§ Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)
I count myself fortunate to have caught your eye, Mr. Speaker, at the commencement of this Adjournment Debate, in order to deal with a subject that has in the past, I think, been rather insufficiently ventilated in this House. That is the question of the power of this House of demanding, through a simple process which I shall presently explain, an inquiry into the efficacy and efficiency of our Standing Orders and whether any of them need amending or not, in the light of changing conditions. Before I do so, I should like to make one or two preliminary observations.
In the first place, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was good enough to convey to me privately, and to give me permission to convey to the House, his regret that he could not be present during the Debate. My right hon. Friend said that this was a question which might particularly affect him as Leader of the House, and that he would have liked to have been here for this discussion but an important official engagement prevented his attendance. I think we shall agree that we are fortunate to have, in the person of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a Minister here to reply to this Debate who has taken a very real and vital interest in the matter and was a very successful chairman of a Committee on the subject some time ago. I am fortunate also to have as my supporters several hon. Members in all parts of the House who are interested in this subject. We do not as a rule, on most questions of domestic politics, see eye to eye, but we have this in common, that we happen to be Members who are not opposed to swimming against the stream of public opinion, in this House or outside it, which I think is a valuable thing. There are quite a lot of people who like to swim with the stream. My hon. Friends and I prefer to swim against it, although 1069 some on the bank may jeer at us. I also want to say that I do not, for one moment, attach any sacrosanct character to the suggestions which I am going to make. I do not feel that my political reputation, such as it is, will suffer in the least if hon. Members who follow me in the Debate, including those who are interested in the matter, say that my proposals do not commend themselves. What I have in mind in inaugurating this Debate is to be, if one may use a term of very common military parlance at the moment, a pathfinder, to try to get the House interested in what I think is a subject very important for its future.
What is the situation with which the House finds itself faced in this matter? In the little green book which I have here, and which is so familiar to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen, "The Manual of Procedure in the Public Business," there will be found—I think it is on page 220—the actual Standing Orders relative to public business of the House; but at the beginning of the book are to be found interpretations of them, which, I think it is true to say, are largely based upon the opinions, one might almost say the obiter dicta, of a former Clerk of the House. When the Speaker of the day quotes from one of these obiter dicta, the House listens with the respect and awe shown by Moslems when an Imam quotes the words of the Prophet. That has always seemed to me to be an excessive tribute to pay to a distinguished former official of this House, to whom the modern world and the needs of the modern world are completely unknown. I suggest that we cannot live in a sort of insulated and isolated room, remote from the affairs of the outside world, in the way in which we do our business.
There is a very interesting parallel—a rough parallel it is true, but a parallel—between what I may call in general terms the constitution of this House, and the Constitution of the United States. Just as the Constitution of the United States—which I understand is found by our American Allies to be at times a highly inconvenient instrument of government—is based partly on a written Constitution, and partly upon Rulings of the Supreme Court, so it is true that the procedure of this House is governed partly by Standing Orders and partly—I will ask the House to note this—on the interpret- 1070 tations placed upon those Standing Orders by successive occupants of the Chair, based very largely on the opinions expressed on them by a former Clerk of the House. It is true to say that the rigidity of both is mitigated by certain factors; in the shape, in the one case, of amendments conceded by both Houses of Congress and by the Rulings of the Supreme Court in the United States, and in the case of this House by decisions of occupants of the higher and lower Chairs, as well as, of course, by actual Amendments which have been made.
I speak with some diffidence on my next point, seeing in the House several very distinguished persons with a much better knowledge of history than I have. But there seems to be a rough parallel between the circumstances in which both constitutions came into operation. Both constitutions—if I may use a generic term to cover two things which are not quite similar—arose out of revolutions, or a series of revolutions, including a civil war. It might be held that an expression of opinion either way at this moment would be outside the scope of this discussion but I would say that it may be the case that the House needs to arm itself to-day against the encroachments of the Executive and not, as in the 17th century, against those of the Crown.
I think it is true to say, broadly speaking, that the constitution of this House did arise to a considerable extent out of the events of the two revolutions which we had in this country, the actual Civil War and the second Revolution, if I may so term it, when James II lost his throne. Also, as I shall proceed to mention more specifically in a moment, it arose out of the circumstances of the late eighties and early nineties of the last century. What happened in those days is of great historical importance, when considering the history of this House. They witnessed the rise of the Irish Nationalist Party under Mr. Parnell, who, with all his faults, was a very distinguished Member of this House. He was a rebel and his speeches are still worth reading to-day. He said to his followers, as the House will be aware: "You will realise that we are not living in the days of the Whigs and Tories and that, if we all act together, we can smash the constitution of the House of Commons and cause the Government 1071 to grant us what we want in the shape of Home Rule for Ireland." That was his argument. That it is a fact has been constantly brought out in books and reminiscences of that day.
He further argued: "There has always been up to now an unwritten rule between the Government and the Opposition that they will not so strain the Rules of the House as to make all business impossible and yet, if you interpret the Rules literally, you can make all business impossible." I have been told by relatives of mine, distinguished Members of the House who were in it when I first entered, that there was certainly a period—I am not sure of the exact date, but I think it was in the nineties or it may have been in the late eighties—when, in the opinion of the Leader of the House and of the Leader of the Opposition, unless drastic steps were taken, the whole procedure of the House would have been brought to an end. I think I am right in saying that on one occasion the Irish Nationalists took advantage of the Rule which then prevailed, of being able to move the Adjournment on any day, to move the Adjournment on five or six successive Parliamentary days, during which no Government Business was got through at all. Consequently, it was necessary for the Government of the day to take very drastic action, and some of that action is reflected, even if only palely, in the Rules of to-day which were intended to deal with a situation that has long passed away.
Before proceeding to describe my proposal for the setting up of a Standing Committee to deal with these matters, I would like to say that it would diminish, in no way, the power and the authority of the Chair. The Committee I have in mind, and whose functions I will describe later, would have no right to criticise or comment on the Rulings of the present or past occupant of the higher or lower Chair. I think the House would, quite rightly, take the strongest exception to any of its Committees possessing such a power, but there is a difficulty here, which I think can be overcome. It is a somewhat delicate matter to deal with, but I think I must deal with it. After all, occupants of the Chair are only human, and in times of great stress and strain, as for example in those days I have been describing, and 1072 in the days of the Parliament Bill, when, once again, the Procedure of the House was almost brought to an end—I suppose I must admit by violent combat on the part of the Tory Opposition, and equally violent counter-action by the Government—occupants of both the higher and lower Chairs are apt, quite rightly, and in order to meet a grave dilemma, which if unsolved would mean the disruption of the House, at least temporarily, to give Rulings which appear to be in dissonance, to some extent, with those of their predecessors and the actual wording of Standing Orders.
In other words, in thorough accord with British ideas, they deal with a difficult situation not legalisticallly but by methods of common sense. I think that has been a feature always of the situation when these circumstances have arisen. Sometimes, however, quite unwittingly, this has led to a permanent deprivation of facilities for debate, long after the circumstances have passed which made the curtailment necessary. If, under the machinery which I am now about to outline, an investigation has to be made into a particular Standing Order whose interpretation had been affected in the manner I have described, the Committee could, by an unwritten law which would I think arise in the very first instance, carefully refrain in their report to the House from expressing any opinion on the validity or otherwise of a particular Ruling, by using some such phrase as this: "It was represented to us that the meaning of the Standing Order so and so should be clarified by the addition of the words—or by the Amendment of the words so and so, and the substitution for them of the words, so and so—and we are in agreement. We therefore propose that Standing Order—should read as follows." That would meet the difficulty of the rather delicate matter to which I have referred.
I would like to cite, as an example of the need of this machinery—I think it is the best example—the position that has arisen over the question of Adjournment Motions. The history of this matter is as follows: I have already mentioned that there was one week in the period of stress and strain in the days of the Irish Nationalist Party, when the whole of Government Business was interrupted for a week, because the Irish Nationalists, every day, moved the Adjournment of the 1073 Debate, as they were entitled to do, so that no Government Business was got through. The Government had to meet the situation by some immediate action, and it was in consequence of that situation, that the present Standing Order was brought in relating to Adjournment Motions on matters of "definite, urgent public importance." I have not the quotation with me but there was a Debate on the subject in the House at the time. The Prime Minister had to resist a good deal of opposition; I think some came from the distinguished father of the present Prime Minister Lord Randolph Churchill. The Prime Minister was told "You are depriving the House of a most valuable right, that of being able to adjourn the House at any time." The reply he made was that he was not doing anything of the kind, that he was merely bringing in a Standing Order which would give to the House its actual rights and would prevent the abuse of its rights.
For some time after that, the Standing Order worked well. Then in the bitter period of the 1900 Parliament, the present Prime Minister and other opponents of the Balfour Government used it whenever they could, as they were entitled to, to embarrass the Administration. In the 1906 Parliament "young blades" of the Opposition like myself followed suit, usually followed by the Irish Nationalist Party. We frequently succeeded in moving the Adjournment, and often against the private advice of our Leader and our Whips. Obviously, I am a biased witness in the matter, because of my part in it in the past, and I will express no opinion on whether we did or did not cause the original purpose of the Standing Order to be unduly strained. At any rate, the Chair obviously thought that "Jove had been nodding," for, at a later date, the conditions considered applicable to the grant of permission to move the Adjournment, were, literally, narrowed down—I am making no complaint against any distinguished occupant of the Chair—"from precedent to precedent." I am making no reflection on anybody when I say, "Let us take, not this year, but 1935." As compared with 1905, it was infinitely harder to get permission to move the Adjournment on matters of "definite, urgent public importance," though the same Rule applied. That is a serious situation. It requires no reflection on anybody to make it 1074 obvious. It is, to my mind, a tremendous argument in favour of some procedure by which these things could be regulated, and this was a very valuable Private Members' Privilege.
I do not wish unduly to detain the House so I come to the actual proposal. Mutatis mutandis I would model the Standing Committee which I propose on the Committee of Privileges. Although only a recent member of that body —and it is not for any member of such a Committee to use an opportunity of this kind to be unduly effusive about its working—I venture to say that it works admirably. We have a most excellent chairman in the Lord President of the Council, and I think it fair to say, without giving away what happens in the Committee, which would be contrary to Order, that there is a complete fairness of approach to the problems before it, by Members of all parties. I would like a Committee, set up in the same way as the Committee of Privileges, to deal with this matter. I would like to see, if that be possible, and if it would not put him in an embarrassing position, the Chairman of Committees made ex-officio chairman of the Committee. I think one representative of the Government, probably one of the Law Officers—perhaps the SolicitorGeneral—should be a member, in the same way as the Attorney-General is a member of the Committee of Privileges. I would call it "The Committee on Procedure."
At first, or at any rate until it was possible to judge by actual experience how the system worked, I would limit the purview of the Committee to existing Standing Orders and Rules of Procedure for both Public and Private Business. That is to say, I would not give it the power to consider proposals made for some completely new Standing Order to deal with a new situation. Here, of course, I might differ from some of my hon. Friends who are supporting my general argument. I repeat that this is a proposal which is put in a very sketchy way. But I think that to allow the Committee, in the early usage of a wholly new procedure, to handle proposals for some novel rule, unknown to our present procedure, would be to strain unduly the terms of reference of the Committee. These could, if necessary, be enlarged later. I suggest, very generally, that the method of approach to the Committee, 1075 would be as follows: If not less than 100 Members—I am not tied to any number: it might be more or less, but it would have to be sufficiently large to avoid frivolous applications by small minorities —made the submission that they desired the alteration of a Standing Order or Rule of Procedure, you, Sir, would, at the commencement of Public Business, make an announcement in some such terms as these:The requisite number of hon. Members having intimated to me their desire that the amendment of … should be considered, I have referred the matter to the Committee on Procedure.When the Committee received those instructions, they would call such witnesses as seemed desirable, in the same way as the Committee of Privileges do—they would have the same rights as the Committee of Privileges possess in the matter of calling witnesses—and, having considered the matter, they would report to the House, which would accept or reject their proposals. This would in no way prevent the Government, provided that it had a majority in the House, having a final say in the matter. The House and the Government would be the people who would finally decide. It may be said that, if sufficient Members make representations to the Government that they want the alteration of a Rule, that can be done now, and that the Government, at any rate, can alter a Rule. That may be so; but this procedure would be a more efficacious one, because a Committee of the House would consider the matter from every point of view, not only from the point of view of the Government. Just as, when any question affecting a Member of the Government comes up before the Committee of Privileges, the Committee hear all points of view, so, in this case, the Committee would hear evidence both from those for and from those against the proposed change. I would like to give an example of the kind of reform which I suppose such a Committee would submit to the House. Let me return to this matter of the Adjournment Motion. Suppose that 100 Members asked that there might be an inquiry into the Rule about moving the Adjournment on matters of definite public importance. Let us assume that the Committee give a Ruling like this:We think that, where a matter coming within the purview of the Government in 1076 which there is widespread public interest, has suddenly arisen, and cannot, under the arrangements for Business in the House, be raised in the near future, hon. Members should have the right to move the Adjournment, provided that a sufficient number of them rise in their places to support the Motion. In our judgment, the Adjournment at the close of Business, apart from the fact that it is often allocated weeks in advance, does not meet this want, because the time is insufficient. We, therefore, recommend the following change in the Standing Order….I give this example, because, assuming that there was such a change in the Standing Orders, one would suppose that you, Sir, and subsequent occupants of the Chair, in interpreting the Rule, would also have regard to the Report of the Committee. The Committee, if it is to do its business, will have expressed in clear language the purport of its recommendation. I think it would be infinitely better that the Chair should base its Rulings on the report of a Committee, rather than on the views of a former Clerk of the House, however distinguished he may have been.
I thank hon. Members who have listened to my remarks. All of us who are proud of being Members of the House of Commons are entitled to claim that the prestige of this House has never stood higher in the world than it does now. This is the greatest unfettered sovereign lawmaking body in the world. There is no Supreme Court here, as there is in the United States, to dispute the validity of the laws we pass; and another place has been largely deprived of its powers to interfere with the laws we pass. Surely the immense responsibility which is thus placed upon our shoulders involves us in an obligation to ensure that our procedure is equal to our needs and the country's needs, and that we are not—as we now are, in some respects—shrouded in the grave-clothes of a dead and vanished past. Hon. Members should not fear the possibility that, in a matter of this kind, some cherished ideals, which have hitherto been held in high regard, must be abandoned. Surely, the only question is whether, with the majesty and the prestige by which it is surrounded at the present time, it can, or cannot, do its business properly.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)
I lay no claim to originality in the suggestions which I will make to-day. I make them against the background of my own experience, and I will try to produce evidence to show hon. Members that this question is one 1077 of urgency. The suggestions which I intend to make have been supported, at various times, by the present Prime Minister and by men of great character, who have now passed away, after serving our movement as well as any man could ever serve it—men like the late Fred Jowett, E. F. Wise, and others whom I cannot, for the moment, remember. On 6th April, I put the following Question to the Prime Minister:if he will move to appoint a Select Committee that shall have authority to send for persons and papers, to inquire into the future of the Parliamentary machinery and consider how it should best be adapted to meet the post-war needs and, while preserving the rights of Private Members, function with speed and efficiency."— OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th April, 1944; Vol. 398, c. 2167–8.]I claim that, apart from the question of winning the war, this is one of the most urgent questions the House could discuss. I want authority given, so that this House can have the advice of the Speaker, the Clerks at the Table, Parliamentary Counsel, and all people who can advise us on how to make the Parliamentary machine adapt itself to meet the great problems which may arise after the war. We can all learn something from each other on this subject; and I am confident that, with the same spirit which has been shown, in the main, on the question of winning the war, we ought to be able to adapt our democratic machine, to enable us to profit from the experience of the war. Instead of forcing people to achieve their aspirations by means which other countries have had to adopt, we should so adapt our institutions that this country will become greater than ever. Therefore, I want this Select Committee to be set up in order that we can have a pooling of experience and ideas, so that we can make our Parliamentary machinery as efficient as it can be made, to meet post-war problems, while preserving the reasonable and democratic rights of Private Members.
I was trained in industry to work to drawings. I had to spend a considerable time in equipping myself, mathematically, to be able to build in a constructive way. At the same time, because of world events and their effect on big scale industry in this country, we had to be alert, and to work as quickly and efficiently as we could, and, of course, the country has benefited by the output we have been able to achieve during the war. 1078 This building is a very fine building, but it could never have been built, if it had been attempted in the haphazard way in which many people in this country approach problems. There are now under construction in this country some of the finest turbines built in any part of the world. We are also building the finest night flying bomber, namely, the Lancaster, but this would not have been possible but for the efforts of many people, and the pooling of ideas of people who have put in years of work. These machines could never have been built if men did not work to plans.
When I first came into this House, straight from the bench, it was against that background, and, from 1935 to 1939, as I sat here, day after day, I became irritated at the time-wasting that took place, at the frustation of many hon. Members with great qualities and great experience, who never had an opportunity to translate that experience and those qualities into reality in this House. I should never be a party to opposition for opposition's sake. That is easy, but the day for that sort of thing has long since gone by. Although some of us are strong in our opposition to the national system which, during our lifetime, has lacked so much, economically, and refuse to forget our history or those who sent us here, yet at the same time, in these days, the test of men is how they can build, how they can organise, to deal with problems in an efficient way.
§ Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)
How does the hon. Member discriminate betweeen what he is enunciating, and the practice of sitting on the Front Opposition Bench, as a Member of the Opposition, having the right to speak from that Box?
§ Mr. Smith
If the hon. Gentleman had been good enough to listen—I have been speaking for only seven minutes—he would have realised that I am just sketching the background of what I wish to submit to the House. Now that the question has been asked may I say that some of us have a very close knowledge of what took place in the Reichstag and also in Spain and in other countries, and we are determined to watch that similar forces shall not take advantage of the situation in this country in order to do here what they have done in Germany, Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, Spain, Italy and elsewhere. I will certainly face 1079 up to the question which my hon. Friend has raised, because it is a test to see whether a question of that kind can be answered in a constructive way.
I was, as I say, very briefly, sketching the background that stimulated me to take action on the lines which I am indicating. I was only saying that what took place in this House, at a time when the international situation was worsening, leading to war, seemed out of harmony with world events. The same applies to the serious economic problems with which we are faced to-day, and, as far as I am concerned, I am determined to play my part in trying to prevent a repetition of what took place between the two world wars, when this House, in many cases, refused to face questions as they should have been faced.
Here is another example. In 1914, the winner of the Schneider Trophy did 86 m.p.h., and in 1931 it was 340 m.p.h. Now, planes, built by people in industry, built by people who have been trained in industry—trained not to talk, but to build—are flying from the United States to this country in five hours and 4o minutes. Those of us in industry who have made a contribution to the well-being of this country can never forget the great speeding-up which has taken place in industry. The whole of our life has been speeded up. Yet our legislative machinery, in peace time, was, in the main, working at the speed of the Victorian age. In my view, if we are to prevent crisis after crisis arising in this country, legislative machinery must be speeded up in some way. Between the two wars, people in the country—the real British people—were becoming irritated by the rate at which they had to work, compared with the slow-moving machinery of our national Legislature. The war has further quickened up life, and, in my view, the functioning of this House must be quickened in the same way. We shall be impotent to handle the post-war problems, and the problems unleashed by the war, unless we adapt our institutions and meet the needs of the situation in a much quicker way than we did before the war.
The Report of the Select Committee on Procedure in 1932 said this:They have borne in mind that, wherever a representative assembly acts as a healthy 1080 and vigorous organ of Government, its regulations and forms must be such as, while permitting adequate debate and giving adequate powers of initiative to individual Members, will assist the Executive in providing, with regularity and celerity, for the vital wants of the State.I have no hesitation in saying that, between the two wars, this House did not provide, "with regularity and celerity," for the vital wants of this country. This is my second experience of a world war, and the people of the world, and of this country, have just had about enough of war. They are, rightly, looking forward to a greater joy in life, to the harnessing of abundance and the giving of security, and, in my view, if we approach these problems in the right way in this House, we can build a greater Britain than most people have ever dreamed of Democracy has become dynamic for war purposes, and my plea is that we must maintain this dynamic force in order to face the post-war problems. We recently sat here for two days considering foreign affairs. I heard most of the speeches that were made, and it was generally agreed that the tone and standard of debate was very high. But most Members who took part dealt only with figures of populations. They talked about the fact that we had 45,000,000 people, and compared that with the large populations in some other parts of the world. I was disappointed that no hon. Member pointed out that, apart from the population, productive capacity played a big part in our standing and strength in the world. I am convinced that, if Britain will prepare herself in order to harness the whole of our productive capacity and the high skill of our people after the war to a policy of full employment, we shall be able to hold our own in the peace. We shall not be able to do that unless this machinery is quickened and made to work more efficiently than it did before the war.
The recent Education Bill was a so-called agreed Measure; there was no real opposition to it in the House. We have a Coalition Government which draws upon the support of nearly all the Members of the House. Yet it took five months to put that Bill through the House. The problem of transition from war to peace will be so great, that we shall not be able to work at that slow rate. Therefore, I am pleading that the House and the Government should give consideration to the need for taking 1081 action on the lines I am indicating. I often used to feel annoyed when I heard hon. Members talking about the efficiency of the Nazi system. Anyone who had closely followed what was taking place knew that a good deal of that was the result of deliberate propaganda work by the Nazi propaganda machine. Those same people, after talking about Nazi efficiency before the war, are now against making British institutions more efficient in order to prepare ourselves to deal with the post-war situation.
I want to make some constructive suggestions for the consideration of the House. It is a matter of urgency that a Select Committee or some other appropriate body should be set up to give consideration to the items that I am raising. Since 1931 in particular, and again since 1935, many of the best types of new Members in this House have felt frustrated when they have entered it. There are over boo Members of the House, and when Debates took place many hon. Members—and it is particularly to my hon. Friends on whose behalf I am making this contribution that this applies—seldom had the opportunity of taking part in those Debates, with the result that they became almost heart-broken and began to lose all hope of being able to get in, except on very rare occasions.
§ Mr. Smith
I agree that this also applies to other hon. Members. It is not good enough that that condition should prevail. Members come into this House from all walks of life with a great background of experience, and there is something fundamentally wrong when you cannot draw on that experience so that it can find expression in the national Legislature. That is only one aspect of the problem. There is another aspect. We have witnessed the great growth of unofficial committees, which are doing very fine work in their own way. I give all credit to the officials who keep them going, and to those who are regular in their attendance, because it proves how interested they are and that they want to make a contribution in the conduct of our national affairs. But in my view the time has arrived when these unofficial committees should be made into official Parliamentary Committees. Before 1914 this country was 1082 always in the vanguard of progress in world development. We made a great contribution to world progress, but, unfortunately, after 1919, we no longer made the contribution to progress that we ought to have made. We were left behind by other countries like Australia, New Zealand and the Soviet Union.
I am pleading that Britain should resume its natural historical role of being in the vanguard of progress in world affairs. An indispensable, essential step to be taken towards that end is an investigation on the lines I am suggesting so that we can prepare ourselves for it. You, Mr. Speaker, recently called a Conference to consider the electoral machine. Surely, the next logical step is an examination of our legislative and administrative machinery. That Conference must have functioned efficiently, judging by the announcement made yesterday that already an interim report is being published. That is a concrete example of what I want to bring about. These men pooled their experience and ideas at that electoral Conference in order that such a report could be published, and that is an indication of what can be done with regard to our electoral, legislative and administrative machinery.
As far as my own party is concerned I am on good ground on this matter, because in 1935, in our General Election Manifesto, we said:Labour seeks a mandate to carry out the programme by democratic means and with this end in view it seeks power to abolish the House of Lords and improve the procedure of the House of Commons.And over 8,000,000 people voted for that proposal. The functioning of Parliament must be reconsidered by those who have any regard for the future of our country and, as I said at the beginning, I am only laying down these suggestions as a basis of discussion, so that they will be considered by the whole of the Members. The first need of the Parliamentary machine is to act as legislator, the second to become the national forum, and the third to retain financial control. We shall also have to take steps to protect industry and trade, to bring about the most efficient administration possible throughout the country and to root out bureaucracy wherever it begins to develop. Therefore, such a Select Committee should consider how best our Parliamentary institutions can be adapted 1083 to fulfil that task. Since the war a large number of regulations have been introduced and hon. Members in all parts of the House have taken steps to show that they are concerned about the introduction of all these regulations. As we approach the post-war problems, and if we are to handle affairs in the way that they must be handled, there will be need for more regulations. We shall have to consider some policy of devolution, not only so far as the Legislature is concerned, but also in regard to administration.
§ Mr. Speaker
If a Committee were set up, it would necessarily involve legislation, and this would therefore be out of Order on the Adjournment.
§ Mr. Smith
It is a particular regulation about which I am concerned, and I was going to deal with it in that way, Mr. Speaker. In my view it is upon these lines that the House should take action. The Prime Minister, when he gave this evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure, said:I am in favour of what is called an economic sub-parliament being formed which would guide and aid Parliament in all commercial business and financial questions.Then he went on to give further evidence which supports the plea we are making today. Mr. Jowett, Mr. E. F. Wise, and others made proposals similar to that which I am making. I believe we have to consider these and work on a planned basis instead of legislating in the chaotic way of the past. I agree that the standing of this House is now higher than it ever was, and our problem will be to maintain that standard, and also to deal 1084 with the big problems that will arise after the war. In my view, we shall need to adapt our Parliamentary institutions and the whole of the machinery of government of this country, to the handling of problems in a much bigger and better way than we have done in the past.
§ Commander King-Hall (Ormskirk)
I think it would be difficult, as both the preceding speakers have said, to exaggerate the importance of the subject we are discussing to-day. I think we are going to hear a great deal more about it during the next 18 months and I venture to suggest to you, Sir, and to the House that this Debate to-day should be regarded as a kind of preliminary reconnaissance into what is really an intricate and complicated subject. In fact in the field of politics it is analogous perhaps to the subject of national currency questions and economic matters. It affects everybody. It is very intricate, it has many phases and aspects, and I venture to think that we shall have to take a full day, if not two days, for a Debate on this subject, if possible in the course of the next 18 months. There is perhaps only one section of the House where a Debate on this subject is, for quite natural reasons, not very much welcomed—and I say it in no spirit of criticism—as we will soon discover if we consult the bible on this subject, a copy of which I suspect I see on the knees of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, that is to say, the report of the Committee over which he presided with so much ability in 1931. It is very interesting there to see the point of view of the distinguished Chief Whips who were examined by the Committee on the question of procedure. Put frankly, from the Whips point of view and speaking as Whips, the less hon. Members know or bother about procedure the more comfortable life is for the Executive and the Whips' Office.
I want to support what my noble Friend the Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton) has said, and I welcome very much his suggestion to this Committee. However, I go further than he does along the lines of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith) because I think that it will be found to be impossible to tackle this subject in a limited manner. Again, if one studies the volume which the Chancellor of the 1085 Duchy is holding, one will see that that Committee, with its very wide terms of reference, was continually finding itself in the dilemma that it wanted to get outside its own terms of reference. I think it is worth detaining the House two or three minutes while I try to indicate why that must be so. If you start a study of procedure, the fact very soon becomes Obvious—which perhaps should be obvious at first glance but is not so always to everybody—that that procedure is a means to an end; it is the method by which, and through which, the House exercises its functions. You cannot possibly start playing about with, or examining, procedure without being drawn into a study of the functions of this ancient and complex institution to which we have the honour to belong.
I know that several other hon. Members want to talk on this important subject, and I shall certainly resist the temptation to attempt an analysis of the functions of this House, or, what I think will have to be done in the not distant future, to examine to what extent these functions need be re-defined in the light of modern conditions. I hope one day, Sir, that I may catch your eye on that subject and debate an inquiry into it. All I want to say to-day is that if one studies the evolution of procedure beginning from, say, the 17th century up to the present day, one will see that it is through changes of procedure that modifications, enlargements, and sometimes restrictions of function are expressed. My Noble Friend made that point very clearly when he illustrated the manner in which, through changes of procedure and custom, this function of the House of raising matters of urgency on the Adjournment has in fact been greatly restricted.
The second reason why this matter of procedure is of much more fundamental importance than some people think—especially those who are inclined to dismiss it as just a series of rules which only a few Members need know about and the rest can pick up in an emergency —is that it is not only necessary that our procedure, at any given moment, should be in harmony with the functional purposes of the House, that it should be so designed that the House can operate efficiently in the carrying out of its various purposes, but it is also extremely necessary that the procedure should be 1086 of such a type that the public is persuaded that this is so, that this House is working efficiently and briskly at any given moment. Not only has Parliament actually to be efficient, but it must be seen and known and believed to be efficient by the people outside. That is really the problem of the public relations of Parliament in which I have tried to interest myself and do a little work.
In connection with the Friends of Hansard movement with which I am associated, we have had a great deal of correspondence from all classes of people in all parts of the country about Parliament. We are quite satisfied, in the nine months we have been working, to have practically doubled the sales of HANSARD, but that is nothing to what we intend to do in the future when times are more propitious. If the House will accept my analysis of this correspondence from all over the country, and particularly from the Services, it can be summarised in three points. First, there is undoubtedly a very great respect for Parliament as an institution. I am perfectly satisfied, as my hon. Friend said at the conclusion of his speech, that the prestige of Parliament as an institution never stood higher than it does to-day. Secondly, there is an increase of interest about Parliament. I welcome this immensely because we are trying to stimulate, through HANSARD, as much as possible, an increasing interest in the affairs of Parliament. There was in the nineties a very great interest in Parliament, of course, among a smaller circle of people at that time. Then we passed through a period in which there was a lack of interest in Parliament; now we are on the rise again in the sense that there is an increasing interest.
I must honestly say, however, that I think there is a certain amount of criticism of the apparatus of Parliament, on the ground that it seems, to the outside public, to be cumbersome and rather out-of-date. For example, on a recent occasion when we were debating the Education Bill, proceedings were interrupted for two hours while we discussed the question of the needs of Hull. A great many people who did not understand this procedure thought it was an odd way of interrupting business. There was a lot of confusion in the public mind as to why equal pay for equal work got tangled up with the Education Bill. Of course, I must frankly say that a great deal of this 1087 criticism, if I may so call it, is undoubtedly based on ignorance of Parliament, as to how this House works. In fact, many members of the public write or say to me, "We come into the gallery, we see very few Members apparently in the House of Commons. What are they all doing?" Then I explain, and possibly say, "Our Ambassador at Madrid is addressing a meeting upstairs, and perhaps there are 150 Members there." We must do something to let the public know how this place works.
§ Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)
If the House of Commons had as many publicity officers as Ministers have, we should manage it easily.
If I may say so with respect to the House, the proper publicity officers for the House of Commons are the Members of the House themselves. They will, no doubt, take steps in their divisions to do something about this matter. I want to support what the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham and Worthing said, and particularly what the hon. Member for Stoke said, that a body, or committee, should be set up to look into all these matters. But I would like to go even further than the hon. Member for Stoke in that I would not like to see a body set up with limited terms of reference, but a body with wide terms of reference to consider and examine the whole aspects of House of Commons procedure in relation to the modern problems with which it is faced.
To illustrate the width of the terms of reference I would like to mention, briefly, two or three other points which should come within the ambit of the kind of inquiry I have in mind. I want to draw the attention of the House to the danger to the reputation of this House caused by the growing practice of Members receiving subventions from outside bodies. I think it would be desirable—and as it probably could not be done without legislation I must not enlarge upon it now—if the sources of incomes of Members of Parliament were made public property. A corollary to that would be that the funds of political parties should equally be open to inspection, a step which I would welcome. Of course, I am not imputing, in the slightest degree, any unworthy motives to any hon Member who happens to 1088 receive money, because he is a Member of the House, which he would not receive if he were not a Member. But I think the public should know it, and we should aim at the ideal of a Member of Parliament being independent of that kind of financial support in order to live. I was actually offered a job not long ago, and when I mentioned that it sounded a big job which would keep me rather busy and asked how about my Parliamentary duties, I was told, "We want you to stay in the House of Commons; that is the whole idea of the thing." I think that is an improper approach to the duties of a Member of Parliament. I am sure it is agreed that it is most desirable that Members should be as independent as possible, and should find it easy to exercise their unfettered judgment. The desirability of this is, of course, recognised because it is a gross breach of Privilege for any outside body to endeavour to bring any economic pressure on a Member to influence his actions in this House.
§ Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Denbigh)
I understand that the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton) dealt with the Rules and procedure of the House. In what way does the hon. and gallant Member suggest that other extraneous matters can be brought into the Noble Lord's scheme?
§ Commander King-Hall
The gist of my observations and what I am showing is that I thought it was extremely difficult to deal with a question of procedure without going into the whole question of the functions of this House, and the general position and status of Members.
§ Earl Winterton
I suggested that it was well to deal first with procedure, and then we could afterwards widen the terms of reference.
§ Commander King-Hall
I regard the matter as so urgent that perhaps I want to go a little faster than the Noble Lord. Having made it possible to establish the economic independence of Members—and an increase of salary or expenses would do that—we are still left with the question of how we are to raise the status of the back bench Member. There may be some feeling that this is not a very important matter, but I detect a tendency that the electorate, more and more, want to feel that their representatives have minds of their own and are not perambulating 1089 rubber stamps. I think that is a very good sign indeed; the more you encourage independence of action and thought by Members, the better it will be for the honour and glory of Parliament. We ought to think the whole time on these matters of Parliament, because this Parliament is the institution in which we are interested. At the same time, the business of the House must be briskly despatched, and in order to do that we require the machinery of the Whips and the devices of Parliament. I speak as an independent supporter of the artifice of a National Government in times of crisis, and I have no hostile conception of parties as such. My objection to the existing political parties is based on other considerations. I think they have lost sight of their principles, but I will not go into that now.
I want to make a suggestion which I think may be worth the consideration of the House, and which would improve the position of a Private Member without interfering with the mechanism of the Whips and the parties. There is a growing practice—and it is a very good one—for the Government to introduce White Papers in which their general policy is outlined as a preface to legislation. The purpose of these White Papers is to ascertain the general view of the House about the proposals which are to be put into the Bills which are to follow, and in discussing these White Papers the House is exercising one of its great historic functions, as a Council of State. It has been described by the author of the "English Constitution" as:Expressing the mind of the people; teaching the nation what it does not know; making us hear what we otherwise should not hear.These Debates on the White Papers usually arise on a Motion, and my suggestion is that there should be an extension of that procedure. I want to split up the main proposals of a White Paper into a series of Motions, four or six, or, on rare occasions, perhaps eight or nine, on very big Bills. After a general Debate there would be, on each Motion, a free vote. For instance, in connection with the Education Bill one Motion would have covered the matter of equal pay. The feeling of the House would have been ascertained. On that particular Motion there would have been a vote in favour of equal pay. What at present happens is that the Whips go to the Government and say, "The general feeling of the 1090 House is rather in favour of this part of the White Paper and there is certain feeling against that part." On this occasion they would have known what the House felt about equal pay. It would have been a simple matter for the Government then to have mentioned their intention to set up a Royal Commission to consider the matter and the Education Bill would not have been held up. Further, Members not able to take part in the Debates on the White Papers would be able to register their opinions for and against certain parts of those White Papers.
§ Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)
Does the hon. and gallant Member suggest that these proposed Motions should extend to matters which are not found in a White Paper, because equal pay was not mentioned in the White Paper on education?
§ Mr. Speaker
Perhaps the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) will allow the hon. and gallant Member to proceed, otherwise we might get a third speech of half-an-hour.
§ Commander King-Hall
Perhaps my hon. Friend opposite will forgive me if I do not reply directly to his question. The Government would obtain a much more clear-cut view of the opinion of the House, and I think there would be a better attendance because Members would come in order to vote. I said at the beginning of my speech that I would make a general reconnaissance. I apologise if I have taken rather a long time. All I have attempted to do is to indicate the width and size of the particular subjects which have to be looked into. I strongly support the idea that a body should be set up to deal with this matter.
§ Mr. Molson (The High Peak)
I think it is entirely right that so late in the life of this Parliament, when there has been so much discussion of reform and reconstruction in the country, we should turn our eyes upon ourselves and see whether we, also, do not stand in need of some reform. My Noble Friend the right hon. Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton) has rendered a great service in raising this matter to-day. I think it is clear that during the last 30 or 40 years, there has been so great a change in the volume and character of the busi- 1091 ness of Parliament that fairly fundamental changes will have to be made in the Parliamentary machine. I agree also with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Commander King-Hall) that what will be required of this House in future will be to reconcile the independence of mind on the part of individual Members with the maintenance of the party system. The party system is absolutely essential for the preservation of a strong Government, because without it there would be a development of pressure groups who would bring their influence to bear upon individual members of the Government. Unless the whole Government stood together and protection was given under the broad aegis of the Prime Minister for the time being, it would be quite impossible for any Minister to run his Department without the risk of being compelled to give way to some organised agitation throughout the country. These are some of the problems with which Parliament will have to deal.
My Noble Friend in the more modest proposals which be made to-day referred in particular to the importance of keeping our Standing Orders in harmony with modern requirements. I have had some experience in the last few months of how difficult it is to obtain Parliamentary time, and afterwards to persuade the Government to accept a change in procedure on some particular issue. I feel that if there were a Standing Committee of responsible and representative Members keeping the Standing Orders under perpetual review, it would be possible to have comparatively small and modest changes made by the Committee, thus ensuring that the machinery of the House did not get out of adjustment with modern requirements. Therefore, I very much hope that the suggestion which my Noble Friend has put forward will receive a sympathetic reply from the Chancellor of the Duchy. It is unlike my noble Friend to be unduly timid, but I think he was so to-day, because I feel that it would be a great mistake to empower this Committee to suggest only the amendment of existing Standing Orders and not to allow them to propose new ones. That would be a restraint upon their discretion which could hardly fail to result in producing Standing Orders of quite excessive length and complexity whenever they desired to deal with some new problem and had 1092 to bring it within the ambit of some Standing Order of the past. Therefore, I hope that a responsible and authoritative Standing Committee will be set up and given a very wide discretion.
The hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith) carried the Debate a great deal further. I find myself in considerable agreement with what he said, but I would put the functions of the House in a different order from that in which he placed them. I would say that our first task is to make and unmake Governments, and, secondly, to scrutinise and criticise the Governments when they are in power. "Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth," and a Government that enjoys the support of the House is none the worse, sometimes, for being occasionally criticised—and, as an hon. Member near me says, on small and minor Committee points, perhaps sometimes beaten. The third function of Parliament I would say is the control of finance. It may perhaps come as a surprise to some hon. Members to know that there was a time when this House did exercise effective control over finance. Then I would say that its fourth function is to be a forum of discussion where issues which are agitating the public mind can be authoritatively discussed. Fourthly and lastly, I would put the passing of legislation.
I thought that my hon. and gallant Friend made an extremely interesting suggestion when he spoke about the value of White Papers and suggested that some of the principles contained in them should be put individually before the House in the form of Resolutions. I have not refreshed my memory on the old procedure of this House of proceeding by Resolution, but when Mr. Disraeli decided to introduce a Franchise Bill, he proceeded in 1866 or 1867 by Resolution. In that way he obtained the concurrence of the House to general principles, and then passed the Act of 1867 based upon those Resolutions.
§ Earl Winterton
I think we had the same thing, or something of the kind, in connection with the last redistribution Bill.
§ Mr. Molson
I think that is a suggestion of great interest and importance; but I am sure that, as the hon. Member for Stoke said, if hon. Members are to have an opportunity of making the fullest con- 1093 tributions to our proceedings from their own personal knowledge, we shall have to extend very greatly the use of Committees. I hope the time will never come when Committees of this House will obtain as much power as Committees have in the United States or in France, because that results in an undermining of the responsibility, the authority and the power of the Government, and I should deplore anything of that kind; but the business of Parliament is now so detailed and so complex that even the most assiduous Member has to concentrate his attention upon certain subjects. The consequence is that it is very seldom that he is able to make a contribution to Debates on the Floor of this House upon subjects to which he has given special time and attention.
I suggest that there should be set up Advisory Committees attached to certain Departments of State or groups of Departments and that they should consist, naturally, of Members of all parties. Let me take the Colonial Office as one example. There is no doubt that the administration of our Colonial Empire has greatly suffered from the fact that there has not been a sufficiently close and informed interest taken by this House in the Colonial Empire. It would be of immense advantage to the Colonial Secretary if there were a group of Members of all parties whom he could to some degree take into his confidence, consulting with them upon what he thought the House of Commons would agree to, because we should then have both informed criticism from the Opposition and informed support from the friends of the Government. Such Committees could also scrutinise the Estimates of the Departments with real knowledge and understanding, which it is obviously quite impossible for the House as a whole to do.
My last point is that we must get back to the use of Standing Committees for the scrutiny of legislation. While I agreed so largely with what the hon. Member for Stoke said, I was a little uneasy about his criticism of the time taken over the Education Bill. That was a very important Bill, one which will leave its mark upon this country for many decades to come, and the 10 or 12 or 14 days given to the Committee stage was not time wasted, but I feel that we should not have devoted so much of the time of the whole House to 1094 what was a technical Bill which only a certain number of Members fully understood, or were particularly interested in, and that we should avail ourselves far more of Committees upstairs.
I feel that this Debate has been a most valuable reconnaissance of the ground. I doubt very much whether it would be right for this House, old as it is and at the end of a long war, to set up the kind of inquiry which the hon. Member for Stoke has in mind. But one of the first and most urgent tasks of the reconstruction Parliament must be to make certain that Parliament has machinery which will enable it to deal expeditiously and effectually with the greatly increased volume of work which will then fall upon it, while at the same time retaining that close scrutiny and effective control both of the Government and the Legislature which is, after all, the main principle for which this war has been fought.
§ Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)
The House will appreciate that when the Rules and Standing Orders are mentioned, I feel a very natural interest in the subject, but I hope that what I am going to say will not give offence to any bodies outside the House. This subject has interested me for many years. I should like to call the attention of hon. Members, particularly those on the back benches, to one fact which is highly relevant to this Debate and which goes to prove that back bench Members' private efforts in this House are not necessarily always fruitless. The first piece of serious business that I had to do when I came into the House, was to move a Motion calling for the setting-up of a Select Committee on Private Bill legislation. The Motion was adopted, and three of us sat on the Committee, about 14 years ago, and made a very large number of changes in the procedure of Private Bill legislation which, I think, probably saved the local authorities many hundreds of thousands of pounds. One of the great difficulties about the Standing Orders of the House, as you, Mr. Speaker, know better than any of us, is that they cannot be understood merely by reading them. They are so deeply embedded in the past that the significance of them, the emphasis to be put upon one as against another, can only be understood after quite a long experience in the House. That is why young Members are so often under a serious 1095 handicap. They "swot up" the Standing Orders and think they understand them, only to learn that there is no democracy among Standing Orders, because some are very much more important than others, and that a very considerable qualitative weight has to be given to certain of them.
We are governed in this House by conventions and by Standing Orders and by the Constitution and I do not quite know where one begins and the other ends,, because our conventions are largely matters of the Constitution and our Standing Orders are made from time to time by overt acts. Every time you consider how far Standing Orders should be amended you are up against the fact that it would very considerably modify the Constitution. There have been many pedants, among them Junius, who insisted that it was not possible for us to carry any Resolution which modified the Constitution because we are not the makers of the Constitution. We are merely the inheritors of it. As the noble Lord has pointed out, if that is accepted, we are almost in a worse position than the United States, because the United States are clamped in the confines of a Constitution created in 1767, while we go back to the 13th and 14th centuries. So that the remote historical past of this country is now beginning to bully us to a very much larger extent than the fathers of the Constitution bully the contemporary American generation. These conventions affect the life of the House very considerably and I think they ought to be looked at and some of them scrapped, or embodied in Standing Orders in such a way that they can be understood. There is a convention usually accepted by the Chair that certain people have a prior right to be called in the House. The Prime Minister has been so lavish in his appointments during the war that, if that is to continue after the war, and we are so unfortunate as to see these right hon. Gentlemen returned to the House of Commons in anything like their present strength, very few back benchers will be able to speak.
That is one convention which, I think, ought to be considered. There is another. I am mentioning the more trivial ones at the beginning. As the Noble Lord has pointed out, a great deal of our Constitution is a consequence of the conflict be- 1096 tween the Crown and the House of Commons. The Government now have the reversion of very many of the Sovereign's rights. I remember making a speech on one occasion and, like all Welshmen, I was particularly concerned about my peroration. I was just beginning it when His Majesty's representative announced that he wanted us to go to another place. I think the time has come when serious business ought not to be interrupted by this ritual. The atmosphere that I had carefully laboured to create was dispelled and I could not start all over again, so that HANSARD lost a really good peroration. I do not want to destroy all colourful ritual, but I want to get rid of it when it interferes with serious business. It is a foolish thing and it ought to be dropped.
The Noble Lord called attention to the desuetude into which our right to move the Adjournment "on a definite matter of urgent public importance" has fallen. The only occasion in my experience when your predecessor, Mr. Speaker, permitted the moving of the Adjournment in this way, was when there was a very large demonstration of unemployed outside the House, I think in 1935, so large that Members could not go in and out. We managed to get the Adjournment on that occasion, but on no other has the Speaker permitted it. This is a very considerable deprivation of the rights of Private Members over the Executive and I think it ought to be looked into.
But there is a branch of governmental activity which is very much more important than all this, and that is the power of the Government, inherited from the Crown, to make treaties. If hon. Members will read the introduction to the last edition of Bagehot's "English Constitution" they will see that that very learned man very much questioned whether the House of Commons ought not to have the right to make treaties. He did not accept the idea that His Majesty alone could make treaties. It becomes very much more serious to-day, because foreign affairs are much more important. Not merely that, but economic arrangements have been made between nations affecting the lives of every member of the community. Are they not to be brought under review and the sanction of the House obtained before decisions are made? Here is a very important 1097 branch of our activities, outside the legislative sphere, enlarged from day to day, giving the Government almost tyrannical powers, because once the Government have committed themselves to another Power by way of a treaty, or an economic concordat, they have to be thrown out, before the House of Commons can assert its authority.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (Oxford)
Could the hon. Member give an example of a treaty made in recent years which has not, in fact, been ratified by Parliament?
§ Mr. Bevan
A very large number of instances, but I did not say "not ratified." The hon. Member has not quite grasped my point. Certainly ratified, but the House of Commons has had a pistol pointed at its head. Failure to ratify a treaty is so serious that it means the end of the Government. It is a fait accompli. There is the case of the Atlantic air bases. I think that is not ratified even yet.
§ Earl Winterton
An even worse case was the Prime Minister informing the French Government that he was prepared to make a treaty with them making France a part of Great Britain, and the House accepted it like tame sheep.
§ Mr. Bevan
I am trying to show to what extent the new social context of the modern world has reduced the House of Commons to a very inferior position in its relations with the Executive. There is going on at present a most interesting controversy between the House of Representatives and the Senate in America. Under the American Constitution, treaty-making is a privilege of the Senate, but the House of Representatives is now progressively asserting itself against the Senate, and the other day a Motion sponsored by Robert Fulbright was accepted by the House of Representatives which caused very bad feeling amongst some Members of the Senate. They said the House of Representatives was now attempting to interfere with the constitutional right of the Senate to make treaties. But we have not any right even to discuss treaties effectively, and it seems to me that this whole matter should be inquired into and that the House of Commons, the representatives of the people, should be able continuously to influence what is now becoming a most important part of governmental activity.
1098 I would seriously suggest that what we need to do is to set up the Standing Committee suggested by the Noble Lord in order to make what may be called immediate alterations for the convenience of the House of Commons in the conduct of its business. It is, I agree, an old House and we cannot do it, but, when the new Muse is elected, we ought to have a very much more ambitious Committee. There is no reason why the Committee that the Noble Lord suggests should not be set up, but it seems to me that there is a very much wider question that that. The hon. and gallant Member for Ormskirk (Commander King-Hall) pointed out that the House of Commons will have to adapt itself to new functions. It will have to give away certain of its powers in order more fully to exercise the remainder. We may have to abandon our right to examine certain Bills so meticulously in Committee in order to have a better opportunity of deciding the principles upon which the Bills are going to be made. At present the rules are working only in one way, to the detriment of House of Commons' control over the Government. The argument that we had the other day about delegated legislation is an illustration of that.
It therefore seems to me to be of the greatest possible importance that the House of Commons should now begin to consider what steps should be taken to readjust its machinery in relation to the Executive. The Executive has always found the House of Commons very resilient. People outside speak of our machinery operating too slowly. I can recall instance after instance during the war when, at the request of the Executive, we have passed the most important legislation in a few hours. Our difficulty is not that the Government cannot act. It is that we have not any means of making them act. It is the absence of resiliency in the Executive that is the trouble. Our machinery, at the moment, does not put sufficient leverage in the hands of the House itself, to be able to force the Executive to act when we think they should do so.
I have one more suggestion. One of the most important functions that we discharge is at Question Time. It is the only form in which we can be said to govern the country, because we do not actually, constitutionally, govern the country at all. But we do, by question and answer, bring 1099 the administration under review. Of recent years there has grown up a practice on the part of Ministers to refuse to give information. I am not speaking merely of the war years. Questions and answers have become so very important a part of our functions now that we shall need protection from the Chair against the Executive because of certain practices which were beginning to arise even before the war. We must have the right to have certain information. Ministers must always give full and exact answers They often give inexact replies deliberately, because there is behind the Government a huge apparatus of civil servants, many of whom appear to think they are at war with the House of Commons. It is not their function to serve the interests of the Government by obfuscating the minds of Members of the House of Commons. I could make one or two suggestions for improving Question Time in the House. One hundred years ago only Too Questions were asked in one year. Hon. Members have only to look at the Order Paper to-day to see the important function that is served by Question Time, but it needs to be renovated, if it is to do its full service to the House. I am extremely grateful, as the whole House is, to my Noble Friend for raising this matter to-day. I hope that the Committee he suggests will be established and that when the new House meets, it will give this matter its earliest consideration. I put the adaptation of our constitutional procedure to meet the needs of the new world first among our preoccupations.
§ Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Denbigh)
I want to join with my hon. Friend in thanking my Noble Friend for bringing this matter forward. He has always been the champion of the rights of this House. He has not confined his championship to his own party, but has always with great generosity extended it to other parties in the House. I do not pretend to have the knowledge that my Noble Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) have of the procedure of the House. By the way, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fact that his very zealousness over the years for the rights and Privileges of Parliament has, as I see in this morning's papers, obtained its own reward in that the sword of Damocles over his head has been withdrawn for the reason that it might infringe 1100 on the Privileges of the House of Commons.
§ Sir H. Morris-Jones
The Noble Lord rather confined his remarks to procedure, although he suggested that the proposed Committee should have rather wider scope. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Commander King-Hall), on the other hand, went into the whole question of the machinery of government, which is a much bigger issue. We might get some clarification as to whether the suggested Committee should confine itself to the Rules of Procedure of this House, or whether its duties should be enlarged to cover the whole question of the machinery of government and the general conduct of the Executive. I am glad to hear my hon. and gallant Friend, who deserves a tribute for the work he has done for HANSARD, refer to the prestige of this House. We are told from time to time that that prestige has been lowered, but I am glad to hear the testimony of my hon. and gallant Friend that that is not so. It coincides with all the information I gain from contacts in my constituency.
I think that my Noble Friend has made a case for the setting up of a Committee, although it must be agreed that this House has at times shown an elasticity which is surprising. We have seen over and over again during the war legislation passed through the House with a rapidity referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith) in his allusion to the modern aeroplane versus the old form of transport. He considers that this House should be much improved in the rapidity with which it can carry legislation, but I do not agree with his contention. The whole purpose—or one of the main purposes—of Parliament is to delay legislation. The recent Education Bill was preceded, by preliminary negotiations with many outside bodies, and a great deal of work by the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary for many months. Then it was subjected to the intelligence and wisdom of the House. Would anyone suggest that, after all that, it did not leave the House an infinitely better Bill than when it was originally presented?
1101 The late Lord Balfour said that the art of government was the most difficult art in the world. The art of framing a Bill and of carrying out legislation is an art which can only be helped by the House of Commons as a body associating with the Government. The Noble Lord concentrated the burden of his argument on the particular procedure governing the Adjournment of the House on a definite and urgent matter of public importance. In the 15 years I have been in the House I do not recall that Adjournment being granted on more than one or two occasions. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) had the temerity at the time of the Singapore crisis to try to secure the Adjournment of the House on a matter of definite and urgent public importance,. but your predecessor, Mr. Speaker, refused it. I have seen examples more than once of occasions which the House considered urgent when Mr. Speaker declined to allow the Adjournment to be moved. In time of war it is difficult to define what "urgent" means because everything is, in a way, urgent. War itself is urgent. There is, however, a variation of the meaning of "urgent" in time of peace. In the placid waters of peace the word "urgent" becomes more clearly outlined. I am sure that the House agrees with the purpose of my Noble Friend, and I trust that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will in his reply be able to agree with the general wish of the House that a Committee should be set up.
§ Mr. Muff (Kingston-upon-Hull, East)
It is good that we should be able in a reflective sort of way to discuss the question introduced by my Noble Friend. It was refreshing to listen to the Noble Lord, especially when he was giving some of his early experiences. They show that he has some Irish blood which made him sympathise so much with the Nationalist Party. It is always refreshing to listen to the reflections of a reformed poacher, and the reflections of the Noble Lord were no exception to that rule. I had the pleasure a week or two ago of listening for 67 minutes to the Home Secretary speaking on this important subject to an all-party meeting in Yorkshire. If hon. Members read the verbatim report of what the right hon. Gentleman said, I think that most of them would be in agreement with him. The leaders of all 1102 parties who were present on that occasion gave their approval to what the Home Secretary said. He emphasised the dangers of delegated legislation. There is no doubt that in the coming days we shall have to speed up the passing of needed legislation, at any rate in the new Parliament. The recent Education Bill was under consideration for 19 days, and there were something like Zoo pages of Amendments for discussion in Committee. If ever there was an example of a Committee realising that it was a Committee of State and not a factious Committee, it was the Committee of the House which discussed the Education Bill. If it had been a factious Committee, it would have taken, not 19 days, but nearer 19 weeks to go through the Bill.
We shall have to make more use in future of Standing Committees, not merely for Private Members' Bills but for the more important Bills introduced by the Government. That will save a good deal of the time of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith) made me somewhat reminiscent when he mentioned the late Member for West Bradford who introduced the idea of Standing Committees. I differed from the late hon. Member because it appeared as if he were trying to imitate the Standing Committees of the American Congress, and I did not think we should do that because some of the Congress Committees simply serve to delay legislation. We, on the other hand, want to endeavour to speed up legislation and to increase the prestige of Parliament in so doing. We should lose no opportunity of increasing that prestige, although I am convinced that it never stood higher in modern history than it does to-day. One of the reasons is that we have dissipated the idea of factious opposition, and humbly we try to make ourselves a Council of State in order to meet whatever crisis may come our way. It much depends not upon committees but upon our own general conduct. The standing and prestige of the House of Commons slumped from 1918 to 1922 more than in any other period in modern times, largely because there was no real opposition. The 1918 Parliament was really nominated by the right hon. Member for Caernarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) and it was an almost unmitigated disaster. I have very unpleasant recollections of 1103 the 1929–31 Parliament, when we faced a factious opposition. I still remember the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) coming in with his partisans and conducting a guerilla warfare which kept us up to all hours of the night and the next day as well. If we had realised that we were facing what the right hon. Member described as an "economic blizzard," some of the ills encountered after 1931 might have been better surmounted.
Treaty-making has been mentioned. On 4th August, 1914, even some Members of the Cabinet were not aware that the late Sir Edward Grey had made a secret treaty with France. Only the inner Cabinet were aware of it, so far as my memory serves me. We want continuity of policy, and greater interest in foreign affairs. Under the regime of the late Marquis of Salisbury and Sir Edward Grey, we find that the Members of the House took very little interest in this vital subject. I am sorry that the National Labour Member—as he formerly was—for Ormskirk (Commander King-Hall) should have reproved some of us because during the proceedings on the Education Bill we had to defend a municipal Bill for two hours. That time was not wasted.
§ Commander King-Hall
I think my hon. Friend has misunderstood what I said. I said that the outside public were unable to understand it.
§ Mr. Muff
Well, I will carry on. It was not a waste of time to devote a couple of hours to a great city. I repeat it and emphasise it. I suppose that I have contacted more male members of the younger generation these past few months than most other Members of this House. If was heckled for seven and a half hours in Scotland at two great schools. Those young fellows were interested in this House. They tried to understand our procedure, but sometimes I think they were puzzled. They were told about Question Time, which is unique 1104 in any Parliament and is one of the greatest institutions that tradition has passed down to us. They asked questions. As I say, I have been asked hundreds and hundreds of questions and have tried to answer them. I have been heckled, quizzed and so forth. This great institution can live, if we make it live by our own conduct in seeing that we do not descend to mere factious opposition, and indulge in factious delay. I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for Ormskirk and to other hon. Members for initiating this Debate.
§ Mr. Leslie (Sedgefield)
I understood that the purpose of this Motion was the facilitating of business and speeding-up of procedure, but there, is one omission—
§ Sir H. Morris-Jones
There is no specific Motion before the House except the Motion for Adjournment.
§ Mr. Leslie
The one omission in the proposals that have been suggested is the curtailing of the length of speeches of Members. That would facilitate business. Nothing is more annoying than to hear a Member meandering on for half an hour, constantly repeating himself, while others waiting to get a chance to speak may never have an opportunity of being called. If the proposed Committee is set up, I hope that one matter it will consider, will be a time limit on speeches. At the Trades Union Congress business is carried on, with a limit of ten minutes for the mover of a motion, and five minutes for every other speaker. Something like that can be done in this House. I never speak for longer than a few minutes, knowing that others want to speak and I want to give them a chance. If more of that consideration was shown, it would facilitate matters.
§ Captain Cunningham-Reid (St. Marylebone)
I rise to say only two things. In the first place, I find myself in the peculiar position of concurring with the Noble Lord who introduced this Debate. I trust that such concurrence may in the future be reciprocated. I support his demand for a Standing Committee to go into the matter of Parliamentary procedure, but only provided it is not limited to considering practices of the House that are indicated in print; in other words, practices that only appear in the Standing Orders and such like. For there are many unwritten practices of this House that should be revised. 1105 For example, when is a Vote of Confidence really a Vote of Confidence? There is also the question of the excessive powers of the Whips, which, I have indicated before, cry out for revision, and that certainly comes under the heading of Parliamentary reform. There are other matters that are not laid down in the Rules of procedure that should be considered by such a committee, if and when it is set up. In view of the fact that I take a very keen interest in this subject of Parliamentary reform and consider it to be one of paramount importance, it was my desire to-day, I must admit, to make a somewhat lengthy speech on the subject. But as time is short, for I understand that you, Mr. Speaker, have many more items on your menu to-day, and you do not want any of them to be "Off," and as I had an innings on this subject on the Adjournment a few weeks ago, I do not want to abuse the very real consideration which you have shown to such a minority as myself. Therefore, Sir, I am going to content myself with endorsing what has already been said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Commander King-Hall) and other hon. Members who have taken part in the Debate, when they have stressed the necessity and made the demand that, at some time in the near future, at least a full day should be given by the Government to the discussion of this wide and significant subject. It could then, to some extent, be comprehensively covered.
§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Ernest Brown)
I am sure that the whole House is indebted to the Noble Lord for having taken the initiative in raising this subject to-day. I sometimes divide the 612 unofficial Members of the House into two kinds, those who are Members of Parliament and those who are House of Commons men. If I were asked for my own simple definition I would say that a Member of Parliament is a person who is concerned with his own Questions, and his own speeches, while a House of Commons man is a man who is concerned with other people's Questions and speeches, as well as with his own. It is very good for the House of Commons to look at its own procedure, not in terms of persons or parties, but as the House of Commons, one of the great institutions of the world, and not merely of this country. It is very interesting that this 1106 Debate should be taking place in 1944, when we reflect that the first edition of the great volume to which my Noble Friend referred, the production called "Erskine May," was issued in 1844.
I think my Noble Friend must have fore-shortened his history a little, because we are really not paying deference, when we consult Erskine May, to one man long ago, but to a succession of very able servants of this House. The present edition happens to be the 13th of that great standard manual of Parliamentary procedure. It is also interesting to note that, whereas the first edition of Erskine May, produced by that long-ago Clerk to the House, contained 50o pages, the current volume has 914 pages, and requires an index of no less than 71 pages, showing that in the course of the century there have been great developments in Parliamentary procedure and practice. Not only that, but it shows that there has been continual adaptation of that procedure to the growing political and social needs of our national and Parliamentary life.
It is never out of date or out of time to discuss these issues. The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) was quite right when he pointed out that, in order that this great institution should function successfully, it is necessary not only to have things written out, but to have conventions observed. All young Members of the House would agree with him about the division of the House, but when he was speaking about right hon. Gentlemen, I recalled a brilliant lecture delivered by the late Mr. Birrell to his then constituents in West Fife, at Cowdenbeath, in which he pointed out to the miners there, nearly half a century ago, what my hon. Friend has been pointing out to-day, namely, that the real division of this House was not between the Government and the Opposition, but between the right hon. Gentlemen and the rest. Said Mr. Birrell:If my hearers want to understand why that is, it is for the simple reason that the right hon. Gentlemen get all the first cuts off the joint.I happened to re-read that lecture the other day, and it is very interesting to note that the issues raised to-day, while in a new form and facing new conditions, are really the old issues. They are no: merely the issues which affect our Parliamentary procedure, but they have, during 1107 the long development of Parliamentary institutions in various parts of the globe, been found in every Legislature that has attempted a form of democratic government. The participants in the Debate have fallen into two groups, consisting of those who desire, as the noble Lord desires, in his own modest plea, a particular piece of new machinery in order to deal with the actual practice and procedure, the Standing Orders and the working of this House—that is a narrow isue—and those who think the time ripe, or not quite ripe. But I gather from the speeches that there is a general consensus of opinion that the time to have a real reconstruction of the whole machinery of government and of Parliamentary procedure, in particular, over its whole field, should be when the new Parliament assembles after the victory is won rather than now. I hope to report in that sense, not wrongly, I hope, to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.
The issues are really profound, and in my experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure in 1931-32, especially in the early part—it is unfortunate that the election came between the two sittings, so that the Report is not in one volume—the things that really matter, the views of those who gave evidence, are in the previous volume. It was made clear to Members of that Committee that when you come to deal with Parliamentary procedure you get two fairly sharply divided views. There are the views of those who desire to increase the power of the majority to get its way, and the views of those who desire to increase the power of the independent 'Members and of the minority in the House at any time to stage opposition to the majority of the day.
§ Mr. Brown
I am making no adverse comment. I am stating facts as they were illustrated then, and as they have cropped up in this interesting Debate today. I had, perhaps, better remark that there are hon. Members who may be on one side of the fence on one occasion, and on the other at another. That brings me to a comment of the hon. Member for East Hull (Mr. Muff) when he brought the HOUSE back from the mechanics and 1108 procedure of Parliament to the fundamental fact that whatever the Rules may be their working will depend not on machinery but on the Members. [Interruption.] That may be, but we decide how they shall work the machine, and no machine will work better than the Members concerned. That is the point I am making now. It is quite natural that my Noble Friend expected the Debate would take this course. Once you touch procedure at any point you go into history, you cannot help it, because our Parliament strikes its roots so deeply in the past that there is scarcely a feature of this procedure that can be made intelligible without reference to history. It is, therefore, an interesting fact that the classic work from the constitutional and historical point of view should not have been written by an Englishman at all but by the Austrian Redlich in that very remarkable work on the history and constitutional aspects of Parliament.
I will not go into the points raised by two hon. Members, including the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson), about the order of precedence of the functions of Parliament except to say that I think that when Members go back to that great authority they will find his triple analysis is, in the light of their own experience, roughly right. He begins with legislation, then talks about finance, then he talks about criticism, including the power of controlling the Executive. That is his logical and historical analysis of the functions of Parliament. I am not sure that the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) will get all the Members of the House to agree that ritual is without its meaning or its use, such as, for instance, the coming of Black Rod to the House at a particular juncture.
§ Mr. Brown
If the hon. Member had a little patience I intended to say that I think he overlooked this: there is a double convenience in this convention in Parliament, not only the convenience of the Member who is actually speaking, but the convenience of Members of another House, which is at the moment part of the Constitution.
§ Earl Winterton
I hope I shall not be out of Order in saying that it is absurd and intolerable that this medieval procession, accompanied by what might be described as a good deal of mummery, should arrive in the middle of a speech in this House. Why could it not be arranged, by simple timing, to take place at some time at the beginning?
§ Mr. Brown
The answer is that the arrangement is, as far as possible, that way. I am not expressing a view of my own at all. My Noble Friend holds his views, but I do not think he will find them generally shared in all quarters of the House when he describes that as mummery. Indeed, I have noticed, when showing many parties of constituents round the House, that some hon. Members who are most keen about altering things are among those who describe this particular episode in Parliamentary life at the greatest length and with the greatest glee to their own constituents. We may perhaps differ about it.
§ Mr. Brown
My Noble Friend is using metaphors, but neither of us knows how the mind of the monkey or the elephant works. So we will leave it there.
In this Debate there has been criticism based on the need for relieving Parliament of part of the business which, it is said, clogs its machinery. On the other hand there has been criticism based on asking for an actual amendment of the procedure so that Parliament may be able to do more legislative work in the time at its disposal and increase its efficiency as a critical and a controlling Assembly. That is where the major division always comes—between those who hold a view that we ought to facilitate Bills and deal with a larger number of Bills, and those who take the view that Bills ought to be few in number, good in quality and well considered. That is common to every discussion that arises on this issue.
On the wider issue the House would not expect me to add anything to what the Prime Minister said less than three weeks ago. At the moment it must be clear to all who have watched the growth of our life, political, social, industrial and economic, and who have seen the complexity of the modern problems in every sphere which have been referred to by 1110 various hon. Members, that we shall have to make sure that the Parliamentary machine is, as the Noble Lord said, apt and fitting to do the work which this country will want it to do in the light of the world situation in the days immediately after the war.
§ Mr. Brown
Perhaps I was leading the hon. Member to think I was about to sit down a little sooner than I purposed. I was also going to say that there have been, apart from that major issue, one or two pleas on the interesting and important question of the conventions of the House. The question has arisen whether my Noble Friend's limited series of conventions should be the terms of reference to a committee, or whether, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for St Marylebone (Captain Cunningham-Reid) suggested, there should be a far wider range. There is also the question raised by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale and by the hon. Member for East Hull, of the power of the Government to make treaties, and the whole range of questions brought by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith), which covered the whole economic, industrial and social lay-out. Indeed, his points raised the very large issues which were brought before the Select Committee in 1931, not in detail but in general form, and from one point of view, by the present Prime Minister in discussing an economic Parliament as well as a legislative Parliament, and by a series of suggestions raised by the late Mr. F. W. jowett and the late Mr. E. F. Wise. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has had an opportunity of reading the cross-examination. I think that on the whole the House would feel that that proposal did not stand up too well to the cross-examination of that Committee.
Coming back to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hull, I think he was right in bringing the Debate back not merely to the machinery but to the persons. There was a Select Committee on 1111 Public Business in 1848. This is what it said:It is not so much on any new rules, especially restricted rules, that your Committee would desire to rely for a prompt and efficient dispatch of business, but increasing business calls for increasing consideration on the part of Members in the exercise of their individual privileges. Your Committee would desire to rely on the good feeling of the House, on the forbearance of its Members, and on a general acquiescence in the enforcement by the Speaker of the established rule of the House which requires that Members Should strictly confine themselves to matters immediately pertinent to the subject of debate.Old words, wise words. Perhaps I might be allowed to add one other sentence in passing regretfully from this very vital and fundamental issue. In drafting the Report of 1932 I had regretfully to add that it had been the record of every Select Committee up to that time that it had ended in the restriction of opportunities for Private Members and the increase of the power of the Executive of the day.