HC Deb 11 June 1952 vol 502 cc363-72

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

11.28 p.m.

Mr. Ian Winterbottom (Nottingham, Central)

At the annual general meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association speakers paid warm tribute to the work of the staff of this House in assisting the Legislatures of all the Crown Colonies who are moving towards self-government, and whose new Parliaments are feeling their way towards the type of procedure which we know and value in this House.

A particular tribute was paid to the work of the Clerk-Assistant, Mr. Fellowes, who, during this period of development, has done immensely hard work all over the Commonwealth. In the past few months he has prepared the Standing Orders of the Legislatures of Jamaica, Ceylon, Trinidad, and Nigeria. He has also visited the Legislatures of Ceylon, the Sudan, the Gold Coast, and Nigeria. Everywhere, his services have proved of the very greatest value. Indeed, while in Nigeria, I understand that he actually took the Chair at the request of the Governor for a period. As a result of the work he did in that Colony he received a vote of thanks which was accorded from the House of Representatives of Nigeria thanking him for the services he had rendered to it during its first Session.

The immense value of the advice which has been given by the staff of this House cannot be over-estimated. It is easy to read up the broad Rules of Procedure, but the difference between an apprentice and a craftsman lies in the small tricks of the trade. It is these small tricks of the trade that the Table Office has been able to hand on to these other Legislatures. I believe, for instance, that in Ceylon it was the custom of Mr. Speaker to give his Rulings when seated. This, of course, left any disputing hon. Members standing and in command of the field and Mr. Speaker was not able to overawe them in a seated position as he does here when standing. This very small tip enabled the Speaker of the House in Ceylon to control his flock as sternly and efficiently as is the case here.

These visits and the work which has been performed by the Clerk-Assistant and other members of the Table Office here have not been performed without strain. There is strain, of course, on the individual who has to make these long journeys and work under very difficult conditions, but there is also the additional work imposed on his colleagues in his absence. There is also a very real risk of an epidemic striking the Table Office during the absence of one of its members, which, I presume, would cause very considerable difficulties in the day-to-day work of this House.

It was for this reason that at the annual general meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Dodds-Parker) moved that an extra Clerk at the Table should be appointed to assist his colleagues in this extraordinarily valuable work which they have been carrying out with the normal complement with which in the past they have been running the work of this House alone. His proposal won general support throughout the meeting. A former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) spoke in support of his Motion and you, Mr. Speaker, in your capacity of Chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, agreed to approach your alter ego. You said that you hoped you would find him in a good temper; and I understand that you were fortunate in finding him in a pliant mood.

I had the fortune to win the Ballot for this Adjournment debate and, as a result, I decided to raise this question in the hope that an early decision could be reached because if the work continues, I am certain that the Table Office will continue to carry it out, but something should be done to lighten the load which is on them. For this reason I support the hon. Member for Banbury in urging that an additional Clerk at the Table should be appointed as soon as possible and that this new member of the Table Office should be a specialist helping the new Legislatures to find their way into and through the mazes of our procedure.

I feel that the appointment should be a fairly senior one, because only a senior appointment would have the prestige and authority which would give his advice weight when he visited these Legislatures. I understand that the decision to appoint an additional Clerk at the Table lies with a body which has the rather complex name of Commissioners for Regulating the Offices of the House of Commons. You, Mr. Speaker, I believe are its Chairman; the various Secretaries of State are some of its members and, in addition, there are the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General. I would urge the Minister of State for Colonial Affairs to approach his Secretary of State and ask him to request the Chairman of the Commissioners who, I am sure, he will find not unsympathetic, to consider the proposal I am putting forward.

There is no doubt that the appointment of a Senior Clerk at the Table will cost money, but it will be money well spent. This business is not temporary. I have heard it suggested by some of my hon. Friends that this is a phase through which we are passing and that the need for this appointment will pass with time. But that is taking a rather short view. In no fewer than 12 Colonial Legislatures recently there have been very considerable constitutional.advances and all these Legislatures benefit from the assistance of a real expert in Parliamentary procedure.

These advances in constitutional development are not confined to those Colonies. Advances will continue throughout the Commonwealth. It is not only the new legislature which require assistance. Parliamentary practice is something which develops continually and there is constant interchange between the Table Office and other offices of all the Parliaments in the Commonwealth. A short time ago the Clerk-Assistant in the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia was working here in the Table Office. One member of that Office, specialising in the needs of the various Legislatures, would help now and in the future as our procedure develops.

In this country we have made the Parliamentary machine work and this is recognised in the Commonwealth. As a result the Parliaments of the Commonwealth look to us for advice and assistance. Since we have brought these new States into being it is our duty to help them through the Parliamentary procedure which we have developed through the centuries, and which does not grow up of itself. A great deal of troublesome trial and error will be avoided if an expert in this country is available to help them during their early days.

For those reasons I urge the Secretary of State, with the concurrence of his fellow Commissioner, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not to be penny wise in this matter. I hope that they will carefully and sympathetically consider the proposal put forward at the annual general meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I am certain that any expenditure on providing additional help at the Table Office for this purpose will bring returns far in excess of the expenditure required.

11.39 p.m.

Sir Edward Keeling (Twickenham)

I was in West Africa earlier this year and I can testify, as I am sure can the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson), who also was there, to the great eagerness shown by the Legislative Assembly both in Nigeria and in the Gold Coast to understand and, where applicable, to follow our procedure. I echo the tribute of the hon. Member for Nottingham Central (Mr. Ian Winterbottom) to the work done by Mr. Fellowes, who went from the Table here. I did not see him actually acting as Speaker at Lagos, but I am sure that he followed the best traditions set by you, Sir, and your predecessors.

Another Clerk-Assistant would, I think, have to share the three chairs at present allotted to the Clerks but, after all, we Members—624 of us—share about 400 seats, and I do not think that there would be any hardship in four Clerks sharing three chairs. It is important not only that the extra Clerk-Assistant should be available to instruct and to guide the Colonial Legislatures, but also that he should be in very close touch with procedure as it is evolved here. Therefore he should do his share of sitting at the Table. He would also, of course, look after the courses which are already run for Members and officials from the Colonies. He would look after the officials from the Colonies who, as the hon. Member mentioned, work in the Clerk's various Departments here.

It is a truism that there can be no good legislature without good procedure. The essence of good procedure is to reconcile the needs of Government with the rights of the minority and of Private Members generally. The practice of the House of Commons is not to try to exercise administrative or executive duties. We leave that to the Government. We control the Government by criticism and, if necessary, by turning them out. I have noticed in some of the Colonial Legislatures which I have visited that they do not always understand this method of controlling the Government. They try to exercise executive powers.

To give an example, the detailed Estimates of each Government Department are submitted alike to this House and to a Colonial Assembly. But whereas this House probably shows its disapproval of the Department, by moving that the Minister's salary be reduced, say by £10, I have noticed a tendency in Colonial Parliaments to go through the Estimates in detail and to strike out an official here and there if they think he is not necessary.

I do not say that that method is necessarily wrong, but I think that Colonial Assemblies should at least understand what our procedure is. We do not do that because we do not try to exercise administrative powers. Of course they need not slavishly follow our example. It is for them to decide what their practice should be, but they should do so with their eyes open. I am sure that they would like to have the services of a Clerk of this House to explain the procedure of this House as it has been evolved over a period of hundreds of years, and particularly in the last 100 years

11.44 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Dodds-Parker (Banbury)

I should like to take up one minute to add my tribute to what has already been said about the success of the Clerk-Assistant's trips to many parts of the world, especially to the Sudan, where I had a chance of serving before the war. Whatever the future of that country may be, we hope and believe that the Parliamentary institutions which have been copied from this country will continue to be developed.

The officials there owe a great deal to the assistance of Mr. Fellowes in their early, formative years. It was not merely on the work inside this Chamber but on the work outside as well that he was able to give great help. I find that when officials come from overseas they receive useful assistance on Public Accounts and Estimates Committee procedure. It has been found possible to adapt the Prayers of this House to all monotheistic religions, and to ensure that whatever may happen later in the proceedings they start off with three quiet minutes.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

I should like to add my meed to the chorus in support of the suggestion which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Mr. Ian Winterbottom). I was in West Africa, with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Twickenham (Sir E. Keeling) and it is not just people, like ourselves, who have been out there, who like to see someone here go out and advise and help the colonial peoples on our way of doing business in this ancient Chamber. Yesterday, I met two of the Nigerian Ministers, Mr. Nwapa, the Minister of Commerce and Industries, and Mr. Arikpo, the Minister of Local Government and Development. It is people like these, and many others, who spontaneously told us how much they enjoyed and valued the work done by Mr. Fellowes on the West Coast of Africa.

There are many other instances, besides that of Mr. Nwapa and Mr. Arikpo, which I could mention. These people do welcome people like Mr. Fellowes going out there. In my short stay, I saw sufficient to convince me that, if we could accept the proposal mentioned tonight, it would pay enormous dividends in good will and in improved Colonial Legislatures.

11.46 p.m.

The Minister of State for Colonial Affairs (Mr. Henry Hopkinson)

I feel that the House owes a debt of gratitude to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Nottingham, Central (Mr. Ian Winterbottom) for raising this important topic tonight. I would say, at once, that I feel I am voicing the views of my right hon. Friend and that I fully agree with all that hon. Gentlemen have said about the importance of enabling Colonial Legislatures to benefit from our experience of Parliamentary procedure and practice. Generally speaking, they too, are ready and eager to be helped for they look upon Westminster as their natural model. We must remember, of course, that there are some Colonies with very old-established legislative institutions of their own and with traditions of their own. The Assembly for Bermuda was established as early as 1620 and, I think, in the case of this Colony and certain others, it might be unwise to interfere unduly with existing practice.

We must also remember that there are certain important differences between Colonial Legislatures and Parliament. For instance, most Colonial Legislatures have a single-chamber system. Legislatures also vary very considerably from one territory to another, according to the state of political advancement. But, there can be no doubt that, in general, Colonial Parliaments and Legislatures, and especially those with recent developments in self-government, can profit greatly from the knowledge they can gain of the procedure and traditions of this House.

While it is true that differences in procedure must be dependent upon constitutional differences—that is to say, variations in the extent of powers and the number of Members—it is also true that procedure, in its broad sense, exerts a reciprocal influence on constitutional de- velopment. The balance of the rights of the majorities and the minorities, for instance, secures the forwarding of business and the preservation of the freedom of speech, which are the essence of true democracy.

I should like gratefully to acknowledge the invaluable help given by the Clerk and his staff in providing information and training in this country to officers of Colonial Legislatures; in explaining to visiting members of these bodies the working of Parliament; and, in advising the Colonial Office on questions of Standing Orders. During the past six years, 15 persons from 11 territories, of which five are Colonial Territories, have come over here to receive expert guidance in legislative procedure. A number of officers from Hong Kong and elsewhere are expected to arrive shortly. In addition, there are many visitors from the Colonies, who are constantly writing to the members of the House of Commons' staff asking for advice and assistance.

I should particularly like to take this opportunity of expressing the deep gratitude of the Colonial Office to the Clerk-Assistant for the most valuable work he has carried out in the visits he has paid to African territories and elsewhere over the last six years. He has given up a great deal of his spare time to this work, in addition to the periods during which he has had to be absent when the House was sitting.

In expressing our grateful thanks I am certain I am speaking on behalf of the Governments and Legislatures of the territories he has visited. The House may be interested to know that the Clerk-Assistant has already been engaged upon the work of revising the Model Standing Orders for Colonial Legislative Councils which were issued first in 1929. It is a laborious business and he has put a great deal of time on it. Even so, the work is not yet ready. The gradations vary so much from one territory to another that it is really impossible to devise a code which would cover them all.

The issue of this code is not intended to impose British Parliamentary procedure, or indeed any particular procedure, on any territory, but rather to afford a basis, formed upon the successful experience of the House of Commons, by which a Colonial Legislature may measure its own procedure and practice and, where necessary, introduce modifications.

Inevitably, the attachment of clerks or officers from the Colonial Legislatures to the House of Commons and the Clerk-Assistant's visits have given rise to increasing correspondence with territories overseas, and I am entirely at one with Hon. Members in feeling that the time has come when it is unfair and wrong to ask the Clerk-Assistant and the existing staff of the House of Commons to carry this whole burden. The hon. Member for Nottingham, Central suggested, and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Dodds-Parker) originally suggested, a method of meeting this problem which, I must say, appeals to me.

The staffing of the Clerk's Office is, of course, a matter for consideration in the first instance by the Commission for Regulating the Offices of the House of Commons. The appointment of a special member of the staff of this House to look after Colonial Legislatures would certainly seem to offer many advantages. He would, of course, require to travel extensively, but it is equally important that he should not spend his whole time abroad. He would be, above all, an important link with the Table, and his value would depend very much on his keeping abreast of current practice in this country.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, Central thought that such an officer might not be occupied for perhaps more than six months. But I should be inclined to doubt that, if full use were made of his services. Quite apart from the colonial field, I understand that the staff of this House are responsible for advising on the section on procedure of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. They also provide all the arrangements for Officers of this House to work at the Assembly of the Council of Europe, at Strasbourg. They and the Clerks from another place attend there and, from my personal knowledge, do very valuable work indeed.

This is a matter for consideration of the Commissioners. I shall certainly make it my duty to bring the points which have been raised this evening to my right hon. Friend's attention when he returns from West Africa at the end of this week and he will no doubt consider, in consultation with you, Mr. Speaker, what recommendations should be made to the Commissioners in this matter.

Adjourned accordingly at Six Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.