HC Deb 07 December 1906 vol 166 cc1303-15

moved, "That for the remainder of the session Government business be not interrupted under the provisions of any Standing Order regulating the sittings of the House, and may be entered upon at any hour though opposed; and that no motions be made to bring in Bills under Standing Order No. 11." He said:— This motion represents the period of the year's proceedings which is generally known as the massacre of the innocents, and I must congratulate the innocents on the fact that they have had a longer and more protracted life than usual, extending almost to the end of the year. I think the best plan I can adopt is to state first the names of those Bills which, if we have this further control of the time of the House, will not be proceeded with further. There is, first of all, the Judicature (Ireland) Bill, the Education of Afflicted Children (Ireland) Bill, the Infectious Diseases (Ireland) Bill, the Dublin Police Bill, the Local Registration of Title (Ireland) Bill, the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Consolidation Bill, the Agricultural Holdings Consolidation Bill, the Judicature Bill, the Matrimonial Causes Act Amendment Bill, the Salmon and Fresh Water Fisheries Bill, the Poisons and Pharmacy Bill, the Education (Consolidation) Bill, the Sea Fisheries (Scotland) (Application of Penalties) Bill, the Criminal Appeal Bill, the Supply of of Electricity Bill, the Employers' Liability Insurance Companies Bill, and then, with some regret, I must add the Small Holders (Scotland) Bill, which, as the House is aware, we do not intend to proceed with beyond a Second Reading debate; but we have now got to such a narrow limit of time that I think that, as this Bill has been before the country and much discussed at meetings and in the Press, nothing will be gained even if we were to stretch a point and find a day— and a day would not be sufficient for its adequate discussion. There is a Bill also which I will name which my right hon. friend the Chief Secretary was anxious to introduce and pass—namely, the Minerals (Ireland) Bill; but I think the very idea of introducing a new Bill after to-day will not commend itself to the House. The measures which the Government propose to proceed with are these, and they are all of them certainly not of a contentious character in the Party sense:—The Education (Provision of Meals) Bill, the Licensing (Removal of Doubts) Bill, the Burials Bill, the Removal of Offensive Matter Bill, the Public Health (Regulations as to Food) Bill, the Recorders, Stipendiary, Magistrates, and Clerks of the Peace Bill, the Telegraph Construction Bill, the Public Trustee Bill—that we are very anxious to pass—the Census of Production Bill, the Workmen's Compensation Bill, the Street Betting Bill—that is another measure to which we attach great importance—the Land Tax Commissioners Bill, the National Galleries of Scotland Bill, and, last, the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. These measures, I think, with the assistance of the House, can be passed without any great tax on the time of the House. I need hardly say that if any of them become contentious their lives would be so far endangered; but we do not see any reason to anticipate that, and these are the only Bills to which, if the House gives us the control of the time I am asking for, we shall invite the attention of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That for the remainder of the session government business be not interrupted under the provisions of any Standing Order regulating the sittings of the House, and may be entered upon at any hour though opposed; and that no Motions be made to bring in Bills under Standing Order No. 11.—(Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman.)

MR. A. J. BALFOUR (City of London)

The right hon. Gentleman has just made, on December 7, what is the only attempt which the Government have so far made to give the House a clear view of the remaining work of the session, and the fact that this statement is made on December 7 is surely almost a unique incident in our Parliamentary history. In every session I have ever heard of, even when the session went on later than the autumn, the House has had a clear idea when it rose in August what it was the Government intended to do with the time they were going to take for an autumn session. But it is not until within three weeks of Christmas that we are told what is to be the scheme of the Government as regards the legislation of the session. I must say, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for doing so, that I think the whole procedure of the Government in the course of this session is unsatisfactory as well as unprecedented. Whether it is that ten years exclusion from office has so whetted their appetite for legislation [loud MINISTERIAL cheers] I know not; but judging by these enthusiastic cheers I gather it is the reason, and that so keen-set are the appetites of hon. Gentlemen opposite for legislative food that they are prepared to swallow anything, however crude, that may be cooked for them ["No."] and whatever was the origin of the meal. There never was an occasion in the whole of our history upon which the Government, instead of relying upon their own legislative originality and ingenuity, have depended so largely upon the necessarily amateur efforts of private Members of this House. It is quite right and proper that simple and un-obnoxious Bills brought in by private Members of this House should be taken up by the Government; but I assure the House—and I say this in no Party spirit and with no desire to make any point against the present Government, but in all sincerity and candour—that the attempt to deal with great social problems and with great principles on the basis of private Members' schemes is really destructive of all sound legislation. We have been discussing at great length very important private Members' Bills in regard to land tenure in Great Britain and town holdings in Ireland. We are now asked to deal to-day with a Bill upon which, as the right hon. Gentleman truly says, there is no Party division or Party feeling, but which nevertheless does raise principles of real importance, which I do not think the House ought hastily or rashly to adopt, and which it is neither right to bring forward on December 7, at the end of a long session, nor to borrow from the private scheme of any unofficial Member of the House. The danger and the difficulties of an autumn session, about which I will say a word in a moment, are greatly augmented by this new system. Let it be remembered that in previous autumn sessions, when the House was asked to take upon its shoulders the immense additional burden, after a long session ending in August, of a session to last through half October and November and December, it has always been so re-assembled in order to pass some great definite Government measure. Never in my experience have hon. Members been called together to pass a miscellaneous horde of Bills—some Government Bills, some private Members' Bills, of none of which we have had adequate notice—and to pass them through at all cost and hazards under the screw of the abolition of the Eleven o'clock rule, Saturday sittings, and all the other familiar modes of torture which Governments may be, indeed must be, occasionally driven to use, but which they ought only to use in regard to great measures which have already been fully discussed and fully understood. In order that the House may be fully seised of the contrast I will take the example of a Bill which was particularly opposed by Members now on the other side of the House, and which was the occasion of our last great autumn session—the Education Bill of 1902. The House separated that year at nearly the same date in August, and it knew it would have to reassemble for the specific and sole purpose of finishing that Bill. That Bill was discussed until it became evident that if the House was to rise before Christmas the closure by compartments would have to be applied, and it was applied to the enormous relief of everybody. No human being could say that every principle of that Bill was not threshed out ad nauseam in the House. Now compare the conduct of the present session. We shall be sitting about the same number of Parliamentary weeks. We shall be proceeding with an Education Bill, too, as controversial as, and far more open to attack than, the Bill of 1902— a Bill which has excited, and is exciting, the profoundest passion of the community. Had the Government said, "In 1902 a measure on the same subject and exciting like passions, although, on a different side, was brought in and fully discussed, and there was an autumn session devoted to it; we will follow that example, and rather than burke discussion we will have an autumn session, and see the Bill thoroughly dealt with," it would not have been in our power to have criticised the course they pursued. But not at all. They have, in their thirst for hasty and amateur legislation, deliberately deprived the House of time which they could have usefully and properly devoted to the great measure brought in under the auspices of the Government of the day—the only way in which legislation can be properly carried on. I never have denied that under the conditions of modern Parliamentary life it is absolutely necessary for the Government of the day from time to time to use these exceptional measures for concluding debate of which we have had experience in many preceding sessions, but a more frequent experience in this session than in any which the House has yet known. I have never denied that; but the justification for these measures is that the time of the House shall be, as far as possible, given to the Government for the passing of the necessary Supply, and for their own legislation after ample discussion. I should have thought that if there was a Party to whom that principle would be dear, it would be those who are of opinion, as some hon. Members opposite are of opinion, that the Constitution of this country would be improved, and legislative work could be properly and adequately carried on, by a single Chamber. On the shoulders of people who hold that view, above all others, rests the responsibility of seeing that this House is not overburdened with work, and in consequence has to scamp it. The proceeding of the Government is open, as I think, to another objection much less patent and obvious either to hon. Members or the public outside than the evils to which I have ventured to call their attention. The unofficial Members of this House are well aware of the burden upon them. They are conscious of the great strain of the labours which they are asked to undertake; but they probably do not realise how much greater is that burden upon Ministers of the Crown and the officers over which those Ministers preside. The preparation of Bills and Estimates—the consideration of the policy to be pursued in regard to the Army, Navy, and the great services—is a most laborious operation. It taxes the strength of Ministers; it taxes all the resources of the Departments concerned; it throws an immense burden on the Government draughtsmen; and if you take away that period of leisure between October and, roughly speaking, the meeting of Parliament in the next year you deprive the offices and the Ministers of the time which, if the House will believe me, is absolutely necessary for properly dealing with these immensely complicated questions. The Government, I am confident, after their experience of this session will no longer live from hand to mouth on the labour of other people. Though they may not confess the error of their ways, I think they probably know that they have committed a great error in this respect. I do not ask them to stand in a white sheet. I suspect that in their hearts they know that what I say is true. They came in with a long roll of very ambitious pledges with regard to what is called social reforms. We are all, of course, in favour of social reform, but all who consider the question from any point of view except that of making platform speeches must be well aware that it is just those questions of social reform which are the most difficult to embody in law, which require the most circumspect action on the part of those who are responsible for legislation. They are just the questions on which it is least possible and least politic to depend upon a few high-sounding platitudes, which are a very small aid to the real and detailed work of legislative reform. I do not believe it is possible—if the Government are to spend the time from early February to August and then from mid-October to Christmas Day in this work, with from sixty to 100 questions daily, the replies to which the Departments have to assist in supplying, adding an immense load to departmental work —I do not believe it is possible that administrative work can be done. I venture then to express a most earnest hope that we shall not have a repetition of the experience of this session. I am not critical of the distribution of time the Government think best, taking into consideration the time devoted to the sittings of the House for the carrying through of a programme of legislation which—ambitious and well meaning if you like—nevertheless does impose on the House a burden the House is unable to bear and renders good work utterly impossible. I am not anxious to prolong a discussion which on such occasions as this is sometimes continued for hours, and hon. Members will not be impatient with the brief remarks I have made— brief, but dealing with a subject of immense importance. I have abstained from criticising, as I might have done, the number of times the 11 o'clock rule has been suspended under the arrangements of the Government, and from alluding to extreme difficulties that this imposes upon us; these are relatively-small matters, and I do not hope for any satisfactory reply on the present occasion from the right hon. Gentleman who will follow me. But I hope that all Members, official and non-official, will think—if they will do me that honour—of the observations I have made, not in any polemical spirit, but with a sincere desire to see the work of the House carried on under conditions which alone can enable it to deal with the legislative programme of any Government. The principles I recommend are the eternal principles of sound Parliamentary business, and it is because I hold these opinions and hold them strongly—and I have endeavoured to the best of my ability to carry them out when responsible for the conduct of business in this House—and because I desire to see the Government carry them out—it is for that object and that object alone that I venture to call the attention of the House to this question which is vital to their welfare.


No one can complain—certainly no one on this bench—that the right hon. Gentleman has taken this legitimate opportunity to make a general criticism on the distribution of time during the session, and no exception can be taken to the general tone of his observations. I gladly recognise that; but he has said one or two things which I do not think it is possible that I, without wishing to occupy time or to introduce a controversial spirit, can allow to pass without notice. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman objects to autumn sessions altogether, or whether he would maintain that if we are to have them they ought to be confined to the discussion of a single measure. Let me point out that if we had followed precedent in that respect, and had been occupied with the Education Bill alone, there are two measures I take by way of illustration as to which there is a universal consensus of opinion they ought to be put on the Statute-book, the Merchant Shipping Bill and the Workmen's Compensation Bill, neither of which would have been passed by the House. The right hon. Gentleman has talked about precedents, but I am bold enough to believe that in such a matter a new Parliament and a new Government may have a duty, not merely to follow, but to set precedents. What is the gravamen of the charge against us in. regard to precedent? That we have shown a zeal which the right hon. Gentleman thinks unprecedented and intemperate for legislation. Well, I agree that is a novelty in Parliamentary experience. The right hon. Gentleman has an ill-opinion of our legislative proposals, and much of them he would probably like to schedule under a title which is that of a Bill the Prime Minister has announced his intention of keeping alive—the Removal of Offensive Matter. But that is not our view. And I observed that the right hon. Gentleman studiously refrained from objecting to any of the measures for which the Prime Minister proposes to take time for discussion. He has accused us it is true of the crime of adopting what he calls the amateur efforts of private Members. What does the charge amount to in the light of facts? We passed before we rose for the autumn something like forty measures into law, and before the autumn session comes to an end I hope we shall have increased that number by a dozen or a score more. Out of those fifty or sixty, what number of private Members' Bills have the Government adopted? Precisely four. There is the Musical Copyright Bill, which since its reception early in the session has had general approval in its remaining stages; two Bills have found their way to another place, where they were considered so unobjectionable in principle that they have passed a Second Reading; and the remaining Bill, upon which we are to be occupied this afternoon—Education (Provision of Meals)— is one as to which no Party feeling is excited, and, though introduced by a private Member, has been before a Select Committee, by whom evidence was taken, and the Bill is now recommitted with the advantage of a minutely careful examination, such as few public measures receive, therefore, I trust the House will agree to the Resolution.

LORD R. CECIL (Marylebone, E.)

intervened as a private Member, not for the purpose of discussing the general principles upon which business should be conducted, but with a view to ascertaining what burden the Motion would be likely to throw on the general body of Members of the House. The Prime-Minister, in giving notice on the previous day that he intended to move this Motion, had said that he intended to take the opportunity of giving some general indication of what the course of business was going to be for the remainder of the session. They were entitled to have an indication of the general plan of the Government. The House did not know at present whether the Government proposed to bring the session to an end before Christmas or not, but assuming that they did so intend, fourteen days were left, including three Fridays, of which this was one. Allowing three or four days for the Education Bill, there were three more allotted for the discussion of special subjects—South Africa, Wireless Telegraphy, and Army Reform. [An HON. MEMBER: Three opportunities.] Three opportunities—up to the present they had been spoken of as three days— and he for his part did not see how the House was going to have an efficient discussion either on South Africa or Army Reform without a full Parliamentary day being allowed for the discussion. That made seven days. In the remaining seven days, which might include two Fridays, the Bills mentioned by the Prime Minister to the number of fifteen would have to be disposed of, and many of them must give rise to considerable discussion. What were those Bills? There was the Report stage and the Third Reading of the Education (Provision of Meals) Bill; the Public Trustee Bill, a most desirable Bill, but which, judging from Amendments even now upon the Paper, excited a considerable amount of comment. It was a Bill which certainly ought not to be passed without proper discussion. Then there was the Census of Production Bill, a most admirable Bill, but one which would raise a considerable amount of discussion; the Street Betting Bill; the Third Reading of the Workmen's Compensation Bill, which after the two decisions which the House had taken on the preceding day, he certainly could not regard with that favour with which he had previously regarded it, and the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. That made six highly contentious measures, in addition to which the nine other Bills which the right hon. Gentleman had read out were to be discussed and to be disposed of in seven days. It was under these circumstances that he asked the right hon. Gentleman until what time did he intend to keep the House up. It was all very well for the members of the Government who could and did go home to bed, but there were not too many Members on the Opposition side of the House, and if they desired properly to discharge their duty and subject the measures of the Government to that Parliamentary criticism and that discussion which they ought to receive they could not go to bed. They were entitled therefore to a statement which the House was led to believe it would receive from the right hon. Gentleman as to the plans of Government for the remainder of the session. He asked some member of the Government to supply the statement which had been overlooked, in order that Members might know to what hours they were to be kept up by the suspension of the Rule.


said he had already given the noble Lord the information he required, so far as he could control the future, by stating the Bills the Government intended to proceed with. How long those Bills would take depended as much on the noble Lord as upon the Government. It might happen by good luck that some of the Bills, or some Amendments to one of the Bills, might be of such a nature that the noble Lord would not think it necessary to speak upon them. That would be of itself a change in the procedure of the session, and it would make an immense difference in the hour to which they would be obliged to sit. But really to ask one who was helpless in the matter as against the noble Lord to estimate the time which each Bill might take was surely a little too much. He had done all he could do by naming the Bills the Government intend to proceed with.


said the noble Lord had endeavoured to gain their sympathy by complaining of being kept up all night, but he would remind the House that there had been only one all-night sitting this session, and on that occasion the noble Lord was careful to go home and go to bed early.

SIR WILLIAM ANSON (Oxford University)

said that many hon. Members who were interested in the Education (Provision of Meals) Bill, relying on the indications of the course of business which had been given early in the week, had made engagements for to-night which they could not put off. He was sure the Prime Minister would acquit him of any desire either to obstruct or to delay the passages of the Bill, but undoubtedly it did contain matter of great social and pecuniary importance on which there was a great variety of opinion in the House, and as it had been impossible owing to the short notice to cancel engagements into which many of them had already entered, he suggested that the discussion on this Bill should be adjourned at five o'clock and resumed on some other occasion.

LORD BALCARRES (Lancashire, Chorley)

said the right hon. Gentleman had named the Bills he proposed to carry through, but he had made no statement with regard to the promised opportunities for the discussions on the Army, the Berlin Conference, and the question of land settlement in South Africa, in which hon. Members on both sides of the House were deeply interested. He thought the House should be given some indication of the days when these questions would be raised.


wished to remedy one omission. He had omitted to state that he thought it desirable that they should devote a short time, not to the larger questions of procedure which were the result of the deliberations of the Committee, but to certain rules that the Government had put upon the Paper to legalise, as it were, the new method of taking divisions; This would be a very simple matter, and of course they had no idea of entering on the wider question. The Government would take advantage of the opportunity they would have to-day of proceeding with business, for it would only make the pressure heavier on subsequent days if they abridged their working hours that day. He admitted that there were points in the Provision of Meals Bill of consider- able importance, but he thought four or five hours ought to be ample for their discussion. Then there were one or two other Bills of a perfectly unobjectionable and uncontentious character with which they might occupy a further space of time. As to the discussions on the three subjects mentioned by the noble Lord, he did not see very clearly beyond the discussion of the Education Bill at the beginning of the week. He presumed that would probably take three or four days, and until they got on with that discussion they could not proceed to fix days for other subjects.

Mr. BOTTOMLEY (Hackney, S.)

urged the Government to proceed with the Criminal Appeal Bill. Surely a Bill the object of which was to keep innocent persons out of prison should have precedence over a measure like the Street Betting Bill.

Mr. BOWLES (Lambeth, Norwood)

said it was of some importance to private Members that they should understand as nearly as possible the real effect of the very large powers for which the right hon. Gentleman was asking for the remainder of the session. Was it intended to bring the session to a close before Christmas or was it contemplated to run it over Christmas? The right hon. Gentleman had warned them that if any of the Bills should be treated as very contentious its life might be endangered to that extent, and that seemed to suggest that he had some fixed date in his mind. Did he intend to go on night after night until all the Bills had been passed? Private Members ought to know how they stood in that matter.


hoped that a day or portion of a day would be devoted to the discussion of the Report of the Public; Accounts Committee. Matters of very considerable importance were contained in the Report, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would adhere to the decision of the last Parliament, and afford an opportunity for a discussion.


was afraid it was impossible at the fag end of the session to give an opportunity for the discussion of the Report of the Public Accounts Committee. It could just as well take place in the early part of next session.


May we understand that a day will be allotted in the early part of the next session?


Sufficient unto the session are the discussions thereof.

SIR HENRY CRAIK (Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities)

remarked that the clause in the Education (Provision of Meals) Bill making it applicable to Scotland was not likely to be reached until a late hour this evening, and he hoped that that would not prevent an adequate consideration of the subject, and that they would have the assistance of the Secretary for Scotland and the law officers.

MR. HUNT (Shropshire, Ludlow)

hoped that if the Prime Minister intended to crush the Opposition with his majority the Leader of the Opposition would do his best to keep the discussion going day after day and night after night.

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That, for the remainder of the session, Government Business be not interrupted under the provisions of any Standing Order regulating the sittings of the House, and may be entered upon at any hour though opposed; and that no Motions be made to bring in Bills under Standing Order No. 11.—(Sir H. Camp-bell-Bannerman.)