Clause 1. — (Extension of powers under 9 & 10 Geo. 6 c. 10.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th August 1947.

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Photo of Mr Robert Boothby Mr Robert Boothby , Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire Eastern 12:00 am, 11th August 1947

I do not intend to take up the time of the Committee for very long, but it seems to me that the speech which the hon. Gentleman opposite has just made is an illustration of the difficulty in which we are all situated. None of us, on either side of the Committee, has the foggiest idea of what the Government require these powers for. It has been very rare to hear either a coherent speech or one that was com- pletely in Order, but I would hazard a suggestion to those hon. Members who have asked questions of the Government that they will get no answer from the Government, for the reason that the Government do not know the answers. They have made it quite plain to us that they have no idea.

I should like to make some other remarks before I come to the main subject of my speech. As the mover of the rejection of the American loan, and as a strong opponent of that loan and the conditions attaching to it, I would like to repudiate very strongly the remarks made about the loan by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). I am very well-known in the United States as a lively opponent of the loan in this country, and, if any words of mine carry across the Atlantic, I would like to say that I do not believe that there is one man in a million in this country who shares the views expressed by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne—[Interruption.]—or, as one of my hon. Friends says, one man in 20 million. I would like to say that, in 23 years in this House, I do not think I have heard anything much hotter than the speech of the Attorney-General. It really was shameful, and the interjection of the Lord President just now, when he referred to the point of Order raised by my noble Friend, and when he said that, whether it was in Order or not, he had not the slightest intention of answering the question, made me wonder whether I was sitting in the Reichstag.

There are two views about this Bill and this paragraph. There is the view that a group of able and ruthless men are seizing the opportunity to impose a totalitarian system of Government in this country, the opportunity being the present economic crisis. There is another view that this Government consists of incompetent, frightened and timid men, quite incapable of reaching decisions or achieving a policy of any kind, who have brought in what purports to be and looks like a bold piece of legislation in order to cover up their own incompetence and panic. Until this afternoon, I was inclined to the latter view, but I am not now quite so sure, after the interjection of the Lord President. I think that the Government ought to make some attempt before we part with this Measure to tell us the purpose of it. They have not made the slightest attempt to do so.

8.15 p.m.

Why do they think that these sweeping powers are necessary? I really think that we want a little precision in this matter; we have got absolutely none. The right hon. and learned Attorney-General never bothered to tell us, and the Lord President truculently told us that he would not tell us, however often we asked, for what purpose these enormous, sweeping powers are required. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne attempted to say that the Leader of the Opposition had said that these powers were, in fact, justified. If he looks up HANSARD tomorrow he will see that the right hon. Gentleman said nothing of the kind. He said that these powers were wrong—they were the words he used—and that similar powers would only be justified in a position of grave emergency, such as war, and with the approval of all parties, or the great majority of this House. I think he is right.

I would have thought that not only were the Committee entitled to some precision from the Government in this matter, but that they were also entitled to the maximum number of safeguards to protect what, after all, used to be thought a valuable thing in this country—the freedom of the citizen. I complain bitterly that the Government have not made the faintest attempt to meet the wishes or the anxieties of the Committee on this matter. They have not put a single provision in the Bill to tone it down or to give us any satisfaction that this most important paragraph will not be abused. It could have been drafted with much greater care. It bears all the evidence of haste and improvisation. Some attempt, at any rate, could have been made to define what were the purposes of the Government, and to safeguard, in some way, the liberties of the subject.

No attempt has been made to do that, and, so far as I can see, the Government can do anything under this paragraph. They can repeal any statute on the Statute Book. I am not convinced that even the Common Law—the last safeguard—is not in extreme danger, and could not be violated under the terms of this paragraph, if the Government so desired. The right hon. and learned Attorney-General has given us absolutely no assurance on this provision whatsoever. When we ask what practical measures the Government propose to take under this Bill, the party opposite are dumb, because, of course, they do not know themselves. Look at the problems that have to be faced and solved in our present economic situation. There is the question of hours of work, of wages, of the cuts in food, of economy in expenditure overseas, and the great vital question of convertibility and non-discrimination which ought to have been taken up long ago with the United States. All these things will have to be dealt with; none have been grappled with by the Government up to now. No decision has yet been come to on any one of them. No wonder the Lord President said in moving the Second Reading of the Bill: We have no preconceived notions as to precisely how we propose to utilise it. That was a remarkable sentence for the Leader of the House to utter in introducing the Second Reading of one of the most revolutionary Measures, to put it quite mildly, ever to be brought forward in this House. I could hardly believe it. In fact, I will read it again: We have no preconceived notions as to precisely how we propose to utilise it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th August, 1947; Vol. 441, c. 1806.] After an intervention he said that he had no intention of making any attempt to answer the questions which were put to him by either side of the House. I think this is really one of the most outrageous things which have ever been perpetrated in this House.

I am not going into the details of the matter, Major Milner, because I fully accept your earlier Ruling, but when it comes to the direction of labour, I agree with the hon. Member opposite that it would appear to have a very sinister interpretation. The Government have failed to man the mines largely because they capitulated to the orders of Mr. Horner, not for the first time, and not, I am afraid for the last. Let us face it. The only way they have carried on agriculture in this country during their two years tenure in power is by slavery. Does this Measure mean that they are going to find another form of slave labour in order to man the essential industries of this country? We have certainly had no assurance to the contrary from any Minister.

Whatever the motive or purpose of this Measure, it is unquestionably and undoubtedly a step in the direction of the totalitarian State. Nobody can deny it. The Government may proclaim their own beneficent intentions. But this Government may not last so long as some Ministers think. Even before the termination of this Parliament, they might be replaced by a more extreme Administration which would still command a narrow majority, and which might use the powers which it is sought to grant in this Bill for purposes other than those anticipated by the Attorney-General or the Lord President of the Council. That is the deadly danger that Mr. Gollancz pointed out in a remarkable letter to "The Times" this morning. We are frightened not so much of the intention of those who brought in this Measure, as the fact that once it is on the Statute Book it may be used for a far more evil purpose than was contemplated by anybody who has been responsible for bringing it in. That is what, to me, marks the absolute infamy of the Government in bringing in this Measure, and in refusing to tell the House of Commons why they brought it in and what they propose to do with the immense powers which it contains.