House of Commons Disqualification (Temporary Provisions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 10th February 1944.

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Photo of Mr Edgar Granville Mr Edgar Granville , Eye

I realise that when this legislation was first introduced there was a Debate on the subject and a good deal of it was gone into in open discussion. But this is the third year. We find ourselves year by year authorising these appointments under the certificate of the Prime Minister. As has been said, it may be the case that the appointments are published in the Press, but that does not give us a Parliamentary opportunity of discussing them individually in this House. I would have liked the Attorney-General to give us not only the number of these appointments but a description of them and the functions which the people who fill them are asked to perform. In fact, I would ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider issuing a list of all these Government appointments, where these Ministers are appointed, what work they are doing at the moment, what salary goes with these appointments and how long it is intended now to continue them. I understand that with regard to the disqualification certificate there is a limit, in the terms of the Bill, which has now become three years and next year will become two years and so on until it is dropped or renewed. But what I would like to know is whether there is a limit to the period of the appointment itself. May I give a simple illustration? Take the appointment of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rossendale (Sir R. Cross), who was Minister of Shipping in this House prior to his appointment to Canberra as I believe a Minister. Now I notice that he is designated High Commissioner, which puts his case on all fours with that of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Malcolm MacDonald), who occupies a similar function at Ottawa.

It may be, as I have said, that this Bill will expire three years from now. I understand that these appointments were in the nature of emergency war measures. Does that mean that at the end of the European war they will cease in terms of the political appointment or in the terms of the disqualification certificate under this Bill? Does that mean that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rossendale, who has now become High Commissioner in Australia, will have his appointment continued until after the Japanese war has ended? I would be glad of an answer on that point. Further, are these appointments now to be regarded as Civil Service appointments? Is this particular case to be regarded as an innovation or are these appointments to be regarded as political and ministerial, or are those who have been appointed to assume responsibility for the work which civil servants did before the war, when they were known as commercial attachés in foreign countries or High Commissioners in the capitals of the Dominions? Are the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rossendale to be regarded as Ambassadors within the terms of the Statute of Westminster? What is the relationship between the Governors of each State and the Governor-General in the Dominions who represents matters of the Crown and these political High Commissioners? I give this illustration in order that the Attorney-General may give us some information, because the whole position needs clearing up. We cannot go on year after year merely passing this Bill as though it were a new part of our political structure.

If these appointments are appointments as political Ministers, does it mean that they are authorised, either with the Governor-General or the Governors of the States, to discuss policy with the Governments in the various Dominions? But more important than that, surely, after three years, we have now reached a point when the constituencies of 21 Members are completely disfranchised by their absence. It is one thing at a time of anxiety of the kind we had in this country in 1940–1941, to do the best we can to overcome certain difficulties in Empire co-operation, before air transport was developed in the Commonwealth as it is at present, but it is quite another thing to go on year by year perpetuating what amounts to the disfranchisement of the constituents of these right hon. Gentlemen. I would like to ask the Government how all the questions that occur from time to time in constituencies are to be dealt with if they mean to continue the appointment of these political Ministers for instance after the end of the war with Japan. We are now in smooth waters, politically. The Government have a tremendous majority in the House. I do not know the exact number of right hon. and hon. Members who are directly or indirectly in the appointment of the Government—[An HON. MEMBER: "About 220."]—and I do not know whether it is a new conception of democratic politics during the war that the Government should have this fixed Majority always in their Parliamentary pocket as it were. But what is to happen if there should be a political crisis in this House? The life of the Government may depend on 21 votes, or even less, and if the Government take upon themselves the responsibility of disfranchising 21 constituencies is not that from their own point of view an unwarrantable risk for them to take? It is time the House got back now to the accepted principles of representative Government. If the Government are to establish this as a permanent feature of our Parliamentary life is it not a matter that ought to be considered by Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Reform? It is not good enough to come here every year and introduce this disqualification Bill for the forgotten men and the 21 disfranchised constituencies. Surely the time has come not to give this Bill its Second Reading but to restore our democracy to its full Parliamentary responsibility.