HL Deb 16 October 1941 vol 120 cc302-10

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I move the Second Reading of the Prolongation of Parliament Bill. Your Lordships will recall that a similar measure for prolonging the maximum life of Parliament by a year was carried through both Houses and became law, I think, in November last. Very few words are needed to commend or to explain this Bill. Indeed the whole case could be put, I think, in a single sentence. That sentence is this: if Parliament did not pass a measure of this kind promptly now, then the present Parliament would necessarily come to an end at latest on November 25 next, and that would be immediately followed by a General Election. Nobody, of course, would suggest that the country ought to be plunged into a General Election between now and Christmas. I need not occupy time in giving a list of the reasons. They were, if I may say so, very admirably summarised last year during a similar debate by my noble friend Viscount Samuel. Consequently this Bill provides in appropriate terms that the present Parliament—for it is limited to the present Parliament—may lawfully continue to exist for twelve months longer than would be the case under the present law.

The form of the Bill is slightly different from the form of the Bill last year for a reason which I will explain. As your Lordships see, the Bill as drawn makes reference to the Septennial Act. It is perhaps worth while for a moment to refer to the Septennial Act and more particularly to one phrase which it contains. The Septennial Act was passed, as your Lordships will recall, in 1715, in the early days of the reign of George I, immediately after the Jacobite Rebellion, and at a time when there were, it was considered, very strong reasons why there should not be such a brief maximum period for the life of Parliament as was then the law—namely, three years. Looking at the Septennial Act of George I, which I have before me, one notices how differently Statutes were then drafted, for it chiefly consists of preamble though of course the words of actual enactment are the words which really matter. The words which caught my eye in the preamble are those in which it is sought to set out the various reasons which actuated Parliament in 1715 when they decided not to accept the limitation of three years, but to prolong the possibility of their own lives and of the lives of all future Parliaments to seven years. Among the reasons is the reason that not only was there considerable commotion inside the country arising from the Jacobite Rebellion but also that it was possible that there might be "an invasion from abroad." Fortunately, that did not occur at that time, but at least it shows that our ancestors realized that with such a possibility before them it was not a good time to have a General Election.

The Statute which passes by the name of the Septennial Act continued to be the law of the land and governed the life of our Parliaments for nearly two hundred years. Then, when in the year 1911 the Parliament Act was passed, in connexion with the adjustment of relations between the two Houses, and as a further security that the House of Commons should be refreshed by more frequent collective contact with the electors, the seven years of the Septennial Act was reduced to five. The provision in substance was that five years should be substituted for seven years as the time fixed for the maximum duration of Parliament under the Septennial Act. Last year we were able to effect the necessary twelve months' extension simply by saying "instead of five, read six." But see what a rather absurd result would follow if we were to adopt the same formula now. It would then read that "seven years shall be substituted for seven years" as the time fixed for the duration of Parliament. It is therefore necessary to use a different form of words, and this the draftsman has very ingeniously and correctly done. Of course, Parliament is not guaranteed a fixed further life. Neither the life of an individual nor the life of this institution is fixed by law, and the prerogative power under which Parliament may be dissolved remains quite unaffected. The present Bill is to secure that the present Parliament and, in particular, the present House of Commons may continue to function if it be necessary for a year longer, and that it should be made possible for it to do so under the law. I do not question that your Lordships will think that a necessary and suitable provision.

I would repeat the declaration made on behalf of the Government a year ago when a similar matter was debated. The declaration was made in this House by myself and in the House of Commons by the Home Secretary, and it was to the effect that while no one could foresee what special circumstances may arise, it is the desire and intention of His Majesty's Government, when a General Election again becomes practicable, to provide sufficient interval for the creation of a new register. That becomes more and more important as time goes on, and I would further point out that this interval would also afford opportunity for Parliament to consider, if it so desired, questions connected with changes in our electoral system.

It was observed in the short debate last year, and I venture to repeat it now, that this class of legislation is the most striking example of the complete sovereignty of Parliament. It is a remarkable thing that when a House of Commons has been elected under a law which authorizes it to continue for x years, that very Parliament and that very House of Commons should, by its action, agreed to by this House, substitute x + y for x. That is a most remarkable example in our constitutional practice and history of the unlimited authority of Parliament. For my part I think it is very well that it should be so. Constitutional authorities are accustomed to classify Constitutions by describing some as "rigid" Constitutions and some as "flexible" Constitutions. The British Constitution is in the last degree flexible, partly because such a large portion of it is unwritten and depends upon custom and practice, and partly because we do not seek to limit the power of the Legislature to make the most fundamental constitutional changes by the passing of an ordinary Statute. Contrast that with the position which used to exist in France, in Germany, and indeed in most, if not all, of the countries of Europe. There you had what was called a rigid Constitution carefully formulated in a document, which was supposed to be specially protected from dangerous change by the provision that the ordinary Legislature could not alter it even if it wished to do so. In the case of France, there had to be sortie special legislative assembly for the purpose—the Assemblée Nationale, meeting at Versailles and consisting of the two Chambers sitting together. If there was to be any change in the Constitution, moreover, it had to be carried by special majorities. Something of the same sort, although not entirely the same, used to exist in Germany.

When we reflect upon recent events, it is apparent that the supposed safeguards and precautions in these European countries with a rigid Constitution did not turn out to be quite so effective as those who designed them expected. I do not say for a moment that the rigid form does not operate well in the United States of America, where, as we know, very special steps have to be taken in order to introduce any amendment in the Constitution; but it is not so here. We alter our Constitution in the most fundamental matters, so far as forms and authorities go, with exactly the same ease with which we pass the most trumpery Act of Parliament, and it is because of the good sense of the British people and the sense of responsibility of our Legislature that this freer system operates so successfully. I beg to move.

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


My Lords, only a very few observations can be required in relation to this Bill, the Second Reading of which has been moved by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack. Here our interests in the passing of a measure are less direct than those of honourable Members in another place; they feel a certain degree of diffidence in passing a measure to prolong their own existence, and indeed I think that one honourable Member expressed a fear, which happily proved to be groundless, that the drafting of the measure involved not merely the prolongation of the present Parliament for a year, but its prolongation for an indefinite period—in fact, for ever, unless a dissolution took place. That was found, as I say, not to be the case.

We must all agree that a Parliamentary Election at this time would be purely factitious. Many thousands of voters would be unenfranchised, because it would be impossible to bring about a new register in existing conditions; and the general difficulties of carrying on an Election would be found to be almost insuperable. Apart from this, I should like to consider for a moment the declaration which the noble and learned Viscount has quoted, and which was made last year on behalf of His Majesty's Government, to the effect that whenever hostilities closed an interval would be allowed during which the new register would be formed, and also—and this was an important addition —that time would be given for considering possible changes in our electoral system. That is a welcome announcement. The promptitude with which the Elections of 1900 and 1918 were brought about will not receive very favourable notice from the future historian, and it is satisfactory to know that no repetition of that manœuvre—if that is the proper word to use—is contemplated on this occasion.

That is particularly satisfactory, because many minds are occupied at the present time with the possible necessity of certain changes in our Constitution in relation to the election of Members of Parliament. As your Lordships know, it is just about one hundred years since the People's Charter was agitating many minds. The vision which the Chartists wished to see realized caused deep alarm in the minds of the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of many members of this House. Some of those changes—abolition of the property qualification, voting by ballot, universal suffrage, and the payment of members—have all come about in the course of events without exciting anything more serious than ordinary Parliamentary opposition, and certainly without introducing anything resembling the French Revolution here. The two remaining provisions—one for annual Parliaments, for which in theory I have no doubt that much might be said, and the other for equal electoral districts—have never actually come into being, although the life of Parliament has been shortened from seven years to live. I may say in passing that we all heard with pleasure and interest the noble and learned Viscount's description of the original passing of the Septennial Act.

Although equal electoral districts have been found, and I think have continued to be found, to be contrary to the feelings inspired by tradition and history in many centres of the population here, yet the tendency has been to bring about some approach to equalization, or at any rate to remove the more gross discrepancies in the numbers of electors in different constituencies. Undoubtedly when the Election comes many people will be agitated by the desire to bring about changes, some of which will need Parliamentary action, and others which can be brought about by the independent action of Parties, such, for instance, as the method by which Parliamentary candidates can be selected without too much regard being paid to their personal means of assisting local causes or Party causes by the expenditure of money. But there are also matters for which Parliamentary action would be required. In the first place, it is evident that the changes in population brought about by the war, although some of them we hope will not prove to be permanent, yet must demand a system of redistribution on a bolder scale than those which have been found necessary on former occasions.

Then there is the question of proportional representation. It is, of course, the object of a General Election to form a representation which embodies the considered opinion of the different classes of people in this country, and it is questioned how far the present system of recording votes really fulfils that object. However, I do not want to enter into the discussion of possible improvements, but merely to welcome the fact that a sufficient interval is going to be granted to enable all these different means and expedients to receive full consideration in the minds of the country, and not merely at a moment when general excitement reigns throughout the whole land concerning various matters connected with the conclusion of the war.


My Lords, I think all of us who have listened to the debate this afternoon will be well rewarded by having heard the brilliant speech of the Lord Chancellor and the very sound remarks of the noble Marquess the leader of the Liberal Party. Having read the debate in another place I must confess I was greatly gratified at the clear way in which the noble and learned Viscount explained the reason for bringing in a different Bill from that of last year. His historic reminiscences about invasion, I hope also in this case, will not be justified. I think everybody on all sides of the House will be gratified by the announcement that time will be allowed, and that we shall not rush into an Election without two things having been considered. One is registration, and the other the question of changes in our electoral system. As regards registration, that is really one of the most urgent questions of the time. It is impossible at the moment to deal with it, but local govern- ment registration follows on Parliamentary registration, and I have tried by introducing a Bill in this House to deal with that matter, a Bill which was supported on all sides of the House, which would have shortened the time between the publication of the register and the actual election in local government. I may say that this reform has been backed by all Parties, and all the registration agents and Party officials. Unfortunately, at present, only an interval of a fortnight is allowed between the publication of the register and the election—much too short a time

With regard to electoral districts, I agree with the noble Marquess that it would be a very great pity to have equal electoral districts. For many reasons, historic and other, the inequalities in the number of electors in different constituencies are appalling. This matter was raised by a friend of mine in another place, Sir Reginald Blair, who is member for the Hendon division. He is blessed with no fewer than 206,000 electors. The Harrow division, now vacant owing to the regretted death of Sir Isidore Salmon, numbers something like 156,000 electors, and the Romford division is another huge division. On the other hand, there are some electoral districts where the elector; are fewer than 30,000. You cannot remedy these inequalities at this moment, I agree, but that is a matter which the Government will have to take in hand. I suggest that, though it is difficult, some preliminary steps should be taken now. You do not want too long an interval between the end of the war and the General Election. I should have thought that some preliminary steps could be taken without further delay to inquire into these matters. Another point which the noble Marquess raised was proportional representation. Many of us have different views about that, and I do not want to go into it.

On the other hand the statement by the Lord Chancellor, which was supported by the noble Marquess, will be welcomed by all who take an interest in our Parliamentary institutions. Whether these changes include any remedy or not for the state of this august assembly I do not know. I am not sufficiently in the secrets of the Government to understand that matter; but I hope something maybe done as regards this House which, unfortunately, owing to the war and other reasons, is now so sparsely attended. The House might be revived to its old state if a non-Party conference—I say "non-Party" advisedly—were held on this subject. Everybody recognizes what an enormous part this House has played in the past, is playing now, and will play in the future. If all the minds of all the Parties at this time, when we are all so close together, were brought to bear on the question, some good would come out of it. I recognize the difficulties of the state of the register and the change of domicile by so many of the inhabitants of this country, but I earnestly press on the Government not to wait too long.

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.