HL Deb 31 January 1946 vol 139 cc112-22

4.30 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. I hope that my noble friend the Leader of the House will not think that I am letting the side down if I tell your Lordships quite frankly that I do not like and cannot commend the form in which this Bill is drafted. Indeed, although I am accustomed to the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act and the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Acts, I cannot think of any precedent for a Bill drafted on these lines, unless it be the somewhat similar Bill which was drafted after the last war. I sincerely hope that I shall never again have to introduce a Bill drafted on these lines, and I hope this Bill will be like the mule, which has neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity. But, having said that quite frankly, and having stood as a penitent about this Bill, I ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading because, in the peculiar circumstances in which we find ourselves, I believe that we have no option in the matter.

When I introduced on October 30 last the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Bill, I thought it right to tell your Lordships that we did contemplate that this present Bill would be introduced. I said: Then, by a different Bill, we propose to introduce as soon as possible an Emergency Powers (Transitional Provisions) Bill, designed to keep alive for a strictly limited period after February next such residue of the powers of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act as will be necessary in the transitional period. The situation is this. Long before the war ended, in the days of the Coalition Government, we contemplated and looked forward with hope and eagerness to the days when we could put an end to the Emergency Powers Act altogether. During the war it had been the custom to renew that Act for a period of twelve months and when what was called the Caretaker Government was formed, that Government decided, for reasons which may have been good, to renew it for only six months, with the result that it will come to an end on February 24. We shall none of us regret the decease of that measure.

In the meantime, we have been working on the question of the provisions which we should require during the transitional period. The Bill to which I have just referred was, of course, a Bill framed to enable the Government of the day to pick out from the mass of Defence Regulations such regulations as they thought were necessary for certain specific objects. They were to last—we had some controversy about it—for five years. There is, at any rate, this to be said about the present that what we pick out from the Defence Regulations is set down specifically and is to last only for two years; that is to say, these powers will come to an end in December, 1947. I sincerely hope that it will not be necessary to renew any of them after that date. If they have to be renewed we shall have to bring in legislation in the ordinary form to renew them.

Having said that, let me try to help your Lordships as far as I can by showing you what this Bill does. I have the Bill in front of me, and I will read part of the long title: An Act to provide for the continuation of certain Defence Regulations during a limited period notwithstanding the expiry of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Acts, 1939 to 1945 … If I may pause there for a moment, your Lordships will find that Clause 1 of this Bill is the operative clause in that respect. It deals with a variety of subjects selected from the Defence Regulations, all having this relation and this relation only to one another, that they all were in the Defence Regulations. It deals with topics as widely diverse as false fire alarms, venereal disease, the opening of cinemas, and the payment of wages to roadmen by cheque, as well as a host of other things; and all those things are to continue until the end of 1947. It reminds one a little of that old and strange catalogue— Shoes and ships and sealing wax And cabbages and kings. There they all are and that is what we propose to do.

There is only one that I need specifically mention, and that is to be found on page 20 of the Bill. I think I should call your Lordships' attention to it. It is the Defence (Services for Industry) Regulations, 1945, which were put in on the Report stage in another place, and enable the Board of Trade to arrange with industry for scientific research, statistical research and so on to be provided at the cost of industry, with provision for levies in certain cases. Your Lordships will remember that the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, introduced a Bill in your Lordships' House not long ago and in the course of his speech the noble Lord pointed to such provisions and asked that legislation for the purpose should be introduced. I mention that because it is one of the topics to which your Lordships' attention might well be directed when we come to consider this Bill in Committee. I would like to make this offer to your Lordships, because I realize the difficulties which may present themselves on the Committee stage. If I can be of any assistance in giving factual information about any of these Defence Regulations, I shall be very pleased to do so, either by interview or by letter. It would be quite impossible for me to embark on a description of all these regulations, and I am sure that your Lordships would not desire it, because if I were to do so, this speech would last very much longer than I contemplate.

So much for the Defence Regulations. The next part of the long title provides for: the extension and amendment of certain enactments the duration or operation of which depends on the duration of the said Acts or of the war;… Those are set out in Clauses 2 to 11. Clause 3, for instance, provides for subsidies to agriculture; it concerns such things as the subsidy payment if the farmer sells his wheat at less than 11S. a quarter, and the payment for ploughing up land and so on. In the course of the two years up to the end of 1947, we shall obviously have to consider whether provision shall be made in the permanent law of the land for those matters.

The next part of the Bill provides for the permanent enactment of provisions contained in certain Defence Regulations, which your Lordships will find in Clause 15. Clause 15 refers to the Second Schedule, and the Second Schedule shows the enactments we want to make permanent. As an example, I would ask your Lordships to look at the foot of page 21, which reads: If any superintendent registrar dies, resigns or otherwise ceases to hold his office, and there is no interim superintendent registrar, the clerk of the responsible council as defined by subsection (5) of Section twenty-two of the Local Government Act, 1929, shall, if required by the Registrar General so to do, appoint an interim superintendent registrar. Everybody I think would agree that we should keep that power permanently. That is one illustration. Another example, which appears on page 22, concerns merchant seamen and their contributions to benefit funds.

Next I would refer to the power for establishing the ownership by the Crown of requisitioned goods, that is of goods requisitioned under emergency powers. Your Lordships will find this provision in Clause 16. Doubts have arisen where, for instance, the Crown has taken over, say, an hotel and its furniture, and has paid the appropriate compensation for the hotel and the furniture, whether the Crown can sell and whether it has a good title to the furniture. It is obviously desirable that that point should be cleared up, and power has therefore been taken to do so. Then I come to the clause for empowering local authorities to remove war works and restore land. That is Clause 12. What we have mainly in mind are air-raid shelters in streets. There may be other things, but that is the main matter.

Then we come to the repeal of certain emergency enactments. That is dealt with in Clause 17 and there are three of these enactments, the Essential Buildings and Plant (Repair of War Damage) Act, 1939, which has been replaced by the War Damage Act, the Exchequer and Audit Departments (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1939, which in fact was never used, and Sections 1 to 4 of the Allied Powers (War Service) Act, 1942. That last was the Act which gave us the power to call up non-British subjects for military service. We now propose putting an end to those powers permanently. The last part of the long title of the Bill is "and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid." Your Lordships will find these provisions in Clauses 13 and 14 and 18 to 24.

So your Lordships will see it is a mixed grill, with something in it I hope to suit all tastes. Perhaps your Lordships think it is nice to get back to four-course meals, yet I hardly think you would want all four courses served on the same plate at the same time. This is the price we pay for getting rid of the Emergency Powers Act on February 24, as I am sure we all want to do. I hope that under the circumstances your Lordships will agree that this exceptional measure should be allowed to go through and be given a Second Reading. I beg to move.

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

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, as he has said, has had an uncomfortable task, and when he has an uncomfortable task like this he does it with such a grace and fine choice of phrase as almost to convert anybody without further reflection. He is setting up—and this is not the first time—an entirely new model as to the way in which Government Bills, or at any rate Bills of the present Government, should be commended to this House. He begins by saying: "Look at it; did you ever see such a misbegotten, misshapen infant?" I have of course to take my share of responsibility, he says, in effect, but I promise never to do it again. One has heard of cases where people have damned with faint praise, but so far as the form of the Bill is concerned the Lord Chancellor has damned it without any praise at all, and I must say I think, in that respect, he is right.

He calls it a four-course meal; why it is eighty meals all at once, and it is nearly impossible to discuss the Bill on Second Reading, for the reason he pointed out, because it is not really addressed to any special department or topic of legislation. It is a collection of all sorts of odds and ends which, rightly or wrongly, the Government think that Parliament should authorize for a slightly longer period. It deals with everything. The epitaph on Oliver Goldsmith declares in a well-known phrase that "he touched nothing that he did not adorn." I cannot regard this particular measure as adorning anything at all but it certainly touches an infinite number of things. Anybody who spends sixpence at His Majesty's Stationery Office because he wants to understand what the Bill is about will certainly waste his money. So far as the text of the Bill is concerned it is next door to unintelligible. So far as there is any principle in it, the principle is that a number of regulations which are of a temporary character should be continued a little longer. I wish to declare that I agree that there are such cases. I think there must be at the end of a war.

I do not think that your Lordships have had your attentions called to what is, I suggest, the most significant of all the phrases in the Bill. After all, what are these regulations which we are going to prolong? They are regulations, of course, which were made for the purposes of the war, and I invite you to look at the Schedule which I think mentions altogether eighty-one different items. Look at page 10. You will see that, as regards a large number of these Defence Regulations, made, of course, under most exceptional powers under the Defence of the Realm Act, made really by Government Departments, and, of course, all made for the prosecution of the war, you have this charming and simple substitution. I am reading from page 10, line 9: For the words 'the efficient prosecution of the war' there shall be substituted the words 'the protection of the public'. It is very difficult indeed to say that these regulations can have any future effect for the purpose of carrying on the war, because the war is over. This is indeed a Socialistic document and no one will complain if I say that this does embody the principle that little regulations are well justified at least in proper cases, so long as they are for the protection of the public. And who is to be the judge of that? Why, nobody at all, except of course the Minister concerned unless you would go so far as to say—which I do not suggest for a moment—that he was not acting in good faith. You cannot go to a Court and argue that this is for the protection of the public. The answer is "These people think it is and that is good enough for you."

But when you come to the contents of the Bill I must say that I think it can be described as a mixed grill. Look at the things to be prolonged, not until the end of this year, but until December 31, 1947. Look at page 11: Regulation 32AB—" Power to require nurses, etc., to continue in employment in mental institutions." What does that mean? It means that a number of women, young, middle-aged or old, would, apart from this regulation be entitled to say "I do not want to go on with this job but to take up an employment which suits me better." By the regulation they are told: "You cannot do that. You may be under the illusion that the war is over and that you have a Government in power which is going to see that individual rights are restored, but if you are a nurse in a mental institution, you must stay there." When the poor woman asks, "Why must I stay there?" the answer is "This is an Act of Parliament which keeps you there until December 30, 1947." You cannot have new nurses; you will have to be content with the ones you have got. I do not understand how the powers require nurses in mental institutions to stay there. I do not think this means anything but that they cannot go away.

Take another example, which is, in its way, rather remarkable. On page 10 there is Regulation 16—"Control of Highways over or near defence works and protected places." That regulation was made in the course of the war and I fancy it was quite properly made because for the defence of the realm it might be important to stop up by order certain roads or paths which led to some protected place or to some arsenal. But this is going to be continued for another two years whereas the natural way in which to stop up a highway is to make application at the Quarter Sessions. It is quite true here that no fresh orders can be made, but the point is that you can stick up a notice "By Order of the War Office, in view of the defence of the realm, no one is to go along this road." Every such order is to continue until December 31, 1947, and there are pages and pages in which these things are to happen.

There are some about which a different comment may be made. On page 14 there is Regulation 420A—these things are so numerous that you cannot be content with mere numerals but you have to use the letters of the alphabet as well, like the letters on a motor car. This regulation refers to unlawful gaming parties. I am far from saying that this is a regulation which ceases to be valuable because the war has come to an end. There may be some unlawful gaming parties, so I am entirely on the side of those who would like to stop them; but surely the proper way is not by continuing a Defence of the Realm Regulation made during the war largely for the protection of soldiers and the like when they were in London. If this is going to be pursued I hope that the noble and learned Lord Chancellor will urge that we should have an Act of Parliament about it.

I can give plenty of other illustrations but I do not want to keep it up. There is a more important point to which I would venture to direct my noble friend's attention. He did not mention it in his speech, but there was one passage in his speech which made me think he took a different view. He said that these were merely temporary extensions until December 31, 1947, and that when that strictly limited period comes to an end and if there were regulations which were needed any longer, legislation would be proposed in the ordinary form. I am very glad to hear his assurance. I do not want to trap or catch anybody, but the thing which most disturbed me on this subject when I acquainted myself with the debate in another place, was the declaration made by the Under-Secretary for the Home Office, who said: "You may ask why we choose 31st December, 1947, as closing time. Why do we do that? Perhaps October would be an equally good day." But he gave a reason. I say quite sincerely that the reason greatly alarms me and, I think, some other members of this House. He said that we had to carry on these things until December 31, 1947, and if we had to continue any of them after that we should be able to do it under the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. I do not like that at all. Any old Parliamentarian knows what happens in that Bill. It is taken on the last day of the Session, or nearly so. I rather think I see a noble Lord on the Bench opposite who took charge of the last one. It is for practical reasons a thing which is carried without much examination. If you are going to prolong these regulations by the simple process of putting them into that Bill I must say I do not think you are playing fair by Parliament. Parliament is entitled to be asked to consider whether something ought to be continued. I was very glad to hear the Lord Chan- cellor say just now that his view of the matter was that if any of them had to be prolonged beyond I that day it ought to be done by bringing in legislation in the ordinary form.


My Lords, I agree with what the noble Viscount is saying; I agree that it ought to be by legislation in the ordinary way, but it was said that it would not be done if there was a large number of them. In that event the Home Secretary said in the course of discussion in the other place that if he had to use the Expiring Laws Continuance Act he would put in a special Schedule. I do not think that is altogether satisfactory and I do not think that any method is altogether satisfactory except bringing in proper legislation.


The Lord Chancellor was no doubt careful to notice that I realized he was expressing his own view. Then there are some of these regulations in respect of which there is very special reason for consideration. Some of these regulations do deal with things like the liberty of the subject and with right to enter premises that cannot be entered under the ordinary law, and it is a most grave matter that we should deal with these as merely a tiresome lot of details chucked into a schedule, and then approve the lot. I do think that before the Committee stage is taken somebody should find time to look into these things in rather more detail, to see whether there may not be one or two of a different character from what was suggested.

That is really all I want to say. I remember long ago, when I was in the House of Commons, hearing. Mr. Baldwin, who I think was then President of the Board of Trade—I am sure my noble friend beside me will remember this—moving the Safeguarding of Industries Bill. In referring to the Schedule, which contained everything from optical glass to rare chemicals, he said it looked to him like the catalogue of a marine store dealer. Really that is the kind of impression you get by reading this Schedule. It is impossible to discuss it at great length on Second Reading. There is nothing to discuss on Second Reading except the form of the Bill, and that has been dealt with very fairly and in not too complacent a manner by the Lord Chancellor in his opening speech.

I want to make one further contribution which is in favour of the Bill. It was not referred to by the Lord Chancellor. It is quite true that these things are to go on till December 31, 1947, which seems far enough off, but it is subject to this, that at the top of page 2 of the Bill is written: Provided that His Majesty may at any time by Order in Council revoke any such Defence Regulation either in whole or in part. And I am glad therefore that the Government retain to themselves the right to knock some of these things on the head.

5.2 p.m.


My Lords, the Lord Chancellor has dealt with this Bill in such an engaging fashion that it is likely to slip through your Lordships' House amidst smiles of welcome. He almost, but not quite, quoted Shakespeare, about ill-favoured Audrey—" A poor thing, but mine own.'' Nevertheless, it is a Bill which does require looking at with care, for the powers it conveys are very sweeping and the form of them has few precedents. Your Lordships will remember very vividly the highly controversial debate we had not very long ago on the question whether those Orders in Council made during the war should have validity for a period of five years or two years, and your Lordships very reluctantly left the Bill as it stood with a figure of five years in order not to embark on a conflict with the other House. I think we are very glad that the Government have adopted the view that was held by many of us at that time, and have not again asked Parliament to provide for a period of five years for these very exceptional provisions, but have accepted a period of two years. So far, so good.

Now the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken, the late Lord Chancellor, draws attention to the fact that at the end of the two years they are liable to be continued further in another form of what may be called emergency legislation—namely, the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. That is a very grave matter. In effect, on the outbreak of war in 1939, as previously in 1914, Parliament surrendered its power as a Legislature, and without examination or discussion in a single day passed a whole code of fresh enactments in order to provide for the prosecution of the war. That was done as a patriotic duty, surrendering our normal powers as a Legislature in order to fulfil our duties as patriotic citizens for the sake of the prosecution of the war. But that that should be done again in December, 1947, would not be defensible. I trust that the Lord Chancellor will impress upon his colleagues that there would be very grave objection to such a course in these circumstances, merely on the ground of Parliamentary convenience. That is to say, that it should not be considered a sufficient justification for a further continuance of these most exceptional war powers in time of peace merely that the legislative programme had been very crowded and Parliament had not been able to find time to present a Bill in proper form. If such a Bill did come before this House, your Lordships would, I am sure, loot: most carefully at its provisions, and would be exceedingly reluctant to pass such Bill in that form. The Lord Chancellor said he was not going to give any pledge or any undertaking with regard to this matter, and I am sure your Lordships to-day would not wish to indulge in any threat, but at the same time you might express a fear that drastic measures might have to be resorted to in such a case.

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