HC Deb 01 August 1952 vol 504 cc1866-9
Mr. Aneurin Bevan

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a personal statement arising out of a statement made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition yesterday.

In the first place, I should like to apologise to the House for any apparent discourtesy to the House arising out of the fact that I was not in my place when the statement was made. I think that I shall be accorded, by those who have been Members of this House for many years, as having a punctilious regard for the procedure of the House. Therefore, I can assure hon. Members in all parts of the House that the reason I was not in my place yesterday was that I had not the slightest idea that a statement was to be made.

In order that I might find out the degree of responsibility resting upon the messengers of the House for the fact that I was not informed, I naturally made inquiries as to what had happened to the communication which my right hon. Friend said he had sent to me. I ascertained that a note from him was delivered to the messenger outside the Chamber at 20 minutes to two yesterday, and that no other means of communication to reach me was resorted to—neither by telephone nor by letter.

It is not true to say, as has been said that I did not collect my post until I came to the House yesterday, because I collect my post at home, and neither in the first nor the second post was there any communication from my right hon. Friend. It means that even if I had had the note delivered to me I should have had no time between twenty minutes to two and half-past three to consider the statement my right hon. Friend made.

In order to exculpate the messengers from any responsibility whatsoever, I should like to make it clear to the House that there was nothing at all on the envelope to indicate the urgency of the message. The envelope merely looked like thousands of other envelopes handed to the messengers day by day. It was not marked "Urgent" or "Immediate." There was no way at all of indicating to the messengers that it was an urgent message. Therefore, the messengers treated it, quite properly, as a normal communication between Members, and waited until they saw me before handing it to me. Therefore, I must say, in complete exculpation of the messengers of this House, that they behaved with the utmost propriety and that there is no responsibility on them at all. I make no more comment on that.

I am, however, I think, entitled now to explain the constitutional principles that are involved in my statement, because I think that hon. Members will agree that if my right hon. Friend's statement rests where it is, it not only accuses me of constitutional impropriety, but casts a reflection upon my personal honour.

I have looked up a number of precedents, but I do not want to delay the House, because it wishes to go on with the discussion of its public business. There is, however, one precedent which is quite clear in this matter. It arises out of the fact that, of course, the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility is the very foundation stone of constitutional Government in Great Britain. Unless colleagues can rely upon each other, then co-operation becomes absolutely impossible. There is no doubt about that at all, and my right hon. Friend is correct. Therefore, I say that I stand, as he does, by the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility.

But collective Cabinet responsibility breaks down just at the point that the collectivity breaks down, and that is when a Minister resigns. It breaks down at the point at which the resignation takes place. If it did not do so, no resigning Minister could say why he resigned, and if any hon. Member likes to look up the constitutional precedents he will see that that is absolutely clear. I can get no better guide in this respect than the very revered and learned Member of the Labour Party who, for very many years, was regarded as one of the savants of constitutional practice, Mr. Lees-Smith.

In 1931, Mr. Lees-Smith had a discussion with the then Prime Minister about the conditions leading up to the resignation. I shall not read it all, I shall only read two passages: Mr. LEES-SMITH: If the Prime Minister will refer to the Cabinet Minutes he will find that, although there was a discussion on a 20 per cent. cut—there was naturally a discussion upon it as it was proposed in the May Report—no such instructions were given to me. He was discussing a Cabinet meeting. The instructions given to me as the result of a later discussion were in regard to a shorter cut. Then there was a discussion. No objection was made to the statement. He went on to say: I did not, in fact, open conversations on anything at all, but I say that I was not instructed by the Cabinet to open conversations on a 20 per cent. basis. I was instructed by the Cabinet to open conversations on the lower percentages—the figure of 15 per cent., but, in fact, those conversations had not been opened by the time the Cabinet resigned."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th September, 1931; Vol. 256, c. 427–8.] Here is an explicit statement by a Minister who resigned on a Cabinet discussion strictly relevant to the reasons which led to the resignation. No exception of any sort was taken, and no exception could be taken.

It will be recalled that last year, when I made my resignation statement, I attached the utmost importance to the reservations which were the subject of my right hon. Friend's interpolation yesterday. I used this language: These cautionary words were inserted deliberately in the statements on defence production because it was obvious to myself and to my colleagues in the Government that the accelerated programme was conditional upon a number of factors not immediately within our own control."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 35.] It surely is strictly relevant to the reasons for my resignation to state the extent of my own responsibility for those words, because that is the very issue upon which the resignation took place. That is the reason I attached so much importance to those words.

Therefore, I do not plead guilty to constitutional impropriety. On the contrary, what I have done has been strictly in accordance with precedent, and I hope I shall be exempted from any blemish which my right hon. Friend's statement yesterday may inadvertently have cast upon my reputation.

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