HC Deb 01 December 1944 vol 406 cc203-7

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House, at its rising this day, do adjourn till Tuesday next"—[Mr. James Stuart.]

11.7 a.m.

Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)

I wish to oppose this Motion, although I do not propose to press the matter one way or the other. I do not undertake, however, that I will not oppose a similar Motion Friday after Friday, so long as we continue to adjourn from Friday to Tuesday. There are, according to the length of the Christmas Vacation, somewhere between 14 and 15 Parliamentary Mondays, between to-day and Easter. That is about three-and-a-half Parliamentary weeks, as we go at present, with the Parliamentary week consisting of four days. Those three-and-a-half weeks are equivalent to, at least, one major legislative Measure, or probably two or more of the relatively less important Measures. We have before us now a legislative programme to which, as the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. A. Greenwood) insisted, the whole House is committed. Even if, through misfortune, the European war were to be prolonged until September, it would certainly take all our time, at the rate of business which has been customary in the past two or three years, to pass this programme.

I suggest that this programme is not an optional one which we should pass if we can, but constitutes the basic, minimum programme without which no Government of whatever complexion will be able to handle the post-war situation. In other words, it seems to me that this House finds itself face to face with a legislative crisis. It is nothing that has come upon us suddenly or as a bolt from the blue. It has come because, in spite of all the warning and exhortations made by a small handful of hon. and right hon. Members, the great majority of Members have not been minded in the last two years to bring such pressure to bear on the Government as would compel the Gov- ernment to get ahead with this legislative programme in good time.

In the face of this emergency, it really did seem to me, if I may say so quite bluntly, that some of the remarks of the Prime Minister last Wednesday were lacking in a sense of social responsibility. Not by a single sentence in his speech did he call upon this House to make unusual exertions. He did not invite us to curtail our speeches, or to be chary in putting down Amendments to Government legislation. On the contrary, it seemed on two occasions as if the Prime Minister was at pains to invite back benchers to examine the procedure of the House, in order to discover on how many occasions they could intervene on this legislative programme. He unfolded to us, with no note of urgency whatever, all our customary, easy-going ways, and he seemed to be speaking to everybody except ourselves when he said that the race is won in the last lap. He said, for example: Do not … ever suppose that you can strengthen Parliament by wearying it. I much prefer the statement of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield when he said that nobody could pretend that this House had been overworked in the last five years. I do not think that it would result in the premature death of any hon. Members, if we were to exert ourselves a little in this last lap.

Again, the Prime Minister quite rightly said that we must concentrate our energies upon the prosecution of the war to final victory, but, as he said himself, he stressed this matter in order to dissipate lightly-founded sensations that we can … turn to the tasks of transition and of reconstruction. Of course, in a certain sense, in a wide sense, it is very true that we cannot turn to the tasks, the physical tasks, of reconstruction, but some day we shall, let us presume, be brought face to face with those tasks very suddenly indeed. What we can and must do now is to lay the legislative foundations without which these tasks will be impossible of performance. I do not need to repeat but I merely refer to, and, as they say in the law courts, adopt for the purposes of my argument, the argument that was used by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) when he pointed out that getting ahead with the legislative programme at a maximum pace, is an en- couragement to the morale of the fighting men and the working men and women all over our country and abroad. The point at which the Prime Minister seemed to me to display the gravest signs of social irresponsibility in this matter, was when he seemed to suggest that it did not really matter one way or the other whether we passed this legislation before or after the Election. He said that the main parties in this House were pledged to this programme and added: There may, therefore, be an interruption in our work, but it is only an interruption."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th Nov. 1944; Vol. 406, c. 26 and 35.] May I for a few moments examine this question of interruption? By law, the Election will take two months. I am told by those with high authority that it is likely to be administratively impossible to put it through in less than three months. There must then be, at least, a fortnight between the Election and the summoning of this House. There are then various formalities, such as the swearing-in of Members, and then the King's Speech, so it will be a whole quarter of a year at the very least, between the time when this House abandons its programme, and the time when the next House can introduce—not pass—its first Bill. In the very nature of things the legislation will be much more controversial at that time than it is to-day. It really does seem to me that this House and this Government are imposing upon their successors, the next Government and the next House, a very difficult——

Mr. Speaker

I must remind the hon. Member that the Question before the House is whether we shall adjourn till Tuesday next. It is a Question which admits only of a very limited scope for Debate, and I must ask him to confine himself within it.

Sir R. Acland

I venture to submit, Mr. Speaker, that it is just a little wider than that. If the Motion were defeated by a substantial vote, it would be reasonably clear that the Government could not ask the House to adjourn over any following Monday. Whereas, if no one opposes it, it will allow Parliament to adjourn and take a holiday Monday by Monday, from now on, till Easter. Considering the fact that between now and Easter there are at least three-and-a-half weeks of Parlia- mentary time, I suggest that we are offered wide opportunities for getting on with our business. Besides, it will create a new atmosphere of urgency in this House and will show the country that Members of Parliament are in earnest in getting on with this job. However, may I conclude by addressing one or two remarks on this question to my right hon. Friend above the Gangway, because in this matter I think some hon. Members opposite not only expect but hope that there will be a small Labour majority in the next House, and do not much care if there is a fairly sticky wicket. They want to put the responsibility for this programme not being passed on to the House as a whole.

Sir Patrick Hannon (Birmingham, Moseley)

On a point of Order. Has it ever been the practice of this House to take the opportunity of a Motion for the Adjournment of the House, to make a speech critical of the Government?

Mr. Speaker

As I have said, this is a very limited Motion for the Adjournment of the House until Tuesday next, not until Monday.

Sir R. Acland

I would refer to one or two of the stirring words which were used on this very matter by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield when he said on Wednesday: what the country is hoping for is the fulfilment by this Parliament of the pledges given to the country by this Parliament … I would never grumble if we were worked and worked hard. … But in this Session, before we get back to the old strife, there is a high duty on the Members of this House to fulfil the promises which have buoyed up people, not only in the fields and in the factories but everywhere … it would be a shattering blow to the prestige of Parliament, the greatest Parliament in the world and the very symbol of the freedom for which we are now fighting, if, at the end of this Session the people came to the conclusion that we had, during these months, let them down."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th Nov. 1944; Vol. 406, c. 19–20.] It is true that, primarily, I am asking only for one extra day's work by this House, but I have pointed out that if the House agreed to this, it would result in our getting a good many extra days between now and Easter, and passing legislation which would not otherwise be passed. I appeal to the right hon. Mem- ber for Wakefield and his hon. and right hon. Friends who sit with him and co-operate with him. What do these high sentiments mean? I understand there will be a Debate on social insurance next week, but that will not be taken to a Division, as the party above the Gangway are in the Government, and such a Division would be a Vote of Censure. The Amendment I desire does not mean a Vote of Censure, and I appeal to my right hon. Friend to support it now, and show the country that we are in earnest in saying that this programme must be put through before there is an appeal to the country.

11.18 a.m.

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

Yesterday I announced to the House the arrangements for next week and I intended to ask you shortly, Sir, how the time was to be divided up. No objection was then taken to the days mentioned. I think I ought to remind the House that we are already devoting to Government Business four days a week, which is more than the ordinary peace-time allotment of Government business. I am certainly not going to pledge myself that we shall not ask the House to sit on Mondays, but I do not propose to announce any change now. It may be that at some later stage I shall have to ask, but there are a number of factors that I cannot judge now. I conclude by saying this: I do not very much like talking about the position of Ministers in this House, I realise that Ministers are a minority—[An HON. MEMBER: "Only just."]—are still a minority—but they are having quite as heavy burdens at this moment as at any time during the war. Monday is the one day which we have when we are able to concentrate upon our Ministerial duties. I do not press that point too far; I know one should be careful in pressing the needs of Ministers. But I suggest that we should have this Motion, in the light of what I have said.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That this House, at its rising this day, do adjourn till Tuesday next.