HC Deb 09 May 1944 vol 399 cc1865-74

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

Captain Cunningham-Reid (St. Marylebone)

I am a little diffident at starting an Adjournment Debate at this late hour, because I have been particularly anxious not to abuse this certain half-hour concession that has been given to Private Members, but as my right hon. Friend, the Minister who is taking this Debate, has been good enough to stay, I shall proceed. I want to raise the question of Parliamentary reform. Once upon a time I was an official member of a political party, but recently, by my political actions, I deliberately severed myself from any party. The natural inference to be drawn from that would be that I am against parties. On the contrary, I have no quarrel with the party system as such. My objection is that the party system has been carried too far, to the unjustifiable length of preventing the representatives of the people acting in Parliament in a way that they, and very often the majority of their constituents, think right. There was a glaring example only the other day, and there had been many examples before then. The example to which I am referring was when Members of Parliament were forced by the party managers to retract their decision concerning an increase of pay for certain women workers. It seems to me that there is a growing tendency for M.P.s to be more members of parties and less Members of Parliament.

I am anxious to put both sides of this question. I believe that I would be stating the official Government case against more freedom of voting in Parliament if I were to say that as a. Government have to go to the country if they have a series of minor defeats in quick succession, or if they have a defeat on a major issue, and that if all Government party M.P.s voted in Parliament just as they pleased, the situation could well become intolerable from any Government's point of view, and injurious from the country's point of view. For, in the event of constant changes of Administration, as might occur in such circumstances, there would be no continuity of national policy, and the same condition might prevail as did in France with such disastrous consequences. I hope that that will be considered a fair interpretation of the official case. Anyhow it sounds a plausible justification for the party Whips—that is to say, the party managers—demanding that Members of Parliament shall do what they are told, and not what they would sometimes like to do, as dictated by their consciences and the fitness of things.

The official explanation—and I have often heard it—is a cunning one, so much so that it is accepted by what one might even call undocile Members, those Members who resent being fettered. The result is that the Whips and other party functionaries often laugh up their sleeves, because they know, just as many Members know, that that time-worn excuse for demoralising M.P.s does not bear close examination. They also know that an alternative workable procedure could be arranged by a very simple Parliamentary reform. There may be several ways of dealing with this, but here is one. I have discussed this method with one or two people who know considerably more abort procedure than I do, and I am informed there is no reason why it should not work. It should be recognised that the only adverse vote upon which a Government would be expected to resign would be if they did not carry a Vote of Confidence in the Government as a whole, and that in no circumstances should any such Vote of Confidence in the Government as a whole be linked up with the particular detail of Government policy that the majority by their votes did not approve of.

The following would be the course of events. When the Government were defeated in the Division Lobby on any issue, that Vote to be followed by a definite Vote of Confidence in the Government as a whole, on the understanding that, if they were defeated on that, there would either be a new Government or a General Election would be called. If not defeated, the Government would bow to the will of the House on the particular issue in question and carry on, or, if the Government were still anxious to have their way on the issue upon which they were originally defeated, they would reintroduce it, not as a Vote of Confidence, but in the ordinary way, and, if again defeated, it would then be the Government's responsibility whether they accepted such a determined wish of the majority of the House on this particular matter or whether they preferred to consult the majority outside the House. In that case, they might look very silly and lose much support, having just received a Vote of Confidence in their stewardship as a whole from the representatives of the people in Parliament.

The proposed revised procedure would mean that staunch supporters of the Government could, by their vote, defeat some particular aspect of the Government's programme without necessarily right away jeopardising the life of that Government, and their attitude would be made clear when, subsequently, they supported a Vote of Confidence in the Government as a whole.

Captain Prescott (Darwen)

If I understand the position correctly, if the Government were defeated upon a certain matter in the Division Lobby, then they would come to the House and ask for a Vote of Confidence in general, and not on that particular issue. If they received that Vote of Confidence, they could, if they wished, reintroduce the Measure on which they had been defeated, and, if again defeated, either accept the defeat or go to the country. Is that logical? How can the hon. and gallant Member call it a Vote of Confidence when the House would be declining to accept the wishes of the Government in one particular respect?

Captain Cunningham-Reid

It does not necessarily mean, because hon. Members of this House should defeat the Government on a particular issue, that they have lost confidence in the Government as a whole. That is what I want to try and get over, and I think it is what a great many hon. Members want to get over.

Captain Prescott


Captain Cunningham-Reid

I have very little time and I want to leave a few minutes for the Minister to reply and there are only a few minutes left. Provided that the Government—any Government—was reasonably sound, its followers would undoubtedly support the second Vote of Confidence in the Government as a whole, because, to put it at its lowest level, no hon. Member enjoys having to expend hundreds of pounds for election expenses as many have to do, and into the bargain, possibly losing his seat and £600 a year.

I know full well that this question of Parliamentary reform cannot be adequately dealt with in a short Adjournment Debate. Consequently, to use the parlance of the movies, I am merely employing this occasion as what one might term a trailer, which I hope will have the effect of bringing to the House, and possibly to the Minister in charge, the desirability of time being given, possibly after Whitsun, for a full Debate on this subject. I am not asking the Minister to-day for any long reply, but I am asking him that he will be so good as to convey what I have said, and what I am going to say, to the Leader of the House, and that possibly, when he finds, as I hope he will, that a large number of hon. Members of this House would like to discuss this all-important question of Parliamentary reform, a full day will be given to it. I understand that there is a possibility that the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton) may be raising this matter on the Adjournment before we go away for Whitsun. But although of necessity that, in turn, may also be a very short Debate and not sufficient for the purpose, the fact that he is raising it shows that there are hon. Members who are taking an interest in the subject generally and emphasises my demand. I am hoping that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy, if there is such a Debate, will be taking it. We know that he is a great authority on these matters; possibly the House may not be aware that in 1931–32 he was Chairman of a Select Committee that looked into the question of Procedure and sat for over a month. One can appreciate how successful was his chairmanship because there was something unique about that Committee inasmuch as all its findings were adopted. That was a Committee which was largely to do with Parliamentary reform of one kind or another.

The simple voting procedure that I have outlined would do away with that constant General Election bogy which the Whips have used for so long and so effec- tively to justify their despotic control. Nobody could possibly complain—and it is essential that there should be Whips—if they confined their persuasion of M.Ps. to vote in a certain direction by using persuasion which was fair. It will be agreed that an M.P. very properly has not the right or the power to say to his electors, "Unless you vote for me, you will not get on in your career, in fact, however efficient you are, I can, and shall, see to it that you are not to be given a chance, or, alternatively, if you vote for me, I will advance your financial and social position, and possibly both." Such a practice would be most immoral but it is exactly what happens in Parliament. The people whose job it is to persuade Members of Parliament to vote in a certain direction are the same people who have the power to make them support the Government. The Government Whips have it in their power constantly to threaten the representatives of the people with a General Election and other dire penalties, such as taking away from a Member at a subsequent election the support of a powerful party machine or possibly the letter of endorsement from a popular Prime Minister. But the power of the Government Whips only starts there. It is they who make recommendations for Government jobs and it is the Chief Whip, alias the Patronage Secretary, who doles out the patronage.

The boys in the back room have a bun for practically every taste. If the recipient would be content with a minor civilian decoration, they can provide it. It may be a knighthood, it may be a marquisate, it may be a governorship abroad or a lord lieutenancy—they have got them all. They can cater for the vanity and the ambition of practically any man. Surely the time is long overdue when the Government party Whips should most certainly be completely divorced from patronage. Patronage, if we must have it, should be left entirely to the Lord Chamberlain's Office, where a special permanent commission should be established, charged solely with preferment. It would be composed of men and women of integrity, as far removed from the political arena as possible, and this commission would take over the patronage power now possessed by the party Whips and make recommendations to the Lord Chamberlain. The various established political parties would make suggestions to the commission as would other accredited bodies, but the commission would be under no obligation to accept those recommendations, which it would only do after the most careful scrutiny. They would make recommendations for all civilian honours, including lord lieutenantships and suchlike. Where admissions to the peerage were deemed necessary, for Parliamentary purposes, the commission should determine the elevations.

Anyhow, this procedure would have this effect: it would check the practice of handing out rewards to party hacks. That national honours should be handed out for party services—

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I desire to ask you how far it is in Order in this House to discuss patronage by the Crown?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

It is certainly not in Order to discuss the direct patronage of the Crown, but I understand that the hon. and gallant Member is discussing the action of Members of the Government who, he says, make recommendations.

Captain Cunningham-Reid

That is so, Sir. What I am wanting to say is that I consider that it is a national disgrace that national honours should be handed out for party services and to recoup party coffers.

Earl Winterton

I desire to raise another point of Order, Sir. I suggest, with great respect, that the hon. and gallant Member is referring, when he talks of honours being handed out—he can only refer—to honours by the Crown, and I submit it is a gross breach of Order of this House for any criticism to he made of the manner in which the Crown gives honours.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Perhaps the hon. and gallant Member will continue.

Captain Cunningham-Reid

Surely honours are given on the advice of Ministers?


If the hon. and gallant Member will confine himself to the question of Ministers, I shall be with him. Otherwise I think the Noble Lord is probably right on the question he has raised. It is not in Order to discuss the direct patronage of the Crown, but the hon. and gallant Member may discuss the actions of the Ministers.

Captain Cunningham-Reid

Then I gather, Sir, that I would be correct to pursue my argument by saying that there is a necessity for a permanent commission to deal with these matters rather than it being left so much in the hands of the party Whips. That, no doubt, would be in Order. Therefore if such a permanent commission came into being, the Whips being relieved of their virtual power to dispense honours, the hon. Members who have no designs of becoming Ministers—

Earl Winterton

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I must again raise a point of Order. I would call your attention to the fact—I apologise to the hon. and gallant Member for raising it—that this goes to the root of the position of the Crown in this House. The hon. and gallant Member has used the words "to dispense honours". That can only imply, in the ordinary meaning of the word, the contention that in some way the Whips are the people who dispense honours. I submit that all the hon. and gallant Member is entitled to do is to deal with the question of recommendation, and that by the use of the words "dispensing honours" he suggests that the Crown acts solely on the advice of the Whips.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That, of course, would be quite out of Order.

Captain Cunningham-Reid

I will put it another way, for the benefit of the Noble Lord. The Whips, being relieved of, shall I say, their virtual power to recommend honours, and in most cases of having those recommendations accepted, the ordinary Member of Parliament, having no designs on becoming a Minister, would be less inclined to submit to a tyranny that brooked little advantage to himself and even less to the nation. Many such 'Members would, possibly, revert to the city or the backwoods from whence they came, and the Whips would be restricted to exercising their reactionary compulsion on Members dominated mainly by the hope of office and to their proper function, which, I maintain, is to arrange Government business in Parliament. As things are now, if a party M.P. persists in being politically progressive and keeps abreast of our times he will very likely run foul of his Whips' Office, in which case he will be for the "high jump," as has occurred to many distinguished Members of this House, and which is likely to happen, sooner or later, to the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan).

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

Who said so?

Captain Cunningham-Reid

Well, I think the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale is progressive enough not to be able to run in harness with his Whips for very long. I would remind the House of the case of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps); then there is the case of the lion. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) and the case of the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt). They have all been through it, and it is all for the same kind of reason. Parliament today is run too much by the party caucuses and not enough by the representatives of the people as, I understand, was originally constitutionally intended. The majority of key Government positions to-day are not filled by the best that the country can provide, but are filled by the best party men. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Had our country not been ruled by the privileged inefficients produced by our peculiar party system Germany would never have been allowed to rearm and it is possible that this war might not have taken place.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)

Who supported rearmament? Who was a member of the Anglo-German fellowship?

Captain Cunningham-Reid

Anyhow I was not a member. The abuse of our political system has a lot to account for. For years now it would appear that Governments have taken advantage of the people's political ignorance. If only the public could learn the lessons of the past and realise what is the grim prospect for the future unless they bestir themselves and prod Parliamentarians from their Rip Van Winkle lethargy and insist that we put our House in order.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Ernest Brown)

The hon. and gallant Gentleman has left me 2½ minutes in which to reply. [An HON. MEMBER: "Four."] No, my time is accurate. I shall convey to my colleagues the interest that hon. Members show in Parliamentary procedure, if, indeed, that were necessary. As a matter of fact, ever since 1832 we have had continuous inquiries into Parliamentary procedure, quite rightly, because there is nothing more vital to the working of democratic institutions than to make sure that they are flexible and adapted to changing events and changing times. I should like, coming to the hon. and gallant Gentleman's general remarks, to say that he is not progressive, or any friend of democracy, who does two things, first of all sets out to disparage Parliamentary institutions and, second, to disparage the men who work Parliamentary institutions. He seems to think that he is the only man who has been independent. I myself at one period threw over my Whips and my party and went alone. I never complained. I took my decision because I thought it right and remained in perfect amity with my friends while taking a different line. Indeed, the present Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury at one time divided the House against the Government of the day of which he was a supporter, on the Local Government Bill of 1929. The hon. and gallant Gentleman seems to think there are no independent minded people in the House but himself. That is not so. The fact is that the normal Member of Parliament regards the Whips of his party not as enemies, but as friends. I agree with Disraeli, who once said that without the party system Parliamentary government would be impossible. The hon. and gallant Gentleman has not left me time to say more, but I should be delighted on another occasion, as he courteously referred to my chairmanship of the Select Committee in 1931–32, to go further into the vital question of Parliamentary institutions and procedure, whether relating to public or private business, but I will not join the ranks of the cynics, once described by Oscar Wilde, who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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