HL Deb 29 May 1951 vol 171 cc860-71

2.37 p.m.

THE LORD CHANCELLOR (VISCOUNT JOWITT) rose to move to resolve, That this House, on the occasion of its return to its proper Chamber after ten years in temporary occupation of The King's Robing Room, while not unmindful of the devotion with which all who are permanently employed in its own service have, during the exacting times of war and reconstruction, carried on the high traditions which have always attached to that service, desires also, in particular, to place upon record its appreciation of the manner in which this Parliament Chamber has been restored and of the unsparing labours of the officers and employees of the Ministry of Works, whose ingenuity and resource, in circum-stances of extreme difficulty, have enabled this House to exercise its Parliamentary functions in the Palace of Westminster, with dignity and comfort and with the minimum interruption, during the perilous years of war and the no less exacting years of rebuilding and repair, and further instructs the Clerk of the Parliaments to convey this expression of its appreciation to the Minister of Works.

The noble and learned Viscount said: My Lords, I rise on behalf of my noble friend the Leader of the House to move the Resolution which stands on the Order Paper in his name. I may say at once that my first feeling is one of great regret that I should have to move it. All your Lordships have come to regard my noble friend the Leader of this House as an institution, and we all know how largely it is due to his skill and good judgment that the business of the House is able to be carried on as it is. Unfortunately, for a short time he—if he obeys his doctors—will inevitably be laid on one side. I hope that he will obey his doctors, because if he does so I have no doubt that in a few weeks' time we shall have him back with us. That, I know, is the wish of your Lordships on all sides of the House. In the meantime, it is a very great disappointment to me that he is not able to be here on this auspicious occasion. He has asked me to convey to you this message. He says—I am using his own words: My Lords, I hope that I may be allowed, through my noble friend the Lord Chancellor, to express my heartfelt regret at not being able, because of sickness, to be present to-day to move our Resolution that stands in my name on the Order Paper. I believe that this expression of our thanks will be in full accord with the wishes of our House, and I hope that I may, though not present in person, join with my fellow Peers, in giving it most sincere support. I know that I may convey to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House the good wishes of your Lordships, in all quarters of the Chamber, for his speedy recovery and his quick return to this House.

My Lords, I think that our first thoughts on this occasion must be thoughts of wonder and of gratitude that so resplendent a monument to one of the greatest Ages in our long history, the Victorian Age, with all its glitter and its pomp and with all its dignity and sense of security, should, under Providence, have been spared to us amid so much destruction during the Second World War. That these national treasures, Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, the Cathedral of St. Paul's, all of them at the very centre of the target of a malevolent enemy, should have escaped, is at once an example of the goodness of Providence and of the fallibility of man's ingenuity.

Next, because, for the most part, we are not a young House, our thoughts are retrospective; we retrace our history during the past ten years. It was on the night of May 10, 1941, that London generally, and the City of Westminster in particular, suffered the heaviest raid of the war; and by the Sunday morning following the Abbey had been seriously damaged, the Chamber of the House of Commons was a smouldering wreck, and this Chamber had been pierced by a bomb which, fortunately, did not explode.

All its coloured glass had been shivered into atoms, and only a miracle, and the devotion of firemen and fire-watchers on the scene, had saved the Hall of William Rufus from destruction by fire. It is an open secret now that arrangements had been made earlier, at the beginning of the war, for an alternative place of meeting for Parliament somewhere in the country outside the Metropolis. But when the testing time came, no Minister, and no member of either House, would think for one moment of leaving this great City, so long as any place remained where Parliament could meet and conduct the affairs of State in the heart of the Commonwealth. And so it came about that the task was imposed, not only upon its own servants and officers but upon the officers of the Ministry of Works and its employees, whether contractors or contractors' men, to keep Parliament going without interruption, and in such safety, dignity and comfort as the perilous state of war permitted. Those conditions have necessarily lasted not only during the years of actual conflict and peril but, as this Resolution reminds your Lordships, through those difficult years of repair and reconstruction that have followed the defeat of Germany and Japan.

But what an immense task has been faced and accomplished! First, both Houses of Parliament have been kept uninterruptedly in a position to do their work, and to sit as long and as often as public affairs necessitated during the last ten years, when, if my impression is correct (and I do not pretend to have formed more than an impression), Parliament has sat longer, year by year, than at any other period of its history. Moreover, all this has been done in the Palace of Westminster, because, useful through the temporary accommodation at Church House had been, experience proved that it was quite inadequate for the ordinary usage of Parliament. So it happened that a new House of Lords had to be provided, in order that the Commons might occupy our Chamber and that we should occupy the King's Robing Room, which His Majesty had graciously placed at our disposal. I do not deny—and I suspect that I am not alone in this—that I have a great affection for the intimate little Chamber that was so cleverly contrived in the Robing Room. I do not pretend that I, at any rate, do not cast some "longing, ling'ring look behind." But, at the same time, the Robing Room necessarily lacked proper accommodation for visitors; nor could it be said that it approached the dignity and magnificence of this historic Chamber of ours, to which we now return. Historic, for in this very Chamber the Royal Assent has been given to all Bills since 1847. Here it was that those distinguished Prime Ministers who then adorned our House, and who now belong to history—Derby, Aberdeen, Russell, Beaconsfield, Salisbury and Rosebery—explained and justified their policies. It has been the task of the Ministry of Works, without interrupting Parliamentary proceedings, to arrange for the clearing of the old House of Commons site, the erection of the new House of Commons, the restoration and repair of Westminster Hall and the Porch of St. Stephen's, the rebuilding of the Law Lords' Corridor, and for countless other new works and works of repair, including the provision of an entirely new power and heating plant in Victoria Gardens.

The final task, the repair and redecoration of your Lordships' Chamber, has now been completed, and your Lordships, after wandering in what I might describe as a very pleasant desert, have once more found your permanent home. In all this we have enjoyed, of course, the constant and devoted service of our own staff, under the Clerk of the Parliaments, the Clerk of the Crown, the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. All these people are, however, of the family; and what they have done for us, they have done as they would have done for their own. That we recognise and never forget. We and our servants, my Lords, form as it were one family, and I am proud to think that it is a happy family. But on this occasion I am particularly asking your Lordships to pay tribute to the devoted work and exercise of their skill on our behalf of the officers and employees of the Ministry of Works, whether directly under the Minister's control or indirectly, either as contractors to the Ministry or working for such con-tractors. They, naturally, have not had the same stimulus or the same interest to serve your Lordships as have our own officers and servants. But, nevertheless, they have come in and helped us, laboured for us and given to us of their best, as though they, too, were our own; and, than that, I have nothing better to say for anyone. The missing carvings have been replaced, the broken panels have been repaired. The various tradesmen, carpenters, joiners, electricians, workers in brass, in iron and in wood, and specialist cleaners, have done a fine job of work. If I may commend them to your Lordships, let me apply to them to-day, in the midst of this splendid and shining tribute to their devoted work and craftsmanship, a phrase that was employed to celebrate Christopher Wren—"Si monumentum requiris, circumspice": "If you seek a memorial look around you." I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That this House, on the occasion of its return to its proper Chamber after ten years in temporary occupation of The King's Robing Room, while not unmindful of the devotion with which all who are permanently employed in its own service have, during the exacting times of war and reconstruction, carried on the high traditions which have always attached to that service, desires also, in particular, to place upon record its appreciation of the manner in which this Parliament Chamber has been restored and of the unsparing labours of the officers and employees of the Ministry of Works, whose ingenuity and resource, in circumstances of extreme difficulty, have enabled this House to exercise its Parliamentary functions in the Palace of Westminster, with dignity and comfort and with the minimum interruption, during the perilous years of war and the no less exacting years of rebuilding and repair, and further instructs the Clerk of the Parliaments to convey this expression of its appreciation to the Minister of Works.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

2.53 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support wholeheartedly the Resolution which has just been moved with such eloquence by the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor. In doing so, I should like to join with him in saying how deeply we who sit on these Benches regret the absence of the Leader of the House. The noble Viscount, Lord Addison, has the sincere respect and the warm affection of all of us, in whatever part of the House we sit. We wish him an early recovery; for, I feel I may say, your Lordships' House does not seem the same place without him.

As the Lord Chancellor has already told your Lordships, this is a notable occasion for us all, for to-day, after ten long years, we return to our old home after its temporary occupation by the House of Commons. I do not say that it yet seems quite like home to every one of us. Ten years is a long time in any man's life, and the House of Lords, as the Lord Chancellor has reminded us this after-noon, tends to be rather an elderly body. The noble Lords who sit this afternoon on these Benches are by no means the same as those who sat on them before we moved into the King's Robing Room at the end of 1941. To many of us of the present generation, though the Lord Chancellor, as I understood him, described it as a pleasant desert, it is the Robing Room and not this great Chamber that has at present perhaps the more home-like character. But in time, of course, and indeed very rapidly—for human nature, fortunately, is extremely adaptable—we shall get used to these more magnificent surroundings. We can say at any rate that this is our traditional home, in which the Peers of the Realm have sat, generation after generation, since it was built in the middle of the last century.

It is clearly appropriate at this moment, when we resume occupation of this Chamber, that we should express our thanks, both to those who have served us so faithfully during our exile and to those who have worked so hard to prepare this House for our occupation and to restore it to its pristine splendour. I do not suppose that this House has ever looked so magnificent since it left the hands of Sir Charles Barry and Mr. Pugin. It is certainly an immense achievement on the part of the officials and the craftsmen of the Ministry of Works that they should have removed the stains of time without in any way impairing the traditional atmosphere of the Chamber. We owe them our warm thanks for the care with which they have carried out their work. They have made it possible for your Lordships to come back into what is probably to-day the finest legislative Chamber in the world—a Chamber which will, no doubt, contribute greatly to the dignity of our future proceedings. I should also like to take the opportunity of thanking the officers and servants of the House who cared so well for us while we sat in the Robing Room. We must recognise that in a great many ways it was not so convenient for them; indeed, no doubt it raised serious problems. But there was never, so far as I know, a hitch or difficulty of any kind. Even in the most arduous days of the war our business continued smoothly and without interruption, in defiance of all the malice of our enemies. We owe to those who have achieved this result our wholehearted gratitude, and I am happy to have the opportunity of expressing it to-day.

2.58 p.m.


My Lords, we are all greatly distressed at the absence through illness of the Leader of the House, the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, particularly on an occasion such as this, our return to our old Chamber, under conditions which he himself has done much to promote, and after some years of careful attention and planning in which he took an active part. We can sincerely say that there is no other member of the House who could adequately replace him as Leader, and we hope that his absence will be brief.

We return to a House which is effulgent with the splendour of its earliest days, just over one hundred years ago. But as we come back to it, we notice two advantages that have followed this restoration. One is that this Chamber, which was designed to accommodate, and which did in fact accommodate, a membership of over 300, was in the old days a somewhat formidable Chamber in which to speak, with an attendance seldom more than eighty or a hundred, and often only forty or fifty. Those of us who took part in those debates often felt that we were addressing a vast desert, and that we were "a voice, crying in the wilderness." But now the Ministry of Works, very cleverly, have given us what might be described as an elastic Chamber. For occasions of ceremony the seating capacity of over 300 is to be completely restored, quite easily and at little expense, while for the ordinary work of the House the seating is to be as we see it to-day—accommodating a number of about 200.

The second charge to our advantage is the installation of microphones and amplifiers—very considerate to the elderly members, whose voices are less resonant and whose ears are less acute than those of the younger members of your Lordships' House. We all share the regrets which have been expressed at leaving the cosy Chamber, with its intimate atmosphere, in which we have been meeting for the last ten years. The larger the legislative Chamber, the more rhetoric will be heard, and the smaller it is the more chance for quiet reason. So, in the Robing Room, while perhaps we have had less oratory than we have been accustomed to, we may have had better argument. But certainly that Chamber was cramped. It was lacking in dignity, and the upright, hard Benches were uncomfortable during the long debates and, in fact, caused much insomnia. That defect, however, has been put right again here.

After all, the dignity of the Parliamentary Chamber is not a matter of small importance. The State should be stately if it is to command respect and is to maintain its authority; and especially is that important in a democracy such as we have in this country. The return to this Chamber will help the House of Lords to fulfil its distinctive function in the Constitution. It cannot and does not wish to rival the House of Commons, deriving, as that Chamber does, and constantly renewing, its authority from the nation. As a consequence, the House of Commons is, and will remain, the principal seat of power. Yet it is the province of the House of Lords, together with the Throne—which is here, physically and symbolically, in our midst—to maintain the customs, traditions and ceremonies springing from a thousand years of history, and so help to maintain the authority of Parliament in the nation and its leadership in the Commonwealth.

The Motion which is before your Lordships is an occasion for reflections such as these, but its direct purpose is to express the appreciation of the House for the services of the Ministry of Works, and also for the services of its officials and servants. During the war, the duty of attendance through all the air attacks remained with the Officers of the House. As the Lord Chancellor has mentioned, it is well known that arrangements had been made and worked out in much detail for the removal of Parliament, if the position here became untenable, to a remote part of the country. But the members of both Houses were unanimously opposed to that action being taken, except in case of absolute necessity. Your Lordships will remember that we went to Church House nearby because that afforded some overhead cover which was lacking here, but both Houses were still in Westminster. Those of your Lordships who had been accustomed to attend the debates regularly, unless they were called by war duty elsewhere, continued their attendance with the same regularity; and it was the same with the House of Commons. So Parliament was able, in both Houses, with its full complement of members, officers and servants, to remain fully functioning, uninterruptedly, all through the war, here in its accustomed place at the heart of the Commonwealth.

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to associate myself and those who sit on this Bench with all that has been said by the previous speakers, both with regard to the absence of the Leader of the House—to whom I, like all your Lordships, am indebted for constant kindness and much wisdom—and also with what has been said directly relevant to the Motion before us. All I would do is to add one or two very brief footnotes. First, as we think of the care bestowed upon the transfer of this House from here to the Robing Room, I would draw your Lordships' attention to one detail which did not escape notice. The Bishops' Bench differs from any other Bench in the House in having an arm at each end. When we got to the Robing Room I was interested to find that the arm was in its proper position—though why the Bishops' Bench alone should have an arm I do not know. But it shows how fallible memory is: I thought that when we left this House there was an arm at the end at which I sit, and not at the other. How-ever, I cannot believe that a mistake has been made, and quite obviously my memory is at fault.

Secondly, I am glad that the Lord Chancellor referred to the fact that for a brief while your Lordships met in Church House. Indeed, the accommodation there was completely inadequate for the purposes of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, but during the time that both Chambers met in Church House we did our best to make members as comfortable as the conditions permitted. I like to recall that His Majesty the King opened Parliament in that little Chamber, even smaller than the Robing Room; and I remember, not inappropriately in view of the interest of the Church in education, that it was in that Chamber that a large portion of the 1944 Education Act passed through the House of Lords. Church House was built only just before the war, and the great Chamber in the middle of the House having been destroyed by a bomb, I was very glad that we were there to receive both Houses. It is an association of which we shall always be proud.

Now we return to this great and splendid Chamber. May I especially associate myself with everything which has been said about the intimacy of the Robing Room? I survive from the pre-war days. I became a member of the House of Lords before the war began, and I can remember now precisely my feelings when I made my first rather disjointed remarks here. There were one or two people somewhere about the middle of the House, but at the far end I could see only one other person. There came to my mind then the passage in Sir James Jeans' description of the universe, where he tried to show how immense were the inter-stellar spaces. He said that it was as though there were three wasps buzzing in Waterloo Station, and I thought that inter-stellar space was well represented by three Peers buzzing in the House of Lords. We shall all immensely regret the loss of that intimacy, where every motion, every gesture, every hint was at once appreciated because we were so near together.

May I tread, perhaps, beyond my province and say that there, when one said prayers, one could occasionally hear one person, or even two people, saying "Amen" at the end of a prayer. It strikes me as very characteristic of England that when there are a number of people assembled for public prayer, none of them thinks it necessary to allow his assent to the prayers to travel beyond his own lips. If I may say so, from the point of view of the person taking the prayers, it is a great loss not to hear any response to "The Lord be with you," and it is an encouragement to hear the "Amen" said at the end of the Prayers. As it is, at present the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor faithfully says, "Amen," but I do not hear any other noble Lord in the Chamber saying it. I venture to hope, humbly craving forgiveness for daring to say such a thing, that our return to this Chamber may be signalised by the resumption of the Act of making the responses aloud.

Forgiven or not forgiven, perhaps I may be allowed, in conclusion, to endorse what the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, said: that it is right that the House of Lords should be housed in a magnifical chamber. I have recently had the opportunity of visiting Australia and New Zealand, and I found there a passionate devotion to the great traditions of this country, and to the great institutions of Parliamentary life here. I found that that gives one a fresh belief in our own way of life. I was received not merely as the Archbishop of Canterbury but as a member of the House of Lords, and for both reasons was looked upon as a representative of England and the English tradition. This House is symbolical of a method of government which this country has given to the world, and which is the more precious in times when it has to stand against grave threats in many parts of the world.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I venture to intervene briefly in this debate because of the fact that for many years I had perhaps special opportunities of appreciating the work of what I might call the resident staff—the "family" to which the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor has referred—in the Palace of Westminster. For many centuries there has been associated with the Palace of Westminster a Clerk of the Works, and I, for one, bitterly regret that that title has been supplanted by that of Surveyor. The last holder of the Clerk of the Works office here was, I think, Mr. Wilson. I remember well how highly he regarded his title and the fact that he was a successor of Chaucer, who was the first Clerk of Works appointed by Parliament. I know how he would have regretted the change. He was a man of distinguished learning and character, and his portrait—or, rather, a back view of him—may be seen in the mosaic over the entrance to St. Stephen's Hall. I vividly remember the occasions on which he addressed the club which we established in the Palace of Westminster —a club whose membership consisted of all classes at work in the Palace. He used to say that he wished they would all remember that they were the successors to the "King's men" of olden days, with, behind them, a tradition of great dignity, and, before them, a service of which they could be proud. That that service has continued cannot be doubted.

I have heard more than one comment on the speed with which this Chamber was prepared for the afternoon Sittings when in the morning it had been the scene of the Opening of Parliament. This quick change was also a feature of the King's Robing Room, and for it the resident staff were again responsible. When the Robing Room was being fitted up for the Sittings of this House the assistance which they gave was, experto crede!, invaluable. Now they have made their very real contribution to the work, the fulfilment of which we have witnessed to-day, of what I may call the resettlement of your Lordships. I apologise to your Lordships far sounding this note from a somewhat personal angle, but I feel now, as I did all through the time I was part of the family here (and I hope that I still am part of it) that the sense of a common purpose is the surest road not only to the happy relations which exist to-day but also to the maintenance in the future of the great traditions of the past.

On Question, Motion agreed to, nemine dissentiente, and ordered accordingly.

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