HC Deb 16 March 1882 vol 267 cc1021-5

asked the Prime Minister a Question, of which he had given him private Notice—namely, whether his attention had been called to a letter which had appeared in The Times of Wednesday the 15th of March, signed "A Conservative M.P.," impugning the correctness of the Prime Minister's statement as to the time necessary for carrying the Ways and Means Bill through its various stages; and, whether the right hon. Gentleman adhered to the statement that it was necessary to take the Report on the 20th of March, in order to avoid a breach of the law?


Sir, this is, I may say, the first time in my experience that the statements of the Government in regard to a matter of this kind have been called in question, especially that they are called in question by a Gentleman who has held Office in former Governments, and who has held Office in the Treasury; As this has been done, however, probably it will be the wish of the House that I should fully answer the Question of my hon. Friend behind me. I think this Question terminated with the words, "in order to avoid a breach of the law." But I shall answer the Question as if it had run "in order to make a certain compliance with the law." As there are some steps and stages of this matter which do not depend on the discretion of the Government, or even on the discretion of the House, and we have no command over them, it is quite evident with regard to these that all we can do is to form our computations on reasonable principles. That is what we have done, as I think, and I adhere most strictly to the declaration I made in this House on Monday last. With regard to the Question of my hon. Friend, my attention has been called to the letter to which he has referred; but I do not think it necessary to enter into the letter, which I have not studied with great care, because the letter, as I understand, rests entirely upon the postscript, which contains the heart of the matter; and it is very evident that the "Conservative M.P.," whoever he might be, is a gentleman who has never served in the Treasury, or he could never have written the postscript to that letter. The errors I should call three. Two of them are matters of fact; the third is matter of opinion, and the House will be able to form its own judgment. The writer of the letter says that if the Royal Assent is to be given on Wednesday, March 29, there will be two days to spare. Well, when we say there are two days to spare, the meaning of that is that there are two days not wanted for the transaction of Business. That is totally and absolutely incorrect. On the contrary, the two days will be closely filled with the complex and various proceedings that are necessary, after the Royal Assent has been given to the Ways and Means Bill, before an expenditure of public money can be made. If inquiry were made into the matter I have not the least doubt that the practical officers who conduct these operations—for they are not political operations—would satisfy every reasonable demand upon the subject. It is also to be observed, in order to make more intelligible the present state of the case, that it is only within the last 12 or 14 years that proceedings, especially where they touch the Exchequer and Audit Board, in compliance with rules now laid down, require somewhat longer time and somewhat greater care and deliberation in carrying them through than used to be the case in the old time when the rule was different. These two days, therefore, are not days to spare; and in illustration of that, I may say that on no occasion since the year 1871, when the new system of audit was hardly in full operation, has the Ways and Means Bill been passed later than the 29th of March. Only twice has it been passed so late as the 29th of March, never later since 1871. But then the writer of this letter says that the Bill having been read a first time in the House of Lords on Friday, March 24, it would pass through all its stages on Monday, March 27, and a messenger might be sent to Mentone on that evening. Now, what is necessary is this. Of course, I assume that the House of Lords proceeds in its ordinary form. The Bill, it is said, would be read on Friday the first time in the House of Lords, after being read a third time in the House of Commons. On Monday it would go through all its stages in the House of Lords. But the House of Lords begins Business at a quarter past 5 o'clock. You will say that the Business might be concluded, perhaps, as soon as 6 o'clock. That having been done, intelligence that the Bill has passed through all its stages must be sent by telegraph to Mentone. The time occupied by the message in travelling is uncertain; but, unquestionably, it would amount to several hours. According to the "Conservative M.P.," this procedure having terminated, we will say, at 6 o'clock, and the telegram requiring four or five hours for transit—and certainly less could not be prudently allowed. ["Yes!"] Well, I will not quarrel with you on that point, and will take it at three hours, or a further rationally shorter period, and supposing it does, you will see the effect immediately. Supposing, then, the message arrives at Mentone at 10 or 11 o'clock. It is stated in the postscript to the letter that the messenger would leave Mentone that night; but the objection to that is that the only express train he could leave Mentone by departs in the afternoon at 4 o'clock. It would not be easy for the messenger to leave by that train, when the proceedings here do not conclude till 6 o'clock, and the telegram does not reach Mentone till three or four hours afterwards. Then, thirdly, the assumption of this postscript is that one of the stages of the Bill is to be taken on Wednesday, the 22nd. Now, I say we should have been grossly culpable if we had assumed that a stage of the Bill would be gone through on Wednesday. When this matter was first brought under my notice I immediately struck out Wednesday, and I am responsible for that striking out. We have had a little illustration to enable us to judge whether that was a prudent course or not, for at 10 minutes to 6 yesterday my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War proposed to take a stage with the Report of the Votes obtained the night before. An objection was taken and the proposition fell to the ground. We are absolutely at the mercy of any single Member of Parliament as to a stage being taken. I have shown, therefore, I think, how far from trustworthy the writer of this letter is in his computations. But that I may expose myself to criticism, I will give what I call a safe assumption as to progress upon this matter. But though it is a safe assumption as to progress, it would leave the financial part of the work which succeeds the passage of the Ways and Means Act in a condition of such compression that it might readily become confusion. Suppose that on Monday, the 20th, we obtain Report of Supply, and that under the present altered Resolutions of the House the Bill is read then a first time. On Tuesday, the 21st, the Bill would be read a second time. On Thursday, the 23rd, the Bill would go through Committee. On Friday, the 24th, it would go through the third reading, and have its first reading in the House of Lords. On Monday, the 27th, it would go through its remaining stages in the Lords. This would be telegraphed to Mentone, and a messenger would leave Mentone by the next express train at 4 P.M. on Tuesday. He would arrive on Wednesday evening, the 29th, and the Royal Assent would be given on the 30th. Now, that is the only computation perfectly sound as regards Parliamentary procedure. But I hope we shall do much better than that; because, as I said, the Royal Assent on the 30th imposes such difficulties upon the Departments that it is impossible for any reasonable person willingly to subject himself to those difficulties. On the other hand, as I hope might be the case, if no impediment were offered on Wednesday, then the advantage gained would be very great indeed to the Department of the Treasury, and the Audit and the Treasury would at once be relieved; because if the Bill passed through its stages on Friday a telegram would be sent to Mentone, and the messenger would come from Mentone in such time that the Royal Assent would be given on Tuesday, the 23 th, or possibly even on Monday; and if it were, it would not be a bit too soon to insure perfect deliberation and regularity in all the proceedings. You say the House of Lords is bound, of course, to accelerate its proceedings. We have no right to expect the House of Lords to alter its procedure in order to enable Members of the House of Commons to debate at a certain length a Motion that they may bring forward. I adhere, therefore, in the strictest manner to the statement I have made. I think I have shown that the errors in this postscript are such as to render entirely unsafe this letter as a basis of calculation.


I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman a Question having relation to the answer he has just given. I have not given him private Notice; but I believe he will be able to answer it. I wish to ask if he can state whether, in his experience, it has ever occurred before that a charge of misrepresentation on the part of the responsible Ministers of the Crown, purporting to come from an hon. Member of the House, has been made anonymously?


Sir, I am not a great student of anonymous letters in newspapers. I am not aware that I have ever written an anonymous letter in the course of my life, and I must confess that I have no wish to encourage the practice by noticing them. I may frankly own that I did not dwell on the letter itself as much as I ought to have done. It seemed to me that, like a lady's letter, the virtue of it lay in the postscript. I hope it does not charge me with misrepresentation; but if it does I am sorry for the writer.