Part of Procedure – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th October 1965.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Mendelson Mr John Mendelson , Penistone 12:00 am, 27th October 1965

That is an argument put forward on many occasions, but in a short time, if I am given a chance, I will show why I think that at this early stage we can clearly foresee similar dangerous developments in our own system.

However, before doing so I will turn to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne when he rejected the proposal that we should in any way introduce the American Congressional Committee system, but instead have specialist committees on the Continental system.

On three occasions, for periods of three months each, I was special correspondent for one of our weekly reviews in Bonn, in 1954, 1955 and 1956. I had the opportunity to study at close quarters the work of the Parliament of the Federal Republic then and again in 1959 and 1960. A number of specialist committees had been developed and some members of the German Parliament were very proud of them while others were immensely critical.

The committee which I studied particularly, from the outside, of course, was that on security and defence. What happened was that within only a few years there developed an upper crust of Members of Parliament, a group of people on the inside by virtue of belonging to the security and defence committee.

The Minister of Defence would say at the beginning of the committee's proceedings, "For the next half an hour what we shall discuss can be public knowledge and can be discussed between you and your colleagues and your constituents; for the hour after that we shall enter into the grey zone and while that will not be top secret, I would rather that you did not disclose any of the facts I shall mention in this committee; finally, for the last half an hour we shall discuss highly secret information and it would be a breach of the constitution and close to treason if you talked to any of your colleagues about the matters we shall then discuss".

That system was accepted and the result has been far from more members of the West German Parliament being in a position to criticise the executive on these vital matters. Those not on the security and defence committee, except for two or three top leaders in each party, get no information on these matters worth having and those on the committees are handicapped by the prohibition and the very fact that they are members of the committee.

If we were to introduce a defence committee on those lines—and this is not contradicted by the most straightforward advocates of the system and I am sorry to mention his name when he is not here, but my right hon. Friend the Paymaster-General, while an advocate of such an all-party defence committee, has the clarity of mind not to disagree about what the result might be—the results would be quite obvious. The committee might have 30, 35 or 40 Members. They would be on the inside and would be not only taken into the confidence of the Minister of Defence more than all other Members who could then be called ordinary Members, if I may use the term, but would be taken to all sorts of establishments. While ordinary Members might be taken to those establishments and talked to by the Admiral, the members of the defence committee would be shown far more and would usually be there on condition of secrecy. Far from developing a whole new apparatus of detailed knowledge which Members could then use to redress the balance between the Legislature and the Executive, we should make the position of the Executive much more powerful than it has ever been.

In all periods, whenever the future and life of Parliament are being discussed, people rush into making ill-considered proposals for reform without making a close analysis of the difficulties. One of the major and decisive reasons why there has not been enough informed debate and revelation of detailed information in the House has to do with the fact that over many years the Front Bench of the party in opposition, whatever party, and the Front Bench of the Government of the day have been in basic agreement on many policies. This is not often mentioned, but quite obviously if the Leader of the Opposition in the Parliaments between 1959 and 1963, for example, on some of the most basic issues of defence and foreign policy, for instance, felt that he basically agreed with what the Government were doing, he would not spend so much of his time revealing new facts and pushing for disclosures and so on.

The main duty and the main task in making Parliament the centre of debate are at all times on the shoulders of the leaders of the Opposition and the leaders of the Government and if those two Front Benches do not want to do it, it will not happen. Secondly, if we want to equip back benchers with better opportunities and better facilities to play their part we must make it easier for them to force the Government to disclose information and enter into real debate. This has to do with research services; this has to do with independent sources of information for back benchers; this has to do with a secretary for each Member of Parliament; this has to do with the possibility of Members of Parliament having more frequent interviews all over the country with people outside Government, but involved in Government policy. This is an avenue which would be worth exploration.

Specialist committees have another serious drawback which I have not yet mentioned. It is often asked by well-meaning people, particularly outside Parliament—we often get this question at meetings—"Why do you fellows not all get together? There are so many able people in Parliament on all sides and there is the common good. Why do you not appoint the ablest man to each job, irrespective of party and never minding about different philosophies which can be debated when you are at universities and in private friendships? When the job has to be done, why not get together and get the ablest from all parties and form a coalition Government?"

Behind that argument is the denial of the wisdom of hundreds of years and first developed in this House of Commons, the wisdom which tells us that it is essential that in the forum of national debate there should not be any blurring of policies by the getting together of people who believe that because they know a few more facts, they can now find a neutral solution to all major problems. This can be the complete abolition of one of the major if not the major purpose of the House, namely, to become a centre, if necessary, of conscious agreement in times of national crisis, for instance, but at all times to carry on the great national debate on the great issues of the day.

It is thought that 35 Members of a specialist committee could oblige civil servants to appear before them and be cross-examined. However, my hon. Friends must not assume that because Ministers find it possible not to say to Members of Parliament in committee anything which they do not wish to say, Civil Servants will be any different. In fact they are normally the people who think up the basic answers for their Ministers who then put them forward in debate.

Therefore, there is nothing gained by this proposal. The idea, once got abroad, that in these committees, with expert advice, one could always get some sort of sensible agreement on what ought to be done, would stultify and falsify debate. Once this system had carried on for a number of years in committees, then, as Professor Beard points out, the committee debate would be the only important debate and there would be, when the matter finally reached the House of Commons, a charmed circle of those who had taken part in the debate repeating what they said there. Most of the other Members would be regarded as rather outside that circle. It would be the beginning of the destruction of one of the most important elements of the House of Commons, namely, the ability to produce a real political challenge from one side to the other, and if necessary, by a combination of Members, from the House to the Executive.

In these discussions there are always a number of people who say, "Yes, but if you think that this proposal would do serious harm to the most effective work that the House of Commons can do, what is your answer to this point?" Is it in fact proved that the Executive is acquiring more and more power vis-à-vis Parliament and the House of Commons in particular? I should like to make two brief points on that. First, it has been the main characteristic of our system of Government and the British constitution that the Executive has always had paramount influence and power in Parliament. Here I would say that a number of academic teachers seem to make this discovery every 50 years or so.

One accepts that it is equally true that in the last 35 years or so, because of the advance in technology, and because of the large areas of secrecy which have become predominant, in the field of defence for instance, where there are smaller and smaller groups of people who know about the things that really matter, and about decisions that really matter; but the answer to that must be that Members of Parliament must be put in a position of acquiring more knowledge and having more independent sources of information so that they can be a match for the Executive, because they have information that they have come by in their own way.

I close by saying that we ought to direct our attention to the development of these services and facilities, and brush aside the dangerous proposal of specialist committees, which is irrelevant, and would not prove a solution to our problem.