HL Deb 08 June 1937 vol 105 cc408-20

My Lords, the Notice which stands on the Paper in my name reads as follows: To ask whether His Majesty's Government proposes in future to refuse information by question and answer to Members of Parliament on matters relating to Provincial Government in India; and, if so, on what grounds is such refusal based; and to move for Papers. I ought to explain that the occasion for this Question occurred in another place the other day, when a question was asked about a communal disturbance that had taken place at Lucknow and the reply given by the Minister was that the information could not be given, or words to that effect, because this was a matter for the Provincial Ministry to deal with. A supplementary question pressing the matter received no further reply. The matter has some importance, and, although I had the opportunity of a conversation with my noble friend the Secretary of State on the matter the other day, I did not give him any notice of the question I was going to ask him and I was not quite clear what his reply was. I therefore thought the matter of sufficient importance to put a Question down and to ask him, with Notice, if he could explain exactly what the position was, because the reply given in another place has to my knowledge occasioned very great surprise and some anxiety.

I submit that Parliament surely has a right to ask for information on any Indian matter. After all, India is not yet a Dominion; indeed, she is only enjoying self-government in a small number of Provinces, the remainder having Minority Governments which in no way represent the people. Even if she were a Dominion, information does not necessarily imply interference, and Parliament has surely as much right to be kept aware of circumstances that affect the lives and fortunes of His Majesty's subjects in India as anywhere in the world. Questions are asked and information is freely given about" matters in Abyssinia, in Spain, and in other foreign countries, and no difficulty is made in giving the information. Is it to be said that in India, where the matter is a Provincial subject, we are not to be given any information? I hope that the Secretary of State will make the matter as clear as possible to us. He may reply, I apprehend, that information can be given where the matter relates to a subject that is reserved specially to the Governor. This, however, is not such a case. The particular case in point is rather a good one to illustrate my Question, for it was, I gather, a communal disturbance. I do not know very much about the circumstances, but British troops might be engaged, or there might be an apprehension that they might become engaged. After all, Parliament has the care of British soldiery in the Empire and abroad, and I should have thought that if a communal disturbance of some kind takes place, be it Provincial or not, that information could certainly be given. I should therefore be grateful if my noble friend the Secretary of State would tell us clearly exactly where we stand in the matter, because there is a good deal of anxiety on this question.


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to comment briefly on this Motion. I think the question at issue is really one of the point at which the responsibility of this House begins and ends. I do not think there is any question that members of your Lordships' House are entitled to ask for information about events that are going on in India just as you are entitled to ask for information, as the noble Lord has said, about events in Abyssinia, Spain and so on. But it is now a well-established convention, at any rate in another place, that questions cannot be asked of a Minister on the ground that he is responsible for those events if the responsibility for government, or some portion of government, has been transferred by Act of Parliament to a local Legislature.

That is not only the position, as I understand it, in the Dominions; it is the position, for instance, in Ulster. I do not think that any Minister of the Crown here would feel that he could answer as though he were responsible for law and order in Belfast, at any rate unless the point were, as the noble Lord has suggested, that it might be a question of using Imperial troops. In the ordinary way that responsibility rests on the Prime Minister and the majority of the Ulster Legislature, and I imagine—in fact, I have no doubt—that the noble Marquess who will reply will make it clear that, where responsible Ministries have been brought into being and have accepted the responsibility of office in the Indian Provinces, the primary responsibility for law and order, as was recommended in the Joint Select Committee's Report and is quite definitely provided for both in the Government of India Act and the Instrument of Instructions, rests on those Ministries, and that the responsibility of this House is in respect of the action which the Governor may take in virtue of the powers which he wields under his special responsibilities or under the other sections of the Government of India Act.

But, having said that much, perhaps I might go one stage further and ask for some information to-day. I think noble Lords have followed with some care, and perhaps with some anxiety, the course of events in India in the last few months, in so far as it relates to the refusal which the Congress majorities in six Provinces have hitherto maintained to accept office under the terms of the new Constitution. I venture to think that the public discussions which have taken place with regard to the nature of the Act, and in particular, if I may say so, the wholly admirable statement made by the Secretary of State in your Lordships' House on May 6, have immensely cleared the air. They have made it more clear to all sections in India what exactly is involved in the provincial responsibility, the Provincial Autonomy, established under that Act, and I therefore hope that before very long it may be possible for the Governors, perhaps, to summon the Legislatures with a view to finding out whether, in view of the explanations given in this House and elsewhere, a basis has not been found upon which the majorities in the six Legislatures will now be prepared to accept the responsibility which is within their right and power under the Act. I hope that before very long that may be possible. I believe that that is probably the best step—although the question of times and dates is obviously not a matter upon which I can have any definite opinion— which is most likely to produce a satisfactory solution of that problem.

I also want to refer to one other matter. I do not know how many noble Lords noticed what seemed to me to be an important statement made by Mr. Gandhi, who is, in effect, the leader of the India Congress Party, with regard to the acceptance of office. It appeared in the newspapers of this country on June 3 or 4, and this is an extract from the fullest account that I have been able to find: I am very anxious that Congress should take office, but only if the Government shows a willingness to conciliate Congress… The only obstacle, so far as can at present he seen, is the Congress demand that, in the event of serious disagreement between a Provincial Governor and Congress Ministers the Governor should dismiss them I personally should be satisfied, however, if the Governor gave an undertaking that in such a case he would demand the Ministers' resignation. Obviously the exact meaning of the words are open to discussion, but, speaking broadly, it would seem that the difference now left is not a very broad difference, and it is not one which is unbridgable by common sense and goodwill on both sides, for under the system of responsible government, as I understand it, the difference between dismissal or resignation practically disappears in actual working.

The real question is where the responsibility for consequences lies, and it is the great secret of responsible government, as a method of transferring responsibility from one set of hands to another, that it does quite precisely define where responsibility lies in almost every individual case. In his speech the other day, to which I have already referred, the Secretary of State for India said this: The essence of the new Constitution is that the initiative and the responsibility for the whole of the Government of a Province, though in form certainly vesting in the Governor, passes to the Ministry the moment the Ministry takes office. … The reserved powers, of which the Congress make so much, will not normally be in operation at all. That is the first primary effect of the new Constitution so far as Provincial Autonomy is concerned.

The noble Marquess then went on to describe the situation which will arise in the event of the policy of Ministers, in the opinion of the Governor, bringing into operation his responsibility under the special responsibilities clause. He points out that it is not the intention of the Act that the Governor should rush in and use these powers without careful consideration. The normal course will be that there will be discussions on both sides, which in the great majority of cases will probably lead to agreement, but he recognises that in the end both sides, with a full sense of responsibility and with a desire to do the best for Congress, may be unable to agree. Then he said: It will then be for each, having regard to the interest of the Province as a whole, to consider whether the points of difference, thus narrowed and defined as a result of discussion, justify a break in what otherwise has been a fruitful relationship. It seems to me that that is a very excellent statement of a situation which we have to consider. What will be the position when a break is actually reached, after all discussion and efforts at compromise are exhausted, and still there is a definite difference of opinion which cannot be bridged?

I think, if my reading of responsible government is correct, then the position will be this. The responsibility for tendering advice as to the government of the Province will rest upon the Ministry, which will be responsible for their action to the Indian Legislature and their constituents. The responsibility for rejecting that advice will rest upon the Governor, who will be responsible for his action to the Secretary of State, to the Parliament and to the electorate of this country. Therefore it seems to me that, when you analyse it, the point upon which Congress is laying so much stress—the difference between dismissal and resignation—is not nearly so important a point as might appear to be the case, and that the more Congress studies the way in which the system of responsible government, with special responsibility, works in practice, the more ready will they be to see that the statement made by the noble Marquess was really a satisfactory answer.

I think the experience of the last few months has shown that as the understanding of the system of responsible government grows, the doubts and difficulties and suspicions which have existed in the minds of many people will gradually disappear. They will disappear because the system of responsible government is the one way in which the transfer of power from one set of hands to another can be made without violence, misunderstanding and recrimination, and yet under conditions which are most likely to secure reasonably good government during the difficult period of transition. Parliament deliberately adopted this system, which has worked so well in other parts of the Commonwealth, in the Government of India Act of 1935, and I believe that the more our Indian friends study the operation of that system, the more they will find that the anxieties they now feel will be met by following in India a procedure which has been so excellent in its results all over the rest of the world.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, has asked me two Questions. The first is whether His Majesty's Government propose in future to refuse information by question and answer to Members of Parliament on matters relating to Provincial Government in India; and the second is, if so, on what grounds is such refusal based. I think I can best answer the noble Lord's Question by explaining the constitutional position as His Majesty's Government see it. It has already been done in clear terms by the noble Marquess who has just sat down, but let me repeat in my own words practically what the noble Marquess said. The salient feature of the new Constitution, so far as government in the Provinces of India is concerned, is surely the transfer of responsibility from the United Kingdom Parliament to popularly elected bodies in India itself. Under the Act of 1935 Parliament quite deliberately transferred that responsibility to these Indian Assemblies, and if the noble Lord will cast his mind back to the terms of the Instrument of Instructions to the Governors, he will recall that the Governors are specifically instructed, except in certain limited circumstances, about which I shall have something to say in a moment, to act upon the advice of their Ministers.

Very well now, as I have pointed out, those Ministers are responsible, not to Parliament in the United Kingdom but to the Indian Legislatures, and just as it is the right of the Indian Legislatures to challenge the policy and the administrative actions of the Indian Governments, so is it to those Assemblies that the Indian Ministers are answerable. It seems to me to follow necessarily from that that to the extent to which Parliament in this country has divested itself of responsibility for the government of the Provinces it has relinquished the right to hold inquests upon the Governments in the Indian Provinces by means of the machinery of question and answer in Parliament in this country. And indeed I have not the right to demand from the Provincial Governments in India the information which it would be necessary for me to have in order to answer questions which might be put to me, and if I were to demand that information the Indian Ministers would be perfectly within their rights in declining to supply it to me. That is a statement of the broad principle, but, of course, as we know, the principle is subject to certain qualifications. Parliament in this country has reserved to itself a potential measure of control in a certain limited and clearly defined sphere—namely, the sphere of the special responsibilities of the Governors, and since the Governors, when they are acting in respect of their special responsibilities, are responsible both for their acts of commission and for their acts of omission to Parliament in this country, I should naturally be prepared to answer any questions which bore upon the discharge by the Governors of their duties within that sphere.

If I may say so, I think that that answers the specific Questions which have been addressed to me by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd; but the noble Marquess opposite has carried this matter rather further and, as it seems to me, has raised a rather different question. The noble Marquess said that in the event of the special responsibilities of the Governor being involved, and in the event of no agreement between the Governors and the Ministers being reached upon the question at issue between them, the Governors would be responsible for the consequences of any action which they took. The Governors would be responsible for any action which they took to Parliament in this country through the Secretary of State, and no doubt the Governors therefore, for that very reason, would weigh very carefully the whole merits of the question before they decided to take action under their special responsibilities. But I do not think that I can quite gob with the noble Marquess, unless I misunderstood him, when he inferred that the Governors would be solely responsible for the consequences of the action which they had taken.


May I interrupt? I specifically said that the Ministry would be responsible for the consequences of tendering advice, and being unwilling to withdraw it in the event of the Governor being unable to accept it. But if the Governor, the Ministry having tendered that advice, and being unwilling to withdraw it, felt unable to accept that advice, that action, with all the consequences which would follow from it, would be his responsibility. It is a dual responsibility. Each side has a definite responsibility to quite different ultimate constituencies.


Then I think I agree with the noble Marquess. But the point I wanted to make is that, after all, it takes two people to make a quarrel and, using the word "responsibility" not so much in its technical sense—after all, I have dealt with it in its technical sense—but in its ordinary meaning of people being responsible for certain consequences of their action, I can well understand that the responsibility for a break might be as much the responsibility of the Ministers as of the Governors themselves, because the break might result from the insistence by the Ministers upon advice to the Governors which, if the Governors were to discharge their duty under their special responsibilities, they could not accept. In that sense it seems to me that the responsibility for the consequences would be certainly not exclusively the responsibility of the Governors. It would equally be the responsibility of the Ministers.

But the noble Marquess brought to your Lordships' attention still another matter. He referred to a suggestion which had recently been made by Mr. Gandhi and reported in the Press in this country. That suggestion, as I understand it, involves this, that if there is a serious difference of opinion between the Ministers and the Governor, where the Governor's special responsibilities are concerned, the Governors should dismiss or call for the resignation of their Ministers. I do not think it would be either wise or indeed in accordance with the intentions of Parliament to lay it down that in these circumstances the Governor must necessarily call for the resignation of his Ministers. If that had been the intention of Parliament, Parliament would have said so in the Act itself. I imagine that the last paragraph of the section of the Act which defines the Governor's position in so far as his special responsibilities are concerned would have been drafted in some such terms as these: If and in so far as any special responsibility of the Governor is involved, he shall, in the event of his being unable to accept the advice tendered to him by his Ministers, call on them to resign. But the last paragraph of that section is not drafted in those words at all. The actual words of the last paragraph of that section are as follows: If and in so far as any special responsibility of the Governor is involved, he shall, in the exercise of his functions, exercise his individual judgment as to the action to be taken. Why did Parliament lay down the duties of the Governor in those words? Surely because Parliament contemplated that even if the disagreement between the Ministers and the Governor on one particular matter was a serious one which they found themselves unable to bridge, it might very well be the fact that the Governor would wish, apart from that particular matter in which he would act on his own individual judgment, to retain his Ministers and accept the rest of their programme, and the Ministers themselves, though they might dissent from the Governor's action, might say, "We disagree here, but nevertheless we attach sufficient importance to the rest of our programme from which the Governor does not dissent to make it worth our while continuing in office." That surely is what Parliament contemplated when it drafted the last paragraph of that particular section in those words. Of course the Governor can always dismiss his Ministers and, equally of course, the Ministers can always resign; but surely it would be better to leave it both to the Governor to decide whether he desired to dismiss his Ministers and to the Ministers to decide whether they desired to resign, until the case arises. Then the circumstances will be apparent, and they will decide which course they desire to pursue, whether they desire to act upon their undoubted right to resign in the case of the Ministers or whether the Governor desires to act in his undoubted right to dismiss the Ministers if he thinks he ought to do so. I think it is much better to leave the matter open in that way rather than come to any sort of agreement that in any case in which there was a serious disagreement between the Ministers and the Governors in the circumstances which we have been considering the Governors should automatically have to dismiss their Ministers.

I have certainly travelled rather far away from the Question placed on the Order Paper by the noble Lord, but I was drawn astray by the speech of the noble Marquess. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, will realise that under the constitutional position as we understand it, it is not open to us to demand from the Ministers information to answer questions with regard to the ordinary administration of the Province; but that of course, wherever the Governor's special responsibility comes in, then we have every right to demand information and to give it in reply to any questions which may be put to us.


My Lords, the noble Marquess has made a speech which is both interesting and, up to a certain point, informative, but I hope he will forgive my saying that it does not clear up the whole position. It is very difficult to clear up the whole position because there is really no precedent for the Provincial Constitutions in India. It is idle, if I may say so, to cite precedents either from Ulster or, it may be, from any Australian State, because the position is an entirely new one. The noble Marquess opposite spoke of responsible government being transferred from the Government of this Parliament to the Indian Legislatures, but you cannot really say, if you analyse the Provincial Constitutions of India, that that transference has been made.

There was a certain ambiguity, I think, in what the noble Marquess representing the Government said when he spoke of special responsibilities. The Governor of a Province has many duties put upon him outside the section of the Act that deals with his special responsibilities. His special responsibilities are dealt with in Section 52, but that by no means exhausts his special powers. For example, under Section 57, he has special powers which he has to use at his discretion, marking the difference between that section and Section 52, where he has to use his individual judgment; and then, in Section 54, he has, it may be, to abandon his own judgment and follow instructions from the Governor-General. I presume there can be no question that the Governor-General might be criticised in this House or in another place for not issuing these instructions. There is not anything approaching responsible government at the Centre, and therefore I presume, as the Governor-General is responsible to the noble Marquess, and the noble Marquess to Parliament, it would be perfectly possible to ask why the Governor-General had not put that section into operation.

The matter is not exhausted there. There are, for instance, the reservations with regard to the police. The Provincial Governor is not bound to act only on his special responsibilities. He can do it under any circumstances. What I should like to ask, though in view of the difficulty and delicacy of the whole matter I do not expect an answer to-day, is whether questions may not be asked as to why not only the Governor-General but the Provincial Governors have not put into operation this, that, or the other power which is entrusted to them. Of course I do not want to contemplate such a thing, but there are the emergency powers in the Provincial Constitutions—Section 93, which provides for action in the case of a breakdown of the whole Constitution. That contemplates a situation in which Section 52 dealing with special responsibilities could not apply at all. I presume it would be in order, in a grave situation, for questions to be asked as to why that paragraph had not been put into operation. Therefore I do think that the noble Marquess has by no means exhausted the possibilities. I do not ask, and I do not even desire, an answer now, but I do ask him to consider this point before he commits himself to any proposition that would hamper the right of this Parliament which has set up the Indian Legislatures to make all reasonable inquiries of the responsible Governors, at arty rate, as to their action or, it may he, inaction with regard to the special powers given to them.


My Lords, a very admirable feature of the speech of the noble Marquess who represents the India Office is exactly this, that he did not commit himself too far in making comparisons. There is considerable similarity, more inevitably so than my noble friend who has just sat down has realised, between the position of a State Governor in Australia and the position of the Governor of a Province under the present Indian Constitution. Australian experience gives importance to one feature which has not been touched upon in this debate, which is that if a Governor does exercise his responsibilities he has to consider the possibility of having to call in an alternative Ministry, and to weigh all the obligations and probabilities arising therefrom. These change rapidly on the spot and the solution of them depends largely upon the precedents and the practice that have been set up by constitutional experiences in the past. The more that is left of discretion and authority to the judgment of the man on the spot the better is the probability of some Ministry co-operating, and it is a matter for congratulation that so little has been said on the subject that might retard assimilation with Australian practice.


My Lords, perhaps I might he allowed to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, to say that certainly I did not wish to suggest that it was only when the Governors' special responsibilities which are defined in Section 52 of the Act come into operation that information would be given to Parliament here. Of course information will be given to Parliament here in respect of any matter concerning which either the Governors or the Governor-General are responsible to Parliament—that is to say, whenever they are acting either in their discretion or in their individual judgment they will be acting in a way in which they will be liable to be challenged in Parliament here for their action.


Or failing to act.


I agree—or failing to act.


My Lords, I rise only to thank the noble Marquess for his reply. I think the speeches which have been made show that the brief answer that was given in another place needed a little elaboration. The complexity of the question is very great.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at two minutes past seven o'clock.