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House Of Commons Accommodation (Committee's Report)

Volume 648: debated on Thursday 9 November 1961

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On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 2nd August you announced to the House your acceptance of the Report of the Committee on House of Commons Accommodation. That is an advisory Committee to you, and it reports to you. As I understood it in the context of what you said— that you accepted the Report—this matter could have been debatable, or we could have discussed it. Broadly speaking, the House accepted the Committee's Report but you indicated that, on the same day, a Question would be answered by the Chairman of that Committee. On that day we had the announcement that the proposals of the Committee for increasing the accommodation—which could be done only during the Summer Recess—would be postponed for one year.

I should like you to tell me, Sir, whether a Committee reporting to Mr. Speaker is timed on the caprice of a Minister; whether, generally speaking, the Legislature is reckoned to be rather inferior to the Executive in this matter; whether House of Commons Committees can be overruled in this way. It means, of course, that this whole project has had to be put back by one year. It must have been in the mind of the Minister of Works, because he answered on the same day, and I should like to know whether there was a lack of frankness on the part of the Minister to you.

As it is, it seems, Sir, that your announcement would, inadvertently, mislead the House, and that would be most unfortunate. Although I do not press for an answer now, I should like you to say whether, in view of the setting up of the Committee again—and hon. Members do not wish to labour for a year merely to have their work cast away like this—you would consider whether the Committee was treated with the courtesy it deserved.

I hope that as far as the Chair was concerned the Committee was treated with the utmost courtesy. We are all extremely grateful to the hon. Baronet the Chairman of the Committee, and to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members for the work that they did. As I understand, the Committee advises me as representing the House. I am a mere figurehead to receive its advice, and I then indicate, on behalf of the House, what recommendations are accepted.

The hard fact is that we are dependent on the Government of the day for getting any money to execute these recommendations—we have no other source—and my function in the matter stops, I suppose, at indicating, on behalf of the House, that we accept the recommendations, which I did. I cannot do that in practice, without finding out beforehand what recommendations are acceptable to the Government of the day, as it would otherwise be a bogus operation, merely deceiving the House.

What happened about the fulfilment of the recommendations was, I suppose, that in relation to certain financial stringencies the Government of the day decided that they would have to postpone execution of the recommendations. I do not think, as the representative of the House in this matter and indicating acceptance of the recommendations, that I can carry the matter further.

Generally speaking there has not been the best of relationship between this Committee of the House and the Executive. The House of Commons Offices Act and a number of other Acts from 1812 to 1849 concerning, for instance, the remuneration of servants of this House, are not subject to Treasury veto and it is a humiliating sort of business that the House of Commons itself should be subject to the whim of the Executive. I should have thought that, constitutionally, the Legislature preceded the Executive and that when we lay down the law the job of the Executive is to carry out the will of this sovereign House. Is it the case that the House is not dependent on the whim of the Government?

I hope that the hon. Member will not think that I am being discourteous to him if I indicate that I do not accept that that is an altogether accurate description, in general terms, of the position. I do not wish to take up the time of the House, but if the hon. Member would like to pursue the matter further his remedy is to put down something to reduce the Minister of Works' salary, and test the matter on that.

The remedy which you suggest, Sir, would not meet our difficulties in this case, which arise from the fact that an all-party Committee representing this House, pro ratato its political content, unanimously decided upon certain recommendations to you, Mr. Speaker. These were reported to the House and on 28th March you reported:

"The Minister of Works proposes to start work on the roof space scheme at the beginning of this year's Summer Recess."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th March, 1961; Vol. 637, c. 1135.]
Because of that, a report, giving fuller details of the scheme which is urgently needed to alleviate the working conditions of hon. Members and their secretaries, was made to the House by the Committee through you.

That same day a Written Answer was given to the effect that the Minister of Works, replying to the Chairman of the Select Committee, had decided to postpone the scheme. That left us with no time in which to challenge this decision before the House rose for the Summer Recess and, therefore, de facto,cancelled the whole Report, because the work had to be done in the Recess or not at all.

The point I am putting to you, Mr. Speaker, is that as I understand the position a Committee that serves under you on behalf of the House is, in making recommendations acceptable to the House, formulating a kind of administrative law.

There was no challenge to the Report at that time. The Report then was, presumably by the constitutional precedent in this case, accepted by the House. Then, unilaterally, the Minister of Works, by means of a Written Answer in HANSARD that day, overrode the unanimous decision of the Committee.

Order. Even if he had, we cannot debate it now. I can assure the hon. Lady that as far as I know there has been no constitutional impropriety on the part of the Chair. If the hon. Lady wants to have a battle with Her Majesty's Government I will not get in her way, but she cannot put it upon me.

Since this Report represented the unanimous opinion of the Committee and, as I see it, the opinion of the House on this matter, which concerns not only the accommodation of hon. Members but also the proper functioning of the officers and offices of the House, and since all that has happened is that that opinion has been, shall we say, overruled by the Government declining to find the money for it, may we not ask you, Sir, as the formal recipient of the advice and as the representative of the House in a matter of this sort, to suggest to us, now or later, how best we may bring the Government to account and discuss their reasons for failing to find the money to meet the necessary requirements of the House?

I will certainly consider that matter at the invitation of the hon. and learned Member. I do not necessarily imply that I would be better at devising means than are other advisers available to him. Perhaps our combined endeavours might meet the needs of the moment.

New Member Sworn

Frank Henry Taylor, esquire for Manchester, Moss Side.