HC Deb 20 January 1943 vol 386 cc252-64
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

I beg to move, "That Colonel the Right Hon. Douglas Clifton Brown be the Chairman of Ways and Means and that Major James Milner be the Deputy-Chairman."

Both these hon. and gallant Members have had experience in the Chair. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Hexham (Colonel Brown) has now served as Deputy-Chairman for five years, and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South East Leeds (Major Milner) has been invited by Mr. Speaker every year since 1935 to serve on the Chairmen's Panel and has served as Temporary Chairman of Committees throughout that period.

Mr. Austin Hopkinson (Mossley)

I beg to move the Previous Question, "That that Question be not now put."

That is a somewhat old Motion, which is not, I believe, generally used in the House, but I understand, subject to your Ruling, Sir, that it is perfectly in Order on this occasion. I move it because, being an independent Member of the House, for many years unattached in any way to any party [Interruption]. May I ask for your protection, Sir? I have made a definite statement, which I can support by the fact that candidates from every party are regularly run against me at elections. Hon. Members might at any rate have the decency to withdraw lies of that sort.—[Interruption]. Being an independent Member of Parliament of many years' standing and not connected in any way with any party—I have to fight all parties in my constituency—and not connected with any outside interest paying my expenses, it is incumbent upon me in a case of this sort to speak what appears to be the opinion of a very large section of the House, not of one party, but of all parties. The procedure in these appointments has always been as at present, but in the present instance a new factor comes in, and that is the composition of the Government, which is now a Coalition. It is an extraordinary thing that the majority party has no proper means of making its will felt vis-à-vis the Government. That is an unfortunate state of things and gives rise to a great deal of trouble in the procedure of the House in such a case as we have before us.

We see in "The Times" this morning that it is proposed that a certain Member of this House shall be the Deputy Chairman of Committees. No sort of official intimation of any kind has been given to the various sections of Members of the House. The only means by which the majority of the House, that is, the Conservative Members, can now be properly approached is through the 1922 Committee, and I have ascertained, though the chairman is absent owing to ill-health, from leading members of that Committee that this name has never been submitted to them for their consideration or approval. I have also ascertained that another party in the House has never had the name submitted to it. Therefore, those who are responsible for putting forward the name have not had the ordinary courtesy to ascertain whether it is the name of a gentleman who is persona grata to the bulk of the House. That is a very important thing, because, as you, Sir, are only too well aware, it is essential that the occupant of the Chair should carry with him the good will and respect and, as has happened many times in the past, the affection of the bulk of the Members. It is not a question whether the fact of that gentleman being persona grata or the opposite can be attributed to any particular reason. There was a certain Dr. Fell, of whom it was written— I do not like you, Dr. Fell, The reason why, I cannot tell, But this I know, and know full well, I do not like you, Dr. Fell. Where a post of this sort has to be filled everyone, even those who do not agree with me on this point, will admit that the proceedings of this House, both in the House and in Committee, are very much conditioned by the personality of the occupant of the Chair, and it is very difficult for any man to occupy the Chair satisfactorily if there is a feeling in his own mind and in the minds of the House that he is not persona grata. I understand that the appointment of the Deputy Chairman is merely permissive. The House is under no obligation to appoint a Deputy Chairman at all, and it cannot be said that about three minutes' notice is enough. Therefore, I appeal to the Deputy Prime Minister to separate this Motion, or at any rate to withdraw it with a view to separating it, and give the House some opportunity of understanding the position and privately expressing their opinion.

There has been a tendency which you, Sir, must have marked, as other Members have, to override the Privileges of the House. This seems to me a case where the House would be well advised, to use a vulgarism, to dig its toes in and show the Government that it is not the autocrat of this country but that the House of Commons must be consulted in these matters. Hence I do not see any reason why the Deputy Prime Minister should not accept the previous Question. I have had considerable discussion with him for many weeks upon the point [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] No official communication has been sent me or anyone else except to the Labour Party, and the other parties have not been consulted, but it is one of the duties of Members of the House to find out what is being done. When it came to my knowledge that this proposal was going to be made, I took appropriate steps, in private, to see if I could avoid this difficulty from coming before the House. I was disappointed. I did not effect my object, and the result is that I am obliged to bring forward this Motion, so that the question of these appointments shall be deferred until the House has had an opportunity of considering the matter and until there has been an opportunity of consulting the party which is in the majority.

We know perfectly well what is happening and that this is part of what is called the "spoils system." There is public money going, and the system, as in all Coalitions, is that first one party has its hands in the till and then another. It is bringing Parliament into contempt and will bring it more and more into contempt if the country sees this bargaining between side and side as to who shall get the jobs. If this is allowed to go through, the whole status of Parliament will be irretrievably lowered, and the enemies of this Constitution, whether of the extreme right or the extreme left, would rejoice to see Parliament giving up its Privileges and being lowered in the estimation of the people of the country.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood (Wakefield)


Mr. Speaker

The Amendment needs a seconder. Is any Member prepared to second it?

Captain Cobb (Preston)

I beg to second the Amendment.

Mr. Greenwood

We have listened to what I regard as the most mischievous speech which I have heard since I became a Member of this House. The hon. Member, speaking as an Independent, has taken on his shoulders the responsibility of putting a point of view which, if it were right, should have been put by the party which has the majority in this House. No other hon. Member except the hon. and gallant Member who has seconded it rose to support the Amendment. Why? Because I assume that those who lead the Conservative Party are satisfied with the qualities of my hon. and gallant Friend who is proposed as Deputy-Chairman of Ways and Means. It has been suggested or implied that my party has been consulted. Sir, that is untrue. [Interruption.] I hope that hon. Members will take my word. I have personal friends in the Conservative Party who will take my word.

Commander Agnew (Camborne)

I think my interjection was misunderstood. What I meant to say was, Was the right hon. Gentleman going to lie down under a system whereby his party, the second largest in the House, was not consulted on a matter of this kind? We think it ought to have been.

Mr. Greenwood

The hon. and gallant Member is now raising a point which is an ancient constitutional point in this House. It is perfectly true that these offices in the House of Commons are held at the will and with the approval of the House, but it does fall to His Majesty's Government for the time being to initiate the discussion by bringing forward a proposed appointment, because such emoluments as there are fall upon public funds. But that is not the point. Had the hon. Member who has apparently been forcing his attentions upon the Deputy Prime Minister for some time been anxious about procedure in the method of appointment of the Chairman and the Deputy-Chairman of Ways and Means, he might have raised that point; but he does not raise that point; he raises a personal point. He does not object, nor do I, to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hexham (Colonel Clifton Brown), who, I think, will fill the Chair with conspicuous success and with fairness to all quarters of the House.

The hon. Member goes out of his way to single out one appointment. On what grounds? Is it on grounds of public service? My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) has a career of public service as good as the hon. Member's. He is a man with, I suppose, 13 or 14 years' service in the House, and for seven years, I think the Deputy Prime Minister said, he has been a Temporary Chairman and has also served on Committees. He has also had a long experience of local government. What is the argument against him? The argument is that the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) does not like him. If all appointments were to be judged by personal likes and dislikes, many of us would never attain any eminence. There can be only one other reason for an Amendment of this kind—a deferment—which I say is a slur upon the honour of my hon. and gallant Friend. The hon. Member is not playing fair over this thing. Some years ago the hon. Member, rising in his place as an Independent, said he had looked into the faces of members of the Labour Party and added, with a bitterness that I could not possibly emulate, "and I do not like them." There we have the whole reason.

Mr. Hopkinson

Will the right hon. Gentleman justify that statement by telling us where it appears in the OFFICIAL REPORT?

Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)

You said it outside, and you know you said it.

Mr. Greenwood

I am satisfied that the hon. Member said it. He does not like us.

Mr. Hopkinson

The right hon. Gentleman has made a statement saying that I said something in this House. I therefore ask him to prove it from the official records of the House, or to withdraw it.

Mr. Greenwood

I may be wrong about the statement having been made inside the House, but there is no doubt that he made the statement outside the House. He has proved it by his action to-day. Suppose the suggested appointment had been that of an Independent or a Conservative. The hon. Member would not have made this interjection, which, I think, is discrediting the fairmindedness of the House of Commons.

Mr. Hopkinson

The right hon. Gentleman has made a serious and false statement. I could give the right hon. Gentleman the names of at least 50 Members of the Conservative Party in this House whom I would sooner see dead than see in the Chair. [HON. MEMBERS: "Names."]

Mr. Greenwood

I do not know whom the hon. Member has in mind, but I am glad to know that it is not within his power to order this slaughter of the innocents. I really have only one word more to say. If there could be any proof that my hon. and gallant Friend were unfit to fill this post, I would be the first to say that he ought not to have it. If a man can serve in this House as my hon. and gallant Friend has served—and served his country also—for a period of years to the satisfaction of the House, however much independent individuals may dislike him, then I should have thought that the Government might be supported in the proposal which has been put forward, and I appeal to the House and its sense of honour, fairness and decency not to accept the previous Question.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South West)

I beg to suggest that a certain amount of unnecessary heat has been generated on what is after all a House of Commons matter, concerning the smooth working of the machinery of the House. I regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) showed so much heat and personal antipathy in his speech. As far as I am concerned, I feel that this appointment has been rushed. The first intimation I had of the resignation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Sir Dennis Herbert) from the position of Chairman of Ways and Means was at about quarter past 11 yesterday morning. It may be that the Government were not advised in the Recess that the right hon. Gentleman had decided to relinquish his appointment. At any rate, I do think that in this purely House of Commons matter, in which the House of Commons should have a say and has always had some say in the selection, the House should have had time to think who should occupy this very important post. My view, for what it is worth, is that with the composition of this House of Commons it is a good idea to divide these posts between two parties; one should be in the hands of the Conservative Party and one should be in the hands of the Labour Party. So far as I am concerned, I have found both these gentlemen efficient and impartial in the Chair, and I would be quite willing to sit under their Chairmanship when we go into Committee, but I think it would have been advisable, and it might have terminated a good deal of this discussion, if we had had a few days to think over this matter, if the Government had advised my friends below the Gangway, my friends opposite, and even a few of the Independent Members, and so prevented a good deal of waste of time.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

On a point of Order. May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? Will you tell hon. Members of the House who have not been here sufficiently long to know the facts whether this is a Government or a House of Commons appointment?

Mr. Speaker

It is a House of Commons appointment.

Mr. Attlee

The Government have not departed from precedent in any way in this matter. These appointments are always made on the nomination of the Government. When new Governments are formed, one of the first things, when the House meets, when the Sessional Orders have been arranged, is the appointment of a Chairman of Ways and Means and a Deputy-Chairman.

Mr. Hopkinson

The right hon. Gentleman says that this is done on the Motion of the Government. Quite right, but in normal circumstances the Government represent a majority of the House of Commons. In a Coalition the case is completely different.

Mr. Attlee

There have been occasions when Governments have been in a minority in this House. I was in two of them myself. As a matter of fact, in 1924 I think the Chairman of Ways and Means was a member of the Labour Parry, and the Deputy-Chairman was taken from another party, I think the Liberal benches. I always thought it was a good plan myself that there should be variation. That does not alter the fact that these are Motions without notice and have generally been made immediately on the relinquishment of the office, and it has not been the custom in the past that these names should be submitted to party meetings. I have had it notified to me that it was the intention of the Government to propose Mr. So-and-so, just before the Motion was made, on a number of occasions, but I assure the House there is no question of rushing the matter, and I think we should try to live up to the traditions of the House. I was very sorry that the hon. Member should have suggested that this was something of an elaborate bargaining, and a subject for spoils. I do not know why it should be when a Labour Member is appointed.

I quite agree that a Coalition is in a different position, but this is not the first time that there has been a Government composed of more than one party, and certainly there have been occasions on which Government nominations have been made when the Government have been in a minority in the House. But this is the first occasion on which I have known objection taken on these lines. The objection taken is on some grounds of personal dislike. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The hon. and gallant Member has served now in the Chair as a Temporary Chairman of Committees and on the Chairman's Panel for seven years. I have not heard any complaint. He has been a member of various Committees. I think it is extremely regrettable that this line should have been taken, and I think the House would do much better to accept this Motion. I do not think it is right that there should be a lot of trouble over a matter like this, or a wrangle in war-time. I think that is far more likely to do harm to the House than anything else.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby (Epsom)

I have no complaint whatever to make as regards either of the names submitted. Indeed, I think that in common with most Members of this House my view would be that the services in the Chair of the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) have met with universal approval. What I do complain about is that this essentially House of Commons matter should have been put suddenly before the House without the House of Commons as a whole having an opportunity to consider the names which were to be submitted to them. It is most unfortunate that this Debate should have taken place, and it will not help either of the hon. and gallant Members when they come to fulfil their task in the Chair. It seems to me quite essential that whoever occupies that Chair should be persona grata with everybody in the House, and that therefore the Members of the House of Commons should be consulted by the Government in any way that is possible before a name is finally submitted to them. I must say that I think that had soundings been taken relative to the proposals which the Government were going to put forward, we should not have had this Debate. It is a House of Commons appointment, not a Government appointment. The House is selecting someone to sit in the Chair and rule over it during its Debates. There is no question of personalities, and personalities would not have come into it had some consideration been shown by the Government to all parties in the House before they brought the matter forward.

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

I feel great disagreement with most of my hon. Friends opposite. Perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend would interrupt me and tell me on what occasion in the last 100 years there has been any consultation by any Government with their supporters or with anyone else as to who should be appointed Deputy-Speaker or nominated Deputy-Chairman of Committees. The whole thing has got into a completely false atmosphere. The hon. Member below the Gangway has made a speech which I can only describe as malicious. He boasted, as he constantly does, to the boredom of the House, that he is the one Member in the House who is independent and expresses independent views. On this occassion we are adopting the same course that the House has always adopted.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

I think the House will at least acquit me of having any very strong partisan views on matters of this sort. I have on a number of occasions tried to assert the rights of the House against the Executive, but I am bound to say that hon. Members' arguments to-day leave me dumbfounded. What is suggested—that the Government make nominations, that names should be hawked round for days and weeks beforehand, upstairs in committees, either in our committee upstairs or the Conservative committee upstairs, so that when the nomination is made it will be made in the most unpleasant circumstances possible. The House is being consulted at the present time. The House does not exist upstairs in private committee. The House exists here. This is the only place where the House should be consulted, and the Motion before the House is a form of consulting the House itself. Any bargaining behind closed doors and secret meetings upstairs are no substitution for the consultation of the House. I suggest that a great deal of unnecessary prejudice has been imported into this matter, and I hope hon. Members will not pursue it any further.

Commander Agnew

I want to make it clear at the outset that I have no objection whatever to either of the two hon. and gallant Members who have been nominated to fill these offices. My objection is as to the method in which it has been done, as, differing from Crown appointments, these are House of Commons appointments. I feel that in future the procedure ought to be—and I say it with all respect to the traditions of this House—that the Patronage Secretary and two or three colleagues in a Coalition Government should put down, some days in advance, a Motion on the Order Paper of the House of Commons. If any groups of hon. Members or parties in the House wish to discuss the matter, they can do so in their private meetings, and if any of the persons so nominated are likely to be persona non grata to strong bodies of opinion, then, of course, the usual representations could be made through the usual channels. I believe that if this suggestion were adopted in future, it would entirely remove the objection to the procedure in respect of the persons whose nominations have been brought forward to-day.

Mr. Muff (Kingston-upon-Hull, East)

It is the Back Bench Members who are interested in this matter. The hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) undoubtedly stressed the opinion that he was independent, and straight away he said, "In the absence of the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, I wish to place the views of that Committee"—or words to that effect—"before the House." Then he proceeded to say, knowing, as we all do, that he is the recipient and receiver of more gossip in the smoking room than there is at our ladies' sewing-party at my chapel, or to give the impression, that he was also spokesman for a select coterie of hon. Members who sit below the Gangway. I repudiate utterly that he is the custodian of the interests of the Labour Party, and, I deny that the hon. Member for Mossley has the right to speak on behalf of the 1922 Committee. The Deputy-Prime Minister has very properly reminded us that this House elected as Deputy-Chairman a former Member for South-West Hull, who was in opposition to the then party which is now in control of the Government. On previous occasions nominations have been made, and I well remember—though I was not a Member of the House, being too young—that Mr. Speaker Gully was elected Speaker of this House and that he was appointed actually with the consent of the Irish Nationalist Party, who were then in a position to give their vote and bring any party into the majority. The hon. Member for Mossley, the independent Member for Mossley, who is persona grata with all the Primrose dames in his constituency, comes down here, stresses his independence and that he is an incorruptible Robespierre, to speak to this House, and then he gives the show away by saying, "I object to any of the spoils being given to any one section of the House."

If there ever was a case where the Chairman or Deputy-Chairman earns whatever salary he receives, these two hon. Gentlemen, honourable in every sense of the word, earn every penny, and I wish we could give it to them tax free. I rise as one of the back bench Members who saw in the Press, at least three days before Christmas, that the right hon. and very highly respected Member for Watford (Sir D. Herbert) was laying down his office. We learned that fact. We are not going to take on the sins of "The Times" because they put a certain statement in their rag this morning, but even back bench Members have known that certain appointments were going to be made. I hope that we in this honourable House will, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) has put it, be true to our traditions and to the men who are going to sit in that Chair when we discuss the grievances of our constituents and try to remedy them, and that we shall repudiate the Amendment standing in the name of the very independent Member for Mossley.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

I wonder whether I might address a few observations to the House on this subject and then make an appeal to them. There has obviously been some quite genuine misunderstanding about precedents in this matter. My noble Friend the Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton) is quite right. I have looked them up carefully, and there is absolutely no precedent for notice being given, or consultation, beforehand. I fully understood my hon. Friend's reason, but it has never, in fact, been done. On every occasion in the last century a Motion has been put down by the Government, and all the precedents I can find—I speak subject to correction—are that on the day when the Chairman of Ways and Means resigns or retires a new Chairman and Deputy-Chairman are appointed on that day. As a matter of fact, it was owing to the advice I gave to the Prime Minister that we did not take both things yesterday. I suggested that it would be better to have the resignation one day and appointments the next. I think that is the first time that even that has been done. I wanted to make that plain to the House, because quite obviously there has been some misunderstanding.

Mr. Hopkinson

When my right hon. Friend says there is no official notice given, I know for an actual fact, from my own experience, that on every similar occasion the whole thing has been unofficially discussed and the powers that be have obtained the opinion of the House as far as they could before bringing their selection forward. As a matter of fact, the Deputy-Prime Minister told me in conversation that this particular selection had the unanmious support of the Labour Party.

Mr. Stephen (Glasgow, Camlachie)

I think part of the trouble has arisen from a confusion between the appointment of Speaker and the appointment of Chairman. With regard to the appointment of Speaker, generally there are joint consultations, but with regard to Chairmen no consultations ever take place.

Mr. Eden

That is exactly the position. I have been into this with great care. That is the procedure which has always been followed. Almost always appointments have been made on the first day of Parliament, so that consultations would not have been possible. Those are the precedents, and we have followed them absolutely. I do not regard ourselves as being guilty in any way or of being discourteous to the House in a matter of this kind. It has been agreed by all recent speakers that nobody wishes to introduce personal matters into these appointments. If this be so, in order to give the House the best chance of working smoothly, may I appeal to my hon. Friend to withdraw his Amendment?

Mr. Hopkinson

In view of what my right hon. Friend has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the previous Question. I should explain, however, that some of the things said of me in this discussion have been demonstrably untrue, and I should have raised objection to them if it had not meant wasting time. However, in view of what has been said, and because it is now practically impossible to get a large-scale vote of the House, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the previous Question in the hope that, having moved it, it will have done some good.

Previous Question, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That Colonel the Right Hon. Douglas Clifton Brown be the Chairman of Ways and Means and that Major James Milner be the Deputy-Chairman.