HC Deb 15 November 1945 vol 415 cc2465-77

10.30 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Dalton)

I beg to move, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the expenses incurred in connection with their parliamentary and official duties by Members of this Mouse, including Ministers whose salary is less than £5,000 per annum; their remuneration; and their conditions of work. We shall all, I think, agree that democracy must be efficient, and if democracy is to be efficient, we must offer proper conditions of work to the elected representatives of the people, on both sides of the House, and I am sure this will not be treated as in any sense a party proposal. The Government are very anxious that a Select Committee should go carefully into this complicated matter to which hon. Members on the other side of the House will make, I am sure, a valuable contribution. Although the Government cannot and do not commit themselves in advance to accept the recommendations which that Select Committee shall put forward, we shall certainly view any recommendations in which there will have been general agreement with careful and sympathetic consideration.

I do not think I need define this Motion at length. It follows precedents set in past times. In 1920 a Select Committee was set up with somewhat similar terms of reference to this, and it made various suggestions. Some were accepted by the Government of the day and some were not. In the new situation which has arisen there is very great pressure on hon. Members, much greater than in pre-war days, owing to the large number of constituency cases which have to be dealt with owing to personal problems of many kinds which come to all Members of the House, and we are hoping that the House will feel, with the Government, that this whole question should be looked at with fresh eyes. There are many matters which are proper to be considered by the Select Committee within these terms of reference. We have deliberately made the terms of reference very wide. We are anxious not to exclude any relevant matter which may be thought to be of importance. It will be open for the Committee to consider whether salaries are at a proper level in view of the present conditions. It will be open to them to consider the relation of salaries paid to different junior Ministers with those paid to private Members of the House. It will be open to the Select Committee to consider the whole question of allowances, as distinct from salaries, to see if any further change should be made. It will be open to them to consider the whole question of postage and the extent to which there should be free postage for hon. Members in connexion with official duties; and it will be open to them to consider the whole question of travel by hon. Members on official duties. There is also the burning question of secretarial assistance and the facilities for making use of that assistance. We are conscious this is a serious problem, particularly in view of the tremendous growth of correspondence which comes to hon. Members in all parts of the House. That state of affairs is likely to continue.

I should like to emphasise the step which I have already announced to the House, and which the Government have taken, by making a declaration to remove any doubts which might previously have existed about free postage of communications sent by Members to Government Departments. On 6th November I announced on behalf of the Government that the practice whereby in the past Members have marked letters sent to Government Departments with the letters "O.H.M.S.," thereby avoiding the need to pay stamps on the letters, was perfectly proper. Many Members have followed this practice for a long time, though not quite universally, and some doubts existed of its legality—I should like to inform the House, and it is relevant at this stage to do so, that we have made arrangements following this declaration whereby supplies of officially franked O.H.M.S. envelopes will be available to Members without charge, which they may find it convenient to use in the House or to take away with them when they go to their constituencies. They will be able to obtain these very shortly. I have been urging the Stationery Office to accelerate their arrangements, and if the envelopes are not available tonight, they will be in a day or two. Hon. Members may find this more convenient than marking the envelopes themselves.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

How is a Government Department to distinguish between an envelope marked by a Member of the House and one marked by a member of the public?

Mr. Dalton

By opening the letter to see who wrote it.

Mr. Keeling

What will they do then? Send in a bill?

Mr. Dalton

Members of the public are not entitled to write "O.H.M.S." on their correspondence, and postage can be recovered from such persons. But the answer to the hon. Gentleman is that the recipient will see who signed the letter, and if it is sent by an hon. Member it would be perfectly in order. I mention this by way of illustrating the way in which we propose to operate the statement I made on 6th November. As will be seen from the Motion which follows we are also proposing an immediate extension of free travel facilities for hon. Members, but all these matters are within the purview of the Select Committee; and I am quite confident, and the Government are confident, that the Select Committee will make a valuable contribution to the study of a very difficult problem.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

The right hon. Gentleman said that the travel with which he was dealing is referred to in the next Motion. It will be travel anywhere he is now speaking of?

Mr. Dalton

In the next Motion I am going to recommend a limited extension of free travel, but it will be within the competence of the Select Committee to see if further extensions are desirable. I would suggest that, although the practice in foreign countries, including the United States of America, is so different in many respects from our own, they may afford good examples to be copied; and that the Select Committee might, perhaps—it will be within their competence—find it worth while to compare the practice in this House with the practice of the Dominion Parliaments overseas. There are great similarities between our Parliament and those of various of the Dominions; and since the spirit is so similar, and the political climate is so similar, it may well be that we would find certain things done by the Dominion Parliaments of interest to us, and possible of adaptation here. But I wish again to say that we leave the Select Committee with wide terms of reference, and I can assure the House that if it is appointed the Government intends that it shall do a very valuable service.

10.42 p.m.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

Although the hour is late, this is a matter of such importance to hon. Members that I do not think the House will grudge a few minutes spent upon discussing it. In fact, I think it may shorten our discussion if I say straight away that, although I do not speak for my party on this matter, because I do not think this is a party matter, I have consulted a good number of my hon. Friends upon these benches, and I shall be expressing the views of others besides myself. Before we part with this Motion, I hope someone on the Front Bench opposite will give us an assurance that when the report of the Select Committee has been made and the Government proposals on it have been formulated, and come before the House, there will be no Whips put on, so that every Member will be free to vote in accordance with his own beliefs on a matter on which he has to account not only to his constituents, but to his own conscience.

I have looked back over the history of these matters concerned with the payment of Members and with Members' travel facilities. Throughout, from the original payment in 1911 to the Select Committee of 1920, the proposals of 1921—some of which the House rejected—and the introduction of first-class travel in 1924 by the first Labour Government, on only one occasion were the Whips put on by the Government. That was on the original proposal for the payment of Members which Mr. Lloyd George made, I think, on 10th August, 1911. There was justification on that occasion for putting on the Whips, because the payment of Members was part and parcel of the election programme put before the country by Mr. Asquith in the second election of 1910. On this occasion there seems to be no such mandate. I hold in my hand a document entitled "Let us Face the Future; a Declaration of Labour Policy for the Consideration of the Nation." The electors of Britain, having given the Government a large and clear majority in this House, they have an unchallengeable, popular mandate to carry out all that is contained in this document, on page 5 of which I find these words: "What will the Labour Party do?" I do not know if the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognises the quotation.

Mr. Dalton

Yes, I do. It is a quotation from a very good speech.

Mr. Peake

I would like to refer to page five, and in the paragraph headed, not without some significance, I think, with the words in large letters, "Jobs for all," I find no reference to the proposals which the right hon. Gentleman has just laid before the House unless, indeed, they can be included within the scope of these general words: The policy of 'Jobs for All' must be associated with a policy of general economic expansion and efficiency.

Mr. George Porter (Leeds, Central)

In view of the fact that the Leader of the Opposition has made a request that consideration should also be given to the junior Whips, will the right hon. Gentleman tell me—

Mr. Peake

I have not quite come to that point of my speech. I will deal with the question of junior Whips shortly. The question of payment of Members was raised in the dying days of the last Parliament by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), and, from the box opposite, I replied that that question and the question of increased facilities for Members seemed to me essentially questions for the new Parliament.

May I say a few words about each of the proposals which have been mooted in the public Press? First of all, one has this question of Members' salary, as it is called—but it is not salary in reality. I concede that there is a prima facie case for inquiry. It was in 1937 that Mr. Chamberlain, after consultations which Mr. Baldwin held with a good many Members in all parts of the House, decided to make the salary £600. If £600 was a fair and proper figure in 1937, it is clear that, with the increased cost of living, the greatly increased cost of postage, telephones and telegraphs, and so forth, there is a prima faciecase for inquiry at the present time as to whether some increase is not desirable. There are two divergent points of view on this question. There is the point of view that we in this House should be remunerated according to what our services would, in our opinion, fetch in the outside market. I totally dissent from a view of that character. I am sure that what we ought to do is to aim at a salary which is rather a minimum upon which a Member can perform with decency the functions of a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)

And dignity.

Mr. Peake

With decency and dignity. I dislike the idea of the professional politician, and I am confirmed in that statement by some observations which fell from the Leader of the House himself this afternoon. It would be a great pity if Members were to decide that they ought to be paid a salary as persons fulfilling a whole-time job and that a Member of Parliament ought to do no outside work. It is a great thing that Members should have outside interests. Some are professional men, some are trade union secretaries, some are even directors of public companies.

In passing, I may say I thought it a little unworthy of the Chancellor the other day to make even a genial sneer at my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) for accepting a directorship of a bank; because, after all, it is some advantage to have first hand knowledge of some aspect of our national life; and as some of us on these benches may expect at a later date, after the next Election, to be sitting where right hon. Gentlemen now sit, and our experience has taught us that at the end of a period of Socialist Government the public finances are liable to be in a bit of a mess, how wise hon. Members on this side of the House would be to try to gain some practical experience in the meantime of the working of our financial system. At any rate when our roles are reversed and the right hon. Gentleman opposite returns to the London School of Economics as a lecturer, his lectures will be greatly improved by the practical experience he has gained here, and I shall not jeer and sneer at him.

May I say a word upon the question of payment in kind? I and a good many of my hon. Friends on this side very much dislike the idea of increased pay- ment in kind, for two reasons. The first is—and it is not the most important, though it is one of some substance—that payments in kind are always liable to abuse unless they are hedged round with a number of safeguards which Members of this House would find exceedingly tiresome. Let me take two examples. On the question of secretarial assistance, how awfully difficult it is, when you sit down to dictate letters, to have to make up your own mind as you come to each letter whether it is a constituency case, a business letter, ordinary correspondence, or even a love letter.

On the question of free frankage for letters posted in the Palace of Westminster, here again, there would have to be careful safeguards laid down to see that abuses did not creep in. In the old days before the war I used to send out every year a few hundred Christmas cards to my principal supporters. If I had had free frankage I might have sent out a few thousands; and I might even have taken to sending out month by month from the Palace of Westminster what in effect would have amounted to an election address. That would be a wholly unfair advantage to take over my rival candidate who hoped at the next election to unseat me. Therefore, I say that payments in kind are liable to abuses unless carefully hedged round with safeguards. It is very much better, on grounds of public policy, that the public should know what Members of Parliament get and not imagine that they are getting all sorts of perquisites on the side. Therefore, I range myself strongly behind the idea that there should be a salary or expenses allowance, as at present, at possibly a somewhat higher figure, which each Member is free to spend as he thinks fit. A prima faciecase has been made out for it, and for that reason I shall not oppose its remittance to the Select Committee.

May I add a word with regard to the position of junior Ministers? I have been one for something like six years, and I think their position is exceedingly hard. Not only has he to give up on appointment all outside sources of income, any directorships he holds, or any journalism or profession in which he is engaged, but he also has to sacrifice his £600 a year as a Member of Parliament. He is given £1,500 a year in most of the offices or even smaller sums in some of the Household posts which are paid from £1,000 to £800 a year, against which no allowances of any kind are permitted. The result is that he rinds himself, with taxation at its present level, very little better off financially, and, in some cases, even worse off, than the ordinary back bench Member. It is very hard for a man to be treated in this way when he becomes an Under-Secretary, usually in the prime of life. He has decided to give his services to the country, when he could probably be earning a very good income and putting something aside for his old age. He is giving up the best years of a. man's life. It has always seemed to me that the right solution of this problem is to give these Ministers the ordinary Back bencher's salary as well. I am sure that that is the right and fair thing to do. I have expressed these sentiments because I have discussed this matter with a good many of my hon. Friends on these benches, and I think it may be of some help to the Select Committee if they know at the outset what is, I think, the predominant, though by no means the universal, view on the Opposition side of the House.

10.59 p.m.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

There is a point, which, I think, could certainly not be regarded as a hostile one, especially as I find myself in the rather unaccustomed role of non-controversialist. I want to call the attention of the Government to the statement in the Motion "including Ministers whose salary is less than £5,000 per annum." I do not understand, and we have had no explanation from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, why the salaries of Ministers with £5,000 have been excluded. The reason why I ask this is that it may well be that investigation may show that the gap between the total salary and allowances of the Minister with £5,000, and that of other Ministers and private Members was either too little or too great. I will further explain what I mean. It is a long time since there has been any rise in the salaries of the higher-up Ministers and the salary of £5,000 which is now fixed for those holding the more important posts was fixed in the days when it was true to say that the value of money was at least 50 per cent. more than it is now. Therefore, why should consideration of the financial situation of those Ministers be excluded from the inquiries of this Select Committee? On the other hand, such investigation may show that the differences between the functions being performed by Ministers with a salary of £5,000 and those being performed by Ministers with salaries of £2,000 was not so great as to justify this great differentiation in the matter of salaries.

There is another point, a very delicate one. I do not want to offend anybody's susceptibilities, but there has grown up in recent years a custom in certain Departments—it applies only to some—where the Minister has the free use of a car which he can use for any purpose he likes; whereas in other Departments, in some of the lower-salaried Ministerial Departments, there is not such an advantage. I would suggest that the whole inquiry would be far more symmetrical if it took into account every range of salary paid to Ministers. I am ready to be converted to a different view, but I can see no logical reason for making the exclusion. If we are to have an investigation of this matter, what is the reason for not having a full investigation into the whole matter? I apologise to the House for making a speech when I am suffering from such hoarseness. May I assure the House, it is not due to the number of cups of tea I have drunk?

11.2 p.m.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

I apologise for striking almost the only discordant note in this matter, but I am opposed to this Motion, because I think it unseemly and untimely. I have been in the House for four months, and I have been in the habit of collecting the election addresses of righthon. and hon. Members. I have an interesting collection. In none, and in none of their speeches, have I found any word of the suggestion that a right hon. or hon. Gentleman on his return to this House should, within six months of his return, approve setting up a Select Committee to discuss his emoluments. It would be very improper if one voice, at any rate, were not raised against what, I think, is an unseemly procedure. I know there are urgent difficulties, but I would remind the hon. Gentleman this is not a wartime Department, and we are not entitled to a peacetime increase. We took on, with a full sense of our responsibilities, this task and this duty, and, while there may be some case for a Select Committee, it would be more seemly, and more in keeping with the habit of mind of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, if we undertook to carry out our duty for at least a year before we examined whether we were worth more emoluments. I think this is a deplorable step. It is a step towards making us, more and more, hired servants of the Government, hired bravoes, hired and devoted and unchallenging servants of the Administration. It is a step we have seen in other countries, and it leads steadily to dictatorship and disaster.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

Is the hon. Gentleman referring to the Members on these benches?

Sir W. Darling

I am referring to Members of the House of Commons who desire to support the Government's wish to have a Select Committee which is to raise our emoluments and if that step—

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

Is not the hon. Member aware that as, long ago as the 14th and 15th centuries, wages were paid to Members of the House irrespective of their leanings towards the Administration of the day?

Sir W. Darling

I am aware it has existed under previous Administrations, but that is no reason why we should not protest against something being offered to this House. I think hon. Members will agree that no part of the programme of the Government was left unexpounded or unexposed. We were told in unqualified language what they intended to do. This step was not included. It was not included in the election addresses of 121 Members of the House in my collection. It may have been in others. I think it is unseemly—I think it is indecent—that within five months we should have a proposal before us to set up a Committee to examine our salaries. I am proud of the fact that I am called an Honourable Member, but I would sooner be a poor and Honourable Member than submit to this.

11.6 p.m.

Mr. Dalton

With the permission of the House, I will deal with the two points which have been raised from the benches opposite, and ignore the last hon. Mem- ber's lucubrations. The right hon. Member who spoke first on the other side asked if I would give an undertaking that any recommendations of the Select Committee would be considered with the Whips off, that is, on a free vote. I am not in a position to give a cast-iron pledge on this matter, which I did not know was going to be raised, but there is great force in his contention that matters of this kind should be decided by the House voting freely. On the other hand, it might be that the Select Committee would make a proposal of which the Government deeply disapproved and the right hon. Gentleman will not expect me to give a cast-iron pledge. Recognising the great force in his argument, we will certainly look into it and see whether, when the time comes—it will take some time to get these recommendations—it will not be a better way of dealing with it.

Regarding the remarks of the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton), who proposed that we should not exclude from consideration of the Select Committee Ministers with salaries of £5,000 a year or more, the reason why these Ministers are excluded is that the House is initially interested in the private Members, who are by far the greatest number of those who are here in question. Our primary consideration is the private Member and not Ministers at all. On the other hand, the junior Ministers, as the phrase goes, are also obviously, as the right hon. Gentleman said, under certain disabilities in these matters, and we therefore thought it right to include them also. The question then arose how to define the junior Ministers. To have inserted in the Motion the phrase "junior Ministers" would be ambiguous and would be to use a term not known to the Constitution. It was therefore necessary to define these posts with precision by what seemed to us the best definition that we could put on the Paper—that is, Ministers with salaries less than £5,000 a year. Those who receive £5,000 do not ask for any consideration of improvement.

Earl Winterton

The point I put, which seemed to me to have support in all parts of the House, was that I hoped the Government would not exclude some future consideration of this question. I do not think any Government need be afraid if a good case is made for increasing the salaries of Ministers.

Mr. Dalton

As we go forward many new matters may arise for consideration. Primarily, we are here interested in the private Member. We are interested only secondly in the position of the junior Ministers, and the Government wish these two matters to be considered. They do not consider that there is any strong case for considering the situation of those receiving salaries of £5,000 a year. Later on any new matter might be considered, but it would be a great pity to push the question of Ministerial salaries into the forefront of this discussion. In the forefront should be the condition of the vast majority of Members of the House who are not members of the Government. In view of what I have said, and of the friendly way in which what I have said has been received, I hope the House will agree to a Select Committee being appointed, not to recommend increases, but to consider the whole question.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

While recognising that there is considerable force in the view expressed on the other side of the House, that any ultimate proposals might be decided by the House without the Whips, will my right hon. Friend, in considering that proposal, remember also that there is considerable weight in the view that when the Committee have reported and the Government have considered their report, there may be good reason for the Government taking responsibility for whatever is then decided, and that any other course might be a source of considerable mischief and embarrassment to many private Members?

Mr. Dalton

We will look into that.


"That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the expenses incurred in connection with their parliamentary and official duties by Members of this House, including Ministers whose salary is less than £5,000 per annum; their remuneration; and their conditions of work."