Selective Employment Payments Bill (Allocation of Time)

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th July 1966.

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Photo of Mr Derek Walker-Smith Mr Derek Walker-Smith , Hertfordshire East 12:00 am, 18th July 1966

It is a mixture of case law and statute law. Case law, which is evolved by the wisdom of the judges, is nearly always good. Statute law is good sometimes, when it is the product of a Conservative Government, but less good when it is the product of the Administration which the right hon. Gentleman supports. However, I must not spend too much time on the heresies of the right hon. Gentleman. He has been long enough in the House to be allowed the luxury of an occasional heresy, but two in one speech is going too far.

The right hon. Gentleman's second proposition was almost graver—the proposition that because a Government have a working majority, or perhaps even a substantial majority, they therefore have a built-in right to curtail Parliamentary discussion. That is not only a novel doctrine, but a dangerous and totally unacceptable one. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reflect, in the watches of the night—and he will have abundant opportunity to do so without moving far from where he is at present sitting—and will repent on those two propositions.

I would certainly agree with what was said both by the Leader of the House and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod) about our attitude to the Guillotine in general. Of course, no one in this year 1966 can say that the use of the Guillotine is never justified. Mr. Asquith put it very well in the words we have heard from my right hon. Friend, and that was some time ago. There are abundant precedents on both sides of the House for its use.

In certain circumstances, therefore, we must concede that the use of the Guillotine is justified. It would, however, be very wrong to proceed from there and say that the use of the Guillotine can ever be justified save as an exceptional measure, because it is the ultimate limitation on the rights of Parliamentary discussion, and inevitably arbitrary and unselective in its operation. It is, therefore, right that in each case the onus should be fairly and squarely on the Government seeking to use the Guillotine to establish on the facts and circumstances of a particular case that its use is appropriate as an exceptional measure within the principles that should govern these things.

We do not have any set of principles formulated in writing for the application of the Guillotine, but I would suggest that they are clearly to be deduced and that they are really enshrined in three tests. The first is: is it necessary as a remedy for obstruction? The second: does it arise from imperative difficulties in the Government's timetable which the Government could not reasonably avoid? The third: are there some special considerations arising in the context and circumstances of the particular Measure? I submit that those are the principles by which the House has to judge any proposal to, take from it its fundamental right and duty of Parliamentary scrutiny and discussion, and that, on analysis, this Bill fails on each and all of those tests.

I put obstruction first, because it is the primary—and some would say the indispensable—element in a justification for the Guillotine. The right hon. Member for Bassetlaw referred to the origins of the Guillotine-80 years ago in the context of the Irish obstruction; but that was obstruction of a sort not paralleled in the House in later times. It was not obstruction in the sense that we understand it today—merely the imposing of delay on a single Government Measure. It was obstruction so comprehmsive, so organised, so determined and so unremitting, as was designed to arrest the whole conduct of Government business until the policy of Home Rule was imposed on the Government. That is the origin of the Guillotine.

That being so, I would submit that, even today, obstruction must be so intense, so organised, so effective, as to defeat all the normal safeguards against obstruction. And there are safeguards. The Leader of the House referred to one of them, but there are at least three safeguarding Standing Orders. Standing Order No. 22 deals with irrelevance and repetition; No. 31—the Chief Secretary shakes his head, but we have the three Standing Orders; 22, 31 and 33. They are provided to guard against repetition and irrelevance; to give the right of the Closure in proper circumstances, and to give the Chair the right of selection of Amendments. It is only when, in a particular case, the capacity of the Chair, properly exercised, cannot, by the use of those Standing Orders, prevent obstruction that the Guillotine has any right even to come on the horizon.

In this case, there is no obstruction. How can there be? The Committee stage has not yet started. Erskine May says that an "Allocation of Time order" is often not moved …until the rate of progress in committee has provided argument for its necessity. Here, there is no Committee stage; no argument for the necessity; no obstruction; no reasonable apprehension of obstruction. There is no case at all. The right hon. Member for Bassetlaw points to my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, West, but my right hon. Friend made quite clear the distinction between this and, for example, a nationalisation Measure. He said that on nationalisation Measures the positions were such, were so fixed, as to be able to give a reasonable apprehension that there could be obstruction. That cannot conceivably apply to this Measure, which is a new Measure in which the House has not taken up a previously fixed position as on nationalisation.

I suggest that the second consideration is difficulty about time. My right hon. Friend has dealt extensively with this consideration, but it would be a remarkable thing if the Government could make out their case under this head. We are in the first Session of a Parliament, a Session nearly 50 per cent. longer than an average Session. Clearly, any Government are under a duty to manage their business so as not to curtail the legitimate rights of Parliament; to cut their legislative coat according to the Parliamentary cloth. There is, of course, a temptation for a Government to use the Guillotine to get through more legislation than they ought, and it is a temptation to which Labour Governments are perhaps particularly susceptible.

A Labour Government changed the procedure in 1947 with the avowed intent of making the Guillotine a more accepted and general concomitant of our Parliamentary business. What was the result? They forced on to the Statute Book a vast mass of hastily drafted, undigested legislation, so guillotined that great parts of those Measures reached the Statute Book without detailed discussion either in Committee or on Report, with the necessity that they have had to be subjected to very extensive amendment since. That is what happens when a Government seeks to use the power of the Guillotine to deny to Parliament the right of scrutiny.

There is here no rigid framework for the timetable which could justify this action. It might have been different if it were in the context of the financial cycle because, as the House knows, financial Measures have to be on the Statute Book by, I think, 5th August. That does not apply to this Bill. It is not to come into operation until February. The Government having, for their own reasons, decided that it is possible to get the machinery for tax collection into operation by September but to defer the payment of premiums until February, they have obviously put themselves right out of court for any argument on the score of urgency in this matter. It may be that, for reasons I can understand, August is inconvenient—so what? It could be done in late September or early October, and still leave plenty of time without giving rise to any administrative difficulties.

I submit, therefore, that there is nothing in the timetable to justify the Guillotine in this case, no consideration of time—unless it be matters that will impinge on the timetable by reason of the economic crisis which the Government have promoted. But that is not a proper reason for denying the House its fundamental rights.

I come to the third aspect—the content and circumstances of the Bill. It cannot be said that the content of this Bill is one that justifies this procedure. It cannot be said that this is a matter in which the general principle has been well canvassed over the years and the details are unimportant. Just the contrary is the case. As the House knows, this is a Bill concerned with putting concerns into three categories—the fortunate, the less fortunate, and the very unfortunate, all dependent on fine distinctions and nice calculation. Therefore, it is necessary to frame the Bill so that the circumstances are given proper weight, not approached on a rule-of-thumb or hit-or-miss basis.

My right hon. Friend referred to some of the difficulties which arise in these matters. We know the difficulties which arise when we seek to put concerns and commercial and industrial undertakings into categories. We know of this in town planning, we know it in rating and in all these matters. The Government are using the Bill in a rule-of-thumb way when they try to cut out discussion and improvement as it goes along. The Amendments to which reference has been made cover a wide and varied range of national activity, but they are all individual cases, individual cases with their own idiosyncratic features and demanding their own individual discussion. If they do not get this, it is not a Bill; it is a lottery.

What consolation, for example, is there for the film studios if the case of the confectioners is argued and theirs is not? What consolation is there for the milk bottlers—if I may take the Amendment put forward by Co-operative Society hon. Members on these matters —if the case for the management consultant, is argued and theirs is not? What would we think if in the courts a plaintiff were told by a judge, "I do not propose to hear your case for damages for negligence for personal injuries in your factory. No, I have spent a long time hearing another action for damages for negligence in a motor collision case. It is all the same and I have other matters to consider. I have a crowded list and we must go forward. You must be content with justice which has already been done."

Whether this be a money Bill or not, the content of it is such that it cries out for proper Parliamentary scrutiny and discussion. We do not know, as the Leader of the House said, whether this fits into the definition of a money Bill under the Parliamentary Act or not. It is not for us to say. It is for Mr. Speaker to certify before it goes to another place. I say that it is not for us to say, but in fact the Government have said. The only difficulty is that they have said it with two conflicting voices. What the Leader of the House said in May as quoted by my right hon. Friend had the irresistible implication that this is not a money Bill, but what the Minister of Labour said in June on the Second reading was: Quite clearly, the Bill is primarily a financial Measure."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd June. 1966; Vol. 730. c. 932.] If it be a money Bill, of course on the right hon. Gentleman's own confession he is doing something for which there is no precedent in modern times. We would have to go a long way back into Erskine May, with the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw, to find a precedent.

What about the circumstances attending the Bill? There is nothing in the degree or quality of preparation of this Bill to negative the need for Parliamentary scrutiny. Of course there is not. This is the Bill which should have had full factual, statistical information since it is based on the rule-of-thumb application of the standard industrial classification evolved for another purpose. Has it had it? We know it has not had it because, fortunately, the right hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Cousins) has raised the veil and afforded to the House a fascinating glimpse of how these matters work under this Administration.

This is what he said on Thursday last: Another mistake we have made is that we have done too much guesswork. We talk rather loosely about productivity and production; but there are no figures. He went on to say: If this is so, we must recognise that when you make declarations without them there is a possibility that you will be wrong. More than a possibility here, a very strong probablity indeed.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to make some candid avowals of the conduct of Government policy. He said: I suggest that the policy we have followed during the past two years has not done even what we are now saying it has done. It has not protected the lower-paid, it has not given them a new era to look forward to, it has been unselective in its responses, it has picked people out and they have been picked out on all sorts of queer criteria," [OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th July, 1966; Vol. 731, c. 1790 and 1793] There is this Bill defined for us in advance by the right hon. Gentleman who was at that time a Member of the Administration.

Of course, the right hon. Gentleman said about the Prices and Incomes Bill that he was told not to worry about it, that everyone knows it will not work. That was what they were telling him in the inner councils about the Prices and Incomes Bill. Heaven alone knows what they must have said about this Bill. I think that the most probable and most charitable explanation is that the Government have entered upon the Bill in total unawareness both of what they were seeking to do and of what was likely to be its effect. It was said in the First World War, of a Measure brought forward by Mr. Lloyd George's Government, "Only God and the War Cabinet knew what this was supposed to mean and now only God knows." The Government are in a worse case. At least, Mr. Lloyd George's Government originally knew what it was supposed to mean, but this Government are denied even that knowledge.

This lack of preparation, of information, of understanding reinforces the case against the Guillotine which fails on every count as I see it. The Government may feel that they have a duty to their programme and their timetable, but they have a higher duty. They have a duty as law makers. They have a duty to see that the measures that they put on to the Statute book are as free from error of form or substance as parliamentary consideration can make them.

Over 400 Amendments to the Finance Bill, 1965, were proposed by the Government presumably because they thought that those Amendments made it a better Bill. Why are they denying a similar opportunity to make this a better Bill? In so denying they are in breach of their duty to the nation and to the House, which, by its vote, should restrain them from their declared intention.