HC Deb 09 October 1945 vol 414 cc181-94

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

7.52 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Edwards (Middlesbrough, East)

The point I wish to raise on this occasion concerns the status of Members of Parliament. I gave notice to the Prime Minister that I would raise certain points and he has arranged for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works to give me a reply. What I am concerned about is the fact that those of us who are elected to this House have an idea that we are elected to the highest office in the land, but when hon. Members have been in this House as many years as I have, they will find themselves constantly humiliated, and put in a lower position than they imagined they have earned by being elected to Parliament. I want to put it to those hon. Members who come here as newcomers, that they will be very wise to endeavour to establish their status as Members of Parliament. They will find that they have certain rights, and the authority is not a Government official. The authority is the membership of this House. Sometimes, when we speak of the inconveniencies with which we have to contend, we get replies that certain things cannot be done. I hope that the House will agree that there is nothing which cannot be done if this House says it shall be done. These permanent officials will just have to change their ground. The Leader of the House has assured us that we could expect from the Government something different from the lethargy we have had from other Governments.

Let us start from the day when the new hon. Members arrived in London. Many could not find a place to sleep on the night when they arrived here. When a certain Ministry went to another town, places were requisitioned in order to see that its officials were comfortably housed, steps were taken to see that they were properly fed and, on many occasions, to see that people were properly transported. Nothing whatever was done to see that Members of Parliament coming to this House, the highest office to which any citizen of this Empire can be elected, were properly provided for. New Members will find that, if they want to receive visitors in this House, there is no place where they can take them. There was, until to-day, no place to which one could take them with a certainty of being able to give them any refreshment. I notice that the arrangements to-day are a little better. There is no place where Members can do a little work, and here I want to establish this fact once and for all—there is a point of difference between this House and every previous Parliament. Hitherto, men have not come here as a body to do serious work. On this occasion, a majority of this House has come down here trained for a job, and this is the first time that a majority has come into Parliament thoroughly trained for the job they have been elected to do.

Are we who come here, ready and prepared to work, to tolerate impediments being put in the way of carrying out our duty day after day? I have said that hon. Members have the right to demand these things, and I think they would be very wise from the outset if they did demand them. New Members who journey to the lower regions of this House will find dozens of rooms, not quite as comfortable as they would like, but rooms where one could work. I challenge them to find, at any one time, more than three or four of these rooms occupied, though every door has on it the name of some Minister or junior officer. I see no reason why a certain number of officials should not use these rooms, but no reason at all why we should not use the others. Hon. Members will find rooms day after day, week after week, month after month, with nobody in them.

Then there is this question of postage. We are officers of the Crown, but new Members of this House will find that they will have to dig deeply into their pockets to pay their postages. Why? The only answer we have had in this House is that some of us may use that privilege to post our private and business letters. Certainly, the permanent officials say that. Even if we are no better than they imagine us to be, if we are of the very lowest standard and are so mean as to use the position to which we have been elected to save ourselves a few shillings a week, it is still infinitesimal. The sum total of money spent by hon. Members of this House on Government business is enormous, and I suggest to hon. Members that they should say at the beginning of this Parliament that they want changes. If they leave it to continue without protest, the permanent officials who get into the habit of not doing to-day what they can leave until to-morrow, will not do anything.

On the point of secretarial assistance, if hon. Members can find the place where this is available to them, they will also find that their slender salary will be considerably reduced by the time they have paid the bill. I have had the privilege of visiting other countries. I very frequently go to the Senate House of the United States Congress, where I am entertained by ordinary Members like ourselves. I am received by the Member's personal secretary and taken into a most beautiful office, which is merely the secretary's office, and later into another and more beautiful office when the Member is ready to receive me. Why should we, Members of the Mother of Parliaments, be constantly humiliated by having to go to some back corner? We are told that anything is good enough for us if we are only back benchers—those people who might sneak a few postage stamps for their private letters. Why should we tolerate it? When you have been here a few years, it is too late to do anything. You get used to this. That is why I appeal now to the new Members and say that here are well-trained men in politics who have a vital job of work to do for the nation, who should demand the facilities which would be given in any decent business. Why should I have here conditions which I would not allow my own employees to tolerate for a moment? There is no reason on earth. It is the duty and privilege of hon. Members to see that these things are altered at the very outset.

I do not want to exaggerate the position but I would like to tell the House one or two of my personal experiences whilst working for this House. I had the privilege of being appointed on the War Expenditure Committee—a very important Committee. We could not discuss the finances of the war in this House during the war, and this work was delegated to a Committee of 33 Members, I think, who had powers to investigate war expenditure. We could go anywhere, into any Department, call for anyMinister—nothing was outside our powers. Of course, we had our expenses paid. We used to have these collected for us afterwards by the Clerk of our Committee. I remember being in a town where my expenses were rather high. I paid my bill and handed it to the Clerk, asking him to collect it for me. He came back and said, "I am very sorry; the Treasury will not pass this." I said, "The Treasury will not pass it? They are not masters of the House of Commons. I have been on House of Commons business and that is what I have spent on the authority of the Houses of Parliament. That is the money I want—nothing more and nothing less." He reported to the Treasury but the Treasury were still on their high horse and said, "We are very sorry but the most that could be allowed would be the expenses of a first-class civil servant." I said to the Clerk, "You can go back and tell them that I am not a first-class civil servant; I am a Member of Parliament and those expenses were incurred on behalf of the House of Commons. That is the money I want." We argued the point for a long time.

The Treasury has no authority over this House, but it acts as though it had. I have never known a difficulty in any Department during the war—I could tell the House about a lot of them—which did not come back to the point: "I am very sorry, but the Treasury will not allow this." Are they the dictators of this country? The answer is that they are the absolute dictators of this country. It is the responsibility of this House, at least, to insist on a full investigation as to what powers belong to the Treasury. They tell us we cannot have this postage, we cannot have secretarial assistance, we cannot have a room, we cannot have anything. Believe me, it is time that this House took the power which belongs to it into its own hands, utilised it, and told the Treasury that it is the servant of this House and not the master. In the end I compromised on the problem I have just related, although I did not intend to do so. Even the Treasury give way when a Member of Parliament insists. They said, "The Treasury have agreed to increase the allowance from 23s. to 30s. a day." I said that as a service to the permanent officials I would accept it. I thought that was worth while.

May I tell the House one other thing? About 10 or 12 of us used to travel from the North of England, some from Scotland. There came a time during the war when some sleeping cars had to be cut off. The first people to be denied priority were Members of Parliament and we had the ignominy of travelling backwards and forwards sitting up all night while junior Ministers from Government Departments had the sleepers. Naturally we protested, and at last the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport addressed the group of Members from the North and said, "I have a concession at last. In future, no officer beneath the rank of colonel will have priority over Members of Parliament." That is the spirit of the Treasury. I said, "That is adding insult to injury. Take it from us—I speak for my group—we accept no priority from anybody—from a general or a Member of the House of Lords, or anybody. There is no priority in this land which comes before Members of this House. It is our responsibility to see that we establish it." Only after very severe protests did they give us our priority and we have had no trouble since.

I relate that to show that we can get what we want if we insist upon it. Why should we go on in this ignominious way? Perhaps it is a bit early to say this, but I will do so for the benefit of some junior Ministers. Junior Ministers have the right, or should have the right, to use motor cars. I sometimes wish we could borrow a few for Members for we stand out in the courtyard a long time waiting for taxis some nights. Recently the Chancellor of the Exchequer sent a notice round to our Ministers which stated that they must not expect in future to use the motor cars which had previously been at their disposal though they might be fortunate in drawing one from the pool. That was never done to Conservative Ministers. Are we going to accept that? Is there some difference between the Ministers in this Parliament and the last?

I have never heard of such a thing happening before. That is the way we are treating our Ministers. Surely people like us, elected to do a job of work here, are not going to put our Ministers in that ignominious position? Of course we would not, but the permanent officials do and the Treasury do.

I have said enough, I think, to satisfy the House that this is a really serious matter. The privileges of this House have grown up over centuries, they have been hardly won, but in recent years we have been letting them disappear very lightly. I do hope this House will take a stand and insist that there must be dignity and status accorded to the Members of this House which ranks second to nobody in the land. That is our position. We are elected on that understanding. Will this House insist that the Government immediately set on foot an inquiry into this matter and report back to this House?

8.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. J. H. Wilson)

I am not sure whether in making a maiden speech from what is, I think, an unusual part of the House one is entitled to ask for its indulgence. Probably I am not entitled to ask for it, though on this occasion I feel the need for it even more than many of my colleagues who were elected to Parliament for the first time in the recent Election. They, at least, have spoken with great authority on the subjects which they have chosen and, although I find myself speaking from a part of the House where one is expected to speak with authority—though I am told this has not always been the case—I am called on to deal with a subject which even veteran Members of this House would enter upon only with very great trepidation—the important question of the amenities and facilities provided for private Members of this House.

May I say that, speaking as one of the new young Members to whom my hon. Friend referred, I share, as we all do, their desire to see Parliament work as efficiently as it is possible for it to work. My hon. Friend raised a number of points with some of which I am not competent to deal. For instance, he raised the question of the Treasury for which I am, perhaps fortunately, not answerable. He raised also the question of postage which I know is inflicting very serious concern on a number of hon. Members, and I will undertake to see that what he said is brought to the notice of the authorities concerned. I think that all I can properly reply to is this question of the allocation of rooms for which the Ministry of Works is partly responsible, and also the subject he mentioned at the beginning, namely, the provision of accommodation in London for Members who have, so far, had difficulty in finding it.

With regard to the amenities of Members within this House, the Government and all the authorities concerned are trying to do everything possible to improve them so that Members can do their job as efficiently as possible. I know how important this is in the matter of facilities for dictating letters and interviewing the general public. Members who have had greater experience than I have told me that in the past few weeks the amount of correspondence they have received has been very much greater than they can remember in the past. Certainly, those Members who have had an opportunity, during the recent Recess, of refreshing themselves by visiting their constituencies, or living in them, can testify to the desire of the public, greater than ever before, to see their Member of Parliament and discuss with him questions of private or public importance. I believe that the confidence of the public in Parliament as an institution, and in Members as individuals; is perhaps greater now than at any time in the past.

The Government are most desirous that all possible facilities shall be given for adequate meetings, and for free and frank discussion between Members and the public. My hon. Friend referred to facilities which have been provided in other parts of the world. I, too, have seen the lavish scale on which Congressmen and Senators in the United States for instance, can entertain members of the public. As the House will know, provision is being made, when the Chamber is rebuilt, for additional amenities for Members, particularly for interviewing and the dictation of letters. In order that those who are charged with the duty of building the new Chamber shall be kept informed of what is required, I am asked by my right hon. Friend to say that it is his intention to carry out the proposal made by his predecessor to appoint a panel of private Members to advise him on any questions of lay-out which may arise in the course of that work.

Mr. McAllister (Rutherglen)

Is it the intention of the Government to allow this new House to discuss the reconstruction of the old Chamber? Complaints were made in the last Parliament that the new Chamber would not provide seats for all Members, and I would like to know whether the Royal Fine Arts Commission will again be consulted on this and other matters?

Mr. Wilson

My hon. Friend has raised a rather wide question, which I will bring to the attention of the Leader of the House, and to which he will not expect me to reply now. With regard to rebuilding, that will not help in the immediate future. Although demolition work is well advanced and should be complete in a few weeks, and work on the foundations will soon be started, the rebuilding of the Commons Chamber, I am told, will not be complete until 1949. In the meantime, we should like to do everything possible to meet the requirements of Members, but we have to admit that the difficulties are very great. Accommodation has been very strained during the war, and was so before the war, and we have now lost a further 16 rooms mainly because of demolition work. Rooms which were previously used for A.R.P. purposes have become available to us, but have been absorbed in making good, or partly making good, the loss of other rooms. Further, we have provided additional accommodation for the refreshment of hon. Members which, I hope, they will have noted with satisfaction to-day. My hon. Friend suggested that more use should be made of the rooms allocated to Ministers. But Ministers, too, have suffered from cramped accommodation, and are suffering now. I have gone carefully through the list of all the rooms occupied by Ministers now, and I find that most Ministers are, in fact, sharing rooms except in special circumstances.

Mr. Mikardo (Reading)

Will my hon. Friend tell us why he assumed that the provision of office accommodation for Members must necessarily be within this building? Could not nearby buildings be used? If we all held the rank of colonel I am sure that a block of offices would soon be commandeered for us.

Mr. Wilson

I did not assume that it would have to be within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. I was coming to that point in a moment. With regard to Ministers' rooms which are within the precincts of this building, Ministers now have only the same number of rooms as were available to Ministers in 1939, although the number of Ministers in this House has increased. It is clearly undesirable that Ministers should have to share rooms, particularly when one considers the extent to which those charged with important legislation will wish to meet deputations and discuss that legislation with them. Careful attention is being given to the provision of meeting accommodation in the immediate future. I have studied the report of the Joint Select Committee of this House and another place, which was appointed nearly 18 months ago to inquire into accommodation in the Palace of Westminster. There are proposals that certain accommodation over St. Stephen's entrance should be repaired and made available for the use of Private Members, and that some use should also be made of the Victoria Tower. These are attractive proposals, and everything possible will be done to carry them out, but at the moment an acute shortage of labour and materials makes this extremely difficult unless we are prepared—which we are not—to interfere to an undue extent with the housing programme. At the same time, to add to the limited facilities which are available, the Reporters' Transcribing Room—the Long Room—has been converted to a room for the use of Private Members and their secretaries. Going a little further a field, there are rooms in Old Palace Yard which could be used by Members for meetings, and some might be partitioned into smaller rooms.

Mr. A. Edwards

If my hon. Friend will look at the Ministers' rooms he will find that not one out of 12 is used at any time, and that no Minister uses his room for more than one hour a day and probably not for one day out of six. I think he has been misled.

Mr. Wilson

I cannot speak as to what use was made of Ministers' rooms in the previous Parliament, but there is every reason to believe, certainly from the views expressed to me by Ministers, that such rooms will be used far more in the immediate future than in the past, particularly because of the legislative programme to which I have referred.

With regard to the question of going further a field, I have already mentioned Old Palace Yard. I think further consideration could be given to the question of providing additional facilities for hon. Members, but, as I have said, not within the precincts of the Palace. With these exceptions, it is very difficult to do anything under present conditions. I should like to refer to the extremely difficult problem of finding living accommodation in London, which, I know, has caused very great worry and, indeed, hardship to many Members, particularly the newer Members. They have had, and I believe are still having, great difficulty in finding suitable accommodation within travelling distance of the House at the present time. The suggestion has been made that accommodation should be reserved for Members. I think it was suggested that requisitioning might be applied.

I am advised that, so far as the war-time powers are concerned, it would not be possible to use these for requisitioning for Members of Parliament and I believe that the powers which have been discussed earlier to-day could not be used in that way. On the other hand, my right hon. Friend has asked me to say that, if evidence is produced to him, as I am sure it may be produced, of hardship which Members are still having in getting accommodation, and if he can be satisfied there would be adequate demands for the regular use of any additional accommodation that could be provided, he would be prepared to see whether we can get it, not by requisitioning but by some other means. I understand that at the present time certain inquiries are being made by organisations, which are not connected with the Government, in order to get such accommodation, but my right hon. Friend is certainly willing to look into further accommodation for Members, if he can be satisfied that accommodation will be used, and, of course, that it can be self-supporting.

Mr. A. Edwards

Would my hon. Friend, refer to the Minister himself for evidence? I understand that he himself a short time ago could not find accommodation and was driven to a room in his Ministry.

Mr. Wilson

We are aware that many hon. Members are having very great difficulty, and, are indeed, suffering hardship on this question, but we know also that many Members who were suffering hardship in August, have now found accommodation for themselves, and my right hon. Friend who was in such a difficulty has, I believe, made some arrangement of that kind. He is certainly prepared to inquire into this question and to see whether, for instance, we might be able to find some war-time hostel and make it available for the use of Members, provided that satisfactory arrangements can be made about finance, provisioning and other things. I hope hon. Members who are having difficulty of that kind will make their difficulties known to my right hon. Friend in order that steps can be taken.

Mr. Montague (Islington, West)

I am glad this question has been raised, because it involves some very important constitutional points that affect the legislation of this country and the interests of the electorate. I cannot see that the Minister has at all touched upon the essential points in the complaint introduced by the hon. Member for East Middlesbrough (Mr. Edwards). May I put the issue in this way? It is perfectly true at the present time, as a result, I suppose, of the excitement of the General Election and the end of the war, that we have a much bigger correspondence than we had previously. But even the normal correspondence is pretty heavy. Members of Parliament have to pay for the postage—the ordinary public does not generally understand that—but it is true. I do not, however, want to put forward the point of expense at the moment. Every M.P., in these times particularly, is regarded by his constituents as a father confessor, a poor man's lawyer, and a citizens' advice bureau.

Last night I attended a meeting in my own constituency at which I had a queue of people wanting advice and assistance in connection with their personal problems, and some of these were very involved indeed. The Member has to master each of these cases. He comes to this House, and he may have as many as 200 to 300 letters a week. I do not get so many, because I represent a London constituency, and can get down to my constituency, and see my constituents on the spot, but some of the provincial Members have a very large postage bag indeed.

That means that every letter has to be mastered so far as understanding the individual problem is concerned, and at least two letters have to be written, one in acknowledgment and one to the Minister—three letters in fact, because you have to write a final reply to the constituent. So there are some of us in this House who have to write 300, 400 or 500 letters a week—some, not all, nor the majority, I am putting an extreme case.

But the burden is very heavy even where it is lightest, and no one objects to it. We are not allowed secretarial assistance. We have always said, from this side of the House at any rate, that this place should not be the privilege of merely well-to-do persons. It ought to be a democratic assembly, but as it stands to-day the well-to-do person can afford one, two or three secretaries—I know one Member on this side of the House who has three secretaries working for him and he can do it out of his private income—and others cannot do anything of the kind and have to spend hour after hour in the Library, painfully writing letters and attending to individual cases, the details of which could in many cases be left to a private secretary.

This is my final point, and I put it to the House and to the country—and I hope that the newspapers will take note of what I say about this because it is really important. What it amounts to is this: A very large percentage of this House are doing the complex job of governing this country in their spare time. Let the country understand that. People talk about Members of Parliament going on holiday, but I have been to three theatres on my holiday, and I have spent most of it reading through piles of White Papers and dealing with Parliamentary problems. One works here sometimes 24 hours a day because you dream about it. Yet people think that Members of Parliament have an easy job at an extravagent salary, and that it is a fine thing indeed. It is nothing of the kind.

Until there is secretarial assistance and some one at the back of Members of Parliament to allow them to do the routine work, in the same way as a manager of a department or of a private firm, we are not going to have this country governed as efficiently as it ought to be governed. Something has to go, and the constituents are pretty determined that they are not going to allow Members of Parliament to go because they badger them all the time. The trouble is that Members are overworked, and they have to leave vital questions of State and of the Government and Empire generally to odds and ends of time which they can spare. Let the country understand that, and let this House be ashamed of itself for allowing the greatest Government in the world and the Mother of Parliaments to be controlled in such a fashion.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Eight o'Clock.