HC Deb 24 August 1939 vol 351 cc98-102

8.52 p.m.

Mr. Benn

I beg to move, in page 8, line 14, to leave out Sub-section (2), and to insert: (2) Any such Order-in-Council as afore- said shall cease to have effect on the expiration of a period of twenty-eight days beginning with the day on which the Order is made, unless at some time before the expiration of that period it has been approved, with or without modification, by a Resolution of both Houses of Parliament, without prejudice, however, to the validity of anything previously done under the Order or to the making of a new Order. In reckoning any period of twenty-eight days for the purpose of this Sub-section, no account shall be taken of any time during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued, or during which Parliament is adjourned for more than four days. In raising these Amendments I may point out that we may actually be able to improve the legislation and that therefore we can get better legislation from this democratic Assembly than that which is made by the decree of a dictator. My complaint against the Government is that the Minister is trying to represent this Bill as full of safeguards whereas, in point of fact, it is almost completely without safeguards, except for the purpose of obtaining Supply. There is nothing in the Bill which was not in the resolution passed in the Reichstag in 1933, in order to give power to the Minister to legislate, except in the matter of Supply. The Minister for whom we have a great affection and in whom we have great trust has given a great many undertakings, all of them worthless. We have had many under takings of that character in the past, particularly in 1911 and 1920, in connection with Measures which were both Official Secrets Acts. The same assurances were then given as to how they would be administered, but once the power is given to the Department it is no longer a question of the personality of the Minister. Therefore, I say that, much as we welcome what the Minister has said and accept the assurances of his own personal conduct, those assurances have no sort of value so far as this legislation is concerned.

We are asked to give dictatorial powers —to whom? I do not want to do anything to disturb the atmosphere of unity, but the answer is that the power is to be given to a small group of men who have led this country practically to the brink of disaster. That is an observation that I cannot refrain from making. What we ask is that when the proposed regulations are made they shall come to this House of Commons in order that we may look at them and our approval be given to them and, if necessary, amendment be made. What can be more reasonable than a demand of that kind? The Home Secretary has put into Clause 4—I think it is —that when it comes to some twopenny-halfpenny charge to be made by the Treasury there shall be that kind of control. I think it is in Clause 4, but nobody has had time properly to read the Bill. All interest in Parliamentary fighting has gone. Nobody will want to be in this House unless they are old like some of us. When the Treasury makes a regulation to impose charges it is to be submitted to the House for approval. Why cannot the same thing be done with the other regulations? Let us at any rate retain this vestige of Parliamentary democracy for which we are just about to ask others to fight. Let us at least retain that. What possible objection could there be to having these regulations laid before the House so that the House may say "Yes," or "Yes, with this amendment"? When disaster comes, is anyone going to stand up here and obstruct the progress of efficient Government? No. Therefore, I say that this Amendment is the least that anyone could ask from a Government which pro fesses to stand—and, I think, does believe it stands—for democracy.

8.56 p.m.

Sir S. Hoare

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said about these being exceptional powers, but I do not agree with him when he says that there is no difference between the Government here getting these powers and the Government in a totalitarian State getting these powers. I think the whole of our proceedings this afternoon has been a contradiction of the suggestion. If this Bill passes on to the Statute Book to-night, it will have been passed not as the act of a dictator, but by the general wish of both Houses of Parliament. I attach all the difference in the world to a state of affairs in which we voluntarily undertake to forgo certain liberties and a state of affairs in which a dictator imposes a tyranny upon citizens who do not desire it. Having made that observation I do not wish to enter in controversy with the right hon. Gentleman. I say to him, with genuine regret, that I cannot accept this Amendment, which, as I said in my Second Reading speech, would so greatly complicate procedure, both from the point of view of the Executive and from the point of view of the House of Commons, and would make it almost impossible to work the Act at all. The House must be content with the laying of the regulations, and with the right to pass negative resolutions, rather than making affirmative resolutions in every case, in accordance with the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman. That simply would not work.

The right hon. Gentleman says, "If you have this provision in respect of the financial charges under Clause 2, why not have it for all the more important regulations?" The answer is twofold. First, the regulations under Clause 2 would be very few and very unimportant, and, secondly, we put in the form of the affirmative resolutions under Clause 2 simply because they relate to financial charges. We took the view that the House of Commons would resent the loss of its control over what really amounts to taxation. That is the sole difference between the regulations under Clause 2 and those under Clause 8.

Mr. Benn

Would it be such a cumbrous process that it would not work?

Sir S. Hoare

I have just said that the financial regulations would be few and comparatively simple. There is all the difference in the world between them and the regulations under Clause 8. In those circumstances, I must ask the Committee to refuse this proposal, and to leave the provisions of the Bill as they stand.

9.1 p.m.

Mr. Foot

I regret that the right hon. Gentleman has not seen his way to accept the Amendment, and it is very difficult for me to accept his reasoning. As I understand the Amendment, it means that when the regulations are made they should come into force immediately, like import duty orders, but that within 28 days, or a longer period if Parliament is not sitting, it should be necessary to obtain the affirmative consent of the two Houses, with or without amendment. There is nothing there to impede the Executive in taking any action which is necessary. It only makes it necessary for the regulations to be brought before the House and for time to be provided for their discussion. We all know how unsatisfactory is the procedure laid down in the Clause, by which no time is provided, but we have to move a Prayer, which will come on at an impossible hour.

The right hon. Gentleman said that a different procedure had been adopted under the other Clause because it was desirable that the House of Commons should maintain its control over taxation, but I should have thought that there were matters covered by Clause 1 which were no less important than control over taxation. We are dealing with measures which affect the liberty of the subject, and I should have thought that that was something with which the House was equally concerned. I want to reiterate what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. K. Griffith) on the Second Reading, that of all parties in the House we, perhaps, regard this Bill with the greatest repugnance. At any other time we should have fought such a Measure line by line and word by word; but, since circumstances make it impossible to do that and force upon us legislation of this kind, it is regrettable that the right hon. Gentle- man has not given us a measure of Parliamentary control.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 9 and 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.