§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE ADMIRALTY (VISCOUNT HALL)
My Lords, I think it will be of assistance to your Lordships' House generally if I make a brief statement of the view His Majesty's Government take of the present occasion. This preliminary may serve, even. if it does not succeed in shortening our proceedings, at least to clarify the position Your Lordships will remember that our proposal On August 13, when we last met, was that this House should stand adjourned for public business until October 20, provision having already been made (in parallel with that in another place) by Order of the House on November 12 last, for an earlier meeting being called by the Lord Chancellor, or the Lord Chairman of Committees in his absence, after consultation with the Government, should that seem necessary or desirable.
The noble Marquess opposite moved as an amendment to this that the date of reassembly should be to-day September 9, and one is indeed very pleased to see such a crowded House. I think I am within the recollection of your Lordships when I say that the principal reason the noble Marquess urged for this earlier date was that this House might keep a vigilant eye upon the use of the allegedly vast powers sought by the Government under the Supplies and Services (Extended Purposes) Act, to which noble Lords. opposite had certainly only consented with considerable reluctance, and apparently with this early meeting in contemplation. I admit that, later in his remarks, the noble Marquess added that the general development in the economic situation would be very closely allied to the Bill, now an Act, which had been lately under discussion, and a general discussion of that kind, he said, might be quite proper.
1410 But whatever may have been in the minds of the noble Marquess and his friends opposite, His Majesty's Government certainly did not expect to be asked to assent to an earlier meeting of this House alone, for the purpose of a further debate on the economic situation generally, in the course of which we should be expected to make an important statement or statements of Government policy. Moreover, it is equally certain that the noble Viscount, the leader of the Liberal Party opposite, had no such extravagant idea of the character of the proceedings of to-day's meeting. Here are the words he used, which I quote:I hope that it is to be made quite clear that, if this House is summoned to meet again on September 9, it will only be for anything more than a formal sitting if some business of urgent importance has arisen meanwhile… . We have had a very long and very arduous Session with a great deal of massive legislation, and I think that members of your Lordships' House, as well as officials, are entitled to a sufficient rest.He further said:Public spirit is a great virtue, and a high sense of Parliamentary duty is greatly to be praised. But like other virtues, that ought not to be carried to extravagant excess. So we may hope that on September 9 it may be necessary only to summon here a quorum of the House, which is, as we know, three members.The noble Viscount and those who voted for the House to reassemble to-day have been much more successful than they had anticipated!
My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, while he did not press his opposition to the proposal of the noble Marquess to a Division, was, however, careful to reserve the position of His Majesty's Government, for he said:While it is, of course, for this House to decide to what date it will adjourn—and, I should not dream of standing in the way; your Lordships' wishes must be supreme in this matter—it is for the Government to decide what they will do when the House does meet.Now, without any further preamble, propose to tell the House that His Majesty's Government cannot agree that it is proper for the present occasion to be used for a general debate upon the state of the nation or, indeed, as an opportunity for eliciting any new statement of Government policy. In our view, whatever may be the constitutional right of your Lordships to meet as and when you please, it would certainly not be constitutional for His Majesty's Government to 1411 regard a meeting of this House alone, in the middle of the Parliamentary Recess, as a meeting of Parliament for the making of an important announcement of Government policy. Indeed, your Lordships yourselves would object, and very rightly so, if His Majesty's Government summoned only members of another place for the same purpose while they left your Lordships still inoperative and in adjournment. And yet, though I need hardly remind your Lordships that the other place is the Chamber of the popularly-elected representatives of the country, you are asking us to treat them as of no account—
§ NOBLE LORDS: No.
§ VISCOUNT HALL
—and to give your Lordships information upon Government policy while we deny it to another place. Neither this Government nor any other Government that I know of can have one policy in regard to the sittings of another place during the Recess and another policy for your Lordships' House. We could not refuse to meet another place until the 20th October and at the same time be willing to meet your Lordships this afternoon for a general debate on the economic situation.
We do not challenge your Lordships' constitutional right to meet apart from the other House. That is a convenience of which Governments in the past have constantly availed themselves. In the normal course of the business of a Session one House may well have legislative or other business to do while the other place—and very naturally this is usually your Lordships' House—have nothing before them for which to meet. But no one can pretend to represent to-day's meeting in the Summer Recess as in the normal course of business. When Parliament is in recess, its recall within that period must be for the Government of the day to decide under the emergency arrangements made by either House, the Opposition being of course entitled to put such pressure upon and to make such representations to them as they can command in the country should they consider recall necessary.
I should say to your Lordships that it is not the Government's intention that any speech other than the speech I am making at the present time shall be made from this Bench during to-day's proceedings. 1412 I am afraid we must decline to go beyond that. In the absence of my noble friend the Leader of the House, and of the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, both of whom are, as your Lordships know, unavoidably absent abroad, it has fallen to me, who am but a comparatively recent member of this House, to make this statement; but I can assure your Lordships that my words represent the mind and the intention of His Majesty's Government, who have given the most careful consideration to the constitutional problem presented by our meeting to-day. I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I have spoken plainly and bluntly; but I am sure it is best in the common interests of us all, irrespective of Party, that these things should be said plainly so that we may know, beyond all doubt, exactly where we stand.
I have no desire to pursue the argument as to the constitutional propriety of today's proceedings. The British Constitution is fortunately an unwritten one, and as such matched to the political genius of our people. It is an instrument, not a master, and I can easily imagine the same powers being used both constitutionally and unconstitutionally. It is largely a matter of the spirit and little, if at all, of the letter. Noble Lords opposite have made no secret of the fact that they do not approve of much to which we have set our hand. But they have not used their constitutional powers in a manner contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. Rather have they chosen the path of understanding and co-operation, and we have got along very well so far.
I freely and gladly acknowledge, not only on my own behalf but on behalf of His Majesty's Government, that noble Lords opposite have hitherto 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 for complaint. For this we are indeed grateful to the noble Marquess, to the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, and to the noble Lords behind and on either side of them. I feel, therefore, the more emboldened to hope that, upon due consideration of the views which I have ventured to put forward to you] Lordships' House on the present occasion, noble Lords will be ready and willing to adopt the course which I have proposed.
§ 2.49 p.m.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, your Lordships will have heard the statement which has just been made to your Lordships' House by the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, on behalf of the Government, and especially those portions which deal with the Motion standing in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, with the affection and respect which the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, always commands in this House and also, if he will allow me to say so, with considerable regret. It is, of course, true, as he himself said, that the primary purpose for which this House has met to-day is to examine any Orders which may have been made under the Supplies and Services (Extended Purposes) Act which was passed through this House just before the adjournment in August. The decision of this House to meet again on September 9 arose, as your Lordships know, in no respect from any desire to embarrass the Government. The aim, I think, as was explained quite clearly at the time from these Benches, was to deal with certain defects in the machinery of the Constitution which appeared to us to have been exposed by the passage of that Bill at the time it took place just before the Summer Recess.
In the past, all important legislation went through Parliament in the ordinary way, and the House of Commons and your Lordships' House had an ample opportunity of examining each clause and each sentence of each measure before it became effective; but lately, as we know, there has been a new development, not confined to any one Party alone—the growth of delegated legislation. It is true that even here a certain protection was given against the misuse of Orders produced under Acts of this character by the Power of Parliament to pray against them and, if necessary, to annul them if they were thought undesirable. But if Parliament is not sitting, Orders can, of course, be made and become effective (because they become effective immediately they are made) weeks or even months before they can be considered by Parliament and, if necessary, rejected. By that time—I am only recapitulating what was said three or four weeks ago—Orders may have been in operation for a considerable time and a great deal of harm may have been done.
1414 It therefore seemed desirable, whatever might be done in another place, that your Lordships' House, at any rate, should not adjourn for too long a period but that it should meet at suitable intervals during the Recess and examine any Orders that might have been made and express an opinion upon them. That, as the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, quite rightly sail, was the main purpose for which this House has met this afternoon and I believe it is not really disputed in any part of the House that that was the proper action for us to take. But I will not deny that it seemed to us on this side of the House likely that an early meeting of the House might be extremely valuable for a wider purpose. After all, we live to-day in times of storm and stress. There is no or e but must be aware of the hazardous position in which this country at present stands. The gap between imports and exports to-day—there may be different figures on this—amounts to something in the nature of £700,000,000, and, as we all know, unless that gap can be bridged the whole standard of living of the British people, which has been built up by so much labour by past generations, is likely to suffer a catastrophic decline.
Every thinking man and woman in this country is watching with anxious concern the situation as it develops. It is not my object to-day to enter into controversy with the Government as to the police which they have seen fit to adopt to deal with it, though they will not expect me to agree with all of it. But I think every one of us, whether in this House or outside, is anxious to know what steps are being taken to remedy the situation; and we had hoped that an opportunity would be afforded by this meeting of your Lordships' House for the Government to make a statement on the general position as they see it, to give information as to developments in the situation since we last met to explain the reasons for certain steps which they have felt obliged to take, and to give us, if they could do so, some indication of their hopes for the future. That was our aim in pitting down the Motion in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton. Any statement which the Government felt they could make would have had no captious reception. The situation is obviously far too serious to justify mere Party scores. Our aim—I am sure that I speak for the Liberal Opposition as well as for the Conservative 1415 Opposition—would have been, as it indeed always is, to do what we can to help the country out of its difficulties.
It was in the hope that the Government might be willing to co-operate in this examination of our national problems that the Conservative Opposition gave notice of a broadly-worded Motion, which was so framed as to enable the Government to make some statement which could be the basis of discussion. The Government representatives in the House of Lords were aware of our intention to facilitate such a statement by means of a general Motion before the House rose. Indeed the machinery for ensuring that the Government representatives were informed as to points which were likely to be raised was in fact discussed very briefly in informal conversations with more than one Minister. I cannot pretend that these Ministers were extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of a debate. I will not ask the Government to believe that. But so far as I know, no serious, certainly no fundamental, objection was raised, and at any rate nothing was said of the nature that has been said by the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, to-day.
The first time that I was aware of any really strong objection on the part of the Government to a debate was on August 28, that is, little more than a week before the House was due to meet. On that day I received a communication from the Acting Prime Minister, the Lord President of the Council, writing not in his personal capacity but on behalf of the Government; he said that he wrote with the concurrence of the Prime Minister. In this communication, referring to the possibility of a general discussion on the economic situation, he indicated that the Government were strongly opposed to any such proposal. The grounds he gave were not simply, as one might have expected, that a discussion at that time would be undesirable at the present delicate juncture when difficult negotiations were taking place. One would have understood an argument of that kind. The objections of the Government were based, as they have been to-day, upon the wider considerations mentioned by the noble Viscount just now. The Acting Prime Minister made it clear that the Government were unwilling, on what he called "constitutional 1416 grounds," to make any reply to the House of Lords while the House of Commons were not sitting. On what authority this very novel theory is based I still, even after listening to the noble Viscount, do not know. The noble Viscount said—I hope I am not misinterpreting his words—that it would be treating the Commons with no respect if the Government were to make a statement in this House while refusing to call the other House. I think "refusing" is a very queer and significant word to use; but it is his word, not mine. At any rate, however that may be, surely there is a very simple remedy to that situation. If a statement needed to be made, the right course would surely have been to recall the other House. In that case a statement could be made to both.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
That seems to be rather a petty point of view. It is not a question of whether this House is dictating or not. We have met because we consider that we have a duty to perform. If in the view of the Government the situation is such as to require a statement in both Houses, surely the fact that the House of Lords has already decided to meet ought not to be any bar to recalling the other Chamber. Moreover, my Lords, in any case, whatever may be the decision that the Government may have thought fit to take about recalling the other place, surely it need not necessarily affect us. So far as I know—and I have made most careful inquiries—it is constitutionally within the province of either House to decide when they adjourn, when they will meet, and what business they will transact; and, indeed, noble Lords opposite will be able to recollect many occasions in the past when quite important statements of policy have, for instance, been made to the other place on a Friday, when your Lordships' House has not been sitting. So it is not a case of its being constitutionally necessary for both Houses to be in Session.
It is to be noted that neither the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, nor the Acting Prime Minister, in his previous communication, based his case either on Erskine May or any of the other great constitutional authorities. Their interpretation was, I understand, purely the product of 1417 their own unaided genius. Those of your Lordships—and I hope there are many—who are acquainted with the works of Lewis Carroll will remember the incident in Alice in Wonderland when Alice appeared at the trial of the Knave of .Hearts, and the King who was acting as Judge, being anxious to exclude her, invented a new regulation of the court, Rule 42, "All persons more than a mile high leave the Court" to which Alice retorted: "That is not a regular rule. You invented it just now." That appears to be exactly the attitude of the Government. They had intended, for reasons which may have been good or bad, to send away Parliament for nearly three months and, when this House was unwilling to he sent away, they invented a new principle of the Constitution: Rule 42: The Government can make no statement to the House of Lords while the House of Commons is adjourned. I believe—I say this seriously—that this will be widely felt both inside and outside this House, in all Parties, to be a most undesirable innovation. I do not intend unduly to labour this point. After all, this country is not in a mood to concern itself merely with constitutional niceties. What it does want is information—and more information—on the hard facts of the situation, and also as to the plan of the Government for meeting these hard facts. It is on those grounds that I think all of us on this side of the House most of all regret the Government's decision.
To my mind there would have been a great advantage both to the Government and everybody else in their giving some guidance to Parliament in the present situation I had, indeed, imagined, in my simple-mindedness, that they would have welcomed the opportunity. After all, much has happened since Parliament adjourned early in August. There has been the visit of Sir Wilfrid Eady to the United States, there has been the apparent difference of view between representatives of the Government and Mr. Snyder as to the interpretation to be put on Article 9 of the American Loan Agreement. There have been recent statements by members of the Government on the extension of Empire trade and the possibility of Imperial discussions on this subject. There has been the Government announcement on new austerities. For instance, there has been the announcement of the abolition of the basic petrol ration, 1418 which strikes so very cruel a blow at many hundreds of thousands of British people. I do not say that this is not justified; I have not the information, and I really do not know. But surely Parliament should he given the reasons for steps of that kind. There are, in addition, the protracted and seemingly thorny negotiations with representatives of the mineworkers. The coal industry is now nationally owned. The British people, as we are constantly told, are the shareholders. Surely they have the right to know what is happening to their property. All these, and a great many other questions into which I will not go in detail, are of vital interest to the citizens of this country. Why should they have to wait nearly two months before any statement is made to them in Parliament?
The Government may very well have good reasons for not wanting to recall the members of the other place. They have had, as all of us are aware, a very gruelling summer. No doubt they deserve some rest and refreshment. But why not take advantage of this heaven-sent opportunity, when one House of Parliament at any rate is sitting? It is not as if the Government were not making any pronouncements of policy to anyone. They seem to find not the slightest difficulty in making statements of broad policy, on all subjects, to outside bodies. Almost daily there are declarations in the Press, declarations on the radio, declarations to the Trades Union Congress. I saw in the paper, I think this morning, that the President of the Board of Trade is making a very important pronouncement this week to the leaders of industry. None of us complains of these declarations. The more the British public are kept informed of the position, the better for everyone concerned. But why should Parliament alone be excluded, even when it is sitting? That is surely the proper place for the examination of policy, where it can be debated and discussed by recognized experts, of whom there are many in your Lordships' House, with the proper object of helping the country out of its difficulties.
I gravely fear that the attitude of the Government on this occasion will strike a severe blow at the prestige and authority of Parliament. It will be regretted by all those—and there are many in all Parties—who hold the British Constitution dear. 1419 But, my Lords, it is clear that the Government are unwilling to make a statement on all these matters. In such a situation, no doubt a debate on the Motions standing in the names of my noble friends Viscount Swinton and Lord Teviot would largely be stultified, and there seems to be no advantage in continuing them. Nor does it appear that there is anything important to be discussed arising from the Supplies and Services Act. Many people will find this a little surprising. The Bill was hustled through Parliament with feverish haste before the House rose in August. We were told that it was urgent and vital that the Government should have the very widest powers immediately; and there were fears raised that there would be very far-reaching action indeed. That is the main reason why we thought it our duty to meet this afternoon. But there is one thing, I think, that never occurred to any of us, and that is that no important Orders at all would be made. That, however, appears to be the position. All we can do is to take note of it.
And now, my Lords, in conclusion, to return for one moment to the question of an economic debate. The time may, of course, come when things reach such a pass that it will be desirable for this House to express its views, whether there is a Government statement or not. But in the meantime I can only advise the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, and Lord Teviot, to withdraw their Motions, though no doubt they and other noble Lords may have something to say before the House adjourns for a further period, as to matters upon which Parliament and the country can hope for early information from the Government when the Government feel in a position to give such information. I do not think that any of your Lordships need fear that what has happened to-day will injure the reputation of this House. After all, we have done our best. We have tried to give the Government an opportunity, which they themselves might well have sought, of discussing with Parliament the dangers threatening our country, methods of avoiding those dangers, and some announcement of the policy which they intend to follow. If they refuse to take advantage of that opportunity, it will be a matter of deep disappointment not only to this House but to the country as a whole. I hope that, after further 1420 consideration, they will recognize this, and that on the next occasion we meet—and may it be at no distant date—they will agree to give the House and their fellow citizens the guidance for which every one of us, to whichever Party we may belong, are looking; and I shall be glad of any assurance that the Government can give to-day that, if circumstances require it, Parliament will be recalled at an earlier date than October 20.
§ 3.12 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT SAMUEL
My Lords, the noble Viscount who is leading the House to-day in the absence of the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, did me the honour of quoting some words from a speech which I made in your Lordships' House on the occasion of the Motion for the adjournment a few weeks ago. The words that he quoted were in the latter part of my speech, and were by way of qualification of the main point which I made at the beginning of my speech, in which I said that on behalf of my noble friends I supported the Amendment which had been proposed and that the reasons for the Amendment had been so fully and ably set out by the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition that it was unnecessary for me to do more than say that we agreed with them and regarded them as conclusive. That was the main point of my speech.
Afterwards I said as a qualification that of course the House would not be drawn away from its holidays if there was no special business to transact, merely—and I now quote the actual words—in order to engage in the discussion of more or less normal business which may happen to have accrued meanwhile.But surely things more important than merely normal business have accrued meanwhile, apart from any questions of Orders made under the wide powers of the Supplies and Services Act. Not only have things accrued meanwhile, but many things have not been done that should have been done and this has caused a very great degree of anxiety. The speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, would almost lead us to the conclusion that this House serves one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to hear Government statements. That is by no means the case. This House exists in order that its members may express their views on matters of importance, and those views are often 1421 expressed on behalf of great representative bodies of opinion and with a great weight of personal authority.
In so far as the Government statement is concerned to-day, I confess that I find that there is much force in what the noble Viscount said, and 1 do not, therefore, find myself in agreement wholly, or even mainly, with the views expressed by the noble Marquess, the Leader of the Opposition. When important Government statements are to be made in Parliament it is expected that they should be made simultaneously in both Houses, and if on some occasion a Minister who is a member of the House of Commons—it may be the Prime Minister or some other Minister—speaks on behalf of the Government and a simultaneous statement is not made here, this House feels itself aggrieved unless it is caused, as the noble Marquess has suggested, by an emergency which has required such a statement to be made on a Friday or on some other day when this House is not sitting. That is well understood here, and no complaint is made. But from time to time during the period that I have had the honour to speak on behalf of the noble Lords on the Liberal Benches here, it has fallen to me to draw the attention of the Government privately to the fact that some statement has been made in the House of Commons and has not been relayed here. Generally, the explanation given is that it has been clone through inadvertence or because it was regarded as not of sufficient importance, or because of some unforeseen circumstance that compelled the default, and assurance has been given that it would not occur again. And that assurance has always been accepted in a good spirit.
That is the only way in which a bicameral Legislature can work. Each House must endeavour to accommodate itself to the convenience and wishes of the other House. It is as though two men were working a cross-cut saw. It would not do if one man came one day to do his part of the job and the other one came the next. Therefore I should not be disposed, myself, to attack the Government for being unwilling to make a full statement on the economic situation in the absence of the House of Commons at their own desire—a statement which members of that House would not be able to debate in the interests of their own constituencies and which they would only consider some weeks later. I think that 1422 that would cause considerable resentment in another place, and if on some later occasion this House were to complain that some Minister who was a member of the House of Commons had made an important statement there which was not being repeated simultaneously here for the discussion of this House, they might refer to the events of the present time as a precedent and say that the House of Lords could not complain in that instance because they did much the same thing in September, 1947, when they attacked the Government of the day for not answering their criticisms at that time.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, may I be allowed to interrupt to ask the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, if he would kindly explain if he is speaking of a time when both Houses are sitting or of a time when only one House is sitting? There would be no complaint in your Lordships' House if a statement were made in another place while we were not sitting.
§ VISCOUNT SAMUEL
I think, if I may say so, that that is rather a legalistic argument. I am looking at the situation as it now is—namely, when the House of Commons is not sitting. Are we to attack any Government in these circumstances for not engaging in a general survey If the economic situation for the benefit of the one House that is sitting? If we do so the other House might say that we had no ground for complaint if, on an occasion when they were sitting and we happened to be sitting for other business or were not available, a House of Commons statement was not repeated here. I confess that for that reason I had not thought myself of putting down any Motion for to-day asking the Government to make any statement, and I was surprised to see from the Order Paper that the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, had done so. I think that the noble Marquess is quite right in advising his noble friend not to press that Motion, because it seems to me that it would create some measure of ill-feeling between the two Houses if it were pressed on this occasion.
But that does not alter the duty that may lie on individual noble Lords as members of this House. If they feel that they have matters of importance to lay before this House and the country they have the fullest right to do so. The appearance of this House to-day is by no 1423 means that which it presents when only a formal quorum is present. It is evident that great numbers of your Lordships have come here, although this is a day in the Recess, under a feeling of very great anxiety and with a sense that the interests of the country require that this matter should be fully ventilated and that the whole nation—all classes of the community and not least the coal miners—should be made aware that Parliament, at any rate that branch of Parliament which is now in session, does feel that the present state of the nation is one of the utmost gravity and it is not improving. I shall not go into the merits on this occasion, but no one can say that the economic situation is improving. It is on the contrary rather deteriorating. And time passes. Your Lordships will remember the lines:But at my back I always hearTime's winged chariot hurrying near." .It is hurrying fast now, and drawing very near.
§ 3.20 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON had the follow-Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government, what developments there have been in the economic situation since the House adjourned, and what further steps have been taken by the Government to meet the present difficulties of the country; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: I do not propose in the circumstances to move this Motion, but I will reserve for the Motion on the Adjournment the observations which I wish to offer to your Lordships. In view of something which was said by the Leader of the Liberal Party, I think it only fair to state, confirming what was said by the Leader of the Opposition, that the Motion standing in my name on the Paper was put down in full agreement between us, and with the full cognizance of all those on the Government Front Bench with whom we deal in this House. However, I do not move.
§ LORD TEVIOT, who had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the enormous powers now held by them, it would not be expedient in the public interest and with a view to restoring public confidence both in this country and abroad, to prepare, produce and explain, in detail, 1424 targets for major industries, including mining and agriculture, so that the overall effort demanded of the nation shall be clearly and readily understood by all; and move for Papers, said: My Lords, I am going to adopt the same attitude as my noble friend who has just sat down. I, too, shall have one or two remarks to make on the Motion for the Adjournment.