§ Mr. Speaker
Before I call the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) to move his Motion, I think I ought to tell the House that I have carefully considered the Amendments on the Order Paper to the Motion and that I have decided that the best course is to call none of them because all the particular considerations to which they give expression will be perfectly in order on the general terms of the hon. Member's Motion. Probably the House as a whole would desire that the freest debate on this topic should be enjoyed by right hon. and hon. Members.
§ 11.10 a.m.
§ Mr. A. E. Oram (East Ham, South)
I beg to move,That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the procedure in the Public Business of this House; and to report what alterations, if any, are desirable for the more efficient despatch of such business.When I gave notice of the subject which I intended to raise today there must have been many hon. Members in the House who thought it presumptuous for one so new to the House and so unversed in its procedures to have embarked upon the task which now faces me. I think, therefore, that I owe it to the House to explain that I lay no claim to adequate knowledge even of the problems of procedure, and certainly not to any firm views as to what the solution to these problems is. All I do claim is that I have a very strong feeling—and I think that there is very real evidence of it—that there are serious problems of procedure and that the House ought, therefore, to set up a Select Committee to examine the problem once again.
That is why I considered it my duty, when I was fortunate in the Ballot, to give the House this opportunity of a general debate on procedure, and also why I put down a Motion sufficiently specific to ensure that action would follow 670 or could follow if the House so wished after today's debate. When I considered the form that the Motion should take, I thought it best not to put forward any dogmatic expression of views on detailed issues which concern me, but rather to ask for a Select Committee with the widest possible terms of reference so that all the many questions which, I know, exercise the minds of hon. Gentlemen may have the full and thorough discussion such as even a full day's debate in this House would not enable us to give them.
I referred to my inexperience, but I suggest that it at least gives me one advantage, because I am able to bring to my consideration of the procedures of this House, and particularly to my consideration of the timetable, the standards of judgment of the man in the street, not only because the recollections of the normal timetable of life outside are still reasonably fresh in my mind, but also because, as a new Member, I have had many calls in my constituency and elsewhere to describe the routine of the new life upon which I entered in the General Election of 1955, and I have had the opportunity of hearing and seeing the reactions of those to whom I have described what happens here.
Let me hasten to add that I fully recognise that the judgment of the man in the street is by no means necessarily good or adequate in these matters. You, Mr. Speaker, have often been at pains to explain to the House that there are within our rules and procedures many things which, on the surface, may seem quaint and archaic and troublesome and unnecessary, but which, on closer examination, are seen to be very necessary indeed for the preservation of some of our most important privileges and freedom of speech.
Therefore, one cannot lightly suggest any changes in procedures which, after all, are based on what is proved to have been wise practice in these matters in the past. A new Member, on entering the House, is surely very conscious of the great and noble traditions of this assembly. He is aware that this assembly has been the model upon which many Parliaments throughout the world have built their practices. It is in no light-hearted spirit, therefore, but with a very full sense of the responsibility which I have assumed, that I am asking the 671 House to appoint this Select Committee today.
If there is a danger, as I am suggesting, in seeking to alter a set of rules which embody the wisdom of history there is, I suggest, an opposite and equal danger, and that is the danger of standing so much in awe and admiration of the established procedures, of becoming so wrapped up in Parliamentary techniques, and of being so conscious of the virtues of the House in which one feels privileged to serve that one fails to see the imperfections, and that one would fail to admit the need for change because one is so anxious to maintain the traditional procedure. Here, I suggest, as in other facets of life, one should not be so blinded by love that one is unmindful of imperfections.
In initiating this debate as a comparatively new Member, I am sure that I shall be wise not to venture too far into the deeper and trickier waters of the ocean into which I plunged ten days ago. I shall leave them for the stronger and more experienced swimmers who will, no doubt, follow me. All I want to do is to make a few observations on the timetable, since it is that which has so impressed me and, I think, many other hon. Gentlemen.
It seems to me that many of our difficulties arise out of the major difficulty of time. One has only to be here on a Thursday when the Business Question is asked and to listen to the long string of supplementaries asking for a debate upon this report or that, or that the House should discuss a great question of public importance which has been too long neglected, to get a very real feeling that something is seriously wrong with the way in which the House orders its affairs.
What the House surely ought to seek is a timetable and a method which meet the needs of modern times, which are efficient in the dispatch of business, but which, at the same time, preserve to the fullest possible extent the rights of individual Members, the rights of minorities, and which have due regard to what I consider a most important principle, and that is that the power to oppose must include within itself the opportunity and the power to delay.
672 The supreme difficulty, of course, is to decide what is the dividing line between the legitimate exercise of the power to delay and the illegitimate wasting of time; to decide, on the one hand, how to allow the fullest opportunity for democratic discussion, and, on the other, to serve the needs for prompt and effective decisions.
These are all, of course, most difficult questions, and it would be wrong for the House hastily to draw conclusions about them, but I think it is entirely right that the House should ensure right now that these questions are examined by an appropriate Committee.
It is now twelve years since the last thorough examination of this kind was made. Before that, I believe that one has to go back to 1930. It is well known—and I think that it is perfectly proper—that any reform of the procedure of Parliament takes many years, indeed, many decades, to bring about. But surely, although one approves of some deliberation in these matters, that is all the more reason why the first steps—the recognition of the need for examination and the setting up of a Committee to ensure it—ought to be taken without delay.
Very many questions could be asked about the timetable. I propose to make most of my points interrogatively, disclaiming any knowledge of what the right solutions are. First, are the hours of our sittings the most sensible that can be found? Are our powers of judgment and of debate at their highest in the late hours of the evening? Would not morning sittings, more often than on Fridays, be both feasible and wise?
I know the arguments against such a proposal. It is said that it is most desirable for hon. Members to be able to pursue their careers outside the House, and that the House benefits from the direct experience of the law, business, commerce and industry which hon. Members are able to bring to our deliberations. But it seems to me that that argument can be taken too far. Even if we accept the need for, or the value of, having part-time Members of Parliament, is it not the case that in modern times the State is becoming increasingly concerned with economic and social affairs in the community? If that is so, does it not make the business of being 673 a Member of Parliament more and more a full-time business for more and more people?
If that argument is accepted, ought not our hours to be made to suit the convenience of those who have decided to be full-time Members, while the part-timers, whom we can accept, make the most of it—rather than the other way round, as we have it today, where hours suit the convenience of the part-timers, and those who wish to be full-timers have to make the most of it?
Secondly, do we allocate our time sensibly between the many subjects that we ought to cover and the many jobs that we ought to do? I cannot help feeling that in this Chamber too many days are spent by groups of specialists examining with meticulous care the details of complex legislation. I believe that that examination could better be made by an extension of the use of Committees. At the same time, while that waste of time—as it is, in a sense—is allowed, very many important subjects suitable for general debate are never reached.
It so happens that this week we had two short debates on the nationalised industries—civil aviation and electricity in Northern Scotland—but are we really satisfied with the degree of accountability of the nationalised industries to Parliament? I am not so satisfied. I know that there are others who have strong views in the other sense, but at least I suggest that this is a problem which needs much closer and fuller examination than it has hitherto received. Here again, on the question of the nationalised industries it may well be—I do not put this suggestion forward dogmatically—that an extension of the committee system would be a better way.
Then there are Royal Commission Reports. During the lifetime of this Parliament there have been Royal Commission Reports on the Taxation of Profits and Income; East Africa; the Civil Service; Marriage and Divorce, and the Law relating to Mental Illness and Mental Deficiency. Only for the last of those has official time been made available.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Edward Heath)
§ Mr. Oram
The Patronage Secretary shakes his head. It is true that there was 674 a debate, in a certain minor degree, upon the Report on the Taxation of Profits and Income. That was debated during the discussion of the Finance Bill.
There have also been minor references to some of the other Reports. But I am suggesting that only in the case of the Report on Mental Illness and Mental Deficiency has there been a really full-dress debate—except that in the case of East Africa there was a debate, on a Friday, but only because a private Member decided to choose that subject—and then two years elapsed after the publication of the Report before the House had an opportunity of discussing it.
The question that I ask myself is this. Is it right, in relation to Royal Commission Reports and important reports of other committees, that high-powered brainwork, time and energy should be devoted to these investigations without their leading to at least a proper debate in this assembly, let alone some action, if it is right that action should follow?
Thirdly, there is the vexed question of the length of speeches. You, Mr. Speaker, recently pointed out that brevity is the one quality of a good speech which is within the ability of us all; and I am trying to do my best to ensure that my speech shall have that quality, if no other. But if we could all bring ourselves to a measure of self-discipline in the matter of the length of our speeches we should obviously increase the number of speaking opportunities. It can be done, and I am much indebted to the Chairman of Ways and Means for giving me an example of how it can be done.
I have here what I think can be rightly described as an historic document. It is an old and grubby sample of those mysterious notes which you, Mr. Speaker, and your deputies write while occupying the Chair.
§ Mr. Oram
It refers to a half-hour Adjournment debate on 22nd February, 1951, during which no fewer than nine hon. Members managed to speak. It is a note of the very stringent promises which those hon. Members made to the Chairman of Ways and Means and the honourable way in which they stuck to their bargains. I notice that four hon. Members promised to speak for one 675 minute each, and, in fact, did speak for only one minute each. For all I know, by that means nine hon. Members had a few forceful sentences reported in their local Press, which, let us admit it, is at least one of the purposes for which speeches in this House are made.
§ Mr. Oram
The citizens' advice bureaux—obviously a point upon which hon. Members would like their local newspapers to have something to say.
While self-imposed discipline is probably the best way of tackling this problem, three years' membership of this House has led me to be not too optimistic in that respect. I can, therefore, only suggest—reluctant though I am to do so—that the proposed Select Committee ought to examine the vexed question of a time limit on speeches. I recognise, however, that this is a very difficult question, and that one cannot easily reach conclusions about it.
Fourthly, what about the Privy Councillors? At this point, I begin to feel not a little like the boy David, armed with my puny verbal slings, going out to face a veritable host of Goliaths, armed to the teeth with the weapons of experience and oratory. Or am I rather, I wonder, like a Daniel in a lions' den? If that is the analogy, and if we think of the right honourable lions who are entitled to inhabit this den, we can recognise quite a number of different kinds of lion. Some bear the mark of true lionesque nobility. Many of them, indeed most of them, are dignified, wise, respected and amiable representatives of their species. Some, perhaps less confident of their authority, seek to exercise it more often. They seem to assume that the lesser animals are always eager to hear the lion's roar, but is it not the case, as I feel very strongly, that we would prefer to hear the lesser creatures a little more often?
The simple point I want to make on the subject of Privy Councillors is that we all recognise the desirability that the voice of experience should be heard and we would all expect that you, Mr. Speaker; in the exercise of your discretion, should, more often than not, call those with Ministerial experience in 676 preference to others. What disturbs many of us is that, as things stand, you have, as you have explained to the House, absolutely no discretion in the matter. It has become a custom of the House by which you feel yourself bound, unless and until the House of Commons expresses its will in some other sense.
It is my view that the custom has become too rigid and binding and that it ought to be possible—the proposed Select Committee, if it is appointed, ought to look at this problem among the first that it considers—to find a means to protect the House from the abuse of one of its own customs.
I have mentioned four points. There are a hundred other points which, I have no doubt, hon. Members will endeavour to make if they catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. I want to conclude with an appeal to the House.
We are Members of one of the noblest assemblies which man has devised throughout his history. We ought to be fully conscious of that as we approach this debate and when we vote at the end of the day, although I hope that a vote will not be necessary. In the world outside, in the world of science, in communications, in the organisation of vast industries, changes are taking place at a pace which far outstrips everything that has gone before in the whole of history. In my view it is inevitable that the institutions of democracy will feel the impact of these titanic changes. It is inevitable, too, that these institutions, our own perhaps more than any other, should be prepared to adapt their procedures to meet the challenge of the momentous times in which we live.
My Motion is a modest one. It ought also to be a non-controversial one. It merely asks the House to recognise the need for review and to appoint a Select Committee to undertake that review. In all earnestness, I ask the House not to miss this opportunity. I submit that it is in the interests of good government and of democracy, and in the real interests of this greater Mother of Parliaments, that this Motion should be carried.
§ 11.36 a.m.
§ Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)
I beg to second the Motion.
One of the pleasures of being called upon so to do is that it falls to me to be 677 the first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) on the speech that he has made today; and not only upon the speech, but upon his idea of raising this subject and tabling a Motion on it. I have confidence that he will score a bloodless victory and that if blood is scattered it will be all on one side. He has brought the matter to the attention of the House in a speech of great lucidity and force.
I would make one brief point about Privy Councillors at the beginning of my speech. It would be a great pity if the debate were to concentrate unduly upon them. I certainly am not concerned to attack Privy Councillors. A year ago I suggested that they should be removed to another place in substitution of the existing Chamber. I said that their bark was worse than their bite—far, far worse.
§ Mr. Benn
Yes. That is all that need concern us.
Our task today is to make out our case for an inquiry. It is our hope—this is why I am glad that you have decided, Mr. Speaker, not to call any of the Amendments—that the debate should not be a trial of strength between one view and another as to what should be done. It should reveal our unanimity of view that the whole matter should be looked at.
The opportunity for testing out whether we want a time limit on speeches, or whether or not we want Privy Councillors to have their old privileges, will be in the Select Committee when it is considering these matters and finally when the Report of the Committee is presented to the House. On that basis, we can have a debate which will lead to a demonstration of unanimity rather than of division.
The onus is upon us. We have to establish what is wrong with Parliament. If Parliament is sick—as many say—there are plenty of doctors ready to give their advice. I want to deal, first, with some of the things that I believe are not wrong with Parliament. One of the most common criticisms now is that Parliament is no good because M.P.s are no good; that we are a Parliament of little men; that Parliament cannot attract people of ability. It is a rather sad diagnosis, 678 because it offers little hope of cure. It is said that Members of Parliament who do come are little and unimportant and that, because they are like that, men who are important will not come. They do not want to be next to us. If we are as bad as that we had better give up the ghost.
The great advocate of this prescription is no less a person than "Dr." Haley himself. All I would say about "Dr." Haley is that he cannot expect the working class—because we are a working assembly—to accept his prescriptions when the country is plastered all over with notices saying that they are for the "Top People" only. I do not think that "Dr." Haley, with his extensive city practice, is the best person to prescribe for a working Parliament like ours.
Leaving aside the comics in public life in Britain today, there are serious critics of Parliament, led by the Liberal Party, so excellently represented in this House this morning. The great criticism of the Liberal Party is that what is wrong is the party system. They have been joined by the bishops and, when the bishops and the Liberals get together, we know that mischief is brewing. The bishops' answer to the problem is that what we want is ten wise men. In the old Bible story three were enough, but we are evidently thought to be a harder case. The doctrine that, somehow, it would be all right if we had a coalition all the time is one which we might briefly consider this morning, because the practical consequences of "coalitionitis" would be to create far greater difficulties for hon. Members and their consciences.
Suppose that foreign policy were to be conducted by agreement between my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) and the present Foreign Secretary. One of two things would happen. Either they would do only things about which they both agreed—which would be practically nothing—or one of them would be called upon to make such a monstrous compromise of principle that it would make the compromise that we are supposed to make every day seem as nothing. A coalition in which the best men of all parties got together would present the House with impossible difficulties. If we supported a coalition we really would not need to be here at all—we could emigrate to Australia. And, 679 if we opposed it, we would be in danger of creating the one thing which the bishops will not have, namely, the expression of anxiety or doubt in the House about the policy of the Government. In fact, we should re-create the party system.
Similarly, we get the argument that if only we had more free votes everything would be all right. Frankly, I think that is not an argument which would appeal to working Members of Parliament. Mr. Christopher Hollis, who was a distinguished Member of this House, has been the advocate of the view that it is all a waste of time because the vote at the end of a debate is predictable. The B.B.C., with the old-fashioned charm which is especially its own, always gives the figures at the end of the debate much as they give the score of a Test match, as if that sums up all that had happened. To represent the vote in Parliament as being all that matters in the debate is rather like limiting one's description of a concert to the fact that the National Anthem was played at the end of it. One goes to a concert to hear what happens before the National Anthem.
I want to put what I think is a case for the party system that all hon. Members will accept because it is the natural result of universal suffrage. It is the only way in which people can express their organised view in Parliament. I believe that, far from the party system being the thing which makes Parliament intolerable, it is the thing which makes it tolerable. If I were alone in this House looking with suspicion and ignorance on all my M.P. colleagues, I should find it less easy to justify the value of my contribution than I can when I see my friends working on all the problems and have a chance to share the fraternity and comradeship with them. I am just as proud to be a member of the Labour Party as Liberals are to be members of the Liberal Party, which, after all, is also a party, although it is not a very successful one.
There is something wrong with Parliament, but this is not the prescription we want. What is wrong is that, faced with a complexity of public business and a huge volume of complicated Government legislation, it is impossible for us to keep abreast of all the important issues which confront us. The difficulty is that, collectively and individually, we are swamped 680 and the reason we think this Motion important is that we believe that with some adjustment our work can be made easier. That, simply, is the difficulty.
Many solutions are being put forward by hon. Members. I would make only one reservation. I do not think that the answer lies in trying to make the House of Commons, a legislative body, only an appendage of the Executive. We are not the Government, we are Parliament, and that is a totally different thing. When people read in the newspapers that a board of directors would take two minutes to do what Parliament does in two days they should remember that we are not a board of directors. The Front Bench may comprise a board of directors, but we are expressing our views about their work and are putting forward opinions on it.
I am in favour of Committee work on Bills and I am in favour of Committee work in other directions, but I would be sorry if every Department had gathered round it a group of expert M.Ps. who, because they were given a hand-out of a semi-private kind by the Minister and civil servants, were somehow bought over to the Government machine and, therefore, prevented from making their criticisms.
The value of this House, in a sense, is that we are irresponsible critics when we make speeches. I mean "irresponsible" in the best sense—we are not responsible to the Government of the day. Even the Government back bencher, who, in many ways, has the most miserable job of all, is in that category. He has to operate in an arid desert, or perhaps I should say on a "blasted heath". No Minister really wants to hear his own back benchers, least of all the Patronage Secretary, whose task is simply to get the business through as quickly as possible. We are all irresponsible critics when we speak as Members of Parliament, but when we come to a Division we are responsible voters because we know that if we destroy a Government we are actually destroying the stability of the system.
That is why our loyalty to the parties of which we are members carries through even in moments of great difficulty. If anyone doubts the value of this and thinks that I am wrong, I think that the debate we had last week provides a very 681 good example. The former Chancellor made a speech which was listened to with rapt attention by the House. Even when he said that he would not vote he was able to influence the House very greatly, particularly, of course, his own party. The value of Parliament is the value of debate.
What is our real function? It seems to me a twofold function. First, we are policy shapers—we are the great forum of the nation—and, secondly, we are watchdogs. I want to consider the difficulties which face us as we try to perform this dual function. We are policy makers; I do not mean that in the sense in which the Cabinet shapes and decides policy, but that we express our views on the great issues of the day.
I would say, as my hon. Friend said so well in his opening speech, that the trouble is that because of the volume of routine business, our great debates are too late, too short and, in many cases, never take place at all. We ought somehow to "clear the decks", to use a phrase employed by the noble Lord the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) in a recent address, so that we can be free to consider these questions.
Whether we do so by sitting in the mornings, shortening the Recess, removing legislation and using nothing but Statutory Instruments—I am not going to stick my neck out on that—all those are questions for the Committee. They are very complex, but we may be sure, when this Motion has been carried, that the Committee will be composed of experienced Members of the House and we shall rely on their judgment.
But I do have certain specific points I should like very tentatively to put forward. First, I think most unsatisfactory the arrangement under which Ministerial statements are made. Quite rightly, Ministers make those statements to this House first. Then there follows a most unsatisfactory period of question and answer—for which no one is to blame, it is our procedure—almost invariably culminating in Mr. Speaker reminding the House that there is no Question before it and bringing that proceeding to an end.
Every newspaper, every corporation and every department in the country, if it is interested in the subject, is called upon to express a view that day. But 682 Parliament does not do so. Parliament is not allowed to show its first reaction. I should like a procedure in which a Ministerial statement of importance would be followed by an Adjournment debate, which automatically lapsed at 4 o'clock or later in the day. This raises again the question of Adjournment under Standing Order No. 9, but I have so blotted my copy book on that recently that I shall not repeat it, except to say that if a large number of Members feel that a matter is so important that it ought to be debated, it should be possible to do so under our procedure.
I come, next, to the way in which we handle the private Members' time that is available. It is a little like shooting the goose that lays the golden egg, but I am not very happy with the Ballot arrangement. Why should chance decide what we debate on a Friday? I should have thought that it would be much simpler if the Ballot took account of those Motions which have the greatest number of signatures. There would then be some point in signing a Motion. Whether it is done precisely in that way is a matter of detail, but I believe that the House should be able to debate what it wants to debate and not what the Government want or what the luck of the draw happens to decide.
I think that a Motion like that of my hon. Friend today would have got almost 600 signatures at once. I know that he has been trying to introduce this matter before, as I have done myself. There is no doubt that it has been a matter of interest for some time. In such a case, of course, Mr. Speaker would be given the extra special difficulty of exercising his discretion.
The second function of Parliament is its function as the watchdog. The more difficult that it becomes to survey what the Government are doing before they do it, the more important it is that we should have time to discuss it after they have done it. In other words, if we cannot go through a Bill line by line or Clause by Clause because of the difficulty of time, there could be a better procedure available for surveying injustices that actually occur.
I would be the last person in the world—I believe that most hon. Members would agree about this—to think that the "welfare officer" function of 683 a Member of Parliament is something that can be thrown away as being a burden that can be taken off the Member. It is our most valuable function, because it is central to the whole doctrine that everybody is represented in Parliament. It might be suggested that that could all be done by a pool or a bureau, and that if a constituent wrote direct to a Department a public relations officer would provide a duplicated hand-out to deal with Mrs. Jones' query. But if we destroyed the welfare officer function we should be destroying the links between this House and the people.
It is in pursuit of our welfare function that we come up against the greatest difficulty in expressing our concern in the House. Somebody writes to a Member and the Member writes to the Minister. The Minister considers it and does what he can. In many cases, of course, the Minister has no discretion in the matter, but sometimes he has. If, in the end, he disagrees and will not move, the Member puts down a Question; and once a Question has been put down, all hope of influencing the Minister has gone and what the Member is seeking to do is get the matter ventilated.
If the Minister's Answer to the Question is totally unsatisfactory, the Member puts down a Motion for the Adjournment to ventilate it at great length and that is the end of it. It is an extraordinary thing that the last place in the world where a person comes to have his grievance remedied is to the House of Commons, because there is nothing whatever we can do except to ventilate it.
I would like to see the Petitions procedure of the House revised so that if an injustice is brought to the attention of a Member, and the Minister will not act, it can go to a Petitions Committee for examination and report. The power given to that Committee to summon persons, papers and records and its report would be a very great safeguard for the individual Member and the individual person in the country.
There is also the problem of the Member who simply cannot "get in" to make his point at all, whether as a policy maker or as a watchdog. I do not know how we can handle that difficulty. Obviously, a speech in every debate cannot be guaranteed to every Member, but 684 the suggestion has been made—I believe it to be sound—that we should, within limits, have the same rights of access to the "written" pages of HANSARD as are now given to Ministers for their Written Answers. I have often hoped that I should have the opportunity to say at Question Time, "In view of the length of my supplementary, I will, with permission, circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT." The ordinary individual Member who cannot get into a debate, who does not want to weary the House with what he does not believe to be sufficiently important for the House, should have the right to put it in HANSARD. Then the local papers would take it up.
§ Mr. Benn
It is, of course, done in the United States, as my right hon. Friend says.
It would also have the other advantage of dealing with my hon. Friend's query in that it would enable the Bristol papers to say "Our busy Member at it again" when the item in question appeared only in the "written" columns of HANSARD. At any rate, the duty of the Member is to say it in Parliament and that is how we should try to help him.
Finally, I come to the question which is central to the whole problem of keeping our heads above the flood—that is to say, the complexity of business. The Minister in the modern world has his Department behind him. He can be briefed and he can get the facts readily, but the ordinary Member cannot. Our choice is either to limit ourselves to such a small area of public affairs that we can keep abreast or, as we must be bound to do, to broaden out and find it difficult to keep up with everything that is going on.
Although this is a subject which would have to be raised in wider form, I believe that something must be done for the Members in terms of proper research facilities. The conditions under which we are expected to work are a public scandal. We do not speak about it among ourselves in the House, because we all know it, but I do not believe that people outside have the slightest conception of the way in which Members 685 are required to do their work. I am not now speaking about the facilities for research, but of the general conditions.
Each of us has only one place private to ourselves, a locker which is so small that it will not take the ordinary briefcase to be locked away. We have no access to a telephone unless we make the endless, senseless tramp around the corridors waiting outside the kiosks, with our papers, waiting to telephone. No incoming telephone call can reach us, although every modern hospital has now devised the simple system of giving to doctors a tiny radio receiver which buzzes and from which they can pick up their message. This House does not do that. We rely upon those most hardest worked men of all, the doorkeepers who come to find us about the House.
We cannot even communicate freely with each other. There is no general pigeon-hole where one can put messages for a Member. To circulate hon. Members for the debate today, my hon. Friend had to pay 3d. postage for every Member to whom he wrote, simply because the facilities were not available for him to communicate with other hon. Members. One cannot put 625 notes on the Letter Board. I do not blame the doorkeepers for this. That is the procedure. The fact is that it is a scandal and ought to be considered. Unless Members are given the opportunities to get greater help, this House cannot really be an efficient place.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the importance of this debate is that we are examining, and should examine again, the tools with which we work. There is nothing sacred about our ancient practices. The wisdom of the ages is simply the accumulated initiative of hon. Members, like my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South, who have finally succeeded. This is, of course, a much bigger question than simply the procedure of the House, because we live in a world in which, for a number of well-known reasons, the whole conception of government by consent is on trial. The Parliamentary system is on trial. If we are to serve the system as well as this House, we could riot do it better than by seeing that we here at Westminster are a model of what a democratic assembly ought to be.
§ 11.58 a.m.
§ Sir Robert Boothby (Aberdeenshire, East)
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) and the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), who moved and seconded the Motion, on a couple of dazzling speeches. They were brilliant, and I shall not attempt to emulate them. They were scintillating, and I am sure that they will read just as well as they were heard.
I entirely agree with the Motion. I hope that the House will agree with it. It is necessary that we should have a Select Committee to examine our procedure and this may be a useful debate. What we are really talking about is the power and status of Parliament and of individual Members of Parliament. I have been here for years and years, and I am bound to record the melancholy fact that both the power and the status of this House and of its Members are considerably lower than when I first got in in 1924. Unlike "Dr." Haley, I do not think that that is because we are all little men. It is because of the complexity and the number of the problems with which we have to deal. The pressure of public business has become so great that it is almost impossible to deal with under our present procedure rules.
One point I should like to make. Do not let us forget that politics are about power; and that this House is the ultimate repository of power in this country. From the remarks of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bristol, South-East one would not have thought so. He more or less laughed off the idea that this House should exercise its political power, and implied that it would be great fun to have a lot of irresponsible criticism. But we have the immense responsibility of maintaining the Administration in power. I have cast my vote here in, perhaps, the greatest crisis in our history, the result of which was to eject the Administration; and, although the hon. Member probably may not like it, the House cannot evade the responsibility of voting on an issue which might result in the resignation of the Government.
I want to say just a word about "Dr." Haley, perhaps in his defence. That leading article got home quite a bit to many of us. I refer, of course, to the leading 687 article in The Times of 23rd December, which said:The cheap gibes, the incessant accusations and counter-accusations, the mocking 'Ministerial cheers' and the inane cries of 'Resign', the desperate fighting over things that do not matter, which probably hides from the participants themselves their poverty of ideas about those issues that do matter, are all part of the same picture.Can we truthfully say that there is not an element of truth in that? Of course there is; and I want to give just one example. Recently, we had the unprecedented resignation of the three Treasury Ministers simultaneously—
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
I think that the main criticism of the article to which the hon. Gentleman refers is that it takes no notice whatever of past years. It was not then just cries of "Resign". There were much worse cries than that. The manners in this House were much worse than I have seen, and I have been here, on and off, for nearly thirty years.
§ Sir R. Boothby
I think that that interruption on the whole reinforces my argument. We have been confronted by these remarkable events, and the Government—and the Opposition—were quite content to let them go with only a one-day debate, and then to return to the kind of things that, in my submission, should not be dealt with on the Floor of the House at all, but upstairs in Committee. We should surely have had time to devote at least two days to the resignation of all three Treasury Ministers at a moment of intense economic crisis.
I give that only as an example—I do not blame anyone for it. If we had better rules of procedure, this sort of situation need never arise. Then we should all have a chance to take part—including Privy Councillors. I have nothing against Privy Councillors except that I am not one. I have long thought that I ought to be, but that is another story. On the whole, I listen to them with fascinated interest; and I do not think that they are great offenders as far as length of speech is concerned. They have been around and have had the experience, and I think that it is quite a good thing that they should have a little precedence, and even privilege. The real danger to the power and status of this House does not come from Privy Councillors, but from the growing power of the bureaucracy and the growing 688 power of the party machines; and I want to deal quite briefly with these two points.
As I see it, one danger is that the House of Commons will gradually cease to exercise any effective control over the Executive in the fields of public expenditure and administration. I do not agree with the implication of the hon. Member for Bristol South-East that our main function and purpose is simply criticism. We must exercise some control over the Executive, especially in matters of public expenditure and finance. That is what this place was originally brought into existence to do. It is our primary function.
The other danger is that back bench Members, under our rigid party system, are coming to be regarded in the country as not much more than the recognised fuglemen for Abbey House and Transport House; but that is not what they were intended to be. Members are not, and never should be, delegates. This is in accordance with constitutional doctrine authoritatively laid down by Burke. We are here on our own account. We can be sacked at the next Election either by constituency associations or anybody else. But not before. Nor should we be. These are the two great dangers.
On the question, "Are we any longer capable of controlling the kind of public activities with which we are now con fronted?" the answer must surely be "No." For example, look at the nationalised industries—at the Atomic Energy Authority, and all those immense, complicated monopolistic organisations for the financing of which we are ultimately responsible. How much control do we exercise over them? Practically none at all.
With the hon. Member for East Ham, South and with the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, I think that the answer is to be found in Standing Committees of this House—about five—to deal with the principal matters, such as economic policy, foreign affairs, Colonies and social affairs. There would also be sub-committees of Members, who might become experts—I cannot help that—to deal with specific industries such as the coal mining industry, atomic energy or whatever it may be. It is of no use to expect that over 600 of us can keep effective control over all these things, because we cannot.
689 One objection to that proposal is that it is said that it would give the Whips too much power. I do not think that that is a very strong objection. As long as I have been in the House, the Whips have never abused their power, which may sound very astonishing. They may be very tiresome from time to time, and they may get very irritable from time to time, for which I do not blame them; but I do not think that the Whips in this House have ever abused their power. It is of the party machines outside that I am much more afraid.
We have to have some method of selection, and I do not know of any better method than that, if we were to send all Bills, with the possible exception of the Finance Bill, to Standing Committees, there is no doubt that there would be quite enough work to occupy the time of every hon. Member; and it is right that an hon. Member with a particular interest should serve on the Committee dealing with that subject. He could always go to the Whip, and say, "Look here, I am very interested in this subject. Please put me on that Committee—"
§ Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)
It we are to have Standing Committees—and I entirely agree with the hon. Member about this—and simultaneously are to stage important debates in this House, we should be unable to carry out our function at all, because so many hon. Members would be taking part in the work of the Standing Committees. Obviously, in view of what the hon. Member says, their activities would be increased, and we should not be able to carry on with the other work at the same time.
§ Sir R. Boothby
One of the difficulties is, surely, the question of time; but I think that the sort of Standing Committees to which I am referring could sometimes sit here when this House would normally be sitting; and that the House, as such, should not then sit at all. Other Committees would meet in the morning; but we could have a Standing Committee sitting on a particular subject in the afternoon; and have much better debate amongst a limited number of Members who know something about it. The Standing Committee would sit in public, with great advantage, and other hon. Members, who did not want to stay, or were not greatly interested, could go 690 away—and that would not be a bad thing—
§ Sir R. Boothby
One of the troubles in this House is that every Member is now called upon to do everything; to argue about every Bill and to speak on every subject, whether he knows anything about it or not. If we try to do everything, we end up by doing nothing.
I am sorry, but what I am really pleading for is specialisation. That is what it comes to. We live in a specialised age, and the genuine and continued interest of a certain number of well-informed Members would be of great assistance to Ministers. Anybody who has seen a Senate Committee of the United States Congress at work can only be enormously impressed. I suggest that had we had an Economic Committee, and a banking subcommittee in the years between the wars, entitled to summon the Governor of the Bank of England to appear before them, and to explain his policy to them, we might have had a much better economic policy than we had during the 'thirties. Similarly I believe that if we had had a Foreign Affairs Committee in close touch with the Foreign Secretary, not telling him what to do, but hearing reports from him from time to time and showing a continuous interest, it is unlikely that the Suez crisis would have occurred in the form it did. I think such a Committee could have been of enormous value.
That is all I want to say, except for a few words on my final point of the party machines. I know this is a very hackneyed subject, and that it is easy to make cheap gibes about the party machines; but we now have a very rigid system, and the state of the Liberal benches at the moment makes it plain that there are only two powerful and effective parties in the House and in the country. All I say is that I do not want the machines to get too powerful.
Let me give one illustration of the power of these machines. For ten years, all the guns of the Tory Party machine were turned on my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill). Everything that could be done to discredit him was done. Then suddenly, as a result of a revolt on the part of back 691 benchers, in the only place where a revolt should be effective—namely, in the Division Lobbies of the House of Commons—overnight my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford succeeded Mr. Neville Chamberlain; and within the hour all the guns were turned off my right hon. Friend, all the are lamps were turned on, and he became a hero.
§ Sir R. Boothby
I had the impression that the "chief engineer" was not particularly concerned to know who was on the bridge or why, but than he was there simply to serve the captain. That is the sort of uneasy feeling that I have about these machines. They are rather soulless.
§ Sir R. Boothby
I am talking of the way in which the power of these machines can be changed from are lamps into machine guns, and back again. There is no doubt that they have terrific power to build up a personality or to pull it down. I do not see any reason why I should not mention this, because it is true. These machines can be exceedingly dangerous.
My final point, which affects the party opposite much more than mine, is this. The Leader of the Opposition recently remarked that majority decisions of Members of Parliament at meetings upstairs must be accepted. I think the Select Committee should consider whether this is intrinsically desirable. The implication is that debates and votes of decisive importance take place upstairs in private; and that, as a result of those debates, a Member of Parliament may not cast his vote in this House in accordance with the dictates of his conscience and convictions.
692 I want to conclude by quoting from a remarkable article written by one who is a great Parliamentarian, the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). It was written a long time ago, but I wish to quote it because it contains a germ of truth which hon. Members opposite ought seriously to consider. He wrote:The right to dissent in debate is no adequate compensation for being compelled to vote in conformity … The function of Parliament becomes one of giving public assent to decisions arrived at secretly elsewhere … The Communist Party has never, at least ostensibly, denied the right of free debate within the party. But its decisions are taken by authoritarian institutions and, once taken, must be defended and supported by all members of the Party. Policy-making ceases to be a public function and becomes the exclusive concern of a privileged closed group, while the party itself ceases to be a mass organisation and becomes a self-chosen elite perpetually self-renewed. It is one thing to have Standing Orders in order to secure effective common action in matters of common consent. To abuse them so as to deprive a substantial section of party opinion of legitimate representation in Parliament; to dragoon a minority, however large, into conformity with a majority, however small; to achieve in secret an outward semblance of uniformity where everyone knows there is no real unanimity of opinion—these are giant strides upon a perilous road.I believe there is a good deal of truth in that article. We in our party have discussions upstairs. They are very important; and they are not so secret as some of us would like them to be. But we do not vote. We vote here in this Chamber, which is precisely where a vote should be taken, in public, on the Floor of the House of Commons; or in a Committee after argument in public. It is in these circumstances that votes should be taken and recorded. They should never be taken in secret.
I know that some hon. Members opposite do not agree with me, but I believe that this is a point which they should seriously consider because, after all, the object of this debate is to air grievances, and to throw out a number of ideas upon which hon. Members may chew. Of one thing alone I am certain—it is high time that a Select Committee was appointed.
§ 12.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)
I agree with the major point that the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby) has made about the Committee system. Of course, it is something more 693 than a matter of procedure. We should recognise it as such because it would lead to constitutional changes.
It is for this reason that a number of hon. Members and I have put on the Order Paper an Amendment to leave out from "procedure" to the end and to add instead thereof:of this House and, in particular, the desirability of increasing the time available for Private Members' Bills and Private Members' Motions; the desirability of simplifying the Order Paper so that it may he more on the lines of an agenda as it is in certain Commonwealth Parliaments; the desirability of greater use being made of Standing Committees for the transaction of financial business at present taken on the Floor of the House; the desirability of a smaller proportion of the time of debates being taken up by speeches from the Front Benches; the desirability of setting up an all-party Standing Committee on Defence; and to report what alterations in procedure, if any, are necessary or desirable for the more efficient despatch of the business of the House".We did so to draw attention to the fact that to get the best value from this debate we should do two things. First, we should not concentrate unduly as the Motion appears to, on the matter of Privy Councillors. Secondly, we should also be prepared to ask a Select Committee to consider constitutional questions which are much more serious matters than procedural points. I will return to this in a moment.
The Times has come in for a rather good knocking today, and I would not defend its leading article on "little men". It was misconceived. But today, in a leader, The Times has picked up these two points. It supports a Select Committee to consider not only procedural questions, but also matters of constitutional significance.
On this matter of "little men", however, is not the disquiet in the House today because there is ability far more than is necessary to fill the jobs in the Government? There are so many able men. Many of these men feel frustrated because under our present system there is so little that a Government back bencher can do with his energies and abilities. If one looks at the calibre of hon. Members since the war—both parties have been in power for five or six years since the war—that has been true. Certainly, it was true when my party was in power, and I think that it is true today.
694 How can we make use of this surplus ability in the House? There is a sense of frustration. It is not only that Members cannot get things done, but they cannot even air their opinions. Why is that?
§ Mr. Heath indicated dissent.
§ Mr. de Freitas
The Patronage Secretary takes me up on this. What about Monday of this week? We had a debate on civil aviation. The Minister's opening speech took 55 minutes. All the back benchers together had to share one hour and three minutes. That was not only the Ministers' fault. It was due to the length of speeches from both Front Benches.
I do not expect that many hon. Members here today are particularly interested in civil aviation. It is not a subject with which everyone concerns himself. But we should recognise that, in the age in which we are living and the age into which we are moving, it is a subject which is becoming increasingly important. Yet our procedure is such that it was possible for back benchers to have only one hour and three minutes to debate B.E.A., B.O.A.C. and the whole problem of the type of aircraft to be used in the future.
§ Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)
Was it not also true that there were at least ten or twelve back benchers on both sides who wanted to speak, but who did not get the opportunity?
§ Mr. de Freitas
The Chief Whip says it was up to the Opposition to give up a whole Supply Day. I am not saying that it was the Government's fault. I am saying that it is our procedure which is wrong. But I hope that the Chief Whip will feel that I am justified in saying this final word on the debate. I thought it was excessive for the Minister to introduce that debate by a speech lasting an hour. It was an interesting speech, but it was out of proportion to the time available.
695 I come now to a point on which I disagree with the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East. He said that we should take more stages of Bills upstairs, except, he said, the Finance Bill. Why except the Finance Bill?
§ Mr. de Freitas
Possibly, then. Do we not annually have a sort of minuet on the Finance Bill, and do we not spend hours on pettifogging points?
§ Mr. de Freitas
Have we not spent many more hours on the tax on hydrocarbon oil, or something like that, when the time should have been devoted to discussing the economic problems facing us if the European Common Market is to be established? It is upstairs that points about hydrocarbon oils can be debated. We should look at this again. We should deal with all Committee stages upstairs, except on matters of the great constitutional change.
§ Sir R. Boothby indicated assent.
§ Mr. de Freitas
The hon. Member agrees. I know that, on the Service Estimates—with which I have had close connection—there are still stages which should never come to the Floor of the House. It would be much better for the administration of the Departments and, indeed, from every aspect, that they should be taken upstairs. Here, on the Floor of this Chamber, we should restrict ourselves to what I might call a Second Reading atmosphere, considering general principles. The Committee stages can be taken upstairs except, as I have said, when grave constitutional points arise. Even then, I am not completely convinced that it would be necessary to take them here.
The Amendment refers to Private Members' Bills and Motions. I know that people outside, and sometimes people in the House, also, are inclined to play down the importance of the Private Member's Bill. It is true that a large proportion of such Bills come into the category of the "Protection of Goldfish Bill." That is only because, under our system, a Member is so surprised at finding himself in the position of being able to introduce a Bill that he looks round for a Bill, and there are in 696 existence organisations having Bills which are ready-made but which do not go to the root of national problems.
However, people like Sir Alan Herbert and Miss Ellen Wilkinson—
§ Mr. de Freitas
I will not mention anyone who is still a Member, but those three who have now gone made an enormous contribution through Private Members' Bills.
The second point in our Amendment is not such a small one as may at first appear. The fact that we have no agenda is a symbol of the way in which our procedure needs revising. Even in new Parliaments, based on our own, which have recently been set up in Africa, one can look at an Order Paper and find out what the House is about to do. [An HON. MEMBER: "So can we."] Perhaps, but it takes a little interpretation to find out what is coming up.
Also, one is often in doubt as to what will be called, whether it will be one Amendment or another. Surely, for the greater dispatch of our business, a Member should not be taken by surprise so often. There should be a proper agenda, as is provided in Parliaments based upon our own.
I do not wish to take up much time. I have already referred to the third point in our Amendment—about using a Standing Committee upstairs even on financial matters. I did so in commenting on the speech of the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East. I have already referred to the fourth point—Front Bench time. I quoted the civil aviation debate because the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury seemed to doubt it. In my time in the House I have made many more speeches from the Front Bench than from the back benches, and I feel that it is a matter which should be looked into.
Before I come to the constitutional point—the last point in our Amendment—I should like to comment on the admirable speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), who seconded the Motion. I 697 disagree with his view on all-party Committees. I think that we shall have to have all-party Committees. I have in mind the matter I know most about—defence. We have reached a stage unknown to the Victorians, when Members of Parliament from this House go to meet members from European Parliaments at N.A.T.O. Parliamentarians' Conferences, Western European Union, and the like. We meet members of the defence committees of the Parliaments of small countries like Belgium, Holland and Denmark. We find that those men, because of their membership of their defence committees, know more about the disposition of the R.A.F. or the British Army in Germany than we do.
We meet our allies on the Continent, yet we cannot deal with these matters in debate and discussion if we know less about our own forces than they do. Ours is the only Parliament in Western Europe which has not an all-party defence committee. This is much more than a procedural point. It is a constitutional point. I very much hope that the Select Committee will be allowed to consider it and that the Government will not ride off on the argument that it is more than a matter of procedure.
We all agree—this note was sounded in most speeches this morning—that this House is respected in the world because we work the Parliamentary system well. We have worked it only because we have always adapted it. We have retained our outside forms, but we have changed the inside. We must now have a serious examination of our procedure. If we are to set the example the world needs, we must keep ourselves up to date. We have done so in the past. We can do so again.
§ 12.28 p.m.
§ Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)
I wish to add my humble word of praise to that already given to the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) and the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) for the opportunity they have given us to debate these matters today. I find it almost impossible to imagine that anyone could make a speech opposing the Motion. Sufficient has already been said from both sides to indicate that there is widespread concern about the way in which we conduct our affairs and the need for change of some sort.
698 I believe that the concern is general, and not confined to Members of the House. There must be many hon. Members who have had—as I have had—the experience of entertaining a guest in the Dining Room, when the Division bell has gone, and one has had to leave. On returning to one's guest, one has made one's excuses. The guest has asked what the Division was about, and the honest answer frequently has been "I have not the slightest idea."
Such a thing shocks people very much, but it is merely a truthful indication of the fact that we spend many hours in the House waiting for the Division bell to go to decide a question about which we have no knowledge whatever and on which we have to rely on the judgment of our hon. Friends, whose opinions we have, from experience, come to respect.
It means that there is a very great waste of time in waiting about to take a decision which, in fact, is not our own, but a second-hand decision based on the judgment of others in our party. I share the view expressed by the last speaker that there is a widespread feeling of frustration, not necessarily confined to those who think they ought to have a job in the Government and have not got one, about the great difficulty which hon. Members have, in fact, in making their opinions heard and felt.
The general tenor of the speeches from the other side of the House has been to the effect that we, had better make up our minds that, under modern conditions, service in this House is a whole-time job, and that, at any rate, such hon. Members as are able and willing to give their whole-time services should have prior consideration, and that what are termed part-timers should make the best of it. There has always been an argument as to what our salaries should be in relation to the question of whole-time or part-time attendance, and we have endeavoured to find a compromise which I do not think is too bad. I should be very sorry, and I think that the country would be worse off, if we altered the emphasis to such an extent that our timetable and practice were assumed to be arranged for those who do give whole-time service here, to the great detriment of those who wish to preserve outside interests, and, I believe, in that process enrich our proceedings.
699 I have not acquired, in the limited time that I have been here, sufficient knowledge and experience to be able to come forward with a series of remedies which the Committee ought to consider. I have no doubt that the proposed Select Committee should be set up, and I hope that, if a Government spokesman is to intervene in the debate, he will indicate the willingness of the Government to listen to the House in that respect before the end of the day.
I want to allude, also, to one or two matters which are broader than mere details of change in relation to Committee procedure, and would be just as applicable whether or not there is an extension of the system, as proposed. The Government should let it be known—and here I refer to whatever Government of whatever party may be the Government of the day—that on all minor matters of the Committee stage of Bills, wherever they are taken, it will not be regarded as a world-shaking event, justifying the resignation of the Government, if the Government are defeated. It would give much more scope on minor points for freedom of view and action on the part of individual Members of these Committees.
Moreover, if, in a desire to give that freedom, a decision contrary to the view of the Government spokesman were taken, and the Government were overruled, there will inevitably be machinery available subsequently to reverse the decision taken in Committee, because the final conclusion on matters of this kind will be arrived at by the House as a whole. I think that it would be advantageous to the form which a Bill will ultimately take, as well as adding to the sense of justification for the Members studying the subject, if a little more latitude in that respect were commonly accepted, whatever Government were in power.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
We do not need a Select Committee to do that, but only a little more common sense on the part of Governments of all sorts.
§ Sir S. Summers
That may well be, but I think it is an appropriate occasion on which to express opinion on the whole working of Parliament, whether relevant or not to the precise study of the machinery by a Select Committee. It is 700 for that reason that I wish to put to the Government my second point, which, unquestionably, will not come within the purview of the proposed Select Committee, and that is the methods that are now in vogue whereby Members can obtain pairs.
It is commonly regarded as sensible that when a number of Members on both sides of the House wish to absent themselves, for perhaps very good reasons, and perhaps more compelling reasons than the political claims on their time here, they should be able to do so, but the system which is now in force, whichever Government is in power, for securing a pair is little short of sordid. One has to keep waiting around hoping to find a Member willing to avail himself of that opportunity, while the Parliamentary Private Secretaries must spend many hours doing the same thing on behalf of Ministers. Why cannot a more sensible, grown-up, responsible system be evolved than that which we have now?
Before my day, I believe that the practice existed for a book to be placed in one of the Lobbies, with a page for every day, and with a limited number of pairs which the Government were prepared to allow indicated, and that, in fact, Members desiring to take advantage of that placed their names in the book. By custom, the Opposition, who obviously, have not the same incentive to obtain pairs, used the book, and that practice went on a long time. An hon. Member needing a pair would write his name on one side, and there would be the written confirmation with the Member's signature that he was willing to absent himself on that occasion.
I know that suggestions of that kind have been made, but have not found favour on the other side, but if it is intended in this debate to ventilate ways and means whereby we can conduct ourselves in a more commonsense way, I hope what I have said will induce a more favourable response when the topic is raised again.
Reference has been made to an extension of dealing with some of these things in Committee, and I think there is a great deal to be said for that, but there is one alternative method, which I do not say I recommend, but which, perhaps, is worth mentioning. It is the possibility of trying to divide some of 701 our legislation into two parts, which, for the purpose of my point, I will describe as general and specialised. If, in fact, a limited number of Members with a greater interest, experience and knowledge of a certain subject could have their talent brought to bear on the subject in question, to the exclusion of others, as it were a Parliament in miniature, surely it would add to the wisdom of the result achieved, and would enable people to devote their time and talents more profitably than in hanging around the corridors or rooms waiting for a Division.
While there is a need to use our time more intelligently and the complexity of these matters is immense, I hope that we will not insist that every Member of Parliament must do something in this House every day of the week, because there are many ways in which he can enhance his contribution to political life by spending it elsewhere in other ways. If we could get more business conducted by the House in miniature, do not let us necessarily assume that everybody else must be doing something in another part of the building.
Finally, if the result of this debate is to get the Select Committee set up, and if considerable thought and determination are aroused to solve some of these problems, I hope that we may end with a solution which is agreed very widely between the two sides of the House. It would be most unfortunate if either one side of the House or even two-thirds of the House foisted on the remaining third a change not generally acceptable.
It is essential that we should contrive to enhance the efficiency of Parliament acting both as a check on the Executive and as a mouthpiece of public opinion. If this Committee is to be set up, I have no doubt that great care will be taken in the selection of it. I hope that it will not be too small. I also hope that the Government realise that there is a widespread demand inside and outside the House for change and that this seems the most appropriate way of embarking on it.
§ 12.41 p.m.
§ Mr. F. J. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)
Before I come to my own remarks, I have been asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) to explain that he omitted to say that the views which he gave the House about setting 702 up an all-party Committee on defence were his own personal views.
§ Mr. Bellenger
My hon. Friend asked me to say that and I am doing what he asked. He asked me to explain that he did not speak in his capacity as a Front Bench Member.
While on that subject, I must say that I am often a little confused to know who are Front Bench Members and who are back bench Members. The position of my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln today, sitting beside me, causes me further confusion. As a Privy Councillor, I have the right, I think, to sit on the Front Bench, but I do not do so and I therefore suppose that I can call myself a back bencher, but I know that for the purpose of this debate mony of my hon. Friends and perhaps hon. Members opposite would not call me a back bencher. Yet I am, and I do not intervene in debates, either as a Privy Councillor or as a back bencher, as often as do some of my hon. Friends who call themselves back benchers.
Consider the example of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), who seconded the Motion. As a matter of curiosity, I went into the Library the other day and looked through the index to the volumes of HANSARD for the last Session. I was surprised to find that my hon. Friend had had a good share of the time of the House, both in Questions and in debate in fact, he had had more than had many Privy Councillors, who are somewhat unfairly maligned in the terms of the Motion today.
§ Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)
Surely the whole point is that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) sits in the Chamber, listens to the debate and takes his chance of catching Mr. Speaker's eye, whereas the moment my right hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) stands up he is called.
§ Mr. Bellenger
It is not true. The trouble about this debate and a lot of 703 the talk which goes on outside the Chamber is that it is not based on fact. I am not sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) is a regular attender for the purposes of debates in the Chamber, but perhaps he does not want to be called. I think hon. Members who are regular attenders know that when I want to be called I attend the House and sit in the Chamber, and they also know that I reserve my interventions in debates mostly to subjects about which I have some knowledge.
The trouble is that too many hon. Members want to speak on all sorts of subjects. When I was a young Member I was advised by the Chair to specialise. Mr. Speaker Fitzroy was in the Chair in those days. I was told that it was better to choose perhaps two subjects and to study them thoroughly, because then the House would be more inclined to listen with attention than if one were more discursive. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East specialised in the subjects which he chose last year for his interventions. They were pretty wide. The range is as follows: the Army, the Colonies, the London Press Service, defence, Egypt, Israel, the dissolution of Parliament, the R.A.F., the Royal Navy, trade and commerce, rear lights on London Transport vehicles, the Ministry of Works, Standing Order No. 9, the Finance Bill, and B.B.C. sound broadcasting.
I must admit that my hon. Friend has a good deal of experience of B.B.C. and other broadcasting. If there is any sense of frustration among some hon. Members about not being able to take part in a debate in the Chamber, let them remember that there may be a little frustration amongst those who do not seem to be able to persuade the B.B.C. broadcasting service to put them on the air to ask their questions, supplementary or otherwise, or even to answer questions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East does very frequently.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) rather destroyed his case about not giving preference to anyone in the debate when he said that he would not venture into deep water in this debate but would leave that to more experienced Members. Who are the more experienced Members? 704 Generally speaking, they are the senior Members of the House. I know of no debating authority, or any other authority, which does not give preference to the older and more experienced members when questions have to be argued. Why should not the more experienced Members have preference?
I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln in his complaint that the other day back bench Members had only one hour and three minutes of the debate whereas the Minister of Transport took an unduly long time. After all, it is the Minister of Transport that the public want to hear on these matters. He is the man who has not only the responsibility but also the knowledge. I quite agree that some back benchers study these subjects carefully, and I think they should be given the opportunity of speaking on appropriate occasions, but is it not a fact that we complain when a Minister is not here to listen to or answer a debate? We want the Ministers to put their case, and then we can criticise that case. We cannot do that unless we have heard it adequately.
I was recently a member of a Select Committee and I recall the almost ferocity with which Scottish Members insisted that every Scottish Member should have the right to be on the Scottish Grand Committee. That Committee has about eighty members. The argument which was put before us was that they were entitled to put their case in the Committee. If that is true, I would point out that in the working day which we have at our disposal it is impossible for all English Members and others to put their case. We have only a certain number of hours at our disposal, even if we sit all night, in which to put our case, whether we are Privy Councillors or back benchers.
I urge on the Leader of the House that he should accede to the request made in the Motion to set up a Select Committee. I do not want to take up time in putting points which could more adequately be considered in that Committee, but I think the Government owe it to the House, judging by the speeches which have been made so far from both sides, to concede the point and to allow a Select Committee to be set up.
I am bound to say that the Leader of the House seems to take a more 705 generous view of these matters than did the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) when he was Prime Minister, because he rejected this idea of a Committee, for example, an defence matters. I know the German system, where they have a military defence committee and where they are able to question high officials, generals and people in important positions and at least find out the official case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln said, in the Service Estimates debates we do not get the Government's real case. That is why not only in defence matters but in other matters so many wild and irresponsible statements are made, sometimes damaging and detrimental to the Services.
I should have thought that matters of recruiting, for example, should not be considered in any partisan manner. It should be a matter for co-operation between both sides of the House. How better can that be done or considered than in a Military Affairs Committee? Although possibly it may not meet with the approval of some of my hon. Friends or hon. Gentlemen opposite, in Germany when these important committees are meeting—a military affairs committee or foreign affairs committee—the House as a House does not sit. Why should we meet as a House from Monday to Friday? Why should we not reserve one day, or perhaps two days, for committee work on these very important subjects and not have the House sitting as a House on that day? In days gone by I think the House did not meet so often. Is it because we have increased our salaries to such an extent today that we are afraid of what the public might say if we do not sit as a House?
I think there is every reason, if we are to do our work properly and in an expert fashion, for saying that we should do it in Committees and that we should select for those Committees the experts—and I do not fear the power of the Whips on this issue.
Take, for example, the defence debates that take place in this House. How many Members are present for those debates? How many Members want to take part in those debates nowadays? The answer is, comparatively speaking, a handful. They are the experts, and why should not the experts 706 deal with matters in this House as they deal with them outside? Would we put inexperienced back bench Members on to a Committee dealing with atomic energy questions? Of course we should not. The job should be given to those who have the knowledge and who have studied the subject.
I can see that there are on the back benches hon. Friends of mine against whom I would not attempt to intervene on such a subject as local government affairs. They know the situation much better than I. No doubt if I wanted publicity in my own constituency I might, as some hon. Gentlemen do, intervene in the debate merely to get a report in the local papers. I do not seek that. If I want something in my local papers I know how to achieve it without getting up on my feet here and speaking.
As a matter of fact, when I was opposing Mr. Malcolm MacDonald in 1933, I had plenty of opportunities for saying what I had to say in my local newspapers—
§ Mr. Bellenger
—and causing him a good deal of discomfort.
I need say only one more thing, and that concerns the procedure that we followed during the war. That was a time when the country was keyed up, and on the shoulders of the Government and Parliament rested a tremendous responsibility. What was the procedure adopted then? As far as I recollect, the various committees were dispensed with except the Committee presided over by Sir John Wardlaw-Milne, which I think was the Select Committee on Estimates.
§ Mr. Bellenger
Yes, the Select Committee on National Expenditure. It rendered its Reports to the Prime Minister in those days, not to Parliament, although it was a Committee of Parliament. That was because of the circumstances prevailing at the time. The result of those investigations by that Committee, although they were made in secret and sometimes the Committee debated in secret, was that the House of Commons had far greater power, vis-à-vis the Executive, than we have today with 707 an open Parliament. I believe also that hon. Gentlemen were attached to various groups or committees linked up with the Government Departments at that time. They did excellent work. The Leader of the House of Commons knows this as well as I do. He was a Member of the Government then. I am merely directing my remarks to those hon. Gentlemen who were not Members of the House at that time, but there is certainly room for an investigation into the better and more adequate working and functioning of this House.
I regret that such trivial issues as the speeches of Privy Councillors, and so forth, are brought into a debate of this kind. It is not necessary, because what would happen if the House gave Mr. Speaker a directive that he was not to give precedence to Privy Councillors as such? We should then throw back on the Chair the responsibility which the Chair always has for selecting speakers. I would not presume to ask or to say how you do select speakers, Mr. Speaker, but I am fairly certain, from twenty-three years' membership of this House, that generally the Members who catch your eye are those able to say something of value in a debate. That should be our purpose—not to call Members merely because they want to speak, but in order to have, as one of your predecessors said, Mr. Speaker, the cut and thrust of debate. Otherwise our debates become arid, and it is small wonder that the Press gives very little prominence to so many of our discussions, and picks out only the more sensational issues. That should not be the function of the mother of Parliaments.
I hope, therefore, that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen will support the Motion, and that it will not be necessary to take it to a Division.
§ 12.57 p.m.
§ Sir Robert Cary (Manchester, Withington)
I should like to add my congratulations to the mover of the Motion, the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram), for the timely service that I think he has rendered to the House. I have not the slightest doubt that the outcome of this debate will be that a Select Committee will be set up. The only difficulty will be, of course, the drafting of its terms of reference. Judging from the suggestions made so far in the debate, those who are responsible for drafting 708 the Motion will have to exercise their minds considerably as to whether they can encompass within a single term of reference the ground which this debate has already covered.
The greatest contribution that any hon. Member can make to our proceedings now is to be found in the word "brevity". As the late Sir Herbert Williams used to say, "Never intervene except on a matter about which you know something, and then speak up, shut up and sit down." That may, perhaps, often be the best guide.
§ Sir R. Cary
If brevity is practised, then intervention is not a burden, and I shall try to be brief myself in the few minutes that I wish to speak.
When I was first elected to the House, twenty-three years ago, I made a personal vow that one of my first self-imposed tasks would be to read the Standing Orders of the House from cover to cover. I regret to report that that resolution is still imprisoned with the Manual of Military Law, the King's Regulations, Bradshaw, and the speeches of Mr. Gladstone in 1884. Therefore, I do not wish to trespass too much on the time of the debate in discussing some of the mechanics of the arrangements of the House which take a long time to revoke, and, in the end, may not come out to everybody's satisfaction.
May I take up one point made by the mover of the Motion, and that concerns the times of sitting of the House. Among the public there is a general feeling that the times which we now sit—in the afternoon, through the evening, late at night and sometimes until the early hours of the morning—belong to the Victorian and Edwardian period, and are not the most expeditious way of discharging the functions of the House.
I have in mind the contrast of the years of the war, when we sat in the House throughout the day. We were prompted to do so in the beginning because of the black-out and the bombing, but with the last two years of the wax, during the V.1 and V.2 attacks, we still carried on with our daily sittings here. When the old Chamber was destroyed we sat in another place, then in Church 709 House and later in St. Stephen's Chapel. There was no difficulty about sitting from 11 a.m. until 6 o'clock or 7 o'clock in the evening. Strangely enough, throughout those war years a great many Members found ample time to follow many activities and occupations away from Parliament itself.
I do not want to be dogmatic and say that I once favoured the former practice and now feel attached to the new approach, but if a Select Committee is to consider the future proceedings of the House it could exercise its mind in a most useful way by examining whether the present times of sittings of the House is the right system for the future.
§ Sir S. Summers
Would my hon. Friend not agree that if there is to be a suggestion of reverting to something approaching the hours which we kept during the war, there must also be a drastic change in the method of timing Divisions? The present uncertainty of Division times would have to be drastically amended if the virtues of the wartime timetable are to be enjoyed and outside work is to be followed.
§ Sir R. Cary
That would naturally follow. Many important revisions, such as the timing of Divisions, would arise from any revision of our times of sitting.
As to the main point made by the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) about Privy Councillors, I should very much regret it if this ancient privilege were tampered with or abolished.
§ Sir R. Cary
I make the qualification then and say that I should regret it if this privilege were abolished. The late Mr. Walter Elliot, who will remain long in our memory, intervened frequently as a Privy Councillor.
§ Sir R. Cary
I agree, as a Member of the House, and he conferred no disability on my hon. Friends. The right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) intervenes an enormous number of times with valuable contributions at Question Time and in debate, and I cannot say that at any time he has conferred any disability on hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. George Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)
The hon. Member should sit on this side of the House and find out.
§ Sir R. Cary
I believe that in the course of one great debate the right hon. Member for Easington said that the Government should sound like a great symphony orchestra and not like a jazz band. Perhaps in the course of an unforgettable past the right hon. Gentleman has irritated or jarred on certain hon. Members, but in my view he has always made a valued contribution to our discussion.
I do not think that it is any good a Select Committee directing its mind to the long-term aspects of our affairs. The late Mr. L. S. Amery, a very distinguished Parliamentarian, often talked to Members about setting up an industrial Parliament to take many matters away from the Floor of the House. That argument has been used to support the Life Peerages Bill, on the ground that another form of Chamber is needed to deal with the complexities of modern life. I believe that it was one of my hon. Friends who spoke today about the establishment of vast offices and clerical and typing facilities for Members. Those are long-term matters which cannot be realised in the next five, six or seven years.
§ Sir S. Summers
It was the seconder of the Motion, the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn).
§ Sir R. Cary
Yes, I believe it was. It would be wasting our time to try to improve the immediate facilities of the House by giving Members new clerical and typing facilities and accommodation.
§ Sir R. Cary
We come back to the immediate short-term things that we could do to improve the proceedings of the House. I am not happy about Questions. An Eton master once told me that my son's handwriting bore a bogus air of neatness. When I note the facility with which one can put a Question to a Minister on the Order Paper, that, too, seems so neat and tidy that it is rather 711 bogus. In fact, it takes weeks sometimes to get a Question answered by a Minister. Yesterday, for example, the first 50 or 60 Questions on the Order Paper were occupied by the Colonial Office and no other Minister came to the Dispatch Box. That is not the best way of discharging our business.
I should like to see representatives of five Departments, for certain, brought to the Dispatch Box to answer Questions in one day, for instance, Nos. 1 to 8, by the Ministry of Health; Nos. 9 to 16 by the Colonial Office; and so on, in groups of eight, Department by Department. After Question No. 50, or so, when the Prime Minister had finished replying to Questions addressed to him, the House could resume with Questions addressed to other Departments. Thus, in four or five days of Question Time, anything up to 20 Ministers would be brought to the Dispatch Box. It would be an infinitely more expeditious way of dealing with Questions.
As to what has been mentioned in the debate about "Dr." Haley, some of the sentences in The Times leading article struck home. Of course there are things in the proceedings of the House which the public can criticise, especially when our proceedings fall to a somewhat fourth-form level. The gibe is always made about the House of Commons being full of little men, and people ask, "Where are the great men?" They are certainly not walking about in industry. They are certainly not in the professions. [An HON. MEMBER: "Nor in journalism."] Perhaps they are hidden away at the bottom of my garden, in Kent. Who knows? The truth is that great men are made by events, and great men owe much more to events than events owe to great men.
§ Sir R. Cary
It is a false premise to say that the House of Commons must contain little men because it contains no great men. In that connection, I like to recall that when we presented my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) with his portrait in Westminster Hall he concluded his splendid speech of thanks to us by saying that, of course, it was not he, but 712 the great British people, who had fought the war. He was just fortuitously called upon "to give the roar." A great man was in the right place at the right time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby) rather falsified the position of his succession, for the greatest speech made at that Box in 1940 in defence of Mr. Neville Chamberlain was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford. I think it is true that my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford was subject to some degree of isolation by the party, but the party would say, I think, that no more fitting person could have been invited by Mr. Neville Chamberlain on that 3rd September to undertake the Ministry of Defence. [HON MEMBERS: "The Admiralty."] Yes, invited to be First Lord of the Admiralty and to undertake the functions of the Minister of Defence.
Many hard things have to be said at constituency level about Members of this House. I think that it was the hon. Member for Bristol, South East who stressed the enormous importance of our function at constituency level, in the discharge of what we may call the welfare work of the average Member of Parliament. Many of us find our greatest satisfaction in doing that work, rather like the good, hard-working priest, always close to the people.
I have known many Members of this House who have drawn their greatest satisfaction not from any glittering success they may have had on the Floor of this Chamber, but from the small, humble things they can do to help people in their constituencies. That is an enormously valuable function which can thus be fulfilled by Members of this House, and when it is performed well throughout the whole country, even though it is done by only 600 people, Members of this House, whether behind the Government or in opposition, it is a most valuable contribution to our social welfare.
I always like to think of this ancient House rather in the way in which it was described by Mr. Ed. Murrow, the famous American correspondent who was with us during the war, when he left us, and said in a broadcast that it was not the wonderful victory of El Alamein, or an operation at sea, or the landings in northern France which most impressed 713 him, but the fact that the British people had the strength and resilience to mobilise Parliamentary democracy through the House of Commons to fight the greatest war in its history.
§ 1.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)
I would start by saying how much I agree with what has been said about the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). I agreed with everything, I think, that my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South said. I was not entirely in agreement with one or two things my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East said, though thoroughly enjoyed the racy way in which he said them. In particular, I am inclined to think it would not be a wise thing to write into the OFFICIAL REPORT speeches which have not been made.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
That is done, I know, in other assemblies, particularly in the United States, where sometimes some very strange things get into the Congressional Record. I think that perhaps we are more adult in this country, but, at any rate, I think there is a risk that it may not be worth while to run.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Withington (Sir R. Cary) put the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby) right about the attitude of his own side to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) in the early days of the war. I think it was worth while putting him right because he has access to a public that many of us do not possess, and if he were to repeat that to listening or viewing millions, it would be a pity, because it Is a complete travesty.
What happened then was that the right hon. Gentleman, himself a prominent member of the Cabinet, made a great defence of the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain, and very properly so, because he was a colleague. Before, well before, the war the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford had been attacking his own party and it had a right to reply to him and use what influence it could to put its point of view and to lessen any effect he might have had on 714 the public. I should have thought so if I had sat on that side of the House. That the Government of that day were wrong does not, of course, surprise us, nor that the right hon. Gentleman was more right than they were. But the story is not quite what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Aberdeenshire, East would have us believe to be the correct one.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) that we want to make the Order Paper into what he calls an agenda.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
It is a perfectly easy thing to read the Order Paper. All one has to do is to read down through the items to the mention of Supply and then one knows what is the expected business for the day. Beyond the order for Supply Committee are other things which will be coming up but are not coining up that day. It is useful to know not only what is down for a day, but what is coming on in the days, possibly weeks, to follow. For my part, I hope that there will not be too much tinkering with the Order Paper at any rate, not to get what my hon. Friend called a proper agenda.
I am glad that, on the whole, the debate has kept clear of what I think is the only blemish in my hon. Friend's Motion, namely, the reference to Privy Councillors. It seems to me that this is a matter which can be dealt with if a Select Committee is set up, as I hope it will be, and that we do not want on an important occasion such as this to become too much entangled in an argument about whether or not Privy Councillors should be called immediately they get up.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
I was very pleased to notice that, and for that reason I can vote wholeheartedly, should it come to a vote, for the Motion my hon. Friend moved with such felicity and so ably.
This trouble about Privy Councillors is not a new one. Augustine Birrell, perhaps half a century ago, certainly more than the twenty years ago to which my hon. Friend the Member for 715 Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) referred just now, said somewhere:It is the right hon. Gentlemen who get the first cuts off the joint, and they are generally the biggest cuts.when there was some discussion how far Privy Councillors should have priority in debates in this House. The difficulty over Privy Councillors is not that they get called to speak, but that some of them speak too long and too often.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
On all benches, but it is only individual Privy Councillors.
Therefore, I think it is better not to get bogged down over this, but to confine ourselves, as I think we have on the whole, to matters more useful for consideration. If we can do that we shall be doing ourselves a service.
§ Mr. Bellenger
I want my right hon. Friend to get the facts clearly. If he will go to the Library, and look up the index to HANSARD, he will find that Privy Councillors have not made long and frequent interventions.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
I do not want to enter into an argument about this matter, and for the sake of peace and quiet I will accept what my right hon. Friend says. I listened to his speech with the utmost care and it was obvious to me that he has made some researches into the matter, and that when he spoke, and also intervened just now, he was speaking with knowledge. I accept what he says.
But there are far more important matters to discuss than the question whether a Privy Councillor should be called fairly soon after he indicates to the Chair that he would like to intervene in a debate. I do not know why some Members want to speak so often. One would have thought that they would have been discouraged. Going into the Library, as they must do daily, and looking at the long rows of shelves of speeches made by previous Members—who undoubtedly, at the time, thought that they were making an oration which would affect great issues—they should recollect that nearly all those people are forgotten, and that speeches are transitory.
Even today we get little in the way of a Parliamentary report in the Press, which prefers to print the sensational 716 rather than the solid. All things considered, it seems to me that we should have a proper balance in this matter, and only speak if we have a real contribution to make, looking to other forms of activity as Members of Parliament to fulfil the sense that we all have of desiring to serve our country and localities.
In the days when we used to sit almost all night—certainly to the early hours of the morning—night after night and sometimes week after week, I occasionally went into the Library and took down one or two volumes containing the speeches made by Gladstone when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. I expect that other hon. Members have done the same; if not, perhaps they would like to do so on occasions when they have a few moments to spare. Gladstone would speak for three, four, or more hours upon the financial situation, or upon a Budget which was nothing like so complicated which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to introduce nowadays.
§ Mr. Hall
There are columns and columns of closely-set type of speeches made by him. I suppose that although he spoke at great length his speeches were acceptable to the Members of those days, and I suppose there was no criticism about the time he took for the simple reason that in those days Members were not so anxious to speak as they are now.
That is one of the answers to the leader in The Times, about this place being full of little men. The trouble is that we now have men of sufficient stature and intelligence to want to take an active part in our proceedings and not sit quietly by and leave it to the so-called giants. I regard that as an excellent thing.
One hon. Member suggested a time limit for speeches. The last big Select Committee which roamed over the whole field of this matter was set up in August, 1945, and issued its final Report in October, 1946. Amongst other things, a memorandum was presented to it by Lord Campion, then Clerk to the House, in which he suggested that there should be a time limit to speeches. The Select Committee slid over that suggestion and came to the conclusion that it found no 717 favour with any member of the Committee. It might be that that view would he taken if a Select Committee were set up now, although I rather hope that it would not.
I have seen the operation of the procedure of limiting speeches in other assemblies within our Commonwealth—in Southern Rhodesia for example—and as far as I could see it worked very well. Members' speeches were controlled by means of green, red and yellow lights. The green light went on when a Member started to speak; two minutes before it was time for him to finish the yellow light went on, and when the red light went on he had to sit down. As far as I could see, that system worked extremely well. I am not suggesting that we should institute that system here, but the possibility of introducing some form of limitation of speeches could be considered by the Select Committee, if and when one is set up.
If it is true that one of our difficulties is that we have not the time to get all the speeches in, and if an absolute limitation of speeches is not thought desirable by a majority of the House, there are ways of extending our sittings. I should not like to suggest that we should sit later at night, because that would be unfair to the staff—although perhaps half an hour would not make much difference, and would enable more hon. Members to speak. I am merely suggesting this; I am not saying that I favour the idea.
Another suggestion is that we should meet earlier. I do not say that we should sit in the morning, because there would be great difficulties with Standing Committees and other commitments; Members must attend to their correspondence, and they very often have to show visitors round the House. It is not always easy to sit both morning and afternoon. But when I first came here the House met at 2.45 p.m.—the Home Secretary may be able to bear me out in this, because I believe that he was here at the time—and the time was then brought forward to 2.30 p.m. We might again bring the time forward by a quarter of an hour and begin at 2.15 p.m. That is a possibility which might be considered by any Select Committee that is set up.
The hon. Member for Withington referred to Questions. When I first came to the House there was very often a 718 second time round with Questions. The Questions were gone through once and then, if a Member who was present had not been in his place when his Question was first reached, he had a second chance. In addition, if he were not there at all he could ask a colleague in the House to put the Question for him. Nowadays, we rarely get very far beyond Questions to the Prime Minister—and still more rarely, if ever, finish all the Questions on the Order Paper. It may be that too many of us try to "muscle in" on other's Questions; the number of supplementaries which hon. Members now attempt to put are greatly in excess of what they used to be in the old days.
Another way of lessening the congestion and getting more Ministers to the Box at Question Time would be to reduce the number of Questions which a Member could put. At present, a Member can ask three Questions. It might help if we reduced the number to two. These matters are all ones the Select Committee could examine.
I do not want to speak for too long, especially as I have suggested that speeches should not be of great length in any debate. I should, however, like to mention a matter which has not been referred to except in passing, namely, our method of voting. The subject has been touched upon, but no mention has been made of the possibility of a change being made in the method, which might save a considerable time, especially when a number of votes are taken in one debate.
I appreciate the difficulty about mechanical voting. In many other assemblies that method is adopted, but, unlike those assemblies, we do not have allotted seats. We sit more or less where we like, subject to the need for separating the sheep from the goats—and I hope that this situation will continue. We do not have allotted seats to which we could go if a vote were taken and in some way mechanically operate a button or unlock a desk so to register our vote.
Nevertheless, this fact should not preclude the Select Committee from looking into the matter, because on occasions, in the old days, when many votes were being put through late in the evening, one could tramp the Lobbies for hours, knowing full well what would be the results of the votes. The figures were 719 in fact, nearly always the same each time a Division was taken.
Although I believe that a mechanical system might be looked into, and even that might be found acceptable to the House, I am sure that Divisions are an essential part of our work and that we ought not in any way to curtail their use or prevent any group from calling a Division at appropriate times.
In spite of all that we have said this morning and that will be said before we end this debate, I would remind hon. Members that we cannot achieve a perfect Parliamentary system. We are 600 men and women, and our labours, as we have been reminded, cover a wide field. They cover administration of the finances of the country, new legislation and the publicising of grievances. Our debates range round the world on a variety of subjects connected with the Commonwealth and with peace. There are many problems in an enormous number of directions which we try to solve, and it is impossible for any one of us to do more than cover a very small part of that vast field. Yet it can be covered between us with a little common sense; of that I am positive.
I hope, therefore, that the Leader of the House will presently rise and say that the desire of hon. Members in every quarter has been so clearly expressed that the Government will accede to our wishes and set up a Select Committee. My regret is that it has been left to the Ballot and to a private Member to raise the matter. If my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South had not been far-sighted and public-spirited enough to choose this subject for today's debate we might have gone on for many years without its being raised. Although the Motion has been forced upon him, or, at any rate, presented to him, by back benchers, I hope that the Home Secretary will, on behalf of the Government, accept the suggestion of a Select Committee and will not only set it up but will implement its findings when they are reported.
§ 1.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)
Like the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram), who moved the Motion in such an able and charming way, I approach the subject with diffidence, as one who 720 is a twin of his, in a Parliamentary sense if in no other way; but I think that younger Members have something to contribute on this subject as well as Members who are older and have more experience. If the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) had looked me up in the Index to HANSARD as well as his hon. Friend he would have found that I do not speak very much, but I sit here quite a lot listening to debates. I have a few ideas which I should like to ventilate. I shall not offer solutions for them, because that would be the function of the proposed Select Committee.
Every speaker seems to have agreed that there should be a Select Committee to consider the matters which have been referred to. It has been broadly hinted that we spend so much time on matters which are not of general interest that we have no time for the things which are. The two debates on Monday on civil aviation and the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board were of great importance but were not the kind of subject that can electrify the general public. The Overseas Resources Development Bill and the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands Bill may be very important to the people concerned, but they are of no real importance to the people of this country whatsoever.
On the other hand, one of the topics which has caused a great deal of public interest recently has been the publication of the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexuality and Prostitution. I will not go into the reason why the Report has excited public interest, but it has undoubtedly done so, and it should have been debated in this House. It has been left to the other place to debate it. That happens over and over again; we have no time to debate important topics. Although I approach the other place with a good deal more reverence than does the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) I assert that the place where debates on matters of first importance should take place is here and not there.
Another example will bring the matter even nearer home. The Select Committees on Estimates and Public Accounts issue regularly very important Reports which are never debated at all because we have not the time. Why do the Select Committees go to all that trouble when 721 nothing more is ever heard of their Reports? For all the good that comes of it the Committees might as well give up the very good work which they are doing.
How can we get round all the waste of time—I feel strongly about it—that takes place during Divisions? The press-button method of voting which many Continental countries have would be impossible in this Chamber, and I do not see any way round that difficulty. It may be that the method of walking through Lobbies is the only one that will fit this type of Chamber, but is it necessary that the name of every hon. Member who votes in every Division should be recorded? I agree that on vital occasions when the fate of the Government or of the country is at stake names should be recorded, and we should not deprive our constituents of the right of looking up the record to see which way their representatives have voted; but who is really interested, for example, in seeing which way I voted last Tuesday on the Question whether this House should sit after Ten o'clock.
§ Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
I think the Division record should be kept. Would not the hon. Member agree that the time taken to go through the Division Lobbies is, on occasion, very important, as it helps tempers to cool down?
§ Mr. Kirk
I agree with the hon. Member. I am not suggesting that we should do away with it altogether; but a lot of the time taken up is with that serum round the two desks. That could be done away with on certain occasions and the votes should be recorded without the names being taken. Some hon. Members demand that the names should be taken, but local authorities do not always take the names. It might be difficult for the Whips to keep tabs on the movement and behaviour of hon. Members, I agree—and I have a great respect for the Whips—but that is their headache.
Quite a lot of time might be saved by revising the procedure of Standing Committees. I speak with a great deal of feeling on the matter because I was one of the unfortunate English Members who sat through the sittings of the Scottish Standing Committee last Session. It involved two all-night sittings. The Scottish Members paired and went home and the English Members were left there to keep things going.
722 The examination of all but the most important Bills might be reconsidered. The suggestion has been made—I forget where it comes from—that Bills should be considered on the lines of the examination of Private Bills. Experts would give their testimony on important points to a small committee consisting of four Members of the House, who would decide whether the Bill was to go on or not; and then the Bill would come before the House for report. An awful lot of time would be saved if the Private Bid procedure were adapted to Public Bills. I throw out the suggestion, which might be considered by the Select Committee.
I come to the point which nearly every hon. Member has raised, whether there should be permanent Committees for special subjects. The more I think of this suggestion the more I am convinced that it is wise. A lot of the Bills we have considered this week could have been taken in permanent Committee almost entirely, coming down here for final ratification. Obviously most of the Questions by Scottish hon. Members could be taken in the Scottish Standing Committee. Scottish hon. Members would be slightly better off because they would have more time. I think, for instance, that foreign affairs Questions, except those of vital importance, could be dealt with in a Foreign Affairs Committee and we could save time in that way.
Another point which I do not think has been raised, but which should be as it is of considerable importance, is that such Committees would meet when the House was not sitting, and even during Recesses. It is well known that economic or foreign affairs crises tend to break out late in October when the House has not been sitting for two months. If we had a permanent Committee on Foreign Affairs meeting once a month, or more frequently, during the Recess there would be less danger of tile Government getting out of touch even with their own back benchers on foreign affairs and economic matters. It would be of great value to the Government and to hon. Members if the Committee could meet rapidly in an emergency and question the Minister concerned. It may be said that there is always provision for the House to be recalled. We do not prorogue but always adjourn for the 723 Recess, but it would be easier to get a Grand Committee of the House back into session than to recall the House.
Finally, and appropriately, on the question of time limits for speeches, there is a danger that whereas some hon. Members' speeches could well be a great deal shorter, in a number of cases I feel that they could be somewhat longer. It would be unfair to limit the length of time of speeches of some hon. Members. I suggest that the Select Committee, which everyone is assuming will be set up, should examine the method in use in the House of Representatives in the United States whereby there is no fixed time limit, but a time limit is made by the Chair for each Member. I know that would impose additional work on the Chair—
§ Mr. Kirk
I agree that that would be asking a lot, but it may be a way of getting round this difficulty, and I think the suggestion should be examined.
I congratulate the hon. Member who moved the Motion. I hope the House will accept it and, even if nothing much comes of it, I am sure it has been a very good thing to air the whole subject today.
§ 1.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
I have sat here for some time debating with myself whether I should ever take part in the debate, and, having listened to suggestions of the character we have just heard, I must say that they would mean that some of us would never get a chance to take part in a debate at all.
One often wonders what determines the basis on which hon. Members are selected to speak. Is it the length of service, the length of time they have sat on the benches, the forces outside which they represent, the section of the community from which they come, or the class to which they belong? Those of us who have a little historical knowledge of the struggle of the people to whom we belong have the satisfaction of knowing that we are carrying on in the same way as our fellow-workers have throughout the ages in obtaining the right of free speech, the right to vote and to come here.
724 Some of us look on this assembly as the greatest monument to the development of a democracy of this character. Although we make a critical approach to problems of the kind we are considering this morning, it is in harmony with the desires of the common people that we should keep pace with world developments and we are tending to get left behind. With a small number, I had the privilege twenty-seven years ago of fighting the greatest demagogue this country has yet thrown up. Because we see similar tendencies today, we want to make this assembly and our form of democracy more efficient, more in tune and harmony with what our industrial colleagues are doing in their work at Trafford Park, Aldermaston and other places in saving this country from economic catastrophe which we should have to face were we to leave the problem to some members of the community around this great city. We of the great industrial areas are determined to make our contribution on this issue.
I have had the privilege of listening this morning to an hon. Member who has come through the really democratic school of the Co-operative movement and found his place here. I found myself in complete agreement with every word he said this morning. We cannot approach this problem in the flippant manner in which some contributions have been made. I have the utmost respect for many who differ fundamentally from me. That is the value of this assembly and of the cut and thrust of debate. When hon. Members are straight and honest, although their cuts may hurt, we appreciate it, because that is the kind of assembly we want.
All Labour Members are already committed to support the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell). My hon. Friend would propose that the Committee should particularly consider the question, among others, of… honourable Members who sit on the front Opposition bench, and those honourable Members who are frequently appointed by the home and parliamentary organisations to proceed overseas on various missions, thus absenting themselves from attendance in the House".Hon. Members who have listened in the tea room, the dining room, the Lobbies and all parts of the House with the 725 exception of the "coalition" Smoke Room, which many of us never frequent, know that every real Labour man, is committed to support my right hon. Friend. We are all delighted that a Division on this Motion is unlikely and that thee is complete unanimity in its support, but if a Divison had been forced, we would have supported that Amendment.
Another Amendment, signed by fifty real Labour Members, suggests, first, the needfor modernising the procedure of SupplyIn order to save time, because many hon. and patient Members want to get into the debate, I merely ask if any hon. Member differs from the proposal that there is needfor modernising the procedure of Supply".If he does, I have evidence here, comprising such a black indictment of the way in which we acquiesce in outmoded Victorian ideas for dealing with Supply, evidence with so much dynamite in it that such an hon. Member, if he saw it, would not dare to speak another word in this House.
I am not asking hon. Members to accept what I say, but to go to the Vote Office to get the Appropriation Account for the Navy for 1955–56, then the one for the Army and for the Air Force and read the terrible indictment written by those most public-spirited, conscientious men employed in the service of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, to whom this House gives so little attention.
Next, we come to the use of virement. Does any hon. Member disagree about that?
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
My hon. Friend should know. Is there any other hon. Member who does not know what it means?
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
I congratulate the hon. Member on having the courage to admit that he does not know because it is surprising how many people, when they get here, think they know it all.
It is surprising how few hon. Members are aware that in the Library all this information is available. In spite of what 726 some hon. Members have said this morning, the service given by the Librarian and his staff is wonderful compared with what it was when some of us first entered the House. Seeing the way in which those men and women run from one room to another to serve hon. Members, I think they deserve praise, and I take this opportunity of doing so.
At Members' disposal in the Library is a book known as "The Explanation of Virement." It consists of only a few pages but it contains a clear explanation of the application of this process and the machinery of the House. The process started under the Monk Resolution about 100 years ago. It was all right in those days, when we were dealing with pennies and shillings, but in these days, when we are dealing with £5,000 million, it is out of date. I will explain what happens.
In the trade union movement and in most other organisations one is subjected to a very minute Government auditing scrutiny and one has to account for every farthing one spends. What does this House do? It votes millions of pounds every year to the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Half-way through the year—I have served in these Departments and I know what they are up to—the leading authorities in each field of activity of the military forces begin to look round to see how much they have saved. If they have saved millions of pounds in one direction we can depend upon it that they will spend those millions somewhere else. That is the application of virement. The House is considering economising at the expense of the social services while that kind of extravagance continues to take place to the extent of millions of pounds.
I do not want to carry this too far because I have not time, but I served in the Army of Occupation and I served in France, Belgium and Germany, and I then saw what went on. I make all allowances for the difficulties, but I say that twelve years after the end of the last war it is time the House took steps to prevent that kind of extravagance from continuing to take place. What I have explained is the application of virement.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
That is what we have been talking about. If a farthing more were spent on the social services there would be such a hullaballoo in the House that the whole country would know about it. Yet in the Services last year—I am speaking from memory; I must make that qualification—I think they spent over £130 million in this way. If they do not spend it with one hand they spend it with the other. If anybody doubts what I say, it is all on the record and it is another black indictment which we have to face again this year and which we ought to face.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
But the House has to be told of it and must agree to it, otherwise it cannot take place.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
Certainly, but what has happened in the last three years? The House has been told about 11.30 at night. Some of us have remained in the Chamber and have seen others constantly getting in the debate after having been here for only a few seconds. Some of my hon. Friends have remained here for hours, from 2.30 p.m. until 11 p.m. or midnight, waiting until an issue of this kind arose; and then, thanks to the generosity of the present occupant of the Chair, we have been given a little latitude at times when these questions have been raised. Fortunately we have been able to do our duty, even if others have not. It is all on the record, and if any one wishes to check this I will give him the dates of the HANSARD references. If hon. Members look at HANSARD of 5th July, 1956, and 9th July, 1957, they will have a clear understanding of how the principle of virement operates in this country.
I come to the rules of Parliamentary practice. I do not want to say much about that, but I have seen a great deterioration in the standard of the Privy Council in this House. When I first came here we could rely upon it that no Privy Councillor would take advantage of his position. As a result, there was a maximum of respect for the right hon. Gentlemen who had been promoted on merit.
What is the position today? Many of my hon. Friends, whom I have the privilege of calling real friends, know men who came into Parliament after the last Election or the previous Election who are now heart-broken, who hardly sit in the House and who feel frustrated 728 because they never get a chance to take part in the debates and when it comes to Questions they never have a chance to put a supplementary question. We cannot blame the Chair. The Chair has to be 100 per cent. correct. If it were the strongest man possible in the Chair he could not do much better than what is done at the present time, because of the difficulties with which we have to contend.
I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be good enough to make a note of this. I am the very first person to give credit where it is due, and I admit that where men and women have served well they ought to be given their place, but there is a difference between that and the situation with which we have to contend at present. All we are asking is that that should be examined.
Our Amendment refers to the desirability of limiting speeches. Here again, we take a generous and magnanimous approach to this problem. Those of us who had the privilege to listen for so long to the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) know the courage with which he stood in the House and what he had to contend with, and we take a generous view, but we say that this is a matter of degree and we ask that it should be examined. I know nothing about "Dr." Haley—
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
—but I know something about another right hon. Gentleman who is a Member of this House, and I am mostly concerned with those who are Members of the House and not those who are non-Members. I am sufficiently modest to admit that under no circumstances would I enter a debate on some subjects with professional, legally trained people, but on how to safeguard democracy or defend it or on the need for the development of democracy in our country, I will enter into a discussion on any platform in this country at any time. We have paid too high a price in this country to arrive at our state of democracy to allow any one, no matter who he may be, to endanger our form of democracy without a protest from some of us, and especially those of us who are privileged to be in the House.
729 That applies in particular to the constant speeches being made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for St. Helens (Sir H. Shawcross). A case could be made out that several parts of his speech should have been made a question of Privilege, but I do not want to deal with this matter under the cover of Privilege. I do not want to take advantage of that. The speeches have been made outside this House, and I challenge him to come into the House and repeat the kind of speeches he has made outside. Here he will have to face some of us who were elected at the same time as he.
Will he name his ten wise men? Will he say who has taken part in the shadow boxing, and upon what subjects that shadow boxing has taken place? Some of us have devoted our lives to this kind of work, and it is only because of the sacrifices made by our fellow workers that we are in this House at all. Those of us who are privileged still to live, after what we have gone through, do not intend just to listen to that kind of speech, constantly being made, that is undermining the confidence of our people.
One of my greatest delights is that democracy in this country has proved capable of dealing with the problems of the day, provided that this House and the Government are determined that it should. Therefore, I challenge the right hon. and learned Member for St. Helens to repeat those speeches in this Chamber. If he is not prepared to repeat them here, he can do so on every public platform in the country—provided that the platforms are in industrial areas.
We have recently read in the newspapers criticisms of Members of Parliament. I am one of those Members of Parliament about whom some people have had the audacity to write and talk critically. They have criticised those of us who have come through the school of the trade union movement I do not want us to rest on our oars and sit back in the boat, so let us test the capacity of hon. Members. Let us speak from any platform in the country.
Let us have a development of democracy. Let the people find out who best represents their urgent needs, and who can make the constructive proposals, 730 because some of us have served our time in the great industrial areas that have developed atomic and nuclear energy. Let the people make a test, by seeing and hearing what takes place in this House, and on public platforms.
I challenge the right hon. and learned Member for St. Helens, or whoever else it may be—and especially those who were near to certain forces that stood for "Strength Through Joy." Some of us know those types, and we knew how to deal with them. But, when all that was best in life was challenged in 1940, our fellow-countrymen rallied in support of our way of life. Having, as we have, twice pulled through in my own lifetime, we do not intend to sit here and acquiesce in the dangerous tendencies being voiced from certain directions. That is why I, and those who think like me, want to join with other hon. Members, even though they may differ from us politically. Let us support this Motion today, so that, like our forefathers who founded and developed this House, we may play our part, in our time, in making it more efficient.
§ 2.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)
I always listen with respect and enjoyment to what is said by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), although I confess that I was a little mystified by the closing parts of his speech; all the old raking up—as I presume it was—of some quarrel, of which I am not aware, between himself and the right hon. and learned Member for St. Helens (Sir H. Shawcross), and others of his right hon. Friends. But I think that he may agree that, while everybody who comes to this House has a background—and there is no one whose background one more respects than the hon. Member's—yet there are others whose background is not so uniform, and who must take a slightly different line in affairs.
The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members mentioned Privy Councillors. I do not think that it is right to say that Privy Councillors have an automatic right to be called, which was, I think, the assumption made by the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram), who introduced the debate in a very felicitous speech for which we are all very 731 grateful. We find, in page 447 of the current edition of Erskine May:Although it is customary for a Privy Councillor to be called when he rises, this is not a matter of right, the Chair being entitled to call whom it wishes …That is a reference to a Ruling given not very long ago in this Parliament by the present Mr. Speaker—
§ Mr. Oram
I am grateful to the hon. Member for quoting that passage, which I had looked at, but if he looks at the columns of HANSARD he will find that Mr. Speaker has considered himself to be completely bound by the customs of the House. Despite the fact that Erskine May does not put it in that way, Mr. Speaker has pointed out that it is contained in the Manual of Procedure and has become a custom which is completely binding. I agree, though, that the point made in Erskine May is of considerable significance in this connection.
§ Mr. Kershaw
I am grateful for the hon. Member's intervention which, perhaps, reinforces the point that I am sure is in his mind, which is that this is a very proper point to be considered by a Select Committee.
There appears to be a diversity between current Rulings and the Standing Orders. Of course, the rights that Privy Councillors have to intervene to a greater extent than back benchers are of very long standing, and it is not true that the custom has grown up only very recently. I find the following passage in page 407 of Erskine May:A Privy Councillor may move an amendment, motion or new clause without a seconder …That also seems to put the Privy Councillor into a special category as, I have no doubt, the House really agrees that he should be. The rule is not so much that Privy Councillors are called—because we always like to hear them—but that back benchers are not, because there is not the time to call them. That is the main rub. No one, for instance, objected when the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation spoke for about 50 minutes, as he did on Monday. The objection was that there was only about an hour left for back benchers. If we could move some of this discussion from the Floor to somewhere else, it would be desirable.
732 Only in this present week, the business of the House has, to some extent, been rather special, and even rather trivial for many hon. Members. On Wednesday, it was my duty to be here during the proceedings on the Import Duties Bill. At one time during that debate there were, on this side of the House, two Ministers, two Parliamentary Private Secretaries and the Whip on duty. On the other side, there were the right hon. Gentlemen the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), the Whip on duty, and one other hon. Member on that side, whom I could not readily identify as he was, I think, asleep in the far corner of the Chamber.
Towards the end of that debate, the House became uncomfortably "crowded" by the addition of two other hon. Members who were concerned in the business following—the Anti-Dumping (No. 1) Order, 1958, dealing with silicone fluids, whatever they may be. That sort of procedure must have struck a very curious note in the Gallery. As I remember, the Gallery was substantially filled—perhaps because it was cold and foggy outside—but on the Floor of the House there were only nine hon. Members, of whom only about seven were actually visible from the Gallery.
The consequence is that we have no time for the important debates. Like many other back benchers, I like to speak on subjects about which I know most. During the four weeks before Christmas I prepared five speeches—four of them rather bad ones, but one extremely good one—which I was not able to deliver at all. I went home for Christmas, therefore, in a state of mental indigestion from which I have not yet recovered.
If the work were taken in Committee upstairs to some extent, we could not expect that that would lessen the work of Members of Parliament. Obviously, the Committees would proliferate. Barristers and others who are excused Committee work would seldom be excused under this new system. I heard of an hon. Friend of mine who has been in this House for a number of years and who has sat on only one Committee. That sort of thing would not happen if there were a lot of Committees upstairs.
733 What is more, in Committees upstairs we would be more likely to have a prolongation of business compared with the time taken on the Floor of the House. In this Chamber, Members tend to be quicker than upstairs. There are more of one's hon. Friends pulling at one's coat tails here. Certainly, if the experience of the Scottish Grand Committee is any guide, the proceedings in Committee are likely to be more prolonged than they are here. Nevertheless, it would be a net gain if we could get rid of the least important work from the Floor of the House, and I hope that the Select Committee will consider that point.
I should like to refer to the time of sittings which it has been suggested the Select Committee should consider. I would not think that to sit at 11 o'clock until the late evening would be very advantageous, because not only would it to a great extent preclude the performance of work outside the House but, also, it would not be easy to deal with one's other private work in the House if the House were to sit during the day.
This morning I had to dictate my letters, and I was deprived of the opportunity, which I regret, of hearing the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby), both of whose speeches, I understand, were extremely good. But those letters had to be written.
Furthermore, if the Committees were proliferated in the way that has been suggested, hon. Members serving on those Committees would not be able to attend the sittings of this House.
We have also heard of the difficulty about Divisions. In wartime there were very few Divisions and, therefore, it was more possible for the business to be carried on during the day. It did not need the constant watchful attendance that we have at the moment.
For these reasons, I hope that the House will agree that this matter should go before a Select Committee, and that we should have an increase in the speed of our procedures and, therefore, an increase in the number of important debates which we are able to have on the Floor of the House.
§ 2.13 p.m.
§ Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)
When, thirty-five years ago, I came to this House in company with several colleagues from Scotland and the Clyde we were impressed by the dilatory manner in which the business was transacted in this assembly. We were naturally concerned about some revision of the procedure. But despite our protests from time to time, occasionally in the form of Questions and on more than one occasion in the form of a debate, very little change ensued.
The circumstances of today are not unlike the circumstances of that time. Even if Privy Councillors never spoke at all and never sought to catch the Speaker's eye, there would still be room for complaints by back bench Members on both sides of the House. Naturally, back benchers have to find a scapegoat, and if they indulge, surreptitiously or in full assembly, in castigation of Privy Councillors, that detracts to some extent from the privileges and so a fair balance ensues.
I want to make the position, as far as I personally am concerned, as plain as possible. I have never sought to be popular in this assembly or elsewhere. I have said what I have thought. I have believed in what I have said, and no man can be expected to do more than that.
If there is one change that I have detected in the debates in this assembly over the years since I first came to the House, it is, as it appears to me, that there is less freedom for private Members and a great deal more intolerance is displayed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House; it is an intolerance that derives from the simple fact—there is nothing malicious about it—that they disagree with what other hon. Members have said.
I have not the least doubt that if I made the kind of speeches that pleased everybody on this side of the House, there never would be a word of complaint. But if one dares to differ, if one dares to express oneself, to take an objective view—and why ought we not to take an objective view in this House in the course of our discussions?—if one dares to do any of those things it is certain that one incurs the displeasure and 735 even the anger and venom of some hon. Members. That is all wrong.
In the days when I first came here with my colleagues we were lively, full of animation and, if I may say so, possessed of a great deal of courage. We said what we thought was right, irrespective of what anybody else thought. But there was a good deal of competition. I can remember one memorable occasion when 17 speeches were made on the Opposition side of the House by hon. Members who had only arrived a few days before. I happened to be one of them.
It may surprise hon. Members to learn that because my speech was not only well reported in The Times—the reputable newspaper to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) has referred—but gained a very high commendation, for some unaccountable reason, I immediately lost the favour of some of my colleagues. One of the finest things one can do in this House is to make a bad speech. One receives the sympathy and condolences of one's colleagues, but never their jealousy. What can one do? In the circumstances, one uses one's talent and quality in the best possible fashion.
Stripped of trivialities about Privy Councillors and, if I may say so, a considerable amount of verbiage and many contradictions—and goodness knows what the Select Committee will do in the face of all the proposals that have been made on both sides of the House—this has, nevertheless, been a very useful debate. Of course, if I had been fortunate in the Ballot—and, by the way, it happened to be the first time for many years that I entered the Ballot—I might have addressed myself to different topics.
As it happens, my constituents are not seething with excitement about the procedure of the House, unlike the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram). Of course, if they are wildly excited about the need for a change in our procedure, that is a democratic tendency which should be applauded; it might help to raise the reputation of the House, which, at the present time, is not as high as it used to be.
I might have raised other topics and, in doing so, I might have proved more loyal than my hon. Friend to the party 736 of which I am a member. Here is the list of topics which I, as a member of the Opposition, was advised to select from—some very interesting topics, too. For example, we might have had a debate on the need for a Western intiative for disengaging hostile forces in Central Europe. I will not deal with any of the others; I do not wish to impinge upon security.
To take another example, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) raised the question of the—I use his own language—abominable circulars sent out by the Ministry of Education and the Minister of Housing and Local Government, which seek to curtail expenditure, to the detriment of many of our people. That was a subject which could have been debated.
§ Mr. Shinwell
It required only a little intelligent anticipation on this side. I do not want to pursue the matter any further than that.
It seems to me that, if we are to avail ourselves of the privilege of private Members' day to introduce either Bills or Motions, we ought to take full advantage of it and deal with those topics which are of vital concern to the great mass of people in the country. I do not believe that this is such a topic.
§ Mr. Shinwell
May I not be allowed to express an opinion, even if others disagree with me? I am only advancing a view; that is all. That is my opinion.
§ Mr. Shinwell
Those who disagree with me had better remain silent until I have finished. As for those who agree with me—well, there is no need for any comment. That is my opinion about it. I consider that this has been a very useful debate.
§ Sir T. Moore
Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to tell him, in view of his interest in other topics for discussion and debate, that I have received 737 a number of letters from his constituency in support of the second Motion on the Order Paper, which stands in my name.
§ Mr. Shinwell
Of course, that is possible. All things are possible in this best of all capitalist worlds. But it means nothing at all.
First, I want to dispose of what I regard as a triviality about Privy Councillors. What do the records really show? I indulged in a bit of research myself. Why not? I availed myself of the records in the Library and I discovered that, during the whole of last Session, I spoke nine times. I spoke twice on the subject of defence. Is there any objection to that?
§ Mr. Shinwell
There is one objection to it. No doubt my hon. Friend is an expert of high quality who feels that his contribution is more valuable than mine. That is his opinion, but it does not happen to be mine. I happened to be selected to speak; there it is.
By the way, I might have spoken from the Opposition Front Bench. As a digression, I may mention that I am the sole surviving member of the first Labour Government in this House.
§ Mr. Shinwell
The first point is this, that I happen to have had what is regarded as a traditional right to sit on that Front Bench, not in the last few years but ever since I was a Minister, in 1924.
The second point is that my other four colleagues, the other survivors, are in another place—Lord Attlee, Lord Lawson, Lord Alexander, and Lord Ammon. I know that there are some people on this side and, perhaps, in the House generally, who would like to transfer me to another place. But I intend to remain here as long as I can. I am sorry to trouble hon. Members, but there it is; I have not the slightest intention of leaving.
As I said, I made two speeches on defence. I made two speeches on the Army (Conditions of Enlistment) Bill, during the Committee stage. Here, I should like to make an observation. Hon. Members complain of not having an opportunity to speak. What do they 738 mean? Do they want to speak in what are called first-class debates—the economic experts, the defence experts, the foreign policy experts? When we came here first, we took the opportunity of speaking on any possible occasion, during the Committee stage, when a Member can speak not once but twice or three times, if he cares. It is excellent practice for young Members, and even for old ones, some of whom, by the way, have thrown the towel into the ring.
Once I spoke on the Middle East, and twice I spoke on Private Bills. The first was the Arundel Estate Bill. Any objection to that? So far as I know, there was no objection, at any rate on this side. Once I spoke on Empire settlement, on my return from my visit to Australia and New Zealand. Once I spoke on the cost of living. It was on the Finance Bill. I happened to come into the Chamber; I saw nobody sitting on the back benches, and I took my seat here. Nobody wanted to speak, so I got up and spoke. Somebody had to speak. Somebody had to keep the debate going; we are often told to keep debates going.
There is a great deal of verbiage about this whole business. The other day I sat here, and I had only one colleague sitting on these benches with me, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle). We were discussing the Colonial Development Corporation. Anybody could have spoken; my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) could have come here and made a wonderful speech.
§ Mr. Shinwell
This happens to be the first time I have spoken this week, so my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees and I are quits.
I want now to deal with the much more important question of procedure in this House and offer a few suggestions out of my experience. First, I agree wholeheartedly with those who declare that many of our Bills ought to go 739 upstairs. I would not have the Committee stage of any Bill taken on the Floor of the House, no matter how important it is thought by hon. Gentlemen to be. All Bills ought to go upstairs for the Committee stage, and, for my part, I am not at all sure that we ought not to continue to debate Bills, even on the Report stage, upstairs. That is the first suggestion.
More appropriate Committees will have to be created. Naturally, if we have a number of Committees operating upstairs and we try to stage a first-class debate on the Floor of the House on foreign affairs, the economic situation or on an emergency or crisis which has blown up, there will be some conflict. But what I suggest—as other have suggested—is that there are occasions when the House need not meet at all. I can see no reason why we should meet every day of the week. On some days of the week, when there is a number of Committees operating upstairs, perhaps five or six Standing Committees, there is no reason why the House should not be in recess. If there is a great mass of legislation to be dealt with upstairs in Committee and, perhaps, even on Report, I am not sure that the House need meet for even a whole week.
In fact, as I think the late Earl Lloyd-George said on one occasion, when he was giving evidence before the Select Committee of 1931, in referring to this assembly, it is the great sounding board of the whole nation, or words to that effect; and so it is. It is the place for first-class debates on first-class topics, on matters of vital interest on which there are strong feelings and even passion and excitement, and on which the public would be informed as a result of the debates. That is what is wanted.
Let me take an example. We had a one-day debate on the economic situation. This may be regarded as an exaggeration, but, nevertheless, I make the suggestion. I see no reason why, when we are troubled about the economic position, the danger and the possibility of a recession, when we are troubled about our balance of payments and when the whole of our economic future may be at stake, we should not have a debate on that question on four or five days in a week, so that hon. Members on all sides of the 740 House may be given an opportunity of expressing their views.
The same may be said about foreign affairs. There is to be a two-day debate next week—and here I am expressing a personal and not a party view—on the Report of the Bank Rate Tribunal. I would have given one day to that debate, and would have given two or even three days to discussing the question which is to be debated next Thursday—industrial relations. Why do I say that? Because some of us have decided views, as a result of convictions that were generated many years ago, that there ought to be a complete reorientation of wages policy in this country, which would not be detrimental to the trade union movement, and might be a great advantage to the whole nation. We should like to express ourselves on that.
Incidentally, there are times without number when I have sat here listening to speeches made on this side and the other side when I would have liked to intervene and express my views. We are sent here to express ourselves. We are not all provided with facilities for writing in newspapers or going on television or sound broadcasting. Occasionally, we get a very modest show in the journalistic field, in television and in sound broadcasting, but it is not enough.
I must confess—and the House may regard this perhaps as vanity, and perhaps as the ravings of somebody of advanced age who wants to show that he retains his physical and mental powers—that I want to express myself, and this is the place for me to do it. That is why I came here thirty-five years ago. If there are hon. Members who do not feel that they want to express themselves, there is an answer in a fairly common cry heard in this House from time to time—"Resign". Otherwise, what are they doing here?
Of course, all hon. Members cannot speak, but I suggest that if we sent Bills upstairs to Standing Committees there would be an opportunity for more hon. Members to express themselves, and there is no reason why the Press should not attend the Committees so that our constituents may be informed about the proceedings. In the old days, when I attended Standing Committees, and Select Committees—I mean Committees dealing with Private Bills—I often got 741 very good Press reports because of the interventions I made, and hon. Members should do the same.
That leads me to the question of these Committees. I should like to see the Government, in the terms of reference which they give to the proposed Select Committee on Procedure, making suggestions, even by implication, that the appropriate Government Departments should enter into consultation with hon. Members who have a great deal of knowledge on certain topics. Let us take the subject of defence. May I tell the House that I have discussed this matter with several Ministers of Defence—and we know that there have been several in the past few years. They all agreed that they would like to have consultations with us on the subject of defence—not that we should decide, because decisions are a matter for the Government themselves—but I can imagine that great advantages could accrue as a result of consultations with Ministers and being properly informed. I do not agree for a moment with an hon. Member who said today that that would disarm criticism. I do not believe that it would. The Minister would say what he thought, and if I did not agree I should express myself to the contrary. The suggestion ought to be considered.
Now I come to a matter on which I should like to make what may be regarded as a modest suggestion. It is on the subject of Questions. An hon. Member should not be permitted to ask more than two Questions a day—two starred Questions, and, moreover, it should be within the competence of the Table, or it may be laid down quite specifically and definitely, that certain Questions asking for statistical information should be unstarred. I even go further—an hon. Member should not be permitted to ask more than one supplementary question, with this proviso, that it should apply to the Front Benches as well as the back benches.
That brings me to what I regard as a curiosity that has emerged, an idiosyncrasy, a remarkable development, that now exists in this House. I sit here, and sometimes I see one of my hon. Friends sitting on the Front Bench, and the next minute on one of the back benches. He goes to the Front Bench to ask a Question, and then goes back to the back 742 bench and makes a speech, or conversely, sits on a back bench to ask a Question and removes to the Front Bench to make a speech.
I would make one or two alternative suggestions, and the House can accept them if it pleases. First, either the occupants of the Front Opposition Bench should be all Privy Councillors, although that would clutter up the place—that is one reason why some of us left and went to the back benches—or the Front Bench should consist only of those right hon. and hon. Members who have been elected to the Parliamentary Committee of the Labour Party, the so-called Shadow Cabinet, because they have been elected. It should be one of the two, but we cannot have this conglomeration of right hon. Gentlemen who are Privy Councillors and hon. Members, some of whom have had no Ministerial experience at all.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) does a great deal of work for the Labour Party, is one of the most active workers in the party, and his activities, I am quite sure, are admired by hon. Members on both sides of the House, although he has a way of making rather long speeches. However, I do not want to make a song and dance about that. My hon. and learned Friend has had no Ministerial experience, but I do not mind him sitting on the Front Bench, if he has been elected by the Labour Party for that purpose.
Finally, I come to what I regard as perhaps the most essential change that is required if we are to deal with our business in this House efficiently. We have the Scottish Grand Committee. I think that all Scottish Questions should go to the Scottish Grand Committee and there receive due publicity. I am not sure that the time has not come when we require a measure of devolution. I would willingly consent to the disappearance of all my Scottish colleagues to Edinburgh. I have a great admiration and affection for them. I am not so sure, either, that it would not be a wise thing to let all the Welsh Members go to Cardiff, or wherever they wish to go; but I will leave it at that. At any rate, some measure of devolution is required.
I have either read or listened to all the debates, even when I was a member of the Government, since the 1931 Committee was appointed, and, having read 743 all the proceedings, I know that various proposals were made, few of which were carried out. Similarly, in 1946–47, little was done about the Report of the 1945 Committee. The time has come to do something. Let us have a Select Committee. If it makes recommendations which, in the opinion of the majority of hon. Members, are desirable, let the Government have the courage to see that they are included in our Standing Orders and thus promote a higher efficiency for this assembly and also provide for hon. Members, and even right hon. Gentlemen, useful work so that this Parliament, the greatest democratic assembly in the world, is a place where one feels that one is doing a worth-while job.
§ 2.41 p.m.
§ Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)
I would like, with due humility, to see one reform in our procedure. It was pointed to by the speech of the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell). I would like to see shorter speeches. I have just returned from the United States and I was amazed to see in Congress that on a big issue, in one afternoon, it was possible to get in as many as 50 or 60 speakers in a six-hour debate. We get in only 14 or 16, which represents an average of 20 minutes for each speaker. In Congress, the average is five or six minutes. Perhaps the reason is partly that Members of Congress can put some of their speeches in the Congressional Record, but the fact remains that their procedure makes a much more lively debate and there is a larger audience because there are a great number of people who wish to speak.
You, Mr. Speaker, when elected to your present office, made a most felicitous speech in ten minutes. It was an example to all of us. The most effective speech which I have heard since I have been a Member of Parliament was made the other day in eleven minutes.
I think we would all agree to a large extent on the diagnosis of our problem, that there is a great deal of wasteful time through debates in the Chamber having to deal with trifling matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) has pointed to some good examples. Our procedure has one other bad effect in that it leads to a great drain on the health and strength of both Members 744 and Ministers, particularly because of the long hours. Very often we go on until half-past eleven or midnight. Three times this week, business has been exempted. Only once during the week has the House gone on until 11 o'clock or 11.30, but it is a bad thing when business has to be exempted three times in a week.
The factors which we have been discussing today lead to the fact that many men of experience in middle life are deterred from entering this House because they cannot face the irregular hours and the bad conditions of work. When I was a young barrister, in the early 1930s, I remember that even though Sir Stafford Cripps, Norman Birkett and Boyd Merriman, who later became President of the Probate., Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court, were among those with the most active practice, they were yet Members of this House. I do not believe that such a thing could happen today, because they could not stand the pace.
I am sorry that the Motion does not call upon this House to take immediate action over these matters because, as has been pointed out, there was a Select Committee on procedure in 1945 which made many recommendations. A great many of them have not been accepted, although they could well be adopted by the House. The then Clerk of the House, Sir Gilbert—now Lord—Campion made some proposals which are worth considering. He pointed out that over the past forty years, 50 per cent. of the time of the House had been spent on legislation, 40 per cent. on policy and administration and only 10 per cent. on finance.
That comes about because so many sectional matters which are of no great importance are dealt with in the Chamber instead of by an appropriate Committee. I think that every matter arising out of orders and regulations should be dealt with by a specialist Committee. Hon. Members will remember, for example, the long period that was taken up on the Floor of the House by very technical matters arising out of the Restrictive Trade Practices Bill, only a year or so ago.
I should like to make one or two practical suggestions for consideration by the proposed Committee. At present, we 745 take 14 minutes over a Division. I believe that it could be done in seven minutes. We do not have to carry on with the only method of voting that was available in the eighteenth or nineteenth century of walking personally through a Lobby. It is rather like a man continuing with paraffin lighting when he is able to use electricity. We could easily vote by inserting a key into a lock in one of the Lobbies under our own number, which would show electronically on a board "Aye" or "No". Mr. Speaker could close down the board after six minutes, when the result, as I have seen in other places, is printed on a card. There is no dubiety about the result. In case it is thought that we might cheat by using other Members' keys, let there be clerks to supervise us when putting the keys into the locks.
Why do we not adopt the principle, which is adopted by many chambers abroad, of having proxy voting, particularly when Members are abroad? The other day, five or six Members of this House happened to be no less than 4,000 or 5,000 miles away at the time that the House resumed after the Recess. They were all recalled so that they could go through the Lobby on Thursday, 23rd January. I happened to be in the middle of America with a N.A.T.O. party of Members of Parliament from foreign countries, and the French people thought it was ludicrous that I should have to come back 4,000 or 5,000 miles to record my vote when two of them who were with me had, in fact, recorded their vote for a motion of confidence by proxy.
I was rather attracted to see, in the correspondence in The Times, a suggestion made by a gentleman in the Press Gallery that to save the time of the House Bills should first be introduced to an all-party Committee upstairs for a short discussion, without giving the Committee power to vote. This would enable a Minister to see the points on which opposition was likely to arise on the Bill and what were its weak points, so that he might be able to amend it before introducing it to the House for First or Second Reading. There is a certain amount of sense in that proposal, which would give Ministers time for second thoughts and would avoid an enormous amount of argument on the Floor of the House.
746 As one who has been in business for twenty years before entering Parliament, I believe that we should give consideration to Members of Parliament from a business point of view, in this sense. If we want to dictate a letter, we have to go into a crowded room with typists and about 20 other Members dictating letters at the same time, or sit in interviewing rooms on couches ill made for the dictation of letters. If we want to telephone, we have to walk a minute of two from the Chamber to find a kiosk.
I suggest that in Abingdon Street, where the Parliamentary Agents have their offices, we ought to have a block of offices put up so that each Member could have an office and a telephone—and why should not the State provide a secretary for him? After all, the growth of correspondence in the Welfare State in the last few years is out of all proportion in comparison with pre-war. I do not think that any business man who has had any experience of business life would contemplate coming to the House—because of the lack of facilities at present.
I trust that the Leader of the House will, if he accepts this Motion, draw up or remit to the Select Committee instructions of such a nature that it can discuss not only the small matters that we have been discussing, but also the constitutional reforms, which would mean the setting up of Standing Committees, and also wider matters such as the general life and conditions of the work of hon. Members as a whole.
If the Committee would consider those matters, and put them into effect, it would be of great benefit not only to the House but to the country as a whole.
§ 2.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)
It is obvious that it would not be fitting for me at this late hour to make the speech that I might have made had I had the good fortune to be called at any other moment during the last four hours. This is a great pity for the House, because I have been doing some research into the ancient ceremonials of the House.
I wanted to ask hon. Members to examine for example the extraordinary behaviour of the Gentleman-Usher of the Black Rod, whose conduct we all find so disconcerting. In passing, I do not wish to see this delightful office abolished 747 or even slightly changed, nor do I intend any criticism of the present holder of the office, a distinguished gentleman who is as gracious in peace as he was gallant in war. But I wish he would not come upon us so abruptly.
When an hon. Member is addressing the House on a matter which may be urgent and important—at all events the hon. Member speaking would consider it to be important—and we are sitting around listening intently, or waiting for our opportunity to speak, suddenly, without warning, the great cry of "Black Rod" goes up. Everything stops. The hon. Member who was speaking sits down and the Gentleman-Usher stands in the middle of the Chamber, inclines this way and that, and we are summoned by him to proceed to another place. I say "proceed", because we go in procession and there we listen to the announcement made in Norman-French that the Royal Assent has been given to certain Bills which have passed through both Houses of Parliament. Then we all traipse back here again and resume the debate. Unfortunately, after this delightful distraction and after this interval of time, many hon. Members have quite forgotten what we have been talking about. The unfortunate hon. Member who had the Floor has to start all over again, or perhaps start in the middle of his own speech, which is a somewhat alarming thing to have to do.
By all means let us keep these ceremonies, but let us make them real. Let us consider the timing of the appearances of Black Rod and not summarily interrupt the debates and speeches of hon. Members, who are nervous enough already without having these further occasions for nervousness added.
The one point that I wish to make is the one that has been made already, but it came from the other side of the House and not from this side. I agree with the point made by the knight from Aberdeen, the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby). I have always been of opinion, even when I was a Whip—it may surprise you to know, Sir Charles, that I was a Whip; I am afraid I was a very inefficient one and had little influence over my collegues, because they never took any notice of what I said—that there are far too many 748 votes in this place. I have always found it difficult to understand why any Opposition should always automatically vote against almost anything that the Government propose. Equally difficult to understand is that Governments nowadays treat every vote as a vote of confidence. I think that that is all wrong.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) has had to leave. He has had to catch a train. He said that he did not agree that having more free votes would help. With respect, I think he is completely wrong. There should be far more free votes, for two reasons. When he said that the vote at the end of the day is like the playing of the National Anthem at the end of a philharmonic or orchestral concert, he completely missed the point. If there were more free votes, the debates would be considerably better.
While we are on the point—I am only emphasising what was said by an hon. Member opposite—there is far too much previous discussion of the nation's business outside this Chamber. What happens? Having discussed these matters at party meetings and elsewhere in secret, not responsible to the persons who elected us—
§ Mr. Delargy
—I agree that it is supposed to be secret, and usually is when the platform wants it to be—we vote here in a manner that we cannot explain to our constituents. Even worse than that, as far as debates are concerned, when we finally arrive here to discuss the nation's affairs, the debate has already gone cold and stale, and our debate becomes the fag end of something else. If there were fewer votes, but more free votes, and less preliminary discussion outside this Chamber, it would make for far better debate, and would also enhance the dignity and make clear the integrity of the individual Member of Parliament. I can think of nothing which would gain for Parliament more respect in the eyes of the nation.
§ 2.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Martin Lindsay (Solihull)
I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) for initiating this debate and for the very modest and able contribution 749 which he made. The House would also agree that we had an extremely good speech from the seconder of the Motion, the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). Both those speeches were widely accepted by both sides of the House.
I very strongly suspect that the Government intend to accept the Motion after the way in which the debate has run. There can be little doubt about that. I am sure that there will be relief in all parts of the House that this is so, and not least on my part, because this means that I shall not have to overstrain my powers of persuasion or speak at too great length.
I hope that the Government will not only agree to set up a Select Committee but will do so at an early date, so that it can get through its work by the summer and any changes which are to be made can be made at the beginning of next Session. If I may, with great respect, make one particular request to the Leader of the House on this subject, it is that the members of the Committee be chosen with great care, with a view to seeing that they are a true cross-section of the House as a whole, including typical membership of those who, I believe, are most irked by our present procedure, that is to say, the younger Members who not only endeavour to make a useful contribution to the working of the House, but who also have the outside preoccupations of family life and earning a living as well.
I say this because some of my hon. Friends had a rather bitter experience in this respect not very long ago. Certain recommendations for making our procedure more efficient and less burdensome were worked out by a sub-committee of the 1922 Committee, so they were reasonably well sponsored. They were taken by the sub-committee to the then Leader of the House. I would not wish to say anything against that right hon. Gentleman. I do not think that it is necessary even to mention his name, although most hon. Members will know whom I mean. He was able, well-respected and liked by us all. But he was far from typical of the membership of the House for he was above the average age and was a bachelor with no other interests whatever. He gave the sub-committee a very dusty answer 750 indeed. In my opinion, he was incapable of understanding the position of the ordinary run of the membership of the House, and particularly that of the younger Members with family and other outside preoccupations. I hope, therefore, with great respect, that the Leader of the House will see that the Select Committee is not overweighted by what I would call the elderly and the eminent.
I believe that an overwhelming case has been made out in the debate for the setting up of such a Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby) said that the status of Members has fallen. I am perfectly well aware that many people would not agree with me, but I think that that is a true statement. I may be wrong, but I believe that our prestige does not stand particularly high in the country at the moment.
I noticed that not long ago there was a public opinion poll which resulted in 30 per cent. of the people saying that they would like a Coalition Government. I can only imagine that that remarkable result was because they took the same view as that expressed by The Times, in the leading article to which so many references have been made in the debate, the view that we spend too much of our time in sham fighting about issues which do not really matter. A great many people now think that this place is a bit of a racket, and a rather stupid one at that.
If I am right in thinking that that, unfortunately, is the opinion of substantial numbers of the population, what is the reason for it? Not least is the continual denigration of Parliament by a powerful group of newspapers whose policy is also to denigrate the Royal Family and many of the institutions which we hold most dear. It is a denigration which I believe is doing substantial harm.
I do not know what we can do about that, but I believe that we can do something about the difficulties which we cause for ourselves. Many hon. Members who have taken part in the debate have referred to the amount of time we spend when considering on the Floor of the House what I can only call very small stuff. They are what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), the Leader of the Liberal Party, typified 751 in his recent article in the Sunday Times as the Land Drainage (Scotland) Bill.
We are going through remarkable changes as a nation and as a world today. We are moving into the atomic age which is resulting in great changes in defence and in power. Alongside this, there is now proceeding an entirely new reappraisal of our whole economic basis. We are turning our traditional protectionist economy into a free-trade economy, and all the time there continues the war of manœuvre against world Communism.
Are these the issues to which we give most of our time in the House of Commons? Hon. Members know quite well that they are not. We are much more likely to spend the greater part of our time debating such matters as the minutia of Supply, and things like the Rent Act and the Local Government Bill. I know perfectly well that these are very important matters, affecting human relationships, but they are nothing like as important as the great issues of foreign affairs, defence, economics and so on, in regard to which back benchers, however great a study they have made of these matters, are quite unable to influence policy when we have only four or five debates on each subject at the very most, and perhaps fewer, in the whole of a Session.
From time to time great changes have been suggested for altering our constitution and our procedure, such as regional devolution, as in Northern Ireland, and so forth. These are great matters which I certainly would not wish to develop today, but there are a number of minor changes which have been referred to by hon. Members which one need have no hesitation whatever in commending.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) referred particularly to Divisions. I am quite certain that some aspects of our procedure are antiquated and inefficient, however suitable they may have been at a time when the House sat for only three days a week and for five months each year and when the level of competence of Members of Parliament was much lower than it is today, with far fewer wanting to take an active part in the workings of the House.
752 It is quite fantastic that several hundred Members should have to hang about this place perhaps for two or three days a week from 3.30 until 10 o'clock or later for Divisions, the result of which is an absolutely foregone conclusion when the Members of all parties are whipped. I do not have to speak with any personal heat on this subject because I happen to be lucky in that I have a working arrangement with an hon. Member on the other side of the House who has outside interests. I am therefore fortunate enough to get away more often than many people, but that does not always happen, and when I cannot get away and want to, I certainly feel very frustrated. However, I am conscious that many of my hon. Friends are in a worse position.
I very much agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) that this is due to the fact that there are so many unnecessary Divisions. For the life of me I cannot understand why the parties cannot agree that the hon. or right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of the business of the Opposition should get up at the end of a debate and merely say that the Opposition registers its protest against the Bill or the Clause or whatever it is which is being debated. It should be absolutely unnecessary to have a vote. It would save several hundred very busy people from having to hang about here all day just to vote.
I think that of all the unnecessary votes the most fatuous is that which takes place at 3.30 upon a Motion for the suspension of the rule. Everybody knows that a vote is taken so that at an election Members of the Opposition can say, "We did not agree and we voted against that." Whatever Member of the Opposition at an election is likely to say, "On 29th January, 1958, I voted against the suspension of the rule"? It is absolutely absurd. If a vote has to be taken it should be at 10 o'clock. I quite appreciate why it is taken at 3.30. It is so that the Government shall not take the House by surprise, but if prior notice were given that such a Question is to be put, I cannot see why it could not be put at 10 o'clock.
Then there is the question of all-night sittings, which, I think, discredit the House very much. Only time stops me from developing this matter, though I 753 need not do so because everybody knows about it, and we ought to be able so to arrange our affairs that they do not occur.
Many hon. Members have referred to the priority of Privy Councillors and have said they do not think that it should continue. I am sure they are grateful for the fact that no fewer than three Privy Councillors on the benches opposite have got up in this debate, for it will have reinforced their point of view—and particularly the right hon. Gentleman who spoke for more than thirty minutes.
Our antiquated and time-wasting procedure, often for no useful purpose, has, in my opinion, given the House a bad name in the country and is preventing people whom we ought to have here from feeling that it is possible for them to stand for Parliament. There is no doubt that it is now impossible for anyone to combine a position of authority in outside life with membership of the House. When I think of this I particularly think of a man whom I personally respected as well as I have respected any Member of this House. I refer to Mr. Michael Higgs, who sat in the House for six years as Member for Bromsgrove. When he had to resign he said that he was doing so with great regret and only because:It is now impossible for a man who lives and works in his constituency to represent it in Parliament.I appreciate that in the modern Parliament it is necessary to have a large number of full-time Members, but it is very wrong that we should so conduct our affairs as to make it impossible for a man to represent his constituency in Parliament, when he can so arrange his life that he has to work there for only about two days a week.
There has been a very interesting correspondence in The Times on this subject recently. What I liked most of all was the contribution of a Lobby correspondent, Mr. Campion, who wrote that:Mechanisation of Parliamentary procedure is urgently necessary,and he went on ironically to say,and I have no doubt that it will be introduced in the course of this century.Knowing how long it takes to get any change in Parliamentary procedure, some 754 hon. Members may not share Mr. Campion's optimism. I am informed that from the time that they were first mooted it took no less than forty years before Standing Committees were agreed to.
I agree with every hon. Member who has said that it is high time that our procedure was inquired into once more. The hon. Member for East Ham, South said that it is thirteen years since we last had such an inquiry. That is strictly accurate, but it would be even truer to say that it is twenty-five years since we had a proper inquiry into our procedure. The one which took place in 1945 did so within two months of the end of the war, and inquired only into very limited aspects of the question. I hope that the Government will accept the Motion, and I again congratulate the hon. Member who moved it.
§ 3.12 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)
The fact that I rise now does not mean that the Government wish to prevent private Members from proceeding to discuss this question after I sit down, but it might be useful if I state the attitude of the Government in general, and myself as Leader of the House, to the Motion.
The procedure of our House, in general, deserves rather more support and rather more approval than has been given it by some speakers this afternoon. It is precisely this procedure which has preserved our liberties throughout the centuries, revised as it has been and as we intend it shall be in the future. It is this procedure which looks after minorities; which gives opportunities for private Members—standing, perhaps, alone, even without the shelter of a party—to be called and looked after; which has been copied throughout the world, and which no one elsewhere can attain in its perfection and quality.
When I went to Ghana and attended a debate in the Assembly there, I was very struck by the exact copy which their Legislature has made of our procedure. The House must remember that as a result of anything we decide ripples will proceed all over the world. The hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) laughs, but if he had been present with me in the Ghana Assembly he would have 755 been deeply moved by the almost exact similarity to our procedure—the jeers and jests of the Opposition; the staid and perfect demeanour of the Government, and the general interchanges which, if not reminding us of the Palace of Westminster, certainly carried our minds back to the days of the Roman Senate.
These things carry on throughout the centuries. Therefore, we must approach this matter with a proper sense of history. We must not make a petty approach. That is why I congratulate the hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) and his hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn)—who informed me that he would have to leave to attend a constituency engagement—upon the manner in which they introduced the debate.
It is not very long since certain changes were made in our procedure. Before I come to the points I want to make, I should like to remind the House of that. In 1956–57, we had an inquiry into important things: the Quorum, Standing Committees, the Closure, delegation to the Scottish Grand Committee, the question of Amendments upon going into Committee of Supply and the question of not drawing Money Resolutions so tightly that the House of Commons was not able to debate; all this in the last two years.
Previous to that, we had a Private Bill Procedure Committee in 1954–55, and previous to that we had the Delegated Legislation Select Committee in 1952–53. This dealt with Prayers against Statutory Instruments. Therefore, it would be wrong, although I have only spent a minute on it, to underestimate the extent to which our procedure has been recently examined and very considerable alleviations made, especially on the question of Prayers, to help Members and improve the procedure of the House.
It is true to say that before that, although we have done quite a lot since 1951, the last major inquiry was in 1945–46, when a Select Committee was appointedto consider the Procedure in the Public Business of this House and to report what alterations, if any, are desirable for the more efficient despatch of such business.That was a very considerable Committee, the full findings of which I have here and 756 with which I will not trouble the House at this time.
The fact is that many of Lord Campion's more striking recommendations were not accepted. They still remain before us. In answer to my hon. Friend the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke), I said that they had been considered, but that does not mean that they were finally considered. When I conclude my speech it will be seen that any matter, so far as I am concerned, will be open to the consideration of the House.
I do not need to delay much longer upon history, except to say that there was a considerable examination in 1932, as the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) mentioned. There was quite a considerable examination in 1913–14, and First and Second Reports of a fundamental character in 1906. Prior to that there had been five examinations between 1861 and 1886, all on the general question of procedure. That is the bankground of history. The hon. Member for Thurrock is correct in saying that the last major one, done without the rush at the end of a war, was in 1932. The 1945 examination was fairly considerable and in the last two years we have made more alleviations.
I would take the opportunity of this debate to say that it has been clear to me, in my capacity as Leader of the House, that the time is ripe for a further examination. The right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) said that this idea had been forced upon me and on the Government in general by the Motion of the hon. Member for East Ham, South. That is not true. I had always intended that this matter should be raised during this Session, after Christmas. We have had certain distractions and preoccupations. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is not at present in this country.
I was hoping that the matter would be raised, and it has now been raised by the initiative of the hon. Member. I am perfectly ready to give him, in the course of the few minutes of my speech, the answers we have in mind. We are indebted to the hon. Member. I do not think the right hon. Member for Colne Valley is correct in saying that we wanted to avoid the issue when my hon. Friend the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, 757 South asked me the question. I am glad that the hon. Member has raised this matter, which is ripe for the further consideration of this House.
Before I announce what the Government have decided, I will turn to some of the problems. It is always quite a good thing, in Parliamentary speeches, to keep the House on tenterhooks until the last minute. I want to deal with only two matters. One is the position of the ordinary Member of Parliament, or back bencher, and in that connection I shall have something to say about Privy Councillors. The other is the question of devolution, namely, devolving some of our business and keeping the House for major issues.
I cannot approach the second portion of what I want to say unless I examine carefully the position of back benchers today. I want to take, first, the point of view which has been raised in the opening words of the Motion in relation to the Privy Councillors. The right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) made a most moving speech. He spoke as a Privy Councillor and was, therefore, called. He reminded me of some sort of a cross between Charles II and an advertisement for one of our most passionate films. He reminded me of Charles II because he spoke with great modesty about his desire not to go to another place, his desire to stay with us, and used those rather touching words, "I am sorry to trouble you," which reminded us of what was said of the old Monarch, that he had beenan unconscionable time dying.We do not wish the right hon. Member to leave us. We do not wish him to go to another place. We wish him to take part in our debates with that same passion he did today. I can almost see the headlines for the films in one of our thoroughfares, "Passionate, human, gripping." He used every one of those terms and put the weight of his physical and mental exercise into the prosecution of a speech we shall long remember.
It all depends what part Privy Councillors take. If they take a part like the right hon. Member does, let them come in all the time. The right hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) need not be jealous, because he spoke well, too. What I should like to say 758 about Privy Councillors is that we really would rather that this matter were left to the good sense of the House and the Chair. I would not exclude from the purview of a Select Committee any matter which hon. Members wish to raise, but I think that this is, so to speak, a human by-product of what is known, in the terms used by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas), as the frustration of back benchers at the present time.
Let us look at the position of back benchers. First, I should like to deal with the physical conditions under which back benchers work. The main problem of back benchers, as I see it from going about and living here almost the whole of my time, is the very crowded conditions in which they have to do their work, such conditions as would not be tolerated in any of our Commonwealth Parliaments which some of us have had the honour to visit. They are completely different from those either in the American Senate or House of Representatives. If one calls on an American Senator or Congressman one is received by most dazzling secretaries and shown a series of individual telephones. One room is not sufficient, two rooms have to be provided, one for the constituents to wait in and secretaries to work in and another for the Senator to be at leisure. Whether we could do that or not is not a question for this debate.
On the question of accommodation, I am at the service of the House. A suggestion has been made about Abingdon Street. I should be very sorry if we had to move outside this Palace because it is congested. That suggestion will be borne in mind, although there are other ideas for that site. If we had other accommodation, hon. Members might well see their constituents outside the House, but I am not quite so well pleased with the idea that we should go about with discs in our buttonholes so that our constituents could ring us up at any time. I prefer the winged steps of Mercury about the passages and their finding us if they can, because in that way we are protected, especially if we are London or Essex Members, from our constituents. While we want to be in the closest and most amicable touch with our constituents, we also mean to survive, if we can.
759 So much for the physical circumstances outside the Chamber, but what is important for our procedure is the physical circumstances within the Chamber. I remember when this Chamber was rebuilt and reorganised, with the particular advice of Lord Winterton and the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), who were two of the chief advisers, if not the architects, of the building in which we find ourselves. They particularly designed it so that we should be sitting close together, so that we should be representative of the people outside, so that there should be an opportunity for the expression of emotion and so that we should be a human assembly which could reflect the feelings of people outside. I believe that if we ever altered that we should ruin the whole spirit of the British House of Commons.
What did Walter Bagehot say? He said:A Parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people.There is no greater expert than Bagehot on our constitutional liberties and position, but he did not mean that we should be idle people or that we should deny our duties, or that we should shirk anything. What he meant was that unless we had the leisure to decide on great questions of peace and war, great questions of social contentment and the employment and happiness of our people, we should not be here as representatives of the people; and I am sure that that is the case in this Parliament.
In deciding upon any changes, therefore, let us be certain that, if we decide to set up a Select Committee, Parliament keeps for itself and the ordinary Member the opportunities of deciding human questions. We have to try to find a way between the time needed to decide major issues here at leisure and the undoubted frustration expressed by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. M. Lindsay) and many others—the frustration which hon. Members experience through being here for hours on end, trying to give excuses to their wives and friends outside why they are so perpetually occupied and then ending up the day with a Division, which, I am glad to say, is always a foregone conclusion under this Government. In view of that, it is not to be wondered at 760 that they are frustrated. We have only to ask the much-maligned Whips on both sides of the House to know, from their contacts with ordinary Members, how much they feel these things.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) took the line that the Government need not regard themselves as being defeated on every occasion that they were overstepped in a Division by the other side. That raises in my mind the fundamental issue of Parliament today, which is not fully understood by the newspapers or by our people; and that is that we are here in a struggle for power. This was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby). It is a struggle for power, and there is no doubt that if one side or another were to relax, human nature being what it is, the other side would take an advantage.
Nothing I say, as a realist in politics, ought, therefore, to take away from the fact that if we started to reach some sort of agreement between the parties that there could be a defeat of the Government of the day, it is doubtful whether the Parliamentary system would work. If we are to be realists, we must suffer a certain amount of personal discomfort in achieving that realism. I say this on purpose, because outside it may seem very bad and inside it may seem ridiculous that we should hang about these passages, but if we were to relax we might lose the very point of the struggle—and that is the preservation of power. I am certain that if the party opposite were in power it would feel exactly the same.
How are we to reconcile these two things—the undoubted realistic view that we are here in the struggle for power and the need to preserve the health and occupation of hon. Members when they are present in the House? I will come to that now. Personally, I think that this could be done by some degree of devolution of our duties. Before I come to this vital part of what I want to say, I would explain that I do not exclude modern arrangements for voting, which has been mentioned by more than one hon. Member.
I do not exclude what the right hon. Member for Colne Valley described as the possibility of limiting speeches, although we have found it difficult; and 761 having no fixed desks, such as I have seen in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, we could not have lights just in front of us. Anything artificial in this Chamber would spoil the atmosphere.
I do not exclude any agreement that a Select Committee might reach on lightening the physical load. I do not exclude a convention between the parties about the way in which debates might end on many occasions. I want here to preserve this question of reality. If one reads Oliver's book, one finds that he says:If you live the whole of your life in politics, you know that power is the fundamental secret of politics.To return to the question of devolution, as I see it, there are two ways in which devolution could take place. One method of devolution would be normal, and the other fundamental, and I want to deal with both. One, I would call consecutive on what we do now—that is normal devolution—and the other, a fundamental change in what I believe to be our constitutional practice.
The normal method of devolution would be to take up some of Lord Campion's ideas. For example, the Report stage of Bills might be sent to Committee. That would be a perfectly proper thing, and would relieve some of our Parliamentary procedure. More matters might be referred to Select Committees or Standing Committees. But here I must warn whoever is to take part in this inquiry that the Standing Committees are already overcrowded. Therefore, if we are to adopt the system of more devolution, including using the mornings, we should have to limit the amount of legislation we bring in, which might be a very good lesson for any Government. We would not be any worse off for that. But we cannot, at present, maintain the sort of programme we have and add more work to the Standing Committees. We have to limit it at one end or at the other. I believe that it could be done.
It has been suggested that the Finance Bill should go to a Standing Committee. That is a possibility, but it is not in accordance with our tradition or our constitutional development, and I somewhat doubt whether hon. Members would, in the end, want to let the Finance Bill go from the Floor of the House. There is, however, no doubt that we ought to 762 reserve for the Floor of the House only such Bills as are absolutely vital in the financial sphere, such as those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East referred, or such as are constitutional and must be taken on the Floor.
Quite apart from devolution to Standing Committees, which, I think, could be extended in respect of the Report stage and in other ways, there is the question of devolution in respect of consideration of the nationalised industries. I notice that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), so long Leader of the House, and with considerable experience, is in some doubt whether the Select Committee on nationalised industries will work. Well, we are trying the experiment, but what is quite certain is that if that experiment does not work we have to try another.
We do not want to run the nationalised industries. It is not right that we should, but it is right that they should be brought closer to the attention of Parliament in the right sort of way. Not only that, but the immense complications of our social legislation, and the immense complications of our modern mercantile State, all demand that there should be methods ancillary to this Chamber that feed this Chamber with the major issues and do a great deal of the detailed work. That is a matter fit for consideration by a Select Committee.
I come to the fundamental point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East, on the subject of a Standing Committee on finance and economics, or, as was said by the hon. Member for Lincoln, on defence, or, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk) on foreign affairs though I do not exclude any subject. These I call, for shorthand purposes, Standing Committees à l'Américain or, perhaps, à la Française.
Those were considered by what is known as the Ernest Brown Committee which sat in 1931. The late Lord Jowitt brought to the attention of that Committee the possibility of introducing into our procedure the idea of Standing Committees. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend put the matter very attractively by saying that there might be a foreign affairs crisis during the 763 Recess, and Members could be recalled to consider foreign affairs.
The hon. Member for Lincoln put it very interestingly by saying that when he went to Europe he found that other Parliamentarians knew more about our defence than we did. These are attractive and alluring arguments, but I must warn the House that if we were to adopt the Standing Committee à l'Américain, we would be doing something absolutely opposite to British constitutional development, because the fact that there is a certain degree of power and authority delegated to those Standing Committees in America, and in a different way in France, is largely due to our friend Montesquieu.
Their constitution is different from ours. The Executive does not sit, and is not perpetually badgered and bullied, in the Legislature itself. The Executive is not part, as Ministers are here, of the Legislature itself. If these Standing Committees have powers delegated to them in the manner suggested—[An HON. MEMBER: "In France?"] No, I said that France was different from America.
In America one finds that these men or women who sit on these Standing Committees will dominate the debates in the Chamber because they will then themselves be foreshortened shadows of the Executive. They will have special information which other Members will not have. In my opinion, it is almost impossible to reconcile a system of Standing Committees à l'Américain with the British constitution, and the Executive being present in Parliament as occurs here.
§ Mr. Bellenger
Has the right hon. Gentleman examined the German system, which has been set up under our sponsorship as recently as 1948?
§ Mr. Butler
Yes, Sir, I have, but I do not want to go into that now.
I was saying that the American example is very difficult to follow here. If hon. Members can, in their own ingenuity, discover a method of interesting hon. Members in the affairs of these major subjects which can be reconciled with the position of the British constitution, in which Ministers sit in the Chamber itself and are answerable to the Chamber, and do not cut across 764 the Executive and do not blur the distinct responsibility of Executive government, that would be very interesting to study.
I do not exclude such study from any examination by a Select Committee. That means that I have examined many of the arguments which have been brought forward in this debate. I have described, I hope, some of the anxieties of private Members. I have illustrated that certain reforms have been made in procedure, but there are others which might well be made through the path of devolution.
Before I read the terms of the Motion of the hon. Member for East Ham, South I should like to say this about the House of Commons. I think that we can, by setting up a Select Committee, do one most important thing and that is to restore our own public relations with the public at large. I do not believe they understand how long and how frequently we labour here. I am not talking about oneself. I am talking about the ordinary Member who labours day and night, how he lives here, how he has to keep up two homes, and how his life, like anybody else's life in a profession such as a doctor's, for instance, is dedicated to the service of those whom he serves. I do not believe the public understand that our procedure is not just anachronistic, but is designed to preserve liberty and to preserve opportunity to the individual.
I think that there are frustrations in the life of the ordinary Member of Parliament today. I think that those ought to be investigated and we ought to find a middle way between altogether abandoning the reality of the struggle, which must be a struggle in Parliament, whether we like it or not, and the greater comfort of Members and the opportunity of them rendering more individual service. I believe that can be done only by a proper and comprehensive inquiry, and I hope that such an inquiry will not forget the importance of our linking up with our friends in the Press, our friends in the world outside, and showing them that Parliament today is an example to the world and a safeguard of our democratic system.
It is, therefore, the Government's wish that I should accept the Motion as it stands, and, without pledging myself to the exact terms of reference, I would be 765 ready to base any Motion I eventually put on the Order Paper on the lines of this Motion.
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) once more on an exceedingly clear, able and thoughtful speech, and, in the same way, congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) on another speech equally clear, forceful and very lively. I am sure that we all enjoyed listening to both. May I say also, in all humility, that I have been here during practically every minute of this debate, and I found profoundly interesting the outlook of hon. Members and the speeches which were made. I repeat that I say that with humility.
The Leader of the House has just made a statement which seems to me, with respect, to be of profound importance in the history of this House; for these are, indeed, critical times. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will himself recognise that this is not merely a matter for the Government, not merely something in the struggle for power to which he alluded, but something which is very much a House of Commons matter, in the sense that agreement on the terms of reference and everything of that sort would be highly desirable. I speak without having consulted my right hon. and hon. Friends, but, on a matter of this sort, I think that it ought not to be difficult to come to agreement.
I shall refrain from making any further comment, principally because these matters will come before the Select Committee, except to make two general remarks. First, I was very glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House, unlike one or two other hon. Members, give equal importance not only to foreign affairs and matters of defence but also to what he called "the social contentment, employment and happiness of our people."
It is essential that we bear that in mind and that, in this particular connection, we remember that it is in these matters that legislation often complicated in form and difficult for detailed discussion, yet with very high social importance, is introduced. Looking at the legislation we have had to consider recently, one 766 finds that some things—I was almost going to say some notorious things—like the Local Government Bill we are now considering, are horrible in the amount of complication and detail in them. None the less, they have a real social importance, and a realisation of that importance should prevent us from pushing them too far from the House itself. This applies also to Finance Bills, I think, although parts of them, of course, differ a great deal in that respect. I feel, therefore, that we should be careful not to push too much out of the House on the ground that tedious detail is involved.
My second observation is this. I absolutely agree that the struggle for power is, at is were, the keynote of what we are doing. But there is the other side of it, the need to act with wisdom and circumspection in matters of machinery and detail.
I do not want any Government, and I am not merely referring to this Government, to be cushioned too much by any form of Committee proceedings. I do not want their work to be delayed by difficulties of that kind, but on the other hand I do not want the political struggle to be relegated too much to other places. After all, we have a function in being in the place where, if a Government—and again I am not referring to any particular Government—are gradually losing the confidence of the country—and that is the usual swing of the pendulum with a Government—that charge should be heard and given effect to. We must not allow that part of the function of Parliament, part of the struggle for power, to be pushed into Committees or cushioned unduly by Committee proceedings. For that reason, in most cases, I view the Standing Committees, which I think derive also from the late Fred Jowett, of Bradford—
§ Mr. R. A. Butler
If the hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me, may I say that I made a slip of the tongue? I said Lord Jowitt, when I meant Mr. Jowett, the Member for Bradford.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I thought that was so.
I think one has to look at it with great caution, substantially for the reasons which the Leader of the House gave. If I had to choose a subject for 767 the purpose, and I am speaking for myself, I would certainly prefer the Colonies to any of the others that have been suggested, because there we get an enormous and increasing amount of material in an increasing number of fields, and perhaps a need for more detailed expertese than in other subjects.
We must not in any way prejudge matters of that sort, and I am very glad indeed, not only that this debate has taken place today, but, if I may say so to the Leader of the House, that we have had from him what I think was an exceedingly eloquent, an exceedingly interesting, and, if he will allow me to add, an exceedingly statesmanlike Friday sermon.
§ Mr. James Stuart (Moray and Nairn)
May I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman a question? He will remember that I recently gave evidence before the Select Committee on Procedure, of which he was a member. On this question of referring Bills for Report stage upstairs, I was arguing—and I hope the Leader of the House, to whose speech today I listened with the greatest interest, will also bear this in mind—that it was reasonable and sensible to reduce the size of Standing Committees such as the Scottish Committee for dealing with Bills in Committee, because those Bills were reported back to the House. That gave all Members of the House the opportunity to move Amendments, should they be in order, on Report stage. This suggestion of handling Bills on Report stage upstairs should have the very careful consideration of this House before it is adopted.
§ Mr. Mitchison
Although that was put formally as a question to me, I do not believe that the right hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Stuart) wishes me to say anything today on a matter which I have not raised, and which, of course, will fall within the scope, as we understand it, of the proceedings of the Select Committee.
§ Sir T. Moore rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put; but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.768
§ 3.49 p.m.
§ Mr. George Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)
Having heard what the Leader of the House has said, may I take an opportunity of expressing our very great thanks to the Lord Privy Seal for the very understanding way in which he has responded to the appeals made by hon. Members in the House? One feels that the right hon. Gentleman himself must have experienced much of the frustration which many of my hon. Friends have been feeling over the past few years in trying to speak in debates. At least, the right hon. Gentleman has had the satisfaction in the last few weeks of being able to get rid of that frustration in his capacity as acting Prime Minister. We are very grateful indeed to him for the generous way he has responded to the issue which we have been discussing today.
We should, however, keep a sense of proportion and not let it be thought outside that merely because we have decided to set up the Committee to inquire into our procedure, everything is wrong with the House of Commons. That would be far from the truth. Indeed, under our present procedure, it is possible for the House to rise to many great occasions and to take its responsibilities as it should and to impress the country with its vigour and its vitality.
It may, however, be thought, because of Press campaigns and so on, that there is a falling off in the esteem in which this House is held in the country. I do not think that that is in the main true, but it should be borne in mind that other organs of opinion have been growing up—the Press, radio, television, and so on—which are able to make their impact more easily felt on the public and are able to convince people far more than we can.
Therefore, one of the major things that we must bear in mind is that if we are to make this House of Commons once again the focus of opinion so that we can really take a lead, it will be necessary for the Committee to give serious consideration to the congestion of business which makes it impossible for us all to make our expressions of view felt. The Committee will have to decide on priorities of debate and decide which issues should be heard in full House or full Committee and which should be dealt with upstairs. It will be necessary for us as a House to get our scale of values 769 right and to make sure that we are not spending time in debate on small things when we are letting the large things go by. Above all, it will be important for the Committee to try to devise means whereby Members of Parliament can devote more time to thinking and less time simply to sitting around waiting for Divisions to take place.
We have had a fascinating picture from hon. Members of what the House is to be like in the future. We are to have a red light, a green light and a yellow light and machines for voting, with portable apparatus for our pockets so that we can be contacted wherever we are. When we get the light—I presume it will be above Mr. Speaker's chair—I am wondering whether, if a Member's speech veers to the Left, there will be a flashing beacon to indicate the fact, or if he veers to the Right, some other indication. Those are all things that the Committee will haw to consider.
I again remind hon. Members that although we may want the limelight to be here the whole time, to have important debates which capture the imagination and which enable Members to make impassioned speeches, nevertheless we have to bear in mind that it is not always possible to live on the heights and that the humdrum things have to be done. The Members of the House who have to do them deserve full time to get down to them. I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman considers the personnel of the Committee which he intends to set up, he will not, as has been the case so often in the past, put on the Committee all the senior Members of the House, all the Privy Councillors, who tend to forget the problems that face the ordinary back bench Member. I hope that somewhere on the Committee there will be representatives of the back bench Member who will be able to make known the wishes of that very valuable person.
Having said that, I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) for his initiative in bringing about this debate and by expressing the hope that great things will flow from his Motion.
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)
I do not dissent from the congratulations that have been extended to the Leader of the House for the manner in which he 770 accepted the Motion. There is only one small doubt in my mind. This Motion refers mainly to procedure. The Leader of the House said that he would not exclude anything from his consideration. I would like him to bear in mind, in considering our procedure, that there may be constitutional repercussions and constitutional consequences. If that is so, I hope the Leader of the House does not entirely exclude those constitutional changes from the consideration of the Select Committee.
For example, one thought that occurs to me in connection with our procedure affects our constitution. Is there anything sacrosanct about the fact that there are at the moment 625 hon. Members of this House? Has not the time come to consider whether that is an appropriate number? Has not the time come to consider whether the business of the House cannot be more satisfactorily conducted by a smaller number of hon. Members? Perhaps by having a smaller number the prestige of the House could thereby be increased.
I am not making a party point, but is it not true to say that the membership of this House could be reduced without affecting its efficiency? Would it not be true to say that the termination of some hon. Members' membership would not be very much missed? In those circumstances, it might well be desirable that the membership of the House should be reduced. That would enable us to discard some of the passengers that we are carrying at the moment, who are not really making the contribution that they ought to be making to the work that we try to do.
It has been said that most back bench Members suffer from frustration. That may be, but it is possible, even under our antiquated procedure and the limitations under which we have to work, for back benchers to find an outlet, to achieve some of the things in which they are interested, and, personally, I cannot pretend to be as frustrated as some of my hon. Friends on this side or some hon. Members opposite. It is possible, even, under our antiquated procedure, for the back bencher, if he applies his mind to the task, to make his contribution.
The point that I wish to make is a serious one. I hope that in accepting the Motion the Government do not exclude 771 from consideration the constitutional changes that may be necessary. I am not saying that the British constitution should be entirely scrapped. What I am suggesting is—
§ Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.
§ Question put accordingly and agreed to.
That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the procedure in the Public Business of this House; and to report what alterations, if any, are desirable for the more efficient despatch of such business.