HC Deb 29 January 1897 vol 45 cc828-42

moved:— That so soon as the Committee of Supply has been appointed and Estimates have been presented, the business of Supply shall (until it be disposed of) be the first Order of the Hay on Friday, unless the House otherwise order on the Motion of a Minister of the Crown moved at the commencement of public business to be decided without Amendment or Debate; and the provisions of Standing Order No. 56 shall be extended to Friday. Not more than 20 days, being days before August 5 on which the Speaker leaves the Chair for the Committee of Supply without question put, counting from the first day on which the Speaker left the Chair under Standing Order No. 56, shall be allotted for the consideration of the annual Estimates for the Army, Navy, and Civil Services, including Votes on Acount, the business of Supply standing first Order on every such day. Provided always, that on Motion made after notice by a Minister of the Crown to be decided without Amendment or Debate, additional time, not exceeding three days, may be allotted for the business of Supply, either before or after August 5. On the last but one of the allotted days, at 10 o'clock p.m., the Chairman shall proceed to put forthwith every question necessary to dispose of the outstanding Votes in Committee of Supply; and on the last, not being earlier than the 20th of the allotted days, the Speaker shall, at 10 o'clock p.m., proceed to put forthwith every question necessary to complete the outstanding Reports of Supply. On the days appointed for concluding the business of Supply, the consideration of such business shall not be anticipated by a Motion of Adjournment under Standing Order No. 17; nor may any dilatory Motion be moved on such proceedings; nor shall they be interrupted under the provisions of any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House. Provided always, that the days occupied by the consideration of Estimates supplementary to those of a previous Session, or of any Vote of Credit, shall not be included in the computation of the 20 days. Provided also, that two morning sittings shall be deemed equivalent to one 3 o'clock sitting. That this Resolution be a Standing Order of the House. He said: Mr. Speaker, I think this rule, which was in operation all through last Session, on the whole gave satisfaction to all quarters of the House. I am the last person to suppose that any rule that we may adopt is absolutely without inconvenience, there must always be a balance of inconveniences. I am myself of opinion that the balance in this case is in favour of the rule which we tried experimentally last Session becoming part of our permanent rules. I desire once and for all to put upon record my sense of the manner in which all Parties of the House co-operated to make this rule a success. [" Hear, hear!"] I have seen it attributed to my peculiar foresight and ingenuity that what some critics describe as a reform was carried out with success, but I disclaim all merit whatever in the matter. The merit belongs entirely to the majority and minority in this House, who together resolved that, as far as they could, they would see that our Debates on Supply were conducted in a manner and with that moderation as regards the expenditure of time which can alone make it possible for a Government to give time to the adequate criticism by private Members of our general financial and administrative system. The Government endeavoured, as I believe every Government will always endeavour, to so allocate the Fridays in each week as to meet the convenience of Members of the House. It was in the power of the House last Session, and would be in any future Session, to so deal with the Votes that came on on the earlier Fridays as to drive very important questions on to the later Fridays, and no doubt if that be done the rule would unquestionably break down and we should then revert to the unfortunate system which prevailed so many years, under which the Government first passed all the legislative measures which they thought necessary, and then squeezed into the last weary fortnight of the Session the necessary discussions on the Estimates. I understand from some quarters of the House that there is a desire—I think a natural desire—to try this rule as an experiment, at all events for one more Session. [" Hear, hear!"] I entirely sympathise with that view, and I shall not press the last line of the Resolution which proposes to make the Order part of a, permanent legislative arrangement. While the Government will continue in their earnest endeavour to so arrange the business of the House on the successive Fridays as to suit the convenience of Members in all parts of the House, I trust the House, on its side, will during this Session, as during last Session, do all they can to make the rule which was passed in their interests, and not in those of the Government, a real working success. I do not think it needful to say more. If objections are raised I shall be glad to deal with them as far as I can in the reply which I shall have the right to make. Meanwhile, I hope the House will enter upon the experimental part of the Motion with an earnest desire to make the experiment a success. [" Hear, hear!"]


The right hon. Gentleman does not move the last line?


No, Sir.


read the Motion omitting the proposal to make the order a Standing Order, and was about to put it to the House, when

SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT (Monmouthshire, W.)

rose and said: I think we are all in an agreeable humour this afternoon. [Laughter and " Hear, hear!"] The Leader of the House has spoken in very moderate terms of the introduction of this new practice—too moderate, I think, because after the experience of last Session we are grateful to him for the introduction of this rule, and particularly for the manner in which he has worked it. [Cheers.] Its success depended entirely on the manner in which the Leader of the House dealt with the rule, and on this side of the House I think we have every reason to acknowledge that the right hon. Gentleman gave us every facility we could have desired, and he has given us credit, which I think was deserved, on this side of the House—[The FIRST LORD of the TREASURY: "Hear, hear!"]—for our efforts to make the rule a success. But the permanent success of the rule must always depend on the manner in which it is dealt with. In framing a permanent constitution we must not rely too much on the virtues of the living Sovereign, because we do not know how far they may be inherited or not by his successor. So I think the right hon. Gentleman has done wisely by stating that there should be further revision of the rule before it is permanently established on the Standing Orders. Of course the danger is that we might have a great block of undiscussed Estimates at the end of a Session. That did not happen last year, but if ever it did, I do not think the rule would prove a success or be accepted by the House. We ought all to endeavour to avoid such a difficulty, and of course one that must be experimental is whether the number of days allotted to Supply are exactly the right number, and it might in the future be necessary to consider whether a large number of days ought not to be allowed. The right hon. Gentleman has shown a wise moderation in agreeing that the rule shall be a sessional order for this year, and I think he may rely upon its being met, as it was last year, by every inclination on our part to make it a success. [Cheers.]


said that as a private Member he viewed with a great deal of suspicion this cordial co-operation of the Leader of the Opposition with the Leader of the House. He himself objected to the Order, chiefly because it contained a time limit and the hateful principle of the guillotine. This rule worked well last Session, but it did not follow that it would work well every Session, any more than it followed that the present Government would always be in power with a majority of 150 at their backs and a weak and demoralised Opposition in front of them. [Opposition laughter.] They might have a man ruling over them in the future who would make a very different use of the rule. [" Hear, hear!"] He submitted that the Leader of the House should be satisfied by taking Fridays and leave out the time limit, which was unnecessary. He also asked the Leader of the House to secure Tuesdays to private Members who wished to move resolutions on abstract subjects. In Supply there was not sufficient scope for discussing such subjects. Private Members would take the uncertain chance of the ballot if Tuesdays were left to them, say, until Whitsuntide. ["Hear, hear!"] He should like to know whether the Factory Acts, the Free Trade Acts, and the Acts for the Protection of Seamen, would ever have been passed had the private Members of the time been deprived of the opportunities they then possessed of bringing forward abstract questions before the House. All the subjects dealt with by those Acts were brought forward by men like Mr. Bright, Mr. Cobden, Lord Derby, and Mr. Plimsoll, when they were private Members of that House. Yet those measures remained unimpeached for their value at the present day. By depriving private Members of their opportunities for addressing that House they were causing the oratorical power of the House to deteriorate. As matters stood, under recent innovations the oratory of the House was confined to the two Front Benches and to the hon. Member for King's Lynn. The time of the House was now entirely occupied by the Government, and the privileges of private Members were entirely taken from them. There could be no doubt that private Members were desirous of retaining some, at all events, of their old privileges, the existence of which was now threatened. He did not intend to divide the House upon the question, but he sincerely hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would give his attention to the points that had been urged upon him in the course of this discussion, and would give hon. Members a satisfactory assurance with regard to them.

MR. T. LOUGH (Islington, W.)

thought that the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down would scarcely be satisfied with what had fallen from the two Front Benches in reference to this subject. He however, was very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury for the assurance he had given the House that the claims of private Members would receive his sympathetic consideration. He thought that the right hon. Gentleman had been a little too modest when he attributed the success of the rule last Session, not to the Government, but to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Hon. Members must not rely upon the accuracy of that assertion in too great a degree. The resolution of last Session had placed the time of the House absolutely in the hands of the Government. The Government having brought forward that resolution, were bound to make the working under it a success, and in every way to meet the wishes of the Opposition in connection with it. But that might not always be the case, and he should like to know whether the right hon. Gentleman could not introduce some words into this very drastic resolution which would prevent any subsequent Government from abusing it. The right hon. Gentleman might himself be a private Member some day, and he appealed to him therefore to so frame the resolution as to prevent its abuse by some future unscrupulous Government. Another point to which he desired to draw attention was that last Session many hon. Members, especially those sitting on the Opposition side of the House, did not approve of the sudden closing of Supply, which they feared might lead to some indecent expressions of objection. Happily, last Session those fears proved to be unfounded. But on the concluding day some 30 votes remained for discussion, and five Divisions were had upon them before the guillotine fell. Fortunately hon. Members were all in such an amicable mood on the occasion that the passing of the last vote was received with general cheering. On that last day some two millions of money were voted, and in his opinion it was a very serious matter to vote such a large sum at a single sitting under the procedure which the rule imposed, especially seeing that the votes included those relating to Uganda and other highly contentious subjects. The fact that such was the case ought to make hon. Gentlemen thoughtful before they agreed to this resolution. Another point was that before this resolution was passed the House had the power of selecting the subjects in the Estimates which they desired to discuss, but after the resolution was passed that power passed to the Government, who might postpone the passing of a vote on which an inconvenient discussion was likely to arise until the guillotine had fallen. He thought that the right hon. Gentleman might effect a great improvement in the resolution by striking out the words "Votes on account." He would not move an Amendment to that effect himself because he had no desire to take up a hostile attitude towards the resolution, but he hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would consider the point. He might, however, remark that the introduction of votes on account was an evidence of the careless way in which the Estimates had been prepared.

MR. G. C. T. BARTLEY (Islington, N.)

thought that the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury had taken away a great deal of the objection which private Members had to their time being taken away. He, however, could not account for the extraordinary fatality that always rendered it necessary for a Conservative Government to make drastic rules still more drastic. It was now proposed to institute a "time gag." He fully appreciated the excellent way in which the principle of the resolution had worked last year. Of course they had now in office a perfectly sound Government who would do nothing that was unfair, but that might not always be the case. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Colonies speaking on the subject in 1893, had said that a "time gag" might be used by an unscrupulous Government for avoiding debates on inconvenient subjects. He asked why in the name of common sense should the Conservative Party seek to emphasise and enlarge the effect of this rule, and to give the Government of the day such a power. The Government ought to rest satisfied with obtaining Fridays for Supply, and should not ask the House to go further in that direction.


said that he wished to point out to the hon. Member behind him, that there had been ample time to discuss all matters of interest arising out of Supply last Session. He did not think the Government were open to the complaint urged against them by the hon. Member. For that side of the House it might be said that they seemed to pass their time in defending the Government against their own followers. He and those on the Opposition Benches said that, although the Government was a bad one, they might go farther and fare worse. ["Hear, hear!"] He observed, however, that hon. Gentlemen on the other side limited their opposition to making complaining speeches. The Member for St. Helens was a gentleman who, vowing he would never consent, consented; he said that he disagreed with the Government, but that he acquiesced in their wishes as a faithful follower. He doubted whether the Government cared one sixpence whether the hon. Member took their view or not. [Laughter.] All that they wanted from the hon. Member was that he should acquiesce and that, as a dutiful follower, he should walk into the Lobby with them, which he was sure the hon. Member would do most faithfully and humbly. For his part, he was glad the Government were going to renew this rule. He regarded it as an advantage to the Opposition. He thought they had under it more time for discussing the Estimates and that the time was better apportioned than formerly.

MR. B. L. COHEN (Islington, E.)

said he had not intended to take part in the Debate on this most reasonable, and, he would add, most useful proposal of his right hon. Friend, which he thought would have been accepted by the House with the unanimity and alacrity which the success of last year, in his judgment, justified, if, indeed, it did not dictate. But he was unwilling to leave the support of the Government proposal entirely to the intermittent compassion of the hon. Member for Northampton. He did not yield to either of his hon. Friends who had spoken on that side in his horror of the gag when applied to check discussion on proposals for legislation. Hut it seemed to him that both his hon. Friends lost sight of the difference between the gag when applied to Supply and to Bills submitted to that House. That difference was emphatically pointed out by his right hon. Friend when he last year made for the first time a proposal similar to the one now under discussion. Supply must be, and always was, voted sooner or later in each Session of Parliament. This was a proposal to make it sooner instead of later, and to render more effective the discussion of Supply than would be possible were it left, as was done by the late Government, to the last week or ten days of the Session. He was surprised that the Government proposal should be objected to as abridging the privileges of private Members. For himself he should not regard that as a great calamity, but as a fact the suggestions of the Leader of the House would give greater and not less opportunity to private Members, as they insured a certain and a considerable number of days to Supply, which was the delight of the critical private Member. His hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens spoke of what was accomplished on private Members' days in old times by such illustrious Members as Bright, Cobden, and Lord Shaftesbury. Yes; but in those days they did not have 70 to 100 questions put on every Government afternoon to Ministers which took one hour or one and a-half hours of Government time; they did not have two or three Motions for the Adjournment of the House in each Session; and Government Bills were not discussed at the length and during the number of days as now. He had no right and no desire to criticise these altered conditions, but he said they necessitated altered procedure, and because he believed the proposals of his right hon. Friend would conduce to the more efficient and more expeditious dispatch of the business of this House that he should give them his cordial support, and he hoped they would be unanimously accepted by the House.

MR. F. A. CHANNING (Northampton, E.)

said there was one matter to which he wished to call the attention of the Leader of the House. His hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens had endeavoured to drive a bargain with the right hon. Gentleman as to the days to be given to private Members. He did not wish to drive a bargain, but to ask for an act of justice—to make a suggestion which he thought had not been made before. During the last Session it was inevitable that foreign affairs and colonial affairs should occupy a large portion of the time of the House, and he supposed that it was inevitable that their active and energetic Irish friends should manage to obtain a very large and disproportionate share of the time of the House. He asked the Leader of the House and the Secretary to the Treasury to consider the necessity of providing adequate time for the consideration of the large English Votes—Votes for the Home Office, for the Board of Trade, and other Votes. He did not blame the Government that these Votes were postponed to a time of the Session when it was impossible that full time should be given to many important questions. He should ask the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary to the Treasury to bear in mind, in allocating the time, that although the English Members did not press the Government with vigour and vehemence, there were many questions of great importance, not necessarily controversial questions, to be brought up on the Votes. ["Hear, hear!"] He had urged last year when this proposal was before the House that the House should be associated with the Government in the allocation of the time to be devoted to the various Votes. He was only desirous of saying now that if they did not find a spirit of fair play and reasonable consideration, as to which he appealed to the Government, this question would come up again.

MR. VESEY KNOX (Londonderry)

ventured to protest against the suggestion that Ireland took up too much time of last Session. Certainly it was not in excess of their tactical capacity—[laughter]—and he rather gathered from the statements of the Leader of the House, that this Session Ireland, particularly on financial questions, would have to be heard. It was evident that for the future every patriotic Irish Member, on whatever side of the House he sat, must watch carefully every proposal either of an Irish or an Imperial character. Certainly it would be the duty of himself and hon. Friends to take up rather more of the time of the House in Supply during this Session than they had done of late years. [A laugh.] He mentioned that point as one which might be taken into account in calculating as to the probable success of this Rule in future.

DR. CLARK (Caithness)

hoped the Leader of the House would consent to the slight modification suggested on his own side of the House, namely, to strike out the words of the Rule giving power to a Minister to allot three additional days to Supply. If that alteration were made he thought it was probable the clause would work well and might safely be made a Standing Order. The Rule had been successful because the Government carried out the reform suggested by Members below the Opposition Gangway. The late Government accepted it and agreed to give Fridays for Supply; they agreed to lay down the principle that they should have two lines, so to speak, one for legislation, and the other for Supply. When Members knew that by obstructing Supply they could not obstruct legislation, they would not be inclined to waste time in Supply. At the same time he thought the votes for the Board of Trade, the Local Government Board, and the Board of Agriculture should have a better place than they had last Session, because last year the House passed Bills practically giving those Departments the right to legislate. The First Lord must admit that the discussion had been very reasonable. To-night they had adopted a new precedent, and the right hon. Gentleman would agree that never before had a Government been allowed to take the nights of private Members without a protest. [The FIRST LORD of the TREASURY: "Hear, hear!"] As a matter of conciliation the right hon. Gentleman might agree to the Amendment suggested.

SIR ROBERT REID (Dumfries Burghs)

congratulated himself upon having been one of the very few Members on the Opposition side of the House who throughout had supported these Rules. The Rules had unquestionably been successful, but at the same time they had taken something away from private Members. It therefore seemed to him that something was due from the Government to private Members in return, and he suggested that that might take the form of a little further progress on the part of the Government in the direction of reforming the Rules of Procedure of the House. There was one way in which, without disadvantage to public business and with very great advantage to the business of any Government, some equivalent could be given to private Members, and that was to make some provision for the continuance of Bills in one Session at the stage at which they were left in the preceding Session.


hoped that the time which the Government necessarily saved by rules of this kind would not be used to pass Bills of a minor character, to which strong objection was taken, without giving some return to the general body of Members. Towards the end of the Session there was a great desire on the part of subordinate Members of the Government to push on their own schemes, and they were quite ready to take advantage of the indulgence which the House allowed to the Government as a whole by rules like this. He and his Friends were entitled, under the circumstances, to claim that the Government should use their power and influence with their own supporters to prevent those Irish Measures to which there was no objection being blocked, so that Irish representatives should not return to their constituencies empty-handed.

SIR JOHN LUBBOCK (London University)

did not think it would be to the general advantage that Bills should be hung over from one Session to another, but he believed it would be a great boon to private Members if they were allowed to ballot on Tuesdays for Bills or Notices of Motion. The result would be that many valuable Measures in the hands of private Members would have some chance of passing, which was almost impossible under the present Rules.


said his right hon. Friend the Member for the University of London had made a suggestion which he should, of course be glad to consider, although it was not strictly germane to the rule they were now discussing. It was undoubtedly the fact that only those private Bills that were not only uncontroversial, but so uncontroversial that no kind of opposition existed against them, had any chance of passing, and he was afraid there had been cases such as those alluded to by the hon. and learned Member for Louth in which Bills that were really quite unopposed had been, for one reason or another, objected to at 12 o'clock. One side of the House thought the other side had taken an unreasonable objection, and they directly retaliated by taking opposition to a Bill or Bills, and so the contest went on to the general injury of all concerned. It was inevitable that that kind of vendetta should be pursued, and the only suggestion he had to make was that great care should be taken that mere arbitrary objections should not be taken to Measures after 12 o'clock at night. Before he came to the criticisms and suggestions nearly connected with the Rules before them he ought to notice what fell from the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Dumfries. When the hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that a Rule should be passed to carry Bills over from one Session to another he must have recognised the fact that there were no body of gentlemen in the House who would probably more object to that than private Members, in whose interests the change was proposed. He had always thought there was a great deal to be said for the change which was long ago advocated at great length by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Plymouth, but he believed it would be found that any Government who suggested such a plan would meet with very severe opposition from the first persons whom the hon. and learned Member for Dumfries desired to benefit—namely, the private and independent Members of the House. He would now leave these subsidiary questions and come to what was more revelant on the present occasion. The hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Seton-Karr) backed up by the Parliamentary authority of the hon. Member for North Islington (Mr. Bartley) had raised grave objection to what was called the time limit, which was part of the rule, and he suggested that the first part of the rule should be passed, and that referring to the time limit left out. This, it was thought, would be the better arrangement. But his hon. Friend must see that in making that request they were asking for a great deal. The Government in laying down a time limit did so in order that the rule should not be used as an instrument for obstructing legislation; for if there was no time limit—if that part of the resolution was deleted they might find themselves in August or September with a mass of the Supply undisposed of, and the time being occupied in delaying legislation. ["Hear, hear!"] That, he thought, would be a one-sided bargain. He recognised that the present or any other Government might be driven out of the rule, but the consequence of this would be that they would have to revert to the old system and cram Supply into the late days of August and September. They would really give the Government more power without a time limit than with one, as they could not force the hand of the Government to bring on Supply at their desire, for the Government could easily put off Supply by Votes on account until the months he had just mentioned. Of course he did not approve of that course —of postponing Supply until the House had partly emptied itself, and when hon. Members were too exhausted to discuss any difficult question fully. ["Hear, hear!"] He admitted, therefore, that the rule might be passed without a time limit, but he urged that that rule as it stood tied the hands of the Government far more than the course for which the hon. Member for Islington contended, and even under the worse management with regard to Fridays it would be impossible to prevent hon. Members from discussing, week by week, the administrative shortcomings of the Government. The hon. Member for West Islington (Mr. Lough) had remarked that he would like to see Votes on account left out of the rule. He doubted whether it would be wise to do so, but before definitely pronouncing on the point he should like to see how the rule worked for another Session. The hon. Member seemed to think that the necessity for Votes on account had something to do with the laxity, or bad arrangements of the Government. But that was not so. All Governments must take Votes on account in order to carry on the business of the country, and no skill on the part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary to the Treasury, could possibly avoid the necessity. The hon. Member for St. Helens, referring to Tuesdays, had said with perfect truth, that questions could be brought on and discussed on those days under the old rule which it would be practically impossible to discuss on Fridays under the Estimates, and he referred to discussions on Tuesdays which had been of great value, and which had been calculated to bear fruit in the development of the policy of the country. That was true, and he should be desirous to preserve, as far as possible, a reasonable number of Tuesdays for the use of private Members, but private Members, as far as his experience went, constantly showed their appreciation of this privilege by having an early count and going home to dinner. [Laughter.] When his hon. Friend appealed to him that no Tuesdays should be taken before Whitsuntide he must surely have felt that he was making a request to which neither the present, nor any other Government could possibly accede. But the Government had no desire to take more Tuesdays than was absolutely necessary. Last Session the Government adhered to this rule; Fridays were never interfered with except in respect of Government Bills, and he hoped that experience would be repeated. He hoped that under no provocation would the Government be induced to infringe the rule to take Supply every Friday during the Session. ["Hear, hear!"] While there was every desire to preserve Tuesdays as far as possible for private Members, that must be made subordinate to those private questions in which not only the Government, but large numbers of private Members were interested. His hon. Friend appeared to think that unless private Members were bringing forward or discussing some abstract resolution they were no better than blind animals, following blindly the direction of the Government or the Opposition as the case might be. That was not the view he took of the functions of a private Member. He was for many years a private Member, and he did not remember that he ever brought forward an abstract resolution on a Friday, and he repudiated the idea that during those years he was nothing better than a blind animal. [Laughter.] He thought it would be desirable in the course of the present Session to give some priority to those important Votes in Supply, winch were not discussed at great length in a previous Session, and if the House would consent for the purposes of Supply within reasonable limits, to regard two or three Sessions as one, these important Votes which had not been adequately discussed in a previous Session, might, in course of time receive the full attention of the House. [Cheers.]


thought that after a Bill had passed the Second Beading and through the Committee stage, no single private Member should be allowed to oppose it on the Report stage, or on the Third Reading. This was the practice under the old Half-past Twelve o'Clock Rule, and did much to facilitate useful legislation.

Resolution agreed to.

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