HC Deb 12 March 1941 vol 369 cc1338-49
Mr. Ellis Smith

I beg to move, in page 2, line 7, after "made," to insert: they shall be submitted to a Select Committee of the House of Commons for examination and report and if such report be agreed to by the House of Commons then. I was struck by a phrase used by the Chancellor this morning, when announcing a concession. He said, "In order that Parliament may exercise its functions" That is the purpose of this Amendment. The publication of the White Paper along with the Bill was a big step in the right direction, which has been generally appreciated, and particularly so on this side. We have to consider this Amendment against the background that the Regulations and the Rules are a legacy from one of the darkest days in the history of modern Parliaments. In order that Parliament may be allowed to function as it should, we contend that the machinery suggested in the Amendment should operate. As the Bill has had its Second Reading, we do not propose that the Regulations should be cut out altogether, but we seek to make the Legislature the supreme authority in this country. Parliament has not been the supreme authority in the past when dealing with regulations of this kind. This Amendment would enable the elected representatives of the people to examine the proposed Regulations, and to report upon them to Parliament. The Regulations, according to the Bill, are to be framed by the Assistance Board, and then submitted to Parliament. They cannot be rejected by Parliament; they can be amended, but, in practice, they are accepted. Is that considered satisfactory? In addition to the Regulations, the rules and instructions should be submitted to a Select Committee of this House.

Eighteen months ago scores of regulations went through this House in a few minutes. It was the desire of the whole House to be well prepared, and therefore, the regulations were allowed to go through, because of their urgency, without a word of comment. That is not the position in regard to these Regulations. Various interpretations have been put upon such regulations in the past. For example, I once found, on putting a question to the Minister of Labour, that payments made by the Unemployment Assistance Board to applicants varied in different administrative areas, to the extent of shillings per week. A procedure that allows such various interpretations of regulations cannot be considered satisfactory. The elected representatives of the people in Parliament should be armed with a Select Committee's report, so that it might be known what that Committee intended; and then people would not have to depend on what some officer desired. I have read the reports of all the Select Committees which have been set up during the past few years, and my experience is that more detailed examination of facts than has been given by those Committees could not be desired. Their conclusions have been as clear as conclusions possibly could be. If such a procedure were agreed to, and hon. Members from all parts of the House were elected to the Committee because of their special knowledge of this problem, the Committee would be able to present a report to the House, upon which the Minister, if he thought certain changes necessary, could make those changes before the Regulations were passed by this House; and then every Member could go into the country armed with the Committee's report, and face the administrators with proof of what the Legislature desired.

Such a Committee would bring about a more democratic working of the Regulations. At present, the Board make the Regulations. When the Regulations come before the House there is controversy over them, but in the end they are accepted. Such controversy is bound to find expression outside. I contend that this procedure would eliminate a good deal of that controversy. At present, the Regulations are drawn in such a way that the elected representatives of the people are not, in reality, the final authority. The power to reject regulations has proved illusory. We want to democratise the procedure, in order to prevent that. Hon. Members will recall the Emergency Powers Regulations that were introduced here about 12 months ago. Because of the indignation that they aroused, the then Home Secretary, much to his credit, withdrew them. He said, "Let a number of us gather around a table" Representatives of all parties discussed the regulations for days, with representatives of the Home Office. As a result agreement was reached, and the regulations, in their amended form, went through without any discussion at all.

That was a good step taken by the then Home Secretary, and we want to make that the normal procedure under this Bill, and it is for that reason that we propose this Amendment. At present the initiative is left with the Board all the time. As I understand the Bill, if changes are proposed, the initiative will come from the Board, and we contend that that is not satisfactory but that it should come from the Minister, and then any changes suggested in the Regulations should be submitted to a Select Committee of this kind in order that the House and the Minister should have the benefit of the full experience of the hon. Members sitting upon such a committee. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kelvingrove (Mr. Elliot), when Minister of Health, speaking in this House, on 1st March, 1940, said: The fundamental point of administration raised by the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith) was that as people reach three score years and ten it is a matter of general knowledge that their circumstances and, indeed their bodily constitutions change … and for that reason it is necessary that the administration should take account of these special circumstances. I can give the assurance in the fullest sense that I have that in mind. … The personal requirements of the members of the families must be taken into account. … They must be dealt with specially by the Board l)y a special technique and by a special degree: of sympathy—and it will be my object to administer the regulations along those lines."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1940; col. 2475, Vol. 357.] The Committee on this occasion wants to make sure that the spirit and intention of this kind of words will find expression in the administration of the Regulations and the Rules, and, therefore, we say that in order to make sure of that, the Regulations and Rules should be submitted to a Select Committee of this House, so that Parliament would be the supreme authority in these matters.

Mr. Graham White

If Parliament is prepared to tolerate that these Regulations should be drafted and made by a body which is independent of Parliament, and on their initiative only and not on the initiative of any Minister, whoever sits upon that bench, it is perhaps rather a small thing to be talking about the arrangement for a review of regulations made by such a body. We all know the origin of the Unemployment Assistance Board and the political motives which were in the minds of Members when it was set up. It was set up in order to take the question out of politics. It did not take it very far. As somebody said, it only took it from Whitehall to Trafalgar Square. It is well worth remembering that the first set of Regulations the Board made on its own initiative were rejected summarily by public opinion and by this House. I do not attach the greatest amount of importance to this Amendment for that reason. It is no good straining at the gnat if you are prepared to swallow the camel, but I think the Amendment is on the right lines, and, if my hon. Friend forces it to a Division, I shall support it and recommend my hon. Friends to do the same.

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr)

I rise to support this Amendment, because I am led to believe that as an alternative to the present method it would be extremely advantageous. My hon. Friend who moved the Amendment has complained, as others have complained earlier, of the lack of uniformity that exists in the administration of the Regulations that are issued from time to time. The Amendment certainly gives this House, through a Committee of its own representatives, an opportunity not only to examine and re- port to the House upon the nature and the content of these Regulations, but also to scrutinise instructions that are issued from time to time and which become absolutely secret within the different area and divisional offices that exist under the Unemployment Assistance Board. There-is not a shadow of doubt as to secret instructions, unless area officers have gone out of their way deliberately to mislead me.

I will give one example. I remember noting in my constituency the beginnings of the administration of the last Act dealing with supplementary pensions to old age pensioners, and I was amazed at the administration and the conditions that apparently governed decisions. In a part of my constituency there are two area officers. I allowed things to go on for several weeks before I approached the area officer. The first thing that I put to him was, "Tell me upon what principles you decide the question of dependency of an old age pensioner," and I gave him a concrete case. It was that of a person who had been in receipt of a pension for about nine or ten months. He had had a housekeeper living with him since the death of his wife 23 years previously. She had assisted in bringing up the children, all of whom had left home. Having been compelled to give up his work, he received his pension at 65. It was not enough to support both the housekeeper and himself, and he had to have recourse to public assistance. To my amazement, I was told that so far as dependency was concerned, it meant dependency actually at the time the Act became operative. The fact that this old age pensioner had worked for over 20 years and had supported his housekeeper who had helped to bring up his children was completely ignored. I said, "That is amazing. There is nothing in the Act of Parliament that suggests that that is the definition of dependency." The official replied quite haughtily, no doubt thinking that he had got me. He told me that the instruction had been issued by my personal friend, who happens to be the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour, but if such an instruction was issued, it cuts absolutely across the whole spirit of that Act and everything that was said by every spokesman representing the Government at that time. If that instruction was issued, I say it was a piece of malicious, sharp practice and an attempt at undoing what this House intended should be done within the limits of an Act of Parliament as understood and interpreted by the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health. I remember the spirit she tried to put in the Bill when it was under discussion, and when instructions of that kind are given against the whole spirit of the Bill, and in such a way that there is nothing in the Bill to justify a Regulation of that kind, I am of the opinion that this House should control, far more than it does control at the moment, the question of these Regulations.

In my constituency there are two area offices, and I must confess that the standard of administration in these offices could hardly be more different if one was in my constituency and the other in the Shetland Islands. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of this Bill with the Minister of Labour to have regard to that temperament which plays a great deal in the administration of an Act of Parliament such as we are discussing to-day. There are many exceptions, I know, but if you have an incompetent area officer who is overwhelmed by fear and is full of inhibitions, you cannot get the standard of administration which is expected. I am strongly of the opinion that with closer and constant supervision on the part of a Select Committee of this House a great deal of that and the misunderstanding and resentment which has been caused would be eliminated.

Mr. McLean Watson (Dunfermline)

This is an Amendment which ought to appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because I am certain that if he and his right hon. and gallant Friend the Financial Secretary were looking after the interests of the nation, they would accept this Amendment for a Select Committee. The Select Committee need not be set up yet awhile—say, for two months—and it could be told that it need not hurry over the job on hand. It could talk about the thing quite leisurely, and it would not suffer, but the people who would suffer are the hundreds of thousands who would benefit under this particular Bill. Despite the fact that my hon. Friend has the support of the Liberal party, I am not supporting this Amendment, although that is not to say that I agree with the procedure we have in this House with regard to Regulations. I do not agree with the House either having to accept or reject Regulations but, faced as I am to-day with the proposition which affects this Bill, I am not voting for this Amendment.

I want this Bill to be put on the Statute Book at the earliest possible moment, and so far as the Regulations are concerned, I am prepared to risk administration by those who have been administering the Assistance Board's affairs up to now. I know there have been charges of maladministration, but these are matters which can be handled by the heads of the Department. There is no reason why Regulations, which have been interpreted in a certain way and the certain amount of latitude which has been given to officers to interpret them in any way they like, should go on. I think there ought to be more uniformity in the administration of these Regulations than there has been up to now. On the Second Reading of this Bill I said that we claimed the right to put down certain Amendments, but much of that need has been removed by the Chancellor's opening statement to-day. He indicated a certain relaxation, and the only thing that concerns me is to get this Measure passed at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. S. O. Davies

Is my hon. Friend not aware that after the passing of this Bill one month will pass before Regulations are placed on the Table? In that time we think that the procedure we have suggested would work itself out nicely.

Mr. Watson

My hon. Friend is proposing that the Draft Regulations should be submitted to a Select Committee. I believe that we shall have the Regulations in less than a month, but even supposing it is a month, it is proposed that a Select Committee should consider these Draft Regulations. I am not prepared to support a proposal which will hand over to a Select Committee a matter of this kind, on which they may sit for weeks. My hon. Friend has his opinion about that, and I am expressing mine. I want to see the Chancellor shelling out money to these old age pensioners as soon as possible.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

The particular objection to this Amendment which has fallen from my hon. Friend is the sort of thing one generally expects from Tory Members of this House, and, therefore, I can understand his being shocked to learn that the Liberals are supporting it. We are always told by the Tories, "It is all very well to talk, but the time for this is not opportune, at the moment." Here we have my hon. Friend so anxious to oppose this Amendment without really looking at the merits of it as an Amendment that he is even prepared to assume that the Government would obstruct and delay the proceedings of the Select Committee. I am sure the Government do not want any tribute from me, but I am equally sure that as far as they want to go in this Bill, they want to go expeditiously. If this Amendment commends itself to the Committee on its merit, I do not see any reason why the Select Committee should not operate without any delay. It is very much better to have good Regulations a fortnight late, than to have bad Regulations for a fang time.

I should like to say a few words on the merits of the Amendment. It has been pointed out that this type of legislation is being passed to take the dole out of politics. I think that the many horrors, abuses, cruelties, injustices, resentments and inconsistencies that have marked this tragic error in the administration of the social services of this country during the last few years contain one very good lesson. They show us that control by Parliament is a very good thing. Therefore, any Amendment, even though it be a little exceptional or anomalous, which tends to increase the control of Parliament over an important part of the social services, has my support. There is great resentment in the country against Departmental legislation as such, and a great deal of that resentment is perhaps rather ill-informed, for we simply could not, at any time during the last 20 years, have got through our business without having a great deal of Departmental legislation in the form of regulations, rules, and so forth. Still, the more control Parliament can keep over those rules and regulations, the better.

I think nearly everybody agrees, and certainly the purists who want to see a full measure of Parliamentary control assert with great vigour, that the method of bringing forward Regulations which the House can only reject or accept is bad, on the whole, although it may not be easy to think out a better method for general use. The fact that hon. Members cannot amend the Regulations means in practice that the Regulations that come before the House do not get any real Parliamentary check. There have been some remarkable exceptions, as, for instance, Regulation 18B, and other Regulations of the summer of last year. However, in general, the check is bad, insufficient and clumsy. Therefore, in this case, which is a very important one, the suggestion is made that, as an additional check, the Regulations should go before a Select Committee, that that Committee should examine them and report on them, and that then they should come before the House in the report of the Select Committee. The proposal seems to me to have a great many merits and to fall nicely between the impossibility of putting the Regulations in the Bill and the unsatisfactory procedure of not having any real Parliamentary control over them. If the Amendment is taken to a Division, I shall support it.

Sir K. Wood

The Government have given a good deal of consideration to the best way of improving the old position concerning Regulations. We felt, in the first place, that it was unsatisfactory that a Bill should be presented to the House without hon. Members being aware of what the Regulations were to be, because in this Bill, and in a number of other Bills dealing with this subject, it is the Regulations that really matter. Consequently, we decided to make a considerable change, and that change had two objects. The first object was that at the time the Bill was presented the draft Regulations should be presented, and that in those draft Regulations there should be inserted what it was then the intention of the Government to put into the Regulations. The advantage of that method, as we have seen to-day, was that the House would not consider the matter without a knowledge of what was to happen. By this means, and after my statement concerning concessions, hon. Members have had a pretty clear picture of the whole thing. The second object, which has also been achieved, was that this method would give hon. Members an opportunity of bringing informed criticism to bear and making known to the Government their wishes concerning the Regulations. There- fore, in the first place, every hon. Member, in discussing the Bill, has known the whole of the story, and secondly, as we have seen, the fact that hon. Members have known this has enabled them to present their views and achieve a very considerable alteration of the original Regulations.

The question of Regulations, and the fact that the House must either accept or reject them, has been examined by at any rate one important committee. It is not accurate to say that the fact that the House is not able to amend Regulations in any way means that the House has no control over them. I could give a number of instances to show that this is not so. I can recall one instance in connection with this subject where pressure was so considerable and strong that the Government had to take the course of entirely withdrawing the Regulations because of the opposition expressed in the House. Hon. Members may say, "Let us have some system by which Amendments can be moved to Regulations" If hon. Members will look at the Report of Lord Donoughmore's Committee, which went into this matter with a great deal of care, I think they will come to the conclusion that the only way in which one could secure Amendments to Regulations would be to present the Regulations as a Schedule to the Bill. This would mean that there would be a Second Reading of the Bill and that then there would follow the Committee stage, with the Regulations attached, and so on; and in a very large number of cases, of course, this would mean undue delay and an unnecessary waste of Parliamentary time. We thought that by the present arrangement we should be able to get the Regulations through quickly, but that at the same time we should give the House, as we have done, an opportunity of bringing to bear upon the Government certain influences.

I come now to the present proposal, which was not for a moment contemplated by Lord Donoughmore's Committee. Let us put on one side the arguments that have been made concerning interpretation and secrecy. The mere fact that a Select Committee examined the Regulations would make no difference concerning interpretation, which would still rest with the House or with the courts, as the case might be. As to secrecy, the appointment of a Select Committee would make no difference. If the Government decided that the Rules or Regulations should be available to Parliament, it would make no difference whether a Select Committee had dealt with the matter. Moreover, the Select Committee would be examining draft Regulations which obviously would not be in their final form. The main objection from a constitutional point of view to having a Select Committee is that, while it is true that the House is the supreme authority, there is the constitutional position of the Government as far as finance is concerned. That is the main reason; it would not be in keep-in? with our Parliamentary practice. When the Government have taken the responsibility for presenting Regulations which, in the main, affect finance, it would not be in keeping with the constitutional position of the House, which has worked fairly and well, that a Select Committee should examine the proposals with a view to reporting to the House. In such a case the proper course would be for the Government to take responsibility for the financial proposals.

Consequently, if we pin ourselves to this suggestion, a' considerable delay will be involved without, as far as I can see, achieving very much. If this procedure is put into operation, the Select Committee would have to sit and then report to the House. The Select Committee's Report would then have to be considered by the House, and after that we should have to come to the original stages of this Bill. After all that had taken place, the Regulations would have to be considered. Therefore while I appreciate the argument put forward I think, in view of the constitutional position, it is better to preserve the interests of Parliament and those in particular of the people who are to benefit from these provisions. I do not see any advantage in interposing extra machinery of this character which really does not take the matter any further. On the whole, while I appreciate the attitude and point of view of my hon. Friend, I think, in the interests of the people who are to benefit, and in view of the fact that when Parliament wishes to be supreme it can always be so, it is better to adopt the procedure suggested.

Mr. E. Smith

I am satisfied that we have the remarks of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on record, and in view of what he has said I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.