HC Deb 21 February 1899 vol 67 cc63-7

Motion made, and Question proposed— That Government Business have precedence this day of the Notices of Motion and, if the proceedings on the Address be not concluded this day, then such proceedings do have precedence to-morrow of the Orders of the Day."—{Mr. Balfour.)

Amendment proposed, to leave out the words "Government Business," and insert the words "the proceedings on the Address in answer to Her Majesty's Speech."—(Sir Henry Fowler.)

SIR HENRY FOWLER (Wolverhampton)

Mr. Speaker, I think the House will have observed with some surprise, that the right honourable Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury has not thought fit to make some explanatory statement of the Motion, which, I think I may say, is not only extraordinary, but unprecedented. We quite understand, Sir, that it is necessary that Her Majesty's Government should ask for precedence for the Address over all other business which is at this time before the House. Sir, that is what Her Majesty's Government asked for last Tuesday, and which the House then granted. His Motion today is of a very different character. The right honourable Gentleman does not ask for precedence for the proceedings of the Address, but he asks for precedence for the Government business; in other words, he asks that the House should on this, the first private Members' night of the Session, not only give precedence to the Address, but at once appropriate it as a Government night. Sir, the statement is the more extraordinary because yesterday an honourable Member asked the First Lord of the Treasury at what date the Bill for giving Lord Kitchener £30,000 would be introduced, and, as reported in to-day's "Times," the First Lord of the Treasury replied as follows: — I am afraid I cannot give an answer to that Question at present. As the honourable Member knows, I had rather hoped to begin the ordinary legislative work of the Session to-day. That hope has been disappointed, and the ordinary work of the Session cannot now be begun until Thursday. The right honourable Gentleman is so scrupulous, and always has been ever since he has been Leader of the House, to keep faith with us, not only in the letter, but in the spirit, of an engagement, that I am sure he must have forgotten what ho said in the House yesterday when he put down the Motion which appears in his name to-night, Now, Sir, I am going to move an Amendment to the right honourable Gentleman's Motion, to leave out the words "Government business," and insert "the proceedings on the Address in answer to Her Majesty's Speech." If the House will accept that Amendment the Government will have precedence, both to-day and to-morrow, for the Address, but if the proceedings on the Address are concluded, then the business of the House will resume its normal course, namely, to-day for Private Members' Notices of Motion, and to-morrow for Private Members' Bills.

MR. CALDWELL (MidLanark)

formally seconded the Amendment.


Let me say that I had entirely forgotten the obiter dictum to which the right honourable Gentleman referred and copied from "The Times." I believe "The Times" is accurate in its report, and no doubt the right honourable Gentleman has accurately copied what was stated in "The Times. On the substance of the Motion I have not the slightest doubt that I am well within not only my technical but my equitable right in asking the House, after the inordinate length of time spent on the Address, to give a short period— and it is only a short period we ask —during this evening's Debate to Government business. There is no conceivable reason why we should not dispose of the two or three Government Orders of the Day, all of a non-controversial character, and give the Motion of an honourable Member from Wales more time than it would have if the Government had taken a morning sitting. The only Government business down is the Supply Rule, which, I am glad to think, needs little debate, and the introduction of the London Government Bill, which, I think, will not take much time on first reading, and which I should have been justified in introducing without Debate, under the 10 Minutes' Rule. After these matters are disposed of, the only other Government Measure is the House of Commons Liquor Bill, or whatever it is called, on which, I think, it would be impossible to raise debates on matters of great generality of interest. Now, Sir, if these matters are disposed of before dinner, there would be no hardship on honourable Members who have Motions down. We have taken this year more time on the Address than was taken even at a period of our political history when party passion ran high, when Mr. Parnell was leader of an undivided Irish Party, and when the whole strength of that party was thrown into preventing the Address being voted, or the business of the Government being carried on; and it really is an extraordinary extension of the privilege of private Members to make the Address a peg upon which to hang a long string of abstract resolutions such as we have been favoured with during the present Session. While this justifies anything I have proposed, I entirely admit that the obiter dictum—for it is nothing more—made on a different subject throws a new light on the matter. It indicates that I did not contemplate beginning Government business until Thursday, which, at the time I gave the answer, was a fact, and as I gave that information publicly it is possible that it may have given rise to some misconception. Under these circumstances I consider it to be in the highest degree inexpedient that I should even appear to go back on anything I have said publicly, and I shall therefore, if the right honourable Gentleman prefers it, accept the Amendment, or, if he leaves the Resolution as it stands, I shall not proceed with the Government Orders.


I wish to offer my congratulations to the right honourable Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury on the course he has taken, which I think was certainly very wise under the circumstances. I only wish to say one word with regard to what-has fallen from the right honourable Gentleman as to the Amendments to the Address. Sir, I do not think the right honourable Gentleman is fair in his criticisms. The real reason why so many Amendments are now put down to the Address is that the rights of private Members have been most seriously interfered with. The rights of private Members, indeed, have been impaired more seriously by the action of the present Government than by any preceding Government, and I am confident that when the time comes fop the other side to be in power the Conservative Party will very deeply regret these changes. Sir, formerly private Members had practically two nights a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, as well as Wednesdays. Now Tuesdays and Fridays have been taken away, and Wednesdays and Tuesdays are also taken away in the early part of the Session, the result being that private Members are driven to what I may call this rather unfortunate practice of putting down Amendments to the Address.


The right honourable Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury has expressed his willingness to take two courses. I think the better course will be to accept the Amendment. When the right honourable Gentleman has so immediately, frankly, and genially admitted that it was not in his power to proceed with his original Motion it would be ungracious for me to criticise what he has said. But he must not imagine that we admit either that the discussion on the Address has been unjustified or that it would be open to him to move the first reading of a Bill—the most important Bill mentioned in the Queen's Speech—in a ten minutes' speech. The right honourable Gentleman's memory may be called to many occasions, when we were on that side and he on this, when we were not allowed to bring in Bills of the smallest degree of importance because they were Government Measures.

Question, "That the words 'Government Business' stand part of the Question," put, and negatived.

Words inserted.

Ordered, That the proceedings on the Address in answer to Her Majesty's Speech have precedence this day of the Notices of Motion, and, if the proceedings on the Address be not concluded this day, then such proceedings do have precedence To-morrow of the Orders of the Day.

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