Before the Home Secretary moves the Motion for the Second Reading of this Bill, I desire to submit a point of Order to you, Mr. Speaker. I think it will be for the advantage of the House if you are good enough to give some indication of what will be in Order in the discussions upon this Bill. This is a very unusual Bill, dealing with a very unusual subject, and many divergent views may be taken of what is or is not in Order. In particular, we have a Schedule embodying all the Regulations, and I think the House would be very glad to have your Ruling as to whether any discussion on the merits of any of these Regulations would be in Order.
I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question. It is not a very easy one to answer, but I think I can give a general outline of the position. It is possible that there might be hard cases which hon. Members would wish to raise—I do not think it is very likely, but it is possible. The question whether the Regulations were valid between the date when they should have been made and the date when they were laid appears to be in Order. There may be suggestions that the validity of future Regulations should be conditional upon these being laid before Parliament and that also, I think, would be in Order. As regards the question put to me by the right hon. Gentleman with reference to the Schedule and raising then the merits of the Regulations, that I rule entirely out of Order.
May I submit on your Ruling, Sir, that these Regulations are not individually the subject of discussion but they might be the subject of a group discussion—taking them not individually but as a group—in order to show that in certain respects it would be bad to pass this Bill, because it was not a fair way of proceeding with legislation? I see the difficulty of having an argument on each Regulation, but I think it might be valid to argue that in general the Regulations might not be desirable.
May I draw attention to the fact that the Title of the Bill contains the word "Indemnity" and ask whether it is in Order that a Bill with that Title should contain at the end a Clause with the provision that
all these Regulations shall be deemed to have been duly laid before Parliament.
That would deprive this House of an opportunity of praying against them.
Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller), may I call attention to the fact that the words are:
shall be deemed to have been duly laid before Parliament.
Surely that would be taken as meaning that the proper procedure has been followed out, in which case the time to pray will have elapsed.
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
Last Wednesday I came before the House to express my deep and sincere regret for the serious error which has occurred through my failure to lay before Parliament a number of Regulations made under the Fire Services (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1941. On Thursday I told the House that the Government had decided to introduce a Bill of Indemnity without delay, and that I was clear, on general and constitutional grounds, that this was the proper course to take. To-day I come to the House again to say once more how much I regret this grave oversight and to ask the House to give the Indemnity Bill a Second Reading. First I should explain briefly what actually took place. The Act of 1941 provides that all Regulations made thereunder are to be laid before Parliament as soon as may be, and that within the next 28 Sitting Days after being laid they may be annulled by Resolution.
I have taken a lot of advice about that, and I do not propose to elaborate the point. I will deal with the legal aspect afterwards. I am merely describing what was the provision in the Act. This was that the Regulations were to be laid before Parliament "as soon as may be" and that within the next 28 Sitting Days after being laid they might be annulled by Resolution of either of the Houses of Parliament.
The first Regulations made under the Act—I am merely saying what the Regulations were—were the National Fire Service (General) Regulations, 1941, made on 5th August, 1941. These fundamental Regulations set up the National Fire Service and on them depend the whole constitution of the Service; the duties to be discharged; the constitution of the fire areas; the system of control; the conditions of service; ranks, discipline, etc. Thus they laid the foundations for the new Service. They also transferred all fire brigade personnel to the Service, suspended the obligations and powers of the fire brigade authorities, and transferred, for the purposes of the National Fire Service, for use as though it were the property of the Crown, all the property of the Fire Brigade authorities which was used or appropriated or intended for use for purposes of the fire brigades.
By a defect in machinery, these Regulations were not laid before Parliament until last week, nearly three years after being made. I say by a defect of machinery because I and the officers concerned took it for granted that they would be properly laid. What happened was, I am afraid, that each individual assumed that somebody else would see to this point. This mistake was, unfortunately, repeated with each of 18 amending Regulations made over a period of two years. This mistake was also made in the case of (1) a series of pensions Regulations, amending the original Pensions Regulations made on the 18th August, 1941, which were themselves properly laid; and (2) the National Fire Service (Employment Overseas) Regulations made on 12th June, 1944. The National Fire Service (Financial) Regulations made on 18th August, 1941, were duly laid. There have been no amending Regulations in this case, and, financially, we appear to have been within the appropriate direc- tions of the Act. The Schedule to the Bill sets out in detail the Regulations which have not been laid.
These errors were recently discovered by an officer of my Department when the question of consolidation arose. The debit side against me and the Department is heavy, but perhaps this discovery by an officer of my Department can be counted on the credit side.
I cannot make any wild promises. Immediately the errors were brought to my notice, I called for reports on what had occurred and gave instructions that steps should be taken to prevent any recurrence. These inquiries were completed last Tuesday and I received the Department's final observations on Tuesday evening. I thought it my duty, rightly or wrongly, to bring the matter to the attention of the House as soon as might be. The last thing I wish to do is to minimise, or seek to minimise, the seriousness of the lapse. It was a grave lapse and I and my Department feel very much ashamed of ourselves. We are all feeling very ashamed that this should have happened and I earnestly express my regret to the House. I decided that I ought to inform Parliament at once and, with the Speaker's permission, made a statement in the House on Wednesday.
I do not wish in any way to minimise the seriousness of this lapse. It is a most serious matter that, whatever the reason, any Minister exercising powers of subordinate legislation should fail to comply with an express provision in a Statute that the particular piece of subordinate legislation should be laid before Parliament. I would only say three things by way of explanation—not by way of extenuation, not by way of defiance or even of defence, but merely of explanation. The first is that the errors were due to inadvertence and nothing worse. I know the men in this Department and I know myself, and none of us would willingly do any such thing. There has been nothing hole-in-the-corner about the National Fire Service. I think everybody has known of its existence right from the beginning. We had nothing to hide—yes, my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) has been a good friend of the Service—and I have never hesitated to proclaim to the world the achievements of this splendid service.
There was a considerable Debate on the Bill under which the Regulations were made. That was a big piece of publicity after the actual publication of the Bill. The National Fire Service itself was introduced to the world with full publicity. The contents of the Regulations were known and studied by the Fire Service, including the officers and the Fire Brigades Union and by the local authorities. The Associations concerned were consulted, and if at any time they wished to raise any point of criticism or suggest alterations, it is always possible for appropriate bodies to approach the Home Office or the Ministry of Home Security and raise points on the merits or the contents of Regulations.
On 18th November, 1941—in the Debate on the Address—there was a full discussion of the National Fire Service in the House. In what I am now about to say, I beg the House not to think that I am trying to score points against it. Believe me, I am in no position to score points against anybody. I hope it will not be long before I can do so, but all I am doing now is to establish that the Regulations were in fact known. It is clear from the OFFICIAL REPORT that there was full awareness of the existence of the Regulations to which direct references were made by, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn), who referred, among other things, to the discipline code, my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin), who said that quite rightly a code of discipline had been laid down, and my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton (Dr. Russell Thomas), who also referred to the discipline code.
I only say this to establish the point that there was no secret about the existence of the Regulations and I am not trying to pass the responsibility for the non-discovery on to the House at all. As a fact, it is the case that no Member of the Legislature in either House ever sought to put down a Prayer. I am not asking for trouble—no Minister looks for Prayers against his Regulations—but I am beginning to wish that somebody had put down a Prayer against the Regulations, in which case, believe me, those Regulations would have been here with a speed of which the National Fire Service when engaged on operations would not be ashamed.
I merely make this point—I do not want to press it at all—but if it had happened that hon. Members had sought to put down a Prayer then either they or the authorities of the House, or I, would have discovered the error.
That is a perfectly legitimate point against me, because I then protested against the setting up of a "watchdog" Committee, but that would not have solved the matter. The Select Committee on Statutory Rules and Orders only deals with Regulations which have been laid. There it is. I mention these things not to make debating points against anybody, but merely to establish that the Regulations were known. Therefore, far from there being any secret about the existence of this Service—the product of Regulations under the Act—there was the greatest publicity both inside and outside Parliament. There was a further debate in which the National Fire Service was discussed on the 30th July, 1943, and there have, of course, been many Questions relating to subjects dealt with in the Regulations.
My second argument, not by way of extenuation, but by way of explanation as to how I and the Department slipped up, is that the making of these Regulations was the culmination of a great administrative task. It really was an extraordinarily vast administrative revolution in the fire-fighting arrangements of the country. It involved the reorganisation of the whole fire-fighting organisation of England, Wales and Scotland. That reorganisation took place in the light of the experience of the blitz and let me say—because these things are liable to be forgotten when what was expected does not happen—in anticipation that the winter of 1941–42 would see heavier enemy attacks than the winter of 1940–41. It is true that these anticipations did not materialise for the time being, but it was no part of my business to assume this. I must always assume the worst, and the reorganisation had to be carried through urgently under the ever-present threat of the renewal and intensification of the attacks. It was a formidable task of vast administrative complexity, involving the changeover from administration by 1,400 local authorities in England and Wales alone, apart from the 200 in Scotland, and concentrating them in a unified national system under a limited number of fire force areas, and the manning and equipping of the new National Fire Service, the selection of the officers and the setting up of the financial and supply organisation. That is the background against which the original mistakes must be judged.
I would add this. It has happened to me in Debate, and it may have happened to other Members, that one is so seized by a first-class point that subsidiary or secondary points which are almost of equal importance are overlooked. There are times when you are working under stress, when you are wholly possessed by a single objective—in my case the fighting of the battle of the flames—when you are apt to forget other points. I ask for some sympathy for the Department in the circumstances because our whole mind was directed to giving effect to our determination that our country should not burn as the result of enemy action. The responsibility is mine, fairly mine, and I accept it in the hearing and in the sight of Parliament. As far as my own Department is concerned, steps have been taken to prevent the mistake occurring again. I do not think that it is likely to happen again. The officers concerned have had a rough time from me, and everything humanly possible will be done to prevent a recurrence.
I have not had an easy time from Parliament. I make no complaint. One ought not to have too easy a time from Parliament in such circumstances. There were quite properly Questions, and I ex- pected them and deserved them in view of the grave error which had been made. I say that I am exceedingly sorry about it, and I only ask the House to recall the stress under which we were working and that when it occurred our minds were directed to the vast task we had in hand. I should like to add that although I have dealt suitably with the officers of my Department have had to give my own explanation to the House, I am bound to say in fairness to these men that they have done a first-class job in the organisation of the Fire Service, and if I had again to choose officers with whom I would go through the Battle of the Flames, I would choose these vigorous men again despite their responsibility for making this bad mistake, at a time when their energies were concentrated on organising the N.F.S. for victory against the enemy's fire-raising attacks.
I hope that there is not the slightest feeling that I am suggesting that Parliament is anything but considerate and I hone that I in my turn am as respectful to the House as I always wish to be. I will now deal with the terms of the Bill itself. It provides, in short, that the Regulations shall be deemed to have been duly laid before Parliament in accordance with the requirements of the Statute. I do not propose to argue the question whether the Regulations have been invalidated by the error. Only the courts can settle that issue authoritatively. In any case, it would be unprofitable for me to pursue it. Whether the Regulations are valid or not, I am satisfied that it is right to have this Bill so that Parliament can have the opportunity of reviewing the matter on a Parliamentary Bill. Whatever the legal position may be, there will be no doubt about the matter if the Bill is passed.
Some hon. Members may ask: "But what of the injustice suffered by persons who had, for example, been proceeded against under the Regulations?" With all respect to them, this argument seems to me to be entirely misconceived. Assuming for a moment that the premise on which it is based—that the Regulations are invalid—can be accepted, and that is only an assumption, what does it lead to in practice? Hon. Members would presumably not suggest that the National Fire Service should not have been set up at all or that if this important formality had not been neglected, Parliament would have annulled the Regulations setting it up. There would, in short, have been an N.F.S. in any case and an N.F.S. on the same model, with the same powers as to-day. Nobody would suggest that it should have no discipline code. In other words, no one can seriously suggest that if the mistake had not occurred things would not have taken exactly the same course as in fact they have taken. And I cannot see, therefore, how on merits—important technicalities aside—injustice can be said to have been done, grave and serious as the failure to lay the Regulations was.
What of the future? The House will, I hope, accept the explanation I have given of how this mistake came to be made and give the Bill a Second Reading. But Members may reasonably ask what the Government propose to do about the future.
The right hon. Gentleman has asked for indemnification. A large number of chief fire officers, and others, no doubt, have carried out disciplinary action on the Regulations, and why are they not being indemnified as well?
Whatever action they may have taken is due solely to my failure to lay the Regulations before Parliament, and if Parliament now enacts that they were deemed to have been laid then both my own and these officers' actions would be validated and there would be no question of it otherwise.
The Home Secretary might be good enough to explain the action against his officers. Has there been any departmental action taken against any officer in this connection? The right hon. Gentleman has asked Parliament to take no disciplinary action against himself—the chief culprit—and I want him to tell the House if any action has been taken against any officer. Why should not an officer be completely indemnified from any disciplinary action as well as himself?
The right hon. Gentleman comes to the House and says, "I want to be completely indemnified and no action to be taken against me," and it is only fair for Parliament to say that, if the chief culprit is exempt, then, no person in his office should suffer or have disciplinary action taken against him, and it is proper to ask for such an assurance.
I have given the assurance. I have told the House that I have dealt with them sharply and critically, but I have also said that these are very good officers who have done a first-class job of work in the organisation of the National Fire Service. There is only one thing that the House can do about officers and that is to hold the Minister responsible. If the House tried to deal direct with the discipline and promotion of civil servants we should get into difficulties.
Is not the right hon. Gentleman missing the point of the hon. Member? The point raised is that officers of his Department would have taken action against persons under the Regulations which were not valid. As I understand it, the correct answer is that the indemnification which the right hon. Gentleman receives from the House of Commons will, at the same time, be indemnification for any action which may have been taken under the Regulations which were not validated.
Mine is a completely different point. It is an important point. It is clear from the terms of the Bill that the point of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) is met. I am asking that no person who happens to be a humble servant should be penalised. We are indemnifying the Home Secretary and no person in the Civil Service ought to suffer because of the action that has been taken.
My hon. Friend is anxious that none of the civil servants responsible to me for the laying of these Orders shall be disciplined. He wants to know whether I am proposing to demote any officers of the Department who were responsible in this matter. I am not proposing to do so.
I have had some experience of these matters. In cases of false imprisonment for malicious prosecution, action invariably is brought against the individual police officer concerned. What I want an assurance upon in this matter is this. Assume that an action is brought, not against the responsible person in the Home Office for the unfortunate mistake that was made, but against the official who, in the course of his duty, has arrested a man, and against whom an action for false imprisonment is brought. Is he protected or not?
My advice is that if the Bill is passed as submitted to the House, no action can lie against anybody, whether he is an officer of the Department or of the National Fire Service or of the police force. No action can be brought against anybody and that is the purpose of the Bill. As I said, I hope that the House will accept the explanations I have given of how the mistake came to be made and give the Bill a Second Reading. But hon. Members may reasonably ask, as I have said, what action the Government propose to take in the future. In the Home Office and the Ministry of Home Security we have made arrangements which will secure a double check against any such error occurring again. With the detail of these arrangements I need not bother the House, but there will be a double check. But we intend to go further, and it is proposed that the Treasury, whom we shall consult, shall consider what instructions can appropriately be issued to all Government Departments on this subject. The first step is to make the arrangements throughout the Government service as foolproof as we possibly can.
There lies on every Minister a heavy responsibility to secure meticulous observance of a mandatory duty imposed on him by Act of Parliament. When Parliament has enacted that Regulations shall be laid, failure to comply with that enactment is a grave offence by the Minister responsible. Every Department of the Government will be anxious to examine its Departmental arrangements with a view to ensuring that the Minister shall not be exposed to such risk by any fault in the official machinery.
There remains, however, a further consideration—and it arises on the notice of Motion on the Order Paper about a new Clause. Ought Parliament to take further steps to ensure that Regulations which are subject to a negative Resolution—the point obviously cannot arise under the affirmative Resolution procedure—shall not operate indefinitely if there should be failure to lay? I have told the House on previous occasions that the Government appreciate the importance of meticulous care to preserve the necessary Parliamentary control over delegated legislation. The Government fully recognise the feeling of many Members that Parliament ought to set it beyond doubt by some appropriate enactment that Regulations which are subject to a negative Resolution shall cease to be operative if they are not laid within a specified period. This question deserves careful consideration and we shall be glad to have the views of the House about it in the speeches which will follow. It is not altogether a simple matter.
It must be remembered that while a number of Defence Regulations and Orders are restrictive or impose duties upon somebody or may be called onerous in character, there are many others which have a beneficial purpose from the point of view of the individual. They may confer rights, they may improve pensions, or they may secure the payment of allowances. Therefore, the proposal of legislation cuts both ways and that should be kept in mind. To invalidate Regulations where advantages to the individual citizen are granted by the State or by public authority may be the last thing that any Member may desire, and it is arguable that, while appropriate punishment ought to fall on the responsible Minister, punishment ought not to fall on persons who are beneficially affected by such Regulations. Nevertheless, there is also force in the contention that if Parliament, when passing the enabling Act, decreed that regulations made thereunder shall be subject to a negative Resolution, it is not right that they should operate for a long and indefinite period, despite the fact that Parliament had had no opportunity to consider such a Resolution. The question whether this object should be effected by some new statutory provision cannot, I am advised, and I gather, Sir, that that is your view, be dealt with in this Bill. The Government, however, recognise that it requires attention and they will give it early consideration, in the light of to-day's Debate.
Finally, in asking for the Second Reading of the Bill, I thank the House for the great kindness with which it has received what I have said and, once more, I express to this House, for which I have the very highest regard, my deepest regrets and apologies that this serious error should have taken place. Having done so, I trust the House will give me the Bill as early as may be.
I am very glad, and I am sure the House equally is glad, that the Government decided that this irregularity could only be rectified by the introduction and passage through Parliament of an Indemnity Bill. The Bill we have before us, I feel, does achieve the purpose which the House, as well as the Government, have in view. The Home Secretary has quite frankly admitted the error of himself and the Department, for which he is responsible, in this matter, because, quite clearly, the crime and whole responsibility for this failure rests with his Department. The fact that this House had not, itself, observed the irregularity, or that the persons affected by these Regulations had not thought it desirable to urge Members of the House to pray against them, does not relieve the Home Secretary or his Department of their responsibility, and the Home Secretary, of course, did not suggest that for a moment, because two blacks, or rather a black and a little grey between them, do not make a white.
With regard to the precise reference of this Bill, the operative Clause—Clause I—consists of two parts. The first part indemnifies the Home Secretary, but really the second part of Clause I is the more important. I should like to put my interpretation of that, which I think the Law Officers of the Crown will support. I have heard it suggested that the second part of Clause I validates the Regulations. That is not, of course, the case as I understand it. The Statute says that these Regulations must be laid upon the Table of the House as early as may be, and that thereafter there shall be a certain lapse of time, in which the House can annul them. But they remain in. force during the period between their laying and the acceptance by the House, either by not praying against them, or by the Prayer being produced and defeated. What this Bill does, as I understand it, is not in any way to deny the force of the phrase "as soon as may be"——
I am quite ready to give way, but perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman will let me finish my sentence, which I am afraid will be rather a long one. I shall certainly give way to him if I have not satisfied him when I come to the end. I was endeavouring to say that what I understand this Bill to do is—for the purpose of these particular Regulations and not for any others—to extend the period covered by the words "as soon as may be." In other words, it appears that, in this particular case only, those words shall be deemed to cover the whole period between the time when these Regulations ought to have been laid and the date when they were laid, which I think was a few days ago. It does not deprive the House of the right to discuss and to pray against these Regulations; it does not say that in any other case the period shall be other than we all took it to be, which is practically immediately—within a few hours or days. However, so far as these particular Regulations are concerned, it allows the lapse of time which has taken place not to invalidate them. Now, if I have not satisfied my hon. and gallant Friend——
I did not want to interrupt the most interesting discourse of my right hon. Friend. I was hoping he might be able to do what the Home Secretary has been unable to do, and say what is meant by "as soon as may be." Is it as soon as may be convenient, or desirable, or possible, or what? It is a point because, after all, unless we know what is meant by the phrase, it may be that this Bill is wholly undesirable or unnecessary.
It would be very presumptuous on my part to interpret the meaning of words which the Home Secretary has feared to pronounce upon. Possibly my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General may do so when he comes to reply. However, speaking as an ordinary person, I would say that we all know, I think, that the intention of these words was, "at a very early date after the framing of the Regulations."
The merit of the Government in introducing this Bill is that they do not attempt by any subterfuge to deprive the House of that interpretation of the words. When I first raised the matter last week with my right hon. Friend, I gathered that there was some doubt in the mind of the Home Office whether any act of indemnity was, in fact, required, and if that had been raised, then the point made by the hon. and gallant Member as to whether the words "as soon as may be" could be twisted into covering a period of 2½ years would, I think, have been highly relevant. I think the House would then have been quite right in feeling indignant that any such twisted meaning should have been put upon any words of common usage. However the Government have, rightly, decided that that would be an unsound view. Though they do not presume to say what the courts would have decided, had a case been brought forward, they accept the interpretation which the common man—meaning my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Oxford University (Petty-Officer Herbert)—would put upon those words. I hope the Attorney-General will agree that I have interpreted the meaning of the words correctly.
I am sure that the House acquits the Home Secretary of any intentional and deliberate effort to deprive the House of the opportunity of debating the matter. Of course that would have been quite ridiculous, because, as he has said to-day, the existence of these Regulations was common knowledge, not only to us but to the people who were affected by them, and it would be absurd to suggest that there was any intention of suppression. What the House wants to be satisfied about is that this kind of thing shall not happen again. The Home Secretary has, I imagine, ascertained that all the Regulations in the Home Office and the Ministry of Home Security have been put out. I presume he has combed out these Departments and made certain that there are no Regulations other than those specified in this Bill, which have not been properly laid before the House. I think it is fair to ask the Attorney-General whether the Regulations put forward by other Departments of the Government have, equally, been gone through meticulously, to make sure that in their case also there are no cases of failure to table Regulations. I imagine that as soon as the matter was brought to the attention of the House by the necessity of introducing this Bill, they put their own house in order, but I think it would be just as well if we had a positive assurance to that effect from the Attorney-General. If he should not be able to give that assurance when he comes to reply, then he should, at least, give the assurance that forthwith all the Ministries will be instructed to go through their papers to make sure.
I am sorry, I had forgotten that statement, but if that is so, perhaps the Attorney-General will refer us to the time and place when that statement was made.
Now with regard to future Regulations, it is very important that the House should not forgo the right to insist that every precaution is taken that this does not happen again, and I noted the particular method of assurance suggested by the Home Secretary at the conclusion of his speech. He said he would give sympathetic consideration to that point, and it seems to me that the House very reasonably accepted that view. The passage of this Bill, so far from reducing the responsibility of he Governmen, makes it much more clear that the responsibility of the Department is to see that this thing does not happen again and, so far as the future is concerned, that seems to me to carry us pretty well all the way.
I would only like to say, in conclusion, that Mr. Speaker has ruled—and if I may say so, I accept the Ruling as essentially correct—that we cannot, on this Bill, discuss the precise merits of the Regulations. The House will have the opportunity to do that, if it chooses to pray against any or all of them, and the time to consider the merits of these Regulations will be then. But, of course, the whole of this irregularity and the introduction of this Bill has thrown a spotlight on these Regulations, and I do not think I shall be out of Order if I say this to the Home Secretary: Many of these Regulations are 2½ years old, and it may well be that in the lapse of time since they were originally drafted points have arisen on which he might, after consideration, see fit to amend them. Of course they have been laid in their original form.
Therefore, when that period elapses they will pass in their original form, but I feel sure that if suitable representations are made from suitable quarters, to the Home Secretary, he will give the question of such emendation his careful consideration. That is all I want to say to-day. I hope my view will find reflection in other quarters of the House, that although we take an exceedingly serious view of this lapse on the part of the Home Office we shall, nevertheless, give a Second Reading to this Bill.
On the last occasion on which I had the honour to address this House the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers), in a friendly way, admonished me for over simplifying matters. Notwithstanding that friendly criticism, I propose to follow the same course to-day, because, with the greatest respect, there may be some confusion of thought. I am sure that every Member feels sincere sympathy with the Home Secretary in the position in which he finds himself to-day, coupled with admiration for the fair and proper way in which he has told the House exactly what happened. I do not believe there is a Member in this House who, in his own professional or business life, has not had a mistake made by a subordinate. Everyone has experienced it, and there is not one who would not do what the right hon. Gentleman has done, namely, take the full burden of responsibility.
In approaching this matter I intend to be brief, because I know that the Government are anxious to get the Bill at the earliest moment. There are two separate matters to be considered by the House. First, is this Bill of indemnity necessary and, second, what are the circumstances which led to its necessity? The more important question is—and I interrupted the Home Secretary in his speech on this point—are we satisfied that no real wrong has been done, or will be done, to any individual for whose liberties we are responsible? In normal times the court is the guardian of the liberty of the subject but at the present moment we have that responsibility in a special sense, and our duty is to see that no wrong is inflicted on any citizen by this emergency legislation.
In asking myself whether this Bill of indemnity is necessary I can see that from a legal point of view a case might be presented that no such Bill was necessary. But will the House take its mind back to 1939, to those days in early September, when some of us sat here rushing through legislation as quickly as we could? I think that the explanation of what happened is this: If one looks at the original Defence of the Realm Regulations it will be found that it is under the Act of 1939 that the Fire Service Regulations were originally made. The extraordinary feature about the matter is this: If hon. Members look at the volume published as far back as 1942, in which there is a Section dealing with tables of Acts of Parliament amended, suspended or applied by Defence Regulations and Orders made thereunder, they will find that in the Schedule the Act of 1941 is expressly included. So until the blitz of 1940–41 began, was the matter governed entirely by the main Act of 1939. One can see what happened, that whereas in 1939–40 things went normally, when things became abnormal, and it became necessary not merely to extend but co-ordinate the whole of the Fire Service Regulations, officials of the Home Office assumed that the Regulations they were making were covered in the same way as the earlier Regulations were covered. I think the mistake has arisen in this case—although others may differ—simply because of the English in which these Regulations were drawn, a point about which some of us have protested so often. Look at the Bill we are discussing now. It states:
And whereas it is provided by the said Act that all Regulations made thereunder shall be laid before Parliament as soon as may be after they are made. …
I turn to the Act of 1941. Reading it, line by line, and comma by comma, I find no such provision at all, until I turn to Clause 2 (I), where I find this is the language in which it is drawn:
Paragraph (d) of Subsection (2) and Subsection (4) of Section one of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, as amended by Subsection (2) of Section one of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1940 (which relate to the amendment of Acts by Defence Regulations) shall have effect as if this Act had been passed before the commencement of the last-mentioned Act, and Subsection (I) and (2) of Section eight of the first mentioned Act"—
I pause for breath—
(which relate to the laying before Parliament of Defence Regulations and the annulment of Defence Regulations) shall apply in relation to regulations under this Act as they apply to relation to Orders in Council containing Defence Regulations.
Can one wonder why a subordinate official at the Home Office went wrong when he had to deal with that? Speaking for myself, I can only feel the deepest sympathy for the Home Secretary and his officials.
Now we come to the more important point. Has anybody really suffered? The thought is too awful that this might have happened in connection with Regulation 18B. What would have happened to the Home Secretary then? Here is what has happened. Any person who has been subjected to disciplinary action, to judge by certain proceedings at a police court, which are sub judice, and on which I cannot comment, has, at any rate, had the advantage of a perfectly fair judicial trial. That is to say, he has been prosecuted for an offence before a tribunal which has had every reason to think that the offence with which he was charged was a valid offence. The matter could go before quarter sessions on appeal or, if tried at the assizes, could go before a central criminal court. The main point is that he is in exactly the same position as he would have been if these particular Regulations had been laid for 28 days. Now let us see what happens in a case of a civil action. In that case a different question arises altogether, but I will not develop that because there will be future litigation, and if that man has had a fair trial in respect of an offence which, in fact, was an offence from every point of view except the technical point of view of the Regulations not being laid, I should hesitate to advise litigation in those circumstances.
I am sorry I have had to seek the indulgence of the House so early in the Debate, because I have not had the opportunity of hearing anybody who wished to criticise the right hon. Gentle-
man the Home Secretary. I was rather looking forward to some legalistic cardinal talking to the right hon. Gentleman on the lines of "The Jackdaw of Rheims," remembering how:
The Cardinal rose, with dignified look, He called for his candle, his bell and his book.
The concluding lines of that immortal poem are:
Never was heard such a terrible curse, But what gave rise to no little surprise Nobody seemed one penny the worse.
So far as laying aside all legal penalties and facing the matter from a common sense point of view and realising a serious mistake has been made—which should not be made again—I say that the liberty of the subject is not involved, as I was afraid it was at first, and that the least we can do to-day, as a mark of admiration, appreciation, and affection for the Home Secretary, is to grant him the Bill for which he has asked.
I hope the House will acquit me of any discourtesy in not having been here earlier, and of not remaining for long after I have spoken, but I have duties elsewhere from which I cannot very well escape. I do not intend to follow the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Warrington (Mr. Goldie) in saying whether anybody has suffered as a result of these proceedings because I hope there will be friendly discussions between the Home Secretary and the union with which I am not directly concerned. I want to suggest for the consideration of the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General two points which are worrying me a little about the latter part of Clause i of the Bill, which says:
… those regulations shall be deemed to have been duly laid before Parliament in accordance with the requirements of the statute under which they were made.
It is clearly the intention and desire of the right hon. Gentleman and everybody else that some 28 days from 26th July shall be available for anybody to put down a Prayer if he wishes. It is my view, as a matter of construction, that if the words I have just quoted are left in the Bill then, "duly laid," must mean as soon as may be and that any attempt to put down a Prayer will, in my view, be out of Order, and against the Statute, because the Regulations will be deemed to
have been duly laid, which must mean deemed to be duly laid, promptly, as soon as may be. If that Clause should stand it will, as a matter of law, be impossible to put down a Prayer. I therefore ask that the matter should be considered. Another matter which is a little narrower, is this: One has to consider the possibility—and I am sure the Home Secretary ought to consider it—that within 28 days, assuming we get this Bill, which is our desire, one of these Regulations may be annulled. If one is bad enough to be annulled it ought not to have any more validity that it would have if this mistake had not been made, and the Regulations had been laid before Parliament.
In other words, if one of these earlier Regulations is annulled on some date in October, 1944, it will have had three years' run for its money—for its false money, so to speak. It ought not really to have that. It seems to me as a matter of fairness that if one of these Regulations was annulled, it ought not to have more than the run it would ordinarily have had, which I suppose would take about three months. If a Regulation is made on any particular day, a Prayer has to come on within 28 working days. It may take three months to get 28 working days. It will certainly take two. Any Regulation laid before Parliament, say within 10 days, would then have two months' or so to run before the 28 days ran out. Any one of these Regulations which is going to be annulled, ought not in my submission to have more than three months' run. This has already had over two years, perhaps nearly three. If anything is annulled, there ought to be a provision that it should not get, so to speak, this adventitious existence which it has never deserved. It can easily be done.
It is our intention that the House shall have full rights over this. I am not sure what my hon. and learned Friend is arguing. Does he mean that, if the House were to annul one Regulation, it should be retrospectively annulled back to about three months after the date on which they were originally made?
We must not assume that the House will not annul one, because there have been grievances about them on the assumption that they are valid. But my right hon. Friend has described exactly what I mean. It will be a nice collection of legal tangles. I do not want to present him with legal tangles. I am anxious for the clearing up of mistakes, but we should not give one of these Regulations a good many years of life, when it ought never to have had any at all.
Like everyone else, I want this Bill to become law, because, obviously, it is a case where no one has suffered because of a constitutional outrage, for that is what this has been. There has been no objection to any of the Regulations and one cannot contend that there has been any hardship. What I am concerned about is to see that this does not happen again. I think we want something more than the Home Secretary has indicated, as far as routine machinery is concerned. At the moment, every Minister acts as his own policeman in this matter. The House has failed. Parliament has imposed a mandatory instruction on nearly all Ministries to do a certain thing, and we have no organisation to see that they do it. I think it is our duty to set up our own machinery to see that we receive all the documents.
I understand that the technical process of laying a paper on the Table is the delivery by an official of a Government Department of one of these documents to an official in the Journal Office. Next morning, when we get our Votes and Proceedings, we find a list of the documents so laid. It is this document which comes before the new Select Committee which has been set up. They have no means of finding out these things, unless they are recorded as having been laid. The private group of which I am the chairman never look at things that do not come to us from the Vote Office. That is our source of information. We ought to make some inquiry about this.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. Goldie) drew attention to the fact that this Act of 1941, instead of having in its own words about laying, incorporated the words of the Emergency Powers Act. That would put people off. They would not see the mandatory instructions in looking at their own Act. You can always get a copy of the Statutory Rules and Orders at the Vote Office or in the Library. Inquiry should be made as to whether these things went to the Vote Office and to the Library but did not go into the Journal Office. It is delivery to the Journal Office which, in fact, means laying. The Stationery Office are the people who supply the Statutory Rules and Orders to the Vote Office, and I think it is the Stationery Office which sends the documents to the Library. They distribute them and sell them. Anyone can buy them. They are open to the public. But it is not the Stationery Office which lays them on the Table of the House. We ought, as I say, to look into this machinery of distribution.
I understand that the Parliamentary or legal department in the Ministry has the task of seeing that any document that is to be laid is transmitted to the Office in Westminster Hall, which receives these documents, and is technically the Table of the House. We are notified of any documents so delivered when we get our Votes and Proceedings. The Stationery Office is the body which distributes documents to individual Members and puts them into the sale office of the Stationery Office in Kingsway. They are effectively distributed by the printing organisation and not by the legal organisations of the Departments. All these Rules and Orders are numbered serially and you get some idea about the position, but not clearly. No. 800 may be delivered before No. 750, because there are fewer delays in printing it. Some are numbered and never printed at all. They are the local Orders which affect only some local interest. They do not come to our Library but are made public amongst those interested. So that though the number may run to a couple of thousand in a Session only a thousand are printed. If the body that numbers them had put on it the duty of informing the Journal Office that "Number so and so" had been issued, it should be the duty of our Journal Office to say, "Where is this?" If a certain number of days had passed and this thing of which they had been notified was not received, we should be performing the duty that we have imposed on Ministers, of making sure. I throw that out as a working suggestion, to ensure that the House does its part.
I am glad that the Home Secretary said what he did about our Amendment. That was our attempt, rather hurriedly, before the House rose last week to put something on the Paper which would put this thing right constitutionally. We shall never find out whether these things have been valid for the last 2½ years. The period "as soon as may be" obviously is a short period—the time taken to print off and deliver it here—and, as soon as that unknown period lapses, many people would argue that, as the Papers have not been laid, the Orders have lost their validity. I think I could make a very strong case for that. If I had the high honour of being a judge, I would not send anyone to gaol if the documents had not been laid according to Statute. But let us make it clear. The Home Secretary was doubtful about the purport of this Clause. He said some of the Regulations confer advantages. What difference does that make? They can only confer advantages by taking money out of the public till and handing it out to someone. The fact that it confers an advantage or inflicts a penalty make no difference. The Home Secretary must not repeat that argument.
When we tabled our Amendment we thought it was not likely to be called because it seems to go outside the Title of the Bill but we wanted to stake out a claim. Now we have introduced this wartime procedure of being allowed to table Amendments before the Bill has been read a Second time—the grėatest minor improvement in Parliamentary procedure for many years. It tells everyone what are the things to worry about in the Bill and we have seized that opportunity. This incident has revealed a gap in our Constitution. The illness of King George V in 1928 revealed a gap in the Constitution in demanding provision for a Regency. If he had not been able to sign the necessary document four hours before he went into a coma we should have been constitutionally in a difficulty. Here we have suddenly discovered another constitutional danger. There is yet another which we shall have to rectify at some time or another—the monstrosity of dissolving Parliament instead of summoning a new Parliament, which is the proper thing to do. If Parliament were dissolved to-day, we should be out of effective existence for nine weeks in existing circumstances. That is a monstrosity which I have been urging Ministers for years to correct.
I think there ought to be some inquiry whether there are any other constitutional gaps that ought to be filled. I hope the Home Secretary's statement means that we are going to fill this gap, but there may be others, and it is worth while that these matters should be looked into. I think the Home Secretary has earned forgiveness in connection with this matter by his complete frankness and humbleness, which is not usually a characteristic of his. He saw the red light and it would not turn green. He bowed to it and all was well. I hope some attention will be given to the points that I have raised.
I have listened to all that has been said in this Debate, and I am troubled about the necessity for this Bill. We really have not been told of the necessity for any Bill of Indemnity. The hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Mr. Goldie) assumed that because the Regulations had not been laid on the Table they were invalid. I must admit that I do not feel any certainty about that at all. It seems to me, on looking at the Statute, that Parliament has given power to the Home Secretary to make Regulations under the Act and that those Regulations are legally binding once he has made them; and it is not provided by the Emergency Powers Act that it should be a condition precedent to their validity that they should be laid on the Table. That is not provided for. All that is provided is that they should be laid as soon as may be. It does not say that if they are not laid they would be of no effect. It seems to me that they are legally binding from the moment they are laid, and certainly legally binding until a Prayer has been put down and they are annulled. If that be the case, it is a point that ought to be dealt with clearly and unequivocably by the Attorney-General. If that be the case, this Bill is unnecessary.
The Home Secretary stated when this matter was first announced that, so far as he knew, there were no sanctions for a failure to lay Rules and Regulations upon the Table. If he is right about that this
Bill, again, is unnecessary. I feel grave doubts about this matter when I look at the contents of the Bill. We are asked to give an indemnity to the Secretary of State in person, and then Clause I goes on to provide that these Regulations shall be deemed to have been duly laid before Parliament in accordance with the requirements of the Statute under which they were made. It does not seem to me that these two parts of the Clause are consistent. You either want power of indemnity to cover all people who have acted under these Regulations, or you want a simple Clause which consists solely of the words:
Those Regulations shall be deemed to have been duly laid before Parliament in accordance with the requirements of the Statute under which they were made.
If those words are sufficient to protect all the people who have acted under the Regulations, they are also sufficient to protect the Secretary of State.
I wish to make a further point, which has been dealt with to some extent by the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt). With the wording of Clause I, we in this House, although the Regulations have been recently placed upon the Table, will deprive ourselves of any opportunity of praying against them because, if the Regulations are deemed to have been duly laid three years ago, the time for praying against them must clearly have passed. I do not wish to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill if the necessity for it is made clear, but in all that the Home Secretary said, and in all that has been said since, we have had no clear statement as to the position of these Regulations up to this moment. Are they invalid and of no legal effect? If so, there is a need for indemnity. If, on the other hand, the position is, as I think, that they are legally binding, even though they have not been laid on the Table, there is no need for the Bill. That is the question which ought to have been answered and dealt with straight away when this Bill was introduced.
I respond, in the first place, to the invitation of the Home Secretary for suggestions as to how the contretemps that we are discussing can be avoided in the future. There is another and, I believe, a simpler method than that suggested by the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Wil- Liams). When we begin to consider a Bill, the first step is a formal First Reading followed by a direction that the Bill should be printed. It is well known that Bills are, in fact, printed, not once but many times, before they come to the First Reading, and that the actual Bill which is presented to the House is waiting at the Vote Office to be distributed as soon as the formal First Reading procedure has been gone through. What is meant by the House ordering the printing is really ordering the publication for purposes of discussion by Members or of perusal by the public and for the purposes of sale. I suggest that we adopt the procedure directed, not to the printing, but to the distribution for perusal by Members and for sale to the public, by fixing a specific step which has to be carried out before the Stationery Office can distribute a Statutory Rule and Order. That could be simply done by a direction that the Stationery Office shall not print for distribution and publication a Statutory Rule and Order until they have received from the appropriate office in this House a stamp to indicate that that Order or Regulation has been laid.
If, therefore, a general order were to go forth to the Government Departments that they cannot ask for the distribution of Orders and Regulations from the Stationery Office without going through that simple procedure, it would secure that every Order had been dully laid before it was distributed. I know that it is technically possible for an Order to come into effect when it is signed by the Minister and that it might be operated upon without being printed. In these days, however, Orders which are issued affect so many people outside the Department, and they have to be brought to the attention of so many, that in practice it would be impossible for an Order to be operated upon until it had been duly presented. It was suggested in the Debate that the existence of the Select Committee, coloquially referred to as the "watch dog" Committee, on which I have the honour to sit, would not have been effective in the circumstances we are considering to prevent Orders being operated upon without being laid. I have no right to speak on behalf of the other members of that Committee, but, expressing my own view, I venture to suggest that the existence of the Committee at that time would have proved a proper defence. The Regula- tions, as we heard from the Home Secretary, gave rise to discussion, and I cannot imagine that no member of the Committee would not have asked, "Why have they not been before us?" and other Members of the House would not have said, "What have you to say about these Regulations you are supposed to have considered?" The procedure I have suggested with regard to printing and publication and the existence of the Select Committee will, I suggest, make ample provision to prevent such errors as this in the future.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) embarked on a discussion whether the Bill was unnecessary. It is, indeed, curious to have had a member of the Government coming before the House asking for a Second Reading of a Bill without stating at any time in his explanation of the Bill that it was necessary. One is tempted to follow the discussion embarked upon by the hon. Member, but I refrain from doing so, to the relief, I have no doubt, of the House. There is, however, another aspect than the purely legalistic aspect. It may well be contended that, from the legal point of view, no such step as this Bill is necessary, and that, from the point of view of possible action in the courts, there is no need for this indemnification; but surely, when Parliament has enjoined that a Regulation shall be laid, even though the failure to lay it may have no consequences in the courts, it is right that the Minister involved should come to the House and ask for an indemnity for his failure to carry out the duty enjoined on him by the House. That, I think, is the answer to the argument of the hon. Member for Daventry as to the necessity of the first part of Clause I. It starts off with an indemnity, given by this House in the most formal way in which the House can express itself, to the Home Secretary himself who is responsible for the failure. For these reasons, I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and all the other stages in the most rapid possible time.
I take the same view as regards the validity of these Regulations as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller), but, unlike him, I hope the House will pass this Indemnity Bill. I believe that it is necessary that we should. Whether the validity of these Regulations depends upon their having been laid on the Table or not, it is clear that that is a question which is open to doubt. So long as the possibility remains that it may be held elsewhere that the Regulations are invalid by reason of the failure to lay them before Parliament it is reasonable that my right hon. Friend should come to the House and ask for a Bill of Indemnity. It has been pointed out that it is improbable that any individual or authority has been damnified by failure to lay these Regulations before Parliament. The Regulations have been published and circulated, and they have, no doubt, been canvassed among all those whose interests are affected by them, but no Member of the House has come forward with a Prayer that any of the Regulations should be annulled. That being so, the House can fairly assume that those whose interests are affected have not desired the Regulations to be challenged by a Prayer for their annulment. Had any hon. Member desired to do so the whole matter would have been brought to light. We can be sure that this is a proper case in which the House ought to grant an indemnity.
The House ought certainly to be particularly careful when it is asked to pass a Bill of this nature. This House is the special custodian and guardian of the rights of individual citizens and, therefore, a special duty rests upon this House to be sure that if there has been some failure on the part of the Executive no individual has been injured in his individual rights or in his rights of property by that failure. I am satisfied that in this case the House can, with full responsibility, give the Home Secretary the indemnity for which he asks. We may be sure that nobody has any legitimate grounds for being aggrieved by this failure.
The party who is really aggrieved by this failure is this House. I recollect the Home Secretary some time ago, in a Debate that, we had on delegated legislation, arguing that Parliament had divested itself of its control over matters which are the subject of delegated legislation, and had substituted for its own control the action of the Minister. That is only partly true, because Parliament has always reserved the important right of annulment under these Defence Regulations. I think that Parliament is entitled to feel aggrieved because in this case we have not had the opportunity which ought to have been given to us for exercising this right. In recent years, there has been evident a certain impatience by some of the great civil Departments of State of the forms of Parliamentary and judicial control. The extension of the principle of delegated legislation has increased that impatience. I suggest that that is the most disturbing aspect of this matter. It is disquieting that the means by which Parliament exercises control over delegated legislation should have been treated as a mere formality to which a purely mechanical compliance was regarded as sufficient. It has been said that when these Regulations were made there was great urgency to protect the population from the effects of fire. But this is a matter that has been going on now for three years. There has been a failure on no less than 23 occasions. It is difficult to absolve those who are responsible for this prolonged failure on that ground. This failure has gone on for too long. The House ought to be satisfied that the importance of the control which it retains over delegated legislation is fully appreciated by those who are responsible in these matters.
As the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) has said, we must be satisfied that there will be no repetition of this incident. How are we going to be sure of that? I have put down an Amendment to make the validity of these Regulations depend upon their being laid before Parliament. I am grateful for the assurance of the Home Secretary that this matter will receive the consideration of the Government and that steps will be taken to ensure that this will not occur again. My right hon. Friend suggested that a difficulty might arise because in the case of many of these Regulations benefits were assured to certain people and were dependent upon the validity of the Regulations. That is true but that is, surely, a good reason why this will be the most effective, if not the only effective, safeguard which we can devise to prevent repetition of incidents such as this. If my right hon. Friend feels that it is a difficulty that a person's rights or benefits should have to depend upon compliance with the Act, I suggest that he might consider whether the validity of the Regulations should not depend in the first instance upon their being laid before Parliament within a reasonable time, so that if they are not laid within the prescribed time they should cease to be valid; but if, later, they are laid after the prescribed time, their validity should then be revived at once. A provision on the lines which I have suggested would ensure Regulations being laid before the House at the proper time; but, if that was not done, it would still be within the power of the Minister to bring the Regulations into operation without delay by laying them later before Parliament.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for the assurance which he has given us and I hope that as a result he may be able to prevent this kind of thing occurring again. The most unsatisfactory feature of the whole of this incident is that it was possible for as long as three years for those responsible for carrying out this duty apparently to have overlooked the control which this House has the right to exercise over delegated legislation.
This inquest is becoming unduly prolonged. It is obvious that there has been a Departmental blunder. The degree of that blunder does not in the least depend upon the fact that it has extended for three years. Reading between the lines it is obvious that the same cause which precipitated the original mistake is responsible for the subsequent mistakes. There has been a defect in the machinery of the Home Office. The Minister has accepted full responsibility and has asked us, for an Act of Indemnity, which I think we should give with reasonably good grace. The remarkable thing is not that there should have been a slip-up, not that the House of Commons should have shown itself properly concerned about its interests, and about seeing that delegated legislation goes through the proper stages, but that, in five years' stress of war, this is the first time there has been an occasion for complaint in regard to these particular matters. Some of us who see the public service from the inside are aware of the tremendous impact of the war upon working conditions inside Government Departments. The burden of work has been enormously increased, and the whole machine has been subjected to a strain the intensity of which few people realise. There are few Departments in which the impact of war has been heavier than on the Home Office and the Ministry of Home Security. Some of the problems of the war were foreseeable and could have been planned against, but many of the problems of these Departments could not have been envisaged. The remarkable thing is that the Civil Service has made so few mistakes.
But I hope that, as we have shown mercy to the Home Secretary, he will, in turn, show mercy to his subordinates. I said the other day that I only had one doubt about the Home Secretary, and that was that he had police blood in his veins. He was the son of a copper. As a follower of the theological persuasion that what all of us need is not justice but mercy, and especially those on the Front Bench there, I hope that as we have shown mercy to the Home Secretary, he will find it possible to take a less strict view of offences in the Fire Service and the Prison Service and the other services he controls, which very often are as inadvertent and unintentional as the offence for which he asks our mercy to-day. Let there be inscribed on the portals of the Home Office hereafter, and especially on the Home Secretary's table, the motto, "Mercy—not Justice. Freely we have received, let us freely give."
I was rather disappointed, in listening to the Home Secretary's speech, to find that he did not deal with one matter which I think would be of great interest to the House, that is, to explain precisely how the machinery went wrong, and what in fact really happened. I agreed entirely with the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Brown), when he said that it was a case of the initial error made by somebody being perpetrated time after time, because the machinery, presumably, was not overhauled, and the fact that these various Orders had or had not been laid, was not in fact checked. I do not believe this to be a great constitutional issue, but it is a constitutional issue—what we might call a middleweight one.
We should look at it from the point of view of human nature. For that reason it would be interesting to know—I do not know whether the Attorney-General can tell us—how this thing really happened. What appears to have happened is that somebody, in the earlier stages, committed what is known in ordinary unparliamentary language as a "bloomer," which may happen in any Government office or any other kind of office. It depends entirely on how big that error is as to whether it becomes important or not, What is rather essential is that it should be made impossible for that error to be committed again. I was not favourably impressed by the Home Secretary, in his very good defence of his Department, saying that of course they were fighting the flames so much that they really could not be expected to avoid errors such as this, though it should not happen again. Obviously, I think, it was a case of one person having slipped up, and of that excellent Department, including the Home Secretary, having to atone for his errors.
I come to the point of the Home Secretary's case. We should like to know what "as soon as may be" is. I presume it to be the equivalent of "as soon as the thing may be done," or, in other words, as soon as possible. I do not raise that point from any legalistic motive, but for a definite reason to which I will come in a moment. When the Government think an Order is necessary and they desire to issue it, what is the intention of this House, by putting into the Statute concerned that that Order shall be laid before Parliament "as soon as may be?" I take that to mean quite definitely "as soon as possible," or "at the earliest possible moment," or "at the earliest moment practicable, at which it is available for the ordinary public." I should rather like to know what is the physical sequence of events in the making of an Order. After it is printed, does it go to the Privy Council for the Privy Council's Seal, and is it when the Privy Council's Seal is put upon it that the Order is made?
Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend will interrupt me again on that point, as to when these Orders are deemed to have been made, or perhaps he will be kind enough to look into that point and deal with it in his reply.
It is clear that so far as laying these Orders before Parliament is concerned, it is essential, if Parliament is sitting, that they shall be laid before Parliament at the same time as they are published, and if Parliament is not sitting that they should be sent to the Journal Office of the House, and that the Journal Office, or some other equivalent office of the House, should be responsible for tabling the Order the moment the House returns. I was at one time, for about a year, at the Foreign Office, and I suppose every other Department works in somewhat similar fashion. There was a thing called a distributions list, and when important documents came in they were sent to other Departments of State, and various particular persons. What happens when an Order is being or has been made? Is there a distribution list of Government Departments to which that Order ought to be sent? It seems to me that here we have a simple question of machinery. If the House of Commons and the House of Lords had been put on that distribution list of places to which the Order in question has to be sent at the same time as it is made, it seems to me all this fuss, bother and trouble might very well have been avoided. I can very well imagine at the present time the rest of the Government Departments searching frantically through all their Orders for several years past, to find out if they also have fallen into the same mistake.
There is one other point I should like to make. It has been questioned whether this Bill of Indemnity is necessary or not. I find it a little difficult to make up my mind on that. I presume the reason the Bill has been brought forward is that there shall be nothing left to chance, and in order, quite properly, to give the Home Secretary and civil servants acting under his orders, complete indemnity for any possible error which may have been made, and as a result of which legal proceedings might have been taken. There is one point about which I am a little doubtful. It is the question of the Orders having been deemed to have been laid. Are these Orders we find in the Schedule deemed to have been laid "as soon as may be" after their issue, that is, in some cases three years ago, or are they deemed to have been laid from 26th July only, a few days back? It seems to me there is rather an important point there, because if they are deemed to have been laid only from 26th July, have they therefore been legally valid all that time, because unless "as soon as may be" is deemed to go back three years, nobody can say that has been carried out. If they were, therefore, only deemed to have been laid from 26th July, a number of things have; been done over the last three years under them. Are these acts legally valid or not? If they are not, if there is any doubt about their being legally valid, would it not be advisable to consider the insertion of a retrospective Clause to say quite definitely that, in addition to giving the Home Secretary complete indemnity, which we all wish to do, anything that has been done under these Regulations shall be deemed to have been legal? Perhaps the Attorney-General will consider that matter.
I do not believe anyone would wish to accuse the Home Secretary of having wittingly done anything wrong at all. He himself is only guilty of a constitutional error as the head of his Department, and he is responsible for all the officers of that Department. Somebody has slipped up. The Home Secretary came down at the earliest possible moment, and apologised most respectfully to the House, and I do not think for one moment that the House of Commons, so far as I have listened to this Debate to-day, will refuse him the indemnity. I hope it will be given to him and his path made as easy as possible.
I rise only to say a word or two, after listening, I think, to every speech with one exception. An occasion like this makes me recall my early days in the Socialist movement and George Bernard Shaw saying that the best way to succeed in public life was to make a mistake and then admit it. Of all the instances of mistakes made by a Home Secretary being lauded and praised, to-day's Debate is about the best example. Everybody has praised the Home Secretary. Indeed, I would advise the Home Secretary, who has a great reputation of doing the popular thing, not to commit any more mistakes for a long time because this one seems to be terribly popular.
I cannot follow the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) at all. Indeed regarding the point I raised with Mr. Speaker about discussing the Clauses, when this Bill is passed, the laying of the Regulations before the House becomes really a farce, because if we approve the Bill to-day we are in effect saying that three years ago these Regulations were correct. Obviously we cannot approve of a Bill to-day which approves Regulations made three years ago and in operation ever since, and also say that the Regulations are wrong. Obviously when we pass this Bill to-day we are, in effect, passing the Regulations and we cannot now say that they were wrong. That is in effect what we are doing. In regard to the discussion of the errors of the Home Secretary and his servants in the Department, I claim it may well have been a servant's mistake, but I still take the Parliamentary view that it is the Home Secretary's mistake. Because somebody else may have been guilty of a mistake, he too has been guilty of it, and I hope that he will be no less generous to the servant of the Home Office, than we are being to him.
My memory goes back to the last Home Secretary who made a mistake of this kind. In those days there were healthy differences of opinion in the House of Commons and everybody did not kick the ball the same way. We had the right to differ without being seriously looked upon as an obstacle to the progress of democracy. On that occasion I moved the Adjournment, and I remember that the Government of the day had to pay fairly large sums of money to indemnify citizens who had been wrongly treated by the Home Office in that case, which arose on the Irish question.
My view is that the Home Secretary when he came to the House made an excellent job of admitting his mistake. But he proceeded, I thought, to treat this House rather cheaply at the finish. I do not think he treated it quite fairly on that occasion. It seems to me he has made all amends possible and to have admitted all his mistakes. This Bill is the result. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) raised the legal principle. He was not sure whether this Bill was legal. Of course it is legal, for this reason. There would be grave doubt in any legal man's mind on whether an action would not succeed in the courts, if the Bill were not passed. No Home Secretary could go on functioning with a host of actions proceeding against him in the courts; this Bill must be passed to allow the Home Secretary to continue. But I regret that the thing has happened. The chief protagonist in this question of legislation by reference has been the Home Secretary, and it is unfortunate that he should have been responsible for the mistake that has occurred. My own view is that, now that he has done the thing decently, we should drop the matter. I do not think anything we have done to-day will stop the same kind of thing happening in future. This mistake arises out of the procedure we follow during the war. In the normal course of peacetime politics there is the clash of opinion; that is the best safeguard that this House of Commons can have, and the sooner we can return to the normal clash in this House and the normal duel in the country, the better; for that is the only safety we can find for the future in this country.
I rise only because of a point that was made by the Home Secretary. I do not want to say anything derogatory. I think he has behaved admirably in coming so frankly to this House, and I do not think that a Bill of Indemnity should be begrudged him. Nor do I wish to interfere with the National Fire Service, I do not think anyone will try to annul any of the Regulations made for that Service, except, perhaps, one or two lesser ones here and there. The National Fire Service is an institution which has been most valuable to us in this time of stress. But a point made by the Home Secretary strikes a note of warning to all of us. He said that the mistake was made largely because the officials were so concerned with the building up of the National Fire Service that they hardly thought of anything else—that each official thought that some other official was going to see to this matter. This is highly significant. In the case of Regulations such as this, I do not think it matters very much, because, as I have said, the National Fire Service is an excellent institution; but suppose these Regulations had concerned the liberty of the subject or the business interests and activities of the subject. Then, indeed, we see the danger of bureaucratic government, to which we are rapidly proceeding, under which each official will think that the other has done the job.
Here is my second point. The Ministry of Home Security, after all, has a special Parliamentary Secretary to deal with these particular matters. I would like to ask the Home Secretary why the Parliamentary Secretary did not see that these Regulations were laid in a proper man- ner. I should have thought—I say it with deep respect—that that should have been a special duty of the Parliamentary Secretary. I am sure that there must have been some error, but I think that the Parliamentary Secretary should have dealt with this particular question. Those are the two points that I had in mind. I repeat that I would warn the House that this is a pointer to what might happen in regard to the liberty of the subject, and with the business and activities of the subject, when we are ruled by officials, no one of whom is actually responsible for anything. It amply demonstrates the danger of bureaucratic government.
There have been a certain number of rather disconnected questions with which I have been asked to deal. I will endeavour to do so, but, first, I should like to express, on behalf of my right hon. Friend, his appreciation of the way in which the Bill and his speech have been accepted by the House, and the generous way in which Members have supported this Bill to deal with the situation. Perhaps the most fundamental question was that formulated in the first instance by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller). He asked what seemed to be a very searching question. He said, "Is the Bill really necessary?" and he asked why, if it were not, we were being troubled with it. He took the view, and in this lie was supported by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ilford (Mr. Hutchinson), that these Regulations, although admittedly not laid "as soon as may be," remained valid. The House appreciates that Regulations made under this Act came into force as soon as they were made. Then, if the proper procedure were followed, they would be laid, and they could be prayed against. If the Prayer succeeded they would not cease to operate ab initio, but only from the date that the Prayer was accepted by the House.
My hon. Friends took the view—and there is a good deal to be said for it—that the failure to lay, although a grave error and an omission on behalf of my right hon. Friend, does not invalidate the Regulations. You cannot say, "This ought to have been laid on 1st June and it is now 30th June, and, therefore, it becomes invalid," just as if it had been annulled by a Prayer. They say that, if that is so, the latter part of Clause I is unnecessary. I think that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ilford, while accepting that legal point of view, thought—and others have said the same—that, whatever the legal position, it was constitutionally right that, if there had been an omission to do what the Statute said should be done, it was right not merely that there should be a statement to the House, but that the matter should be dealt with in a Bill which the House could discuss. I agree with that, and I would say that, although my two hon. Friends may be right on the legal position, it is possible, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) said, for an argument to be raised on the other side, and for someone to say that these words go to the root of the matter, and that if a substantial time had elapsed the court ought to hold the Regulations invalid. Obviously, doubts must be cleared up, and that is done in the Bill. I also agree with those who say that, although the legal position may be fairly certain, it is constitutionally right in the circumstances for the House to be asked to pass a Bill in these terms.
One of my hon. Friends asked why are there two parts to the Bill. The Fire Service (Emergency Provisions) Act puts on the Home Secretary the duty of laying these Regulations. Whatever may be the argument as to the legal validity of the Regulations, quite plainly the Home Secretary has not complied with that mandatory provision in the Statute. Therefore, we thought it right to pass the Bill in its double form: first, giving an indemnity to the Home Secretary for having failed to perform a duty which Parliament has placed upon him, for which Parliament can hold him to account, and, secondly, providing that the Regulations shall be deemed to be valid although they have not been laid for a considerable period. I think that the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) is wrong in thinking that these words prevent a Prayer being moved. These Regulations were laid a week ago, and the 28 days during which a Prayer can be taken begin to run from the date on which the Regulations are laid. If the Prayer were passed, does that mean, he asked, that it would invalidate the Regulations from three years ago? The answer is, "No." When a Prayer is passed, what happens is that the Order is annulled from the date of the House accepting the Prayer.
A number of suggestions have been made as to lines of inquiry that it might be profitable to pursue, with a view to seeing that such a thing does not happen again. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Moelwyn Hughes), my hon. Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams) made suggestions, and all those will certainly be considered. My hon. Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth asked how exactly this happened. My right hon. Friend explained, but I will explain again. In the Department of the Ministry of Home Security, dealing with this matter, everybody thought that somebody else was seeing to the laying. It might have happened anywhere. Do not let us be censorious: we all make mistakes sometimes; but they do not always have such serious consequences.
It was one of the Department's officers—I do not think it would be appropriate to go beyond that. My hon. Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth also asked when Orders of this kind come into force. They come into force as soon as they are signed. They are then sent to the Stationery Office, and, in the case of Orders of this kind, those who are affected by them are informed. In this case there would be notice in the Press, and so on. The signature is followed by the distribution, and, as soon as the Orders are signed, they are made, and come into force. So, as soon as they are signed, steps are taken to see that they are distributed.
It may be. One hopes that it is as simple as that, but I say that it is one of the suggestions we will look into. It is only right that I should answer another question, which was whether these things were sent to the House. They were. I am told that they were sent both to the Vote Office and to the Library, but, unfortunately, they were not sent to the office which receives them for the purpose of their being laid. We will look into this, but that is what, in fact, happened. I think that deals with the points raised and I would conclude by repeating the appreciation of my right hon. Friend of the way in which the House has given him support in this problem.