HC Deb 27 March 1899 vol 69 cc512-20

Motion made, and Question proposed— That this House do meet to-morrow at noon."—(First Lord of the Treasury.)

MR. COURTNEY (Cornwall, Bodmin)

do not rise to oppose this Motion, because I suppose it is inevitable, but I think that it is right to take this opportunity of making some remarks with regard to the conduct of my right honourable Friend in dealing with the rights and privileges of the Private Members. I thought in making his motion that my right honourable Friend would dispose altogether of the disappointment of the Private Mem- cession, but this is not the first occasion upon which Private Members have had their rights and privileges taken away under circumstances which are not always inevitable without any kind of apology being made to them, or any expression of regret, or any attempt in any way to accommodate: the business of the House so as to give to the Private Members those rights which the arrangement of the business of this House is supposed to confer upon them. Now I know very well that the Private Members are not to be entirely extinguished. It has been said boldly that they are becoming an anachronism, but it is admitted that in past times the Private Members have done immense service to the House and to the country in calling attention to great and important subjects which the Government were not ready to take up, but which require public discussion, in this House, the arena of the nation. This is done with great effect, and it is a very great flight of imagination to suppose that the topics of legislation are so far exhausted that at the present day there is no scope for the Private Member. It is quite certain that there are some of the most important issues, social and political, yet to be solved, which are regarded with attention by the Government and the people, that require the development which they receive by being discussed by the Private Members of this House. Now the Private Member is not going to be extinguished, and he has a trick of revenging himself upon a Government which tries to reduce him to nothing. In recent times Private Members, finding it vain to hope for other opportunities, have been compelled to raise these questions on the Motion for the Address in reply to the speech from the Throne at the commencement of the Session. They are compelled to bring these subjects forward in a way which cannot be profitable, because as we all know there cannot be any argument on an Amendment to the Address in reply to the Speech from the Throne. Now I venture to ask my right honourable Friend whether the period has not arrived when a re-arrangement of the time of the House should take place, so as to allow the Private Member to take his proper position, and to afford him a legitimate opportunity for bringing forward his Motion. My right honourable Friend should either himself enact or get a Member of the Committee of the House to bring forward the matter so that some better method might be adopted than the principle of chance which is in existence at the present time; to substitute the principle of choice for the principle of chance; and it is quite easy to do, so that Private Members of this House might move their Motions and have an opportunity of discussing them. It would be very easy to submit a scheme under which the views of the House itself might be consulted in determining the subject which should come on for discussion; but my right honourable Friend refuses to consider such a proposition, and the past Leaders of the Opposition of this House have joined him in that refusal. I think that the right honourable Gentleman might be a little more benign to Private Members. He might consider whether it is not possible to give Private Members more time. I am sure that if they had more opportunities Private Members would assist the Government in giving greater facilities for the conduct of Government business. The Debate upon the Address, the prolongation of which so often tends to the congestion of financial business, could with the consent of the House be quickly disposed of, and so avoid that congestion which always takes place with reference to financial business before the 31st of March. I do not want to detain the House on this occasion, but I would strongly urge that there is a case for the rearrangement of the time of the House, and I do press upon my right honourable Friend the advisability of considering how that inquiry is to be made. I do say that some arrangement might be come to by which the measures introduced by Private Members could be considered in due time, and there are many other things which might also be considered in that reform. The drawback to the reputation of this House as a law-making machine is that Private Members who introduce Hills and obtain their acceptance by large majorities are unable to carry those Bills through. What a scandal it would be for instance if the Bill which has been brought in by the honourable and learned Member for South Shields, and carried by so immense a majority, should fail to become law because of the imperfect arrangements of this House. We ought to be able to reckon that anything which is well begun should be more than half done by the end of the Session, and I think we might have some arrangement by which it should be possible to secure further time to the Private Members, and to give them facilities for carrying through any Bill which they bring forward from the beginning. There are many other suggestions that might be made for the improvement of the transaction of business, which, of course, it is impossible to discuss in this House at the present moment upon a motion like this, but if my right honourable Friend will see his way to consider the first-named thing, which is the substitution of the principle of choice for the principle of chance, and after Easter get a Select Committee to consider that question, and also to secure that Private Members' time should be much less liable to assault and robbery than it is at present, so that the Private Members might see a possibility of carrying through the business they introduce from the beginning, I think he would be doing a large amount of good to the House and to the country at large, and that it would conduce to the reputation of the House and the transaction of the business with which it is charged. I apologise for taking this opportunity for bringing this question before the House, but the matter in the course of this Session has become very urgent, and I do press it very strongly.


My right honourable Friend, in the very interesting speech which he has delivered, has traversed an immense field of controversy, and I could not within the limits to which I must assign my reply, deal adequately with all the points which he has touched. As I understand, his first proposition is that more time out of the period which we devote to Parliamentary business should be given to Private Members than is at present.


Should be secured, not given.


That is a question really to be determined as much by the simple rules of arithmetic as by any other process. If we start with the principle that the House, roughly speaking, ought not to sit more than six or seven months in the year, and I confess that I think that six months year in and year out are quite enough—if we start with that, it is very evident that the time we have to give for legislation and for discussion is strictly limited. Out of the time that is given for discussion must come the discussion of Supply, which under the new rules, and irrespective of the Supplementary Estimates, is now a fixed quantity. That has been a great gain, but before Easter, however, there is a great deal of discussion which takes place, and which is not within a fixed period, and it depends on the Private Members alone as to how long that discussion shall take. The Government are under a legal obligation to pass a certain amount of Supply by the 31st of March, and how much time is taken for that depends not upon the Government, and not upon the law, but upon the views of the Private Members on both sides of the House as to the amount of time which should be given to the Estimates. If they desire to prolong the discussion of those Estimates before Easter, by so much time must the time of the Private Members on Tuesdays be curtailed. The business has to be got through, and no doubt we should be delighted if the business of Supply could be got through so rapidly as to leave almost untouched any privileges which Private Members now enjoy. But, leaving the question of time before Easter out of account, and looking at the Session as a whole for the purposes of the present argument, the real question is, Do the Government bring in too large a, programme of legislative business? I do not hear, except a whisper from my right honourable Friend below the Gangway, any protest to that effect. If our programme is not unduly large, and we must get through that programme in the six months, it is perfectly evident that we have absolutely no choice but to take Private Members' time to carry out that programme if Private Members on the Address or in Supply take up an unexpected amount of time in the discussion. I do not think the Government can be blamed for taking Private Members' time in the present circumstances unless one of two charges can be legitimately made against them, either that we sit for too short period in the year, or we bring in during that period too much business; and I think if those two charges are not made the case of my right honourable Friend falls to the ground. Then there is a suggestion that the Resolutions and Measures should be decided, not by the chances of the ballot, but by some form of taking the opinion of the House as to what Measures and Resolutions are most important. That is a very plausible proposal, but I am not quite sure whether, to make the proposal watertight and to stand argument, you ought not to give Private Members also the decision of whether the subject should come on at all for discussion. If Private Members are, in their elective capacity, to say which of a, dozen or fifty Motions are most important, they ought also to be allowed to decide whether they are to come up for discussion at all. If that privilege is allowed, I am not sure whether we should not see the time not only not increased, but seriously curtailed with regard to the Motion whose demise to-morrow night my right honourable Friend so regrets——


I said nothing about that.


I thought that was the circumstance which gave occasion to my right honourable Friend's speech, and I am not quite sure that it was not referred to in his observations to the House.


I said nothing about the Motion, and my action was not in the least actuated by the character of that Motion.


I thought that in the beginning of his speech my right honourable Friend referred to it. But it is a small matter, and I take it as an illustration. If it was left to Private Members to decide what question should be brought on and what should not be brought on, I think some very startling results would be seen in the Order Paper. I am not at all sure whether that Motion would come on or whether the discussion would be deferred. I do not think I need say anything further upon the general question raised by my right honourable Friend, but. upon the particular question as to whether we should stay to-morrow night and discuss a Private Member's resolution, however important, or whether we should go on our holidays, I cannot regard the decision we have come to as exercising any great tyranny upon honourable Gentlemen on either side of the House. And for my part, if my right honourable Friend thinks differently, I am perfectly ready and willing that the question as to whether we should meet tomorrow at 12 or 3.30 o'clock should be left to the House to decide without the pressure of Government tellers, and that Private Members, in whose interest my light honourable Friend has made so interesting an address, should be left to settle this matter for themselves.

MR. JAMES LOWTHER (Kent, Isle of Thanet)

I think my right honourable Friend is hardly right in stating that there is no' grievance upon this subject. I am not quite certain that I have followed my right honourable Friend behind me in all the remedies which he has suggested, but the right honourable Gentleman the First Lord appears to think that he has answered the main question by saying that there is not too great an amount of legislative business brought forward by the Government during the Session. My right honourable Friend the First Lord heard a slight whisper of protest; that whisper he heard was my suggestion that every Government has always brought forward too much legislative business. My right honourable Friend the First Lord's recollection of the Massacre of the Innocents which takes place every Session must be very slight, or else he would remember that during the Sessions which both he and I have been in Parliament there has been an amount of cargo which has had to be thrown overboard every Session; and my right honourable Friend must have been late this afternoon, or he would have heard that owing to the great pressure of Government business it was not in the power of the Board of Trade to proceed with the Railway Couplings Bill. Therefore, I think my right honourable Friend is hardly justified in saying that the Government do not bring in too much legislative business. Now, it must be obvious that whatever time is allotted to the Government and to the Private Members respectively ought to be deliberately apportioned, and that the arrangement ought to be adhered to. What we complain of now is that we never know from one week's end to another what the arrangement of business is to be. We are told that Tuesdays are to be allotted to Private Members, but owing to the Government having devoted the time at their command to business other than Supply, with annual regularity which comes with the end of March, the right honourable Gentleman tells us that Private Members must waive their privileges, that the Private Members' time is going to be taken for Government business; that having expended the allotted amount of time at their disposal the Government are about to make more.


Order, order! I think I ought to point out to the House that the whole of this Debate is somewhat irregular. The only question before the House is that it meet to-morrow at 12. The fact that it meets at 12 instead of three will not interfere at all with the opportunities of Private Members. What will interfere with them will be the Motion for Adjournment which, it is suggested, should be made immediately after Questions to-morrow, and that would be the time for such observations.


That may be so, and that is certainly an occasion for dealing more fully with the subject. As my right honourable Friend the First Lord has made certain statements, and I am satisfied that no preference has been established, I think it is only right to disassociate myself from the optimistic arguments of the right honourable Gentleman and associate myself with my right honourable Friend behind me upon this matter. I wish to know whether tomorrow, if the Sugar Bounties are put down upon the Paper, to bring forward the Motion.


I shall be in a better position to answer the question of the right honourable Gentleman when I see the Order Paper to-morrow.

* MR. FAITHFULL BEGG (Glasgow, St. Rollox)

After what has passed from you, Sir, I do not know if it is in order to refer at all to what is to take place to-morrow. There is a particular Motion on the Paper for to-morrow, and it is practically decided that the Motion will not come on. But I must formally protest against the action of the Government in taking away the opportunity for bringing forward the question of the Electoral Disabilities of Women.

SIR J. LUBBOCK (London University)

I do not wish to prolong the discussion, but I should like to make an appeal to the Government that they should consider the suggestion of the right honourable Gentleman the Member for Bodmin, especially having regard to the fact that Bills are often read a second time, and not proceeded with, and I do think that some reason has been given which would justify the right honourable Gentleman the First Lord in introducing some rule which would diminish the hardships under which private Members now suffer.

Question put, and agreed to.