HC Deb 07 November 1944 vol 404 cc1295-303

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Professor Savory (Queen's University of Belfast)

May I be allowed to say a few words strictly confined to this Clause? If the Committee will observe the actual wording of the Clause, they will see that it says: Sub-section (4) of Section fourteen of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920 (which relates to the duration of the House of Commons of Notthern Ireland). This Section 14 of the Government of Ireland Act clearly states that there must be a General Election every five years. The Parliament of Northern Ireland has no power whatever to prolong its own existence, and that seems to me to be a very reasonable Section, because five years is, after all, the limit imposed upon this House. There must be under the Parliament Act of 1911 a General Election every five years for this House, and even the Parliament Act does not enable this House to override that Section. It is one of the Amendments of another place to the Parliament Act, accepted by this House.

12.15 p.m.

Therefore we cannot complain in the least and do not complain that this restriction of a General Election every five years should have been imposed upon the Parliament of Northern Ireland. Twice has this House enabled the Parliament of Northern Ireland to prolong its existence and if this Clause goes through it will prolong its duration, provided the Parliament of Northern Ireland so desires, for another year, enabling it therefore to go on for eight years. But there is another very important part of this Clause to which I would draw attention. It says: If the said House so resolves. What this House is being asked to do is only to give permission to the House of Commons of Northern Ireland to prolong its existence. We are not imposing a prolongation upon it. We are taking a very democratic resolution in order to enable the Parliament of Northern Ireland to prolong its existence if it so resolves. On two occasions it has so resolved. In 1942 there was no opposition to prolongation. At least there was no Division; only one Member spoke against it, and the House, nemine contradicente, decided to avail itself of the permission given by this Parliament. Last year, 1943, the matter did go to a Division, but only two Members voted against prolongation. Therefore, on two occasions when the matter has come before the Parliament of Northern Ireland there has been practical unanimity.

How do we account for this unanimity? For the same reason that there has been in this House also the very strongest approval of the prolongation of Parliament, and there is a very keen desire that those Servicemen who are abroad should be able to take part in a General Election. This is specially relevant to the Parliament of Northern Ireland, because the Bill setting up the new register —to which the Home Secretary referred on Second Reading and to which the Prime Minister also alluded—the Bill setting up the new register for the Parliament of Northern Ireland was, according to the Northern Ireland Hansard of last Tuesday, which I received from Ulster this morning, only just at that time going through the House. Therefore, it is essential to allow time for those Servicemen who are fighting abroad to get on to the register, and I cannot help thinking of those very great and historic regiments intimately connected with Ulster in which our men are serving, such as the Fifth Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles and last, but not least, the North Irish Horse. I cannot speak of the North Irish Horse without emotion to-day— —

The Deputy-Chairman (Mr. Charles Williams)

The hon. Member is really getting outside the provisions of the Clause by going through this list of regiments.

Professor Savory

I do not wish to give any further list, in accordance with the decision of the Chair, but I should like to say that among our electors there are Ulstermen serving in more than 50 regiments in addition to those which I have mentioned, not to speak of the thousands of Ulstermen serving in the Royal Navy, in the Merchant Marine and in the Royal Air Force. As Member of Parliament for the Northern Ireland University I should be allowed to mention the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The Deputy-Chairman

Really the hon. Member is going too wide. He cannot use this occasion to give a history of what the Northern Irish people are doing in the war. It is quite outside the scope of the Clause.

Professor Savory

My point summarizes itself in this observation, that we must prolong our Parliament in order to enable these men to get on to the register. If that is done, then I look forward with every confidence to the future of our Parliament, and I can only ask, What would our Scottish and our Welsh friends not give to have such a Parliament? If Scotland and Wales had such a Parliament of their own, what amazing reforms they would be able to undertake. May I be allowed to quote in conclusion what is very apt in the consideration of this subject, and that is the admirable statement made by the Prime Minister in moving the Second Reading of this Bill? There are a very few words and they seem to me to be very much to the point: Nothing would be more shameful or more dishonourable than to deny the great mass of the soldiers, and Servicemen of the Air Force and of the Navy a full opportunity of recording their votes. In my opinion they have more right to vote than anyone else in the country, and we shall all be ashamed if anything were done which prevented these men, to whom we owe almost everything, from taking their full part in deciding the immediate future of their country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st October, 1944; Vol. 404, c. 644–5.]

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

12.22 p.m.

Major Lloyd (Renfrew, Eastern)

Before we give this Bill a Third Reading and send it to another place I would like to say a few sentences upon it. In moving the Second Reading, the Prime Minister emphasised to the House the importance of our keeping together until the end of European hostilities, and the House has most dutifully and willingly complied with all the implications of that request, and is about to give this Bill its Third Reading. The Prime Minister reminded us back-benchers of our obligations to the principle of unity and asked for our continued loyalty to the Coalition Government, and we are going to comply; but I am going to suggest that the obligation lies not only upon back-bench Members of all parties, but also upon the Government themselves. I would ask the Government, with great sincerity and respect, not to allow themselves to yield to the importunities of or political pressure from one partner in the Coalition, so as, by so doing, to strain unduly the loyalty and assent of the other parties. This intervening period which we know is in front of us will not be an easy one. The Prime Minister himself is fully aware of that fact. I would appeal to the Government not to make it harder for us back-benchers of all parties, nor, indeed, harder for themselves, by bringing forward unduly controversial legislation and thus to strain the bonds of unity too far. If the Government do insist upon doing so, and I hope that they will not, then they must not be surprised if those of us who are unwilling to sacrifice vital and sincere principles upon the altar of expediency show our disapproval in the Division Lobbies. I presume that the Prime Minister's pledge still stands, that he will not introduce—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)

The hon. and gallant Member is now going too far.

Major Lloyd

I will only recall to mind the statement of the Prime Minister, which must, with all respect, have some bearing upon this issue. I would merely ask the Government not to allow themselves to forget that statement, and I assure them that those of us who are among the rank and file in this House are certainly not going to allow them to forget it.

12.27 p.m.

Mr. Reakes (Wallasey)

I am one of the hon. Members of this House who is not very anxious to support this Bill. I would rather see a new House of Commons that had the people behind it, but, unfortunately, there is no alternative but to vote for the Bill. I hope that the next 9 or 12 months will not be a period in which we shall see the Government introducing controversial legislation, and I say that in support of the observations of the hon. and gallant Member for East Renfrew (Major Lloyd). It is quite possible for the Government to be subtle and to think "We will not survive the next election and we will make hay while the sun shines," and in that spirit to proceed to promote Bills which they know would not have a chance in the next Parliament, if it should be of the political complexion which I expect it to be. I also hope that some effort will be made by the Government Whips or some other body to put an end to absenteeism at Westminster.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That subject is outside this Bill and must be reserved for another time.

Mr. Reakes

I will approach the point from another angle. By giving the Third Reading to this Bill we give a new lease of Parliamentary life to a lot of hon. Members who do not deserve it. I refer to those Members who rarely put in an appearance here and leave it to others to undertake the responsibility of seeing legislation through in a very critical period. Something should be done. If we are going to extend the life of this Parliament there must be better attendance. Further, I think something should be done about hon. Members who, through the Press, give notice of their intention of not seeking re-election.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member is getting far away from the subject of this Bill in criticising the conduct of Members or the constitution of Parliament. This Measure deals only with the life of Parliament.

Mr. Reakes

Well, I shall have to be careful of what I say, and I do feel that to extend the life of this Parliament does give an unfair privilege to certain Members who do not attend to their duties. I hope I am not out of Order in saying that. I am very keen that the period for which this Bill has extended the life of Parliament shall be really a live period, with the greatest interest in the business of Parliament being displayed by hon. Members. With these few words I have no alternative but to support the Third Reading.

12.30 p.m.

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Renfrew (Major Lloyd) appealed to the Government not to put forward Measures which would strain his conscience, but he must remember—

Major Lloyd

If the hon. Member would allow me to interrupt him, I would point out that he is putting words into my mouth which I never said. I said "strain the bonds of unity too far." I never spoke about my conscience.

Mr. Mander

That was my interpretation of what the hon. and gallant Member said, and I think the meaning is much the same. He will no doubt remember that people in different parts of the House, who belong to different parties, have very strong feelings on the matter too, and it is necessary to compromise. I feel sure that the Government are animated with a desire to bring forward Measures which will give the maximum amount of satisfaction, but will certainly not please everyone. I support the Third Reading of this Bill. I can see no alternative to it at the present time. I am sure that the House, as a whole, will desire to respond to the appeal of the Prime Minister to give the Government every possible support until the war against Germany is won. Then, as the Prime Minister has indicated and as it is well put in a leading article in "The Times" this morning, there will be a consultation of the people some time during the next 12 months before this Bill comes to an end. The Bill enables a General Election to be held at any time within the next 12 months, and I venture to think—and these are my last words—that the electors then will focus their attention on the various White Papers on reconstruction laid before us and the test they will apply will be past record, sincerity, speed and vigour as represented by the different parties and candidates, and by that test they will be guided in the decision they make as to the formation of the next Parliament.

12.33 p.m.

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

I rise to support the Third Reading of this Bill. I welcome the fact, not from the point of view of any personal reasons, that this Parliament should not be ended at this particular period of the war. As I said a week or so ago, we are going through a period of crisis, and I think it highly desirable that all parties, in view of the blood that may be shed in the next few months, should hold together. But I would also like to support what has been said by the hon. and gallant Member for East Renfrew (Major Lloyd). In order to keep this Parliament together, it does not rest entirely upon the Members of the Parliament; it also rests very much on the Government, and I would say definitely that the Government must think twice before they present highly controversial Measures to this House, as my hon. and gallant Friend has said.

Mr. Boothby (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Eastern)

May I ask my hon. Friend whether he includes among "controversial Measures" the Beveridge proposals, or rather the Government proposals for social security?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That question is completely out of Order, and cannot be answered.

Dr. Thomas

I merely followed the line of my hon. and gallant Friend, and the hon. Member should wait to hear my argument. Of course the Government should come to this House with Measures to say that we must embark upon the future peace well prepared. Of course we must. Of course the Government must come to the House and say that the men returning will have full employment and so on, but the Government must not, to my mind, bring in schemes which cut right into fundamental principles. Hon. Members on the other side of the House may believe in State ownership. We believe in private enterprise and individual liberty and—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member should not discuss what he thinks the Government should or should not do. The matter we are considering is whether the present Parliament should be kept in being for a further period owing to the war.

Dr. Thomas

I do not think I need pursue that point any further, but I would like to take this opportunity to add to what my hon. Friend the Member for West Swansea (Sir L. Jones) said on the Second Reading of this Bill. He dwelt upon our past unity, but I wish to add this salient point. In my opinion, if we are going to continue the Parliament for perhaps six, seven, eight or nine months, then all of us must be prepared to compromise, but not to tread on each other's toes too much, as otherwise Parliament may well come to a disastrous end.

12.36 p.m.

Miss Rathbone (Combined English Universities)

I had no intention a few minutes ago of intervening in this Debate, but I am provoked into saying something for the prolongation of this Parliament which I do not think could be said by any other hon. Member of this House, because I do not think there is any other hon. Member who is completely free from any kind of party affiliation and able therefore to speak with as much candour as I am. It has always seemed to me that the real case for a Coalition Government in time of national difficulty is that no one party contains enough people of good brains.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I must warn the hon. Lady that this is not an occasion on which we can discuss the value of a Coalition or any other form of Government.

Miss Rathbone

I bow in deference to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but how in the world can one argue for the prolongation of Parliament, if one cannot give a reason why it should be prolonged?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

This is not a question of discussin— the value of a Parliament, but its prolongation, and it is not part of my job to explain to hon. Members how they should make their speeches.

Miss Rathbone

Everybody knows that these questions are closely allied, but I propose to direct by remarks to the question of the quality of Parliament as it affects the quality of the Government, and the real point is that if this Parliament is dissolved now and we have an election on party lines while the European war is still going on—that is in Order, I think—the chances are, seeing what the quality of this Parliament has been, that we should get returned some party—I am not going to say whether Left or Right—which, especially during the period when the men who are still at the Front cannot return, would be of such poor quality that the party which was in a majority could not produce a competent Government to carry on the war. Heaven knows I am not an admirer of many of those who have been doing it. Heaven knows it would have been considerably worse if they had been all Conservative, all Labour or all Liberal, for I cannot see in any of the parties enough people of courage, initiative, ability and of really good brain to make a Government work. That is all.

12.39 P.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I hesitate to join in this discussion at all. It has been a very peaceful one and there seems to be a strong desire that there should be no controversy. I am afraid to say much, in case I become controversial which, as the House knows, I should be most unhappy to be. However, I wish to thank the House for the support which has been given in all quarters for the Third Reading. I think a good time has been had by all in to-day's speeches, and I think that the House would now, perhaps, be willing to give us the Third Reading. Even on the Committee stage we, had a peaceful time, despite what was said by the hon. Member for Queen's University, Belfast (Professor Savory) which I thought might have started a discussion about the Emerald Isle, but did not. I thank the House very much for the way in which it has received the Bill on the Second Reading, during the Committee stage and on the Third Reading.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.