Orders of the Day — Parliament Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th November 1949.

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Photo of General Sir George Jeffreys General Sir George Jeffreys , Petersfield 12:00 am, 14th November 1949

When this Bill was first introduced in November, 1947, it was a time of economic crisis, and both the Government and the nation were beginning to realise the seriousness of the situation. "The Times" newspaper of that time, in a leading article, used the following words: The country calls for rescue from the imminent menace of distress and decline. More than ever before except in wartime the partnership of all groups in the community will be indispensable. Yet this moment is chosen by Mr. Attlee and his colleagues to incite bitter constitutional argument without need or reason. If that was the case in 1947, how very much more is it the case today having regard to both the Prime Minister's and the Chancellor of the Exchequer's recent statements. Surely, it is madness at such a time to pass this most contentious Measure, which, far from uniting all groups in the community, must inevitably accentuate the differences.

Are the Government in fact trying by means of this Bill—one might almost have thought so had the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) been made from the other side—to use the Peers v. People controversy to distract attention from the national crisis? That might almost appear to be the case.

The Bill contains a retroactive Clause which is a most unusual feature. I think that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss) described it as a most unconstitutional feature, or words to that effect, especially in a Measure of such importance, and, affecting as it does, very seriously the constitution of the country. It seems that this can only be intended as a means of securing the passage of a certain Bill during the life-time of the present Parliament. If it is not intended for that purpose, what is the object of including it in the Bill? Why the Government should seek to tinker with the British Constitution—because that is what they are doing—at such a time, and for such a cause, is very hard indeed to understand.

It is all the harder to understand because the third successive Session necessary in the 1911 Act need not be in the same Parliament, and if the Government should be returned to power at the General Election, any Bill which has been passed and twice rejected, in the 1950 Parliament may be passed over the heads of another place. The Committee stage was omitted. That has been the subject of Debate today, and I do not intend to labour the point, but it seems to me to have been a mistake to have omitted the Committee stage.

Many Government Bills have been very much improved in Committee at other times and on other subjects, and might not this Bill have been improved if it had been considered in Committee, and one or two of these points, particularly the retroactive question, considered afresh? Is it in fact because the Government are not sure of returning to power—not sure what the people will say—that they are so anxious to pass this Bill now? The Home Secretary, in the Second Reading Debate, spoke of the last word being with the House of Commons. The House of Commons has the last word at present, although that last word is deferred for some time longer than is now proposed in the present Bill. What is more important is this: On Bills brought in during the last two years of Parliament, the people of the country—and they are the most important of all—can under present conditions have the last word. The right hon. Gentleman also spoke of there being no opposition to this Bill. However that may be, there is certainly no demand for it, and very little support for it in the country.

The Lord President himself has on various occasions paid tribute to the work of the House of Lords in this Parliament. Not only have they not rejected Government Bills, but they have performed invaluable service in revising, amending and improving Bills which have often been inadequately discussed in this House and sometimes very indifferently drafted by Government draftsmen. They have rejected no Bill except this one, and in cases of difference they have almost invariably deferred to the opinion of the House of Commons. The Government argument is that for five years after a General Election everything passed by the House of Commons must be taken to be the will of the people expressed at the last election, even though it may have been little, if at all, mentioned at that election, and even though it be passed in the closing years of the Parliament.

The hon. and learned Member for East Leicester (Mr. Donovan) has referred to the death penalty controversy. I also do not wish to transcend the bounds of Order in this Debate, but I would say that, whatever the hon. and learned Gentleman may think, the country had no doubt that on that occasion the House of Lords did express the will of the people. Incidentally, it helped the Home Secretary out of a very difficult situation.

If this Bill goes through it seems to me to be a very long step towards the abolition of the House of Lords and eventual single chamber Government. On Second Reading there could be no mistaking, I think, the attitude of some if not a good many, hon. Members opposite who appeared to be in favour, not of mending the House of Lords but of ending it. It appears to me that with single chamber Government an extremist Government—and there are some extremists, and I put it mildly when I say "some," amongst the Government supporters—