HC Deb 30 November 1944 vol 406 cc187-98

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

6.1 p.m.

Mr. Hamilton Kerr (Oldham)

The immediate occasion of this Debate is the refusal of the Home Secretary to grant exit visas to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Tree) and myself. The story can be told in a few sentences. Our object was to attend the big debate on foreign affairs last week in the French Constituent Assembly, to contact leaders of the resistance movement in France and, in general, to instruct ourselves on the political situation. Under the present system it is necessary for a Government Department to sponsor anyone who wishes to leave the country. In our case, it was the Ministry of Information. The Ministry had, provisionally, booked two seats in the aircraft leaving on Wednesday, 22nd November. We had taken soundings in the various appropriate Ministries. Our passports had waited some 10 days at the Home Office and on Thursday, 23rd November, the day after we were due to leave, we received a letter from the Home Secretary dated Tuesday, 21st November, which had taken some little time in transit.

However, I wish to pass from the facts of this individual case to a question which is I believe of principle and which vitally concerns all hon. Members in this House—it is the relation of Parliament to the Executive. When we consider this problem of the relation of Parliament to the Executive, I believe we should try to form a clear picture in our minds of the duties of the individual Member of Parliament, and I suppose all of us here feel that, first and foremost, come the interests of our constituencies. If we could sum up our attitude in a few words, we would say that we seek to make our constituencies the best-served and the best-governed in the country, and in doing this, it is part of our task to educate ourselves, to inform ourselves of the facts, and tell our constituents about the many vital problems which come up in this House in the course of a year. Chief among these at the moment, I claim, are foreign affairs. This country is facing a tremendous task in the future. I remember being deeply touched by a letter written by a Frenchman under the German domination, describing his agony at listening, night after night, to the bombers going out over the coast-line in 1940, and how watchers on the coast-line saw the glow of fires from distant London. Europe has, for four years, been under German domination. I think we do not sufficiently realise how much Europe looks to us for leadership, and how the Debates in this House are carefully studied to give a lead in regard to the problems of the future, because, rightly or wrongly, this House is regarded as a model of political stability and of wisdom.

Therefore I contend that we, in our task here, in performing our individual duties according to our conscience, resemble, if I may borrow an aircraft phrase, an operations room. Reports coming in from the various sectors to the officers in the operations room show the picture as a whole, and each problem in its just proportion. But to be a good Member of Parliament requires time and training, just as any other trade or profession. I believe it is because hon. Members, throughout the history of Parliament, have given that time and energy to instructing themselves that our Parliamentary system enjoys the prestige it has. That is just as important to-day as it was in the past. We may be told that the Press has, to some extent, taken the place of Parliament. Having served on one of the great London daily newspapers for a year, until I was "fired," and on another for six months, I have a healthy respect for the Press and its efficiency, but nothing can replace the influence of the spoken word, so that hon. Members here have a vital task in instructing their constituents in the current problems of the day.

I believe that Parliament and Members willingly surrender those powers and their privileges only under certain conditions. The first is that, in war-time, measures of security necessarily arise, and the second, perhaps also owing to war conditions, is that transport is difficult. The Home Secretary, in his letter of 21st November, referred to the difficulties of transport. Having worked for two years in the Air Ministry as Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Captain Balfour) I was under the impression—in fact, I know—that transport is the province of the Air Ministry, of Transport Command, and I was interested to read of the refusal of our visas being due to transport difficulties. It is an open secret that planes leave this country twice a day, often half empty, and that Members of the United States Congress, 18 in number, have recently flown to Paris, and that three weeks ago another party, numbering 14, went by air. In addition, people like Professor Harold Laski attended the Trade Union Conference in Paris. I take that as natural and use it as an argument for all responsible Members being allowed to go to France.

How do hon. Members' duties compare with those of the Executive? I believe it is clear in our minds that the Prime Minister appoints his Ministers, but the Prime Minister could not retain power if he forfeited the confidence of the House and thus, indirectly, or perhaps directly, the Ministers we see on the Front Bench are limited by our will. I consider that the primary function of the Home Secretary is to guard the security of this country. He must decide whether an individual is undesirable in the interests of this country, whether he may enter or leave. If he considers that an individual is desirable in every way, then I believe he must grant that person an exit visa. Furthermore, he stands in special relationship to each one of us, as a Member of Parliament. If it is our duty to inform ourselves by every means in our power, so that we can carry ou efficiently our functions, then I believe that it is an infringement on the part of a Minister to stop a back bencher trying to do his duty, to the best of his ability. If it be true that these alleged transport difficulties are the main reason for stopping Members of Parliament from travelling to France at present, is it right that the Home Secretary should use this argument, because I am convinced that transport comes under the Air Ministry? Perhaps this point may be cleared up, and this small occasion may help the House to clear its mind on the rights of the Executive when dealing with those who form the Legislature.

6.10 p.m.

Mr. Tree (Harborough)

I rise to support the case which my hon. Friend has put. I want to make it quite clear that I am not bringing it up in any personal sense at all, but because I believe it involves an important and fundamental issue, affecting all Members of the House in carrying out their functions and duties. One of the many functions of a Member of Parliament is to inform himself on those matters in which he is particularly interested, and in which he speaks on the Floor of the House from time to time. Surely at this time in the history of Europe, when we are witnessing a veritable re-birth resulting from an occupation of four years, it is essential that Members of Parliament should visit other countries, in order to establish contacts with new figures that are arising and be able to tell Members, and their own constituents, what they have seen, whom they have talked to and what their ideas are. Certainly this view is shared by Members of the American Congress. Ever since the liberation of France, there has been a steady flow of Members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives to the theatres of war, and only this morning or yesterday, a party of 17 departed by transport plane for France and Italy.

In 1939, owing to the overriding necessity of the war effort, and the fact that at that time, transport facilities were severely limited, hon. Members, gladly and without any demur, gave up any rights that they may have had in the matter of travel. It was quite obvious that the war effort must always be the overriding consideration in all these matters, but is it true that that is the main factor in this incident and that at this stage of the war, the war effort could be in any way impeded by Members interested in any sphere of activity, Colonial, Empire or foreign, if they wish to go and study the position on the spot, not being enabled to do so? Why should it be the Home Secretary who is to decide on these matters? I can quite understand that it is necessary for a Member of Parliament desiring to go abroad to ask the Foreign Secretary if there is any objection to his going. Equally, anyone going to the Colonies or to the Dominions would ask the Dominions Secretary. It is also essential that they should consult the Ministry of War Transport as to whether there is accommodation on the ships or the planes, on which they want to travel. But why, in addition to that, is it necessary for them to consult with the Home Secretary?

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

Is it not a fact that this refusal had its origin in the Foreign Office, and that the Home Secretary is acting under coercion?

Mr. Tree

The hon. Member is anticipating what I was going to say. In these cases, does the Home Secretary ring up the Ministry of War Transport and ask if there are any planes available, or does he ask the Foreign Office if they have any objection? I do not think he does. I think he merely gives a flat denial. At least, that is what would appear to be the case in this instance. Surely, the time has come when a system that was inaugurated at quite a different period of the war, to meet different circumstances, should be radically overhauled with the object of facilitating and assisting Members, instead of, as at present seems to be the case, frustrating and irritating them.

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

I would say, in the first place, that the consideration of requests by Members of Parliament and the policy as to whether the requests should be granted or not, are not matters which are, or in my judgment ought to be, settled by the Home Secretary individually. On the question of, I will not say privileges or rights, because that is putting it a bit too high—[HON. MEMBERS: "No"]. It has been stated in this House repeatedly that the Government must decide on consents to go abroad, and, in fact, they have upheld the doctrine for a considerable time that a Member of Parliament wishing to go abroad must, like any other citizen—this may be right or wrong, but it has been what has been done—show that it is to the nation's advantage that he should go. That has been the policy which the Government have applied. I am not arguing whether it is right or wrong, but that is the policy. There has been no secret about it; it has been confirmed and, on the whole, in war-time conditions, the House has accepted it.

It would be wrong, because of the relationship between Ministers and Parliament and the respect that Ministers and the Government owe to Parliament, that the policy behind the granting or the non-granting of exit permits to Members of Parliament, should be settled by the Home Secretary, or, indeed, any other individual Minister. Therefore, from time to time, the Government, as a whole, consider what the policy ought to be, and whether revision should be made. Indeed, before this discussion came on to-day I consulted my colleagues in the Government about it, and I am speaking not only for myself but for the Government as a whole. Therefore, there is no need to be personal on the matter, because it is Government policy, as it ought to be, but neither I nor His Majesty's Government have any wish, in present circumstances, to impede Members of Parliament from going to France. On the contrary, I not only accept, but I affirm, the view that there is a great deal to be said for Members of Parliament going to France in present circumstances or in circumstances as they are likely to be in the coming times.

The only thing I have to be careful about is that there must be equity between Members of Parliament and other citizens and between Members of Parliament and Members of Parliament. There ought not to be privileges for particular Members of Parliament. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about Ministers and their wives?"] Ministers are another matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "And their wives."] Let us not get to the point of individual jealousy about this. I am dealing with Members of Parliament in the ordinary way, and I say that there must be equity and fairness as between Members of Parliament. If they are going qua Members of Parliament, and not because they have a special case of business of positive national advantage, and so on, then, whatever facilities are available must be made available to all Members in the House of Commons. That is our fundamental difficulty in the matter. So there is no unfriendliness about it and no wish to be awkward. Indeed, I think there is much to be said for such visits being paid. It is a question of when, and of ways and means whereby comprehensive facilities could be given to hon. Members.

There is a misunderstanding as to the relationship between the Home Office and other Departments in this matter. The authority for preventing a person from coming into this country or going out is the Home Secretary. There is nothing new in that, so far as I know. That has been the practice for as long as I can remember, and that is why I answer on this Debate. I must take responsibility in this matter, nevertheless——

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

May I ask whether the Home Office had any power to stop people leaving the country before the war?

Mr. Morrison

Yes, so far as I remember, and from coming into it. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I have got to cover a fair amount of ground, and the point is immaterial. I only say that there is nothing new about the Department affected being the Home Office. Necessarily it is the Home Office. It cannot very well be any other Department. Other Departments are interested. A private citizen or a Member of Parliament may wish to go to America or France, or some other country, on business, on legitimate business, to the advantage of Great Britain or the United Kingdom, or on business of urgent and pressing importance and so on——

Commander Agnew (Camborne)

Will the right hon. Gentleman permit me to ask——

Mr. Morrison

I have to cover a fair amount of ground and I think I ought to be permitted to continue. There is not much time and I have to finish my speech at half-past six. What do I do in that case? The Member of Parliament or the business man has been to the appropriate State Department, which may be the Board of Trade or the Department of Overseas Trade, has told them why he wants to go and has asked them to recommend to the Home Office that he should be permitted to go. If he has not, my people will ring up the Department concerned or see them and ask what their views are on this particular application. If it is an application in another respect and on other grounds, similarly the observations of the appropriate State Department will be obtained. That is how it works, but the decision must be, in my judgment, the decision of the Home Secretary or the Home Office. I do not see how else it can work. The trouble is that a Government Department from its own angle may say to itself: "So far as we are concerned there is no objection to this person going," and they may be quite right from their angle; but I have to weigh up priorities, fairnesses and equities as between one person and another.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

The right hon. Gentleman is talking about business people?

Mr. Morrison

I am talking about anybody. [Interruption.] I am very sorry. It is no good hon. Members getting excited. I have got this job to do and, believe me, I know how it is done and I will tell hon. Members. The Department then considers the application in relation to the general body of permissions in these respects, and the policy of the Government as a whole, and it decides. After all, it must be one Department that decides. Otherwise there would be conflicting policies all over the place. Trouble arises sometimes—it ought not to arise, but I quite understand how it does—when the Department which has to make its observations to the Home Office tells the person concerned what it is going to recommend. It is a little bit awkward if that happens, because if the Home Office takes another view, as the Department which has to decide, we get the situation in which it is alleged that one Department is willing for a person to go while the naughty Home Office is not. It seems to me that the Department should hear the applicant, make its representations to the Home Office, and that the Home Office, in the light of the circumstances, must decide and take responsibility for the decision. That is how the machine works.

In the case of the Members of Parliament, my hon. Friends not unnaturally went to the Foreign Office, because their application concerned a visit to a foreign country, and foreign affairs were the interesting angle. I do not complain that they should have done it. Quite a strong case can be made out for doing it. Nevertheless, it had to come to the Home Office in due course for the decision to be operated. This is our difficulty; here is a limited amount of transport. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Believe me, it is so.

Mr. Bowles

Does the right hon. Gentleman claim to be responsible for transport?

Mr. Morrison

I have to consider transport.

Mr. A. Bevan


Mr. Morrison

I have to consider it in this respect, or the Government have to consider it. It is no use hon. Members losing their tempers. I am not going to lose mine and I hope hon. Members will not lose theirs. We are undoubtedly bound to consider it in that respect. First of all there is the policy which the Government as a whole have decided as to whether Members of Parliament can have a particular privilege or right to go abroad. We have not accepted that as a Government.

Mr. Bevan

Well, we do.

Mr. Morrison

Well, we do not.

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

Who are "we"?

Mr. Morrison

The Government.

Earl Winterton

What about the House of Commons?

Hon. Members


Mr. Morrison

In the end that can be done, but it cannot be put now, that is perfectly clear. The Government are faced with this situation. They must have a general policy and a general line about exit permits. They are then faced with this situation, that the number of people who can go to France in existing circumstances is strictly limited. There was some surplus transport at the time when the French were not ready to give visas, but now they are there is a limitation. The number of business men with legitimate British interests asking for permits to go to France is considerably beyond the accommodation available, and, indeed, I am informed by the Minister of Production that at the present time even important industrial firms with large commercial and business interests in France have been unable to send their representatives over. We are bound to take this into account. The other people who wish to go are cases of compassionate nature, sometimes of a pretty serious and dramatic character——

Captain Cunningham-Reid (St. Marylebone)

Like Noel Coward?

Mr. Morrison

—and French people who wish to go back. I could answer all these individual cases if there was time, but there is not. I think hon. Members should be fair. I am not having an easy time, and I have not much time in which to reply. There is this limited accommodation, and in regard to compassionate appeals of an urgent character we are having to say "No" to all of them.

Mr. Molson (The High Peak)

In which category did Professor Laski fall—compassionate or professional?

Mr. Bevan

Who are you getting at—Noel Coward or Lady Anderson?

Mr. Morrison

On the point of Professor Laski, he was treated in the same way as a Conservative person would have been treated. He was requested to go by the Socialist Party of France and was permitted, and if a responsible political party in France had asked my right hon. Friend for the hon. Members they would have been treated in exactly the same way.

Mr. Bevan

Did not Lady Anderson take a maid and a detective?

Mr. Morrison

I come to the point about Members of Parliament in general. If we are to say that Members of Parliament in general should be able to go we shall, if the numbers of M.P.'s correspond to what we imagine they might be, have to exclude the business men with urgent business interests, and other urgent cases. We thought it right, and we thought that the House would be willing, that Members of Parliament would not as such claim special privileges over other persons, and would agree with the Government that, as things are, we have got to run the policy on those lines.

Finally, may I say this, that it is the hope of the Government that the transport situation will be improved. As I said at the beginning, there is no wish that Members of Parliament should not go to France. It is a matter of ways and means, and the Home Office has to be equitable and fair, as between individual and individual. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is not."] We think it is, but that can be argued. There is no public transport at the moment, only military transport; and on military transport no fares are charged. We think, in these circumstances, that we must hold the scales fairly as between one person and another. With regard to the American Congressmen, I have no responsibility whatever: they are sent by the American authorities. I understand that they are a delegation from the Military Affairs Committee of the American Congress, and they have gone under American military auspices. I hope that nobody is going to make the Home Office responsible for the American Government.

It being Half-past Six o'Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.