§ SIR MICHAEL HICKS-BEACH
I am anxious, Sir, to ask your ruling upon a point of Order, arising out of the Business of the evening. Committee of Supply stands as the first Order this evening; and I apprehend that in that case it is subject to the 21st Standing Order, which provides that—Whenever Committee of Supply stands as the first Order of the Day on Monday or Thursday, Mr. Speaker shall leave the Chair without putting any Question, unless on first going into Supply on the Army, Navy, or Civil Service Estimates respectively, or on any Vote of Credit, an Amendment be moved or Question raised relating to the Estimates proposed to be taken in Supply.But, Sir, the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister proposes to move—That the Notices of Motions relating to Parliamentary Procedure and East India, Burma (Expenses of Military Operations) have precedence of the Orders of the Day,so that, although Committee of Supply stands this evening as the first Order of the Day, yet it is by no means the first Business of the evening, and may, in fact, not be reached until a late hour. I, therefore, wish to ask you, Sir, whether, under these circumstances, the Standing Order No. 21 applies to the Order for Committee of Supply to-night, or whether any hon. Member will have the opportunity, on your putting the Question "that you now leave the Chair," of raising any question he may think it 912 desirable to raise? I think I have clearly explained the nature of my Question.
§ MR. SPEAKER
In reply to the right hon. Gentleman, I have to state that I do not consider that the fact of the Notices referred to taking precedence over Committee of Supply prevents the subsequent application of the 21st Standing Order to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. I am bound by the Rules of the House; and this Standing Order explicitly says—That when on a Monday Committee of Supply shall stand as the first Orderthe Speaker shall leave the Chair without Question put. The House will observe that, notwithstanding the interpolation of these Motions, Committee of Supply will still stand as the first Order of the Day. I may say, however, that I know of no precedent for the course about to be proposed; but the Standing Order itself is of comparatively recent introduction. I think, under the circumstances, that it is not for me to interfere, and say that Committee of Supply, standing as the first Order of the Day, must be taken if the House should decide that other Business should be taken first. It is, in my judgment, for the House itself to decide whether any other Business, of which proper Notice has been given, shall take precedence of Committee of Supply.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. E. GLADSTONE)
I desire to say a word which may simplify matters. I think the right hon. Gentleman is perfectly justified in the Question he has put; and I was aware of the point he was about to raise. But I wish to say that I would not have proposed to obtain precedence for these Motions over the Order of the Day for Committee of Supply except upon very specific grounds. As to the first Notice of Motion—namely, that relating to Procedure—I thought it would be greatly for the convenience of the House that no time should be lost, after what has already happened, in referring the subject to a Select Committee; and with regard to the second Notice, relating to the expenses of the Expedition to Burmah, it has been felt by Her Majesty's Government to be our absolute duty to avail ourselves of the very first day on which we could regularly introduce the subject, in order that 913 we might obey the spirit of the law we have to administer.
§ SIR MICHAEL HICKS-BEACH
Perhaps, by the indulgence of the House, I may venture to remind the right hon. Gentleman that, although it may be necessary to obey the spirit of the law, yet, at the same time, it surely ought to be necessary to obey the spirit of the Standing Order, and to follow that which has hitherto been the practice of the House.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Notices of Motions relating to Parliamentary Procedure and East India, Burma (Expenses of Military Operations) have precedence of the Orders of the Day."—(Mr. W. E. Gladstone.)
§ SIR MICHAEL HICKS-BEACH
said, before the Motion was put he desired to make a few observations on what appeared to him to be the very inconvenient, if not objectionable, precedent that was about to be made. The spirit of the 21st Standing Order was that it should only apply when Supply was not merely the first Order, but the first and most important Business of the evening; for the object it aimed at was not solely to facilitate the progress of the Government with Supply, but to secure that hon. Members, interested as they all ought to be in the important matters connected with Supply, might know exactly when Supply would be taken. This object would certainly be defeated in a case such as this, for the Motions relating to Procedure and Burmah would occupy an uncertain time, and it was impossible to say at what hour Supply would be taken. As to the Burmah Motion, it was his own opinion that the law would be complied with if it was brought forward at any period of the Session; but, granting that it was imperative that it should be taken that evening, that certainly could not be said of the Motion with regard to Procedure. The House ought not to be asked to take so objectionable a course under cover of this Standing Order, unless the necessity was absolutely imperative, otherwise they would be making a precedent; and on some other occasion they would be asked to postpone Supply to allow of the introduction of the Crofters Bill, or any other measure that the Government might wish to proceed with. It certainly was rather strange that, on 914 the very evening when the Prime Minister was going to appoint a Committee to amend the Rules of Procedure, he should propose to contravene the spirit of the Rules already in force. If the Prime Minister could not make some more convincing statement as to the necessity of introducing other Business before Supply, it was to be hoped that, since he had already postponed the most important Vote in Supply, he might practically comply with the spirit of the Standing Order by postponing Supply altogether.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. E. GLADSTONE)
said, that that was not a subject on which he should wish to have any difference of opinion with any large section of the House, or with the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach). Indeed, he thought it was the last subject on which he should have met with any such opposition. He would unreservedly grant that the request for precedence, if acceded to, should not be taken as an example for ordinary occasions; and if it was the general desire of the House that Committee of Supply ought not to come on at a late hour that evening, or that it should be altogether postponed, he should have no difficulty in waiving the point, and would not resist. But before making any engagement he would state to the House what he conceived to be the exact state of the case. By the necessity for making that Motion, he virtually submitted to the House the question whether they were, or were not, justified in an interference with the ordinary course of Business, which he admitted ought only to be done on special grounds, and ought not to be a precedent for all occasions. In the view of the Government, it was their duty—as they had not been permitted to make an application to Parliament for leave to charge the Revenues of India before the cost was incurred—it was their duty, in order to act in the spirit of the law, absolutely to take the very first day in their power for making that application; and when the right hon. Gentleman said, and said truly, that they ought to pay attention to the spirit of the Standing Orders of the House, then he (Mr. Gladstone) must say it appeared to be an occasion upon which an exclusive attention to the Standing Orders of the 915 House would place them in conflict with a much higher authority—namely, with that of the Realm. It was to give effect to a Statute of the Realm that they proposed that night to interfere with the ordinary course of Business as regarded Supply. With respect to the first Motion, he might say that in making that Motion at that early date he had been very much governed by a desire to show respect to the proceedings of the right hon. Gentleman himself. The right hon. Gentleman had thought the subject of Procedure one of such commanding importance that he had considered it was his duty to give Notice that immediately after the debate on the Address he should propose that the subject should take precedence of all other Business whatsoever. He (Mr. Gladstone) hardly expected, therefore, to hear from the right hon. Gentleman the minute criticisms which he had addressed to the House on the subject, especially when they considered what a wholesale invasion he was prepared to make, not only of the usual proceeding of the House, but of the rights and privileges of private Members, in order to give free scope to the discussion of this very important question. It was a question with respect to which the view they had taken was that it was undoubtedly of a very urgent character. Could they have asked the House to do what the right hon. Gentleman opposite proposed to do? He did not think they could. At the commencement of the Session that would have been too great and, he had almost said, too violent an invasion of the proceedings and of the powers of private Members. But, at the same time, Her Majesty's Government thought it prudent that this subject should not be materially delayed. What was the position in which they stood? Not that night alone, but all Government days for several weeks to come would probably be required for the discussion of Supply. That being so, if he did not propose the Committee on Procedure that night, he would be met with the same objection next Thursday or next Monday, or on any subsequent Government night. In point of fact, the objection of the right hon. Gentleman amounted to this—that the proposal with regard to the Committee on Procedure should be postponed for several weeks; because they had no power what- 916 ever of securing the introduction of a proposal of this kind, except by Motion in the early part of the evening for the suspension of the Orders of the Day. That was hardly a reasonable proposition, and not consistent with the extraordinary demand the right hon. Gentleman was prepared to make on the time of the House in connection with this question. It came to this, then—that Her Majesty's Government had no choice but either to make the proposal in this way, or to submit the question to what he might call indefinite postponement. That they could not consent to, for it would not have been just in regard to the question itself, nor fair or respectful to the right hon. Gentleman or the House. He might also add that there was a peculiarity in this matter. The Government was supposed to have the command of the management of the Business of the House on Mondays and Thursdays. That was hardly a correct supposition, however, for they had that command of arrangements only in respect of Orders of the Day. When it was necessary to make a Motion in precedence of the Orders of the Day, then application had to be made to the House for the purpose, and the judgment of the House taken on the subject. If it were the feeling of the House that the appointment of the Committee on Procedure should be postponed until Monday, or until the most urgent part of Supply was got rid of, the Government would not object. No doubt, the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General in the late Administration (Sir Richard Webster), whom he saw in his place, would place a different construction upon the Act of Parliament from what he (Mr. Gladstone) had done; but he thought he might claim to know quite as much as the late Attorney General of the construction of an Act of Parliament, and as to whether that was the right construction to put upon the Act. Of this he was quite sure—there were two things—first of all, his (Mr. Gladstone's) construction was favourable to the authority of Parliament and to the control of the Executive; while the construction of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite removed the control over the Executive established by enactments; secondly, be his (Mr. Gladstone's) construction correct or incorrect, it was a construction which they 917 had always entertained and acted upon; and, that being so, it was their duty to ask the House of Commons to act upon it. These were the grounds on which he made the Motion, which he admitted to be exceptional; but he thought the House would see that they were amply sufficient.
§ SIR RICHARD WEBSTER
said, that as the Prime Minister had made a direct reference to him, he would venture to lay before the House his view of the construction of this Act of Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman had said that he (the Prime Minister) knew a great deal more about Acts of Parliament than he (Sir Richard Webster) did. He freely admitted that, so far as Parliamentary experience went, he could lay no claim to enter into competition with the right hon. Gentleman. But, on the other hand, he would submit to the House that, both from a lawyer's point of view, and from a layman's point of view, they must not regard the construction of an Act of Parliament as affected by anything that passed in Parliamentary debate. Looking to the Act itself, he could not but think that both the letter and the spirit were opposed to the construction the Prime Minister sought to put upon it. At the same time, he might be forgiven for saying that he thought it would be a serious disadvantage if a debate upon the subject of Burmah should take place at a time when the noble Lord the late Secretary of State for India (Lord Randolph Churchill) could not be in his place in the House. Probably these two sections of the Act of Parliament were so much the children of the right hon. Gentleman that he could see nothing in them except the thoughts he wished to have expressed there. The 1st section related only to the communication to Parliament of the fact that orders had been sent for the employment of Her Majesty's Forces within three months if Parliament was sitting, and within one month of its reassembling if it should not be sitting when the orders were sent. The other section to which reference had been made did not contain one single word as to the time within which the consent of Parliament should be obtained for the application of the Revenues of India to warlike purposes. The obligation of the 1st section having been fulfilled, 918 there was no time limited for the other to be complied with. He fully admitted the power of the Prime Minister to draw distinctions about words in a way which he (Sir Richard Webster) would not attempt, for a single moment, to cope with; but he appealed to the House, and to his hon. and learned Friends on both sides of the House, whether there was one single word in the section of the Act in question with regard to the way in which the expenses in connection with Burmah should be met? He contended, further, that there was not a single word in the section which related to the question of the time when the discussion should arise as to how the expenses should be met; and he would ask the Prime Minister to point out to the House what word there was in the section which made it incumbent on the Government to raise that particular question to-night.
§ SIR GEORGE CAMPBELL
said, that the arguments of the hon. and learned Gentleman the late Attorney General amounted to this—that the law had been already broken, and that they might break it a little further without criminating themselves to any great extent. What he (Sir George Campbell) would ask was, had the Revenues of India been applied for military operations beyond the frontier or not? He believed it was undoubtedly the fact that Indian Revenue had been devoted to that purpose, and that the law had been broken by the late Government in that respect.
§ MR. T. M. HEALY
rose to a point of Order. He wished to know from the Speaker whether the hon. Gentleman was in Order in discussing the general question upon the Motion that certain Notices of Motion should have precedence over the Order for Supply?
§ MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Member is not in Order in discussing the Main Question upon the Motion now before the House. The Question now before the House is—That the Notices of Motions relating to Parliamentary Procedure and East India, Burma (Expenses of Military Operations) have precedence of the Orders of the Day.The only question is whether they shall be entitled to take precedence of the Order of the Lay for going into Committee of Supply; and whether, on Supply being called on, I should be 919 entitled to leave the Chair without Question being put?
§ SIR GEORGE CAMPBELL
We are discussing whether it is, or is not, necessary to bring on these Motions before Supply; and it appears to me that, as the law has already been broken by the late Government——
§ SIR R. ASSHETON CROSS
said, that the Prime Minister had not mentioned all the courses which might have been adopted. In his opinion, it would have been a much more convenient—and not at all unusual—course to have been pursued if the right hon. Gentleman had made a Motion that all the Orders of the Day after the first Order should be postponed; and then, after the House had gone into Committee of Supply for either a long or a short time, he might have moved to report Progress in order to discuss this question. Such a course would not have broken either the spirit or the letter of the law.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Mr. CHARLES RUSSELL)
said, he understood that the Motion was a regular one, according to the construction placed by the Speaker on the 21st Standing Order. The other point raised by his hon. and learned Friend (Sir Richard Webster) was that there was no immediate necessity or urgency for the Motion according to his interpretation of the 55th section of the Act 21 & 22 Vict. A question which was greatly discussed during the Attorney Generalship of the late Sir John Holker was as to how far that Statute permitted the Government to spend money without having obtained the previous consent of Parliament; and he owned that there was a considerable difficulty in regard to the construction of the Statute. On the whole, he came to the conclusion—and he still adhered to it—that the argument of Sir John Holker at the time the question was raised was a sound one as a matter of legal construction; for he (the Attorney General) conceived it was impossible not to see that cases would arise in which some steps involving an expenditure of money might be taken under Section 54 before it was possible to obtain the consent of the House of Commons. But the 920 question now before the House was a very different one. Everybody, he thought, would admit that, although, as a matter of strict construction, it might be legal to spend money without having got the antecedent consent of the House, yet the Government were bound, at the earliest moment after they had taken a step which was at least doubtful, to come before Parliament and obey the spirit of the Act. This was simply what the Government proposed to do now, and this course was in accordance with Constitutional practice. What was the objection raised on the opposite side? It was that the noble Lord the late Secretary of State for India (Lord Randolph Churchill) was not in his place. Well, whose fault was that? The noble Lord knew very well that the question would be brought forward, for he had the information given him on Thursday; but, instead of being in his place to discuss it—a matter which the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) thought so important—he had gone on a war expedition of another kind. There was no violation of the true spirit of the order of procedure in the course which the Government proposed to adopt on the present occasion; and he submitted that they were bound to take the earliest moment they could to communicate to the House the steps they had taken, and to obtain the consent of the House. In doing so, they simply obeyed the evident spirit of the Statute as it occurred to him.
SIR JOHN GORST
said, he was rather disposed to agree with the hon. and learned Attorney General that it was the duty of Her Majesty's Government to come forward, at the first possible moment, to ask for a Resolution of this kind; but why, if they had wished to do so, did they not come forward last Friday? It was true that by a Standing Order Supply must be the first Order on a Friday; but the Government did not scruple to override a Standing Order for their own convenience, and they might have done it on Friday. They might just as well have overridden the Standing Order then as now; or they might have allowed the Committee of Supply to go on in its usual course till half-past 6 or 7 o'clock, and then have brought this Motion forward. The Speaker had ruled that the Motion was not in violation of the letter of the 921 Standing Order; but would any hon. Member venture to assert that it was not contrary to the spirit of that Order? He protested against the postponement of Supply.
§ Question put, and agreed to.