HC Deb 21 June 1951 vol 489 cc721-46

3.56 p.m.

Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)

I beg to move, That this House views with concern the decision of the Chairman of Ways and Means so to exercise his powers of selection as to exclude Amendments to Clause 1 of the Finance Bill, which would have permitted the House to debate and pronounce upon specific burdens imposed upon individuals and industries. Complete respect to the Chair is fundamental to the proper working of our Parliamentary institutions. I am quite sure we all wish to show that respect at all times. It is very rare—and how fortunate we are that it should be so—that the decisions of the Chair are questioned in this assembly, but when they are, it is done only with a deep sense of responsibility and of public duty. When hon. Members, in whatever part of the House they may sit, think that attention should be called to some Ruling of the Chair it can, of course, be done only by a substantive Motion; and, as the Leader of the House told us, that Motion should be discussed at the earliest possible moment.

I think there must be common ground everywhere in, first, the fact that we do not, and nobody else does, challenge the right of the Chair of deciding what is and what is not in order, though of course the Chair is good enough on occasions to listen to submissions from all parts of the House with regard to a Ruling given, and it is within our experience that sometimes, as a result, the Chair has taken a contrary view to that which it first announced. But obviously the right of the Chair to interpret the rules of order is unchallengeable.

Secondly, I think we should all be agreed that the modern right of selection of Amendments in Committee is also not challenged, because if it were the practice that every Amendment which was put down must be called, then obviously debates would become so unduly long as to bring Parliament itself into disrepute. So we do not and cannot, and nobody can, challenge either of those points.

But those of us who have put our names to this Motion think that the Ruling of the Chairman of Ways and Means on 5th June on Clause 1 of the Finance Bill raised a serious constitutional issue, and the reason I move this Motion is to clear it up. I hasten to assure you, Mr. Speaker, that it is in no way a personal matter between ourselves and the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I am sure he will take it from me that we do not entertain any feelings of animosity whatsoever towards him.

We feel, however, that he gave a wrong decision on that occasion, and because that is our view we feel we must call attention to it today. We feel that the decision was wrong in the light of the duty—which we cannot escape, any of us —which is imposed on us to debate matters of fresh taxation. We say it was wrong in the light of the duty which we think is imposed on him as Chairman to give us that opportunity, which was not afforded on the day in question, and we feel that, whatever the reason for it may have been, and however inadvertent it may have been, in the decision he took he overlooked both his and our constitutional duty. We do not censure him in this Motion. Had we desired to do so we should have said so in terms. We merely express our concern at the way the decision was reached, and we invite the House to share our concern.

I think that, for the benefit of hon. Members who are not fully aware of what happened that day, I must just give a brief account of what we complain of. Clause 1 of the Finance Bill increased the Petrol Duty by 4½d. and various Amendments had been tabled. The first Amendment that had been tabled was one which moved to leave out subsection (1), and that Amendment the Chairman of Ways and Means ruled out of order.

There is no question that, basing himself on the dictum of Erskine May, that if we delete the primarily important subsection a Clause will make no sense, and that, in those circumstances, such an Amendment is out of order: of course, on that view, the Chairman was correct; but the unfortunate part is that his Ruling this year was diametrically opposed to the Ruling which he gave on the same point last year, because then, on a similar Amendment to the Clause dealing with Petrol Duty—an Amendment to omit the first subsection—debate was allowed to proceed; and it was not only allowed to proceed but it proceeded for six hours.

It was on that occasion that the opportunity was taken—that was why, in fact, it was done—to debate the whole principle of raising the duty on petrol, and it was done, no doubt, because it was thought advantageous to have the main debate before attention was given to specific Amendments and possible remissions in detail. I am not saying, of course, that that debate did not take place this year. It did; but it took place on the Motion, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill." One has no grievance that the debate did not take place. It merely would have been more convenient if last year's breach, perhaps, of the rules of order had been continued.

Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)

May I ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman what difference it would have made this year if the practice which the Chairman of Ways and Means followed last year had been followed this year? What difference to the debate or the outcome would there have been?

Captain Crookshank

I said that in the upshot it did not make any difference. No Amendments were selected, and, therefore, it was only the principle of the duty which was discussed this year. Last year Amendments were selected. We got rid of the general debate on the principle and then discussed specific points. This year we did not discuss specific points. It turned out that it made no difference. I am only saying that the Ruling this year was diametrically opposite to the Ruling last year.

But, other Amendments were put down, concerning motor vehicles for disabled ex-Service men, chairs for invalids, oil used for industrial purposes, oil used for aircraft. None of those was selected. Three of them—or very similar Amendments— were debated last year—

Mr. Glenvil Hall

At great length.

Captain Crookshank

—but they were not selected this year. The Chairman, naturally, when asked why these were not selected, declined to give any reasons. That is the common practice, the ancient practice; but my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies), in his submission to the Chair- man, saying he understood the Amendments were not to be called, asked: How are we Members to differentiate between the use of certain types of oil and the taxes which will be upon them? It may be that we are in favour of a tax upon certain uses but against others. In reply to my right hon. and learned Friend, the Chairman made use of what I consider a slightly ominous phrase when he said: I would point out—I think I am right in saying this—that on previous occasions the same points have been raised."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th June, 1951; Vol. 488, c. 820.] I do not know, of course, what was in the mind of the Chairman of Ways and Means when he made that statement, but on the face of it it seems that, because some of those specific Amendments were debated last year, it was not necessary— or he proposed not—to select them this year, because they were debated last year. That seems to me the only interpretation that can be put upon that remark.

The result was that last year—as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Colne Valley has pointed out in an interjection—we had four and a half hours' debate on these specific Amendments, and divided upon them. We had the opportunity to divide then. This year we had no debate on them at all and no opportunity to divide, and indeed the result of this non-selection of these Amendments was that this year the debate upon the Petrol Duty lasted just a third of the time which was consumed on the same duty last year.

If the Chairman was merely swayed by what happened last year, and at the time that was taken by the debates last year —and, after all, the right of the Closure is, to some extent, in his control—if he thought that, we think he was wrong in thinking so, because this year's debate arose on a Clause which increased an existing tax. It was increased by 9d. last year. It was increased by 4½d. this year, and that makes the situation quite different from the point of view of argument, because one can imagine—it may, indeed, possibly be found to be so when we come to the next stage of the Bill—that arguments against specific exemptions, which the Government refused at the time when the increase of the tax was 9d., may appear to the Government more valid when the tax is raised still higher, as it now is to Is. l½d., just as, to take another extreme case, arguments about the Income Tax would be very different if the Income Tax were, say, Is. in the £ from what they would be if it were 15s. in the £. It is a different basis altogether. We thought that a 50 per cent. increase on last year's increase would have been a sufficient change of basis to have warranted more detailed discussion than the Chairman of Ways and Means, by his selective power, allowed us.

Those are the facts of the case, which cannot be disputed, and it only remains to see why we feel that the curtailment of debate in this case was an error of judgment. This House is the only one which has jurisdiction in money matters, and in our view, what was stated—and it could be said by a no more experienced person—by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlton (Mr. Pick thorn) the other day is surely the right view. He said: May I ask two questions? The first is "— and this is the point— whether the whole of this intricate law of procedure about our financial processes is not designed to make sure that no charge shall either be put or kept upon the public without annual challenge? "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th June, 1951; Vol. 488, c. 822.] I emphasise the words "without annual challenge." I said that we did not have any detailed debates on Clause 1 of the Finance Bill this year, which contained an extra imposition, through the increase of Petrol Duty by 50 per cent. over and above what was put on last year. My submission is that that altered the basis and that, therefore, that fresh taxation should have been challenged in more detail than merely the question of whether it should be 4½d. more or less.

I think that if we consider the origins of the House of Commons, we find that historical research has now come to the conclusion—or it certainly inclines to the view—that the need of getting the consent of the Commons to taxation is what led the monarchy to develop the representative system. That is the modern reading of history on this point. It is something to which we must pay much attention. May I be allowed to quote one passage from Erskine May, on page 39, which I think puts it extremely well: The most important power vested in any branch of the legislature is the right of impos ing taxes upon the people and of voting money for the exigencies of the public service. The exercise of this right by the Commons is practically a law for the annual meeting of Parliament for redress of grievances; and it may also be said to give to the Commons the chief authority in the state. In all countries the public purse is one of the main instruments of political power: but with the complicated relations of finance and public credit in England, the power of giving or withholding the supplies at pleasure is one of absolute supremacy. That is our fundamental business in this House. It follows that if I am right, and if Erskine May is right, we should be free to debate all taxes and, above all, new taxes—and "new taxes" includes, within the phrase, increase of taxes— freely and, if need be, at length, subject to the powers which exist and which are often much used of closing the debate if necessary. If we do not cling to that we shall eventually become merely the rubber stamps of the Executive. We shall be back to a new form of dictatorial powers corresponding in these matters to those of the unconstitutional monarchy of earlier ages from which the people of this country have freed themselves.

I hope that I carry the House with me in that argument—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—I hope I do. This is not a party matter; it is a matter for every hon. Member in this House.

Mr. Monslow (Barrow-in-Furness)

I do not want to go into the merits or demerits of the case, but will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman tell the House, if the Chairman has not the right of selection, under whose jurisdiction shall the right of selection come?

Captain Crookshank

I am afraid that the hon. Member did not listen to what I was saying. In the first sentence of my remarks, I observed that it was completely unchallenged by anyone that the right of selection lay where it did— [Interruption.]—I thought that was a perfectly simple point. I was summing up what I thought was the constitutional position, which is a matter of primary importance to every hon. Member. I started by saying that the right of selection was unchallenged, but that we thought that on this occasion the Chairman of Ways and Means had made an error of judgment, and it was only because we thought he had made an error of judgment that we wanted to bring the matter before the House today to clarify the general position. That was all.

If hon. Gentlemen opposite were not so impatient—I try to cut my speeches short—I was going on to say that, of course, it is only human for all of us to err, but we do feel that on this occasion the Chairman did unfortunately make a mistake in the non-selection of any Amendment to that Clause. I have already pointed out that we are not censuring the Chairman—we would have said so if we had wanted to do so; we merely think that he made an error of judgment, but we cannot complain even of that without bringing the matter before the House. This was the only way in which we could do so.

We feel that this incident compels the House in duty bound to reaffirm its rights as a House over the Chair or anyone else in the exercise of our undisputed right as Members to challenge any or all the new taxes. That is all. We want to reaffirm, that right. If the House thinks that we ought not to have that right, well and good; we shall have to make a fresh start on the British constitution, that being the right today. We merely want to confirm that that right is inherent and of primary importance. We believe that is the position in this honourable House. That is all that I have to say about that aspect of the matter.

The Leader of the House, like yourself, Mr. Speaker, is the guardian of the rights of all Members in whatever part of the House they sit. He may feel that it is possible or desirable to accept this Motion. If he does, it will remain in our annals as a guide for the future use of the Chairman and the Deputy-Chairman and all those in whom rests the right of selection as to how they should exercise that right, and it will show to our advantage and, I hope to that of our successors in Parliament, what at any rate this Parliament considers to be its inalienable right.

If, however, the Leader of the House does not propose to accept that line and will not accept the Motion, then it really is enough that we should have expressed our concern by this Debate. It need not be a long one. We have expressed our concern and what has been said will, at any rate, be in HANSARD. We have called attention to the matter, and while we should prefer, because we think it right, that the Motion should be carried, we certainly would not think of dividing the House upon it. It is not the sort of issue on which we want to divide the House. If something wrong had been done which involved censure, that would have been another matter. This is merely an expression of anxiety and concern, and if the right hon. Gentleman says "No" we shall leave it as it is and pass on to other business. We would not make it a point of great difference between us, but we reaffirm, all the time, the ancient constitution of this House represented in the age-long phrase: No taxation without representation.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

The right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) has said that this Motion is not meant to cast any reflection, and certainly it is not intended as a censure, upon the Chairman of Ways and Means. Anybody reading this Motion must come to the conclusion that it can only mean one thing, and that is that there is a reflection on the way in which the Chairman of Ways and Means exercised the discretion imposed upon him under the Standing Order in coming to the decision that he did. May I read the Motion again?— That this House views with concern the decision of the Chairman of Ways and Means so to exercise his powers of selection as to exclude Amendments to Clause 1 of the Finance Bill, which would have permitted the House to debate and pronounce upon specific burdens imposed upon individuals and industries. The Standing Order imposes a very heavy responsibility upon you, Mr. Speaker, in the House, and upon the Chairman and Deputy-Chairman of Committees when we are in Committee. You have to perform a very difficult task in selecting Amendments. The purpose of the Standing Order, without a doubt, was to save the time of the House, accelerate the progress of business and improve the opportunities for real and effective debate on things that matter, so that you could, or the Chairman could, exclude what might otherwise have to be debated merely because it was there, although in fact it might be a frivolous Amendment. Having imposed that very heavy responsibility upon you, Sir, and upon the Chairman, the House must have complete confidence in you and the Chairman; otherwise it is impossible for you to discharge your very onerous duties.

With what was said by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman in regard to the duties of this House and the Members of this House in respect of finance, and our having to exercise a very careful supervision upon taxation, we are all in agreement, but it is just as well that we should consider what has happened. I frankly confess that when the Chairman gave his decision I was taken by surprise. It seemed to me, and that is why I put a question, that no opportunity would be given to us to distinguish between the general principle and certain exceptions; but I could not challenge and would never dream of challenging the bona fides of the Chairman.

Mr. Churchill (Woodford)

Who is doing so?

Hon. Members

Read the Motion.

Mr. Davies

I am speaking for myself. I expressed my surprise at the decision but that did not go so far as to challenge the bona fides of the Chairman.

Mr. Churchill rose

Mr. Davies

I will certainly give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but I was only saying what was in my mind. In expressing that surprise, I was in no way challenging the bona fides of the Chairman.

Mr. Churchill

But the right hon. and learned Gentleman was attributing to us a challenge to the bona fides of the Chairman. He was saying that in his own mind he would take a different course from that. It is the fact that we have not challenged the bona fides of the Chairman. What does bona fides mean? I know it is Latin but there are enough public school men opposite who ought to be able to translate it. In my belief, it means good faith, common honesty, decent Parliamentary behaviour. Nobody has attempted to challenge that in any way. What we have challenged is his judgment in this matter and the manner in which he interpreted the rules of the House.

Mr. Davies

I dealt with the point. I would never challenge the Chairman with regard to his judgment.

The power has been given under the Standing Order since 1919 to you, Sir, and to the Chairman, to select Amendments; and in making your selection and by-passing, if I may use the term, Amendments that you do not intend to call, neither you nor the Chairman are bound to give any reasons. Therefore, how could we possibly challenge the judgment which you are exercising? What is happening here is that what is now being said, in effect, is that the Chairman was guilty of an error of judgment in that he was preventing the House from debating and pronouncing upon specific burdens imposed upon individuals and industries.

The Standing Order gives that power to the Chair. If it is necessary to alter that power, there is a way of doing it, and if I may refer to a Motion which stands in my name, I did propose the right course.

[That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the meaning and effect of Standing Order No. 31 (Selection of Amendments) and to report what changes, if any, are necessary.]

If the House is content to leave it as it is now, all well and good. If, on the other hand, hon. Members think that the power which has been given to you, Sir, and to the Chairman, especially in matters of finance, gives too great a power to the Chair to exclude debate, then the right thing to do is surely for the House to have this Standing Order reconsidered. The way in which it can do that is by the appointment of a Select Committee, which would then report back to the House, having heard the evidence of such people as come to give evidence before it. That is the correct and right way.

It is not right to challenge the decision that was made by the Chairman or to suggest in any way that his action was due to any error of judgment. For those reasons, I sincerely hope that the House will reject this Motion, or, as I should prefer, that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will withdraw the Motion, That would be far and away the better thing to do.

4.25 p.m.

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

It is a good thing that we have been able to arrange for this comparatively early discussion of this Motion, for clearly it could not be allowed to stand on the Order Paper for any length of time that would embarrass the occupant of the Chair. I listened with great care to what the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) said with regard to this Motion, but I could not think that at any time he really thought that it would be possible for me to advise the House to accept the Motion. I am certain that if this House did accept the Motion, the present occupant of the Chair of Ways and Means would feel that so considerable a reflection had been made on his conduct in the Chair as to make it plain that he no longer retained the confidence of the Members of the House.

It is undoubtedly a tremendous power that is given to the occupant of the Chair when he is given the right to select Amendments. It was not easily granted by the House to the Chair. It arose out of a very contentious Finance Bill, that of 1909, which I have no doubt the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) will remember, when, owing to the large number of Amendments that appeared on the Paper, the Prime Minister of the day, Mr. Asquith, found it necessary to ask the House temporarily to grant to the Chair, in respect of any Motion, Clause or Schedule that might be under discussion, the power of selecting Amendments.

In those days, on each occasion when it was proposed to use this power a Motion had to be moved by the Minister in charge of the Bill asking that the Chair should be clothed with such powers. It had to be put without Amendment or without debate, and when the Chair was so armed this process of selection took place. It was urged in favour of that procedure that it was better than either the Closure or the Guillotine. I am sure that all of us who have had experience of seeing the Guillotine in action will agree that of all forms of dealing with Parliamentary discussion the Guillotine is quite the worst—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—although it may sometimes be necessary. But I have never concealed from the House that in my view, of the three—Closure, selection and Guillotine— the Guillotine is certainly the worst.

When the House was considering this matter it had the advice of Mr. Arthur James Balfour, speaking for the Opposi- tion He opposed the amendment of the Standing Order, claiming that the Chairman and Speaker would be unable to carry out the duties thrust upon them. The experience of over 40 years has shown that this very drastic power can be used in this democratic assembly with the approval, generally speaking, of all parties in the House.

We have all had our favourite Amendment not accepted and have temporarily felt that perhaps a little more reflection on the part of the Chair might have brought a different conclusion, but I am certain that in the long run all of us who have seen this power in action over a great number of years will say that it has been used with discretion and to the advantage of the general body of Members of the House.

It was first used on 9th August, 1909. In 1914 a Select Committee on Procedure considered the question of giving permanent power to the Chair to select Amendments; but the work of that Committee, for obvious reasons, was never completed, and when we came to the end of the war the matter again came up for consideration.

On 19th February, 1919, Sir Gordon Hewart, who was then the Attorney-General, moved that the Standing Order should be enacted in almost its present permanent form. There was considerable discussion in which there was some opposition. The composition of the House had changed somewhat considerably since 1909, and there was some opposition in the House. I think the principal and most influential opponent was Lord Hugh Cecil. The House unanimously adopted this Standing Order in what is practically its present form, and it has remained a permanent part of our machinery ever since.

When the House appoints an occupant of the Chair, it knows by experience the tremendous duties in this respect that it is placing on his shoulders. I am bound to say that I think that the occupants of the Chair, in dealing with these matters which sometimes at the moment arouse very considerable heat, have discharged their duties in a way that entitles them to the respect of the House, and that has been generally accorded to them.

There is no doubt that on Clause 1 of the Bill this year there was a very considerable amount of feeling. I ought to make it quite clear that in all the discussions that take place about the selection of Amendments, the Government, and individual Members of the Government, take no part at all. We are not consulted by the Chair. We do not tender advice to the Chair. It would be effrontery on our part to do so. I do not object to the view that is put forward that in these matters it is the duty of the House to exercise a strict and effective control over the Executive, and the Executive ought never to take the step of going to the occupant of the Chair—whether it be Mr. Speaker or the Chairman of Ways and Means—and saying, "It will be awkward for us if this particular thing is discussed, or is discussed in this way, and we would suggest to you that some other course should be pursued."

It is clear that, outside this House, there are people who think that the Government have control over the Chair. I am sure that every hon. Member will agree that what I have said is not merely sound doctrine but is the actual practice followed by the House. Therefore, we did not know what was going to happen to the Amendments that were down to Clause 1 of the Bill. As a matter of fact, I was sitting in my room when Clause I was called and, somewhat to my surprise I confess, I saw appear on the indicator the words "Clause 1 stand apart." I had no knowledge at all as to the course that was to be pursued.

With regard to the first Amendment, which was in the name of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton), there can be no doubt that that was out of order this year on what the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough called the dictum of Erskine May. After all, I sometimes feel that the dicta of Erskine May appear to be more powerful in their effects on the House than the actual Standing Orders. I do not think that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will disagree for one moment that, clearly, on the statement made on pages 534–5, that Amendment was out of order. It appears to me, therefore, that the Leader of the House might very well have put this Motion on the Order Paper with regard to last year's action.

I do not think that if an error was made last year, it follows that the error should be repeated this year when it was discovered that an error in fact had been made. [Interruption.] The right hon. and gallant Gentleman raised the question of the first Amendment and even if I merely confirm what he said, it is only courteous to him that I should allude to that part of his argument. As far as that goes, I do not think there can be any ground for viewing with concern what the Chair did this year in respect of the Amendment to omit Clause 1 (1) of the Bill. I hope that we can leave that position there.

The Chair has the advantage of being advised by certain people who are not the servants of the Government but who are the servants of the House and are directly responsible to the Chair for the action they take and the advice that they tender. The Chairman of Ways and Means—and, I imagine, Mr. Speaker with regard to the Report stage of Bills—has consultations with these people. They tender advice.

Let it be made clear that Mr. Speaker or the Chairman or Deputy-Chairman of Ways and Means is responsible for the action taken on the advice. I am sure that none of the occupants of the Chair would desire to say, "Well, we were advised and we shelter ourselves behind the advice." These advisers are technical people of great experience who, in my experience, have never been accused of any partiality in the advice that they tender, and the Chair, having received that advice, has to reach a decision on the various points raised.

There were the subsequent Amendments. There again, there was no consultation at all between the Government and the Chair. The decision is that of the Chair, and any knowledge I have as to the way in which it was reached is because of a communication that has been made to me by the Chairman of Ways and Means since the conclusion of the Committee stage of the Bill. I do not want to trouble the House with the whole of the letter that I received from the Chairman of Ways and Means, although I am willing to read it if the House thinks that that would be desirable. Perhaps if I read what my right hon. and gallant Friend the Chairman of Ways and Means has said with regard to the subsequent Amendments to the one to omit subsection (1), that would be the best way of bringing before the House the exact reasons that swayed the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. He said: The remaining amendments put down by H.M. Opposition were precisely the same both in wording and form as the amendments put down by the same hon. Members to last year's Finance Bill.

Mr. Churchill

Is it not a different year?

Mr. Ede

I do not think that that interruption on the part of the right hon. Gentleman is quite fair. I am not now giving my own view. I am reading the remarks sent to me by the Chairman of Ways and Means. If necessary, I will make my own comments on them afterwards; but I do not think that I should be called on to defend them or to explain them in the course of reading them. On that occasion, all were selected, called and debated at length and either withdrawn, negatived or voted upon. They were all amendments embodying the same point, i.e., the exemption of certain types of user from the increased petrol tax. In last year's debates it was clearly demonstrated and not contradicted that it was impracticable to impose different rates of tax on petrol according to the persons using it, since petrol is taxed before its use is known. Therefore, to waste the time of the Committee in discussing amendments which in their then form were quite unworkable and in respect of which no effort to change the form of content had been made between last year and this, would have been to vitiate the whole principle of selection as carried out during the past thirty years. That was the view formed by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means. Curiously enough, it follows a previous Ruling by a previous Chairman, who subsequently rose to the high position of Speaker of the House—namely, Captain Fitzroy, who in 1925 adopted that same practice and declined to call any Amendments to a Clause of the Finance Bill dealing with Supertax. He did not select any Amendments on Clause 13 which proposed to reduce the Supertax, but suggested that the Amendments should be discussed on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill." There were five Amendments only, two of which appear to have been out of order.

Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braithwaite (Bristol, North-West)

As the right hon. Gentleman is quoting this as a precedent, can he tell us whether in that year the Supertax had been raised?

Mr. Ede

I do not think that is relevant to this issue. Specific Amendments were ruled out in just the same way as they were this year.

The House is faced with a Motion which has been placed on the Order Paper. I think, if I may be allowed to say so with every respect, that no exception can be taken to the way in which it was moved by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. It was on the Order Paper; it was his duty to bring it in front of the House, and nothing that he said should exacerbate any feelings in the matter.

We have entrusted this power of selection to the Chairman. It is quite clear that, if from time to time his method of selection is to be brought before the House, it must make the position of the Chairman intolerable, unless—and then it ought to be intolerable—it can be alleged that he acted in either a partisan spirit or in the absence of good faith in the selection that he has made. I believe that in this case the Chairman of Ways and Means acted in good faith.

We have armed the right hon. and gallant Gentleman with these powers. Those of us who sat in previous Parliaments when we armed him with these powers had had experience of his work, and I think it should be made quite clear to him that he retains the confidence of the House in the discharge of his duties. I would hope, not that this Motion should be put and negatived nemine contradi-cente, but that, having expressed their views to the House, and possibly after further debate if that is felt to be necessary, right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite might feel that, having ventilated the subject, they could then ask the leave of the House to withdraw the Motion.

I want to make it quite clear that we on this side of the House share to the full what the right hon. and gallant Gentleman said in the closing words of his speech. It is undoubtedly the first duty of this House to exercise a vigilant control over all matters of taxation. In modern circumstances, with the complicated Bills that have to be brought before the House, if we abandon this process of the selection of Amendments we shall be stultified by the very extravagance of freedom that would be allowed.

It is regrettable that any restriction should have to be placed on freedom of debate, but in the course of the last 70 years or so this House has learned by bitter experience that certain necessary restrictions have to be imposed if free debate is to take place at all. Very largely, in operating those restrictions we rely for the preservation of the essential and elemental freedom upon the character and conduct of the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen whom from time to time we call to the Chair of the House or to the Chair of Committees.

I do not complain—it would be wrong of me to complain—that from time to time matters like this should be ventilated in the House. But, having said that, and having assured all sides of the House that in this matter, as far as the Government are concerned, we are outside the battle, because we are not consulted, and we bring no pressure to bear on the Chair, I hope that the House will feel that, the matter having been ventilated, the Motion could, by leave, be withdrawn.

4.47 p.m.

Mr. Churchill (Woodford)

The Leader of the House has spoken in that usual strain of temperate, reasonable moderation which endeavours, by carefully selected stepping-stones, to reach a conclusion which suits his own side. [HON. MEMBERS: "Cheap."] Far from complaining of that, hon. Gentlemen opposite ought to treat it as a compliment to one of their leading Parliamentarians. I do not intend to take up much of the time of the House—although, of course, if I am interrupted I shall go on for much longer—because of the other matters which press upon our attention, but I must say a few words in reply to the statement which the Leader of the House has just made to us.

We were enormously relieved to hear his declaration, or assertion, that there was no collusion between the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for instance, or the Government Whips, or himself, and the occupant of the Chair.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

Did the right hon. Gentleman think that there was?

Mr. Churchill

That he should have dwelt at such length upon that, and made it one of the foundations of his entire argument, certainly gave me a feeling of surprise, because I should have thought everyone knew that it would be grossly improper for any Minister to try to get at the Chairman of Committees, who, though a party man and appointed by the Government of the day, and charged with certain, I will not say overriding but underlying responsibilities for advancing Government business—that is so, and has long been understood—is, nevertheless, certainly to be kept free from all appeals and addresses made to him, publicly or privately, by the Ministers of the Crown. I was astonished that the right hon. Gentleman should devote so much time to relieving our minds of a suspicion which has certainly never entered them.

Mr. Ede

The right hon. Gentleman will recollect that in response to an interruption he made I made it quite clear that I did not think the suspicions resided in the House, but that it was as well to take the opportunity of relieving the suspicions of certain people outside the House.

Mr. Churchill

I was astonished, nonetheless, that the right hon. Gentleman should have devoted so much of his speech to that subject. In these matters we are primarily concerned with the opinion of the House, and we cannot always provide against ideas which may arise or may be floating about through the public who take an interest in political affairs. At any rate, we did not suggest at any time that there was collusion, and I am very glad to reach a point on which we can have general agreement between the two sides of the House.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) the Leader of the Liberal Party, who gave me the impression that he was very much surprised at the Ruling given by the Chairman of Ways and Means, seemed to disapprove very much of the course that has been taken in putting this Motion upon the Order Paper. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must be careful not always to want to have everything both ways.

The fact is that he was surprised, as most people were, as experienced Members were, and as the Home Secretary himself has told us he was, to find that all the Amendments to Clause 1 had been swept away by a decision of the Chair and that immediately we came to deal with the Motion, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill." That is a criticism upon the decision of the Chair. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, of course it is. It is not the final stage of a criticism, but it is surprise at an action or a decision, and is the first foundation upon which one gradually builds and which eventually leads up to the Motion we have put upon the Order Paper.

There was general surprise at the decision, a surprise in which the Leader of the Liberal Party joins. There was the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary sitting in his rom. I will not say he was staggered; I will keep to the words he has used—he was surprised. We on this side of the House have a duty to carry out. Not only was there surprise on the part of my hon. Friends, but there was indignation because all these Amendments of a different character were swept on one side, and immediately we came to a general debate upon the Motion, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

I am bound to say that I thought it was a wrong decision on the part of the Chairman of Ways and Means to sweep them out of the way in that method. As I have said, I do not doubt that he wished to do what was right, and that he sought the best method of correctly interpreting his difficult, discretionary duties.

I make no imputation upon his bona fides, a word which was dragged in by the Leader of the Liberal Party, nor his good faith. Nothing in the speech of my right hon. and gallant Friend, in moving the Motion, suggested that, but we think we were unfairly treated. One may be unfairly treated—[Interruption.] I hope the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) is not going to get very indignant. One may be unfairly treated just as much by an error of judgment as by want of good faith or malice. We do not impute malice. There was an error of judgment, which resulted, in practice, in what we consider unfair treatment of the Opposition in regard to important Amendments on Clause 1. That is what has brought us to this point today.

What is the point of the argument— which has been brought forward in a letter which was read to the House—that the Amendments were the same old Amendments that were put forward last year? Each year is different. We live on the principle of annual finance. That is the foundation of this House and its whole existence, which has been fought for over the centuries. What is the use of saying that because these Amendments were moved last year, they should not be moved the next year or the year after? There is nothing in that. The circumstances of every year are entirely different, as are the circumstances of every day if we can measure them accurately.

Each year taxes are altered, and, therefore, each tax is altered in its general incidence and bearing. It is suggested that because an Amendment was moved last year it should be improper, out of order or unnecessary to raise it again in the succeeding year. That is a most injurious objection to put forward. Taxes may continue the same this year as last year, or they may be increased owing to other events which have occurred. I am astonished that such a false argument should be cherished.

It does not depend on whether a tax is increased. That aggravates the case, but the mere fact that it should be suggested that the House should not have the fullest right to raise the same question on our finances year after year, if it wants to, is one which betokens a lack of appreciation of the general principles and sense of the House. One might as well ask why should we have the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill, which comes on every year. These matters must be judged and considered in relation to Parliamentary custom and experience.

In our view, on this side of the House, the Chairman of Ways and Means, while in no way being guilty of any moral fault, did commit an error of judgment, which came as a surprise to those who are experienced in the procedure of this House. This error of judgment reflected hardship upon individuals and affected or marred our discussion on an important part of the Finance Bill. Those are the reasons that led us—and still lead us—to present this Motion to the House. I am very glad it is to be disposed of today. I do not think I have said anything which would inject a note of personal bitterness into our debate. We are dealing with a constitutional issue, and it is our duty to deal expressly with any constitutional issues.

There can be no question whatever of our responding to the suggestion of the Leader of the House that we should withdraw this Motion. If it is to be negatived let it be done by the House. We have placed it on the Order Paper. It is a record of the feelings and actions of the Opposition at a particular phase in the present Finance Bill. Let us hope that the moral will be drawn, and that the general principle on which the House of Commons has been conducted will be carefully observed in the future, the stricter because on this question they have been brought to sharp, precise and even meticulous attention.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

It would be unwise for the House to continue this debate at any length, particularly in view of what was said by the Leader of the Opposition in his closing words. I much prefer the speech of the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank), who undoubtedly gave expression to the grievance, real or imagined, which the Opposition have about their Amendments being ruled out of order. He presented the case in a form and manner of which the House of Commons can be proud. In any other Parliament that I know of, a Motion like this would excite party feeling and passion. If ever there is an occasion when party feeling should not enter into our debates, this is an outstanding one.

I regret that the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) has just said that the Opposition intend to leave this Motion on the Order Paper until it is settled, not by a Division, but by being negatived. What, in fact, will that mean? This Motion of censure will be on the records. Although the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough tried to persuade us that this was not a censure Motion, the words uttered by his Leader and the words of the Motion— views with concern"— are, in form if not in substance, a degree of censorship. It would be very serious if we allowed that to be the considered view of a portion of the House of Commons, although it is not the unanimous view of us all.

My right hon. Friend the Chairman of Ways and Means has served this House faithfully in his present position. On no other occasion has any hon. Member questioned his decisions. Even if the right hon. Member for Woodford is right that his decision on this occasion was an error of judgment, I ask him whether he thinks it fair to put his opinion in this form on the Order Paper?

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

Is the right hon. Member aware that there have constantly been Motions of this kind on the Order Paper in the past, sometimes in criticism of Mr. Speaker? There is nothing novel about it.

Mr. Bellenger

That may have been so, but in the time that I have been in this House, some 15 years, I do not remember an occasion when a Motion was put on the Paper criticising Mr. Speaker or the Chairman of Ways and Means. Perhaps it might have been different in days gone by.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

The last occasion, speaking from memory, was about three years ago, when the then Member for Oxford placed a Motion of this kind on the Order Paper.

Mr. Bellenger

My recollection there is at fault, but that does not alter my view that these Motions should be used very sparingly; otherwise, as the Leader of the House has said, we shall bring the Chair into a very difficult position, especially if the occupant of the Chair is to be forced to give his reasons for rejecting Amendments. It would be preferable for the Opposition to withdraw their Motion. I regret that if it goes to its natural conclusion it will be some sort of suggestion that the Chairman of Ways and Means has not the continued confidence of some hon. Members.

5.6 p.m.

Mr. Pickthorn (Carlton)

The most difficult duty of a private Member is to decide when he ought to try to speak. I speak today under a deep consciousness that it might very well be wiser for us all to refrain and let the thing go. I find it especially difficult to decide that I want to say because, if I may say so without sounding fulsome, of the admirable tone and temper of the speech as made from my own Front Bench.

But the Leader of the House has really made it necessary that one or two questions should be put to him which have not been put. I would not try to tie him to a strict interpretation of words when he might not have meant to accept their full implication, but in his opening he seemed to throw over the Chairman of Ways and Means the œgis of Cabinet solidarity. He said that it was inconceivable that His Majesty's Government should have accepted the suggestions of my right hon. and gallant Friend who opened the debate because, if so it would be necessary for the Chairman of Ways and Means to resign. I am not arguing that point, but I am arguing that the right hon. Gentleman came as near as makes no difference to saying that the Chairman of Ways and Means is covered by the doctrine of Cabinet solidarity.

Mr. Ede

I do not quite understand what the hon. Gentleman is leading up to, or what meaning he is giving to his own words. I tried to make it clear that the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Cabinet have no connection whatever.

Mr. Pickthorn

That is the second point to which I was coming. I thought I had made the first point clear. [An HON. MEMBER: "You never do."] I cannot make my meaning clear to everyone, but I hoped that I had made it clear to the Leader of the House. He used language which, if he reads it tomorrow in HANSARD, will make him agree, I think, that he seemed to be speaking for the Cabinet and as though for then it was a decisive argument that to accept any Motion of criticism, in their view, about the Chairman of Ways and Means would necessitate a change in the Chairmanship.

Hon. Members


Mr. Ede

If I thought that the Chairman of Ways and Means had been guilty of some conduct that would lead to his forfeiting the confidence of the House, I should say so. An effort was made by the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough to say that this was not a Vote of Censure and that even if it were passed it would make no difference to the position of the Chairman of Ways and Means. My own view is that if it were passed it will be impossible for any man to whom it had been directed to remain Chairman of Ways and Means.

Mr. Pickthorn

The right hon. Gentleman began by saying that he could not accept my right hon. Friend's suggestion because it would involve a change in the Chair. That seems an extremely dangerous doctrine.

The second point put by the Leader of the House, because, as he said, this position has been challenged outside, was that the Government take no part in the matter at all and that the Chairman of Ways and Means has the advice only of persons for whom we all have the profoundest respect and who are not in any way in the employ or under the direction of the Government but of the House of Commons. I think I am fairly reporting his words.

Mr. Ede indicated assent.

Mr. Pickthorn

The question I desire to put, in order, as the right hon. Gentleman says, to make it clear to those outside is: Did he plainly mean to assert that the Chairman of Ways and Means has the advice of the servants of the House and of no one else at all?

Mr. Ede

The Chairman of Ways and Means has the right to take advice from whom he chooses, but the House has provided certain professional advisers who are at his disposal. They were the persons to whom I was alluding. What other advice he seeks I neither know nor care.

5.11 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

It is desirable that some back benchers should express their opinion about a matter which concerns every hon. Member in the House. I profoundly regret that the Motion was placed on the Order Paper and, having listened to the speeches so far, I feel that, unless the Motion is withdrawn, it will leave the Chairman of Ways and Means in an intolerable position. Unless the Motion is withdrawn now that the whole matter has been ventilated the Opposition will have done a great disservice to themselves and also to the House.

Hon. Members opposite have been at pains to say that the Motion does not censure the Chairman of Ways and Means. They say that they make no accusation against his good faith and that they are merely criticising him for an error of judgment, but the speech of the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) did not give the House any indication why he criticised the judgment of the Chairman of Ways and Means, and he did not say who should have the power and right to decide what Amendments should be selected if it was not the Chairman of Ways and Means. In the interests of the House and of orderly debate, the House has, since 1919, given to the occupant of the Chair the most complete discretion as to what Amendments should or should not be selected, and the occupant of the Chair is entrusted with that power because the House has confidence in his judgment.

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman said that he thought there had been an error of judgment, but, if the Chairman of Ways and Means is not to decide this, who is to decide it? Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to decide what Amendments shall be selected? Is the Leader of the Opposition to decide what Amendments shall be selected? Is the House itself by a vote to decide what Amendments shall be selected?

We should never be able to carry on our Parliamentary business if every time an hon. Member felt aggrieved at the decision of the Chairman of Ways and Means or of Mr. Speaker in selecting Amendments a Motion of this kind were to be put down. If there is to be a criticism of the judgment of the Chairman of Ways and Means, it ought surely to be related to earlier decisions of occupants of the Chair as to the selection of Amendments. That has not been done.

This power to select Amendments is no new power. For 30 years the occupants of the Chair have had unreserved discretion and have not given any reasons for the exercise of their discretion. It has been said over and over again by Mr. Speaker's predecessors that it is not necessary to give any reasons. If the occupant of the Chair does not have to give any reasons for his decision, how is it possible to criticise the decision?

The only reason which has been adduced by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman and others who have supported him was that the Chairman of Ways and Means said during the discussion that one of his reasons for not selecting the Amendments to Clause I was that the same Amendments had been considered the previous year. We have heard that in arriving at that decision the Chairman of Ways and Means took the professional advice of the Clerks at the Table and others which was open to him. It is also perfectly clear from the records that on previous occasions, the fact of earlier discussions is a recognised ground of non-selection. Apart from the instance in 1925 given by the Home Secretary, there was, not only in 1925, also an occasion in 1935 when Sir Dennis Herbert gave precisely the same reasons for his refusal to select Amendments which had been put down by certain of my hon. Friends who were then in Opposition.

It is of the essence of Parliamentary government to have confidence in the Chair, and as the Opposition have heard the explanations which have been given, I hope that they will not do a disservice to our Parliamentary institutions by allowing the Motion to remain on the Order Paper but will withdraw it.

Question put, and negatived.

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