HC Deb 08 April 1902 vol 105 cc1264-77

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Amendment proposed [18th February] to Amendment proposed to Standing Order No. 1 (Sittings of the House):—

And which Amendment was, after the last Amendment— To insert the words 'Wednesday and Thursday at two of the clock for an afternoon sitting, and at nine of the clock for an evening sitting. If the business appointed for an afternoon sitting is not disposed of at eight of the clock, the sitting shall be suspended till nine of the clock. At one of the clock at the evening sitting."—(Mr. A. J. Balfour.)

Question again proposed, "That those words be there inserted."


ruled out of order the first Amendment on the Paper standing in the name of the hon. Member for Lynn Regis— To insert after the words, 'at nine of the clock for an evening sitting,' the words, 'and every Friday at the same hour for similar sittings.'

(4.5.) MR. CHANNING (Northamptonshire, E.)

said he wished to move as an Amendment that half-past twelve be substituted for one o'clock as the automatic time for closing the evening sitting. Although his Amendment was one which he would not care to press against the general sense of the House, yet he thought it would prove very useful. Long practical experience of what occurred after midnight showed that the House usually sat for from five to fifteen minutes only, unless the Standing Order was suspended, when the House deliberately contemplated carrying on business for a considerable period beyond twelve o'clock. Therefore in ordinary circumstances, half-past twelve would be more convenient than one o'clock to close business. This matter was of some importance, because it was affected by the subject of the Questions, and if it were intended to have a long string of Questions put after twelve o'clock it might be necessary to interpose a longer period between midnight and the automatic cessation of the sitting. Of course he would be out of order in discussing that question now, but he moved this Amendment, believing it to embody an extremely rational and practicable proposal, and in the hope also that the First Lord might deem it convenient to state the views of the Government with regard to the subject of Questions.

Amendment proposed to the proposed Amendment— To leave out lines 3 and 4.—(Mr. Channing.)

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


The Amendment divides itself into two parts—the negative part in which the hon. Member proposes to leave out certain words—and the positive part by which he desires to insert other words. With regard to the former, I am in favour of the omission of the words, because this is a necessary preliminary to any Amendment of our proposals with regard to Questions. It will be observed that the two lines proposed to be omitted were originally put in in order to meet the case of Questions which were to be taken at 7.15 on the understanding that the House should not proceed with them after eight p.m. Of course if the Questions are to be put at another hour the words become unnecessary. It is because one or two other Amendments will have to be made in view of the fundamental alteration of our proposal with regard to Questions that I am obliged to take this opportunity of making a statement on that subject. I am well aware, as every one who has watched the movement or feeling in the House in this matter must be, that no portion of the proposed new Rules has received less favour than the proposal that there should be questions during the interval between the two sittings. The main object of the Government has been to limit the time to be taken up by Questions in any one day and to secure with certainty a solid block of time in the afternoons for the consideration of the main business. These two objects I think we must preserve inviolate in any change to be introduced in deference to the wishes of the House. The feeling against deferring Questions till 7.15 was, as I understand, based on a large number of different considerations. Certain objections came from business men who, already experiencing some difficulty in getting down by 3.30, would find that difficulty very considerably increased if they were called upon to come down to the House for the discussion of public business so early as 2.15. Other critics were shocked at the possibility of important information being given by Ministers in another House before it is given to the House of Commons. They pointed out that important information might be given at the other House at 4.15, whereas it could not be communicated at the House of Commons till after 7.15. I do not myself see anything very shocking in this, but I am aware of the feeling, and, however little I sympathise with it, I am ready to take it into account. A more serious objection was the inconvenience to the business of Committees if Members serving on them were at the same time interested in important business before the House. It is quite true that that would give rise to some awkwardness, because if Members sitting on Committees were interested in important business in the House, the time available for Committee work would be unduly curtailed. Other Members have suggested that it would be rather absurd to move the adjournment of the House at two o'clock when four or five hours must elapse before they could ask for information on the subject in regard to which the adjournment Motion was raised. And finally there is also the subject of the restriction of the opportunities of putting supplementary Questions. In suggesting those restrictions, I can assure the House that there has not been the least idea of protecting Ministers of the Crown.


Oh, oh!


That statement appears incredible to the hon. Member for South Donegal, but I think he overrates the embarrassment which his supplementary Questions cause in the Ministerial breast. As far as I am concerned—and in this I feel sure I may speak also for my colleagues—we have not the smallest objection to the supplementaries he has asked. The reason we have put in the restrictions is to shorten the time taken up by Questions, and for that reason alone have we restricted the number of those additional interrogations which it is the habit of hon. Gentlemen to make. An important objection to the alteration of the proposal is based not on the convenience of Members, or even of Ministers, but of the public Departments. I speak in this matter not from any personal point of view—for I am not responsible for any of the very heavily-worked Departments—but I am sure the House will realise that the extraordinary pressure thrown upon some of those already heavily-worked Departments by the modern increase of Questions is so great that some precaution must be taken with a view to mitigating the burden which would be placed upon them if Questions were asked four hours earlier than was originally designed. These being the main arguments on the two sides, I will now venture to sketch out to the House the plan by which we propose to deal with this subject. We suggest that Questions shall begin at a quarter past two o'clock, and only those Questions will be answered orally which are marked with an asterisk; while under no circumstances will any Question on the Paper be answered after five minutes to three o'clock. At five minutes to three Questions of an urgent character put without public notice and Questions relating to the business can be put, and the answers to such Questions usually occupy a very few minutes. I think the Government may count on public business beginning at three o'clock. If the Questions are few in number, business will begin earlier: under no circumstances should it begin later; and words of a very stringent character should limit the class of Questions which may be put between five minutes to three and three o'clock, the intention being to I make this a sort of safety valve in relation to important topics or subjects upon which there is public anxiety. After that, and before public business, leave may be granted or withheld for moving the adjournment, and leave, if granted, will bear its natural fruition at the evening sitting. It will be admitted that forty minutes will afford ample time for the starred Questions. There may be occasions on which the number of Questions may be extended, but I cannot believe that the number of Questions it is possible to put in forty minutes is not sufficient to keep in order any Ministry, however flagitious. It is a modest estimate to say that in that time sixty or seventy Questions can be answered, and I cannot believe that the opportunity would be insufficient to satisfy the most curious Members. But supposing the number exceeds sixty or seventy, it may be asked what security will there be that the most important Questions will not be shut out by reason of their not being reached before 2.55? I think there may be more than one plan for avoiding this. The hon. Member for Central Bradford has, I believe, on the Paper a Motion embodying the method he proposes, and other hon. Members have made suggestions as well; but I think that if directions were inserted in the Standing Order that care shall be taken to arrange the Questions so as to secure that in the first sixty those of the most interest shall be included, the order might be left to the clerks at the Table. [Cries of "No, no!"] That is my opinion; but so far as the Government are concerned, there would not be the smallest objection to the appointment of a small Standing Committee by the Committee of Selection, upon which there would be no objection to members of the Opposition being in the majority. It would be an extremely easy task, and would throw no undue burden of responsibility on either a Committee or the clerks. The House will observe that I have been doing my best to form some scheme which will meet the general view on either side of the House, and I hope the House will be content to limit the starred Questions to those which appeared on the Notice Paper the day before. To require answers at two o'clock to Questions only given notice of on the previous night, and which the Department could have had no opportunity of dealing with till the same morning, would be to unduly burden the Department. I know it is possible at present for a Minister to write a note asking the hon. Member to postpone his Question, but that is a very cumbersome method of dealing with the subject, and one which Ministers are very reluctant to adopt. I therefore hope that the House will consent to our proposal to limit Questions which may be starred to those which appeared on the Notice Paper the morning before.


But there might be Questions of extreme urgency arising out of incidents that only came under notice the night before.


I am afraid I have not made myself quite clear to the right hon. Gentleman. That is, I suggest, the class of Questions for which what I have called a "safety valve" will be provided at five minutes to three o'clock. There cannot be many such Questions. This class of Questions must be rigidly restricted, or the whole arrangement will be spoiled and the time of the House will be eaten away at three o'clock. Only Questions of the most urgent public importance should be asked between 2.55 and three o'clock. I hope the House will support the Government in making the limitation as strong as possible, and the class of Questions to be asked in the interval as narrow as possible. Without this the scheme will do more harm than good, and I cannot promise Government support to any serious change in this respect.

MR. DISRAELI (Cheshire, Altrincham)

Who is to be the judge of the urgency?


The Speaker will of course decide, and will exercise his discretion in the general interest of the House. But the language of the Rule should be made as clear as possible. I frankly admit that no scheme which the wit of man could devise could be without objection; but I have endeavoured to make an arrangement which will be attended with the least inconvenience. It is not a perfect or flawless picture I present; but, so far as I can judge, it meets the general view of Members, and does not interfere with the fundamental element of the change in the Rules proposed, which lays down within the narrowest limits a fixed time when public business shall begin. There is only one more observation I wish to make. It is possible—but it will be very rare—that a certain number of starred Questions will not be put before 2.55, but in that case they will be of an unimportant character under our Rule. It is inconceivable that sixty-five first-class Questions should be asked in any one day, but, at any rate, under the arrangement I propose, any Questions not reached at five minutes to three o'clock will receive a written answer from the Minister concerned.

MR. JOHN REDMOND (Waterford)

Will business go on until eight o'clock?


Business will proceed until half-past seven, after which no further business can be taken, though a division may be. The business under discussion will be interrupted at half-past seven, and no fresh business can be undertaken until the evening sitting. It will be seen that in this way the Government give up a quarter of an hour each day, beginning at three o'clock and breaking off at half-past seven. We make this concession because we are anxious to meet the general views of the House, and I think our plan succeeds in that.

(4.30.) MR. BROADHURST (Leicester)

thought that before proceeding further, and in order that Members might clearly understand the proposal, the New Rule should be printed. The right hon. Gentleman's statement was somewhat complicated, and his proposed alterations might considerably affect the course of the debate. He therefore moved the adjournment of the debate until hon. Members had had an opportunity of seeing the new Government proposals in print.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Broadhurst.)


I cannot say that the hon. Gentleman has received in a very grateful spirit what I conceive to be a real concession. Considering that the Rule as to Questions is not now on, and that no substantial or important change is involved in the present Rule by anything I have said, I hope he will not press his Motion. I will, of course, put upon the Order Paper of the House, before we next discuss the Rule, the scheme which I have foreshadowed to the House. The hon. Gentleman has described it as very obscure and complicated, but I venture to say it is quite simple. At all events, I do not think we ought to waste any more of our time over the discussion of this general question, and I would ask the House to proceed to the consideration of the Rule now before us.

DR. MACNAMARA (Camberwell, N.)

said he desired to ask a question or two arising out of the statement of the right hon. Gentleman. He understood that it was now proposed to leave out the lines— If the business appointed for an afternoon sitting is not disposed of at eight of the clock, the sitting shall be suspended till nine of the clock. Would there be an opportunity of discussing whether half-past seven should be substituted for eight o'clock?


Yes, Sir, that is sure to be discussed. We will have to introduce an Amendment carrying out our view, and when that is put from the Chair it can be discussed.


asked further if it would be within the right of a Member to star his own Question.


Yes, Sir.


asked who was to decide the urgency of the Questions to be put in the five minutes mentioned.


Mr. Speaker.


said he understood the Rule would be set up and could then be discussed.


Everyone must admit the perfect frankness and fairness with which the right hon. Gentleman has dealt with this difficult question. What he said was no more than the truth when he referred to the immense interest taken in this particular part of the subject, viz., the Rule of Procedure affecting the putting of Questions. The right hon. Gentleman has proposed a scheme which, in many particulars, is a great improvement on the original proposal of the Government. At the same time, I have a great deal of sympathy with those who are afraid of going on with this particular Rule, which lays down the particular hour and moment at which certain changes will take place. These are part of the plan, and may be considered to be an acceptance by the House of its main principle. Therefore, I think it is not quite fair to ask the House to go on with this particular Rule at this moment until we have had time to see the whole proposal with regard to Questions in print, and until we can appreciate more fully than we can at present how it will work. I do not wish to appear to be picking holes in the proposal until I have seen it, but I think that the House should not now be asked to lay down a Rule as to the particular moment at which we are to begin and leave off work, that being part of the concession which the right hon. Gentleman has made.

* MR. BLAKE (Longford, S.)

said that the House was now asked at once to destroy the formulated plan for Questions. They were asked, to use a homely proverb, to throw away the dirty water before they got in the clean. They had only the statement of the right hon. Gentleman to go on; although he agreed that, at the first glance, the water they were asked to take in, if not clean, was cleaner than that which had hitherto been offered to the House. One most important point in the proposal, to which, however, the right hon. Gentleman only devoted a word or two, was that the surplus of Questions which had been starred, if not reached in the number of minutes which the right hon. Gentleman, for once exercising the functions of a prophet, considered adequate, would not then be susceptible of receiving answers at all, and if the Amendment were adopted the answers would appear only on the Paper. He was not pronouncing a dogmatic opinion as to the propriety of that, but he was jealous in regard to Questions which the interrogators thought were important, and should be answered in a way which would afford the opportunity of asking supplementary Questions, and therefore he was jealous of such Questions being shut out, because the previous Questions had taken all the allotted time. He thought the House ought to have the scheme before it, before it finally determined or adopted it. If hon. Members passed the Motion now, they would be practically agreeing to the right hon. Gentleman's scheme that the residuum of Questions, practically selected by an authority not yet defined, should only be answered on the Paper, and not in the House, and that as to these no supplementary Questions should be possible. It seemed to him that those considerations lent themselves to the view that the Rule under discussion should be adjourned until the House had had an opportunity of seeing and considering the altered proposal. He saw no reason why that should not be done. This change had been resolved on for some time. It had been common gossip that a change was about to be proposed with reference to Questions, and the right hon. Gentleman might at least have put his proposal on the Paper yesterday, thereby giving hon. Members twenty-four hours to consider it. They had, it was true, an admirable explanation from the right hon. Gentleman; but it was a complicated question, which was made more complicated by the fact that they were dealing with a Rule which did not deal ostensibly with Questions at all, but their action on, which would, nevertheless, limit their action in reference to Questions. He strongly supported the Motion.

*(4.40.) MR. GIBSON BOWLES (Lynn Regis)

said that the right hon. Gentleman had certainly made a very considerable advance in his method of dealing with Questions. One of the strongest points made by the right hon. Gentleman was that his proposal would enable due notice of Questions to be given; and he appealed to him to give the House due notice of what it was now asked to discuss. They could not at that moment deal with the concrete and new proposal placed before them. As he understood it, Questions were to be divided into four categories. There were to be the urgent Questions, for which the sacred five minutes or more were to be reserved. There were to be the interesting Questions, to be decided to be such by the Gentlemen at the Table. There were to be the uninteresting Questions; and finally there were to be the outcast Questions, which were not to be answered at all, except by letter. The difficulty, to his mind, would lie in the method of selecting the Questions, and until they had that method before them, it was impossible to decide whether the proposed mode of dealing with Questions was satisfactory or not. The right hon. Gentleman should remember that every hon. Member, in the eyes of the law of the House, was equal—not in his own eyes, perhaps—and that his Questions were equal. It would be a very difficult thing to set up an authority which would satisfy everyone, and which would have to say that one hon. Member's Question was interesting and that another hon. Member's Question was uninteresting. That was a fair subject for discussion, but he wished to point out the great difficulty in which they were placed by the way the Rules were dealt with. There were three separate additions to the Rules, all undecided. Three of the proposed new Rules were half discussed and left half decided, and they were wholly unfitted to add a fourth. Moreover, before the Motion for the adjournment they were not discussing Questions at all, but lines 3 and 4, which proposed that— If the business appointed for an afternoon sitting is not disposed of at eight of the clock, the sitting shall be suspended until nine of the clock. The right hon. Gentleman did not state whether he meant to excise those words, or, if so, whether they were to be replaced by other words.


They are not to be replaced by anything.


said he would respectfully suggest that it would be better if the right hon. Gentleman put down on the Paper exactly what he proposed to do with reference to Questions, and also the proposal he meant to make with regard to the selection of Questions. It was not reasonable to ask hon. Members to debate a thing which was thrown at them as if it were only invented that morning. Of course, it was not invented that morning. It was the deliberate work of the right hon. Gentleman and his advisers after due consideration. That being so, the House also ought to be given some time for consideration, and this particular Standing Order ought, therefore, to be postponed.

(4.45.) MR. CHAPLIN (Lincolnshire, Sleaford)

thought that, under all the circumstances, this particular part of the subject might be adjourned. His right hon. friend had made a very great concession to the wishes of the House; in some respects he had, perhaps, gone too far. He had never been one of those who attached great importance to the large majority of Questions and to having an opportunity of putting them at the opening of business. He thought in many cases it would be more convenient to postpone them to a later period of the sitting. His view generally was that forty minutes was a good deal too long a time for what was described as the asking of Questions. He thought, however, that for Questions of extreme importance more than five minutes might be allowed; but for a right and clear understanding of their position it was desirable that the House should see the whole of this considerable change in print.


said he was lost in amazement at the action of the Leader of the House on this question. The right hon. Gentleman was interested in the speedy passage of these Rules, and yet his action again and again had been of such a character as necessarily to delay their progress. The right hon. Gentleman had been pressed again and again to make a statement on the subject of Questions, because Questions dominated the consideration of a number of other provisions in the Rules. Though the right hon. Gentleman must have been considering his new proposal in respect of Questions, he had hitherto offered no light or guidance to the House on the subject. When the right hon. Gentleman had at last made up his mind to make a new departure, he did not make a statement to the House or allow the change to appear in print, so that the House might be able to consider it before the discussion; but this day he explained what the new scheme was, and asked the House to enter upon its consideration at once, with the result that further time was being wasted in discussing a Motion for the adjournment of the debate on this Rule. Was that the action of a Minister who was anxious to have the Rules brought speedily into force? He invited the light hon. Gentleman to try to be more businesslike in the management of the Rules, and to take the reasonable and practical course of adjourning the consideration of this particular Rule until the House saw it in print.

(4.50.) MR. A. J. BALFOUR

said that the criticisms and charges which had been levelled at the Government were extremely unreasonable. Complaint was made that the House was in the midst of a discussion of three separate Rules, but the reason of this was that the Government had been anxious to meet the wishes of the House. Again, why were there three additions to them? Because he had been anxious to meet the wishes of the House by introducing certain alterations in the Rules, and by having them reprinted. It was also said that the Government ought to have given notice of the changes. There must be a period at which the House was made acquainted for the first time with a proposal of this kind, and he had selected the time which was most convenient to the House to state orally the general grounds for arriving at the conclusion that a change was desirable and for not putting it on the Notice Paper without comment. That course of action was made a charge against the Government.


You should have made the statement yesterday, and placed the change on the Paper today.


said he thought that would have been most inconvenient. The debate was being carried on on the hypothesis that he was asking the House now to discuss a plan which had been heard for the first time. If that had been the case, he should agree with all the epithets launched at him, but nothing so unreasonable had been done by him. He did not wish, however, to enter upon a contest with the House on the subject, and he would not press the matter farther. He suggested that the House should proceed with the discussion of the Rules relating to Friday sittings, priority of business, and business in Supply.


agreed that it was desirable to postpone this particular Rule and to go on with a discussion of the others as they stood on the Paper.


said he was content for the present to assent to the postponement of this subject.


asked leave to withdraw the Motion for adjournment.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn, and debate adjourned till Thursday.