§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The House will remember that last year it was thought expedient and necessary that Parliament should be continued for a further year, notwithstanding the provisions of the Parliament Act, and the House was good enough to pass the necessary measure. But another year has now passed, and it is therefore necessary for the Government to come to the House and to ask its sanction to the continuation of Parliament for one more year. We did consider last year whether we should have power, subject to the approval of the House, to continue Parliament further by Order in Council, but it was thought that on this vitally-important constitutional matter it was right that postponement should be carried through by legislation, so that the House of Commons would have the fullest rights over the matter. It is in these circumstances that I bring this Bill before the House.
There is one change of drafting in this Bill. It will be seen by Clause I that Section 7 of the Parliament Act, 1911, which provides that five years shall be substituted for seven years as the time fixed for the maximum duration of Parliament under the Septennial Act, 1715, shall not apply to the present Parliament. This is a different form from last year, when we extended the period permitted by the Parliament Act, 1911, by one year. If we were to take that course this time it would be redundant and tautological, because if the Parliament Act, 1911, were not on the Statute Book the period of Parliament would be seven years under the Act of 1715. Therefore, to have followed the drafting of last year's Act would be tantamount to saying that for seven years there shall be substituted seven years. Now, by the present Bill, the provision in the Parliament Act, 1911, is amended, and automatically we fall back on the provisions of the Septennial Act, 1715. What we shall do next year 868 I am not sure, but presumably we shall have to add a year to the limit fixed by the Act of 1715.
The reasons for the Measure are, I think, reasonably clear to the House, and if I address the House shortly on the Bill it will not be through any underestimate of the important constitutional point which is involved in the Bill but because really there is very little to be said. In the first place, it is the case that the reasons which obtained last year still obtain, and among those reasons is the fact that no register of electors has been prepared since 1939. That register, therefore, is at least two years stale; and, moreover, apart from the normal consideration that a register becomes out of date after a time, there is the added difficulty that with military enlistments, the movements of population in industry, evacuation, and so on, the present register must be in rather a bad way. The only thing to do, therefore, would be to have a new register; but owing to the pre-occupation of local registration officers and their staffs with war work of one sort and another, the preoccupation of the appropriate officers in the Departments of State, and to the fact that the political organisations of the parties are very much out of tune, because a large proportion of the political agents are no longer at their posts, I think the House will agree that it would be quite impracticable at the present time to renew and bring up to date the register. I think it would also be generally agreed by the House that in the midst of a great war, and a war of this particular nature, it would be very undesirable to hold a general election, enjoyable in some respects as that diversion always is, and that we must deny ourselves that luxury in the present circumstances; and, indeed, the circumstances are such that it would be almost impossible to produce a representative result. Therefore, I think the House will concur in the view that it really is impracticable to do other than continue the present Parliament for a further year.
The House will remember that last year I did give an undertaking on behalf of the Government that whilst we could not foresee what circumstances would arise, and whilst the power of dissolution of Parliament, of course, does remain, nevertheless it was the wish of the Government that before the time that an election might 869 arise any matters connected with the law which it might be; desired to raise could be raised in the time which would be at our disposal. On that point I do not think I can go further without getting beyond the limitations of this Bill, and the House will recall the undertaking which I gave on behalf of the Government last year and which I now repeat in the form in which it was then given. I do not think I need say anything further. The issue is perfectly simple, and I hope the House will not think that the brevity of this introduction of the Bill in any way suggests any lack of appreciation of the constitutional importance of the issue with which it deals. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading, and to pass it through all its stages as early as may be.
§ Mr. Garro Jones (Aberdeen, North)
I am sure the House will be very glad that the Home Secretary has emphasised the importance of this Bill. Last year a similar Bill was described in another place as an example of the sovereign power of Parliament. To that I would add that it is also an illustration of the principle that the means of effecting every change in the Constitution are to be found within the Constitution itself, and so, in passing this Bill, we are undoubtedly operating on the Constitution. Of all the Bills which come before the House, there are none which we ought to consider more carefully than those which affect the Constitution and of all Bills of this kind none raise a more delicate issue for this House than those which involve the question of deferring an appeal to the electors. The Home Secretary stated that the reasons for the present Bill were perfectly clear. No one will dissent from that view, but however strong may be the case for such a Bill, however obvious and unchallenged may be the reasons for it and however little dissent from it there may be in the country, it is very important that the House should not take for granted that the country will assume the rectitude of our action in passing this Bill. It is, I think, most important that steps should be taken to inform the country of precisely why the Bill is being passed.
It would not be relevant to the Bill to discuss the question of when, after the war, an Election should be held, but, clearly, many of the reasons which impel us now to postpone an Election will be 870 equally applicable for some time after the war. There are, of course, both political and technical reasons to be considered. Nobody can forecast to day what the political conditions will be after the war, but it should be possible to make some kind of exploratory, technical inquiries between now and the time when we shall have to pass another Bill of this character into the difficulties likely to arise when we come to re-establish voters' lists and an Election Register. Questions of great administrative difficulty are involved and it is very desirable that the Government should set up some kind of fact-finding committee in order to prepare the way for the next step.
There are, even to-day, some purely political reasons why we should not hold a General Election. I am not sure whether political reasons can be validly advanced in support of this Bill, but it may do no harm to mention one or two of them. Those of us who have been watching the by-elections have noticed that although, in many cases, there has been complete unanimity among candidates on the paramount issue now before the country, there have been extremely sharp controversies on minor matters of policy. The result has been that the real unity which exists in the nation, has often been obscured by those minor controversies. Clearly, that undesirable tendency would be greatly magnified if we were to hold a General Election at the present time. Hitherto at by-elections we have been spared the sight of candidates whose only method of obtaining votes is to exploit the misery of war, but if the war were prolonged, or if we were to hold a General Election, I think such candidates would be bound to appear. I am not sure that that would be a useful thing for democracy. We all know what their methods of seeking votes would be. It would be to clamour against everything unpopular merely because it is unpopular; to direct attention to every mistake whether the mistake was avoidable or not; to harp on every suffering, whether it was possible to remedy that suffering or not, and, of course, to promise an easy end to the war and to all our troubles.
However, we are, fortunately, not obliged to consider political arguments against the Bill. We have to maintain this Parliament in being owing to the compulsion of circumstances. In other words, 871 the country must make the best and the most of this Parliament because it is administratively impossible at the present time to elect another Parliament with any better mandate. It is to be doubted whether everybody understands how large an administrative task it is to prepare the lists for an Election, even in normal times let alone in times and under conditions such as these. It is necessary to check the qualifications of voters, to prepare and print the lists, to hear objections and appeals, to prepare lists of absent voters and of out-voters—a small but important class. Not one of these essential processes is administratively possible while large masses of the population are shifting. I say nothing about the time of candidates and of workers or even about the time of Ministers, though it would be a risky thing to harass Ministers with double duty even for a month. That is particularly the case when, according to some unkind critics, one or two Ministers are only just equal to their ordinary duties.
That brings me to the last and perhaps the most powerful argument m favour of the Bill. What a military opportunity it would be for the enemies of this country and of democracy, if the country were plunged into a General Election, to throw the whole electoral machinery during those critical hours, into complete confusion, by bombing and machine-gun attacks. If there were no other reason that is one eventuality which we could not afford to face in present circumstances. But whatever may be the reasons for the Bill, and I think they are decisive, I would again emphasise the point that those reasons should be made known to the country and in doing so, we might well point out to the country that although we cannot claim to be a Parliament fresh from the polls, this is by no means a stale or stagnant assembly. In various ways it has suffered wastage on a scale which is surprising to those hon. Members who have tried to work it out and, of course, it has received a steady inflow of new Members. I am afraid I have not myself worked out the total number of new Members who have come into the present Parliament since it was first elected, but I believe that the change-over in that period has been at least as great as the change of personnel resulting from some General 872 Elections. I believe the figure approaches 200.
That being so, I would like to make one or two suggestions to help us to increase our representative character, even if this is fated to be a very long Parliament. The first is that, during a Parliament such as this, which depends for its freshness upon by-elections, in many of which to secure nomination to the constituency is the same thing as to secure a place in this House, those who are charged with the responsibility of selecting the candidates and of presenting them to a constituency have a special and onerous responsibility. The new Members who so regularly come to the Table can' do a very great deal to add to or to diminish the vigour of the House of Commons. It will certainly do Parliament no good if the candidates who are selected by that means are chosen as the representatives of special interests. If that mistake were made, and if Parliament should last a very long time, we should indeed be in danger of becoming a very unrepresentative body.
The second suggestion I make by way of paraphrase from the Prime Minister. It would perhaps be presumptuous if I made it on my own authority. The right hon. Gentleman said that we owed a special duty to our constituencies to remain in the closest contact with all sections of opinion there, in the present circumstances, and that this was a duty owed also to the House of Commons, as a representative institution. That statement put a point which might very well be recalled to the attention of Members of this House, for their consideration. Even if Parliament is destined to remain in being for a very long time, we can look back upon history, and draw some reflection and inspiration from the recollection that the longest Parliaments in our history have not necessarily made the least contribution to democracy and to freedom. Even our longest Parliament, which met, according to the best of my recollection, about 300 years ago, was not least creditable in its achievements. It promoted many reforms, and it destroyed tyranny. Like this Parliament, it began in party rivalry and finished in party co-operation. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend reminds me, I hope that we shall not be brought to an end by the same irregular method as that Parliament certainly was. We must all hope that this great crisis 873 will not require us to remain here for 11 or 12 years, the length of time during which that Parliament sat. This crisis gives an opportunity to this Parliament such as no Parliament has ever had before to lead and to serve the nation well.
§ Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)
I do not think it really required the reasoned speech of the hon. Member for North Aberdeen.(Mr. Garro Jones) to persuade the House that the Bill was inevitable. There are obvious difficulties in the way of a General Election at this moment, and they are almost insuperable. I need only mention the black-out, the danger of invasion in the middle of controversy, the stale register dating back to 1939 and becoming daily more out of date, and the large transfers of population. Half the electors are scattered North, South, East and West or are engaged directly or indirectly on war work. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that we were elected only for five years and that we are re-electing ourselves—a nice, comfortable and pleasant thing to do. It is much easier to do this than to enter into controversy, have to face electors, make speeches, and run the risk of not being elected or of being elected, according to the issue. Section 7 of the Parliament Act, a great constitutional Measure involving very large principles, deliberately limited the life of Parliament to five years. It annulled the seven-year Parliament tradition and reduced the period, in order to make the House of Commons keep contact with the electors. I am very glad that the right hon. Gentleman emphasised the vital constitutional principle involved.
What we are now doing is against the spirit of the Constitution, but we have to do many unconstitutional things in face of the appalling catastrophe of war. In October, 1942, we shall be starting on the eighth year of Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman was not quite sure what would take place next year, but he seemed to have little doubt that we shall be asked to pass a similar Bill in 1942. In spite of what was said by the hon. Gentleman, I think he would agree—it is no use mincing matters—that as every year passes we have less right to claim to speak for the people. A great part of the public would like to take part in politics but are not on the register, and there is no reality about the situation. It is our duty to 874 concentrate the whole of our energies on the war and not to allow those energies to be diverted by political controversy, but it does not necessarily follow that general elections are impossible during war-time. There have been two cases already inside the British Commonwealth of Nations—Canada in the early months of the war, and Australia. I agree that, in the light of all the existing circumstances, a general election here would be regrettable.
But we must not forget that, if the war is being fought for anything in particular, it is for democracy, and that this House is the trustee for the Parliamentary system. We cannot sit down complacently and think that our responsibility has ended when we have re-elected ourselves. Young men and young women who were 21 and 25 when this Parliament was elected, and also young men and young women reaching the age to appear on the register are debarred from taking any part even when there are by-elections. Of course, there are precedents from the last war. I am all for precedents; our whole Parliamentary system is built up on them; and during the last war Parliament did extend its life. I was a Member at that time, and I remember legislation being introduced. The difference is that the House of Commons and the Government of that day were not satisfied to leave it at that. I happened to hear the then Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, on the subject when the war was at its height, when we could hear the guns firing across the Channel and hundreds of thousands of men were being killed or were facing peril under appalling conditions on the Western front, the Parliament of that day did not dismiss this as a simple issue which could be brushed aside with the feeling that the whole of their responsibilities had been met. I quoted last year, and I do not mind quoting again, the great Parliamentarian and constitutional lawyer who was then Prime Minister. On 16th August, 1916, he said:… with regard to the Parliament which is going to undertake the work of reconstruction after the war, it is eminently desirable that you should provide an electoral basis which will make the Parliament reflective and representative of the general opinion of the country, and give to its decisions a moral authority which you cannot obtain in what I may call a scratch, improvised and makeshift electorate. Let us by all means use the time —those of us who are not absolutely absorbed in the conduct of the war—in those months to see if we cannot work out by general agreement 875 some scheme under which, both as regards the electorate and the distribution of electoral power, a Parliament can be created at the end of the war capable and adequate for discharging these tasks, and commanding the confidence of the country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th August, 1916; col. 1906, vol. LXXXV.]He said, in a far better form and in a far better way than I can, what is in my mind at the present time. His successor, the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) translated his idea into practical legislation. A revolutionary change was made, right in the middle of the war in the following year, in the whole of our electoral system and the general constitution of this House. Women were given the franchise, probably the most controversial issue regarding the character of the electorate that has been made during the last century. I know what the views and sympathies of the present Prime Minister are. He would have no hesitation in dealing with the form of our elections and the character of the electorate, or anything of that kind, if a case could be made out, as my hon. Friend quite rightly suggested, by a fact-finding commission regarding the necessity for dealing with the problem. In January, 1934, he said:We hear a great deal about the reform of the House of Lords. Surely both Houses of Parliament ought to be strengthened, not only for constructive purposes but to enable them to resist the dangers of dictatorship.If it was necessary in 1934 to strengthen this House to deal with the dangers of dictatorship, surely the need is still greater in 1941. I know we have a solemn undertaking by the Government that after the Armistice every opportunity will be given to Parliament either to reform itself or to deal with the problem of redistribution. All of us would deplore a rush election; it is much better for a reasonable period to elapse, and not as in 1918, when after the war, before the electors had time to think they were asked to decide the vital problems of the conditions of peace and the legislation to deal with post-war problems. I am in favour, and I think the House is in favour, of a reasonable period being allowed to elapse before a General Election, but how can we tell what circumstances and conditions are likely to be in that far-off period? We do not know what the feeling of the country will be. Pressure may come from outside which will force the Government of the 876 day to appeal to the electorate. The Prime Minister has rightly protected himself on that point. It may be that there will be so much turmoil, so much controversy as to what the conditions of peace should be and as to the problems of social reform that it will be necessary to have an appeal to the country. It would be unfortunate when that time comes, if the House of Commons had let go these precious months and had done nothing either to inquire into or to deal with these problems.
I suggest that the Government, following the precedent of the last war in 1917 and 1918, have the responsibility of dealing with the electoral system with courage and imagination. They have to make up their minds how they will deal with it, and whether they will set up, to use the phrase of my hon. Friend, some fact-finding commission or committee to deal with the vital problems of the constitution of this House, the electorate, the system of election and all those issues into which an inquiry is long overdue. Parliament and Parliamentary institutions are on their trial. I am satisfied that they will stand the strain of the next year or two. I am not so pessimistic as my hon. Friend who feels that the elector cannot be trusted to deal with some of these burning social questions which are bound to arise during the next year or two.
§ Sir P. Harris
I am very glad my hon. Friend did not. I must have misunderstood him, but he did suggest that there might be some people ready to exploit the poverty and misery inevitable during a long and exhausting war. He suggested that the electorate are not to be relied upon, that they might be exploited by unscrupulous people. I say that if you have a good system of elections, it will be safe in this country, with its Parliamentary traditions, to trust the people as the only way in which to make democracy work. I support this Bill, but I make the qualification that I hope the Government during the next few months will seriously consider whether it would not be wise to set up some commission or fact-finding body to deal with the constitution of Parliament.
§ Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)
Having listened to the presentation of the 877 case by the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, I would say that there is a measure of agreement regarding a number of the reasons for the postponement of a Parliamentary election. The facts that evacuation has taken place on a large scale in many areas, that men are serving with the Colours in various parts of the world and that industrial workers have been transferred from some areas in very great numbers, would give adequate reasons for the postponement of an election during the period of this national or international crisis. But if we were to look back, we would discover that, in normal times, in a large number of Parliamentary areas, more people normally refrain from voting than would have actually elected the Member if they had turned out to the poll. Therefore, from the point of view that adequate democratic representation is not given in Parliamentary elections during the war, we might say that normally the democracy of the country do not desire to exert their influence or energy in turning out to the poll to record their vote for the return of Members to the House of Commons.
It is true that during the period of war one of the vital things that is required to keep Parliamentary life interesting to the public, and also to give the most complete democratic expression, is a real, vigorous and courageous Opposition in this House. We are debarred from having that, due to the fact that those who, at Parliamentary elections, fought one another and condemned each other as being the menace to the interests of the country, now join hands and sit contentedly on the Front Bench, parade themselves as the National Government of this country and consider that nobody can do the job but themselves. There are in the country, or in the House, reasons given—there might be 615 reasons given—for having no election, because every Member in this House would feel that. My hon. Friend says there are certainly three. He assumes that the three Members of the Independent Labour party are less acceptable to the majority of the people of this country than are the Yes-men who have no independent thoughts or minds at all or the time-servers who are prepared to serve any masters at a price. I refuse to accept that as being the opinion of the great mass of the people of this country, whether they agree with us at the moment or not. In the last war they did 878 not agree with the Home Secretary. He has become Home Secretary—
I do not quite see that. I had not gone on at any length; I was answering an interruption. I understood that according to the rules of Debate I was entitled to do so. If it is embarrassing to the Home Secretary, I will refrain from proceeding along those lines.
§ Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)
I did not quite catch your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. Is it against the Rules of the House to criticise a Minister of the Crown?
§ Mr. Speaker
No; all that I ruled was that what the hon. Member was saying had nothing to do with the Bill before the House.
§ Mr. McGovern
I will let it go at that. In so far as the House is concerned, I realise that 615 reasons could be given, and, in my estimation, Parliamentary government during this war, owing to the fact that there is not a virile Opposition —whether we agree with it or not is beside the point—to be found on the Benches engaging in what the Speaker called, some time ago, "the cut and thrust of Debate," in order to make Parliamentary life and democracy interesting to the people outside, has ceased to operate. I would also make it clear that during this period of Parliament, when Parliamentary seats have become secure, due to the postponement of elections, there has been a notorious falling-off in the attendance of a large number of Members of this House, and that there are many Members who are scarcely, if ever, in the House at all, that they disappear for three, six or nine months on end, and sometimes come and clamour against Parliament exercising its normal course of a holiday after they have been in the backwoods for a lengthy period. I would further say that Parliamentary life suffers tremendously from that security which is given to the average Member by the postponement of elections. We see an example given by the representative of the Liberal party in his speech, when he said that we had an example of elections in Australia, that we had a novel experiment that had 879 taken place in the Australian Parliament, where the reigning Conservative Government had been overthrown during the period of Budget Debate, and destroyed, and the Opposition had become the Government. By that process, he said, the very incidence of taxation was to be changed from a large section of the poor to a section of the rich by the demand inside that Chamber itself.
There are cases, in this House, for example, where Parliamentary government has not been allowed to function, and I am amazed. I have heard in recent months a clamour being made in the country, rightly or wrongly, for the unseating of the hon. and gallant Member for Peebles and Southern (Captain Ramsay), due to the fact that he has been detained under Regulation 18B. But there is another Member of Parliament in this House, for one of the Edinburgh Divisions, who for nearly five years has never been in this House. No Conservative or Labour organisation has challenged the right of this individual to hold a seat in this House while he has never been near the House in that time. If there were a real democratic desire in the country, both in the area concerned and in the Conservative and Labour headquarters, there would be a demand for a surrender of that seat. I am quite confident that if conduct of that kind were indulged in, say, by myself, there would soon be a clamour for the surrender of the seat, and rightly so. If you are in favour of Parliamentary democracy, there should be actions taking place in the House and the country to show people that you are in favour of democracy.
Mr. McKie (Galloway)
May I remind the hon. Member that there are also two Members from Ulster, for Fermanagh and Tyrone (Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Mulvey), who have not taken their seats?
§ Mr. McGovern
That would be an added reason. I am prepared to complete the picture. I have been amazed at the way in which some areas tolerate Members never being in the House and attending to their Parliamentary duties. All these activities are assisting to destroy Parliamentary government. Mark you, I have never been a 100 per cent. Parliamentarian. I believe that Parliament can. occupy a very useful point in the agitation for a new order of society and for a 880 transfer of power, but I have always believed that every great question was settled, not by the pressures inside this House, but by the pressures that came from outside this House. Almost every question has been settled in outside institutions. While I am not a 100 per cent. Parliamentarian, I can see the uses of Parliament and its abuses. During the last 11½ years in this House I have seen independence of thought, mind and activity destroyed by the power machines which operate. The power machines that threaten Members assist in destroying—
§ Mr. Speaker
That has nothing to do with this Bill, which is to prolong this Parliament by one year.
§ Mr. McGovern
But I want to show, at the same time, the effects of this postponement of elections on the Parliamentary life of this country and on the activity of Members. Therefore, I want to show not only the reasons for the postponement, but also that the Government should pay attention to the fact that Parliament as at present constituted does not completely serve the needs of the community. In getting to that point, I was attempting to analyse the effects of this postponement. I say that the postponement of elections plays its part, and the security given to Members plays a very effective part; and the destruction of a Parliamentary Opposition undermines the Parliamentary life of the community. It is not sufficient for us to believe in the protection of democratic rights: it is very necessary that we should pay more than lip service to this question. To-day, while there is a combination of all the interests in the country with a view to postponing elections, we have to face the fact that the real demand for the postponement comes from the fact that the Opposition have largely joined forces with the Government, and that, therefore, they have a vested interest in seeing that the postponement of elections takes place. That vested interest is playing a tremendous part in undermining the confidence of people outside in the value of Parliament. I have always believed, and I still believe, that dictators do not destroy Parliamentary institutions. It is those who have shouted loudest about democracy who have betrayed democracy and who have destroyed Parliamentary institutions.
§ Sir Reginald Blair (Hendon)
It seems to me that the passing of this Bill is un- 881 avoidable. I have risen only to ask the Home Secretary whether he will be good enough to amplify the undertaking he gave last year. The aim of a great democracy is to get the true voice of the people. I cannot see anything in this Bill which will help to secure that. Hon. Members will be aware of the great anomalies of the present register. It is absurd that men in this House have to represent over 200,000 people and that others represent over 4,000 or 5,000. I have risen to support the plea made by the right hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) that when the Government have time they will, in this period of reconstruction, produce something to meet this anomaly before they have to introduce such a Bill again.
§ Mr. Naylor (Southwark, South East)
There is evidently a great misunderstanding as to the real meaning of this Bill. It has been assumed by all hon. Members who have spoken up to now, and even by you, Sir, just recently, that this is a Bill to prolong the life of Parliament by 12 months. That is not in agreement with the wording of the Bill. If I understood the Home Secretary correctly, he said that the effect of the Bill was to revert to the provisions of the Septennial Act, which fixed seven years as the limit of a Parliament. But this Bill does more than that. It says that there shall be no limit whatever to the duration of the present Parliament. When the amending Act of 1911 was passed, the seven-years' period was repealed. Therefore, if you say that the provisions of the 1911 Act, fixing the duration of Parliament at five years, shall not apply to the present Parliament, you say, in effect, that there shall be no limit at all. I raise this in no hypercritical spirit, but the House should be clear as to the constitutional issue involved. It is one thing for the House of Commons itself to say that it will prolong its Parliamentary life for 12 months. Even that is a serious constitutional issue. To suggest that there shall be no limit to the duration of Parliament, is a much more serious constitutional issue than was implied formerly. Just how the Home Secretary can remedy what is evidently an oversight I cannot say. Is it to be done by an addition to the Bill, to the effect that it shall not apply to the present Parliament during the ensuing 12 months, 882 so limiting the duration of Parliament definitely to the seven-years' period, with a prospect of new legislation at the end of the year? I have no doubt the Home Secretary is fully prepared to answer the point I have raised, which I think is of great importance not only to Parliament but to the electors.
§ Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)
I do not propose to deal with the very important legal and constitutional point raised by the hon. Member for South-East Southwark (Mr. Naylor), except to say that I believe the wording of this Bill makes it clear that the Septennial Act will apply, and that further legislation will be necessary if the life of this Parliament is to be prolonged beyond the terms of the Septennial Act. But I rise to support the plea made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Sir R. Blair) and the right hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) that the Home Secretary should, before the Debate concludes, amplify the assurance that he gave in introducing the Bill. He then reaffirmed the pledge which he made very solemnly a year ago, on behalf of the Prime Minister and on behalf of the Government, but he did not say anything as to the way in which it is proposed to carry this out. We are justified in passing this Bill only if we are sure that the interval before the close of this Parliament is to be rightly used to see that we get the very best method of representing the people, that anomalies that now exist will be reconsidered, and that everything that can be done will be done during that interval to secure the best possible Parliament to deal with the great problems of the future. If we do that, but only if we do it, I think this Measure will be justified. I beg the Home Secretary to be good enough to make clearer the Government's intention of carrying out the pledge that he has given. It has been suggested that a fact-finding commission might be set up. That might be one way. There may be various forms of inquiry which the Government could pursue. But it is important that it should be done even while the great measures which occupy the Government's time in connection with the war are carried out.
In the last war, when similar measures were taken, the opportunity was seized during the progress of the war to make 883 inquiries and to make an immense change in the electoral system. We did not wait until the conclusion of the war to take those measures. I would urge that now, as the hon. Member opposite has said, we ought to take this opportunity and not wait until the conclusion of the war before taking the steps that are so urgently needed. We have heard in the most eloquent language in past years from the Prime Minister his expression of faith in Parliament and of the need for making our representative institutions absolutely worthy of the great ideals of democracy and we have this opportunity now, in the coming months and, it may be in the coming years. We ought not to put it off to an unknown future. We ought to ask the Government, as we pass this Measure, to make it clear to the House and to the people that they intend to take up these inquiries now, in order that the Parliament that has to deal with the great problems of social reform and the great international problems which will await us when peace comes shall be the most representative Parliament possible, worthily interpreting the great democratic ideals which we are all united in desiring to maintain.
§ Mr. Denman (Leeds, Central)
I should like to add, in a sentence, my support of the point made by the last speaker, because it really is impossible to attempt to deal with these big problems between the end of the war and the first election afterwards. There will not be time, and there will be so many other important subjects.
§ Mr. Maxton
The hon. Member says there will not be time, but is there not some suggestion to postpone the General Election for some three years after hostilities have ceased. The hon. Gentleman smiles, but I understand that that is so, and that he and others have agreed that there should be no General Election until after the cessation of hostilities or three years thereafter.
§ Mr. Denman
I am no party to any such agreement, if such an agreement exists; and, on the contrary, that seems to me to be entirely impracticable. I do not believe that it is possible to carry on with the existing Parliament for three years after the end of the war. But I did not rise to make that point primarily but 884 because I was glad to follow one of the few remaining hon. Members who share responsibility for Section 7 of the Parliament Act. There are not many of us left, and I think it is time that one of us said plainly that we made a mistake in passing Section 7. The ideal length of Parliament is not a subject that is appropriate for argument to-day, but I would remind the House that the Septennial Act served the country very well for 200 years. Some of the glorious moments of Parliament occurred during those 200 years, and its abolition was not because of some reforming zeal, and it was not the spirit in which the Chartists desired annual Parliaments; it was simply a concession to Conservative fears. They were afraid that the Parliament Act without some such limitation might be a dangerous weapon, and as a concession to those Conservative fears, the seven years was changed to five. I believe that instead of merely amending this Section to-day, we ought to be repealing it.
That is not a subject, as I said, for argument and debate to-day, but I want to place on record two propositions that I believe 30 years' experience of this Section justifies. The first is that the actual length of a Parliament is normally, and fairly effectively, governed by the facts of the day, with public opinion maintaining sufficient influence and control over Parliamentary events and sufficient authority over the House of Commons to prevent that body from an undue departure from the general will. The second proposition—and this is what really matters—is that in modern conditions it is becoming more and more important that democracy should be able to plan intelligently. One of the most serious diseases of democracy is the living from day to day and acting on policies of pure opportunism. There is increasing need for long-term planning, and the difficulties of that process are greatly magnified by having to anticipate elections every four years, say, instead of six years. Therefore, I desire to express a personal regret that on this occasion, after 30 years' experience of Section 7, instead of restoring the Septennial Act as an integral part of our Constitution, we are merely restoring it for the lifetime of our present Parliament.
§ Mr. Cecil Wilson (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
I would like to associate myself with what 885 was said by the hon. Member opposite and also by the hon. Member for the English Universities (Mr. Harvey) and others with regard to the necessity of our understanding a good deal more clearly the intention of the Government with regard to the future. I am certain that at the present time we cannot in the least foresee what the condition of affairs will be after the war. But we do know that there have been an enormous shifting of population and a great many other difficulties, and that a large proportion of those who will take part in the next election will know very little indeed of Parliamentary life and of what has been happening during these years as far as Parliament is concerned, and will know almost nothing of the difficulties which there have been in some elections which have taken place in the years more particularly since the last war. An immense responsibility rests upon us of considering the whole of these questions in the most careful manner, in order that, when the time comes, we may be able to present some Measure which has been thought out with the utmost care in order to meet all the various difficulties which we can foresee although we cannot think of those which may still appear. I earnestly hope that we shall hear something further from the Government as to the real position, and what is going to happen during the next few years.
Mr. McKie (Galloway)
I should not have risen to speak had it not been for the hon. Member above the Gangway who said, with regard to the constitutional point, that in his opinion we might be passing legislation which would do away with the provisions of the Septennial Act and thereby place no limit on the lifetime of the present assembly. I am not a lawyer, much less a constitutional lawyer, but as a private Member of this House—and as a Conservative Member— I view with great disfavour any possibility such as that. I listened closely to the speech made by the Home Secretary, and I thought he made it fairly clear that we were merely returning to the position under the Septennial Act. But a few Members seem to have doubts on that point; they think the draftsmanship of the Bill is a little loose and wish for further reassurances. Therefore, I hope very much that when the right hon. Gentleman or the Under-Secretary replies 886 he will make the point clear beyond any doubt.
I do not wish to go into other points, interesting though they were, which have been made regarding the necessity for setting up some kind of commission to go into questions of Parliamentary reform and redistribution of seats in general. I merely say, as the only Conservative Member who has taken part in the Debate (HON. MEMBERS: "NO") I am sorry—I beg the pardon of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Sir R. Blair). No man has greater right or cause than he to make a speech regarding a Measure such as this. He represents 209,000 electors in this House, and, if I may say so without flattering him unduly, I think he discharges his duties most admirably. I have been almost 10 years in this House—with the exception of 20 days—without an electoral contest (An HON. MEMBER: "Shame"). Somebody says "Shame," but, after all, there was no agreement. The 50,000 electors of my constituency, which is very large in area, did not see their way to oppose me at the last General Election. There was no kind of agreement whatsoever. The hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) said that this Parliament would surely have its own special place in history. Some of the longest Parliaments have not necessarily been the worst Parliaments. So, as a Member who has been without an electoral contest for so many years, I am sure the House will agree that I am entitled to feel somewhat apprehensive lest we should be doing away altogether with the provisions of the Septennial Act. We Conservatives are not supposed to be the party specially concerned—I think it is a quite wrong suggestion—with democracy or Parliamentary institutions as a whole.
I thought I was endeavouring to deal with the Bill when I said in my opening remarks that I should not have risen at all had not an hon. Gentleman above the Gangway expressed fears lest we should do away with the provisions of the Septennial Act. I felt it my duty, too, to express the same fear. I thought the Home Secretary made it clear that the Bill does not do away with the 887 provisions of that Act. If conditions render it impossible to make a general appeal to the country I hope my right hon. Friend will make it plain that it will be necessary to present legislation of the type which will enable this present Parliament to be prolonged for only one more year.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Sir Cuthbert Headlam (Newcastle-on-Tyne, North)
I would like an assurance from the Home Secretary, following the somewhat involved speeches which have been made recently, as to whether, if we pass the Bill to-day, it will or will not be necessary for the Government to come this time next year and ask for a similar Bill?
§ Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
Almost every speaker in the Debate has said that it is inevitable that some such Bill as this should be passed, and I do not dissent from that view. Almost every speaker, too, has said that the course we are adopting involves a number of disadvantages with regard to the postponement of a General Election, but what surprises me is that none has attempted to suggest any method by which, while a General Election may be postponed, the obvious and admitted dangers and disadvantages of prolongation might be remedied or minimised. I want to examine the question of what exactly it is we are doing and whether there are any ways in which the dangers that such a Measure, necessarily involves can be at any rate minimised. On the first question, I am bound to say that I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Southwark (Mr. Naylor) as to what is the effect of this Bill. We have had in the history of this country a Long Parliament, a Short Parliament and a Rump Parliament, and it seems to me that we are in great danger of having a perpetual, eternal or indefinite Parliament. Reference was made to the Long Parliament, and it was said that it did some useful things. In its early days it did, but it went on too long, until Cromwell said:Gentleman, you have been too long here for any good you have been doing.and the Parliament, which began with two Members holding Mr. Speaker down in his chair so that Parliament might continue to do its business, ended with Colonel Pride coming in with his troopers—
§ Mr. Silverman
Perhaps I am wrong in saying it ended that way. It went on beyond that in another form. The Lord Protector, which was then the fashionable name for a dictator, pointing to the emblem of authority of the House—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
This is not the time to go into the whole history of past Parliaments. The hon. Member must keep to the subject matter of the Bill.
§ Mr. Silverman
I apologise, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I was dealing with an argument that had been made. I hope the "baulk" will long remain. I want to examine with some care what the Bill does. In terms, it provides that Section 7 of the Parliament Act, 1911, shall not apply to this Parliament. To see what this really does, one has to examine the matter from the beginning. The original Act of 1715 was a very short act, and it may be worth while for me to quote the whole of it:Whereas in and by act of Parliament made in the sixth year of the reign of their late Majesties King William and Queen Mary (of ever blessed memory) intituled, An Act for the- frequent meeting and calling of parliaments: it was, among other things enacted, That from thenceforth no parliament whatsoever, that should at any time then after be called, assembled or held, should have any continuance longer than for three years only at the farthest, to be accounted from the day on which by the writ of summons the said parliament should be appointed to meet; and whereas it has been found by experience, that the said clause hath proved very grievous and burthensome, by occasioning much greater and more continued expenses in order to elections of members to serve in parliament, and more violent and lasting heats and animosities among the subjects of this realm, than were ever known before the said clause was enacted; and the said provision, if it should continue, may probably at this juncture, when a restless and Popish faction are designing and endeavouring to renew the rebellion within this Kingdom, and an invasion from abroad, be destructive to the peace and security of the Government—those were the reasons, one of them, at any rate, still applying—Be it enacted by the King's Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same. That this present Parliament, and all parliaments that shall at any time hereafter be called, assembled or held, shall and may respectively have continuance for seven years, and no longer, to be accounted …889 as before. The position at that point is plain. Whereas before Parliaments could last for three years and no longer, thereafter they could last for seven years and no longer, and the three-year Act was repealed by the House. There was a substitution of seven for three. Undoubtedly, this Act must have had the effect of repealing the custody provision of Triennial Act. It is important to make that point because, if it was true at that stage, it must be true at other stages. I come now to the Parliament Act, 1911, Section (7) of which states:Five years shall be substituted for seven years as the time fixed for the maximum duration of Parliament under the Septennial Act, 1715.It says no more than that. Two hon. Members who have spoken have confessed to a certain measure of responsibility for that Section. They have said that they were Members of the House at that time and that they agreed to it, although one of them now has doubts as to whether he ought to have done so or not. Let me say, in all humility, that the Section is, in any case, thoroughly badly drafted. The Act contains no Schedule, as is customary, showing what previous enactments, or what portions of previous enactments, are repealed by it. We are offered no assistance of that kind, and we are left to interpret the words as they stand. It seems to me that if the effect of the Septennial Act was to repeal the appropriate provisions of Triennial Act, then the effect of Section (7) of the Parliament Act, 1911, was to repeal the Septennial Act to the like extent. It states, in terms, that the seven-year period shall go therefrom and the five-year period shall be substituted for it.
§ Mr. Silverman
I have read the whole of it. If my right hon. Friend thinks I have left out anything that is material, I should be grateful if he would point it out to me.
§ Mr. Silverman
The provision which it repeals is the only material provision in the Act. [Interruption.] I do not want 890 to argue on that line, because it does not seem to matter; either the whole Act was repealed, or the Act was amended so that thereafter no Parliament could last for longer than five years. In any case, the provision about Parliament lasting not longer than seven years was repealed. What would have happened in Committee of the House if the Septennial Act were being formally amended? The Question put from the Chair would not have been, "That five years be substituted for seven years." The Question put from the Chair, in the first place, would have been, "That the word 'seven' stand part of the Clause, "and only on that proposition being negatived would there have been a further proposition to insert" five." Therefore, the "five" could not have been inserted except by first removing "seven" from the Act. I say that the fair interpretation of Section (7) of the Parliament Act, 1911, was that it forever repealed every relevant portion of the Septennial Act and that thereafter no Parliament could last for longer than five years. What does the Bill now before us mean? It provides that Section (7) of the 1911 Act shall not apply to this Parliament. What does apply to this Parliament?
§ Mr. Silverman
That is the suggestion of the Government and they may be right, but I think not. I suggest that, for the reasons I have given, the 1715 Act has gone, and if it is to be re-enacted only the House can re-enact it, and if it is the Government's intention that it shall be re-enacted, there is nothing to prevent them from saying so in the Bill.
§ Mr. H. Morrison
The real point is whether the 1715 Act was repealed or not. Surely, that is a simple issue. If it has been repealed, then in some Act of Parliament it is stated that it has been repealed, and usually that is said, as the hon. Member will recognise, in a Schedule. The hon. Member has read Section (7) of the Parliament Act, 1911, which states:Five years shall be substituted for seven years as the time fixed for the maximum duration of Parliament under the Septennial Act, 1715.Clearly, that is an Amendment to the 1715 Act. It substitutes five years for seven years. I admit that thereby it makes nonsense of the Title of the Act, 891 but I cannot help that, and I think it is not material legally. Clearly, that is an Amendment of the Act and it leaves the Act formally on the Statute Book. If now we repeal the effect of Section 7 of the Parliament Act, 19111, we leave in force the 1715 Act. Therefore, the repeal of the provisions of the Parliament Act, 1911, automatically takes us back to the 1715 Act.
§ Mr. Silverman
I suggest that my right hon. Friend's argument can be right only if we are to assume that the 1911 Act did not amend the 1715 Act, but left it in a kind of limbo of suspended animation waiting to come into operation as before at any time when any subsequent Amendment of it were repealed. I suggest that there is no machinery now and that there was no machinery then in the Standing Orders of this House to keep alive on the Statute Book a provision of an Act which was removed for the purpose of amending it.
§ Captain Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)
Surely the main purpose of both the Triennial Act and the Septennial Act was not in reference to the actual term of years, but that the provisions to ensure that Parliament should be automatically called without regard to the Crown were laid down? Surely that substantial provision must remain in operation whether the term of years is changed or not?
§ Mr. Silverman
Unfortunately, the words of the 1715 Act are exactly to the contrary. It was for that reason that I read the whole of the recital of the Act instead of being content with the operative Clause which comes at the end. It had nothing to do with the calling of Parliament.
§ Mr. Silverman
That may be so, but the 1715 Act was passed purely to lengthen the life of Parliament to seven years and to provide that Parliament should not last longer.
§ Captain Nicholson
That is so. The Septennial Act may be regarded as an amendment to the Triennial Act, and the Triennial Act laid down how Parliament should be summoned. Therefore, this is an amendment to the last amending Act.
§ Mr. Silverman
Perhaps the hon. Member will allow me to point out that in the 892 last two lines the Septennial Act preserves the right of the Crown, constitutionally exercised, to dissolve Parliament, and the 1911 Act, in Section 6, provides that nothing in this Act shall diminish or qualify the existing rights or privileges of the House of Commons. There is no doubt that if the House were dissolved by the effluxion of time, or by constitutional act of the Crown, Parliament would have the right to be re-elected under the common law. I do not think that is in doubt at all.
§ Captain Nicholson
The important part is that the conditions of the issue of a new Writ are laid down in the Triennial Act. There is an automatic issue of a new Writ, whether the Crown wishes it or not.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I suggest if the hon. and gallant Member has many more interruptions that he should endeavour to make them in a speech.
§ Mr. Silverman
I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for his remarks. He is quite right, but I do not wish to deal with the Triennial Act, because I am dealing with the 1715 Act, which is concerned purely with the lengthening of the life of Parliament. What I am saying is that, unless it can be shown by some rule of this House, by some Standing Order, or by some accepted practice you can take "seven" out of the 1715 Act and substitute "five" and still keep the seven in all its pristine efficiency until some such Act as this is passed, then the interprepation of this Bill which has been contended for by my hon Friend behind me must be right. However, I think enough has been said on the subject to satisfy the House that this is altogether too important a matter to be dealt with in this way. If the Clause is reasonably capable of the sort of construction we are contending for, then it ought to be redrafted. It is a simple thing to do. It would be quite easy to amend Clause 1 of the Bill by the sort of language used in the Local Elections Bill— although I am not seeking to draft the Amendment now—providing that at the end of the seven years Parliament shall come to an end unless Parliament otherwise determines. I suggest it is worth while doing this if only for the purpose of removing all doubt. No one knows how long this war will continue. We all hope that we may get victory in the near future, but we are all prepared to face 893 the possibility that victory may be postponed for some time. In that case all sorts of questions would arise after this Bill had been passed.
We must not burke the fact that this House has become unrepresentative of the country. Parliament will become progressively more unrepresentative of the country with every such Act as this, and with every year which passes. It would not be in Order to go into this matter in detail, but it is well known that the circumstances under which this Parliament was elected in 1935 were very different from the circumstances which exist to-day. The issues which then filled the platforms, the papers, and the posters are dead, and the advice tendered by one party or another, speculative as it could only be, is no longer speculative now. The period towards which we were looking, and the dangers which we were envisaging, are matters of the past. I do not dispute that, if a General Election were held today, and if it were confined purely to the question of the successful prosecution of this war, there would not be two opinions in the country. But there would be more than two opinions about other matters—about the future social and economic organisation of this country and Europe and about what kind of future the world is to look forward to. I am not one of those who believe that these questions can be safely left. They have to be prepared now, and if there is a conflict of opinion it must be resolved now so that the preparations can be made.
I do not know whether the Government have considered how the progressively unrepresentative character of Parliament might be diminished. The system of elections for local authorities provides machinery whereby elections can be held without bringing executive government to an end. It is provided that one out of every three of the members of a local authority shall offer himself for re-election, so that effective local government can still be exercised—two-thirds of the members can exercise the authority which has been entrusted to them while one-third of the seats are left vacant for elections to be held. I recognise that there are a good many difficulties, perhaps insuperable, but I ask in all seriousness if the Government have considered whether such a method might be applied to Parliament 894 so that, if the war is to go on for many years, and a General Election must be postponed for many years, there should still be a method of testing year by year the opinion among the electorate, or at any rate a section of the constituencies. That would be a method which would enable the House not to get quite so rapidly unrepresentative as if you had no elections at all. My hon. Friend on the Front Bench said there had been in the life-time of this Parliament 200 changes. Yes, there have, most of them since the war, so that one-third of the House has changed, but the balance of parties remains exactly as it was before. We do not know, there are no means of knowing, whether the maintenance of the same balance of parties corresponds to a maintenance of the same balance of opinion in the country, but such a method as I am suggesting might enable us to find out.
§ Mr. Maxton
I was interested in the hon. Member's suggestion—my own mind has been running along that line—but is not the fact that there has been no change in the proportions of the House due to something entirely different from legislation? Does it not result from the agreement of parties not to fight one another?
§ Mr. Silverman
If there is no difference between parties, and I think there is none on the important question of pursuing the war to a successful conclusion, no dispute about that can arise, but there is nothing to prevent other questions on which parties are in violent conflict being debated at elections as opportunity offers. That, of course, is something that the House cannot control and cannot debate. It is a matter of agreement between parties. If there was no such agreement, if there was a machinery whereby a portion of the House should be elected periodically, at any rate some part of the great dangers that we envisage might be diminished. I urge the Government to consider whether there might not be some way of diminishing the difficulties that everyone recognises in measures of this kind. Most urgently of all I say we ought not to be content to allow the Bill to pass in its present form while so many of us think there is such good reason for doubting whether in fact the Bill does not do far more than the Government have claimed for it.
§ Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)
It is a very serious thing, as we all realise, for the House to take upon itself the responsibility of doing what the electors have not consented to, and that is to extend the period of Parliament, but under present circumstances I think it is generally agreed that that is the wisest course to take. All the same, many suggestions have been made which seem to be worthy of study and inquiry. Many Members are interested in a question which really does not arise to-day but which, no doubt, the Government will consider, coming out of the Debate, and that is the possibility of setting up some suitable machinery for investigating and probing all these different proposals. In the course of the discussion some reference has been made to future events, and how long Parliament can go on even after the termination of the war. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) has suggested that there is in existence some agreement by which Parliament should go on for three years after the end of the war. As far as I know, there is no foundation whatever for such a fantastic proposal.
§ Mr. Maxton
Perhaps when I said "agreement" I was going a little too far, but, if the proposal is fantastic, it was certainly made by a very responsible Minister.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
It does not come within the terms of the Bill, which extends the life of Parliament for only one year.
§ Mr. Mander
I quite appreciate that it is not a matter that can be developed at any length, but at the same time I have no doubt that there are Members who would like to see Parliament extended indefinitely without any necessity to go back to the electors. There is a great difference between two suggestions. One is a prolonged extension of the life of this Parliament, and the other is a prolonged extension of the life of this Government, or of an all-party Government, and the two are not necessarily dependent on each other at all. It seems to me that, while Parliament will certainly have to be dissolved at the first convenient opportunity after the war, even if it took place during the next twelve months as the result of victory, it is quite reasonable to assume 896 that it might be greatly in the public interest to continue for a period the all-party type of Government which we have in office at present during the difficult reconstruction period which would then come. At such a General Election every party would be free to put up candidates in every constituency, but the one test would be, which of the three or more candidates before you is the most likely to carry into effect, to the satisfaction of the electors, the great broad outline of the National Government's programme? It seems to me that a perfectly practicable way in which to do it would be to have in existence a Government on the present lines and have your General Election at the earliest possible moment in accordance with our constitutional procedure. That is what various persons may have had in mind in talking about this question.
§ Mr. Maxton
Is not that exactly the same as was done in the last post-war election, and as is done now in Germany when they have an election, that the Government of the day, composed of diverse elements, go to the country and say, "For the National Government or against?"? That is the only issue that you put to the electors.
§ Mr. Mander
My hon. Friend has not quite understood the point. Suppose there were in a particular constituency as candidates my hon. Friend himself, my hon. Friends the Members for Central Leeds (Mr. Denman), Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) and Penrith (Lieut.-Colonel Dower), and perhaps myself as representing different points of view—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
This does not seem to be the occasion on which to discuss the details of electoral reform.
§ Mr. Mander
I appreciate that, but I was replying to what my hon. Friend said. Perhaps I may be allowed to finish the sentence. The one issue before the electors on such an occasion would be which of the candidates would be most likely to their satisfaction to carry out the programme of the National Government?
§ Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)
I want to mention two points. I am sure that one is in Order, but you will stop me, Sir, if the other it not. The major point that has been discussed when I have been present is whether the Bill gives the 897 Government another year's lease or gives the Government a freehold. I cannot believe that that point was not explained when the Bill was presented to the House, but if there is any doubt about it, I hope that we shall have a categorical assurance from the Front Bench that there is no doubt about it in the minds of the Home Office or of His Majesty's legal advisers. The second point about which I am more dubious is, if we are giving the Government a longer lease than one year, and, I think, even if we are not, has not the moment arrived when we ought to have some assurance that there will soon be consideration of the problem of the completely disfranchised constituencies? There are some constituencies whose Members are not here, some because they are abroad, some because of medical reasons and some because of other reasons.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is going into the question of electoral reform, and that is outside the scope of this Bill.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
I was not meaning to go into the question of electoral reform. In normal times a constituency knows that there will be a General Election in three, four, five or seven years, and if it is foolish enough to choose a bad man or one who is likely to neglect it, it has to suffer the penalty for that period. Now, how-over, the constituency is having to suffer the penalty much more than it could have known it would have to at the time of the election. I suggest, therefore, that if we are giving the Government another year under the Bill, and a fortiori if we are giving them an indefinite number of years, we ought to have an assurance that there will be consideration of the question whether under proper safeguards constituencies which are not effectively represented might not be able to seek for some redress.
§ Mr. Maxton
Am I wrong in believing that the subject matter which the hon. Member has raised is under the consideration of a Select Committee of the House?
§ Mr. H. Morrison
I can only speak again by leave of the House, but I think that in view of the nature of the matters 898 raised the House will probably expect me to deal with them personally. The principal point raised is whether the Bill will make this Parliament legally endless or whether it continues this Parliament for only another year. There are other points, on which I must exercise great care, which have been raised from the Liberal Benches and by my hon. Friend the Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones). Perhaps I may with some care and discretion deal with those limited points first. There have been indications, particularly from the Liberal Benches, that they would like some action to be taken about some matters of machinery and fact that will have to be considered before a General Election. These matters have some bearing on this Bill, because the longer this Parliament lasts the longer the register is out of existence. They raise higher issues of what is known as electoral reform, which Mr. Deputy-Speaker has indicated cannot be discussed within this Bill. In any case, it is felt that it would not be wise to raise these matters, which are of high policy and of considerable controversy.
On that point I made a statement to the House last year which I have reaffirmed on this occasion. The continuation of this Parliament, first for one year beyond its legal term and then for another—and for all we know there may be another extension—certainly raises some very difficult issues in connection with the administrative preparations for a General Election when it comes. They are not matters which raise or involve big or controversial isues of policy. There is, however, the problem of re-distribution, which was difficult before and is probably still more difficult now when the case for it is stronger. There are matters of registration which will present us with some great difficulties after this war as compared with the last war in preparation for the renewal of the mandate of the House when the time comes. It has been suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for North Aberdeen, and emphasised by hon. Members in other quarters of the House, including my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) that there is a case for a factual examination of the administrative and technical problems that arise out of the continuation of this Parliament and the particular circumstances of the war.
899 I cannot give a firm undertaking, but I think that a prima facie case has been made for an investigation. I am not thinking of a Royal Commission or anything elaborate, for it is largely a matter of fact and of what is adminstratively practicable, but I will consider whether some sort of investigation or inquiry is possible into all these practical problems which are inevitably bound up with the machinery of a general election when it takes place.
§ Mr. Mander
My right hon. Friend said that there were certain points which were controversial and into which it was not desirable to go now. Those points, however, were gone into during the last war, and will he be good enough to consider the possibility of including them also?
§ Mr. Morrison
The matters about which I am thinking do not involve any question of policy, but questions of machinery and administration in connection with redistribution and registration, which do not involve any element of high policy. My statement does not mean, however, that those questions cannot be considered at the proper time. Perhaps it would be convenient if I read the actual words which I used last year on this point, which, I think, cover in principle the aspect which has been raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green and my hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander):An appeal to the electorate must always remain the final constitutional method of resolving grave issues of national policy. No one can foresee what circumstances will arise, but in normal conditions it will be the desire of His Majesty's Government, when a General Election again becomes practicable, to give sufficient notice for the creation of a new register, and this interval would also afford an opportunity for the House to consider, if it so desired, questions connected with changes of our electoral system."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd October, 1940; col. 1060, Vol. 365.]That statement I am authorised to reaffirm on the part of the Government.
§ Sir P. Harris
I should like to have one point made clear. That statement says if "the House" so desire. Obviously a matter of this kind would be one for the Government, which would have to take the initiative. It would be difficult to put the whole responsibility on the House of Commons. Does the right hon. Gentle- 900 man suggest that the House of Commons should pass a Resolution and the Government acquiesce?
§ Mr. Morrison
No, Sir, I am only suggesting that there will be an opportunity for the House to discuss these matters, and in discussing them it would no doubt discuss what it wishes to be done, how it would wish the matter to be investigated, and so on, and on that -occasion it would be for the Government to give such guidance as it felt would be desirable. The situation is materially different from what it was in 1916, because, as will be rememBèred, many of the problems that were then raised were, in fact, as the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green rather boasted, connected with the great changes which were embodied in the Act of 1918, so that the field now is rather more limited than it was. I now come to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Southwark (Mr. Naylor) who, I am bound to say, was rather a "doubting Thomas" about the validity of this Bill, whether it really postponed the election of a new Parliament for a year or whether it kept Parliament in being for all time. His argument was reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) who read the whole Act of 1715. I congratulate him on being able to read this rather small italic type, with its annoying "s's" printed as though they were "f's," making it all the more difficult to recite. I cannot, on the face of it, see that there is any legal doubt as to the meaning of this Bill. I speak with all reserve and hesitation, because I am not a lawyer and I am not a Law Officer of the Crown. I wish to apologise for the absence of my right hon. and learned Friends the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General. One has public business which he could not possibly avoid, and the other is indisposed, and I know they would wish me to express their regret that they are not here to give more authoritative advice than I can pretend to give on this legal point.
§ Mr. Maxton
There are in addition two Scottish Law Officers. I do not wish to use the word "discourteous," but surely we are a bit casual if the Government cannot produce one out of four responsible Law Officers, seeing that this discussion has been going on for two or three hours.
§ Mr. Morrison
I hope my hon. Friend will not "go off the deep end," if I may say so. The House is not losing the Bill to-day. There is a Committee stage. I hope my hon. Friend will not be indignant.
§ Mr. Morrison
The hon. Member sounded as if he were, but if he was not, I accept his assurance that he was in a state of complete calm. As I say, the House is not losing the Bill to-day. This is only the Second Reading, there is the Committee stage to come, and this is a point on which it would clearly be for the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General to advise the House. I have explained, with their apologies, why they cannot be here. In any case I do not think there is any need for us to work ourselves up into a state of mystification. The issue is perfectly simple. I know that from time to time all of us like to work ourselves up into a state of real doubt when none exists and I think there has been a little of this habit to-day.
§ Mr. Morrison
As I have said, my hon. Friend has read the whole text of the Act of 1715, which altered the Triennial Act so that Parliament should last seven years instead of three. That Act remained on the Statute Book until the Parliament Act, 1911, in Section 7 made a new provision. I cannot for the life of me see any doubt in its meaning. It must be rememBèred that the Parliament Act, 1911, was not a Bill which went through Parliament as easily as this one. There was a great deal of excitement about it, a good deal of heat, and I am not sure that things were not thrown about.
§ Mr. Silverman
I can remember the occasion, and while that is true is it not also true that all that heat and controversy were not about this portion of the Act at all but about the rest of the provisions of the Act; and may it not well have been that this Section slipped through unexamined and unnoticed by reason of that controversy?
§ Mr. Morrison
My hon. Friend says that he remembers the occasion. I should hardly have thought he was old enough to remember it. I am, though I was very young at the time. But my hon. Friend need not have any doubt as to what Parliament did with a Bill of this kind in those days. Every line was examined, if not every word; every point of punctuation was considered. There was no question of whether a Clause was controversial or not. There was some controversy, I believe, about this particular provision. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Leeds (Mr. Denman) has recalled an echo of that controversy whether the change was in fact wise. In those days whether there was any controversy about a particular provision or not, there was sure to be a row about it, because it would drag out the time. It was a hotly contested Bill, resisted at every line and no Section was included which had not been carefully examined. Section 7 of that Act says:Five years shall be substituted for seven years as the time fixed for the maximum duration of Parliament under the Septennial Act, 1715.I will put to the Law Officers and to the Parliamentary draftsman the points raised by my hon. Friends, but it is abundantly clear to me that when an Act of Parliament says that five years shall be substituted for seven years in a previous Act of Parliament that means a specific amendment of the previous Act of Parliament and not the repeal of that previous Act. If it had meant that the Act of Parliament was to be repealed it would have said that the Act was repealed, or that a particular section was repealed, and that repeal is usually contained in the Schedule to the Bill. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne rather implied that the very eloquent and denunciatory Preamble to the Act of 1715 had a bearing on the matter, but I rather doubt it, because that Preamble sets forth the reasons for the Act and has not positive legislative effect. This is a case where there is not a repeal of the Act of 1715 but a specific amendment of it.
§ Mr. Silverman
I think we all agree that the whole Act was not repealed, but was not the Section limiting the life of Parliament to seven years repealed and a new Clause introduced limiting the life of 903 Parliament to five years? How can you substitute five for seven unless you first repeal the seven?
§ Mr. Morrison
There was only one Clause. There is an italic introduction, where all this denunciation of previous legislation occurs, and then it goes straight on without a pause and without a new Section or new Sub-section or anything, to say:Be it enacted, by the King's most Excellent Majesty,and so on. There is no provision in the Act of 1911 for the repeal of any Section of the Act of 1715. There was only one Section repealed, anyway. Incidentally, it was a remarkable illustration of the one-Clause Act, which we are always seeking. I think I can say with every confidence that the provision in the Act of 1911 is an amendment of the Act of 1715. That being so, we are now providing that Section 7 of the Act of 1911 shall be, not repealed—I was wrong if I said that earlier on—but shall not apply to the present Parliament. We are automatically going back to this old Act of 1715 under which the seven-year limit applies. So far as I can see, if we have to do this again next year, we shall have to amend the Act of 1715 and make it eight years, instead of the seven years therein provided. I have dealt with the points to my own complete and conclusive satisfaction, at any rate. I do not think there is any doubt—
§ Sir C. Headlam
"If we have to go back to this point next year," said the right hon.. Gentleman; I want to make it clear that the Government must come back to this point next year. If that old Act still applies, you will have to come back to it next year.
§ Mr. Morrison
There is another contingency. The Bill has been drafted on the assumption that we shall have to continue Parliament beyond this further year, and that we shall go back—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"]—Certainly. That is the assumption of the Bill. My argument has been directed to showing that that must be so, under the provisions of the Bill. If the war finished the week after next, with a great British victory, it might not be necessary to go back to that Act. My hon. Friend is always ingenious in his arguments, even when they are not legal, 904 and he is still more ingenious when they are legal. I am not a lawyer, but I think I have effectively answered him. Nevertheless, I will consult the Law Officers of the Crown in order that I may not wake up in the night and feel that any doubt remains. I give the House an assurance that the matter will also be dealt with upon the Committee stage by a Law Officer of the Crown.
The other points were all covered in the two big aspects of the Bill with which I have dealt. The House of Commons naturally feels that this is not the sort of thing to do. It has freely recognised that, and so have His Majesty's Government, but the House of Commons comes to the conclusion that this is the only thing we can do. We must have this further postponement, but the House of Commons, nevertheless, stands up in a white sheet, rather ashamed of itself for committing what it realises to be the constitutional irregularity, if not the crime, of daring, being elected for five years, to take legislative power to extend its period of office for one year and then for another year. Having castigated ourselves thoroughly, but having come to the conclusion that there is no other course for us to take, I hope that hon. Members will now give us the Second Reading of the Bill and the other stages of it as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Silverman
Was the Bill in its present form submitted for the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown, or does the right hon. Gentleman now propose to take that step for the first time?
§ Mr. Morrison
All these Bills go through a procedure, during which Law Officers' advice is taken. Before a Bill gets to this House it goes through many stages of consideration, and my hon. Friend can be sure that his point is fully met.
§ Mr. Garro Jones
Does not the name of the Attorney-General appear on the back of the Bill, and is it not customary in drafting a Bill to have the assent of the Law Officers?
§ Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time", put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.905
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for the next Sitting Day.— [Mr. Whiteley.]