HC Deb 29 March 1944 vol 398 cc1452-7
The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

The event of yesterday requires an alteration in Government Business. It would not be possible for His Majesty's Government to leave matters where they stood when the Motion to report Progress was accepted. At this very serious time in the progress of the war, there must be no doubt or question of the support which the Government enjoy in the House of Commons. Accordingly we have decided, as the first Business on the next Sitting Day, to resume the Committee stage of the Education Bill, and to delete Clause 82, as amended, entirely from the Measure. This act of deletion will be regarded as a Vote of Confidence in the present Administration. If the Government do not secure an adequate majority, it will entail the usual constitutional consequences. Should the House agree to the deletion of the Clause, the Government propose to move to reinstate the original Clause, without the Amendment, on the Report stage, and to treat its passage throughout as a matter of confidence.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood (Wakefield)

As my right hon. Friend's statement is not debatable, and I do not wish to debate it at all, we must consider the situation again at the next Sitting. But clearly it makes necessary an alteration in the Business for the remaining Sitting Days of this series. Perhaps the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House will inform the House now what is to be the course of Business, not only on the next Sitting Day, but on the fourth Sitting Day?

Dr. Edith Summerskill (Fulham, East)

Is the Prime Minister aware that if the Government attempt to reverse last night's decision by whipping up their supporters on a subsequent occasion, the women of this country who regard this matter—

Mr. Speaker

This is a matter which should be discussed on the next Sitting Day.

Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he does not think it possible to distinguish between a deliberative vote of the House on a domestic issue and any lack of confidence by the House in the Government on the general issues that are involved in the war effort? Would it not seem that hon. Members, who are 100 per cent. with the Prime Minister in pursuing the war—[Interruption]—a matter upon which I should have thought there was no doubt at all—are being precluded from expressing their considered and honest opinion on a domestic matter? Therefore, it would seem that their views are being set aside, and any Debate that may take place in which a vote may possibly be involved, is rendered abortive?

Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)

On a point of Order. May I ask whether other hon. Members of the House are to be allowed to debate the Government statement?

Mr. Speaker

It was rather a long question No Debate is now in Order.

Mr. Shinwell

I was interrupted while putting my question. I have no desire to be hostile to my right hon. Friend at all, but am only anxious to elicit information, in order to ascertain what is in my right hon. Friend's mind. I ask him to make perfectly clear whether there is any kind of line of demarcation between the issues of the war and a purely domestic issue?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, I am afraid I cannot, in any way, alter the statement which I have made. It is really impossible to distinguish between votes on domestic policy and votes on the general policy of the war, in this country. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] His Majesty's Government are entirely in the hands of the House, which has the fullest authority of any legislative assembly in the world, and we trust it will use it with responsibility.

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

Further on the point put by the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shin-well), may I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether he does not think that it would conduce to a return to good relationships in the House, if instead of having a discussion of this case by question and answer—and I have often protested against Ministers making statements without the opportunity of debate—he would move the Adjournment of the House, and, by agreement between the parties, limit it to one or two hours, in order that those who are anxious to sup- port him but who sincerely differ from the attitude he has adopted on this occasion, may be able to put their points to him?

The Prime Minister

I was making a statement on the Business of the House, and I think it would be very wrong for the Government to be the first of all Governments to be deprived of the facility of making statements. However, after my statement is finished, the Adjournment of the House will be moved, and if it is thought that a discussion on that Adjournment is likely to lessen the tension which prevails, there will be nothing in the attitude of the Government to prevent it taking place.

Mr. Greenwood

May I put this to my right hon. Friend? Having made his statement as to the course of action to be taken on the next Sitting Day, I submit that it would be most unfortunate if we had a ragged Adjournment Debate today, before Members of the House have had time to consider the situation. As far as my hon. Friends are concerned, I really must take them into consultation before we can define our attitude on what is a very important issue. I hope, therefore, that the House will adjourn when the Leader of the House moves his Motion for the Adjournment, so that there can be proper time for consideration. Nobody wants to destroy the Bill, and nobody wishes to cast any reflections on the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Education, as I said last night, or indeed, to challenge the Government as a Government on a narrow issue. That is clear, but I do think that it would be unreasonable if we were to try to debate this to-day. I would like the Leader of the House, purely as a matter of Business, to tell us how we are to spend the rest of the time during the present series of Sittings.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on the way in which the issue is to be discussed on the next Sitting Day? It is obviously impossible for us to discuss this matter now, but the deletion of the Amendment is to be made the subject of a Vote of Confidence in Committee. May I ask how wide the discussion is to be on that matter? I know that you, Sir, will not be in the Chair, but it is going to be very difficult for us to discuss what will be virtually a Vote of Confidence in the Government on the narrow issue contained in the Amendment itself. Therefore, can we have some guidance on whether the Debate is to be as wide as the importance attached to it by the Government?

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

Is it not the fact that the House will be in Committee and you, Mr. Speaker, will not be in charge of the proceedings? We shall be in Committee and following the ordinary procedure of the House dealing with a Bill in Committee when Members always have great latitude.

Mr. Bevan

I am aware that you, Mr. Speaker, cannot give directions to the Chairman of Ways and Means, but will not the Government consider, between now and the next Sitting Day, whether representations cannot be made to the Chairman so as to enable the discussion to be as wide as possible, in view of the very great importance now attached to it by the statement of the Government?

Mr. Speaker

I think that the hon. Member has slipped into an error. It is the Clause that will be under discussion, and that is wider than the Amendment.

The Prime Minister

As an old Member of the House, I should have thought that it was, obviously, an issue which required the widest latitude that the Chair felt inclined to give, when the Chair would be supported, as it certainly would be, by the general sense of the Committee. With regard to the question asked of me by my right hon. Friend opposite, I entirely share his views that it would be a great pity to have what he called a ragged and stormy Debate to-day. But that is not a matter for us to settle. We have to wipe out the Business to-day and that can only be done by moving the Adjournment of the House.

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I am of the Opposition but I am not in intimate association with the right hon. Gentlemen on the two Front benches. Surely, we who are in the Opposition and who voted against the Government because it is the routine job of the Opposition to vote against the Government, and who are not unduly distressed by a Government defeat, are entitled to ask the Government and their supporters to let us know whether some substantial change has taken place during the last 24 hours in the relationships of the various elements that keep the Government in office. Surely, that is a matter not for public discussion across the Floor of the House, but for discussion in the meetings of the various elements that keep the Government in power, and for a subsequent announcement from the Government bench. Will the Prime Minister be in a position on the next Sitting Day to inform those of us who are in opposition what is the position of his Government at the present day, and what are the elements that are continuing to keep them in office?

The Prime Minister

That will undoubtedly be decided in the Division.

Mrs. Cazalet Keir (Islington, East)

In view of what the Prime Minister has said about the procedure on the next Sitting Day, I would like to ask him one question. Are the Government going to treat all the rest of the Amendments on the Education Bill in the same way, because, if so, it will be of very little use having a Committee stage?

The Prime Minister

I hesitate to make declarations about the future, until or unless we have been fortified by a Vote of Confidence. But I should not have any hesitation in hazarding the suggestion that every Amendment must be judged on its merits and in the relation which it has to the general policy of the Government.

Mr. Greenwood

May I, still being insistent, ask my right hon. Friend or the Leader of the House, seeing that Business has been disturbed, what it is proposed to do with the remaining Sitting Days of this Series?

Mr. Eden

As already explained, we were not proposing to take any further Business to-day. I understand that there is to be a Royal Commission later to-day.

On the next Sitting Day we shall proceed with the Committee stage of the Education Bill.

On the Fourth Sitting Day it will be necessary to go into Secret Session in order to consider a Motion in relation to the hours of the Sittings of the House. We shall then take the Committee and remaining stages of the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill, and, if there is time, we shall begin the Committee stage of the Pensions (Increase) Bill.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a further question arising out of his reply to the hon. Lady the Member for East Islington (Mrs. Cazalet Keir)? Do I understand this to be the position—that, if the right hon. Gentleman secures his Vote of Confidence on the Clause under review, on subsequent occasions the House is permitted, within its discretion, to vote against the Government as long as it is understood that there is not a sufficient majority against the Government? Are we to understand that that is the position—that as long as he gets his Vote of Confidence hon. Members, before voting against the Government, must always ascertain whether it will inflict a defeat on the Government?

The Prime Minister

I cannot attempt to control the activities of hon. Members. I can offer them merely some suggestions as to the consequences which may attend their actions, but certain I am that we cannot go on on the present basis—with a Government which has been defeated after the language which was used from this bench, in spite of the very great task which lies immediately ahead of us—that we could not possibly do. As to the course which individual Members take on every Amendment, on every question, they must consult their consciences and their duty.

Mr. Speaker

The House now seems to be getting very near what has been called "a ragged Debate" and I think it would suit the convenience of the House if I suspended the Sitting until the Royal Commission.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming

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