Clause I. — (Substitution of references to two sessions and one year for references to three sessions and two years respectively.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Parliament Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th December 1947.

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Photo of Mr James Reid Mr James Reid , Glasgow Hillhead 12:00 am, 4th December 1947

I beg to move, in page 1, line 5, to leave out from "effect," to "as," in line 8, and to insert with regard to any Bill introduced after the passing of this Act. The Clause would then read: The Parliament Act, 1911, shall have effect with regard to any Bill introduced after the passing of this Act as if— —certain Amendments had been made. The words proposed to be added are not essential. The result would be the same if the words we propose to delete were deleted and nothing was put in their place, but we have put down the words to be added so that there may be no doubt about the meaning of the Clause as so amended. I will begin by stating one or two things which I feel sure will command universal acceptance and develop my arguments from them. We would all agree that it is still unusual to have words such as: … deemed to have had effect from— —a certain date—inserted in any legislation. In other words, retrospective legislation is unusual, and any proposal to make such legislation ought to be justified by a good reason. I do not propose to rehearse the well-known arguments against retrospective legislation, but I shall command pretty universal assent if I say that the more important the subject matter of the Bill, the more important must be the reason for making it retrospective in effect. When we come to a Bill which upsets the balance of the Constitution and takes a long step towards single-chamber Government, there ought to be an overwhelming reason stated before this House is asked to accept that proposal.

One must have in mind that, unlike the great majority of other nations, we in this House and Parliament have precisely the same procedure for the most minor alteration of the law as for the most important constitutional amendments; moreover, our system of election is such that there may be no majority in this country although there is a large majority in this House. For both those reasons it seems essential that whatever be the strict letter of the law with regard to the making of constitutional changes, a Government with a sense of responsibility ought to use procedure of this kind very sparingly and with discretion. I find it almost incredible that any Government would seek to ante-date a constitutional change if the true purpose of the Bill were to amend or to improve our Constitution, but if the purpose of the Bill is something quite different, if the Bill itself is just a dodge to achieve an ulterior object by a subterfuge, the reason for this retroactive proposal becomes quite obvious.

The gist of this Debate would therefore seem to be a searching on our part—and, I hope, an answer on the part of the Government—for what is behind this retroactive provision. What is the real reason why the Government want it? An unusual provision of this sort can only be justified by putting forward very specific reasons. I have searched the Debates which have already occurred on this Bill in order to find such a reason. I find no real indication of the reasons in the Lord President's opening, but when I come to the Home Secretary, from whom we always expect and get candour, I find that he has given us a reason. He has not dissented from the view that the real reason for this is connected with the nationalisation of iron and steel and he added that perhaps there might be some other need for it; and that was as far as he went.

The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Arthur Greenwood) dealt with the matter at somewhat greater length. I will remind the Committee of what he said. I will not read it all but will quote a number of passages, in a way which I do not think alters the sense. I think it right to say I am doing that.

He said: I would have preferred to see iron and steel in the programme… My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his opening speech this Session, pledged this Parliament to deal with iron and steel… He went on: Had the steel Bill been introduced this Session the need for the use of the Parliament Act as it was passed might have arisen, but no need would have arisen for tinkering with it. A few lines later he said: I regard this as a very doubtful political expedient on which we are entering this Session…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th October, 1947; Vol. 443, c. 897–8.] That confirms the view I have already expressed about the real reason for this proposal. I find that a back bench hon. Member, the hon. and learned Member for Llandaff and Barry (Mr. Ungoed-Thomas), who is in the habit of speaking with candour, made it quite clear that in his view the whole point of this proposal was to get the iron and steel Bill through in this Parliament. The great majority of hon. Members on the other side would agree with that statement of view. I therefore propose to address myself to this proposal on the footing that it has only been justified, and could only be justified, in view of the iron and steel nationalisation programme.

It would be out of Order, and I would not attempt it, to argue whether nationalising iron and steel is a good thing or not and I will try to keep scrupulously away from any such argument, but I am entitled to say that it is admittedly not a Measure necessary to deal with the present economic crisis.[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If any hon. Member says "no," he has to meet the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that that industry is an efficient industry and to explain away the hesitation of his own Front Bench to introduce the necessary legislation. I cannot see how any one can say that a Measure which is not to be introduced, so far as we can see, until October, 1948, can possibly be a Measure calculated to deal with the present economic crisis, which one would hope might be on the mend by that time. One would at least have thought that anything to deal with that, would now have been before us.

If my argument so far is right, why are we not taking the straightforward course of having the iron and steel Bill this year? Why are we asked to adopt this subterfuge in order to get it on the Statute Book at the same date as it would get on the Statute Book if introduced now on the footing that it is a Bill which another place will not accept? Of course, I have not seen the Bill yet. We do not know what it is. I doubt if the Government know what it is to be. Therefore, all this discussion must be hypothetical on the footing that the Bill will be one which creates a conflict. I must put my argument on that view because it is only on that hypothetical view that this Bill has been introduced at all. It is no good saying that there is a lack of time. It is quite clear that this year we have a great deal less to do than we had last year, and it is equally clear that, as the crisis goes on, we may well find ourselves next Session in a much worse position than we are this Session. Therefore it is no good saying that it would be impossible to squeeze that Bill into the present Parliamentary session.

If that is so, I can only think of three possible reasons why this roundabout procedure has to be adopted, and perhaps we shall be told which of these three reasons is the true one. The first would be that the Government do not know their own minds yet, that they have no plan at all. That may well be. The second would be that they have two competing plans and cannot make up their minds between them yet. That may also be. The third, which is also a possibility although I hope it is not true, is that this method is adopted in order to conceal from the country until the last possible moment what are their proposals, in order that the country may have as short a time as possible to realise the implications of those proposals.