HC Deb 08 November 1962 vol 666 cc1155-7
Q5 and Q6. Mr. C. Pannell

asked the Prime Minister (1) if he will move to set up a Select Committee to inquire into the office of Serjeant at Arms;

(2) whether he will consider the early implementation of the recommendations of the Select Committee Report on Accommodation, Staffing, etc., with particular reference to setting up a House of Commons Commission.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

The appointment of the Serjeant at Arms in the House of Commons, like that of Black Rod and of the Serjeant at Arms in the House of Lords—the latter office at present combined as an economy with that of the Secretary to the Lord Great Chamberlain—has always been made by the Monarch. In making this appointment the Crown does not seek advice from the Executive.

In the words of one of my predecessors, when the question was raised in 1875, the appointment "is in the gift and entirely in the gift of Her Majesty ". This is based upon long precedents going back to the early history of Parliament.

Nevertheless, as the House probably knows, in 1875, and on a more recent occasion, there was a generally expressed view that a particular officer already in the service of the Office of the Serjeant at Arms should succeed, and on these occasions the Crown has been made aware of this feeling and has taken note of it in exercising the Prerogative.

In addition—although, as I have explained, no formal advice is tendered to the Crown—it is, of course, the practice of the Monarch to make informal soundings as to the qualifications required for the appointment and as to the fitness of any particular individual who may be in mind for appointment to it.

This precedent was adhered to by the informal consultations which Her Majesty's Private Secretary had with you, Mr. Speaker, in the early months of this year. These consultations followed General Hughes's intimation to the Queen in February that he wished to be relieved of his post towards the end of the year, and they were concluded before the Summer Recess.

I realise, Mr. Speaker, that one of your difficulties arose from the late Serjeant at Arms' urgent desire that, in the circumstances, his decision to retire should be regarded as strictly confidential. Nevertheless, I think it right to give this account because I know. Sir, that you would be the first to wish to protect Her Majesty from its being thought that in this appointment there was any deviation from the established precedent.

However, if it be the general wish of the House. I am ready to consult with Her Majesty as to whether on future occasions she would welcome arrangements by which some more formal method of consultation might be available to her before she exercises her Prerogative.

Mr. Pannell

I thank the Prime Minister for that reply. Will he bear in mind that the latter part of his statement would, no doubt, commend itself to a great many hon. Members? I have promoted a Motion and have received expressions of sympathy from a great many hon. Members opposite. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would convey to Her Majesty the idea that an office which centuries ago merely represented a courtier who was seconded to this House to bear the Mace has now become that of general manager of this House, a high administrative post involving daily contact with all hon. Members?

Will the right hon. Gentleman take it —and this is, at least, my general view, for I cannot speak for all hon. Members —that something which he indicated at the end of his reply, concerning a more modern practice prevailing would rather commend itself to a large number of hon. Members? What Disraeli said in 1874 was, perhaps, true—it may still be true today—but I think that some hon. Members will think it rather ironical that the point of view expressed by Disraeli should have any really great relevance in 1962.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Member for the manner in which he has expressed what I know are his views. I want to be clear about one thing, and that is the Prerogative. In following it on this occasion the Queen followed the strict precedent of informal consultation that has always taken place and as is shown by the dates when that consultation took place. It is true—and I know, Mr. Speaker, that embarrassment was, perhaps, caused— that it was General Hughes's particular wish, no doubt because of his illness, that this should be kept confidential. This may have meant a slight difficulty in the informal consultations being carried on by you, Mr. Speaker, than would otherwise have been the case.

I would make it quite clear—it is fair to the House that I should do so—that from the Queen's point of view she followed exact precedent and made the informal consultations in the way that has always been the practice. I will now, however—if it is the wish of the House— consult her, as I said, as to whether she may be graciously pleased to welcome arrangements whereby a more formal method of consultation might be available to her before she exercises Her Prerogative on another occasion.

Mr. Gaitskell

I thank the Prime Minister for his full reply and can say that, on this side of the House certainly, and. I believe, generally, there would be a welcome for what the right hon. Gentleman has now proposed, namely, that there should be, after this long period, a slight change in the arrangements and that formal consultation shall take place before any fresh appointment is made.

Mrs. Castle

Do not these difficulties arise because the premises where Members of both Houses have to meet and work are a Royal Palace? Is it not time that this basic position was reconsidered and that these working premises were, in fact, nationalised so that hon. Members, through the Government, could gain control over the running of the House, over their own working conditions and the appointment of the servants of the House who help them?

The Prime Minister

That, of course, raises much wider questions than I wished to deal with today. What I thought was right, and what I think was received with great generosity by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, was for me to make quite clear—and it was right and proper that I should do so—exactly the part Her Majesty played in exercising her duty.