HC Deb 21 February 1898 vol 53 cc1219-26

I rise to move the adoption of the Rule as to Supply standing in my name— 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 Day 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. LVI shall be extended to Friday: Not more than 20 days, being days before the 5th August, on which the Speaker leaves the Chair for the Committee of Supply, without Question put, counting from the first day on which the Speaker so left the Chair, under Standing Order No. LVI shall be allotted for the consideration of the Annual Estimates for the Army, Navy, and Civil Service, including Votes on Account, 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 the 5th August: 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. XVII; 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 any Additional Estimate for any new service or matter, not included in the original Estimates for the year, shall be submitted for consideration in thy Committee of Supply on any day not later than two days before the Committee is closed: Provided also 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. Members of the House are already familiar with the working of the Rule, which has, I think, met with a general meed of approval from Gentlemen of all sections. The only difference between the Rule I now propose, and that we adopted last year, is that I have made a change in order to meet the views of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton and an hon. Friend below the Gangway. I do not know that the change has fully carried out my Friends' view, but I think it goes a great way towards meeting his objections. Sir, I think it would be trespassing upon the time of the House to say anything furthere, and I beg formally to move the Motion standing in my name, and I hope that the Rule will be agreed to.

MR. JOHN ELLIS (Notts, Rushcliffe)

The right hon. Gentleman has said that the rule allotting certain days to the business of Supply has worked most satisfactorily, and, so far as I am concerned, I am heartily in sympathy with it—that is, up to the first 12 lines. I think myself that the adoption of this Rule in the past has been a very great convenience to all concerned, and it appears to me to be bringing us within measurable distance of what a predecessor of the right hon. Gentleman always said the Rules of the House ought to lead up to, and I am very glad indeed that the right hon. Gentleman upon all occasions has resisted any suggestion that the Rule should be broken through. But notwithstanding any general approval of the Rule, I have placed on the paper what may seem to some hon. Members a very small Amendment—the adoption of one word for another. But I defend it on the ground that I made the same proposal two years ago, when we first had these Rules as to Supply under discussion. By putting the words "including Votes on account" into the Rule the right hon. Gentleman admits that the Vote on Account stands in an entirely different category to the ordinary business of Supply. A Vote on Account appears in the Paper in a very different form, and cannot be treated by the Chair in the same way as the ordinary business ot Supply is treated. But in addition to that a Vote on Account is full of pitfalls to the average Member of the House, who, under the procedure that regulated a Vote on Account, might find that he did not have the same opportunity of discussing questions of administration or policy, or even of the finance, as he would have in the ordinary business of Supply. I do not wish to labour the point, but when I moved a similar Amendment a year or two ago, the right hon. Gentleman said that Votes on Account could not be treated in the same category as Votes of Supply. He then said he was going to remedy the matter by seeing that only one Vote on Account was asked for; and I made the admission that the practice of having Supply every Friday does go a great way towards meeting the objection—that is to say, provided there are not three of the four Votes on Account asked for. That is my great objection to the Vote on Account; that to the ordinary average Member it is full of surprises. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman may say that by accepting my amendment it would be in the hands of hon. Members to prolong discussion on Votes on Account, but I rely upon the common-sense of the House; and, for my own part, I do not think there would be any disposition to unduly prolong discussion on Votes on Account. But I do not think it is of importance that such Votes should be excluded from the operation of the Rule, because very often great questions of foreign policy often arise upon them. I repeat that as regards the fears of an undue prolongation of discussions on these Votes on Account, Im quite satisfied that the good sense of the House would assist the right hon. Gentleman in bringing them to a speedy conclusion. I will not dwell upon the matter further, but beg to move the Amendment standing in my name—"Line 12, leave out 'including' and insert 'excluding.'"

MR. JAMES STUART (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

I rise to second the Amendment moved by my hon. Friend, because I was one of the few Members in this House, on this side, who supported this proposal by word of mouth, and also by voting for it. I have always regarded this proposal which is now before us, and which has been carried out, as an extremely advantageous one to the business of the House of Commons, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for having taken the step. It is in no spirit of opposition to the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman that I say that I think the proposal of my hon. Friend is a reasonable one; and I think so for the reasons that he urges, namely, that the Vote on Account is essentially a different kind of thing from our ordinary discussions on Supply. I felt, when the right hon. Gentleman proposed that the Vote on Account should be included within the scope of this Rule, that we were in danger of losing the control of the House over Supply. Every suggestion or proposal such as this which removes the Supply in its details from the House is to be deprecated. On a Vote on Account there is no real opportunity for discussing the details in such a way that the ordinary Member can take advantage of it. A Vote on Account is very frequently in the nature of a discussion on Policy, and it is inadvisable that a Vote on Account, on which there can be no discussion as to details owing to the sporadic way in which it is introduced, should be brought within the purview of this Rule. I think, Sir, that the right hon. Gentleman need not fear a prolongation of the discussions on these Votes on Account. They are not a very desirable form of Vote on any occasion. I, therefore, Sir, support what my hon. Friend has said, feeling, as I do, that such a modification of the Rule would tend towards its better working, and be greatly to the advantage of the House.


Both the hon. Gentlemen who have addressed the House on this Amendment have a special title to suggest alterations of this Rule, because I believe the Mover himself proposed something of the same nature two or three years before it was adopted, and the Seconder has been one of the most strenuous supporters of this proposal ever since it was laid before us. But I hope they will hesitate before they attempt to make the modification they are now suggesting. The hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment said he felt sure that we could trust the House not to do anything unreasonable on the discussion of a Vote on Account. I have great confidence in the House, but I must point out that it is an extremely difficult thing to know exactly what is reasonable. If discussion on Votes on Account be permitted at all it is hard to lay down any logical principle by which to determine when it ceases to be reasonable: since it is in order to review upon it the whole policy of the country, Foreign and Domestic. Let it be remembered that the practice of discussing details of Votes on Account is a comparatively recent idea. The old view of a Vote on account was that it was proposed and passed sub silentio, in order to enable a Department to carry on the business of the country until the Estimates could be discussed, and the plan of making it an occasion for miscellaneous discussion is not only modern but inconvenient. It is inconvenient, among other reasons, because by the Rules of the House you can only take the discussion on a Vote on Account in the order of the Estimates, to which that Vote on Account refers, and if it please the House, or a small section of the House, not in any spirit of unreasonableness, or with a view to obstructing the business of the House, but simply because they happened to be interested in something which had come earlier in the Vote, to discuss it at length, the later matters never come on at all, or only come on if the discussion be prolonged for an abnormal or inconvenient period. No one will pretend that is a proper way of doing business. If the House felt that we had not time to discuss all the Estimates, including Votes on Account, in 20 days, I should certainly offer no opposition to the period being extended to 21 days, but I would beg of the House to make the fixed period (whether of 20 days or of 21) inclusive of Votes on Account. If the House is determined to adhere to the modern practice, and to make the discussion of the Vote on Account the occasion of a, general Debate, let it be laid down as a Rule, not to be departed from, that a Vote on Account should never take more than a night; and that realty important subjects should come on early in the evening. The main object of this Rule is to say that the House will give so much time, and no more, to the discussion of the Estimates. Let us not stultify ourselves by excluding from its operation the discussion on the Vote on Account, which in theory covers the whole ground of the annual Estimates. I hope that the reason I have given to the hon. Gentlemen will be sufficient to prevent them going to a Division upon the matter. Remember that this is only, after all, a Sessional Order, and our experience of it in that character may bring us to some common agreement when we have to consider the advisability of adding it permanently to the Standing Orders of the House.


I think, Sir, that our experience of the working of this Rule last year has led us to believe that the time allotted for the discussion of the Estimates in detail was ample. As the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House has offered hon. Members of the House an extra day, I should advise them to close with the offer.

MR. T. M. HEALY (Louth, N.)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is in error in saying that last year there was more than sufficient time for the discussion of the Estimates, because when we came to the end there were a large number that were left undiscussed. Personally, I am disposed to accept the offer of an extra day.

MR. R. M'KENNA (Monmouth, N.)

I think, Sir, that we could not get these 21 Fridays, because, as matters now stand, as a matter of fact there are only 20 Fridays between now and the 5th August, taking out one Friday for Good Friday, and one for Whitsun week; and then, as the first paragraph of the Rule nays that it shall not commence until the Committee of Supply has been appointed, and until the Estimates have been presented, it is more than probable that there will not be 20 Fridays remaining up to the 5th August.


I ask the House for leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Leave was granted.

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

I must say that this alteration is certainly a great improvement from the private Member's point of view. Last year there were some new Votes involving an expenditure on totally new subjects, which we could not discuss at all, and I must thank the right hon. Gentleman for this Amendment, because it does seem to me a good thing if guillotining at the end of the Session can be avoided. A good many of the Estimates were guillotined last year without any sort of consideration. Of course, the present Rule may lead to a little difficulty, but it is merely a Sessional Order, and we can see how it works, and then we shall be able to do away with any of the blots that have hitherto existed.

*MR. JAMES LOWTHER (Kent, Isle of Thanet)

I should like to say a word or two as to the proposed suspension of Standing Order XVII. That Standing Order is as the House is aware, one regarding Motions for adjournment. If there is any real question of importance which should be immediately discussed, it seems a pity that any impediment should be placed in the way. Last Session some discussion took place upon it, and it was pointed out that it was within the power of any single Member to put down a notice which precluded any Member of the House from bringing a subject forward, whatever its importance might be. I brought that before the House, and I insisted upon the necessity for an Amendment of that Standing Order. I understood then that it would be considered. I do not wish to press it now if my right hon. Friend would like to have time to consider it in the light of what has hitherto been done, but a modification of the Rule is certainly desirable. For instance, supposing we wanted to call attention to affairs on the West Coast of Africa or China——


Order, order! That is not a question now before the House.


I was prepared to move the omission of words which would bring that question before the House, but, however, I am quite ready to leave it for further consideration.


I quite agree with the importance of the general question raised by my right hon. Friend, which, however, does not arise on this Motion, and I think I must adhere to the Rule.

MR. DALZIEL (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

I understood that the hon. Member withdrew his Amendment on the understanding that we were to have 21 days instead of 20. I think the right hon. Gentleman himself expressed his willingness to give us the extra day. I think one reason for giving that extra day is that it is well-known that the Army discussion will take much longer than usual, and many Votes of second-class importance have not been discussed for the last few years.


I should like very much to consult with those who have a right to speak for the Opposition on this matter, as to whether this change should be made. I should like myself to have extra time. There is no doubt that it may turn out that an exceptional amount of time will be required for the discussion of the Army Estimates, the Importance of which I have no desire to minimise.

Motion carried.