§ 10.11 p.m.
|5||That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the practice of moving amendments on going into Committee of Supply upon the Navy, Army, Air and Civil Estimates; the practice relating to Money Resolutions; the extension of the Standing Orders relating to public money to expenditure from Funds partly, but not wholly, financed from the Exchequer, being expenditure not directly involving a charge upon the Consolidated Fund or upon money provided by Parliament; the numbers required to form a Quorum of, and for the Closure in, a Standing Committee; and the constitution of the Scottish Standing Committee, and to report whether any changes are desirable in the Standing Orders, practice or procedure of the House in these matters|
|10||or in matters connected therewith:|
§ The House will remember that on 14th June my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that it was proposed to ask the House to agree to the setting up of a Select Committee to consider certain matters of procedure to which attention had recently been drawn and that a Motion would be tabled in due course. There are four matters which it is proposed should be considered by the Select Committee.
§ The first of these is the practice of moving Amendments on going into Committee of Supply on the Service Estimates. The three days in question are the major annual debates on the Service Departments and they are opened with a very full statement by the Ministers in charge. The argument has been advanced that the value of the debate is impaired by the intervention of the Amendment, usually after only three or four speeches have been delivered, and it is contended that it diverts the attention of the House from the general review on the state of the Service to a matter which, however important it may be, is usually only a limited issue. One example is that which occurred on the Navy Estimates debate, in 1952, when Mr. Follick moved an Amendment to draw attention to phonetic spelling. That is one of the objections. On the other hand, it may be said that the right of private Members, determined by the Ballot, to raise a particular matter is a valuable one which ought not lightly to be abandoned.
§ Representations were made that the matter should be discussed through the 1294 usual channels and on 13th December last the Prime Minister, in answer to a Question by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), stated that exploratory discussions indicated that at that time there was no comprehensive support for an alteration in the practice of the House, but that the Government would certainly consider the suggestion that the matter should be examined by a Select Committee.
§ The second matter is the number required for a quorum and for the closure in Standing Committees. These figures at the moment are respectively 15 and 20, and as the Standing Orders provide for Standing Committees of from 20 to 50, it is considered that the 15 and 20 may be unnecessarily large and proportionately much larger than the figures required in the House itself. The result is that smaller Committees cannot effectively be used on those occasions when it would be desirable to do so.
§ The third matter relates to Scottish business in Standing Committee. We would ask the Select Committee to consider whether the Committee stage of Scottish Bills could more appropriately be considered by a smaller Committee than the full Scottish Grand Committee which is, of course, appreciably greater than any Standing Committee considering equivalent non-Scottish Bills at the Committee stage.
§ The last matter which it is proposed that the Committee should examine relates to Money Resolutions. The Opposition wishes the Committee to consider whether the drafting of Money 1295 Resolutions is unduly restrictive. It is also proposed that the Committee should be asked to examine whether the relevant Standing Orders should be extended to funds partly, but not wholly, financed from the Exchequer, such as the National Insurance Fund. I notice that there are one or two Amendments on the Order Paper which would ask the Committee to undertake a much fuller investigation.
§ I would say on that that when my right hon. Friend announced that he was going to put these four points to the Select Committee he said at the time, and I understand that the Leader of the Opposition agreed, that, in view of the fact that it was only five years since there was a very full investigation by a Select Committee and that a good many of its recommendations had since been implemented, it would not be appropriate, after so short an interval, to have another reference to the Committee of a wider nature than the four points which have been suggested.
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)
The Sir Robert Gower Select Committee on Procedure sat in 1946 and reported in 1947. That is more than five years ago.
§ Major Lloyd-George
I accept that, but the fact is that in any case it is a short period. [An HON. MEMBER: "Ten years."] If the hon. Gentleman looks back he will find that there was one in 1914, another in 1931 and 1932 and the last in 1945. That is my recollection, but I think that is roughly what it was.
§ Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)
In the last 110 years there have been 13 Select Committees, which is more than one every ten years.
§ Major Lloyd-George
I have given the dates from 1914, which is quite a long time back. I would only say to the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), who interrupted me, that this is a matter for the House of Commons.
I am only suggesting that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister thought at the time, and said so, that in his view the time was hardly long enough ago to warrant another investigation into the wider procedure, and that at the time the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition agreed with him. As my right 1296 hon. Friend said at the time, it is a matter for the House of Commons, and, of course, we shall listen to what the House has to say. This is not a party matter at all. My right hon. Friend pointed out that it would be unusual to have a review of so wide a nature so soon after the last one.
We have now reached an advanced point in the life of the Session, but we nevertheless believe that there will be value in setting up the Committee even if there is little prospect of it completing its work until the new Session. The points relating to Supply and the Scottish Standing Committee are ones on which the early recommendations of the Committee will be particularly valuable, and we hope that it may feel able to turn its attentions first to those. I would add, in conclusion, that Ministers will, of course, be ready to put forward views on all the matters if invited by the Select Committee to do so.
§ 10.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)
I beg to move, in line 7, to leave out from "Committee" to "and" in line 8.
I submit that if the whole question of the Scottish Standing Committee is to be referred to the Select Committee, that Select Committee should have on it a far greater proportion of Scottish Members. I should like to know, first, why this proposal has been added rather as an after-thought to this Motion. Those of us who regularly attend the Scottish Standing Committee think that the Committee could be considerably improved.
Those of us who remember the passing through the Committee of the Valuation and Rating (Scotland) Bill know exactly what is wrong with it. One of the things wrong with it, shown during the progress of that Bill, was that three-quarters of hon. Members opposite never appeared in the Committee except to vote. They were absent friends, but that is not one of the faults of the Scottish Standing Committee which the Home Secretary is trying to rectify. We should like to have from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman an assurance that if the Scottish Grand Committee is to be inquired into, the inquiry will be comprehensive and not merely concerned with the aspect to which he referred.
1297 I do not know how many of the proposed members of the Select Committee have had any experience of working in the Scottish Standing Committee. Only three out of the proposed 16 members of the Select Committee are Scottish. There is only one of my right hon. Friends among them and he will be in a hopeless minority in putting the Scottish point of view. In a recent broadcast in which the right hon. Member for Kelvingrove (Mr. Elliot) took part, it was said that the Angles invaded this country and that the acute Angles went north and the obtuse Angles came south. The majority of those who are proposed to be appointed to this Select Committee are obtuse Angles as far as Scottish affairs are concerned.
Many of us would like to put forward constructive amendments which would greatly improve the proceedings of the Scottish Standing Committee. Is the only reference to the Select Committee the one indicated by the Home Secretary? Would we be able to ask the Committee to inquire whether the Scottish Standing Committee could meet in Scotland? That is a matter about which there is a good deal of difference of opinion on both sides of the House.
When I asked the Prime Minister whether this could be discussed, he brushed the matter aside by saying that a Royal Commission had decided against it. With all respect to Royal Commissions, since when has a Royal Commission been empowered to decide the proceedings of the House of Commons? That, finally, should be the prerogative of hon. Members.
There are other aspects of deciding how we can make the Scottish Standing Committee more useful. I have a suggestion which has not received by any means unanimous approval on either side of the House, but which deserves to be examined a little more closely. It is that purely Scottish Questions might be asked and answered in the Scottish Standing Committee. That would be advantageous from two points of view. It would enable Scottish Members more closely to cross-examine the Ministers. We would see the Secretary of State for Scotland a little more often. We would be able to get at the battery of Scottish Under-Secretaries 1298 and find out exactly what were their functions. In that way we would be able to keep a much closer eye on the administration of the affairs of Scotland.
I do not ask for the immediate acceptance of this proposal, but I suggest that if the Scottish Grand Committee is to fulfil its duty to Scotland that would be a useful innovation. Of course, it would be objected to merely because it is an innovation. I understand that it takes about twenty years for an idea, once ventilated, to become practical politics, so I am giving twenty years' notice.
I ask that this question should be examined carefully: would the Scottish Grand Committee not fulfil a more useful function to Scotland if we had an opportunity of getting to closer grips with the administrative and legislative problems of Scotland? If allowed, I am quite prepared to give to the Select Committee evidence that this would be a useful innovation. Here I could appeal to the more obtuse Angles, because it would also serve to transfer a large number of Scottish Questions, dealing with purely Scottish affairs, from the Floor of the House.
We all know that there are now so many Questions on the Order Paper, and there is such difficulty in Mr. Speaker seeing everybody who wants to ask supplementary questions, that the result is that we do not get sufficient supplementary questions, and hon. Members from other parts of the country are apt to be impatient with hon. Members from Scottish constituencies. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I hope I am beginning to get some support.
In addition, it also affects other Ministers—
§ Mr. James McInnes (Glasgow, Central)
Would my hon. Friend explain to us what would be the position of an English Member who is not a Member of the Scottish Grand Committee but who desires to put a Question to a Scottish Minister?
§ Mr. Hughes
I would have no objection to his coming as a sort of fraternal delegate, but that problem so rarely arises in the normal course of Questions that I do not think it would affect my general argument.
1299 What I say is that the affairs of the Scottish Standing Committee are so important that they should not be referred to this Select Committee, which is to consider a large assortment of other matters. If my Amendment is carried, it will be a recommendation to the Government that they should have a special Committee, largely composed of hon. Members from Scottish constituencies, who know the defects of the Scottish Grand Committee, and who would be in a position to bring forward useful and constructive suggestions.
§ 10.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
I beg to second the Amendment.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has played about with angles, acute and obtuse, I shall present an argument which I hope will recommend itself to the House as a rectangle. I wish to suggest some considerations other than those presented by my hon. Friend.
I support this Amendment because it seeks to exclude the Scottish Standing Committee from the terms of reference of the Select Committee. I support it for the following reasons. The Motion embodies ideas which are premature, unfair, confusing and unduly controversial. I say that they are premature because they are designed to affect the Scottish Standing Committee which was constituted comparatively recently. It has been in operation now for only six years. It has done good work. It has never been the object of serious criticism and, in my submission, it should now be left untrammelled to continue the good work which it has done since it was constituted.
I submit that it is bad for Parliament and for public business to tinker with and to alter procedure and institutions until they are given an adequate opportunity, for a considerable time, of being proved in operation. This Standing Committee has not yet had sufficient time to prove itself or to develop defects or to invite adverse criticism. Certainly, it has not invited adverse criticism. The general opinion is that the Scottish Standing Committee has done very well indeed. 1300 Whatever may be said of the other proposals in this Motion, the kind of criticism that can be levelled against them is not the kind of criticism which can be levelled against the Scottish Standing Committee.
In its short existence the Scottish Standing Committee—I say this with particular reference to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire—has developed considerable dialectical thrust. It has shown statesmanship in its approach to the various problems which have come before it. It has provided a dignified and effective way of dealing with the Bills that have come before it, and it has done very effective and useful legislative work. For these reasons, I suggest that it would be completely wrong to attempt to put it within the terms of reference of this proposed Select Committee. The Scottish Standing Committee was set up not in haste, not without preliminary planning, and it has worked well, and we should say to the Government, "Hands off the Scottish Standing Committee."
As the lives of parliamentary institutions go, it is not long since my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn), when Secretary of State for Scotland, introduced the new Standing Orders for Scottish business. He then reviewed the historical rivalries between England and Scotland. He reviewed the violence which had put great strain on the energies of both countries. He reviewed the uneasiness which had continued up to the day when he made that speech, and he expressed the hope that the proposals which he was then making, and which it is now sought to criticise and put before the Select Committee, would be a solution of those problems and would remove the difficulties and rivalries to which he referred.
Those proposals were not put before the House in an unconsidered way. They were put in a careful and deliberative way. He referred to the proposals of Mr. Tom Johnston in the Gilmour Report. He referred to the proposals of the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson Stewart), who is now a Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. He referred to the proposals of the then Member for what was then the St. 1301 Rollox division. He referred to the White Paper which was laid before the House on that subject, Cmd. 7308. So it is perfectly obvious that the proposals put before the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire were put in a considered and deliberate way after taking adequate evidence and doing everything that could have been done to evolve a system and a foundation for the Scottish Standing Committee which would bear the test of time.
Only six years have elapsed since that time, and the Scottish Standing Committee has not had sufficient time, if we judge it by time, in which to develop any defects. On the contrary, it has not developed defects; it has developed strength and good qualities. There is a further point. The proposals laid before the House by my right hon. Friend, which have been acted on ever since, were concessions to Scottish opinion in this matter. They were concessions which have stood their pragmatic test up to the moment, and the present system should not be thrown into a hotchpotch—in my submission, prematurely—and mixed up with various other ingredients in the brew which the Motion tonight presents to the House.
To do so at this early stage in the life of Parliament—and if it is not an early stage in this night at least it is an early stage in the life of the Scottish Standing Committee—would be wrong. It would be an insult to the whole Committee, which consists not only of every Scottish Member of Parliament but of a number of English and Welsh Members. It would be an insult to them and it would be flouting the widespread and intelligent Scottish opinion which supports the Scottish Standing Committee in which every political party is represented.
There is a further reason for saying that it would be premature to include the Scottish Standing Committee in this Motion. There has been no demand for its inclusion from Parliament, from the Committee itself, from the public or from the people of Scotland. The Committee deals exclusively with Scottish affairs. Until there is a demand for a change it should be left out of the terms of reference. It should be left alone 1302 to continue to do the good work which it has done up to the present.
It will be trammelled and intimidated, if anything can intimidate a Scot, by the threat to its existence which its inclusion in the terms of the Motion would constitute. Its powers are adequate. It is doing very well indeed. If there were a demand for reconsideration, I submit that some other steps should be taken before it was included in a Motion such as this. Some of those steps would be these: the Scottish Standing Committee should be asked to consider whether there is anything wrong with it and, if so, what are its defects. It should be able to make recommendations itself. It should formulate its defects, and only after those two reasonable steps have been taken should it then be included in a Motion of this kind.
To include the proposal in this Motion is an insult not only to the Members of the Committee, but to the supporters of the Committee in Scotland and the people of Scotland who value it so highly.
§ 10.40 p.m.
§ Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)
I support the Amendment which has been moved by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). Like him, I do not like the composition of the Select Committee which it is proposed to appoint. It contains only three Members, the right hon. Member for Kelvingrove (Mr. Elliot), the hon. and gallant Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Sir W. Anstruther-Gray) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn), who have any knowledge of the background and atmosphere of Scottish affairs.
I am in no way depreciating the experience and qualities of the other Members of the Committee, but from my experience of eleven years' membership of the Scottish Standing Committee, there is not one Member of the Select Committee other than the three right hon. and hon. Gentlemen to whom I have referred who, at any time, has ever taken part in the work of the Scottish Standing Committee. I am not suggesting that those hon. Members are not interested in it, but their knowledge of the work of this Scottish Committee and their experience of its ways are negligible.
1303 If there is to be any reform of the constitution of the Scottish Standing Committee, it ought to be done by those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have taken part in its work. For that reason, among others, I oppose the inclusion of the words referring to the Scottish Standing Committee in the Motion.
One thing surprises me. I am rather astonished at the absence from the list of the name of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton). In view of his recent activities in Scottish affairs, I should have hoped that he would have been appointed a member of the Select Committee. I hope that the Government will take note of this and, in view of the wide knowledge of Scottish affairs which he has been displaying, perhaps elevate him from below the Gangway to membership of the Select Committee.
The purposes behind the Motion are clear. Every Labour Member of the Scottish Standing Committee is a full-time member. That is not true of hon. Gentlemen opposite. The real purpose is to restrict the activities of Scottish Labour Members who want to display their interest in Scottish educational affairs, Scottish agriculture, Scottish housing and all the other matters which interest hon. Members on this side of the House. The other purpose is to free right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite so that they may pursue their private ventures.
There have been repeated complaints in the Scottish Standing Committee, not only from Scottish Members but from co-opted Members, of being called upon too often to do the Parliamentary work they pledged themselves to do when they sought the suffrages of the electors. The Government seek to aid them by bringing in a constitution which will reduce the number of the Committee and free their colleagues who want to promote their own private wealth. [Interruption.] I am sorry if any Government supporter disputes that statement. It shows that he has no knowledge of what has been going on in the Committee in the last six months. The complaints have almost been voiced in the words I have used.
1304 Reform of the Scottish Standing Committee was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire, and the Government of which he was a member, to elevate its status. The purpose of the present proposals is to diminish the status and responsibility of the Committee. To continue the good work of the Labour Government would mean more work for Government supporters on the Committee, which is what they seek to escape.
Any change in the constitution of the Committee should give it still further power. I should like it to have the form of a Parliament, able to consider Second Readings and Estimates as it now does, with power to remit to appropriate committees for detailed discussion or to the whole Scottish Standing Committee as it sees fit. It should have power to consider Bills on Report, to deal with Third Readings and to send to another place. Then the whole procedure could be formalised, as it must be in the long run, by this House. That is an extension of power which many people think would work and which would raise the tone, increase the interest in, and add to the responsibility of the Committee.
I honestly thought that the Government were thinking on lines of expansion when they added another Minister to the Government Front Bench, but evidently not. They are now proposing to reduce the size of this Committee. That approach is completely wrong. It will diminish when it ought to increase, and lower status when it ought to raise status, at a time when many people in Scotland are demanding increased power and importance for the Committee, which ought to function as a Scottish Parliament. I am not bothering at the moment about its location. I want the establishment of the body, and then the next step would take us back in the long run to a Parliament sitting in Scotland's ancient capital dealing with Scottish affairs. The Secretary of State, strange to say, is running away from Edinburgh. He is not getting nearer to it.
I hope that there will be second thoughts about this Select Committee: I hope that the words to which I am sure all of us on this side of the House object will be taken out and that a special Committee—I am not going further than 1305 that—will be created to deal with a problem that has to be solved in a better way and along better lines than the Government now propose.
§ 10.51 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. James Stuart)
Perhaps I should say, in reply to some of the points which have been raised tonight, that I assure the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) that tabling this Motion was no afterthought on the part of the Government. A great deal of thought has been given to it, and the fact that three Members of the House representing Scottish seats are on the Select Committee, two of whom are members of the Privy Council, shows the importance which has been attached to this matter.
Reference has been made to the changes made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) when he held my office, but I would just say that those affected the business which came before the Scottish Standing Committee and not the constitution of the Committee.
The Government feel—and I think that the House, in general, will agree—that any suggested or possible alteration in the status of a Standing Committee of this House should be a matter for consideration by the Select Committee upon whose advice, if the Select Committee should tender such advice, any change would be based.
The hon. Member for South Ayrshire referred to the views of the last Royal Commission. Of course, the Government must take their own view, but it is not for me to recommend to this House what changes should be made. We would await the advice of the Select Committee. It is not based on the views of the Royal Commission, because it is entirely a matter for the House to decide.
As I say, it is not for me to direct. We merely ask the House to set up the Select Committee to consider possible changes which I hope and believe, if agreed to by this House, would be improvements. As my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary said, we are not giving advice here and now, but if the Select Committee should wish for views they have only to ask members 1306 of the Government and others to give their advice.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes
Is it proposed that this Committee should have a roving commission to inquire into the whole constitution of the Scottish Standing Committee, or is it limited to the specific purposes which were suggested by the Home Secretary?
§ Mr. Stuart
The position today, as the hon. Member doubtless knows, is that after the findings of the Select Committee in 1945, which were implemented to a considerable degree in 1947 by the Labour Government, no change was made in the constitution of the Scottish Standing Committee.
The English Committees were reduced very considerably. I think it is worthy of consideration whether, instead of all Scottish hon. Members having their attention concentrated throughout on purely Scottish business, it would be right and proper that some of them should have some of their time available for sitting and serving on Committees dealing with United Kingdom Bills which apply to Scotland. That is a matter for the Select Committee to consider.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes
I want to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the difference between the sentence sought to be left out and the preceding sentence, which also deals with Standing Committees. The preceding sentence deals in a particular way with three features of Standing Committees in general, whereas the paragraph relating to the Scottish Standing Committee has a wider connotation and refers to the constitution of the Scottish Grand Committee without any limitation whatever.
§ Mr. Stuart
I think I answered that when I said that in 1947 the House agreed to certain proposals of the Select Committee of 1945 dealing with other Standing Committees which did not affect the constitution of the Scottish Standing Committee.
Reverting, as did the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), to the terms of reference of other Committees, at that time in reducing the size of the English Standing Committees, the numbers required for a closure or for forming a quorum, may 1307 have escaped their notice. As the Home Secretary mentioned in his opening remarks, we have to have 20 Members to get a closure. Supposing, as is a possibility even in these days, that the Opposition—of whichever party—refused to take part in discussions in Committee and walked out, it would be very difficult for the Government to proceed with the business. That is the reason English Committees are dealt with in the preceding words, and when it comes to the Scottish Standing Committee the Motion states the constitution of that Committee because it was not affected in the 1947 amendments to the Standing Orders.
I will not go into the suggestion that Parliamentary Questions should be answered in Standing Committee, because the Prime Minister dealt with that the other day. It would, indeed, be an innovation which I think hon. Members on both sides of the House agree would not be acceptable.
The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Rankin) said that the work of the proposed Select Committee would not be confined to the Scottish Standing Committee and that there should be a separate Committee to deal with that. I would ask him to remember that, for better or worse—I am not arguing the point—this is a United Kingdom Parliament and that there are others who have an interest in the management of the business of this House. I think it is entirely right and proper that it should be a matter for a Select Committee of the House, upon which there is strong Scottish representation. It is not for me to direct any Select Committee. It is not for any hon. Member or for the Government to do that. We are merely asking it to consider and advise as to whether, and, if so, how the machinery may be improved.
§ Mr. Rankin
Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree, even supposing that I took the point he has made, that the composition of this Select Committee is overwhelmingly non-Scottish on this problem?
§ Mr. Stuart
The answer is perfectly clear. If we take the composition of this House, and take three hon. Members out of 16, we get a very fair and adequate representation of Scottish opinion in relation to the whole House.
§ 10.59 p.m.
§ Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
I think I ought to say a few words, because when this matter was first proposed I raised the point on behalf of my hon. Friends that perhaps it was not the best way to proceed to have a Select Committee of the House examining a question which called for such detailed, intimate knowledge of the Scottish Grand Committee as could only be had by those who had experience of its working.
As a result of my intervention the Lord Privy Seal invited me and my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) to meet him. We had an informal conversation and suggested that we ought to explore the possibility whether general agreement could not be reached among those who understood the problem, in order to make some decision which could be recommended to the House as an agreed decision. The Secretary of State was good enough to indicate to us some of the things which have been indicated by the Home Secretary and himself as being the Government view, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton and I felt bound to advise him that we could see no possibility of getting general agreement from my hon. Friends with the proposition that he was making.
There therefore seemed no point m having a meeting of Scottish Members, which could only formally reach a decision that we thought it was bound to reach—that there was no agreement. Since we could see no possibility of an agreed recommendation being made to the House by the Scots themselves, we cannot, on the face of it, take exception to the Government proceeding to refer the matter to a Select Committee.
The Home Secretary referred to what the Committee would consider, but I think he will agree that when a Select Committee meets in the House it interprets its own remit and is in no way limited in what it considers by what the Home Secretary has said. All we can take from the Home Secretary's speech is that that is the proposition which the Government will put before the Select Committee, if they are invited to give evidence. It is equally open to any other hon. Member to give his opinion before the Select Committee on what should be done. While I cannot speak for the Committee, I am 1309 sure, from my experience of previous Committees, that it will welcome any evidence given by those who know what they want.
The point which my hon. Friends should realise is that this Committee is set up by the House as judges; the Members of it are to hear evidence from people who know and to reach conclusions, presumably, on the evidence. There could be no objection, therefore, to my hon. Friends the Members for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), Govan (Mr. Rankin) and others giving their views to the Select Committee, and I have no doubt that if they speak with their usual eloquence they will make a profound impact on the decisions of the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Rankin
Will my right hon. Friend urge the Government that when the Select Committee is dealing with the Scottish aspect of its work it should meet in Edinburgh, which will be of much greater convenience to Scottish Members?
§ Mr. Woodburn
Once this Committee has been set up the Government have nothing to do with what the Select Committee does. The Select Committee itself decides what it shall do and what is within the terms of its remit.
As far as I can see, therefore, it is rather difficult for us, in view of the fact that there is no likelihood of getting agreement, to urge that there should be a different Committee, because if that different Committee consisted of Scottish Members it would be bound to disagree, if our interpretation of our hon. Friends' views is correct.
§ Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)
Surely my right hon. Friend will agree that this Select Committee might disagree.
§ Mr. Woodburn
Yes, but if this Committee disagrees its report comes back to the House, and the House finally makes its decision one way or another on the Committee's recommendations and however many reports it makes.
I think that none of my hon. Friends can urge that the House has not a right to look at the working of the Scottish Grand Committee if it so desires. On the previous Committee, which dealt with the clergy, evidence was given before that Committee by people who were quite 1310 outside the Scottish Grand Committee of the excellent work of the Scottish Grand Committee. I can assure my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) that the particular items which he thought were so valuable in the Scottish Grand Committee are not part of the suggestions for reform made by the Home Secretary.
The right hon. Gentleman has at least paid us the compliment of suggesting that these are not intended to be examined and that the only part that he is proposing to recommend for examination is that which has been in existence for much longer than eight years. The eight-year items are evidently free from examination as far as he is concerned.
I hope, therefore, that, since my hon. Friends will want to put suggestions to the Committee for improvements, they will realise that it would be undesirable to adopt the dog-in-the-manger attitude that a thing should never be examined or improved. I trust that they will allow the Committee to proceed in its investigation and will take the next step of giving evidence before it.
§ 11.6 p.m.
§ Mr. David J. Pryde (Midlothian)
I wish to place on record my unqualified antagonism to this suggestion, and I would remind the Secretary of State for Scotland that though Scotland may well be a part of the United Kingdom she is also a sovereign State.
The object of this procedure emanated from only a certain section of the Conservative Members opposite who do not want to discharge their full duty and obligations of the Act under which they were elected. There is no question about it that we Scottish Members have a deep-seated grievance here. We are told that the Lord Privy Seal sent for my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn). Why did he send for him? Everyone knows perfectly well that the Scots Labour Group has an organisation in this House. We have a secretary and a chairman.
I consider that the whole procedure is worthy of the very closest examination, because we in Scotland believe that we have been treated in a most cavalier fashion. We are like the Duke of Argyll of old, who told Queen Caroline, "I am 1311 going North tonight to see that my hounds are ready, because I have no intention of seeing Scotland turned into a deaf and dumb institution at Westminster."
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes
In view of the explanation given by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn), I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 11.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
I beg to move, in line 10, at the end, to insert:and thereafter to consider what other alterations, if any, in the procedure of this House, are desirable for the more efficient despatch of public business.Let me emphasise at once to hon. Members on both sides of the House that this is a House of Commons matter. My greatest desire would have been that this Chamber would have been packed for this debate with hon. Members on both sides. It is very unfortunate that we have reached this state of affairs, but it is no use complaining. Therefore, I plead with every hon. Member present that if he agrees with the reasoned case which we propose to submit he will be good enough, between now and when the Division is taken, to contact some of his hon. Friends who will not have heard the case so that the House may make it quite clear to the country that we mean business on this issue tonight.
The people of our country—and when I speak of "our country" I mean the whole of Great Britain—have made a great contribution to the world's history. In my view, if the House is to prove worthy of the new era in which we are living, it needs to adapt itself to the mid-twentieth century needs and ideas. If the House agrees by an overwhelming majority to the case which we propose to present, then, great as has been Britain's past, her future could be even greater.
The skill of our people, our accumulated knowledge, our scientific understanding and our progress in atomic energy and in electronics are the admiration of the world and especially of the 1312 leading nations. The House needs to adapt itself to the atomic-automation age into which the world is moving very rapidly. That means that we must modernise the functioing of the House. If any hon. Member disagrees with me as I develop my argument, step by step, I hope that he will be good enough to say so, because I want to carry the whole House with me.
The prodigious spending in which the country is now involved and the manipulation of millions of pounds for which the House is responsible without Parliamentary scrutiny, make an organic weakness which needs urgent attention. Our hard-pressed people, now taxed more heavily than those in any other part of the world, need some relief. If the House is to be worthy of the country, it should take advantage of the opportunity now afforded to it to take action.
The Committee of Supply used to be, and still should be, an instrument of constructive criticism of administration. We have allowed our elected Parliament to be subordinated to the military hierarchy at Fontainebleau, to the General Staff in London, and to Departments which are responsible for spending and manipulating millions of pounds of our fellow countrymen's hard-earned money. Parliament has lost effective control of the country's finances. I ask the Select Committee to restore the Parliamentary effectiveness of financial scrutiny.
The country is spending £1,600 million a year. It is said that unless there is a fundamental change it will be spending £2,200 million within five years' time. The country cannot stand that kind of expenditure and it is time that the House asserted itself. I have been associated for many years with large-scale industry. Between the wars industry experienced many of the difficulties which the country is now experiencing. To hold their own against world competition those responsible had to estimate in shillings, not in thousands of pounds. In quoting for orders they had to respect a penalty clause and had to give a delivery date as well as a competitive price. I compared that with what is going on in this House, in the War Office, the Air Force and in the Navy, as I shall produce documentary evidence to prove later.
1313 A few months ago I read in the Observer a review of Wheeler Bennett's book on the history of Germany. I immediately ordered it in the Library. Within a few days, because of the great service which we get from the Librarians, that book was in my possession. Here are one or two lessons from it.
The Germans stated that in Britain the military had always carried out the policy decided by the Cabinet and this House. In Britain, in the past—and this is the safeguard for our form of democracy—the military were subordinate to democracy. In Germany, however, it was the officer corps, the General Staff, who decided policy throughout their history, no matter what form of Government was in power.
We need to examine more closely all Estimates, all expenditure and administration. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We are no longer dealing with thousands of pounds. We are now voting millions, for which every one of us is responsible. One of the duties of the House is not to vote money unless it is required. In the last financial year we voted millions of pounds that were not required. Nor should we agree to taxes unless they are required for public service.
I want to put this to hon. Members opposite, and I ask them not to take it personally. In all their Election speeches nearly every hon. Member gave an undertaking that, if returned, he would use his influence to reduce expenditure. That has not yet been done. Here is an opportunity for the House to assert itself and insist that this shall be done.
The Estimates should be subject to scrutiny by the House. Can anyone say that they are so at present? The present position in this respect is very unsatisfactory. If all the Departments knew that the Estimates were to be subjected to such careful scrutiny they would be more careful in their estimating. No Department should be allowed to play about with millions of pounds, as is the case at present. How can we have effective control over finance if the Estimates are not subject to Parliamentary scrutiny?
I put on record my views about the Treasury's misuse of virement. I have been very pleased to hear the observations made upon them by highly-placed 1314 financial officials whose duty it is to advise the Government. I do not desire to repeat them tonight, but I hope that the Select Committee will consider the case which was made out.
Will the Select Committee compare the Treasury's Estimates and the Service Votes with the Civil Votes, especially in regard to education, old-age pensions and the needs of the poor? Will this Select Committee restore to the House of Commons its duties of scrutinising the Estimates and the expenditure? Will it examine and deal with the absolute power of the military spenders of millions of pounds? Will it deal with the need for estimating in pounds, and not allow millions of pounds to be played with?
I pay a tribute to the hon. Members of the House who make a great contribution to our administration by the service they render on the Select Committee on Estimates and the Select Committee on Public Accounts, and in other ways, and I pay tribute, too, to the officials whom we too often take for granted, and who do their best, in spite of the discouragement caused to them by the lack of scrutiny by the House of Government expenditure.
I quote the Fifth Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, dated 21st March:The Directorate-General of Works is at present functioning under considerable handicaps … certain of the papers laid before them—that is, the Committee—showed a lack of precision and accuracy … In respect of the new Colonial Office, both the Estimates and the information supplied to the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Public Accounts Committee and Your Committee were unnecessarily inaccurate.Is that satisfactory? "Lack of precision and accuracy." "Estimates unnecessarily inaccurate."
The Public Accounts Committee, in its First Report of the Session, 1955 to 1956, reported:The Colonial Office stated that no attempt whatever is made to check the estimates submitted to them by Colonial Governments.What an indictment of this House! What an indictment that is of our allowing this state of affairs. How dare this House acquiesce in the continuance of policies of this kind?
1315 How many non. Members are aware of this? I quote the same Report again, this time on the Grant in Aid to Malaya:Parliament was informed in the Estimates for 1951–52 that His Majesty's Government had agreed to a grant to the Federation Government of Malaya of a sum not exceeding £1,166,666 to meet the initial cost of raising two additional battalions (the 5th and 6th Battalions) of the Malay Regiment … This grant was issued in full in March, 1952 … the full cost of the initial equipment of the two battalions was only about £395,000. The overissue of £255,000 was recovered from Malaya in 1952–53.In between, additional provision of £500,000 was made in the Estimates. We read that… no proper accounts had been kept of the cost of raising the 5th and 6th Battalions, and settlement was eventually made on a certified statement of expenditure based on the cost of raising the 7th Battalion. This showed expenditure of £208,744. … Thus the net cost of the service was only £212,711 as compared with the original estimate of £1,166,666.How dare this House acquiesce in such an unbusinesslike state of affairs as this? No accountant in private business who was responsible for this kind of thing would last many days in business. The House has acquiesced in this kind of thing for far too long, and it is time that the House asserted itself.
This indicates a scandalous state of affairs. I compare this treatment to that meted out to old-age pensioners, the unemployed, the injured, and so on. To the everlasting credit of the Select Committee on Public Accounts, it summed up in this way:Your Committee were surprised to learn from the evidence given … that no attempt whatever is made by the Colonial Office to check the estimates submitted to them by Colonial Governments and that in the case in reference not even the sketchiest breakdown of the estimates was required.How long has this been going on?—[An HON. MEMBER: "Too long."] Will the hon. Member stand up and repeat that? Will the hon. Member say who he was? If he will, I will go to his constituency and we will deal with the matter there. I do not mind genuine criticism or interjections, but I do object to that kind of sloppy attitude.
I now quote from the Civil Appropriation Accounts, which show that on 1316 the Colonial Services Vote the surplus in 1950 was £8 million, in 1951 it was£½ million, in 1952 it was nearly £3 million, and in 1954 it was nearly £4 million. On the Colonial Development and Welfare Vote the surplus in 1950 was £6 million, in 1951 it was nearly £5½ million, in 1952 it was £1 million, and in 1953 it was £3 million. The Committee stated:Your Committee are concerned at the size of the surpluses which have arisen on these two Votes over the last four years and recall the comments of the Committee of Session 1952–53 …I compare this kind of treatment of the Colonial Office with the treatment of our local authorities and our hospitals where the "living angels" do such great service.
Had there been time I could have quoted the Ministry of Supply, showing similar surpluses and similar sloppy work. The same applies to the Ministry of Agriculture. These are people to whom this House allowed £74 million to play about with. The Armed Forces played about with surpluses of £135 million during the last year.
I submit that the time has arrived when the House should insist on many more hon. Members being put on this Committee. We should reinforce it with men of independent outlook, men who remain firmly anchored to their fundamental political ideas, men with great courage, so that the Committee can be made to face up to matters of this kind.
For example, will the Committee consider how the Atomic Energy Authority obtained financial autonomy? I do not make any reflection upon the scientists, to whom we all owe so much and who were trained in the same school of thought as myself. I know how these men have secured their positions on merit and, therefore, I make no reflection upon them, but there is something fundamentally wrong with the administration when it is able to play about with £178 million and this House is not given a report about it.
I come to the question of the personnel of the Select Committee. In my view, it should be more representative of the House. On this matter, perhaps I may have your guidance, Mr. Speaker.
§ Mr. Speaker
I think that the hon. Member is now anticipating the other Amendment. Let us deal with one at a time.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Then that is the case that I present on this Amendment.
In spite of our little difference when I was provoked, I hope that hon. Members will excuse me. I wanted to make the case as quickly as possible. I plead with hon. Members now to be good enough to consider the reasoned case which has been put forward and to consult other hon. Members who are not present so that the House can send a message to the country making it clear that this democratic Assembly intends to assert itself tonight.
§ 11.31 p.m.
Mr. George Cherwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)
I beg to second the Amendment.
The whole House will be deeply indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) for raising this matter tonight. We all know the deep sincerity with which he speaks and how much he holds the House in esteem. All his actions and speeches are designed with the one purpose of making the House of Commons a really democratic, vigorous body.
I appeal to the Government to widen the terms of reference of the Select Committee. After all, what the Select. Committee decides will have an influence upon our procedure for the next ten or more years. It may be a considerable time before a Government feels able to set up another Select Committee to consider our procedure. Consequently, I hope that the present Government will give the Select Committee sufficient scope to cover all the points which hon Members would like considered.
I wish to raise a rather delicate matter concerning a practice which has developed during the last two or three years as a result of which we have become more or less first-class Members and second-class Members of the House. I always understood that we were all equal here, but it seems that now some are more equal than others, some having more privileges and rights.
I should like the Select Committee to be able to give some guidance in this 1318 matter to Mr. Speaker, because he is placed in a most invidious position. What I have to say is in no way a reflection upon Mr. Speaker, for we understand the position he is in, which has grown up owing to the custom of the House in relation to the selection of certain hon. Members to speak in debates.
Perhaps it is useful that the Motion was postponed from yesterday, because we have today had a classic example of the very point I wish to make. We have had a debate on defence, a subject to which much thought and study has been given by many hon. Members. It is most important that the Government should know, in coming to its decision, what the House is thinking and feeling. Yet in the debate there were only eight speakers other than Front Bench speakers, and of the eight only two were back bench speakers, and one of those made a speech of well over 35 minutes' duration.
That is a complete outrage. It is almost an absolute scandal that so many hon. Members should be deprived of the opportunity to put forward their, ideas for consideration by the Government. The Secretary of State for War admitted and deplored the fact that so few hon. Members had been able to take part in the debate.
I am voicing the very strong feeling of back-bench hon. Members about the new phenomenon. In almost every debate we have a posse of Privy Councillors breaking their necks to speak. I would ask that the Select Committee should take into account that the practice which has grown up ought to be discouraged. If it cannot be discouraged by the restraint of the Privy Councillors, the Select Committee ought to be asked to recommend a rule which will enable Mr. Speaker to treat Privy Councillors in exactly the same way as other hon. Members. If that cannot be done, some of the Privy Councillors ought to practise self-denial now and then and let somebody else have a chance to speak. If they cannot, and feel that what they have to say is important, let them wait until someone else has got in rather than "jump the gun" and keep everybody else waiting about.
This custom is having a serious effect upon the outlook of hon. Members. When many of us came here first, in 1945, this 1319 Chamber was crowded, for almost every debate of significance, with Members wanting to listen or to speak. Compare that with the state of the Chamber in the last few months when, even on major debates, there has been a sparse attendance. One of the reasons is that the abuse of their privilege by Privy Councillors is creating great frustration among other Members. An hon. Member who has much to do will not prepare a speech carefully if he knows that he has no chance of being called.
Today, everybody knew what the debating order would be. There was no question of catching Mr. Speaker's eye. We all knew, when we saw the right hon. Gentlemen sitting here, that they were going to get up and that because of the custom Mr. Speaker must accord priority to the Privy Councillors. I hope that the proposed Select Committee will have its powers widened to deal with this matter in a way that will help Mr. Speaker by relieving him of a very invidious task. The custom has led to a lack of interest among back benchers in the affairs of the House, and that is bad for Parliament and for the country. It is tending to kill what has always been a vigorous, live debating Assembly.
When I came here, in 1945, I wondered whether I should be here now, and I wonder now whether I shall be here in eleven years' time and whether we shall be conducting our affairs in precisely the same way. Very little has changed in the conduct of debates since 1945, while everything else has changed in the world outside. When the world is becoming used to speeding up, to automation and the rest of it, it seems out-of-date and obsolete that we should be lagging behind.
I hope that the Select Committee will have power to look at our voting arrangements in this House. It is strange that we should spend so much time over our inefficient way of conducting Divisions. Why cannot the tellers go to the doors immediately, and so knock three or four minutes off the Division time, even if the Division is called off? All that would be needed then would be to tear up the paper of names. Why have we to wait in the Lobby for two or three minutes for the tellers, and then all go through? This little matter could be put right.
1320 There is the major question about the Sittings of the House. Here we are, at almost twelve o'clock at night, debating this matter, at a time when most people are in bed, if they have any sense. I do not know when we shall finish it. That is because we start our proceedings at half-past two in the afternon instead of at some time in the morning. I know the difficulties of Ministers in their Departments, but the Select Committee, considering the matter for ten years ahead, should have power to look into this matter. Why should we not meet in the morning and finish in the evening at a reasonable time? We could have one day devoted to Standing Committees the whole time.
I hope that we shall not be left with this Select Committee as proposed. It is not representative of the House. The main test that the Select Committee should apply is: can we make our House of Commons what it should be, a live and vigorous assembly? Can we keep up to date? Can we keep our Members fresh so that they can give their best to the service of this House? It is my belief that this Motion, valuable as it is on these small technical points, ought to be widened to allow those consideration to be dealt with.
§ 11.40 p.m.
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) sometimes speaks as if Armageddon were going to burst upon the world before he had the chance of cracking his breakfast egg. But tonight he caught the conscience of the House in what he said about the lack of scrutiny of Government expenditure. We on this side have some sympathy with what he said. We are inclined to the view that debates in Committee of Supply tend to become stylised, and that some reform should be achieved.
The hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) wondered what would happen to him in eleven years. He will probably be a Privy Councillor, sitting on the Front Bench opposite. He had some interesting things to say which I should perhaps allude to when I come to them later, but I do not intend, at this late hour, to make a long speech.
1321 I think that the Government have approached this matter in the wrong way. In 1945, the Government of the day sought to appoint a Select Committee on Procedure and Public Business without qualification except that they reserved the right to forward a memorandum to that Committee which they then proceeded to do, but by so doing they enabled the Committee to discuss matters other than the subject matter of the Government's memorandum.
At this time we are, unfortunately, confronted with exact directions as to what this Select Committee on Procedure has to do, and there is no provision whatever in the Motion for the Select Committee proceeding to do other business, to generate its own ideas, to seek the advice of other parties and persons in the House who have, as hon. Members have shown, considerable ideas to ventilate. There are outside authorities who have also got views on the future work of Parliament which ought to be considered.
It is almost ten years since the last Select Committee sat on this subject. It was appointed in 1945. It sat through 1946 and it reported in 1947. Today, we are in 1956. The Ernest Brown Committee was appointed in 1931, so that if we exclude the war years we have a kind of ten-year interval, which is appropriate, and I do not see why the Government have been so shy about this business. I know that the Leader of the Opposition assented to the view that there ought to be a limited discretion given to the Committee, but I ventured to write to him upon the subject and I received an answer from him rather withdrawing from the view that he took in the House.
I think that probably the Opposition Front Bench would be in agreement with the idea that this Select Committee should, when it has dealt with these priority subjects, proceed to ask for its reappointment in the next Session in order that some of these wider topics can be considered. I very much hope that that is what the Select Committee will do, that it will ask for its reappointment to consider subsequent matters.
I do not want to argue now the kind of subjects to which I think the Select Committee should give its attention. I merely state them baldly so as to get 1322 them on record, in the knowledge that they are very controversial. To argue them and to try to convince the House to accept them now would take a very long time and, after all, it is a matter for the Select Committee and not for this House today.
Many hon. Members on this side of the House have given some thought to these matters in the last few years and have come to the conclusion that certain things should be done. The first is that the suspension of the rule, when required, should not be moved until 10 p.m. Secondly, the Closure should be able to be carried by a simple majority without any special quorum. Thirdly, the time allowed for a count should be increased. Fourthly, to take up a suggestion of the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees, tentative explorations into voting procedure should be considered, and we should not neglect the successes and the failures of the French Parliament in proxy voting. Fifthly, a Select Committee should be set up on the lines of that proposed by Lord Campion in a very famous memorandum which is almost a State document, thoroughly considered and agreed to by the last Select Committee on Public Expenditure in 1946, with ramifying Sub-Committees which would largely do the work that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South has in mind.
Finally, the great majority of Bills, except the Finance Bill, should be sent upstairs to Standing Committees in, accordance with Standing Order No. 38 and standing order No. 10, permitting the House to adjourn in order to facilitate the work of Standing Committees in the afternoon and evening, should be invoked on at least one day a week.
There are, I must admit, a number of hon. Members on this side of the House who favour an even more drastic step than that in view of the fact that so many of the Clauses in Bills are of no greater importance than the Stautory Instruments which we debate within a fixed time limit and can only reject or accept and cannot amend. It is suggested that a Sessional Business Committee should be appointed to apply the Guillotine procedure to all Bills on the Floor of the House except constitutional Bills, classified as such by direction of Mr. Speaker.
1323 Those are highly controversial questions which I am not trying to persuade the House to look at tonight, but they ought to be considered after an interval of ten years by the Select Committee on Procedure. I very much hope that there will be unanimity on that Committee when it has done its official work, and quite proper work, on priority matters, and that it should ask for its reappointment for this wider purpose at a later stage.
§ 11.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, All Saints)
I want to endorse what has been said from the benches behind me, particularly in view of the scandalous debate which the House witnessed this afternoon. It was an utter disgrace that in a debate of that importance only two back benchers should be able to get into the debate throughout the whole day.
The arguments have been very properly deployed and advanced, and I do not want to repeat them. I think that that would be wrong at this hour of the night. We do not delude ourselves, especially we new Members, that people take much notice of us, but it ought to be strongly represented to the Government and Opposition leaders that there is very considerable feeling about these matters. Although Privy Councillors and ex-Ministers are important people and you have said, Mr. Speaker, that the House accepts that they have experience and a point of view which should be heard, Privy Councillors represent only 40,000 or 50,000 people each, the same as the rest of us. The essential fact is that the constituents of the newest Member are as entitled to be heard as those of the oldest Member or any Privy Councillor.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) said, many new Members have come into the House. It was insulting them this afternoon. They have got into a frame of mind in which they ask, "Why should I bother to prepare a speech? I know there is no hope at all of getting in on a major debate." That is a deplorable frame of mind for hon. Members to have, but we know that it exists and that the only opportunity open to Members, 1324 especially new Members, to raise matters in the House is to ask a Question dealing with a specific and narrow matter, to ballot for the Adjournment or to come to the House on a Friday.
There are many things which the Committee ought to consider, and I hope that the Government will agree to an extension of its terms of reference. I would not have the temerity to suggest that I know the answers, but I suggest that there is a problem which should be thoroughly examined. Twelve months ago, in the last Recess, some of my colleagues and myself visited some mental hospitals in this country. We found that a scandalous state of affairs existed, but we have been unable to debate that scandalous state of affairs in mental hospitals in the Midlands from that day to this.
We have put down one or two Questions which only touched the fringe of the matter and we have been able to see the Minister. I must say that he met us with great courtesy and spent some time with us; we have no complaints to make about him personally. But this is a matter which affects the people of the Midlands and, indeed, of the country generally, and we are entitled to have it thrashed out in the light of day. It is not good enough, when we have to deal with these matters, to feel all the time that we might be giving away a confidence which the Minister gave us in a private meeting at which he was good enough to meet us.
Another question concerns Private Bills upstairs. The Birmingham Corporation had a Bill upstairs, which sought to permit the Corporation to grant free travel facilities. West Bromwich, and either Walsall or Wolverhampton, had a similar Bill. The Private Bill Committee of this House agreed unanimously that those Bills should go forward, but they were all turned down by the Private Bill Committee of another place. Some of us feel very strongly about it and think that it ought to be debated.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member is dealing with the Committee of another place. This Committee can deal only with this place.
§ Mr. Howell
I am sorry if I have trespassed against the rules of order. The point I was making was that we ought to 1325 have an opportunity in the House of Commons to discuss the reasons that the Bills have not proceeded further. I will not pursue the point. I believe that these matters warrant earnest consideration.
As a new Member, I rise merely to point out that we have had some discussions on the question today and that the unanimous view of new Members is that the procedure of putting Bills into Committee upstairs ought to be examined more thoroughly. I can see no reason at all why the Restrictive Trade Practices Bill occupied so many months in this Chamber. It ought to have been sent upstairs, leaving much more time here to discuss money issues and points of principle concerning the National Health Service.
These are vital matters. We appreciate, Mr. Speaker, that you are getting into the position in debates, through no fault of your own, in which a batting order might well be issued, as is done in another place, because we know very well who will speak in any debate. The phrase "Catching Mr. Speaker's eye" is rapidly becoming meaningless.
I associate myself entirely with what my hon. Friend said and I hope that some notice will be taken of it at an early date.
§ 11.55 p.m.
§ Sir Frank Medlicott (Norfolk, Central)
I listened to this debate mainly because I have a great respect for the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith). Although I do not always agree with what he says, his speeches are based upon such a sense of integrity and of loyalty to this House that they are always worth listening to. Something that he said prompts me to add a word or two of my own.
I cannot see my way to supporting what the hon. Gentleman said in the Division Lobby, because it seems to me that the Committee which is to be appointed has been charged with certain fairly urgent tasks. Its terms of reference have been very carefully drawn so as to concentrate its attention upon those tasks. It seems to me that if an attempt were made to widen the scope of the work of the Committee in the way suggested in the Amendment, the Committee would fall between two stools. It would have to 1326 go over such a wide range of subjects that its deliberations would take a very long time and some of the very urgent tasks referred to in its terms of reference would not be considered with proper promptitude.
Nevertheless, what has been said tonight makes it clear that there are a number of matters connected with our procedure which need attention, and I hope that the larger survey is something which will not be indefinitely postponed. I propose to refer to only two examples of the very many which have been brought to our attention tonight.
The noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) referred, for example, to the question of the proxy vote. I believe that we should regard that as a very considerable departure and as a somewhat casual way of recording our votes on grave issues. But I venture to suggest that nothing could be more casual than the way in which we vote under existing circumstances. We are often fetched from remote recesses of this building where we are engaged in something quite different from the subject matter under discussion.
The question one most frequently hears on those occasions is, "What are we voting on?" That seems to me to be a most casual method of voting. That example only shows that proxy voting, though it may not be suitable to our proceedings, has advantages which do not exist under present arrangements.
The only other point to which I wish to refer is one which has been given much thought in this debate. It is the amount of time taken up by the right hon. Gentlemen who have begun to enjoy this precedence among us which has been so well described as the creating of first-class and second-class Members. The hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. D. Howell) referred to himself as a new Member. Perhaps it may help if I recall that in the eighteen years during Which I have been privileged to be here I do not recall there ever having been so many Privy Councillors in our midst as at the present time. Perhaps, in the olden days, they were not as energetic and were more inclined to rest on their laurels or to seek the quietude and dignity of another place.
1327 However, the fact remains that there are now so many active Privy Councillors in our midst that it makes the matter of catching Mr. Speaker's eye one of very great difficulty. There is a great tendency for other hon. Members to give up any hope of being called. Of course, there is not a single Privy Councillor whom we would not wish to have with us. We rejoice in their presence and in their contributions to our deliberations. It may well be that it is purely accidental that at present they are more numerous than they used to be. But if it should transpire that this preponderance of Members entitled to precedence in debate is to become a continuing feature of our Legislature it is quite obviously something to which consideration should be given.
These are only two of the several valuable points brought to our notice by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent. South, who has performed a most valuable service in bringing this subject to our attention. Although I could not see my way to support the Amendment, I hope that the day will not be far distant when we shall be able to give our undivided attention, as a House, to the vital matter which the hon. Member has brought before us.
§ 12.1 a.m.
§ Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)
This is a very pleasant debate, because it is one which raises a genuine House of Commons matter. It is a particular pleasure to me to be following in debate the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central (Sir F. Medlicott), because I believe that I have found the answer to both of his difficulties. He will see from the Report of the Select Committee on Procedure, 1945, that the difficulty which he has mentioned was dealt with by the very simple method of making it an instruction to that Committee that it should report as soon as possible on any scheme for the acceleration of proceedings on Public Bills. Therefore, nothing that I or any of my hon. Friends say will prevent the Committee dealing with these matters, since they are matters of importance, as we know from the experience of the last two years.
On the second question of the Privy Councillors, I suspect that those who have spoken in this debate about Privy 1328 Councillors have touched on the reason why the Government are not willing to accept the Amendment. I suspect that the Government, and possibly my right hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench, are rather frightened of this Privy Councillors question coming up, and that is why the Committee is limited in its terms of reference. This is only a suspicion. I hope that I am wrong. Even if I am right, the remedy lies in our own hands.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)
My hon. Friend said that he hoped he was wrong. I assure him that he is.
§ Mr. Benn
I am delighted to hear it. May I point out to my hon. Friends that there is a remedy to this problem if they choose to take it? The practice of the House may be altered by Resolution. A Friday Resolution is as good as any other, and if an hon. Member wins the Ballot for a Friday and chooses to persuade back benchers to come along—on the assumption that Privy Councillors will be against a change and we back benchers are for it—he will carry the day. I am not saying this in support of or in opposition to such a proposal. I am saying this only to those who perhaps have not thought that one can do good works on a Friday.
§ Mr. Chetwynd
If all right hon. Members turn up and stand up to speak, no private Member can take part in the debate.
§ Mr. Benn
My hon. Friend shows little of his experience of eleven years in the House. He must know that the vote very often goes against the weight of the argument. That has often been the case since 1951. Even if the whole of a Friday were occupied by Privy Councillors, the vote at the end could be resoundingly the other way, and they would see for themselves that silence is often as strong as words.
This, at any rate, is a vital subject. I wish, first, to protest against the lateness of the hour at which it is being discussed. I will be brief and will try not to say anything that is unnecessary, but I do not propose to restrict—and I hope that hon. Members will also not restrict—what are sincerely believed views on important matters simply because we have 1329 come to this subject just after ten o'clock instead of at 3.30 in the afternoon.
I suspect that the two Front Benches are in agreement in limiting the terms of reference. Now, there are people who take the view that if both Front Benches agree it must be right. I am a back bencher and I take the opposite view, the view that if both Front Benches are in agreement, something very fishy is going on. If the Chaplain to this House were to begin prayers every afternoon with a Litany for back benchers, I think it might run:From Privy Councillors, from Closures, from the crafts and assaults of the Patronage Secretary, and from all things that go through on the nod. Good Lord Privy Seal deliver us.I believe that this question of the procedure of the House makes no sense unless we look at it in the circumstances of our times. Those hon. Members who have taken the trouble to read Lord Campion's book, "The Introduction to the Procedure of the House of Commons," will see that he divides the history of procedure into four periods, and they are periods which fall naturally into their different parts because of the functions of the House of Commons in the state of the nation at those particular times.
The first period is up to 1547, when the House was fighting to establish its right to share in the legislation; and the procedure of the House which developed was that which was necessary to get that right established.
He then takes us to the year 1660, when it was the House of Commons versus the King and when the forms and rules of debate were formulated.
The third period was 1660–1832, when it became increasingly a battle between Government and Opposition, and financial control was first settled.
Finally, he gives the year 1832 and then leaves a dash, like the unfinished tombstone, and describes the battle between the House and the pressure of public business. I want to put a final date on that tombstone—1832–1945—and to suggest that we have entered into a new period, with new problems for the House. If we are to make sense of the procedure, I think we must now relate it to the new circumstances. What shall we see in the new period, 1945-? What 1330 has it brought for us in this House? I want, as far as I can, to describe rather than criticise at this stage. It has brought a far greater area of responsibility. The House is responsible for far more things than before 1945, things that touch the rights of the individual, and the Government have recognised the necessity of reviewing this by setting up the Franks Committee. Now a new Select Committee is to be set up to consider the rôle of the House in relation to all this.
There is now, and has been since the last Election, promise of reform of the House of Lords—not unconnected with the change in the circumstances of our time. If we look at procedure afresh we must do so with the background of the greater area of public responsibility. The characteristic of this 1945 period is the fact that the Government, and I do not blame them, have increasingly operated through the prerogative power, delegated legislation or the Statutory Instrument. They have made their rules outside the House and we have only had a nibble at them later on. This is something of which the House must become more fully conscious; we must try to see whether we cannot review this procedure and fit it in better with our undoubted right to criticise.
There is a third great change. One can find no mention of it in the Standing Orders. This is the growth of the party structure, and the fact that we as individual Members are gravely affected by the decisions of our party committees, and our Whips, none of whom find any mention in Erskine May. For how long are we to be satisfied to run a machine according to rules which do not mention the realities of the daily life of Members? I am not complaining; it is because Parliament has the H-bomb weapon, the right to dismiss a Government, because such great power is in the hands of hon. Members, that checks and controls have to be established to see that power is not misused.
Fourthly—and this change is difficult to describe—there is a steady weakening of the criticism by back benchers of the work of the Government. This is not an attack on hon. Members. It is a situation in which we are all concerned, however hard we try to do our job well. Complexity of public affairs is greater, 1331 it is much harder to know what Departments are doing to keep up with what is going on, and to direct our criticism accurately and well. Indeed, it is very difficult when the Government—and the times in which we live perhaps, we may say—dictate the reduction in the amount of information made available to the House.
I do not want to get into difficult topics such as that of public security, but I think that every conscientious Member must be anxious every time he hears a Minister say, "I cannot answer that question." No back bencher should be satisfied by such an answer, without feeling that something should be done about it.
The fifth characteristic of the period in which we live and work is, I believe, the diminution of the status and importance of Parliament and Members of Parliament. It is, perhaps, impertinent of me, a relatively new Member, to say so, but I believe, and frankly confess, that, for a number of reasons, some of which I have mentioned and some of which I have not, there is a weakness in the power of the House of Commons as Against the Government, and I think, also, that it is not unconnected with the conditions in which we have to live and work in this Palace which, in my view, are monstrous.
What can we do about it? Some may say at this time, "Change our constitution. Introduce the French system of committees or the system current in the United States of America." I do not take that view, because whenever one looks with envy on the investigating Congressman or the irresponsible French Deputy, one has one comfort: we can dismiss our Government; neither of them can do that. I would not change that, but I do think that what we have to try to do is to see that this House becomes more than a foghorn in the ship of State, with the final right to scuttle the ship if it thinks that the captain is steering the wrong course. Then Parliament simply becomes a safety valve.
Therefore, in the proposals I want to make tonight I shall try to keep that system of Government which we accept, that is to say, a system of Cabinet Government which has to retain the confidence of the House which, in turn, 1332 allows the Government to get their business on the same condition.
There are four basic rights every one of which we ought to insist upon: first, the right to be told and to be consulted; secondly, the right to examine and to criticise; thirdly, the right to redress grievances; and, fourthly, the right of decision. I take them brieflly one by one, and show to what extent the House under the present procedure seems to me to fail in its operation.
First, the right to be told and to be consulted. I hope that my right hon. Friends and my hon. Friends will not think it wrong of me to say this, but the more I think of the circumstances in which the atomic bomb was made in this country the more appalled I become. To think that this House could gaily go about its business, pursuing the fancies of its procedure, the little tributes to Mr. Speaker and the Mace, the little habits and courtesies, while the main issue of the twentieth century was being decided without its knowledge, and with money for which it was responsible, seems to me to be absolutely shocking.
I am not saying that there are not circumstances in which it is right to withhold from the House information on grounds of security. Of course I am not saying that, but I say that there must be a simple test which should be applied in these cases, that no Minister who wishes to withhold information from the House can do so without the consent of Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker is, after all, our guardian. He is the man who, in the past, has defended our rights against the King. The King came here and there was the famous protest of Mr. Speaker Lenthall, "May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear in this House except as the House doth direct." That famous protest finds no echo in our modern battle with the Executive. Is the House to allow the Government to withhold information from us without any sort of protest? I believe that there are legislative precedents which would enable the Speaker to protect us.
I give a very minor example which is one which I happen to remember from a few years back. It is that of the Marine War Risks Insurance Act, under which the Government set up machinery to 1333 underwrite the insurance market in the event of war. The Act said that the Government should publish the accounts every year, but it also said that if it was against the public security for the Government to publish the accounts then a Speaker's certificate must be issued. That is absolutely right. That is what we ought to be after. That is how we need to protect ourselves against the encroachments of the Executive without sacrificing anything of the security of the realm.
Another very good example is the protection which this House has from another place under the Parliament Act. It requires only a certificate from Mr. Speaker, but it does require a certificate from Mr. Speaker, for us to bring into operation one of the great constitutional Measures of this country which does finally maintain the supremacy of this House over another place.
These are the main issues. The right to be told and to be consulted must be reviewed in the light of modern circumstances. There are many other minor points which I could mention, but I will not inflict them on the House except just to describe them, without in any way justifying my view. For instance, Private Notice Questions, which, I believe, are now gravely abused. Anyone with a minor disaster in his constituency can get one, but really big issues are very often not allowed. I am not criticising Mr. Speaker in his choice, but only the procedure which allows this to happen.
Ministerial statements: the right to be told by the Minister straight away is a very important right, but what a muddle we get ourselves into at half-past three of an afternoon when a long and important statement is made. There are a lot of questions, even if they are from back benchers and not from Privy Councillors, and Mr. Speaker says, "I would remind the House that there is no Question before the House." Either we should not have a little examination of a Ministerial statement or, if we do, we should have it on a proper basis. I see no reason why what I understand was the old practice of moving the Adjournment for half an hour should not be followed to allow immediate consideration of matters of great importance.
The second right that I mentioned was the right to examine and criticise. I must mention, in this connection, a suggestion 1334 which I have never heard advanced before, though no ideas are new ones, and that is that we could adopt the system which is followed in the United States Congress, where a member may have his speech printed in the Official Report without being able to deliver it. I mention this because of the fact that under the party system which we have, and under the grave pressure of time which operates against all hon. Members, it is not always possible for one's views to get on record on matters of great importance.
It does not normally matter, but there are certain occasions, particularly when one is quite conscientiously voting against one's conscience for reasons of party loyalty, when one would like to be able to set down in HANSARD one's reasons for dissenting from the majority view. I think that that is worth considering. I doubt whether it would be abused. It would be a great sweat for hon. Members to write little bits to put in HANSARD and they would still have to pay the postage to send HANSARD to their constituents; but I think that it would enable hon. Members to put forwards expressions of view.
Then, again, there are Statutory Instruments. I am far from satisfied. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), who spoke about the rôle of Select Committees in considering Government expenditure. I propose to say nothing about financial procedure, because that has been brilliantly covered by my hon. Friend, with the assent of the whole House. I am far from satisfied that we should allow the complete abandonment of detailed examination of the Estimates to go by year after year without protest.
I should like to see greater use made of Committees, not just to examine work of individual Departments, for I fear lest we get a Departmental mind extending, by infection, to Members of those Committees. I do not want to see that, but I should like to see a greater use made of Committees of this House for things which at the moment are too often given to Royal Commissions, Departmental inquiries or outside bodies collected together for the purpose of the inquiry and who then disperse while their Reports rot in the Library of the House.
1335 The right to redress grievances is one which has almost completely disappeared from the procedure of the House. Hon. Members should just consider the truncated form or survival of the Petition procedure to realise what has actually happened. An hon. Member puts the Petition in the bag and it is quietly forgotten. If he wants half an inch of space in his local paper he reads some of it out, or if he wants an inch and a half in his local paper he insists, under the Standing Order, upon the Clerk of the House reading it out, and then he walks up, pops it in the bag, and then it is quietly forgotten.
In days when there are so many grievances against Government Departments it is scandalous that Members of Parliament, in seeking to put these grievances right, should be entirely dependent either on the grace and favour of Ministers—I make no complaints about Ministers; their job is to defend their Departments—or on the ultimate weapon of voting against the Government, which is ridiculous in consideration of matters of this kind.
Why cannot the House use the legislative authority and the authority of the House to examine certain grievances referred to it by hon. Members? Why should we allow a Department to decide, after a polite letter or an interview, whether there will be an inquiry into the circumstances at the hospital where old Mrs. Jones dies after having a treble injection of penicillin when she should have been given two aspirins? That sort of thing occurs, and hon. Members feel powerless except to put down a Question and say they will raise the matter on the Adjournment, and then they let it go, forwarding the carbon copy of the Minister's letter on to their constituent. We have the power here if only we will use it, and we can do it without disturbing the comfortable majority of the Government which gives the Cabinet its peaceful weekend sleep. I wish the House would seriously concern its mind with it.
Finally, there is the right to decide. I am not one of those who believe, as the Liberals do, that a free vote is the answer to all our problems. Incidentally, I wonder where our Liberal hon. Friends are when an issue of this kind is being debated. The Liberal approach that the idea of a free vote is better than anything 1336 else does not stand up to examination. I once heard a Division Lobby defined as a place where one can meet half the Liberal Party at any given time.
However, it remains true that the vote of confidence is used too much in this House. It particularly applies to Government back benchers, because on them rests the majority of the Government. There is too great a reliance on the vote of confidence, and there ought to be more occasions when the free vote is allowed. If I am asked to give one example, tonight is that example. Here is an example of a House of Commons matter where, if we get our big Select Committee and the Government's Select Committee is pushed out of the window, no one will say that the Prime Minister should resign or that there should be a new Home Secretary.
This is a matter for the House to decide. I should like to see—it is not a matter which one can define or lay down in a Standing Order—the "free vote approach" becoming a little more popular in the office of the Patronage Secretary and the Leader of the House. I think that, given co-operation and goodwill, it should be possible to sustain a few defeats and actually enhance the reputation of the Government, although perhaps in the year of the Death Penalty (Abolition) Bill it may be a little difficult to get that view accepted on the other side of the House.
The Home Secretary said that we have had Committees recently and we should not look at the matter again so soon. I will read out the dates of the last 13 Committees to show the House that ten years is the normal period. The dates are: 1837, 1848, 1854, 1861, 1869, 1871, 1878, 1886, 1890, 1906, 1913, 1932 and 1945. There is a very good precedent, if we are going to be conservative in looking, for our precedents for having a full review now. The last one was the Select Committee which closed a period; this is the one which should open the new period of procedure of which I have been speaking.
I want to end by saying just one word about whether this is really such a revolutionary idea or not. I am a traditionalist about the House. I love the procedure of the House. When Black Rod is locked out on his way from another place, I feel rather proud. When 1337 the Clerk of the House rises at the beginning of a new Session and says "Outlawries," I am very glad to think that we should remember that we are doing business more important than the Queen's business. But what value are these little habits if they are not reflecting the true situation between the Commons and the Executive? What is the use of reducing by £10 the salary of the Secretary of State for War when he is quietly spending £100 million without even telling us?
There is a danger of this House becoming rather quaint and rather cute, becoming the sort of thing more famous through the posters of the British Travel and Holidays Association in the United States and elsewhere than of real constitutional importance. It is because I believe that this House has a real part to play, and must play it, that I believe that we should review again our procedure, in the light of the circumstances of our time. Then this House will command the loyalty and affection of future generations of Members, just as it has commended the loyalty and affection of this one, including my own.
§ 12.26 a.m.
§ Major Lloyd-George
Perhaps the House would wish me to say a word or two now on the debate. Owing to circumstances entirely out of my control, I am sailing in unaccustomed waters. I am not sure that this is not my maiden speech on this subject. I think it would be out of order to discuss the matters referred to the Select Committee. That is probably why we have discussed everything but those referred subjects.
We have had a very interesting debate. I make no complaints about anything I have heard, although I have heard a good deal of it before in the very many years I have been in this House. I heard about the unfair distribution of speakers not for the first time. Many a time I have gone home with the greatest speech I had ever been prepared to deliver. That is a thing which will not be easily remedied. The complaint has been going on for a long time, and I have great sympathy with it. In common with many other hon. Gentlemen, I spent a good many years on the back benches. Whether the suggestion of the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) that we might send our speeches to the Press 1338 would help, I do not know. I do not want to offend anybody in any quarter, and I would not altogether reject the idea on occasions. I am not sure that it would be a remedy for our difficulties.
We have heard again of the inefficient methods of our voting. Many people say that we ought to copy some of the Continental ideas, such as pressing buttons. I think the hon. Member will find, on reflection, that the system of voting in this House is based on very sound ideas. We have all seen scenes in this House; a Division has been an excellent way of getting the atmosphere a good deal calmer. Complaints about the times of sitting of the House are not new. It is a difficult matter because of Committees and the other work that Members have to do.
The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East referred to changes and weaknesses in the present system, including the steady weakening of the power of criticism that back benchers could direct against the Government. Speaking as one who answers a good many Questions in this House, I have not noticed any weakening of the power of back benchers so far as Questions are concerned. They have, on that occasion, a very good opportunity.
Because we have had many examinations by Select Committees appointed by various parties we do not say that we do not propose to have any more. On the contrary, we are very glad to listen to the kind of debate that we have had tonight. It would not be right to have too frequent examinations into the general question of the procedure of the House. It is very easy, as we have heard tonight, to make a case of the weaknesses and the need to have a general inquiry, but I doubt very much whether it is in the best interests of the House to have these general inquiries too frequently. The reason that we deliberately put down these four particular items for examination by the Select Committee has been that we thought, and I think rightly, that those four items were matters of the greatest urgency in the minds of hon. Members in all quarters of the House. I am fortified in that by what the Leader of the Opposition himself said. He also agreed that it would not be good after six or seven years to have another general inquiry, and I think that on reflection that would be the general opinion.
1339 The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), who moved this Amendment in a very eloquent speech, made one or two comments with regard to finance generally. He said that we are now in the midst of the twentieth century and that there was considerable expenditure which did not get properly scrutinised by the House. I am in some little difficulty about this. I agree with him that it is of vital importance in view of the enormous amount of the expenditure, but let me remind the House of what hon. Members already know—though I think we should all be reminded—that the Select Committee on Estimates is empowered to examine any or all of the Estimates presented to the House. That is what they call current examination.
Then we have the Select Committee on Public Accounts, which is empowered to examine any or all of the accounts presented to the House—what one might call a kind of audit—and the Committee is assisted by the Comptroller and Auditor General, an official of the House and not of the Government.
I know the hon. Gentleman did not mean this, but, if I may say so, his argument almost amounted to saying that the Committee itself was not doing the job effectively. But whether he meant that or not, I do not think that the setting up of another Committee would make the position any better. To give one idea of some of the difficulties that we were confronted with in this scrutiny, in the Civil Estimates alone there are more than 1,000 pages of print. The House of Commons sitting as a House could not possibly subject all this mass of figures to the kind of scrutiny which I think the hon. Gentleman had in mind. That is a reason why the House sets up during each Session an Estimates Committee.
That Committee has the power to call witnesses, to scrutinise the Estimates, including the atomic energy Vote, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and all the defence Estimates, and to report to the House. I am not saying that that is a perfect machine, but I was trying to point out one or two of the difficulties if we were to try to do what the hon. Gentleman suggested and if the House as a whole were to attempt to scrutinise all these items in the way that I fancy he 1340 suggested. I hope that we can confine it to the four items to which I have referred, which are of very great importance and which have been pressed on many occasions from all sides of the House.
The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East referred to Committees which have been appointed before, and I did so in my original speech tonight—the Committees in 1914, in 1930–31 and in 1945. The major recommendations of the Committee appointed in 1945 were implemented in 1947. Whilst I realise that there are many things which hon. Members in all parts of the House want to see remedied, I hope they will allow the Committee to proceed with the four I have mentioned. It is a matter of great urgency. Of course, we shall consider what has been said in the debate tonight.
§ 12.35 a.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
I think I ought to make quite clear to the House that the three points that the Government suggested the Select Committee should inquire into were put to the Opposition and my right hon. Friends, having given the matter careful consideration, only made the one further suggestion which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman mentioned at the beginning of this debate. I repeat that, after having given the matter very careful consideration, we took the view that it was right at the moment to have a limited inquiry with that one addition to the suggested terms of reference. It is, therefore, correct to say that we have been consulted about the matter and that the Motion put before the House now represents the result of that consultation.
Having said that, I should like to add that this, of course, is a House of Commons matter. I am sure I am not the only hon. Member who has sat listening to the debate tonight and finding it not only interesting but also interesting by its variety. I hope my hon. Friends will allow me to say that what I thought respectfully were excellent speeches I found even better because they did approach the matter from different standpoints with a like sincerity and a freshness which I thought—I am sure the right hon. and gallant Gentlemen would agree—was really stimulating. No doubt some of us had made those points before, but 1341 they were put together and made a complete whole. They presented to the House and to the Government a bundle of matters which really ought to be taken into careful consideration.
It is not merely a question of keeping the procedure of the House efficient or anything of that sort. As my hon. Friends have pointed out in different ways, it is a question of adapting that procedure to the changing circumstances of our time and the consequent changes in the functions, the duties and the character of this House itself. That really is the substance of the matter. As I see it, the terms of reference now proposed for this Select Committee do not go nearly as far as that. They perhaps deal with some specific difficulties and some specific doubts. I am bound to say that that at least has the advantage of getting these matters dealt with, we hope, tolerably promptly. If the field were to be wider the delay would be greater.
I was very glad indeed to understand from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman—I hope he will correct me if I am misinterpreting him in any way—that he regarded the appointment of this Select Committee for a special purpose as without prejudice one way or another to a more comprehensive review when the moment arrives. Although from this bench I am reluctant to give too much to the Government of the day, I think they have a responsibility to the House just as the House has its own rights in the matter. They have a responsibility from time to time to consider relations between the Executive and the House and to move in matters of this sort. If one Government do not do it, another may, as occasion arises.
I therefore hope that my hon. Friends will feel able to accept what I agree is a much more limited proposition than that which they have in mind as something good in itself for the moment and something which should not prejudice any fuller review when, on a true view of the matter, the time for that comes.
§ 12.41 a.m.
§ Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
I am sorry to prolong the debate, but we have had an utterly complacent speech from the Home Secretary, and I do not think we are able to accept the guidance of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. 1342 Mitchison) about the limited proposition. It is a question whether the limited proposition is the correct one, and our feeling is that whilst we might be prepared to accept a limited proposition, we should insist that the priorities must be right—and we do not regard them as right in this Motion.
I do not wish to go into the general case which has been made by my hon. Friends and into their general proposition about procedure. I am concerned about the two opening sentences of the Motion, because I think that the Government have been misled in this matter and that they will very seriously waste the time of the Select Committee and of Parliament if they allow the terms of the Motion to be so narrowly drawn. I will confine myself narrowly to this point in view of the fact that my hon. Friends have made the general case about the priorities of procedural reform which ought to be considered, but I should like to draw attention to a Ruling which was given by Mr. Speaker himself on 11th March, 1954. It seems to me a little peculiar that both the Government and, apparently, the leaders of the Opposition have completely disregarded the fact that on that date Mr. Speaker gave in the House a most important Ruling arising out of the Standing Orders which were made on Service Estimates debates in 1948.
The Home Secretary has tonight made some play of the fact that there was a Committee on procedure in 1945 which led to certain new procedural rules. Some of us, particularly in debates on Service Estimates, have had experience of the working of those rules—both the advantages and some of the disadvantages to hon. Members. Some hon. Members know that in the course of debates on the Service Estimates in 1952, 1953 and 1954 we had a certain battle on a question of procedure. You, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, will very well recall some of those questions and debates, which went through the night. In the course of those discussions, we discovered some defect in the Standing Orders which were made in 1948 about the debates on Service Estimates. We found that hon. Members were very narrowly limited in the discussions which were permitted on the Votes of the Service Departments, amounting to many millions of pounds, 1343 because of the introduction of a Guillotine procedure.
Some of us raised this question with Mr. Speaker and, on 11th March, 1954, Mr. Speaker gave the following Ruling, which is reported in column 2447 of the OFFICIAL REPORT:I am bound to say that the introduction of the new Standing Order No. 16, in 1948, demands further consideration, because it would not be realistic to ignore the fact that it has been the custom of successive Governments since that day, when in Committee on the Estimates, to secure Vote A and leave the rest to the Guillotine. In this new situation, I have to consider the fundamental rights of the individual Member of the House. It appears to me that the way in which the Standing Order has worked has meant that hon. Members who have points of importance but, it may be, of detail to raise are frequently debarred by the operation of the Guillotine from reaching that Vote in the Committee stage, where, under the strict rules of the House, the discussion on those points would be most properly conducted. I give it as my Ruling and opinion that so long as that Standing Order is in operation the Chair should be relieved from its obligation to prevent discussion on matters of detail on the general Question, 'That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair.' I hope that is the common sense of the House in the matter, and that we shall follow that principle in our succeeding debates."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th March, 1954; Vol. 524, c. 2447.]I should have thought that, as Mr. Speaker had said that Standing Order No. 16 demanded further consideration and had given a Ruling that the Chair should be relieved from an obligation imposed upon it by that Standing Order which was then considered to be a new procedural reform, the terms of this Motion would have been sufficiently wide to allow of discussion of that aspect of the Service debates. But it does not. This Motion is drawn so narrowly that it will exclude the possibility of the Select Committee considering this aspect of procedure which became a matter of violent controversy in the Service debates of 1953 and 1954 and which became the subject of a Ruling by Mr. Speaker about Standing Order No. 16 which he said was one that demanded further consideration.
I should have thought that was a matter that was far more important than the practice of moving Amendments in the Committee of Supply. Those who have really had experience of debates on the Service Estimates in the last few years, as you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, know very well, have been mostly concerned with the problem that what is really required is a 1344 procedural reform that allows a Second Reading debate on Service Estimates, a proper Committee stage and a Report stage.
The 1948 procedural reform introduced for the purposes of expedition a Guillotine procedure which virtually excluded a Committee stage. You, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, know that what has happened in the last few years in Service Estimates debates is that the Committee stage of the Service Votes has been forced back into the general debate on Army, Navy and Air Force policy. The way in which those debates have progressed is that an hon. Member might raise one question on Vote 16 and then somebody else talks about the hydrogen bomb and somebody else discusses pensions, and the debate goes hither and thither during the night without respect for whether one is discussing trivialities, individual cases or world-wide strategic policy.
That situation arises from the fact that in 1954 Mr. Speaker was compelled to give the Ruling that, because of the Guillotine procedure introduced in 1948, Committee points should be allowed to be raised in the general debate on the Services because, otherwise, they would be excluded altogether by the fall of the Guillotine after Vote A.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) that, in view of the thousands of millions of pounds voted on Service Estimates, nothing is more important than proper consideration of procedure on those Estimates. In that case, the Ruling of Mr. Speaker on 11th March, 1954, should fall first for consideration. Mr. Speaker himself has said that Standing Order No. 16 demands further consideration, but the Government ask us to consider something entirely different and to pass a Motion which is so narrowly drawn that it will exclude from discussion any consideration of the real controversies about the attempt of hon. Members to scrutinise Service Votes with care in 1953 and 1954. I do not wish to go into the wider points raised tonight, but I should have thought that on that point alone the Government would seriously reconsider the Motion and be prepared to accept the Amendment so as to allow many of those things which have been omitted to be considered urgently as matters of priority by the Select Committee.
§ 12.51 a.m.
§ Mr. Harold Lever (Manchester, Cheetham)
I had intended to make extensive comments on this subject had the debate taken place earlier in the evening, and had it not been so comprehensively covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), to whom we are all indebted, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), who illuminated the whole subject by the way in which, in a truly impartial manner, he brought the needs of the time to the attention of the Government.
I should like a little clarification from the Government on what the Home Secretary means when he says that he wants to hear the current opinion of the House, because it is perfectly clear that every back bencher who has spoken from either side of the House desires that there should be wider terms of reference to the Select Committee so that procedure may be looked at more broadly than it can be within the limits of the Motion. Notwithstanding the doubtful beneficence of agreement between the Front Benches as to what is not urgent in this matter, I hope that we are not to be treated again, as I rather suspect, to mere generalisation by the Government. I hope that the Home Secretary, in saying that he will give the discussion courteous consideration, does not mean that he will dismiss our views after a week instead of on the spot.
If the right hon. and gallant Gentleman means that, on behalf of the Government, he will accede to the obvious wishes of the House, there is not the slightest reason why he should not end the debate without the recrimination arising from a Division, by parting from his reticent breast the news that the Government intend, on this strictly House of Commons matter, to make a democratic response to the desires of hon. Members on both sides of the House as to what should be done. The right hon. and gallant Gentlemant could bring the debate and my speech to a swift conclusion if he did that, but if he means that he will give due consideration before rejecting the unanimous desire of the House, that is no satisfaction to us.
Even at this late hour there are things which I want to say that have not yet been said in the debate. First of all, I 1346 hope that my hon. Friends who feel very bitterly about the difficulties in which they conduct their work as Members will not be led to believe that the remedy for late nights is early hours. Some of them seemed rather to express that view. I am not resentful that there are a number of hon. Members who desire to make the House of Commons their full-time occupation. But I hope that those who do devote more time to the House than some other hon. Members will not feel that their sense of virtue impels them to persecute hon. Members who do not give full time to the work of the House.
I am not saying that it is right for an hon. Member to be neglectful of his duties; some of the suggestions for proxy voting, tempting as they are, must be rejected in the interests of the House. Nevertheless, it would be a disaster for the House, and a departure from traditions, if the House were composed solely of professional politicians. It is my belief that a House composed of professional politicians only would be calculated to be more cynical and more complacent. I am not criticising hon. Members who have made the House their life's work.
I would urge on the Government that a general reform of procedure is required because, as is now commonly understood, if the House is to fulfil its functions it must do so with up-to-date methods. It is plain that if it attempts to fulfil the functions of scrutiny, defence of civil liberties, and the like, and act as far as it can as a great deliberative assembly, it must do so with different methods than those now employed. To attempt to perform these functions with the antiquated procedure which we have is bound to turn it into a treadmill, which will drive out from the House the part-time Member who has been such a feature in the past.
It is plain that there has to be a more rational allocation of time if the House is to get through its business in a normal way without giving way to these late-night sessions which we indulge in all too frequently. I do not want to deprive anyone of having the insomnolent revelry of an all-night session as often as he likes, but this dissipation without vice is not necessarily in the interests of the procedure of the House, and the position ought to be 1347 remedied, not by bringing us here early in the morning, but by seeking to allocate the time of the House so that there is more time for serious subjects, like that of the re-conditioning of mental hospitals.
It is an outrage that those of us who are in the House at the time of the Budget have to watch the piffling annual charade, when ample time is provided for any trivial tarradiddle to be raised. Passion sweeps the Opposition benches about the living theatre, the dead theatre, the avant garde theatre, and there are volcanic eruptions of insincere emotion, day after day, in discussing Rugby league, football league, motor bicycles and the manufacturers of decorated chamber pots—all penalised by the latest Purchase Tax proposals.
There is ample time for all this, and it goes on day after day; but there seems to be no time to bring to the notice of the House subjects like that of the mental hospitals.
It is not surprising if the public, who do not live in the rarified atmosphere of the House, are beginning to lose interest, because they are not in the least amused to learn that the House of Commons sat up all night debating in a situation where Labour Members were proposing reductions in taxes which they resisted when in Government, and where Ministers were busy downing the arguments they advanced when in Opposition. That does not amuse the public, who are adult and intelligent enough to know hon. Members thus waste Parliamentary time which could be used for protecting the public's rights. All this calls for general consideration by the Select Committee, and it calls for proper consideration of what is wrong with the procedure of the House, if it is to be the great deliberative assembly of the people, the protector of their civil liberties and the guardian of the public purse.
It really will not do for the Home Secretary to say my hon. Friend is asking that we should act as unpaid chartered accountants. That is not our desire. We desire that the machinery by which the House conducts its business should be scrutinised as a whole by the Committee, and not only in the narrow way suggested in the Motion. It is only too plain from the Home Secretary's speech that he and the Government are anxious that due 1348 consideration should not be given to the problems which beset hon. Members in effectively carrying out their duties and expressing their views.
This is not only a question of procedure but of easement of hon. Members' conditions of work and of enhancement of their position. It is not only a question of salaries. It is a question of the conditions in which we work, inside and outside this Chamber. There is the consideration of the use of the space within the Palace, the cavernous empty spaces upstairs, and the claustrophobic restrictions in which correspondence is attended to downstairs—
§ Mr. Lever
I was trying to find sermons in stones, Mr. Speaker, and to draw an analogy between the use of space upstairs and down, where Members who like a little privacy in which to do their work cannot find it, and the antiquated procedure of the House. However, I do not wish to detain the House, and I am not engaging in any delaying action. I hope the Government will accept the sense of the House upon the matter, and not force us to divide upon that which arouses or should arouse the same sentiments on both sides of the House.
§ 1.3 a.m.
§ Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)
I regret the groans I hear. They are indicative of what is happening in this country today. I am reminded of what happened after Questions today, and the efforts of Mr. Speaker, who has a difficult job in controlling the House on occasions and in dealing with the rights of back benchers. After all, the front bencher of today may be the back bencher of tomorrow. I am concerned with the rights of the back benchers on both sides of the House, and to maintain the traditions of this Mother of Parliaments.
I notice that no Member newly elected is named amongst those Members who are to be appointed to the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Speaker
We have not yet got beyond line 10. We are discussing an Amendment to line 10. The hon. Member is going on to discuss the personnel of the Committee. We have not got so far yet.
§ Mr. Davies
I accept your Ruling, Mr. Speaker.
The danger of quaintness in these circumstances may destroy the democratic purpose of the House. There are vital debates to be held in this House. Whether we disagree or not does not matter. What matters is that we have the opportunity to air our grievances whatever they may be. There is, for instance, the question of Suez. The domination of the House by a quaint custom that a Privy Councillor has the right to speak before other hon. Members is entirely undemocratic.
I sincerely believe that in this House there is no difference on the Floor between the Prime Minister, in his august position, and the humblest and newest back bencher whom some thousands of constituents have elected. I ask the House to bear in mind that if an hon. Member is elected Privy Councillor he can speak on day X and still maintain his right to be called again on day Y, whereas a humble back bencher is unlikely to be called again in the near future after he has once spoken in a debate. Whatever groans there may be, this is a principle which we as back benchers must abhor.
I regret that the Leader of the House has thought it right merely to put down a narrow Motion on these issues of procedure. Some of us who try to keep alive the great tradition of the British people without hurling abusive epithets across the Floor or introducing personalities, believe that since the end of the war—and the tendency was there after the First World War—the views of the common people, expressed through their representatives in this House, have been growing less and less effective.
It was not for any truculent or jocular purpose, and I hope I am believed in this—[Laughter.] Some hon. Members may laugh, but some of us have taken the trouble wherever we have been in the world—and I have been in nearly every country—to say, in America, Russia and elsewhere, how proud we are to be Members of the British House of
§ Commons. I sincerely hope that hon. Members who may fundamentally disagree with the speeches I may make will believe that at least I make them in the traditional spirit of British democracy and nothing else.
§ I regret that it is at such a late hour that we deal with one of the fundamental processes of this Mother of Parliaments. I wish that the Leader of the House had broadened the matter. I will give an example from the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, of which I am a member. I do not know the answer to the problem of the complexity of modern life; if any hon. Member knows it, he should reveal it. In the Select Committee I asked how many Statutory Instruments go through the House per week. The number averages 40–45. A back bench Member knows nothing about them unless he is a member of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments. How can we, in this complex society, find a formula by means of which we can make sure that the Executive has not too much power and control over the House? That is a real problem confronting the House now.
§ I do not wish to make the House feel that it is being detained in a sense of filibustering. I believe that the few points which I have made about Parliamentary procedure are sincere and real in the mid-twentieth century.
§ Question put, That those words be there added:—
§ Mr. SPEAKER proceeded to collect the voices.
§ Several Hon. Members rose—
§ Question put, That those words be there added:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 13, Noes 110.1351
|Division No. 277.]||AYES||[1.13 a.m.|
|Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.)||Lever, Harold (Cheetham)||Yates, V. (Ladywood)|
|Brown, Thomas (Ince)||O'Brien, Sir Thomas|
|Craddock, George (Bradford, S)||Oram, A. E.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Davies, Harold (Leek)||Simmons, C. J. (Brierley Hill)||Mr. Chetwynd and|
|Fernyhough, E.||Smith, Ellis (Stoke, S.)||Mr. Wedgwood Benn.|
|Howell, Denis (All Saints)||Williams, W. R. (Openshaw)|
|Agnew, Cmdr. P. G.||Gurden, Harold||Pitt, Miss E. M.|
|Anstruther-Gray, Major Sir William||Harrison, Col. J. H. (Eye)||Pott, H. P.|
|Arbuthnot, John||Heath, Rt. Hon. E. R. G.||Powell, J. Enoch|
|Ashton, H.||Hill, John (S. Norfolk)||Profumo, J. D.|
|Atkins, H. E.||Holland-Martin, C. J.||Raikes, Sir Victor|
|Baldwin, A. E.||Hornby, R. P.||Ramsden, J. E.|
|Balniel, Lord||Hornsby-Smith, Miss M. P.||Redmayne, M.|
|Barber, Anthony||Hughes Hallett, Vice-Admiral J.||Remnant, Hon. P.|
|Barlow, Sir John||Hughes-Young, M. H. C.||Renton, D. L. M.|
|Barter, John||Hylton-Foster, Sir H. B. H.||Roper, Sir Harold|
|Bldgood, J. C.||Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich)||Schofield, Lt.-Col. W.|
|Biggs-Davison, J. A.||Johnson, Dr. Donald (Carlisle)||Simon, J. E. S. (Middlesbrough, W.)|
|Body, R. F.||Johnson, Eric (Blackley)||Smithers, Peter (Winchester)|
|Bossom, Sir Alfred||Joseph, Sir Keith||Steward, Harold (Stockport, S.)|
|Boyle, Sir Edward||Keegan, D.||Stoddart-Scott, Col. M.|
|Brooke, Rt. Hon. Henry||Kershaw, J. A.||Stuart, Rt. Hon. James (Moray)|
|Brooman-White, R. C.||Kimball, M.||Studholme, Sir Henry|
|Bryan, P.||Kirk, P. M.||Summers, Sir Spencer|
|Chichester-Clark, R.||Leavey, J. A.||Thompson, Kenneth (Walton)|
|Cordeaux, Lt.-Col. J. K.||Legge-Bourke, Maj. E. A. H.||Thompson, Lt.-Cdr. R. (Croydon, S.)|
|Corfield, Capt. F. V.||Legh, Hon. Peter (Petersfield)||Thornton-Kemsley, C. N.|
|Crouch, R. F.||Linstead, Sir H. N.||Tiley, A. (Bradford, W.)|
|D'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Sir Henry||Lloyd-George, Maj. Rt. Hon. G.||Vane, W. M. F.|
|Deedes, W. F.||McKibbin, A. J.||Vickers, Miss J. H.|
|Drayson, G. B.||Maddan, Martin||Wakefield, Sir Wavell (St. M'lebone)|
|du Cann, E. D. L.||Mathew, R.||Wall, Major Patrick|
|Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E.||Mawby, R. L.||Ward, Hon. George (Worcester)|
|Errington, Sir Eric||Maydon, Lt.-Comdr. S. L. C.||Ward, Dame Irene (Tynemouth)|
|Farey-Jones, F. W.||Medlicott, Sir Frank||Waterhouse, Capt. Rt. Hon. C.|
|Fisher, Nigel||Milligan, Rt. Hon. W. R.||Whitelaw, W. S. I.(Penrith & Border)|
|Fraser, Sir Ian (M'cmbe & Lonsdale)||Nairn, D. L. S.||Williams, Paul (Sunderland, S.)|
|Galbraith, Hon. T. G. D.||Neave, Airey||Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)|
|George, J. C. (Pollok)||Nicolson, N. (B'n'm'th, E. & Chr'ch)||Wood, Hon. R.|
|Gibson Watt, D.||O'Neill, Hn. Phelim (Co. Antrim, N.)||Yates, William (The Wrekin)|
|Godber, J. B.||Ormsby-Gore, Hon. W. D.|
|Grant, W. (Woodside)||Orr-Ewing, Sir Ian (Weston-S-Mare)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Green, A.||Page, R. G.||Mr. Gerald Wills and|
|Gresham Cooke, R.||Pannell, N. A. (Kirkdale)||Mr. Edward Wakefield.|
Question put and agreed to.
That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the practice of moving amendments on going into Committee of Supply upon the Navy, Army, Air and Civil Estimates; the practice relating to Money Resolutions; the extension of the Standing Orders relating to public money to expenditure from Funds partly, but not wholly, financed from the Exchequer, being expenditure not directly involving a charge upon the Consolidated Fund or upon money provided by Parliament; the numbers required to form a Quorum of, and for the Closure in, a Standing Committee; and the constitution of the Scottish Standing Committee, and to report whether any changes are desirable in the Standing Orders, practice or procedure of the House in these matters or in matters connected therewith:
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not intend to move my Amendment to leave out "Sixteen" and insert "Twenty-four". Had I done so, I intended to refer to great lessons in Parliamentary procedure that I was privileged to learn from my great friend Colonel Josiah Wedgwood and to read extracts from his book. In view of the lateness of the hour, however, the fact that we have already stated our case, and that it is now on record, I propose not to move the Amendment. I desire to 1352 express our satisfaction at the way the matter has been dealt with by the House, and I trust that our ideas will receive growing support in time to come.
Committee to consist of Sixteen Members:—
Sir W. Anstruther-Gray, Mr. Baldock, Mr. Bellenger, Mr. de Freitas, Sir T. Dugdale, Mr. Elliot, Mr. E. Fletcher. Sir L. Joynson-Hicks, Mr. Glenvil Hall, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, Mr. Mitchison, Mr. Pickthorn, Sir H. Studholme, Mr. K. Thompson, Mr. Wade, and Mr. Woodburn:
Power to send for persons, papers and records; to sit notwithstanding any Adjournment of the House; and to report from time to time:—
Five to be the Quorum.