Orders of the Day — Supplies and Services (Defence Purposes) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st February 1951.

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Photo of Mr Malcolm McCorquodale Mr Malcolm McCorquodale , Epsom 12:00 am, 21st February 1951

The right hon. Gentleman has introduced this relatively small Measure in a non-controversial way, and I hope to follow his example so far as I am able. In the Gracious Speech last autumn, the Government announced in a resounding phrase their intention to introduce legislation to regulate, subject of course to Parliamentary safeguards, such as they were, production, distribution and consumption; and to control prices and all the rest of it. The previous week the Lord President had announced in the House that at the appropriate time it would be right for Parliament to face up to introducing permanent legislation.

We had expected by now that we should have heard something about these plans so grandiloquently announced last autumn, but there is no sign in this Bill of such a scheme, and although I listened attentively to the right hon. Gentleman he did not give any hint of his intentions. This Bill has nothing to do with such proposals. It is designed to allow Defence Regulations that were introduced by the Conservatives and the Coalition Governments once more to be used for their original purposes, which many of us think is their only proper purpose, that of defence both at home and overseas. One is reminded, in passing, how often the wheel of life turns the full circle.

We remain strongly opposed in peacetime to the whole system by which the Government act by means of regulations of this sort and orders made under them. It is only for the defence of the country that they can be justified in our view. While we are not opposing the Second Reading of the Bill, as it is for defence purposes, I wish to make it crystal clear that we do not abate the opposition we have expressed—the opposition my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) expressed in regard to the 1947 Act and speakers in the debate which took place on the Gracious Speech last autumn—to any permanent extension of these powers over the economic life of the country. We again emphasise, what is surely a truism, that in a Parliamentary democracy the Government should proceed by specific Acts of Parliament and not by regulations, and that the reverse should be and is repugnant to real liberty-loving peoples everywhere. Though we are not today opposing the Second Reading of the Bill, there are one or two Amendments which we think necessary and which we shall press during the Committee stage.

I must comment very briefly on the chaotic state into which legislation on all these Defence Regulations has been plunged. I shall not try to state the legal position; I am not qualified to do so and some of my hon. Friends will deal with it later. But I must say that these Defence Regulations, introduced in 1939 and 1940 and due to expire in 1946, have been kept alive by the present Government in a whole plethora of further Acts of Parliament to such an extent that the jungle is so thick that any non-legal person is at his wits' end to find his way through it all.

The important Acts were those of 1945 and 1947. The 1945 Act terminated a great many of the defence purposes for which those Regulations had originally been made, and substituted demobilisation and resettlement. Then came 1947. The right hon. Gentleman has reminded us of the economic crisis into which this country was then plunged. We on this side of the House well remember that that was the time when the baleful star of the Minister of Town and Country Planning was in the ascendant over our economic and financial affairs. We regard that as one of the reasons why those unhappy times were experienced by this country.

We opposed, and still oppose, the use of these Defence Regulations permanently in the life of the community for such economic purposes. In those days the Government had a large majority and were able easily to impose their wishes in the House. Since then we have added some weight to our numbers on this side of the House. I might even go so far as to say that I myself returned from a short rustication in the country. The result was soon noticed—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—not my own return of course, but the added weight of my hon. Friends, for I would remind the House that one of the first actions which this Government took after the General Election, under strong pressure from our side of the House, was to relinquish Regulation 58A and the direction and control of labour which was then operating in this country under it. I mention that because I shall have more to say on that point later in my remarks.

Finally, the whole conglomoration of Acts under which these Regulations are operated is now being kept alive from year to year. Under the original intentions of the Government they should have expired in 1950, and last autumn we allowed them to proceed for one more year. But I would remind the House of what my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) said in the debate on that occasion. He said: Even so, all this corpus has to he looked at and has to be pruned down, and we serve notice that in our view this has to he done within the next 12 months."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd October, 1950; Vol. 478, c. 2518.] I gather that there are more than 100 of these Defence Regulations, ranging from the most important to the very trivial. If this Bill is passed there will then be nine different purposes for which these Regulations can be used, and I leave to the imagination of the more arithmetically minded Members of the House the numbers, combinations and permutations of uses of them which are possible.

To turn to the Clauses of the Bill, there are one or two points at least on which we shall require satisfaction in Committee. It is stated, in Clause 1 (1): The purposes specified in subsection (1) of section one of the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act, 1945, shall be deemed to include, and always to have included, the purposes.… Those purposes are then stated. Here we have the retrospective action which this Government seem to be so fond of bringing into their legislation, and which we on this side of the House at all events dislike. Why have they brought in this retrospective provision? The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum, I must say, is most ingenuous. It says: The main purpose of this Bill is to make it clear that the Defence Regulations … can be used… not to give powers so that they can be used but "to make it clear" that they can be used.

It would appear from those words that some Ministers have in fact been using powers which they should not have been using, and that it is here proposed to absolve them in respect of their nefarious actions. That point needs looking into a little further. I am emboldened to say that because of the words which the Lord President of the Council himself used in the 1947 Debate, on the Second Reading of the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act. Speaking from that Box, he must, I think—and I can only say "I think" as I was not here at the time—have used them with that air of rectitude and innocence which he can adopt with such skill at times. He used the following very remarkable words in relation to this very point. He was saying that on no account should Ministers overstep their powers in this way and what a bad thing it would be. His words were: We do not want Ministers to stretch the meaning of the law in the framing and administration of Defence Regulations. He went on to say that it would be unconstitutional—and I can almost hear him saying it—that it would be undesirable and thoroughly objectionable. Therefore, because of legal doubt, because we wanted Ministers to be able to say to themselves all the time, 'I am acting within the law,'…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th August. 1947; Vol. 441, c. 1796.] they proceeded with that Measure.

It now appears— it must appear from the fact that the Government want a retrospective cover for their actions—that some Ministers have been acting unconstitutionally, undesirably and indeed thoroughly objectionably. We shall require to know during the Committee Stage, if those words are to be left in the Bill, what Ministers have been behaving in this very odd way, whether the right hon. Gentleman has had them on the carpet and why this white sheet is required. That is an important point on which we hope we shall receive full satisfaction, and which we shall indeed seek to probe to the full when we reach the Committee Stage.

To turn to page 2 of the Bill we welcome, as the right hon. Gentleman has said the whole House would welcome, Clause 2 (2), which states: Nothing in the said Act or in this section shall be held to authorise the suppression or suspension of any newspaper, periodical, book or other publication. In my own interests I naturally welcome that provision, and I also welcome it in the interests of us all. I do not think that we wish to see these Defence Regulations used for purposes of that kind in a free country such as this. I welcome it all the more because we do find right hon. Gentlemen opposite expressing themselves from time to time fairly forcibly about some sections of the Press. We are glad to learn that right hon. Gentlemen do not wish to take the matter further.

I emphasise that aspect because we shall wish to introduce a third subsection relating to a similar matter, to provide that nothing in the said Act or the Clause shall be held to authorise the Government to re-impose Defence Regulation 58A, which provides for the direction of the control of labour. We wish that power to be taken out of Defence Regulations. Speaking on that very point, the Minister of Labour, in his speech in the Defence debate last week, said: I have discussed this matter already with the representatives of the trade unions and of the employers, and we have come to the conclusion that it would be premature to reach a decision about the direction of labour,…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1951; Vol. 484, c. 730–1.] That means to say that it is not ruled out altogether. Indeed, in the circumstances in which we live, he would be a rash man who said that it was.

On this side of the House, and I believe throughout the whole House, the direction and control of labour in peace-time are thoroughly disliked. If the Government do at any time think that it is absolutely necessary to adopt such powers, they should come down to the House and present a specific and limited Bill to that end. The Bill could be discussed on Second Reading, examined in Committee and amended if necessary, and rejected or adopted by Parliament in the light of the situation then existing. We do not approve of a procedure whereby Regulation 58A for the control of labour may be reintroduced by a signature given in a back room in the Ministry of Labour. It should be done with full consultation and in the full light of Parliamentary examination.

In this attitude we are fortified by pledges which were given during the debate on the Gracious Speech, both by the Lord Chancellor in another place and by the Minister of Town and Country Planning. The Minister gave a pledge, not exactly corresponding to what I have said but very similar. I think his words were to the effect that any Bill to introduce emergency legislation would not contain the power to direct labour. I hope that the Government will be able to accept in Committee an Amendment which I believe is in line with these promises. We attach the greatest possible importance to this matter.

Now may I comment for one moment upon Clause 2? This seems to me to contain a sensible procedure. In part it adopts the Town and Country Planning procedure. For the rest of it, we should be churlish if we criticised the desire of the Government. We all understand that they wish to have these powers. There may well be some Committee points on which we should like elucidation or further discussion. I have no doubt that some of my hon. Friends will be raising these points in the debate or during the Committee stage. I have no comment to make on the substance of these proposals except that I wonder whether it would be possible to stretch the 21-day procedure to a little longer in cases where it was not urgently necessary to get on with this work in a great hurry.

This is a little Bill. I emphasise that it is not a great Measure, but in so far as it is necessary for the proper defence of our way of life and for the peace of the world we certainly do not oppose it here. None the less, I emphasise that we remain quite unrepentant in our vigorous resistance to the whole system by which this country's economic life might be permanently regulated in this way. Our action on this occasion must not in any way be regarded as altering our attitude to any permanent legislation which the Government may at some later stage introduce on the subject.