Orders of the Day — Parliament Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st October 1949.

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Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire 12:00 am, 31st October 1949

Then the hon. Gentleman's remarks were even less related to our present difficulties and to this Bill than I thought they were. He also said that ever since 1911 the Upper House has had no real power. I ask him to tell that to his fellow back-benchers whose whole argument today has been that they had had far too much power.

We were glad when we found that a number of responsible Socialist leaders had accepted as a permanent part of our machinery and Constitution the conception of an Upper House, but we knew the strength of the feeling in the party opposite. We knew also that a large number of other important people in the Socialist Party believe in single Chamber Government, not the least of these being the Minister of Health. That being so, we shall watch with the greatest interest and considerable anxiety the way in which the party mind moves in the course of the next few months.

The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health has already abandoned any interest in this Parliament, if we can take the family newspaper as any indication, for we have been told in the last few weeks that this Parliament has now got very little left to do except to wrangle, and various other things which suggest that the day of this Parliament is over. None the less, a number of responsible Socialist leaders have publicly committed themselves to considering the retention permanently of the other place. This represents something of value in the last two years. We are also glad that, when this Bill was first proposed two years ago, we were told that any Bills altering the duration of Parliament would need at present the consent of both Houses. This, coming after the statement made some years ago by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer on the possibility of Parliament's life being prolonged without an election if the full degree of socialisation had not been accomplished in five years, was of real comfort to us.

The only other comment of any particular value or representing a new slant that fell from the Home Secretary was his comparison between the work of Parliament in previous years and its work today. Two years he said used to suffice for controversial legislation after an election being carried through and brought to a close, the remaining years being devoted to developing and consolidating, and presumably improving, that legislation. Referring again to the "Tribune," I am told that we have accomplished in this House in the last five years so much legislation as would have occupied previous Parliaments for 25 years. If this is so, it will explain the 1,200 Amendments which have been moved in another place to Government Bills, and will also explain the real necessity for retaining a Second Chamber.

The right hon. Gentleman the Lord President said some days ago that it would be extraordinarily difficult to find anything new to say on the Parliament Bill, and, of course, that is true, because—and it is perhaps sometimes an unfortunate fact for them—the truths remain the same, however long bad Governments go on. Though the truths remain the same, there has been a spectacular change in the national setting in which these successive Bills have been introduced and also the most tragic deterioration in our national estate.

We first heard of this Bill at the end of October, 1947, and the Second Reading was moved in November of that year. That was to have been, as the Lord President told us, the first year when we should all be working on something like a peace footing—1947. It was actually, of course, as millions of working men remember, the year of the direction of labour. The announcement was made of the intention to have this amendment of the Parliament Act at the very time when large numbers of the public had been lulled into a false sense of security by the statement of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer that he had been able to meet all the demands on the public purse with a song in his heart. That was actually the time when this Bill was first introduced. It was two months after convertibility had been suspended, when the American loan had almost run out, and during the very weeks when the gap between imports and exports was £600 million.

When this Bill was first introduced into this House, the issue then popularly known as "Daltons," which had been issued at 99⅝ were already being quoted at 89¼. This was the time when the present Chancellor of the Exchequer had asked us for joint consultations, for sustained effort and single-minded devotion to the national interests. With all these alarming economic forces threatening, and with this appeal for a united front made by the present Chancellor, this unprovoked attack was made upon another place. Certainly, the Government had a pretty poor Press at the time, and are having no better Press now in regard to this Bill.

I will limit my comments, first, to their friendly newspapers. "Political irrelevance," this Bill was called by the "Manchester Guardian" when first introduced; "Brawling at Phantoms," the "News Chronicle" called it. "The Times," which was even up to that date trying to be fair to the Government—an illustration of how very difficult this Government make it for even their friends to be fair to them—said that this particular Gracious Speech had shown no glimpse of the prodigious dangers and the historical opportunities of the British people. If only at that time we had measured up to the magnitude of the problems that lay ahead of us instead of wasting time on a Bill of this kind! One paper that supports the Government—the "Daily Mirror"—called this a move to cover up something, and what that something was the Minister of Health made quite plain a few days before when he talked about the nationalisation of steel.

So much for the first time that this Bill was introduced. It was then introduced almost exactly a year later, in September, 1948 This year—1948—was the year when the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had told us that we should overcome the worst shortages that were facing us, and when he had asked us to keep going together—a rather ironical piece of advice in the light of this Bill—so that the shortages and frustrations which still afflicted us would disappear like the snows of winter and give place to the full promise of springtime.

When this Bill was introduced for the second time in September last year, the economic crisis had grown in intensity. "Daltons" had dropped another 10 points and the great issues of Malaya, Palestine, Berlin and National Defence were worrying and perplexing our people. Yet Parliament was recalled solely for the purpose of considering this partisan and unnecessary Bill.

Now we come to the third occasion, the occasion which calls us together today when the third Second Reading of this Bill is being considered. "Daltons" have dropped another 10 points again-89¼ when the Bill was first introduced, 77 the second time, 66 this morning, and the savings of large numbers of people and the future stability of our State find reflection in that ghastly decline. [Laughter.] If hon. Members opposite think it funny, the country as a whole will not. The only difference between the situation of the last two years is that at last some Members of the Government are beginning to recognise the realities, and instead of this Bill being ushered in as it was with the Chancellor of the Duchy's words a year and two years ago, it is ushered in today to the words of the right hon. Gentleman. Some two weeks ago the Lord President said that our trouble was that we kept on behaving as though we had more wealth to distribute than was actually the case.

So much for the main setting of this Bill, but I could not pass on from the Bill itself—and my remarks will be related to the Bill of 1949, and not to the events of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries like those of other hon. Members—without reminding the House that during the two years or more that we have been playing with this Bill and dividing the nation on a great constitutional issue, our dollar and gold reserves have been dropping catastrophically, and are today at about the lowest point in our history.

That is our first charge, that at a time—first in 1947, again in 1948 and lastly today—when all our energies should have been concentrated on our economic recovery we should be spending time on a Bill which will not in any way advance our economic prospects, a Bill that is designed solely to facilitate the passage of another Bill which will add considerably to our economic difficulties. Our second charge is that the purpose of this Bill, which would never have been before the House had the Iron and Steel Bill not been intended, is solely to secure the passage of the Iron and Steel Bill. Involving as it does a fundamental change in our constitution, involving also a retrospective step, it is all the more shocking that a Bill that does not pretend to be for the improvement and the amendment of our constitution should be brought in to secure the passage of a controversial piece of legislation and temporarily to heal the breach between Ministers of the Crown.

But these are not our only criticisms. We believe—and this is our main contention against this Bill—that, as was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden), the Government are treating a large issue in a small way and that this is the negation of statesmanship. What is wrong today with the House of Lords is composition and not powers, and the Government are making no effort whatever to deal with the problem of composition. We have agreed at an all party conference that the possession of a hereditary peerage should not by itself constitute a qualification for ad mission to the Upper House. I must confess that I agree, as I think the majority of my hon. Friends agree, with the noble Lord in another place who said that in choosing someone to discharge parliamentary duties the fact that he and his father before him had lived in an atmosphere where duties were recognised to involve serious responsibilities is some recommendation. However, we have made it plain that we do not accept the view that the possession of a hereditary peerage by itself entitles anybody to sit in a reformed Chamber.

We have agreed also that this Upper House should be a complementary and not a rival House, and that as far as possible it should be chosen in such a way that no political party in the State will be assured of a permanent majority. This represents a very considerable advance towards all-party agreement, because hitherto every attempt by individuals in the other place or here to raise the question of reform of the composition of the other place has brought forth votes of censure and opposition from the Socialist Party. When at last we have people sitting round a table arguing it out together it may augur that one day we shall together come to some agreement.

Many hon. Members opposite who have been taking part in this Debate still do not understand our opposition to the reduction of the delaying power in the other place. They seem to think that all we are concerned with is to see that the House of Lords has an unnecessary long time in which to consider the merits of any proposal. Of course, our contention has always been—and this goes to the root of our constitution and our national sovereignty—that the purpose of the House of Lords is, when there is strong doubt as to the views of the public, to enable public opinion to form and crystallize. This cannot happen until the House of Lords has actually rejected a Measure put up in another House and so brought the dispute to public scrutiny.

I take an illustration from the Transport Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Salisbury, leader of my party in another place, drew up a time-table as follows: If this Parliament Bill, which we are considering tonight, had been law at the time when the Lords gavc the Third Reading to the Transport Bill in July, 1947—and hon. Members will remember what little attention it received in the House of Commons and how many Clauses were never even considered—and if the Lords had thrown it out at the end of the summer instead of passing it, the Government could have brought it in again in December and it would immediately have become law. The only time which public opinion would have had in which to crystallize on the issue would have been between the rejection of the Bill by another place in July and its passage into law in December.

As has been said continually from this side of the House, we are anxious for the interposition of so much delay, and no more, as may be needed to enable the opinion of the country adequately to be expressed. It is an entirely new doctrine, and many members of the Socialist Party may live one day to regret it, to say that once a Government is elected the Members of the House of Commons of the majority party are masters of the nation until the next election. This is a complete break with our whole Parliamentary institution. The principle on which the freedom we believe in has been based over the passage of years is that the people are sovereign all the time. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] If hon. Members who cheer that really believe it, then they show precious little desire to meet the people at a General Election. Our belief is that the people are sovereign all the time and that they have the right to make known their considered judgment not once every five years but throughout the whole period.

It has been argued—and no doubt there will be a cheer for this—that the House of Lords cannot be trusted properly to interpret the feelings of the people, but my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, who was perfectly fair in the matter and who showed that occasionally in our history the Lords have taken a view hostile to his own view, showed how, when there has been conflict between the Houses, public opinion has invariably been on the side of the House of Lords. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) also showed that, in so- far as the complete veto of the Upper House on delegated legislation still remains, it is obvious that the Government, in their hearts, do trust the other place.

The only other argument we have heard advanced is that it is wrong for Government legislation to be jeopardised in the last two Sessions of the Government's tenure of office. The Home Secretary, I think, used the phrase of the Lords "wrecking" the Government's programme. If it is wrong to hold up the will of the majority in the House of Commons in the last two Sessions, then it is equally wrong to hold it up in the first three Sessions. The only difference is that in the last two Sessions the legislation may be carried over until after a General Election, and if hon. Members opposite who cheer so vociferously really believe in the judgment of the people, that ought not to cause them any concern.

The particular Bill which is the cause of this Bill is well known to be the Iron and Steel Bill. I agree with those hon. Members who said that, historically, people would be amazed that anybody tried to argue the contrary. That Bill was in the Labour Party programme four years ago. The voters expressed themselves on many things—that included, I quite agree—but when it happened they had no knowledge of certain events which have occurred since. For instance, there has been the loss of harmony in nationalised industries between workers and management, which no one will deny. [An HON. MEMBER: "Tell that to the miners."] Well, tell it to the railwaymen. There have been the losses on coal of some £15 million, the rise to the consumer of some £100 million, the losses on transport of £4 million to £5 million—all these are new factors for the people in making up their minds on the nationalisation of iron and steel.

When they do that they are entitled to remember—and we shall remind them—certain other factors which are germane to their proper conclusions. When this Bill was first introduced in the House of Commons in 1947 the iron and steel trade was producing 12,750,000 tons of steel. Then the target went up. When the Bill was reintroduced last year the trade was producing 14,500,000 tons. [Interruption.] If hon. Members really believe that this Bill has had anything to do with that they will believe anything. Now today throughout the iron works and steel mills of this country, where probably the men have not heard about this Parliament Bill—and all the more shame to the Government for that, in not reminding them of these constitutional realities—thoughout the steel works the target is now actually being surpassed.

This does represent an entirely new situation, and we are entitled to say that the House of Lords, in the attitude it has taken up to now, is actuated by right considerations, because the people have now got an entirely new situation to deal with, in regard to the prosperity of the iron and steel industry and the comparative decline of the nationalised trades.

In conclusion, it has been said throughout by many hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House that there has been a consistent lack of co-operation between the Upper House and the Socialist Governments in the three occasions when we have had a Socialist Administration. History tonight has been notoriously bad, but I did not think hon. Gentlemen would forget so quickly the various things which have happened in those three Administrations. Lord Haldane, at the end of the first Labour Government, told the Upper House, "You have met us handsomely on every occasion." At the end of the second Socialist Government 79 Bills had been sent up from this House to another place, of which 73 were passed unamended; and in the case of the other six it was generally agreed that they had been improved. Today we have had tributes from all sides as to the improvement in legislation through the existence of that revising Chamber.

No case whatever has been made out in this prolonged discussion for this Bill, which does nothing to solve the question of the relationship between the two Houses, and alters in a retrospective manner the constitution of our country in order to facilitate a Bill on which the public have expressed no approval, and in order to resolve a dispute between Ministers of the Crown. In the light of all these circumstances, and in particular because of its constitutional consequences. I ask the House to reject this Bill.