§ 10.0 p.m.
§ Mr. John Strachey (Dundee, West)
I beg to move, "That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again."
I move to report Progress in order to elicit from the Government what their intentions are for the remainder of this Bill. I think the Committee really must know where it stands before again going into the very complicated questions on which we spent so much time last night.
§ The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Antony Head)
I think that hon. Members on both sides will agree that in the consideration of the Bill which is now before us the Committee finds itself in something of a dilemma. We have on the Order Paper about 107 Amendments and, in addition, some very substantial alterations to the Bill which had been proposed by the Government. I do not think it could be said, and I do not think I ever have said, that the majority of the new Clauses proposed by the Opposition are either frivolous or unjustified; but the truth is that with the exception of a few minor Amendments this Act has never been reviewed since 1881, and even the numerous proposals now on the Order Paper represent only a fraction of the alterations which might well be made.
1807 I think it is apparent to all hon. Members, especially those who have taken an interest in yesterday's discussion, that the Committee could not properly discharge its duties of considering the Bill and the numerous Amendments and new Clauses without exceeding the date on which the Bill must be passed. As a result of preliminary discussion, which I must say was very helpful, with the right hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Strachey), it has been agreed through the usual channels that the best solution seems to lie in the appointment of a Departmental committee comprising representatives of both parties and experts from the Service Ministries concerned, and from Parliamentary counsel, in order that they could carry out a thorough review of the whole Act with a view to putting forward their proposals for amendment.
If such a course is adopted adequate time would be available for expert consideration of the Measure, a contingency which I think Members will agree is unlikely to arise if the whole matter has to be discussed on the Floor of the House. This committee would be appointed by myself, in conjunction with my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Air, and details regarding its composition and terms of reference would be worked out through the usual channels.
This committee would then put forward its proposals to Her Majesty's Government before the end of this Session with a view to a revised Bill coming before the House during 1953. It might be for consideration that a Select Committee should be appointed to consider these proposals before being discussed by the House itself. I believe that it would be agreed on all sides that the Act as it now stands is so antiquated as to be unworthy and ill-suited to the Army and Air Force of today.
In the light of this decision, I therefore hope that we can now concentrate on the remaining Clauses and the important Government Amendments proposed in the Bill which lay down the regulations for the long service engagement in the Army. I am also aware that hon. Members opposite have both moved an Amendment about and expressed anxiety about the date for the discussion of this Bill. I suggest that 1808 that subject might also well form part of the discussion of the all-party committee I have suggested.
The considerable exploratory work carried out by hon. Members opposite, which I certainly recognise, will not, I think, be wasted since those Amendments and new Clauses will be available for this committee when it confronts the task for which we propose to appoint it. I hope hon. Gentlemen opposite, and the right hon. Member for Dundee, West will consider this as really a sane method of approaching a problem which I think has embarrassed the House, in so far as the magnitude of the task that lies before us was not generally recognised by the House and results from a very long period of neglect of this Bill.
§ Mr. C. R. Attlee (Walthamstow, West)
I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and for this suggestion. In the old days the Army (Annual) Bill was always the subject of an all-night discussion, but I am afraid that they were not awfully good discussions; they were generally dealing with comparatively minor points, or with some points which have since been dealt with. The enormous changes which have taken place in our military organisation demand quite extensive changes, and beyond that are all the widespread alterations made on courts-martial. I think there is, therefore, a very strong case for a Select Committee, and I should like to accept that suggestion in principle. We should naturally want to look at the terms of reference and consider the whole method of setting it up.
There is another point. In the discussion on the Bill an Amendment was put forward for extending the time in which the Bill is introduced each year. That time, of course, dates back to old, historical times—the Mutiny Bill and so forth—but it so happens that almost inevitably the time is very short for the consideration of this Bill. If we have a Select Committee we should probably be able to get a very large measure of agreement and to thrash out quite a number of these subjects. Even so, I think the time would be very short, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman, between now and the Report stage, to consider whether it would not be wise to make the time of this Bill at home the same as it is abroad—Members will be aware that there are 1809 different times for the Act to come into force.
I hope the Select Committee can get down to its work quickly. Naturally, I could not pin the right hon. Gentleman to a specific date, but I hope that we shall get the Committee in pretty good time so that we might see the shape of the Bill ahead.
In the meantime, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to indicate his intentions about some of the Amendments put down by my hon. Friends. He suggested that we should go on to consider the Government Amendments, but a number of Amendments have been put down to those Government Amendments, and if the whole were discussed together I think reasonable progress might be made tonight.
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ The Minister of Health (Mr. Harry Crookshank)
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back from America after what, I hope, was a successful journey. Anyhow, he looks none the worse for it. It is quite true that in what he calls the old times there were all-night discussions on this Measure, but I do not think that in the old times to which he was referring the debates ever started as first Order of the Day. The Committee stage of those Acts was embarked upon at about 10 or 11 o'clock at night—very different from yesterday, when we started as soon as Question time was over. [HON. MEMBERS: "We lost three hours."] I do not know what hon. Members are muttering about. We started immediately after Question time.
§ Mr. Crookshank
There may have been lots of interruptions, but, of course, I am talking only of when the debate started. In the good old days to which the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition so longingly looks back, as all Socialists do, we used to embark on this stage of the discussion late at night. This year we started at the earliest possible moment.
However, the right hon. Gentleman accepted, I understand, the suggestions of my right hon. Friend. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] But the right hon. Gentleman did. It is no good other people saying "No." They may not 1810 have. I am addressing myself to the Leader of the Opposition. [HON. MEMBERS: "It should be the Chair."] I understood from the right hon. Gentleman that he was agreeable to the suggestions that my right hon. Friend made. There is just one point which, perhaps, he did not quite appreciate—I do not know. However, he kept referring to the fact that this should go to a Select Committee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]—but my right hon. Friend has suggested that it should go to a Departmental committee.
§ Mr. Crookshank
He suggested that this problem should go to a Departmental committee of which hon. Gentlemen from both sides of this Committee—or right hon. Gentlemen, it might be, from both sides—should be invited to be members, but that there should be other experts in attendance as members of the committee, because it seems to him that that is the best way of getting at the essence of the matter in the first place.
A Select Committee, after all, as we all know, is comprised of Members of the House and can only receive evidence, which is not quite the same thing as having other people as members of the committee in the first instance. What my right hon. Friend pointed out—I do not know, but perhaps the Leader of the Opposition did not quite appreciate this, and I do not blame him for not doing so—was that it would be a good idea, after the report had been received from the Departmental committee, that that report should go to a Select Committee, from which we could then get a report from our own colleagues.
It is not really duplication of work. It is really, from my right hon. Friend's point of view, an effort to try to expedite it, so that at an early stage there should be associated with the inquiry others besides hon. Members of the House, including hon. Gentlemen opposite. It would be a co-operative—if I may use the word—endeavour to try to bring up to date, as my right hon. Friend said, an Act which has been on the Statute Book for all these years and whose—I will not say errors—whose lack of up-to-dateness has apparently escaped the notice of right hon. Gentlemen opposite during the last six years. [HON. 1811 MEMBERS: "Oh, no."] It is only this week that this particular aspect has come before Parliament, and we all want—I do not know what the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) keeps interrupting for.
§ The Chairman (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)
Order. If the right hon. Gentleman does not give way, the hon. Gentleman must not rise. [HON. MEMBERS: "He has given way"] No, I think the right hon. Gentleman sat down because I stood up.
§ Mr. Crookshank
We are trying to get the best way [Interruption.] If hon. Gentlemen opposite do not wish to be co-operative in the way the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition was, I am sorry; but the right hon. Gentleman seemed to be anxious to accept the suggestions of my right hon. Friend. I was only pointing out that in what the right hon. Gentleman said in accepting it he kept using the phrase "Select Committee," which was not what my right hon. Friend said.
§ Mr. Attlee
I understood the Secretary of State to refer to a Select Committee. I do not think he indicated clearly that there were two stages, and I should rather like to consider that matter. As I said, I was prepared to accept a Select Committee, but whether it should be a Departmental committee or a Select Committee is a matter which requires some discussion. I had understood the right hon. Gentleman to say it would a Select Committee.
§ Mr. Crookshank
I am sorry, but this suggestion was made through the usual channels. Having, for the purposes of greater accuracy, a copy of what my right hon. Friend said, I should like to read it. It was this:As a result of preliminary discussion … with the right hon. Member for Dundee, West, it has been agreed through the usual channels that the best solution seems to lie in the appointment of a Departmental committee.
§ Mr. Crookshank
This is what my right hon. Friend said. There is no dubiety about that. There may be about the deductions, but this is what he said: 1812it has agreed, through the usual channels, that the best solution seems to lie in the appointment of a Departmental committee comprising representatives of both parties and experts from the Service Ministries concerned, and from Parliamentary counsel, in order that they could carry out a thorough review of the whole Act with a view to putting forward their proposals for amendment.That was the first stage. Then he pointed out that such a committee would be appointed by himself and his noble Friend the Secretary of State for Air, after consultation as to membership, terms of reference, and the rest of it. As I say, we want this to be a co-operative endeavour. My right hon. Friend went on:This committee would then put forward its proposals to Her Majesty's Government before the end of this Session with a view to a revised Bill coming before the House during 1953. It might be for consideration"—He only threw out this suggestion; if right hon. Gentlemen do not like it, or alternatively if they would like to press it, we are quite open-minded about it—that a Select Committee should be appointed to consider these proposals before they were discussed by the House.It is much easier, on technical grounds, to put to a Select Committee some specified report or document. A Select Committee is comprised of Members of the House, and they give the benefit of their advice to the House as a whole; but in this particular field—and the right hon. Gentleman and I have both served on many Select Committees—if in the first instance there is not a specific document or proposal to discuss, a Select Committee is rather apt to lose time. That is all.
It was therefore thought by my right hon. Friend—and this is still open for discussion—that the best thing was to have a committee of the kind he indicated who would present a report; and it was then thought that it would be a good idea that the House should, through a Select Committee, further discuss and argue that report, and in the end produce suggestions on which a proper Bill could be founded. We thought that was the quickest and best way of doing it. All we want to do is to revise this particular section of the law.
§ Mr. Strachey
I must say that this two-stage proposal, of first a Departmental committee and then a Select 1813 Committee, is new to me. I had not heard it. I am not suggesting that it had not been put through the usual channels; it may well have been, but to me it was new when the right hon. Gentleman first made it to us just a moment ago. Therefore, we should certainly want to consider that. It might have something to commend it. I do not know.
The point I wish to make is that if that procedure is to be adopted, if we are to have this very elaborate and necessarily prolonged two-stage consideration of the new Army Act which will come out of it, it seems to us doubly important to consider the proposition which we pressed last night and early this morning, that the terminal date of this Bill should be put back to 31st July, so that this long procedure, which is now to be made much longer by being in two stages, should have time to be gone through, because we apprehend that otherwise this time next year we shall get into exactly the same position that we are in now.
We would press very hard that on this part of these arrangements—and I venture to say that at first sight it seems to be an indispensable part of these arrangements—we should have on the Report stage an acceptance of, or an assurance now that effect will be given to, the Amendment which was moved in my name yesterday to change the terminal date of the Act. We cannot for the life of us see what the objection can be to that. It seems to us that it would be in the Government's own interest and convenience, and this time next year they would be very grateful indeed to us for having proposed that Amendment. I think it is of real importance that the proposition should be included, and I feel confident that when we cone to all these other inter-related proposals, we shall feel that this is almost an indispensable part of it.
§ Mr. Crookshank
These suggestions were put to the party opposite several hours ago. If the right hon. Gentleman was not made aware of them, I am afraid that is not my fault. We all realise that he cannot always be in constant attendance and that other appointments have to be kept, but these suggestions were made, and I thought from the speech of the Leader of the Opposition that they were 1814 within the knowledge of his right hon. Friend. All that I gather from the criticism of the right hon. Gentleman is that he does not object to the idea that we should have an exploratory investigation by a Departmental committee, which is not only less formal but where other advice can be given, subject, if necessary, to a Select Committee afterwards. I gather that the right hon. Gentleman did not take any exception to that.
§ Mr. Strachey
I would only say that we were very willing to consider that suggestion, but it was a completely fresh suggestion to me, and I cannot commit myself.
§ Mr. Crookshank
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman cannot commit himself, but the Leader of the Opposition appeared to be ready to commit himself.
§ Mr. Attlee
I did not appreciate this was a two-sided suggestion, and I said that we would consider very carefully what was the best way. Perhaps we can discuss through the usual channels whether it should be a Departmental committee followed by a Select Committee, or a Select Committee. I think that is a matter for discussion. I have accepted it in principle.
§ Mr. Crookshank
If the right hon. Gentleman accepts it in principle, the details can be worked out but, as he knows, the matter was put to him some time ago during the course of the evening. The right hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Strachey) seemed to consider it necessary that this Bill that is under discussion should have an Amendment inserted in order that it can be extended to the 31st July next year. That seems to me to be a very defeatist attitude. After all, here we are on the 2nd April talking about setting up a committee to investigate this whole problem, and I do not know why he should assume that it cannot possibly complete its work within a year. I think that is rather a ridiculous attitude.
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
The whole point is this. The result of what this Committee or these two committees propose will have to be brought before the House and put into the Army Act next year. The Army Act cannot be introduced until we have had Vote A. That is at the end of March. If it is to 1815 become law by 30th April and Easter falls on 3rd April next year, there would not be time to deal with that report in the House and put it in the Army Act. That is why we want to have an extended period.
§ Mr. Crookshank
The hon. and learned Gentleman is being a bit pedantic about it. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no."] Do not say, "No, no," before I have said why. After all, if a report of a committee comes before the House, that is in itself discussable, and if need be time might be found for it irrespective of the introduction or otherwise of the Bill. Lots of reports are discussed as such in the House.
I am aware of the fact that the Bill cannot be introduced until after Vote A has been adopted, but my right hon. Friend pointed out that one of the points which might come up for discussion by one or the other, whichever it is, of the committees was the timetable.
Therefore, I do not think this is a matter on which we need quarrel this evening. The proposal which my right hon. Friend has made, which the Leader of the Opposition has accepted in principle, is that we should now proceed to discuss the Bill—there are Amendments, but we do not have to discuss them at inordinate length—and at the end of the day or night—whatever the time may be—it should be agreed that the whole question of the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill should be referred to a committee.
My right hon. Friend suggested that for the first stage it would be better to have a Departmental committee. I still think that that would be better, subject, if necessary, to a report going before a Select Committee. I have taken some advice about this and have some experience in this matter, and I should say that a Select Committee as such is not exactly the best first body to investigate a problem of this kind.
That is what I put to the Committee tonight. Subject to agreement that this problem should be discussed during the next 12 months—quite a long time—in order next year to bring an up-to-date Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill before the House, that is the suggestion which is before hon. and right hon. Gentleman now. I understood the 1816 Leader of the Opposition to accept it in principle. I hope that we need not report Progress now but can get on with the Bill itself.
§ Mr. Bing
The Leader of the House is entirely mistaken about what was agreed to by the Leader of the Opposition. It was agreed that we should have a Select Committee. The point about which there is concern on the part of hon. Members who have put their names to Amendments is how they are to put forward their point of view. I only speak for myself. I should be prepared to do what I could to persuade my hon. Friends who have been good enough to put their names to Amendments to withdraw the Amendments if I were in a position, on the debate to send the matter to the Select Committee, to discuss exactly what should be the remit of that Committee.
But I am not prepared, nor is any hon. Friend of mine, to agree that this matter shall be buried in a Departmental committee when the right hon. Gentleman dares to get up at that Box and tell the Committee that he is not prepared to alter the date for the coming into force of the Act, which automatically means that the Departmental committee's report cannot be examined.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the Act has not been looked at for a long time. It has. It was looked at by Lord Tring in 1889, and many of the Amendments were those suggested by the learned and efficient editor of the "Manual of Military Law." They have never been carried into effect because only for six years have we had a Government prepared to give enough time to consideration of these military matters.
The Labour Party completed the whole groundwork for this work upon which we are now embarking. We reformed the whole of the court-martial procedure and we reformed the whole of the system of the Reserve; we have done a tremendous amount of work of that sort, and the natural follow-up from that is to deal with the Army Act itself.
The right hon. Gentleman—being in grave difficulty because his own War Office did not even bother to put down the recommendations which were agreed without one word from them, as a result of the committees which insisted on 1817 criminal reform, the very reform necessary to implement the criminal law proceedings—did not even bother to include them in his own Bill. And when we tried to include them, he suggested that we were doing something improper. The right hon. Gentleman said, "I will not give an undertaking to introduce the Bill in such time that it will be possible to do this."
Everybody on both sides of the Committee wants to improve the Army Act. The way to do that is for us all to get together and decide what we shall refer to the Committee. May I take one example? We have a proposal down to repeal Section 16 of the Act, which deals with scandalous conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman. I do not know whether a Departmental Committee could even consider a matter of policy of that kind.
We have a series of Amendments down which provide that an officer should not have a less punishment than a soldier when he commits the same offence. That seems to us for some reason to be a policy of equality, but we know that it does not commend itself to hon. Gentlemen opposite. We ought to get down and decide whether the Departmental committee has an instruction to amend the Bill in such a way as to make everybody in the Army equal before the law, or whether it has not. Those are the questions that must be discussed in the House before we come on to the appointment of a Select Committee.
There are two ways in which that can be done. One is by going through the various Amendments, many of which the Secretary of State said had a great deal of point. One or two of them, I agree, deal with perhaps trivial points; indeed, I have taken one of my own off the Paper in order to help things go forward.
Either we shall go through each one and discuss them in that way, which will take much time and will involve the House in sitting long hours and will make it difficult for the Government to get on with its legislation, or, what is a more sensible plan, a Select Committee should be appointed at once. As soon as we come back after the Easter Recess we should have a discussion on the terms of reference of that Committee. If such a proposal were put forward, it would 1818 command general approval and I would lend such influence as I have to commending that point of view. I do not think that the proposal of a Departmental committee is a good one. I share the surprise of the right hon. Gentleman at it ever having been brought forward. I did not know that such an idea was in the wind. But perhaps I ought not to be in a position to understand that. Since it has been suggested, it would be better if everybody knows what it means before they commit themselves to it.
What I think the right hon. Gentleman should do is to say that this Bill shall be re-committed as regards Clause 2. We will not ask the party opposite to go through the Lobby on it, but they should adopt the Amendment which we proposed from these benches last night. They would then make certain that we should have sufficient time to carry the matter through. But a Departmental committee which will sit in order to produce a report which, from the very circumstances of the fact, it is quite impossible for the House ever to consider, is not something which will comment itself to people who, like my hon. Friends, are seriously trying to deal with this Act.
If the right hon. Gentleman opposite says he does not see why we should not deal with it in April, I ask him if he has looked at the calendar for next year? Easter falls on 3rd April in 1953. That means that the Easter Recess will follow after the vote on Vote A, and there will be left only four or five days in which to have this discussion. I do not know what the plans of the right hon. Gentleman are for the Budget next year—whether it is to be in the House of Lords, as has been suggested. If it is the intention to have it in the usual way in this House, at the usual time, that will occupy the rest of April. So his proposal is that we shall have a departmental committee to insert something in a Bill which, by his own reckoning, we shall never have any time to discuss.
I do not know if that is a really serious proposition to put before the Committee, but if that is the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman, we should all be well advised to study it with the help of a calendar to see what are the possibilities of carrying out this scheme.
So far as hon. Members on this side of the House are concerned, we would 1819 be prepared to welcome a Select Committee. We would welcome having, instead of late sittings, the opportunity of putting forward in a series of speeches general broad principles on which we think the Committee should act. That would be a guide to the members of the Committee, who would be the people taking political responsibility for decisions.
If these things can be done by a Departmental committee, why was a committee not sitting before the Bill was brought up? It must have been obvious to the Secretary of State for War when he brought in the Home Guard Bill, yet no Departmental committee was appointed then. Unless we can have an assurance that we can have a Select Committee, I do not think this proposal will commend itself to Members.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
I want to draw the attention of the Leader of the House to what happened during the debate on Clause 2. For two hours we pleaded with the Secretary of State to accept an Amendment to fix the date at 31st July instead of 30th April. We did so for the reason which the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) has explained. Quite clearly this Amendment goes to the core of our discussion. The Secretary of State yesterday gave us no reason for not accepting the Amendment. Had he accepted it, that would have eased our work considerably. I cannot understand why the Leader of the House should expect us to accept the proposal which the Government now puts forward without the proposal being accompanied by the Amendment, or the terms of the Amendment which the Government refused to accept yesterday.
I am sure that I shall be in disagreement with a number of hon. Members on this side of the Committee, but I can see merit in the Secretary of State's proposal that in the first place there should be a Departmental committee—that is to say, a committee of representatives of both sides of the House and of experts; but only on condition that the committee meets at once and gets on with the job and reports in a short time. I suggest that the proposal might be accepted providing that the appointment of the committee is not delayed for more than a few 1820 days and, working to a time-table, comes forward with what would amount to terms of reference for the Select Committee.
The Leader of the House reminded us that before the war the Army Annual Bill came before the House at the end of a day's sitting. In those days the Army was remote from the nation. Circumstances are different today. I am trying to make myself heard, but it is difficult with so much noise going on.
§ Mr. Wigg
I am trying to make myself heard, but my throat is bad. If I cannot make myself heard, during the rest of our deliberations I shall make up for it by taking more time. I intend to say what I want to say.
On this side we appreciate that it is a citizens' army, and that its young men come from every family and home in the land. We are laying down the conditions under which they serve. Therefore, since my right hon. and hon. Friends passed the National Service Acts, it is their bounden duty to see that the Army Act, under which these young men serve and are disciplined, is brought up to date and made to fit modern life. If we are going to have an efficient Army, we cannot afford that the Army Act should be hundreds of years out of date.
That is why we have brought these matters before the House and why, after several hours, we are now forcing the Government to listen to what we have to say. They could have apprehended our point, granted the will, in the first hour of the debate yesterday. I hope now that they are going to concede our point with slightly better grace than was shown by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House, who was not here during a great part of our earlier discussion but came in when the Closure was moved.
We are prepared to do all we can to make the Army Act a workable instrument; we do not want to waste time. Even if I am in a minority of one, I think there is something in the idea of a Departmental committee, provided that the Secretary of State for War will learn some of the lessons we have tried to teach him and not play the smart aleck, and provided he will try to co-operate 1821 with us in the job we are going to do whether he likes it or not.
§ Mr. Aneurin Bevan (Ebbw Vale)
I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question about the proposal for a Departmental committee. One would have thought from the way the Leader of the House spoke that the Opposition was in a difficulty; the fact is that the Government are in a difficulty and we are in no difficulty at all. We have legislation before us that we are proposing to improve. The Government are asking that for the moment we should surrender our leverage over the legislation in favour of a proposal so ambiguous that few can understand what it means.
First, the right hon. Gentleman said the inter-Departmental committee would have on it Members from both sides of the House and experts. What hon. Members in all parts should realise is that we are dealing here with the rights of British citizens. We are not dealing with a complicated machinery; we are dealing with the question of what the rights of individuals in the forces should be after the House has conscripted them into the forces. That is a matter of human rights, not a matter of technical detail.
Has the Secretary of State for War any idea what he means by "experts"? This House of Commons is supposed to contain a wide variety of knowledge and experience.
§ Mr. Head
I think the right hon. Gentleman would be the first to agree that, supposing we were going to appoint a Select Committee, it would be unlikely that in that Select Committee there would be any one individual member capable of drafting this Bill. I meant by "experts" Parliamentary counsel and Parliamentary draftsmen who are capable of implementing the recommendations of this committee.
§ Mr. Bevan
That is an astonishing reply. I am amazed. I suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends interested in the Amendments that they ought not to abandon their Parliamentary opportunity for such a statement as that. There is no Parliamentary draftsman in the Cabinet. Does he seriously suggest that the Cabinet is incompetent to arrive at what principles should be embodied in a Bill because of that? A Select Committee, as I understand 1822 it, advises the House and the House accepts, rejects, or amends the advice, and determines what are the principles to be embodied in the Bill. It is that stage that technical experts are brought in, to put our decisions into legal form.
When the right hon. Gentleman speaks of "experts," does he mean officers? [Interruption.] Ah, so that we have no guarantee at all that the Government would not pack the Committee at this stage. Indeed, the technical experts may be persons—[Interruption.] May I be permitted to continue? It is rather necessary that we get this clear, because what I am not prepared to do is to hand over my constituents' rights to a collection of brass hats. I am here for the purpose of protecting my constituents.
When, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman speaks of technical experts, he obviously does not have Parliamentary draftsmen in mind, because that was a nonsensical answer. He has some other technical expert in mind. Who is it? Is it a person—
§ Mr. Bevan
Maybe it is an American general, or an American admiral. The right hon. Gentleman's leader is so anxious to promote American generals over British troops that we have no guarantee that he does not intend to put one there.
Why should we forgo our Parliamentary opportunities in favour of a half-baked proposal of this sort? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us frankly who are the experts he has in mind?
§ Mr. Bevan
I remind hon. Members opposite that their constituents are listening to their nonsense. [HON. MEMBERS: "So are yours."]
We are entitled to learn from the right hon. Gentleman what was the nature of the proposal he was making to the Committee. We have not heard it yet. I see no reason at all why Members of the House, sitting on an inter-Departmental committee, should be voted down in that committee by non-elected persons who may be dependent for promotion on hon. Members opposite.
1823 It has always been regarded as one of the merits of the House of Commons that we have this diversity of experience. There are hon. Members who have served in all three Services. There are lawyers here who can advise the Select Committee on any matter involving jurisprudence. The technical experts can appear before the Select Committee and give the advantage of their technical knowledge before their superiors, who are elected Members, and from that Select Committee could ultimately come some recommendations that would put this matter in order.
It seems to me, therefore, that my hon. Friends ought not to abandon their Parliamentary rights, especially as we are in no difficulties here. One would have thought that the Government were making a concession to the Opposition. That was the flat-footed way in which the right hon. Gentleman came forward. He is in very great difficulties over the timetable. He does not even understand the timetable yet. Therefore, I suggest that until the Government are able to give the Committee more precise information, we should go on with our discussions on the Bill.
§ The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Anthony Eden)
I only intervene, with some hesitation, because, like the Leader of the Opposition, I have for many years past taken part in the discussions on the Bill in the old form I want the Committee to be absolutely clear as to what we are proposing to the Committee as a result of the discussions which we have had. When, as a result of my past experience, my opinion, for what it was worth, was asked, I felt bound to say that I thought the proposal seemed to me a reasonable suggestion; and I put it to the Committee again. It is entirely for them to decide one way or the other. We are making our proposal and the Committee can say that they accept it or that they refuse it, but I think the Committee will agree that we must come to some kind of decision about it.
What we have suggested is that, in the first instance, there should be an inter-Departmental Committee upon which there should be, as there can be, representatives of the various parties in the House, together with the technical 1824 assistance which they will need. It is a perfectly possible thing to have, and there are plenty of precedents for it—an inter-Departmental committee on which there are Members from both sides of the House as well as expert advice. The Committee can reject the proposals if they wish. I am only trying to explain what is in our minds.
I agree with the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg)—and I have been Secretary of State for War and have had a little experience of these things—that, as all of us who have had to do with these things know quite well, there are technical issues. I believe, and I advise the Committee, that it would be wise to begin this work on the basis of a committee of this kind which will combine Parliamentary with what I may call technical experience.
§ Mr. Eden
No, just let me finish. In order to safeguard the position of hon. Members, which I fully understand, we went on to say that if required—through discussion through the usual channels—we are quite ready to consider, after the work in the inter-Departmental committee is done, whether a Select Committee is needed to examine and express their view. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) says "No," but that is his view.
I think that this, which I might call a two-tier proposal is from the practical point of view about as sensible an arrangement as this Committee can make if it wants to arrive at a positive result. We have done this not to make a concession to the Opposition or to secure a victory for the Government. From some years of experience of this Bill I share the view that something of this kind is needed. I say frankly that it cannot be well done straight off by a Select Committee. I do not think anybody who knows this work seriously believes that. Our proposal is a two-tier proposal. We are perfectly prepared to consider with right hon. Gentlemen opposite the terms of reference to be drawn up for this inter-Departmental committee; and of course we are prepared to discuss membership. The sole object that we have—
§ Mr. Eden
The hon. and learned Gentleman might keep quiet until I have finished a sentence. All I ask the Committee is that we draw up the terms of reference for this committee and discuss its membership with the sole object that that committee shall prepare proposals which, if necessary, a Select Committee can examine before this matter comes before the House next year.
§ Mr. Bing
May I put this to the right hon. Gentleman? I think that to this side there is something very interesting in the right hon. Gentleman's proposals when he said that the Committee must make up its mind and decide on this matter. Those were his actual words. Will the right hon. Gentleman say when he is proposing to put a Motion before the Committee and how long he proposes to allow the Committee to debate that Motion?
§ Mr. Eden
This would not be the first time that arrangements had been made through the usual channels. The offer we made a little while back was a fair and reasonable offer—that we should together draft the terms of reference for this Inter-Departmental committee, consider its membership and get down to a really useful job of work for the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Attlee
I think there is, of course, a case, as the right hon. Gentleman put it, for an inter-Departmental committee first, but there is a case on the other side. There is a case that one wants to discuss the main issues from the citizen's point of view and the Parliamentary point of view before one sets the experts to work. Therefore, I do think this is a matter upon which we would all do well to think a little more before coming down on one side or the other. I should be prepared to accept the idea of a committee in principle. I am not prepared to accept right-off the two-tier or the one-tier system. It needs looking at with a great deal of consideration. I agree that what is needed is a committee to deal with this matter.
§ Mr. Paget
I hope that we shall be able to come to a reasonable arrangement on this, but the Government must realise that we have got a large number of Amendments on the Order Paper. We believe, that by Amendments we shall be able to do something, although not everything, to improve this Act, and to improve the conditions most of our citizens have to live under today. If we are to forgo these Amendments, we are anxious to have something real in their place. On the question of a Select Committee, what we feel is of vital importance is that the terms of reference should be such—It is a little difficult, Sir Charles, with all this noise going on.
§ Mr. Paget
It is of vital importance that the terms of reference of this Committee should be such that they could consider the matters which we want considered. May I mention one particular principle? We have a citizens' Army and, as far as possible, the citizen in the Army should be under the same law as the citizen out of the Army, and that military law should only differ from the civilian law in so far as it is necessary to maintain military discipline. That is a principle which we would like to have considered. There are various other principles involved.
The suggestion I would make, and it is a purely personal one, is that if we should appoint a Select Committee, that Select Committee, if necessary, should appoint a sub-committee, which would work with the Departmental experts and report back to the Select Committee. Then, we would have our principles and something which, in our view, would give us something real. The other vitally important point is that the Select Committee can only bring us principles. Next year, these principles have got to be put into an Act of Parliament. In that Act, they have to be considered by the House. The few days in April, which would be available on the present dates, are quite insufficient for the purpose.
So, unless the Government are prepared to accept the Amendment we suggested yesterday and extend the period 1827 of the Act this year to July to allow time to discuss the Clauses which result from the recommendations when these Clauses come before us, we on this side of the Committee, shall not feel that we are getting anything real at all.
I feel certain, speaking for myself, that the extension of the Bill would be a sine qua non to accepting, and an alternative to doing what good we can for this Bill by our new Clauses now, even if it does take some days' work and may be an imperfect way of doing it; but it will be an imperfect way of doing something which will get us somewhere. The right hon. Gentleman has already said that he will accept a lot of our proposals. If we are to give up these, we must have something real, but it is not something real unless the date is accepted.
§ 11.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Crossman
I should like to make one further point to the Foreign Secretary, because I think he has moved a little way towards us. I do think that the Government should realise that they are asking us to make a very large concession. We are the people who are being asked to concede our Parliamentary right to debate this Bill at length, and if we are to make the concession I think our point of view should at least be considered more than the Leader of the House appeared to consider it at the beginning.
I suggest that we have to consider very carefully the way in which the Select Committee is appointed, and, second, the amount of time the Government are prepared to give to discuss its terms of reference; because, after all, we have sought in our Amendments—and I may say that we have put down only our first batch of Amendments: there are many more to come—to suggest certain principles on which we believe the reform of the Army Act should be undertaken. If we are to give up the right to debate those Amendments, we must be given an assurance that there will be time to put the substance of what we have expressed in those Amendments in the debate on the terms of reference of the Select Committee.
It will be a great relief to me if I know from the Foreign Secretary that two days will be given to the debate on the terms of reference of the Select Com- 1828 mittee. That would be a small exchange for the amount of time this Committee of the whole House will otherwise have to consume in studying our Amendments.
Let us be perfectly clear about it. If we do not get that agreement, there are all these Amendments to discuss, and all the further Amendments we intend to put down; and there is nothing the Government can do to prevent that happening. We should much prefer the other method, I agree with the Foreign Secretary. The amount of time devoted in the immediate future to discussing the way in which the Select Committee is appointed is not for the Government to decide. It is for the Government to find how much we are prepared to concede of our rights, because if we are not prepared to concede our rights, the Government cannot move at all.
I am going to ask the Government to show a little more recognition of the weakness of their position tonight. They entered the debate last night in a very cavalier way, as though they thought, "They are just a lot of amateurs with a lot of phoney Amendments."[Interruption.] Some hon. Gentlemen opposite here now were not here then, and were not present when right hon. Gentlemen opposite discovered their mistake—when they discovered, at long last, that the Amendments were substantial Amendments, and that this was an important matter which they, in Opposition, could have done something about in their day any time in six years. Those hon. Gentlemen opposite, had they done that, had they studied the Army Act and decided to reform it, could have saved us all a lot of work now. But they forgot to do it. Well, we have not forgotten to do it this year. We are exercising our Parliamentary right to improve the Army Act.
I believe that improvement of the Army Act will be a great deal more for the good of the citizens of this country than the legislative proposals which are mooted from the other side. We have the right to do this, but we are prepared to forgo that right on condition that there is a genuine reform of the Army Act, and a genuine chance that the principles which we have enshrined in our Amendments are embodied in the Act. Shall we have only a committee of brass hats and a report to be presented back to another committee? Oh, no. We are prepared to allow a Select Committee if 1829 the terms of reference are discussed for an adequate time.
We are very well aware that public opinion, when the people hear about the principles of reform which we have adumbrated, may not permit the brass hats to get their way. When the British public, whether the young men going into the Forces or the fathers and mothers, begin to hear of the sort of principles we want to see enshrined there will be—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."] There is the whole difficulty.
Hon. Members of the Opposition have been working on the Amendments, and there are a large number of people who have been working on the Amendments. We have not yet started to work, and hon. Gentlemen opposite will get used to it in time if the right hon. Gentlemen are not amenable to reason. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] They have got to get used to it. I say to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite that this is not a question of overplaying a hand. This House of Commons has a right to discuss the Army Act and all the Amendments that are put down. We all want to get a better method, and we want a Select Committee, but we want the right sort of Select Committee and the right terms of reference.
Therefore, the question which I am putting is how much time will be given for the broad and general discussion of the terms of reference, so that we, in giving up our Amendments, shall not give up the ventilation of the principles on which those Amendments are based?
§ Mr. Bevan
I suggest that there is only one difficulty that lies between the Government and the Opposition. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made quite clear the position, which we have accepted. My right hon. Friend said, as I understood it, that he thought there was a great deal in the Government's suggestion and that it ought to be examined.
Let the usual channels go on examining the Government's proposals, and we will go on examining the Bill. What is wrong with that? In the meantime, the examination through the usual channels will be illumined and maybe hastened by our discussions on the Bill. Why waste any more time? Let the right hon. Gentlemen opposite proceed to discuss with my right hon. Friends the proposals 1830 they have made. In the meantime, we will go on doing our Parliamentary duty in moving our Amendments and discussing them. I should think there is no difficulty about that.
§ Mr. Eden
I listened with interest to the desire of the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) to build up strength behind his negotiations, and I hope he will assist us in the international field in that same sense later on.
The offer that I have made, and which, as I understood it, was interpreted quite accurately by the Leader of the Opposition, is really before the Committee, and we must ask the Committee whether they are in agreement with it or not. It is no good the right hon. Gentleman waving his hand at me; I am only saying that any Government directing business must press for a decision and must know whether the offer is accepted or not. Normally, it is the Leader of the Opposition who expresses the view, either of dissent or assent.
§ The Chairman
As I have said before, the raising of points of order which are obviously not points or order is to be deprecated.
§ The Chairman
The Question before the Committee is that I do report Progress and ask leave to sit again.
§ Mr. Eden
—and pronounce upon it by means of the Leader of the Opposition—and I am nervous of saying that. If a proposal is made through the usual channels it is usual for the Opposition Front Bench to say whether they agree or disagree. I only want to know where we are in the matter. I can only address the front bench and not each individual hon. Member opposite. Of course, if hon. Members behind the Leader of the Opposition make their view prevail over the front bench, that is their business. What I am trying to deal with is the suggestion we had before the Committee.
We have offered a committee. We suggested, first, a Departmental committee and then consideration of a Select Committee. The Leader of the Opposition, I think reasonably, said he did not now want to pronounce for the inter-Departmental committee first, or indeed for any committee, but that he saw value in the idea of a committee as such. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] He has even carried with him his hon. Friends behind him. I am apprehensive at this growing unanimity. I wonder what will happen after the next sentence.
On that basis, I then suggested that through the usual channels we should work out two things—first, the composition of this committee, however decided, and secondly, its terms of reference. That was something the two sides might do through the usual channels. That sort of thing has been done at least a couple of hundred times in my experience, if not more. That is the proposal and, naturally, it is for the Committee to accept or reject it. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Hon. Members keep interjecting. I am talking at the moment to the Leader of the Opposition. [HON. MEMBERS: "To the Committee."] I am entitled to do that. Hon. Members shake their heads. I am still entitled to speak to the Leader of the Opposition, even if he does not like it. [HON. MEMBERS: "To the Committee."] Through the Chairman I 1832 am entitled to put a question to the Leader of the Opposition.
What I want to know is whether the proposal is acceptable or not. I want the Leader of the Opposition to tell you, Sir Charles, if it is acceptable; and if it is, we are prepared to go through with it. If it is not acceptable, we must be told so, and we must go on with the procedure as it was.
§ Mr. Attlee
I gave the answer about three-quarters of an hour ago. I think we on this side of the Committee are all agreed. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] We have all accepted in principle the idea of having a committee. We have said that we are not prepared straight off to accept the exact proposition as made by the Government for the two-tier system of committees, but we will examine it. We cannot go further than that at the present time. It is perfectly open for us to go on with the Bill; I do not know why we did not do so half-an-hour ago. Then we can consider the matter at a later stage and come back and see if this proposition is what we want. Having put that proposition, whether one is the Leader of the Opposition or anybody else, one must accept that there must be examination.
§ Question put, and negatived.
§ 11.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
On a point of order. It is impossible to hear what you are saying, Sir Charles, because of the noise. Last night Motions were passed, due, I think, to misunderstandings on the Floor. Could you please put the Question so that we may know what is being determined by the Committee?
§ The Chairman
I beg the hon. Member's pardon. I do not select the first Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher). The next Question is "That the Clause stand part of the Bill." That Question, under Standing Order 45, I am putting forthwith.
§ Mr. Hale
May I respectfully submit this point? This is the first time in the procedure of the House that the Standing Order has been applied. As I understand it, it gives the Chair discretion to put the Question forthwith if the Chair is of opinion that the matter has been amply and fully discussed on some Amendment to the Clause at an earlier stage. I invite the co-operation of my hon. Friends in raising this matter forcibly. This is a Clause of two paragraphs.
§ The Chairman
Order, order. I, too, have some knowledge of Standing Order 45, and having given my decision I have to put the Question forthwith.
§ The Chairman
Order, order. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to obey my Ruling. I am only carrying out the Orders of the House. I do not make the Standing Orders.
§ The Chairman
Order, order. I certainly called the hon. Gentleman on a point of order, but he did not require to go very far before I discovered I knew the answer. He is dealing with my right under Standing Order 45 which I am operating and exercising. As I was exercising it, I have no option at all but to put the Question forthwith.