HC Deb 15 March 1946 vol 420 cc1403-10

Order for Second Reading read.

11.10 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for India (Mr. Arthur Henderson)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

It is a comparatively short Bill which seeks to amend the qualifications of members of the Governor-General's Executive Council; to extend temporarily the legislative powers of the Indian Legislature; to make an Amendment in Section 102 of the Government of India Act, 1935; and for other purposes connected with those matters. The House will remember that, on 19th September, the Prime Minister in a broadcast indicated that after the completion of the Provincial elections in India it was the policy of the Government that the Viceroy should again enter into discussions with the leaders of Indian political opinion with a view to reconstituting the Viceroy's Council with the support of the main Indian parties. It is provided by Section 36 of the Government of India Act, 1919, and continued in force by the Ninth Schedule of the Government of India Act, 1935, that the composition of the Governor-General's Council shall include three members with not less than 10 years' service in the service of the Crown in India, and, at least, one member with legal qualifications. In view of the importance of the discussions that are shortly to take place, it is considered that this limitation should be removed, in the immediate future, so that the discussions shall not be prejudiced in any way, by the existence of that limitation. I may say that the Amendment is purely permissive. It does not compel the appoint- ment of persons who do not possess those qualifications. It merely provides that it is not essential that four members should have those qualifications.

The second part of the Bill, the provisions of Clauses 2 and 3, have reference to the temporary legislative powers that have been given to the Central Legislature during the war emergency. As the House will know, under the 1935 Act, provision has been made, in the Ninth Schedule, for a separation of the legislative powers of the Centre and of the Provinces, and these powers are set out in three lists. The first list is the federal legislative list, comprising all those items which can be dealt with in the Central Legislature. The second is the provincial legislative list containing the matters that can be dealt with in the provincial legislatures. The third list, known as the concurrent legislative list, comprises matters which are the responsibility of both the Central and Provincial Legislatures.

I should like to remind the House that Section 102 of the Act of 1935 empowers the Central Legislature in times of emergency, following the proclamation by the Governor-General of a state of emergency, to exercise concurrent legislative powers with the Provincial legislatures, as regards those items contained in the provincial list. Section 126 (a) of the Act of 1935 also confers concurrent executive authority upon the Central Government during the operation of a proclamation of emergency. In September, 1939, this proclamation of emergency was, in fact, issued, and since that time wide use has been made by the Central Government authorities in India of powers thereby obtained in the provincial field. It is now intended to bring this state of emergency to an end on 1st April by revoking the proclamation. The result of this will be that in the absence of other legislation—which the House is now being asked to approve—the Central legislation in what is ordinarily called the provincial field will lapse. Therefore, all the emergency legislation which has been passed during the war will come to an end on 1st October, 1946. On 1st April, the current Executive powers which have been conferred will also lapse. The Government of India are content that this should be so, but they are concerned to retain certain Indian controls in the economic field, the temporary continua- tion of which they consider to be vital, if a breakdown in India's economy is to be avoided.

Clause 2 provides that the Central Legislature shall have power to make laws in respect of trade and unemployment. It is important that the production and distribution of commodities which are essential to the life of India, and are in short supply at the moment, should be regulated by the Centre, on an all-India basis. The alternative of leaving each Province to regulate these matters within its own borders, might well result in a system of control differing from Province to Province, and competition between the Provinces with a view to withdrawing, within their own borders, the maximum quantities of the commodities in question. This would inevitably lead to the collapse of any attempt to devote these commodities to their most essential use. I would remind the House that the position in regard to food is especially disastrous at the present time, and that during the next few months, India will be faced with a grave food situation. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that famine seriously threatens the land. Therefore, in order to mitigate distress to the utmost extent, it is considered essential that the Central Government of India should have power to control prices, as well as the supply of food grains, in order to regulate the flow of these food commodities from the surplus to the deficiency Provinces and, in general, to co-ordinate with statutory powers behind them the efforts of all authorities in British India. To deal with the great danger that lies ahead similar powers are asked for in respect of other commodities in short supply, such as cotton, wool, iron and steel, coal and petroleum.

Clause 2 (1, b) authorises the Central Government to make loans with regard to unemployment. The reason for this provision is to enable the Central Government to resettle 3,000,000 ex-Servicemen who served in the Indian Defence Forces and also, by way of rehabilitation, and the setting up of employment exchanges and information bureaux, to assist, during the period of transition from a war basis to a peace basis, in the re-employment of vast numbers of people who have been engaged in the war effort.

Clause 3 deals with requisitioned land. As the House knows, compulsory pur- chase is a matter for the Provinces and it is necessary, if the Central Government require land, to operate through the machinery of the Provincial Government. During the war, they have had power to requisition land, and to construct such buildings as might be considered necessary for the war effort, and if this legislation does not go through it will mean that on.1st October, six months after the lapsing of the Proclamation of Emergency, the Government of India will have to hand over all the land they have requisitioned during the war, together with many buildings, which are of great value. All that it is desired to do by this Clause, is to protect, temporarily, any land which may still remain in the hands of the Government, or Provinces on their behalf, until the necessary negotiations have been completed and compensation questions have been settled. It is then intended, at the earliest possible opportunity, to complete these matters and to return the lands to their owners.

Clause 4 deals with the duration of these legislative powers. It is intended that they should be given for one year, and that a second year can be given, by way of a public proclamation, following action by the Governor-General. If it is desired to extend them for a third, fourth or fifth year, it will be necessary to come to the House, and secure Parliamentary approval. Clause 5 is intended to protect any legislation which may have been passed by the Government of India as part of a war emergency Act. Under the present law, the whole of that temporary Act will come to an end at the expiration of the emergency. It is intended that that part of the Defence, of India Act, which is consistent with the permanent legislative powers of the Government of India, should continue, and that only legislation passed under the temporary legislative powers of the Government of India, should come to an end.

The effect of Clause 6 (1) is that any action taken by the Governor-General under Clauses 2 and 3 shall be in his discretion. That is to enable the Viceroy to maintain the rather delicate balance between the powers of the Centre and those of the Provinces. He has not to act through the Governor-General in council, but to act in his discretion. Lastly, I would remind the House that the powers given to the central Legis- lature are permissive; there is nothing obligatory in these provisions. They are not even powers that are given to the Governor-General. They are permissive powers given to the central Legislature. They are definitely limited in time by the provisions of Clause 4 and, therefore, I hope the House will approve what is, I believe, a reasonable Measure.

11.18 a.m.

Mr. R. A. Butler (Saffron Walden)

I understand that we are to have a discussion later in the day on broader issues, and that we are now addressing ourselves to the details of this small Bill. I shall not, therefore, speak long, but first I would say that we desire to see this Bill obtain its Second Reading, although we reserve the right to criticise detailed points, in the course of its later stages. There are matters brought up by this Bill of which we had experience recently in the House—questions such as that of requisitioned land and so forth, and the period for which the powers are sought and cognate matters, and these, no doubt, we shall want to look at more closely later. Meanwhile, the main issue of this Bill arises on Clause 1, which has a certain constitutional importance. I would not care to let the Bill go without making a reference to the importance of the proposed changes. I agree that they are purely permissive, and that the word "may" is to operate, but, at the same time, I would draw attention to the broadcast statement of the Prime Minister on 19th September, 1945, to which the Under-Secretary referred The Prime Minister then said: The Government have further authorised the Viceroy, as an interim measure, to take steps, after the elections, to bring into being an Executive Council, having the support of the main Indian parties, in order that India may deal herself with her own social and economic problems, and may take her full part in the working out of a new world economic order, It would appear that that statement has a certain relevance to Clause 1 of this Bill. It would appear that it makes it possible, for the first time, for the whole of the Viceroy's Executive Council presumably with the exception of the Commander-in-Chief—and that would be in accordance with the statement made in June—to be representative of Indian parties and of Indian public men; for the first time, the powers which we retained under the 1935 Act, that three of those present should be civil servants—the first was an eminent barrister or pleader—are to go. That is a distinct change in the history of our connection with India. I would remind the House that these civil servants are by no means all Englishmen, and that many of them, in recent years, have been prominent Indians. This is a change, and we should pay a tribute to the work which has been done during the past years by the permanent civil servants in the Executive Council of the Viceroy. The work done by such great figures should not pass unnoticed in this House. The traditions of the Indian Civil Service are among the highest of any Service the world over, and some of these men have reached the highest places in performing their noble service in the interests of India as a whole. One who stands out, perhaps, above all, was Lawrence, and there was also Macpherson. Both these men reached the highest pinnacle by becoming Viceroys. Many of these men who have taken part on the Executive Council have performed yeoman service, and I think that this is a tribute which all will join who realise the excellent work that has been done in the past.

The Viceroy's Council, according to the statement of the Prime Minister, is in future to be on an all-India basis. It must be in the mind of the Government that this will be a somewhat difficult task for the Viceroy to carry out after his recent experience at the Simla Conference. I can only say that, in the statement made today, the Government are passing over this matter rather easily. If the Viceroy can prove that this task is a proper one to carry out, we wish him well in his endeavour, but there still remain the fundamental difficulties. The power is an interesting one. I take it that the constitution of the Council is to be on the lines of the declaration made in June last year. I leave this Clause, with one other observation, namely, that this must be regarded by the Government and the House as an interim Measure, and interim Measures are not always the most suitable for dealing with the intricate and fundamental problems involved. I think that the Government will agree with us that we must not remain satisfied with any tinkering in the Indian problem, and that it would be undesirable so to do. The advantage of this Measure is that it will operate within the existing constitution, and, therefore, within the existing constitution it does accord more powers on the basis of the Government of India Act. To that extent it should be welcome.

The other Clauses are of a certain importance. Clause 2 is complicated, but we consider that it is necessary, particularly in view of the food situation. It would be wrong if all the powers to deal with the food situation were devolved on the Provinces, with the lapsing of the special emergency situation in India. It is necessary, therefore, to have some hold from the Centre. I understand, according to my hon. and learned Friend, that there will be joint powers of the Centre and the Provinces and no power is being taken away. That makes the position quite clear, and, therefore, any confusion between the powers of the Centre and the Provinces will be governed by the conditions we laid down in the Government of India Act. My hon. and learned Friend has drawn attention to the discretion of the Viceroy. It only remains for me to say a word about Clause 3, and the duration of the legislation. We should like to congratulate the Government on having adopted a procedure totally different from that which they have adopted in their own country. In this Parliament we are steam-rollered and informed that powers have to be taken for five years, but here are laid down the most elaborate provisions. I can only assume that the Government are now learning a little wisdom and common-sense in dealing with Parliament. In this matter, the Government are on the run, and we congratulate them on seeing the light at last.

Wing-Commander Millington (Chelmsford)

Is not the right hon. Gentleman prepared to agree that the situation in India is very much more fluid than the situation in this country, and that that might have been in the mind of the Government?

Mr. Butler

The hon. and gallant Member can interpret the matter in his own way; I was rather more racy in my interpretation, and I think it is probably more correct. What period do we find mentioned in the Bill? It is: the period of one year beginning with the date on which the Proclamation of Emergency in force at the passing of this Act ceases to operate or, if the Governor-General by public notification so directs, the period of two years beginning with that date:'' And so we have an entirely different approach. If the period is to be extended there is a most elaborate safeguard. It is stated: Provided that if and so often as a resolution approving the extension of the said period is passed by both Houses of Parliament, the said period shall be extended for a further period of twelve months from the date on which it would otherwise expire so, however, that it does not in any case continue for more than five years Therefore, we congratulate the Government on doing the thing properly at last and giving Parliament the right of control in all these important matters of Orders and delegated powers. The provisions in the Bill in that regard are thoroughly sensible. I welcome the technical provisions in Clause 5, which would appear to accord to the original Section 102 of the Government of India Act. The last point I have to mention is in connection with requisitioned land. The Government are taking considerable powers in this direction. We shall take the opportunity to examine this Clause further at a later stage. I should also like to examine more carefully the effect of Cause 2 on ex-Servicemen in India. There is nothing more important than the proposal in Clause 2 (1b), which gives certain powers for dealing with disabled persons. It should enable us to help these men who have fought so hard and so gallantly for India in the war.

I conclude by saying that we shall consider these points at a later stage and endeavour to facilitate the passage of the Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for Wednesday next. — [Mr. Mathers.]