HC Deb 02 December 1949 vol 470 cc1458-62

Order for Second Reading read.

11. 7 a.m.

The Secretary of State tor Commonwealth Relations (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker)

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

I hope that it may receive a unanimous and speedy passage through this House. The Bill arises out of an Address presented to His Majesty by the Senate and the House of Commons of Canada, and its purpose is to enable the Federal Parliament of Canada to amend the Constitution of Canada in matters which lie within the jurisdiction of that Federal Parliament. The Bill is needed for the following reasons.

The Statute of Westminster of 1931 conferred upon all the self-governing members of the Commonwealth overseas full power to amend United Kingdom Acts which applied to them; but, at the request of Canada, an express provision, Section 7, was included in that statute. It provided that this power to amend United Kingdom Acts should not apply to the British North America Acts in which the Canadian Constitution is laid down. Those Acts therefore, and the Canadian Constitution, can at present only be amended by our United Kingdom Parliament here.

However, all parties in the United Kingdom have long been agreed that this situation should continue only as long as Canada desired. Ever since the Statute of Westminster was passed we have regarded ourselves as bound to give Canada the right to amend her own Constitution when she asked us to do so, but many people have felt that the present situation is anomalous and that it might be embarrassing either to the Canadian Parliament or to ourselves.

In 1946, the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) said that the power of our Parliament to amend the Constitution of Canada, was, in his phrase, "an anachronism." The late Viscount Bennett, who had been Prime Minister of Canada, speaking in the same year, said that this was an anomaly, and that our Government ought to take the initia- tive in seeking agreement with the Canadian Government for its removal. In proposing the Address to His Majesty, the Canadian Prime Minister said in the Canadian House of Commons the other day: It is our responsibility to see that the fundamentals of the Canadian Constitution are protected and preserved. It is a matter to be settled in Canada by Canadians and for Canadians. … It should not be left as a burden on the Parliament of another nation. I am sure that everybody in the United Kingdom must agree with what Mr. St. Laurent said. Indeed, our noble colleagues in another place have already passed the Bill unanimously.

We are bound to the principle of the Bill, about which there is no party or other division. The Bill is cast in the terms of the Address adopted by the Federal Parliament of Canada, and, of course, we are all ready to do what they desire. In moving his Resolution about the Address to His Majesty, the Canadian Prime Minister said that it dealt with the attributes of Canada as an adult sovereign State among the States of the world. Ever since the Peace Conference at Paris in 1919, I have had the privilege of watching the growth of the nationhood of the self-governing members of the Commonwealth. In that growth Canada has always been the leader in thought and action, as Sir Robert Borden and his followers were leaders in Paris 30 years ago. By what they have done in this regard Canada has rendered great services to her own country, to the Commonwealth and to the world.

Nobody in touch with the current of present day international affairs, whether in the Assembly and the Councils of the United Nations, in the specialised agencies, or in the Chanceries of the world, can doubt that Canada's nationhood is a factor of great, increasing and beneficent importance. I have just been in Canada and during my visit I found that Canadians of all parties and all provinces are conscious and proud as never before of Canada's position in world affairs and of the rights and responsibilities which it entails.

This Bill gives us a chance to pay a tribute to Canada as a nation, to all she has done as a nation for us over the last many years, and particularly in the last decade, and to all that she has done for mankind. I know that all sections of the House will wish to join with me in expressing to Canada our affection, our congratulations, and our gratitude not only for what Canada does, but, indeed, for what she is.

11.12 a.m.

Mr. Oliver Stanley (Bristol, West)

I rise only to associate my hon. Friends with what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman and to assure him that we shall give him every assistance in expediting the passage of this Bill. There can be no two thoughts about it. It is only because of Canada's express desire at the time of the Statute of Westminster that we now have to deal with this matter at all. It has always been recognised that what Canada in those days asked to remain should if Canada so asked be immediately removed. I am sure the whole House is glad to be able to do this thing for which Canada asks, small as it may seem to us, and in that way give some concrete example of the gratitude which we feel towards her.

In most moving terms the right hon. Gentleman has expressed the feeling of the country as a whole towards our sister nation. We owe her the deepest debt of gratitude not only for the great services and the great sacrifices which she bore in the war but also for the same sacrifices and the same services which, in the, in some ways, more difficult and more confused times of peace, she is still giving to this country with the same generosity and affection which we have known in the past and which we are confident will continue in the future.

11.14 a.m.

Mr. Bramall (Bexley)

In rising to join with the speakers on both Front Benches in supporting this Bill I wish to make reference to the terms of the only operative Clause of the Bill. The Clause indicates that although Canada is taking, as we have long expected she would take and as she has every right to take, this step in ending the anomalous position about her Constitution, she still leaves with us the sole power to amend very important sections of it. This is not unique. I believe that the position is the same with regard to the Australian Constitution and that although Australia can amend her Constitution, the parts dealing with the powers of the States as against the Commonwealth still remain to be dealt with here.

It is noteworthy that this great nation, to which my right hon. Friend has so rightly and eloquently paid tribute, should in these important and difficult matters—we know that they present great difficulties in any federation—of the powers of the provinces and, particularly in Canada, the respective rights of the two languages, still have such close unity with us that she is content to leave in the hands of this House the custodianship of those important parts of her Constitution.

11.16 a.m.

Colonel Dower (Penrith and Cockermouth)

I rise to join both sides of the House in welcoming the Bill and giving it our wholehearted support. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley) spoke of the great services which Canada rendered in the last war. We must not forget the great services she rendered in the first World War. In regard to the taking of Vimy Ridge the name of Canada will always live as long as Canadians live on the face of the earth. I do not want to ask any awkward questions, but the Statute of Westminster was passed quite a long time ago and I should like to know if there is any reason why this matter has not been brought forward before? If there is any reason I think we ought to be told. I feel sure that if Canada had asked for this earlier she would have been given the full support of this Parliament.

11.17 a.m.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

We all associate ourselves with what the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Penrith and Cockermouth (Colonel Dower) has said about Canada's service in the First World War. Speaking about Canada's nationhood, Mr. Pearson, the Secretary of State for External Affairs, said not long ago that Canada won her independence fighting not against, but with Great Britain. Why has this not been done sooner? Because Canada did not ask us. There was the long interval of the war when matters like these were put aside; otherwise this would probably have happened before.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Bramall) is right in what he said about the powers which still remain with this Parliament. He is probably aware that the legislatures of the provinces of Canada can amend their own provincial constitutions. They have full power in that regard. With regard to matters which are of mixed federal and provincial importance, the Canadian Government are holding, on 10th January next, a conference of the federal and provincial governments, and it may be—it may not, of course—that as a result of that conference we shall be asked to pass another Bill. We must wait and see.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed, without Amendment.