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Government Legislation (Cabinet Responsibility)

Volume 934: debated on Tuesday 28 June 1977

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asked the Prime Minister whether he intends to waive the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility in relation to the passage of Government legislation through the House.

I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which my right hon. Friend gave to the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition on 16th June.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the answers that he gave to supplementary questions on Question No. Ql were extremely shifty? Will he now give a clearer reply? Is he personally prepared to accept collective responsibility for the proposals which will be included in the Government's programme at the request of the Liberal Party?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to some reports in the newspapers of discussions between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Liberal Party. Obviously those discussions will proceed before any comment needs to be made upon them either here or elsewhere.

If the hon. Gentleman is referring again to the question of collective Cabinet responsibility, I repeat, so that he along with the rest of the House may understand what I said, that the maintenance of the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility is a matter of supreme importance for the good government of this country. However, I again repeat that there have been occasions in our recent history and over the past 20 or 30 years when it has been thought perfectly right by the House of Commons that those rules should be relaxed. I believe that this is pre-eminently such an occasion because of the relationship between the House and any Assembly in Europe.

Irrespective of what Lord Melbourne may have said, does my right hon. Friend agree that the allegedly dissenting members of the Cabinet are far more representative of British public opinion at this time than the Brussels psychopaths on the Opposition Benches?

I have much too bashful a nature to respond to the temptation offered by my hon. Friend.

With regard to the precedent of 1932, on which the right hon. Gentleman so confidently and consistently relies, does he recall that those members of the Cabinet who sought and were accorded the indulgence to differ at that time very speedily left the Cabinet altogether? Will he undertake that that precedent will be followed in that respect on this occasion?

If only the right hon. and learned Gentleman's history were as good as his law—and that is not a tremendous compliment—he would know that the reason that led to the departure of the Liberal Ministers and the Labour Minister on that occasion following the earlier agreement to differ was a further breach of faith by the then Conservative Government.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that during the period of the Heath Government—the last Conservative Government—there was a free vote on the question of entry to the Common Market? Are we to assume that that free vote applied to the Cabinet, since if it did not there was obviously discrimination against Cabinet members? Did not the majority of the Heath Government totally agree with entry? Could my right hon. Friend clear this up, because many of us are intrigued by the argument that is being put by the other side of the House in relation to free votes and collective responsibility?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. This was a most important issue and we were told during those important discussions that there was to be a completely free vote. It is true that it was only at the last moment before the debate that the announcement was made, but none the less, if members of the Cabinet had wished to exercise their right under that free vote, I assume that they were entitled to do so.

Is it not a fact that all the members of the Cabinet voted for entry to Europe, and does that not completely destroy the whole point that the Leader of the House was making?

That only confirms the charge of full-hearted sycophancy against that Cabinet.

What the Leader of the House has said proves the collective responsibility of that Cabinet compared with the total collective irresponsibility of this one.

The right hon. Gentleman is mistaken in the matter. There have been free votes in the House and they are not entirely a novelty in the House of Commons. They have applied throughout the whole range. To have a free vote which applies to some hon. Members of a governing party or of the House and not to others seems to be a denial of the principle of the free vote itself and is, indeed, an unfree vote. In these circumstances, we are following the principle—of which I have spoken before and which I now repeat—that it is possible to sustain the importance of collective Cabinet responsibility, as we have done, but it is also important to acknowledge that there have been occasions in British history when that has been legitimately relaxed in the interests of the House.