§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.54 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Henry Brooke)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is the fourth Home Office Bill which I have introduced this Session. Each of the other three has been given a Second Reading without a Division, so I hope that I may be equally succesful today. It is quite a short Bill, and I can introduce it shortly.
It was during the prolonged bad weather of last winter that I first started to think about the limitations on our powers to take emergency action in a national emergency. Clause 1 amends the Emergency Powers Act, 1920. When that Act was passed the country was in the throes of readjusting itself to peace-time after the First World War. As many of us remember, it was a time of industrial unrest. That was the problem in view, and so the Act was directed at emergencies resulting from labour troubles. It was confined to them.
Its purpose was, and is, to enable the Government of the day to take measures to maintain supplies which are essential to the life of the community. But there is no obvious reason why the Government should be able to take these measures only when supply difficulties are threatened as a result of labour troubles. The threat may come from other causes; from what the insurance policies refer to as an act of God, or indeed from developments in other countries beyond our control.
If since 1920, all Governments have been granted special powers to secure essential supplies for the public in times of industrial emergency, it seems common sense to make similar provision for dealing with any type of emergency in the future which similarly threatens the essentials of life. That is the object of the Bill.
That is Clause 1, and in Clause 2 we are taking the opportunity of making permanent the defence regulation which authorises the use of Service men on 1410 agricultural work and other urgent work of national importance.
If I may explain Clause 1, the main Clause, fin t, it amends section 1(1) of the Emergency Powers Act, 1920. That subsection empowers Her Majesty to make a proclamation of emergency if at any time it appears that action has been taken, or is immediately threatened, by any persons or body of persons of such a nature and on so extensive a scale as to be calculated, by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel, or light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or a substantial portion of it, of the essentials of life.
That has been the law since 1920. It must be a serious emergency, and a manmade one. There must have been, or be about to be, interference with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel or light or with the means of locomotion, and that interference must be on so extensive a scale that it will be likely to deprive at least a substantial proportion of the community of the essentials of life. Fortunately emergencies on that scale have occurred very seldom. Proclamations of emergency have been made on only six occasions since 1920: the last three were in 1948 and in 1949 in connection with dock strikes, and in 1955 during the railway strike.
The validity of the proclamation continues for only one month. If the emergency lasts longer, a further proclamation must be male. Once a proclamation has been made, the occasion for it must be comunicated forthwith to Parliament. If Parliament is adjourned or prorogued at the time, it must be reassembled within five days.
During the time a proclamation of emergency is in force, emergency regulations may be made by Order in Council for securing the essentials of life to the public. These regulations can make provision for the preservation of the peace, for securing and regulating the supply of food, water, fuel, light and other necessities, for maintaining the means of transit or locomotion, and for any other purposes essential to the public safety and the life of the community.
These are very wide powers. As one can see from the regulations that were made in 1949 and 1955, they enable relaxations to be made in statutory 1411 requirements as to the supply of electricity or gas or to the use of vehicles. They enable controls to be imposed on the inessential use of essential supplies. They give requisitioning powers, and they make various provisions for the preservation of law and order. But no regulation can be made imposing any form of compulsory military service or industrial conscription, and no regulation can be made which would render it an offence to take part in a strike or peacefully to persuade others to strike.
As soon as emergency regulations have been made, they must be laid before Parliament. Then, unless within seven days they are approved by affirmative Resolution in both Houses, they automatically expire. They may be revoked at any time, and they automatically expire when a proclamation of emergency is no longer in force. Unless a further proclamation is made, that will be after one month. So far as I am aware, on the few occasions when emergency regulations have been made, no complaint has ever subsequently arisen about the exercise of the powers.
All this is authorised, and has been authorised for the past 44 years, as a safeguard against serious emergencies when widespread disruption of essential supplies seems liable to follow from industrial action. The Bill proposes no amendment of the law whatever as regards that kind of emergency. What it does propose to do is to make the powers which can already be exercised in that kind of emergency available to deal with all other kinds of emergencies.
This is done by the simple amendment made in Clause 1. It in no way reduces the gravity of the situation which must exist, or be immediately threatened, before a proclamation of emergency can be made. What it does do is to remove the restriction that the emergency must have resulted from the action, or threat of it, of any persons or body of persons. In other words, it makes the powers of the 1920 Act available in all serious emergencies which will affect the essentials of life, whatever the cause.
In the future, as in the past, the powers which the amendment will make available will very seldom be exercised. Emergencies that justify the use of them hardly ever occur. It would be very good if they never were needed. How- 1412 ever, I submit to the House that it is better to be armed in advance than to be defenceless when the contingency happens.
The sort of contingency we have in mind is an unforeseen calamity of a wholly exceptional kind. Flooding on an even more serious scale than the grave East Coast floods of 1953 is a conceivable possibility. We did not know that those East Coast floods could be so bad, till they came. Another possibility is a quite abnormally long freeze-up, worse even than we experienced last winter.
I would like the House to know that after last winter the Government undertook a comprehensive review of all the arrangements everywhere for coping with bad weather. As a result of that review, many steps have been taken—steps to improve equipment, to acquire additional emergency equipment, to coordinate plans at all levels, and to encourage preparations for bad winter conditions. But there is a limit to the money which it is sensible to authorise on emergency provisions which may never be used, and the best plans may be defeated in an emergency on a scale which out-soars anything ever previously contemplated.
The problem is to strike the right balance. With the action already taken and planned, we think that we have gone as far as we practically can by administrative means and forethought to take precautions against severe and prolonged snow and frost. But one must recognise that circumstances may arise so utterly exceptional that all precautions might be inadequate. That is why we think that emergency powers ought to be available as a last resort, not confined to industrial disputes only.
There is another contingency which the amendment of the law in Clause 1 will cover. The more highly organised life becomes, the more the country depends on a great variety of supplies which come to us from abroad, and so, if there is any interruption of those supplies, we are the more vulnerable. Oil is perhaps the most obvious case. At present, powers exist under Regulation 55 (1,d) of the Defence (General) Regulations, 1939, which would enable the necessary action to be taken—control of supplies, rationing, and so forth. 1413 That regulation is at present continued in force by the Emergency Laws (Repeal) Act, 1959, but only until the end of the current year. Emergency Regulations under the 1920 Act, as amended by the Bill, will make possible a similar control. So if the Bill is passed there will be no need to renew Regulation 55 (1,d), and it will die at the end of this year.
As a, matter of fact, the powers available under the Bill will be subject to rather greater limitations than those that are available now under the defence regulations. The test of an emergency is more stringent in the 1920 Act than in the regulation. The powers under the regulation can be exercised without a proclamation of emergency having been made, whereas the 1920 Act powers cannot. These are limitations which the Government readily accept, and indeed welcome. The powers under the defence regulations were intended to deal with war-time conditions. In peace time, the Government consider that greater safeguards should be imposed on emergency powers, and that will be the effect of replacing the defence regulation by the power under the Bill.
The Bill, in Clause 2, also gives permanent effect to another defence regulation which also is at present continued in force by the 1959 Act only until the end of 1964. This is Defence (Armed Forces) Regulation No. 6, the only one of this code of regulations still surviving. It authorises the temporary employment of Service men on agricultural work or other urgent work of national importance.
The scope of this regulation is very much more limited than the other powers about which I have been talking. The nub of the matter here is what constitutes a "lawful order". In the past, as the House well knows, members of the Armed Forces have performed invaluable services with work in connection with the harvest, assistance during flood disasters, heath fires, conditions of severe snow and ice, and help in maintaining essential supplies.
None of these tasks can be properly described as military duties. So there is some doubt whether, in the absence of the regulation, orders to assist in work of this kind could properly be 1414 regarded as lawful orders. If they were not, they would be open to challenge. The possibility of a challenge may be extremely remote, but it cannot be ignored and treated as though it was non-existent. The existence of the regulation has been a safeguard, and a necessary safeguard. This has been recognised ever since the last war, and the Regulation has been continued in force on a temporary basis without question. The Bill now provides a suitable vehicle for giving it permanent form, and that is the purpose of Clause 2.
I think that the Bill as a whole is a wise exercise in foresight. It is an insurance policy against contingencies—remote contingencies, perhaps, but real ones nevertheless. It is an insurance policy which costs nothing, except a period of Parliamentary time, and I hope that the House will regard the whole Bill as an improvement in the law which we ought to make.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Sir Frank Soskice (Newport)
As the Home Secretary said, the Emergency Powers Act, 1920, has been on the Statute Book for about 44 years. We are used to it and we know its provisions. It is the type of Act, I suppose, one cannot do without, although its provisions are necessarily stringent and one always hopes that one will never have to need recourse to them. Apparently it has been rarely necessary for those powers to be used.
Now, 44 years later, the Home Secretary, on this quiet afternoon, comes to the House and proposes this miniscule Measure containing two small Clauses which are designed to amend the provisions of the 1920 Act—that, after 12 years of the present Government, without any indication that it was pending, without anything happening which would seem to indicate the necessity for this change, unheralded, apparently unwanted—suddenly it is sprung upon us and this very bare afternoon is given over to its discussion.
After we have completed our deliberations on this Measure there follows the Committee stage of the War Damage Bill. There is no Amendment down to that, so the whole of the afternoon, apart from Prayers, is being devoted to the 1415 consideration of this small Bill, which is unlikely to arouse a great deal of discussion. When I first saw it I was reminded of the line in Hamlet:Thou com'st in such questionable shape, That I will speak with thee…I am not referring to the Home Secretary, but to the rather extraordinary Bill which he has produced. What is behind it and why are we now suddenly asked to consider and pass it? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us why he has introduced it? Is the real truth that he and his colleagues have been scouring their pigeon-holes and in-trays to discover something to occupy the House while the Prime Minister makes up his mind about the date of the General Election? If that is what the right hon. Gentleman is doing, I hope that he will tell us because, apart from that, I cannot see any necessity for the Bill.
We are told by the Home Secretary, and we at once accept his word for it, that the necessity for the Bill came to him as a sudden inspiration when he was feeling some discomfort during last year's cold weather. Is that really what happened? Was he sitting in a draughty room when he suddenly felt that it was high time that Parliament amended the Emergency Powers Act, 1920? One cannot help wondering whether something more is behind it and whether the explanation I have tendered is the real one.
I would test the position by asking the right hon. Gentleman to think of any situation relating to the happening of a natural cause, like the cold weather of last year, in the 44 years that have elapsed since the 1920 Act was passed when it would have been desirable or necessary to make regulations under this Bill had it been law. Consider the cold weather last year, which occasioned a great deal of discomfort and inconvenience. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that there would have been regulations made to deal with that situation had the Bill been law? If so, what sort of regulations would have been made? What situation does the Home Secretary envisage is likely to arise in a practical sense in the next 10 years which might make necessary regulations under this Amendment of the 1920 Act?
1416 As the right hon. Gentleman explained, the Bill deletes from the 1920 Act the following words:…any action has been taken or is immediately threatened by any persons or body of persons of such a nature and on such extensive a scale…and it substitutes the words:…there have occurred, or are about to occur, events of such a nature.That is a momentous change. "Action" is deleted and "events" substituted.
As a matter of construction, if a judge had to construe the words to be substituted and was asked whether "events" includes a natural event as distinct from one attributable to a human action he might say "yes", because "event" is wider than "action". I suppose that that is what the Home Secretary wants, although I cannot see the case for the Bill.
Had the Home Secretary given one situation or an example of one imagined situation in which it would have been necessary to have the Bill to make regulations I would have felt more convinced by his case. Instead of that he simply mentioned the cold weather and floods—I forget what else—and I hope that he will try to find a situation which is a possible situation. I do not mind if it is only barely imaginable, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will think of a situation relating to the happening of some natural event which would make it desirable to make regulations under the Bill if it became law.
I suppose that an earthquake destroying the whole of London and the Midlands would be such a situation. There would be such destruction and confusion caused that regulations would probably be necessary. But because there is snow, a lot of rain, heavy winds and because we have a lot of mist and fog in this country, what else is there likely to occasion regulations of the sort the right hon. Gentleman envisages?
I am not saying that I have any violent objection in principle to the Bill We should, as the right hon. Gentleman said, be ready for emergencies—but ready on a reasonable basis. We should not clutter up the Statute Book with wording appropriate to wholly hypothetical contingencies which are unlikely to be translated into reality according to all the experience we have had. I 1417 would like the right hon. Gentleman to cast his mind back over the 44 years the 1920 Act has been in force and think of one example when it would have been desirable to make these regulations. If Ministers cannot do that, I am constrained to ask the House to draw the conclusion that this is simply something to fill out time.
The Government do not have a case for the Bill. They are merely trying to keep the House occupied until the Prime Minister makes up his mind what is to happen and when there is to be a General Election. That, I respectfully say to the right hon. Gentleman, is not the proper way to occupy the time and attention of the House of Commons.
That deals with Clause 1. Clause 2 simply has the effect of making the Defence (Armed Forces) Regulations, 1939, in the altered form in which they appear in Part C of Schedule 2 to the Emergency Laws (Repeal) Act, 1959, permanent. Why, suddenly, do the Government wish to do this now? It may be a useful exercise, but suddenly to hit on the bright idea of going to those regulations, which do not expire until December of this year—nearly a year hence—and putting them into the Bill and making them permanent leads one to wonder why this is being done.
We have had the expiring laws continuance legislation for a considerable time. In practice, it comes before us in December of each year and I am bound to wonder why the Government have not used the Expiring Laws Continuance Act for this little Bill. The regulations have been before Parliament on several occasions since the last war and we have not thought it right to bring them to an end and, as I say, they would have expired next December. There may be a case for making them permanent but, if there is, why do so now? What is the unexplained inspiration behind this exercise?
I cannot offer any objection in principle to making them permanent. They will possibly have their use in some unhappy situation which I hope will never eventuate. I ask the same question about Clause 2 as I did about Clause 1: what is behind it and what suddenly moved the Home Secretary to this exercise? Why are we being treated to this this afternoon? I hope that a stronger 1418 case will be put forward if we are to be invited to give the Bill a Second Reading.
It is said that there may be some point in having these powers, in the event of a most unlikely hypothetical situation arising. But such a situation must be extremely unlikely, and in those circumstances I should like to know why the Minister now suddenly takes it into his head to introduce these changes, without any real explanation, except that he suddenly thought of doing so during the cold weather last year.
I hope that a better case will be put forward by the Joint Under-Secretary when he winds up the debate.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)
The right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) is such a gentle man that nobody could object to the way in which he sought to chide my right hon. Friend for introducing this Measure. But I thought that my right hon. Friend advanced some excellent reasons why it should be introduced at this stage. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman consulted some of his colleagues on the back benches he might find that their views about possible catastrophes descending upon this country in the future differed from his own. He will know that many of his hon. Friends spend their time marching about the country, leading demonstrations and warning us of the great potential dangers which exist from nuclear power stations.
It may be that they feel seriously worried, and that provision ought to be made for the totally new kind of emergency which might arise in the future.
§ Sir F. Soskice
I appreciate the point that the hon. Member is making, but the kind of situation that he is describing is exactly one which could have been covered by the 1920 Act.
§ Sir S. McAdden
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary will deal with that point. Not being trained in the law, I am not at all certain 1419 that the argument advanced by the right hon. and learned Gentleman is correct, judging by the negative motions of the head that my right hon. Friend made while the right hon. and learned Gentleman was advancing this point. I can look back upon disasters which were quite unexpected. I remember with vivid clarity the 1953 floods along the East Coast, which grievously affected my constituency, among others. Nobody imagined that there was any danger of flooding upon that scale at the time, and I am sure that if my right hon. Friend had introduced this legislation prior to those floods people would have said, "What a ridiculous thing to talk about. Such a thing could not happen." But it did.
Furthermore, in the complex industrial life in which we live today products are being manufactured which have never been manufactured here before, and new scientific techniques and devices are being adopted. It is, therefore, right to visualise the possibility of a quite unforeseen disaster occurring. For this reason, my right hon. Friend's simple little Bill—with which nobody quarrels—should be given a Second Reading.
I do not wish to prolong the debate, but I must point out that Clause 2 is of great importance. As my right hon. Friend has said, it involves the question whether orders given to soldiers are lawful orders in present circumstances. It seems to be a sensible and reasonable provision to ensure the continued loyalty of our Armed Forces. I am sure that they are not likely to challenge orders given by their superior officers. They are, normally, well-behaved troops. But there is always a chance that unless it is made clear that orders which are given are lawfully given, dissension will be caused among the Armed Forces of the Crown.
For all these reasons I hope that the Bill will have an easy passage. It is not right to expect that there will be no opposition. Some hon. Members opposite may find something that they violently dislike about the Bill, but it seems to me to be designed for emergencies of a kind which have taken place in the past and which may take place, in a totally different sphere, in the future. My right hon. Friend should 1420 not be reprimanded for seeking to arm himself with these powers, which may be necessary in the totally unforeseen circumstances of the future.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Sidney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) for having made the observations that he did. At one time I was afraid that the Bill would be allowed to go through "on the nod", without any examination. That would have been a great pity.
The speech of the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) only adds to the difficulty. His argument is that at any time there is a danger that something may happen for which we are not prepared, and that in anticipation of such an event the Government ought to be armed with the dictatorial and tyrannical powers of the 1920 Act. If that is a sound case now, it was a sound case last year; it was a sound case five years ago, and it has been a sound case every year for the past 44 years.
But until the Minister did so at this late hour in the lifetime of this Parliament, no one felt the need of such a Measure. If he feels the need for such a thing now, he must have in his mind either a sinister reason, which he does not wish to disclose, or some trivial motive, such as my right hon. and learned Friend has attributed to him. We are entitled to know which it is.
What the right hon. Gentleman said about the 1920 Act is quite correct, but it is as well to remember what sort of Parliament the 1920 Parliament was; what sort of state the country was in then; what had occurred, and how the Government of the day had dealt with it. We had an overwhelmingly Conservative Government. I believe that they called themselves something else, but when Conservative Governments are successful they always call themselves something else, or they would never be elected.
The 1920 Government was elected on a war-time coupon—the then Mr. Lloyd George's coupon election—in a wave of triumph, as a vote of thanks from the country. It was a Parliament consisting of what the late Professor J. M. Keynes described as a lot of hard-faced men who looked as if they had done very 1421 well out of the war. But it was not only that they set themselves to do very well out of the peace, too. All kinds of controls were removed. Millions of men were simultaneously let loose on the labour market, in a country which had not even begun to adapt itself to the change-over from war-time to peacetime conditions indeed, for years after that it would have been a very optimistic Member of the House of Commons who could have described the period as a peace-time period.
In those circumstances, as the Home Secretary said, there was a serious danger of industrial disruption and, perhaps, subversion. To guard themselves against the anger of the people, arising out of the chaos that the post-war Government had produced, that Government felt bound to arm themselves with these extreme powers, and they found no difficulty in getting through their Measure in a Parliament constituted as it then was.
Nevertheless, outside the House the Measure was fiercely resisted. It did not go through in a calm and peaceful atmosphere, such as the right hon. Gentleman anticipated when he moved his Motion this afternoon. There were meetings throughout the country. There were gatherings that amounted almost to riotous assemblies, because people did not like to see any Government—and least of all that Government—arming themselves with such supreme powers as that Act provided, in suitable circumstances.
Therefore, even the Government of that day limited themselves to this one class of case and during the early half-century since no one has thought it necessary to expand or extend them or apply them in different situations, until the right hon. Gentleman thought of it, in an odd moment when he felt cold at home at the beginning of a winter which turned out not to be so very severe after all.
These are very strong powers. One does not deny that emergencies can happen. But in spite of all the strictures and criticisms about the slow working of Parliamentary democracy this House has never found itself inhibited by any of its rules from equipping itself, and the Government of the day, very quickly with any powers which were thought necessary. I do not think that the 1422 hon. Member for Southend, East was a Member of the House, as I was, in the early days of the Second World War.
Then we passed an Act of Parliament which gave the Government of the day—we did it readily, there was no opposition at all—supreme and complete power over every man, woman and child, every service and commodity and industry and shop—everything we had. How long did it take us to do that? Less than half a Parliamentary day. The Bill was presented, it received a Second Reading, Committee stage, Report stage, Third Reading and it was moved to the House of Lords for a First Reading, Second Reading, Report stage, a Third Reading in another place and then the Royal Assent—all within a space of four or five hours.
We can act quickly when we have to. We can act quickly and effectively when we think it necessary. It is not necessary to give the Government all sorts of tyrannical powers in anticipation of academic possibilities not even described to the House. What has become of our parliamentary democracy? Where are we getting to?
This Bill was introduced by a Minister who shudders at the idea of giving the Government of the day power to control the manufacture of steel, which is basic to all our industries, as the steel companies are very fond of telling us. It is so basic that the companies are afraid power may be taken out of their hands and the industry may be nationalised. They are so fearful of nationalisation that when they want to find a cheap and effective way to advertise the dangers of nationalisation to the people of this country, they go to the nationalised Post Office and say, "For heaven's sake do it for us, because if you do not do it for us, we shall not be able to do it at all."
They will not have Government control, they will not have communal ownership or economic planning which enforces on anyone any serious limitation to his power to do what he likes with his own for real purposes. Economically, we are in a dangerous situation. I do not know when the General Election is to be. It may be that that is the emergency which the right hon. Gentleman has in mind. I do 1423 not know. In the meantime, the trend of economics is against us and against the Government. We are moving into a very serious situation. Everybody knows it. If that is what the Government have in mind, why do not they say so? Do they foresee such a collapse of the economic situation that they will need to arm themselves with powers of this kind? It is possible that there may be such a collapse. I hope not, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
I do not know whether it is in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman that this might happen. If it is, he ought to say so and we should then know what he is thinking about, instead of being left to guess as best we can. However serious the economic situation may now be, I hope and believe that it will not be anything like so serious as it was in 1930, or 1931, when we had a complete financial and economic collapse.
§ Mr. Silverman
The hon. Member says, "According to a Labour Government". There was a Labour Government at the time. But the Tory Government who succeeded them were careful to explain that what had happened was a world-wide economic crisis. I am not concerned about whose responsibility it was. I am concerned that when we had a serious catastrophic situation of that kind, even the Government of that day did not think it necessary to have powers such as are to be given to this Government, for unknown and unforeseeable reasons, by the provisions of this Bill.
§ Sir S. McAdden
Surely the hon. Gentleman's recollection is wrong about the period from 1929 to 1931. There was a Socialist Government. They did not seek to use powers or to take over. They split themselves up into three sections as he will recall. Some joined the Fascists, some National Labour and half remained in the political wilderness until 1945.
§ Mr. Silverman
The hon. Gentleman may have it that way if he wishes. We all tend to rewrite history to suit our pet theories. It is a free country and anybody can think what he likes about anything.
1424 My point is that the Labour Government collapsed. There was a General Election. The Labour Party in this House was reduced to 51 Members. We had a National Government, ostensibly formed merely to meet the immediate emergency. They said that they would go out of office immediately afterwards but they did not. Never mind, that is what the Government was formed for, a National, all-party, Government. Many members of the Labour Party joined it in order to meet, in an emergency manner, a situation of emergency.
The point I am making is that they did not seek powers such as the right hon. Gentleman is seeking today. I invite him to say whether he seeks them today because he anticipates—after 12 years of Tory Government—a worse economic collapse than happened in 1930, or 1931, so that the next Government will need vaster authoritarian powers than the Government of 1931 thought that it was necessary for them to have. We are entitled to more explanation. We are entitled to be told what it is that the Government are afraid of, in this election year, that no one has been afraid of since 1920. It must be something.
I listened with respect to the ingenious attempts of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport to extract from what the Home Secretary had not said what was probably in his mind. The best that my right hon. and learned Friend could do—I know of no Member who could have done more in the matter—was to assume that the Home Secretary was thinking of filling out time until the Prime Minister makes up his mind on precisely what date he wishes to cease to be Prime Minister.
If that is what is in the mind of the Home Secretary, we could deal with the situation much more simply. The Prime Minister has only to make up his mind now—he will have to do it sooner or later. Let him tell us what date Parliament will dissolve. If it is an early date, there will be no need to fill out time and we shall all be delighted to hear it and deal with the situation as it then appears.
What is the Prime Minister waiting for? Having become a "life commoner" he does not even have to fear for his future. He has a safe seat. He has given up his seat in another place. He can remain a Member of the House of 1425 Commons for the rest of his life and, at the end of it, his peerage will be entirely safe for his successors. Is it that he fears the job of being Leader of the Opposition will entail even less support from hon. Members behind him than the job of being Prime Minister?
All this is purely speculative, but we are left to speculate precisely because the Home Secretary has given us no substantive reason for asking for the Bill at all. We are, therefore, left to wonder whether he has a substantial reason that is a sinister one, or whether it is, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, merely a matter of letting the children play until the Prime Minister decides to throw in his hand. If there were anything sinister, if there were any substantial reason which was compulsive on the right hon. Gentleman for bringing in a Bill of this kind, we are left wondering what it is.
Does he fear a sudden breakdown on the international scene? I hope not. If he feared that he could afford no good reason for today's Bill. As I have explained, in a really serious situation of that kind, in September, 1939, the House of Commons found no difficulty whatever in dealing with the emergency and the needs of that grave emergency within a very short time, and doing it very effectively indeed. Is there something else? It is all very well to talk lightly and, it may be, frivolously, in the House of Commons, but we have to do something with a Bill when the Government present it. We have to decide whether to pass it or not and for what reasons we do what we do, but we must not think that people outside the House will not be seriously disturbed by what we are doing today.
They will be no more satisfied with the explanation the right hon. Gentleman has offered the House of Commons than the House of Commons is satisfied with that explanation. Is this a moment to instil into the public mind greater fears, greater anxieties, greater tensions whether about domestic affairs or international trade or international politics, war and peace or whatever it may be? I say to the right hon. Gentleman, please do not treat us as children and please do not treat the electorate as children. They are not children; they are adult citizens, experienced citizens not easily 1426 swayed by any kind of soothing phrase. If they sec the right hon. Gentleman asking for powers of this kind at this moment, and if they are not satisfied—as they cannot possibly be satisfied—with the reasons the right hon. Gentleman offers, are they not likely to ask themselves what is the real reason?
If the right hon. Gentleman has no ground for instilling these fears, anxieties and suspicions into people's minds when, heaven knows, they have enough to be fearful of without that, ought he not either to be absolutely frank and to tell the people the grave reason that makes it necessary for him to ask Parliament for these powers, or, if there is no such grave reason, then to abandon Britain? I say the House of Commons ought not to pass this Bill until it is given a very much better reason for it than the right hon. Gentleman has offered so far.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
When the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) opened for the Opposition and quoted from Hamlet, I could not help being reminded simultaneously of a quotation from Sir Humphrey Gilbert, when, addressing Queen Elizabeth I, he said:I hold it as lawful in Christian policie to prevent a mischief betimes as to avenge it too late.I should have thought that there was a great deal to be said for the Bill in that context.
The hon, Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) has at will a very conveniently intermittent memory. His scamper across the history which has elapsed between 1920 and now left out one or two things and in that scamper he also distorted one or two matters. I cannot profess to have the vivid recollection of the 1920s that he may have, although I do not think that I shall ever forget as long as I live Armistice Day, 1918, nor some of the days when the newspapers published the casualty lists from the Battle of the Somme, but I was a great deal younger in those days, a great deal younger than the hon. Member.
I should have thought that someone who adopted the policies which his party adopted between the two wars ought to be a little careful about what this House 1427 found it necessary to do in September, 1939, because it is my personal recollection that year after year the Opposition were voting against the Service Estimates and, as late as May, 1939, against conscription. Some of these Measures would not have been necessary had it been made more clear that this country meant to fight.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
I certainly was not seeking to use this occasion to debate the whole political and international history of this country between 1920 and 1939. I know what the hon. Member's view is about that he knows what my view is about it. Nothing that we can say in support of either view has any relevance to what we are debating today. I did not talk about what happened between 1920 and 1939. I talked only about the situation in which we were in 1920 and about the situation in which we were in 1939. I pointed out that in 1939 we did not need the powers we thought we needed in 1920 and, a fortiori, we do not need them now.
§ Sir H. Legge-Bourke
Again, the hon. Member has a very convenient memory in forgetting that he spent some time discussing what happened in 1931. I am sure, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you would agree with me that the historical side will probably always be open to debate and interpretation and "never the twain shall meet" so far as to two sides of this House are concerned.
As to the hon. Member's views about the need for the Bill in the foreseeable future, I am not in the mind of the Government on the matter on whether or not there are certain contingencies about which they are particularly anxious, but I say to the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne that there was a big difference between what happened in September, 1939, or any time in 1931 to which he was referring, and what might possibly arise in the next few months. It is quite possible that we shall have a General Election coinciding with a major calamity of some sort. I should have thought it very essential that powers should be available to the Government to deal with that situation.
The hon. Member, I think, overlooked this in his speech. The Government goes on after the dissolution of Parlia- 1428 ment. The Prime Minister remains Prime Minister until the new Parliament is elected. I believe the present Prime Minister will still be Prime Minister after the election anyway, but that is a matter of opinion. Her Majesty's Government has to be carried on during the course of the election. I do not think the hon. Member visualised the possibility of a major disaster of some sort during the weeks while a General Election is being fought and after the dissolution of this Parliament.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
The Government, in such an event, which I am sure we all hope will not happen, would not be able to use these powers. The Government can use these powers only if it recalls Parliament to consider them within five days of making a proclamation. How can they do that during an election?
§ Sir H. Legge-Bourke
I should think that it very essential to have power to make the proclamation. The Government can make the proclamation whether the House is sitting or not. Perhaps I am on a false legal point here. If so, I hope that my right hon. Friend will clear it up. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne is a lawyer, and I am not.
It would then be very important to have such powers and, having them, it is conceivable that even before the dissolution of the House it might be necessary to make a proclamation—or even delay the dissolution of the House. With a General Election pending this year, and with the world in the state it is, it seems very important that the Government should be able to forestall those calamities that can be avoided.
One factor is certainly of importance. This year, two of the major countries of the West—the United States and the United Kingdom—will be holding elections virtually simultaneously. Election fever is gradually building up in both countries. I do not think that the Communist parties in the various other countries have shown themselves so saintly, so virtuous and so considerate of the best interests of other people that they will not seek to exploit that situation if they are given the chance. Therefore, if it is necessary for us to have emergency powers to deal with such a contingency, let us have those powers.
The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne and I have disagreed on many 1429 matters, but on one thing I do agree with him, and that is that Members of the House are entitled to ask questions of the Government of the day in order to satisfy their own curiousity, if for no other reason. I do not resent his asking Questions—if I may say so, probably the one thing about his political activities that. I admire is the fact that he is a good parliamentarian. I only claim a similar desire in that respect.
It is for hon. Members to interpret for themselves what they think is the purpose of the Bill. I have tried to give the House what I believe are some of the purposes for which it might be used. Whether those are the same purposes as the Government had in mind, I do not know, but what I find more important is what the Government might be able to do in certain circumstances and what powers they should have to prevent these things ever arising. I see the Bill as giving power to the Government to prevent some things arising, and to deal with disasters if they do arise.
We are faced at present with trouble in Cyprus, and we have to remember that our troops on home stations are very few in number. Can my right hon. Friend say whether this Bill is in any way essential should it ever become necessary for us to call out troops from the Reserve or from the Territorial Army in order to do jobs in a national disaster that would normally have been done by the garrison normally stationed at home? Or is the law as it stands adequate to cope with that situation in any case? I would hope that it was, but if this Bill is necessary to enable that sort of thing to be done, it is only right that it should be passed with the utmost expedition.
I turn, now, to the mechanics of the Bill. Clause 2 writes into permanent legislation certain of the 1939 Defence Regulations. I can remember that when the Conservative Party was again returned to power, considerable pressure was brought to bear on the Government of the day to abolish those regulations that could no longer be said to be necessary and to put the others into permanent legislation. I therefore welcome the fact that those defence regulations that are to continue are to be put into permanent legislation.
1430 When the regulations were first laid they were not capable of amendment. Those that were continued went straight into Part C of Schedule 2 to the Emergency Laws (Repeal) Act, 1959, but, in the light of the changes that have taken place since the end of the Second World War, I should like those regulations to be put in the ordinary form of a Schedule to the Bill, and capable of amendment in Committee. The House is under some obligation to go through whatever is in a Schedule to any Bill, but, as printed, this Bill has no Schedule; we are referred back to Schedule 2 of the 1959 Act.
I think that the mere fact that Clause 2 makes permanent the regulations in Part C of Schedule 2 of the 1959 Act should entitle the House to make Amendments to that Schedule. Obviously, the Chair would come into the question of procedure, but I cannot help feeling that with all that has altered in our economy since 1945, with the enormous growth of atomic energy alone, and with the very much more technical type of life we now lead industrially, we might, in going through the details of those Schedules, find certain things that it would now be positively dangerous to continue. There should therefore be scope for amending the Schedules of the 1959 Act.
I hope that what I say is not thought to be in any way unconstructive. I only believe that if we are to amend the emergency powers in this way it is right to get them as useful as possible for as long as possible, and it may be that some of the war-time regulations want bringing more up to date than they were brought up to date in the Schedule to the 1959 Act.
I do not believe that my right hon. Friend would have brought the Bill forward unless it were necessary—[Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite cannot be expected to trust anybody but themselves—and, even there, there is a good deal of doubt from time to time. But I have very great faith indeed in my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I do not think that he would have brought forward the Bill unless it were necessary. I welcome it, and hope that it will enable the Government to forestall disasters, or to deal with unavoidable disasters more effectively.
§ 4.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)
I have been shocked by some of the things I have heard this afternoon. The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) spoke of 1939, and of the dissolution of the Government—but Governments are not dissolved. Parliament is dissolved, this House is dissolved—not the Government; the Government continue—
§ Mr. Bence
Parliament is dissolved and cannot function in the usual way during an election, but the Government still have tremendous powers in an emergency without our putting on the Statute Books such a Measure as this.
I remember 1939 very well, and I remember the National Defence Contribution. I believe that that raised about £1,800 million, but up to 1939 we got very little for it. Instead of the Chancellor of the Exchequer bringing that forward it might have been far better to have got emergency powers to take control of the armament industry and set it to work. Where that £1,800 million went is anybody's guess. I was in the engineering industry at the time, and what happened then is a pretty sore point with me.
This Bill seems to seek an extension of the powers of the Executive that is against all the tradition of British Parliamentary development and evolution. The hon. Member for Ely has talked about our history, but Parliament came into being simply because the people did not trust the Executive. They did not concede infallibility either to Monarch or to Ministers. The people distrusted them, and that is why we are here today.
The idea of having a Parliament is that the Executive must be watched. We believe that the State is not omnipotent and all-knowing. If everybody trusted the Government there would be no need of a Parliament. Absolute power corrupts, but the hon. and gallant Member does not like this principle. He wants to get rid of it. He trusts those with omnipotent power. The more power they have the more he trusts them. When the hon. and gallant Member is sitting on the Opposition side of 1432 the House, will he give absolute power to and have absolute faith in whoever may be Home Secretary? I doubt it. If he does, he will be refuting the history of the country.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
My hon. Friend does the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely an injustice, from which I must protect him. I have no doubt that if the hon. and gallant Member were sitting on this side of the House and this Bill had been introduced by a Socialist Home Secretary he would have been opposing it tooth and nail.
§ Mr. Bence
I thank my hon. Friend, and I am sure that the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely is gratified that he should have come to his defence. I also believe that of the hon. and gallant Member. We know and respect him, but we are here to protect the citizen from the excessive power of a bureaucracy. We should be careful to refuse the Executive more power than is strictly necessary.
As the product of a Welsh Radical Liberal family I was surprised that when we are debating a Bill to give more power to the Executive there is not a single Liberal Member present. I wonder what Scottish Liberals would think. The Scots are very particular about giving too much power to the Executive.
The Bill, for example, gives power to the Executive if there is a threat of action concerned with transport and the distribution of food. We in Scotland have had our transport threatened by Dr. Beeching. North of Inverness we shall have no railways at all. Will these emergency powers apply? Will the Armed Forces take over the railways because Dr. Beeching will not work them? The Bill deals with the distribution of food, fuel and water and with means of locomotion. If the British Transport Commission insists on closing the railway lines will the Government call up reserves to man the locomotives and run the railways? Will they have the power under the Bill?
§ Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)
Is my hon. Friend aware that by the time the Bill is in force, and provided that the present Government remain, there will be no railways at all to run?
§ Mr. Bence
I assume that since the Bill gives emergency powers to provide means of locomotion the Government will have the power to run the railways and also, for example, to run the ferry services between the Scottish mainland and the islands. There is, however, no need of emergency regulations to run the ferries. The Liberals started the nationalisation of marine shipping in Scotland as a passenger service between the mainland and the islands, but I am surprised that the Liberals are not present to attack a Bill which provides for Government interference over a wide area if at any time it appears that there has been action to deprive the community of the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel or light, or the means of locomotion whether these things… have occurred, or are about to occur …The expression "about to occur", as an assessment by the Executive, seems to me to be very loose indeed. It is anyone's guess that something might occur.
I have received a leaflet distributed through the mail which assures me that if the State, by ordinary means of legislation, takes the steel industry into public ownership, the country is doomed and finished, efficiency will dwindle and prices will soar. If, according to those who run the steel industry, this is about to occur, then evidently emergency powers should be taken to take over the steel industry immediately.
The Bill is quite unnecessary. Surely the Stale has all the powers it requires for any emergency. Is there a lack of faith in the ability of the people in this country to improvise in a crisis or emergency? As a community we have always improvised and got over crises of all kinds without the central Government having to take extreme power. This taking over of emergency powers is a tremendous threat and a growing trend. I do not like this creation of a monolithic, central, over-weaning Government.
The instrument embodied in the Bill would be operated by the permanent Civil Service. I have heard Ministers many times under fire for something which has been done by a Department of State and I have felt a certain sympathy for them. In a huge 1434 bureacracy all sorts of mistakes, clerical and otherwise, are made for which the Minister bears responsibility. Why keep piling this responsibility on the Home Secretary? Time and again speeches have been made in the House in defence of the right hon. Gentleman that he has too much responsibility and too much to do. We are told again and again that Ministers have too much responsibility and that the State is taking too much upon itself. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), speaking recently in the City, laboured the point that the State is taking unto itself too much economic responsibility.
§ Sir S. McAdden
Is not the hon. Member making rather heavy weather of this? Did he not hear the speech of his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) in which he pointed out that these powers have existed for the last 40 years, and under the Labour Government as well, and he criticised the necessity for the slight changes that are made in the Bill? There is not the dramatic change that the hon. Member suggests.
§ Mr. Bence
It is a dramatic change when temporary changes are made permanent. We do not like too much delegated legislation. We have the annual Army Act which must be passed before the State can run and maintain the Armed Forces. All this was fought for 300 years ago. Why give powers such as these to the central Government? We should be very chary of giving a Government permanent power. I would agree with giving the Government power each year by renewing it annually.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
I am sorry to interrupt again, but it is not a question of giving them permanent power. The hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) is quite right in saying that the powers taken in 1920 the Government have had ever since. They still have them. What the Bill does is to extend those powers from one solitary case to every imaginable happening which may cause an emergency at any time. That is the power which they do not need.
§ Mr. Silverman
The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely will believe them if they do not give any reasons at all.
§ Mr. Bence
Yes, and it might be a quite small area involved. It need not be all the country. It might be some action in just a part of the country, not necessarily affecting the whole country at all. The Government are taking these emergency powers to bring in the Armed Forces to act in such a situation, according to my understanding of the Bill.
This is why I say that there should be Amendments in Committee to limit this tremendous power which the Executive is given by the Bill. With, as I have said, some Welsh Liberal radicalism behind me, I regard this as a very dangerous step towards the creation of a monolithic and authoritarian State machine.
§ 5.11 p.m.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. C. M. Woodhouse)
This minuscule Measure, as the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) described it, to create, in the words of the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence), an overweening central Government machine, has generated a certain amount of suspicion and even a slight degree of passion in the House today. I wish to assure the House that both those reactions to it are groundless.
They are not altogether surprising, of course, because it is the duty of an alert Opposition to be suspicious. If I may say so, I hope that hon. and right hon. Members opposite will continue to be an alert Opposition for many years to come. Moreover, on the face of it, it might well look suspicious that a Bill with a seemingly rather ominous title should be so innocuous in its contents.
If the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East had been present, along with 1436 the Liberals, when my right hon. Friend introduced the Bill, he would have found a great many of the points which he raised answered in my right hon. Friend's speech. I shall do my best to answer now the points which have been raised in the debate since my right hon. Friend spoke. I should prefer to refer the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East to my right hon. Friend's speech for a number of the background points which, I think, he will find are covered there.
The right hon. and learned Member for Newport asked why we introduced the Bill now. Why was this particular time chosen? The first reason was that the relevant provisions of the Emergency Laws (Repeal) Act, 1959, will lapse at the end of this year. It is true, as has been pointed out, that they had been renewed at intervals up to the 1959 Act, but the Defence (Armed Forces) Regulations and, in particular, Defence Regulation, 55(1)(d), to which my right hon. Friend referred, are at present continued only until the end of this year by the 1959 Act. In the course of the passage of that Act through the House an undertaking was given that they would not again be temporarily renewed. In other words, the undertaking was that, on any future occasion when the Government decided to continue these powers, they would do it by putting them into permanent form. This is what we are doing now.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
No. The hon. Gentleman has misconceived the point. It was said, "If you are going to have powers of this kind, do not renew them en bloc periodically but put them into a Bill", and the point of putting them into a Bill is that the House has the opportunity of reviewing the Bill in Committee, making Amendments and new suggestions or accepting this regulation and refusing that. This Bill does not do anything like that.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
At this point, I am referring only to Clause 2, and, of course, Clause 2 is open to Amendment in Committee.
The second reason why we introduced the Bill at this time was not, as was suggested, simply to keep the House occupied on a quiet afternoon but was precisely that the matter is not immediately urgent. It is always controversial to introduce a Bill of this 1437 character at a time of crisis or at a time of severe dislocation such as a very bad winter might produce. When the 1920 Act was originally introduced, as the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) pointed out, its timing was intensely controversial because it came in the middle of a coal strike.
§ Mr. Silverman
I am sorry to intervene again. I must have expressed myself very badly. The 1939 Bill was not controversial at all. Every Member of the House of Commons voted for it, including myself and many people who usually think as I do. There was nothing controversial about it. We believe that, when one has the emergency and can judge it, the Government should be given ample powers to deal with it. We do not want to give them emergency powers when there is no emergency.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
I do not know whether I was guilty of a slip of the tongue or the hon. Gentleman misheard me. I was referring to the 1920 Act—
§ Mr. Woodhouse
—which we are now in process of amending. I think that I am right in saying—he can correct me if he wishes—that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne regarded that as being very controversial in its time. It came in the middle of a coal strike and a time of great national unsettlement. However. I do not think that in subsequent years, certainly not today, there has been much disagreement that the Government do need to have such powers as are embodied in the 1920 Act to safeguard the well being of the community. If I rightly understood him, the right hon. and learned Member for Newport confirmed that in his speech today.
The timing of the Bill today is unexceptionable because there is no immediate threat of disruption due to industrial action and there is, fortunately, no imminent crisis in the country due to abnormal weather. But if one waits till an emergency is upon us to introduce a Bill like this, one will, naturally, be critised for not having acted earlier.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
I am coming to the timing of the particular provisions.
1438 The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me to give an instance of any situation in which it would be desirable or necessary to pass regulations under the Bill. As my right hon. Friend explained, the Bill makes an extension of the 1920 Act to cover natural events or events in general as distinct from human action, and I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman rightly construed the word "event" as a wider term which subsumes action within it. The Bill is so drafted that it would be possible for an emergency to be declared under it because of a situation resulting from a combination of natural events and human actions. For instance, a situation leading to the declaration of an emergency could have resulted from a combination of industrial action and abnormal weather conditions suet as might have occurred but did not, fortunately, occur during the very severe winter of last year.
It could arise also from a combination of such abnormal weather with a mechanical breakdown of the kind envisaged by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) as a possibility in nuclear power stations. Examples, then, are abnormal weather conditions such as occurred last year, natural disaster, such as the floods on the East Coast, the major breakdown of plant or machinery, the stoppage of our essential supplies from abroad or any combination a of those eventualities with industrial action, whereas now the powers could only be used in the event of such an emergency arising from industrial action alone.
§ Sir F. Soskice
Would the Government have used the regulation-making powers conferred by this Bill in relation to last year's bad weather had they then had them, and, if the answer is "Yes", does the Minister accept that the Government were negligent and to blame for not earlier introducing this Measure so as to have those powers available when the weather was bad?
§ Mr. Woodhouse
It is always difficult to answer hypothetical questions, especially about the past, other than those which arose. I would have hoped that the examples which I gave would have made clear that there would have been a distinct possibility of such an emergency being declared had there been 1439 a combination at that time of industrial action in a major industry with the extreme weather. I do not think that I can go further than that in answering a hypothetical question about the past.
In answer to points raised by other hon. Members, I would make it clear to the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne that we are not contemplating—and, indeed, the Act as amended could hardly be construed as contemplating—emergencies such as the events of 1931, nor such an emergency as my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) referred to in his remarks about the present strain on our Armed Forces. I would suggest to the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East who had a rather horrific conception of the implications of the Bill, that he should look not only at my right hon. Friend's speech but at the limitations of the regulation-making powers of the original Act because those limitations are not touched by this Bill. They will apply to the Bill as extended exactly as they apply to the existing powers.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
I am sorry to keep interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but he has said that there is nothing in the Bill to enable the Government to use these powers either in the kind of emergency that I forecast or the one that the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) forecast. I suggest respectfully that that is not right, that the words of Section I, after we have made the Amendment which Clause 1 is intended to make, that where there have occurred or are about to occur events of such a natureas to be calculated, by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel or light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or any substantial portion of the community of the essentials of lifewould cover both the emergencies that have been referred to or any other imaginary emergency. If the Government are giving an undertaking that they will not use these powers in emergencies of that kind, I would be prepared to accept that, and it would minimise my criticism of the Bill, but there is no such limitation in the Bill.
§ Mr. Woodhouse
I was speaking of the kind of emergencies that we were contemplating, and neither that referred 1440 to by the hon. Member opposite nor that referred to by my hon. Friend are among those which the Government are contemplating. There is another possible contingency in which the powers covered by Clause 1 might be needed, and that is the case of special circumstances arising abroad. The Section as amended would enable the Government in future to act if there were a shortage, or a threatened shortage, of any commodity which would threaten the supply or distribution of food, fuel, water, and so on, so as to deprive the community of the essentials of life. A similar power exists under Defence Regulation 55(1,d). It is a slightly more extensive power and does not require the declaration of an emergency in order that it may be invoked. That Regulation, along with the other measures covered by the 1959 Act, will, as I said earlier, lapse at the end of this year. Although Clause 1 of the new Bill confers a less extensive power, we believe that the slight limitation which is accepted by substituting it for Regulation 55(1,d) is acceptable.
Clause 2 is a measure to make permanent one of the Defence Regulations that is due to lapse. My right hon. Friend explained in some detail the reasons why we considered this necessary, and I would again ask the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East to read his arguments. I would like to give the House a little of the history of that Regulation as it has been applied in use, which, I hope, may serve to persuade the House that there is no, and could be no, sinister intention in the Government's mind in rendering it permanent. It was last used in the context of industrial action in 1960 when an unofficial strike of seamen resulted—and I am sure this will interest the Scottish hon. Member—in the disruption of fuel and food supplies to the Western Isles. On that occasion two naval vessels were used. Troops were used in similar functions on various occasions between 1947 and 1955.
It may interest the House to know that 10 of those occasions occurred during the term of office of the Labour Government and three during the term of office of the present Government. But I draw no political conclusions from those statistics; I merely use them to 1441 illustrate the extreme discretion with which this power has been used. The only other occasions since 1955 when the power has been used have been in the context of natural misfortunes or miss-haps, such as heath fires, flooding, clearing snow, hurricane damage, and so forth. The power has been renewed at intervals since it first came into force by a variety of means. It would take too much of the time of the House to list all the occasions of renewal, but I would like to tell the House that from the researches which I have made I can find no occasion when the renewal of this Regulation was ever the subject of debate or controversy although it has been before the House at short or long intervals on many occasions since it first came into existence.
To sum up. The fact is that this Bill, which has been variously described as "minuscule" and "tyrannical", is by Clause 1 to give an extension of the powers in the principal Act to cover natural or accidental mishaps, as well as those caused by human action which were already covered, and also, incidentally, in the process of adding a provision for dealing with the consequences of events abroad, to place a marginal limitation on the exercise of the powers. Finally, Clause 2 gives permanent status to temporary provisions which have not in practice proved controversial in operation and whose periodical renewal has never been contested.
In commending the Bill to the House, as literary quotations had been in order this afternoon, I turn to Shakespeare for yet another:If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.
§ Sir H. Legge-Bourke
May I ask my hon. Friend to deal with the point I raised as to the possibility of amending the Schedule?
§ Mr. Woodhouse
It would be possible in Committee to put down an Amendment to Clause 2 which would have the effect of amending the Schedule.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
I am glad that the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) asked that question, because it showed the limited 1442 nature of the opportunities that we shall have of knowing precisely what we are doing if this Bill goes forward to a further stage.
Part C of Schedule 2 of the Emergency Laws (Repeal) Act, 1959, is the Measure that the hon. Member wants us to make permanent. Let us understand exactly what it is. I quote:The Admiralty, the Army Council or the Air Council may by order authorise officers and men of Her Majesty's naval, military or air forces under their respective control to be temporarily employed in agricultural work or such other work as may be approved in accordance with instructions issued by the Admiralty, the Army Council or the Air Council, as the case may be, as being urgent work of national importance, and thereupon it shall be the duty of every person subject to the Naval Discipline Act, military law or air force law to obey any command given by his superior offices in relation to such employment, and every such command shall be deemed to be a lawful command within the meaning of the Naval Discipline Act, the Army Act, 1955, or the Air Force Act, 1955, as the case may be.That is to say, it authorises the use of the Armed Forces of the Crown and imposes a liability on every member of such forces to carry out the orders given by his superior officer as the result of the authorisation by the Admiralty, the Army Council and the Air Council.
It appears to give, first of all, the power to make the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely, if he happens to be called up for service at that time, a sort of foreman of a group of agricultural labourers. That seems to be the main purpose of Part C of Schedule 2 of the Act. I knew, and I am prepared to accept, that such duty by the Armed Forces is generally welcomed by them. After all, it is quite a legitimate recreation after "square-bashing" to be put on to doing something useful and to be able to feel at the end of a day's work when one is dismissed that one has done something add to the production of real wealth in the country. That is what the Bill proposes to do.
I have heard no justification today for suggesting that the agricultural labourers of the country are so angered by the failure to get what they regard as a just decision from the Agricultural Wages Board that they are likely to down tools and stop production of food.
§ Sir H. Legge-Bourke
The right hon. Gentleman may recollect that in 1947, when he wits a member of the Govern- 1443 ment of that day, there were very severe floods in the Fens, which the Army were very helpful in dealing with. I hope that he will bear in mind the fact that the Army has behaved magnificently on these occasions and that he is doing no help to recruiting by what he has been saying.
§ Sir H. Legge-Bourke
Would the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that he is suggesting that the only thing that the Army ever does that is useful is to go to the aid of agriculture. Surely Lo goodness, there was never a more inappropriate time, in view of what is happening in Cyprus, to say a thing like that.
§ Mr. Ede
I have not said anything that could be taken in that light. I have no doubt that if an emergency arose and Part C of Schedule 2 was put into operation, it would be received by those troops who come under it as a very welcome change from ordinary Army life. I cannot see that that has anything to do with restricting recruiting. I can think of many other things that would cheer up recruiting, but I do not regard that as being anything detrimental to recruiting.
I think that the point which the hon. Member originally raised, whether there was an opportunity of amending the Defence Regulations, was well worth making. I strongly support the attitude that he adopted. It is not for me to venture too far on this occasion because I should get into conflict with the Chair, which would be far worse than getting into conflict with the hon. Member.
§ Mr. Ede
I should like to see the kind of Amendment introduced which would carry out what the hon. Member wants to do—an Amendment with the phrases that I have read out put into the new Measure. I suggest that the reference should be withdrawn in its present form and the words that I have read 1444 out repealed in this Bill and words to take their place put in as an Amendment in Committee. That, I understand, is what the hon. Member wanted to do. As far as that goes, I am completely behind him and I hope that sufficient ingenuity will be displayed among back benchers on both sides of the House to be able to get it. I think that the Bill, when it becomes an Act, will do something well worth while.
I cannot see what has caused the Government to seize this as the time to bring this Measure before the House. I agree with what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) said about that. The Government should be able to point to something quite definite and not to vague fears about what may happen if we get a lot of cold weather and Dr. Beeching has all his own way with the transport system. That appears to me the main fear. I know from my own experience that the problem of keeping the flow of traffic going when industrial disputes coincide with some natural phenomena which make movement of goods and people difficult can cause great anxiety in the Home Office and involve many people in much discomfort and difficulty.
Looking on the scene today, I am surprised at the extent to which people will put up with the Government's actions without trying to do anything drastic to hinder them from engaging in the worst of fell purposes. I support what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport. I share all the anxieties of my hon. Friends the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) and Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence). The more power a Government gets in this kind of relationship the more difficult it is to restrain some people from wanting to put the power into practice. The number of Measures which have been passed to deal with quite legitimate points and which have subsequently been used to hinder the ordinary legitimate purposes of people are far too many to allow us to regard fresh examples with equanimity.
A Measure was passed to impose severe penalties on people who administered oaths. The only time that it was used was when the Tolpuddle labourers in 1834 formed their trade 1445 union. They went through some kind of friendly society procedure by which when a new member was admitted an oath was administered to him. That was the cause of their being transported to Australia.
If the Government get these powers, I hope that we shall have an assurance that they will be used for nothing more than has been explained to us this afternoon, because then they will never be used at all.
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
Any suspicions which one might have had about the purposes of the Bill were not entirely alleviated by the quotation chosen by the Joint Under-Secretary of State in recommending it. As far as I can recollect, the quotation continues, "In firmer purpose give me the dagger."
§ Mr. Woodhouse
I should like leave briefly to utter two final sentences. I assure the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) that no such dark thought is in the Government's mind. I am sure that it would not be in the mind of any Government.
On a more serious point, in order that I should not show disrespect to the Chair, I should add the words, "subject to the ruling of the Chair" to the answer which I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) when he intervened at the end of my speech.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).