HC Deb 20 June 1907 vol 176 cc631-7

I wish to ask you, MR. Speaker, a Question regarding a matter on the Notice Paper to-day, and it is, whether the effect of the presentation of a Bill of which the noble Lord the Member for Marylebone has given notice† will prevent the discussion on Monday of the Motion‡ which stands in my name for that day?


Reluctantly, I feel compelled to answer that Question in the affirmative. The rule against anticipation is well known, and I cannot discriminate between Resolutions put down by the Government and Resolutions put down by a private Member. The right hon. Gentle man will, I have no doubt, remember an occasion before Easter when something † Bill so to restrict the power of the House of Lords to alter or reject Bills passed by the House of Commons as to secure that, within the limits of a single Parliament, the final decision of the House of Commons shall prevail. ‡ That, in order to give effect to the will of the people as expressed by their elected representatives, it is necessary that the power of the other house to alter or reject Bills passed by this House should be so restricted by law as to secure that within the limits of a Commons shall prevail. of the same sort occurred. A Bill was given notice of with the view of preventing a Resolution being taken. On that occasion I was obliged to hold that the fact that notice had been given of a Bill prevented the Resolution coming on. I may add this, that the rule, however good it was originally, is liable to be stretched, and may become a considerable abuse.


That being your opinion, Sir, I venture to make an appeal to the noble Lord that he should not proceed with the presentation of his Bill. I congratulate him upon having found an opportunity of giving a living instance to the House of the mischief which he himself has been somewhat forward to denounce. I find that on the 27th March, just before Easter, the Member for Norwood moved a Resolution in these words — That to put a Motion on the Order Paper of this House or to introduce a Bill so as to prevent discussion in this House of Motions for which precedence has been obtained in the ballot, or of definite matters of urgent public importance, is hurtful to the usefulness of this House and an infringement of the rights of its Members. That Motion was agreed to by the House and the noble Lord spoke in strong terms in its favour. Therefore, I cannot really believe that he wishes himself to commit an offence which he regards as so contradictory to the rights and privileges of Members of this House. I attribute to him a better, and, I think, a higher motive —namely, to show the House the intolerable use which can be made of the rule as it stands. It cannot be his desire to put off the discussion on Monday. I do not think that is his desire.

LORD R. CECIL (Marylebone, E.)

Hear, hear.


I do not think the front Opposition Bench or any part of the House desire that which would not only cause embarrassment to Members, but would further delay the discussion of a matter which, judging from the Questions frequently addressed to me, many Members think has been delayed already too long. Therefore, I would appeal to the noble Lord to be content with the exhibition he has made of the state of affairs, and of the length to which this rule may be, I will not say abused, but stretched, and not to proceed further. Because if he does proceed further, and if he does go on and presents his Bill, and fixes a day for it, we are not left entirely without remedy. We should propose in that case to have a sitting on Saturday [An Hon. Member. Why not Sunday?] or on Monday, to move, at the beginning of business, at the same time suspending the 11 o'clock rule, a Resolution such as this: — "That the discussion of the Motion relating to the House of Lords, standing in the name of the Prime Minister, be not precluded by any Bill appointed for the consideration of the House." But I hope we shall not be obliged to resort to that means of getting over the difficulty. The noble Lord having shown us the mischief that is capable of being done by the rule, I propose he should now withdraw and leave the impression upon the House which, no doubt, he wished to make and has made. We have been actively engaged in consultation, and in seeking suggestions from many quarters of the House, as to the proper mode of dealing with this question. The House will remember that on the occasion referred to my right hon. friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the Government would see what could be done in the matter, and he said they would only move in the matter if they found a general consent to the proposed alteration. It is that general consent which may possibly be a little difficult to create, but, subject to that, we are bound by what my right hon. friend said, and we are induced to proceed in the matter by our own strong opinion on the subject.


assured the Prime Minister that he had correctly interpreted his action. Nothing was further from his wish, or the wishes of any one sitting in that quarter of the House, than to postpone the discussion of the Resolution upon the House of Lords of which the Prime Minister had given notice for Monday next. But some of them felt that they had not been fairly treated by the Government in regard to the Resolution of March 27th. The House would recollect that on March 27th last —nearly three months ago — a Motion was made by his hon. friend the Member for Norwood, assented to by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and unani- mously passed, directed against two evils. The first evil was the setting down of Bills so as to preclude the discussion of Motions, and the second evil was the setting down of Motions so as to preclude the discussion, upon Motions for the adjournment of the House, of matters of urgent public importance. Both of those evils were specifically dealt with by the Motion of his hon. friend. They certainly understood that the Government would without any delay bring forward a Standing Order dealing with those two evils. That was on March 27th, and since then he had addressed three questions to the Government, and the hon. Member for Norwood had addressed another, asking about that expected Standing Order. He remembered very well being reproved by the Prime Minister for his "impatience," as the right hon. Gentleman called it. He was thus reproved on April 24th. Now, at last, within the last day or two, there had been an attempt made, but he understood the Government would not make any proposal to deal with the great evil relating to the blocking of Motions for the adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing matters of urgent public importance. Unless that evil were dealt with, the Government would not be carrying out the wishes of the House as expressed by the Resolution of March 27th. Unless the Government gave him some assurance that they intended to deal with that evil in the spirit of the Resolution of March 27th, he should feel it his duty to go on with his Bill. He had no desire whatever to interfere with the ordinary proceeding next Monday, and he trusted his offer would meet with a favourable response from the Government. He had handed to the Government his suggestion for the new Standing Order.


The noble Lord does not give a quite accurate description of the obligation of the Government. It was not that we should deal with the matter by placing some amended rule or rules before the House, but that we should endeavour to find out whether there was some way of dealing with this matter which would secure the assent of the House generally. My right hon. friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was most guarded in the language he used, said that we should not attempt this subject at all if it would lead to any expenditure of time, but if we should find a general agreement upon some remedy, then we would take part in proposing that remedy to the House. We are now engaged in doing that, but it is a much more complicated matter than would at first sight appear. No harm has been done to anyone by the delay, and I hope the noble Lord will not put himself in the extraordinary position of committing the very offence which he has himself denounced.

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

I had to consider this subject when I occupied the position of the right hon. Gentleman, and certainly I did not find it easy of solution. But the right hon. Gentleman has not really touched the gravamen of my hon. friend's charge, which, as I understand it, is that the Government entered into a pledge before Easter to deal immediately with the subject ["No"] —I do not say to bring in at once a Resolution of their own, but surely there was no doubt that they did suggest to the House in accepting the Resolution that they meant to act upon it. Acting upon it may be, and is, I believe, actually interpreted by the Prime Minister as meaning only that they should enter into negotiations with various parties in the House to see whether a common agreement could be come to. Let us put the pledge at that relatively low level. I was not present at the debate, and do not know whether those who were think that the pledge ought to be put as low as that. For my part, I am quite ready to take it provisionally at the level at which the Prime Minister has put it, which is that the Government should at once consider the matter and bring it before various sections of the House to see whether some common understanding could be arrived at. Certainly I have never heard anything of those negotiations until yesterday. I understand that yesterday the Patronage Secretary to the Treasury approached my right hon. friend the Whip of this Party and had a certain conversation with him, which I presume was designed to arrive at a common understanding. But that is three months after the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I cannot really understand why some things are decided on so hastily by the Government, while other things take so interminable a time in the process of gestation. They can cook up a Land Bill in a few days, but with regard to a single Standing Order dealing with a single issue it apparently takes three months of consideration before the negotiations are begun on which the ultimate solution depends. That is a very extraordinary proceeding, and if the right hon. Gentleman thinks that he can bring so embarrassing a state of things to an end by a Saturday sitting it seems to me that would be, perhaps, the best course to take. I do not think the alternative of sitting up late on Monday night is a very good one, but even that may, perhaps, be better than allowing a situation, which everyone must admit has become very acute, to continue longer. The Chancellor of the Exchequer may have some explanation to offer. I am bound to say I think the whole course the Government have pursued is one that demands much fuller explanation.

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Asquith, Fifeshire, E.)

As the Member of the Government who is responsible I should like to recall what was actually said by me. After expressing general and, indeed, complete sympathy with the Motion of the hon. Member for Norwood, I said that, in the interests of fair discussion and the dignity of the House of Commons, it was high time the Government met the evil complained of. I went on to say that it was not very easy to say what form precisely the remedy should take, because it was quite obvious that the practice which permitted a Member to get up, and by moving the adjournment of the House, occupy several hours of a sitting, was quite as hostile to the interests of the House as the one they were condemning. Whatever remedy might be devised they must take care not to introduce another practice equally prejudicial and inconvenient to the House. And now comes the so-called pledge. Subject to that qualification, I said we thought that in a matter of this kind, whatever was proposed should be by general consent of both sides of the House, and that it should not be a matter of controversial discussion between the two sides or between the various sections. So that not only did I not pledge the Government to take any direct action, but I said it was a condition precedent to any effective action being taken that general assent should be arrived at. I am sorry to say that that assent has not yet been created.


You have not asked for it.


In regard to what took place yesterday, I am told by the Prime Minister that it was done without any knowledge or suspicion of the noble Lord's intention to bring on this Motion to-day. It was the result of somewhat prolonged consideration, and an attempt to deal with a very difficult matter, which does not admit of summary solution. I do not think the Government can be said not to have fulfilled any pledge or any expectation. In order to avoid any misapprehension, I wish to point out that what the Prime Minister said about a Saturday sitting did not refer to the introduction of a new Standing Order, but to a Motion ad hoc for the purpose of preventing this Bill from interfering with the discussion of the Government's Resolution.


I cannot regard what has fallen from the Government as in any way satisfactory, and I must proceed with the Bill.