HL Deb 06 May 1952 vol 176 cc627-35

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I do not wish to interrupt the very interesting debate in which the House is now engaged, but I did give an undertaking to the noble Earl, Lord Jowitt, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and others the other day, that, when it was possible, I would make a fuller statement on the position of co-ordinating Ministers than it was possible for me to do on the last occasion when the subject was raised in this House. My right honourable friend, the Prime Minister, has, I understand, just made a statement in another place, and I thought that the House would wish me to give a similar statement here. This is the statement.

"Every Departmental Minister is responsible to Parliament for the policy and administration of his Department. This is a fundamental principle in our system of Parliamentary democracy. But it is an equally respectable and necessary principle that Ministers as a body are collectively responsible for Government policy as a whole. This means that a Minister's personal responsibility for his Departmental policy must be exercised in harmony with the views of his Ministerial colleagues.

"The work of the so-called 'co-ordinating Ministers' is an aspect of collective responsibility. In former days all reconciliation of Departmental policies was done in the Cabinet, of which all Departmental Ministers were members, or by the Prime Minister himself. But for many years past Prime Ministers have from time to time entrusted to a senior colleague the duty of keeping a general oversight, on the Cabinet's behalf, over subjects of special importance not falling wholly within the jurisdiction of a single Departmental Minister. These tasks have usually been assigned to holders of the old offices involving no heavy Departmental duties, notably the offices of Lord President and Lord Privy Seal. An early example of this was the arrangement by which in 1929 Mr. Ramsay MacDonald assigned to Mr. J. H. Thomas, as Lord Privy Seal, a special responsibility for co-ordinating measures for dealing with unemployment.

"With the growing complexity of. Government business, and the increasing extent to which policies have to be administered jointly by two or more Departments, Prime Ministers have found it increasingly convenient to ask senior Ministers to act in a co-ordinating rôle. And in recent times this arrangement has been more regularly adopted because, under modern conditions which have called into existence so many new Departments of State, the Cabinet no longer normally includes all Ministers in charge of Departments. This has led to the development of the system of standing Cabinet Committees, which assist the Cabinet in discharging its collective business and include Departmental Ministers who are not themselves members of the Cabinet. The Chairmanship of these standing Committees has normally been assumed by senior Ministers without Departmental duties; and it is mainly in their capacity as Chairmen of these Committees that these Ministers have exercised their co-ordinating functions, subject to Cabinet review. This is a natural evolution in the processes of conducting the collective business of government, and there is nothing new about it. During the war the Lord President of the Council, in particular, discharged extensive co-ordinating responsibilities on this basis; and it is well-known that similar arrangements were in force during the period of office of the late Government.

"The responsibilities assigned under the present Government to Lord Wool-ton and Lord Leathers carry this development a stage further in one respect, and in one respect only—namely, that the specific area of coordination assigned to each of them was publicly announced on his appointment. Indeed, so far as concerns my noble friend Lord Leathers, it was made explicit in his title. Coal, gas, electricity, oil and transport represent a homogeneous group of subjects which call for co-ordination. Moreover, it includes the basic services which have passed under public ownership under Socialist schemes of nationalisation; and there is clear scope for co-ordination of the Government's relations with the public Corporations administering those services. Lord Leathers' coordinating functions do not differ, in the constitutional sense, from those of my noble friend, Lord Woolton.

"The co-ordinating Ministers have no statutory powers. They have, in particular, no power to give orders or directions to a Departmental Minister. A Departmental Minister who is invited by a co-ordinating Minister to adjust a Departmental policy to accord with the wider interests of the Government as a whole always has access to the Cabinet; and, if he then finds that he cannot win the support of his Ministerial colleagues, he should accept their decision. No Departmental Minister, of course, can be expected to remain in a Government and carry out policies with which he disagrees.

"Thus, the existence and activities of these co-ordinating Ministers do not impair or diminish the responsibility to Parliament of the Departmental Ministers whose policies they co-ordinate. Those Ministers are fully accountable to Parliament for any act of policy or administration within their departmental jurisdiction. It does not follow that the co-ordinating Ministers are 'non-responsible.' Having no statutory powers as co-ordinating Ministers, they perform in that capacity no formal acts. But they share in the collective responsibility of the Government as a whole, and, as Ministers of the Crown, they are accountable to Parliament.

"In conclusion, I should perhaps make it clear that the Minister of Defence is not in the same sense a co-ordinating Minister. His appointment was authorised by a Statute (the Ministry of Defence Act, 1946), which defines his powers and duties in general terms. Broadly speaking, his responsibility is to apportion between the, three Services the resources, in men, materials and money, which are made available for them all. And, on this apportionment and on all the questions which arise from it, he is directly accountable to Parliament, in the same way as any Departmental Minister is responsible for matters within his jurisdiction. But it is the Service Ministers, and not the Minister of Defence, who are responsible to Parliament for the use which each of them makes of his share of those resources and for the administration of the Service under his charge."

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Marquess for making this Statement and endeavouring to clear up some of the confusion which existed, not only in the minds of your Lordships but, as I thought, in the minds of the noble Lords, the co-ordinating Ministers, themselves. If I understood Lord Woolton's statement aright, the noble Lord put himself in the same category as all the other co-ordinating Ministers, and this statement makes it plain that the Minister of Defence, at any rate, is in a different position.


My Lords, strictly he is not a co-ordinating Minister.


He is co-ordinating. He is charged by Statute to co-ordinate; that is the difference. With regard to the other two, the noble Lord, Lord Leathers and Lord Woolton, this Statement makes it plain that their functions are the same. But the view which the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, has expressed to the House differs entirely from the view which the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, expressed in the newspapers, and I must say that there is still confusion in the minds of those noble Lords, if there is not confusion in everybody's mind, about what their duties are. There is also the question of the noble Lord, Lord Cherwell, and atomic energy. Whose is the concern of atomic energy? I understand that the Ministry of Supply are responsible, but I am told that the noble Lord, Lord Cherwell, is also responsible for looking after atomic energy. This is a very important matter, because if two people are charged with the same duties, no one can know on whom the duties lie and we are sure to get confusion. And I am not sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, does not come into this matter too.

What I should like to say to the noble Marquess is that we shall certainly consider the Statement and if necessary we may ask for an opportunity of elucidating it further. I think the whole problem is very difficult, and I am certain that the country and the Ministers themselves ought to understand where their responsibility begins and ends. I will look at the Statement and discuss it through the usual channels, if I may, should we desire any further opportunity of elucidating it.


My Lords, may I be allowed to add a few words to what has been said? This matter is of grave importance because it relates to the structure of the Cabinet, which has more than once engaged your Lordships' attention. I sincerely trust that the front Opposition Bench will give a further opportunity to the House in order to elucidate this matter further and in a way which is not possible merely by question and answer during the course of a debate on an entirely different subject.


My Lords, if I may be permitted, I think there is no harm in asking for one or two elucidations before passing to the general debate.


My Lords, before the noble Viscount proceeds I should like to reply to something which was said by the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt. It is only with regard to what he said about the Minister of Defence. He seemed to think that the Minister of Defence was merely a co-ordinating Minister between the Service Departments. That is not so. What in effect has happened, as I understand it, is that the Minister of Defence has taken over certain broad functions which in the old days were carried out by the Prime Minister, as Chairman of the Committee of Imperial Defence. That is a long time ago. But I think that is broadly what his position is.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Marquess whether he can say that, since the appointment of these co-ordinating Ministers, and especially the specific appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, the responsibility of the departmental Ministers is as complete as it was before, whether orders are given or not, and whether access to the Cabinet can be secured or not? Is it not true to say that the status and responsibility of the departmental Ministers concerned have been considerably diminished by the appointment of what are popularly called "overlords." The noble Marquess produces the argument that they are, in reality, merely a Cabinet Committee of one. That is really the gist of the noble Marquess' argument. We have always had Cabinet Committees and now we have the most convenient form of Cabinet Committee—a Committee of one. It is now put forward that they have no responsibility—although they are undoubtedly discharging heavy and responsible duties—save the collective responsibility of Cabinet rank. In addition to that, some of these Ministers, for no doubt good reasons, are permanent absentees from proceedings in this House. Would not the noble Marquess agree that the structure of the Government is being considerably transformed?


My Lords, I would not agree with the noble Viscount about a Committee of one. The noble Viscount and the noble and learned Earl know very well that the whole basis of Cabinet government for a great many years now is that under the main Cabinet there have been a number of Cabinet Committees. These Committees are usually composed of the Ministers principally concerned with one aspect or another of public policy, with a Senior Minister, Let me take an example of what I have in mind. There might be an Economic Committee under the Chairmanship of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, of which the President of the Board of Trade would be a member. But that would not give the Chancellor of the Exchequer the right to give orders to the President of the Board of Trade. It is very difficult to define these things exactly, but the co-ordinating Ministers have exactly that type of function. The difficulty is that it has been announced to the public that they will concern themselves in particular with certain aspects of public policy and it may be said that the public have formed the opinion that they have more power than they actually have. But the fact is that the position of the departmental Minister is exactly the same as it used to be. I am not speaking of the Minister of Defence, whom I put in a different category. I think that is so.

The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, asked if this did not diminish the stature of other Ministers. It is perfectly true that if we have a co-ordinating Minister and he also appears before the public eye and is known to be a senior Minister, he may take a certain amount of attention from the departmental Ministers; but if noble Lords will study the answer I have given, they will see that the fact that he is there does not diminish the individual responsibility of Ministers. The Ministers of Transport and of Fuel and Power, under the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, have to agree as before to anything the Cabinet decide. They have also the same duty of initiation, but they have someone to help them to initiate. When a decision is ultimately taken, they have to agree with it themselves, and if they do not agree, the proper course is for them to resign.


My Lords, I should like to follow up that point. It is most important. We must realise that there is all the difference between publicly announcing that some individual has been put in charge of a certain sphere of work and the setting up of a Cabinet Corn- mittee. The personnel of a Cabinet Committee was always wrapped in impenetrable secrecy. Therefore, nothing was done in the public eye which interfered with the responsibility of departmental Ministers. But when it is announced to the world at large that a certain noble Lord is responsible for the co-ordination of policy, then the public know that. And is it really a fact that if something goes completely wrong in that co-ordination, no one in another place could move to reduce the salary of the co-ordinator? Why not? Certainly no one could have moved to reduce the salary of an amorphous, unknown Cabinet Committee, but I do not for a moment agree that if anything went wrong with the co-ordination of fuel and power it would not be open to somebody in the other place to move to reduce the salary of the noble Lord Who co-ordinates. If that is so, it shows that the noble Lord, by being announced and put forward in this way, has assumed a share of responsibility to Parliament. I feel that we are embarking on an altogether new and difficult procedure—perhaps it is desirable; I do not know—which needs to be more thought out than it has been up to now.


My Lords, arising out of what my noble and learned friend has just said, may I ask the noble Marquess whether he and his colleagues will consider one matter of nomenclature before the subject is discussed again? If the tenuous link between the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, is no more than his share in the collective responsibility of the Cabinet, would it not be more appropriate, and less likely to give rise to Motions asking for a reduction in the salary of the co-ordinating Minister, if he were styled "Minister without Portfolio" or "Minister of State" rather than Secretary of State for the Co-ordination of Transport, Fuel and Power?


My Lords, perhaps I might give a historical example of where it may lead. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, spoke about the President of the Board of Trade. A member of the Board of Trade is the most reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Is it to be said that he still maintains full departmental responsibility for his share in the control of the national affairs?


My Lords, nobody in their senses, except the noble Viscount, could possibly say that the most reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a responsible member of the Government. With regard to what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I must say that I think noble Lords are making a mountain out of a molehill. There is not a single noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite who does not know that all this has been going on, and the responsibility has been apportioned exactly as it is now, for years.


No, no.


Certainly it has. No doubt, it has been thought more desirable to keep it secret. It may be said to have been more convenient for the individual Ministers concerned. But the complexity of public life is increasing. If you take the case of agriculture and food which is controlled by my noble friend Lord Woolton, everybody knows that these two subjects, the food we produce and the food we have to buy, are closely allied. It is surely to the advantage of the British public to know that there is a senior member of the Government who is keeping an eye on those subjects. The same applies to fuel and power and transport. Even if my right honourable friend the Prime Minister had not made this announcement, exactly the same thing would have occurred. No doubt one Minister would have been called the Lord Privy Seal, or Minister without Portfolio; but it would have been the same position as it is now. I really feel that noble Lords are making a mountain out of a molehill.


My Lords, I should like to ask a question to clear up this issue of whether the practice that was existing before is being continued—and I speak as one who was for some years a Departmental Minister outside the Cabinet. Can we have an assurance that these Departmental Ministers who are being co-ordinated are invited automatically to the Cabinet when their departmental affairs are discussed? That is not contained in the statement.


My Lords, in fact they always do come (and they put in Papers) to the Cabinet on matters concerning their own Department.