HC Deb 19 February 1946 vol 419 cc964-6
The Prime Minister

The House will recall that on 19th September, 1945, on his return to India after discussions with His Majesty's Government, the Viceroy made a statement of policy, in the course of which he outlined the positive steps to be taken, immediately after the central and provincial elections to promote, in conjunction with the leaders of Indian opinion, the early realisation of full self-government in India. Those steps include:

  1. (1) Preparatory discussions with the elected representatives of British India, and with the Indian States, in order to secure the widest measure of agreement as to the method of framing a Constitution;
  2. (2)The setting up of a Constitution- making body; and
  3. (3)The bringing into being of an Executive Council having the support of the main Indian parties.
The elections at the centre were held at the end of last year, and in some of the provinces they are also over and responsible Governments are in process of formation. In the other provinces polling dates are spread over the next few weeks. With the approach of the end of the electoral campaign His Majesty's Government have been considering the most fruitful method of giving effect to the programme to which I have referred.

In view of the paramount importance not only to India and to the British Commonwealth but to the peace of the world of a successful outcome of the discussions with the leaders of Indian opinion, His Majesty's Government have decided to send out to India a special mission composed of Cabinet Ministers to seek in assocation with the Viceroy an agreement with these leaders on the principles and procedure relating to the constitutional issue.

Accordingly, with the approval of His Majesty The King, His Majesty's Government have decided that the Secretary of State for India, the President of the Board of Trade and the First Lord of the Admiralty shall proceed to India for this purpose towards the end of March. This course has the full concurrence of the Viceroy.

I feel sure that the House will give its support and goodwill to the Ministers and to the Viceroy in these discussions, in which the future of 400 million people and crucial issues both for India and the world will be at stake.

I should add that during the absence of these Ministers, I shall myself assume responsibility for Admiralty business and the Lord President of the Council will be in charge of the Board of Trade. So far as the India and Burma Offices are concerned, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State will be in charge during the Secretary of State's absence. But he will be able to rely on my personal advice whenever it is required, and he will refer important issues to myself, particularly those affecting Burma, where the Governor will not like the Viceroy, be in personal touch with the Secretary of State.

Mr. Eden

May I ask the Prime Minister one or two questions arising out of this very important statement? In the first place, while it is clear, I presume, that the Secretary of State for India will carry with him in his person the authority of Secretary of State, can we also be assured that, in respect of all matters that would normally require Cabinet decisions, there will be reference to Cabinet authority in London—that is to say, that these three Ministers will not carry with them anything in the nature of Cabinet authority? Secondly, may I ask the Prime Minister whether Parliament will have an opportunity of discussing any developments of policy that may arise out of this visit? Thirdly, although it is hard to say at present, it may be that we should like an opportunity to discuss India before the Ministers leave, and if so, will there be an opportunity? Finally, and most important of all, may I ask the Prime Minister to make it clear that the main lines of British policy in respect of India still stand—that is to say that it is the responsibility of Indians, and not of Ministers from this country, to bring about a Constitution-making body?

The Prime Minister

In reply to the first point, it is clear that it is no use sending out responsible Ministers, unless they have a degree of responsibility to act, and clearly, therefore, within the terms laid down by Cabinet decisions, these Ministers must be able to act. Of course, on major matters of policy they will refer back for Cabinet decision, but if they are going to negotiate they must have power to negotiate, as would the Viceroy, if he were acting on behalf of the Government. On the second point, with regard to the matter coming before the House, clearly anything arising out of these discussions will be the subject of legislation and will have to come before the House. On the third point, concerning a Debate, I am not sure whether it is advisable to have a Debate before they go out, but, in any case, there is a Bill coming down to this House which is designed to give the Viceroy more elbow room in the formation of his Cabinet, on which discussion could arise. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would discuss with the Lord President of the Council whether that is an adequate opportunity or not. Undoubtedly, it is our intention to speed up machinery in agreement with the Indians, whereby the Indian people themselves will decide their destiny.

Mr. Sorensen

May I ask whether there is any time limit placed on this Mission, which will take with it the best wishes of the House in the attempt to solve this problem?

The Prime Minister

There is, of course, no time limit laid down. One hopes that they will not be kept out there too long. I echo the hon. Member's hope—there is no harm in hoping—that they will be successful in as short a time as possible.