I do not think that we can part with Clause 3 without some explanation of its form and some protest at the method of delegated legislation which it proposes to adopt. The Clause says that the powers exercisable by Proclamation under Section 11 of the Coinage Act, 1870, shall include powers to do three things set out in the Clause, the most important of which will be found in Paragraph (c) which are powers:
to make as respects coins of a metal or mixture of metal other than cupro-nickel.
the like provision as is made by Section 1 of this Act.
The Clause also gives powers by Proclamation to vary the provisions of the Schedule to the Act as to the composition of coins of cupro-nickel, and, thirdly, to diminish the estimate or variations allowed by the Act in the case of any coin. The effect of this is to enable the future composition of our coinage, so far as it is a metal coinage, to be varied at any time by means of a Royal Proclamation. If hon. Members refer to Section 11 of the Coinage Act, 1870, they will see a number of things therein set out which may be done by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, by Proclamation, and at the end of the Section they will find the words:
Every such proclamation shall come into operation on the day therein in that behalf mentioned, and shall have effect as if it were enacted in this Act.
That is to say, that anything done by Royal Proclamation has the full powers of an Act of Parliament from the date attached to the Proclamation. This, of all forms of delegated legislation is the most objectionable, and if the hon. Gentleman and his advisers would refer to the report of the Donoughmore Committee, which reported in 1938—a very heavyweight committee which sat upon this question of ministerial powers—he will find some rather harsh things said about legislation in this form, because what we are in fact saying, when we say that these powers set out under Clause 3 may be exercised by Royal Proclamation, is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may, at any time, change the composition of our coinage to any metal he pleases or any combinations of metal, and, as from the day on which the Proclamation is made, those changes shall have the full force of statute law.
While we may probably assume that the present Chancellor of the Exchequer is unlikely to make our metal coinage even nastier and cheaper than it is now going to become, through the introduction of cupro-nickel alloy, heaven knows what may happen to our coinage if the hon. Member for South Nottingham (Mr. N. Smith) were to follow the Chancellor. It would be possible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make our currency of any metal he pleased and in any shape or size. Whatever he did by Royal Proclamation could not be debated in this House, unless the Government of the day decided to give time for that purpose. The matter could not be raised by Petition or Prayer, and it could only be raised if a majority of the House decided that a Debate must take place. Therefore, I think that this form of legislation is unfortunate. It would have been better in this matter of the composition of our currency to have adopted a form of words which would have made it necessary for Regulations to be made and laid on the Table of the House in order to give hon. Members an opportunity for discussion.
I do not propose to invite my hon. Friends to vote against the Clause, because I do not think that the present Chancellor of the Exchequer is likely to make our coinage nastier and cheaper than it is going to become under Clause 1 of the Bill. Any change which he makes will, I think, be towards procuring for us a better coinage, and we have urged today that he should adopt a pure nickel coinage for that purpose. Spokesmen for the Government have indicated that, at some future time, they may adopt pure nickel coinage, and Clause 3 gives them power to do so without further legislation. Therefore, although I think that the form of this Clause is objectionable and should not pass this House without criticism, I shall not divide the House.
I should like to support very strongly what my right hon. Friend has just said about the procedure proposed in this Clause. I think that there is hardly any task of this Parliament more important than that of seeing that under the accelerated and extended legislation now taking place, very largely of necessity in the form of delegated legislation, the essential liberties and rights of this House are maintained. In this Bill I think that the procedure is perhaps more important than the actual substance of the problem of the change in our currency which is under consideration, I very earnestly press upon the Government that when introducing Measures which provide for delegated legislation they should pay the closest regard to the recommendations which have been made by important bodies such as the Donoughmore Committee, to which my right hon. Friend has referred. At the present time, delegated legislation must extend very widely, and if Parliament is not to abdicate its functions altogether it is of the utmost importance that every practical safeguard should be preserved, in particular those which have been recommended after careful consideration by such Committees.
While I do not propose that we should divide on this Clause, I am a little nervous about the reason for not dividing given by my right hon. Friend, namely, that he is satisfied, no doubt rightly, that the present Chancellor will not make foolish use of the powers given to him under this Clause. I am very much disturbed in this Parliament at the frequency of the cases in which a particular blank cheque, or very widely drawn cheque, is provided in a Bill and is then defended by a statement that the particular Minister who happens to be in Office at the moment has no evil intentions and is not likely to act unwisely. A blank cheque, subject only to the safeguard of such assurances, even when Parliament entirely believes in the sincerity of those assurances, is not true legislation, and Parliament is not fulfilling its legislative function. I would therefore urge very careful consideration of the point of procedure to which my right hon. Friend has called attention.
Mr. N. Smith:
I think the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) has made a perfectly valid point about delegated legislation. Not all of us like it; I personally do not, even though one day, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, it may place in my hands power which I will proceed to use and which I hope I may have the opportunity of using. The right hon. Gentleman is very wise in his way and I often find him extremely human to deal with, but "When the devil is sick the devil a saint would be." Now that they are in Opposition the Tory Party, in that sense, represent the devil. They are not against the Clause standing part. Why not? Because their common-sense tells them that if there is anything in the fears about cupro-nickel coinage the easiest way to put it right is to give complete power to my right hon. Friend to make a Royal Proclamation. That is only commonsense. I want to place on record, as a responsible Member of Parliament, some misgiving about delegated legislation. These misgivings are not restricted to the other side by any means. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds referred to cheap and nasty currencies. I can assure him that the people who sent me here look upon a coinage or currency as cheap and nasty not according to its intrinsic merits or demerits but according to what it will buy for them when they take it shopping.
I hope we may now dispose of this Clause without much further Debate because it seems to me that the Committee is under a misapprehension. In this Bill my right hon. Friend is not taking unto himself new and extensive powers. I think we all agree that when it comes to delegated legislation Parliament should be very jealous on behalf of the citizens at large as to what powers it does give in this way to the Government of the day, whatever its complexion. But here all we are wanting to do is to give power to the Government to alter the content of the token coinage, if and when something better than what is contained in Clause 1, namely, cupro-nickel, is found. In these days of widespread research, I, for one, hope that it is a possibility that some new metal, good in appearance and attractive to look at and to use, will be found. We have to make provision for that in the Bill, and I do not think anyone objects to this.
What the Committee objects to is that any change that may be made should be made by Proclamation. It has probably slipped the notice of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) that this is, in fact, a tightening up of the law. Under existing legislation it is permissible in the case of coins composed of metals other than pure silver for the Government of the day to vary them without coming to Parliament at all and without making a Proclamation. It can be done quite silently, without, in effect, telling anybody. No one would do that, of course, but our proposal that it should be done by Proclamation is in fact, as I have said, a tightening up of the existing law.
The question arises why we should want to do it by Proclamation. The answer is that the Royal Prerogative is involved. The Prerogative in this direction has grown up down the ages and all of us are aware of how it has happened. The coinage is in a special class apart so far as the Royal Prerogative is concerned and it is essential, if we are to keep continuity, in this direction at any rate, that the King's right to do these things by Proclamation should not be restricted or altered in any way. Finally, although this is done by Proclamation, it is possible for Parliament to annul by Prayer, if it is so minded, any Proclamation that has been made by the Government of the day in the name of the King. I hope that with that explanation the Committee will be willing to let us have the Clause.
I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would make one point clear. Does he tell the Committee that under existing legislation the Chancellor could have introduced a cupro-nickel coinage in place of the existing silver coinage without consulting Parliament and that this Bill has been brought before the House only as a matter of courtesy? Is he saying that powers exist under some Act which enable the Chancellor to vary the metal content of our coinage?
I should perhaps have explained myself further. We have under existing legislation coins composed of 50 per cent. silver and 50 per cent. an amalgam of other metals forming an alloy. So far as concerns the 50 per cent. composed of other metals the Government has complete power to take out the zinc or the copper, or to alter the percentage of copper as compared with other metals, without coming to the House. So far as the 50 per cent. silver in the coins is concerned this is not so, and I had hoped that I had made that clear.
I should like to thank the hon. Gentleman for that last explanation. Before he gave it I thought the position was far worse than had been stated by my right hon. Friend the senior Burgess for Oxford University (Sir A. Salter) and other hon. Members.
The position was that under the old Act the Government had the power to change the alloy but not the percentage of silver, in the same way that they had the power to change a particular type of paper or ink used for printing notes. The Financial Secretary said that this provision for a Proclamation was really a concession. It does not matter so much in this Bill as in certain other Acts, because we are now going in for a complete debasement of the currency, one of a peculiarly unpleasant form. It does not really matter what the Government do. I do not think the hon. Gentleman was right when he said that the Government can change the alloy only to improve it. Surely they can change it in order to make it worse?
No precedent has been put forward for this Clause. Is there any? Or is it something entirely new which has been stuck into the Bill at the whim of the present Government? The fact remains that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University did something of real value when he pointed out that this is just another occasion when the Government are trying to pass what is entirely delegated legislation. Both the front Benches are slightly to blame. Hon. Members say that the present Chancellor of the Exchequer will not abuse it, although some future Chancellor might. We are here to make good laws, and not laws which are all right so long as the particular Minister is in office to administer them. It is absolutely wrong, from every point of view, to say that it does not matter very much about passing a Bill, since no one will abuse it. It is our duty to make our laws watertight, and not subject to abuse.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University for the way in which he has raised the point, against which hon. Members have protested on many occasions. The tendency is growing at an accelerated rate under this Government. Other Governments have been bad, but the present Government are getting worse. I welcome also the protest made by the hon. Member for South Nottingham (Mr. N. Smith). Whatever he may have said otherwise this morning, he did at any rate take the trouble to get up and express the views of a private Member of this House.