§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.31 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
Let me say first of all, that I am sure we are all sorry—and I am particularly sorry—that owing to a cold the Leader of the Opposition is not able to be present. I had understood that he was to follow me, and I was looking forward to the occasion, not only because he was going to follow me, but perhaps still more because he is a material witness in this matter. I am sure we all hope that he will soon be better—indeed, I gather that he may be with us tomorrow. It was inevitable that in the course of my speech I should make some references to him and make some quotations from what he has said. Therefore, I should not like it to be thought that I am taking advantage of his absence. In any case, he will probably be here tomorrow to answer for himself, and I trust that he will take account of the arguments that are to be advanced in support of the Bill.
Today and tomorrow we are discussing an important constitutional issue, namely, the powers of the House of Lords in relation to the House of Commons—a progressive House of Commons and a progressive Government.
§ Mr. Morrison
I mention that because it is part of the unfairness of the situation that a Conservative Government has no trouble with the Lords, whereas a progressive Government has.
§ Mr. Morrison
The fundamental step of depriving the House of Lords of their absolute veto was taken under the Parliament Act of 1911. That Act put into legal form the conventions which the House of Lords had observed in the 19th century, until their judgment was warped 37 by the desire to oppose radical Measures introduced by Liberal Governments. The settlement of 1911 was generous—I, personally, think, and the present Government also think, that it was too generous—to the House of Lords. It interpreted the unwritten conventions of the previous century in a way which was certainly not unfavourable to their Lordships. It will be within the recollection of the House that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in the Debate on the Address, quoted some statements made in 1911 by the Leader of the Opposition about the generous character of the provisions embodied in the Act of that year.
What we propose to do is to make one change in the procedure laid down in the Parliament Act; a change which, in our opinion, represents the minimum requirements to meet the needs of present conditions. As regards Money Bills the position will remain as laid down in Section I of the Parliament Act, 1911, namely, that they must be agreed to by the House of Lords within one month of their being sent to their Lordships. That is, from the point of view of all of us—at any rate on this side of the House—a satisfactory provision which requires no improvement. Nor do we propose any change in the requirement that a Bill to alter the duration of Parliament needs the consent of both Houses. We also preserve the position that Bills which come within the provisions of the Parliament Act must be sent up to the House of Lords at least one calendar month before the end of each Session, and that a Bill presented for Royal Assent under the Parliament Act procedure must, in-every material respect, be identical with the Bill sent up to the House of Lords on a previous occasion, except in so far as it may have been amended by agreement between the two Houses.
What the present Bill seeks to do is to reduce the period for which the House of Lords may delay the passage of public Bills approved by the House of Commons, other than Money Bills, or Bills dealing with the duration of Parliament. This Bill provides that, in future, such legislation may be passed into law, notwithstanding the opposition of the House of Lords, if it has been passed by the House of Commons in two successive Sessions, instead of three, as provided for by the Parliament Act, 1911, and provided that 38 one year instead of two years, has elapsed between the date of the first Second Reading in the House of Commons and the date on which it is passed finally by the Commons for a second time.
I propose now to explain the merits of the Government's proposals, and then to deal with the question why it has been necessary to introduce this legislation at the present time. The question whether the Lords should be able to hold up Bills for three Sessions or for two Sessions, and for two years or for one year, is, I submit to the House, not a matter of principle; it is a question of degree, of fair judgment, and of practical efficiency. The Government believe that on the practical merits of the case the period of the veto should be reduced. Let us look, first, at the position of the House of Lords as a revising Chamber. The Lords are, in our view, entitled to ask that the Commons should be required to give time and consideration to the Amendments which they propose to Commons Bills. That, as I think we should all agree, is reasonable. If the position were that the Lords sent their Amendments to the Commons, but the Commons could indifferently ignore them and pass the Bill into law without further ado, then the Lords would be entitled to say that there was no guarantee that any serious consideration would be given to their Amendments, and that we might as well resort to single-chamber Government.
The present Bill adequately safeguards the reasonable rights of the House of Lords in this respect. The need to introduce a Bill a second time in a subsequent Session will always offer a strong inducement to the Government and to the House of Commons to go as far as they fairly can to meet the views of the Lords in the modification of Measures sent up to them. I would even go so far as to say that in the growing congestion of Parliamentary business, the need in 1947 to find a place for a Bill in a subsequent Session is almost as formidable a sanction for due consideration of Lords Amendments as introduction in two subsequent Sessions was in 1911. The years of that time were much more leisurely, in the Parliamentary sense, than the years are now, or are likely to be.
There is no sanctity in three rejections. After all, Mr. Gladstone, as long ago as 1884, said that he would be forced to 39 propose what he called "an organic change in the House of Lords," if their Lordships rejected the Government's Franchise Bill a second time.
We, in this country, have tried three-year Parliaments, seven-year Parliaments and five-year Parliaments, and, on the whole, the balance of experience is in favour of five-year Parliaments. It follows that a Government ought to be able to feel assured that it will be able to pass into law a legislative programme which has the support of the House of Commons. If the Opposition are going to argue that, by a third and fourth Session, the Government and the House of Commons will normally have ceased to represent popular opinion, then their logical course is to ask for a shortening of the duration of Parliament. I am sure that the most sensible among them will agree that experience has shown that a five-year maximum term of Parliament is about right, and that a reversion to triennial Parliaments would lead to a general un-settlement, which would be gravely prejudicial to the interests of the country, whichever party happened to be in power. It would represent a frustration of parliamentary government.
Let us assume, then, that we stick to five-year Parliaments. What is the positive case for restricting the Lords' veto to two Sessions? The present Leader of the Opposition, in the 1910 Debates which led up to the consideration of the Parliament Bill, which became the Parliament Act, 1911, expounded what he conceived at that time to be the policy underlying the proposals which were passed into law in the Parliament Act, 1911. He assumed that Parliaments would on the average last for about four years, and he said that in the first two years of a Parliament the controversial questions upon which the election had been fought would normally have been disposed of. Then, the argument continues, in the second two years of the Parliament there would be two classes of Bills—Bills upon which there was a broad measure of agreement between parties, and fresh controversial measures, which the Government might bring forward, but which, if rejected by the House of Lords, would await what he called:the ratification of a new decision of the electorate."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st March. 1910; Vol. 15, c. 1569.]40 I much doubt whether this picture given by the right hon. Gentleman at that time, even as stated at that time, truly represented the philosophy underlying the Parliament Act, 1911, and, in any case, I do not think it fits the conditions under which we are now living. Even in his Liberal days of 1910, the right hon. Gentleman appears not to have been a very good democrat.
Take, first, a Government's programme as put to the electors and approved by them. I submit that in these times it often cannot be anyway achieved in two, or sometimes even in three, Sessions. The right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition, in the declaration of policy which he prepared for the General Election of 1945, referred to a four-year plan—it is not a two-year plan, or a three-year plan, but a four-year plan—as follows:More than two years ago I made a broadcast to the nation in which I sketched a four-year plan which would cover five or six large measures of a practical character, which must all have been the subject of prolonged, careful and energetic preparation beforehand, and which fitted together into a general scheme.How far the right hon. Gentleman really had any well-considered plan in his mind is, of course, a matter for judgment and speculation, but he did bow to modern circumstances to the extent of recognising that there ought to be a plan, and that it would need four years for its unfolding and implementation. I would ask this: Would he have been prepared to see the other House carve up his plan and allow only one-half of it through, and, as to the rest, say that it was now time that the whole matter was put up again to the electorate and postponed until after the next election? It is no answer to say that the Parliament Act, 1911, enabled Bills to be carried forward from one Parliament to another. There can be the most formidable delay and administrative disorder.
In my judgment, Governments should be appointed to do things. The trouble with the Opposition is its tragic bias in favour of not doing things—letting evils rip, as there is plenty of experience and history behind us to show, in the name of a fictitious and unreal freedom. That conception of freedom means especial freedom for the interests behind the Conservative party. A Government should have presented its programme of legislation to the electorate, as we did, and if the Government are honest—[HON. 41 MEMBERS: "Oh."]—That is a general sentiment to which I thought everyone would agree—if the Government are honest, they try to carry out their programme, having regard to time and circumstance. They should not have to go back to the electorate, festooned with Lords' rejections in previous Sessions, and saying plaintively that if only the electors will return them once again, they will brace themselves to give effect to promises made five years previously. Yet, according to the philosophy and outlook to which I have referred, that is what we are asked to do. It was from this point of view of getting things done that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said truly that it was difficult to understand why a progressive Government should have an assured and effective life of-three years only, and a Conservative Government a life of five years.
It is 36 years since the previous Bill was passed, and all the prophecies made by the Conservative Party at that time that it would bring hopeless constitutional disaster upon the country have proved to be wrong. The field of Government activity since that time has been greatly extended, and the claims upon Parliamentary time have been greatly increased. It often may not be practicable now for the Government to introduce, in the first two or three Sessions, all the Measures for which they secured a mandate from the electorate. Moreover, there frequently has to be an orderly sequence of Bills—as in the socialisation of the fuel and power industries, coal, electricity and gas, all in its sequence, with a view to proper co-ordination over the whole field. This sequence we hope to conclude this Session. Having regard to the material increase in the legislative programme as compared with 1911, and the many other claims on the time of the House of Commons, it is certainly right that a Government should have authority successfully to bring forward important Measures which they regard as necessary in the public interest.
The Opposition frequently complain that what they describe as "ill-digested Measures" are brought forward, one after the other, in the early Sessions of a Parliament. If they genuinely believe that this is a difficulty, they should—though I cannot say that they will—welcome the present Bill as giving the Government more time in which to prepare 42 and unfold their legislative programme. Moreover, there is another respect in which circumstances have changed since 1911. The two Measures which were passed under the Act of 1911 were the Government of Ireland Act, 1914, and the Welsh Church Dis-Establishment Act, 1914. These were Measures about which politicians got very excited for many years and which led to a Parliamentary crisis. Home Rule for Ireland and Welsh Church Dis-establishment had been before the electorate in one form or another for many years. At that time a year or two was, from some points of view, neither here nor there, though how much better would the history of Ireland have been and how much unfortunate history would have been saved if a wise Home Rule Measure had been passed in the 8o's, when Gladstone asked for it. That was another example of-the Conservatives not knowing what was coming to them.
It is very different with the economic Measures which now come before Parliament. They are in a very different category from Home Rule and Disestablishment of the Church in Wales. They are frequently urgent, and long suspense may be dangerous. If the Lords take upon themselves to reject a Bill of this kind on the ground that the Government should reconsider the position—and, obviously, the use of their powers in this way is full of danger, and should only be resorted to in most exceptional circumstances—then the minimum practicable period of uncertainty should elapse. In these days a period of one year, we submit, gives ample time for the position to be reconsidered, and the dangers of ill-conceived and panic Measures avoided.
Finally, there are the Measures that are required because of the rapidly changing course of events. Here, again, the circumstances of the present day are different from those of 1911. I notice that Lord Salisbury said at the beginning of this Parliament that the Lords ought to pass the Measures for which the Government had a mandate. I presume that the unspoken corollary of this is that the Lords are free to reject Measures which were not explicitly before the electors at the General Election. The Government cannot accept this point of view. Matters may well arise in the second half of a Government's term of office, or before, which have to be dealt with promptly in the public interest. So 43 the Government must be assured that Measures which have the support of the House of Commons and which are necessary in the public interest can be passed into law without interminable delays. Any other interpretation than this would, in effect, mean that their Lordships' House, in spite of the expressed will of the Chamber elected by the people, would have the final voice in determining what was or what was not the will of the people. I am not convinced that their Lordships are especially qualified to determine what the will of the people is; in any case, such an interpretation cannot possibly be accepted.
The case that the present situation has existed for 36 years without conflict ignores the fact that, except for the Parliament that passed the Act of 1911, there has never been, until now, a large majority in the House of Commons for policies contrary to those of the Conservative Party as represented by their constant large majority in the House of Lords. I submit to the House that the Government's proposals represent a reasonable and essential alteration in the provisions of the Parliament Act, which is required to enable the Government—and future progressive Governments, of which I am confident, there will be many—to carry on their work effectively. If we had pro posed to abolish the House of Lords——
§ Mr. Morrison
If we were going in for a Bill to abolish the House of Lords, I think it would have been feasible to object either that their Lordships' conduct had not been so outrageous as to make that inevitable, or that we had not got the mandate for that purpose. But we are not proposing abolition. What we have a clear mandate for is to take steps to prevent obstruction by their Lordships' House of the will of this House. That is what we are doing. However, I fully appreciate that some of my hon. Friends would probably like to terminate another place forthwith. There is no harm in going on hoping and agitating to that effect. If we had proposed to abolish the House of Lords, I could have understood the complaint that we were embarking on big constitutional changes in the middle of an economic crisis. But this Bill is the rational Bill of a rational 44 Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rationing Government."] I would not expect Members opposite to be authorities on what is rational and what is not. This Bill is related to the facts of the situation, and the practical case for it is, I submit, conclusive. What we are doing is necessary to ensure that the work of Parliamentary Government is carried on without unnecessary interruption and constitutional crisis. As I said on another occasion, this is not a Bill to precipitate a constitutional crisis; it is a Bill to prevent a constitutional crisis arising.
In the present Parliament, the House of Lords has done useful work as a revising Chamber and has inserted useful Amendments in some of the important Measures which we have passed in the last two Sessions. I have, however, noticed among the praise which has been bestowed upon the other House in various quarters some tendency to give them credit for having passed the various nationalisation Measures which have been sent up to them. It was, of course, an accepted convention of the Constitution, soon after the passing of the Reform Act 1832, that the Lords ought to pass any Bill desired by the nation, and that the Lords ought, in general, to consent to a Bill passed by the House of Commons as representing the will of the nation, even if their Lordships did not approve of the Measure. It would have been a complete reversal of well-established conventions if the House of Lords had attempted to question the principles underlying any of the important Measures which have been sent to them in the last two Sessions of Parliament. The Government are, therefore, not unappreciative to their Lordships for the improvement which they have made in some of the Measures we have passed; but, in regard to the acceptance of these Measures, we merely note that their Lordships observed the proper conventions of Parliamentary Government in our country.
We have, however, no guarantee—none whatever—that, if matters were left as at present, a majority in the House of Lords would continue on every occasion to behave according to the established rules. The constitutional textbooks, written even before the end of the 19th century, all accepted the view that the House of Lords had by then become a revising Chamber. That 45 eminent authority, Walter Bagehot, in his "English Constitution," written in 1867, described the constitutional position as follows:Since the Reform Act the House of Lords has become a revising and suspending House. It can alter Bills; it can reject Bills on which the House of Commons is not yet thoroughly in earnest—upon which the nation is not yet determined. Their veto is a sort of hypothetical veto. They say, 'We reject your Bill for this once or these twice, or even these thrice: but if you keep on sending it up, at last we won't reject it.' The House has ceased to be one of latent directors, and has become one of temporary rejectors and palpable alterers.Unfortunately, more than 50 years of practice and convention failed to prevent the House of Lords from kicking over the traces when it was faced with Liberal Government legislation in 1893 to 1895, and from 1906 onwards. Erskine May says in the 1912 edition of his "Constitutional History of England" (Vol. III, page 343)—and I have no doubt that he said it with truth—that:During the four years of the Parliament of 1906 no Government Measure, against the Third Reading of which the official Opposition voted in the House of Commons, passed into law.That is a pretty awful state of affairs, read in the light of what had been laid down earlier by Walter Bagehot.
What does that mean? It means that their Lordships' House had elevated the official Opposition, the minority in this House to the position of having powers equivalent to those of the Government of the country—in fact, of having powers superior to the Government of the country. That, of course, endowed a minority in this House with the veto powers of a majority. I am not sure that it was not worse than the Security Council. It represents an impossible and indefensible situation to which we as a Government are not prepared to submit. [Interruption.] That is precisely the situation in which, for the remainder of this Parliament, the Opposition want to land this Government. They are not going to get their way, and we are not going to tolerate that situation, as indeed, was described with dramatic force by the Leader of the Liberal Party. Yet he is going to object to limiting the powers of the Lords today, he does not want the change we propose. He has turned his back on Liberal doctrines—
§ Mr. Morrison
I will come to that point. The hon. Gentleman as a Liberal, if he is a Liberal, should not make that point, because the people who really could have done the reform were the Liberal Government of 1906; but if they could not agree about it, I am not grumbling. I quite understand that it was full of thorns. Instead of agreeing to a reform of the House of Lords, they put some words in the Preamble to the Bill, which are now relied on by the Opposition in this Parliament today. I will come to that point.
§ Mr. Morrison
That argument should not be raised by a Liberal, because it goes back on himself. The legislative programme of the Liberal Party was either seriously embarrassed or wrecked by the irresponsible activity of the Tory majority in the House of Lords and this, of course, reached a climax in the rejection of Mr. Lloyd George's Budget of 1909.
What guarantee has this House—this progressive House—what guarantee has this Government—that the House of Lords will continue in the path which they have so far followed in this Parliament, no doubt against their personal inclination, but in accordance with the conventions of the Constitution? The answer is that there is no guarantee at all; none whatever. I think that in this connection we ought to bear in mind that their Lordships insisted on resuming their sittings after the Summer Recess. [Laughter.] This lighthearted indifference to what was a serious action is an indication of the fact that the Tory minority in this House believe that the Lords are always right. I have noticed that laughter on the slightest provocation is a sure indication of the hysterical condition of the Opposition. This treating of the action of the Lords on that occasion as a matter of no moment and no importance—[AN HON. MEMBER: "Of great importance."] If it is of great importance, it is constitutionally significant. If we wait long enough, the Opposition are sure to put themselves in the cart. In any case, what I am interested in is that the Opposition instinctively, whatever their Lordships may do, feel that their Lordships are always right and that 47 any Government, other than a Tory Government, is always wrong.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (Oxford)
Will the right hon. Gentleman deal with this: If his complaint against the House of Lords is that they met during the Summer Recess, will he explain what provision in this Bill prevents them from continuing to do so as often as they like?
§ Mr. Morrison
In the first place, I have not finished; and, in the second place, I agree that there is nothing in the Bill to prevent them doing so. I do not know if that would be an appropriate provision in this Bill. However, I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for drawing our attention to it; we may think about it during the Committee stage. If the hon. Gentleman, instead of having got so excited, had listened to the conclusion of the argument, I think he would have seen that there is something in this point—something material. I do not remember it happening before, but it may have happened a long time ago, that the House of Lords did not accept the date for resumption after the Recess from the Government of the day.
This House has every right to argue the point and if the Government are defeated or are squeezed to such an extent that they give way and this House meets earlier, that is one thing, but I submit it is for the Government and this House and not for another place to determine when Parliament should sit. It is quite true that owing to the firm line taken by the Government, no great harm resulted in this case, but there is no doubt that the House of Lords' insistence on resuming their sittings in the Summer Recess at a materially earlier date than the Commons was an attempt to elevate their Lordships' House as if it were the whole Parliamentary institution. They did not stop there—[Interruption.] I gather that this is approved by the Conservative Party. It was a most inconvenient and unusual course and it might well have been constitutionally dangerous. Their Lordships did not stop there. They made an attempt at a time when the House of Commons was not sitting, to involve the Government in a Debate in the House of Lords, on fundamental and high economic and even financial policy, which technically is not altogether their business. They made the 48 attempt in the absence of the Commons—
§ Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew (Ayr and Bute, Northern)
On a point of Order. How much of what is going on in another place are we going to be allowed to discuss?
§ Mr. Morrison
I suggest that that action was contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, and if the Government had given way to it and returned Ministerial answers to people who in those circumstances had no right to put up a Debate, we should have betrayed the rights of the House of Commons. Their Lordships were, in the words of Pope:willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.They did, however, indicate that they might become willing to strike and we are taking this step as a precaution.
§ Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)
Is it not a fact that if either House meets, either the House of Lords or the House of Commons, the 40 days allowed for praying against a Statutory Order begin to run?
§ Mr. Morrison
That is perfectly true, and it is another and material point that it would have prejudiced the rights of the House of Commons, which was noted by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter).
§ Mr. Hogg
On a point of Order. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is now going into some detail to explain why he objected to the House of Lords sitting last Summer when we were in Recess. Is it not quite clear from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that that has no more to do with the Bill than the man in the moon. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to rule into what degree of detail we on this side of the House are entitled to go, in considering what action the House of Lords may or may not have taken in the past, which has nothing to do with the Bill before the House?
§ Mr. Speaker
The Lord President of the Council must be entitled to make his case in his own way, and if he chooses to use this, he is entitled to do so.
§ Mr. Henry Strauss (Combined English Universities)
May I put one point to the right hon. Gentleman? In his argument just now, he was questioning the right of the other place to meet while we were adjourned and stated what the Government did on that occasion. Am I not correct in my recollection that the Government's spokesman in another place conceded the right of the House of Lords to meet then?
§ Mr. Morrison
The Government spokesman on both occasions deprecated what their Lordships were doing in the House of Lords; and in this House, I, myself, deprecated their action on behalf of the Government.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)
The right hon. Gentleman referred to me and to an argument which I made. Therefore, may I put this point to him? Is he aware that the objection which I then urged, and which he is urging today, to another place sitting when this House is not sitting will cease to have any validity at all on 1st January next when the new procedure, as introduced by the Statutory Instruments Act, comes into effect? Shortly that means that his argument carries no weight after 1st January.
§ Mr. Morrison
I am dealing with the action of their Lordships which betrayed a certain state of mind and was an indication of a tendency which was beginning to arise. It was a warning of which we were entitled to take notice. Having regard firstly to the strange constitution of the House of Lords, then to experience at the beginning of the present century, and to the kind of pointer which is afforded by the September Debate in the Lords, the Government have no hesitation in saying that they are fully entitled to take the necessary measures to carry out a reasonable modification of the 1911 Act while time permits. Otherwise, the initiative in the making or unmaking of the political situation and the determination of what legislation shall or shall not be passed—and quite possibly the issue upon which the next General Election is to be fought—might rest with the Conservative majority in the House of Lords.
On more than one occasion during the last Session there were good grounds for 50 apprehension that a majority of their Lordships might act contrary to the more responsible outlook of the official Opposition in another place. If their Lordships have every intention of continuing their good conduct—as was said by my right hon. Friend and as was also pointed out by the hon. Lady the Member for Anglesey (Lady Megan Lloyd George) who I am delighted to know, is going to vote for the Bill, so guaranteeing that the Liberal spirit is to be maintained even if it fails in other quarters—then the Bill will not hurt them, but if they—possibly advised by the Conservative Leaders in this House—had intended to put the Government's programme into a state of chaos for the next two or three Sessions then I understand the heat and indignation with which the Government's Measure has been received in Conservative quarters.
The Bill is a precautionary Measure. It is far better that we should discuss it on its own merits now rather than wait until the Lords had taken some foolish step and passions are inflamed and the issues are confused. The tribulations of the Liberal Government from 1906 to 1911 are an awful warning, and we must at all costs avoid any repetition. We gave due notice in "Let us Face the Future" that we would not tolerate obstruction of the people's will by the House of Lords. This Bill is in fulfilment of that declaration. That is the broad—and as we see it—the sound case for this short and sensible Bill.
Let us now look at its brief provisions before I come to my concluding observations. Clause I of the Bill will make it possible in future for a Bill to be passed into law, notwithstanding the opposition of the House of Lords, if it has been passed by the Commons in two successive Sessions intead of three and provided that one year instead of two has elapsed between the date of its first Second reading in the Commons and the date on which it is passed by the Commons for the second time. The proviso in Clause I will have the effect that, once the Bill has become law, a Bill which has been twice passed in the Commons and been rejected by the Lords can be presented for the Royal Assent after its second rejection by the Lords even though it was passed for a second time in a Session previous to that in which this Bill which 51 I am now moving was passed. This proviso is needed—and it is reasonable—in order to meet the situation which will arise if this Bill is rejected by the Lords and has to be passed into law under the existing provisions of the Parliament Act 1911. In that event, this Bill will not become law until two Sessions after this.
Suppose that another Bill, which we may call Bill A, is rejected by the House of Lords this Session and is to be passed into law under the Parliament Act procedure. It will be passed again by the Commons next Session and again in the Session after that. Suppose that, in the third of those Sessions, it is not passed until after the Bill has become law. Bill A might—it is a nice point—be left high and dry. It would have passed the Commons in three Sessions, whereas the amended Parliament Act would require it to be presented for the Royal Assent after two Sessions. It would have missed the bus, even though it would have gone through more House of Commons procedure than the new Parliament Bill requires. The proviso will enable Bill A, after being passed by the Commons and rejected by the Lords in this current Session and again in the next Session, to be presented for the Royal Assent in the following Session immediately after the Royal Assent had been given to the Parliament Bill.
As another illustration of the need for the proviso, let us take the case of Bill B, introduced next Session and passed by the Commons, and rejected by the Lords in that Session and the following Session. The second Session would coincide with the Session in which this Bill, assuming that the Lords had rejected it, was being introduced for the third and last time. Bill B could be presented for the Royal Assent immediately after the Royal Assent had been given to the Bill. In short, the proviso secures that this Bill will apply not unnaturally to Measures current during its passing.
Clause 2 (2) of the Bill is required because Section 4 (1) of the Parliament Act, 1911, sets out in terms the words of enactment to be used in a Bill presented for the Royal Assent under the Parliament Act, 1911. Those words of enactment refer to "The Parliament Act, 1911," It is necessary to provide that the reference 52 should in future be to "the Parliament Acts, 1911 and 1947."
If the Bill is itself rejected by the House of Lords, it will have to be enacted under the existing provisions of the Parliament Act, 1911. That is to say, it will have to be passed by the House of Commons in three successive Sessions, with not less than two years between its first Second Reading here and its third passing in this House. This would mean that it would not become law earlier than two years and one month from the date of its first Second Reading in the House of Commons. The additional month is due to the requirement in Section 2 (1) of the Parliament Act, 1911, that the Bill should be sent up to the Lords at least one month before the end of the Session, which in itself is not unreasonable. This means that if the Commons gives the Bill a Second Reading tomorrow and the Lords resist the passage of the Bill, it cannot finally be passed into law until some time in December, 1949. If we are forced to use the Parliament Act procedure in this way, some rearrangement of the normal Sessions may be required, in order to secure the statutory three Sessions before the Bill can receive the Royal Assent.
That is the case for the Bill. I submit that it is a very good case indeed. I understand that we are to be presented with certain arguments against the Bill and in favour of its rejection. It will be urged, I gather, that we are doing this without a mandate; but the Opposition have to get over the words to be found in "Let us Face the Future," which, in my judgment and the judgment of the Government, entitle us to take the course that we are taking. This was not merely mentioned in the pamphlet. There was a lot said about this matter in the General Election, to which I made my humble and quiet contribution. It is said also that the Bill seeks to destroy the constitutional safeguards embodied in the Parliament Act, 1911. I hope that before the argument is ended, we shall hear more specifically what those safeguards are. If the constitutional safeguards in the Parliament Act are to be argued on the ground that they prevent the House of Commons doing what it thinks is right in the public interest after the second or third Session, and that thereafter, it is to be at the mercy of another place, let the Opposition say so. Then we shall know where we are.
53 Then it is said, or probably it will be said, that reconstitution of the Second Chamber was referred to in the Act of 1911, where allegedly it was laid down that reconstitution of the Second Chamber should be an essential condition of further reforms. I think that is going rather far, or else that is clumsy drafting, for the recital in the third paragraph of the Preamble to the Parliament Act says:Whereas provision will require hereafter to be made by Parliament in a Measure effecting such substitution for limiting and defining the powers of the new Second Chamber, but it is expedient to make such provision as in this Act appears for restricting the existing powers of the House of Lords.Those words do not say that you can do nothing about the House of Lords without totally reforming the Chamber. They only say that it was the intention of the Government and of the Parliament of the day to take such steps for the reform of the House of Lords. Perhaps the spokesman of the Opposition will tell us why they have not done it. They have had plenty of time; they have had great Conservative majorities and they have been predominant in Coalitions. Why did they not reform the House of Lords? The truth is that they did not know what to do. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Do you? "] Well, this is a free country. I am not bursting to do anything about it. What I am bursting to do is to limit the power for mischief of this institution, with which we have to live.
The Government have an open mind about all these matters. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Certainly. We would fairly consider any proposal to reform their Lordships' House. Let hon. Members get round a table, perhaps with the Liberal Nationals and possibly with the Leader of the Liberal Party, and see whether they can agree upon reforms. Then let them send a suitable memorandum to the Government and we will see that it is properly considered by Ministers. That is up to hon. Members. I only want to add one thing by way of conclusion. I have sought to give a carefully-thought-out and reasoned case for the Bill, related to the merits of the Bill and to the constitutional facts of the past and the present. I beg the Opposition not to get highty-flighty about this and not to get into a state of neurosis about it. There is nothing to get into a state of neurosis about. Let them not engage in any flighty tricks of eloquence.
54 I invite the Opposition to address themselves to the arguments I have advanced and to show consecutively that these arguments are ill-founded and false. If they cannot, I think they ought to give up the argument and even to send, if they are so minded—they are quite capable of it—a recommendation to another place telling them or suggesting to them, "This is a Bill you need not trouble about; we should be grateful if you would pass it." I hesitate to make that suggestion, because I would strongly object if they sent messages in the opposite direction, but I hope that the Opposition will address themselves to the arguments I have submitted to the House. If the House is then satisfied that they have demolished the arguments, let the House reject the Bill, but if the House is satisfied that the arguments stand up and survive the criticisms of the Opposition, in the name of the freedom of our Parliamentary institutions, the liberties of this land, and the great Parliamentary democracy of which we are the outstanding example to the world—[HON. MEMBERS:" Oh."]—I ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading by the great majority which its merits deserve.
§ 4.31 p.m.
§ Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (Liverpool, West Derby)
I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof the words:this House declines to give a Second. Reading to a Bill which, without mandate, justification or public demand, seeks to destroy the constitutional safeguards embodied in the Parliament Act, 1911, when no complaint has been put forward of the use by the House of Lords of its existing powers; when no attempt has been made to deal with the composition of the Second Chamber which that Act laid down as an essential condition of further reform; and at a time when the immediate consequence can only be to distract attention from the economic perils with which the country is confronted.We have just listened to a learned and lengthy essay in constitutional history and practice, and' I cannot help thinking that if anyone had come into this Chamber, like Rip Van Winkle or some other person returning from a long absence, he would have had the greatest difficulty in realising that this country was in the middle of the greatest, most serious economic crisis it had ever faced in its history. Although the timing and the background of this Bill about which the 55 right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council has said so little, have probably shocked more people than its substance, I am quite prepared to take up the challenge the right hon. Gentleman has thrown down and deal with the essential demerits of the subject of the Bill which he has commended to the House.
Before I deal with these arguments it is only right to examine the proposition which we put forward, and which the right hon. Gentleman has skirted round, that this Bill has no mandate, justification or public demand. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that in another place on 9th September, Lord Hall, speaking, as he said specifically, not for himself but for the Government, that is, making a clear and considered Cabinet declaration, saidNoble Lords opposite have used their majority here in a moderate and statesmanlike way, and in a manner which has given us on this side of the House no real or reasonable ground of complaint.That was the position on 9th September of this year. In addition, of the peers who are still in the Socialist Government there are a noble nine—two earls, two viscounts and five barons—who have each seriatim made statements to the same effect in almost identical words. I do not want to weary the House by going over the number of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite who have made similar statements but, in view of the right hon. Gentleman's attempt to lessen what he called the praise from various quarters that had been given to the House of Lords, I think it is only right to quote what the right hon. Gentleman said only a few months ago. He said:Members of the House of Lords co-operate to the full in respecting the wishes of the British democracy as expressed in the Lower House. So we have seen the remarkable and characteristically British spectacle of a Chamber with a large Right wing majority passing one nationalisation Bill after another.The right hon. Gentleman went on:The rarity of a conflict between the Lords and Commons is nowadays so great that most people take the smooth working of the Houses for granted.The right hon. Gentleman had no reason to deviate from the truth or to desire to deviate from the truth when he made that statement. If that statement was correct 12 months ago and Lord Hall's Cabinet 56 pronouncement was correct on 9th September, there is nothing but the merest nonsense and misleading collection of words in saying that any occasion has arisen for the subject of this Measure or what it is going to do. It is right that we should, when we are considering this Measure not concentrate as the right hon. Gentleman tried to do by the trend of his speech, on what happened from 1906 to 1910 before the Parliament Act was passed, but consider for a few moments what has happened during the time when the right hon. Gentleman's own Government has been in office and sending Measures to the House of Lords.
I take one example, partly because it is not unfamiliar to me and partly because it is a typical example of a hotly contested Bill. I take the Transport Act, as it is now. In that case in the House of Lords the Government themselves had to make Amendments to the Bill to meet their own needs to the tune of 86; they made a further 53 Amendments to meet the Opposition's points; and they accepted no fewer than 91 Amendments from the Opposition in another place, a total of 230 Amendments being made to the Bill. That compares with the 137 which were discussed and not made. If one takes a non-controversial Bill like the Companies Act, which was introduced in the House of Lords, one finds there that, as the Minister for Economic Affairs said the other day, nearly 360 Amendments—useful and helpful Amendments—were made to that Bill in the House of Lords.
§ Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe
Not one Session: before it came here. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that for a moment I am dealing with what the House of Lords has done. It is necessary to show that its functions are essential to legislation before one considers whether those functions should be altered or not. I think the hon. Gentleman will see that it is quite a fair line of argument to consider what the House of Lords has done. I merely mention two other Bills, the Town and Country Planning and the Electricity Bills. In one case there were 289 Government Amendments made to the Bill and 47 Opposition, and in the other 107 and 81.
It is quite clear that at the moment the House of Lords has plenty of work 57 to do on the Bills that come from this House. I ask the House to note that the only mandate claimed by the right hon. Gentleman, and he has said it more than once, is to prevent obstruction. On all these Bills I have mentioned, hotly contested Measures of this Session, there is nothing that can be said to be obstruction, there is nothing that has been said to be obstruction and, in fact, in every case the House of Lords has been congratulated by the Government for the way in which it has dealt with the Bill. That is a complete answer to the right hon. Gentleman's point that he has a mandate. There is no obstruction, he cannot allege obstruction, and he has not taken back any of the commendatory words which he and his colleagues have so often uttered about the House of Lords.
§ Mr. Mitchison (Kettering)
Will the right hon. and learned Member allow me to interrupt him for one moment?
§ Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe
One then comes to the result of these statements and figures which I have quoted. It is quite clear that they demonstrate beyond per- adventure that the need for a revising House it greater than it was 30 or 40 years ago. I am not blaming right hon. Gentle men opposite, although I might. I rather seek to find the causes, of which the right hon. Gentleman is quite aware. As a modern scientific State develops, as the complexity of the matters legislated for becomes greater, as the State takes more share in the course of legislation, then legislation becomes more difficult, and one must recognise—and the figures I have given to the House demonstrate it quite clearly—that this House, simply as a legislative machine, as something that turns out Acts of Parliament which will affect the lives of the people, would fail to achieve efficiency were these Measures not properly revised, as they have been revised, by a Second Chamber at the present time. I do not think even the right hon. Gentleman sought to make any serious attack—
§ Mr. H. Morrison indicated assent.
§ Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe
I am glad to see that he agrees. He knows as well as I do that the important political function which has been retained, not only by the House of Lords but by Second chambers generally, is the power of delay. With regard to that, as he seemed in some 58 doubt about it, I extend only very slightly the scope of his constitutional studies to what was accepted by all the political parties in the Bryce Conference on this subject in 1918. They said that the power of delay should bethe interposition of so much delay (and no more) in the passing of the Bill into law as may be needed to enable the opinion of the nation to be adequately expressed upon it.That was the constitutional doctrine accepted by all the great parties in the State in the last all-party conference.
§ Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe
The hon. Gentleman asked the year, and I gave it. I go to an authority who again ought to commend himself to right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, as he certainly does to me, the late Mr. Lees-Smith, who so often stood where I am standing' now. He rendered yeoman service to the nation when he carried out that particular piece of work. One of the most graphic expressions of the difficulty which the constitution of the country may be under is found in Mr. Lees-Smith's book, where he makes the point that:a section of a party which is no larger than an insistent minority may often succeed in forcing its proposals on the Statute Book and so imposing its views on an entire nation.Mr. Lees-Smith says that may be done by the section of the party with the small representation keeping a certain matter in the legislative programme of the party and using the last years of Parliament for it to be urged through. Now, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would pay little attention to words of mine, and I am equally sure that he will pay attention to the weighty development of that difficulty by an authority like the late Mr. Lees-Smith. The real answer to the point he made is that later in the life of a Parliament any Government will slip in a Measure as the result of what is done by one pressure group or another, which they would not have brought before the House in the earlier stages of their Ministerial career.
I am trying to deal with the points which the right hon. Gentleman put forward as he put them, and the next point 59 he made was the period of delay. I submit it is essential, if that delay—for which I have given the constitutional grounds, and the reason from an authority which right hon. Gentlemen opposite should respect—is to exist, that it must be for two years, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman and all who are interested in this point to consider what a one-year delay means. Let me take any Bill which is introduced and is given a Second Reading at the end of November or the beginning of December. It then goes to a Committee upstairs, in all probability, and taking into consideration the Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading, it will be good time keeping for it to go to the House of Lords quite soon after Whitsuntide—somewhere about the end of June. I do not think anyone would quarrel with that as the timetable of an extensive and important Bill.
It is then discussed by the House of Lords and, ex hypothesi, it is thrown out somewhere about the end of July. The next Session would begin somewhere in October—we began on 21st October this year—and the Bill would be introduced for its second time in November or the beginning of December, that is, 12 months after it had its Second Reading the first time. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman, with his realist approach to Parliamentary tactics from whatever side they are exercised, will not have any great quarrel with me here. What would be said by the Government would be, "You had a full discussion on this Bill only a month or two ago; you had a full discussion in Committee in March, on Report in May, on Third Reading in June, and we really do not need to give much valuable Government time to discussing this Bill again." So the next time it would go through with tearing speed—to use the old Greek expression—and it would be found that the one year's power of delay had, in fact, come down to barely six months.
§ Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe
That would be so. If the hon. Member says "Why?" and "No," I wish he would do the simple arithmetic which I have done. It is a matter of arithmetic which the hon. Member can work out himself.
§ Mr. Silverman
Surely, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is making a mistake if he thinks he has sufficiently calculated the period by beginning from the end of one Parliamentary Session and going on to the beginning of the next? That is not so. By that time the matter would have been before the country nearly 18 months.
§ Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe
Really, the ten-dential aberration of the hon. Gentleman's mental processes is quite beyond me. I was dealing with the time of delay and I have shown conclusively, and the hon. Gentleman has agreed, that the time of delay is six months. But then, having failed to shake me on that point, he makes the entirely irrelevant and different point that the Bill has been before the country 18 months, which, of course, has nothing to do with the case. What I am saying is that the Measure before us gives an effective power of delay of under six months, and that is not sufficient time for the opinion of the nation to get an adequate expression. I remind hon. Gentlemen opposite and other people that this is by no means a matter confined to ourselves. In fact in today's "Times," the right hon. Gentleman will find that in the Victoria Legislature the Second Chamber there forced an election because they wanted time to consider a Bill for the nationalisation of the banks. In fact, an election was held, and those desiring the nationalisation of the banks were soundly beaten, and returned in a small minority. This is by no means confined to this country, or to countries old-fashioned in their outlook, which have this power of delay for the purpose of securing proper discussion and collection of feeling on a major Bill.
What I was most surprised at in all the omissions of the right hon. Gentleman was his complete silence on the question of iron and steel. We on this side of the House paid great attention to two things. In the first place, the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Arthur Greenwood), who I am sorry is not here, expressed the very interesting point of view that this method of dealing with the position was a very doubtful political expedient. But it was even more clearly put in a newspaper which so often represents the intentions of the right hon. Gentleman, the "New Statesman," on 61 25th October this year. The "New States-, man" put it in very clear words:By his decision to curb the power of the House of Lords, the Prime Minister has averted the danger of a split in his own ranks on the issue of iron and steel. The Lord President of the Council has won his point that nationalisation should be postponed until 1949, and the Minister of Health has agreed on the understanding that the House of Lords shall not be permitted to kill the Bill, when introduced next Session, by the use of the two-year veto.I do not know from which side of the argument the string attached to that particular kite went up, but it has been generally accepted in the country, and nowhere that I have seen has it been denied. Let us examine what is implicit in that suggestion. Speaking with the voice of the Front Bench, or with whatever voice it speaks, let us assume it had the right to speak, and that it was speaking truth. On that basis a steel nationalisation Bill introduced in the fourth Session of Parliament would of course be held up until after the end of the Parliament, on the basis that the Lords rejected it, which is the basis assumed in the quotation I have read. It is perfectly clear—and everyone understands—that the intervention of a General Election has no effect on the operation of the Parliament Act, and the Bill could be passed in the two Sessions of this Parliament and one Session of the next, on a certain condition which, of course, is very apparent.
What is absolutely clear is that there is no vital urgency, even from the point of view of the Government, for the nationalisation of steel. Otherwise, of course, the Bill would have been introduced this Session. The Government know very well that there is no question of increasing efficiency; they have been praising efficiency. There is no question of increasing output; output has passed the objective which has been set. The majority of them know that a Bill of this sort would be a disaster in that it would disorganise not only the iron and steel industry, but industries dependent upon it. They do not introduce the Bill now, but, in order to give effect to this bargain so graphically described by the supporting Press, they are quite prepared to introduce the Bill next Session, what ever damage is done to the iron and steel industry, the position of the country, or anything else.
62 There are many weighty arguments against retroactive legislation. It destroys all certainty under the law, and has many disadvantages which are apparent to all. But this proviso has the additional disadvantage and demerit of being completely unnecessary. In what they obviously regard as a most unlikely possibility, if right hon. and hon. Gentlemen were to come back, they could pass the iron and steel Bill. If they are not coming back, which is the most probable outcome of affairs, then the iron and steel Bill should never have been introduced. I am, therefore, not at all surprised, on reconsideration, that the right hon. Gentleman's speech did not contain one word about iron and steel.
§ Mr. H. Morrison
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman speaking on the assumption that their Lordships' House would have rejected the iron and steel Bill? If so, what ground has he for knowledge of what another place would have done to a Bill which has not been introduced?
§ Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe
The right hon. Gentleman has much more claim to the adjective "downy" than I have, but he really cannot catch me with that one. I was most careful to say, and if he had not been so rapt in conversation, I think he would have heard that that was the assumption made by his own newspaper, the "New Statesman," and I was arguing on that basis.
§ Mr. Morrison
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman take it from me that I have no more responsibility for what appears in the "New Statesman" than for what appears in the "Recorder"?
§ Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe
As the right hon. Gentleman appreciates, I would dearly like to develop that point, but you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and the Rules of Order, would not allow me to pursue it as far as I should wish. The right hon. Gentleman has asked for an argument on the points he has raised, and that I am trying to make.
I will deal with the other point, which I regard as the real complaint that he has made, as the Prime Minister did in the Debate on the Address, namely, that the House of Lords might hold up the Measures of a Socialist Government who had outstayed their welcome, but would not similarly hold up the Measures of a 63 Conservative Government. That was a point which the right hon. Gentleman made, and it is obviously a point which deserves an answer. I submit to the right hon. Gentleman that clearly the remedy for that position is not to tinker with the powers of the House of Lords but to deal with its composition. This Government have shown no intention of dealing with that question, and clearly they are not going to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman has taunted my colleagues and myself with the years that have passed in which Conservative Governments have not dealt with it, but may I remind him—I think he will find that my references are correct—that when, in 1927, Lord FitzAlan, in another place, introduced his Resolution in favour of reform, it was immediately made the subject of a Vote of Censure in this House by the party of the right hon. Gentleman, then led by Mr. Ramsay MacDonald. The grounds of that Vote of Censure were that no Conservative peer should dare to suggest the reform of the House of Lords without a specific mandate from the people. The matter did not stay there. In 1933, the late Lord Salisbury introduced into the House of Lords a Measure which put forward his views on reform. The right hon. Gentleman's party was represented in that Debate by Lord Ponsonby, who again said that they objected to any measure being taken for the reform of the composition of the House of Lords because there was no specific mandate. That is the point of our reference to our Preamble here.
When there is that Preamble, when this Measure was obviously passed in the expectation that a reform of the composition should be undertaken, why did the party of the right hon. Gentleman object on the grounds of "no mandate?" No one has greater experience of the realities of Parliament than has the right hon. Gentleman. He knows that there is only one way in which a question like this can be dealt with, that is by an attempt to obtain all-party agreement, as, in fairness, I admit—the right hon. Gentleman can make what he likes of the admission—Mr. Asquith did in the two years from 1909–1911, before the Parliament Act was passed. The right hon. Gentleman and anyone who has studied this question 64 knows that there is no ready-made solution in regard to composition. I quite agree, and I would not make that point against the right hon. Gentleman for a moment, but certain things have clearly emerged. I put this quite seriously to the right hon. Gentleman, because he asked for a memorandum, and I am sure that he would not object to it coming in the form of words of mine which he can read, that since 1910 the House of Lords themselves have taken the view expressed in their Resolution of that year thatthe possession of a peerage should no longer in itself give the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords.That point of view has been reiterated again and again, that they stand by what they said in 1910. I agree entirely with their view that was expressed in that Resolution.
The right, hon. Gentleman knows—it is a commonplace of constitutional theory—that there are difficulties about direct election, because the result may be to constitute a second House which competes with the other. Equally, there are difficulties about indirect election, because it has been found in many countries to have given too much power to party managers. The difficulty which lies in the scheme of the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith) is usually expressed in the difficulty of finding the constituencies for collecting the votes which he suggests. I am not mentioning these difficulties in a merely negative spirit, but I am stating what is constitutionally a commonplace. Everyone knows that these difficulties exist. Therefore, I say that any party Government which seeks to approach and attack this question would be very wise to do it by, as a first step, trying to get agreement and a high-powered all-party committee to consider the point. That is what I respectfully suggest to the right hon. Gentleman should be done now, because, let us be honest with ourselves—and this is a question which one must try to approach honestly—the right hon. Gentleman made the difficulty about a Second Chamber deciding what is the will of the people.
I put to the right hon. Gentleman the confronting dilemma which meets him, that nobody in 1947 wants a Second Chamber, whatever its composition, to 65 throw out Bills because they do not like the Bills. They want them to throw out Bills when they are sure that the electorate does not like them. It is that difficulty about finding a Second Chamber which has caused the real fundamental difficulty of strengthening its basis through the years. Therefore, it comes back to my point, and I urge it upon the right hon. Gentlemen opposite, that the first step is an all-party committee to consider this question of composition—
§ Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making a reasoned case, but why have 40 years been allowed to elapse before any action has been taken?
§ Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe
The hon. Member will remember that I have given two examples of action being initiated, when it immediately received strong opposition from the party of the hon. Gentleman. It has been part of my thesis that it is of the greatest difficulty to get a matter like this through unless at any rate an effort is made to get all-party agreement. On those occasions, it was declared that all-party agreement was not possible. Apart from that, I trust the hon. Member will forgive me if I do not answer his question more fully. I could deal with the circumstances at the different times, but I have already trespassed on the time of the House rather long. That is the method I suggest, and I say that reform should not be introduced by the dingy back gate of an effort to ensure the enactment of a highly-controversial Measure, which, according to all accounts, has led to the sharpest differences of opinion within the Cabinet itself.
Least of all should a reform of this kind be attempted when the nation is in the condition in which it is now. I do not wish to paint a picture at all more gloomy than that painted by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister for Economic Affairs in the speech he made a fortnight ago. That is the position with which we are confronted The Lord President of the Council has pursued this matter in a speech, not in the House, but outside it. I read the report carefully, and as I understood it, he sought to draw a distinction between the field of unity in crisis measures, things that were essential for the improvement of our national position, and political measures in general, on 66 which disagreement must generally be the case.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider this point. There is also an inter-play. The human mind can never work in watertight compartments, especially in political affairs. If, when there is no complaint—as I have shown, and no one has attempted to say to the contrary—of the actions of the House of Lords during the last 2½years, then, surely, it is indefensible to introduce and to stir up a highly controversial issue at a time of the greatest difficulty, when that issue cannot in any way assist or influence the Government's ability to deal with the difficulties with which the country is faced. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman and I ask him to consider it. His right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Economic Affairs made a great appeal only a fortnight ago on national, moral and religious grounds. How can people in the country take such an appeal seriously as being at all sincere, if at the very same time an effort is made to stir up a contentious issue which is non-existent and where there is no complaint?
The right hon. Gentleman must not take it amiss. He must accept it if we think that this issue is something very different. He put it in his closing words almost as a beacon light. We put it as a will o' the wisp, the marsh light which distracts one and takes one away from the road, which takes one, as all marsh lights and will o' the wisps do, to rottenness and decay. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, with all his wealth of political experience, that his attempt at this time to drag out again the forgotten issue of Peers against the People, will be merely a marsh light, and the rottenness and decay to which it will lead people's attention will be the absence of any serious effort by this Government to deal with the real needs of the country that they try to govern and fail to serve.
§ 5.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Mitchison (Kettering)
Either this Bill is a matter of first-class importance or it is a stop-gap Measure pending some other method of dealing with the House of Lords. We have heard the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) make an attack upon the Bill and a deliberate suggestion that in its place there should be some reform of the House of Lords, a 67 reform which can only be founded on some measure of agreement between the political parties. That, of course, is not the suggestion in this Bill. Let us consider exactly what it is. It is at the moment merely a suggestion to limit the time under the Parliament Act from two years to one, with a proviso accessory to that suggestion. It is no more than that. At the moment, it is not a Bill for reform.
I suggest that there is a full and proper mandate for what is now being put before the House, but that for what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has suggested, there is indeed no mandate. What was put before the people at the last General Election was a statement that the House of Lords should not be allowed to obstruct the proposals of the Government, particularly those which formed part of the programme in which that very sentence occurred. Are we to wait until the obstruction takes place before steps are taken to remove it? What would be the consequence? The consequence would be that if one of the major Measures in that programme was brought forward within the next few months it might then be postponed beyond the life of this Parliament. It may be said by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, "If you expect to come back, what harm is there in that? "The answer is that the programme was put forward as the programme for this Parliament. It was put to the people as the maximum which could properly be carried through in this Parliament. It would be against what was then put forward if such a postponement were to be allowed. Therefore, I say, that, in the most literal sense, the words that have been quoted by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House today justify exactly what is being done now and would not have justified those further measures which were held in front of us by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Derby.
I go further than that. What is the function and what are the purposes of the Second Chamber, revised or unrevised, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friends have in mind? He told us today, in one sentence only, what the proper function of a reformed Second Chamber would be. It would be—and I understood him to regard this even now as the function of an unreformed Second Chamber—to reject legislation when the 68 Second Chamber, reformed or unreformed, was sure that the electorate was against that proposal. What right has a Second Chamber, reformed or unreformed, to have that sureness and certainty? Is it, in the nature of the case, the court which can judge whether the electorate is or is not against a given proposal? At present there come to that Chamber a limited number of noble Lords who attend daily. There are others who attend occasionally. Up and down the countryside are other noble Lords, entitled to vote, living in what are commonly called "the backwoods." Is a body so composed of persons who may come up and vote when they choose, conceivably in a position to judge whether what has been discussed in this House is or is not the wish of the electorate? Are they in a position to be certain that this House is wrong and that they are right? It is inconceivable, and yet that was the function of the other place, as carefully defined by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
Let us see, for a moment, what must be in the minds of hon. Members opposite. One major Measure, which formed part of the programme approved by the people of this country at the last General Election—the programme to be carried out in this Parliament—was that for the nationalisation of iron and steel. I am not concerned, nor should I be in Order in discussing the merits of that proposal for a moment, but that it was put before the people, and that it was included in that programme at the General Election, there can be no possible doubt. What is the position? Is it that, up to now, the Government have known all the time that any major Measure could be pushed through, and yet, from now onwards, Measures having the same sanction and having the same part in what is, after all, one co-ordinated programme, cannot be controlled? These Bills that have been brought forward and those Bills that are foreshadowed now are pieces of one election programme. They hang together in a way in which the programme of no party confined to mere incidental matters could possibly do. They constitute a general step forward in the line of approach by which we, on this side of the House, believe that the difficulties, the existence of which we both foreshadowed and foretold, alone can be solved.
69 Holding that belief, we would reject both the idea that these Measures them selves should be postponed because of these difficulties, and, most certainly, the view that the provisions of the Parliament Act should be allowed to obscure or delay the complete fulfilment of that programme. It is ridiculous that one political party, and, in substance, only one political party, can be in a privileged position because of the existence of a Second Chamber. Surely, in a democratic country, it should be sufficient to state the reality of the thing, and state the question in that form for every rational and sensible person to give one answer? We can stay here hour upon hour discussing the theoretical functions of a Second Chamber, we can discuss its theoretical composition, but, whatever the right answer may be, it cannot conceivably be that, whatever the decision of the people of the country from time to time, and a changing decision it must be in our system, there shall always be in the hands of one political party this amazing right to delay, to obstruct and to postpone whatever the verdict of the country may have been or may be in the future. That just does not make sense—
§ Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)
If the hon. and learned Gentleman feels that way, why does not he support my right hon. and learned Friend, because that is the very thing we are dealing with? The Government will not face this issue at all. It is the Government which insists upon the Tory party having the right, indisputably, in the House of Lords.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I hesitate to comment on the conscience of the hon. Member who asked that question, but, if he had listened earlier, he would have heard the answer, which is that, for reform of the House, of Lords, I would not for one moment claim a mandate on this side of the House, but, for preventing the House of Lords from obstructing the programme put before the people at the last Election, I do indeed claim a mandate by virtue of the words which the Leader of the House quoted a short time ago. We are trying to keep faith and I believe we are succeeding in keeping faith with the people of this country on that and on other points, and we are not prepared to misconstrue the plain English of what we said and to commit the people to some- 70 thing which certainly was not put before them at the last Election.
If I were to go at length into the substantial reasons for reform of the House of Lords—there are substantial reasons in favour of its disappearance rather than its reform—I should be exceeding the subject-matter of this Debate, and I should introduce into the Debate yet another irrelevance. Therefore, I am not going to do it, beyond this. Speaking for myself, I recognise, as I believe many of us on this side of the House do, the advantage of some sort of revision of long and complicated Measures. I would remind the House that a solution has been found in some countries by appointing a revising Chamber out of the House of Commons itself, by appointing a revising Chamber in which the various parties are represented proportionately to their representation in the House, so as to get a kind of Chamber, not unlike our own Committee system in some of its aspects. To that I can see no democratic objection, but there must be a right of dissolution. For a permanent Chamber, however composed, having, perhaps, the right to revise and the duty to revise, but claiming its own right to make-alterations in Government Measures, I cannot see any democratic justification. I cannot see how, if it is permanent, it can fit in with the spirit of our Constitution or the spirit of the people of this country.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Sir Cuthbert Headlam (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North)
It seems to me that the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) directed his remarks almost entirely against the Second Chamber as it exists today, and we now know that he thoroughly disapproves of the hereditary system. That was only to be expected. His other argument was that the Bill now before the House has been introduced for a particular purpose, and that that purpose was to ensure the passing of the iron and steel Bill.
§ Sir C. Headlam
The hon. and learned Member did allude to that point, and went on to say that that Bill must get the sanction of Parliament before the end of this Parliament. It would have been perfectly simple, if this were the object, for the 71 Government to have introduced the iron and steel Bill this year. I am not concerned, however, with the motives which prevented them from doing that; all I wish to point out is that there was no reason for promoting a constitutional crisis at this time. They could have introduced the Bill this year.
In the remarks which I am going to make, I do not propose, if I can help it, to enter into controversy. I wish to regard the whole matter from as objective a point of view as I possibly can. I have, perhaps, certain qualifications for intruding upon this Debate, inasmuch as I probably know more about the working of the Second Chamber than any other hon. Member in this House, as I was, for many years, an official in the other place. I suppose that, with the exception of my right hon. Friend the Father of the House, who sits near me, and, possibly, of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I am the only person here today who was present throughout the Debates on the Parliament Act, and, therefore, familiar with all the proceedings that took place thereon. For many years past I have also taken a considerable interest in the reform of the House of Lords, and that is the reason why I intrude upon this Debate.
The Liberal Party, undoubtedly, had every justification for its quarrel with the House of Lords. No one who studied the proceedings in that assembly during those years of the Liberal administration can deny the fact that the House of Lords acted in a very arbitrary manner with Liberal legislation, and that there was serious justification for the passing of the Parliament Act. But I would have the House remember that it was not until two General Elections had been held on the subject that the Liberal Government decided to make this great change in the Constitutional system of the counry. This present Government have had no justification whatsoever for the introduction of this Bill, and nothing we have beard today from the Lord President has made me change that opinion. The House of Lords has adapted itself in the most remarkable manner to the functions which it now has under the Parliament Act, and the Government have been able to pass through an immense amount of controversial legislation, which was wholly out of accord with the views of the 72 majority in the other House, without any difficulty of any kind.
The only reason why this Bill is now before the House is that the House of Lords might possibly do something to obstruct or to delay the passage of a Bill that has not yet been presented to the House. It seems to me that the fact that the House of Lords has been so good to the Government so far is scarcely a fair reason for attacking it. There is no reason to suppose that the House of Lords will deal with any other Bill in a different manner from that in which it has dealt with the Bills presented to it so far-give it serious consideration, amend it and return it to this House, and then refrain from exercising its delaying power should this House refuse to accept its Amendments.
What is really troubling me about the situation at the present time is this. I need not enlarge about the inopportune time at which this Bill is being brought forward, and the controversy it is likely to arouse in the country at a moment when we all ought to be united, and when the Prime Minister and other Ministers keep exhorting us to stand together in the national interest. What is troubling me is that this policy of the Government seems to be the beginning of an attempt to establish a form of single-Chamber government in this country. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] An hon. Member asks "Why not?" Well, that is a matter of opinion. I think that it would be most undesirable, and I will try to show why I think that. When the Parliament Act was passed, Sir Edward Grey is said to have made the remark that if the Liberal Party allowed the House of Lords to remain as it was, it would result in single-Chamber government, and that that would mean disaster, death and damnation to the Liberal Party. It certainly meant disaster to the Liberal Party, although I cannot say whether it also meant death and damnation. But there is no doubt about it that, unless something is done to change the present composition of the House of Lords, or to set up a new Chamber in its place on an elected basis, the constitutional settlement effected by the Parliament Act will be entirely ruined by the Bill which is now before Parliament.
What I wish to emphasise is that the reformers of 1911 were well aware of the necessity for retaining, in the interests of 73 democracy, a bi-cameral system of Government in this country. The Second Chamber, while not being in any sense a rival to this House, should, nevertheless, be in a position to exercise a controlling influence over the Executive should that body ever endeavour to exceed the mandate which it received from the electorate. I am not suggesting that any Second Chamber which could possibly be devised could resist a popular revolutionary movement in the country, but it should be in a position to give time to the people to reconsider any particular measure, especially one affecting the Constitution, before it is finally carried into effect. I say this advisedly, for our system of election by the majority vote in single-Member constituencies tends to cause violent fluctuations in the strength of parties in power. For instance, a political party which gains only a small advantage in actual votes at a General Election sometimes finds itself in possession of a large majority in this House. That was noticeable in 1931, and again in 1945. Indeed, it is possible that when there are three or four parties in the field, one of them may obtain a clear majority in Parliament, although it has received only a minority of the total votes cast.
Our electoral system, of course, has corresponding advantages, but, admittedly, it entails the very real danger that a political party may gamble for power at an election, may obtain a wholly exaggerated majority, and may then deliberately use that majority to force upon the country legislative proposals which need not necessarily have played a very prominent part in its programme during the Election campaign or command a majority of public opinion in the country. As we all know, a Cabinet with a clear majority in this House enjoys almost dictatorial powers for the full period of a Parliament, and a threat of dissolution of a Parliament gives to a minority Government a certain measure of stability and considerable power to impose its will upon the House. When a minority Government is in office, the party holding the balance of power in the House is usually inclined to submit to the will of the Government and to allow any Measure to pass which the Government declare to be a matter of confidence—even though it may disapprove in prin- 74 ciple—rather than risk a General Election in which it might quite easily suffer a severe reverse and a loss of the balance of controlling power which gives it its influence and its importance. During a period of minority Government, a small middle party is in a very difficult position, because it has the responsibilty of deciding to what extent this House shall sanction a policy which may have the direct support of only a minority of the electorate. It is just at such a time when the views of the electorate are undecided or are an unknown quantity that the need for some revising authority in which the public can place confidence is most strongly felt.
The weakness of all the modern democracies that have been started throughout Europe has been that the Second Chambers, whose duties I have just mentioned, have never been strong enough for the purposes for which they were intended, and the result has been that in almost every country in modern Europe where Second-Chamber government has been set up democracy has failed, with the unhappy results that we all know so well. Every other kind of expedient has bean tried, in the nature of proportional voting and fancy franchises of every description to make effective the working of parliamentary democracy but I am certain that a Second Chamber with reasonable effective powers of control and reasonably constituted so as to represent public opinion is the best means of maintaining a sound parliamentary system.
There can be no denying the fact that the existence in any Parliamentary system of a Second Chamber is a denial of the assertion that "the voice of the people is the voice of God." I think it was the late Sir Henry Maine, a great constitutional authority, who made that remark; but it is the outcome, never the less, of the political agnosticisms of the man of common sense, and in this country, at any rate, it is the result of experience of many years of development of our Parliamentary system. This view does not imply that a popularly-elected legislature must always be wrong, but it does suggest that it is impossible to be sure that it is always right, or that because it has been directly elected by the people it must necessarily continue to represent the considered judgment of the people throughout the whole of the period in 75 which it has been elected. It is, therefore, a wise precaution to have a Second Chamber, not as a rival infallibility to the popular assembly, but as an additional security for the people. What is required from an upper House is the security of its concurrence, after full examination of the Measures concurred in. This view is based on the well-known axiom that two heads are better than one, and on the principle that has proved so successful in our past history that it is desirable to get the largest possible measure of agreement in the legislation required for the progressive needs of the nation. The Second Chamber, therefore, should have a definite part in shaping legislation, and should not be merely a revising body whose sole part is that of dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's" of legislation sent up to it by this House.
If this view of the function of a Second Chamber is accepted, it is clear that it should be a body more fully representative of public opinion than is the House of Lords at the present time. That is why I, personally, have always been in favour of a drastic reform of the other place, the main object of which should be to change its present hereditary character. Whether or not a greater power to delay legislation should be given to a reformed Second Chamber than that now enjoyed by the other place is a matter of opinion; and opinion, as we all know, is much divided on this point. My own view is that the present powers of delay enjoyed by the Second Chamber are just sufficient for the purpose, and, therefore, should not be shortened. That is why I think the present Bill is proceeding on the wrong lines. I have come to this conclusion, because under the existing procedure a government can secure the passage into law within the lifetime of a Parliament of all the legislation it considers necessary which it has introduced in the first three years of its tenure of power.
If the Second Chamber were reformed, or if there were an elected Second Chamber, the objection to the present system by which there is a Conservative majority in the House of Lords would be done away with. Each political party would have its representation secured in the Second Chamber. Therefore, if the Second 76 Chamber were allowed to hold up Bills for two years there would be no real grievance, such as was alluded to by the Lord President in his speech. It is during those last two years of a government's duration of power that it is sometimes difficult for them to claim with any truth that they still enjoy the confidence of the electorate. Few governments can venture to assert that with truth, and I do not think that the present Government are going to be any exception to the general rule. But even when a government has lost the confidence of the electorate it may, nevertheless, still endeavour to force through Parliament Measures for which it claims to have a mandate but which no longer are desired by the people. This is the time when a safeguard of some kind or another must be provided to prevent any arbitrary action on the part of the Government.
This is the main reason, in my opinion, why in our constitutional machinery there is need for the establishment of a really efficient representative Second Chamber. It is a necessary condition of the maintenance of Cabinet responsibility and of Cabinet control over this House, which are the two essential characteristics of our system of Government. It is because the Government's proposal reduces the power of the Second Chamber so drastically as to make it entirely useless and ineffective, because it gives the Executive too much power, and because it places the nation absolutely at the mercy of a single Chamber which may no longer represent the electorate and which Oliver Cromwell once described as "the horridest arbitrariness in the world," that I am utterly opposed to this Bill and shall vote for the Amendment.
§ 5.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie (Sedgefield)
We have listened with great interest to the able and excellent speech of the Leader of the House who answered the case for the continuance of the present powers of the Peers. The right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Major Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) said that the Government had no mandate for the Bill, and that there was no public demand for it, but that assertion was well answered by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), who showed that we had submitted the programme to the electors at the General Election. We 77 think it is only right that any obstacle to its attainment should be removed, as the Bill seeks to do. The right hon. and gallant Member for North Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Sir C. Headlam) stated that the matter that was troubling him was the enforcement of single-Chamber Government. There is nothing of the kind in the Bill. He stated that the Bill would mean ruination because it would reduce—imagine it—because it would reduce by one year the time in which the Lords have power to reject Government Bills.
In the Debate on the King's Speech we had a historical resume by the Leader of the Liberal Party of the fight put up against the House of Peers before the Act of 1911 was passed. Some of us are old enough to recall earlier periods, and I well remember one occasion when the grand old man of the Liberal Party came out of the station at Dundee and was horrified to see a huge banner with the inscription, "To hell with the Lords."
§ Mr. Leslie
That was timid compared with some of the banners displayed in a procession in Glasgow. All that showed the feeling of the people at that time, however. I believe that if there were a fight over the House of Lords, the people would rise again and have similar huge demonstrations. The Act of 1911 was a bitter disappointment to those who saw no need for a hereditary chamber. It curtailed the powers of the House of Lords, but only to a limited extent—too limited an extent in the view of many people. Why should a non-elected Chamber have power to reject the Measures passed by an elected House of Commons? We have been told that the will of the people should prevail. That cannot be so as long as we tolerate a non-elected Chamber.
It has been argued—and I agree—that there may be a case for a Second Chamber as a revising Chamber. But, with very few exceptions, it cannot be said that the hereditary peers are qualified to fill that role; and the only exception that I know in the House of Lords is that of one who had a training here in the House of Commons. I refer to the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Peers. Then again, we have had cases of Members who 78 have been transferred from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. They have been qualified by their training here. Then again, there have been recent creations of peers from outside, of men who have had long experience in public service, who are certainly well qualified in that respect.
The Opposition complain that the present is not an appropriate time to curtail the powers of the Second Chamber; but there never was an appropriate time in the view of the Tories. We are told that we ought to concentrate on the economic position of the country instead of seeking to force a fight with the Peers at the present time. Well, there is certainly not much evidence that the Opposition Members are helping to relieve the economic situation. It is true that the Second Chamber has, up to the present, passed Government Measures; but not without some reluctance. I think that it is well to take precautions against possible actions of opposition. After all, the Bill does not prevent the House of Peers from rejecting future Measures: it only restricts the period in which they can reject them; and I think that that ought to be welcomed by all true democrats. After all, democrats believe that the elected House should not be hamstrung by a non-elected Chamber. The Amendments on the Paper of my hon. Friends on this side of the House have much to commend them, but they would be a very excellent battle cry at a General Election. Meantime, let us support this Bill. I hope it will be carried with a huge majority.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (Oxford)
The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie) seemed to me to be labouring under the delusion that this Bill, if passed, would remove what he regards as an obstacle to the passage in this Parliament of the entire programme of the Government, and he also seemed to me to suppose—as would be entirely wrong—that the principal argument which he would have to meet with from this side of the House would be a support of the hereditary principle. I believe him to be wrong, and I shall endeavour to show him to be wrong, in both those suppositions. Speaking, at any rate, for myself, I have never believed in the hereditary principle; and it is nothing but a peculiar mockery that fate should have involved me in the absurd 79 position of being an example of it. I have tried to put my personal bias against the hereditary principle, which this House will readily understand, out of my mind in considering the merits or demerits of this Bill; and I have also tried to put out of my mind any unduly strong party bias from which I may or may not suffer. I have tried—sincerely tried—to approach it from the objective point of view of its merits or demerits, which the Leader of the House asked us to observe in dealing with it.
The result of my reflection is simply that this is a Bill which bears all the characteristics of the political mind of the Leader of the House. In the first place, it is, as I shall show—without intending to be personally offensive to him—intellectually dishonest. In the second place, it is a totally unworkable compromise between two or three different and divergent political points of view. In the third place, it solves none of the problems which it sets out to solve, and will, in fact, involve this House and the country in a recrudescence of those problems almost as soon as the Bill is passed, if it is passed. It is because I profoundly believe that, that I propose to vote against its Second Reading.
There are three questions which, sooner or later, any democracy must face on this constitutional issue. In the first place, it must choose whether it will have a system composed of one or two Chambers; and that, in my view at any rate, is closely bound up with the question whether it has a written or an unwritten Constitution. Secondly, if it decides in favour of two Chambers, it must attempt, at any rate, to resolve the difficulties inherent in deciding the composition of the second Chamber, assuming the first to be an elected one. These are real difficulties, but difficulties which must be faced if a second Chamber is to be had at all. Thirdly, when it has dealt with those two preliminary questions, it must come to a conclusion upon the powers which it proposes to give to any second Chamber which it forms.
Thirty-six years ago Parliament passed the Parliament Act, 1911. In all difficult and contentious matters there is much to be said, I think, for Lord Melbourne's advice to his more difficult colleagues in his Cabinet, to whom, when they raised 80 a question which they desired to be resolved, he would reply, "Why not let it alone?" As a Conservative I am never averse to Lord Melbourne's solution of difficulties, and I see nothing to be ashamed of in letting well alone. But I say honestly to the House, once it has formed the intention of dealing with a problem and not letting it alone—as the Government have now formed the intention of dealing with this problem and not letting it alone—then there is utterly no excuse for not facing it honestly and not dealing with it on logical competent and, if necessary, radical lines. There can be no justification, once Lord Melbourne's advice is abandoned, for not acting in an intellectually honest and practical way.
It is precisely because, being committed to some action, the Government have chosen—as I shall endeavour to to show—an intellectually dishonest solution that I propose to vote against this Bill tomorrow. It is also for that reason that I reject the argument put forward by the Lord President of the Council that the difference between the Parliament Act, 1911, and the present Bill is merely one of degree. The Parliament Act, 1911, contains in its Preamble the clear declaration that the Bill was designed as a stop-gap Measure, designed only to tide over a period of constitutional difficulty until a more lasting solution could be found. For reasons which were not unconnected, no doubt, with the desirability of following the advice of Lord Melbourne nothing has been done for 36 years. If it is to be handled now—make no mistake about this—this House can no longer deceive itself into believing that this is a temporary or a stop-gap Measure designed to tide over some ephemeral difficulty. It is not. It is an illogical and dishonest way of dealing with a permanent problem, and that is all it is. I shall endeavour to show exactly why this Bill faces nothing, solves nothing, and raises a constitutional storm without even offering the consolation of a bad solution of the difficulty.
What is wrong with the present House of Lords? I do not think that in any part of the House there is any real doubt upon the answer to that question. Certainly nothing that has been spoken today from the Government benches would justify me in alleging any difference 81 between the two sides of the House on this point. What is wrong with the present House of Lords is not its powers but its composition. Yet today it is proposed to deal with its powers and not with its composition. Therein, in a nutshell, lies the criticism of this Measure. It is no longer tolerable, in the 20th century, to repose in a body of men important constitutional functions when that body of men is made dependent upon the accident of birth as to whether or not they enjoy—if that is the word—a seat in that assembly. The hereditary principle is what is wrong with the House of Lords. But it is not proposed to interfere with the hereditary principle; it is not proposed to abolish the House of Lords; it is not even proposed—in this Bill at least, whatever the back benchers may say or think—to take away its powers.
Important and, as I shall endeavour to show, vital functions are left in the hands of the House of Lords, including the absolute power of veto of a particular kind of Bill proposed in Parliament. The real truth is, it is not tolerable to allow any powers which it is really intended should be used to be left in the hands of a body of men who cannot enjoy the public confidence necessary to discharge them. Otherwise we get this intolerable situation: Power is given to a body of men; if they do not exercise that power when their consciences tell them that they must they betray their trust—a trust which we ourselves have reposed in them; and if they do use that power, in despite, if need be, of the other House—because that is, after all, the purpose for which the powers are given—they are then faced with a storm of popular misrepresentation and attack based upon the fact that their composition, for which they are not responsible, is one which does not command popular support and confidence.
Therefore, I say solemnly to this House that it must make up its mind—and this is the time at which its mind must be made up—either it intends to give power to a Second Chamber, in which case it is our duty to see that there is created a Second Chamber capable of exercising those powers, or it does not, in which case it is our duty to sweep it away. There can be no justification, and there is no justification—and no justification whatever has even been suggested from 82 the benches opposite—for this tawdry, shoddy, dishonest compromise which leaves important powers in the hands of men and then attacks them for exercising it. I want to say, lest I have offended any of my hon. Friends, I think that at one time there existed a justification for the hereditary principle. It corresponded years ago to the form in which property was held in this country. The eldest son, under an entail or settlement, possessed intact control of the entire family fortune, and in the case of very large fortunes it was probably wise to impose upon eldest sons responsibilities as well as economic powers. But that possesses absolutely no reality at the present time.
Believe me, in attacking the hereditary principle in the other place I "am not attacking the principle of what is called "good breeding" at all. But a farmer who sought to build up his flock or his herd upon the principle of always selecting the eldest male offspring for the position of honour would very soon find himself in the bankruptcy court. Moreover, good breeding is one thing but political privilege another. At any rate, in my judgment, if anyone thinks he possesses good breeding—and many men in many different walks of life in this country, and certainly all classes, have every right to regard themselves as being well-bred—that is an advantage in the race of life which is quite sufficient, without asking anything more of one's fellow countrymen, still less that one should be given a position of privilege and honour. But even at the risk of a small digression, I wish to put forward in a few sentences something which is an additional disadvantage of the hereditary principle at the present time. It is no longer ultimately tolerable for eldest sons—and I speak knowing, as an eldest son, that for 20 years I have suffered under a sense of personal injustice from it. The possession of a hereditary title at the present time is a grave handicap in life, to which no man should be subjected.
To deal with the House of Lords, as it is dealt with in this Bill, without tackling the vital defect in its composition—the hereditary principle—is ultimately an evil and immoral thing. It is really true that now that the old system of property holding has been swept away—[Interruption.] The system to which I was referring was one whereby the eldest son held a predominant position in control of the family fortune, and that has been 83 effectively swept away. Now that that is true, it is almost impossible for a young man to go into any walk of life, other than the Armed Services, without finding that a hereditary title is an absolute millstone about his neck. Here we are faced with a so-called progressive Government—I wonder how many times the right hon. Gentleman used the word "progressive" in his opening speech—who are faced with a political principle for which there is no defence on this side of the House, and no defence on that side of the House, and yet the Government have not the common honesty and courage to deal with it at all, but they must proceed to try to limit the powers of the House of Lords in a totally indefensible and illogical manner.
§ Mr. Fernyhough (Jarrow)
Do I understand that the hon. Member would support the Government if they were to introduce a Measure to abolish the House of Lords?
§ Mr. Hogg
I am coming to that point. Let me make it plain, if I have not already done so, that I do not believe that the hereditary principle as such has any place in the modern State. I say that with just this one qualification, that it has sometimes been said that the hereditary principle in the House of Lords is a safeguard of the hereditary principle in our Monarchy, which, I think, the great majority of us wish to maintain. I do not believe that to be the case. I do not believe that you buttress the Monarchy in any way by associating it in the people's mind with a hereditary principle in the Upper House which they wholeheartedly condemn. If there were any influence of the one on the other, it would be that the House of Lords, in its present composition, was a handicap to the Monarchy.
May I now deal with the way in which this Bill proposes to alter the situation? In both the speeches of the Prime Minister, and in the solitary speech from the Lord President of the Council, we have had presented to this House an argument which represents a line of thinking such as this: "The House of Lords is mainly Conservative in its composition." As a matter of fact, that defect is not mainly due to the fact that it is hereditary, but due to other causes. The premises from which the argument 84 starts, however, is that the House of Lords is mainly Conservative in its composition. "Is it fair, therefore," says the argument, "that when there is a Conservative majority in the House of Lords, the House of Commons should, in one case, be faced with a potential veto three years after it is elected, and not at all in the other?"
I agree with the force of that argument, but let us see where it leads us. The argument is not directed towards the powers of the Second Chamber, or to the existence of the Second Chamber, but is directed towards the composition of the Second Chamber, which is essentially within the province of the Government to improve. I must say this to the Lord President of the Council, that quite independent of his refusal to introduce legislation to improve the composition of the House of Lords, he has utterly failed to understand the inherent prerogative of the Crown, not for the purposes of gerrymandering a particular Measure through, but for the purposes of balancing the Second Chamber, to create an adequate number of peers on the advice of the Cabinet. If he really claims that the present House of Lords is a potential source of danger, then he and his colleagues have at their command an instrument whereby, without a single Act of Parliament, they can redress the balance at any moment they choose to do so. I do not believe there is wanting in the country the small number of people, whom it would be necessary to create peers, of sufficient worth and merit to play a worthy part in that assembly. If the argument be a just one, it must be said that it goes to composition and not to power, and, secondly, that the remedy for it can be easily found, either by Act of Parliament to abolish the hereditary principle altogether, or by administrative action which would, at least, redress the balance of the moment.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)
Can the hon. Member give his authority for the constitutional doctrine he is advancing, namely, that it is within the power of the Government to recommend the creation of as many peers as would be necessary, except to solve a constitutional crisis? Has that ever been held since 1711?
§ Mr. Hogg
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is on the same point as 85 I am. It would be highly controversial to assert that in all circumstances an Administration can advise the Crown to create peers for the specific purpose of creating a majority and nothing else, but there is no want of authority for the prerogative of the Crown, which is absolutely unlimited, to create peers because men are worthy of peerages, or because the House of Lords itself wants experienced talent of a particular kind. I should not want it to be thought that I am putting into the right hon. Gentleman's head the suggestion that he should create peers to pass specific Measures in the face of an adverse majority of the House of Lords.
§ Mr. Ede
The hon. Member was dealing with the problem of the disproportion of the parties in the House of Lords, and suggesting that it was within the competence of the Government to make representations to His Majesty, which in present circumstances would involve the creation of about 700 peers, with a view to balancing the parties, so that when a Socialist Measure comes up, there is a reasonable chance of it being passed on the conscience of the House.
§ Mr. Hogg
I do not want to be led astray into making too long a speech. I would answer that quite shortly. I am not suggesting to the right hon. Gentleman that he would be justified in creating a number of peers specifically to bring about a Labour majority in the House of Lords; but if the Government came to the conclusion, which I myself fully share, that certain aspects of life are inadequately represented in the House of Lords, they would not merely be entitled to do it, but it would be their duty to create a sufficient number of peers to make that Chamber a sufficiently representative assembly, provided that men of worth and talent, who would sustain the dignity and honour of the position, could be found willing to undertake the work. For myself, I do not think it would be difficult. Nor do I accept for one moment the suggestion that anything like 700 creations would be necessary. My own experience of that assembly would be that 50 or 60 creations would probably give the Labour Party a practical majority in it.
I come now to something more important. I have sought to show, and I believe I have shown, that this argument is fundamentally irrelevant to the issue which we now have to deal with namely, 86 whether or not it is desirable to curtail the powers of the present House of Lords, unreformed in any way, from two years to one. Here, I would present a constitutional argument which I beg the right hon. Gentleman to take seriously. Thirty-six years ago we passed the Parliament Act. It being the case that that Act passed 36 years ago, can legitimately be represented to have been a stop-gap Act and not a permanent solution, it is of course reasonable for hon. Members opposite to say to the present House of Lords unreformed, "You have got these powers but it was only a temporary solution. We ask you to exercise a particular restraint in the use of them when there is a Labour majority in the House of Commons." The right hon. Gentleman has said that it is not fair for a Labour majority Government in the House of Commons to be faced with a suspensory veto three years after its inception, when a Tory Government is not faced with it at all. I have already questioned whether it is any more fair for a Labour majority in the House of Commons to be faced with a suspensory veto four years after their inception, when the Tory majority is not faced with one at all.
But the right hon. Gentleman must also face this. So long as the Parliament Act, 1911, was the governing statute it was reasonable to expect the peers to fall short of the exercise of their full legal powers. But once this Bill is passed and the Government, having refused to reform the composition of the House of Lords, have determined simply to change the period from two years to one, it will be reasonable for the peers to say, "These are powers which, with due regard to the public interest, you have now licensed us to employ." If the right hon. Gentleman does not accept that, let me put this to him: Does he not really want to see a single-Chamber kind of Government without having the honesty or courage to admit that that is his genuine purpose? If the House of Lords use their rights, their powers under this Bill, to hold up legislation—always with due regard to the public interest, because I hope neither side will suggest that there will be a complete attempt to sabotage the constitution, either by Members opposite, or by the House of Lords—would not the other argument which the right hon. Gentleman has used, in favour of reduction from two 87 years to one, be used for a reduction from one to nought?
The House of Lords, as I understand it, although I have no authority to speak in the name of any noble peer, will not respond very kindly to the suggestion that abolition should be used as a sort of birch for a naughty boy. They will not respond to the suggestion, "Either you will pass our steel Bill or you will be abolished." They will prefer to be abolished. If the Government are to repose powers in a set of men they cannot complain if those men employ those powers so long as it is done sincerely and in the public interest. But if the Government desire that they should employ no powers their duty is to take those powers away. It is intolerable for a set of men to be asked to exercise powers which it is not intended honestly they should be asked to employ.
§ Mr. H. Morrison
The hon. Gentleman is getting into a situation which need not, and does not, arise. This is not a Bill to reduce the power to zero, so that there can be no point at which the Lords can intervene, nor is it a Bill to confer power upon their Lordships House, power to do anything. It is a Bill further to limit the veto powers of the Lords. That is the basis on which this matter must be argued.
§ Mr. Hogg
Yes, but their Lordships, if this is a Bill to reduce their power in the light of the experience of 36 years' of the working of the Parliament Act, are entitled to say, "This is a power which you intend us to use." If the right hon. Gentleman says that he does not intend them to use the reduced power but that he does intend them to use some other power then he is under an obligation to tell us what that other power is. On the other hand if he says there is no power which it is intended that the House of Lords should really exercise, then it is his duty to abolish the institution altogether. What cannot be supported by any sort of logic or intellectual honesty is to permit a body to continue to exercise important legal functions and then when they have used them, to attack them for doing so.
Let me remind the House of the formidable powers which the right hon. Gentleman proposes to leave in the House 88 of Lords and which, if my argument be accepted, they will not only be entitled to use, but be bound to use with due regard to the public interest. First of all, there is the suspensory veto for one year operating not, as the right hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest, from the fourth year in which the Parliament is elected, but from the very moment when that Parliament comes into being. If this Bill had been law last Session, I dare say that the House of Lords would have been entitled to reject some of the major Measures of the Government. Indeed, I think they would have been bound to do so, because they would have had the authority of the right hon. Gentleman and the Cabinet for saying that the right period for which their suspensory veto ought to be reduced is one year. But the powers of the House of Lords are much more formidable than that. Most of the legislation which is passed today is delegated legislation, which can be, and is, revoked if a Prayer is passed by this House.
The power of the House of Lords, in respect of delegated legislation, which includes regulations and orders to deal with such things as rationing, is an absolute veto, without any period at all. Yet the right hon. Gentleman proposes to leave that in the hands of a hereditary Chamber, and sees nothing odd or intellectually dishonest about his position. Of course, the answer which will be made from the Government Front Bench will be, "The House of Lords must be expected to observe the conventions of the Constitution. They must not exercise their powers widely. They must only do so when we are prepared to let them." If that is so, what becomes of the original argument for the Bill which was, "We cannot afford to let the House of Lords be in any doubt as to their legal position. We propose to limit their veto by reducing the period from two years to one in order to avoid a constitutional crisis." If it can be shown, and I think I have shown, that even if this Bill were passed there would still have to be reposed exactly the same trust in the House of Lords' public spirit, and in their observance of the Constitution in this spirit as well as in the letter as has been reposed hitherto, then why not leave the matter alone altogether?
Let me conclude what has been a rather complicated political argument with one 89 or two general observations. I maintain that if the Government's supporters believe in a single Chamber it is their duty to reject this Bill and make the Government bring forward other legislation which will have the effect of putting that belief into practice. I was asked whether I myself would support such a Measure. The answer is, "No." I would support any Measure which would abolish the hereditary principle, but not any Measure which had, as its effect, the creation of a unicameral system of Government. One of the many reasons why I oppose this Bill is that it is a veiled and covert attempt to create a one-Chamber system of Government in this country. We must never forget that we have enjoyed Parliaments whose powers are absolutely unlimited. They are omnipotent so far as the law can give them omnipotence. We can prolong the lives of Parliaments indefinitely. We can do anything except, in the words of a famous constitutional writer, "make a man a woman or a woman a man." I understand, however, from "The Times," that an influential body is now proceeding to do even that to the House of Lords. Even that impossibility is now being overcome.
It seems intolerable that this country, and its great people, should be at the mercy of a single body of men who have the power of determining their own life, who are led and closely disciplined by the party system, and who, during the lifetime of a Parliament, can do anything they desire. There must be some legal check on that, because otherwise we shall no longer be a free country. That legal check, in my judgment, at any rate, can only be given by the provision of a Second Chamber, with some powers of delay and revision—powers which by virtue of its composition it is not merely able to use, but bound to use from time to time, and which an hereditary Second Chamber never can use, because it can no longer command respect for any important constitutional decision—even the veto, which the right hon. Gentleman has expressly left—for the prolongation of the life of Parliament. I beg hon. Gentlemen opposite to think again, to insist that the Government withdraw this Measure, and produce one more in keeping with the desires and; need of the time.
I say, in conclusion, that, having studied this subject for some years, I have 90 never been more convinced that I am at the moment that, if hon. Members opposite sought to find general agreement between the parties and between men of good will of all parties or of none, upon this question, a solution could be found which would be intellectually honest and which would solve this constitutional question for many years to come.
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Parker (Dagenham)
I think that many hon. Members on this side of the House will agree with much that was said by the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg). I think that we all appreciated his cry from the heart denouncing the hereditary system. In view of what was said by the hon. Member for Oxford and the hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe), I think we ought to get down to the crux of the difference between the two sides of the House. We all agree about the need for getting rid of hereditary forms, but where we differ is as to what the powers of that Second Chamber should be. I think that I speak for the majority of Members on this side in taking the view that we do not think that the Second Chamber should have powers of delay. I think that most hon. Members who have been in this House for any length of time will agree with the view that there is a very strong case for having a revisionary Chamber. The House of Lords, in recent years, has acted as a revisionary Chamber, particularly in the last year or two, with considerable advantage to the Government and the country. I think, also, that the House of Lords in recent years has done useful work as a debating Chamber for discussing many matters which there has been no time to discuss in this House.
But I would disagree with the idea that a Second Chamber should be more than a good revisionary Chamber and a good debating Chamber. I think that there is no case for having an elected body whose proposals can be vetoed or postponed by some other body existing side by side with it. That I think is the crux of the difference between the two sides of the House. If we were to have the round table conference which the right hon. and learned Member for West Derby suggested, I am certain that such a conference might reach agreement as to the sort of people who ought to be in the Second Chamber, and, perhaps, as to how 91 the Second Chamber should be chosen, but where I do not see any possibility of agreement is as to the power of the Second Chamber. It has been said on the opposite side that we support a single-Chamber system of Government, and there has been an attack on, the idea of the dictatorship of the House of Commons. I cannot accept that view. If one looks through the history of this country in the last century, it shows that we have suffered far more from too much delay in passing legislation than from precipitant legislation. Delay has been a cause of ruin time and time again. The Leader of the House pointed out the unfortuate result of delay with regard to Ireland. He did not, however, make the point that after the Parliament Act was passed in 1911, it was the delay in passing the Home Rule Bill for Ireland that resulted in the Sein Feiners and the Irish civil war. Had the Irish Home Rule Bill gone through without suspension, we should have avoided all those troubles.
With regard to the question of the suspensory veto, I do not agree with the Government's proposal to maintain a one year suspensory veto. I think that the ordinary time for passing a law through the House would be quite enough in the day of suspensory veto on the part of the House of Lords. In other words, I think that there should be no suspensory veto. That seems to be the right way of tackling this problem. I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford when he said that if there is one year's suspensory veto, it is only asking the House of Lords to throw out far more Bills than they have thrown out recently. I am quite certain that that would have happened during the last two years. The Transport Bill would have been thrown out on a one year suspension veto. I do not see any improvement in reducing the two years to one year. I ask the Government to consider, if we are to deal with this problem, dealing with it by abolishing the veto altogether. That, I am certain, would meet with the approval of the majority of Members on this side.
Let us take an example from other countries. Hon. Members opposite have urged the need for somebody to look after the national interest by holding up the actions of the body elected by the people. I am certain that the one defence we have 92 against dictatorship by the House of Commons is the electorate. The House of Commons knows that it has to face the electors at some time or other. If a Government tries to force through Measures for which it does not believe it can get electoral support, it will drop those measures.
§ Mr. Parker
There is always the guarantee against that of revolution. The only occasions when the House of Commons has extended its life was early in the 18th century, I believe in 1717, when it extended its life from 3 to 7 years. The only other times when that was done was during the two wars when there was general opinion that that course should be taken. Any House of Commons nowadays which prolonged its period of life without appealing to the electorate would come up against strong forces of public opinion, and when it went to the country would undoubtedly be defeated. I think that is the answer to the hon. Member's interruption. I make the point strongly that that is the protection which the electorate themselves have in their own hands to turn down any Government that pushes through Measures of which they disapprove.
In this country, an Act can be passed by a narrow majority, but if public opinion changes its view, changes can be made back again if it is wished so to do. Is that not better than the American Constitution under which there was the unfortunate situation where prohibition was carried through by getting a majority in both the American Houses and in the States. Then, when the country wished to change its mind, it could not abolish prohibition until it got all the various bodies once more in favour of the change by the necessary majority. I take the view that the British system by which the House of Commons can change the view of an earlier House is a much better way of carrying on government. I believe that the final check on the legislation of the House of Commons is the fact that the electorate can take definite action, if it so desires, at the appropriate moment.
§ Mr. Michael Astor (Surrey, Eastern)
Is the hon. Gentleman advocating a state of affairs in which the general public would have recourse to revolution rather than have a Second Chamber possessed of the power of throwing out legislation of a tyrannical government?
§ Mr. Parker
I say that if the House of Commons prolonged its life unduly there would be a revolution. That is an adequate sanction to prevent the House of Commons from doing anything so absurd. It never has done so since the early part of the eighteenth century except during the two wars when public opinion was behind the prolongation of Parliament.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
If there was a Second Chamber would my hon. Friend not agree that it would be better that it should not have the power to prolong its own life?
§ Mr. Parker
I am not advocating that the House of Commons should prolong its own life, but the point was raised by the hon. Member for Oxford.
§ Mr. Ungoed-Thomas (Llandaff and Barry)
Would my hon. Friend not agree that a Conservative Government has, in fact, had power to prolong its own life?
§ Mr. Parker
That has very largely been the case in the past. Let us take the case advocated by the hon. Member for Oxford that the present Government ought to fill the House of Lords with a large number of people who are not there at present and who would do useful work. That is quite contrary to the suggestion put forward by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) who inter rupted a suggestion of mine the other day on these fines by shouting out "jobs for the boys." I suggest that the House of Lords ought to be replaced by a non- hereditary body and that it should be filled up with members who have—
§ Mr. Parker
How has the Upper House been filled in the past but by giving jobs to "the boys"? That is the record of the 18th and 19th centuries from William Pitt to David Lloyd George. The boys 94 were well rewarded although frequently they had to pay for the job as well. Certainly there have been rewards. That is how the Second Chamber has been filled in the past. What I would suggest on this point of membership of the Second Chamber is that we should abolish the hereditary principle of membership, and we should fill the Upper House by agreement between the Government and the Opposition with useful Members who would carry out the job of revising Bills and act as a Debating Chamber.
If we are agreed on that point of view, I think we could agree on the means of filling that Second Chamber. If it has no power of veto on the first Chamber it does not matter whether the Government of the day has a majority there or not although the Government must retain the right to appoint members. It should be filled on the grounds of merit and public service and it could do a useful job as a revisionary Chamber.
I suggest that we on this side of the House when the next Election is taking place should put forward some proposal for reforming the membership of the second House. I prefer the form of second Chamber which I have suggested to that suggested by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison). I do not like his idea of the House of Lords which would in effect be a revisionary committee of this House. It we have a Second Chamber nominated for life by agreement between the Government and the Opposition it will be essential to pay those Members if there are to be working class people sitting in that Chamber. I suggest that payment should be for attendance, because Members of the Second Chamber do not have constituency work as have the Members of this House, and I think payment for attendance would be the best way of rewarding them and ensuring that it does its job properly. I do not know how far the hon. Member for Oxford is prepared to accept a Second Chamber of that kind, but there is no point in having a round table conference of the kind suggested by the hon. and learned Member for West Derby if there is not agreement between both sides of the House as to what the powers of the Second Chamber should be.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Wingfield Digby (Dorset, Western)
Let me say at once that whereas 95 I would agree with the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) on the question of the hereditary principle, as I do not feel that that is the right principle for a Second Chamber, on the other hand I absolutely part company with him on this question of the desirability of having a Second Chamber at all. As I understood his speech, he really does not think that a Second Chamber has very much part to play and he would be prepared, even if the composition were revised to his liking, to have it even weaker than the present Chamber. That is a point of view with which I, personally, disagree.
§ Mr. Digby
I quite agree with the hon. Member for Dagenham, but I should like to alter the composition and at the same time, instead of weakening the powers, if anything perhaps increase them a little so as to make it more in conformity with other chambers throughout the world. However, I shall revert to this point in a moment. We have been given by the Lord President of the Council various reasons why he said that it was necessary for this Bill to be brought forward at the present moment. It all appeared to depend on contingencies. He admitted that up to the moment there was nothing very much of which to complain, but he said that certain things might happen. He mentioned the Government of Ireland Act. 1914, one of the only two Measures turned down by the other place. He did not go on to mention the circumstances in regard to that Act. In fact, it never became law. It was never actually applied in its original form, so much had circumstances changed, and that would appear to be some justification for the holding up of that Measure.
Furthermore he called in aid that constitutional authority Bagehot, and I was a little surprised that he should have called him in, because I have another passage in the chapter on the House of Lords which must have escaped the Lord President's attention. When speaking of the Reform Bill and the Repeal of the Corn Laws at a time when the House of Lords was admittedly more powerful than it is today, he said: 96If they could ever have been trusted to resist the people they would then have resisted. But in truth it is idle to expect a Second Chamber—a Chamber of notables—ever to resist a popular Chamber—a nation's Chamber, when that Chamber is vehement and the nation is vehement, too.I think that rather gives away the Lord President's case. He knows quite well that the nation is not vehement about the nationalisation of steel, and that is why he is nervous upon the point, although quite unreasonably so. The real reasons why this Measure has been brought for-ward have already been dealt with in this Debate. This question of some kind of compromise within the Cabinet has been suggested by the "New Statesman and Nation," and it ought to know. Then, perhaps, from the result of the municipal elections, there is some knowledge coming to the Government that they do not represent the people as they did two years ago, and that it may be necessary for them in their last two years of office to pass through Measures which, if submitted to a referendum, would not be passed by the people of this country. In that way they are retaining for themselves and for any future Government which has lost the confidence of the people a way of frustrating the will of the people without a Second Chamber being allowed to interfere.
I come on to the question of the composition of the House of Lords. As I have said, it seems to me that this is a fundamental question and to attempt to deal with the powers without dealing with the composition is a very unwise thing to do. Back in 1917–18 the Bryce Committee sat on this question, and in my submission the very first thing which the Government should have done before presenting any new Bill about the House of Lords was to reconstitute such a committee and bring that advice up to date. Only in that way can the question of the composition of the Lords, which is very difficult admittedly, be solved. There have been endless suggestions put forward, some good and some indifferent, and they should be examined by such a committee.
Hon. Members are rather apt to talk as though the House of Lords had always been an entirely hereditary Chamber. I wonder how many hon. Members realise that in the early days of the Tudors it was predominantly non-hereditary and that of its 75 members who then sat, 97 45 were non-hereditary. It was only at a later date, with the very large increase in the peerages, that it came to assume its character of being firstly an extremely large Chamber, and, secondly, a Chamber in which the hereditary principle predominated. That is why I think that those tendencies should now be reversed. I wish, without going into this matter in detail, to submit some of the principles which should be applied when considering the future composition of the House of Lords. They are, first of all, smaller numbers, secondly, intelligibility, thirdly, a more distinctive method of appointment, and, fourthly, independence without irresponsibility.
A lot has been said today about the present powers of the House of Lords. I understand, from reading an eminent authority on this subject, that the House of Lords is now considered to be the weakest Second Chamber in the world, with the one exception of that of the Netherlands. So already the House of Lords is the next thing to having no Second Chamber at all. By reducing the power of the veto by one year, I believe we shall make it even weaker. Whether it will then be weaker than the Netherlands' Second Chamber I do not know, but we shall come very near indeed to having no Second Chamber at all. The Bill virtually abolishes our Second Chamber. By so doing it reposes a tremendous amount of power in this House. As has been rightly said by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg), that is a very much more audacious step in a country where there is no written Constitution and where Parliament is sovereign, than it would be in a country with a written constitution.
I believe that a Second Chamber is an essential feature of every well-run democracy. In this belief I am fortified by an extraordinary number of authorities on this question. The exceptions to a two-Chamber Government are very few indeed. Lord Rosebery once remarked that there were only:two exceptions to the general protest of all civilised communities against being governed by a single Chamber—Greece and Costa Rica.Today the number may be a little larger than that, but the examples are not such as to make us believe that single-Chamber Government has much to recommend it. Lord Acton spoke of a Second Chamber 98 as "an essential security for freedom." John Stuart Mill used similar language. Oliver Cromwell, even, was a great advocate of a Second Chamber. Lecky, in "Democracy and Liberty" used these words:Of all forms of government that are possible among mankind I do not know of any which is likely to be worse than the government of a single omnipotent, democratic chamber.Stronger words than those could scarcely have been used.
The House will remember that there is a precedent in this country for the abolition of the Second Chamber. That precedent, in 1649, is not very encouraging. Hon. Members will know that the Rump. Parliament, long after any election had been held, and when the original 490 members had been reduced to 90, decided that they would abolish the House of Lords. They abolished it on two grounds, that it was "useless" and that it was" dangerous to the people of England," although at the time only six peers were normally allowed to attend. They said, furthermore, that they themselves—although they were so out of touch with the electorate—being chosen by and representing the people, had supreme power.That Government was not a success. The scathing words in which it was described by Cromwell have already been quoted in this Debate. It was called the:horridest arbitrariness that ever existed on earth.It is recorded that when at last the only supreme House of Commons that we have had in this country was dissolved, there was:not so much as the bark of a dog.I believe that the Government have gone about this thing in quite the wrong way. They should have set up a committee to reform the composition of the House of Lords and either to maintain or to increase their powers. For various reasons best known to themselves, and in which the country will have little confidence, the Government propose to decrease the powers of the House of Lords and to retain the hereditary principle. I believe that this is an irresponsible act and one completely unworthy of many centuries of wise constitutional change in this country. When the Rump Parliament, fresh from its new tyrannies, 99 abolished the House of Lords, it struck a new Great Seal, on which words appeared which may well seem hypo critical to us today:In the first year of freedom, by God's blessing restored.A Government which has just returned from reimposing the Essential Work Order might likewise care to emulate that motto.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Benn Levy (Eton and Slough)
It seems to me that the Lord President of the Council put the constructive and positive case for the Bill completely and conclusively. I should like, therefore, merely to try to meet some of the counterarguments which have been advanced against the Bill both in the House and outside. The hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Digby) devoted a great deal of his speech, as indeed did the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) and the right hon. and gallant Member for North Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Sir C. Headlam), to the defence of a bi-cameral system. Most of us on this side of the House will accept those arguments, though many will not. It would be unreasonable for me to pursue that debate very far, because not one of these hon. Gentlemen has shown that there is any ground for thinking that the Bill is necessarily, or even possibly, a stepping stone towards uni-cameral Government. The hon. Member for West Dorset and the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) have also protested that the Bill should have dealt not merely with a trivial reduction of the Second Chamber's powers, but with the root-and-branch reorganisation of its composition. I have a great deal of sympathy with that, but the suggestion comes extremely oddly from benches which have persistently accused the Government of taking measures in times of stress and crisis which are too far-reaching and too radical.
§ Mr. Levy
I will deal very willingly with that suggestion of the hon. Gentleman. He said indeed, and it did not surprise me, that he would prefer to leave 100 the matter where it is, but, as the Lord President pointed out, we have good reasons for not leaving the matter where it is. Those reasons were touched on by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe). He objected, among other things, that we had no case because the House of Lords had so far not shown an obstructive spirit. The Second Chamber had not so far been obstructive and there was, therefore, no reason to suppose that it would be obstructive. That seemed to me a complete non sequitur. There is good reason why up to now the Second Chamber should not have been obstructive because up to now, that is to say for the first two or three years of this -Parliament, obstruction on the part of the Second Chamber would not have been effectual. Bills could still have gone through into law. But it is the latter part, the end of the Parliament's life, about which we were, as I think rightly, apprehensive. As the Lord President said, in a promise at Election time, we undertook to see that there should be ho obstruction even at the fag-end of the life of this Parliament, and we must do so.
It has also been charged that this Bill has been introduced not through inherent necessity, but for the sake of tactical party advantage. Nobody will dispute—the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition certainly has experience to confirm this—that there is no issue on which the electorate can be more certainly and properly rallied than in defence of of the rights of its elected representatives against possible depredations by a non-elected hereditary Second Chamber. In any Election, that would admittedly always be a trump card. If we admit that, surely we must also admit that it would be poor tactics indeed to throw away this trump card prematurely two years before an Election. If we were really governed by considerations of party tactics, surely we would have held our hand and hoped that the Second Chamber would be tempted to provoke the issue on the eve of the General Election by sabotaging such mandated legislation as, say, the iron and steel Bill? What could better suit the party as a party? Confident though we are of the electoral results in 1950, this would have made assurance doubly sure. That is, therefore, inevitably the course that we 101 should have pursued if we had been more concerned about the next Election than about accomplishing legislation which we had already promised to the country during the life of this present Parliament.
This particular moment was chosen for no other reason than that it is the last reasonable moment for a Bill designed to reduce by one year the period during which the will of the people can be frustrated by an hereditary body, the last possible moment for ensuring that legislation, which we promised the country to carry out, can be blocked no longer than need be by the minority opposite indirectly wielding through the House of Lords an instrument of undemocratic obstruction. For that is the anomalous position in which we find ourselves. In the Second Chamber the party opposite have to their hand a power of veto which, limited though it is since 1911, is denied to the other parties. I do not want to dilate on the hereditary principle because it is not immediately germane, although it has been raised a great deal during the course of the Debate, but during the course of the Debates in 1911, the Prime Minister quoted Mr. Balfour as follows:Let us not deal with abstractions, let us come to practical realities. Let us come to the test of experience; take the hereditary principle. What do we get out of it?" "Hon. Members opposite," retorted Mr. Asquith, "have got a great deal out of it, and I am not surprised that judged by this rude practical test—this profit and loss account, where the balance is so overwhelmingly in favour of the right hon. Gentleman himself—he finds the hereditary principle an excellent thing, a practical working instrument for securing the absolute supremacy of this House when there is a Tory majority here, but a working instrument to frustrate and nullify the functions of this House when there is a Liberal Government in power. That is the hereditary principle. That is what the right hon. Gentleman gets out of it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd March, 1911; Vol. 22, c. 584.]I have searched the Debates of that time for the passage in which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) contradicted this view of Mr. Asquith's and I have failed miserably to find it. On the contrary I find that this distinguished ex-champion of democratic rights had this to say: turning to the Tory Party, he cried:We recognise that while the House of Lords remains unreformed, it will always leave you possessed of exceptional advantages."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd February, 1911; Vol. 21, c. 2037.]102 Yet because we propose to reduce the period of "exceptional advantages" by 12 small months, the right hon. Gentleman now scolds us, as he did during the Debate on the Address. Can it possibly be that he is ever so slightly influenced by the fact that, since those valiant days, he himself has moved back to the party which enjoyed these exceptional advantages? Can it be that since rejoining that party he has had once more, if I may quote his exact words: "to get up the ordinary Conservative clap-trap"?
Sir, was the right hon. Gentleman right in applying this word "clap-trap" to his current party? The word may have fallen below the right hon. Gentleman's normal standard of elegance, but possibly it exceeded his normal standard of accuracy. Let us put it to the test. The Parliament Act of 1911 limited the delaying power of a Second Chamber to two years. That limitation the right hon. Gentleman defended and fought for as a benefaction to democracy. Yet to limit it to one year he now denounces as:… virtual Single Chamber Government . . a monstrous invasion of our liberties and a vile breach of faith between man and man."—[OFFICIAL Report, 28th October. 1947; Vol. 443, c. 717.]Those were his words in the Debate on the Address. Two years' delay is democracy; one year's delay is authoritarianism. Thus fine is the dividing line. I do not propose to stigmatise this talk as claptrap: the right hon. Gentleman has himself anticipated me. But it is certainly not the voice of reason. It is the authentic voice, if not of hysteria, then of impotent rage.
What is the sacred value of 24 months? Why not 18, why not 30? Why not 12 months? Are we to believe that the Second Chamber is the true custodian of democracy because for the last two years of a Parliament's life it can enable—no, it can compel the electorate to pronounce once more upon, to confirm or to reject, specific legislation upon which it has already passed an opinion? If it is desirable that electoral authority should be given twice over, why is it only desirable for two years? Why is it not equally desirable for five years? Why do hon. Members opposite not move an Amendment to that effect? If two years is better than one year, why is not five years better than two years? When the Parliament Act was introduced, at least one of its 103 sponsors was under no illusions to the effect that 24 months was a magical and immutable period. Said the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford:it is absolutely necessary that the influence and control of the Peers of the Realm should become less and less …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd February, 1911; Vol. 21, c. 2029.]Well, we are merely following his advice.
§ Mr. Levy
I know. We are following his advice and yet the right hon. Gentleman is very cross about it.
Finally, I want to emphasise this point: it seems to me to be utterly disingenuous to maintain that this Bill raises any major constitutional issue of principle. It amends constitutional practice in one detail but leaves the present constitutional principles unaffected for the time being. Indeed, "The Times" and many hon. Gentlemen here tonight, including the right hon. and learned Member for West Fife—
§ Mr. Levy
I mean the right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe)—have deliberately told us that they would not be averse from a more radical change, that they would not have been hostile to this Bill if it had really been a root-and-branch radical reformation of the House of Lords. However, in the very next breath they complain that it is too far-reaching even as it is for these critical times. Thus, "The Times," on 1st November, itself pleading, like right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, for a more radical treatment, said that the issue should be treated:as a new challenge to national ingenuity.…I should have thought there was quite enough just now to challenge national ingenuity, and that is surely the precise reason why the decision has been taken merely—I quote "The Times" again—to reduce the delaying power without tackling the comprehensive reform of the composition of the upper Chamber.That is precisely why we have deferred until more propitious times a plunge into what "The Times" itself has reminded us the Bryce Conference described as: 104a labyrinth of historical, constitutional and legal controversies.In short, we are charged in one breath with creating unnecessary disturbance and, in the very next breath, with not creating disturbance enough. Are we really expected to believe that a more revolutionary Measure would have been condoned and collaborated in by hon. and right hon. Members opposite? Are we really expected to take' these protestations seriously? I for one am more than a little sceptical. During the Debate in 1911 an hon. Member, in simple, direct, and unambiguous language, designated the Tory Party as "a party of frauds," and I was interested to note that the Speaker was constrained to rule the description as in Order. Hon. Members opposite may congratulate themselves that in the intervening period and in the last few days they have done nothing to blemish a reputation for political humbug so firmly established so long ago.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Astor (Surrey, Eastern)
The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. B. Levy) has made an attempt to prophesy how we on this side of the House would react to what he termed revolutionary legislation as regards the Upper House. I thought the hon. Member was very wide of the mark. He may attempt to look like a prophet but, in fact, his efforts to get at our feelings on matters of the Second Chamber are quite invalid and not worth dealing with any further.
It seems to me there are two issues, two dangers, before us tonight: one is the con stitutional issue and the constitutional danger involved in accepting this Bill, and the other is the economic danger. On the constitutional issue, I would say that this Bill is almost a good thing. I say so for the reason that it is such a poor Bill, so ill-timed, so totally inadequate, and so feebly presented that inevitably it will lead to further legislation which will recast and strengthen the Second Chamber. On the economic side I know what the country has in mind today. The people are asking themselves, "Will this Measure produce, for instance, one single dollar, one single gallon of petrol, one single manhour of work "—
§ Mr. Astor
Or one potato, as my hon. and learned Friend says—"or any of the other units which we term real wealth today?" My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) made the point far better than I could of a certain falsity in sound between an appeal for national unity and the introduction of this Bill tonight. I would like to ram home one point, the onus of responsibility is not on the head of the Leader of the House of Commons, it lies firmly on the shoulders of the Prime Minister, and no one else. I believe that the people of this country who voted Conservative or Labour at the last Election, who may have approved or disapproved of what the Prime Minister and his party have done in their first two years of office, thought, by and large, that he was impelled by what he believed to be right—if he advocated more Socialism as a cure for our national ills, people believed that, misguided though he might be, that was what he deemed to be the national cure. But I think people have had their eyes opened now, and he will not get away with that reputation any longer.
The Minister for Economic Affairs, in a sincere appeal for national unity, produced a complete indictment of the Prime Minister's feeble, wishy-washy appeal for a Dunkirk spirit and national unity. In introducing a completely unnecessary and highly controversial Bill at this time when all our attention and energies should be fixed on national recovery and getting out of the serious dilemma in which we are placed, he has done this, I feel, so as to make his own tenure of office easier and not as a measure of national expediency. That is a serious indictment if you like, but everyone in this House is pretty well aware that some of his colleagues were trying to rock the boat. That was the way which he has chosen, and as such it is a wholly irresponsible and unworthy action, and quite incompatible with the speech of the Minister for Economic Affairs, which really read like the speech of a possible coalition Prime Minister at this time. The two simply do not lie together.
As a new Member of this House, as a Member in my first Parliament, it has been impressed on me that there is a need for a strong Second Chamber to deal with Bills which are ill-digested, and very often only partially discussed here. There is a need for a Second Chamber with very 106 real powers to amend, and to do more than amend, legislation in extreme cases. That has been brought home to me, and, I believe, to those of my colleagues who are also in their first Parliament. An hon. Member who has now left the Chamber raised the question of revolution. I think he made the point in a most extraordinary way, and a most extraordinarily muddle-headed way. At the moment our position is that we have a House of Commons which perchance has an enormous majority and constitutionally is possessed of powers to extend its life indefinitely. It can override the limits of its mandate. It can disregard the will and desire of the people of the country. It can refuse to face a General Election, and can elect rather to keep in office and force through its unsavoury legislation, thus presenting a fait accompli against which any legislation of a more moderate party would be ineffective. It can do this save for one factor. The Government might take heed of this, because it is pretty plain to us that they have already lost the confidence of the country.
Today we still have one safety valve I am not pretending it is a perfect one. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) in his arguments against the hereditary principle, into which I will not go, because it is not relevant to my argument, but we have a safety valve in the power of the Lords to hold up legislation for two years, and under normal conditions to bring about a General Election so as to impel the Government once again to seek the will, desire, and confidence of the people.
Although we have in many ways an indefensible set-up as regards its formation, nevertheless the Second Chamber by virtue of their illogical position, have one very real strength. That is that the Second Chamber, when faced with a piece of Government legislation, will not throw it out merely on their own opinions. They do not feel entitled to do that. All they will do, as has been shown by their highly responsible behaviour in this Parliament, is to throw out legislation when they are convinced that they carry public opinion with them; that is to say, when they believe that now is the moment when the Government must be forced again to seek election on a matter. If they were more logically devised, perhaps Bills might come back here quite often, because we 107 would then be arguing with another set of people who would feel their right to express their differences of opinion, but by reason of their present indefensible position they do not do so unless they deem it to be the will of the general public. Certainly, no one in this House could honestly suggest that the Upper House have acted in this Parliament in any but a statesmanlike and responsible manner in this respect.
In emasculating the Second Chamber—which is really what we are doing—we are then depriving the general public of their last possible outlet or safety valve, the chance of having another say as to who is to govern the country, and we do logically give them only one recourse, and that is revolution. Fortunately, it is too logical to be probable but, nevertheless, it is a perfectly possible danger. That is a constitutional position into which we are being driven, because I do not believe that an Upper House with powers only to withhold legislation for one year is an effective Chamber for curbing the unbridled will of a tyrannical House of Commons.
Most of the constitutional points have been dealt with by my right hon. and hon. Friends, but I wish to emphasise the real danger, the real crime, in this Bill. It is that at this great moment of doubt and uncertainty—which everyone will admit—as to the time or degree of our economic recovery, the Government are driving a wedge into the country. They are diverting many forces which should be operating the general machine of recovery into highly controversial and unnecessary legislation, ultimately to force through an extremely controversial piece of legislation, the nationalisation of iron and steel, to which I believe, apart from the disciplined hacks on the other side of the House, only the most fanatical and blind Socialists could possibly adhere.
Let us remember that the onus rests with the Prime Minister, and with him alone. He has done this not, in my opinion, in order to speed and aid recovery; he has done it more than anything else to appease and pacify such men as the over-ambitious and opportunist Minister of Health, to stop them upsetting the ship, and to keep his clique together. I attribute motives just as base as that, and I do not accept the view that he is merely a weak man who lacks leadership and 108 personality, and that the worst one can say about him is that he is misdirected in his efforts. I do not agree with that at all. The charge I make is more serious than that. I believe that in sanctioning this Bill he has staked a very firm claim to be the most cowardly and miserable Prime Minister this country has ever had.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Alpass (Thornbury)
First, I wish to make a personal explanation. I find my name is on the Order Paper in support of an Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes):
[That this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which merely slightly limits the power of the House of Lords and does not declare it to be a feudal anachronism, and a needless and useless -encumbrance to a free community, which ought to be abolished.]
My name is on the Order Paper owing to a misunderstanding. When I was asked whether I was in favour of the abolition of the Second Chamber as now constituted, I at once replied in the affirmative. But I did not intend to convey the impression that I was opposed to this Bill. I hope the hon. Member who got my consent will accept my explanation in the spirit in which I give it.
With one important reservation, I welcome this Bill, which is designed to lessen the power of the other House to delay and defeat Measures introduced into this Assembly, which has been elected in a democratic way on a definite programme. The reservation is that in my opinion the Bill does not go nearly far enough. It proposes to clip the wings of the predatory legislative birds of another place. I would cut them off entirely, and abolish absolutely the power of veto which they now possess. There may be a case for a Second Chamber, constituted on an electoral basis, with powers to revise and amend legislation. Of that' I am not yet personally convinced, but I submit that there is no argument for the continuance of an unrepresentative, non-elected chamber, composed of a majority of hereditary members who have the power to obstruct, defeat and render nugatory the work of this House of Commons, which has been elected on a definite programme to carry out important constructive measures.
109 The hereditary principle in legislation, if it can be dignified by such a name, is out of date and entirely at variance with the democratic spirit of our age. I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) advocating its abolition. As my hon. Friend said, it was a courageous speech, but I noticed that his reference to that was received with con spicuous silence by hon. Members on the other side of the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "No "]. Hon. Members did not give it much applause—
§ Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Scottish Universities)
The hon. Member is not getting very much applause himself at the moment.
§ Mr. Alpass
No, but I am not advocating something which is new from my side of the House. That is an entirely hew aspect, and before I am convinced that they are sincere in the advocacy of the abolition of the hereditary principle, I want to hear an official pronouncement from some Front Bench leader on the other side of the House that they will go to the country at the next Election and make the abolition of the hereditary principle in legislation one of the important planks in their programme. Then, perhaps, I shall begin to pay some attention to them, though I shall not be misled by Election promises, because unfortunately when the party opposite get into power they have a way of saying "It is not an opportune time to introduce that part of our programme," and it remains simply as an empty promise.
There have been many occasions in the history of Parliament when this power of veto has been exercised by the other House with baleful effects. One instance has been indelibly impressed on my memory, because I happened to witness its application. I was fortunate enough to be a Member of the House of Commons in the Parliament of 1929, and I remember the introduction of an Education Bill on 29th October, 1930. After interminable discussions, prolonged Debates, many protracted negotiations, and some compromises, it was given its Third Reading in this House on 21st January, 1931, or three months after its introduction. I do not know whether the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Astor) would regard that as panic, ill-digested legislation. The House of 110 Commons debated that important Bill for that lengthy period.
What happened to it in the other plate? I went there to hear the Second Reading Debate which took place in that Chamber. The Bill was introduced on 17th February, 1930. The next day, on 18th February, the noble Lord who was then the Leader of that House, and who is the father of the hon. Member for Oxford, in what I regarded as a most contemptuous and arrogant speech, described it as a bad and wasteful Measure, and said, in effect, "We are not going to have it," and after only four hours' debate in the Upper House, that Bill was ignominously rejected. I looked up the record and found that the vote was as follows: For the rejection of the Bill, 168; in favour of the Bill, 22. The majority of the Members who voted for the rejection of that Bill in the House of Lords were hereditary Peers. Many of them have been designated, quite rightly, as "backwoodsmen," by which is meant that they show so little interest in the proceedings of that Chamber that they never take part in the Debates, and only attend when they receive a Whip from their leaders to go there and oppose Measures which have been introduced in this House of Commons, and which they do not like.
The effect of that rejection was most disastrous from an educational standpoint. For 13 years it deprived the children of this country of the educational benefits and opportunities which the Bill would have given them. That was the action of an irresponsible body with this power of veto. I have looked up the Debate and have found that the same statement was made then, that the Government were afraid to face the electors. The claim of the Tories then was exactly what it is today, that they should have the power to force an Election on any Measure which they dislike. That claim cannot be supported in the light of past experience.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Elliot
Will the hon. Member agree, first of all, that the overwhelming defeat of the Government, which followed shortly after, was because they lost their majority in this House?
§ Mr. Alpass
The consequence of that action was that a Bill, very largely but not entirely of the same character, was introduced into this House by the right 111 hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler), and very largely supported by some of the hon. Gentlemen opposite. The action of the House of Lords on the occasion to which I have referred deprived the children of this country of the benefit of that Measure for at least 13 years. In my view it is a strong argument for limiting the veto power. I repeat that it cannot be supported in the light of past experience. It is never used when the Conservatives are in power in this House. The Upper House then becomes, to a large extent, a rubber stamp. It is only when a Government introduce Bills which they dislike, and to which they are opposed, that they exercise this power of the veto.
An argument has been put forward that the Government should wait and see what might happen to a particular Bill. The right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) will agree that in the past the policy of "wait and see" has been attended by rather disastrous results. It used to be the belief of another party, and we know what happened. That policy has been attended with such results that we on this side of the House say that prevention is better than cure, and that it would be playing into the hands of our opponents if the Government delayed their action and allowed their work of implementing a vital part of their electoral programme to be frustrated and defeated. A Second Chamber with the power of veto which the present Chamber possesses and is prepared to use, is an anachronism. As one who, all his life, has advocated its abolition, I am pleased to support this very necessary but mild reform which we are now discussing. I sincerely hope that this Measure will be carried through with the usual large majority.
§ 7.41 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)
From his speech today I feel that the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) has been pushing against a wall which, in point of fact, does not exist. He has given us a very eloquent argument for the abolition of the hereditary principle in the other place. During the discussion I have heard today in this House—and I have been present for most of the time—I have not heard one hon. Member on either side, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir 112 D. Maxwell Fyfe), uphold that principle. At the same time, I feel, mainly from what has been said by hon. Gentlemen opposite and from the interjections of the hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway, that there is neither understanding nor agreement upon whether or not a Second Chamber is desirable. For my part, I am quite certain that such a body is vital in a democratic constitution, but among hon. Gentlemen opposite there is a pathetic divergence of opinion.
In discussing this question, we must look at it from two points of view. First, we must consider the justification for this Bill, and secondly the effect of the Measure. The justification—probably quite rightly—could be that of sabotage, if that had been the case, by the other place of the programme put forward by the party opposite. In 1945 they went to the electorate and put forward a policy which they have partially implemented. We on this side of the House think that it has been a bad policy and, what is more, we think they have implemented it badly. There is no sign that they have changed either their habits or their views. But there has not been sabotage by the House of Lords, though the opportunity has been there. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby cited the example of the Transport Bill. The chance was there for the other place to throw out that Bill, but they did not take it. The chance has been there for them to have thrown out every piece of legislation which went from this House, but, as right hon. Gentlemen opposite and their noble Friends in another place have said, the Opposition in the other place have used their majority with great reasonable ness and wisdom. The second justification—
§ Mr. Austin (Stretford)
May I refer to the first justification mentioned by the hon. Gentleman? Surely, he must be aware of the fact that any attempted legislation by this House in the first two years of this Parliament could not be rendered completely nugatory by the other place, as it could be passed in the life of this Parliament.
§ Mr. Langford-Holt
If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, his Argument falls to the ground because the act of reducing the period from two years to one year only puts off for one year the problem which must be faced 12 months from 113 now. The second possible justification which I was about to mention was that the Government have a mandate from the electorate to carry out this legislation. I think I am right in saying that a Government of the party opposite went to the people in 1935 with a programme which included the abolition of the other place. There is no doubt—
§ Mr. E. Fletcher
Surely, it is not seriously suggested that the abolition of the House of Lords was an issue at the 1935 election?
§ Mr. Langford-Holt
If the contents of the election manifesto of the party opposite are an issue, then certainly it was an issue. It was a part of their party proposals at that date. I do not want to evade any issue. In the document which the Chancellor of the Exchequer waved on the first day he came to make a speech in this House—"Let Us Face The Future"— there are some words about this very question. There, the undertaking is given that the Socialist Party will brush aside obstruction by the other place. They did not say that they would brush aside the threat of obstruction. If such obstruction exists today, it existed in 1945. Why did not they say that they would carry out this policy—
§ Mr. John Lewis (Bolton)
Is the hon. Gentleman in the habit of locking his stable door after the horse has gone?
§ Mr. Langford-Holt
I wish I could guess what the hon. Member is trying to say. I have no idea. I have given way to interruption several times. If I may, I would like to continue. The Government have said that this forms part of their mandate. They were given a mandate to carry out certain Measures and also to bring about certain conditions in this country—good food, good jobs, good times for all. They were also given a mandate to produce a Ministry of Housing. There are many parts of that mandate which they have not fulfilled, and yet they are going to bring in a part which they did not include.
A third justification might be that it was demanded by the public, the electorate. According to one hon. Member who spoke earlier, one would be led to believe that if this Bill did not get through the House of Commons we would find a rising in the country demanding, "To hell with the Lords,"—which the hon. 114 Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Leslie) said occurred up in Scotland in 1911. No such thing will happen. There is no feeling in the country that the other place is in any way thwarting the endeavours of this Government or acting against the interests of the country. Such notions are wishful thinking. If hon. Members opposite think that they will rouse enthusiasm with that battle cry, they have another guess coming. With the possible exception of the faithful newspaper belonging to the party opposite, there has not been one word in the country about the abolition of the House of Lords, except from the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health, who made a speech during the Recess on the subject which was a very interesting guiding light as to what was likely to be found in the King's Speech
The real reason for this Bill—and it has come from hon. Members opposite—is that they are afraid that a Measure which perhaps they will introduce next year will not get through this House before the next General Election. That is the reason for this Bill. The carry-over provision of the 1911 Parliament Act ignores a General Election. A Bill introduced into a Parliament in the last year of its life, and thrown out by the House of Lords, can be reintroduced in the first year of the next Parliament. Therefore, if a Bill to nationalise iron and steel is introduced two years before the end of this Parliament and thrown out, it can be introduced by the Government in the first Session of the next Parliament after a General Election. Of course, there is one essential condition which I do not think that right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite have overlooked. I refer to the fact that the possibility of a General Election plays no part in the outcome of the nationalisation of the steel industry unless the party opposite are going to be thrown out of office. That is obvious by the introduction of this Measure. These men are frightened men.
§ Mr. Langford-Holt
The hon. Member says that they want to make sure this time. If they are so certain that they are coming back, there is no need to make sure; it is a certainty. What is the effect of this Bill? When I came 115 here today, I was rather of the opinion of the Lord President of the Council; I thought it was a matter of degree, whether it was to be one or two years, but, since hearing the views of hon. Members opposite, I am quite certain that a large percentage of them are intent upon the abolition of a Second Chamber as such, not as it is at present constituted, but a Second Chamber of any sort whatever, and against that I will fight so long as I remain in this House.
There are two courses open. Either we reduce the power of the present Chamber, as it is at present constituted, with its hereditary principle, or alternatively we reconstitute it and maintain its power. The Government have decided to take the first course, and to adhere to a principle which everybody on the other side of the House considers bad and which most of those on this side of the House certainly consider bad—the hereditary principle. They have decided to adhere to that principle, and reduce the power of the Second Chamber. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby advocated a course which I consider to be a right and democratic course. He proposed a modification of the constitution of that body—a modification which would not meet with profound opposition from either this party or the Liberal Party, and, at the same time, a maintenance of its power. If we have a Second Chamber which has no power, we might just as well have a single-Chamber constitution, and, if the Government are going to propose a single-Chamber constitution, it is far better that they should come out honestly now and say so, rather than pose, as did the Lord President when he talked in his peroration of the Socialist Party, as the guardians and custodians of democracy.
In 1911, when the first Parliament Act was passed, there was a cry in the country, not without justification, for reform of the House of Lords, and the right hon. and gallant Member for North Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Sir C. Headlam), who spoke earlier in the Debate, and who has had experience in another place, because he served there as an officer, gave it as his view that the House of Lords had acted irresponsibly in 1911. Let no hon. Member opposite think for one moment that a similar situation has arisen today. Two General Elections had elapsed on this 116 specific issue on that occasion, and there is no feeling in the country today, on the other hand, that the will of the people is being thwarted by the House of Lords. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby drew attention to what I think is the major argument against this Bill. The Prime Minister, the Lord President of the Council and almost every right hon. Gentleman sitting on the Government Front Bench, except, possibly, the Secretary of State for War, has exhorted this country to stand together in the sorest trial it has ever had since 1940. We have been asked to fight against poverty and against economic stress as one nation. We have had exhortations like that put before us before and we have followed, but at the same time, to bring a Bill such as this before the country, which will divide us as never before on a constitutional issue of this sort, is to make an absolute mockery of this Parliament and to make the pleas of the Minister for Economic Affairs and the Prime Minister nothing more than absolute nonsense and foolhardiness.
§ 7.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
We have heard some very extravagant language from the hon. Member for-Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt), and, indeed, from other hon. Members who spoke from the benches opposite earlier in the Debate, but I think the most significant feature of the speeches from that side of the House, as, indeed, of the Amendment which has been put down by the Leader of the Opposition, is that there is very little attack on the merits of this Bill. The criticism made against the Bill is really irrelevant to its merits. They say that we have no mandate for it; they say we ought to have dealt first with the composition of the Upper Chamber; and they say that we are distracting attention from the economic crisis, and that this is not the time or place to deal with the House of Lords.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I accept that correction; that this is not the time or the moment to deal with it. I want to say a word or two about each of these criticisms. First of all, it ill becomes hon. Members of the Conservative Party to complain if this important constitutional matter has not 117 been dealt with earlier. When the Parliament Act was passed in 1911, the Preamble contemplated that the Second Chamber would be reformed on a popular, instead of an hereditary, basis. There was a Liberal Government in power—
§ Mr. Fletcher
I do not know who drafted it. I know that the Bill was passed through this House and another place when a Liberal Government was in power—
§ Mr. Fletcher
I do not want to be drawn into a historical digression as to who drafted the Preamble to the Act. The point I am trying to make is that 36 years have elapsed since the Parliament Act was passed, and it was then recognised by common consent that further change was required. Both the Liberal Party, for a short period of time, and the Conservative Party, for a much longer period of time, have had abundant opportunities of dealing with this problem with which they now say it is inopportune for us to deal. It is one of the things—
§ Mr. Pickthorn
I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead the House. What has been said is not that it is inopportune to deal with the problem now, but that it is inopportune to deal with the powers while leaving the composition unaltered.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I will answer both these points, but, for the moment, I am dealing with the criticism that this is an inopportune moment to make any revision of the Parliament Act of 1911; and what I am saying is that, since 1911, there has been an admitted constitutional problem to be dealt with in some way. The Conservative Party have failed to tackle it, although they have had abundant opportunities for dealing with it, and the reason why they failed to deal with it is obvious. It is because it suits them to have a House of Lords constituted as it is at present with a permanent Conservative majority.
118 Therefore, it is idle for the Conservative Party now to complain that the present Government are introducing this Bill at an inopportune moment, and that it is distracting attention from the economic situation. It is certainly not open to hon. Members on the Opposition benches to say that, because this is another instance of the legacy of the neglect which we have inherited from the incompetence and failure of the Conservative Party to fulfil their elementary constitutional duties. Still less is it open to the Conservative Party to criticise this Measure when it is remembered that their policy of neglect was based on selfish, narrow, partisan motives in order to pre serve for themselves a position of constitutional privilege in the House of Lords. Having said that, and having charged hon. Members opposite with partisanship of the most glaring kind in this matter, I want to meet the criticism that comes from another quarter. I am aware—
§ Mr. I. J. Pitman (Bath)rose—
§ Mr. Fletcher
I do not want to be diverted from my theme for the moment. I may be going to deal with the point which the hon. Member has in mind. I am aware that that criticism has not come merely from Members of the Conservative Party; I realise that the introduction of this Bill has been criticised by His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury in another place. It would be out of Order for me to quote the words used, but similar re marks have been repeated by the Arch bishop of York speaking, I believe, in his diocese. As both' those observations have attracted a good deal of attention in the country, I want to say a word about them. I would say, first, that I do not share the view of certain organs of the Press that the leaders of the Churches should not express opinions on current social and political problems. My criticism of the Bishops and leaders of the Church would be, on the whole, that they have given us too little rather than too much leadership and guidance as to the application of Christian principles to modern day life. But, in view of the currency that has been given to the observations of the two Archbishops, I think that it is important to appreciate exactly what they said. Both Archbishops—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)
I think I had better warn 119 the hon. Gentleman that it will not be permissible for him to quote what was said in another place.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I of course accept your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and would add that I did not intend to quote what was said in another place. In "The Times" of 7th November the Archbishop of York is reported, when addressing his Diocesan Conference at York, to have expressed his regret that the Government should have introduced this controversial Measure at this time. The Archbishop then went on to say, as the Archbishop of Canterbury had previously said, that he was not expressing any opinion on the merits or demerits of the proposal. I can appreciate the sentiment that it is a good thing to have peace and quiet in political life, but where Measures are regarded by His Majesty's Government as being good in themselves, meritorious and necessary, then one cannot refrain from introducing them merely because they may invite controversy, and partisan opposition.
We have been told almost ad nauseam in recent weeks that this country is looking for leadership. It would be an abdication of leadership to refrain from introducing Measures merely because they are controversial. I do not believe that this Measure is going to divert anybody's attention from the economic crisis. Judging from the small attendance of hon. Members opposite, this Debate is not diverting many people's attention from the crisis. On the contrary, I believe—and my opinion is based on my experience in my constituency—that the introduction of this Measure will do much to rally and to reassure those elements in the country on whose willing and sustained response to the present appeals for further production in the factories and elsewhere so much depends in these days of national crisis.
§ Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)
Would my hon. Friend allow me to interrupt him for a moment in connection with what he said about the two Archbishops? May I ask him to bring out the point that many Socialists who are keen Churchmen are deeply disturbed and dismayed by what they both said on this issue?
§ Mr. Fletcher
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and have no doubt that other aspects of what I have said will be brought out by subsequent speakers. The last thing I want to say about the Archbishops is that when this Bill comes to be debated in another place I very much hope that we shall hear from one or other of them whether there is any specifically Christian doctrine which says that art hereditary Chamber ought to be able to veto the powers of an elected representative for two years rather than one. If there is any particular Christian principle applicable to that question, on the merits of which hitherto both Archbishops have very scrupulously refrained from applying their minds, then I am sure we shall all listen to their observations with profound interest.
It is next said by the Opposition that we ought not to deal with the powers of another place until we have dealt with its composition. There might, indeed, be something to be said for that argument if hon. Members opposite had ever been prepared to put forward any acceptable or reasonable proposal for reforming the composition of the House of Lords. But I would remind hon. Members on both sides of the House that on the two occasions when schemes for a revision of the House of Lords have been propounded—the proposals of Lord Clarendon, I believe in 1928, and, subsequently, the proposals of Lord Salisbury in 1933—the Conservative Party made it clear that they were only prepared to consider proposals for a reform of the House of Lords which would still ensure that it would retain, at all times, a Conservative majority. Any such proposals must be as completely unacceptable to any progressive Government as if the present Government were to suggest that when there is a Conservative Government the Trades Union Council should fulfil the functions of a Second Chamber.
I am conscious of the difficulty of producing an agreed reform of the constitution of the House of Lords. I recognise that as it exists at the moment, with all its feudal anachronisms, it functions fairly well. It has a certain pragmatic sanction. I recognise, as Members of the Government in this House and in another place have done, that in the last two years it has performed an excellent duty as a revising Chamber. But, having said that, it by no means follows that it should 121 have the power to suspend or veto Bills passed by this House of Commons for a period of two years. That is the only question in debate on this Bill. On that question, I would remind the House that, even in 1911, the present Leader of the Opposition was astonished—aghast—at the moderation that was then being exercised in giving the House of Lords a suspensory power of two years. That was not an isolated opinion.
I noticed the other day, in a book on Parliament written by an eminent and impartial author of distinction, Mr. Ivor Jennings—a book which was written two or three years ago before this question came up for debate at all—that, in an abstract, scholarly discussion of the Constitution, he used these words:It is clear that the Parliament Act of 1911 has substantial defects. The minimum period of two years is over long.… Two years for even the most controversial legislation is an unconscionably long time.That is a dispassionate observation made some three years ago. I would remind the House that conditions have changed considerably since 1911. We no longer live in the relatively leisurely days before the first Great War. The tempo of modern life has quickened. Just as the purchasing power of the £ has decreased, the value of time has increased. If two years was a doubtfully long period for the exercise of suspensory power 30 years ago, then by comparison a period of one year is almost dangerously long at the present time.
I turn to the argument on mandate. It is said that we have not a mandate for this Bill. It is important that we should understand what is meant when this doctrine of mandate is raised. I do not subscribe to the view that any Government is limited or circumscribed in the Bills which it can introduce into Parliament by the programme that is put before the country at the Election. I agree that if there have been specific proposals put before the country and voted upon, then any government can take to themselves the moral kudos of having a clear mandate for those proposals, but that does not limit their power or their authority. The Conservative Party of bygone days have frequently introduced Measures for which, so far from their having had any mandate, it is quite clear that if the particular issue had been put 122 to the country a mandate would have been refused. I do not believe the Conservative Party had any mandate in 1931 for introducing general tariffs, and I am quite certain that Mr. Baldwin's Government of 1935 had no mandate for a vast rearmament programme. I am not arguing whether those policies were good or bad, I am pointing out that there was no mandate for them.
But even if it were thought that a mandate were necessary to justify the introduction of this Bill, I would submit that it is abundantly clear that we had the fullest possible mandate, for two reasons. First of all, in years past the general outlook and philosophy of the Labour Party with regard to the House of Lords has been well known throughout the country. Some of my hon. Friends think it ought to be abolished. The Labour Party has never pretended to treat the House of Lords with any great respect. Nobody who voted for the Labour Party at the last General Election could have doubted that this Government were determined to do what was necessary to restrict the powers of the House of Lords in order to ensure that the wishes of the electorate were fulfilled. If further assurance were wanted, one has only to look at the express words used in "Let Us Face The Future":We give clear notice that we will not tolerate the obstruction of the people's will by the House of Lords.The right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Major Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) in his speech this afternoon relied upon a most curious argument to suggest that we had no mandate. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said, at any rate by implication, that if the House of Lords had been obstructive we should quite clearly have had a mandate, but as they had not been obstructive and had been good boys we had no mandate. If that is the argument on which hon. Members opposite are relying, let us examine it.
It is said that our mandate to deal with the House of Lords is dependent upon how the House of Lords behaves; but that cannot be the conclusion. Surely the House of Lords cannot by their behaviour limit our mandate. We are proposing to curtail the powers of the House of Lords to what are reasonable in 1947, because they retain the potentiality for being obstructive and because there is nothing 123 in their past history or in the speeches of their members to guarantee that they will not be obstructive. If it is said that this is not the time to introduce the Parliament Bill, I would ask: When is the time? Is it suggested that we ought to have introduced it last Session or the previous Session? As everybody knows, and as hon. Members opposite are never slow to tell us, we had quite enough to do in those two Sessions. It cannot seriously be suggested that this Bill ought to have been introduced earlier. We cannot introduce it any later, because that would be too late. Therefore, this is the only time when the Bill could be introduced.
I have attempted to answer all the serious arguments that have been raised from the benches opposite, first, on the question of whether the time is opportune to introduce this Bill; secondly, on the reconstruction of the Second Chamber; and finally, on the question of mandate. In conclusion, let me say that I believe that history will show, when this short, simple Bill has been passed, that, by adapting our constitutional machinery to the changing needs of the time, the Labour Party has proved itself the real custodian of our essential constitutional traditions and liberties.
§ 8.16 p.m.
§ Sir Ralph Glyn (Abingdon)
I do not wish to detain the House more than a few moments, but I venture to intervene because I think there are very few hon. Members who have had the experience that I have had of fighting three elections in one year on the question of House of Lords. That was in 1910. I mention that fact only because I do feel that at this time of national crisis this matter will, among some sections of the electorate, create a diversion of thought from that upon which thought and energy should be concentrated—the economic situation. Moreover, I feel that today the House is treating rather lightly a proposal to change our Constitution, and that at a time when, throughout all the world, we see the difficulties that are arising in the defence of democratic principles. As we understand those principles, it is essential to have two checks.
I have been long enough in this House to think that we have to accept blame for not having tackled reform of the House 124 of Lords before. I regret it bitterly, because I think it is a great handicap. I believe that at no time was it so necessary to have a Second Chamber composed of people who would bring opinion, at once expert, unbiassed and detached—from the party point of view—to bear on our public life. In this House, as the Leader of the House said in moving the Second Reading of the Bill today, we are engaged in an ever-increasing volume of work, mostly concerned with economics and with the everyday affairs of men and women; and too little of our time is devoted to those things which are the test, surely, of all good Government, and which cannot be defined as purely material. That is why I believe that the time is so urgent that there should be a reform of the House of Lords.
I should like the Home Secretary, when he replies to the Debate tomorrow, to give us reasons why it has been consistently the policy of the Socialist Party to prevent the reform of the House of Lords whenever it has been proposed. I remember hearing the noble Lord, Lord Salisbury, introduce his scheme, and I remember the conclusions of the Bryce Committee. Why they were not followed up I do not know. Surely, however, it is obvious to everybody that we cannot attempt to change the constitution of this country by altering the powers without considering the status and composition of the Second Chamber that we should like to have. I am interested to notice on the Order Paper proposals for the reform of the Second Chamber attached to this proposal of the Government to alter the powers of the Second Chamber. I think there is hope there.
It is time that there was a committee or a conference called—and I should like to see it done before the close of the present Parliament—to consider what should be the composition of the House of Lords, or whatever the Second Chamber may be called. Whether it is to be a Lords Parliament—or whatever we like to call them—with a very reduced representation of hereditary peers in an ever-diminishing quantity, or whether it is to be in any way elected—which, as a matter of fact, unless it is a very small proportion, would be to the detriment of this House—I am absolutely confident that people throughout the world, who have looked to our Constitution as an example and a model of what 125 democratic institutions should be, will look with great questioning on whether now, at all times, is the right moment to do what is now proposed.
Whilst I recognise and agree with the hon. Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher), I think it is an entirely new and false doctrine to say that no Government can touch any form of legislation unless it has been previously announced at the time of the Election. Anything more ridiculous I have never heard. We are not all prophets. Those who composed "Let us Face the Future" cannot foretell what will crop up during the lifetime of a Parliament. Is it really contended that a Government of the day should not tackle this? Of course they must tackle it. It is the business of the Government to govern, and it is the business of the House of Commons to see that if a Government lose public confidence, as the Opposition believe, then everything should be done to force an issue.
One of the tragedies we are facing now is the overwhelming majority of the Government. I have been long enough in this House to see many Governments in danger more from the ferocious tail they carry than from any other cause. The best Governments are very often those who have to adapt their legislation to a strong Opposition, and it is then, and only then, that this House of Commons really functions. When a Government are supported by a very large majority, there is always the risk that certain elements in that majority may be forcing the pace against the better judgment of the more sober-minded statesmen composing that Government. That is the time, above all others, when the revising and delaying force of a Second Chamber is needed.
I have only intervened for these few minutes to say that I hope we shall hear from the Government that they are not averse from considering the reform of the House of Lords. For far too long the Second Chamber of this country has been put in a weak position, from one cause or another, because no political party has really faced the necessity of having a Second Chamber which will have the confidence of the country, and which will not derogate from the position of a purely elected House of Commons.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Mr. A. J. Irvine (Liverpool, Edgehill)
I ask for the patience and forbearance of 126 this House on the occasion of my addressing it for the first time. I am instructed that on such an occasion I should be non-controversial, but the House will appreciate that it is extremely difficult to be non-controversial upon this Measure. What I undertake to do is to be as unprovocative as possible, for there is a difference between being unprovocative and being non-controversial. I have been astonished at the excited opposition and the excited hostility to which this Bill has given rise. However, that hostility has not been borne out by the content of the arguments brought against the Measure. The first argument that I heard from the benches opposite was that this is a contentious Bill; that it hinders the cause of national unity. I suggest that that is a dangerous line of talk. The recent activities of hon. Members opposite, if I may be permitted to say so, have not impressed me as advancing the cause of national unity, but that cannot prevent me from seeing and applying my mind to the question, what substance there is in that argument.
My submission to the House is that it is fundamental in our system of Government that while party controversy goes on and there is every freedom of opposition in debate, all sections of the community continue to do their work for the national good. I cannot see why in the world this Bill should offer any exception to that rule. Why in the wide world should this Measure being introduced at this time hinder national unity? Freedom to discuss these matters, so far from imperilling national unity, is just what has preserved our national unity so long. My submission is that it is a dangerous doctrine that free discussion of constitutional issues in a democracy imperils the functioning of that democracy. Every one of the Measures which we produce is met by the observation and the argument that it is dividing the nation. There is a tendency to identify what is needed to promote national unity with what is agreeable to the minority which voted for the Conservative Party at the General Election.
It is said that this Measure now before the House will distract the nation and the people from what is admittedly the all-important task confronting them of higher production and a higher degree of service to the interests of the community. I cannot see that the effect of 127 this Measure will either minimise or improve the prospect of the productive effort of this country. I would be the last person to suggest that it will have any very great effect either way. But, if it has any effect, I should have thought that it would operate as a stimulant to production, although I do not over-emphasise that aspect. That it should distract the attention and energy of the nation from the duties which confront it, seems to be impossible to argue. Secondly, it is put forward that this Bill is unnecessary. We are told that the Second Chamber has so far placed no obstacle in the way of our legislation. On the other hand, we do not assume for one moment that any obstacle is going to be placed in our way, but what we do say is that we cannot exclude the possibility. Under the existing dispensation, the powers of the Upper House increase proportionately as the time of any Parliament passes.
We hear about the backwoodsmen who may come forward to impede the legislation which the Government propose. I cannot surmise what are the intentions of these so-called backwoodsmen; I do not have the advantage of numbering any of them among my acquaintance and they are not commonly met with in the streets of my constituency. Just because it is impossible for me to surmise what is the intention of these so-called backwoodsmen, it strikes me as an intolerable imposition that they should have the power to impede the progress and development of our legislative programme. I would say to hon. Members opposite that if it is so unlikely that they intend to create any difficulty, or any obstruction, in the way of our legislative programme I cannot for the life of me see why their opposition to this Bill should be so urgent and determined as it is.
It is further said against this Bill that it should have gone more to the root of the matter, that it fails to do so in that it does not deal with the question of the composition of the Upper House. I find that point of view difficult to reconcile with rational opposition to the Bill. If there is such urgent need of reform in respect of the composition of the Upper Chamber why is there such excited objection to a limitation of the powers of such a Chamber, which has no need of such reform? If it be said that this Bill fails in that it does not go to the root 128 of the matter, and does not deal with the full extent of the problem of the reform of the composition of the Upper House, my observation on that is that any such Measure would involve a real distraction for Ministers and hon. Members. It is a matter which requires elaborate investigation and research.
It is said, about the present limited Bill, that it constitutes a distraction from what are alleged to be more important matters. That is not a fair criticism of this Bill, but I would be the first to acknowledge that it would be a fair criticism of a Bill which set afoot, at a time like this—when there are so many urgent matters requiring consideration—the large scale question of the reform of the composition of the Upper House. That is a matter which, clearly and obviously, demands a great deal of attention, time, investigation, and consideration. It is said that the Upper House, with its existing powers, is a useful check in the event of the House of Commons ceasing to represent a majority of the people. To quote from an article in the current issue of the "Economist":The Upper House will not challenge the majority of the House of Commons unless it is clear, beyond a peradventure, that the majority of the Commons no longer represents the people.Are the Lords to determine this; is the House of Lords to determine when the House of Commons ceases to represent the majority of the people? That, I submit, is a Lewis Cartoll proposition. Does the view of the Upper House about the Commons reflect the state of opinion in the country more accurately than the results of by-elections? It is intolerable that the Second Chamber should be acknowledged to have the power or capacity to recognise and determine the point at which the House of Commons fail to represent the wishes and will of the majority of the people. Hon. Members may be tempted to abide by that view of the matter, but I would ask them to resist that temptation. Unimpressed as I have been by the arguments brought forward against this Bill, and attempting as I have done to listen to them patiently and fairly, I am led to wonder whether the real opposition to this Bill has not been unrevealed; whether the real opposition to this Bill has not been undeclared.
I hope that it is in Order for me to recall an occasion when I was an undergraduate some 15 years ago—I think the 129 year was 1932—when I was a visitor of the honoured father of the hon. Member for Anglesey (Lady Megan Lloyd George), and he was pointing out to me in his house various pictures of distinguished people which were exhibited there. He pointed out, among many others, a photograph of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, and he spoke in glowing terms of the right hon. Gentleman. He spoke of his affection and his regard for him, and, indeed, he expressed regret that he and the right hon. Gentleman were on different sides of the House when it was considering the questions that were then prevailing in our political life. He said about him: "The pity is, he is not a democrat." That is the observation that was made. I cannot but wonder whether that does not shed some light upon the controversy which has arisen on this Bill. I am the very first to acknowledge—and who who has studied the history of our politics can fail to acknowledge—that the party of hon. Members opposite is wedded to our traditional system of Parliamentary representation, self-government and free election, but all the time they are hankering after safeguards of one kind or another; all the time they are hankering after privilege; and I am wondering whether that consideration and that aspect of their political outlook and activity may not be the true explanation of their opposition to the Bill.
Behind all this talk about trusting the people, and about setting the people free, there seems to be a constant desire to impose safeguards and qualifications upon the activities of the people. Is it not plain that they are in favour of setting the people free, of trusting the people up to a certain point—up to the point, namely, where the section of the community qualified in their view by upbringing, training and background say: "The judgment of the people is invalid and of no account." After all, the only possible early effect of this Bill may be that it will exclude the possibility—I do not say the probability— that decisions of the Upper House might prevent the will of the people, as declared in the General Election of 1945, from prevailing. It is the only possible, early practical effect of this Measure that it might prevent that eventuality from arising, and I would say that if hon. Members opposite were true 130 democrats as they claim to be, they could not possibly object to the Bill on that ground or on any other.
I speak with genuine and sincere diffidence in this House for the first time, but as I come to, and go away from, this House I see in Whitehall notices which bear the maxim, "Keep moving." That maxim is there with a view to helping at the coming celebrations. It seems to me an appropriate and wise maxim with a wider sense and relevance than perhaps those who set it up had in mind. The invincible tact of those who manage our affairs prevented them saying with this notice either "Keep left," or "Keep right." The notice says, "Keep moving." It is a maxim which I venture to think is wise and appropriate, and I commend it with this Bill to the Members of this House.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)
I count myself lucky this evening in that it falls to my agreeable lot to offer the congratulations of the House to the hon. Member for Edgehill (Mr. Irvine) upon his maiden speech, to which we have just listened. The hon. Member for Edge-hill I have known personally for many years, ever since we used to study history together at the University of Oxford. Our studies have led us to different sides of this House, but it is one of the pleasant characteristics of our political life in this country that differences of political opinion do not sunder old friendships nor indeed prevent the forming of new ones. The hon. Member for Edgehill, like my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) belongs to that corps d' elite of ex-presidents of the Oxford Union, which has sent to this House so many of its most distinguished speakers. He has spoken tonight not perhaps entirely non-contro-versially, because that would be difficult on this point, but he has I think spoken very acceptably to the House; and I am sure the House would wish to tell him they will be looking forward in future with great pleasure to his contributions.
Listening to the Debate here today, it struck me that this short Measure has the unhappy effect of concentrating upon itself the maximum measure of dissent. It is dissented from by those who support the hereditary principle; it is equally dissented from by those who are opposed to the hereditary principle; it is dissented 131 from by those who wish to abolish the suspensory veto of the Lords altogether, and it is dissented from by those who consider that a one year suspensory veto is totally inadequate for the purposes of a Second Chamber. I do not find it altogether surprising that the Bill should have concentrated this measure of dissent upon itself, because it seems to me to be abundantly clear that the Government have chosen the worst of all the courses which were open to them in this case.
There were four courses open to the Government in the choice of approach to the problem of the House of Lords. First, they could have adopted a policy of "leave well alone," which, as my hon. Friend reminded the House, was the political doctrine of Lord Melbourne. Secondly, they could have proposed to abolish the House of Lords altogether. Thirdly, they could have proposed to reform the House of Lords in such a way as to provide a strong, efficient and acceptable Second Chamber. Fourthly, they could have proposed to weaken and cripple the House of Lords without reforming it. In my view, and I think in the view of the majority of Members, at any rate in their private minds, the third of those courses is the best, to reform the House of Lords with a view to making it a strong and efficient Second Chamber.
It may well be that, at the present time, the first course, that of leaving well alone, would have a great deal to commend it, in view of the tremendous economic decisions that lie before the Government and the people of this country at the present time. I am convinced that the fourth course is the worst of all. I consider it in many ways worse than a proposal by this Government to abolish the House of Lords altogether. It is better to have no Second Chamber at all than a Second Chamber which is so weak that it is unable properly to function as such. A proposal to abolish the House of Lords altogether would have the saving characteristic that it would be free from the taint of political opportunism which is so clearly stamped upon the present proposal.
The Bill weakens the House of Lords and will render it largely ineffective in performing its revising and suspending functions which, as we know, are the inherent and necessary functions of a Second Chamber in a democratic system 132 of government. It will still keep the House of Lords in reserve as a convenient cover plan for drawing the fire of such criticism as would be more properly levelled against the Government itself for failure in the economic field. As the Government have chosen to take their present course, the people of this country are entitled to know what the view of the Government is in regard to two-Chamber government generally No answer to that question was to be found in the speech by the Lord President. I hope there will be one in the reply from the Home Secretary.
There is at least some room for confusion of mind upon this matter. For example, the extract from "Let Us Face the Future," which has been referred to more than once in the course of today's Debate, refers to curbing attempts by the Lords to "obstruct the will of the people." The election manifesto by the Socialist Party in 1935, on the other hand, referred to the party's intention to abolish the House of Lords. It is right for this House and the people of the country to know what is the mind and the intention of His Majesty's Government and of the political party that supports them in power. It is most necessary that that should be known. If the Government do not believe in two-Chamber government, it is right that they should state clearly what reasons lead them to depart from the accepted political practice of democratic communities.
One of my hon. Friends, speaking earlier in this Debate, recalled the observation of the late Lord Rosebery that Greece and Costa Rica were the only democratic communities that did not have Second-Chamber governments. Since Lord Rosebery's day, the exceptions have been even more significant because we can now add the Reichstag in totalitarian Germany and the Legislative Assembly, so-called, in the U.S.S.R. today. It is clear that virtually every democratic community is based on two-Chamber government. The French and American constitutions, set up in the 18th century according to the theory of political philosophy, are based on a two-Chamber government.
§ Mr. Willis (Edinburgh, North)
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Reichstag under Hitler was a democratic form of Government?
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
I was suggesting exactly the reverse. I do not want to repeat my argument for the benefit of one hon. Member alone, but the point is that that was a uni-cameral form of government and as such was totalitarian. The importance of this point is that if the Government do not believe in two-Chamber government, it is a vitally important fact, and their view should be made clear. I have no doubt that it will be tomorrow in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman. If, on the other hand, they do believe in two-Chamber government the people of this country are equally entitled to know on what principles they think it should work; and they are entitled to know also why the Government in that case are tinkering with the delaying powers of the Second Chamber instead of giving effect to their conception of how a strong and efficient Second Chamber should work. I hope the Home Secretary will also give the House and the country the Government's view on that when he replies to this Debate tomorrow. There can be no doubt that this Bill cripples the effectiveness of the House of Lords as a Second Chamber.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
The hon. Member says, "its veto only," but the power of delaying action is an inherent and necessary concomitant in the revising and suspending power which Bagehot characterised as the fundamental duties of a Second Chamber. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member wishes to interrupt, I will give way. If not, perhaps he will desist from those sedentary interruptions.
§ Mr. Lewis
If the hon. Member will forgive me, I was trying to make the point that when he referred to a Second Chamber, any one of his arguments might apply were he referring to an elected Chamber. Is it possible for him to concede in his arguments that it might be possible to keep a Second Chamber which was not elected at the present time, were there not a power of veto in that Chamber?
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
I do not want to go too wide; but so far as the elective character of the Second Chamber is concerned, there are very strong arguments against having a Second Chamber elected on the same principle as the primary legislative chamber, because that sets up 134 the Second Chamber as a potential rival to the first. Any scheme for a reconstituted Second Chamber should not follow the form of election to this House. Further than that I do not want to take it at the moment, because it is getting a little wide.
With regard to the power of veto, that power, as I said, is a necessary ingredient in the revising function of a Second Chamber. As my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Oxford has said, there can be no objection to the power of delay so long as the composition of the Second Chamber which is given that power is one which commends itself to public opinion. What happens to the power of delay under this Bill? It is largely swept away. As we know, there is a dual diminution, from three Sessions to two and from two years to one. It is the second of these which is really important. The necessity for three separate Sessions was never a substantial limitation because the Government can in fact by Prorogation make the Sessions as short as they wish. The experience of the last two years shows that this Government would not hesitate to use the power of the Guillotine to make those Sessions as short as may be. I think it is recognised that the substantial safeguard was the two years. That safeguard it is now proposed to cut in half.
The delaying period of one year, as was shown by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) is quite inadequate for the purposes of proper revision and suspension in the true fulfilment of the functions of a Second Chamber. If the delaying power were taken away, the Second Chamber would lose the only effective sanction which supports it in its revising and suspending functions. The Government may justify their actions on the ground that they do not approve of the present constitution of the Second Chamber; and in this they feel on fairly strong tactical ground as may be seen from the speeches of some of my hon. Friends on this side of the House.
§ Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)
Before the hon. Member leaves the question of the suspension period, will he explain, as I think the House is entitled to have an explanation from the other side on this point, why there is something so perfect and final about the two-year period of suspension, and something 135 which is so illogical and undesirable from their point of view apparently, about the one-year period? Why is one year not sufficient for the purpose of suspension?
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
I do not think it is right in these constitutional questions to talk in terms of perfectibility. No one on this side of the House has suggested that there is anything perfect about the two-year period. What they have suggested is that there is some practical effect in a two-year delaying period. A one-year delaying period would have very little practical effect, because the one year dates from the Second Reading in this House. Most considerable Bills take the best part of a year to complete their normal legislative processes in any event, and therefore the delaying period of one year is largely illusory. I hope that makes clear to the hon. Member precisely what is the practical objection which we make.
§ Mr. I. O. Thomas
I think the hon. Member has absolutely failed to justify the contention that the two-year period is the only period that really can be effective for the suspension purposes of the Parliament Act. Unless he can indicate something more valid than he has indicated up to the present for his objection to the one-year period, it is impossible for me to understand him.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
I am in the hands of the House. I have tried to make it clear, but it may be that I cannot make it clear to the hon. Member. I hope it will be possible to do so. He should appreciate that the two-year period is a substantial safeguard which does give an opportunity for feeling the national pulse on these great matters. It will also be clear to him—
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
I did pay the hon. Member the compliment of thinking when he interrupted me twice that he was a genuine seeker after knowledge; but, if it is not so, and if he is not concerned to hear my answer, perhaps I may be more popular with you, Sir, if I pass on to the further point I was trying to make—
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
— on the composition of the Second Chamber. I do not think anyone is concerned to defend the 136 precise composition of the House of the Lords as it exists today. Certainly the Lords themselves are not concerned to defend their precise composition as it exists today. There is nothing new about that. As long ago as March, 1910—that is, before the passage into law of the Parliament Act—they passed three Resolutions:That a strong and efficient Second Chamber is not merely an integral part of the British Constitution, but is necessary to the State and the balance of Parliament.That such a Chamber can best- be obtained by the reform and reconstitution of the House of Lords.Thirdly, as already referred to by my right hon. and learned Friend:That a necessary preliminary to such reforms and reconstruction is the acceptance of the principle that the possession of a peerage should no longer of itself give the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords.Therefore, the principle of reform is substantially agreed though there may not be agreement on the detailed application of the principle. Now, the Second Chamber, in my view, must not be a mere replica of the First Chamber, but should be complementary to it. On that I think the conception of an elected Second Chamber, as put forward by the hon. Member for Bolton (Mr. J. Lewis) is one that is not, in practice or principle, right.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
No, I was not taking paradox as far as the Home Secretary is anxious to do. Of course, I was not suggesting that. I have already said that I am not defending the precise composition of the House of Lords as it is today. I will add to that, if it brings any comfort to the right hon. Gentleman, that I do not propose to set up in its stead a Second Chamber which gives an automatic majority to either party in the State. I hope that is quite plain.
§ Mr. Ede indicated assent.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
The question of the right composition and the right powers of the Second Chamber is of vital, constitutional importance. It is an integral part of the constitutional arrangements of this country which are themselves the result of the cumulative wisdom of many 137 generations of political experience. So far as we are concerned on this side of the House, it is not a question of obstinate adherence to things as they are; it is not the exact form of the present Second Chamber that we defend, but the principle of a Second Chamber created in the spirit which animated the development of the British Constitution. I believe that the principle in which this Bill has been framed is too narrow and too partisan. The Bill provides for change, but it is change which is incomplete and wrong and, as such, I think the House would be wise to reject it.
§ 9.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)
I rather agree with the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) that we should have some indication from the Government of the attitude towards the future of a Second Chamber. I want to put the point of view of one who is absolutely opposed to the Second Chamber, thinks this Bill is too timorous and does not go far enough, and who believes in the liquidation of the House of Lords and hereditary institutions altogether. We have had references in this Debate to the expressions of opinion in the Debates of 1911. I have taken a little interest in the records of these Debates, and I am glad to note that in 1911 the then Labour Party stood out unequivocally for the abolition of the House of Lords and for the abolition of a Second Chamber altogether on the grounds that it was incompatible with democracy. The then Leader of the Labour Party Mr. G. N. Barnes, speaking on the Parliament Bill, on 3rd May, 1911, said:I speak, … quite candidly, as a Single-Chamber man, and, speaking on behalf of all those with whom I am associated, and who I think are all Single-Chamber men, I say we believe a Second Chamber of any sort or kind is a needless and useless encumbrance, and is, moreover, an insult to a free community."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May, 1911; Vol. 25, c. 449.]That is where the Labour Party stood then, and I would have been prouder of the Labour Party and of the Labour Government if they had taken up that attitude today, and had decided to wipe out the House of Lords altogether. Even Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, who, as we know, became a super-constitutionalist in his later days, spoke strongly against a Second Chamber, and his remarks at the time were pertinent and wise, and in 138 many respects anticipated some of the points that have been made in this Debate. Speaking in the Debate to which I have just referred, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald said, in referring to the functions of the House of Lords:The very function of delay is an exceedingly important function, which can quite easily be stretched until it becomes a very important legislative function. But after all, we know perfectly well that it is no heresy in what I consider strongly to be a well thought out theory of democracy to say that every now and again certain things ripen for legislation, and if there is a power in the State which can delay the gathering of that ripe fruit for two or three years the time has gone past for gathering it altogether.Ramsay MacDonald went on to say:… if you set up an elective Second Chamber …you set up something which is going to be …an institution in unstable equilibrium. It is going to develop on its own lines. It is going to develop a revolution of its own, and sooner or later you are going to have precisely the same difficulties in reference to it which you have got in reference to the present hereditary House of Lords. '—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May, 1911; Vol. 25. c. 469.]I remember having a conversation with Mr. Lloyd George in 1931, in which he expressed a great anxiety about the possibility of a reform of the House of Lords which, while abolishing the hereditary basis of the House of Lords, would till give it greater political power. I confess that I feel there is something sinister and unprogressive in these new proposals for some other kind of House of Lords, a super-brains-trust composed of elderly people out of touch with the democratic feeling of this country. In any Second Chamber such has been envisaged by hon. Members who have taken part in this Debate, we see the possibility of its being a Chamber composed of elder statesmen. I dislike elder statesmen. We do not want the cogitations of elder states-men in our political and economic life. What we want are the impulses of youth to sweep away this constitutional bric-a-brac and start building a new society on sound economic lines.
When I see some of these proposals for the continuation of a Second Chamber, I am genuinely alarmed. I do not like the possibility of a Second Chamber composed of elected representatives of the T.U.C. I am afraid that the people who would be chosen to represent the T.U.C. would be as conservatively minded as some of the Conservatives, and completely 139 out of touch with the democratic rank and file. I know that in the miners' movement, for example, some of the miners' leaders are hopelessly out of touch with the rank and file miner at the coal face. I am afraid that if they constituted a part of a newly-constituted House of Lords, it might be quite as genuinely reactionary as the House of Lords is now. I view with some alarm the possibility of a House of Lords in which will be not only the representatives of the Church of England but those of all the various religious denominations throughout the country.
I hold no brief for the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Archbishop of York. They have no say as far as Scotland is concerned—thank God for that. They represent what our best Scottish historian, Thomas Carlyle, described as "that great lying Church of England," and their present protestations show that they are living up to type. I suggest' that it is logical if we are going to have any religious organisations represented in the House of Lords, that the Church of Scot land is entitled to be represented. The Church of Scotland may not be a revolutionary institution and certainly it may not send people revolutionary-minded enough for me, but in one of the Motions on the Order Paper it is proposed that we should have representatives of the religious organisations in proportion to their numbers. Not only are we to have the Church of England with two reactionary Archbishops, but we are to have the Calvinistic Methodists, the Salvation Army, and the Roman Catholics. We will have religious controversy—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)
I think that the hon. Gentleman is really going too far. He is getting far away from the terms of the Motion before the House. We cannot go into the details of all the possible future compositions of the House of Lords.
§ Mr. Hughes
With due deference, Sir, I was only directed on these lines by the suggestion which appeared on the Order Paper. If I have digressed, I apologise. I suggest that we should be very careful about the suggestions we make to the Government about the constitution of any proposed Second Chamber to take the place of the House of Lords. The hon. 140 Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) made what seemed to me to be a progressive speech. He declared for the abolition of the hereditary principle. Once that principle goes, we must ask "What is to take the place of the House of Lords?" I suggest that we take the point of view that it is more democratic to rely upon democracy expressing itself through this House. Finally, I quote from what Mr. Ramsay MacDonald said in the Debate to which I referred earlier:I invite the Committee quietly to think over this proposition and to try to imagine what sort of dignity or power or satisfaction that Chamber is going to have with itself."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May, 1911; Vol. 25, c. 467.]Ramsay MacDonald, at that time and on behalf of the Labour Party, said:We stand against a Second Chamber, because it is incompatible with democracy.I wish the Government had had the courage to go the whole way and abolish the House of Lords.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Ungoed-Thomas (Llandaff and Barry)
Despite the many interesting speeches that have been made in this Debate, I think that almost all of us feel that the Debate is flat and dead. The attendance certainly has not been such as to manifest any great interest in this subject as one of such overwhelming importance as the Opposition have suggested. For the most part, there has not been one hon. Member of the Liberal Party in the House, though I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Bowen) here now. The number of Conservative hon. Members has never exceeded a rugger side, and has rarely been up to a soccer side, and, occasionally, they have not been able to muster a seven-a-side. I am not blaming the Opposition or the Liberal Party for that. It shows their sense of reality, and it shows that their actions speak much more truly than their words.
This is, in fact, an unreal Debate. The reality of this Debate is whether or not the veto shall be cut down from two years to one year, and that is the only issue which is before the House at all. The hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) showed sufficient ingenuity to hang on that small peg an enormous dissertation which was distinguished by very great intellectual agility, but which was completely divorced from the reality of the issue.
141 The charges that have been made are three, and I would like to deal with them. The first charge of the hon. Member for Oxford was that of dishonesty on the part of the Government in bringing forward this Bill. What would the hon. Member for Oxford have said, and what would the Opposition have said, if this Government had brought before this House a proposal for a whole-hog reformation of the House of Lords. There would have been at once the cry that there was no mandate for any such purpose. Let me quote what the Opposition have called the tactics of the Government in dealing with this Bill, and I quote from one newspaper reference to these tactics. This is what it says:Whatever may be said about the merits of their proposals "—that is, the Government's proposals in this Bill—it is surely clear that Ministers have thrown away a Party advantage. If they were playing the Party game, they would have dealt with the case very differently. They would have introduced the Iron and Steel Bill next year, allowed the Lords to throw it out, and have gone to the country on the cry of 'The Lords v. the People.' Some Ministers have always been in favour of that practice, but, to restrict the power of the Lords now is to make any such manoeuvre almost impossible.Then it goes on:When the election comes, it will be a clear issue, without any red or ermine herrings drawn across the scene.That is not a Labour paper, but a paper which is often virulently anti-Government, and that is "The Observer" of 26th October.
The reality of this Debate—to get away from those constitutional conundrums which the Opposition are bringing forward—is whether or not the Government is to be enabled to carry the iron and steel Bill through or not. That is the reality of it, and I do not believe that there is any point either on the part of the Opposition or on the Government side of the House, in concealing this reality that underlies this Bill. Shall a Government which is returned by the electorate to carry out a five-year programme which has been discussed up and down the country and voted on by the electorate, be prevented from carrying out that specific programme? That is the issue. To talk, then, in terms of vast constitutional revolutions is to hang on this small peg something which it just will not bear.
142 The second point which has been made against the Government is that they are out for a single-Chamber Government. The simple answer to that, of course, is that this Bill, which is the only matter relevant to the discussion now, proposes nothing of the kind. This Bill merely proposes the cutting down of the veto from two years to one year. I am a little encouraged when I find that precisely the same charge was made in 1911 by the Conservatives against the Liberal Government of that time. The following is what Mr. Asquith said in the course of the Debate in this House in 1911:I see it still persistently asserted"—and these words are equally applicable now—that our proposals are intended or, at any rate, will have the effect of enabling a despotic Single Chamber to ride roughshod over the electorate of the country. If I may put the same thing in different words, we are charged with enthroning in the subtle disguise of democratic forms a power which may enthral or set at naught the very spirit of democracy. I want to say with all respect to those, who entertain such an apprehension that I think that view to be one of the most unsubstantial nightmares that ever afflicted the imagination.The Conservative point now is exactly the same as before, and the answer is as applicable now as it was in 1911.
When the hon. Member for Oxford came before the House decrying the hereditary principle, and saying how he proposed that there should be a reformed Second Chamber, I thought that here, indeed, was the new voice of the reformed Conservative Party going forward with its new proposals. When one turns to the Debates in 1911, one finds the justification for the suspicion which has just been put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). These were exactly the tactics which were adopted by the Conservatives in 1911. Between June and December, 1910, they abandoned altogether their defence in favour of the hereditary principle. They found that it was an indefensible line, and they went back to their second line of defence and said, "Oh no, we are not in favour of the hereditary principle; we are in favour of a reformed House of Lords."
If I may, I will quote again from Mr. Asquith. In the course of that Debate, when commenting on the proposals which 143 are now being trumped up again by the hon. Member for Oxford, he said:A new model, I should have said, several new models, of a second Chamber, in which the hereditary principle was to be copiously diluted or destroyed were hastily run up, and my Noble Friend, Lord Rosebury, went about the country declaring that the House of Lords was dead. I will only say that all the schemes so proposed, without exception so far as I have seen, and been able to understand them, gave us a second Chamber, still predominently of one party, and resting on no broad or real basis of popular authority."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1911; Vol. 21, c. 1748–5o.]That is the fundamental divergence between hon. Members opposite and this side of the House on any question of the reformation of the Second Chamber. Is it to be another and a more effective and efficient form of bulwark of Conservatism, or is it to be based upon true popular democracy?
§ Mr. Hogg
The hon. and learned Gentleman really must not say that, because both my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) and I have made it plain that we deprecate the predominantly Conservative flavour of the House of Lords, and I even went so far as to incur the Home Secretary's displeasure by suggesting a very simple way in which it could be remedied.
§ Mr. Ungoed-Thomas
I suppose the composition and the selection of those who were appointed to nominate directors of the L.P.T.B. under the L.P.T.B. Act were also non-political. It depends entirely on the precise composition and exactly how it is drawn up. Until one has the specific proposals before one, with the exact terms on which they are brought forward, it is illusory to talk of a Second Chamber as being on a democratic basis. The proposal here is to cut down the period of suspensory power from two years to one year. If the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg)—who, if I may say with sincerity, made a most interesting speech—will read his speech carefully tomorrow, he will see the innumerable inconsistencies it contains. One of the astonishing remarks in that speech was that if this veto is cut down from two 144 years to one year, why not cut it down from one year to nothing? Of course, there is all the difference in the world between cutting down a veto from two years to one year, and abolishing it altogether. There may be room for discussion as to whether or not two years or one year is adequate—
§ Mr. Hogg
I am sorry to interrupt this excellent speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I think he is misinterpreting what I said. I was engaged in a little controversy with the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, and I put to him the specific question that if the House of Lords used the powers which he proposes to leave them, what guarantee had we that he would not later suggest cutting those powers to nothing? He answered specifically that we had no guarantee.
§ Mr. Ungoed-Thomas
Of course, there is no guarantee. If that is what the hon. Member meant, I am very glad he disowns what, apparently wrongly, I understood him to say. I accept that at once. Of course there cannot be any guarantee in the nature of things as long as we have our Parliamentary system of Government. The essential value of our Parliamentary conception is that there can be no such guarantee in the very nature of things.
May I now turn to the substance of the point that I was making? There is all the difference in the world between cutting down the period from two years to one year, and abolishing it altogether. All that the Bill proposes is to reduce it by half. There may be room for argument, as the right hon. and learned Member for West Derby argued, for saying that one year may be inadequate for the purpose; but once we get down to that level of discussion it becomes merely a matter of balance, a shift here or there, and something immensely removed from this vast constitutional question which the Opposition are trying to trump up in this Debate.
I see the Liberals have an Amendment down to this Motion. If the Amendment has been put down merely to register their disagreement with the hereditary principle, nobody can quarrel with them about it. But if it is meant to be taken as a serious proposition that they are not going to vote against this Bill because they are in favour of the abolition of the 145 hereditary system, surely that is quite an untenable position. May I quote again from the erstwhile Leader of the Liberal Party? I am afraid I have the Liberal Party very much in mind this evening. When this very Clause was then being considered this was what Mr. Asquith said about it, with reference to the veto:The House of Commons will be embarrassed, hampered and fettered at every moment by the elaborate series of safeguards and precautionary provisions which this second Clause has introduced."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th May, 1911; Vol 25, c. 1697.]
§ Mr. Ungoed-Thomas
No, because there have been Conservative Governments. Surely now the Liberals are not going to turn that precaution down, turn their backs on that precaution as something which can be completely ignored because the whole of the hereditary principle is not being abolished? This Bill is a small and puny Bill. It proposes no vast, elaborate constitutional change. It has evoked in this House no strong feeling, nor called forth any overwhelming attendance; and I hope that the House will treat this Bill as the little Bill it really is, and give it the immediate passage which it deserves.
§ 9.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)
I do not think there has really been this attempt which has been referred to to make out that this Bill is a matter of enormous constitutional importance; but I think that the House ought to believe it to be a matter of much greater constitutional importance than the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Llandaff and Barry (Mr. Ungoed-Thomas) indicated. Indeed, on the terms of his own speech I was not really able to see quite what he meant. He said that the reality of this Bill is whether the steel Bill is to be passed by this Government or not, and I should like very much to know whether that is the view of the Treasury Bench. Is that the reality? The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Llandaff and Barry from below the Gangway told us that the steel Bill was the reality of this Bill. I should very much like to know whether the Treasury Bench take that view. [Interruption.] They will not tell us. It is a pity they will not tell us.
§ Mr. Ungoed-Thomas
The hon. Member will recollect that the Lord President in opening this Debate said that, of course, the question was whether Bills brought before this House within the next year would be effective or not—have a passage or not. That is the point. And one of the most important of those Bills is, as everybody knows, the steel Bill
§ Mr. Pickthorn
It is the addendum which everybody does not know. We are not all in the secrets of the Labour Party. We do not get all the information we should like.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
It really will not do. Of course, even if the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President had not told me, I should have suspected, I think, that this Bill had something to do with getting Bills through. I do not think it is quite such a small, simple Bill as has frequently been made out. I have not had so much time to construe the Bill as I generally devote to such construing. Still, I think I should have got at that. But then the hon. and learned Gentleman told us that the main question is that when the Government, after most elaborate electioneering, have got a Mandate to pass a steel Bill, the question is, said he, should they be allowed to carry out the people's will about the steel Bill in the five years? Then he turned round and said that this is a trumpery, puny little Bill involving no constitutional question. If that is not a constitutional question, what is?
The fact is that, really, there is, a pretty considerable constitutional question involved in this Bill. I should like, if I might, to begin by explaining to this Chamber what the Constitution is, but that would take some time. Possibly the main thing can be put shortly, and, I hope, not unfairly. The British Constitution can really be boiled down, I think, roughly speaking, to three points. First of all, the omnicompetence of statute—that anything the King in Parliament declares to be law is law, and breaches of it will be punished. That is a part of the British Constitution, and perhaps the most important part in modern times. Secondly, in arriving at the decision how to exercise that omnicompetence, Parliament gives the fullest 147 freedom and fairness to the Opposition. The existence of His Majesty's Opposition may, I think, be held to be another of the great features, and perhaps the second most important. Thirdly—and it will be seen that the third is necessarily involved in the second; the second condition is not fulfilled unless the third is kept—there should not be conscious changes in the Constitution, in the rules for the participants, except with the fullest discussion and with the maximum obtainable consent. I do not know whether hon. Members will follow me so far; I am trying to be fair. I hope it would be difficult to put the essence of the contemporary British Constitution more shortly and more fairly than that. If there is any failure it is from want of competence on my part, not from want of trying.
Now, if that description is fair, there is something really new being done in this Bill. To pass any kind of constitutional change—and this cannot be denied to be a considerable constitutional change—with the paucity of preparatory discussion with which this is being passed is, in itself, a very considerable constitutional innovation. I have not—and it is part of the argument I am making that I have not—had the opportunity to work the thing out, but if hon. Gentlemen will look back to the Parliament Act, 1911, they will see, I think, that the First Reading had two days, the Second Reading had four days, and so on. There had been a previous Bill, to roughly the same effect, which had had a much longer De bate; and before that Bill there was, I think, a four days' Debate on Resolutions. I do not promise that all these figures are right but they are about right. Before that—if I might have the attention of the Leader of the House at this point I should be grateful—there had been an attempt to get agreement by way of a conference between the Leaders of the parties. All those attempts were made to try to get, if possible, the maximum of consent, and certainly—and at least—the maximum of full and free discussion. But there has been nothing like that here. This has come quite suddenly; we have had quite short notice of this Bill—
§ Mr. H. Morrison indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
Oh, yes, quite short notice. It is all very well for the Lord 148 President to shake his head. The Lord President has nothing else to do but politics, and he has a great many other people to help him do it. It is quite simple for the Lord President to come down here and speak for an hour or an hour and a half. Somebody else writes the stuff and he comes down and gabbles it out. [Interruption.] Well, everybody knows that is the way it is done, to a considerable extent. Ministers make these speeches—
§ Mr. Pickthorn
That is what happens to a considerable extent. I am not making any complaint against it. That is the way it is done, and has to be done. But it is much more difficult for the rest of us to get time to look up all the references we would wish, and there has been very little chance for us to do that on this occasion.
Now the Opposition—which I think the House will agree with me is one of the two or three necessary parts of the British Constitution—can clearly not be being treated fairly unless it knows, and knows all the time, what the rules are; and unless it knows when the rules are going to be changed, how they are going to be changed, and at what rate they are going to be changed.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
I say that this method of changing what is a fundamental rule—I do not say the most important rule in the world, whether the delay should be two years or one year—is wrong. I will return to that point later. All I say is it is a fundamental constitutional rule; it is a rule about the whole question of how the game is to be played. We had the rather surprising question from one of the few lawyers who spoke today, the hon. Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher), who asked when was the right time to introduce this Bill. The purpose of this Bill is that the law should be, as from the beginning of this present Session, different from what it has hitherto been, and that in a matter of constitutional importance. I should have thought the obvious answer for any lawyer would be that the Bill ought to have been introduced in time to become an Act before 149 that date. It is a matter of very considerable constitutional importance that this Bill should be introduced at this time, and with this degree of retrospection. I believe that to be a matter of first-rate importance.
The next step to which I invite the attention of the House is the question of two Chambers versus one Chamber. I do not propose to argue it, because I think that almost everyone has admitted that some sort of two-chamber government there must be. At any rate, this is clear, that all the rest of the civilised world admits it in theory and practice, and it has never been so clearly necessary in this country as it has been during the last two years, because of the major Bills which the Government tell us are so important that they put off the questions of feeding, clothing and housing the people in order to get them through, I do not say that they would have been bad Bills, but that they would have been pantomime nonsense, if they had not been revised in the Second Chamber.
The House is agreed, with a few exceptions, on the opinion that there ought to be two-Chamber Government. Is it not plain that the Second Chamber might have behaved differently—I do not know in what respects, and it would not be for me to guess publicly, but the Second Chamber might have behaved differently in the first Session or in the Second Session, if it had known that in the course of the Third Session, a Bill was to be passed altering the constitution as from the beginning of that Session? The Government therefore take the advantage of constitution A, if I may adopt the Lord President's terminology, and of constitution B simultaneously. I say that, in the playing of any other game, that would be described in language which Mr. Speaker would not like me to use here.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
It would be described in highly offensive language, and that that is being done today is a matter of very considerable constitutional importance. Indeed, I will make this prophecy. It is a matter of great political importance, too, to any Government, because there are two things you cannot do for long and get away with them—one is to base your policy on palpable nonsense, and the other is to do things which Mr. 150 Speaker would not like me to mention plainly. If you step on that rake, it always comes up and hits you on the back of the head, and it will hit the Government on the back of the head.
It seems to me that that is important and that this also is of considerable constitutional importance. Note, if the Second Chamber system has that degree of validity and necessity which I have indicated, what we are now doing. We are, to many, if not to all, intents and purposes, abolishing the two-Chamber system, except for the last few months of any Parliament. There cannot be claimed to be any sort of mandate for that. At the very least it makes it necessary, and in my judgment makes it an honourable obligation on the Treasury Bench, now to face the question of the length of Parliament. I do not know why the Lord President brought that up as an argument against us. He talked about the tempo quickening. No doubt it is, in all sorts of respects. The rate at which Governments get out of step with their electors is quickening; it is quickening frightfully fast, and it may be vertiginous tomorrow—the thing has quickened very much indeed.
Another expression used by the Lord President of the Council—I think I have got it right—was "The Government's term of office." That is the fundamental constitutional fallacy which hon. Members opposite are in. This is not the United States of America. In the United States of America the Executive is elected for a term of office of four years, and has immense powers for these four years, corresponding, roughly speaking, to the powers which the Crown had in this country in the 17th century, and which the Americans, always a little old-fashioned, picked up in the 18th century. That is the power of the Executive in the United States. But then the Executive in the United States cannot count on always having a majority of Congress.
That the Executive should have these powers, a term of office of between four and five years, and at the same time the powers which anyone with a majority in this House of Commons has, is to give to the Treasury Bench greater authority than any human authority ever had before in any State. I really and honestly believe that to be true. But the only legal constitutional check—no doubt there are 151 checks in practice; there are checks in the amount of time and ability that right hon. Gentlemen dispose of, there are checks in their relation with trade unions, and so forth—the legal check was this: that if, after two or three years of office, it appears to the House of Lords, who have a great interest in not judging rashly in the matter, that a Bill passed by this House is not one which public opinion really goes with, that can be held up, not for long, at the worst only for as long as it takes to win an election. The Treasury Bench can always get its way in that manner. What we are being asked now is to make a Treasury Bench much stronger than anything which has ever been asked by any previous Government. It is fantastically foolish to say that is not a considerable constitutional question.
Nor do I believe that can be got over by the use of the mandate doctrine. I was delighted to hear an hon. Member opposite preaching some of what I thought was the truth about the mandate. When we did that two years ago we were always treated with howls of derision. They were rather like the chap at New-market, whose name I forget, with feathers in his hair, whose only cry is, "I've got an 'orse." It was, "We've got a mandate," as if that settled it, at the beginning of every Second Reading Debate. I always thought that mandate doctrine wrong, and I used to tell the Government so then. But one thing there ought to be a mandate for is a Change in the Constitution. It is not the least use hon. Members opposite pretending that they have a mandate for this change in the Constitution. I do not care whether they tell me that they printed something on the Upper House in red ink on every one of their election manifestos. In fact, they know the House of Lords had nothing whatever to do with the last General Election. If hon. Members opposite doubt that, they have only to compare the words of their manifesto in 1935, in which they said they sought power to abolish the House of Lords—and the result was that they nearly abolished themselves—with their manifesto of 1945, when they said, in a meek and gentlemanly manner, "We will not tolerate obstruction of the people's will by the House of Lords."
That is quite a different thing. It is one thing to say that you will not tolerate 152 obstruction by a chap's motor car, but quite another thing to take his basic ration away. That is what right hon. Gentlemen opposite are doing, and to pretend that there is any kind of mandate for it is the most puerile kind of political claptrap, especially when it is compared with the super mandates we are always getting from the supermen in the Cabinet, from, for instance, the Minister for Economic Affairs, who seems to think that if only I had more faith in the Redeemer, that would enable him to use compulsion to get more food for somebody else, or the curious mandate of the Foreign Secretary, who says he wants England to be great and independent in order to stand for social democracy. He has, apparently, a mandate to conduct diplomacy, even perhaps land us in a war, in order that my children should stop bullets for social democracy. They do not like social democracy. This theory of a mandate is one which should be used very sparingly indeed.
The last few words I have to say are on the point of the retrospective nature of this Bill. I do not want to overcall this argument. I clearly see that it can be overcalled. But I hope I can put it fairly. My objection to this Bill is that, first of all, it is making a conscious and considerable change in the Constitution without the public being in the least interested and without the fullest consultation. The Minister of Food dealt with any chance of the public being interested by rationing potatoes this morning. That is my first objection to this Bill. It is making a considerable change in the Constitution without making sure of full public discussion, without trying the ground in every direction for the possibility of agreement.
The second objection is this: The retrospective nature of the way in which this is being done. The retroactivity, if that be the word, is so far only within the Session. The Bill purports to alter the constitutional arrangements, not from some day after the Bill is passed, but from the beginning of this Session. I say that is logically, in the logic of Constitution-making and management, a terrific thing to do. This is the only country in the world where the Constitution largely is, as I began by saying, the statutory omni-competence of Parliament. That gives us here an immense responsibility. In every other country, when you want to make 153 constitutional changes, you have to have longer notice, larger majorities, discussion with your constituents, all sorts of safeguards of that sort. In this country, there is nothing of that sort at all. In a country where there is legislative omnicompetence and no legal or constitutional line drawn between any ordinary statute and a statute making constitutional changes, in a country such as that at a moment—a political and economic moment such as this—to purport to pass a Bill to change the Constitution from a date before that on which the Bill becomes law—that seems to me to be an immense step.
It is a step comparable to the step taken when Parliament's length was changed from three to seven years which was I think early in 1716, during the Fifteen rebellion, Civil War, invasion and all that; that was comparable with our doing it in 1940 with invasion on our doorstep. That Act of Parliament, doing that in 1716, was very much indeed disliked by the Tories as being an excessive extension of the competence of Statute, on the ground that it was making Statute too much superior to the people and the common law—that was an immense step in developing the doctrine of Parliamentary omnicompetence. It is all very well to say that now it is only a matter of 24 months against 12 months, as it might have been it against seven months, just a matter of small figures, but this is a matter of principle, looked at from the point of view which I have tried to indicate, principle which, I think, has very great legal, constitutional, logical consequences, possibly implicit in it. I say it is a great outrage that such a thing should be done at this time and in this way.
As to the argument that there had not been enough Opposition Members here today, it is a much stronger argument against the Treasury Bench that this Measure had to be brought in to safeguard what the Treasury Bench coyly calls Bill "A, "but which back benchers call the steel Bill, with so few Government supporters to listen. It cannot really be supposed that they are all frightfully excited.
§ Mr. Pickthorn
Oh, no. I have seen the Second Readings of a good many Bills 154 in this House when the party opposite was excited and interested about it, and today I counted about eight times during the opening speech and never once were there more than just over 100 Members present in all that time. This is, though I think not immediately an immensely important constitutional question, a constitutional change which possibly by its legal and logical consequences may have a profound effect.
I note another of the circumstances in which this is being done. It is being done after every advantage has been taken by the Treasury Bench and its majority to quicken procedural changes to facilitate legislation. They are getting the quickening and expediting of legislation and they are getting it from both ends, partly by using their majority in the House of Commons, which quite clearly made no attempt to understand the questions involved, to make procedural changes, and partly by passing this Bill. In those two ways they are expediting legislation.
One hon. Gentleman who supported the Bill made a very revealing remark when he said that naturally the further we got away from a General Election the greater is the risk that the House of Lords would become obstructive. That reveals a little of what hon. Members opposite mean by obstruction, just as when the Lord President the other day told us about "arbitrary." He said, talking about the eight times suggested when we could move Mr. Speaker out of the Chair, that he thought that eight times was rather an arbitrary figure and it would be better if it were left to His Majesty's Government to decide it from time to time. In the old English vocabulary that is what "arbitrary "meant, that is how it was used in the old English vocabulary, a thing being legally arranged when there was a rule about it and arbitrary when it was left to the whim of the Executive. Now the Executive are making it possible for themselves to be more arbitrary; and they are using the majority to legislate at every end, both at the House of Lords end and at the end of House of Commons procedure.
Finally, I would like to say this. I do not think any Member of this House is more anxious than I am for the complete independence of my country and I 155 think hon. Members opposite will do me the justice to believe that is true. I do not think anybody in this House is more rebellious to the notion that foreign policy should be conducted in the terms of home policy or that the home policy should be conducted in order to facilitate foreign policy—"The Left gets on with the Left, and vote for us and we will get on with the Russians." I think it was the Minister of Defence who talked about piffle and poppycock. No one is more clearly aware that that is piffle and poppycock than I am. Nevertheless it is true there are some words which it is useful to be able to use in the same sense as some other people. It is clearly impossible for us to use the word "democracy" in the same sense as the Russians. It is useful that we should be able to use the word "democracy" in the same sense as the Americans, not that we should have the same constitution or that we should regulate our affairs by theirs or that theirs should be regulated by ours. Could any American jurist regard what we are doing as anything but bitterly unconstitutional and bitterly undemocratic? Also we here talk about reeducating the Germans in law and democracy. What is any German jurist going to understand about this or what will they say of the constitutionality, the law, of this method of constitutional change?
§ Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Snow.]
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.