HC Deb 26 April 1948 vol 450 cc38-52

Considered in Committee [Progress 21st April.]

[Major MILNER in the Chair]

3.48 p.m.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

I beg to move, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."

The Motion which I have proposed is a convenient course to take before we embark upon consideration of the First Schedule to the Bill, because it enables me to put certain questions to the Home Secretary, who is in charge of the Bill, and also to indicate shortly the attitude of my right hon. Friends and myself upon the principal matters that will arise upon the Schedule. There are 28 Government Amendments upon the Paper, affecting between 60 and 70 separate constituencies, in addition to a vast number of Amendments in the names of back bench Members. The Government Amendments carry out the announced intention of the Governmen to divide eight of the largest boroughs in England into two seats apiece, and they will then become constituencies with between 40,000 and 44,000 electors in each. These 16 new seats will be amongst the smallest in the country.

The Government have also decided to add nine seats by way of one seat each to each of the nine large cities. The Home Secretary announced on 7th April that in order that these proceedings might be given some appearance of regularity the Boundary Commission would unofficially consider objections made to them and that the last day for the consideration of these objections would be Saturday, 24th April.

We do not of course know, and nobody except the right hon. Gentleman can know, in how many cases objection has been made to the 17 proposed constituencies. All of these proposals are in direct contravention of the recommendations of the Boundary Commission. They offend against the principles laid down in the Schedule to the Redistribution of Seats Act, 1944, and against the interpretation given to those rules by the Boundary Commission in their Report for England and Wales. It would, therefore, be a logical course for my hon. Friends and myself to vote against each of the 28 Amendments which stand in the name of the right hon. Gentleman individually, but that would be a waste of the time of the Committee, and I am not inclined to advise my hon. Friends to adopt it. It would involve an appalling waste of time and would be quite ineffective, of course, in view of the fact that the Government Whips would be put on.

The first question I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman is: Does he propose at this stage to move each and all of the Government Amendments, even in those cases where objections have been made to the Commission, or is he prepared in those cases to postpone consideration of the Amendments until the Report stage, by which time we shall have the observations of the Boundary Commissioners upon them? If, on the other hand, he proposes, despite the fact that objections have been lodged, to move the Amendments into the Bill at this stage, will he undertake to give further consideration to the matter after the observations of the Boundary Commission have been duly published, and to amend his present Amendments on the Report stage if the objections made to the Boundary Commission are upheld by the Commission?

The second matter of which the Committee ought to be apprised is this: A new situation has been created by the addition of 17 seats for England. The electoral quota—the mean average of the number of electors per seat—has been reduced thereby from 58,700 to about 56,700; that is to say, there is a reduction of 2,000 in the mean electoral quota. As a result of that it now appears that certain constituencies are still over-large although they contain fewer than 80,000 electors. Good examples are Twickenham and Dartford both of which have more than 79,000 electors and which are more out of gear with the new electoral quota than some of the seats over 80,000 were in relation to the old quota.

Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) wrote a letter on 7th April to Mr. Speaker, as follows—and I think it would be for the convenience of the Committee if that letter, which is not very long, were on the record—


I am writing to you in your capacity as Chairman of the Boundary Commission for England. The electoral quota on the basis of 484 seats, as originally proposed by the Commission was 59,312, and, on the basis of 489 seats, as recommended in the Commission's Report of October last, 58,670.

The Government have now Tabled Amendments adding 17 seats to the English representation, and, in consequence, the electoral quota now stands at 56,730.

Whilst the official Opposition were prepared to accept the proposals contained in the Commission's Report as a whole, this departure by the Government from the Commission's recommendations has resulted in certain suburban and rural areas being seriously underrepresented, and it is our intention to table Amendments designed to rectify this position, and to give additional representation to these areas.

I append a list of the areas concerned, each of which consists of contiguous constituencies. It is clearly undesirable that the proposed boundaries of the new constituencies should be drawn by one political party, and I, therefore, write to inquire whether the Commission would be ready to give their advice, unofficially, as they have done to the Government in the case of the nine cities to which the Government have decided that additional seats should be given. We do not, of course, seek the advice of the Commission on the merits or the demerits of the proposals, but we should value their recommendations regarding the lines of demarcation necessitated before their adoption."

In reply to that letter the Speaker kindly agreed that he would ask his colleagues on the Boundary Commission to do as requested by the right hon. Member for Woodford.

In order that there should be no suggestion that anything is being hidden or that this is a hole-and-corner procedure of any kind, I sent to the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary at the same time a copy of the letter to Mr. Speaker with a list of the areas concerned. Those areas are: certain parts of Surrey; certain parts of Middlesex; the North-West corner of Kent; parts of Essex, parts of East Sussex, and parts of Cheshire. It will perhaps be convenient if, instead of giving the areas in detail to the Committee I should send a copy to the Press of my right hon. Friend's letter with the appendix so that it may be duly published.

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)


Mr. Peake

I am not sure that that would be a good plan. I think the best plan would be this: I have seen in the course of the last 48 hours the suggestions which the Commission make for additional representation, at least, that is to say, for the boundaries of the areas affected if additional representation should be conceded to them. I think it will be best, therefore, to send to the right hon. Gentleman also a copy of what I have received from the Commission, containing their proposals. When I say "their proposals," I do not want to fasten any responsibility upon them. They make it clear that they are, at our request, undertaking a task of providing for additional representation in certain areas if the House of Commons should decide that that additional representation is desirable.

I will send to the right hon. Gentleman a copy of what the Commission have set out. In some cases their proposals may be described as alternative. As soon as possible I will table for the Report stage Amendments, embodying any proposals we have upon this matter. At this stage I will ask the right hon. Gentleman if he will publish a White Paper showing precisely the effect of these proposals upon the constituencies concerned and setting out the number of electors in each which would result if these proposals were to be adopted. That would seem to be the most convenient course of getting these proposals for certain under-represented areas before the Committee.

I seek once more, therefore, an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that ample time will be given between the conclusion of the Committee stage and the commencement of the Report stage, to enable these proposals of ours to be fully publicised and for objections to be taken to them—if objections there are—and for any representations made to the Commission—if the Commission again are willing to undertake a labour of love of this character—to be amply and fully considered.

4.0 p.m.

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

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake), as he has said, was kind enough to send me a copy of the letter addressed to Mr. Speaker, with regard to the suggestion that certain counties in the neighbourhood of London should be examined by the Boundary Commission. But, that is the last I know of the subject. I have not received, from the Boundary Commission or from any other source, any statement as to what the result of that consideration has been.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me some questions in regard to today's Order Paper. I intimated, when the White Paper was published, that until 24th April would be allowed for any person who wished to make representations with regard to the 17 cities and boroughs whose representation is altered by the Government Amendments on the Order Paper. I also undertook that, between the Committee and Report Stages, the Government would consider any report they received from the Boundary Com- mission on these representations. Inasmuch as the last date for making representations was only last Saturday, I have not yet received the comments of the Boundary Commission; in fact, I do not know if any comments have been submitted to them, because it would obviously be wrong of me, until I got the report, to have any communications with the Boundary Commissioners, which might indicate that I was attempting to influence them one way or the other on any representations they might have received.

What I said at the early stage of the Bill still remains good. As soon as I get any observations from the Boundary Commission on the 17 cities and boroughs, I will consider, with my colleagues, what action the Government will take. I have already undertaken that the report of the Boundary Commission shall be published, so that the House shall be fully aware as to the Boundary Commission's views, and so that the House will also be fully appraised of the Government's views, if they differ on any points. That, I think, fully carries out the previous undertaking I gave.

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that he and his hon. Friends may divide on the 28 Amendments, that is a matter for him. I am quite sure that he was making neither a promise nor a threat in mentioning that. It is entirely for them to decide what they will do. I intend to carry out to the full the undertakings I gave, when I read the Boundary Commissioners' letter about the eight large boroughs to the House and indicated what were the Government's view in regard to the nine cities.

Let me come now to the action taken by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), on behalf of the Opposition, with regard to the counties, the names of which were read out by the right hon. Gentleman. That, of course, is a matter between the Opposition and the Boundary Commission. I know nothing about it, beyond the fact that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds has sent me a copy of the letter the Leader of the Opposition sent to the Boundary Commission. I gather that the right hon. Gentleman himself has not yet decided, as between some alternative suggestions which have been put in front of him which, if any, he proposes to put down as Amendments to the Bill. I shall have to wait until I see these Amendments before I shall know exactly what the proposals are. I am sure that he will not expect me to say anything on their merits until I have seen them. I assume that he will desire, just as representations can be made in regard to the Government's proposals, that representations should be made to the Boundary Commissioners by any people who may feel moved to make them when they see the Amendments of the Opposition on the Order Paper. I shall endeavour to arrange matters so that there shall be time for that, and for the House to be in possession of the Boundary Commission's observations on those representations, if any, on Report stage. The Session is, of course, getting on, and this matter will have to be disposed of fairly quickly; but I do not want to do anything which would make it appear that we desire to treat our Amendments in some preferential way, as compared with the right hon. Gentleman's Amendments.

There is a difficulty about the suggestion that we should publish the Oppositions' Amendments as a Government White Paper. That is a fairly novel suggestion, but I am very anxious to accommodate the right hon. Gentleman. There are, I think, two ways in which it could be done. I suggest that when he puts his Amendments on the Order Paper, he puts down an Unstarred Question, asking what the electoral strength of each of his proposed constituencies would be. The answer, which would appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT, would be equivalent to a White Paper, although it would be hardly as convenient, from the point of view of handling, as a White Paper. I am quite certain we can publish the figures, in the same way as the figures relating to the Government Amendments were published in some form or another. I have no doubt that approaches through the usual channels, and conversations between the right hon. Gentleman and myself, would enable us to reach an accommodation on the matter, so that the fullest information shall be available to the House.

I hope I have covered all the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. I can assure him that, especially in view of the very friendly nature of the proceedings last week—but for momentary ebullitions on the part of one or two of his hon. Friends—which hardly justified the Suspension of the Rule, I am anxious that the fullest information shall be in front of the House, both in regard to his Amendments and those I have placed on the Order Paper.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

Is the letter from the Boundary Commission to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), and the recommendations, to be published, or is it to be a secret communication to them? Are they to be left to select what they want to put down on the Order Paper? I think the Committee would like to know about that.

Mr. Ede

Any question on that subject should be addressed to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds, as he has the letter and I have not.

Mr. Peake

I am most anxious to set the Government a good example in this matter. I am most anxious that there shall be no suggestions at any stage of informal proceedings. I am quite willing that the letter from my right hon. Friend to Mr. Speaker on the boundaries concerned should be published. It has been worked out purely on a statistical basis, and there is no party interest in this matter so far as we are concerned. In the second place, I am equally prepared that the report from the Commission, which my right hon. Friend received only in the last two or three days, shall be published in full.

Mr. Ede

That will put both sides in the same position in regard to publication. I am sure that no one will expect the Government to accept the responsibility for publishing Opposition documents, although I have indicated I am prepared to go as far as possible to ensure that the House shall, in convenient form, be in possession of all the information.

I propose to move the Government Amendments which are on the Order Paper. If there are any observations by the Boundary Commission relating to them, we will consider, between now and Report stage, what action we shall take; but, after all, the House finally determines what form the First Schedule shall take. We shall get recommendations from the Boundary Commission, but it will be the House which will settle the final form. However, any observations we receive from the Boundary Commission shall be published in time for the House to have an opportunity of considering them before the Report stage is reached.

Mr. Maclay (Montrose Burghs)

This procedure is becoming very puzzling. One understands that this is not a party matter but a matter of constituencies. Would the Home Secretary tell me what would happen in the following circumstances? Suppose the Boundary Commission went to work in certain specific constructions, the Government got hold of the results, and took certain action upon them? The Opposition are very properly having another look at their side of it, but the electoral quota may alter substantially according to the final number of seats. There are certain constituencies in Scotland, and I will not conceal the fact that I am interested in the fate of Montrose, which might well, with a new electoral quota, look quite differently, and as it is joined up with four other Scottish cities in a general reshuffle, there might be an opportunity to look again at the individual seats affected up or down by the electoral quota.

Mr. Parker (Dagenham)

Is it open to any group of Members to offer a private scheme of their own to submit it to the Boundary Commissioners, ask for their views upon it, and then go through all the rigmarole suggested by the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill)? This is an important point because redistribution is now a permanent thing. Will it be possible for any group of Members, following the precedent set by the right hon. Member for Woodford, then to go through this procedure with the Boundary Commission and ask for the publication of their views and so on? Without wishing to put a party point of view, I should have thought there was a case for the Government of the day asking the Boundary Commission to look at certain proposals and make reports back, but it becomes a different thing when groups in the House ask for the views of the Boundary Commissioners upon certain schemes. A scheme has been put by the second largest party in the House, but the Liberal-Nationals, or any group of Members within a party, could follow the same precedent and put up schemes if they wanted to do so. The Committee ought to consider this point, and where it is likely to lead.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

I hope the Home Secretary is saying to himself: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we venture to—upset the Boundary Commissioners' proposals." It seems to me a very queer suggestion that we should first consider the Government Amendments without the benefit of the Boundary Commissioners' reply to the criticisms of them, and then perhaps, on the Report stage, proceed to consider them all over again in the light of the Boundary Commissioners' reply. Surely it would be a good thing to postpone the Government Amendments on the 17 cities and boroughs until we have the Boundary Commissioners' opinion upon the objections which have been raised to them.

Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)

Might I ask for your guidance, Major Milner, on a point which I think is in Order, or something approaching Order? I quite understand that we cannot at this stage get the Chair to promise that certain things will or will not be called on the Report stage, but I wonder whether there is anything in the Rules, or in previous practice, which would enable us to make a better bet than, uninstructed, we can make on what would be the Chair's reaction to this. Apparently the suggestion is that there will be Amendments which will, in all fairness, be necessary on the Report stage and which are not possible on the Committee stage because of the way the Government have handled this business of redistribution and reconstituting the House, because the Committee stage is taken before the reports of the Boundary Commission can be received. I speak conscious of ignorance, but that seems to me to be something for which there may be no direct precedent. Is it possible for you, Sir, or someone well instructed on the Treasury Bench, to give us such information as will enable us to guess whether it would be certain that in such cases all such Amendments would be called?

4.15 P.M.

The Chairman

I cannot give any assurance as to Mr. Speaker's reaction on the Report stage. That must be perfectly clear; nor do I think there is at this stage any means of finding out what Mr. Speaker's views might be, or what decision he might make.

Mr. Frank Byers (Dorset, Northern)

I rise to reserve the position of my colleagues and myself in this matter. From what I have heard today—and this is the first I have heard of it—I have a suspicion that we are on the threshold of a deal being done between the two main parties in this House, and I want to ask the Home Secretary for an assurance that we shall not have the rules of politics and the set-up of politics changed by agreement between the two major parties, with the Boundary Commission merely acting as a kind of secretariat. The position is extremely dangerous and, if we are to have changes made, let us have a Speaker's Conference or an all-party conference, but do not let us get into the position where it may eventually be that we shall have a deal done over constituencies by the two major parties in the State to the detriment of the independent smaller parties and minority groups.

Miss Bacon (Leeds, North-East)

I am still not quite clear about one of the matters raised by the right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) and perhaps my right hon. Friend will make it a little clearer. Are we to discuss the Government Amendments relating to the 17 new seats in the cities and insert the Amendments today and tomorrow on the Committee stage, or are they to be postponed until the Report stage?

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr Burghs)

As we have the good luck to have the Secretary of State for Scotland on the Front Bench, will he not answer the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose Burghs (Mr. Maclay)? Where does Scotland stand in regard to this new position? Are we to have the Scottish Boundary Commission set up again to whom we can individually go in regard to the carving up of our constituencies? What is to be the position?

Mr. Ede

May I deal first with the point raised by the hon. Member for Montrose Burghs (Mr. Maclay) and by the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir T. Moore)? Scotland already has 91 more seats than she is entitled to on any system—[HON. MEMBERS: "Entitled?"] While I have no doubt that Scotsmen will intervene during the course of our discussion, this might be regarded as a matter primarily for English Members. There is no ground for suggesting that until England gets 92 more seats—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Yes, on a basis of strict proportion, Scotland will be over-represented in the new House by 91 Members—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I am sorry, I should have said that England is underrepresented by 91 Members—[HON. MEMBERS "Ah!"]—and until England gets 92 more Members than those originally proposed, Scotland has no grievance as against England, whatever grievance she may have internally.

With regard to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), as far as I know, any person is entitled to consult the Boundary Commissioners. They are not a Government Department, they are an independent body which was set up by Parliament to advise Parliament on the way in which the constituencies should be arranged and re-arranged from time to time.

The Government raise no objection to the right hon. Gentleman approaching the Boundary Commissioners. It is his right, and if any other hon. Members, or groups of hon. Members, desire to do so, I imagine they would do so in the same way, direct through their Chairman, without consulting the Government.

Mr. Neil Maclean (Glasgow, Govan)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Scottish Commissioners refuse to allow any Members of Parliament to discuss with them the re-arrangements of their constituencies?

Mr. Ede

I have had no part in what has happened in Scotland, and I am not aware of the matter to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Maclean

That is a fact.

Mr. Ede

In regard to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Byers) I have not yet seen the proposals which the right hon. Member for North Leeds may put on the Order Paper. In fact, I gather that in regard to certain of the areas suggested he has alternative schemes, from which presumably he will have to select one, or the other. Certainly there has been no consultation or exchange of letters which could in any way indicate that there has been a deal in this matter. When the right hon. Gentleman puts his Amendments on the Order Paper they will come up for discussion in the House, and the House will have to decide. Not a syllable has passed between myself and the right hon. Gentleman, or any other hon. Member opposite, suggesting that in exchange for the 17 seats we propose they should get a certain number, or that certain other areas should be dealt with. Nothing of that kind has been envisaged; nor do I imagine is that likely to take place.

In regard to what the right hon. Member for North Leeds said, I propose today to move the Government Amendments on the Order Paper and ask the Committee to incorporate them in the Bill. If between now and the Report stage we get observations from the Boundary Commission which make it appear desirable that some of their original recommendations should be amended—the Government Amendments represent the Boundary Commission's recommendations—we shall consider, in the light of the report, which will be published and available to hon. Members, whether we should put such Amendments down or not. In regard to the point raised by the senior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn), there is no guarantee that any Amendment can be called on Report stage, but it is generally understood that the Chair does have regard to the desire of hon. Members that certain matters should be discussed, when selecting Amendments to a Bill of this importance.

Mr. Peake

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making it perfectly clear that there is no suggestion or suspicion of any bargain between us, and I assure the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Byers) that what we have been doing on this side of the Committee is to act as an efficient, vigorous, and public-spirited Opposition. I am sorry he has missed the opportunity of putting forward suggestions of the same character as we propose today. Despite the suggestion which this course will undoubtedly arouse in his mind, I would ask leave to withdrawn the Motion.

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

The Home Secretary will be aware that opportunities for discussion on Report stage are much more limited than on Committee stage. I wonder, therefore, if he can see his way clear to give an undertaking to have the Bill recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House, so that these matters, of which we have no knowledge at present, can be discussed in the light of the report of the Boundary Commission?

Mr. Ede

I cannot give such an undertaking today. We had better wait and see what materialises. I would not rule it out, but, on the other hand, I can give no promise that it will take place.

Mr. N. Maclean

May I have this matter cleared up? There are a number of Amendments down regarding the alteration of boundaries. Am I to understand from what the Home Secretary has said that, having put those Amendments before the Boundary Commission, if they disagree with them the Government will not set them down here when it comes to the Report stage, or will the Boundary Commission be willing to receive Members of Parliament who have had Amendments placed on the Order Paper, in order that they may discuss these matters with the Boundary Commission before the report comes to the House?

Mr. Ede

I think my hon. Friend is under some misapprehension as to the Government Amendments on the Order Paper. Those Government Amendments embody recommendations made by the Boundary Commissioners and are not suggestions taken by the Government and submitted to the Boundary Commission. Up to Saturday last, so far as England was concerned, those Government Amendments could be the basis of representation to the Boundary Commission. With regard to other Boundary Commissions, I should have thought that the same procedure was open to hon. Members as that taken by the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill). They could have approached the Chairman of the Boundary Commission and asked him if he would bring certain requests of theirs to the notice of the Boundary Commission with a request that they might have an answer to the queries they put.

Mr. Maclean

That does not make any difference; my right hon. Friend is missing the point entirely. Will Members of Parliament, or representatives, have a right to appear before the Boundary Commission to explain the Amendments they have on the Order Paper, and to discuss matters with them?

Mr. Ede

As far as I know the Amendments put down by hon. Members have not been submitted to the Boundary Commission. Certainly I have not submitted any of them to the Boundary Commission.

Mr. Pickthorn

The right hon. Gentleman has twice said that Government Amendments embody recommendations of the Boundary Commission. Perhaps I am getting this wrong, but surely that might—contrary to the right hon. Gentleman's intention—be very misleading. It is not a recommendation in a positive sense, but the Boundary Commission's advice on how the thing should be done, on the assumption that what the Government desire to be done, should be done. To describe that as a recommendation of the Boundary Commission is grossly misleading to hon. Members here, and still more to people outside, who read some of our Debates, but not all of them.

Mr. Ede

These are the Boundary Commission's recommendations of the way in which English constituencies should be divided, if the 17 large cities and boroughs were divided differently from the way in which they were divided in the original Report.

Sir Ian Fraser (Lonsdale)

In that case, will the Home Secretary agree that the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), when they are reported and put in the manner suggested, will have equal validity?

Mr. Ede

They will be recommendations to be considered by the House on the basis of such arguments as the Opposition desire to put forward in their support.

Sir I. Fraser

In so far as the Commission act, it will be the same in both cases?

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.