Business and Sittings of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd October 1947.

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Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore Lieut-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore , Ayr District of Burghs 12:00 am, 22nd October 1947

I am sure the House has enjoyed the humorous digressions of the Lord President of the Council. He quite obviously enjoyed his holiday in spite of Erskine May. I refer to them as digressions because, as my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) said, they were totally irrelevant to the Motion with which we are faced this afternoon. The arguments were given by the Prime Minister yesterday when he warned the House that he was going to introduce this Motion. He said that it had been his intention—no doubt his good intention, and we all know where good intentions lead to—to give Private Members back their time after Christmas, but unfortunately, owing to three Measures mentioned in the King's Speech, namely, the Budget, the agreement with Burma and the constitutional situation in Ceylon, he had had perforce to give up those good intentions.

I would like the House to consider those three subjects to which the Prime Minister referred. The Prime Minister regarded them as something that made it impossible for Private Members to get back their time, but it seemed to me, first of all, that the Burma business must have been known for many weeks, if not many months past. The Agreement has been negotiated over a very long time. Therefore, the Prime Minister could not have been rushed suddenly at the last minute into having to defer giving Private Members back their time for that reason. The constitutional situation in Ceylon is a matter about which negotiations have also been going on. It does not seem to me that giving away chunks of the Empire is any really good excuse for not giving Private Members an opportunity of discussing those matters in the House. As regards the Supplementary Budget which the Chancellor is to introduce, the Chancellor was warned months ago that there would be a financial crisis. He knew that it would be essential to produce an autumn Budget, and there was no ignorance about it. Every one of the arguments which the Prime Minister used yesterday in order to deprive us of our time has been proved absolutely fallacious.

During the war it was a perfectly good argument to say that Private Members' time could not be given. That was a Coalition period. It was not a question of the time being required by the Government, but of being doubtful whether it would be an advantage to introduce controversial discussions. As soon as the Lord President of the Council can give me a little of his time instead of carrying on his private discussions, my task in making this speech may be a lot easier. I am dealing with the subject of Private Members' time, when the Lord President is able to consider that subject. I was trying to make the point that during the Coalition period it was evident that the Government could not give us our time, not because they needed it, but because there was a risk of controversial Measures being introduced, which would have been inadvisable at such a period. Private Members, without the responsibility and knowledge of Members of the Government, might well have raised issues that would be embarrassing. During the first hilarious Session of the new Parliament, when exciting and thrilling adventures, lay ahead in building the brave new world—almost as thrilling as the sadistic desire to pull down the old one—it was natural that the Government should take Private Members' time so as to enjoy to the full the newly-found pleasure and capacity to harm the interests of our country.

Now we have come to a different period in our history and in the history of the Government, when the future certainly lies in a very much more insecure lap of the gods than it did two years ago. I imagine that during that period the zest for destruction has been somewhat assuaged. I imagine also that the passion for the brave new world has been a little weakened. But I cannot think that with 400 well-trained, well-Whipped automatons at their disposal to pass through official Measures even by the Guillotine when the power of argument has failed, the Government find it impossible to give back the one free method by which Private Members can express their opinion and restore one of the traditions of this House, which we, at any rate, value most highly.

Indeed, it is very painful to me to see those cohorts opposite, the majority of whom have never tasted the warmth, the colour and the interest of a free House of Commons, willingly assisting the warders in clamping the shackles on their traditional liberties. I can only suggest that they are still so bemused by the outmoded document, "Let Us Face the Future," that they can think only of the future and can learn nothing from the past. Quite a lot could be learnt from the past, as they themselves will learn. [Interruption.] Judging from those cheers and the stereotyped speeches we have had during the Recess, the only thing in the past about which they are allowed to speak now is the misdeeds of the wicked Tories. I imagine that the Socialist Member of Parliament of today will in the future tell his grandchildren, not what Gladstone said in '86, but bloodcurdling tales of what the wicked Tories did in '36.

I now come back to the question of Private Members' time, referring both to the Motions on Wednesdays and the Bills on Fridays. I apologise for reminding the House that I have been here for nearly.23 years. I have heard a lot of these Motions, and I have always listened with interest because they represented something which generally concerned the public at that particular time. They were topical. They always referred to matters in which at any rate one section of the community was interested, and, therefore, in the aggregate the Motions before the House during any one Session represented a broad section of the opinion throughout the country. As my right hon. and gallant Friend has said, they give the Government a means of judging the timber of their Parliamentary Secretaries, and also give back benchers an opportunity to take an interest in the work of the House.

One of the greatest problems which any overweighted Government can have is how to keep its back benchers employed, interested, constantly in touch and proud of what they can contribute to the House as a whole. When I look at those well-trained rubber stamps opposite, I feel very grieved for them that they have not the opportunity which Private Members' time gives of showing their mettle and incidentally of contributing to the general welfare and good of the country. Indeed, from the Government's point of view those Motions provided a far more important weather vane of public opinion than the well selected by-elections on which the Government so consistently rely. [An HON. MEMBER: "Sour grapes."]

I would like now to refer to the question of Private Members' Bills. Again, with some modesty, I would like to remind the House, if they think it worth my while reminding them, that I understand that I still hold the record in this House for Private Members' Bills, having brought in and carried through eight during my period in the House. I am not making any song and dance about that, because I think there are other hon. Members who have brought in far fewer which were probably of much greater advantage to the community as a whole. As my right hon. and gallant Friend has reminded us, the one brought in by the junior Burgess for Oxford University (Sir A. Herbert) certainly relieved a great deal of the human sufferings involved in unhappy and ill-assorted unions. I would modestly refer to my Slaughter of Animals Act which, as I said earlier, relieved from the torture of the knife and the pole-axe 16 million animals yearly. Those two alone justify Private Members' time.

If no other Measures had been introduced, apart even from that by Miss Ellen Wilkinson and that by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald), if we got two or three really substantial, vital and human contributions to the happiness of our people today in this austere time, surely it would be well worth while? What Measure is there in the Gracious Speech, apart from those initiated by Coalition White Papers, that will relieve the suffering of anyone? What Measure will not probably give a lot of suffering to many? What opportunities have Private Members today of relieving the sufferings of both humans and animals? After all, that would be something—I was going to say to be proud of—to welcome and about which to be not unhappy.

I do not know whether the Lord President will pay the slightest attention to the most cogent speech of my right hon. and gallant Friend. Every word was to the point, every argument was convincing; and if the Lord President had his mind open—I am doubtful whether it ever is—the only retort he could make to my right hon. and gallant Friend would be, "I have sinned, and I withdraw paragraph (1)." This Motion which he has moved accords exactly with his policy of reducing newsprint to the papers; in other words, to cloud and prevent the free expression of opinion inside this House and outside. That is obviously the policy of the Lord President, and I do not know whether any of us can achieve anything by bringing pressure or convincing arguments to bear on the situation. I do not believe that the Lord President came to the House to receive any arguments. He came to lay down the law to his supporters behind him, knowing that he has a two-to-one majority and that wherever he leads, they will fall in and follow.

That is not the way in which I thought our Business should be conducted in This House. In my earlier days I thought it was a matter for argument, and that if one could bring forward convincing reasons for a certain course of action which was recognised by the House as a whole, irrespective of party, that had some weight. But apparently that is not so today. It is merely to what the Lord President lays down that his sycophantic supporters behind him give adherence. I bitterly resent that we should have come to this situation in which we are prevented from playing that part which our constituents wanted us, and still want us, to play. We have been deprived of that opportunity by the will of the Lord President, and the responsibility and the blame for anything that may happen at the next Election when the electors find they have been frustrated over this matter, will lie fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Lord President.