Orders of the Day — Parliament Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th November 1947.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington 12:00 am, 11th November 1947

The hon. Member read out a series of most severe condemnatory phrases about the House of Lords, which, it may have escaped his notice, is so far hereditary. Am I right? I say that he is condemning a principle with which this Bill does not deal at all. On that matter I shall have a word or two to say in a few minutes.

We are drawing to the end of a two days' Debate which was opened by the Lord President of the Council yesterday, and it will be appropriate if I begin by making one or two remarks on the Lord President's speech. His particular argument about this Bill was the need he felt, and I am sure he felt it or he would not have said so, to prevent a constitutional crisis. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have been the Leader of the House of Commons, and I can quite understand that instinctive concern to prevent a constitutional crisis arising, for that is the last thing which a Leader of the House, who wants a smooth passage for Business, ever wants to see. I would have understood, and even supported, the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety if anything during these last two years had given a shred of evidence to show that there was the least danger of likelihood that the action of the House of Lords would create any kind of constitutional crisis. I could not help feeling, as the right hon. Gentleman worked himself up to this part of his case, that he was just putting up an Aunt Sally for the fun of knocking it down, or perhaps it would be fairer to say for the fun of trying to knock it down, and I hope he enjoyed that.

It is generally accepted by all Members of this House, wherever they sit, that the House of Lords have not been obstructive. Does anyone deny that? I never thought they would be, because the curious thing in that respect, as in so many other respects, is that the House of Lords is a typically British institution. It is no use the hon. Gentleman opposite shaking his head. He had better read the speeches of Members of his own Government. They have all said it. It adapts itself, as British institutions have a habit of doing, to the tempo of the times. I say to the Prime Minister 1o-night, deliberately, that in the words of his own "Let Us Face The Future," the Government have not got a mandate for this Bill. The right hon. Gentleman told the country, and I do not complain of it, that if his party had a majority, and there was obstruction from another place, the Government would not tolerate it. There has been no obstruction. The right hon. Gentleman does not deny that. The right hon. Gentleman the Lord President said that there might be obstruction. Is that a new Parliamentary doctrine, a sort of general preventive arrest lest anything should happen, in which case I do not know where any of us find ourselves? It is not at all a doctrine which smacks of the ordinary creed of the Prime Minister, but if it is not a preventive arrest, why is this being done?

I say to the Prime Minister—I believe he knows it to be true in a much wider sense—that he has no mandate for this Bill at all. It is not an issue today upon which there is any vestige of popular support. I ask hon. Gentlemen who go round their constituencies, is there anywhere any indignation, real or simulated, about the way in which the House of Lords have used their powers in the last two years? We know perfectly well that there is none at all.

I have here a quotation, not from a Tory newspaper, because I would never quote that in this House, but from a newspaper which, in the early days of the life of this Government, gave it the most ardent support—more ardent, indeed, than the great "Daily Herald." I refer to the "News Chronicle"—[Interruption.]—Do not spurn all your supporters or there will be none left. I was horrified to hear the Lord President turn down the "New Statesman" yesterday. It is very serious. It is the only weekly which the party opposite have left. If hon. Members start turning down the "News Chronicle" I shall be really apprehensive. They cannot hold the Press by turning them down every day. The "News Chronicle" is a great friend of theirs. Listen to what they say: Here the Government are inviting trouble. They cannot put the Upper House on trial, for the Lords have done nothing which can be charged against them. All the world knows that their work since Labour came to power has been concerned with wise and singularly unpolemical amendment to very hasty legislation. I say to the Lord President, "Please note." The quotation goes on: By thus brawling with phantoms the Labour Ministers may find that they have arraigned themselves before the bar of public opinion. In attacking imaginary abuses, they may find themselves called upon to defend their own competence, to cope with the national problems which are real. How very well said by a newspaper that does not always agree with the Tory Party.

No one has been more eloquent in support of the work done by the House of Lords than the Members of the Government themselves. There are many quotations which I could give from speeches by Ministers. I do not want to repeat them. I am going to quote only one because to me the name is attractive. I hope that the Lord President of the Council will regard it as deep calling unto deep. It is Lord Morrison in another place. One never knows what may happen. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to take heed. Fate plays strange pranks with us sometimes. This is what Lord Morrison had to say on 31st July last: After many strenuous days and sleepless nights in another place, an abnormally large number of Bills came to your Lordships' House. I must admit that the reasonable consideration given to these Measures in your Lordships' House, and the alterations made therein appealed to me very much …"— That is to say, they appeal to Lord Morrison— Indeed, I think the majority of the Bills which came to your Lordships' House returned to another place in an improved condition. That was said by Lord Morrison. The Lord President of the Council should have a friendly feeling for that quotation. I would say to the Prime Minister when he talks about the mandate for this Bill, that at the last Election I think his party secured about 11 million votes. Anybody can make their own estimate, but I would say that not a score of those who voted for the Government thought that they were going to introduce legislation to curtail the powers of the House of Lords. I do not believe that it was an issue in any of the speeches or election addresses of hon. Gentlemen opposite. [Interruption.] Well, all right. I say that, as far as I am aware, the matter was not an issue at all; and neither is it an issue now.

The people are worried about much graver problems than this. If the Prime Minister could tell us tonight, "There is a situation of growing tension between us and the House of Lords. Here is the gravest economic crisis we have ever known. I, the Prime Minister, as head of a Socialist Government, want to pass this, that and the other Measure and the other place will not let me"—if the Prime Minister said that, I could understand his demand for this Bill. I could understand that, but there is no issue of that kind at all. There is no issue in which the Government wish to do something in connection with the economic crisis which another place prevents them from doing. I think myself that the Government do not do anything about the economic crisis at all. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have addressed a number of meetings in the country during the last month, and so have we. When one is in Opposition, one has more time to do this than when in office, and I have myself addressed meetings and have been asked hundreds of questions about all sorts of things. I have been asked about food, and, no doubt, I shall be asked about potatoes.

Those are not the only things about which I have been asked. I have been asked about houses, where they were and why the Government were not building them. [Interruption.] Oh, yes, I have. I have been asked about clothes, I have been asked about the basic petrol ration, and so have all hon. Members in all parts of the House been asked scores of questions about all sorts of things. I have never had one question about the House of Lords. Has any Minister been asked that? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Well, what answer did they give them?

I would make another criticism of this Measure. I would ask the Prime Minister himself to consider what to me is a very objectionable aspect of this Measure—that it once more embodies this practice of retrospective legislation. I think that all parties—I do not care of what political view—ought to be on their guard against this. I know that in wartime, when the Prime Minister and I were in the same Government, we used it, but it is most objectionable to make that kind of legislation permanent in time of peace.

I want to deal now with something which the right hon. Gentleman said in his speech and which has been discussed a good deal in this Debate, and that is the question of the effect that this reduction of a year will have on actual legislation. I think my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) dealt with that very effectively. It is the length of the delay which now remains for public opinion to crystallise on any issue, should this Bill be passed into law, and it seems to me a very important aspect of what we are discussing. The hon. and learned Member for East Leicester (Mr. Donovan), in a well-argued speech, made certain calculations of his own, and I do not quarrel with them. With these calculations, the hon. and learned Gentleman showed that there might be six months from the moment when a Bill became an issue between the two Houses, up to the time when it received the Royal Assent as a result of the final approval of this House. This six months would be all the time which the nation would have to consider the matter.

I want to put this quite fairly. It is quite true that the period from the date on which the Bill is introduced into this House is longer than that, but I submit to the House that the period when it becomes an issue before the country is the period at which it becomes an issue between the two Houses, and that, under the existing Parliament Act, is admittedly 18 months, but, under this Bill, that period becomes six months. I say to the Prime Minister that that period is altogether too short, on any submission or on any argument.

I come now to another argument. There are some hon. Members who have spoken in this Debate—and all kinds of points of view have been expressed—who clearly were against any Second Chamber of any kind. The hon. Member for South AYR shire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), whose speech I have here, is one of these. Of course, it is a point of view that has existed in every country, a point of view that is being made very vocally at the present time by the Communists in France. Those who take that view are against any hereditary peers or, indeed, any live peers, or any form of Second Chamber. They remind me, if I may say so, of a doggerel I used to hear in my childhood about murderers and their habits, which I must paraphrase to meet the present situation. It runs something like this: They slit his throat from ear to ear,His brains they battered in;His name was any god-dam peer,They swore they'd do him in. That is a perfectly possible and legitimate point of view towards another place. It is not the point of view of most hon. Members opposite, but it is, at least, a point of view which is intelligent.

But there is a second category which seems to be a much larger category at the moment. Judging by the speech of the Home Secretary, and of others on the Front Bench opposite and on the Benches behind, there are those who believe that there should be a Second Chamber, but who are not content with its composition as it is today. Let us have a look at it. I do not deny that there is room for an issue in connection with the composition of the House of Lords; but it is essentially not an issue about its powers; it is an issue about its composition. I put this to the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President: if there were today on his side of the House a general acceptance about the composition of the Second Chamber, there would not really be any argument at all—