HC Deb 07 August 1899 vol 76 cc51-8

Lords Amendments considered.

Lords Amendment in page 7, "leave out Clause 9, and insert Clause (A). (Procedure in case order is opposed)," the next Amendment, read a second time."

SIR H. H. FOWLER (Wolverhampton)

Not being a Scotch Member, I am quite willing to be guided, as regards the Bill generally, by hon. Gentlemen representing Scotch constituencies, but I must state that the House of Lords has done a most extraordinary thing in striking out clause 9 and inserting a new clause. The objection I take to this clause is that it is absolutely novel, and is, I think, a somewhat dangerous interference with the privileges of Parliament—using the phrase not in its technical, but in its ordinary sense. The House of Commons has ever been jealous of any interference in its internal procedure, and it has always kept it in its own hands. The House will recollect that in Clause 5 and other clauses the improvements in connection with Private Bill legislation are "subject to Standing Orders." The Government recognised that the House was the judge of its own procedure, and should itself decide whether any change was or was not necessary. As the Bill left this House it provided that if a petition were presented against the order contained in the Confirmation Bill, it should be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses, thereby preserving Parliamentary control. The House of Lords has seen fit to modify that control, and has provided that it shall not be brought into action simply on the petition of any person deeming himself aggrieved, but that the House of Lords or the House of Commons must by Resolution determine whether the petition should be inquired into. The House of Lords has inserted a clause that a motion on the part of any Member that the Bill be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses may be debated on the Second Reading of the Bill. That is rather a condescending act on the part of the House of Lords. But the clause further provides that after the Bill has been read a second time the motion shall thereupon be put without Amendment or further debate. I cannot conceive the First Lord of the Treasury, almost on the last day of the session, and in the absence of many Members who have taken a very great interest in this Bill, accepting an Amendment affecting the rights and privileges of the House of Commons, subjecting its debates to statutory control, and placing the power to alter its procedure at the mercy of the House of Lords. Whether the Amendment be right or wrong on its merits, its acceptance under the circumstances would be most unconstitutional, and would be I do not hesitate to say a most outrageous exercise of the despotic power of a Government majority at the end of the session in order to make such a vast change in the procedure of Parliament. I therefore move to omit from "any" in line 5 to "debate" in line 8. If it is deemed desirable that any one stage of a Bill should not be debated, and should be decided at once, I venture to submit that the proper mode of doing that would be to incorporate a clause in the Standing Orders. If our rights as to Debate are to be abridged, they ought to be abridged by the House itself and not by any outside party. Apart from its merits, I hope the First Lord of the Treasury, who has always shown himself a strict guardian of the privileges of the House and of the rights of minorities, will not press this Amendment on us at this period of the session.

Amendment proposed to Lords Amendment— In line 6, to leave out from the word 'Parliament,' to the word 'If,' in line 9."—(Sir H. H. Fowler.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Lords Amendment."


Had the right hon. Gentleman been more interested in the course of this Bill, he would, I think, have been more conversant with this clause; for the proposal made in the House of Lords was not so made on any initiative on their part. Let me remind the House of what happened. Under the Bill as it stood when it was debated on the Second Reading, there was a right on the part of an opponent to demand a rehearing of his case before a Joint Committee of the two Houses. I may remark, in passing, that even that was what has been properly called an infringement of the rights of Parliament over its own procedure. But it is impossible to effect a reform of Private Bill Procedure, unless you do it by Act of Parliament. At the Report stage a very strong representation was made to me, as representing the Government, to give up this right to demand a re-hearing. These appeals came from two very distinct quarters. They came from several hon. Members behind me, supporters of the Government, who, against their own views, loyally voted with me upon the position which I felt it my duty to take on that occasion. The appeals were reiterated from the Bench on which the right hon. Gentleman sits, and they were voiced by the right hon. Gentleman under whose leadership, I believe, the right hon. Gentleman is proud to range himself—the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Stirling Burghs. I was appealed to again and again not to give up the idea of the absolute right of an opponent to demand a re-hearing. Well, what did I do? I promised that I would use whatever influence I possessed that such an Amendment, if necessary, should be made in another place. What happened in another place? They were not able to see eye to eye with the right hon. Gentleman, in so far as to give up appeal altogether; but a curtain via media was suggested, namely, that although the right of appeal was to be preserved, it should rest with the two Houses to say whether a particular person had a right of appeal or not. That had to be done in some way or another. The original motion put down would have suited the procedure of the House of Lords, but it was absolutely unsuitable for the procedure of the House of Commons. Hon. Members may be aware that in another place it is possible that a motion may be put down at any time, and on that motion speeches may be made at any time. That is not the procedure here, under our Standing Orders. Therefore, it was absolutely necessary, if you would have a right of appeal, to utilise it on the Second Reading, and that is the meaning of this Amendment. There is no restriction of Debate. It is simply that, instead of having this as a motion attached to nothing, it is a motion to be debated on the Second Reading of the Bill. And then, after that, there is not to be had a fresh Debate, which would be an entire novelty in Private Bill Procedure, but there is to be a Division there and then upon the matter. More than that, I took steps to find out the feeling of hon. Members opposite, and submitted this very clause to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Stirling Burghs, and it had his approval. So far from this being an attempt on the part of the House of Lords or of the Government to impose any restriction on the procedure of the House of Commons, that is the very last thing dreamt of on our part. What we had to get was a stage of procedure on which this motion could be made, and the best stage was the Second Reading. Therefore, it is no curtailment or limitation of the powers or privileges of the House of Commons to say that it should be discussed at the Second Readingstage.

MR. ASQUITH (Fifeshire, E.)

The right hon. Gentleman devoted the larger part of his remarks to a question not raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton, and not in any way involved in the Amendment before the House. I am not, myself, disposed to quarrel with him upon the proposal that it is desirable that the House should have a voice in this matter, and that it should not rest merely on a caprice of a petitioner to require a reference of the Bill to a Joint Committee of the two Houses. That is not the point raised by the Amendment. The question is whether, admitting that it is desirable to give both Houses that power of control over the initiative of the petition, this House is to be restrained in its procedure, when such a proposal is made, by a provision for which I say there is no precedent whatever in any Act of Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman says that this step should be taken at a certain stage in the progress of the Bill. But what is proposed here is, that the motion to refer the Bill to a Joint Committee should be debated at the Second Reading. I pause to remark that it is impossible to conceive of such a thing. The question of the Second Reading of a Bill is, what are the merits of the Bill as a legislative proposal, and it would be quite contrary to the true idea of order, if on a Debate on a Second Reading we should go on to a totally independent and irrelevant inquiry, as to what tribunal the Bill should go to. Therefore, we are asked in the first place to introduce an entirely irrelevant inquiry, and then, when that is over, and the Bill read a second time, in the words of the clause, "The question thereon should be put without Amendment and without Debate," and we are to be debarred from discussion. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton that that is an entirely novel departure in Parliamentary procedure. The House of Lords has never attempted to impose any such condition on the House of Commons before. We have always preserved, and rightly preserved, the strictest liberty to apply our own Standing Orders to our own procedure. If the words which my right hon. friend objects to are put on the Statute Book, we shall have imposed upon us a castiron procedure which may lead to very grave and serious results.

MR. CALDWELL (Lanarkshire, Mid)

I quite agree that there was a benevolent intention on the part of the Government to meet an objection which came from this side of the House against the expediency of a second trial. Supposing this Amendment is accepted, the clause will remain as operative without these words as with them, so far as the control of the House over the Bill is concerned. The right of this House is to have full control over its own procedure by its own Standing Orders. But the effect of putting these words into an Act of Parliament is that the House of Commons would have no power to alter its procedure without the consent of the House of Lords. Obviously a matter of that kind cannot be tolerated.


The Lord Advocate has not addressed himself to the point raised by my right hon. friend. It seems very inconvenient at this time of the session that we should be called upon to discuss an interference by the House of Lords with an import- ant part of the procedure of the House of Commons. Any proposal to interfere with the procedure of this House must cause the gravest dissatisfaction. The objection to be urged against the Lords' Amendment in its present form, is that it interferes with the procedure of this House in a way which has no precedent in former legislation and in a way which will interfere very seriously with Debate. A Second Reading Debate must be different to a Debate on a motion to refer a Bill to a Committee where it is discussed in detail. In Second Reading the Debate is confined to the merits. The words proposed to be omitted form no integral part of the clause, and without them the clause will be less open to objection.


So far as I can judge, the importance of the question brought before us has been considerably exaggerated by the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken on the other side. They have done full justice to the intention of the Government in having accepted the Lords Amendment with the view to meet the trend of Scottish opinion on both sides of the House. The question is whether the form in which we have endeavoured to give effect to that desire carries with it as an accidental circumstance undue interference with the procedure of the House. In the consequential issue raised there is danger of confusing the attributes of the House as a Court of Appeal, as the House is in regard to Private Bill legislation, and its functions as an independent branch of the Legislature, possessing, as it should possess, full constitutional right to criticise every Government action and every legislative proposal. It would be intolerable that any statute should be allowed to interfere with this right, but I confess I do not see how it is possible, without interfering with Standing Orders, to reconstitute the two Houses of Parliament from the point of view of a tribunal dealing with Private Bill legislation. The Bill as it left the House interfered with the right of the House to discuss certain stages to a graver extent than the Amendment to which exception has been taken. Anxious to diminish as far as possible causes of difference at the final stage of the Bill, I propose that in lieu of the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment the words in the Lords Amendment from the end of line 4 down to "Bill" in line 8 should be omitted and the following words substituted, "and in that case such motion may be moved immediately after the Bill has been read a second time, and if carried," etc. With those words full liberty of discussion would remain with the House.


It seems to me that the Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman will remove most of the objections which I raise, but I desire that there shall be no mistake between the two sides as to this.

Amendment to Lords Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lords Amendment agreed to, with an Amendment.

Remaining Amendments agreed to.