§ 2.36 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Beading read.
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (Viscount Addison)
My Lords, the splendid attendance in the House to-day reflects the intense interest which this Bill naturally evokes among your Lordships. It concerns this House as a part of our constitutional machinery, but it is interesting to note that, so far as I have been able to understand it, the reaction in the country outside has been remarkably calm. At the beginning of this business we were told that the Labour Party were provoking a constitutional crisis. In my view that was an entirely inaccurate description; nevertheless, that was the description in the headlines. I think quite a number of people—I might perhaps suggest even some of your Lordships—took more notice of the headlines than they would have done had they read the contents of the Bill, because there is nothing sensational in them It is a very modest and very 630 reasonable Bill; there is nothing revolutionary about it.
That feeling was accurately reflected in the conduct of the Conservative Members in another place. I am informed that there was indeed quite a sparse attendance on many occasions; and, in fact, the Committee stage of this Bill in that House occupied only half a day. There was no closure, and from start to finish there was nothing in the proceedings which inhibited debate. I think it is fair to say that there was no atmosphere of crisis in another place on this Bill—in fact there was rather a limited interest. The Bill, indeed, does one thing only. It provides that a Bill shall become an Act if it is passed in the House of Commons in two successive Sessions, instead of three, as it is now, under the Parliament Act of 1911; and that at least one year must have elapsed between the first Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Commons and its final passing in that House, instead of two years as provided in the Parliament Act. That is all that the Bill does.
I would now like to remind your Lordships of some of the considerations which have led to the introduction of this Bill. In the first place, why is it introduced this Session? The reason is that we apprehended that your Lordships might not approve of it. In that case, if it were rejected in this House, it could be enacted in this Parliament only by being passed twice more in the House of Commons and after the lapse of not less than two years. Therefore, it was necessary, if this Bill was to be passed in this Parliament at all, bearing in mind—I hope this will not be the case—that your Lordships might not approve it, that it should be introduced this year. That is why it is introduced now.
Another question which has been addressed to me several times is: "Why introduce it at all? It has not been necessary all the years since the Parliament Act was passed." I would like, however, to remind your Lordships of the facts of history. I think we may disregard, quite fairly, the Parliament in which the Parliament Act was passed, which was the Parliament elected in December 1910. Afterwards the First Great War broke out, and that Parliament continued in office until December 1918. We may quite fairly eliminate that But from January 1919 until June 1945 there was never 631 in the House of Commons a single Party that was not to the liking of the Conservative Party but which had a majority over the other Parties there. That is a fact. Therefore, in all those years No 1ssue was likely to arise, and No 1ssue between the Houses did, in fact, arise. But since 1945 we have had a situation which was unprecedented from the time of the passing of the Parliament Act until 1945. We had returned in the House of Commons a Party with a large majority over other Parties, and it was not the Conservative Party. That has created an entirely new situation.
As to the Parliament Act itself, may I ask your Lordships to refresh your memories a little about it? I myself was a Member of Parliament at the time that the Bill was going through, as were some other noble Lords whom I see in this House. I remember that after it was passed there were some rather fierce declarations that, sooner or later, it would be amended. I remember that the late Lord Curzon, who was usually very frugal with his adjectives, once committed himself to saying that when the Conserva-time Party came back they would remove this "smudge." That was how he described it. Since that time the Conservative Party have been back for very many years, and they have never done anything about it. The reason for that has been that they accepted it. All Parties accepted it. There was no disposition on the part of the Conservative Governments which have been in power since then to make any alteration.
Only two Acts have been passed under the Parliament Act. They were passed in two successive years by the House of Commons, rejected by your Lordships' House and finally passed by the House of Commons. One was the Home Rule Act, before the First World War. That Act, as we all know, was suspended in its operation because of the crises that arose. I feel that anyone who asked himself today about the wisdom of that step might well think, in view of what happened afterwards with regard to Home Rule, that it would have been wiser had this House passed the Bill as Mr. Asquith sent it up. What a tragic series of incidents we should have escaped! The other Act which was rejected by your Lordships' House, and was finally passed 632 under the Parliament Act, was the Welsh Church Disestablishment Act I well remember the somewhat acrimonious debate that took place in connexion with that measure. When some of us had the temerity to vote for it we were assured that it would destroy the Church in Wales. I think it is fair to say that it has, in fact, rejuvenated the Anglican Church in Wales; that the Church there has been more active and vigorous since that time than it was before, and that none of the dismal forebodings that were made at that time has been justified by the event. Here again, I believe that some fairminded members of your Lordships' House might be willing to admit that it would have been better if that Bill, too, had been passed other than under the procedure of the Parliament Act.
The fact is that under the Parliament Act as it stands, if your Lordships' House were so minded, the last two years' work of a Government in the House of Commons, supported by a Labour or a Liberal majority, as the case may be, might be largely sterilized. In the case of a Conservative administration, of course, that would never be so; it never has been so. I should like, in this connexion, to quote what the Prime Minister said in another place:The House of Lords only operates as an interpreter or an alleged interpreter of the people's mind when a Liberal or a Labour Government is in office. I challenge honourable Members opposite to find an instance to the contrary in this long dispute.That is a statement of fact, of which we take account. This Bill is introduced as a precaution against a repetition of those unfair conditions in the present Parliament.
May I say a word about the functions of a Second Chamber? Here I have a quotation from Mr. Asquith in the other place on March 2, 1911. He said:This House must be predominant in legislation. The functions, and the only functions, which are appropriate to a Second Chamber are the functions of legislation, revision, and, subject to proper safeguards, of delay.Then he went on to say:The discharge of these duties, including that of delay, should not be governed by partisanship but discharged with a fair mind and an even hand.I shall say something later about the period of delay, but I think it right to say, and we may all justly claim, that 633 during the past two years this House has exercised the functions of criticism and revision with singular ability. I say that as one who has had to represent the Government and who has been engaged with noble Lords opposite in very many discussions, both in this House and out of it, over differences which arose between us. I want to say at once that I am quite sure that the way in which your Lordships' House has discharged its functions with regard to revision and criticism has added much to the reputation of this House.
Subject to certain adequate safeguards, however, there is nothing in the function of delay which means that that power shall be so used as to sterilize the last two years of the activities of an anti-Conservative Government. There is nothing in that which involves a claim that this House shall decide whether an act of the House of Commons is or is not in accordance with the mandate of the people. There is nothing in that function of delay which confers upon this House the power to determine what shall be the issues at a General Election. I am now going to confess frankly some of the causes of uneasiness which led to this Bill. Many a time in this House, as I have sat here, I have had to listen to the question whether this or that proposal of the Government was in accordance with the mandate of the people, or words to that effect. I want to say a word on this "mandate" claim, with complete frankness, if I may.
The claim to decide whether a subject is or is not in accordance with the mandate of the people contains this implication that, if this House is of opinion that it is not in the mandate, this House is at liberty to reject it; that is the deliberate and obvious implication. We challenge that implication from the very start. We claim that it is for the elected representatives of the people to decide whether an issue is or is not to be the subject of Parliamentary activity.
Here I come to quotations from two very distinguished statesmen, one of whom is still alive. These quotations put, much more forcibly than I can, and in much more picturesque language, this question of the claim. It has sometimes been overtly stated that this House somehow or other is entitled to decide whether a subject is or is not a subject of 634 the mandate of the people; we cannot accept that at all. The first quotation to which I wish to refer is of Mr. Asquith. It was given by Mr. Morrison in another place on December 10, 1947:This new-fangled Caesarism"—this was Mr. Asquith in 1911—which converts the House of Lords into a kind of plebiscitary organis really one of the quaintest inventions of our time. Let us see what it is. I will try to put the theory as plausibly as I can against myself. The theory is that the people require to be protected against their own elected representatives especially—may I not say exclusively—when the majority of those representatives happen to belong to the Liberal Party.Then he went on to say that, somehow or another, if this claim was right, on the conferment of a Patent of Peeragethere descends upon the favoured individual what I may call a kind of instinct of diviration which enables him at all times thereafter to discern to a nicety—provided always a Liberal Government is in power—the occasions and the matter in regard to which the people's representatives are betraying the people's trust.Then the present Leader of the Conservative Party, speaking on the same subject, said:This House accepts no advice except when it chooses to take it from the Tory caucus. It is responsible to no one; it represents no one. The Lords exercise their own sweet will and their own sweet pleasure and discretion.That was Mr. Churchill, speaking in 1909. I should not have put it like that. I would not have dared to put it like that. I am too moderate in my statements, but both those very pungent quotations, one from. Mr. Asquith and the other from Mr. Churchill, were directed against what is really involved in the claim that somehow or another this House is entitled to interpret what is in the mandate of the people and, if need be, I suppose, to force an Election. Here I will quote the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and I am taking this as the implication. This is his statement on the 31st October, 1945, on the Supplies and Services Bill:If this House refused powers which are thought by Ministers to be essential, the Government have always the ordinary constitutional remedy open to them, which is to go back to the country and ask for a renewal of their mandate.There is the point of difference. We do not accept, and we do not intend to accept, that this House, entirely unrepresentative, shall be the final arbiter as to what is and what is not the opinion of the people.
635 There is the point of actual difference and there can be no compromise on that. In our view, it must be the elected Chamber that has finally to decide these issues.
Let us examine this from another aspect. Of necessity in the life of any Parliament, a large number of issues must arise which were not foreseen or which were not in anybody's mind at the time of the Election. That must be so. Let me give you two or three examples of that in this Parliament, which have not given rise to difficulty and which have been accepted. It is not a question of there being any mandate. Take the Indian Independence Act. None of us had foreseen at the time of the General Election the circumstances which existed at the time of the passing of that Act; they could not be foreseen. But that fact gave rise to no difficulty. It was not a subject of mandate—that is the point I am making. Various Acts under the Emergency Legislation provisions are of the same kind. But it may well happen that, before the end of this Session, we shall have before us a Bill which will give rise to differences of opinion. Some time ago there were two special all-Party committees set up to deal with inequalities that had arisen through changes in the distribution of the population and also with the question of electoral law. I understand that there is a Bill dealing with the representation of the people. These conditions were not foreseen, and could not very well be foreseen at the time of the General Election. But that does not in any way invalidate the claim or the right of the representative House to introduce measures on these matters. There is no question of mandate at all.
Now I come to a point which is presented to me by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, in his Amendment, which, of course, I shall not venture to discuss at the moment; it would not be in order at this stage. But I would draw your Lordships' attention to one phrase in the Amendment itself which is material to the point I am now discussing—namely, the right to interpret a mandate. The Amendment seeks to propose that this House should decline to accept a Bill—to quote the words of the second item in the Amendment—"for which the nation has expressed no desire." Implicit in that, clearly, is the inquiry as to whether the 636 nation has or has not given a mandate for this Bill. I could show that it has, but I am not going on to that point. That is the challenge implicit in that sentence.
What follows? It is suggested that a reason for not proceeding with this Bill is that the Government have no mandate for it; but the self-same Amendment proposes that a much bigger Bill dealing with the whole constitution of this House shall be introduced; in other words, it is a wrong thing to swallow a sprat but you may bolt a whale! That is what it comes to. But if one is wrong, the other must be wrong. If you have no mandate for one, you can have no mandate for the other. On this point, I think it must be conceded that the elected Chamber must decide what proposals are to be submitted to Parliament, and in the course of events it must happen that some of them will not have emerged as issues at the time of a General Election. That must be so. There is another matter which I mention with some hesitation, but I must refer to it because it was a very important consideration in regard to the introduction of this Bill, and that was the determination of your Lordships to have a special Sitting by this House alone in September. The House was quite within its rights—I am not challenging that, and it was dealt with adequately at the time. I want to read to you, if I may, what Mr. Morrison said in another place about that independent action of this House:This was a warning of which we are entitled to take notice, having regard firstly to the strange constitution of the House of Lords, then to experiences at the beginning of the century, and the kind of pointer which is afforded by the September debate. The Government have no hesitation in saying that they are fully entitled to take the necessary measures to carry out a reasonable nullification of the 1911 Act whilst time permits.That was the influence of that event upon some of my colleagues. But I would remind your Lordships of this. Whatever may be said on that particular action, it was unprecedented, and we did not fail to notice it. There had never before been a special Sitting of that kind in the whole twenty-nine years from 1918 to 1947. There have been crises before—oh, yes. In September, 1932, there were 2,925,000 people out of work, but there was no special Sitting demanded then. We know these things. We are able to note these things. At that time there were millions of poor people pawning what they 637 had left in their households, tramping up and down the country to find a day's work anywhere. It was one of the most miserable and tragic situations that I can ever remember in this country, but there was no special Sitting called men. That is the point I am putting to your Lordships. We are bound to be influenced by these circumstances, and it was on that account that it was decided to introduce this Bill now, the only time when it can be introduced to secure its passage.
Then I come to the question of the period of time. It may be claimed that the cutting down of the two years to one does not provide adequate time. Let us look at that. Many of us, at any rate, have a lot of experience of public affairs, and I never knew a question of difference between the two Houses which would be more likely to be settled in two years than in one. You can discuss a matter and deal with it quite adequately in one year. If it is a matter that offends the people, I can assure you that it does not take anything like a year for public resentment to make itself manifest. I venture to remind you of one dramatic illustration of the truth of what I am now claiming, that it does not require a year. Take the famous Hoare-Laval Agreement, by which certain arrangements were made to hand over some of Abyssinia to Italy. What happened? The country disapproved of it. That Agreement brought forth indignation from one end of the country to the other, and the issue was settled in about a week. The whole thing was withdrawn. It did not take a year, or two years. If any Government do anything that is contrary to the wishes of the country, the people very soon assert themselves. I can assure you (although it is not my particular duty to deal with it first-hand), that the Labour Party in the other place is not at all backward in asserting its opinion, and if the Government do something which the Labour Party does not like it does not require a year for them to hear about it—a week at the outside. It asserts itself with no mistaken voice. It is an extremely independent Party. Of course, that is quite right: that is what the representatives of the people are for.
The matter I am now dealing with is that there is no particular point in saying that, in the event of a difference, two years are required and that one year is 638 too short a period. One year is ample. On that subject, through the kindness of a friend in the other place, I am fortified with some references to which I am sure your Lordships will pay great attention. This is not a new idea. I was concerned in the debates in another place on. the Parliament Bill. I was, of course, a Back Bencher, and I can assure you that there were many of us on the Back Benches who were very unfriendly to the two years—very unfriendly—and in the end it was really only because other powers, particularly those relating to finance, were dealt with in that Bill, that the two years was reluctantly accepted by many members of the House at that time.
Here is a quotation which goes much further back. This is from John Bright, at a meeting of Liberal Associations in Leeds in October, 1885. That goes back a long way but I am now claiming that the question as between two years and one year is nothing new. That is the point. In Lord Morley's Recollections it is recorded that John Bright said that:if the Peers rejected a Bill once and it had been considered in a subsequent Session by the Commons, and if, after due deliberation, it had been again sent up to the Peers, then the Peers must pass it, or it will receive the Royal Assent and will become law.That was John Bright, speaking in 1883, as quoted by Lord Morley. Why, he was a prophet of this Bill!
Now I come a little closer in history. In another place, on June 26, 1907, this Resolution was passed:That, in order to give effect to the will of the people as expressed by their elected representatives, it is necessary that the powers of the other House to alter or reject Bills passed by this House should be so restricted by law as to ensure that within the limits of a single Parliament the final decision of the House of Commons shall prevail.I beg your Lordships to note that the governing words are: "within the limits of a single Parliament." There was no question then of holding up Bills over a General Election.
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, during the debate on the Resolution, explained that although a Bill had to be passed three times by the House of Commons before it became law, the Bill could be reintroduced after only a six months' interval, or less "in cases of urgency." If the Lords again failed to pass it, the Bill 639would be reintroduced and passed swiftly through all its stages in this House in the form last agreed to, and sent to the other House with an intimation that, unless passed in that form, it would be passed over their heads.That was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, as reported in the Parliamentary Debates, 4th Series, Volume 176. That was far more drastic than the action proposed by the Labour Government of 1948. The point which I am now making is that there is nothing specially new in this proposal for one year's delay, and I contend that it is a reasonable and adequate time.
One point has been put to me by the noble Marquess, the Leader of the Opposition, and it is, I think, a point of substance. He quotes the example of an extremely controversial Bill, such as, we will say, the Transport Bill. That measure received its Second Reading in another place in December, but did not reach this House, I think, until May. We had long and extremely useful discussions on the Bill, and many points which emerged were subsequently settled. The noble Marquess makes the point that in a case of that sort it might happen that a matter of acute difference would not arise until, say, July or after some such lapse of time. So, in fact, allowing that there will be a Recess for two months immediately afterwards, the amount of Parliamentary time available to consider the difference would be small—three or four months, I think, in that case. As I have said, I think there is considerable substance in that point, although I can make no promise at this stage.
The House of Commons, I may say, is very fair about this Bill. If, fortunately, we reach the Committee stage here—as I hope we shall—I can say quite frankly that that very important consideration will be considered in an entirely constructive spirit. I cannot say more than that, and what I have said must not be taken to imply that I am giving any pledge, since I do not know what is suggested. We are not wishful to restrict proper and adequate discussion of real differences. We believe, and we have abundant justification in the statements of those great masters of the Parliamentary art of the past whom I have just quoted, that one year is fully adequate.
Finally, may I put this to your Lordships? What advantage would there be 640 in rejecting this Bill? What would be gained? I know that it is the intention of the Government to go on with the Bill, even if it is rejected, and to take steps to ensure that it is passed under the Parliament Act. That can be done; and it would be done. Whilst I think that would be very unfortunate, it might be said that since the Conservative Party had not agreed to it, it was open to them to alter it hereafter. I heard that said when the Parliament Act was discussed, but nothing came of it. I do not think anything will come of this. As an old Member of another place—like so many of your Lordships—I never found the Conservative Members very anxious to increase the powers of the House of Lords. Not even Conservative Members were anxious to do that. Somehow or other, in regard to such a matter, there is a strange conservatism in the Members of the House of Commons, whatever their Party.
I suggest that there would be some obvious disadvantages in rejecting the Bill, and I hope your Lordships will not do it. This Bill has been passed by a large majority in another place, and Government spokesmen had to resist Amendments to restrict the time. It cannot be said that the Government have no authority from the people. It so happens, of course, that the present is a very exceptional time. We know the wretchedness of the times and the distresses that people have to put up with. Heaven knows, that is a matter which is in the minds of many of us all day long. Yet it is a remarkable fact—indeed it is an unprecedented fact—that this Government, with their large majority in the House of Commons, after two and a half years, have not lost a single by-election. At all events, that does go to show—so far as that is evidence—that they represent the people. Now if this Bill is passed, it means that that great Party consent to these arrangements. It is a very important factor in connexion with the future relations between the two Houses. I suggest, without in any way speaking loosely, that the rejection of this Bill might result in the loss of further chances of agreement with this great Party that is now in power. I can only say that that might be so. There is in this Bill no attack on the Second Chamber—none whatever. It is designed only to give a fairer chance to other Parties in 641 the State besides the Conservative Party. It is calculated to avoid future conflict. It is, in itself, a reasonable Bill, and I hope that it may well furnish another example of how British people, in accordance with the needs of the changing times, adjust their methods and their institutions without unseemly conflict and with fairness to one another. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a Second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Addison.)
§ 3.20 p.m.
The Marquess of SALISBURY moved as an Amendment to leave out all words after "That" and to insert:
While re-emphasizing its oft expressed readiness to consider proposals for modifying the basis of its membership which may conduce to the more effective performance of its constitutional duties, declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill
which would effect no change in this respect;
for which the nation has expressed no desire;
which would go far to expose the country to the dangers of a system of single chamber Government; and
which can only serve to distract the attention of the country from the economic crisis and from the united effort towards recovery which is so vital at this time.
The noble Marquess said
My Lords, I beg to move the Amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so I would add that this Bill, of which the Leader of the House has just moved the Second Reading in such charming and persuasive tones—if, I am afraid, with slightly specious arguments—is surely the very oddest measure ever brought before a British Parliament, taking into account the times in which it has been introduced. Our country at the present moment—and the Leader of the House made no reference to this at all—is admittedly facing the severest economic crisis in the whole of its long history. The American Loan has almost run out, and there is No 1mmediate prospect, so far as I know, of another. We have been thrown on our own resources at a moment when there is an annual gap of upwards of £600,000,000 between imports and exports. One would have thought that now, if ever, the whole energies and time of Parliament would have been occupied with 642 measures for attempting to surmount our present necessities. One would have imagined that any one, in any Party, would have recognized that national unity was a primary necessity and any Government with any spark of responsibility, if I may say so, would have avoided raising unnecessary issues which would tend further to divide the nation.
But what, in fact, have the Government done? Quite gratuitously, out of a blue sky, without any provocation, without any mandate—apparently they do not need a mandate—without any expression of the desire of the country, they have introduced a Bill, the only conceivable object of which is to enable them two years hence to pass another Bill for the nationalization of iron and steel, which can in its turn do nothing to deal with our economic troubles and on the desirability of which the Cabinet itself seems seriously divided. It is not even as if this iron and steel industry, the nationalization of which is, after all, the motive force behind the Bill—
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
Why is the Bill then introduced at the present time? The noble Viscount himself said that there were certain measures the Government might wish to introduce which might cause trouble with your Lordships' House. If it is not the iron and steel industry nationalization Bill, perhaps the noble Viscount will tell us what measures they are. Perhaps the noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor, will tell us at a later stage what they are. I still believe that it is iron and steel nationalization which is at the bottom of this measure, and that is what a large part of the British people believe, too. Yet that great industry under its present management has in comparatively recent weeks broken all records of production and shown that there is no need whatever for any alteration of its management. In the past, other industries have been nationalized because they were inefficient. Now I suppose we shall be told that iron and steel is to be nationalized because it is too efficient to be left in private hands. Moreover, what grounds are there for assuming what would be the attitude of your Lordships' House to such a Bill if it were introduced here? That must 643 depend on the character of the Bill itself. No one has seen this Bill or any of those other Bills the Leader of the House may have in mind. Probably most of them are not yet drafted and it is conceivable that some of them will never be introduced at all. Nor is it as if, since this Government have come into office, your Lordships' House has shown itself irresponsible or prone to reject Government measures on frivolous or inadequate grounds. On the contrary, we have passed Bill after Bill; and after every Bill has been passed into law we have been almost smothered with bouquets from Cabinet Ministers as to our wisdom and restraint and the statesmanship with which we have conducted our affairs. Now, out of the blue, like a bomb at the battle of flowers, there is thrown at us this unnecessary and, I should have said, if the measure were not so dangerous and pernicious, this slightly ridiculous Bill. What, in the light of all these compliments thrown at us, can be the meaning of it? I do not believe for a moment that it is the production of the brains of such men as the Leader of the House, the Lord Chancellor or the Prime Minister himself. The extremely fainthearted arguments the noble Viscount the Leader of the House found in favour of the Bill preclude any such assumption as that. I can only conceive that, in spite of what the Lord President has said, it is a sop offered to some of the more irresponsible members of the Government to try and keep them quiet for a few months more.
The Government have attempted to argue, and the Leader of the House has argued this afternoon, that this measure is necessary in order that the will of the people shall prevail. I must confess I am considerably intrigued by the argument that the view of the majority in Parliament is always identical with the will of the people at any given moment. I see a noble Lord opposite nodding his head, but it is entirely a new argument. I never heard it during the whole of the last twenty-five years. When the people happened to return a Conservative majority to Parliament, I never heard it mentioned. Only now, when, for the first time in their history, the Labour Party have obtained a clear majority in the House of Commons, this doctrine is propounded as if it were Holy Writ—and no doubt it will be put into cold storage 644 again after the next General Election. Indeed, it is an entirely false argument that the views of a temporary majority in the House of Commons and the will of the people are inevitably identical.
I do not, I hope, need to go back forty, fifty or sixty years, as the Leader of the House did, to try and find some arguments in favour of my thesis. After all, this argument of the Government rests on a fundamental misconception of the whole nature of the British Constitution. Ministers talk as if the House of Commons were a sovereign body—a sovereign body under His Majesty, the King; but, in fact, the House of Commons is not a sovereign body at all. It never has been. There is only one sovereign body under His Majesty the King, so far as I know, and that is the broad mass of the British people. It is perfectly true that, for convenience's sake, the electorate delegate certain powers to their elected representatives. But they never surrender their ultimate authority; and they would be most unwise if they did so. Experience shows that the elected representatives, whether of the Right or of the Left—it applies equally to both—very easily get out of touch with their electors. They may become the representatives, the voting counters, of a small clique holding certain views which are not in the least representative of the broad views of public opinion. As your Lordships know, that very often happens. It happened, as the Leader of the House will remember, in the State of Victoria in Australia only a few weeks ago.
In such circumstances, it is clearly essential that some machinery should exist which can enable great issues, on which the views of the people are not certainly known, to be adequately considered and, if necessary, referred back to the electors for their considered decision. That is the main purpose of the delaying powers which were reserved to the Second Chamber under the Parliament Act of 1911. They do not constitute, as is constantly said, quite wrongly, a power of veto. There has been no power of veto since the Parliament Act of 1911, except in the case where a Government attempts to prolong the life of Parliament; and that particular case is not touched by this Bill. At the most, the present power of the Second Chamber is power to refer back to the electors, the general mass of the people, questions on which there is 645 genuine doubt. And evidently it is a power which can be used only seldom and in a great emergency. If any Second Chamber were to abuse that power irresponsibly or frivolously, it would sign its own death warrant. To twist this very limited power, as the Prime Minister tried to do in the other place, into conferment on the Second Chamber of the right to interpret the will of the people really makes no sense at all. It is difficult to believe that he meant it seriously. Certainly I have never claimed that right, and I have never heard it claimed by anybody else in your Lordships' House during the time that I have been here.
The Lord President of the Council, at any rate, was more realistic in his attitude towards the Bill. But his doctrine—and the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, I am sorry to say, lent himself to it to-day—I found, if anything, even more shocking than that of his Leader. I quote from the Daily Herald of November 12 what I think is an extract from his speech in the Second Reading debate on this Bill in another place. Speaking of the present position, Mr. Morrison said that unless this Bill were passedthe Government could be forced by the Lords to go back to the electorate, saying plaintively that if only the electors will return them once again, they will brace themselves to give effect to promises made five years previouslyAnd not only such promises, by any means. For in another passage in the same speech the Lord President of the Council said:I notice that Lord Salisbury said at the beginning of this Parliament that the Lords ought to pass the measures for which the Government had a mandate. I presume that the unspoken corollary of this is that the Lords are free to reject measures which were not explicity before the electors at the General Election. The Government cannot accept this point of view.If that means anything at all, it means that the Lord President of the Council himself is opposed—as also, I gather, is the noble Viscount the Leader of the House—to the reference of any great and doubtful issues to the British people so long as that can be avoided, even if previously the people of the country, the general mass, the electorate, have had no opportunity at all of expressing an opinion on the measures in question.
Sometimes, of course, some issue comes forward on which the view of the people of this country is broadly known. I 646 should have thought that in the majority of cases that is true. But in rare cases, where there is doubt, or where there is violent criticism, I should have thought that it was common constitutional doctrine that the Government should consult the people. If they are unwilling to do this, and wish to override the people of this country, then I should have thought there ought to be some machinery in the Constitution to encourage them to take the action which would obviously be proper in any democratic country. I would have thought that that was common form, and I am astonished that it is doubted by anyone. After all, if the Second Chamber is not to have this power, why do the Government give to this House any power of delay at all? The whole of the noble Viscount's argument was apparently directed against any power of delay, whether of six months, one year, two years, or whatever it may be. I understood it to be so, and, in the light of what I heard, I was bound to come to the conclusion that he was against the power of delay. For the noble Viscount has made it clear to your Lordships that, in his view, any Government should have the right to interpret the views of the people, even when these were not accurately known. If that be so, then why have a Second Chamber at all; and why give any delaying power to that Second Chamber?
This doctrine of the Lord President of the Council, which was propounded in another place and which was repeated by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House this afternoon, is surely the doctrine of a blank cheque with a vengeance; and I should have thought it impossible to imagine anything more undemocratic. We, on this side of the House, and I believe the vast majority of the British people, entirely reject that doctrine. We. believe that the power of a Second Chamber to refer back to the electorate doubtful measures which deal with issues of the first importance is absolutely vital to the survival of democracy. We believe that that power provides probably the most essential safeguard in the Constitution. After all, the value of a Second Chamber does not lie merely in the fact that it exists; that is not the difference between people who believe in single Chamber Government and those who believe in bicameral government. It does not even lie merely in the fact 647 that it can rectify the errors and omissions of the First Chamber, though that is indeed a valuable function, as the events of the last two years clearly show.
The main importance of a Second Chamber, I submit to your Lordships, is not, indeed, as the Prime Minister said, "to act as a brake"—that, I should have thought, was the wrong metaphor. Rather is it like the apparatus in the automatic pilot of an aeroplane which prevents the machine swinging too far either to the right or to the left. As I see it, that is the function of a Second Chamber. And that equilibrium can be maintained only by some power of delay. This was indeed admitted, I think, by the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor, in his speech in the debate on the King's gracious Speech, when he said:I am not arguing for no delay at all. I have argued this matter out very thoroughly. I think it is inevitable and right that there should be a Revising Chamber and a Second Chamber, and I think that a Revising Chamber must have this sanction. I think they must be able to hold up a Bill for a limited period of time with all the disadvantages.The Lord Chancellor is the main constitutional adviser to the Government, and I am quite ready to accept his view on this point.
It is, my Lords, precisely in this connexion that the composition of the Second Chamber, which, in our view, is inseparably linked with its powers, becomes of such great importance. I entirely agree with the noble Viscount the Leader of the House that even the limited power of delaying legislation so that the British people may have more time to consider it is an extremely heavy and responsible function, and it is clearly vital that the body which exercises that function should be that most fitted to inspire confidence in the community as a whole. As I understand it—and the noble Viscount made it abundantly clear this afternoon—it is the view of the Government that the House of Lords, as at present constituted, is not such a body. If I may say so, here I personally believe that the Government are on stronger ground than in the rest of their argument.
It would, of course, be a mistake—and I am sure nobody would make it—to suggest that your Lordships' House is not in the broadest sense a responsible and even 648 a representative body. It probably contains a high proportion of the most distinguished men of the day in all walks of life. It is rich in elder statesmen, in ex-governors, in ex-diplomats, in economists and in famous leaders of the Services and of the Labour movement. When foreign affairs are under discussion, we have been able to call on such men as my noble relative, Viscount Cecil, the noble Earl, Lord Perth, and the noble Lord, Lord Vansittart. When India has been under discussion, we have been able to call upon the noble Lords, Viscount Simon, the author of the Simon Report, and Viscount Templewood; on the Earl of Halifax and the Marquess of Linlithgow, ex-Viceroys; on the Earl of Scarbrough, and a host of other noble Lords. When agriculture has been under discussion, we have been able to call on the noble Lords, Viscount Bledisloe, Lord Quibell, Lord Hastings, Lord Cranworth and many other noble Lords with personal knowledge of the subject with which they deal. The same is true of debates on labour questions. There we are able to call on the noble Lords, Lord Dukeston, Lord Morrison and Lord Quibell. I think one could indefinitely extend that list, which would be equally true of practically all other spheres of public life. Indeed, from the point of view of expert technical knowledge, I believe, if I may say so with all deference, that your Lordships' House compares extremely favourably with the Members of another place.
But it is still true to say, as the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, remarked this afternoon—although I thought his argument was rather an argument for our side of the case than his—that the representation of the Parties of the Right is at present considerably stronger in this House than that of the Parties of the Left. In addition, there are, as we all know, numbers of your Lordships who seldom attend our discussions, and that is certainly not a very satisfactory position.
I submit, therefore, that the case for the reform of the membership of your Lordships' House has a great deal to be said for it, and, as is known, this has never been denied by the House of Lords itself, at any rate for a great many years. I think I am right in saying that as far back as 1888 my grandfather, when he was a member of this House, introduced Bills, first, to create Life Peers, and 649 secondly, to eliminate those Peers who did not attend to their duties. Those Bills were not defeated by opposition from the Conservative Party in your Lordships' House; they had to be withdrawn owing to opposition in the House of Commons.
Since that date there have been many attempts on the part of your Lordships' House to initiate schemes of reform. I thought I detected a faint jeer in the voice of the noble Viscount when he said that there had been no attempt at reform in the last forty years. But if that is so, it is certainly not the fault of this House. My father—who was a good Conservative, if ever there was one—was responsible for more than one of those attempts. There are others which I could quote which came to grief, not because of opposition here, but because successive Governments and Houses of Commons—and it applies to all Parties alike in the other place—were unwilling to tackle so thorny a problem.
It is our chief regret that the Government have shown the same reluctance to-day. It is our main complaint against this Bill—as I hope we made clear by the Amendment which I have tabled—that the Government once more funk the problem of the membership, which in our view it is essential should be tackled if the House is to be modernized and made truly representative. The Bill merely cuts down drastically the powers of the House and so destroys the essential balance of the Constitution. We have been told by the representative of the Government in another place—and it has been repeated with considerable force by the noble Viscount this afternoon—that what I have said is an exaggeration of the position, and that the only effect of this Bill is to reduce the power of delay from two years to one.
The noble Viscount argued, if I understood him aright, that this Bill involves no fundamental alteration of the constitutional position. He put tremendous emphasis on that point. But, if I may use a simple metaphor, you might have a man who has two arms, and another man might come to him and say: "I propose to cut off one of your arms. It will make no alteration to your constitution." That might be quite true in the sense that it would not kill him, but it would make him quite unable to do his 650 job; and that, I am afraid, would be the effect upon this House of the abridgment of powers proposed in the present Bill.
Let us examine the argument that this Bill represents no fundamental alteration in the Constitution. I submit to your Lordships that it is utterly fallacious and misleading. What is in fact this one year's delay upon which the noble Viscount made so much play? He has already conceded that under the ordinary processes of Parliament an important Bill takes eight or nine months to go through the two Houses. He mentioned the Transport Act. It is, I suppose, a typical case. It is certainly true that this Act was introduced into the House of Commons for its Second Reading in December, 1946, yet it did not receive its Third Reading in your Lordships' House until the end of July, 1947. That was not because there was any delay. On the contrary, it was hustled through the House of Commons at breakneck speed by every form of machinery the Government could bring into use. A very large number of clauses, as your Lordships know, were never even discussed in the House of Commons before they were sent up here, and there was no delay here. Yet that Bill took between seven and eight months to go through Parliament. Your Lordships then separated for the summer recess and did not come back for three months. Yet had this new Bill been law at that time, and had the House of Lords thrown out the Transport Bill at the end of the summer, the Government could have brought it in again in December and it would immediately have become law.
That is not a power of delay as I understand the word. The effect of this Bill is really to truncate the powers of this House in such a way as to reduce it, as a balancing factor in the Constitution, to a mere farce. Such a truncation of powers I should have thought—whatever the Leader of the House feels about it—would quite definitely lay the country open to all the dangers of single-Chamber Government. In the course of his speech, the noble Viscount seemed to me to throw a delicate fly over us on this particular point. He admitted that the position as to the power of delay in the Bill was not entirely satisfactory. He was good enough to say that he thought in talks which I had had with him from time to time I had made a good case on that point, and I understood him to indicate 651 that there was a possibility that the Government might give further consideration to this particular aspect of the Bill. I do not want to press him upon' it to-day. He was obviously not in a position to say anything more than that. But I submit that in any case a small concession of powers would not go far enough for us, so long as the composition was not touched. I would appeal to the Government, even at this very late stage, to recognize—as I think it has already been recognized by thinking men and women in every Party—that the present Bill is not the way to tackle this admittedly difficult question. Introducing it as they have, the Government have made a bloomer, and by going on with the Bill as it stands they are perpetuating that bloomer. To press this Bill forward in its present form can only do infinite harm to the stability of the Constitution which all of us, in whatever place we sit in this House, are pledged to defend.
The noble Viscount the Leader of the House appealed in his closing passages to your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill in order, as I understood it, to create a better atmosphere. With every wish to help the noble Viscount in that respect, I am afraid I do not think that that is a course which we in this House could properly take. We should be abandoning the whole position that we have felt obliged to take up on pure grounds of principle, and we should be doing this without any assurance from the Government of a satisfactory agreement, either as to the powers or as to the composition of the House, in their joint interlinked aspects. Were we to pass the Bill in such circumstances as that, I am afraid we should be indeed unworthy trustees of our country's rights and liberties.
At the same time, I should not like this House, or the country, to think that in moving this Amendment I am taking up an entirely negative attitude. I should like to appeal to the Government, even at this late stage, to postpone the Bill and so enable discussions to take place between the leaders of the main Parties, with a view to producing a comprehensive scheme of reform which covers both composition and powers. I can assure the noble Viscount that we on this side of the House would be very ready to take part in such an examination, and I can assure him, too, that we should not be 652 tied by any preconceived ideas to this or that principle, whatever it might be. Our only object would be to ensure that the essential powers of a Second Chamber under the Constitution should be preserved and that the best and most acceptable body should be set up to exercise those powers.
I do not think I can make my offer in a plainer or more unequivocal form than that; and I assure the noble Viscount the Leader of the House that I make it in all good faith. I do not believe that this problem is insoluble if it is tackled with a real desire to find the solution. I am quite certain that it is one of those problems which is far better settled by agreement between Parties than imposed by one Party on another. If the Government are willing to respond to this appeal, on lines which we could accept, I should not of course press my Amendment to a Division at the present stage—if we reach that point. I therefore suggest that we should postpone the further examination of this Bill for the time being, and proceed to a joint consideration and examination of this problem, without any commitments on either side, in a decent orderly British manner. If, on the other hand, the Government feel unable to go even so far as that to meet us, I shall have no option but to ask your Lordships to vote for my Amendment and to reject the Bill for the reasons stated in the Amendment.
The dangers of any other course, I believe, would be too great. I believe, if I may say so, that these dangers are incalculable. Apart from anything else, the passing into law of this Bill in its present form would add a bitterness to Party politics which this country has not known for many generations. What is essential, if a Parliamentary democracy is to succeed, is that both Parties should know that if a Government, either of the Left or of the Right—because it applies equally to both—with a temporary majority in the House of Commons, were to introduce really extreme measures, there is in existence a Second Chamber able to stop them. If that protection were to be removed, the defeated Party—and, as I say, it applies equally to the Right and the Left—frantic with anxiety, might well begin to flirt with unconstitutional practices. To all of us who believe in Parliamentary democracy—and I am sure that this applies to every noble 653 Lord in this House—that would be the ultimate evil. That is a very real danger, which I entreat the Government not to ignore. They have to-day an opportunity, an opportunity which may not recur, to settle this problem as part of one single comprehensive agreement covering these two aspects, the powers and the constitution of the House. Let them grasp the opportunity and they will deserve well of their fellow countrymen.
If, on the other hand, they neglect it, and if they put too much power in the hands of the Executive with its temporary majority, they may well undo all the work of those who negotiated the settlement of the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and strike a severe, possibly a mortal, blow at the whole institution of Parliamentary democracy which is our greatest glory. I beg them not to stand upon the specious ground of necessity. Let them remember the words of William Pitt, which he used in the House of Commons 150 years ago:Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.We know how true that is from what has happened on the Continent during the last ten years.
In this controversy, it is not the interests of the Conservative Party or the Labour Party which are at stake. It is the rights and liberties of the people of England. I am sure that it is not the intention of such men as the noble Viscount the Leader of the House to abridge these. But that is the danger when men once begin to tinker with well-established and proved safeguards. We on this side of the House ask no more than that issues affecting the welfare of the electorate, where their judgment is unknown or doubtful, should be referred for their consideration, or at least deferred for a short time to enable their views to be found out. That is the whole reason for our stand for an effective Second Chamber. Can anyone say that it is unreasonable? If the present House of Lords is not the right body to exercise this power, let it be amended; but do not remove this essential safeguard against extreme action by the Right or by the Left. This is not a moment, I am sure we shall all agree, for playing Party politics. It is a moment for statesmanship of the highest order. In this great issue in our national 654 affairs I beg that the Government may not fail us. I beg to move.
Leave out all words after "That" and insert:
While re-emphasizing its oft expressed readiness to consider proposals for modifying the basis of its membership which may conduce to the more effective performance of its constitutional duties, declines to give a Se: ond Reading to a Bill
which would effect no change in this respect;
for which the nation has expressed no desire;
which would go far to expose the country to the dangers of a system of single chamber Government; and
which can only serve to distract the attention of the country from the economic crisis and from the united effort towards recovery which is so vital at this time.
—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)
§ 3.58 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT SAMUEL
My Lords, since this Bill was first brought before Parliament the issue has been greatly enlarged and the discussion expanded, and the Amendment which is now before your Lordships' House and which is therefore the subject of our present debate brings in all these wider issues. Indeed, the noble Marquess who is the Leader of the Party which has the loyal support of a great majority of the members of this House, has declared to-day that in his view it is essential—"essential" was his word—that the question of the composition of this House should be taken into active consideration. I share that view. Indeed, on November 18 last I addressed to the Government a question in the following terms:To ask whether they are prepared to summon a conference of representatives of the three Parties in this House with a view to considering the question of the constitution of the House of Lords.To this the noble Viscount the Leader of the House gave a reply that was not a direct negative, but merely said that in his view the moment was not propitious. In the later exchanges that followed in your Lordships' House he said that if there could be a general agreement for reform of our constitution, that would be a happy event, and he suggested that we might bring up the matter on a later occasion.
I thereupon put down a question, with no day fixed, in similar terms; and during the Christmas recess I wrote to the noble 655 Viscount, Lord Addison, and asked him whether it would be convenient for him to give a reply on that issue before this debate took place to-day. He answered very courteously that he thought it would be better if the reply could be given in the House in the course of this debate rather than under the much more restricted conditions that would have to govern a question and answer. In accordance with that invitation, I beg now to address to the noble Viscount the question which stands upon the Order Paper under the heading "No day named"—namely, whether the Government have been able to give further consideration to the advisability of summoning an all-Party conference on the issue of the composition of the House of Lords. I trust that the noble Viscount may be able, at whatever stage of this debate he thinks would be most convenient to the House and to the Government, to give an answer to that question, for upon the answer must depend, in some degree, the speeches of perhaps many noble Lords who have given notice of their desire to contribute to the debate, and possibly may depend the vote taken in the House at the end of our discussion.
Any movement to amend the Parliament Act must bring prominently into light the fact that that Act itself is avowedly incomplete. I remember well all the discussions that took place on that Bill. I am one of the very few surviving members of the Cabinet of that day. It is some thirty-seven years since that Bill was passed, but it was passed by Parliament with its Preamble, and that Preamble included a definite declaration of policy. It stated thatit is intended to substitute … a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.Therefore it was proposed to proceed in the first instance to deal with the powers of the House, and not its constitution. Thirty-seven years have gone by. The phrase "not immediately" was certainly not an over-statement. There are some—and in all Parties—who would be prepared to leave that issue in abeyance indefinitely. They say that, after all, the system does not work too badly; that the House of Lords contains many men of the highest ability and repute; that its debates 656 have risen to a very high standard of excellence, and that by general consent, it performs admirably its duties as a Chamber to revise the terms of all Bills introduced, before they become Acts of Parliament.
I suggest to your Lordships that that ought not to be the final word on this matter. It is a grave weakness in any constitution for one of its essential organs to rest upon a basis which no one can seriously defend; and the overwhelmingly hereditary character of this Chamber is not now defended by any Party in the State or by any student of the British Constitution. During the war years, when controversy was in abeyance, and for some time after, the defects in the constitution of the House of Lords were not apparent; but the moment controversy revives in this country, the fact will immediately spring to light that, while there are over 800 members of this House, and, in ordinary circumstances, the actual administration of affairs here is left to what might be called a working party of about 100 members, in the background there are this great body of members who, at any moment, can come and intervene, and who are responsible to no one but themselves, and do not always follow the advice of their own leaders. The attendance of even 100 of them would determine absolutely the part that this House might play in great political controversies.
The noble Marquess has just said that it is not a satisfactory condition that so many members of your Lordships' House never or rarely attend. But if all the 800 members were to attend on all occasions, the institution would instantly collapse. In fact, I think that this is undoubtedly the only institution in the world which is kept efficient by the persistent absenteeism of the great majority of its members. If it has survived so long, although it is regarded on all hands as being indefensible in principle, the reason surely is that there is no agreement in any quarter as to how it should be changed. What should be the substitute? As the noble Marquess has said, the Conservative Party has frequently put forward proposals which, however, have all involved, not the elimination of the hereditary principle, but rather its strengthening, by retaining in this House the very quintessence of the hereditary Peerage, in the selection of a very considerable body of their own members by 657 the Peerage itself. The effect of that would be that the composition of this House would remain overwhelmingly Conservative.
At the present time, from various public declarations, we understand that the Conservative Party and its members in this House would not now insist upon either of those principles. The fact that that is so, if indeed it is so, makes it possible now, for the first time, for a general agreement to become feasible between the three Parties. As for the Labour Party, they have never put forward any specific proposals for a new Second Chamber, partly because a number of their members do not desire any Second Chamber but believe in a single-Chamber Constitution. A larger number, probably, have been unwilling to take any action because they do not wish to see the time of Parliament spent on what might be a prolonged constitutional controversy when there are so many other matters of much greater urgency and of much more human importance which should command the attention of the electorate and of the Legislature. Further, there are others in their ranks who think that it would be much better to leave the situation as it is, because the Second Chamber is so obviously identified with the policy of the Conservative Party that its powers and its influence can be reduced to a minimum with the assent of the electorate.
As for the Liberals, who are responsible for the Parliament Act and for its Preamble, which included a proposal which our Leader, Mr. Asquith, said at that time "brooked no delay," we inserted as the basis for a new Constitution a popular instead of an hereditary Chamber. The word "popular" was used, and not "elected." But in accordance with the traditions of democracy, it implied in some degree that authority should rest directly or indirectly upon the electorate and should derive from them. The Liberal Party from time to time has been inclined to favour the principle of the election of at any rate the greater part of the members to the Second Chamber by the House of Commons. As early as 1912, the year after the passing of the Parliament Act, the Cabinet of the day appointed a Committee, of which I was a member. I was deputed to draft a scheme for a new Second Chamber on those lines. I did so, 658 but it never came before the Cabinet. Other matters of a more exciting character came along, and nothing more was heard of that proposal. The scheme, however, formed part of the plan of Lord Lansdowne somewhat later or about that time, for the constitution of the Second Chamber. It was the main feature in the proposals of the Bryce Conference, which sat in 1917 and 1918.
By a majority, although some of its most important members, dissented, that Conference proposed the principle of election by the House of Commons as the main feature of the new Chamber. That principle was adopted by Parliament itself when constituting the new Parliament in Northern Ireland, where the Second Chamber is appointed almost entirely by election by the Lower House. But, although the Liberal Party have been somewhat inclined to that proposal in the past, it has been without enthusiasm and without any great conviction, because all of us felt that there were serious objections to it. It was somewhat uncertain what kind of members might be appointed by the geographical colleges which it was proposed to set up within the House of Commons; and it might be that such a Chamber might claim some representative quality, and challenge the authority of the House of Commons itself. There the matter has rested for the last thirty-seven years. That may be dilatoriness by all three Parties, and it may be reprehensible. On the other hand, it has had this advantage: that at the moment no one is definitely committed to any scheme; none of the Party leaders is tied by any plan inserted as an article in his Party programme and passed by the Party assembly.
I do not propose now to go further into this question of what might be a desirable composition for a new Second Chamber. If an all-Party conference were summoned, that would be the very matter with which they would immediately have to deal, and to discuss it to-day in this debate, I venture respectfully to suggest, would be premature. We would quickly find ourselves involved in all kinds of matters of detail, and a discussion in this House at this juncture might prove to be a hindrance, rather than a help, to a settlement. But I desire to say now, on behalf of the Liberal Party in this House, that we should be very ready, and indeed 659 most happy, to enter into such a conference, without being tied to any formula. We should be willing to pool our ideas with those of others, and with a keen desire to arrive at an agreed solution.
With regard to the actual provision in the Bill for shortening the period in which measures can be suspended by the House of Lords before they come into law under the provisions of the Parliament Act, I have a few observations to address to your Lordships. The provision in the Bill is that the period should be one year, instead of two years, dating from the first Second Reading in the House of Commons, which is the provision of the Parliament Act. As was stated by the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, in his opening speech, only two Acts have been passed into law under the provision of the Parliament Act. They were the Government of Ireland Act and the Welsh Church Act. I would like to draw your Lordships' special attention to the dates in connexion with those Acts. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, has just told us about the Transport Act. I would like to cite, as evidence of the importance of this matter, the actual course of events of those other measures. That will show what has been the practical experience with this Act of Parliament in operation.
The Government of Ireland Act was given its Second Reading in the House of Commons on May 9, 1912. It did not reach Third Reading in that House until January 16, 1913, and it was read a first time—a formal Reading—in your Lordships' House on the same day. The Welsh Church Act was read a second time in the House of Commons on May 16, 1912, a week after the other. It did not obtain its Third Reading in the House of Commons until February 5, 1913, and it was read formally in this House for the first time on the same day. If the Bill which is before us to-day had been in force at that time, the Government of Ireland Bill, which reached the House of Lords on the date that I have given, might have become law within three months and three weeks. With the Welsh Church measure, the period would have been three months and eleven days. That would be the state of things in the future in regard to any great controversial Bill. It might wait for many months in the House of Commons, and come to this House with a large part of the year already gone.
660 It is only when a Bill has been passed by the House of Commons, and when it has been rejected, or is about to be rejected, by this House, that the country becomes alive to the situation. The noble Viscount said that the period of one year was ample time in which popular interest could be aroused. But even a year is hardly sufficient to mobilize opinion, to fight a measure at by-elections, to carry on propaganda and generally to arouse popular feeling. If the period is reduced to three months and three weeks, or three months and eleven days—as it would have been in the two cases I have mentioned—that is clearly totally inadequate to fulfil the purpose of having any delay at all.
Nor would it fulfil the avowed intentions of the present Government, for in the Committee stage of this Bill in the House of Commons, Amendments were moved by the more extreme members of the Labour Party. One was to reduce the period, not to twelve months but to six months; another was to reduce it to one month. The Lord President of the Council, Mr. Morrison, opposed those Amendments, and urged that a full year was necessary for the Bill's purpose. He stated that if there was to be a measure of agreement at all between the two Houses and within the Constitution, the provision of the Bill which embodies the principle of one year was necessary. I think he could not have realized that the year was not a full year. Therefore a very important question is whether we are to retain two years gross, as it may be called (as provided in the Parliament Act) or one year net, as might be proposed in the present Bill. Upon the acceptance of an Amendment dealing with this point a great deal may depend.
The noble Viscount said that he would not reject off-hand any such proposal. He said very clearly that the Government do not regard the text of this Bill as sacrosanct, and that if the Bill reached Committee stage they would certainly give full attention to any Amendment of this character—and presumably any other character—for which a strong and reasonable case could be made out. Well, the amendment to the 1911 Act that I would propose in Committee would be a very brief and a very simple one. It is: in Section 2, subsection (1) of this Bill, where the Second Reading in the House of Commons is referred to, that the word "Second" should be left out and 661 there should be inserted the word "Third." If this were accepted it would be left to the House of Commons to say when that one year should start. In other words, it would date the delay from the time the Bill leaves the House of Commons instead of from the time they begin its deliberation. It seems to me that that is a matter to which the Government might quite reasonably be asked to give consideration, for the reasons that have really bee well stated in another place by Mr. Morrison himself. While I would not assert that the actual wording of his speech there would compel the Government to accept an Amendment of this kind, I do suggest that the spirit of his speech in resisting the proposal for six months or one month was such as to cover an Amendment of the character which I now suggest.
The conclusion from this argument is that this House ought to be willing to let this Bill go to Committee and see what takes place there. I would also very respectfully submit to the noble Marquess who has just spoken, and to those who favour his general view, that there is another reason for that course; and it was mentioned by the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House. Whether we carry the noble Marquess's Amendment and defeat the Bill on Second Reading or whether we do not will make no difference whatever to the course of events. If the Motion for the Second Reading is defeated, then the Bill goes forward under the provisions of the Parliament Act, and reaches the Statute Book in November next year. Under the present law, it would reach the Statute Book, in effect, in November, 1949. And not only this Bill: under the retrospective provision, the Steel Bill or any other Bill introduced this Session or next Session would also pass by exactly the same date.
Therefore, I submit, no substantial result would be achieved by throwing out the Bill on Second Reading. It would be merely a gesture. Instead of wringing our hands in silence we should be shaking our fist in the faces of the Government, but it would be a gesture, and nothing more, and for any substantial political result the one would be as futile as the other. On the other hand, if we give the Bill a Second Reading and insert during the Committee stage the Amendment I have suggested, an im- 662 portant change would thereby be made which would be of substantial value not only for the immediate future but for all future time so long as this Parliament Act remains on the Statute Book.
There is a third reason to which I would invite the consideration of your Lordships. I think that the House as a whole, and the country at large, attach importance, to the effect of an agreed settlement, if that be possible, of the issue of the constitution of the House of Lords. If this Bill is rejected on Second Reading, the immediate result must, of course, be a considerable popular agitation. The Government and its supporters throughout the country would regard this as a very useful factor at immediate by-elections and at the next General Election, and would naturally make the most of it; they could hardly be expected to do otherwise. As to whether it would have much result or not, opinions may differ. But necessarily there would be agitation, controversy, speeches, denunciations; and "fresh Tory activities of the House of Lords" would be brought prominently before the masses of the electorate. The effect of that politically might, or might not, be considerable, but: the effect upon any conference such as we have suggested, to arrange by agreement a solution of the House of Lords question, could hardly fail to be disastrous. It is true that, in these matters, atmosphere is of importance, and if you shake your fist in the face of the other person the atmosphere is not likely to be improved thereby.
Such a conference ought to be small, informal and private. It certainly should include members of both Houses. My own question referred only to members of this House, for the reason that I thought it would be improper for a private member of this House to put on the Order Paper any suggestion that involved the consent of the other Chamber. Undoubtedly, a matter that affects the whole Constitution ought to be considered by the leaders in both Houses. Members of that conference ought not to be set to examine, in academic spirit and after long research, various possible alternatives to this Chamber; they ought not to be persons of secondary rank. If I may respectfully suggest it, such a conference should consist of the principal members of the Government and, similarly, of the leaders of the other Parties. They would not commit their followers beforehand to any- 663 thing. They would necessarily have to refer the matter to their followers. But if the leaders came to an agreement on a plan, there would be every hope that the general body of their supporters would follow. For our own part, I may say that we Liberals would be ready to enter into a conference of that kind and in that spirit.
When great measures come before your Lordships there are always two important matters which we have to keep in mind. I have said this often, and others have said it also. We have to bear in mind the merits of the issue, and also the wisdom and expediency of throwing out a measure which we consider to be, on balance, a bad one. Again and again, Conservatives and Liberals here have taken a different course from the course these Parties have taken in the other place, and no one has accused either Conservatives or Liberals of being either inconsistent or faint-hearted for doing so. The House of Lords, in its wisdom—and the whole country acknowledges that the House has shown great wisdom in refraining from exercising its powers except under real necessity—frequently passes, with Amendments (even though those Amendments are later rejected) measures of which it disapproves.
With regard to this Bill, I think that it is a bad Bill. Some of my noble friends do not agree with me. I think that the two-year provision in the Parliament Act is right and that the shortening of the term is wrong. I also think that there ought to be very full opportunities for discussions upon this matter in the country. I think, further, that the Steel Nationalization Bill promises to be a most harmful measure, and I would not do anything to give it more facilities than it would otherwise receive. At the same time, I have to recognize that to throw out this Bill, as I have said, will give no good results, while to pass it through Committee might give some results.
But, above all, I hope that there may be a conference, and that that conference may result in a solution being found. Having been actively engaged in this controversy for nearly fifty years, and having taken part, on behalf of the Government, in the great discussions in the House of Commons at the time of the Campbell-Bannerman Government and after, 664 I do not hesitate to say that it appears to me that the time is now more propitious than at any period in the past for a general settlement by agreement of this issue. That, indeed, is the governing consideration in my mind. Perhaps many of your Lordships may agree with me.
In concluding my speech, I would emphasize that particular aspect. This is not merely a question of a momentary expedient in view of a troublesome situation; it raises a very much wider issue. It may, in fact, be a test case in the working of our democratic system. I have always been a Party man, because I believe the Party system is necessary to the working of democracy, and I agree there, though in not much else, with Disraeli, who said that without Party the Parliamentary system would be impossible. The alternative to the Party system could only be some form of totalitarian Government, presided over by a dictator or by a group—and we have had bitter experience of that in our own life-time. But the Party system, as we all know and agree, is liable to very great abuses, and it is the failure in the working of the Party system which has brought down democracy in Central Europe, threatens to bring it down in France and Italy, and now is causing such terrible difficulties in countries like Greece and other parts of the world.
In this country we have always shown greater restraint. We are often taunted by people who are unfamiliar with our Parliamentary system with being merely engaged in walking through the Lobbies in obedience to the Party Whips, engaged in trying to thwart each other's efforts, whether they are good or bad. That is quite untrue. Most of the great social Statutes which are the glory of our modern Statute Book have been passed, following controversy in their early stages, but afterwards by the general assent of all Parties. In 1918 all outstanding issues on almost all of the questions of franchise—a bitter subject of dispute between Liberals and Conservatives—were settled by agreement. In recent years, the question of religious education in primary schools, which divided the whole nation and was a crucial issue at one memorable General Election, was settled in Mr. Butler's Act by general agreement. At moments of great national stress there 665 have been Coalition Governments—in the war of 1915, an the economic crisis of 1931, and in the war of 1940. Both world wars were conducted by all-Party Governments. Now our foreign policy is on a non-Party basis. Nothing has been lost by these arrangements, but very much has been gained. A necessary part of the working of the Party system in this country is really for the Parties to know when to suspend Party controversy.
Is it not possible now to bring to a close the whole controversy about the Second Chamber by devising a new Chamber which no Party would struggle to control, which would be outside the Party system altogether, and whose members would be appointed mainly on a basis of fitness and service and apart from Party ties? The House of Commons would remain on a Party basis, the result of competition and conflict in the constituencies, working out the principle of majority rule, representing the people in order to retain the real power in the State. But the Second Chamber might have as its distinguishing feature that it would not be partisan, that it brought fresh minds to bear with a different approach. It would be fertile in suggestions, though limited in its powers of enforcing them. Whether on these lines, or on any other, it would surely be a fine achievement to settle this issue by general consent. If the conference showed that there were deep divisions of opinion here, in the Commons or in the country, then indeed it could not be done within this Parliament, and we would have to go to the country for a fresh mandate.
I think we can come to a general agreement—under protest no doubt from extremists at each end of our political range. Those whose spiritual home is the last ditch would no doubt make their voices heard, but I believe that it would be quite possible for the leaders of the three Parties at this moment to agree upon a scheme which would command the assent of four-fifths of this nation. That would be a sign of great moral and political strength in our ancient Constitution, and especially in this House. Its long centuries of service to Britain would culminate in an act of statesmanship which would live for ever in history. It would be brought to a conclusion at the cost of self-sacrifice on the part of individual members, but your Lordships' House would be able to provide for its own continuance in a finer 666 form, able to render to the people better service, while embodying still, as I hope and believe may be provided, what is best in its ancient traditions and its present membership. If this were brought about, the world would say now, and history would say in the future, that the practical political genius which has often been attributed to the British people is not a figment and is not extinct: it can prove in our own times to be a living reality.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
My Lords, may I be allowed to intervene? I have been asked two questions by the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition, and by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, and I think it would be useful and acceptable to your Lordships if I were to intervene to answer them. The Government have given careful consideration to the question of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and to that in similar terms of the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, of which previous notice had been given. The Government regard the passing of this Bill in the form now before us, or with any agreed Amendments, as essential. When this has been done, they will be willing at a later stage in this Session to discuss, without prejudice on either side, the issues raised in the noble Marquess's question.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I shall, I am sure be representing the view of all noble Lords here when I thank the Leader of the House for his intervention and for his statement, which will no doubt tend to clear the air. We are all well aware of the strenuous efforts the noble Viscount is making to find a settlement of this very difficult question. But, having said that, I must confess that I was deeply disappointed at the nature of his offer. I have no doubt that the House will wish to look at it again in black and white. It would be only courteous to the noble Viscount to do so. But I cannot at present feel that it contains the necessary prerequisites for fruitful negotiation. So long as the Government cling to their insistence, as I understand they do, on the present Bill, dealing with powers, being passed, without relation to any negotiation on the composition of the House, I cannot see any hope of a successful and all-embracing agreement. Nor can I see, if the Leader 667 of the House will forgive my saying so, any sense or reason in the Government's refusal to discuss these two subjects together. How can one possibly know what powers a body ought to have until one has decided what body is to exercise these powers?
I have never understood the reason for the strange insistence of the Government on passing this particular Bill. It has occurred to me that a possible explanation—perhaps it is not the right one—is that they are afraid that, in some way, to postpone this Bill and to enter into such negotiations as I suggested in my speech would delay the final date of its passage. If that is so, I would urge the Leader of the House to impress on his colleagues, if that is necessary, that they entirely misapprehend the position. They lose nothing by agreeing to postponement in order to get a comprehensive agreement. As the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, said in another context in his speech just now, the two years' delay imposed by the Parliament Act of 1911 starts with the Second Reading in the House of Commons. This Bill passed its Second Reading in the other place on November 11, 1947. They will get their Bill on November 11, 1949. Nothing that we or the Government can do between these dates will alter that fundamental fact. They can, therefore, enter into a comprehensive negotiation on the powers and composition of the House without any apprehension that that will delay the final passage of the Bill; and they might even get an agreed solution earlier if the negotiations were fruitful and successful. I should have thought that must be the sensible course to adopt.
I have explained how strongly we feel (and we do, indeed, feel strongly about it) that the composition and the powers should be regarded as indissolubly linked. I hope, too, that I have shown in what I have said that a conference to discuss both points need not delay by a single day the coming into force of this Bill. I also believe—I am certain that every noble Lord in the House does—that such a conference is in the national interest, and offers what is probably the only chance of an agreed solution. I would, therefore, ask the noble Viscount the Leader of the House to consider this aspect once more with his colleagues, particularly in the light of the argument 668 which I have just adduced. I believe that it is a very formidable one to meet, because it is based on common sense and the facts of the situation. I am willing to look at what the noble Viscount has said to-day. I think very little of it, but I am willing to look at it. He, on his part, should surely be ready to put before his colleagues for their consideration what I have said. If he would give me an assurance to that effect, I would be willing—though I do not know what my supporters will say—for the debate to be adjourned until Monday, to enable my point to be put to the Government, and to enable us to look at what has been said by the noble Viscount. As I say, I do not think much of it, but at the same time he has made an offer, and I think we had better look at it; indeed, I think it would be very discourteous to the Government not to do so.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
My Lords, If I may have leave to answer the noble Marquess, I would like to assure him that the Government gave very long and careful consideration to the question of dealing separately with powers and composition. It was that very careful consideration which led to the form of the statement I have just made. I will certainly bring to the attention of my colleagues the very urgent representations made by the noble Marquess. I hope that he will not think it unappreciative on my part if, in saying that, I add that he knows very well that I am not being committed to any fruitful result.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
I will do my best, and I will inform my colleagues of the contentions of the noble Marquess on this matter. I hope, too, that when he has had a look at it in cold print the noble Marquess will think better of the statement which I have made. I am sure that it is worthy of prolonged consideration. If it will be suitable, I will naturally defer to the suggestion made by the noble Marquess and agree to the adjournment of the debate. If that Motion is agreed to, I shall be compelled to make some requests to the House as to how they will help us to accommodate ourselves to the new situation, which might be very inconvenient to some people. If I have that permission, I will certainly make those comments when the time 669 comes. In the meantime, in complete good faith. I will certainly impress upon my colleagues the strong representations which the noble Marquess has made.
§ LORD TEVIOT
My Lords, the atmosphere makes it very difficult to make a speech on this all-important subject.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
I do not wish to shut out the noble Lord, but I think the right course would be to move the adjournment of the debate until Monday, and the noble Lord will then be the first speaker. I take it that the noble Marquess agrees to that course.
§ Moved, That this debate be adjourned until Monday next.—(Viscount Addison.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
My Lords, before moving that the House do now adjourn, I should like to make a statement which is clearly very urgent. In the first place, the debate having been adjourned until Monday, I hope that we shall have the whole of Monday and not have to begin at four o'clock. I would like to ask the noble and teamed Viscount on the Woolsack whether he can arrange with his legal colleagues for us to start at half past two on Monday.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (Viscount Jowitt)
If I might answer that question, I would say that I have no doubt, in view of the importance of the event, that my legal colleagues will readily concur to forgo Monday afternoon so that we may start at 2.30 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
That matter having been cleared up, I must remind the noble Marquess that we have a very long list of speakers on this debate. Last night, when I saw the list, it totalled thirty-nine, and it appeared to be growing. Far be it from me to put your Lordships to any unnecessary inconvenience but, in view of the exceptional circumstances, I wonder whether you would agree to sit after dinner. If your Lordships were agreeable to that, it would probably mean that the debate could be concluded on Tuesday. I have no strong feeling on this matter; I am in the hands of the House entirely. However, your Lordships will see that it is going seriously to dislocate the plan of Government business. I 670 shall have to appeal to the good will of your Lordships later on, in order to expedite the passage of one or two measures which are urgent; but that can be discussed through the usual channels. Having secured that we meet at half past two on Monday, I am now putting to your Lordships that you might consider sitting after dinner, in which event I hope we shall conclude the debate on Tuesday. If your Lordships are not willing to do that, then we must carry the debate on to Wednesday. I am entirely at your service, and details can be discussed through the usual channels if an understanding is arrived at on that basis.
§ VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD
My Lords, I should like to know whether that means that we shall start this debate at two-thirty o'clock.
§ VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD
I hope that arrangements will not be entirely changed by some fresh statement by the Government; but, knowing what Governments are, we cannot count on that. Is it the suggestion of the noble Viscount that we shall sit at two-thirty on Monday, and carry on until midnight, and then sit again at two-thirty on Tuesday, and carry on until we reach a decision? We do not want to arrive on Monday and find that we are asked to discuss until midnight some measure which is not on the Paper at all.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
I can assure the noble Viscount that the House will not be asked to discuss matters in vacuo in that way. My suggestion—and I am making it for only one day, because I think we shall then find out how we are getting on—is that we should meet at two-thirty on Monday, that we should have an adjournment for dinner and then carry on until eleven o'clock. That was what was in my mind. If we then felt it was desirable or necessary to repeat that Sitting on Tuesday, we would do so; but I would rather wait until Monday to see how we get on. Otherwise we would resume the debate on Tuesday at 2.30, when we should, I hope, conclude without the necessity for a late Sitting. We would be perfectly willing to defer to the wish of the House.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, certain points arise on this matter. There are, of course, a number of 671 noble Lords who do not live in London and who might find it difficult to stay until a late hour. There are other noble Lords who find that the atmosphere of this House, completely packed with people for a long period, is not a good one. There is also the possibility—in fact one may say the probability—of a Division. We do not want to have a Division at about eleven o'clock at night—that would be a most unseemly affair in this House. Therefore, I think there is something to be said for sitting late on Monday night, and then we can see how we get on. It might be possible to get through at an early hour on Tuesday, or we could then postpone the debate till Wednesday. I think two late nights would be a very bad plan.
§ THE EARL OF HALIFAX
My Lords, before the noble Viscount replies, may I ask one thing? Will this proposed timetable for Monday operate in all circumstances, or only if the Parliament Bill is the business under consideration?
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
It must be the Parliament Bill, which we have adjourned until Monday. So far as I know, there is no question of any other business being taken on Monday afternoon. If it were not for the Parliament Bill we should not meet.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
I thought the noble Earl was referring to some modification of our procedure on the Bill. Of course this would be the only business.
§ VISCOUNT STANSGATE
Of course, the debate on Monday would be very much affected by the parleys that go on between now and Monday. I would like to ask the noble Viscount at what stage in the debate on Monday we shall be informed whether any progress has been made with what I consider is a not very hopeful prospect of accord.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
I think that a statement would necessarily have to be 672 made at the beginning. I might point out that this leaves to-morrow rather void. There are one or two starred questions on the Order Paper and a statement to be made by the noble Viscount, the First Lord of the Admiralty. On Thursday we shall proceed with the Overseas Resources Development Bill, which is already on the Order Paper. We shall do our best to adjust other matters by the usual methods, and the business for Tuesday next will be postponed.