HC Deb 18 April 1969 vol 781 cc1551-62

Order for Second Reading read.

3.18 p.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I apologise for my slip of the tongue in saying "simple" instead of "Second", but I could well say "a simple reading" because, being reminded by the presence of the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) of the long Committee meetings that we had on the Parliament (No. 2) Bill, the effective Clause of this Bill, which is a very simple one, should prevent any such long Committee meetings, and should ensure that when a constitutional Bill is brought before the House there will have to be an adequate majority in the House before it is embarked upon. The simple provision is that a two-thirds majority is required to alter the composition of either House of Parliament.

Few would deny that there is scope for improving parts of our Constitution, be they concerned with the House of Lords, this House, or regional government. The existence of the Royal Commission is evidence of that. But if we are to sweep away a basic part of the Constitution—a part that has stood the test of centuries—it is all the more essential to be doubly certain that such changes as we make are for the better and not for the worse, as well as being right in the context of the next 100 years.

From recent experience it is clear that the Parliament (No. 2) Bill did not convince more than a small minority of hon. Members. Despite the pressure of Government Whips, less than half of the House was prepared to support the Bill on Second Reading, the actual number being 285 out of a total of 630. My own Front Bench supported that Bill and tried by its eloquence to persuade more of my hon. Friends to do so. There was an unacceptable degree of uncertainty, as events proved only too conclusively, and the result has emphasised the folly of the Government's trying to force through a reluctant Parliament so fundamental a constitutional Measure.

Especially now, on the eve of the Reports of the Royal Commissions on Local Government and on the Constitu- tion, a question mark hangs over the whole structure of government in the land, and alterations in regional government could well mean drastic changes in the size and functions of both Houses of Parliament. I therefore hope that the House and the country will consider that the simple proposition which the Bill puts forward, that a two-thirds majority is required for altering the composition of either House, is fair and reasonable. Such a Measure would be disappointing in that it would deprive us of the eloquence and some of the Parliamentary occasions which we have experienced during our discussions of the Parliament (No. 2) Bill, but this proposition is by no means out of line with written constitutions in the United States of America and other countries.

If such a Bill had been on the Statute Book before the Cabinet embarked on the Parliament (No. 2) Bill and before my right hon. Friends embarked on supporting it, much face would have been saved to both, and much time of the House would not been wasted. That time could have been used to debate other important subjects, such as "In Place of Strife", the Merchant Shipping Acts and the Seebohm Report, which affect the everyday running of the Government.

I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, because it will mean that before anyone embarks on a Constitutional Bill, he will have to be sure of Parliamentary support for the changes proposed, and the time of the House will not be wasted, as it has been wasted with the Parliament (No. 2) Bill.

3.29 p.m.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

This little Bill is more iniquitous and dangerous than that of which we have just disposed. The speech of the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) was remarkable in that it was pregnant with paradox. He argued the case for democracy and said that because there had been a long debate about changing the constitution, it had been a waste of time. He said that because a stout, brave, if vociferous, minority had challenged the Government and the official Opposition day in and day out and had won, that, too, appeared to be wrong. His most remarkable contribution was to draw an analogy between our constitution, which includes the other place, and that of the United States of America.

I cannot for the life of me believe that the citizens of the United States are in any mood to create the same constitution and the same sort of place as we have in the other place. What is serious is that when one makes comparisons with written constitutions in Europe and other parts of the world, one sees, throughout history, that these constitutions could be easily ripped up. We have had our forms of revolution, but since the days of Cromwell we have had our revolutions with a minimum of bloodshed, upset and vulgarity.

One of the reasons for this was that we never had a hard and fast written constitution. If the hon Gentleman would make the most cursory glance over European history alone he will discover that where a written constitution has existed in a country it has often been torn up and rewritten. In its wake there has often been bloodshed and bloody disaster. While we make up ours as we go along, the test has been that it has worked far better than any other. We pride ourselves that through out constitution one vote is enough to decide an issue, and this, too, has proved worth while.

In this remarkable constitution of ours, which I do not want to change, at least not in the way advocated by the hon. Gentleman, it has meant that people who have been prepared, like some of my hon. Friends, to fight both Government and Opposition, to fight six-line Whips, have in the end proved victorious. While on the one hand the hon. Member eulogised the efforts of my hon. Friends and his hon. Friends, at the same time he wants to produce a Measure which will never allow that to happen again. For all these reasons, including the last absurdity he produced, I feel that the House would be very wise not to give this Bill a Second Reading.

3.33 p.m.

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)

I wish to support the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy). I do not share the views of some of my right hon. Friends about the need to change many of the procedures of this place, or many of our constitutional practices. I believe that although to anyone with a scientific bent there may be a number of anomalies in our procedures, they are the sort of anomalies which safeguard the people against abuse by the Executive.

The most serious fault that I find with the proposition put forward by the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) is this question of the two-thirds majority. What might happen as a result of this is that one might have an undesirable ad hoc association in the Chamber between different groups of people, not at all like the splendid collaboration between the co-belligerents which we had on a recent Bill, which I suppose I ought not to mention, otherwise I would be out of order.

The sort of thing I can envisage happening is that which happens in some countries which have curious methods of voting to elect people to the legislature. I am thinking of the sort of system in which one says to the other: I will back you on this if you will back me on that. That would be most undesirable for this Chamber. The most startling and compelling evidence which can be put forward against this Bill is what has happened in this House this year when the Executive, aided by the Shadow Executive, if that is the right expression, sought to impose upon this Chamber a number of highly undesirable reforms. Because of the peculiarities of our system, because of the methods we have for dealing with constitutional matters in a Committee of the whole House, and because of the benevolence and proper understanding of those matters by those occupying the Chair during those deliberations, these matters were talked about and discussed to such an extent that eventually those who put forward the proposals became convinced of their undesirability. That in itself is sufficient evidence that we require none of the sort of fancy voting system that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

For these reasons I support my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, as always, and hope that the House will reject the Bill.

3.35 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I listened attentively to the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck) and his complaint about what he calls "fancy voting". But the only fancy voting the Bill provides is the provision in Clause 1(a) concerning "… not less than two-thirds of the total number of Members—…". We already have a number of rules of this sort. Sometimes there are not a certain number of Members present—I am being very careful in saying this; sometimes there are not as many as there might be, and something happens. Again, for a Closure, 100 Members are needed, and—I forget the precise new rule—I think the Third Reading requirement is that 100 Members have to rise in their place. Therefore, what the hon. Gentleman calls "fancy voting" is not new to our procedure.

I have a very open mind about the Bill. But at this juncture, when we have seen the two Front Benches getting into cahoots to bring forward a Measure which the great bulk of back-benchers did not approve, and which I believe would have put vast new powers of patronage into the hands of the two Front Benches, we as back-benchers have a duty not only to our constituents today but to our successor's constituents.

For this reason I believe, with respect to their Lordships, that members of another place might have been in a certain error. Some of them might have felt a little spirit of "I'm all right, Jack", and did not look to their heirs. In this House, we have a duty to look to the years ahead.

On balance, I believe that the Bill would safeguard the rights of the ordinary man and woman, rather than the reverse. Therefore, although it has its imperfections, I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading.

3.37 p.m.

Mr. George Wallace (Norwich, North)

I intervene very briefly to utter a word of protest. This is a footling, piffling little Bill that should not absorb the time of so many hon. Members present this afternoon. I regard it as the ressurrection of a corpse that has been embalmed with Parliamentary phraseology and decently buried, in a piffling attempt to revise the whole procedure of the House, to attempt to intervene with the voting procedure, which is better dealt with by reforming Standing Orders.

This is a complete and utter waste of time. Sitting beside me is the arch enemy of the Parliament (No. 2) Bill, my hon Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who, in connivance with an extreme Right-wing Member of the party opposite, strangled at birth a far more important constitutional Measure than this. This Bill is but a tiny offshoot, a little weed, that has sprung from mistaken and misunderstanding thinking, and I am surprised that it has been put before us. We should get rid of this nuisance as soon as possible and go to the countryside and refresh ourselves with brighter thoughts, instead of wasting our time with the Bill.

3.39 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

One of my favourite playwrights is Mr. J. B. Priestley, and one of the better plays he has written is a time play known as "I have been here before". If hon. Members recall it, it was based on a time theory, that one went back and back over the same things for time evermore. Following the recent months when I have sat here through thin and thin—perhaps I can say to my hon. Friends, through thin and thick—on these matters, I just feel on this Measure that I have been here before. All that I shall recall from it in the long run is that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) will be known by me for ever more as the hon. Member for Line-by-Line.

The Bill is so important that the hon. and noble Lord who presented it has not even seen fit to be present. The hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale), who saw fit to move it and regarded it as so important, did not even bother to put his name to the Bill when it was first presented.

Mr. Ridsdale

I should like to say that the noble Lord the Member for Edinburgh, North (Earl of Dalkeith) is on urgent business in the North of England.

Mr. Rees

As the train which was to take me to my constituency is leaving about now, I also could have been on important business.

That sets the tone underlying the Bill. It is not really regarded by its sponsors as all that important. I suspect that it was intended that it would come up today while the Parliament (No. 2) Bill, of late lamented and, to some, unlamented memory, was still being discussed. However, as I have had to apply my mind to the Bill, it would be worth while that I should pass on some of my thoughts to hon. Members.

The first thing I find with regard to the Bill is that it is drawn in very wide terms, in wider terms, I suspect, than those who drew it up even suspected or intended. It is intended to cover main line constitutional Bills—I am sorry that I used the words "main line"; I obviously have something on my mind about that. It is intended to cover main constitutional Bills, such as the Parliament (No. 2) Bill, and this is stated in the Long Title.

In its present form, however, the Bill would cover some very routine Bills also. An obvious example, I am advised, would be the Administration of Justice Act, 1968, which included a provision to increase the number of Lords of Appeal in Ordinary from 9 to 11. By adding to the number of Law Lords, it clearly altered the composition of the House of Lords. No one, however, could call it a main constitutional Bill or justify a requirement that it should be treated in this special way.

Another example would have been the Peerage Act, 1963, which is best known for its provision to allow a peer who has succeeded to his peerage to disclaim it. It also includes, however, in Sections 4 to 6, a number of useful provisions which remove anomalies in the position of Scottish and Irish peers and of peeresses in their own right. For example, all Scottish peers, instead of 16 representative peers, were allowed to sit in the House of Lords, and a peeress in her own right had the same right to receive a writ or summons as a man holding that peerage.

A possible example in the future—and I should add that it is a Friday afternoon and that this is not forthcoming attractions, in case my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne is searching for thought about what might be coming; in any event, to add to the forthcoming attraction, I am a noncomformist anyway by background—might be a Bill affecting the number of bishops in the House of Lords. Such a Bill would, no doubt, be necessary if the Church of England were ever disestablished. These are all examples of Bills which would clearly be within the scope of the Parliament (No. 4) Bill as it stands. I am sure that the hon. and noble Lord who dreamed up the Bill did not have this in mind when he drafted it, and I am sure that he would not want it to have this effect.

There is also, I have gathered in recent weeks, an area of what the lawyers call uncertainty covering Bills which affects the disqualification from membership of either House. It is not clear whether a Bill which introduced a new disqualification or modified any existing disqualification would provide for the alteration of the composition of either House or not. An obvious case would be the House of Commons Disqualification Act, 1957, but also, oddly—or, perhaps, to some people, not so oddly—would be the Mental Health Act, 1959, which includes a Section, Section 137—I say this because, no doubt, the noble Lord will be reading HANSARD very carefully and will want to follow this advice which I give him—providing for the seat in the House of Commons of an hon. Member to be declared vacant if he is liable to be detained as suffering from mental illness.

Provisions of this kind could well be needed in Bills on subjects such as mental health or bankruptcy. Some Members of Parliament are given to mental ill-health. We cover the span in this place. Some Members of Parliament are given to bankruptcy—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—I understand—in the course of time, in the course of history. These provisions could be needed in Bills whose main objectives are quite unrelated to the constitution or composition of either House.

I am sure that the House will agree that the examples I have given are not of Bills which are of such fundamental and constitutional importance that they are passed only if this House is virtually unanimous in supporting them. I say, "unanimous" advisedly because what the words in subsection (1) unless … not less than two-thirds of the total number of Members elected to serve in the House of Commons vote in the affirmative really imply is that the affirmative vote must be of two-thirds of the elected Members, and not of those voting in that particular Division. In the present House this means that 420 Members must vote for the Bill. I would hope that on that occasion it would be a consensus Bill or we should have difficulty in obtaining the necessary 420. Of course, if the Whips were on in the normal practice of the House that would be rather easier—or so I am advised, historically. Hon. Members will appreciate how difficult it would be to obtain a vote of this size on the kind of Bill I have mentioned.

I have dealt so far with a number of practical difficulties about this Bill, but there is a more serious and fundamental objection to its whole conception. What it tries to do is to entrench the existing composition of both Houses, but every means which has so far been devised for entrenching one or other aspect of the constitution has either been ineffective or has conflicted with the principle of the sovereignty of Parliament, and this Bill is no exception.

It is ineffective because a Bill to repeal it could be passed by an ordinary majority of 50 per cent. of those voting, and a Bill which altered the composition of either House could then be passed in the ordinary way. This Bill, therefore, would provide no more than a procedural obstacle to a Government who were determined to secure that objective. Any attempt to make the Bill effective—for example, by providing that a Bill to amend it would also require a two-thirds majority—would conflict with the principle that the powers of the Crown in Parliament are unlimited and that there is no law which it cannot make or unmake without relating to the constitution itself or otherwise. No Parliament can bind its successors, and attempts to do so in the past have subsequently been overriden—for example, the Irish Church Act, 1869, which, my hon. Friends will recall, was one of the first Measures of Mr. Gladstone's first Government in his attempt to solve the problem of Ireland, and I just recall a hundred years later that perhaps it has not yet been achieved. That Act disestablished the Church of Ireland, despite the provision in the Union of Ireland Act 1800, which stated that the maintenance of the established church in Ireland was a fundamental term of the Union. Yet 69 years later, in response to the agricultural and religious problems of Ireland, a High Church Prime Minister in the Liberal Government of those days—probably the first liberal Government—introduced an Act going against something which might be regarded as fundamental during the previous 69 years. Who of us in this place would gainsay that he had the right to do that and that in the long run we cannot commit our successors to a particular viewpoint?

The principle—and I am sure the noble Lord will be interested in this—is stated by Halsbury, Laws of England. 3rd edition, volume 7, pages 190–191, as follows: The powers of the Crown when acting in association with Parliament are unlimited. The Crown in Parliament is the sovereign power in the state. It is for this reason that there is no law which the Crown in Parliament cannot make or unmake, whether relating to the Constitution itself or otherwise. Moreover, any attempt in a statute to protect a statutory provision from express, or even implied, repeal would be ineffectual. I never thought that I should live to see the day when I should be opposing a Measure introduced by descendants of Scottish dukes who were supposedly trying to save this country from totalitarianism and from democracy.

In the current state of political opinion—I am not referring to this in the practical sense of the term, the narrow political argument of votes that are counted; I am interested in the wider sense of the term—in the fair battle of politics those of us in this place who indulge to some degree in the party game, the Oxford Union type debate, ought to beware of using the word "totalitarianism" and saying that the country is heading for totalitarianism and that we are on the rocks. I know as a result of much travelling around the world, mostly at His Majesty's expense rather than my own, that we in this country have a great deal to be thankful for. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Her Majesty."] I say "His Majesty" deliberately because I have never served Her Majesty in the way in which I served His Majesty. People look to this country as the home of democracy; yet we hear in this country arguments which drive us to the pitch of believing that all is lost.

There may be times when we are in opposition—and I concede that we on this side have much experience of this—when we might feel that a change in forms of government would be useful, but, compared with countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain—and the events in Czechoslovakia in August brought this to my mind—or other countries in Europe, we live in a country where, as Members of Parliament, none of us is afraid of opening the door at night in case we might be whistled off to some dark dungeon; we are not afraid of speaking our minds; we have nothing to fear. We have a Civil Service which is one of the most human and civilised in the world despite all its problems, for some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne attempted to find solutions in his contribution to the work of the Fulton Committee. We still have what most people in the world would be happy to have; that is, a democracy which works in this place largely because we want it to work. If any hon. Member set out to make it not work, it would break down.

All this talk about totalitarian Governments and the need to be protected from them is misplaced. Even if it had come up in one of the many discussions which we should have had if the Parliament (No. 2) Bill had gone on its way——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have finished with that one.

Mr. Rees

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. It is a matter which got itself into my system and I am finding it difficult to work it out again. I said earlier that I thought I had been here before.

This short and interesting Bill has been drawn up without due thought being given to what it means. If it were passed, it would require a two-thirds' majority even when we dealt with the most minor Bills, and it occurs to me to wonder how many political parties have been in that position in the last fifty years.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Rees

I am very grateful to.

Mr. Richard

Would my hon. Friend agree to this extent? He poses a dilemma in relation to the Bill. He talked about entrenched Clauses earlier on. If the entrenched Clauses mean nothing, as I think he would say, and are merely an obstacle to progress in the event of a subsequent Parliament wanting to amend the Bill, there is no point in having them. If they mean something, it is an infringement on the sovereignty of the House. In all his researches in preparation for this interesting and cogent speech——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Interventions must be brief.

Mr. Richard

I appreciate your point, Mr. Speaker, and I was about to come to the end of it. In all my hon. Friend's researches, has he come across a case in which what might be considered to be a major constitutional reform has ever been done via a Private Member's Bill on a Friday afternoon in the absence of the sponsor?

Mr. Rees

That is a most interesting point. The short answer is "no". The long answer, I regret to say, I made about ten minutes ago, and I am sure that I must not repeat it.

To come back to my point, which will serve my purpose, about the number of occasions when a Government have been in the position of having a two-thirds majority, I think that the Liberal Government of 1906 were in that happy position. The Government of 1931 also had a very large majority, though for quite the wrong reasons.

I do not think that this entrenched Clause is the way to deal with the situation. We in this House are the masters of what shall be done. If in their wisdom those who went before us had felt that this sort of provision was necessary, they would have done something about it. In this country, whatever party is in power, we are a democracy, and this institution is the receptacle of it. We have no need for ill-thought-out Clauses of this kind from hon. Members who are not able to find the time——

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.