HC Deb 24 November 1961 vol 649 cc1781-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw]

4.1 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I have thought for some time that the next challenge which Parliament will have to face wilt be that the general public has become bored with the politicians. When I say that, I am referring to politicians on both sides of the House. The temper of the country today is such, I believe, that people are not in a mood for a great deal of party political controversy. In general, the country feels that we are living in a dangerous and unpleasant world and it would prefer Parliament to give more time to general deliberations on some of the problems of the world rather than to discussions of the purely party political aspects of affairs. I do not for a moment believe that the country is in the least interested in whether the new Leader of the House or the old Leader of the House occupies a particular room behind the Chair. Neither do I believe that the country minds very much whether Hugh is in or Hugh is out in relation to the Shadow Cabinet nominations.

Unfortunately, the procedure of the House is geared to party controversy. In many respects, I would not have it otherwise. The Supply Days are, in the main, used by any Opposition to suit their own particular criticism of Government actions. Adjournment debates are limited to matters which do not involve legislation. When a Minister of the Crown decides to make a statement on something which may be of great moment to the nation and the world, because there is no Question before the House it is impossible to do more than ask a very few supplementary questions. We face very great difficulty in considering how we can so arrange and accommodate Parliamentary procedure to take account of what I assume to be the desire of the nation. I have thought this for some time. Quite recently, I became extremely bored with myself, and came to the conclusion that in the House of Commons, where we have a large number of back-bench Members on both sides who have great knowledge to con- tribute to world and national affairs, we ought to consider whether there were a means of meeting the wishes of the nation.

Some days ago, when I felt very strongly that we ought in the national interest to have a debate on shipbuilding and allied matters, I raised with my right hon. Friend the new Leader of the House the question of a Parliamentary debate in time given by the Government. My spirits rose when he said that he would consult the Minister of Transport. The following week, when I asked my right hon. Friend whether we were in fact to have this debate, he said—and I was grateful to him for it—that he had asked the Minister of Transport what he thought about having a debate on shipbuilding, shipping and the allied industries. The answer that the Minister of Transport gave was that everything was being studied in his Department and, therefore, it would not be necessary to have a debate.

We are all used to the Minister of Transport appearing in the guise of a modern reincarnation of Zeus and the fact that he himself feels that he can give birth to any number of unorthodox children. That may be his inclination, but I do not think that that is the view of Members on both sides of the House who know a great deal about these matters. Only this week, when the Minister of Transport was being pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) on the subject of rural transport and the Jack Report, I noticed that my right hon. Friend said that, in order to have a debate, he would have to inquire of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House whether he would be able to find time for it. I am pretty shrewd in guessing what the result will be. When the Leader of the House is asked whether he will find time for a debate on rural transport, he will say that there is no time at his disposal.

Although I am looking for a friend in the new Leader of the House, I still fully realise that he is a member of the Executive. I aim pretty certain that the Executive plays the Executive off against back benchers. In the general interests of the nation, that is a very bad thing.

Therefore, when I gave notice that I would raise this matter on the Adjournment, I made the title "The protection of the back benchers."

Since I had the good fortune in the Ballot to get the opportunity to raise this matter, I have been looking at some of the very important Reports which have been presented to Parliament but never debated. I have come to the conclusion, after a very long experience in considering these matters, that when back-bench Members, probably in conjunction with members of the Opposition, interest themselves in problems of moment, the Executive fobs them off by offering to set up a committee. I hesitate to say how many committees and Royal Commissions of one kind or another have been set up in the last few years—shall we say since 1950?—on which the Government have asked prominent men and women of oustanding ability to serve and to advise on the problems of the remit, which have not been debated in this House or, quite often, acted on. I cannot help feeling that it is not in the national interest that the brains of the country should be used by the Executive against back-bench Members of Parliament.

I will refer to only a few cases. I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear in mind that, with regard to the shipbuilding controversy, one of the committees which was set up over four years ago—the Galbraith Committee—to look into the marine application of nuclear propulsion sat with distinguished technical as well as industrial, economic and Service people among its membership for four years. With a whisk of the pen, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport said that he would remit to the Atomic Energy Authority all future research into the marine application of nuclear propulsion.

That may be absolutely correct—I would not know whether it was a wise decision—but there is very great interest in the whole matter of the peaceful use of nuclear power. It affects not only back benchers and Parliament, but it affects all the scientific, industrial and trade union interests. After so many years of consideration, for the Minister of Transport merely to say that he was remitting the whole problem to the Atomic Energy Authority without giving Parliament an opportunity to hear the reasons is not consistent with good Government.

I feel firmly and distinctly that it is time that the Executive ceased to make use of the brains of the country in an attempt to stultify the legitimate desires, interests and, indeed, contributions that back-bench Members can make to the problems of the day.

I also have a good illustration following our debate today. We had the Younghusband Report. That has been debated only in another place. Nearly everybody who has spoken today has referred to the fact that it would have been much better if this House of Commons had had an opportunity of knowing what was in the Government's mind and of applying the minds of back benchers to the recommendations of the Younghusband Committee before the Minister came forward with a Bill which, I am not unfair in saying, has met with criticism from every hon. Member, on both sides of the House. Who has spoken in today's debate.

Further, I go back many years to the Phillips Committee. I remember, long before my right hon. Friend the new Leader of the House rose to fame, asking his predecessor before his previous predecessor whether we could have a debate on the Phillips Report. We are always being told that we are an ageing population and that this, that and the other must be done for the older population, yet we had the famous Committee putting all its mind, attention and knowledge into a Report for which the Government have never given time to take the House into their confidence before framing the policy which, from Lime to time, we back benchers are called upon to support.

I think, for example, of the Jack Committee on rural transport. One would have thought it urgent that, other than on an Adjournment debate, we should have had the opportunity with Her Majesty's Government, with the Executive, of finding out what was in the mind of the Government with regard to rural transport before we find ourselves faced with a great Bill for the reorganisation of the railways. Take the Sir Hilary Blood Report on the Constitution of Malta. Every now and again, somebody gets up in the House and asks about it. We do not have a debate on it. There is another most interesting Report by Mr. Justice Pearson on the investment of court funds, a very up-to-date problem having regard to the deterioration in the value of money. And so it goes on.

I cannot, of course, develop my argument more than I have done in these few brief words. I want to be certain that I do not give my right hon. Friend too great an opening to hit me on the head, because I am sure that he is aching to get at me. I wonder, however, when we establish a committee with a remit which is of vast importance—often, of course, it varies in content—it would not be possible for the House of Commons to consider it. Taking it by and large, I do not think the Government would suggest using Lord Radcliffe for about six committees unless they thought that he had got great brain to act as chairman of a committee.

If the Executive decide that they do not want to clip the wings of their back benchers, then I do not think it would be unfair to ask them to give an undertaking that when a Report is prepared. When a Royal Commission or committee has sat and has presented its Report to the Department concerned, then within a reasonable period of time—a reasonable period, I emphasise—there should be a full day, or, if it is a small Report, half a day perhaps, given by the Government to the House of Commons in order that a discussion may go forward on the recommendations of that Royal Commission or committee. I think that in that way we could protect the interests of the back benchers against the machinations of the Executive who from time to time wish to get rid of an unfortunate controversy in order to introduce legislation which may or may not fit in with the ideas of their back benchers—not to mention the Opposition; because from time to time in these modern days undoubtedly a large measure of agreement arises between both sides of the House on matters which are the subjects of Reports.

Therefore, I feel that it is in the interests of the House of Commons and the interests of the public that we should have an undertaking that we shall be able to overcome this difficulty of having Report after Report from important people, month after month almost, certainly year after year, without any discussion.

We have got a new Leader of the House. We all know that he is a very brilliant man. We also know that he is chairman of the Conservative Party, and it may well be that some day he may be the Prime Minister. I think, of course, that I shall be dead before that occurs. Nevertheless, I am seriously suggesting, as a very old Member of the House of Commons who has great affection for its traditions and for its work, that a new, young, brilliant Leader of the House of Commons should turn his mind for a brief time—a brief time: I do not want him to desert his Executive too much—to the problem I have been illustrating in these few minutes, in order to see whether we can cease to waste the brains of the country and also give an opportunity to back benchers and the brains of the country to advise the Executive so that the Executive will not find themselves from time to time engaged in introducing legislation without having all the facts which their own back benchers and the brains of the country can give to them.

Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend on this occasion, which, I think, is unique—I do not think a Leader of the House has ever found himself in the position of having to answer an irate back bencher on the Adjournment—can give some assurance that in his new post we shall have some new thinking to see that our position as back benchers is protected.

4.19 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Iain Macleod)

I think this is an unique occasion. I am bound to say that when I became Leader of the House I knew I should have to put in long hours in the House, but I always thought that anyway on the Adjournment I should be safe. My hon. Friend's ingenuity has defeated me there.

Another reason why I have some uneasiness in replying to this debate, which is put down as being a debate on the protection of back-bench Members, is that you, Mr. Speaker, and your predecessors over the centuries, have had as their special care the protection of the rights of all Members of the House.

So I am replying on a fairly narrow field only. But I have been thinking about the matters which my hon. Friend raised in her excellent speech, and I will try to give her the figures, including those about the Reports for which she asked. However, I shall have to cram a great deal into a short time.

She raised two issues. The first was whether private Members had a sufficient share of the time of the House, and, secondly, that at least some of the Reports called for by the Government had not been made effective in legislation while some had not even been debated in the House. Clearly, before we can decide what is the right allocation of the time of the House, it is as well to set down—and this has not been done for some time—how much time is available.

I have had the figures collected over a period of five years. The annual average for the past five years shows that the House sat for 160 days; the debate on the Address took six days, Supply 26, Consolidated Fund Bills 5, the Budget and finance Bills 15, Government and Opposition Motions, Motions of confidence and the like—and in parenthesis I say that those are probably the occasions on which most of the great issues are raised—took 25 days, private Members 21 days, Recess Adjournments 4 days, and Prorogation 1 day. That gives a total of 103 days and in an average Session leaves 57 days for Government legislation. I will break down those figures a little further later on.

What one might call the normal stint of work, that is to say, if we did stop at 10.30 p.m. every night, is 37½ hours a week. But last year, for example, no less than 213 hours 50 minutes' overtime, or 7 hours a week, was worked. That makes a total in the Chamber—and duties in the Chamber are only one part of the many duties of a Member of Parliament—of about 44½ hours a week.

Starting with those figures as a basis, I should like first to consider how much of that time is available to back bench Members. I take first the occasions on which back benchers themselves hold the initiative. First, of course, there is Question Time. During Question Time, members of the Government are either in the dock, or the witness box, as the case may be. Secondly, there are the half-hour Adjournments, such as this, which, if the business of the House is completed early, sometimes run considerably longer. There are the Consolidated Fund days and the Adjournments on the Recess. There is also the Ten-Minute Bill Procedure, which in the last Session was used 28 times. That seems to be an exceptionally high figure—at least, I hope that it is.

In this way, I calculate that about one-third of the time of the House is on the direct initiative of private Members on both sides of the House, and to that extent they govern the business.

Lastly, and perhaps I should have mentioned this first, by our Sessional Order, private Members' time over the last few years has not only provided the 20 occasions which has been the practice on average, but also 4 additional occasions.

I cannot count ordinary debates in that category, because those are on the initiative of either side of the House—of the Opposition if they are Supply days or similar times. Although these debates are opened and closed from the Front Benches, private Members, of course, usually take the bulk of the time.

It has long been our tradition—and rightly so—that special consideration should be given to the rights of the Opposition. The Official Opposition have at their disposal 26 Supply days, plus 4 days on the Consolidated Fund, plus a fluctuating number of days on Motions of one sort or another.

Let me now look again briefly at these 57 days of the Session which the Government have for legislation, because there are one or two factors which in recent years in particular have operated to cut down the number of what I might call "programme Bills" which a Government can introduce. This may or may not be a good thing. I am merely stating it for the information of the House. First, the essential constitutional Bills which are made necessary by the process of the expanding Commonwealth. In this Session alone we are to have the Tanganyika Bill, the Southern Rhodesia Bill, the Uganda Bill, a South African Bill, almost certainly a Jamaican Bill, perhaps another Bill affecting the West Indies, and there may well be more as a result of the activities of one or other of the Secretaries of State. Each of these Bills—and this is the point—has to have a Second Reading, a Committee stage, perhaps a Report stage, a Third Reading, and perhaps some time for Lords Amendments.

Just to take one other example, the growing complexity of modern international life puts an additional burden on legislation which used not to exist, and we can instance the Civil Aviation (Eurocontrol) Bill, which we were discussing a few moments ago, and the Bills needed to ratify a variety of other sorts of international conventions. Naturally the time for these Bills does not come out of private Members' time, nor would the Opposition be willing that it should come out of their time, and so it comes out of the time available to the Government, who must drop other Bills to take account of it.

The consequence of this—and this is where I come closely to my hon. Friend's argument—is that a number of small but extremely useful Bills pile up in the Governmental pigeon-holes, with very little chance of reaching the Statute Book. Many, perhaps most, are not controversial, but each of them, as our procedure stands, must have what one might call the full House of Commons treatment.

This concludes this part of my argument. Either we have to accept this position, and this might grow more difficult over the years, or we perhaps ought to see—and perhaps the Scottish procedure for taking some Bills upstairs at least on Second Reading provides a possible precedent—whether we can find a solution whereby unopposed Bills, and by that I mean Bills that are agreed in advance to be unopposed by both sides of the House, could be given expedited progress.

I come now to my hon. Friend's second point, because included amongst those Bills no doubt there are some Measures which would give effect to some of the Reports to which she has drawn attention. My hon. Friend hesitated to give the figures. I should like to give them, although I suggest that we should not read too much into them.

From 1951 to May, 1960—and this is on domestic matters in the United Kingdom so it does not include Sir Hilary Blood's Report on Malta or similar Reports of that nature—there were 39 Reports of Royal Commissions and Committees. Of these, 23 have been completely or substantially implemented, and 10 have been implemented to some extent. These were of course major Reports. In the same period, there were 112 Reports of lesser importance, and here the comparative figures would be 60 implemented more or less completely, and 12 to some extent. Therefore, of the 151 Reports—and these are the figures for which my hon. Friend asked—83 have been largely implemented, and 22 implemented in part.

My hon. Friend is particularly interested at the moment—although she only touched on it again—in the question of shipping, and she hopes very much that I can find a day before Christmas to discuss this most important matter. There was a shipping debate on 13th July just before the Recess, and we now have the report to the Minister of Transport by Messrs. Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Company, which my hon. Friend knows very well.

It is because of the sheer pressure on time, particularly on Government time, which is increasing, and the necessity of having Second Readings before Christmas so that the Committee stages can be got under way, that there is increasingly less time available for what my hon. Friend rightly calls matters of great importance, and this, I think, is the reason why matters on which the Government have called for special Reports from men and women of great eminence are sometimes not debated in the House, nor are they finally clothed in legislation.

I said on Thursday on Business that I am obliged to play Scrooge rather than Santa Claus, but I think I have shown that a considerable amount of time is available to private Members, either on their own initiative or by their contributions to our major debates.

I hope my hon. Friend will feel that I have tried to answer her, that I have given a picture of the situation, and that I try to hold the balance fairly between Government legislation, Opposition time, and private Members' time.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.