HC Deb 24 June 1954 vol 529 cc595-601
The Prime Minister (Sir Winston Churchill)

I will, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement.

On 14th April, I said to the House: There is no doubt…that a number of hon. Members are oppressed by serious difficulties because heavy and necessary expenses absorb so much of the Parliamentary salary."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th April, 1954; Vol. 526, c. 1151.] But I also said that, in the view of Her Majesty's Government, it would not be right in present circumstances to proceed in the particular manner recommended by the Select Committee—namely, to increase the Parliamentary salary to £1,500 a year. That view did not prevail when an all-party Motion was set down in Opposition time to test the opinion of the House on a free vote on 24th May.

By long Parliamentary practice, a Motion which calls for a money charge but which is unsupported by a recommendation from the Crown, can be debated in the House only as an expression of Parliamentary opinion, and cannot effectively impose that charge. The responsibility for recommending a money charge rests inseparably with the Crown acting through the Executive.

While the opinion of the House remains on record, it cannot be said that there is at present that wide measure of agreement in the House which I put forward in my statement of 14th April—with, I think, general acceptance—as being desirable on this particular issue. Her Majesty's Government do not, therefore, feel justified in present circumstances in pressing forward with the steps necessary to put the increase in salary from £1,000 to £1,500 a year into effect.

However, we still adhere to the view that a number of hon. Members are oppressed by serious financial difficulties, and we should be prepared forthwith to discuss with the leaders of the Opposition parties an alternative method of dealing with this particular problem.

The Government are sympathetic to the opinion recorded by the House on 24th May that legislation should be introduced to improve the financial position of Junior Ministers. But there is no opportunity to introduce such legislation before the Summer Recess.

The Select Committee's recommendations about pensions have been referred to the Trustees of the Members' Fund, as resolved by the House on 24th May. The Trustees have already begun their study of the problem and the Government will give full and sympathetic consideration to their report.

Mr. Attlee

We have heard with very great regret the statement of the Prime Minister. While there is the technical point about the need for a Government Resolution on a matter involving finance, it has been the practice to accept the decision of the House of Commons. During the time of the Government of which I was Prime Minister, there were two outstanding occasions. One was the suspension of a Member and the other was the question of capital punishment. In both those cases the House took a view contrary to that held by the Government, but the Government felt in duty bound to accept the opinion of the House of Commons.

This is especially a House of Commons matter, and it seemed to us peculiarly appropriate that it should be decided by the House of Commons, and when there was a substantial majority for a point of view which had, in fact, been recommended by a very responsible Committee of this House, we expected that the Government would accept it.

The Prime Minister has suggested that we should explore alternatives, but the fact is that those alternatives were very fully explored by the Select Committee. They were also raised in debate, and the opinion of the House was against them.

The point is also put forward that the matter of pensions, on which I think many Members in this House feel very acutely, should be further considered by our own Committee. But our own Committee are quite unable to proceed with any practical proposals on this matter until they know what is to be done with regard to the remuneration of Members.

I am, therefore, bound to say that, while I should be perfectly ready to enter into discussions with the Government as to how best to implement the decision of the House of Commons. I could not bind my self to discuss any alternatives without a very full discussion with my colleagues on this side of the House.

Mr. Daines

Does not the Prime Minister think that the Government are guilty of misleading the House, in the two debates which we have had, in not making it clear that they were prepared and bound to accept the dictate of the 1922 Committee in arriving at their final decision?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir.

Mr. H. Morrison

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he recalls the circumstances of the Garry Allighan case in which, on the report of the Committee of Privileges, I, as Leader of the House at that time, advised the House not to expel because we did not like the idea of expelling, and the right hon. Gentleman himself took part in the debate? The result of that was that the Government's view was not accepted by the House, and at once, when I was questioned, if I recall rightly. I said that we had given the House a free vote and any Government that gave the House a free vote must abide by the consequences. The same thing happened on capital punishment, when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) advised the House against the Amendment, and we had to accept the result, as we did in the right hon. Gentleman's Government in regard to amusements for soldiers at theatres.

May I put it to the Prime Minister, therefore, in view of the fact that he himself said in his Parliamentary statement that this was a House of Commons matter, and that there was a free vote of the House, that there is a clear obligation on the Government to accept the decision of the House of Commons in the matter?

The Prime Minister

I have, of course, not examined in detail the precedents quoted by the right hon. Gentleman, but neither of them touches the financial question, and therefore the constitutional points which I have put did not arise. There is a definite distinction in the character of the questions. Moreover, if my recollection serves me rightly, no further action was required from the executive Government of the day in consequence of the two votes passed by the House in the cases which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Events merely rolled upon their course. In this case, definite, responsible, constructive action involving a charge upon the public is called for from the Government.

Mr. Morrison

Further action was required on the Criminal Justice Bill. It is true that nothing came of it, but there was further action. May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that this is a new doctrine? When a free vote is given to the House and an expression is given by a majority of some substance, two questions arise which call for some answer: why give a free vote at all, and, if it is given, why is it, the vote having been given, that the Government then proceed to accept the view of the minority and not the majority?

The Prime Minister

The Motion which was put down was put down by hon. Members of several parties in Opposition time. We had no power to prevent it. It was the right of Members of all parties to put it down, and personally I was very much in favour of a free vote being given on the subject, but that does not remove the fact that the Government of the day, representing the Crown in the matter, have the constitutional responsibility for any proposal involving a charge upon the public, and an expression of opinion by the House does not relieve them of their responsibility.

Mr. Attlee

The right hon. Gentleman will remember that it was as a matter of courtesy that the Opposition provided a Supply Day for the purpose of discussing the Report by a Committee set up by this House—an important Committee representative of Members on both sides—to deal with this matter, and that there was, therefore, an obligation on the Government to give time to discuss the Report. It was purely a matter of courtesy that we allowed it to be taken in our time.

The Prime Minister

I think that it would be better, in the general interest, that the right hon. Gentleman should carry out the course he proposed and consult his friends upon the issue.

Mr. Daines

The right hon. Gentleman should consult his friends.

The Prime Minister

There may be divided opinions at that meeting, as there often are in these discussions, but I think that it would be better that he should discuss the matter with his friends. [HON.MEMBERS: "No."] That is what he said he was going to do, and we shall not settle it by shouting. I think that would be a very great mistake on an issue of this kind. I think that it would be better that he should discuss the matter with his friends, and then give the decision at which he arrives.

Mr. Attlee

We shall consider what is the right course to take in view of the fact that the Government have disregarded the decision of the House of Commons.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, whatever may be the rights and wrongs of this controversy, the prestige of the House as a whole, and Parliament as a whole, is suffering severely?

Hon. Members


The Prime Minister

The prestige of Parliament is a matter about which I feel always very deep concern; but I am quite sure that special restraint and composure should be imposed upon us all during the discussions which take place.

Mr. G. Thomas

In view of the fact that the Government took the unusual step of taking the Whips off for the Division to which the Prime Minister has referred, and in view of the fact that the Treasury Bench had already indicated that they wished to obtain the will of the House upon this subject, does not the Prime Minister think it unfortunate that he is now telling the House and the country that he has come down on the side of the rich men; and is it not unfortunate, and by no means a laughing matter, that hon. Members will not be able to conduct their business as Members of the House in the manner in which they ought to be able to do it?

The Prime Minister

I earnestly hope that if the proposal of the Government should eventually be accepted—[HON. MEMBERS: "What is it?"]—if the alternative proposal that I mentioned in my statement is accepted by the Opposition—some very definite results will accrue, which will meet the undoubted difficulties which are felt on both sides of the House.

Mr. M. Lindsay

In view of the acknowledged financial difficulties of a number of hon. Members, amongst whom I do not include myself, will my right hon. Friend lose no time in producing these alternative proposals so that they can take effect before the House adjourns at the end of this summer?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend has no doubt noticed that I inserted the word "forthwith"; I said we were prepared forthwith to discuss with the leaders of the Opposition parties an alternative for the solution of this problem.

Mr. Lewis

Is it not a fact that a Committee has been sitting and has considered all the alternative proposals, that the Government have put their alternative proposals before the House, that the House has turned down all those proposals by an overwhelming majority, and that a very small group of big company directors, representing the vested interests of this country, are doing their utmost to prevent working men from coming into this assembly?

Mr. Logan

I have been considering this morning the points which might be raised today and I wish to ask your advice, Mr. Speaker. I do so now. I am at a loss to understand how such a position can be reached under the British constitution. The House having voted a £500 increase in Members' salaries, I submit that, according to our constitution, the Government are not entitled to submit an alternative proposition. In my opinion, it is the Government's duty to bring in a Supplementary Estimate to meet the cost. The will of the House has already been decided on a free vote and, therefore, without the consent of Members we can accept no alternative.

Mr. Speaker

It is a point in our constitution which has been adhered to for centuries that the initiative for proposing expenditure must come from the Crown through the Executive. I do not know whether I express the will of the House on this matter, but my own view is that nothing is to be gained by pursuing it now.

Mr. Fernyhough

On a point of order. I wonder what kind of argument can be advanced when legislation to increase the salaries of Parliamentary Secretaries is introduced, when the Prime Minister and his 1922 Committee are prepared to deny similar treatment to ordinary Members.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order and it will not arise until the Bill is introduced.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

I must ask the House to pass to the next business.

Mr. Lewis

On a point of order. I beg to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, The failure of the Government to acknowledge and implement a decision of the House arrived at after the Government had granted a free vote. I charge the Government with refusing to follow the acknowledged and constitutional practice of accepting a free vote, with evading the responsibility of their duties to the House and with giving way to a group of big businessmen who have put pressure upon them.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis), has asked me for leave to move the Adjournment of the House on a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, The failure of the Government to acknowledge and implement a decision of the House arrived at after the Government had granted a free vote. I cannot find this within the Standing Order. It is by no means urgent and could be discussed at any time.