HL Deb 24 August 1939 vol 114 cc895-903

Brought from the Commons and read 1a.

Then Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended:

9.30 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Those of your Lordships who remember the Defence of the Realm Bill which passed without discussion both Houses of Parliament on August 7, 1914, will remember that it contained a general power to issue regulations "for securing the public safety and the defence of the realm," in particular "to prevent persons communicating with the enemy," and to secure the safety of any means of communication of railways, docks and harbours. This was followed by an amending Bill on the 26th of the same month. Then these two Acts were consolidated with amendments three months later. There was a further amending Bill in February, 1915, and another in March of that year, and a further one in 1916. Both this Government and its predecessors have profited by the experience of the years 1914–18 in considering what should be in a Defence of the Realm Bill should one ever be required, and we came to the conclusion that it was advisable to be more explicit in this Bill than in the first Bill of 1914.

Hence the phrases in Clause 1, in which your Lordships will see under subsection (1) that in addition to the measures considered necessary or expedient for securing the public safety and the defence of the realm, there have also been added the maintenance of public order and the efficient prosecution of any war in which His Majesty may be engaged, and also for maintaining the supplies and services essential to the life of the community. Your Lordships will also see that in subsection (2) under paragraph (a) there is provision for the apprehension, trial and punishment of persons offending against the regulations. Now the wider terms of this Bill do not in fact grant to the Executive any greater powers than they were able to obtain under the Act of 1914, but what has happened is that the Government felt it right that in this Bill they should make these matters explicit instead of implicit.

Your Lordships will see that the powers which the Executive can undertake under this Bill are very wide indeed, but may point out some of the things which the Executive cannot do? In the first place under Clause 1 (2) (b), the Government are authorised to take possession or control of land, but such requisitioning shall not affect its ownership as regards any interest or estate in such land. Further down in subsection (5), an extremely important subsection, your Lordships will see that it is definitely laid down that there shall be no regulation which might be thought to impose industrial conscription, or that any civilian should be made subject to trial by Court-Martial, and it also expressly excludes any extension of compulsory military service for any of the three Fighting Services. Your Lordships will realise, therefore, that what is broadly called labour questions are excluded from the scope of these regulations.

Generally, the intention of the Government is to divide the regulations into two parts—those that it may be thought advisable to introduce before any outbreak of hostilities, and those that may be required if, unfortunately, war should ensue. I am sure your Lordships will agree that there are many matters which it is only right the Government should have power to deal with forthwith, such as the control of lighting, billeting powers if schemes of evacuation have to be brought into operation, Control of navigation and prevention of the transfer of British ships to foreigners. Similarly financial regulations may also be found necessary, and also some control of industry to secure the production of essential goods and to control prices. I will not try to give your Lordships by any means a catalogue of all these regulations, but what I have stated is only to give your Lordships a very general idea. On the other hand there is no intention whatever of introducing any regulation unless war should occur which will deal with the liberty of the subject or with the liberty of the Press.

Now, turning to the further clauses of the Bill, your Lordships will see that Clause 2 enables fees to be charged for licences. I understand that in the War of 1914–18 fees were charged for licences and sometimes the fees were considerable. There was a subsidy for wheat, and those bakers who were allowed to use flour for other purposes than for making bread had to pay a licence to do so, and the charge for that licence was such that it practically paid for the subsidy. After the War that policy was challenged in the Courts, and was successfully challenged, with the result that eventually the War Charges Validation Act, 1925, was passed in order to put the matter back to what Parliament had intended. Clause 2, we hope, will enable these fees to be charged for licences and similar procedure to be adopted without its being challenged in the Courts.

As regards Clause 3, this enables regulations to be made controlling ships and aircraft outside the United Kingdom, and the activities of persons outside the United Kingdom, and to create offences in respect of contravention of those regulations which will be punishable in this country. Subsection 1 (a) defines the ships and aircraft which may be controlled outside the United Kingdom. These are all British ships and aircraft, except those registered in the self-governing Dominions and in any of their dependent territories, and also the ships controlled from India or Burma, and aircraft controlled in India, Burma and Southern Rhodesia. Paragraph (b) may perhaps not seem very clear to your Lordships. That defines the persons whose activities may be controlled outside the United Kingdom, but if they are in those countries under (b) (i), (ii), (iii), (iv), then they do not come under United Kingdom law for the reason that they will then be liable to the local law of those particular countries—either the Dominion or Protectorate or whatever the case may be.

Clause 4 (1) follows the usual form whereby the appropriate provisions of the Bill can be extended to, and thus made part of the law of, the British Dependencies. Subsection (2) enables arrangements to be made whereby an offender against the defence laws of the United Kingdom or any part of the Colonial Empire can be tried anywhere in the Colonial Empire or in the United Kingdom. Clause 5 is designed to put it beyond doubt that the defence legislation of Australia and New Zealand can control activities occurring outside those Dominions in relation to ships and aircraft registered there. This is necessary for the reason that those two Dominions have not adopted the Statute of Westminster, 1931. Subsections (2) and (3) of this clause make similar provision en- larging the legislative powers of India, Burma and Southern Rhodesia.

Clause 6 enables Courts to hear cases in camera where that is considered necessary. Clause 7 is merely formal. Clause 8 is an important clause, particularly subsection (2), because all these regulations have to be laid before both Houses of Parliament, and either House can challenge any of them within twenty-eight sitting days of their introduction, and if either House moves that a regulation shall be annulled that thereupon takes effect. Clause 11 provides that the Act shall only last for one year, but under the proviso that His Majesty's Government may present an Address to His Majesty from both Houses of Parliament that the Act shall be extended for a further year. By subsection (2) at any time the Act can be brought to an end if it is thought that the emergency which has necessitated this Bill no longer exists. I trust that your Lordships will be prepared to give the Bill a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. (Earl Stanhope.)

9.44 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Snell has asked me to apologise to the noble Earl for his absence. He is broadcasting at this moment to the United States—an old arrangement. My noble friend Lord Addison, who knows a very great deal about this subject, and indeed is the father of the ill-fated Dora, has considered it more delicate to absent himself. I do not know whether part of the parentage is claimed by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, but I am sure he will be very glad of an alibi and take advantage of the absence of Lord Addison for the purpose. The first observation I would make is with reference to the Title. If this Bill comes into operation it will be known by some short initials. I suppose it may be known as E.P.D. Well, that happened to be the short title of an ill-fated tax which was not very popular—the Excess Profits Duty. On the other hand "Defence" may be dropped, and it may be called "E.P.", but I suggest that the Title is not altogether a happy one in any case.

The Party for whom I have the honour to speak consider that twelve months is too long a period, and I am sorry the Government have not seen fit in another place to accept our Amendment to reduce it to six months, with, of course, the proviso that it could be extended by a prayer, as already laid down in Clause 11. We think that one mistake is being made with regard to Clause 8 (2), to which the noble Earl, in his very lucid explanation, drew particular attention, providing that either House can only annul these orders; the mistake that was made under Dora—and this has been impressed on me by my noble friend Lord Addison—is that there were no powers to amend the regulations. We seem to be making the same mistake again.

Generally speaking, we are very anxious as a Party that Parliamentary control should be maintained as far as possible. If the worst happens and we embark on a great war we do not wish to adopt totalitarian methods more than is absolutely necessary. We wish to maintain democracy as far as it can be made to function under those conditions of emergency, and we shall watch the regulations with a careful eye when they appear. I understand, from what the noble Earl says, that industrial disputes are to be dealt with by existing machinery, and do not come under this Bill. I am given to understand that the Trades Union Congress have been in treaty with the Government on this particular subject, and are satisfied that the rights of their members are safeguarded. We welcome that very much on this side of the House. It removes many of our otherwise inevitable suspicions. The noble Earl did not mention one necessary regulation, and that is for the control of exports of certain important materials. I understand that that is contemplated at once, and we want to support that particularly on this side of the House. Indeed we go further, and think that the control of exports of certain important materials needed in this country—and we mentioned this months ago in your Lordships' House—should have been put into force a long time ago. This part of the Bill we consider belated. My noble friends have asked me to say that we offer no resistance to the Bill, and we will do all we can to expedite its passage into law, with the hope that most of it will not be needed.

9.49 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Crewe, who is not able to be present, has asked me to say a few words on this measure on behalf of the noble Lords who sit on these Benches. We think that the Government have been wise to introduce at this moment a really comprehensive Bill. They have been able, as the noble Earl has said, to act with experience derived during the course of the Great War, when several measures had to be passed from time to time—for one of which I happened to have been myself responsible—as the War proceeded, and as the requirements of the times were made clear. This Bill from the outset takes very comprehensive powers indeed. As to its Title, based upon initials, with regard to which Lord Strabolgi made some observations, I fear that the old and only too familiar name of Dora is likely to be revived.

The Bill is exceedingly drastic in its character. The most drastic of all its provisions is paragraph (d) of Clause 1 (2), which provides that the Government by regulation may amend any existing Act of Parliament, or may suspend its operation. That is what is, in effect, the general dispensing power which was at one time the subject of grave constitutional issues in this country. So far as Liberals are concerned, in ordinary times we should of course fight a Bill such as this clause by clause and line by line, if, indeed, any Government of any Party should ever dream of introducing a measure even remotely resembling this Bill. But these are not ordinary times. We live in times of great peril, and Liberal democracy is wise to be ready in times of great emergency and peril to allow the most drastic and comprehensive powers to the Government of the day. We have noticed the downfall of democracy in other countries, and it cannot be denied that it has been largely due to the fault of the democratic authorities themselves in that they were not able in times of emergency and danger to achieve domestic unity, and were not willing to concede sufficiently large powers to their Executives. If free Government is to mean weak Government, then freedom indeed is doomed, but in this country I think we have always been wise enough in times of danger to grant to the Government of the day, whatever its Party character might be, powers adequate to meet the needs of the times.

This Bill, wide as it is, is not altogether unlimited in its provisions. I have been assured that it does not confer any powers on the Government additional to those which were found necessary during the course of the Great War. Furthermore, as the noble Earl has said, there will be no limitation on expressions of opinion, no censorship of the Press or anything of the kind, unless hostilities actually break out, and moreover, the Bill confers no powers in the nature of industrial conscription. Even a dispute such as that now threatened in the railway industry is to be dealt with under the ordinary law, if it can be dealt with at all, and we must rely, as I believe we shall be able to rely, on the sense of patriotic duty of the men concerned not to expose the country to not merely the discomforts but the dangers which a railway stoppage would involve.

I am very glad that the Bill is limited in its operation to one year, with power to the Government to bring about its termination at an earlier date and power to the two Houses of Parliament to extend it beyond the period of one year. If the Bill itself is drastic in the width of its powers, the procedure that is being adopted in Parliament to-day is drastic with regard to the narrowness and limitation of our discussion. The Legislature has consented, in effect, to forgo any detailed examination at all of this almost unprecedented Bill. In a single day, really in a few hours, both Houses of Parliament are consenting to pass this measure. It is only because of the extreme urgency of the moment that Parliament is justified in abrogating its duties as a Legislature, but at all events we can show to-day that a democratic Parliament is able to act swiftly and efficiently when the occasion requires and, so far from hampering the Executive in the exercise of its duties on behalf of the nation, is able by its own celerity to fortify the Government of the day.

9.54 p.m.


My Lords, I have not the least surprise at the support which I have received both from the noble Lord who spoke on behalf of the Labour Party and the noble Viscount who spoke on behalf of the Liberal Party. One knows that when it comes to a question of danger to the country, Party politics disappear and everybody is ready to support the Government whatever that Government may be. I can only say as regards the remarks of the noble Viscount that I should indeed have felt surprised to find myself at this box on any other occasion than one such as this to propose a Bill of this character. It is only for that reason that your Lordships are prepared to accept it at all.

As regards the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, in regard to the amendment of regulations, may I remind him that when there is a debate on regulations it is not like a debate on a Bill? There is only one stage and therefore if amendments were made it might very possibly happen that a regulation was so amended that it would be found when put into operation to be unworkable or from the legal point of view impossible. When that happens in the case of a Bill there are opportunities of putting the matter right. When a Bill has been amended in Committee, there is a Report stage and Third Reading, and when the Bill goes to the other House of Parliament, whichever deals with it second, there is a further opportunity of putting matters right if anything wrong has been done in the first House. That does not happen in regard to regulations, because regulations are not sent from one House to the other. If a regulation were amended in one House, it would have to be accepted in that amended form in the other House or the matter drops. There is only one way of dealing with the matter and that is the way in which the Government dealt with it during the Great War. If the House feels that a regulation is wrong it can reject it, making it clear in what form it would desire to have the regulation. Then the Government can bring in a new regulation to try and deal with the matter in the way the House desires, after having consulted its own officers and the Law Officers of the Crown in order to put the matter into proper form. Your Lordships will see, I think, that that is really a better way of dealing with the matter than that the House should amend a regulation, because then there might possibly arise a chaotic situation as one House might pass a regulation in one form and the other House in another form. I hope that the noble Lord will see that the way I have described is the better way.


May I ask whether that means when regulations come before us that we can, for example, move, if we so desire, to reject No. 19 or No. 27, or must we reject the whole block of regulations? Can we pick out one and reject it?


Either House has the right to reject a single regulation without rejecting the whole lot. To reject them all would lead to chaos. At any moment new regulations can be proposed in addition to those now thought of, and either House can reject a regulation or say it wants it in another form. The House can deal with any single regulation without dealing with all the others. May I also refer to the question of dealing with such matters as strikes, dilution of labour and so on? I tried to make it clear that all these matters were entirely outside these regulations. As the noble Viscount pointed out, such questions as a possible railway strike would be entirely outside defence regulations altogether, but as he said, I do not think any one of us has any doubt that when the matter is put to the locomotive drivers their patriotism and loyalty would be such that, if they felt the situation required it, they would be the first to see that a strike at this moment would be out of the question. I thank your Lordships again for the support that has been given to the Government.

On Question, Bill read 2a; Committee negatived.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Earl Stanhope.)

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.