HC Deb 17 February 1955 vol 537 cc673-91

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

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Wigg

This is a very important Clause, because upon it hangs the life of the Bill. Until 1952 the situation was that, year by year, the House passed into law, with the passing of the annual Army Bill, a code of law for the Army which was fantastically out of date. It may have been all right when our Army was composed of volunteers, but once we had a conscript Army it certainly seemed that the House of Commons had a direct responsibility to see that its military law was up to date. My right hon. and hon. Friends therefore discharged their duties as an Opposition—I have always held the view that it is the duty of an Opposition to do so; it is one of its great constitutional rights—and the Government accordingly set up a Select Committee to consider the matter. This Bill is its work.

The Clause advocates that the House shall maintain its statutory rights by having an annual debate upon an affirmative Resolution, and that at the end of a period of five years the Bill shall expire and the Government will have to come forward with a new one. In that way the House of Commons will be able to maintain effective control; there will be an opportunity to debate the Bill, and each year the Government must either ask for an extension of time or bring in a new Bill.

The Select Committee recommended something which, so far, the Government have given no definite signs of accepting. The Committee recommended that a Standing Order should be adopted which would require, after the Second Reading debate in the Army Bill's fifth year, that it should be submitted to a Select Committee. On a previous occasion the Secretary of State for War referred to me as a Buchmanite, because I was always honest about this matter. Having caught the Government in 1952, I was most anxious that my right hon. Friends, who will shortly become the Government once more, shall not be caught in the same way. In other words, I wanted to keep the Bill up to date but, at the same time, to put a safety catch upon it—that is the right hon. Gentleman's phrase; not mine—in the form of a Standing Order.

There is no need for me to weary the Committee any further. I should have thought that the House has not surrendered anything, and that the Army has certainly gained something, by the Clause in its new form. We have not lost any of our democratic control of the Armed Forces. If the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to declare the Government's honourable intention upon the issue of the Standing Order, I am sure that my right hon. Friends will accept the Clause not only in the letter but in the spirit of the unanimous recommendation of the Select Committee.

Mr. Head

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) for referring to this matter because, as I said during the Second Reading debate, there is nothing between the intentions of the hon. Member and the Government regarding the Bill. It is a question of machinery. The hon. Member, with considerable ingenuity and, I have no doubt, a great deal of work, devised a machinery, and that is to what he has referred in his remarks.

The point at issue is that this Bill, which has lain fallow for many years, was brought forth by chance as a result of the discussion on the 22-year engagement. I do not know whether the initiative came from the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) or the hon. Member for Dudley himself, but they said "Here is the finest imaginable natural opportunity for filibustering which has ever come before the House of Commons," and, after introducing a batch of Amendments that looked like a novel by Ethel M. Dell, they proceeded to do it. That is how this Bill was born.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, both sides of the Committee are anxious about three things. The first is that it does not really make sense to have a serious and important piece of Service legislation so out of date. Nor do we wish it to be an instrument for party political filibustering. Nor do we want both sides of the House to be so frightened about it as to put it in such a state that, from now on, it will lie fallow for another 100 years. In these objects we are united.

The hon. Gentleman, exactly on the lines, spirit and object, of that policy tried to devise a safety catch, and it is with regard to the safety catch that the problem arises. The hon. Gentleman's safety catch stems from three things. Firstly, it stems from the five-year period, which is stated in the Clause; secondly, from the appointment of the Select Committee, which, judging from the only experience which we have of this particular one, tends to reduce the heat, and provides a non-partisan, sensible, logical and all-party appreciation of the problem; and thirdly, it provides for a Standing Order which will say to the Government, "Do not be too frightened to amend it when you think you should, because there is a Standing Order which says that on the Committee stage, you will have only one day, and another for Report." These are roughly the three contributory parts of the safety catch.

If it were possible for one Parliament to bind another, I think that there would be a really strong case for adopting the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but I have been into this matter most carefully with a great many experts. The result is that, although our intentions are the same as those of the hon. Gentleman, it is the fact that one can drive, not one coach and horse, but three coaches and horses through the safety catch.

Let us take it this way. The Government may say, "We do not want this to go before a Select Committee," or, "We have had a Committee, and we will let it lie fallow." They need only bring in a one-Clause Bill to say, "For five, read ten." Secondly, if we introduce a Standing Order for this Parliament, a new Government can throw it away at the beginning of the next Parliament. Lastly, the appointment of a Select Committee must, and always will, be the responsibility of the Parliament of the day.

What I wish to say, on behalf of this Government—and no Government has ever been able under our procedure to bind another—is that we are at one with the hon. Gentleman in his intention. I repeat that this important piece of Service legislation should be kept up to date, that the fear of introducing them into this House should not deter the Government from doing the necessary amendments for keeping it up to date, and that the principle of appointing a Select Committee in order to avoid controversy is one in which we agree. Lastly, it may be, and I think always will be, up to the Government to adopt the hon. Gentleman's suggestion regarding a Standing Order, which may be a safeguard and a reassurance which the Government at the time feel they should have. It is an ingenious suggestion, and we take note of it. There it is for any Government which seeks reassurance.

We are agreed in principle, but I think that all hon. Members who consider it carefully will also agree that to attempt in this Parliament to bind another Parliament would be unwise. A Government of the future could drive a coach-and-four straight through it. We take in principle the suggestions that the hon. Member has made, while leaving to a Government of the future the task of finding a way to ensure that the Act is kept up-to-date and does not become a matter for party filibustering.

Mr. Paget

I do not think the right hon. Gentleman's three coaches are correct. Let us see. The first one is that of just inserting an Amendment and saying "for 'five' read 'ten'." A Government who tried that would not save time. We should put down an Amendment, "Except as to Clause 1," and so on. When we reached "Except as to Clause 226" we should have done quite an amount of work. If we tried to do that, and I think it would be within the rules of order, it would provide an opportunity for obstruction to the Opposition such as this House has never seen. That is what I understand the right hon. Gentleman wishes to avoid.

It is true that one Parliament cannot bind another, but if one Parliament introduced a Standing Order for the protection of the Government it is unlikely that the next Parliament would wipe that protection away because, on the whole, Parliament does what the Government ask it to do. I therefore do not think that the reasons given by the right hon. Gentleman are very substantial. I urge him to adopt, as he has done in a broad way, the suggestion which originated from the very careful words of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), which were adopted by the Select Committee, with the advice of experts from the Table.

This protection is not 100 per cent. In a sovereign Parliament nothing can be 100 per cent., as it can always be changed, but it is quite unlikely to be changed and ought to be adopted. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept it.

Mr. Head

I have not yet finished, so perhaps I could make these points on what the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has said. He has mentioned Amendments like "Except as to Clause 1."It shows legal ingenuity, but although I cannot get advice on hypothetical legal cases, nevertheless, by the telepathic process which takes place in this House, I know that there is at least some doubt as to whether the hon. and learned Gentleman is right.

He said that it would be better for the Government to introduce a Standing Order now as it would be there for any Government who would be likely to use it. That argument is equally applicable the other way. A Government could say, "It is now 1960. The Army Act is about due. Let us put down the Standing Order of the hon. Member for Dudley and enforce it." It would be there, and it could be done by any Government. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate to a considerable extent how it would work. We cannot speak from personal experience. It would be rather like the troop trials of a rifle; we can only tell what it is like when it has been operating for some time.

Mr. Paget

If a Government introduced this new method it would have to give a day for disccussion. Governments are a bit mean about days. If it were there already, it would be part of the procedure, so why not introduce it?

9.45 p.m.

Mr. John Strachey (Dundee, West)

This Clause raises points of considerable constitutional interest. I want to comment on only two of them. On the one which the Committee is debating at the moment, I will only say that, although I was not a member of the Committee, it certainly seems strange to us that the Government are refusing steadfastly—I will not say obstinately—to introduce a provision which is designed to prevent or limit possible obstruction. It seems strange that the Government should find it so difficult to accept that.

I agree that some future Parliament could undo the Committee's work if they accepted the Committee's proposed Clause now. I would agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) that this is something which one would have thought the Government would welcome as part of the general settlement, if I may call it so, for future procedure on the Army Act. It is certainly strange that they do not want to have it.

The other point is this. I think that we have followed with some interest the learned correspondence in "The Times" on this issue. The letter that most interested me was the one which, while welcoming some features of this new arrangement, said that a regrettable sign was the altering of the old Army Act procedure which had been one of the buttresses of the democratic Parliamentary system of this country, as it was one of the things which compelled the Executive always to summon Parliament, at least every 12 months, because, if they did not, they would have no Army.

I think that the fears of the learned writer in "The Times" were actually unnecessary, because, as I read this Clause, the Government must still summon Parliament in order to get its affirmative Resolution passed. I think that on this point it might be worth while to note that this is so if only to reassure the doubts of the learned correspondent in "The Times." I think that, remote though the contingency is, it would be a pity if we took away even one of the numerous provisions which, in fact, the Executive have for summoning Parliament. As I say, we are not doing that, and I think that that is well safeguarded by subsections (3) and (4).

Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)

I think that it was before you, Sir Charles, took the Chair that the Secretary of State for War compared those of us who put down this Amendment to characters in the novels of Ethel M. Dell. If he will permit me to return the compliment, I would say that the right hon. Gentleman resembles a character in the novel of that equally great novelist Ouida. He will remember the description of the university boat race in which the Oxford Eight were all described as rowing fast, but none so fast as the stroke. The right hon. Gentleman is, I think, in this case the stroke. He is well ahead of everyone else, and the rest of us are still trying to catch up.

There are two points which I wish to make about this Clause. The first is regarding what will be discussable on the annual Resolution which renews the Act. It is important that while we shall not have more than one day's discussion, there should, at least, be a day available for the discussion of any current grievances. Anyone who has had experience of the Army or of the Air Force knows that there are always grievances about church parades or about this, that, and the other.

Therefore, if a statutory Resolution comes forward, it should not be in such a narrow form that it would have to be said, "You have to decide to have this Army or no Army." This Clause needs a little looking at to see that it is so drawn as to fit in with the spirit which the Committee intended. I think it is rather a matter of the conventions of the House. We all know that on certain matters, by moving the Speaker out of the Chair, we can discuss all sorts of things which normally we could not discuss. If it is thought, as it may be, that this Resolution procedure gives some opportunity for discussion, as by established tradition we have a little debate on the Army or the Air Force, it may be that time is well employed.

It would be unfortunate if we did not say just a word as to the intention of the House in passing this provision; that at any rate each year there should be some discussion on the Army, and that the Motion should not be of such a formal nature that no matters could be discussed. The rule at present is that the discussion can go on until 10 o'clock, but if one looks at the time spent in previous years the time might just as well not be fixed at that hour.

If I might say so without being out of order, Sir Charles, I hope that subsequent Orders will let us deal with the three Forces. It is rather an anomaly to see on the first the name of the First Lord of the Admiralty. I do not know why that is so. I thought he stood for the principle that in these matters there should be no legislation, but that all should be done by Prerogative. In that case he is rowing even faster than is the right hon. Gentleman—as, indeed, befits one who carries a silver oar.

Perhaps I may come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) that surely it is a matter for this House to decide, by agreement between both parties, what are the appropriate Standing Orders. As you well know, Sir Charles, there are Standing Orders still in force which were passed in 1667 or 1668—I am not quite sure which. At any rate they have not been objected to by either party since then, though indeed they obstruct many of us when we hope to make speeches, for example on a Money Resolution. If such a tradition can be accepted, it seems reasonable that the House should, in agreement between both sides, and on the basis which the Select Committee put forward, agree to a Standing Order.

If, in fact, in the experience of the House, the Standing Order does not result in the examination of Army problems, the House as a whole could alter it. It is hypocrisy to say on the one hand how wonderful it is to have a Standing Order on which we have agreed, and then, when we try to apply that procedure in one of the more difficult things, to say, "We cannot bind future Parliaments." We shall bind future Parliaments by saying that they shall be denied their annual opportunity for discussion.

We should have something rather stronger from the right hon. Gentleman; some undertaking, at any rate, that there will be inter-party consultations, that if the form of the Standing Order approved by the Select Committee is not one that receives approval there will at any rate be an arrangement by which there will be discussions before this Bill becomes law about an appropriate form of Standing Order. I do not want to divide the Committee on this matter now, but I hope that the Secretary of State will look further into the matter. I think I probably speak for many of my hon. Friends on this side when I say that his answer is not really very satisfactory.

The Clause was introduced on the basis that there would be some such agreement as that mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley. If that is not so, then perhaps it is better to go back to the annual Army Act, even if it does occupy the time of the House.

I hope that the Secretary of State for War will give further consideration to this matter. If he feels that the proposals put forward by the Select Committee are not altogether acceptable we shall have to have some other arrangement, or a Standing Order can be put down for discussion by the House, either in the form suggested by my hon. Friend or in some other form.

If the House later feels it should not be bound by it, it can be repealed, as the House repealed the Standing Order which said that we should sit in St. Stephen's Chapel on the first day of every Session. It is a mark of our democracy that we can among ourselves decide on the best way to discuss our business. The right hon. Gentleman is not doing justice to Parliament if he refuses to consider a Standing Order.

Mr. A. Henderson

I am sure the Secretary of State for War must realise by now that those of us on these benches who sat on the Select Committee are extremely disappointed with the reply he has given tonight. This question of how we should deal with the Army Act in future years was given the most serious and careful consideration by hon. Members on both sides of the House who were members of the Select Committee. I think that, with one exception, we came to a unanimous agreement which resulted in our putting forward what I would call a package which contained the three proposals to which my hon. Friend the-Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has referred.

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will not mind me suggesting that the credit for this very excellent suggestion and the detailed proposals which are based on the original concept resulted not only from the work of my hon. Friend but also from the very excellent advice and help given by the previous Clerk of the House, Sir Frederic Metcalfe. Certainly the Select Committee is very grateful for the assistance it received from Sir Frederic.

The Secretary of State is missing a great opportunity. As he knows, the whole of the deliberations of the Select Committee were conducted on a non-party basis, or above party, which, as I said on one occasion, made it almost a miniature Council of State. The Report which was submitted to the House by the Select Committee emphasises that approach. It says that it was felt that such periodic examination in the less partisan atmosphere of a Select Committee was likely to result in the legislation being kept more up to date and to give less opportunity for criticism or amendment of a partisan or obstructive nature than if the Bills were to proceed straight to a Committee of the whole House, as has hitherto been the practice.

I was surprised to learn that the Secretary of State was so pessimistic. One of his main reasons for not going on with the proposals for a new Standing Order was, as he said, that another Government could drive a coach and horses through it, that another Government could either make use of it or take what he called evasive action. It seems as if one of the reasons why the Secretary of State and his colleagues are not prepared to accept responsibility for it at the moment is that they do not anticipate being in office after the next Election, because if they were confident of being the Government after the next Election his argument would not hold water.

If the right hon. Gentleman agrees in principle with the proposal for a Standing Order, and he and his hon. Friends are satisfied that they will be there in the next four or five years, they would propose this change knowing that they will be.there at the end of the quinquennial period. Surely the Secretary of State does not seriously suggest that the fact that a Government in five years time might have different ideas about dealing with the Army Act or the Air Force Act in a non-partisan way and, therefore, might have no use for the Standing Order, is any reason for not proposing it now if he and his hon. Friends agree with the idea behind it. Otherwise, that argument would apply to any amendment of Standing Orders. A Government later on might take a different view and might seek either to evade or to amend the Standing Orders.

10.0 p.m.

Therefore, I endorse what my hon. Friends have said, and I hope that between now—[Interruption.] May I have some attention from the Government Front Bench? Three of its members seem to be engaged in conversation.

The Solicitor-General

That is quite usual here.

Mr. Henderson

It may be on that side of the Committee. This is a serious matter. We have tried to keep it off a controversial basis. Therefore, I hope that the Secretary of State and his colleagues will give serious consideration to the point I am making.

I do not want to suggest that there is any question of a breach of faith, because the right hon. Gentleman was very forthcoming as far as he put his personal point of view. But as I said earlier—and I think the Chairman would agree with me, because it is in the Report—in a sense this was a package composed of three ideas. The Government have accepted two and have rejected the third. There- fore we feel, especially at this late stage of the Bill, that we are not getting the treatment that we hoped to get for the basis of the Bill, embodying the main recommendations in the Select Committee's Report and what, we think, was a sine qua non of that part of the Report with which we are dealing. Therefore, I hope that before Report stage the right hon. Gentleman will give the most serious consideration to the suggestions that have been put from this side and let us end our deliberations on the Bill in that atmosphere of sweet reasonableness and agreement that has characterised our proceedings.

Mr. Head

I feel very much, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman does, that we have now got to the last fence, and I would like to go over it on the same horse, or whatever the correct analogy is. The easy thing for me would be to say that I would consider the question on Report stage. I do not believe that would be right for me to do, for this reason.

The first point is that I think hon. Members opposite are, and I understand it, a little suspicious about this. Let me put it this way. One of two things will happen in the next Parliament. We shall be either the Government or in opposition—I am not talking personally; I am talking about my party. For the purposes of this discussion, that is a reasonable assumption.

If we on this side form the Government, we have and know—and I have expressed the fact—a method, namely the Select Committee and the Standing Order, which enables the Government within five years to deal with this as the Select Committee and the general discussion have shown is believed to be the best way. On the other hand, we might form the Opposition. If we are to form the Opposition, I would say that the Government of the time has equally the opportunity of safeguarding itself in exactly the same way. I cannot see that from our own purely party point of view we can be accused of running away from something.

I do not think it has been said at all that this was recommended by the Select Committee for the consideration of the House; it was not an actual firm recommendation. It is quite new in an Act of such wide repercussions as the Army Act—it is a considerable departure from previous Parliamentary experience—to put down a Standing Order which limits the period of discussion of legislation of that type to, say, one day in Committee and one day on Report. That is a considerable innovation and departure from any previous Parliamentary practice on Measures of legislation of the magnitude and width of the Army and Air Force Act.

Mr. A. Henderson

Surely the right hon. Gentleman is not serious when he seeks to justify his attitude because of the fact that the Report of the Select Committee with regard to the Standing Order was only a recommendation to the House, for that applies to the whole of the Report and it applies to the Bill itself. Surely he will not differentiate on that basis.

Mr. Head

I was not present at the deliberations of the Committee, but I believe that there was a good deal of discussion on this question and it was felt that there was a good deal in it and that it was a matter which should be looked into. I said on Second Reading, and I was quite frank and honest with hon. Members, that in principle we were in sympathy with and agreed with the objectives of the Committee and of the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). I also said quite clearly that it was a very difficult problem of machinery to make this safety catch. One does not want to go too far with hypothetical cases, but one can conceive conditions in which some fundamental alteration to the Army Act was made by the Government and the House of Commons would find itself, by Standing Order, in a position of being confined in its discussion to a very limited period of time.

Mr. Wigg

I am sure that my hon. Friends had no intention of putting in the Bill a Standing Order and, of course, we understood on the earlier proceedings that the Government were still to make up their minds. The Secretary of State for War says that he feels that some of my hon. Friends are suspicious of the Government, but I think that he is being a little suspicious of us. We did all that we wanted to do to the Government in 1952, and this is the result. Now, quite honestly, and I am sure that I speak for my hon. Friends, having done that, all we want to do is to get this subject on a non-party basis.

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. and right hon. Friends are quite aware of the concessions we made in the Select Committee. We were concerned with something fundamental in dealing with this suggestion. I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he would be kind enough to consult his hon. and right hon. Friends and the Prime Minister with a view to opening up discussions through the usual channels with my right hon. Friends to see whether an all-party solution can be found. If he did that, he would make everyone very happy and bring the proceedings to an end in the spirit in which we have tried to carry them out.

Mr. Head

I am perfectly prepared to meet the hon. Member and any of his right hon. Friends. We could discuss something and I could see whether the Government could find a formula. It is very unusual to limit discussion to a period of days on what might be highly controversial in the way of what one could do to the Army Act. I do not speak in the slightest way with my tongue in my cheek when I say that I will discuss it further with the hon. Member and see whether something cannot be devised, but I should be less than honest if I did not say that I had discussed the matter in its present state and that we do not feel that this is a really satisfactory or practical solution. If we discussed the matter between now and the Report stage we might be able to think of something which would be acceptable, but beyond that I am not prepared to go.

Mr. Wigg

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but this is much too hot for me to hold, though any contribution I could make I should be only too glad to make. Discussions should take place through the usual channels between the party leaders. The point at issue is one of a fundamental character, and there should be discussions between the senior members of the parties and not with "ragamuffins" like myself.

Sir P. Spens

I want to emphasise first of all to the Committee that this was an agreed solution to a very difficult problem. There was a number of alternatives put in front of us, one of which was that we should have one permanent Act going on ad infinitum like an ordinary Act of Parliament to be amended from time to time, retaining one or two Clauses for an annual Army Act. We tried to find a solution to get away from the ordinary procedure year after year of the ordinary Army Act. This proposal was the best solution we could find, and I hope that it will be possible to get an agreed solution to this very difficult problem.

I would not be honest with my colleagues from the other side of the Committee if I did not say that they made very considerable concessions in order that we should get agreement to this solution, and I cannot believe that it is not possible to get an agreed solution on the lines suggested in our Report. I personally feel that far more important than machinery is to get rid of any idea in the country that we are making any substantial alterations to the protection of the liberties of our country. I hope that by this Clause we are in no way diminishing the safeguards which the country has always derived from the annual Army Act.

It has puzzled me why constitutionalists have always thought that our liberties depended on the annual Army Act. It really was very largely a disciplinary Act which dealt with discipline, enlistment, billeting and all sorts of other things. It is perfectly true that if Parliament did not pass the annual Army Act the Army would be brought to a state of absolute chaos, but the fact that concerned us was the voting of the money and the voting of the men. Those two things, the fundamental basis of our safeguards, remain exactly the same. I think the country should realise that nothing we have done diminishes in any way the annual safeguards which come up year after year in the House.

I want to say one other thing about this Clause. We did understand—and I hope everybody understands—that the affirmative Resolution coming up each year will be a second occasion for a full debate on general Army affairs. There is no question of running it, so to speak, with the ordinary Estimates. It will be something quite different and something which will give everyone a chance to bring forward any general points in connection with the Army and the way in which this Bill actually works out from year to year. It is important that that should be so. Subject to that, all I say is that I hope that we shall be able to conclude the proceedings—I have been a little anxious once or twice in Committee —on this Bill in the same way as we were able to conclude them in the Select Committee.

Mr. Head

May I say in reply to my right hon. and learned Friend that nobody is more anxious than I am, in so far as I am able, to emulate his example and his leadership in the Select Committee and end these proceedings on a harmonious note for the benefit of the very excellent Bill which he and his Committee have brought in and which the Government have accepted virtually in toto. I would ask the Committee also not to be suspicious of me or to think that I am being hot. I assure hon. Members that that is not a fact.

10.15 p.m.

Our purpose is identical, particularly so far as I, as a Service Minister, am concerned. What we all want is to keep the Bill up to date and not to have it a matter of controversy in the future. I have taken advice on the governmental side and on the legal side on what is, frankly, quite a problematical case. If hon. Gentlemen opposite were looking at it from this side, I believe they would have another look at it. The Standing Order is an innovation, as any hon. Member who has thought hard about it would agree.

What I want to do and am absolutely prepared to say to the Committee is that I will initiate discussions with whichever hon. Gentleman opposite calls himself the ragamuffin—that is entirely for hon. Members opposite to decide—between now and the Report stage to see if we can reach some agreement which will be acceptable to both sides. Our objects are the same, but at the present stage of examination we do not feel, for the reasons which I have put forward, that the proposal will work. Nevertheless, I am prepared to discuss the matter.

Mr. Bing

The right hon. Gentleman is being a little less than frank with the House.[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am trying to follow in the tradition of moderation set by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens). On the Motion of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Report of the Select Committee was unanimously carried by the House. The right hon. Gentleman is now saying that the Government are unable to carry out the proposal.

Mr. Head

I do not know whether the hon. and learned Gentleman was present during that debate.

Mr. Bing

I was.

Mr. Head

Then perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman did not do me the courtesy of listening to my speech. It will be within the recollection of other hon. Members that I particularly stressed that on this matter—I termed it the "safety-catch"—I could not give any undertaking. I said that twice in my speech. It is unfair to say that I am being less than frank when it will be within the recollection of many hon. Members that I particularly stressed this matter.

Mr. Bing

The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt excuse me. I did him the courtesy of listening to his speech; I merely lacked the intelligence to understand it, and it may well be that other of my hon. Friends were equally ill placed.

It hardly lies in the mouth of the right hon. Gentleman to say that the House could not enact a Standing Order to limit discussion to one day when the Leader of the House has introduced and carried, with the approval of hon. Members on both sides of the House, a Standing Order limiting discussion on Prayers to an hour and a half. What is the difference between saying that important Statutory Orders should be limited to a discussion of an hour and a half and saying that the Report stage or the Committee stage of the Army Bill should be limited to one day? It is an artificial type of distinction to draw. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will bear these matters in mind.

It really was not fair to the House to give the impression—it was certainly the impression left on my mind, and I did my best to understand the right hon. Gentleman's speech—that the Government accepted the Select Committee's Report for good or for ill and then for him at the last moment to draw back from what was one of the most controversial matters. This was one of the matters specifically referred to the Select Committee, and it was on this that we reached an arrangement and a compromise. We were told that the Select Committee's Report was accepted. The right hon. Gentleman has said some rather dubious things which were not clear to some hon. Members and certainly not clear to me. He ought not now to be allowed to draw back from the arrangement that was made.

I do not want to say anything more. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members opposite should remember that we have still 226 Clauses of the Air Force Bill to discuss. If it is their suggestion that we should depart from a bargain to carry this matter through as an agreed Measure, I have a great many comments that I was not able to make on the Clauses in the Select Committee which I should be only too pleased to make to the House of Commons as a whole. So I think that perhaps they might reserve themselves until a little later. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not only give a formal promise to reconsider the matter, but will appreciate that this is a fundamental matter and will for that reason meet the leaders of both parties to try to find an arrangement.

Mr. M. Stewart

I think that the right hon. Gentleman will have realised that there is a good deal of feeling about this matter and will have realised from the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) that this question is not confined to this side of the Committee.

There is a feeling that it is desirable as far as is humanly possible to treat this, as it was put, as a package and, if possible, to carry through all the recommendations of the Select Committee. Certainly this matter of the Standing Order is a very important part of the recommendations.

Although I have been prepared to be as reasonable as possible, I am not convinced by the right hon. Gentleman's argument against having a Standing Order. The essence of his argument was that there was no use in having a Standing Order, because it could not bind a future Government, or future Parliament. If one admitted that argument, we would not make changes in our Standing Orders, because they could be reversed by a future Parliament or a future Government.

We want a definite assertion that this Government and this Parliament are of the opinion that such a Standing Order ought to be in existence. This is not entirely a last ditch on the matter and, if he wants to cross the remaining fences without difficulty, he will pay attention to what I am saying.

He has gone so far as to say that he would be willing to enter into consultations with some my hon. and right hon. Friends. We want him to make a little clearer one other thing he said. In such consultations, would not only he himself but, for example, the Leader of the House be a party? Will he, in view of what has been said tonight on both sides of the Committee, make it clear to his colleagues in the Government that there is rather more feeling on this matter than perhaps he had imagined and that the conclusion to which the Government have apparently come, that a Standing Order is unnecessary, is one which they ought at least to be prepared to reconsider?

We are entitled to ask him that. If he can give us an assurance on those lines, I believe that we can proceed in the spirit of harmony that we all want. But he has not persuaded us that it is undesirable or unnecessary to introduce such a Standing Order. In the light of what has been said, he ought to be prepared to represent the feeling of the Committee on that matter to his colleagues in the Government, so that they and we could try to reach an agreed solution.

Mr. Wigg

As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to offer to have consultations with myself and other of my hon. and right hon. Friends. Subsequently he was kind enough to say that he would do his best to initiate discussions at the level of the Leader of the House, the Leader of the Opposition and the senior members of both parties, to see if an agreed solution could be found.

I think that that is as far as we can expect him to go. I am sorry if my hon. Friends think that I am deserting them on this point, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman has been gracious, if I may say so with respect, in going as far as that. I think that I understand some of his difficulties and if it is, as I understand it to be, his intention to initiate early discussions with senior members of the parties, I would ask my hon. Friends to accept that assurance.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.