HL Deb 29 July 1960 vol 225 cc984-92

12.41 p.m.

VISCOUNT STANSGATE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the transfer of the office of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to a Member of this House, which will now exercise the sole right of Parliamentary access to and cross-examination of the Minister, they will consider the provision on special occasions of other means of fulfilling these duties; and further whether they will propose any suitable changes in procedure, the number of questions, sitting hours and any other matter considered necessary or convenient. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the Question that I put on the Paper is extremely dull, and I can imagine it being brushed aside quite easily by the Lord President, to whom, as we say in this House, I should like to pay a tribute as the new Leader of the House. The Question merely asks whether, in view of the immense responsibility which has now fallen directly on this House, it would be possible to adjust the occasions for debate, the number of Questions and a number of other things which are merely matters of detail. But it was necessary to put the Question in that way because I could not put a direct Question asking what are the implications of the new changes. Under the Rule, we have a convenient opportunity of expounding very briefly the meaning of a Question if it is put down without a star, and that is what I propose to do very briefly.

First of all I should like to express my personal gratitude and say "Thank you" to the late Leader of the House for his many acts of courtesy and unfailing sense of fair play. I am not going beyond that; it would only embarrass him; and it might perhaps even leave him open to a charge of guilt by association.

What has happened has not been the mere transfer of a Minister from one House to another; it has been an important change in constitutional policy. It is about that that I wish to speak. The Prime Minister asked, "Should Lord Home be deprived of the opportunity of service by a mere accident of birth?" I wonder whether Lord Hailsham would comment upon that at some time, because that is an issue which interests a great many people. But what is really being done—at least this is my feeling—is that the control of what is the chief issue before this country, a matter of life and death, is being removed from the democratic House to a House where —I do not say it is safer, but where there is less opportunity for effective criticism.

Associated with this is the immensely long Recess. Three months is a long time. I have often complained about it myself. We have these little attempts by which, in case of need, somebody comes and arranges whether we shall or shall not have a Sitting. I remember very well that, in the time of the Labour Government, the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, tried to get over that, and how he was treated by members of the Government.

Three months is a very long time, and no one can say what the world will be like on October 25. Mr. de Gaulle may have provided his bomb for his African States. The Chinese may have carried out a very active plan they have for participating in the Algerian war. Nobody knows what will happen in Cuba. Dr. Adenauer may have reoccupied East Prussia—he has threatened to do so. Indeed—one never knows—Field Marshal Montgomery may have decided to obey Her Majesty's command! A great many things may happen and—I make this suggestion respectfully—I think it might be better if Parliament framed some rule vesting in a certain number of the Members themselves the right to ask that Parliament should be called together, even if it were for a token Session of a day, just to see how things stood. Certainly the world is moving so fast htat we cannot wait as we used to do in the old days. That is as regards the three months' Recess —what we call a holiday.

As regards the transition of the Foreign Secretary from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, I think it represents a complete change of attitude towards the foreign affairs question—in reality the question of peace and war. It is essentially in the noble Earl's Office that the decisions are made which decide whether the world will remain at peace or be at war. I remember a lot about this, because in 1906 Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman decided that he would have the representative certainly of the Foreign Office in the House of Commons; and never during the period of that most famous and successful Government was the Foreign Office represented in this House.

The Liberal Party had rather an unfortunate experience. When Mr. Gladstone died, Lord Rosebery became Prime Minister. I was rather young at the time, but there was a good deal of tussle in the Party about it. There was Sir William Harcourt. But Lord Rosebery became Prime Minister. That was the ruin of the Liberal Party, because as soon as he became Prime Minister and got the security of this House young Mr. Harcourt, as he then was, began to agitate about what was the current H-bomb, called the cordite bomb, and in July, 1905, the Government was brought down. No doubt that was one of the things which made Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman decide that this Office, even at that time, should be under the control of the elected democratic body.

If that was true in 1906, I think it is far more true today. After all, in 1914 when war was threatened there were several questions: Would the Austrians mobilise? What would the Prussians reply? Would the French move? There was any amount of time. Now we have no time at all: in a matter of moments a city is extinguished, or war is made. It is depriving the electors of this country of direct access to the Minister in charge. One can say that the Prime Minister is in charge; of course he is. But suppose an elector says to his Member, "I want this put before the Minister", and his Member has to reply, "I am sorry to say I have no access to the Minister. I can speak to an Under-Secretary, who will tell me that this interesting observation will in due course be reported to the Minister who will give it proper attention", then that is not a safe position. If you want safety in these times of great danger you must make the people feel that they themselves are responsible, and that it has not been handed over to what is really—I say this most respectfully—regarded as an eighteenth century, antediluvian House in which it should be a privilege to sit.

That is the reason why I have put down this Question. It is a serious Question, and I hope it will be considered. Certainly I should have been sorry if in this House this vital change had been made without someone here making some such observation. I therefore beg to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question which stands in my name on the Paper.

12.49 p.m.


My Lords, I am rather glad that the noble Viscount used his undoubted right to explain, in his unstirred Question, what lies behind it, because I do not think that on construing the Question on the Order Paper I could possibly have known all that was in his mind.

I should like to start by thanking him both for the kind welcome which he offered to me at the beginning of his remarks, and for the gracious words he spoke about my noble friend, whose popularity in this House was amply demonstrated yesterday, but who I know would wish me to say how grateful he was to the noble Viscount for adding his own words to those of the Leader of the Labour Party yesterday.

The Question itself refers solely to procedure, and I am sure that neither the House nor the noble Viscount really need me to remind them that the procedure of this House is entirely in the hands of the House. Such matters as are specified in the Question—the number of Questions and the sitting hours —are in the hands of the House and can, of course, be discussed—perhaps most properly, in the first place, in the Procedure Committee, of which I think the noble Viscount is a very well-esteemed and valuable member. At any rate, we will see how we get on about things of that kind. The procedure of the House is flexible, and the Procedure Committee are always ready to consider suggestions in an atmosphere free from Party controversy; and where any group of noble Lords want to secure an opportunity for debate the usual channels are always open and flowing freely. Certainly I hope that the noble Viscount will not find Her Majesty's Government at all slow to respond to approaches that are made.

The noble Viscount then proceeded to embark upon a rather more ambitious constitutional inquiry, with which, I am bound to say, I did not find myself wholly in agreement. I agree with him that three months is a long time, but I would venture to say that it is no longer when the Foreign Secretary is in the House of Lords than when he is in another place. Parliament has managed to adjourn for the Summer Recess in times even more stormy than the present without bringing this country to its knees. There are means available for summoning Parliament again which, on the whole, work well. Having been a constituency Member of another place—for not quite as long as the noble Viscount, but at any rate for thirteen years—I should tremble at the thought of the power of summoning Parliament back lying in the hands of Private Members. One has only to recollect the kind of debate which always goes on when the House adjourns for any length of time. There are always two or three private Members who say that the situation is far too grave for anybody to go away; and they always describe as a a holiday what happens when Ministers get back into their offices and dig out the arrears of work—a view which is not universally held on either side. So that I do not think that that suggestion commends itself to me—although, again, it is a matter which affects both Houses of Parliament; and I do not think we need take it further to-day.

I am bound to say that I disagreed with quite a lot, in fact with most, of what the noble Viscount said about the constitutional position. I do not view it as a change at all. All Ministers are responsible to both Houses of Parliament, and to describe the fact of one office rather than another being held for the time being by a Member of one House rather than of the other as transfer of control from or to a democratic House, as distinct from your Lordships' House, is something which I am bound to say is quite contrary to the constitutional doctrine that I understand.

In home affairs I should have thought there were few more important portfolios than the Minister of Education. Now, within your Lordships recollection, some three years ago I was the Minister of Education in your Lordships' House. That may have advantages. It certainly had in my case, for I was able to visit schools all over the country, and to do so far more than a Minister of Education usually is able to do, because I was in your Lordships' House. There were disadvantages, in that I had to answer questions through a Parliamentary Secretary who was responsible in the other place. But nobody had the temerity to suggest when I was Minister of Education that the schooling of our children was being transferred from democratic control. The truth is that Ministers, as I have said, are responsible to both Houses of Parliament, and that is true of all Ministers, whether they are in the House of Lords or in another place.

When the noble Viscount makes in a Question the suggestion that a Minister in the House of Lords is a person to whom Members of another place have not got access, I again venture to differ. I am sure it was not the noble Viscount's own experience, when he was a Minister, that he held himself inaccessible to Members of another place; and it would be very undesirable for any Minister to take up such an arrogant and absurd attitude. I am bound to say for myself—and although I have not consulted them, I should think all my noble friends would agree—that so long as I have been a Minister in your Lordships' House I have made it a point to be accessible to Members of another place equally with Members of your Lordships' House.

This is a bi-cameral Parliament. All Peers and all Members of another place are Members of Parliament; and a Minister who is responsible to Parliament ought to see any Member of that body to whom he is responsible, on any reasonable subject, at any time, subject only to the proper conduct of his duties and public business. Certainly I have always done so during my term of office, and I have no doubt that my noble friend will do so in his term of office. I must say that I found the same thing as true in the other place as in this House, when I wished to discuss matters with them, whether during the term of office of the Labour Party or in the earlier days, before the war, when our own Conservative Party was in power.

I believe, however, that the reverse is also true. Members of your Lordships' House are entitled to approach Ministers in the other House with their problems, just as they would approach one of ourselves. Where there are Ministers in both Houses—as there are in most Departments, including the Foreign Office—it may be more convenient to approach the Minister in one's own House. Very often one knows him better; and he is, as I have indicated, more conveniently placed. But, so far as I know, there is nothing which makes a Minister responsible to one House of Parliament and not the other, or unacceptable to either House, to whichever one he happens to belong.

Nor can I agree in the least that the presence of my noble friend in this House in any way transfers what the noble Viscount called "issues of peace and war" from one House to the other. Parliament as a whole is responsible for these things. I cannot but regret the extraordinary fact that the noble Viscount took his memory back as far as the 1914–18 war, when both he and I were Members of another place on September 3, 1939. Where was the Foreign Secretary then? He was in this House; and nobody for a moment suggested on that fateful Sunday that we in the House of Commons—which is, of course, the dominant partner—were discussing matters which were not within our control. Nobody said, "We cannot discuss this matter because the noble Earl, Lord Halifax, is a Member of the House of Lords."

On the Question that the noble Viscount has asked, I have said that we will be in every way as flexible and helpful as we can within the ambit of the doctrine that procedure is a matter for the House, not for the Government, and that the proper form, in the first place, for putting forward suggestions is through the Procedure Committee. I must say that when I heard the noble Viscount's constitutional theories I found they did not in the least accord with my own understanding of the matter. Although I respect his views, I do not agree with him.


My Lords, I rise only for a moment because I feel that something should be said officially on this side of the House. I believe that most of us on this side would have preferred to let the matter rest on the debate which took place last night in another place. There the constitutional question and others were fully discussed, and, as my noble friend and Leader said yesterday in paying tribute to the noble Earl, broadly we take a line and rest on the statement which was made by our Leader in another place. But having said that, I should have thought that it would be better not to try to reopen the discussion on the constitutional position here.

There is another constitutional point which I think I ought just to mention, since it has been raised; that is that the appointment of Ministers is accepted as being, within the complete discretion of the Prime Minister, and he must be allowed to exercise his judgment as to whom he appoints. I do not say that that is the complete answer to my noble friend; it is not.


It is no answer at all.


It is a point for consideration. However, since my noble friend is not able to reply to this debate—at least, not without being out of order—I ought just to say that I am sure he would wish me to thank the noble Viscount for the courteous way in which he has dealt with the Question itself and for the reasoned way in which he has dealt with the substance of my noble friend's Question, which was not really apparent from its wording. We accept the possibility that the new situation might require changes in our Standing Orders. I myself will accept what the noble Viscount said, and say, "Let us see what changes are needed, if any, in the light of experience"; and then I know we can go to the Procedure Committee, where my noble friend and I have always had a fair hearing, and we can put to them any problems we desire to raise.

I must say also that I agree that three months is a long time, but it is equally long wherever the Foreign Secretary may sit. That is a question which is raised every year, and my recollection is that it was raised last year, even though the Foreign Secretary was then in another place. I hope that the matter can be left there. I should like to repeat that my noble friend Lord Braye, about the says things in such good humour and with such wit that we are always glad to hear him, but we cannot always associate ourselves entirely with everything that he puts to the House.


My Lords, would you permit me twenty-five words? Is it not possible, in the re-shuffle, to find —I was going to say a small place, but that would not be right—a place for my noble friend?