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Government Legislation (Cabinet Responsibility)

Volume 934: debated on Tuesday 28 June 1977

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asked the Prime Minister if he will waive the constitutional practice of Cabinet responsibility in relation to the passage of Government legislation through the House.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Michael Foot)

In the absence of my right hon. Friend, who is attending the Silver Jubilee Review of the Fleet, I have been asked to reply.

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

Is it reasonable to assume that the Lord President will be fighting for the same right for his colleagues to vote against his devolution Bill as he has extracted from the Prime Minister in relation to the direct elections Bill?

I do not think it would be reasonable either to make that assumption or to make assumptions that appear to be indicated in the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. I refer him again to the reply that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave on this subject. I think it is right that Cabinet responsibility should be sustained as a general rule, but there have been some occasions in the past when that rule has been relaxed in the case of previous Governments. If the House looks back to those precedents, it will see that that is the situation.

Does the Lord President recollect the Cabinet rule as laid down by Lord Melbourne that it does not matter what we say provided that we all say the same thing? Now that the Government have apparently abandoned the second half of that rule, can we assume that they still adhere to the first part— namely, that it does not matter what they say?

Despite my eagerness to retain good relations with the Liberal Party, I hope it will not be thought offensive if I say that I am not sure that Lord Melbourne's rule was a very good one for all subsequent Governments to have followed. However, if hon. Members look a little more recently in history they will see that there was a relaxation of Cabinet collective responsibility at the time of the agreement to differ in 1932 proposed to the Cabinet at that time by another Lord Hailsham. At an earlier period before 1914 there was a relaxation of Cabinet collective responsibility on the important constitutional issue of women's suffrage. That was a relaxation that was approved at the time by the whole Liberal Party.

How comes it that sauce that is considered suitable for the direct election goose is not considered suitable for the devolutionary gander?

I know of my hon. Friend's special interest in this matter. I think that he should have declared it when he put his supplementary question. I am sure that no one is better aware than my hon. Friend that the proposals for devolution that we shall be resubmitting to the House in the next Session have been fully supported in our manifestos and at our conferences. I am sure that that will weigh with him strongly.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although the fleet might be afloat with the Prime Minister, the devolution Bill has sunk? How does he plan to discharge his responsibility to the Scottish people rather than waste time wondering what the Cabinet will do?

The devolution Bill has not sunk. HMS "Phoenix" is going to rise again. I hope that we shall have the hon. Gentleman and his party enthusiastically on board at the time.

As the right hon. Gentleman seems to be so well briefed on various matters of history this afternoon, may I ask whether he has reminded himself of the occasion in 1971 when he preached to the Parliamentary Labour Party on the need for collective responsibility in leadership as the only basis upon which his party could follow a coherent strategy? Does He still believe that today?

I am certainly prepared to look at any of my speeches to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. I am glad that his only instruction has been to follow along those lines. If he looks up what I said on these matters, he will find that I also agreed that the Common Market legislation was put to the House in a manner which I thought at the time, and still think today, did not permit the fullest discussion of many of these matters, including proper discussion of the relationship between this Parliament and the European Assembly. I said that at the time and I repeat it now.

However much the right hon. Gentleman talks, he is really saying that when collective responsibility is abandoned the party immediately lacks a coherent strategy. He knows that the Government of which he is a member lack any coherent strategy today and that he bears a great deal of the responsibility for that situation.

I could not quite detect a particular question among those assertions. However, I repeat that I believe that it is strongly necessary, in the interests of proper constitutional government in this country, that collective Cabinet responsibility should be sustained. It is a most important principle. I also believe that there are occasions—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"]—when certain rights of this House are involved, when there has to be some relaxation. There are good precedents for that. I recommend to the right hon. Gentleman the history lessons that I am casually offering to the House at this moment.