HC Deb 24 May 1954 vol 528 cc158-67

Considered in Committee.

[Sir CHARLES MACANDREW in the Chair]

Clause 1.—(SHORT TITLE.)

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

10.22 p.m.

Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)

I understand, and I hope I am well informed, that it was your intention, Sir Charles, to give a Ruling on the rights of hon. Members in relation to this stage of the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill. I should like to make some brief observations on the matter.

First of all, I direct attention to the fact that, about two years ago, a Select Committee was appointed by the House to inquire into various aspects of Army and Air Force affairs, and, during the intervening period, that Select Committee, according to information conveyed to me, has rendered a very valuable service. I should like now, on my own behalf and that of my hon. Friends, to pay a tribute to the various members of that Select Committee. I understand that there has been an interim report, and, no doubt, in due course, there will be a fuller and more complete report, and, presumably, the right hon. Gentleman opposite, in his wisdom and discretion, will take advantage of that full report in order to promote the necessary legislation.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Antony Head)

indicated assent.

Mr. Shinwell

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman assents to that proposal. What I wish to mention is this. It is not the intention of my hon. Friends—and, obviously, it could not be their intention, because their intention would already have been conveyed to the Committee—to move any Amendments to this Bill, but, on the other hand, we do not wish our claim to promote Amendments to go by default. By that, I mean that the mere fact that a Select Committee is in existence considering various aspects of Army and Air Force affairs must not necessarily mean that we are precluded from presenting Amendments on the Committee stage.

If it is understood that our rights are still retained and that our silence at this time does not indicate that we forgo our prerogative in this respect, I shall be content, and so, I hope, will my hon. Friends behind me, and, no doubt, hon. Members on the other side who are interested in this very important subject, which affects two of our great Services. I understand, Sir Charles, that you are not unwilling to accede to the point I am making. If that is so, perhaps there will be no occasion to pursue the matter.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Would my right hon. Friend add that we shall not pursue it too far?

Mr. Shinwell

More particularly is that the case since the point which I put to the right hon. Gentleman, that no doubt in due course legislation will emerge, has received his assent. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) said that he would not pursue the point too far. If he does that, I must say with great respect to him and with apologies to hon. Members and to you, Sir Charles, that I shall not be present to hear him. On the other hand, if I thought that he had anything to say of vital importance—I do not mean by that that my hon. Friend does not from time to time deal with matters of vital importance—regarding the affairs of the Army and the Royal Air Force, naturally I would stay to hear him. I can hardly believe that on this occasion he is in that mood or in that mind.

If, as I understand it, Sir Charles, you are on my side in this matter, and that you understand clearly that we are letting nothing go by default and retain the prerogative of hon. Members on this Bill, I am content.

The Chairman

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice that he was going to raise this matter. I am not on his side. I am on no side. I shall be very glad to give a hypothetical Ruling, as there are no Amendments on the Paper.

A new Clause is inadmissible if it is beyond the scope of the Bill. The scope of a Bill must be ascertained, not from the Title of the Bill, but from its subject matter. There have been many occasions where the Title has been amended as being too narrow, but equally many occasions where the Title has been wider than the subject matter. The subject matter of this Bill, as revealed by its contents, seems to be the continuation in force of the Army and Air Force Acts, and nothing more. It would seem unlikely that any new Clause amending the Army Acts would be in order.

Mr. Shinwell

It is a little complicated, Sir Charles. Your decision and Ruling in this matter seem to be slightly in conflict with what I have said, but I bow to your Ruling as I always do to the Ruling of the Chair, whether in Committee or in the House itself. Therefore, I have no desire to enter into conflict. Perhaps I can raise this point. As no Amendments have so far been placed on the Order Paper, presumably we can regard it as a hypothesis; and perhaps as a hypothesis it can remain, so far as I am concerned.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

The Committee should take note that by drafting the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill in this particular form the Executive are taking to themselves powers of which the Committee and the country should be aware. Nobody on this side of the Committee wishes to delay the Committee. We do not want to amend the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill, but there is all the difference in the world between not wanting to and not being able to do so if we wish.

I am quite ready to accept that in drafting the Bill in this way the Government have no intention of being awkward, but there are special circumstances in the situation this year. For the future it should be noted that this is not, as it were, an involuntary surrender of the power of the Committee of this House over the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill.

Mr. Hale

I might perhaps have raised this point later, but it may be convenient to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). In doing so may I refer to Erskine May, 15th Edition, page 540? It is there stated: On 11th April, 1932, an amendment was offered to the preamble of the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill to leave out the words 'or stir up sedition.' The chairman stated that the preamble was a recitation of the effect, not of the bill, but of the Army Act. As no amendment had been made to the section of the Army Act dealing with mutiny, etc., the proposed amendment to the preamble, which could only be consequential on such an amendment having been made, was out of order. Until 1932, the whole of the Army Act was recited as part of the Bill, or was so incorporated in the Bill as to become a material part of it. It was competent for hon. Members to table amendments to Section 76 of the Army Act, dealing with mutiny, or to raise the question of punishment by death, or the whole question of Army discipline. It will be within the recollection of the Committee that we did have some modest discussion on these matters in 1952.

I should like to pay very generous tribute to the attitude of the Secretary of State for War on that occasion. We pressed him to the point of surrender— "saying he would ne'er consent, consented." He having said that we could have, not a Select but a Departmental Committee, we pestered him to extend it, and he finally gave us a Select Committee. He had said that, under the Act of Settlement, that was impossible but finally he accepted our advice. He did so with all his customary calm and courtesy. He did it generously.

He discussed it through the usual channels and made his announcement to the House. It was implicit in that announcement that it was expected that the Select Committee would be able to report in 12 months and legislation brought forward. I think that was implicit in his words. No one said that it could be done but it was generally expected that it would be done. I put it no higher than that. Against him I make no suggestion of lack of bona fides. He has been most generous in appointing the Committee.

It is a good Committee and it is doing a mighty good job. It has presented four important Reports, and nobody would press the right hon. Gentleman to introduce interim legislation until the final Report comes through. The right hon. Gentleman, after making one or two observations last year about lawyers getting rather hot about this, himself said that the Select Committee would do a great work for the Army and the Air Force. Those of us who took part feel that that is a testimony to our late labours.

I want to refer briefly to the point made by the hon. Member for Dudley. We now have a new procedure. We have a Bill which says nothing of this. My right hon. Friend, with his customary courtesy and generosity, and kindness to you, Sir Charles, says that we have the right to put down Amendments which will be ruled out of order before they are called. I think it is a fair summary. I am not suggesting that you ruled anything out of order. Sir Charles. but—

The Chairman

The hon. Gentleman underrates his own ingenuity, does he not?

Mr. Hale

Between now and next year, Sir Charles, I shall devote some little attention to the matter and see if I can find a way of persuading you that the matters that I have in mind are in order.

The right hon. Gentleman must face this one fact. I am not especially in favour of an Army. I think that today I am a pacifist; I am not quite sure, but I think so. I have never been able to face up to some of the implications of pacifism, but I am so near to being a pacifist that I think that some pacifists may regard me as rather more pacifist than they are. Certainly some of them are more warlike than I am.

But if in future discussions we wish to raise questions of mutiny, war, and discipline, our only remedy now is to vote against the Bill. That is the position to which this short-term procedure has brought us. That is the position to which streamlined legislation—delegated powers at their worst—has brought the House. Therefore, it would help the Committee to come to a conclusion whether to pass this Bill through Committee, if the right hon. Gentleman would give some indication of the Government's intentions to bring in legislation as soon as reasonably possible after the Select Committee has completed its labours, and give an opportunity of discussing the new Measure in detail.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham, East)

In the remarks which you were good enough to address to the Committee, Sir Charles, you said at the end that it would appear unlikely that Amendments to amend the Army Act would be in order on a Bill of this kind, the substance of which is simply to prolong the Army Act.

The Chairman

That is not exactly what I said. My words were carefully chosen. I said it was unlikely that any new Clauses to the Army Act would be in order.

Mr. Stewart

I am obliged, Sir Charles. That would mean, I take it, that if we are to amend the Army Act in Committee, it could only be done if one could frame Amendments so worded that they could be put in as Amendments of the Clauses now in the Bill and not as new Clauses. But you did say, Sir Charles, not that it was impossible to move new Clauses but that it was unlikely. Therefore, with respect, I think it would be right to say that you were giving not so much a Ruling on this matter as an opinion, because you used the word "unlikely" and not "impossible."

The Chairman

The whole thing is hypothetical.

Mr. Stewart

I appreciate that, Sir Charles. I should like to remark on the serious nature of the view which you have expressed to the House. It means that if the Government bring forward for the annual Act a Bill which merely prolongs the Army Act, it is then impossible for the Opposition to propose any serious Amendments in the nature of the Army Act during the forthcoming year, whereas if the Government brought forward an Army annual Bill which proposed to make any amendment in the Army Act of any kind, it would then be possible for the Opposition to put down further Amendments of a far-reaching character.

Very often the Government find that when the time for the Army annual Bill comes round there is this or that minor Amendment which ought to be put into the working of the Army Act for the forthcoming year. Invariably if one looks through the Army Act one can always find something which could with advantage be altered a little. What is going to be the position of a future Government, in view of what you have just said, Sir Charles? They may find when the time comes that it would be desirable for the good running of the Army to make an Amendment to the Army Act in the Army annual Bill, but they will then say to themselves "The Government time-table is rather pressed this year. If we put down this Amendment to the Army Act in the Army annual Bill, desirable as it is, we open the door to any number of Amendments by the Opposition. We do not want to do that, and, therefore, we will postpone this otherwise desirable Amendment."

The effect of the position that we find ourselves in is not only rather gravely to limit the rights of the Opposition, but to put a temptation in the way of Governments not to make Amendments in the Army Act even when they know them to be desirable. The right hon. Gentleman will know that I am speaking for all my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side of the Committee when I say that we are not in the least anxious to put difficulties in the way of the Government in passing the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill this year. We all perfectly understand the position, but I think the House should be aware of the serious consequences that might flow from what we have just heard from you, Sir Charles.

When the Select Committee has completed its work and the House is considering future legislation on the Army Act, the House might possibly at the same time wish to take into account the position in which it now finds itself. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State for War would express, even if briefly, his view on this matter. It is not a matter that affects the particular party that happens at the moment to be in opposition. It affects any party that might at any time find itself in opposition, and it affects the rights of the House and the efficiency of the Army Act.

Mr. Head

I have been asked to comment on two matters. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) asked when we should introduce legislation. It is the intention of the Government to introduce this legislation as soon as the Select Committee has reported and the necessary drafting is completed. I hope just as much as, I think, the Committee and the whole House hopes, that it will be done next year. That is our intention, and we have never changed from that. As far as the delay is concerned, to forecast late one night how long a Select Committee will take to redraft the Army Act is beyond anybody's powers.

With regard to the second point, to which the hon. Member for Fulham, East (Mr. M. Stewart) referred, that question is evident to many people and it is a matter which has been discussed and considered by the Select Committee itself, as the hon. Member, being a Member of it, knows. He has very lucidly expounded some of the matters which the Select Committee have been considering in the light of this matter.

We appreciate the dilemma. Whether one is in opposition or in the Government, the problem remains. All I can say at this stage is that I am aware that it is a matter for consideration by the Select Committee, and that when that Committee has thrashed it out and made its proposals, the Government must consider them. I speak only for myself, as the Government have not yet considered the matter, but it is not a matter in which the Government want to put a temporary advantage to themselves as a Government. It is a problem to which a lasting solution must be found from the point of view of both the Opposition and the Government, and which will not get in the way of the primary purpose of the Army Act and the Air Force Act which is the efficiency of the two Forces concerned.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I am sure the Committee will be glad to have heard what the right hon. Gentleman has said. It is, however, something more than a matter of mere Parliamentary con venience, because this is one of the great constitutional safeguards of the country that we shall not, without the consent of Parliament, be subject to a military despotism. In these days, fanciful as that may seem, we have seen too many Governments disappear in countries that claimed to be democratic, because they allowed, in some way or other, brute force to be superior to the Legislature.

Of course, if the Committee tonight votes against Clause 2 standing part of the Bill. the moment that the Act that we passed last year expires every soldier and airman in this country will be a mere civilian and will be able to tell his superior officer exactly what he think of him without any other consequence than possibly being brought before the local bench of magistrates on a charge of using insulting words and behaviour whereby a breach of the peace might have been caused. That is the high constitutional point that this Bill raises.

10.45 p.m.

In view of your Ruling, Sir Charles, which as far as I know no one has Challenged in its application to the Bill, and in view of the state of the Order Paper, what we must ask is that when new legislation is drafted it shall be in such a form that reasonable grievances with regard to Army discipline, billeting and the 101 matters which are raised in the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill shall be susceptible of discussion in the House without anyone having to take the drastic step of voting against the words in Clause 2 of this Bill standing part of any further Bill which may be introduced.

We fully accept what the right hon. Gentleman said. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham. West (Mr. Hale) said, without some of the satire which he introduced; the right hon. Gentleman met us satisfactorily when we were faced with the fact that the present Army and Air Force Act was an absurdity in the light of present social and military conditions. From the moment he accepted that, I think he realised the feeling that there was in the House and the desirability of getting this matter on to a satisfactory basis. Matters which arise out of the Act of Settlement and the Glorious Revolution brought about by the Whigs in 1688 have become a bit out of date by now. Not that I am otherwise than grateful for the Glorious Revolution; I was brought up in the belief that it was the most tremendous thing in English history.

We have to face the fact, in view of what has happened in the world in the first half of the present century, that it is highly desirable that we shall retain the constitutional safeguards which the Army and Air Force (Annual) Act, or its predecessor, has given us for nearly three centuries.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Preamble agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.