§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Antony Head)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The Bill is in the same form as the one introduced last year. It is designed to prolong the Army and Air Force until 31st July, 1955. Last year when I introduced a similar Bill there was comment from hon. Members opposite because, owing to the fact that the Government had not put down Amendments, it was ruled not possible for hon. Members to put down any Amendments. Through the usual channels we informed hon. Members that this Bill would be in the same form, and I understand and appreciate that hon. Members wish to comment on the Ruling. I think that hon. Members on both sides will agree that as there is a Select Committee considering the whole question of the revision of the annual Act, it would be most unwise to take their recommendations piecemeal.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House the authority on which he states that Amendments which my hon. Friends might have wished to put down would have been out of order, because there was no reference to that?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
I do not see how a discussion about Amendments could be in order at this stage.
§ Mr. Head
I apologise. I was led away, not for the first time, by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). I think that hon. Members will agree that in view of the work being done by the Committee, it would be most sensible and logical to await the completion of their report and to take it all at one bite.
I hope that I shall be in order, on behalf of the Service Departments, if I pay tribute to the work now being done by that Committee. It has had no fewer than 65 meetings. It has worked in great harmony and, if I may express an opinion at this stage, with considerable success in undertaking a very large task. I should not like to conclude without paying tribute to the excellent work which the Committee has done.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham, East)
It is notoriously difficult for anyone to say anything on the Second Reading of this Bill without getting out of order. With a view to walking that procedural tightrope correctly, I should say at once that it seems to me that any question of whether any hypothetical Amendments either were in the past or might in the future be in or out of order is a matter which we must leave over for the present to be adjudicated upon by the Chair when we reach the Committee stage.
The Bill is the device by which the Government invite Parliament to prolong the duration of the Army and Air Force Act. The reasons Governments have to ask that permission annually are weighty, historical and constitutional, and I shall not attempt to weary the House by rehearsing them. Indeed, this annual asking and granting of permission is one of the devices whereby it is made formally clear that sovereignty in this country resides not with the Government but with 1889 Parliament, a matter of which Governments need to be reminded from time to time.
It is true to say, as the right hon. Gentleman has suggested, that this year neither on Second Reading nor on any subsequent stage of the Bill are the Government likely to find that the House is at all cantankerous or slow to grant them this annual permission, but I think it right to make it clear, on behalf of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House and, indeed, of the House of Commons and Parliament as a whole, that the fact that we shall not make any difficulties this year does not mean that Parliament regards lightly, or as of no account, its annual opportunity for saying "yes" or "no" when the Government ask for this permission. The sole reason for treating the matter comparatively formally this year is that when the Select Committee has subsequently reported, Parliament will be in a very much better position to consider the Army and Air Force Act as a whole.
When a tribute is paid, such as that which the right hon. Gentleman has paid to the work of the Select Committee, it is usual for the speaker from the Opposition who follows the Minister to say that his sentiments are fully shared. I am in a little difficulty in joining in the very kind compliments which the right hon. Gentleman has paid to the Select Committee because I am a member of it. However, on behalf of all the other members of it, I might perhaps be allowed to say that, with that exception, I am sure that' the compliments of the right hon. Gentleman are well deserved.
It might even be appropriate on this occasion to say what I am sure that all members of the Select Committee who may be present would like me to say, and that is that these compliments apply in very high measure to the right hon. Gentleman who is the Chairman of the Committee. I think that I shall carry all members of the Select Committee with me if I also add a word of commendation to the Under-Secretary of State for War who has had to combine membership of the Committee with the ordinary Departmental duties of his office. I am sure that I shall have the agreement of those of us who are not in agreement with him politically when I express our appreciation. I ought also to add our appreciation of the work of 1890 the Departmental Committee which has worked side by side with the Select Committee and without which it would have been impossible for the Select Committee to do its work.
Having remained upright on the procedural tightrope so long, I will conclude by reminding the Government that the fact that the Bill is likely to have a very easy passage this year does not mean that anyone in any quarter of the House is unaware of the constitutional importance of this occasion.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Mr. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)
We certainly make progress. Last year the Government tried to get the Bill through "on the nod"; this time we have been favoured with an opening speech by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War which we all very much appreciate, but I do not think we ought to allow this Bill to be given a Second Reading without receiving one or two further assurances from the right hon. Gentleman as to the future.
In 1952, the Bill was presented with Amendments, which meant that the matter could be fully discussed. I shall not discuss the Amendments, but simply state the fact that the Bill was presented with Amendments, with the result that 16 hours were spent on discussing this important matter at the Second Reading stage. We are now precluded, by the Ruling of the Chair and the presentation of the Bill in a special form, from saying all that we would like to say on Second Reading. In 1953, the Bill was presented with no Amendments, which also precluded a discussion similar to that of the previous year.
By the provisions of Clause 2, the Bill keeps in force the Army Act and the Air Force Act, copies of which I have here. In 1952, this House decided that the Army Act and the Air Force Act were antediluvian, out of date and obsolete. Therefore, the Act which we are now continuing in force under Clause 2 of this Bill has already been decided to be out of date. A Select Committee was set up, and we were promised—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The hon. Member is being very ingenious, but all that this Bill does is to extend the operation of the Act. We cannot go into the history of the matter.
§ Mr. Simmons
I am saying that this Bill extends the Army and Air Force (Annual) Act, which has been described as obsolete, and has been so decided by this House, and I am only asking that we should have some assurance from the Secretary of State for War about the future. The right hon. Gentleman has given some assurances this evening, and has said that he knows of the good work which the Select Committee has been performing and has paid a tribute to it. It has been at work longer than we expected, because the right hon. Gentleman promised in 1952 that we would have an entirely new Army and Air Force Act, but we have not yet got it. The right hon. Gentleman says that the Committee has been doing a very good job, and, knowing the members of the Committee, I should imagine that they are doing as good a job as possible without the assistance of an exprivate soldier, which they have not got at present.
Before I assent to the Second Reading of this Bill, continuing in operation an Act which is obsolete, I require from the right hon. Gentleman an assurance that, in the interim period between now and the coming into operation, we hope next year, of the entirely brand-new Army Act, he will see that the Army is administered, not in the spirit of the old and obsolete Act—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The right hon. Gentleman could not in this debate give that assurance, because it would be out of order.
§ Mr. Simmons
We are being asked in this Bill to continue the operation of the Army Act, and we have already discussed, under your Chairmanship, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the work of the Select Committee which was set up to amend the Act and to present a new Act at the earliest possible moment. All that I am asking is that the spirit of the new Act should be the spirit in which the Army is administered from now on and until the publication of the new Act.—
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Legh]
§ Committed upon Monday next.