HC Deb 03 December 1943 vol 395 cc743-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain McEwen.]

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, South)

I want to take up the time of the House for only a minute or two, Mr. Speaker, with regard to the attendance here to-day. I have taken no part in the proceedings of the two important Debates which have been going on but from what I have been told they have been poorly attended.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for Me Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir J. Edmondson.]

Sir H. Williams

The poor attendance arises for a very simple reason. Hon. Members, on the assumption that we should not be sitting here to-day, weeks ago made their arrangements to be elsewhere, and I want to appeal to the Patronage Secretary—who has given this extra day so that Members could have more time for the Debate on the Address—to see whether he can give hon. Members longer notice. It is not in the public interest that the Press should be in the position of being able to report that the House to-day was very thin. You cannot blame hon. Members, because many have to make engagements a long way ahead Therefore, I hope it will, be possible to, arrange, through, the usual channels, that when it is decided that it is in the public interest that there should be a fourth Sitting Day as long notice as possible should be given so that Members who might wish to be present for important Debates could be present. We know what a difficult task the Chief Whip has, and we all recognise the delightful and competent way in which he discharges it. I am not saying what I have been saying out of any hostility; my only desire is to be helpful. We all know the kind of stuff that newspapers say about a poor attendance here, and I think it is just as well that I should make the point I have made.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

Further to what my hon. Friend has said, I think we might have had a larger attendance here to-day if we had had the honour of a larger attendance of Ministers. I do not think that is asking too much that at least one Minister of Cabinet rank should appear in a Debate as important as the food Debate we have had to-day. That Debate went on for three hours, and so far as I know at no part of that time was the House honoured by the presence of the Minister responsible. Parliamentary Secretaries do their best, and they do very well, but nobody expects an announcement of great importance to be made by a Parliamentary Secretary in a Debate such as we have had. The Minister usually reserves that to himself. As I have said, I think we might have been honoured by the presence of at least one responsible Minister during that Debate.

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I would like to associate myself with most of the remarks which have been made on this point and with the remarks the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) made about the Patronage Secretary, who, I think, performs, and has performed during these last few years, a most difficult task in a wonderful way. I think the small attendance here to-day is due to some extent to the fact that old tradition about Fridays is still hanging about the House. They used to be Private Members' days, and while I hope that we shall have more time in the future for Private Members I have always recognised that we must use that time in a more satisfactory way than it has been used hitherto. This poor attendance is, a survival of that old Friday tradition, when we came along in our sports clothes and kept looking at the clock to see whether we could catch the one o'clock train.

It is an extraordinary thing that we should have an attendance which at any time could be counted on the fingers of two hands, as compared with the tremendous House that persisted all day on Wednesday, when we were discussing a matter which, though of considerable constitutional importance so far as its immediate application is concerned, was of a most trivial kind, whereas the subject to-day has been of fundamental, long-term importance. Those who took part in the Debate need feel no regrets about it. Their speeches are there on record and will, no doubt, make some impression on the Government, though I know that is hoping for a good lot. I do not think that hon. Members suffered from the fact that they had not a crowded, excited, hysterical audience to take them off the main trend of their addresses or to goad them into saying things which, however clever, would have been no addition to the sum total of our knowledge. I also associate myself with what the hon. Member for South Croydon said, that, if we are going to have four-day weeks, we should have as much advance knowledge of it as possible, and I want the Parliamentary Secretary to consider, if we are going to put in an extra day, whether the beginning of the week is not better than the end.

Mr. Robertson (Streatham)

I should like to associate myself with those who have spoken and to draw particular attention to the fact that this Debate primarily concerns the production of food at home by the British fishing and farming industries. That is not the direct charge of the Ministry of Food. Both industries are the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. I am particularly interested in the fisheries part of it, and I spoke on it, but the representative of the Government did not say a word about the white fishing industry, which is infinitely greater than the herring industry. The Parliamentary Secretary came here to-day with a prepared brief which he read to us and I say in the kindest possible fashion that it bore no relation to the actual Debate.

Mr. Speaker

It is not in Order to go back and debate the question that we have already decided. On the Adjournment we cannot go back to what we have just been discussing.

Mr. Robertson

I defer at all times to your Ruling, Sir, with the greatest respect, but I am bound to join in that protest, particularly in regard to the fisheries. No one could say that it claims too much of the attention of the House. I sometimes wonder whether, if I hailed the Minister of Agriculture as the Minister of Fisheries, he would realise that I was addressing him, because we do not spend any time on that great industry. It is a matter for serious thought, and I appeal to my hon. Friends on the front bench that, in discussing the important matters that have been discussed, we should have the attendance of more representatives of the Government than the Parliamentary Secretary of a Department which is not directly concerned with food production.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. James Stuart)

I should like to thank my hon. Friends for all the things they have said about myself. I assure them that our desire is, and the Government's desire is, to meet the convenience of the House as far as possible. As to the Debate to-day, I am not going into anything to do with the Amendment, but I think it is only right to say that the hon. Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby), who moved it, asked that a representative of the Ministry of Food should be here. The Minister of Food himself would no doubt have been here, but that was not possible because he is away attending an important conference elsewhere. With regard to the length of notice, the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council, in the opening speech on the Address, warned the House that Business might make it necessary for us to sit on additional days in this Session, and he went into some detail as to Business arrangements which I need not deal with now. The actual notice of our intention to sit to-day was given on 25th November, that is, eight days ago.

With regard to the future, I think that when we have embarked on the work of the Session we shall be able to see a little more clearly, and I will certainly remember the desire of hon. Members to have the longest possible warning. With regard to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) about the additional day being on some other day, I can only repeat once more that the Government wish to meet the convenience of hon. Members. I think that to most Ministers it would make little difference as to which day of the week we sat upon. Those days to which the hon. Member referred in the piping days of peace we have put behind us. We do not think of that sort of thing any longer, even though we may regret it sometimes. I will bear in mind what hon. Members have said. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) will understand the reason for the absence of the Minister of Food. The other Departments were well represented by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. We were informed after a discussion that, generally speaking, this Debate was an affair for the Ministry of Food, and that is the explanation of the manner in which it was handled.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

The Patronage Secretary has made an admirable and characteristically courteous speech. I have risen to ask him not to consider the request of the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) as representing the unanimous view of the House. I say that from knowledge after having tried to ascertain what were the views of hon. Members who have long distances to travel. I am not prejudging the matter, but I only wish to make it clear that there are differences of opinion upon which should be the extra day upon which the House should sit.

Mr. Stuart

I wish to assure the hon. Member that we will have discussions on these matters, and I think they will be very prolonged ones.

Mr. Maxton

I hope that the Patronage Secretary will appreciate that I was only endeavouring to speak for myself and not for anybody above the Gangway.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.