HL Deb 21 March 1951 vol 170 cc1241-6

2,37 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask His Majesty's Government the Question of which I have given private notice.


My Lords, on a point of Order: May we know what the Question is?


The Question is:

To ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any statement to make on the invitation made by the Leader of the House to the Leaders of the Opposition Parties to discuss the position of Peers of Parliament who are members of the Boards of socialised undertakings, including the B.B.C.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me this opportunity of informing the House that these discussions have taken place and memoranda have been exchanged, and, as a result, I am able on behalf of the Government to make a statement to which the Leaders of the Parties opposite have agreed:

  1. 1. In the first place, we are agreed that only the Peer concerned can in the last resort decide whether he shall speak in the House on a particular occasion.
  2. 2. Nevertheless, we are agreed there are certain general considerations which it would be right that the House and the Peer should take into account.
  3. 3. When questions affecting a particular Board or public Boards in general arise in Parliament, the parent Minister and the Government of the day generally are alone responsible to Parliament. The 1242 duty of reply rests with Ministers only, and cannot devolve upon members of public Boards who may also be members of the House of Lords. There can be no question of Board members replacing, or usurping the functions of, Ministers and dealing with matters of Ministerial responsibility. In the Commons, of course, the possibility could not arise, because a Member of that House must resign his seat on accepting an appointment of this nature.
  4. 4. Further, we agree that it is important that, as contemplated by the Statutes and, in the case of the B.B.C., by the Charter, the Boards shall be free to conduct their day-to-day administration without the intervention of Parliament or Ministers, except where otherwise provided. If Board members who happen also to be Peers were to give the House information about the day-to-day operations of the Board or to answer criticisms respecting it, the House would in fact be exercising a measure of Parliamentary supervision over matters of management. It would also be difficult for the responsible Minister not to give similar information to the House of Commons.
  5. 5. We also agree that there is no duty upon the Board member to answer questions put to him in debate, and that no criticism should attach to any member of a Board who refrains from speaking in a debate. Nor should the fact that a member spoke in a particular debate be regarded in any way as a precedent for him or any other member speaking in any other debate.
  6. 6. Finally, I should like to make it clear that what I have said applies only to debates relating to public Boards. Experience acquired as a member of a public Board will often be relevant to general debates in which the same considerations o not arise, and the contributions of Board members who are Peers may be all the more valuable because of that experience.
  7. 7. We do not think that this Statement can better be summed up than by words taken from one of the memoranda exchanged:
The House of Lords is a sensible body; and the latitude to speak or refrain from speaking, inherent in a Peer, is not likely to cause embarrassment. Indeed, any attempt to lay down a hard and fast rule would be more likely to cause embarrassment.

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I much regret that my noble Leader Lord Salisbury is unable to be here to-day, but we have been in this business together, and in what I am about to say I know that I am expressing his views as well as my own. As the noble Viscount the Leader of the House has said, his statement is in no sense an instruction or a directive. Indeed, no Leader of the House could instruct any of your Lordships when he should or should not speak. Certainly, no Leader of the House so wise and sympathetic to the ways of this House as is the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, who leads it at present, would be in the least likely to attempt to do so. What the noble Viscount the Leader of the House has done is to offer advice on a rather difficult matter, advice which I think all your Lordships will agree is advice that any of your Lordships would both give and accept.

There is one passage in the Statement, paragraph 4, on which I should like to lodge a caveat. It does not affect in any way the advice which the Leader of the House has given as regards members of Boards who are also members of this House. With that my noble friend Lord Salisbury and I are in complete accord. But there is in the Statement a passage which deals with matters affecting the conduct of nationalised Boards, which would reasonably be a matter of Parliamentary Question and debate, and which suggests that it would not be reasonable to raise questions of day-to-day management. I do not think any of us in any quarter of the House is satisfied that we have yet found a complete answer to this problem of how we are to deal in debate with the national Boards, and how far matters with which they are concerned should be debated. Indeed, I believe that this is another of those matters on which it would be dangerous to try to lay down a hard and fast rule. Let me give your Lordships an example. If the 8.45 train was late one morning, I think we should all agree that that was not a suitable matter for Parliamentary debate. On the other hand, if all the trains were late every morning then, although that might be a matter of day-to-day management or mismanagement, it would clearly also be a matter of public interest which it would be the right and duty of Parliament to discuss. I am sure that the noble Viscount the Leader of the House will not dissent from what I have just said. I feel it is right to place on record this caveat, lest anyone might mistakenly think that in agreeing to what has been said to-day we were limiting the fair scope of Parliamentary discussion.


My Lords, I much regret that my noble friend Lord Samuel cannot be in his place to-day, but I know that he was consulted about this Statement, and that he fully agrees to it. I should like to associate myself and noble Lords who sit behind me with the tribute which the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, has paid to the Leader of the House. It is no idle compliment: we greatly appreciate his methods of leadership, and we hope that he will enjoy his new responsibilities. As regards the Statement itself, we too had some hesitation about the words to which the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, has called attention, "day-to-day administration." Those words may prove rather difficult to define, but we feel that the definition can well be left to the common sense which the Statement rightly attributes to your Lordships' House.


My Lords, I think we ought to know where we stand in this particular debate. A private notice Question is asked by the noble Lord opposite, Lord Hawke, and answered, with his usual clarity and in his usual admirable manner by my noble friend the Leader of the House. We then have a most interesting speech, as always, from the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and a delightful intervention by the spokesman of the Liberal Party. But what is before the House is a private notice Question. I always thought that the Parliamentary custom was that supplementary questions only should be asked, and that this habit of embarking upon the beginnings of a full-dress debate was without precedent. Reference has already been made to two matters which are of great importance to this House and to the Constitution. I would respectfully suggest that we cannot allow them to go with expressions of opinion from only two noble Lords opposite, however eminent they may be. The first matter is the position of noble Lords who undertake the duties of chairman, director, or whatever it is, of one of these nationalised corporations. It is a new situation that has arisen owing to the carrying out of the nationalisation programme, and the position of Peers who undertake these duties has for some time been anomalous so far as their membership of this House is concerned. I am speaking to-day, as my noble friend the Leader of the House knows, because a number of us have been interested in this particular question for some time. We have felt that in certain circumstances it is unfair, so to speak, to gag a Peer because he has undertaken to do this duty. However, I think that situation has been clarified and modified somewhat by the Statement, which we shall all have to study.

The other matter of great constitutional and Parliamentary importance opened up by the Statement of my noble friend— and enlarged upon by the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, no doubt quite properly on another occasion, although not on this —is as to how far Parliament can control, or should atttempt to control or probe into, the activities and administration of these immense public monopolies. I suggest that that is a matter that cannot be disposed of, even by question and answer across the Floor of this House, and certainly (I speak with all respect) not by two set speeches by the two spokesmen of the official Opposition. I believe that the whole of these proceedings from a Parliamentary point of view are irregular. They all arise, in the first place, out of a private notice Question by the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, who has said nothing since and who was not even going to read the Question. Consequently, two matters of such constitutional and Parliamentary importance are raised that I hope that the usual channels will operate on this occasion, and that we shall have an occasion to thresh this matter out properly and fully. We are setting precedents; we are creating a situation for the future, and I suggest that we, as members of your Lordships' House, have a very serious responsibility.


My Lords, in a very long speech the noble Lord has taken me to task for a breach of order, on the subject of which there is certainly no rule of order. But there is an immemorial convention in both Houses, that when an important Statement is made on behalf of His Majesty's Government the Leader or acting Leader of the Opposition, and the leaders of all other Parries in the House, are entitled to make a brief comment upon it. About the rest of the noble Lord's speech I will say nothing.


My Lords, in thanking the two noble Lords very sincerely for what they have said, I will add only this. It was owing to the recognition of the great importance of this subject that we had the discussions. They occupied a considerable time, and we exchanged memoranda, drawn up with considerable care. It finally emerged that probably the most convenient way of acquainting the House with the result of these consultations (which I had promised we should have) would be to adopt this procedure. I am in accord with the noble Viscount opposite, and I think we are indebted to him and the noble Earl below the gangway for their comments, which have brought out very important points. It clearly affects important matters relating to noble Lords who occupy these positions, and if at any time it is considered desirable that this question should be the subject of general discussion, naturally we shall be only too glad to provide opportunities for it. I can assure my noble friend behind me that this Statement is a result of the most careful, prolonged and repeated examination of the question.