HC Deb 20 June 1974 vol 875 cc817-28

Again considered in Committee.

Question again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Stanbrook

The point I am trying to make is that while it is useful and in accordance with our constitution and traditions to have those who represent one of the three branches of our constitution present in each of the others, so as to give full representation to the separate facets of our national life, we should keep a close watch upon the extent to which the one dominates the other.

Our parliamentary democracy is founded upon the principle that the strength of the legislature is its control of the executive. Where we get an executive whose strength is derived not so much from control of the executive power but from control of the legislature, we are standing our national democracy on its head. That is not the way that parliamentary democracy should be applied or exists in principle. It is certainly not the way in which children are taught about the whole principle of parliamentary democracy.

It may be asked, why raise this point at this time? If there is any time at which this point should be raised, it is when the number of Ministers in the House of Commons is increased. We acknowledge that there should be a limit. We pass a law to say that there should be no more than a certain number who are servants of the Crown sitting in the House of Commons—especially at times of minority Government. So we should accept that as a principle. But every so often a Bill comes before the House increasing—as this clause does—the number of paid servants of the Crown sitting as Members of the House of Commons.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that from time to time we also increase the number of Members of the House of Commons and that that number has risen from 630 to the now ridiculous figure of 635, which is a much bigger increase than the increase in the number of Ministers proposed in the Bill?

Mr. Stanbrook

That may well be, but the proportion that the increase in this case bears—an increase of four to 95—is far greater than the increase of five in addition to 630. The process that I have described is right in both absolute and relative terms.

We must set a limit and we must discuss this at some point. The best point is when the House of Commons is asked to say that there should be an increase in the number of its own Members who can draw a salary from the executive. That time has come now. We should say that if the limit is set at 91, it should remain at 91 and that the function of the House of Commons is to control that 91. By permitting, as it were, the recruitment to their numbers of an extra four, so as to make it 95, we are perhaps sowing the seeds of our own destruction.

10.5 p.m.

The Minister of State, Civil Service Department (Mr. Robert Sheldon)

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stan-brook) referred to part of the Second Reading debate, but it might be as well to go over some of the ground again for the benefit of those hon. Members who were not present then.

The first important point is that in 1965 a larger number of Ministers could be appointed than can be appointed under the Bill. Secondly, whereas one can understand that there are problems when the numbers of Ministers are increased, for reasons that the hon. Gentleman stated and reasons that we know, the tasks of Ministers are obviously extended as long as a Government operate on the theory and principle that there will be more intervention in industry and in the life of the country generally than there was 10 or 15 years ago.

When the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) points out that there has been such an increase since 1957, he is right to lay the stress on that time when Government intervention was much less than it became during the next decade. The expansion of the executive into areas about which it had expressed little concern occurred during the 1960s. That was when the Labour Government came into office pledged to intervene in a number of aspects of our national life in which hitherto the Government had not thought it necessary to intervene. The last Conservative Government, who were pledged to reverse that process, changed their mind and intervened, as much as, and in some respects even more than, the Government before them.

It is becoming clear that this is one aspect of our national existence that must be recognised. The people, for good or ill, and I believe for good, understand that the Government have a responsibility to take action in the interests of the country as a whole. If they do not act in the way that the people think right, that Government's chances at the subsequent election will be that much less.

This is a decision not of the Labour Party, of this Parliament, or of the last Parliament or the last Government; it is a decision of the people that they want certain actions to be taken by the Government. If things are not going as they expect or wish, they will expect the Government to take action. It was a response to that wish by the people as a whole that led both the previous Government and this Government to intervene in industrial and other areas in which Governments had not hitherto intervened.

The Government are responsible for a high level of public expenditure. They are now responsible for nearly half of all the expenditure in the country—

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

Too much.

Mr. Sheldon

The previous Government did not change it, so the hon. and gallant Gentleman's quarrel is obviously with his own Government. In the 1920s the proportion of public expenditure was much lower.

There is a definite need for Government Ministers to control the increase in expenditure. As long as we are to spend so much more, that expenditure must be controlled by the Government, responsible to this House. That is the only way in which we can operate.

Therefore, we start with the premise that the Government find themselves intervening more and more, because of the wish of the people, and as a consequence take on more and more expenditure, and as a further consequence have to appoint Ministers to control that expenditure. If the House wants to change that process, it must go to its roots and cut out the intervention. Many Conservative Members wish to do that. They failed with their Government, because their Government accepted the wishes of the people.

Mr. Robert Redmond (Bolton, West)

I think that the Minister is putting words into our mouths. He is saying the exact opposite to the intervention that I wish to make. The argument that he is making is strong, but the argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) has made is that there are not enough back benchers in proportion to the number of Ministers so as to give back benchers an adequate control of the executive. If there is more and more Government intervention, we want more and more back benchers in proportion to the number of Ministers. If we are to reduce the number of back benchers by increasing the number of Ministers, we might well restore the balance by having a few more hon. Members from Ulster.

Mr. Sheldon

That is not the way in which I would look at the matter. On this occasion I speak as an individual and I say that we should consider the matter in another way. What we need are more effective back benchers with more tools and greater servicing so that they can properly carry out their function. As long as Governments have to acquire responsibilities they will have to appoint the Ministers to carry out the tasks that come before them. That is the task of government and it is a task that Governments are willing to undertake.

This measure would allow a small increase in the number of Ministers that a Government may appoint. We believe that it allows for a necessary increase for the reasons that we stated on Second Reading and for those that I have tried to make clear this evening. I hope that the Committee will give the clause an easy passage.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

I do not wish to oppose this measure, but I wish to make one or two remarks about it. The Minister has said that Governments are intervening more and more. I am bound to say that I must agree with him. That is what is happening. It leads one to believe that it is not too much to say that one of the greatest threats to democracy is that our system has become so democratic that it is in danger of coming to a standstill. We are now asked to take another step and to authorise a few more Ministers.

The fantastic work load that falls on Ministers both senior and junior is a terrible criticism of the way in which our parliamentary system operates. We are all familiar with seeing a new administration come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and full of enthusiasm. Within a few weeks they are clogged up and it is impossible to get at them. They are spending all the hours that God sends at their desks and the system has once again become constipated.

It is often said, and quite rightly, that Ministers and Governments have no time to think. That is perhaps why we peck and scratch at one another like barnyard hens across the Floor of this honourable House to an extent that must be disgraceful and astonishing to people from outside who sit in the Public Gallery watching us. In this respect we would do well to take a lesson from those in another place. Matters are there discussed in a much more reasonable way. I say with the utmost respect to the Minister that it is not much of an argument to say, "Because you did not do it therefore we should not do it".

I do not pretend to put forward a solution to all these problems at such a late hour or at any stage, but I feel that we should limit the number of Questions, in- cluding Written Questions, that hon. Members can put to Ministers. The system should operate so that an hon. Member can put a Question when he wants to find out something in particular but he should not be allowed to make mere gestures to his constituents by tabling damned silly footling Questions merely to get himself into the local paper. I think that Ministers will all agree—and I am not likely to be one—that hon. Members should be rationed as to the number of letters that they can send to Ministers from their constituents. For example, if Mrs. Bloggins has lost her purse in a supermarket and writes to her MP asking him to do something about it, it is terribly easy merely to refer the matter to the Minister concerned. It must be hell to be on the receiving end. The system makes it easy for hon. Members, but that is a matter that we should consider.

We should also consider limiting the length of speeches in the House. That is part of the required formula—and that is why I shall sit down now.

Dr. Michael Winstanley (Hazel Grove)

I agree very much with what the Minister has said about the need for more Ministers to share the load when there is a need for greater government intervention. I accept the argument that many Ministers and Government Departments are now doing things which were not formerly done and which need Ministers to undertake them.

But I also accept some of the arguments put by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) with regard to accountability—that if we increase the number of Ministers we introduce possible dangers regarding accountability of the Government in relation to the rest of the House.

10.15 p.m.

I would be more sympathetic to Clause 2, increasing the number of Ministers from 91 to 95, if we were talking not about Ministers but about Ministries. I have had great difficulty in trying to find out which Minister is responsible in these large blunderbuss types of Department which have been created in recent years. The Secretary of State for the Environment has somewhat wide and ill-defined powers. When I write to the Department I get back all sorts of answers from all sorts of people. We would do better if we knew who was responsible for what.

For example, I very much regretted the merging of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Security. Pensions are a different matter from running the National Health Service. The old order, when we had a Minister of Health responsible for the NHS to this House, was much more valuable. We knew just who was responsible. Accountability was then so much easier. The Department of the Environment is very unwieldy. If there is a fault, it is difficult to find out who is at fault.

Despite all this, however, the Government obviously need more Ministers to carry out the responsibilities, but I accept what has been said about accountability. Accountability would be better served if we redivided some of these large Departments and made certain that the House knew who were in charge of what.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

There is merit in the argument that the more Ministers appointed from members of the governing party, the less chance the executive will have of being challenged by their own party. But there is one particularly strong argument for increasing the number of Ministers. Civil servants have a vested interest in keeping the number of Ministers as small as possible. The more stretched a Minister becomes by work, the more responsibility his civil servants get. It is a common complaint about Governments that, after the first year or so, Ministers, having started off trying to implement the party manifesto, are ground down by the variety of jobs they have to do—not least by the calls that this House makes on them—and in the end delegate more and more to their civil servants so that civil servants are making more and more decisions.

Therefore, the more Ministers there are, the more chance there is that the advice they are getting from civil servants will be carefully scrutinised. They will pay more attention to the matters that come before them, and there is more chance that the views of the Minister's own party will get through.

On the other hand, if there are few Ministers, there being a limit to what human nature can achieve, the civil servants will in the end implement their own policies. We are faced with the choice between reducing the power of back benchers by increasing the number of Ministers and giving civil servants possibly more power by having only a small number of Ministers.

Society itself is much more complex these days. Governments find themselves forced into further and further intervention. In any case, we would need more Ministers to deal with the complexities of problems with which the Government are faced, quite apart from the question of intervention in a specific matter. We have recognised these facts by increasing the number of Ministers. On balance, therefore, it seems to me that the Bill is necessary.

Mr. Stanbrook

Does the hon. and learned Member think that the device adopted in the French Assembly whereby every person on becoming elected to that Assembly nominates a deputy who takes office as a member of the Assembly when the member himself is appointed a Minister might not serve the purpose the hon. and learned Gentleman has in mind? Under that system we could arrange for as many Ministers as we liked while retaining a full complement of independent members in the House of Commons.

Mr. Lyons

I regard that idea with interest, but it does not commend itself to me. The other suggestion tonight—that Members should be given more resources—is much more sensible. The fact is that MPs do not regard themselves as sufficiently individually significant. If each MP regarded himself as being far more important than he, the Ministers and ordinary electors at present think, he would begin to get a full staff, he would refuse to be pushed about and there would still be individual Members of Parliament to stand up against the executive when necessary. When we have no facilities and inadequate services we begin to see ourselves as unimportant, almost as lapdogs of the executive, and we do not dream of asserting what should be the true importance of the Member of Parliament. By not asserting that importance, we are letting down democracy and our constituents because we are the representatives of the people in the first place. We should represent them with panache, courage and pride.

The system is so arranged as to prevent us from doing that by putting some of us 30 to an office, by keeping us apart from our secretaries and by not providing us with sufficient resources to have adequate secretarial assistance—all matters which successive executives have connived at in order to maintain back benchers in a position of relative impotence. When our colleagues who become Ministers eventually decide to operate on behalf of those of us who are not Ministers, they will also be operating on behalf of the people of this country and then we shall have a much stronger check on the executive and we shall not have to worry about five or six Ministers, more or less.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

This has been a useful discussion about the power of the executive and its relationship with the legislature. I am in favour of the clause, which extends the number on the executive, but may I expand a little on the point I made in the interjection?

If this legislature is to have the proper and adequate control, we should have everybody in this Chamber who has any executive powers answerable to us. It is an antique anomaly that we allocate a huge amount of power—following Montesquieu—to a man appointed by the Government as head of the judiciary who is a political appointee and is therefore not impartial. He is a member of the Cabinet and of the executive, but he is never in this Chamber to answer our Questions. We cannot put Parliamentary Questions down to him. I am referring, of course, to the Lord Chancellor. As long as the head of one of the most important powers in this country, albeit in theory an independent power, is separate from the executive, but still consulted by it, this legislature is robbed of an opportunity to subject that part of the executive to proper and adequate scrutiny as we are elected, after all, to do.

In my view the position of the executive is most unsatisfactory. Parliament is slow to change. Those of us who are fresh into Parliament may seem brash to those who have been here for many years and who feel that we should perhaps conform much more readily to the old customs which are time-hallowed, but there are many things that to us seem strangely absurd and quaint and could well be dispensed with.

The notion of lifting out 120 people from the majority, or in our case the minority, party, and giving them powers to make executive decisions completely remote from back benchers, and delegating to them enormous powers of legislation, is wrong. I do not have to emphasise the powers given to the Secretary of State for Employment under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Bill. He has power to modify or repeal Acts of Parliament. He can sweep them to one side. He can do this with a very nominal procedural negative resolution which creeps through Parliament.

The Order Papers produced each day are not couched in language which enables every hon. Member to understand them at a glance. They are couched in language which is antique, old-fashioned, and which should have been replaced 100 years ago. The ordinary Member of Parliament, who is put into this Chamber without any training or occupational guidance, has to go through a mass of antique wording to obtain information, to act as a check on the executive which has been handed powers of enormous magnitude because of the very complications of government, which are increasing day by day.

I support the extension under this clause. I suggest it might be prudent, while having an additional number of Ministers, to look at the way in which they operate. Local government operates in a far more sensible and democratic way. If one is elected to serve in local government, one is not shoved on to the back benches with a subject committee to keep one occupied so that one does not become bored between votes. One is given the opportunity of serving on decision-making committees where one can argue and participate in the decision making

The hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) has made the point that the executive is surrounded by a continuing Civil Service. The Civil Service does not change from election to election, as we change. Civil Servants are far closer to Ministers than are many Members of the legislature who belong to the executive's political party. It is possible for civil servants—with their knowledge, expertise and ability—to influence Ministers to their way of thinking and against the decisions and attitudes that the executive would normally wish to adopt.

Therefore, the existing pattern in local government of having committees which, when their decisions are made, are still answerable to the full assembly of the council—in this case it would be Parliament, where a Minister and back benchers would be involved in arguing about decisions—has much to commend it.

Within this parliamentary system we must have a serious look at the way in which Parliament can work because, although there is much greater Government intervention, we cannot continually add Ministers to a point where virtually everybody in the majority party will be on the payroll. Parliament will have to take a look at itself.

10.30 p.m.

Hon. Members may say, "He is a brash newcomer saying this." But a newcomer has not been influenced by the time-hallowed traditions. The statutes, the portraits, mean very little to me. I come fresh-eyed from a provincial constituency. I marvel that Parliament has not changed already to meet the continuing and increasing demands made on the Government. The back bencher has a greater part to play than simply exercising jurisdiction in the Chamber and taking part in the odd Select Committee and Standing Committee.

I recommend some investigation of a committee system under which a committee could delegate powers to a Minister, with some element of secrecy. There are large areas of decision making that a committee could usefully debate. When a Member wanted to raise issues, he could do so in the committee. Local councillors do this as a matter of course on committees of which they are members, and they can participate in the decision making. Here, we feed matter into a machine, much of which is controlled by the Civil Service, and hopefully extract the answer.

I support the clause, but I hope that the Government are aware of the grave shortcomings of the system and know that length of service does not mean complacency and an acceptance of the status quo here. Change must come. People outside look at our proceedings with amazement, as I do. In what I hope will be a long stay here, I hope that my way of looking at Parliament will never wear off and that I shall never absorb the antiquities which are so superfluous and absurd.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 3 and 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 3 agreed to.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Motion made and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third Time and passed.

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