§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. RITCHIE,) Croydon
I have to move the resolution standing in my name. I should like to explain that, although it has rather a formidable appearance, it is in accordance with custom, and the House will understand that even if it passes it will be entirely in the hands of the Committee to say on what days they will meet and how long they will sit. There is no intention to ask the Committee to suffer any undue strain either of time or attention; but a heavy Bill has to be dealt with, and, having regard to the late period of the session and the universal desire that this Bill or something like it should be passed, I hope that the House will assent to the motion. I may point out that so far we have only had three sittings, and each only lasted about two and a half hours. We have got through but very few clauses, and though I do not think there will be any necessity for very frequent sittings or undue debate, I do suggest it should be put in the power of the Committee to sit more frequently and longer if they so desire.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That, until the conclusion of the consideration of the Companies Bill, the Standing Committee on Trade, etc., have leave to sit every day during the sitting, and notwithstanding the adjournment of the House."—(Mr. Ritchie.)
§ MR. RITCHIE
It will sit on Thursday, and I want to make it possible for it to sit on Friday if it will consent to do so.
§ SIR J. FERGUSSON (Manchester, N.E.)
Is this motion, which is of the kind usually made by the Chairman of the Committee, proposed with the consent of the Committee?
§ MR. GALLOWAY (Manchester, S.W.)
said the right hon. Gentleman had rather suggested that members of the Committee who had taken great interest in the Bill has obstructed its progress. Now, for his part he ventured to say that they, like himself, desired to see the Bill passed in the best possible form. It must be apparent to everybody on the Committee that it contained a great many points 1129 which the right hon. Gentleman himself had not even considered until the Committee sat. He was not suggesting that the right hon. Gentleman was in any way to blame for that, for, as they knew, the Bill had come down from the House of Lords, which had taken six years to produce it. The right hon. Gentleman now suggested that more time should be given to the Bill, and that the Committee should sit oftener. They had so far only held three sittings, each of them lasting rather over two and a half hours, and he did not think it could be denied that, they had made considerable progress. This motion had been made without the Committee being consulted and having an opportunity of stating whether or not they desired it. He for one strongly protested against it. Under it power was taken to sit on Saturdays, although he hoped it was not the intention of the right hon. Gentleman to do that. In order to make it quite clear, however, he would move as an Amendment to insert after "every day," "except Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays during the sitting of the House, but not later than half-past three."
§ MR. BARTLEY (Islington, N..)
Is it in order for an individual member of a Committee without consulting that Committee to move such a resolution as this?
MR. GIBSON BOWLES (Lynn Regis)
Is it not the fact that a Committee appointed by this House is a foreign body sitting outside, and of the proceedings of which this House has no knowledge until it receives its Report? Is it not the case that the House can only be properly informed of the proceedings of a Committee through its chairman?
§ *MR. SPEAKER
The motion is one for which there are precedents. It is in order for the Government dealing with a Government Bill to put down a motion of this kind without consulting the Chairman of the Committee. It is quite true that a motion is frequently made at the very commencement of the sitting of the House, and without notice, to enable a Committee to prolong its sitting, and that I do not put it from the Chair unless it is moved by the Chairman or some Member specially designated by him. But that only applies to motions made at that time, and of which no notice 1130 has been given. But this is a motion by the Government in respect of a Government Bill. Notice was given of it, and it is in order.
§ MR. BRODIE HOARE (Hampstead)
seconded the Amendment. He did not entirely agree with all said by the hon. Member who moved it, as he would like also to exclude Wednesdays, for the very good reason that the Public Accounts Committee, of which he was a member, met on that day, and obviously he could not be in two places at the same time. He wished, further, to add his testimony to what was said by the hon. Member for South-west Manchester, that there had been absolutely no obstruction and no long speeches. The divisions had been very close: in one the Government had been beaten, and in several cases they had only had a majority of two. The divisions had not been taken on party lines. The Bill had proved to be one of most extraordinary complication, and it required, if he might repeat a famous phrase, a "few men of common sense" to give it very careful consideration. Although ten clauses had been passed, the most contentious points had been reserved for the Report stage. If the motion of the right hon. Gentleman were carried, the only thing he could do would be to absent himself entirely from the Committee, and devote his energies to the Report stage. He had put down Amendments which he did not intend to be obstructive, but which he believed to be important, and he would move them some time, with a view to improving the administration of joint stock companies. He had given up the directorship of one of the two very important companies with which he was connected, in order to assist in passing a satisfactory Bill.
§ *MR. SPEAKER
The form of the Amendment would be improved if it were put as follows—To leave out the words 'every day' in order to insert 'on Mondays and Fridays until half-past Three o'clock.'
After the words 'every day,' to insert the words 'on Monday and Friday until half-past Three o'clock.' "—(Mr. Galloway.)
§ Question proposed, "That the words 'every day' stand part of the Question."1131
§ MR. RITCHIE
The hon. Member made one statement which I wish at once to contradict. I do not think he has been present at all the meetings.
§ MR. BRODIE HOARE
I was prevented by urgent business from attending yesterday's meeting, but I have been present at the others.
§ MR. RITCHIE
It was at the last meeting that the question arose of more frequent sittings. It is not accurate to say that all the important points have been reserved for the Report stage. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Wolverhampton if I am not correct in that. At the last meeting considerable dissatisfaction was expressed in more than one quarter at the short time the Committee had to work. It was suggested that the Committee should sit longer on that particular day, but there were some dissentients, and at last the Chairman said he would go down to the House and ask for liberty to sit. I then stated I would call further attention to the matter and move a resolution on the subject. Subsequently I consulted my hon. friend the Chairman of the Committee as to the best course to pursue, and he expressed his own readiness to come down and move the resolution now under debate. I said I did not think it was necessary that he should do so. It has now been moved in the usual form. I need hardly say I shall not ask the Committee to consent to meet on Saturdays, nor will it be invited to meet at any day or hour which would be inconvenient to the great bulk of the members. But it might sometimes sit till four or five o'clock, and perhaps meet on one or two extra days, so that it may get through its work, and report the Bill to the House in time to enable it to consider the various important questions involved. It is most desirable that we should make a strong endeavour to pass this Bill, which has been before Parliament four or five years.
§ SIR ALFRED HICKMAN (Wolverhampton, W.)
May I point out that this motion is purely a permissive one, and when it is passed it will still be in the hands of the Committee to decide when and how long it shall sit. I should be extremely sorry to see the labour spent on this Bill thrown away for the sake of having one or two additional meetings of the Committee.
§ MR. LAWSON WALTON (Leeds, S.)
As a member of the Committee who has taken some little interest in the Bill, I venture to express a hope that the motion of the right, hon. Gentleman will be accepted. Some members of the Committee have, at considerable personal inconvenience, made a point of attending the meetings, and it has been not a little disappointing to find what an extremely small amount of time has been at our disposal. When only one or two matters have been discussed the hands of the clock have approached three, and the time has arrived for adjourning. If the motion is carried, the Committee will still be able to arrange its own meetings and consult its own convenience.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
It is very important that members of the Public Accounts Committee should be present at the meetings of that body, and therefore I hope the House will agree to the exclusion of Wednesdays. I cannot comprehend the right hon. Gentleman coming down here otherwise than as the mouthpiece of the Committee; unless he is so his action strikes at the very root of the constitutional power of the Committee. If you are to say that a Committee is to be in the hands of any Member of the Government, and that any proposition, however wild, novel, or unexpected, may be brought forward by him simply because he happens to sit upon the Committee, you strike at the root of the authority and power of that Committee. It seems to be clear that in this instance the Committee has not been consulted. If it had been, then I conceive it was the duty of the Chairman, and not of an incidental member of the Government who happens to be on it, to act as its mouthpiece here. It behaves the House to deal very carefully with this matter. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider his motion. I think he has done this thing without reflection, and here is an opportunity for the right hon. Gentleman to make a graceful concession and to state that he will accept the Amendment.
§ *SIR HENRY FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)
I feel it my duty to express my concurrence with what has fallen from the 1133 Members for West Wolverhampton and South Leeds, and I would also endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Hampstead that there is great need on the Committee for men of common sense. I would ask the House to deal with this matter in a common-sense way and not wander into any of the constitutional bypaths suggested by the hon. Member for King's Lynn. The hon. Member said that there was only one member of Her Majesty's Government upon that Committee; but I would remind him that upon that Committee there will be found the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Attorney General, the Solicitor General, and the Secretary to the Local Government Board. I think that is a very fair complement of Government representatives. This motion is really to enable the Committee to do what it likes. Under the rules of the House the moment the bell is heard tingling, whatever the Committee are doing, they have to stop. A Committee which assembles at twelve o'clock to rise at three, with an adjournment for half an hour for lunch, has not much time for business. The Committee come to the House and ask to be emancipated from this position, leaving the matter entirely in the hands of the Committee. My experience of the right hon. Gentleman opposite and the Chairman of the Committee makes me absolutely certain that no measure will be passed by the Committee to interfere with the convenience of Members, or with Avednesdays or Saturdays. What we want to be able to do is to meet at eleven if we choose, or go on till five, in order to get through the work which the House has given us to do. I wish to ask another question, and it is whether this Bill is to be passed or not? A large number of hon. Members would have liked to have seen the Companies Bill made somewhat stronger; but, speaking with some knowledge of rejecting a Bill one session in the hope of a stronger measure being brought forward in the next session, I think a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and this is a very good Bill as far as it goes. Hon. Members will have an opportunity of considering the measure when it comes down from the Committee. In the meantime the Committee stage must be got through, and it cannot be got through in the limited time which is placed at the disposal of the Committee this session. I think it would be a very great pity 1134 and would strike a very serious blow at these Committees if, after a large number of Members had devoted their time and attention to endeavouring to pass a Bill, that Bill should be thrown over at the end of the session and all their labour wasted. I shall support the motion of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade.
MR. JAMES LOWTHEE (Kent, Thanet)
At the risk of wandering into one of those constitutional by-paths alluded to by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Wolverhampton, I would like to call attention to the ordinary method of procedure. The right hon. Gentleman wants every Standing Committee to be the custodian of its own movements, to sit when it likes and where it likes. I must remind hon. Members that the House has always itself laid down a general rule upon this question which it has only varied under special circumstances. The service of the House, after you, Mr. Speaker, have taken the Chair, has always had precedence over all other business, and I do protest against the doctrine being laid down that the service of the House itself is to be put aside, and that hon. Members are to be called upon to perform dual services upstairs and down at the same time. The way to get over the difficulty is that the Committee should sit at a reasonable hour which suits the convenience of the Members, but they should not be permitted by the House to sit after 3.30. I think that to sit after that time would be running counter to all precedent, and it is not merely rod tape, but it simply means that the service of the House itself stands forward as our first consideration. I venture to suggest that 3.30 of the clock should be the limit.
§ MR. MACLEAN (Cardiff)
As a humble member of the Standing Committee I wish to point out that the question is not so much whether the Bill is to pass or not, as was asked by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Wolverhampton, but whether the Bill is to be passed with or without adequate discussion. It is impossible for this Bill to be passed with adequate discussion if you call the Committee together to discuss the Bill when the busiest members of it are engaged elsewhere. They will not attend then, and the measure will be discussed in a very perfunctory manner. What is 1135 the meaning of all this hurry? I never saw the motion of the right hon. Gentleman until I came down to the House today, and nobody ever suspected that such a motion was going to be made. One might assume from this hurry that the existence of the Government was at stake, and that the Government would inflict upon the country the calamity of going out of office if the Bill were not passed. It is a most contentious and difficult Bill, and it is impossible not to admire the ingenuity and skill with which the Committee have discussed every line and word of the clauses of the Bill already dealt with. I think the House should have an almost perfect Bill brought before it. It is really of little importance whether the Bill is passed this year or next year, for it does not virtually affect the business of the country. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade has shown the slightest reason for the extraordinary course which he has taken.
§ *MR. MARKS (Tower Hamlets, St. George's)
As a member of this Committee, I wish to say that I share the expression of regret made by my hon. friend that this matter was not mentioned when the Committee was sitting because if it had been so mentioned an opportunity would have been given of making a suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill which I may be permitted to make now, and which would tend to save time. It is that he should confer with those members of the Committee who put down acceptable Amendments on the Paper with a view to reducing the amount of discussion that goes on in connection with them. During the past three sittings we have been discussing Amendment after Amendment and voting them down, and after they have been discussed and rejected the right hon. Gentleman has more than once accepted some Amendment which has stood on the Paper the whole time. If those Amendments had been accepted in the first instance, all the discussion which preceded them would have been rendered unnecessary. There is a strong disposition to put the Bill forward as rapidly as possible, but if quick progress is to be made, useless discussion must be avoided, and the acceptance of reasonable Amendments, to which no real objection exists, should be promptly notified.
§ *MR. ARTHUR O'CONNOR (Donegal, E.)
As Chairman of the Committee I desire to say a word or two to remove any misapprehension that may exist as to my own position in this matter. The fact is that at several sittings of the Committee there has been a desire manifested to make progress with the Bill if necessary during the time when the House is sitting. This, was especially so at the last meeting, at the conclusion of which I signified to the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade that I was perfectly willing to move in the House for leave for the Committee to sit during the sittings of the House. The right hon. Gentleman kindly expressed his readiness, to make such a motion himself, and that is the motion which I anticipated would be on the Paper. When I saw the actual terms of the motion this morning for the first time, I was very much surprised. The right hon. Gentleman has informed me, since I entered the House this afternoon, that he was informed at the Table that this was the usual motion made upon occasions of this kind; and under those circumstances I presume that I should myself have had to make a motion in the same terms. It appears to me, however, that those terms are a great deal too wide. I could not comply with them myself. I am bound, for instance, to be on Wednesdays in the Chair in the Public Accounts Committee, and it would be impossible for me to be in the Chair of the Standing Committee on that day. The difficulty might, perhaps, be got over by means of an Emergency Chairman, under the arrangements which members of the Chairman's Panel make among themselves; but that is not desirable. It appears to me that a motion asking for leave to sit while the House is sitting is all that is necessary. The Committee already have the power to meet at eleven or twelve o'clock. It also has power to meet on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday, and last week the Committee did sit on Tuesday instead of the usual Monday, and the same divergence from the usual practice could be exercised by the Committee at its discretion. I think, therefore, that a, motion for leave to sit while the House is sitting would meet all the requirements of the case. The reason I rose to explain was lost some hon. Members of the Committee should think that I was in any way wanting in my duty to the Committee, or in the respect which is due to it.
After what has fallen from the hon. Member who is the Chair man of the Committee, I am quite prepared to ask the leave of the House to amend the motion in the direction indicated. I understood that a motion would be made leaving it entirely in the hands of the Committee, to adopt whatever course they chose. I am quite prepared to move my motion in the form suggested.
§ *MR. SPEAKER
I understand that the hon. Member wishes to withdraw his Amendment, and that the motion should be amended by leaving out all the words after "sit" in order to insert "during the sitting of the House."
§ MR. ELLIOT (Durham)
Are we to understand that the Committee will have power to sit on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays if they choose? I think it is well that the matter should be made plain.
§ MR. RITCHIE
We are now merely giving a kind of instruction to the Committee that they should consider the propriety of sitting on other days beyond what is usual.
§ MR. ALEXANDER CROSS (Glasgow, Camlachie)
I desire on behalf of a great number of Members to state how much we appreciate the efforts of the President of the Board of Trade to push this matter forward. It is a common-sense arrangement, especially in view of the fact that we are getting to the end of the session.
§ MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)
I should like to ask if the President of the Board of Trade has had the approval of the Chairman of the Committee in the motion he has made, because I read in the report of the last meeting of the Committee that, with reference to the suggestion that the Committee should sit longer and more frequently—Mr. Ritchie expressed himself as very willing, and even anxious, that this should be done, but, on the Chairman's proposing to ask leave of the House for the Committee to sit till a later hour, the proposition met with strong indications of dissent. The Chairman said that, in view of the pronounced opposition, the thing could not he done.I think it is a pity that the Chairman of the Committee is not here to explain.
§ MR. RITCHIE
The hon. Gentleman will be surprised to learn that the Chairman is here and has spoken in this discussion. He stated that he and I had arranged that a motion should be made, though not the particular motion on the Paper.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
To leave out from the word 'sit,' to the end of the Question, and add the words' during the sitting of the House.'"—(Mr. Ritchie.)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of, the Question."
§ MR. COHEN (Islington, E.)
I am quite sure this discussion would not have arisen to-day if we had known of the intention of the right hon. Gentleman in the Committee.
§ Question put, and negatived.
§ Words added.
§ Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.