Orders of the Day — Clause 3. — (Numbers of Holders of Ministerial Offices in House of Commons.)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th December 1964.

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Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland 12:00 am, 10th December 1964

I can only presume that the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) is looking forward to being a Minister of State in the Duchy when new Ministers of State are appointed. If he does not want the company of his own side of the House of Commons or, I gather, of the Tories, we will be delighted to have him. It was unwise for the Prime Minister not to have found a nook or cranny in the Administration for the hon. Member. There must still be jobs to be given away. I can only think it must be because the Prime Minister desires to have one member of the ruling Labour family on the back benches. Or it may be that the hon. Member will find himself in the other place. There have been some remarkable appointments there, including members of the hon. Member's family and, indeed, of mine who have lately arrived there.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has put us in great difficulty over the Bill. For my part, I am more than willing to consider changes in the machinery of government, I am more than willing to consider an overall increase in the number of members of the Government, but I am terrified by the reasons given by the right hon. Gentleman. Yesterday, many of us came here very much in favour of the Ministry of Overseas Development, but by the time that the Chancellor finished with it, it was extremely difficult for even the most passionate upholder of it to vote for it. Today, therefore, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is in better form after a long night's rest and will return to his usual precision and general attitude that any Government should be examined when they are in any way paving the way for vast expenditure of public money and a considerable increase in personnel.

I must return again to the justifications as given on Second Reading for this increase in the number of Ministers. The right hon. Gentleman said that it was to provide concentrations of activity and responsibility". Many of us think that the result may be to do exactly the opposite, that so far from concentrating activity and responsibility it may actually dissipate it. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman said that it was directed to the objective of providing modern government to deal with the complexities of modern life … As I remarked the other day, we are the Government now. The frame-work of Government and the reorganisation of the machinery of government, subject to the approval of this House, must meet the desires of the Government of the day."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th November. 1964; Vol. 702, c. 751.] With all respect to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, that is not the only criterion. Certainly, the desires of the Government of the day and what they want to do are one criterion, but it is also important to realise that any changes of this sort affect the relationship of the Legislature to the Executive and have effects throughout the structure of Government. Therefore, it is not enough for the Government simply to say that they want jobs for these people and that they will create them. They must take into account the effect upon the House of Commons and upon the whole structure of our political life.

Furthermore, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is a bad principle of administration first to find the people whom they want to employ and then to discuss the jobs for them. There needs to be first some sort of job specification as to what these people will do. In fact, however, the Government have set about it the other way round. They have made these appointments under the Prerogative and, even now, we are told that only at a future date, when Orders are laid, will we have any opportunity of discussion.

The effect upon the House of Commons has been touched upon. The objection is not the old one that the Crown would send people to the House to exert direct influence upon it. That is not the objection which weighs with us today. The objection is that 130 Members on the Government side are now subject to Government control, that this upsets the balance within the House of Commons as a whole and, saving the presence of many distinguished Members opposite who are not in the Government, that a great concentration of talent on the Government side is muzzled. We saw that clearly yesterday. The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale is the first Member from the Government side who has spoken in the whole of this debate upon the substance of this important Bill, which is important not only to the Opposition, but to every hon. Member.

I agree that this is a serious matter. On previous occasions when there has been a big increase of this nature, it has been customary often to set up a committee to discuss either particular aspects of the machinery of government or the whole matter. It is time again for further consideration of the whole relationship of the House of Commons to the Government and of the machinery of government in general.

At the moment, however, all we can do is to look at the list of offices and make up our minds whether the increase is justified. Glancing down the list quickly, we have a Secretary of State for Wales. My party advocated such an appointment and we are pleased to see it, but the holder of this office seems to have extremely little to do and it is difficult to ascertain his functions.

There is a Minister without Portfolio, who is to do something about legal matters. Again, I am wholly in favour of legal reform, but we have four Law Officers already in the Government. Over the page of this document concerning the Government we still have a Secretary of State for the Colonies and one for Commonwealth Relations as well as the new Department of Overseas Development.

5.0 p.m.

I would feel now that these Departments might well have been reduced to two, if not one. Further, there might be some Departments of Government which could be abolished. The Chancellor of the Duchy, in his Second Reading speech, drew my attention to remarks made by the Prime Minister over the air. I thought that there was something familiar about this, and then realised that I had taken part in this discussion.

The Prime Minister, who was then Leader of the Opposition, at one point said: We should, of course, be saving in one or two Ministers— and the interviewer. Mr. Norman Hunt, said, "Such as?". The Leader of the Opposition said: I do not think that a Labour Prime Minister would want to have a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. No wonder the right hon. Gentleman has been fighting so hard.

This is not quite the whole story. He described the Chancellor of the Duchy as … doing nothing at the taxpayer's expense but looking after the Conservative Party, or even the Labour Party, in a Labour Government. Then he went on to deal with Cabinet Ministers dealing with information and said: You would save two Cabinet Ministers right away on that. The Chancellor has drawn our attention to this statement. He described it as constructive and sober. I wonder how it appears to him now.

I should have thought that there may be some saving to be made. There seems to be a sudden inflation in the offices of Government. The Office of Minister of State was, until lately, very little used at all. There were 11 in the last Government and there are now 19. For a time, I understand that the Government thought that there were 18, but they discovered another one, so there are now 19. This seems to be very much like upgrading upgrading of members of the Diplomatic Service to be ambassadors. It will probably continue until practically the whole Government are Secretaries of State. I should have thought that this, too, is something the House of Commons should watch.

Again, during the Second Reading debate, the Chancellor of the Duchy said that it did not very much matter that the Herbert Committee had said that if only 10 per cent. of Members of the House were members of the Government this was all right. The Government were only proposing 14½ per cent. It is the effect upon the Government side of the House which matters and it is, as has been pointed out, the number of private secretaries and the other people who, today, even if they are not active Members of the Government are closely associated with it, they cannot bring independent criticism upon its doings.

The Attorney-General was described late last night as a "would-be dictator". I have never taken that view of the Attorney-General. I do not think that it is strictly true. In their treatment of the House, however, over the Bill, the Government have certainly given me the impression that they did not think that the House of Commons should be informed. I am not talking about details of policies of Ministries, but I do not believe that either the Attorney-General or the Chancellor of the Duchy have gone out of their way to inform the House of Commons why these Ministeries are necessary. Not even a reasonable case has been made out.

I certainly came to these debates agreeing that some reform of government was necessary, agreeing that there were new functions to be proposed, but feeling that there may be old functions which are no longer so important, and feeling, too, that while we are creating new Ministers we might well streamline the whole process of Government. It might well be that, so far from creating new Ministries, we might bring some old ones under a common umbrella. I do not think that this has been dealt with by the Government at all. I hope that today we are to get from the Chancellor rather more than he told us in the debate on Second Reading. I do not believe that the House of Commons should accept the steady increase from 47 Members of the Government at the time of the Herbert Committee's Report—60 were said to be permissible, but there were only 47—to 70 to 91. If it is to be 91, I do not accept the Chancellor's view that the House must accept 91, merely because the Prime Minister has 91 people for whom he wants to find jobs. What the House should be concerned about is that there are 91 jobs to be done, not that this Administration is creating jobs and then finding people to do them.

We are coming to the end of the Bill. The whole argument has run right through it that the House has no desire to thwart the Government in any legitimate job, but the Government have to explain to the House of Commons that there is a job to be done. If they say that there is a job to be done in this way, they must take not only the wishes of the Government into account but their effect on the House and, finally, that it is the job, and not the people for the job, which is the first consideration.