HL Deb 18 October 1966 vol 277 cc3-9

2.38 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—

  1. (a) why it is that Peers of Parliament who are civil servants may not take part in debate nor vote in your Lordships' House, whereas Peers who hold Commissions in the Armed Forces are permitted so to do—both categories, of course, being in the Service of the Crown;
  2. (b) whether they would agree that the relevant Treasury ruling (Estacode Ka 46) which restricts the freedom of speech of Peers who are civil servants is too restrictive, and if they will now cause this whole matter to be reviewed.]


My Lords, all the civil servants are required to maintain a proper reserve in matters not only of Party political but also of general public controversy so that their impartialityis beyond suspicion. The Civil Service rule governing the Parliamentary conduct of Peers who are civil servants, though generally understood for many years before, was formalised in 1928. It reads as follows, and now I am quoting the rule of 1928: Civil servants who are Peers or Peeresses of Parliament may attend in their place in the House of Lords when their official duties permit, but may not take part in debate or vote until they have resigned or retired." (Estacode Ka 46). All members of the Armed Forces are similarly subject to a general rule that they should not indulge in political controversy, but on a few occasions Peers who are members of the Armed Forces have, with the permission of the Service authorities, taken part in debate in your Lordships' House. Her Majesty's Government do not agree that this rule, which has been in force under many successive Governments, is too restrictive.


My Lords, whilst I am obliged to the noble Earl the Leader of the House for that reply, I should like, if I may, to ask him two supplementaries. Is it not a fact that no one has the right to debar a Peer of Parliament who is in possession of a Writ of Summons from addressing your Lordships' House, except your Lordships? Indeed, is it not the duty of a Peer summoned by the Sovereign to treat and give his counsel; and does not this restrictive ruling directly interfere with the freedom of speech of certain Peers? Might it not be that this ruling is, in effect, a breach of Parliamentary privilege, and is the Leader of the House prepared to have this matter referred to our Committee for Privileges for their opinion?

Secondly, are Her Majesty's Government aware that when the Masterman Report, which is Command 7718, was presented to Parliament in June, 1949—and this is the present authority in this field of activity—not only was there not one single Member of your Lordships' House on that Committee, but not one solitary noble Lord gave evidence before that Committee? Would it not therefore seem that the views of your Lordships at that time were not even considered?


My Lords, perhaps I can answer the second point first. It may well be, as the noble Lord says, that the Masterman Committee did not contain a noble Lord, but of course at that time it was open to noble Lords to offer their opinions. I think the fact that apparently no noble Lords took any exception to this, either before the Report was produced or afterwards, must be regarded as some indication that noble Lords accepted the general views of the Masterman Committee.

The noble Lord raises a rather more intricate point when he asks whether anyone has a right to forbid a noble Lord to come here and speak and vote. No doubt the question formulated by the noble Lord is correct, but of course a noble Lord who feels inhibited by the rules of his profession can resign from the Civil Service. That is the short answer to the noble Lord, Lord Napier.


My Lords. I do not wish to express a view on the merits of this, but may I put to the Leader of the House the point raised by the noble Lord who asked the Question originally, whether it might not be a very good thing to put this matter to the Committee for Privileges? Being a member of that Committee, I certainly would not wish to express any opinion upon the matter, but I think there is here a point of considerable importance—of practical importance and of constitutional importance—and it seems to me that that is exactly what the Committee for Privileges exist for. Would the Leader of the House consider whether it might not be a good thing to refer this question to the Committee for Privileges?


Certainly, anything that the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, asked me to consider would be considered by me with special care; that goes without saying; and after to-day I should be very happy to talk to him, or to the noble Lord, Lord Napier, or to any noble Lord who wished the matter to be discussed or considered in any way at all. But I must point out that this rule is officially of 38 years' standing. It was promulgated in the time of a Government which certainly was not a Government of my Government's complexion, so it is not an issue that brings in Party politics at all. It has been a rule which has been sustained by the wisdom of past Leaders of the House of all Parties. Therefore, one would not lightly wish to give the impression that there was any intention of changing the rule. But it is not for me to stand in the way of something going to the Committee for Privileges, and if there is a lot of feeling about it in the House I would say that I am at the disposal of noble Lords to have a preliminary discussion, at any rate, and then the House would have to decide what was done about it.


My Lords, would the noble Earl say by what authority the Civil Service decided to take away these rights from a citizen of this country?


My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lady is speaking very wisely in talking about the removal of rights. It may be that if one went back far enough one could find some precedent for the existence of these rights. I believe that in 1869 Mr. Gladstone dragged back Lord Lyons, the Ambassador in Paris, and more or less compelled him to vote for the disestablishment of the Irish Church. In a sense, that would not happen now. I am sure that when the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, inherited his title while he was still Ambassador, he could not have been brought back and forced to vote for the disestablishment of anything. So I think the position has changed in the last hundred years. But this rule goes back to 1928, and in practice a good deal further than that.


My Lords, I hope, if I may say so, that the noble Earl will not rest on that. I agree that this matter has nothing whatever to do with Party politics. On the other hand, it is of considerable constitutional importance, and is of interest to all of us, in all quarters of the House. It seems to me that it is exactly the kind of question, where no Party consideration is involved, which would be very properly considered by the Committee for Privileges. There, we could look at the whole position; and then, if the matter were raised again, the House, as it has so often done when it has had the Reports of its Committees before it, could express a final opinion after full consideration of the whole matter. I do hope the noble Earl the Leader of the House will very carefully consider that.


My Lords—


May I just answer the noble Earl, Lord Swinton? I repeat that anything of this character raised in the House would be considered by me, but with special care if it comes from the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, in view of his almost unique services to this House. There is just one point that should be made a little clearer. If one is going to argue that the Civil Service, for which the Government of the day ultimately take the responsibility, has no right to lay down any rules at all, that of course would prevent it from laying down any rules about intervention in debates of an extremely partisan character. I should imagine that almost everybody would agree that civil servants should not take part in what are called Party debates. The issue which is of interest to a number of noble Lords is simply the question of whether they should not be allowed to take part in debates of another kind. So I think one should not talk as though the Civil Service had no rights at all in a matter of this kind, and could not make any rules whatever affecting noble Lords.


My Lords, I welcome the noble Earl's newfound conversion to traditionalism which we hope will be extended in other directions as well, but does he not consider that this difference between serving soldiers and members of the Civil Service is a complete anachronism and ridiculously invidious? Both are servants of the Crown, and surely both should receive equal treatment in and out of your Lordships' House.


My Lords, I think, if I may say so, with respect, that the noble Earl is perfectly entitled to make that point, but in the traditions of this House and of our country there has been a slight difference of emphasis here, and the noble Earl will appreciate that the last thing I am doing is introducing any change.


My Lords, slightly to alter the emphasis of my noble friend Lord Napier, may I ask the Government this question? Is not the case before us one in which the Civil Service has taken upon itself a rule to impede noble Lords from the execution of the duty laid upon them by the Crown in the Writ? That is how it appears to me.


I can only repeat to the noble Lord that in fact this rule is of very long standing; that very eminent Leaders of this House—noble Lords much more eminent than myself—have not taken that view; and that it would be a very revolutionary doctrine if the views which the noble Lord has just expressed prevailed.


My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that strict observance of the Civil Service oath should take precedence over the duties of any noble Lord to this House?


My Lords, I think the noble Earl the Leader of the House will recognise that there seems to be quite a lot of feeling about this matter in the House. I think it is a perfectly fair point that not only are we considering the rights of individuals and the rights of individual Members of this House, but this is a matter which quite clearly touches on the public interest as well. On the whole, over the years, successive Governments have found it necessary to support this particular rule. Nevertheless, I think it is a fair point that, certainly under this Government, there is a certain growth in the Civil Service, and possibly the time has come to have this matter looked at again. As to whether the right answer would be to send it to the Committee for Privileges, I think that perhaps discussions could be held about that. An alternative, which I put to the noble Earl, is this. Does he think it at all possible that there could be some slight variation in the Treasury rules? If that could be considered, it might meet with the general support of the House.


My Lords, I certainly cannot commit the Government this afternoon to any variation whatever, and I should be giving a false impression if I implied that some change was likely. But I should be delighted to discuss these matters with the noble Lord opposite and other noble Lords who are specially interested. The only argument of the noble Lord I cannot accept is that in some way this problem is the result of the increase of the Civil Service under the present Government. There are, in fact, two noble Lords affected by this matter: both are members of the Foreign Service, of some years' standing. I cannot attribute the responsibility for this problem to the existing Administration.


My Lords, might I press the noble Earl the Leader of the House to refer this matter to the Committee for Privileges, and to no other body, because to my mind it involves the rights of Members of the House? I suggest to the noble Earl that we should not try to debate it now. The discussion that has taken place in the last few minutes, I would suggest to him, shows the need for further detailed consideration of this problem by the Committee for Privileges.


My Lords, in view of the fact that this long debate concerns two people, might I ask my noble friend whether either has approached him and asked whether they should speak?


My Lords, one has certainly not; and one has voted in the past, with the permission of his superiors. I think it would be true to say that neither has approached me directly, although I have been in communication with one of them.

In reply to the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, I can only say that this problem has been before this House for many years; and all the time that he was a distinguished member of the Government it never occurred to him to refer this matter to the Committee for Privileges. I do not think that this is something that should automatically go to the Committee for Privileges. I think that some informal discussions first would help us to recognise the position.


My Lords, does the noble Earl remember that the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, is a serving soldier? It would be a great loss to this House if he were never heard.


My Lords, the Service rules apparently do not apply to those who reach the highest eminence.


My Lords, could the noble Earl say who are the two Peers concerned?


My Lords, I am perfectly prepared to tell the noble Lord privately—there is no secret about it; but it would perhaps be rather invidious to single them out this afternoon.


My Lords I thank the noble Earl the Leader of the House for those detailed replies. Perhaps we could pursue the matter further.