, no doubt, circumstances might have arisen in which they would have been created. They were created, I think, in somewhat similar circumstances in the Reign of Queen Anne.

Mr. Mander

We are using precise language, and I should say that authority for their creation was given by the Crown.

The Attorney-General

What the hon. Member is envisaging is a situation similar to that which arose in 1832 and in 1911 resulting—though it was not the case on either of those occasions—in the necessity for the actual creation of peers. My right hon. Friend reminds me that the existence of the Parliament Act makes that contingency still more remote. But leaving that apart for the moment, it is obvious, as history shows, that such a situation is one of which everyone has very long notice. It is not a question of action having to be taken overnight, or even within a period of a month or two months. There would be long notice, and proper steps could be taken to deal with it if such an eventuality did arise. Slightly different considerations apply to the hon. Member's second point, which was concerned with conferring dissolution honours and raising to the peerage Ministers who might desire to be in another place. There would be no vital difficulty in delaying the actual announcement of the dissolution honours.

We can get authenticated documents to and from distant parts of the world in a comparatively short time, and those who might be considered as properly entitled to dissolution honours could well be asked to wait for three or four weeks if the Sovereign were absent, say, in Australia. As to the position of Ministers who might wish to go to another place, we know that it takes some time after a dissolution before Parliament is elected and back again at Westminster, and any who received peerages to take them to another place would have to wait that period before they could have the chance of performing their functions in another place. I think the hon. Member will come to the conclusion that there is really no likelihood of actual difficulties arising and that the machinery in this Clause provides, on the whole, the most appropriate procedure.

6.14 p.m.

Mr. Maxton

This part of the Clause which we are discussing gives to the Sovereign some power which presumably he did not have before, and that is power to give his assent, by telegram, to the dissolution of Parliament. Am I to understand from the right hon. Gentleman's answer to the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) that the Sovereign is debarred from raising a person to the dignity of the Peerage by telegram? As I have admitted, I do not know much about these things. If His Majesty were in Australia and, say, the Chief Patronage Secretary had done something wonderful—[Laughter]. I take the most unlikely case so that there can be no misunderstanding, and I would not mind if the Patronage Secretary were promoted to the other place any day—and suppose that His Majesty felt that that act on the part of the Patronage Secretary, or of his chief lieutenant, was of such a sort as to merit His Majesty's special recognition; is the right hon. Gentleman telling us that it would be impossible for His Majesty to intimate by telegraph the elevation of the Patronage Secretary, so that we would have the good news at the earliest possible moment?

6.16 p.m.

The Attorney-General

I can easily imagine that such an announcement might be made, but my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary could not get his full deserts except under a Warrant autho- rising the Lord Chancellor to pass the necessary Letters Patent under the Great Seal, and that would have to be duly authenticated by His Majesty.

Clauses 7 and 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.