HL Deb 25 February 1942 vol 122 cc62-6

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill comes to the House from the House of Commons, where it was passed unanimously and without amendment. It deals, as your Lordships will see, with two existing Acts of Parliament, both of which were passed in relation to the war. One is the House of Commons Disqualification (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1941, and the other is the Ministers of the Crown (Emergency Appointments) Act, 1939. If I may take the second of those two Statutes first, as being the older in date, your Lordships will notice that it is dealt with in Clause 3 of this Bill. The Ministers of the Crown (Emergency Appointments) Act was the Act which provided that a Minister to whom it applied should not be disqualified by reason of his office for membership of the House of Commons, and the Act was to be applied by Order in Council to any Minister who was "appointed for the purpose of exercising functions connected with the prosecution of any war in which His Majesty may be engaged." It is under that Statute that a number of war-time Ministers have been appointed, as for example the Minister of Information; and until recently another example would have been the Minister for Economic Warfare, but, as your Lordships are happy to know, the holder of that office is now a member of this House.

It was pointed out by a Select Committee of the House of Commons which has recently reported, and which has been considering the subject of offices or places of profit under the Crown, that this measure which I have briefly described is in extremely wide terms. According to its language, it is not limited to the present war at all; it might continue to operate if, after the main struggle were over, we were technically at war with some quite minor Power, or it might, I suppose, be regarded as operating even if such conditions arose again. The Select Committee of the House of Commons, I think rightly, criticized that provision as being unnecessarily wide and as being dangerous; and consequently the Government have introduced the present Bill, which in Clause 3, as your Lordships will see, creates the necessary limitation, and indeed prospectively repeals the Statute on such date as his Majesty may by Order in Council declare to be the date on which the emergency that was the occasion of the passing of that Act came to an end. I do not feel any doubt that your Lordships' House will be prepared to concur with the House of Commons in that undoubted improvement.

The other topic dealt with by the Bill, in Clauses 1 and 2 is the House of Commons Disqualification (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1941, which, of course, was passed by both Houses of Parliament last year. Your Lordships may recall that it was the Act which provided that, if the First Lord of the Treasury certified that the appointment of a Member of Parliament to an office or place under the Crown was required "in the public interest for purposes connected with the prosecution of any war in which His Majesty may be engaged," then that person should not be disqualified from continuing to sit as a Member of Parliament. The matter therefore turns on the certificate given by the Prime Minister in his character as First Lord of the Treasury. Here again the Select Committee to which I have made reference had some observations to make. They pointed out that there is no limit to the number of cases in which this very unusual power might be exercised, and they recommended that some limit should be set to it. That is done by Clause 1 of this Bill.

In point of fact there have been fourteen cases of such certification over the hand of the First Lord of the Treasury since the Act was passed. They range from two Members of the House of Commons who are serving as High Commissioners in a Dominion to two Members of the House of Commons who have been appointed Governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The total number is fourteen, and, as your Lordships will see, the proposal is that we should now enact by Statute that in no circumstances shall the number exceed twenty-five, unless the condition, mentioned in the Proviso, of an Address from the Commons House of Parliament praying an increase in the number, should be fulfilled. There again the matter may be primarily one for the House of Commons, but your Lordships are well entitled to take note of the wisdom of this provision, for it is not merely in the interests of the House of Commons but of the Legislature as a whole and of the whole country that we should not, even in war-time, pass legislation in such wide terms as might seem to run contrary to a profound and essential principle of our Constitution—namely, that those who exercise the power of the Executive should not be able to an unlimited extent to place private Members of Parliament in official positions, with conceivable effects upon their independence of judgment and independence of voting.

There remains one other point. When Parliament passed the Act to which I have referred it was careful to limit its operation to one year. That twelve months will expire on the 6th of March next. It is therefore obviously essential, unless the whole thing is to collapse, that we should give a further extension to the operation of the Act. It is not proposed to extend it for the period of the war, however long that period may be. It is thought much better again to give an extension for twelve months only, and therefore, as your Lordships will see at the end of Clause 2, the phrase "two years" is substituted for the words "one year" in the original Act; the result of which will be that under the amendment effected by this present Bill the Act will be able to continue to operate until the 6th of March of next year instead of the 6th of March this year. I beg to move.

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


My Lords, may I say one word with reference to the proviso in Clause 1 of this Bill, which says that an Address can be presented to His Majesty by another place if the number exempted from disqualification should exceed twenty-five? My only point is this. As the noble and learned Viscount has already pointed out, this Bill concerns your Lordships' House and the country as much as another place, and if the number of Ministers were to exceed twenty-five, or rather before it exceeds twenty-five, an Address can be presented to His Majesty by the House of Commons. I would ask the noble and learned Viscount whether he could consider the inclusion of the: House of Lords as well as the House of Commons, so that we should have a chance here of considering the matter in the same way as the House of Commons. Of course, I quite understand and appreciate that this is a matter of Privilege, but perhaps the House of Commons, out of courtesy to your Lordships' House, might consider this rather small point. I put it before the noble and learned Viscount and ask if he will give it his consideration.


My Lords, perhaps your Lordships will allow me briefly to add a word or two on the suggestion just made by my noble friend. I certainly share the views that all these constitutional arrangements are matters in which Parliament as a whole ought to be concerned, and it is for that reason, of course, that you Lordships' House is asked, and indeed is required, to give assent to the Bill before the change in the law can be made. But the particular matter mentioned by my noble friend stands in a rather different position. It was probably only a slip of the tongue, but I must correct it. Of course this is not a Bill that provide; for twenty-five extra Ministers: the provision here merely is that a limited number of private Members of the House of Commons, whose service is regarded as urgently needed on public grounds in the pinch of the war, because they are specially qualified to render some form of service, should not, for the period of the Bill, which is only a year, suffer the very severe disqualification which would be involved if they automatically lost their seats.

That is the point of the clause. That does seem to me to be more particularly a matter for the House of Commons. The House of Commons is extremely jealous in my experience—and there are other former members of the House of Commons here who could confirm me—of any idea that the Executive is going to "nobble" private Members in the way that perhaps in the eighteenth century was done rather abundantly. I am sure we may leave it to the very watchful eyes of Members of Parliament to see that this power is not abused. If there are people specially qualified to render a piece of public service while the war is going on, it would be a misfortune to the whole country if they had to refuse to give that service because the result would be that they would forfeit their seats. It appears to me, therefore, that it really is a matter for the House of Commons to decide, and I have no doubt that is the reason why this clause was framed as it is. Your Lordships will not of course be prevented from making such comments as are proper and constitutional if you think the power is abused, but I think you could leave this matter safety in the hands of the House of Commons.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended, Bill read 3a, and passed.