HL Deb 12 March 1940 vol 115 cc817-30

4.21 p.m.

LORD REA rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is proposed shortly to introduce a Bill to prolong the life of Parliament, and, if so, whether following the precedent of 1917, they will, at the same time, set up a Commission to examine the changes in the electoral system and the distribution of seats that may be required to ensure that the next Parliament shall effectively represent the opinion of all sections of the community; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I make no apology for bringing this Motion before your Lordships this afternoon, for, though its immediate bearing on the war is not perhaps obvious, it is closely connected with the peace that must follow. The next Parliament will have the responsibility of putting into office the Government that will settle the peace terms, and on it will depend the whole future of this country, if not indeed of the world. So it is important to look well ahead, and to try to arrange that the next Parliament shall be as far as possible truly representative, that it shall carry the full confidence of the country in what must be most difficult negotiations, and that at any rate we avoid, if we can, the mistakes of 1918 and 1919. It seems almost certain that we shall have to postpone the Election which is due next autumn for, even if we can hope to have the troops home again by then, there will be neither time nor opportunity to prepare a satisfactory register, and a mere postponement will not be sufficient; it might indeed land us in a situation of real danger. A snap Election under the stress of war emotions, as in 1918, would, as I think almost everyone now admits, be disastrous, but even a postponed one, under present conditions, would produce results that might be so ludicrously unfair that they would not be accepted as the real verdict of the people; and if that were so, the situation would indeed be dangerous.

Let me explain why I fear such a result. In the first place, since the last redistribution of seats there have been vast changes in the distribution of the population, so that, instead of each Member of Parliament representing approximately the same number of electors, some represent from six to seven times as many as others, for constituencies vary to-day from well under 30,000 to between 160,000 and 170,000 voters. It is a matter of pure geographical chance whether a vote ensures say an x share of a Member of Parliament or six times as much. But chance goes further than that; in large parts of the country it is certain that throughout the whole vast area candidates of only one colour will be elected. True, in another locality successful candidates are equally sure all to be of another colour; but that is not representation and cannot carry general assent to its being so.

Let me give one example. In the 1929 election (the last on Party lines) in Hertfordshire all five seats went to the Conservatives, though they polled a minority of votes and in Cornwall the Liberals won all five seats, though they were in a minority. And the position of both the other Parties in the Labour areas is too well known to need illustration. This is bad enough in its immediate result that large sections of the community are in fact unrepresented. But the ultimate effect is dangerous in a sense that is, I believe, not yet fully appreciated. In all these areas where the result is a foregone conclusion the minority Parties tend to cease to take an interest in politics and to regard elections—and so the form of Government—as a matter of no importance. That seems to me a grave danger for, when it happens, the road is open wide to dictatorship, to Nazism and Fascism, in fact to all that to-day we are lighting to the death to destroy.

The only sure foundation for democracy is a Government solidly founded on the expressed will of the people it represents, and that solid foundation will be needed more than ever in the near future, for not only will the next Government have to make the peace, which may not be too popular, but it will have to readjust the whole economy of the country to a peacetime basis; it will have to get the people back to productive work, and also to adjust the heavy burdens involved in meeting the cost of the war. To carry through these difficult tasks with the consent of the country, and so to avoid the risk of revolt, which indeed is not a negligible one, the Government must be really representative. My object in bringing forward this Motion to-day is to invite this Government to follow the precedent of 1917, and set up something on the lines of the Speaker's Conference of that year, to decide how these results can best be brought about. It will in no way diminish our war effort, for, as in 1917 (indeed more so) there are numbers of people with the necessary experience, both in and out of Parliament, who have plenty of time to give to such an inquiry, and Parliament itself is far from overburdened, so that there would be no difficulty in passing the necessary legislation.

I do not propose to-day to dogmatise and lay down the principles on which such legislation should be based. The Conference would no doubt inquire into all the various proposals for the alternative vote, proportional representation, and the various methods of redistribution. The Conference did so in 1917, and they produced a scheme which, if Parliament had had the wisdom to carry it out in its entirety, would have saved us a very great deal of our subsequent trouble. But to-day I think we may hope for a better result. Party politics, if they have not ceased to exist, have at least become far less bitter than they were at that time. There is to-day much more disposition to see the other point of view, to play fair, and to come to a reasonable arrangement. So we have a golden opportunity which may not recur, and that is my justification for bringing this Motion forward in your Lordships' House to-day. I shall no doubt be told that this is not our concern and that it is not for us to interpose in questions relating to the election of members of the other House. But that is an unfair criticism, for Parliament is a whole, and we are all concerned in maintaining its honour and its efficiency. Action must, of course, originate with the Government and in another place, but in this House there are many with long experience in the other House, and they are just as jealous for its reputation and its privileges as when they sat there themselves. I claim therefore that we are entitled at any rate to express our view on a subject which must come before us when legislation is introduced, and I go so far as to hope that we may to-day give a lead which, with Government approval, will set our Parliamentary institutions once more on those sure foundations of popular support and confidence without which they cannot survive. I beg to move.

4.29 p.m.


My Lords, we have no opinion on the matters which this Motion mentions. We are not sure whether any opinion that we might express would not be resented in another place. But there is one point I would like to touch upon. The noble Lord in his Motion speaks of steps that are necessary "to ensure that the next Parliament shall effectively represent the opinion of all sections of the community." "The next Parliament" implies your Lordships' House as well as another place, because this House is a portion of Parliament. If it is proposed that an inquiry should be set up as to how to make your Lordships' House representative, those of us on these Benches will give it our most cordial support.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise for speaking twice to-day, but the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Rea, is a very interesting one. With some points in his speech I heartily agree, and I shall tell your Lordships the reason why; but, on the other hand, he always brings into these discussions the question of proportional representation. It is rather like King Charles's head. I have heard him speak twice, and he always seems to speak on that subject. There are some important considerations which I hope I may for a short time bring to your Lordships' notice. It may be presumptuous in a member of this House to talk about the electorates of the other House, but there are some important matters that ought to be dealt with.

I do think something in the nature of a boundary commission should be set up to inquire into the number of voters that exist in certain constituencies. A great friend of mine represents at the present moment the Hendon Division of Middlesex. This gentleman represents no fewer than 165,000 electors. The average number laid down is about 30,000 to 50,000. Then there is the Romford Division of Essex with 168,000 electors. Fancy, 168,000! Then we get South-East Essex with 98,500, the Harrow Division of Middlesex with 130,000, Dartford with 120,000, Epsom with 106,000, and Mitcham with 92,000. I have been looking into the figures for Scotland, and I find that East Renfrew has 89,000 and West Renfrew 90,000. I do think that is extremely hard on the members who represent these constituencies because the expenses allowed for a division of 160,000 is about £3,300, and your Lordships can imagine it is very difficult to get anybody to spend that amount of money and also very wrong that anyone should have to bear that sort of expense. I think that portion of the electoral system requires careful consideration.

I should like to remind your Lordships that this has not been debated lately in another place, but it was debated in 1936 when the Member for Cathcart put forward a Motion. He was lucky enough to secure a place in the ballot, and this was his Motion: That, in view of the changed distribution of the electorate, the question of redistribution of seats shall receive the careful consideration of His Majesty's Government. I might tell your Lordships that that Motion passed without any dissent and was approved by the Government. It was then alleged, as can be alleged to-day, that a great many changes have taken place, due to the great housing schemes and the decanting of population from slum areas—which, thank goodness, do not now exist in anything like the same degree as they did—into other districts. There have been great movements of population, as everyone knows. Look at the population of Middlesex, how that has gone up by hundreds of thousands in recent years, with the natural corollary that the number of electors in the various constituencies has greatly increased. Since the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918 there has also been another factor because there was a change made in the electorate by the alteration of the franchise for women who, up to that date, were not allowed to vote unless they were over thirty years of age, to which of courses none of them ever confessed.

For these reasons, while I would not agree with the whole of the noble Lord's Motion, I consider he has rendered an important service in bringing this matter to the notice of your Lordships' House. It is really a scandal that so many of these divisions should be of such overwhelming dimensions, and in view of the fact that as long ago as 1936 another place unanimously passed a Motion agreeing that the present system was wrong, I hope His Majesty's Government will think fit to set up another commission or some such body—a boundary commission—to see whether they cannot get the dimensions of the constituencies more into consonance with modern requirements. I hope the Government, while perhaps not accepting in full this Motion, will give some satisfaction, especially to those members in the House of Commons who represent these very large and expensive constituencies, to which, not only on the ground of expense but also on account of their size, they do not feel they are able to do justice, and will give a favourable response to the very moderate Motion put forward by the noble Lord.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, His Majesty's Government are, of course, well aware of the necessity for considering this matter at no very distant date for the simple reason that the life of this Parliament automatically comes to an end in November next, but I am not in a position to-day to make any statement on the matter. As regards the second part of the noble Lord's question, I do not know that he was extremely encouraging in suggesting a reallocation of seats in order to escape the mistakes made in 1918–19 for, after all, the Representation of the People Act was passed at the beginning of 1918 and therefore the subsequent Election took place on the new register, so if mistakes were made then, it was after redistribution, not before it.


What I said was that if the Parliament of 1918 had had the sense to carry through the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference, we should have been saved a great many mistakes. It so happened that some of the most important recommendations were rejected in another place, and to that extent the Act of Parliament was much less valuable than the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference.


I am sorry I misunderstood the noble Lord. I understood him to say that redistribution had gone wrong. I am not going to be led into discussing either the representation of your Lordships' House or proportional representation, although, in point of fact, I happen to have my own personal view on both these questions. But I would like to point out to your Lordships that the precedent of 1917 does not necessarily apply now. Quite apart from the argu[...] ments we have heard from the noble Lord opposite (Lord Rea) and my noble friend behind me (Lord Jessel), your Lordships will remember that there has been a very big scheme of evacuation carried out during the present war which did not take place in the last war. I am not talking about the evacuation of children, but the other evacuation that has taken place. The fact remains that a very large number of our big cities have lost a part of their inhabitants, and whether Belgravia is to have a constituency of its own or to be swallowed up in another I do not know, and no one can say. Nor can one say whether eventually these people will come back if the war goes on for some time. They may realise the attractions of the country, and may desire to stop there.

Quite apart from that, heavy taxation will very likely cause a number of people to move into smaller houses, perhaps in another part of London, and in other cases to give up their London houses altogether and live in the country. No one can say at this moment what will be the effect ultimately of the movements of population that have recently taken place, but the arguments that have been put forward will be considered by the Government when they come to consider the question of introducing a Bill to extend the life of Parliament. I am afraid that at this moment I am not in a position to say more.

4.42 p.m.


My Lords, I feel bound to say the reply from the Government Bench is a disappointing one. I think the public in general would wish to know where we stand in this matter, and there was a general anticipation that to-day the Government would be in a position at all events to give some general indication as to their proposals with regard to extending the life of the present Parliament. I think there is almost if not quite universal agreement that during the war it will not be expedient, or indeed seemly, to hold a General Election, unless indeed some complete change were to take place in the political situation. To hold a General Election in war-time would inevitably revive Party controversies and introduce currents that would be inimical to the successful and united prosecution of the war, and as in the minds of all of us that is the one thing that now supremely matters, anything that would be likely to detract from the prosecution of the war would, for that reason alone, have to be rejected. But the inquiry that my noble friend suggests should take place now, as it took place in 1917, would be of a different order. It would be an attempt among a selected small number of people to try to arrive at agreement on some outstanding political issues as well as to prepare the way for a redistribution of seats.

I do not think that the noble Earl who has just spoken realised—apparently from his observations he did not realise—how essential it will be to have a redistribution of seats before a General Election is held, and how necessary it is that this should be taken in hand well in advance; for a redistribution takes time. It may be that the war might come to an end quite suddenly and there might be a general demand for an early General Election, seeing that the present Parliament might already have outlived its natural life. You would have a General Election then on the existing arrangement of constituencies, which everyone would at once say was a gross abuse. When you have cases such as those mentioned by the noble Lord opposite (Lord Jessel) of a constituency of 168,000 electors and many others of over 100,000, it is obvious why it is essential that there should be a redistribution of seats. It is twenty-two years since the last redistribution took place, and enormous movements of population have occurred since. The noble Earl says there has been evacuation of some sections of the population. That is so, but after all that is quite a minor consideration, and it would be well to set on foot at all events the machinery for a redistribution of seats, leaving, as is always done, to a sort of last moment adjustment by a boundary commission the precise constituencies that would be allocated.

Always the redistribution takes place in two stages. There is first an Act of Parliament, which lays down the general principles, and then there is an impartial boundary commission which is appointed to apply them. My submission is that we ought now, well in advance to pass an Act of Parliament and lay down the principles and leave the comparatively minor and shorter tasks of fixing precisely the particular boundaries of the individual constituencies to perhaps the last moment. It may be that the evacuation will be counter-balanced by a certain return of most of the people, or many of the people concerned. But apart from redistribution, there are the wider issues to which my noble friend referred, and which were considered by the Lowther Conference in 1917–18. The Report of that Conference enabled many ancient controversies, in which all of us had taken part for many years, to be adjusted by general agreement, and a measure to pass through Parliament almost with unanimity which disposed of many matters that for a whole generation had been the subject of very lively combat between the different Parties; and it may be again that there would be a reconciliation of opinions and that this period of happy domestic harmony, which is the outcome of the international turmoil, would be used as an occasion when further advance might be made towards a solution of this question.

With respect to Parliamentary representation, in particular, the Lowther Conference made certain recommendations which were not carried into effect. I agree with my noble friend behind me in thinking that, if they had been, the course of political events in this country would have been modified in the years that have since elapsed, and that very greatly for the better in the national interest. This is a matter in which your Lordships' House has always shown a more progressive spirit than the representative Chamber, and as one who believes in the principles of democracy, I am glad to pay that tribute to your Lordships' House, with whose actions in past times I often have found myself in sharp disagreement. Here, at all events, your Lordships have shown yourselves to be in advance of the other Chamber, and I would only wish that the views that have been repeatedly expressed here and put into the necessary form in various Bills could now be carried into full effect and reach the Statute Book.

I much regret that the Government are not prepared to take the step advocated by my noble friend. It would not interfere with the war effort because, as he has said, there are many people in both Houses of Parliament who are not fully occupied with war affairs, and who could perform with great efficiency the particular duty that is now adumbrated; indeed in both Houses there are many who com- plain bitterly that their activities are not sufficiently availed of. Normal legislation is suspended, and the war legislation passes through without controversy. Both Houses at the present time may be said to be underworked. This is a matter to which they might very usefully devote their attention. The Government, however, are not proposing to take any action they say at the present time, and it may be that later on—"sooner or later, perhaps," in the words of Lord Zetland—they will take action. There is, I am afraid in this case, as I am bound to say in certain others, a lack of enterprise and a lethargy which prevails in Government circles that is greatly to be regretted. They continually find reasons why not to do something when with a little more activity of mind they would find ample reasons why it should be done. This is certainly an example of that kind. I can only repeat that I deplore the answer that has been given and I hope that the time when the Government will reconsider their decision will not be far distant.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount who has just sat down deplored the answer given by the noble Earl the Leader of the House. Personally I applaud 95 per cent. of what fell from the noble Earl. The noble Viscount seemed to think that evacuation is not going to have any effect on the people of this country, but a great many of those who have settled in the country districts may not return to overcrowd the cities. The Government have been most assiduous in passing legislation to encourage agriculture. The more we get people to go into the country and take an interest in agriculture, the better it will be for this country. It is impossible to forecast what will be the condition of the population of this country when we have obtained peace, still less is it possible to forecast what is going to happen in the months succeeding the signing of peace. In the years 1919 to 1921 a great many things happened which we did not expect to happen, just as some things which we expected last September did not occur. If any Government set out to lay down now what is to happen after the war, they would probably find themselves to be even more in error than in 1918.

It must be remembered that this war, although we hope it will not last so long as the last war, is a very much more expensive war. People will have less money to live on and therefore will have to alter their ways of life, and it is the general opinion that it is rather cheaper to live in the country than to live in the town. One cannot foresee where people are going to settle, and therefore you cannot settle the election of the next Parliament or the next Parliament but one. We do not want any repetition of the 1918 Election which resulted in a Parliament as unrepresentative as it could be. There is a very interesting phrase in the Motion before the House. It says that the next Parliament should "effectively represent the opinions of all sections of the community." I think that should also include all interests of the community. If, as is suggested this afternoon, we are going to allocate more members to those constituencies which have a very large population, or had a very large population say last year, what is going to happen to the country districts from which many of those people come? Are you not going to have agriculture represented? Are you not going to have science represented? Are you not going to have many other interests represented, not necessarily by numbers of people in a certain district? You want every interest in the country represented in Parliament. I have mentioned agriculture because it is the industry in which I am most interested. Agriculture could get very little voice in Parliament until recently because so few members represented agriculture in another place. If this House managed agricultural affairs, we should do much better in agriculture because a great many of your Lordships have agriculture as your main interest and your main knowledge. If any commission is going to be appointed it should take into consideration the interests which affect the whole country and which ought to be represented if we are to have a more representative Parliament than we have at the present time.

I did not intend when I came down from Scotland yesterday to take part in this debate to-day, but when I read the terms of the Motion I felt that other methods ought to be examined before any change is made in regard to the redistribution of seats or the rearrangement of representation in Parliament. None of us know where we are at the present time. If the Prime Minister were asked when the war was going to end he would not know. Until we can see some definite sign of peace you cannot tell what your areas of representation are going to be. Personally I hope that the housing difficulty in the towns is going to be largely solved by many of those who have gone into the country not coming back. On the other hand that would increase the problem of housing in the country districts. A great deal has been done in the provision of houses for agricultural workers, but still more will be required to be done if some of the people who have learned that the country is a nicer place in which to live than a town decide to stop there. There will be difficulties in regard to drainage and water supply and so forth. Until the country has a chance of settling down, we cannot settle how to make Parliament more representative than it is, and we shall never settle down until we know whether we can get an enduring peace. No one can say at the present time with whom we are going to negotiate in Germany. We cannot negotiate with the present rulers there because their word is worthless. I think the noble Earl the Leader of the House gave very good reasons why we cannot do much on this subject at the present time.

4.59 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry that the drafting of my Motion was not sufficiently precise to meet with the noble Marquess's approval. Perhaps it would have been better if I had put in the words "as far as possible." If, as the noble Marquess says, agriculture is insufficiently represented in another place, he may find consolation in reflecting that it is most competently and quite adequately represented in your Lordships' House. These things have a way of evening out. I must confess I am profoundly disappointed with the speech of the noble Earl but, as my noble friend in front of me said, this Government is sometimes susceptible to pressure. We have had the opportunity of ventilating the subject this afternoon and it has attracted some interest in the Press. That may have a little influence on the future action of the Government, especially as the noble Lord, Lord Jessel, opposite has to a considerable extent agreed with the remarks I put forward—at any rate he agrees with such of them as suit himself!

The redistribution appears to merit his entire approval, but when I put forward a plea that there should be a consideration of some small measure of proportional representation, which might conceivably work to the advantage of my Party against his, I observed that he was much less enthusiastic. Might I point out, however, that the Speaker's Conference in 1917 only put forward a very moderate measure of proportional representation, to be applied to certain constituencies to some extent to leaven the lump, and only as an experiment? I ask for no more than that; indeed, all I am asking for is that we should take advantage of the spirit of compromise which we all agree most reasonably exists to-day, to see if we cannot dispense with some of these controversies and ensure that the next Parliament, which will have a very difficult and dangerous task to perform, shall have the complete confidence of the country behind it. For these reasons I feel that this Motion this afternoon, even if it has not merited the entire approval of the Government, has perhaps served a useful purpose. The Motion having served[...] that purpose, I would ask your Lordships' leave to withdraw it.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.