HL Deb 19 December 1962 vol 245 cc1127-32

2.36 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether an answer has been received to the inquiries which the Lord Chancellor stated on December 13 were being made concerning the decision of the Nottingham Juvenile Magistrates' Court.]


My Lords, the Answer to the noble Lord's Question is in the affirmative.


I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his clear Answer. Would he now be good enough to inform us what was the content of the result of his investigation?


Certainly, my Lords. The chairman of the Bench has written a long letter to me—I will not read it all to your Lordships—and sent me a copy of the full notes taken at the hearing of the case. From these it appears that the sentence to which the noble Lord drew attention was one sentence taken from a long statement made by the Chairman in which she was seeking to encourage the two applicants to provide a good home for their children. As one member of the bench said immediately after the hearing, they were not concerned with the colour problem. They were concerned about the accommodation available, which at that time consisted of one room with one bed for the two adults and two children in a house which was in fact occupied by coloured people.

It is, I think, unfortunate that any reference was made to coloured people, for when one sees the record of the evidence and the full text of what was said, it is clear that the court was solely concerned with the interests of the two children and the accommodation available for them in these premises.


My Lords. I am most grateful for that further information on this matter. But I would ask the noble and learned Lord whether he does not recollect that the actual words, as quoted in The Times and which apparently are not denied, are specifically We do not really favour the sort of accommodation where there is a coloured population"?


My Lords, I think we really must be careful where we are going here. I quite understand the noble Lord's interest in this question, but it is vital, I think, that Parliament should not be used at Question Time except for the purpose of interrogating the Executive on matters for which they have departmental responsibility. It is, of course, elementary that the Lord Chancellor has no departmental responsibility, nor has any other Minister departmental responsibility, for what is said by individual Judges. It does not, I think, matter whether the individual Judge is a Judge of first instance in the High Court, a judge at petty sessions, an ordinary magistrate, or a Judge in the House of Lords sitting judicially. We really must be careful that we recognise that, as the Constitution stands at the moment—and I, myself, should be sorry to see it changed—noble Lords must not question individual Ministers or the Government as a whole about the acts of the Judiciary. We all know they are not infallible, but the Government are not responsible for that.


My Lords, I should have thought that that statement requires a little examination. I have a fairly long Parliamentary experience in another place. I should have thought that if that answer were made in another place there would be strong objection to it, I should like to look carefully at the printed text of what the noble and learned Viscount has said, but surely we are entitled in Parliament to be able to criticise the actions of magistrates if we do not like the results that they have arrived at.


My Lords, I ask for nothing more than my words should be studied, as the noble Viscount said, most carefully. All I was seeking to say was that the Government cannot be asked questions about things for which they are not responsible departmentally. Of course Parliament can, if it chooses, in a proper way, criticise anybody, so far as I know, from the Monarch downwards. But the Government cannot be asked questions about things for which they are not responsible. What the noble Lord, Lord Walston, was in fact seeking to do was to ask the Lord Chancellor a question about something which a magistrate had said, and that, I must insist, is something for which the Lord Chancellor is not responsible in the departmental sense.


My Lords, could the noble and learned Viscount say what remedy Lord Walston has, and what course he can take?


My Lords, I should like to think about that. I think the ordinary remedy in most cases is to put down a substantive Motion if he thinks that a matter is of sufficient importance to warrant a substantive Motion. If he thinks the law is no good, then the remedy is to introduce a Bill.


My Lords, I must say that I was rather surprised at the actual words just used by the noble and learned Viscount, that you cannot ask of a Minister a question in regard to something for which he is not departmentally responsible. That may be a matter of arrangement within the Government, but no free representative of the people in another place, at any rate, is to be debarred from asking questions on any subject within the ruling of the Speaker, and not the ruling of the Government.


My Lords. with respect, another place has a most definite limitation upon the questions which can be asked—namely, the Table. And they do habitually stop Questions for which there is no Government responsibility. In this House we have no Table in the same sense; we have a Table, which we are all very fond of here, but they do not exercise any authority over us, nor does the Leader in this House exercise any authority. The House exercises its own discipline over itself. But the basic law of Parliament is the same, so far as I know, and the custom of this House is basically the same: the House asks questions of Ministers only about matters for which the Government exercise executive responsibility.

In the Commons the individual Minister usually answers about matters for which he has departmental responsibility. In the House of Lords the Government answer by their chosen spokesmen about matters for which the Government have responsibility. But I think we must be very slow indeed to assume responsibility in the Government for the sayings of judges of whatever degree of importance on the bench, and indeed for the Judiciary generally. I did not intervene in the previous series of questions very largely because I did not want to interfere with the natural interests of the noble Lord, Lord Walston, but I think we ought to see where we are going in this matter before we go any further in the same direction.


My Lords, if we were to rest upon that last answer, it would practically mean that no Peer should put down a Question of the kind my noble friend put down at all. In fact, however, a certain statement that was made in the court was raised by my noble friend, and it has drawn very courteous treatment from the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack, who, in the course of his statement to the House this afternoon, expressed an opinion: it is a pity perhaps that reference to the colour question was made. We are very glad to have that kind of Answer. In the House of Commons this is a Home Office matter. I think that the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack has answered quite correctly, and we appreciate the trouble he has taken over this; but I would not consent to accepting the position that no Peer and no commoner can put down a question on these matters in any way he likes.


My Lords, I have not sought to limit what any noble Lord seeks to put down on the Order Paper; but if the noble Viscount wants to alter the custom of Parliament in this House, the very clear remedy is open to him, which is to put the matter down before the Procedure Committee. I have no authority in this matter at all. All I do say is that I very much doubt whether any such Questions would have got past the Table in the House of Commons. I think that if the noble Viscount wants to vindicate the right of a Peer to ask the Government Questions about matters for which the Government are not responsible, in other words, to indulge in a running commentary on public affairs, the best thing we can do, is to alter the Rules of the House in the proper way. What we cannot do, with great respect to the noble Viscount, is to allow things to develop in such a way that the Rules of the House are altered without the House authorising it. If the House authorises it, then, of course, it is another matter.


My Lords, are we to gather from the noble and learned Viscount that he is telling the House to-day that the Lord Chancellor was out of order in coming here, fully prepared as he was and in the most courteous manner, as head of the Judiciary, replying to a Question about the attitude of a member of the bench for whom he is responsible?


No; the last thing I would venture to do would be to suggest that my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack was out of order. I do not know what would happen to me if I suggested such a thing. What I did suggest was that it had gone about as far as it ought to go without a reference to the Procedure Committee.


Might I, still being in order, ask the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack whether, in view of the remarks and inquiries he has made he would make it abundantly clear to the public at large that these remarks of a member of the bench are not in any way consistent with normal Government views or policy?


My Lords, I am extremely reluctant to give any directions to the benches as to how they should perform their duties. I have given a pretty full answer to the noble Lord, and it is quite true there was a reference in the court in what was said by the bench to accommodation for coloured people. But I think that I have answered the noble Lord very fully about that, and, of course, I have made some comment on it which I thought it was right for me to do. I have no doubt that the interchange this afternoon will be noticed by many magistrates, and I have no reason to suppose that any unfortunate expressions of this character will occur, or occur at all frequently, and certainly not in Nottingham, where this Bench sits, for there there is a coloured magistrate upon the Bench.


Before we leave this, my Lords, might I thank the noble and learned Viscount who leads the House for his very clear and unexceptionable statement, which I shall value always and rely upon? It has often been sought to block a question which I wished to ask in your Lordships' House on the ground that it did not refer to one particular Department or another. His statement that the questions are asked of the Government, to be answered by the Government, is a very valuable one, and perfectly correct, and I am sure we are obliged to him.