§ 3.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)
I beg to move,
That this House, having regard to the inability of successive Governments to conduct the affairs of this nation to the wellbeing of all citizens and to the satisfaction of members of political parties, and recognising that this inability is due in some measure to the failure of the present system of Government to harness and properly employ the talents and abilities of all Members of Parliament, believes that the Cabinet system of Government should be subjected to a close and detailed examination and that a Royal Commission should be set up with terms of reference which would include a consideration of the committee system of government practised by local authorities and of methods of Government employed in other countries and especially in Commonwealth countries, where the British system has been adapted to the end of greater democratic participation by the elected representatives of the people to that of more effective political influence upon the Executive.
We have about 17 minutes to deal with the cabinet system of Government. I do not know that we shall succeed in doing more than opening a discussion which I hope will continue for some time. It is high time that these matters were discussed. We have put them into cold storage for too many years ; we have left the methods of government out of consideration while dealing with the problems of government. It is high time to ask ourselves whether the faults in the machinery are not in a way responsible for some of the problems. I am afraid that I shall be able to leave very little time to the Minister to reply, but I hope that the discussion will continue. I am grateful to be able to start it.
In politics, as in football and, indeed, in the media, the temptation is always to go for the man. People are more interesting than policies, and the dullest thing of all is the machinery of government. One can hardly wonder that people generally tend to go for the man. To attack an individual is satisfying, to find a scapegoat is splendid, especially if he happens to be the leader of one's own party.
But it betrays immaturity. Such attacks are a victory for the emotions over the intellect, for the guts over the mind. Whether the attacker is the right 865 hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) or my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. William Rodgers) or Pontypool (Mr. Abse), however the attack is made—whether in speech or writing, or under the guise of psychiatric analysis—and whether the scapegoat is the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition, it makes no difference. The attacker is always a disappointed man, and his motives, even if unknown to himself, are very plain to everyone else. If, as is often so, the attacker is otherwise a man of distinction, that makes it all the more sad. Instead of giving way to these atavistic impulses, we should do well to ask ourselves why people and parties with opposite intentions often finish up by doing very similar things when in Government.
The motion says :That this House, having regard to the inability of successive Governments to conduct the affairs of this nation to the wellbeing of all citizens and to the satisfaction of members of political parties, and recognising that this inability is due in some measure to the failure of the present system of Government to harness and properly employ the talents and abilities of all Members of Parliament, believes that the Cabinet system of Government should be subjected to a close and detailed examination and that a Royal Commission should be set up with terms of reference which would include a consideration of the committee system of government practised by local authorities and of methods of Government employed in other countries and especially in Commonwealth countries, where the British system has been adapted to the end of greater democratic participation by the elected representatives of the people to that of more effective political influence upon the Executive.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)
Order. Perhaps it would be as well to point out that there may have been a mistake in the motion. I think that after the word "people" should come the word "and".
§ Mr. Jenkins
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The motion has to be constructed in a single sentence. That is one of the curious traditions that we follow in the House. The fact that we follow such traditions is an example of our tendency to cling to practices and customs which, whatever may have been their original purpose, are outworn in this day and age. As Winston Churchill once said, we are, more than we know, the creatures of our institutions. I would 866 add to that "and of the relationships between our institutions."
However, as long ago as 1918 a committee reported on the machinery of Government. I am grateful to Mr. John Palmer of the research department of the Library, who has produced a mass of information which I shall not be able to deploy this afternoon. Among that committee's recommendations, he found this one, which is very much to the point. The committee suggested thatA more efficient public service may expose the State to the evils of bureaucracy unless the reality of parliamentary control is so enforced as to keep pace with any improvement in departmental methods.In other words, the committee was saying that an efficient Civil Service can run away and get out of political control unless the political machine, the machinery of Government, is strengthened to keep pace with the development of the Civil Service.
It is absurd to think when considering this matter that a certain Minister or even a batch of Ministers can keep effective day-to-day control over one of the huge Departments which now inform our political life. They are very much larger than they were in 1918 when the committee reported.
People sometimes ask what happens to politicians in office, and why is it that we find Labour trying to limit wages and the Tories nationalising industries and spending public money as though it were water. The philosophies of the two parties seem to undergo a strange change when they come into office. Professor Richard Rose has put his finger on at least one of the problems. In an article in New Society on 30th October 1969 he saidThe changes that occur in politicians in office may be explicable by the fact that a Minister, in his contacts with other people, is expected to be a proponent of a departmental point of view.I notice that the departmental point of view has absented itself from our discussions. Perhaps it was thought that it would be better to be out of the way while these questions were being discussed.
Professor Rose continued :It is therefore hardly surprising that party goals become less salient than administrative interests ".867 It is true that if they are not careful, Ministers, when they come into office, tend to become the creatures of their Department rather than the other way about. Can we reaffirm the authority of the House of Commons and of the parties which make it up against the tendency of the executive to go its own way?
I am reminded of a television debate a few months ago in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) asked my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, "Where did we go wrong, Harold?" My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition replied, "We did not fail." It is true that in some respects the last Labour Government did not fail. However, in some respects the question asked of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East was apposite. If we had a more effective Government machine and if back-bench Members had been able to have effective participation in the processes of Government, the question how we failed would have been asked less.
The State machine is like a car. There is a political engine and an administrative chassis. The clutch slips and the gearbox is faulty. At times it seems to slip into reverse, so that the control over the economy, as has been suggested earlier, seems to be somewhat erratic and uncertain.
These are not new questions. As long ago as 1924 a debate took place between Ramsay MacDonald and Fred Jowett, who was a great proponent for the improvement of the machinery of government. Possibly that is why he has been almost entirely forgotten, although he was a significant figure in Labour Party politics earlier in this century. Fred Jowett advocated, as I am doing, the introduction of a committee system of Government. He was answering the objection that such a system would remove the watch-dog possibilities of the House of Commons. Fred Jowett answered that objection effectively but not in a way which I have time to develop now. I can only ask the House to accept that there is a good argument against the proposal that the development of the committee system of Gov- 868 ernment and the involvement of all back benchers in the process of Government cannot be carried out without serious disadvantages.
A wealth of talent is being wasted on both sides of the House. That talent has been wasted for many years. London is better governed than the country as a whole. It would be still better governed if central Government kept their incompetent fingers out of the municipal pie. That is not only because the Labour Party is in power across the bridge, or because my wife happens to be chairman of the management housing committee, although that is part of the story.
The machinery of the committee is geared to the implementation of political decisions, and all elected members participate in the process. An answer to the problem can be found by a system which runs along those lines. The motion before the House does not ask the House to decide that what I am advocating is right. It merely asks the House to decide that a Royal Commission should be established with terms of reference which would include consideration of these matters. Whatever else may be thought about the problem, I suggest that there is sufficient room for disquiet in the history of post-war government to warrant another prolonged and detailed look at it in the 1970s.
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Civil Service Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)
It is a pity that we have such a short time for the debate, because the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) has raised two interesting points. It is unfortunate that he based such an interesting debate on a motion which I can only describe as a monster. Not only does it have only one full stop in 11 lines ; it makes up for lack of grammatical termination by including a series of half-truths, a few unverified assumptions and at least two illogical assumptions.
The hon. Gentleman's first point was that Ministers do not have great enough grip over the civil servants, and his second was that back benchers do not have a great enough grip over their Front Benches and the executive.
In considering whether Ministers have effective control over their Departments 869 and civil servants, I have been rather surprised by the way in which certain memoirs by members of the last Government have made rather a thing of it. The right hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) in the Godkin Lectures in 1970—when he was still a Minister—spoke of the strength of the Civil Service and how it was so difficult for Ministers to get their way in certain things. This view was developed by the Leader of the Opposition in his memoirs, and in a subsequent article by the right hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle).
I do not happen to agree with this line of argument. I believe that if Ministers are determined to follow a course of action and have thought it through, its consequences and the method of doing it, the civil servants will, as they have done for any Government, fully support them. Therefore, when that rhetorical question was asked in the television broadcast, "Where did we fail, Harold?", the answer should have been that personalities were at fault—The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves …".I am not making a party political point here.
The second point concerned the influence of back benchers upon the executive. I think the hon. Gentleman underestimates the value of back benchers. It is rather common to do so at the moment. But I believe that they have very considerable and real influence upon Governments. Indeed, the position of the back benchers has been improved enormously in the last few years, certainly in the five years since I arrived in the House, by the setting up of a whole range of Select Committees which can provide them with information by which they can get at the executive.
It is difficult, the complexities of Government being so great, for a back bencher who just reads the morning papers to come in as a talented amateur and try to get his rapier through the chain armour of Ministers and the executive, but the existence of the Select Committees provides the back bencher with weapons and opportunities to grill Ministers and civil servants and get at the mandarins, to get at the reasons behind policy decisions and even, on 870 occasion, to influence the formation of policy.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman seriously underestimates the value of back benchers. For example, the late Gerald Nabarro was never a member of the executive, but I think he had much greater influence on changes in taxation policy than many junior Treasury Ministers.
§ It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.