HC Deb 14 October 1941 vol 374 cc1331-7

Considered in Committee.

[Colonel CLIFTON BROWN in the Chair.]

CLAUSE 1 (Prolongation of present Parliament.)

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 9, at the end, to add: Provided that nothing in this Act shall operate so as to extend the duration of the present or any subsequent Parliament beyond seven years as defined by the Septennial Act, 1715. It will be understood that I do not want to repeat the somewhat lengthy Debate that we had last time on this point. It will be remembered that, as a result of a Debate in which a number of hon. Members expressed grave disquiet as to what the meaning of the Clause as it stands really is, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary undertook to have the point looked into between that stage and the present one, and I have put down this Amendment as much as anything in order to give the Government an opportunity of dealing more satisfactorily with the points that were raised than they dealt with them on the last occasion. Without wishing to repeat the whole of the Debate or anything like it, it might be convenient if I were to summarise, now that we have a row of Law Officers of the Crown present who were not present at that time, the nature of the argument presented.

In short, the argument ran like this: It was said that the present Bill sought to repeal Section 7 of the Parliament Act, 1911, so far as it related to this Parliament. Section 7 of the Parliament Act, 1911, affected in some way or other— it was a subject of some controversy— the Septennial Act, 1715. We who raised this point said that it could only affect the Septennial Act, 1715, by repealing those portions of it which it was desired should no longer be the law of the land and enacting new provisions in their place. In other words, the Septennial Act provided that no Parliament should last longer than seven years, and Section 7 of the Parliament Act provided that no Parliament should last longer than five years. Without this Bill, therefore, the position is that no Parliament can last longer than five years. There is on the Statute Book no other provision limiting the life of Parliament. Stating the case as clearly as I can, there is nowhere on the Statute Book any provision that Parliament shall automatically come to an end at any time, except the provision of the Septennial Act amended by the Parliament Act 1911, that is to say, after five years. If therefore you decide that the only statutory provision which ensures that Parliament shall come to an end at the end of a fixed period shall not apply to this. Parliament, and do nothing more than that, then you have already enacted that there shall be no date on which this Parliament shall automatically come to an end.

With all respect to those whose business it is to advise the Government upon these problems, I confess that, so far, I have heard no answer to that argument, and, indeed, I cannot conceive what answer there could be to it. The argument presented to the House by the Home Secretary on the Second Reading of this Bill was, "We have not repealed the Septennial Act of 1715; we have not even repealed the seven years. All that the Parliament Act did was to substitute five for seven, and therefore if you enact now that that substitution shall not apply to this Parliament, then, automatically, the position enacted by the Septennial Act, 1715, unamended by the Parliament Act, 1911, is restored." My own personal difficulty is to see how the seven years' period is restored unless you enact it. You have to repeal the ''seven'' in order to put in "five." If you want to remove the "five" to put in "seven," then unless you take steps to re-enact the amended part of the Septennial Act, you are left without any period at all to the life of Parliament. The suggestion I have made in my Amendment may or may not be a good one. It did seem to me that if it were accepted, it would remove any possible doubt there might be without effecting the structure of the Clause or the structure of the Act very materially. I have endeavoured to state in the Amendment what the doubt is in such a way as to remove it, and therefore I propose to add at the end of Clause I: Provided that nothing in this Act shall operate so as to extend the duration of the present or any subsequent Parliament beyond seven years as defined by the Septennial Act, 17I5. Whether these are apt words or not, I do not know. I thought that they were, but they are capable of emendation if they are not, and I shall be very happy to withdraw the Amendment in favour of any Amendment proposed by the Government with the same object. I think that something should be done to remove the very substantial doubt, even if the argument is not put higher than that. I cannot understand why the Clause was ever drafted in this way. Even if the Government's interpretation of it is correct, I think they would be disposed to agree that a half-dozen other ways of achieving this result were open to them which did not raise this doubt. In a Measure of such constitutional importance as this, I do not think I am putting it too high if I say that it is vital not merely that there shall, in fact, be no doubt to the legal mind, but there shall be no doubt in the lay mind either, that any public uneasiness should be allayed. There is no point in enacting it in a way that gives rise to serious doubts in people's minds if you can enact it in some other way.

May I reinforce my argument by pointing out that the Title of the Bill supports the contention that this is not a Bill to restore the Septennial Act? This is not a Bill to make the life of Parliament seven years instead of five. It is not so described. It is a Bill "to extend the duration of the present Parliament." Extend it to what? Extend it indefinitely so far as the Title of the Bill is concerned, and so far as any argument derived from the Title of the Bill goes it tends to support the argument of the doubters, and not the argument of the Government.

May I deal with one suggestion which has been made to me? It has been suggested to me that the Amendment I have put down might possibly be understood to mean that Parliament shall come to an end at the end of the seventh year, without any right to prolong its duration beyond the seven years although the circumstances might require such an extension. Of course, it does not. No Act of Parliament can bind Parliament for the future, or bind any future Parliament, or this Parliament next Session. If, when the time comes, if is still felt necessary to extend the duration of this Parliament, another Bill is introduced if this Amendment is passed just as it would have been if this Amendment was not accepted. That was the supposition when any of these prolongation Bills were exacted at all. It seems to me that there is, at the very least, a substantial doubt here, and the Government ought to do something to remove it.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

I hope I shall be able to convince the Committee and the hon. Member not only that there is no doubt, but that it was the proper and, indeed, the only way in which to draft this Bill, having regard to the way in which the matter is dealt with by the Parliament Act. To accept this Amendment would, indeed, throw real doubt on a regular method employed by this House in dealing with old Statutes into which it wants to introduce alterations. When it does that it can and does employ one or other of two methods. It can repeal those Statutes or the part of the Statute with which it is dealing, or a Sub-section or whatever is involved, or it can leave the Statute on the Statute Book, substituting, as happens here, "five" for "seven," or substituting some words for some other words; the old Statute is left on the Statute Book. This is really a clear case of the use of what I call the second method. The operative words of the Septennial Act are: 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 from the day on which by the writ of summons this present Parliament hath been, or any future Parliament shall be, appointed to meet unless this present or any such Parliament hereafter to be summoned shall be sooner dissolved by His Majesty, his heirs or successors. We have always to remember that the maximum period of Statutes is never inconsistent with the dissolution of Parliament at an earlier date; otherwise, we should finally talk ourselves out at the end of seven years, and then have a General Election. When the matter was dealt with in 1911 in the Parliament Act, they proceeded not by way of repeal, but by substituting "five" for "seven." Therefore, the statutory position is that the Septennial Act is the governing Act, with "five" substituted for "seven" in those words that I have just read. If you look up the chronological index of the Statutes, you will find a reference to the Septennial Act as amended by the Act of 1911. Once you repeal the amendment in the Act of 1911, the Septennial Act stands in its original form. That was the problem that confronted us last year when we desired to submit to Parliament a Bill giving power to extend the life of this Parliament by one year unless it was dissolved. The method adopted—in fact the only method that would have occurred to any person—was to take the Parliament Act, and to say "for 'five' in that Act, read 'six'". You could not have gone straight back to the Septennial Act, because then you would have left the Parliament Act still there; so "six" was written into the Parliament Act. This year Parliament wants to go back to the Septennial Act. The only method I see of doing it is to take off for this period that Section of the Parliament Act which amended the Septennial Act.

Mr. Silverman

My right hon. and learned Friend may not have looked into this point, and if he has not I shall not trouble him further about it; but can he think of any precedent for an Act subsequently amended, as the Septennial Act was amended by the Parliament Act, being restored by some such method as this?

The Attorney-General

I am afraid I have not a precedent in my head, but there are many cases in which it could be done. Being a progressive body, the House of Commons does not often want to go back to a Statute, or a part of a Statute, which it has already altered. If it wants a further change, it very seldom wants to go back to the precise form in which our ancestors, in their wisdom, dealt with the problem at the time. But I think precedents could be found. There can be no doubt that when this Bill becomes an Act it will leave the Septennial Act as the operative Act—as it has always been—unamended by Section 7 of the Parliament Act, which was the only Section which ever altered it.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

By what legislation is the life of Parliament in future to be confined to seven years?

The Attorney-General

This Bill applies only to the present Parliament. It says: Section seven 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. If we are again faced next year with this problem, we shall no doubt consider the proper form. I believe that what I have said accurately states the position beyond doubt. I hope that the Committee will agree that it would be very unfortunate to accept an Amendment which would make people in future ask why these words were inserted which threw doubt on the statutory position. My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) referred to the Long Title. I think that if it stated that the life of the present Parliament was to be extended by one year, that might be regarded as meaning that the Bill was to extend the life of Parliament for one year irrespective of the right to dissolve Parliament.

Mr. Silverman

Suppose you said that it was to extend the maximum life of Parliament by one year?

The Attorney-General

I hope that I have dealt with my hon. Friend's argument, and that the Committee are satisfied and that my hon. Friend will not press his Amendment.

Mr. Silverman

I think my right hon. and learned Friend would be very surprised if I said that his arguments had satisfied me, and that he would not believe me anyhow. So I shall not say any such thing. But I am perfectly satisfied, both from what the Home Secretary said on the Second Reading and from what my right hon. and learned Friend has just said, that it is not the intention of the Government that this Bill should operate to extend the maximum life of Parliament by more than one year, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.