HC Deb 17 February 1960 vol 617 cc1294-7

3.42 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the provisions of the Scientific Societies Act, 1843. When I first projected this Measure I had in mind primarily the London Library and its immediate problems. It is a very great national institution, with a remarkable history of service to learning. I am a member of the Library and I suppose that I therefore have a trifling financial interest in this matter.

The London Library was founded in about 1843, by Thomas Carlyle, after his famous British Museum Reading Room. It has been associated with the names of all who are great in our literature since then. It is a non-profit-making institution, primarily devoted to learning, and not so much to light fiction. It is an institution the membership of which we all value. I value my membership of it as much as others value their membership of the M.C.C. It represents all classes of society, from log cabin to White House or—translated into more modern English—from me to the Prime Minister.

Like the Windmill Theatre, it never closed, although it was never quite so wide open as the Windmill. When it was bombed its staff was guarding piles of books under tarpaulin jackets in the streets. Recently, as a result of an unexpected judicial determination, it has been saddled with an additional burden of £5,000 a year, in addition to the many burdens which libraries are having to bear at the moment.

If I may regard this as a natural break in my programme, I would say that the Library has had some benevolent help, but that it will need some more in future, whatever happens today or later, and I hope that more people will hear of this great institution and extend their benevolence to it. It was at this point that I came into contact with the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), who was interested in a similar problem in connection with the Royal College of Music. I have no special knowledge of that, except the very great knowledge that I gained from the hon. Member, and the very great help I had from him through his knowledge of the complicated law of this difficult situation.

We approached the Minister, who had answered some questions about the matter, and we exchanged some letters. At very short notice, and with very great courtesy, the Minister of Housing and Local Government and his talented Parliamentary Secretary agreed to receive an all-party deputation on the subject. Here I would mention that the deputation consisted of twice as many hon. Members opposite as hon. Members on this side of the House.

The Minister put a number of points of substance. First, he said that whilst this Measure would undoubtedly help the two institutions it would, in the terms that I proposed and which I put to him, provide a new problem. It would widen the area of controversy and it might be held to affect many more institutions. It might invite more litigation and, therefore, cause more delay in the solution of the general problem. The hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South confirmed that view.

The Minister then pointed out, quite properly, that he had already told the House that he was considering the whole complex range of matters covered by the Pritchard Committee's Report, and a very complex series of problems involving varied classes of rating problems, and that he wanted to consider the matter as a whole.

Thirdly, he pointed out that in regard to some aspects of the matter—especially the universities—there were unresolved problems, the subject of continued litigation, on which a final decision had not been given.

Fourthly, he pointed out that what action he took must be a matter of Cabinet decision, and that the scope and priority of any future legislation was a matter for the Cabinet and not for him. We agree with that, despite the recent Ministerial statement in Chicago.

But the Minister convinced us that he was anxious that this matter should be brought to a head, and I am grateful to him for holding that view. He was plainly anxious to introduce measures to deal with the complex problems involved on a comprehensive scale. He convinced us that he was as anxious to do this as reasonably soon as a careful consideration of the problem and the determination of existing litigation permit. I was grateful for his statement, although it placed me in some difficulty. I had to come away from that deputation hoping that a future Parliamentary poet would record that Never blew the Legislative rose so red As where some buried Ten Minutes Rule Bill bled. I was on the horns of a trilemma. If I went straight forward I was trying to explore a road which was not open; if I diverted to the right I was breaking an undertaking conveyed to the Minister, and my attention was called to the fact that if I diverted to the left it was technically possible to say that I might be transgressing a comparatively recent Ruling of Mr. Speaker's, in which the legal maxim well known to him, reprehending simultaneity of approbation and reprobation, had been applied in singularly exceptional circumstances to a Bill introduced under the Ten Minutes Rule. I can only throw myself humbly upon your mercy, Mr. Speaker.

The present difficulty in which I find myself reminds me of a question once put to me by a client, who said. "Mr. Hale, I am an habitually truthful man, but is it not permissible for me to depart from the norm in a situation in which, if I tell the whole truth, I shall at once be convicted of fraud?" My difficulty is that I have had expressions of sympathetic interest from both sides of the House, from a large number of Members, with definite promises of support from some, and it would be impossible for me to take my Motion off the Order Paper without consulting them, in a period in which that was physically impracticable.

I felt, therefore, that I might commend to you, Sir, the well-known event in the life of Nelson and hope that, having put this case, I might conclude by saying that the Minister's arguments appeared to me convincing at the time, and that, as put by me today, they seem unanswerable. I think that I have thanked him for the courtesy of his reception, and I am grateful. If ever he comes to Oldham again I will not only stand him a lunch, but I will invite the mayor.

In the circumstances it was essential in the public interest that I should make this statement. I think that it would be desirable, in the public interest, that, having made the statement, and having tried to take the sense of the House, I should seek to proceed no further. If it be permissible for me to say that I will not proceed further with the Motion, in what I think is the best interests of the societies concerned, I should like to do so, Mr. Speaker.

If it be necessary for you to put the Question, Mr. Speaker, I shall have to say that, although my heart is in the coffin with this statutory Caesar, I hope that in the best interests of an early solution of the problem the Motion which I moved in all sincerity will now be negatived.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that it is necessary to pull the hon. Gentleman's heartstrings. I do not think that, technically, Motion is moved in the circumstances.