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 David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby 12:00 am, 31st October 1949

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for providing me with such an excellent point. The statement with regard to iron and steel was: Private monopoly has maintained high prices and kept inefficient high-cost plants in existence. Only if public ownership replaces private monopoly can the industry become efficient. Hon. Members above the Gangway have just been pointing out with all the strength of their lungs how efficient the industry has become. The right hon. Gentleman should sometimes pay attention to what his colleagues say. I know they do not compare for profundity and clarity with his own announcements, but occasionally they are very interesting. This is what the right hon. Gentleman's noble colleague said in the House of Lords on 24th May: I am not going to base the case which I shall submit to your Lordships on the question of efficiency or otherwise of this industry. As the whole mandate was based on efficiency, whatever else Viscount Hall had done, he had thrown away whatever mandate the party opposite had in regard to iron and steel. I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for enabling me to make that point.

Leaving the question of mandates, having, I hope, suitably recognised the assistance of the Lord President of the Council, let me look to the point which follows. That is, was there obstruction up to the introduction of this Bill? Here the Lord President of the Council could not recognise any higher earthly authority, because I am going to quote himself. He will remember what he said in November, 1946: Members of the House of Lords co-operate to the full in respecting the wishes of the British democracy as expressed in the so-called Lower House. So we have seen the remarkable and characteristically British spectacle of a Chamber with a large Right Wing majority passing one nationalization Bill after another. The rarity of a conflict"— said the right hon. Gentleman— between the Lords and the Commons is nowadays so great that most people take the smooth working of the two Houses for granted. So the right hon. Gentleman had no sinister ideas in November, 1946. Let us move forward to the period just before he introduced this Bill. Again moving with some trepidation from the right hon. Gentleman to his noble colleague, I quote what was said in the House of Lords on 9th September, 1947, by Lord Hall: I freely and gladly acknowledge, not only on my own behalf but on behalf of His Majesty's Government"— there is no question of any personal thing; he was speaking as the agent among others of the Lord President— that noble Lords opposite have hitherto used their majority here in a moderate and statesmanlike way and in a manner which has given us on this side of the House no real or reasonable ground for complaint. Let me move on another three months. I am sure that this example will appeal to the Lord President of the Council. This is a quotation from Lord Ammon. Let me hasten to add that he was then the Government's Chief Whip in the House of Lords but he was just commencing—and the Lord President will appreciate this—to show that quality of speaking his own mind and the truth which led to his ultimate discomfiture and dismissal. Lord Ammon said: I don't believe any critic of the House of Lords can look around the world and find any Second Chamber he likes better than ours. That is what the Chief Whip of the present Government in the House of Lords said.

The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that I could quote many other tributes just as clear as those. I think that on the last occasion I exampled the "noble nine" colleagues of the right hon. Gentleman in the House of Lords varying between earls, viscounts, barons—almost every degree of the Peerage—who in speaking for the right hon. Gentleman's party were fervent in their admiration for the Second Chamber. I do not want to leave it as being proved merely out of the minds of the right hon. Gentlemen opposite because their minds change so often that people might think them an unsuitable basis for my argument. Let me put it on the basis of what they have actually done.

I see in this House a number of familiar faces of Members who were engaged on the Transport Act. After that Measure left this House with some 31 Clauses and five Schedules totally undiscussed, it went to the House of Lords. The Government introduced 139 Amendments there, and the Opposition had 91 Amendments accepted. The Town and Country Planning Act is a measure in regard to which I have yet to discover anyone in the country who has praised the state in which it left this House. I have heard a good deal of language to the contrary which you, Mr. Speaker, would not allow me to quote even within the latitude of this Debate. Still the Lords, after all, did something to clear up that Augean stable. The Government Amendments numbered 289 and the Opposition Amendments accepted were 47. Even in the case of the Electricity Act, which was not on such a scale, the numbers were 107 and 81 respectively.

I think that the best point for the right hon. Gentleman to take down, if he will do me that honour, is a quotation from his colleague the Lord Chancellor, in June, 1948, when he summed up the position. He said that on the ten major Bills of the year 1946–47—I will spare you, Mr. Speaker, my going through the list; you are only too familiar with them from the Debates in this House: the House of Lords have moved and carried 1,222 Amendments. Of those carried only 57—less than 5 per cent.—have been rejected in another place. The Lord President will of course greet with a certain coldness the improvements which have been made to his pet nationalisation proposals, but now let me give an example which he and the Home Secretary ought to remember with deep gratitude. That is the action of the House of Lords in regard to the death penalty. I am afraid I have said this before, and I only repeat it because the words are those of a most respected member of the Labour movement, and I hope that no one will think that I am being facetious about that. I am referring to the late Mr. Lees-Smith. I had the greatest respect and affection for him, as hon. Gentlemen opposite had, and I should not like anyone to think that my words were meant in anything but the most sincere sense. He said: A section of a party is not more than an insistent minority in a party, and is only a fraction of the people as a whole. Yet under a system of party government it may impose its view on the whole nation. That was the position here.

A pressure group in this House imposed its wishes on the House contrary to the views of Ministers, especially the Home Secretary, who spoke against the views of the pressure group not only with all his own power but with the authority of his great office. Despite that the Resolution or the Amendment for the abolition of the death penalty was carried. The House of Lords threw it out, correctly interpreting, in the opinion of the great majority of people in this House and in the country, the view of the country.

The matter did not stop there. The right hon. Gentleman came back with what was known as the "comic compromise." I am sorry to dig up these unfortunate memories, but the right hon. Gentleman will remember to what I am referring. It was a Clause by which if one made more than one attempt to kill one's wife or had more than one friend to help one, one was liable to be hanged; if one killed one's wife with one stroke of the club and without assistance, one was not hanged. That is what I mean by the "comic compromise," which was thrown out by the House of Lords. The House of Lords alone prevented our criminal law from being the laughing stock of the world.

There is the example. The right hon. Gentleman has said, "How can anyone claim that in these days the House of Lords can ever interpret public opinion better than this House?" They have done so in the lifetime of this Parliament, and on one of the issues which ordinary people in the country regard as of great importance to their safety and their lives. Therefore, it is clear that both opinion and statistics have demonstrated that there has not been obstruction but co-operation and improvement in the time of this Parliament.

The only remaining argument for the Bill is that a Socialist Government receives unequal treatment as compared with a Conservative Government. But as the right hon. Gentleman knows, and I admit was so quick to say so that he could say it before I did, all parties are now agreed on a change in the composition of the House of Lords, and the answer to that point is a change in composition so that no one party is guaranteed a majority in the House of Lords.

I again remind the House of the points in paragraph 5 of the agreed statement, and I suggest that they would command general agreement today. In that paragraph it is stated:

  1. "(1) The Second Chamber should be complementary to and not a rival to the Lower House, and, with this end in view, the reform of the House of Lords should be based on a modification of its existing constitution as opposed to the establishment of a Second Chamber of a completely new type based on some system of election.
  2. (2) The revised constitution of the House of Lords should be such as to secure as far as practicable that a permanent majority is not assured for any one political Party.
  3. (3) The present right to attend and vote based solely on heredity should not by itself constitute a qualification for admission to a reformed Second Chamber."
There are other provisions as to life peers, as to women being Members, and as to payment.

The Home Secretary said there was a change of view. I am sure that was a momentary lapse of memory on his part, because if he looks over his brief before last he will see that the House of Lords in 1910 passed a resolution in exactly the terms of the third of these, as to hereditary not being of itself sufficient qualification. But that is the answer, and that is a fair answer. We are prepared to put forward suggestions for such a Second Chamber. We are prepared to accept the principle that there should be a change in composition. But of course, the Government cannot rely on that, because their attitude is that they would refuse sufficient delay even to a modernised House. They desire such a period of delay as takes away the powers of the revising Chamber, and therefore reduces its responsibility in dealing with the matters referred to it.

I wish to make clear that we on this side of the House hold ourselves free to reform the composition of the House of Lords and to give it such powers as we think right, not of course exceeding the flowers that are contained in the 1911 Act. Where I join issue with the right hon. Gentlemen opposite is that I say that a Second Chamber must have greater powers of delay than this Bill gives in order to do its revising duties. I have dealt with that point at some length before, and I am very anxious not to repeat matters lengthily again. But I make the distinction, and I suggest that legislation must allow it, that apart from points of principle and Amendments which would be wrecking Amendments and would wreck the Bill, there are secondary points of policy and there are points of clarification; and unless a revising Chamber can deal with secondary points of policy as well as mere clarification, that revising Chamber cannot do its work.

I put it to right hon. Gentlemen opposite, how much attention would they pay to suggestions of a revising Chamber on secondary points of policy if its power was only to delay the passage of a Bill by four months or five months, which this proposal really amounts to? I would ask the Lord President to consider the point, because I know he has a great interest in the working of the machinery of Government, though we disagree as to many points. But one of the great weaknesses of our Parliamentary Government at the moment is the failure still to have some machinery for discussion of subsidiary legislation. The right hon. Gentleman may have different views as to how much there can be, but that is one of the great problems to which we have to find a solution if we are to achieve concurrently quickness of legislation and yet examination of legislation.

I believe again that if we had a modernised second Chamber we could easily devise, by a discussion of draft orders, as opposed to final orders, a method which would allow not only for acceptance or rejection, but for amendment and suggestions for amendment of subsidiary instruments. I believe it is on that sort of point, if we really consider the working of the Parliament machine today, that the second Chamber would be immensely useful. But the main point I make is that nobody would listen to a secondary Chamber which had not substantial delaying powers. Up to the present the Amendments on secondary points of policy made by the House of Lords during this Parliament have been accepted and it has been admitted, as I have proved, that Bills have been improved by so doing.

I ask the House to look at the actualities of the present delaying powers. One cannot get away from the position. A difficult and complicated Bill is generally introduced into this House in November. That means that the Committee stage is concluded somewhere about the following Easter, or the middle of April or thereabouts. Then we have the Report stage and Third Reading. There is a great deal of work to be done between Committee stage and Report, because of the Amendments and the things which it has been promised will he looked at; and we are lucky if we get the Third Reading by Whitsuntide. That means that the House of Lords get the Bill somewhere in the middle, or at the end, of June. Then they consider it and make their suggestions, or if they reject it, they will probably reject it sometime in July.

The right hon. Gentleman has always taken the view that public opinion can begin to crystallise as soon as a Bill has been introduced. I say, with such changes that have appeared in the Bills introduced in this Parliament between introduction and Third Reading, that it is impossible to ask that public opinion should begin to crystallise until the public have seen the form in which the Bill leaves this House, Therefore, if we take it from that time we get a period of six months. If we take it from the time that Bills leave the House of Lords to the time they are introduced again it is four months; or from the time they leave the House of Lords until they become law, it is five months. I suggest it is idle to say that in that time we can get public opinion formed, expressed and crystallised on difficult points such as this.

Of course, there is a far deeper and more significant difference of opinion between the Government and ourselves on this point. The Government take the view—I think the Lord President is most committed to it—that once a Parliament is elected for a period of five years, the majority party in Parliament, however close be the aggregate of votes, then becomes the sole repository of public opinion and is thereby commissioned to legislate in any manner they like up to the end of the Parliament. In fact, the election views of the right hon. Gentleman can be described in the somewhat trite couplet of Pope: For forms of government let fools contest;Whate'er is best administer'd is best. That is a good epigram, but the negation of democracy by discussion.

On the other hand, we believe that public opinion is a dynamic and growing reality which is continually being formed and expressed and that between elections effect must be given to that living force. That is the difference between us. If the right hon. Gentleman asks me to give an example, I would refer him to the one which I gave, and which he enjoyed so much a short time ago and which is in the experience of this House, with regard to the death penalty. On that difference in our political outlook, between opinion that the periodic expression of public opinion gives untrammelled rights to a Government for a period of five years, and our opinion that we must in a civilised Parliamentary machine find some way by which the growing public opinion between elections is recognised—and if necessary given effect to—I agree that there is a gulf. I have not the slightest compunction in standing firm with my hon. and right hon. Friends on our conception that public opinion is no mere periodic weed; it is a steadily growing plant. That forms the composition of our opposition to this Bill.

I have exhausted the argument on the merits of the Bill on the highly hypothetical basis of the Lord President that it is not connected with the Iron and Steel Bill; but, as the right hon. Gentleman has queried this connection, I should like to ask the Lord President to consider the evidence on which we say that that view of his is more related to dreams than to reality. First it commences, as the right hon. Gentleman would expect, with a statement of the Minister of Health on 17th October, 1947. He said: We shall nationalise the steel industry and we shall not accept any constitutional obstruction. We do not permit the House of Lords to set aside the will of the people. That was followed, as the right hon. Gentleman no doubt expected, by a statement in the "Tribune" in practically the same words and actually on the same day. Then a week later there was the statement of which I have reminded him and of which we have discussed certain metaphysical aspects before. I refer to the statement in the "New Statesman" of 25th October, which said quite bluntly: By his decision to curb the power of the Lords the Prime Minister has averted the danger of a split in his own ranks on the issue of Iron and Steel. The Lord President of the Council has won his point that nationalisation should be postponed until 1949, and the Minister of Health has agreed on the understanding that the House of Lords shall not be permitted to kill the Bill when introduced next session, by the use of the two-year veto. It is rather curious, in view of the right hon. Gentleman's protestations of absence of connection, how the matter builds up from a statement by the Minister of Health, a statement in the "Tribune," a statement in the "New Statesman" and then, of course, the intervention of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Arthur Greenwood) four days later. He said: 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 …. I regard this as a very doubtful political expedient on which we are entering this Session."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 29th October, 1947; Vol, 443, c. 896.] I am sorry that the hon. and learned Member for Llandaff and Barry (Mr. Ungoed-Thomas) is not here. He has been present at our other Debates. A few days later he said: The reality of this Debate is … whether or not the Government is to be enabled to carry the Iron and Steel Bill through or not."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th November, 1947 Vol. 444, c. 141.] And you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if I might remind you of far off but, I hope, happy days, made a statement to the same effect shortly afterwards. It is true—and here, Sir, I except you entirely—that certain of the other persons I have mentioned have assumed the lambskin and been caught in the thicket of recantation in subsequent Debates. But even so, it is difficult, when one finds that conglomeration and rising tide of evidence, to believe that the right hon. Gentleman is accurate in his recollection or that his dreams have not invaded the territory of his actual life.

I never like to leave the right hon. Gentleman merely comforted by these helpful remarks of his colleagues because, after all, he is entitled to an argument on the merits. Let us consider the Bill now before us. In the proviso of its one Clause there is a method of altering the constitution retrospectively from the date when it receives the Royal Assent. I submit that it is clearly designed to carry the Iron and Steel Bill—to carry it by a method which is wrongful and bad. Hitherto Bills which made a change in the constitution have taken effect from the time when they were passed. A citizen should not have to take the risk of what is at present the legal basis of his personal actions being destroyed by future legislative proposals.

If anyone says that this argument is legalistic, I reply that I happen to be proud of the fact that the fundamental concepts of English law are in accordance with the fundamental English views of fair play. This form of legislation is cheating of a particularly degrading sort —namely, altering the rules of the game for one's own advantage when in the middle of play. Therefore, I say that on that basis this is a bad Bill designed to force through another bad Bill, and that the Government are prepared to twist the constitution to get their own way.

But the matter does not end there. A Bill such as this would be bad enough at any time. But legislation is not an abstract thing. It must be considered in the light of the circumstances in which it comes before us. This Bill came before us first when we were enjoying the crisis specially owned and under aegis of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—the crisis of 1947. As the House will remember—as the House should remember—before Marshall Aid came in the next year that was a very considerable crisis indeed. In fact, the Bill seemed to be introduced to distract attention from the last whistle of the millions of our American Loan going down the drain. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene?