HC Deb 20 December 1955 vol 547 cc1863-75

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House, at its rising Tomorrow, do adjourn till Tuesday, 24th January.—[Mr. Crookshank.]

Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)

If my right hon. and hon. Friends do not discuss this Motion at any length this afternoon, it is not for lack of subjects which we should like to debate. There are a great many such. There is, for instance, the extraordinary speech of the Minister of Education, which has aggravated an already difficult situation among the teachers, and is now, in fact, leading to some schools being closed altogether, or at any rate being temporarily closed; and there is the menacing situation in foreign affairs in many parts of the world. However, it is already quarter-past four and the debate on civil aviation is, therefore, very late in beginning. I rise really only to ask the Lord Privy Seal whether he will give us an assurance that, should the situation in the Middle East or Cyprus deteriorate, arrangements will be made without delay for the recall of Parliament?

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Harry Crookshank)

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman is, of course, that that is provided for in the Standing Orders nowadays.

Mr. William Warbey (Ashfield)

I do not want to detain the House for very long, but I do think that we should not let this Motion pass without making a further protest not only about the length of the Recess in itself, which, in my view, is too long, but also about the failure of the Government to provide the House with facilities to exercise its rights in maintaining democratic control over the foreign affairs of this country. We have just learned from the statement on business for the week following the Recess that it will not be possible to have a general debate on foreign affairs until after the Prime Minister returns from Washington. Our last general debate on foreign affairs was held in July of this year, which means there will have been no general debate for a period of over six months. I must say that this is treating the House and the people with something like contempt.

It is perfectly true that we had a debate on Cyprus which impinged slightly on foreign affairs, but that debate was very largely a waste of time because the Government told us that the negotiations were going on when, in fact, they had already ended. We had a debate on the Middle East in which the Foreign Secretary told us nothing, in place of clarity gave us cliches and in place of wisdom gave us wind. We have had no opportunity at all to consider what my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) has already referred to, namely, the very important range of matters raised at the conference of Foreign Ministers at Geneva.

Here we have the whole issue of this vast world conflict reaching a much more acute stage than for some time, with no opportunity whatsoever to discuss it. I think that we should have had from the Government at least an indication of the present situation in regard to disarmament. What is the present situation, and what are the future prospects, in regard to Germany and European security? Above all, what is the Government's view about the very serious deterioration of the general relationship between the Communist bloc and the Western World?

We have all taken note of the rather strange Cook's tour of Mr. Bulganin and Mr. Kruschev in Southern Asia. We have heard some rather silly speeches from Mr. Kruschev, but their salesmanship may be rather more effective in the long-run than has at first appeared, and we should like to know—and, in fact, we think it is urgent to know—from the Government what is their view about the way in which this new form of competition should be met. We have had no explanation at all of why the Geneva Conference broke down so completely as it did. What is the responsibility of the Government in this matter? Why has our foreign policy changed since the Prime Minister handed over to the Foreign Secretary? Why has it changed in both direction and method? We ought to have some answers to those questions. We ought to know why the Foreign Secretary is now engaged in hotting up the cold war instead of cooling it off.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman seems to be making a speech on foreign affairs under the guise of asking a question on this Motion. Foreign affairs is not really the Question before the House.

Mr. Warbey

I defer to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. I was merely indicating one or two of the questions we had wanted to put to the Government, which should have been answered and could have been answered if we had had a shorter Recess than they are proposing. I think the Government ought to be able to give us some information about this.

Before I finish, I should like to refer to one specific matter on which we should have had a statement, and which is related to foreign affairs. This afternoon, we have had statements on a variety of matters. Ministers have come forward and volunteered statements. We have had one, for example, on the Sudan, which we were all pleased to hear, but I was extremely surprised to find that we had no statement at all about the negotiations which had been taking place between this country and Jordan. There is the most alarming news from Jordan, and we have to get all our information about this from the Press. We understand that negotiations have been taking place with a view to Jordan being asked to participate in the Bagdad Pact. Is that a fact? We ought to know that. We understand that riots have been taking place in Amman, and as a result of those riots a British bank has had its windows smashed. That is surely a matter with which this House should be concerned.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that these matters come into the question as to whether or not the House, at its rising tomorrow, do adjourn till Tuesday, 24th January. The hon. Gentleman is quite entitled to argue against that and to suggest subjects of sufficient importance requiring debate which necessitates the House resuming earlier, but we do not want to go into the merits of those matters or to ask for details. That would be going beyond the Motion.

Mr. Warbey

With very great respect, Mr. Speaker, I think it is customary on occasions like these to take the opportunity of putting to the Government questions on a number of points of public importance on which we have had no information and on which information should have been given and could have been given if the House were sitting longer. I submit that, whatever you may have ruled about the earlier parts of my speech, this at least is a point of considerable substance and is well within the terms of the Motion.

We are informed by the Press—I do not think the Government would deny it —that the Chief of the Imperial General Staff went recently to Amman in order to negotiate with the Jordan Government the association of Jordan with the Bagdad Pact. We are informed—again in the Press, but no information has been given to the House although we had a debate on the Middle East only last week when an opportunity occurred—that the Jordan Government have been seeking an addition to the subvention of £10½ million a year which is already given to them by this country. We understand from the Press that the Jordan Government were informed that if they wanted this additional subvention they had better join the Bagdad Pact. Is that the case or not? We ought to know whether the Government have been exercising this kind of pressure on one of our associated and allied countries in the Middle East.

We now learn that two Governments have been overthrown in the course of a week and that riots are now taking place, as a result of which thousands of pilgrims are this year being debarred from visiting Bethlehem, and, of all times, at this time of the year.

This is a state of affairs which has arisen as a result of the actions of the Government. We really ought to know why the Foreign Secretary has put another country in the Middle East into turmoil in order to pursue his current hot war policy. We ought to be given an opportunity to question the Government on this matter. We ought to have a statement. Above all, we ought once again to exercise the right that this Parliament used to have of having some democratic control over this country's foreign policy.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

Since my object in speaking is to provide more Parliamentary time for debate, it goes without saying that I shall not speak a moment longer than is necessary.

I want to register two protests. I want to reinforce what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Warbey) about the fact that there has been no general foreign affairs debate since July. This has been underlined by the fact that the Foreign Secretary has taken to the wireless by means of a party political broadcast to communicate to the nation his own foreign policy. This is a disrespect to Parliament. It holds us up to ridicule and contempt if a party centre is to provide time for a broadcast about the foreign policy of the Government which has not been put before the House.

The second point deals not with issues of great public policy in the sense of Government policy or legislation, but with private Members' time. Week after week on Fridays I sit here with many other hon. Members hoping that the Leader of the House will say that time has been found for this or that Motion. Constantly we are told that it cannot be done and that conversations must take place through the usual channels. There are many hon. Members—I am one—who would be willing to come back one week earlier to debate, not, perhaps, great affairs of State —it may be that the Government reshuffle will lead to such a state of affairs that we shall not be able to discuss Government policy—but private Members' matters.

I will give an example of a matter of the gravest urgency which has emerged today. We understand from the Home Secretary that, although he has not yet been able to reach any decision on the question as to whether three men were wrongly convicted, he is, at any rate, in some doubt about it. Had the men been sentenced on a capital charge, there would have been no redress open to them because they would have been executed. Consequently, the Leader of the House ought to give us an assurance that, if a statement is made by the Home Secretary granting a pardon to these men, the House should be recalled at once for the sole purpose of discussing capital punishment.

I will give no other example, but I hope that we shall have some satisfaction from the Government in the matter.

Air Commodore A. V. Harvey (Macclesfield)

One has for many years heard similar pleas from the Opposition benches before Christmas and the Summer Recess. Now we have a new leader of the Labour Party, perhaps we can hear what he has to say so that we can ascertain whether he is in agreement with his back benchers.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

It is a pity that the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey) was not here a little earlier, when he might have heard the views which he now wishes to be expressed.

The Motion asks us to agree to the House rising tomorrow and adjourning until Tuesday, 24th January. That is a fairly long holiday. I do not think there is a more popular holiday than that taking place in Glasgow today. The Government have reached an all-time high in popularity among the Glasgow schoolchildren, for 175,000 of them are having a half-holiday today to permit their teachers to make certain protests.

I would point out to the Leader of the House that what will be discussed in Glasgow will be, among other things, the refusal of the Government to make time available for the House to consider how badly they have handled the subject of the discussion of Scottish aspects of the Teachers (Superannuation) Bill. I see no reason why the House should not return two or three days earlier to enable us to have that discussion. At the recent by-election in Scotland, the Government proclaimed to Scotland that no Government was more obsessed with the idea of giving full democratic expression to the wishes of the Scottish people, and they said that Scottish matters would be dealt with efficiently in the Scottish Standing Committee. Yet we find that the first Bill dealing with major Scottish matters is sent to a Standing Committee on which there are only three Scottish representatives, and that whenever the Scots try to speak the Minister of Education moves the Closure.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Is not the Scottish position further complicated by the fact that two Standing Committees dealing with Scottish matters are meeting at the same time? Is it not the case that, after the Recess, the Scottish Standing Committee will meet in Westminster Hall and some hon. Members will have to run to and fro to another Standing Committee?

Mr. Ross

I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will issue us with roller skates so that we may get backwards and forwards in time.

The reason for the difficulty expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) is the position of intransigence taken up by the Leader of the House and the Government's declaration that they cannot spare time. If the Government have not sufficient time to allow Scottish hon. Members properly to discuss Scottish aspects of the Teachers (Superannuation) Bill, why should we have a month's Recess? It must be very difficult for Scottish teachers meeting in Glasgow to be told that the reason for the arrangement is that the Government are so busy that they have to deal with these subjects in Standing Committee and, because the Scottish Standing Committee is dealing with one Bill, Scottish superannuation provisions have had to be crammed into an English Bill. This does not fit in with the fact that the House of Commons is going into Recess for a month.

The Scottish aspects of the Bill do not arise until Clause 21. Judging by present progress, it will be 1958 before we get to that Clause. This Motion might be accepted, and be justified, if we thought that during the Recess the Government would give a little more attention to the needs of Scotland and, in particular, to the need for a separate discussion on teachers' superannuation. If the Leader of the House will give us an assurance that the subject is not closed and that, prior to any discussion, it may be possible for Ministers to have a talk and come to the conclusion that it would be far better in the interests of democracy if the Scots discussed their own Bill, time might be saved after the Recess, because Scottish hon. Members would not constantly be rising to ask for this separate discussion.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I do not desire to detain the House for more than a few minutes. That is all the more easy of achievement because the two points which I wish to make have already been touched upon by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Warbey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). As to the first point, it must be unprecedented in our Parliament for the House to be asked to go away for a rather lengthy holiday without having had a statement from the Foreign Secretary about a very, very important international conference which concluded many, many weeks ago.

If one recalls the world-wide hopes which centred on that conference and the extreme despondency which seems to have settled down since the break-up and apparent failure of the conference, it must be without precedent that Parliament should receive no report from the Foreign Secretary on, and have no opportunity whatever to express any opinion about, any of the really important issues that arise.

This unusual state of affairs is emphasised by two matters. One is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East has already said, that the Foreign Secretary devoted a broadcast of a few minutes to it. The second is that there are clear indications, which have not been denied though there have been opportunities to deny them, that before the House reassembles the Foreign Secretary who is responsible may not be the Foreign Secretary any more. Before he goes, surely Parliament should have an opportunity of hearing from him as the responsible Minister, not in some other capacity, an account of his stewardship in this matter.

One can understand that after the result of it, he may not desire to face Parliament as a Foreign Secretary. He may prefer to face it in some other capacity, or perhaps other people may prefer that he should do so, but whatever the truth of that may be, from the point of view of the House of Commons there ought to be an assurance by the Government that the Foreign Secretary who was responsible for what occurred, shall, as Foreign Secretary, make his report to the House of Commons and give the House an opportunity to discuss the matter. That is the first point.

The second, although a matter of great public importance, is not a matter in which the Government as such are involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East referred to Bills and Motions by private Members. The House did me the great honour to allow to pass without a Division a Motion for the First Reading of a simple Measure for the amendment of the criminal law. One does not wish to attach too much importance to that, or to assert that the House did more on that occasion than it can fairly be said to have done. Nevertheless, it did by its vote express its approval that this legislation should be initiated.

Beyond that, there has since been upon the Order Paper a Motion asking for facilities for the Second Reading of that Bill.

[That this House would welcome an opportunity to consider a Motion that the Death Penalty (Abolition) Bill be read a Second time.]

I concede at once that when Members sign a Motion asking for facilities for a Second Reading they are not necessarily indicating whether they would or would not vote for that Second Reading, but they are quite clearly expressing a desire that the opportunity to pass the Second Reading shall be afforded.

That Motion has been signed by 220 or 230 Members of the House of Commons, that is to say, rather more than one out of every three of all Members of the House, official and unofficial. When one remembers that members of the Government and those associated officially with the Government are by custom precluded from signing a Motion, the proportion of hon. and right hon. Members who have signed this Motion is really quite significantly high. Furthermore, they come from all quarters of the House, and if additional names have not been added to the Motion that is largely because the Prime Minister, a little while ago, promised to find time—he did not quite explain how —at any rate, in some fashion, whereby this question can be again considered.

I hope that the Leader of the House, when he answers the points which have been raised, will be able to tell the House that if we agree to his Motion there will be some hope of the House of Commons having an opportunity of expressing on a free vote its view as to whether this legislation shall be allowed to proceed—I hope in the form for which some sanction has already been given, but, if not in that form, then in some effective form and at some date which will render it possible for legislation to be enacted this Session, should Parliament decide that legislation should he enacted.

If the Leader of the House can give us some assurance on that point, I should not wish to advise the House of Commons not to accept his Motion, but I hope he will not think that I am taking any undue advantage or committing any kind of abuse of a Parliamentary occasion or opportunity if I ask him to use the opportunity, as he may well do, to clarify the Government's intentions in this matter.

Mr. J. Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

After being a Member of the House now for ten years, and having heard the same sort of theme on this kind of occasion from both parties in the House, I am particularly unimpressed by the pleas from the Opposition Front Bench, especially when I feel that such pleas and protestations will not be followed by any action in the Lobby. However, I should like to ask one question of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on a matter about which I am frankly perplexed.

Only a few days ago I read in a newspaper a protest from the chairman of a Royal Commission about the scant notice paid by Governments of both parties to Reports which had been arrived at, in some cases, after many years of hard work in the taking of evidence by a Royal Commission. I therefore thought it opportune to put a Question to the Home Secretary on 13th December to ask him what action he proposed to take at least on one of these Reports. The reply I received, and which I find perplexing was: The Government's legislative programme has been too heavy to allow consideration of the introduction of legislation on this subject." —[OFFICIAL REPORT 13th December, 1955: Vol. 547, c. 166.] This is one of the subjects on which I think the House of Commons is at its best. Lt is a subject which cuts right across party politics and on which many of us have different points of view.

Mr. Benn

What subject?

Mr. Langford-Holt


Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)

I thought that the hon. Member said "petting."

Mr. Langford-Holt

I am at a loss to understand this matter. Perhaps the Leader of the House will take the opportunity of explaining the apparent contradiction in terms between that statement and the Government's position in taking a long Recess. I am sure that, like other hon. Members, I do not want to come back to the House one moment sooner than is necessary, but there is this apparent contradiction between the Home Secretary's statement and the Motion on the Order Paper about our return after Christmas.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Many of us will have our Christmases entirely spoilt, many hon. Members on this side will not be able to eat their Christmas pudding, unless the Leader of the House tells us that he will be with us for a long time after the Christmas Recess. We can hardly leave the precincts of this House with a joyful heart if we think that when we come back somebody else will be telling us what will be the "business for next week" and the time that we are not to have for discussion of different Motions.

I therefore appeal to the Leader of the House to send us home with joyous hearts. We have a great affection for the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that these are not valedictory remarks that I am making. Let the Leader of the House send us all home joyous and happy, so that we can enjoy our Christmas turkey, by saying that he will not go to another place but that he will come back after Christmas and cheer us up with the usual remarks that he has made on Thursdays for a long time.

Mr. John McKay (Wallsend)

I will take only half a minute. I have listened attentively to all the pleas that have been put forward concerning the Motion and the desirability of returning sooner to deal with foreign affairs, Private Members' Bills, capital punishment, and so on. While all these things are very important, it strikes me that there is something much more important and much nearer home, something which touches millions of our own people directly every day of the week. They are feeling the pinch every day of the week.

It is almost twelve months since millions of old people had their National Assistance allowances raised. Since then, the cost of living has gone up and up until these people are now as badly in need as they were before the House agreed to the last increase in allowances. My half minute is simply intended to emphasise that it is high time that the Government put pressure on the Phillips Committee to get its report to this House and should combine with it the question of an increase in the allowances to retirement pensioners.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Harry Crookshank)

I should like very briefly to reply to one or two of the points which have been made, for I realise with what impatience the Opposition wishes to get on to the subject it has selected for debate today, which is civil aviation. If we were to break our holiday short and spend it in the way suggested in the various speeches, it would make a wonderful pudding of a programme, equal even to that to which the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) referred; although what he would do with turkey on Christmas day, I do not know. I did not think that was a day that was celebrated north of the Border. He does not by any chance have the date all mixed up, as some of his speeches are, does he?

Mr. Emrys Hughes


Mr. Crookshank

Perhaps that is the one day in the year when he becomes Welsh. Anyway, the hon. Member knows his own digestion.

We have heard a great many comments, some of which, coming from a loyal Member of the party opposite like the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Warbey), were really body blows at his own Front Bench for not having asked for certain matters to be discussed. A good deal of what the hon. Member said ought to have been directed elsewhere and not at me. Right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite will recognise that during the last few weeks we have been quite generous in the number of days that we have, with the cooperation of all parties, found possible to give to a number of general discussions.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) complains, having seen a letter in The Times, that we have not yet discussed the Report of a particular Royal Commission, it is not true to say that this House does not discuss Royal Commission Reports. During this year we have in fact given two days, one to the Report of the Royal Commission on Scotland and the other to that on Capital Punishment. I really hope that we may now pass on to the business of the day.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) repeated the protest he had made to me about the Clauses in the Education Bill dealing with Scotland. Once more, I can only say that I have nothing to add to what I said previously. As regards the very clever way, as usual, in which the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) managed to bring in his pet subject in the hope of drawing me to make a statement about the form of any debate which might take place, I am afraid I am not being drawn on that. I can only refer the hon. Member to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 24th November, from which the Government have not receded.

Mr. S. Silverman

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that I was asking not only about the form but about the date?

Mr. Crookshank

Exactly. If the hon. Member reads what my right hon. Friend said on 24th November he will find the answer.

This Christmas Recess is exactly the same length as it was last year. The House then accepted this as being a reasonable period at this time of the year for hon. Members to refresh themselves and to refresh their contacts with their constituents. I only hope that in doing so they will have a very happy Christmas, and perhaps we shall all have a happy New Year in consequence.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House, at its rising Tomorrow, do adjourn till Tuesday, 24th January.