HL Deb 05 November 1940 vol 117 cc577-84

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I move the Second Reading of this Bill. As your Lordships see, the enacting words of the Bill cover only three lines of print. That is an illustration of how large a matter may be contained in a very limited space. The operation of the Bill both constitutionally and practically is, of course, of the greatest importance. Constitutionally there can hardly be a more remarkable proof of the legislative omnipotence of Parliament than that it should be able by ordinary process of law to extend the period of its own life and to provide that members of the House of Commons, who are elected at most for five years, should continue as Members of Parliament in a Parliament which may last for six years. That has been done before, notably in the case of the Septennial Act in the early days of George I. The Septennial Act, as your Lordships recall, was passed in a Parliament which itself was constituted to have a maximum life of three years. It is, I believe, one of our real advantages, owing to the fact that we have no formal written Constitution, that in a time of emergency such a result can be achieved by the ordinary processes of legislation. I recall that Professor Dicey describes the Septennial Act as "at once the result and a standing proof of Parliamentary sovereignty."

Practically speaking, if I may turn to that aspect for one moment, the need for the present enactment must be manifest to us all, and I do not anticipate that any objection will be raised to it in any quarter. Our friends in the United States are indulging at this moment in the carrying through of a hotly-contested Presidential Election in their own country, but everybody will realise how in this country, when the thoughts and energies of every one of us are continually occupied in a struggle upon which depends the future of British freedom, we cannot afford to exhaust curselves in the domestic strife of a General Election. And yet, unless this Bill is passed, a General Election would inevitably be upon us in a few weeks for, as matters stand at this moment, the maximum life of the present Parliament must come to an end on November 25. We propose, therefore, to follow the precedent of the last war, when the life of the then existing Parliament was first extended by one year by the Act of 1916. I should perhaps add that the successive Acts carried during the last war for the purpose of prolonging the life of the then Parliament, dealt also with the question of the registration of electors. I should point out that that is unnecessary in the present case as these matters have been already dealt with separately by the Local Elections and Registration of Electors (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1939. It is, I think, desirable to keep these subjects separate and the explanation why we do not provide for the difficulties of a new register in the present Bill will be plain from what I have said.

Finally, I must repeat the statement which was made on behalf of the Government in another place when this Bill was being considered. I am able to inform your Lordships, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, that when a General Election becomes practicable—which I think we shall agree cannot possibly be until the close of the present war and probably some time after—it is the intention to give sufficient notice for the creation of a new register, and the interval which must elapse before the then expiring Parliament comes to a close will also afford an opportunity for Parliament to consider if it so desires questions connected with changes in our electoral system. That declaration, which was carefully framed with the authority of the Cabinet, is designed to make plain that these questions are left open for further consideration, if need be. That justifies the simplicity of the present Bill, which does nothing more than enact, as your Lordships see, that in place of the maximum life of the present Parliament being five years, as it would be under the terms of the Parliament Act, six years is substituted for five. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, I know there is not a disposition in any quarter to question the necessity of this Bill and I will make only one or two observations in connection with it. It is obviously necessary now that this Bill should be passed because, on account of the diffi- culties of registration and other difficulties connected with the enormous displacement of population, it would be a practical impossibility to hold an Election just now, apart from the reasons connected with the war itself and the necessity for the non-diversion of our mental and physical energies from war ends. At the same time I would like to put a note of interrogation at the end of one sentence used by the noble and learned Viscount. I gathered that he said he did not think it would be possible to hold an Election at all until the close of the war. We none of us know how long the war will go on, and I do not think we should accept the proposition that it would not be possible to hold an Election during the war. It may be necessary to do so. We must not forget that we are fighting for the maintenance of democratic institutions, and therefore we do not necessarily agree that they must be put into cold storage during the time of the conference. Nevertheless I agree that in existing circumstances we should accept this Bill.


My Lords, I feel sure that all your Lordships will agree that the country would not wish to contemplate a General Election at the present time. Therefore your Lordships will be very ready to pass this Bill which has already passed the other House. There is no great issue for the country now to determine. Our political unity on the one question that commands the attention of all of us and of Europe and of the world is happily solid and complete. That is our strength. We see in France the results of a lack of such unity and it is the underlying disagreement within the public opinion of Germany and of Italy, although now concealed, which will ultimately develop and which will probably decide the fortunes of the war. Therefore if there were to be an Election held now there would be no real issue before the people and in all probability there would have to be an agreement between the Parties as now prevails at by-elections to avoid contests. The consequence of that would be that a General Election would have to return practically the same House of Commons as now. There would, however, be this difference, that the same old Parliament would be given the status of a new one, and the present artificial conditions would have their effect during a period of perhaps four or five years. That would not really be to strengthen the control of the people over Parliament, but in effect would be detrimental to it.

If, on the other hand, there were to be contests in a number of constituencies, then candidates fighting against one another for the support of the electorate would be bound to emphasize and perhaps exaggerate differences, probably on subordinate and ephemeral questions, and the new Parliament, so far as it was elected by contests, would be elected on those secondary issues. That might perhaps result in a House of Commons being elected which would not reflect the permanent desires of the electorate. Furthermore, such contests, if they took place, could not but have an effect upon the cohesion of the Government which consists of men of various Parties; and it would be difficult for them to continue sitting side by side in Cabinet or inter-departmental conferences while their political followers were fighting for their electoral lives, particularly now that the present Prime Minister has accepted the chairmanship of one of the great Parliamentary Parties—a decision which I am bound to say that in present circumstances I regret.

There are also the minor considerations which have been incidentally mentioned by the noble Lord who has just spoken and by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack—that large parts of the population are away from their ordinary homes, that there is no recent register and that there are difficulties with regard to the black-out and political meetings which would greatly detract from the effectiveness of any General Election. Those, however, are only minor considerations; the main one is that to which I have previously referred. It leads to the clear conclusion that the Election should be postponed and that this Bill should be passed. But let us remember that this is a very grave matter, and ought not to be dealt with by Parliament in any light-hearted spirit or as though it were a mere matter of routine. Probably no other Constitution in the world could permit such a procedure; and it is, as the noble and learned Lord Chancellor has said, one of the great advantages of the absence of a written Constitution that our forms are elastic and that we are able to meet the clear exigencies of a situation such as this without any extra-constitutional action such as would be needed in some other countries. It should be realised and placed on record, however, that Parliament passes this Bill only because of the clear necessity for it and because there is substantial agreement on the matter both in Parliament and in the country.

I notice that the Home Secretary, in introducing this Bill in another place, said that the life of this Parliament would be continued until November 25, 1941. A leading ex-Minister, speaking in another House, said in effect that if this Bill were passed there would be no possibility of a General Election for the duration of the Act. That, of course, is not so; this Bill permits this Parliament to continue for another year, but does not require it to be so continued. There may be a Dissolution within the year and, if the war should end, if the collapse in Germany should occur earlier than now seems probable, certainly a General Election might be required within the twelve months and would obviously be fully legal.

When it does come, certain contingencies have to be envisaged to which reference has been made by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack. There have been two discussions in this House of recent years, both of them initiated by my noble friend Lord Rea, one on May 4, 1938, and the other on March 12 of this year, in which we debated questions of electoral reform and of redistribution in connection with a General Election. Now, redistribution has not been mentioned to-day, but it is a very important matter in this connection. The last distribution of seats was twenty-two years ago, in 1918. Since then, there have been great changes in the distribution of the population, and the noble Lord, Lord Jessel, who took part in those debates to which I have referred, mentioned several striking instances. In one constituency there are now 168,000 electors who elect one Member, and in other constituencies there are over 100,000. What is to happen with regard to that before the General Election takes place?

The noble and learned Viscount, in introducing this Bill, has stated the proposals of the Government. They would be to allow an interval to elapse after the end of the war and before the General Election took place, in which a new register would be drawn up and furthermore, apparently, matters of electoral reform considered. I did not hear the word "redistribution" used, though it is of great importance in this issue; but I Was glad to note that the Lord Chancellor's statement of the proposals of the Government differed somewhat from that made by the Home Secretary and was of a more definite character. That of the Home Secretary was extremely guarded. I think that I shall be in order in quoting it, because it was in the nature of a Ministerial statement. He said: No one can foresee what circumstances will arise, but in normal conditions it will be the desire of His Majesty's Government, when a General Election again becomes practicable, to give sufficient notice for the creation of a new register, and this interval would also afford an opportunity for the House to consider, if it so desired, questions connected with changes of our electoral system. The Lord Chancellor, I was glad to see, was much more specific; he used the word "intention" instead of "desire," and omitted the qualifying words. I think we can take it, therefore, that when the war is over there will in fact be an interval during which questions of electoral reform can be considered, and presumably also questions of redistribution. Your Lordship's House has taken, if I may say so, a more progressive view on the question of electoral reform than the other House, and has frequently passed proposals which would be acceptable to those who sit on these Benches, but which have not yet become law. The Liberal Party, I think I may say, would certainly be prepared to participate now in any conference of Parties in order to endeavour to achieve agreement on these matters before the war ends and another General Election takes place; but, if the other Parties are not prepared to do so, obviously no such steps can be taken.

I would, in conclusion, emphasize the great need for an adequate interval after the war and before the General Election takes place in which these matters may be considered, and which will give the nation time to collect itself and to reflect upon broad political issues. We ought not to repeat the scandal of 1918, when a General Election took place three weeks after the Armistice and when a Parliament was elected under the stress of emotion and excitement which sat for four years, leading to some unhappy results and ending in a period of confusion which resulted in three General Elections being held in three successive years—1922, 1923 and 1924. I trust, therefore, that an interval for reflection will be allowed to the people when the war is over and before they are called upon to choose a Parliament which will have to deal with matters of fundamental and lasting importance, perhaps over a period of several years.


My Lords, I will just add one or two words at the end of the debate, first to say that, as I had expected, I am happy to find there is no difference of opinion that the Bill should be passed. I am glad my noble friend who has just made so effective a speech did not convict me of the error of saying that this Bill necessarily carried on the life of this Parliament to a particular date next year. We none of us know how long we shall live, whether individuals or institutions, and of course there always remains the Prerogative power to dissolve Parliament. The effect of this and of similar Bills is merely to enact that the maximum life which Parliament can live shall be that laid down in the Statute.

I must be careful to make it plain that I had no intention in my remarks of departing at all from the declaration which was made on behalf of the Government in another place, and I do not think I did so. We will see how the record comes out. The language that was used in another place and which was quoted by my noble friend Lord Samuel was that "when a General Election again becomes practicable" it was "the desire"—I may have said "the intention"; I will say both the intention and the desire of His Majesty's Government to give sufficient notice for the creation of a new register, and this interval would also afford an opportunity for Parliament to consider, if it so desired, questions connected with changes of our electoral system. I must not be understood of course to offer on behalf of the Government any further assurance than that.

What we all have to do now is to make provision for the present emergency. It may be, as the noble Lord, Lord Addison, said, that circumstances will so change during the war as to make the inexpediency or the possibility of a General Election something different from what the situation now is—I do not know. I do not wish to affirm either that it will be or that it will not be so, and it is for that very reason that the Government do not propose to extend the maximum life of the present Parliament by more than twelve months. Let us see what that twelve months bring forth and we shall then be in a better position hereafter to determine what is the proper course to pursue. Well, finding as I do that your Lordships are of one mind as to the carriage of this Bill, I will put the Question. I do not propose to invite the House to take the Committee stage upon it, and the final steps in the measure will not be undertaken until to-morrow.

On Question, Bill read 2ª; Committee negatived.