HC Deb 27 March 1907 vol 171 cc1883-92
MR. BOWLES (Lambeth, Norwood)

in moving, "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," said that he brought the matter forward with some diffidence because he was a comparatively new Member, and the rules and orders of the House could only be approached by even the oldest Members with the greatest possible deference and respect. His point, however, was a clear and simple one, and one for which no very deep or abstruse knowledge was required. He believed the object he had in view was one that commended itself to a large majority of the House. If ever a Motion of the kind was justified at any time, that time was surely now. He was abundantly justified, not only by that fact itself, but by what had taken place during the last few days. His Motion was directed against all Bills and Motions which were put down upon the Order Paper with the object of preventing the House of Commons from discussing either matters for which precedence had been obtained in the Ballot or definite questions of urgent public importance. He himself recently discovered a matter which he certainly considered to be of considerable public importance. He put a Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the matter, and received an Answer which was very full, and so far as it went satisfactory, but containing admissions which, to him at all events, seemed to raise a definite matter of urgent public importance. The decision as to whether that was so or not of course did not rest with him, but with Mr. Speaker. But it seemed to him that that was exactly the kind of thing for which the rule for raising a discussion on a Motion for the adjournment of the House was instituted, and one as to which the House of Commons, if it was to be a really vigilant force in these matters, ought to have had an opportunity of discussing at once on such a Motion. His complaint was that an hon. Member who took perhaps not the faintest interest in a particular matter, who desired only that a discussion should not take place, should, by putting a Motion on the Order Paper, which he had no desire to move, and which he did not intend to move, be able to prevent that matter being discussed. Such a practice, in his opinion, was an abuse of the Rules of Parliament and an interference with the rights of every Member of the House. So much for Motions. But the case with regard to Bills was infinitely stronger. The House would remember the considered ruling given by Mr. Speaker on the previous Monday in the case of the hon. Member for Westmoreland. That point had never arisen before, and on that occasion it was laid down by Mr. Speaker that under the new Rules of Procedure introduced in the last Parliament there was hidden, unseen until last Monday, the enormously important fact that it was possible for any Member of the House, by assuming to introduce a purely fictitious Bill—a Bill that did not exist and was never intended to exist—by writing three lines on a piece of paper and handing it to the clerk at the Table, to prevent the House from even contemplating, still less discussing, definite matters of urgent public importance which he desired should not be discussed. Let the House take the case immediately before them. On the 13th of March the hon. Member for the Bosworth Division drew the first place in the Ballot for that evening and the hon. Member for Melton drew the second place. If the ballot was not a mere useless piece of absurdity, a mere empty shadow and form, those two hon. Members had the first and second claim on the attention of the House. But two hon. Members had introduced Bills, in this case substantial Bills dealing with the subjects of the Motions put down by those hon. Members, and in consequence those hon. Gentlemen who had drawn the first and second places respectively had been deprived of the opportunities which they had obtained in the ballot, whilst he himself was now addressing the House on a Motion which had never been balloted for and was not even contemplated before the ruling given by Mr. Speaker on the previous Monday, and which was only put upon the Paper last night at a moment's notice. He submitted that such procedure as that rendered the House and its procedure mere empty and ridiculous forms, and he had no hesitation in suggesting that the House should agree to the Motion he would move. He would watch with interest the attitude of the Government upon the matter, because he recognised that the practice was not a new one. Motions had been put down in former Parliaments to block discussions. What he desired to emphasise was that blocking Motions under the old régime were very different from those of the present, in view of the ruling of Mr. Speaker. He wished the House and the Government to realise that it was in his power to put down a Bill to block any discussion. If he himself, for instance, brought in a Bill for the repeal of the sugar duties, the position of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he came to discuss his Budget would be a very difficult one. The position, owing to Mr. Speaker's ruling, was entirely different from what it was in the past, and the House by refusing this Motion, and refusing thereby to free itself from these new shackles which had been placed upon its procedure, would make the work of the Government and the House one of extreme difficulty and complication. He moved.

MR. ARTHUR HENDERSON (Durham, Barnard Castle),

in seconding the Motion, said that it seemed to be the irony of fate that this Motion should have been moved by anew Member above the gangway. He remembered so well the difficulty the House was placed in in the time of the late Parliament by blocking Motions being placed upon the Paper. In the last session or two of the late Parliament it was absolutely impossible to discuss several most important questions because, as it was suggested, by arrangement with the then Government, notices of Motion had been put down to block discussion. Now one of the younger Members of the official opposition found that somebody else had learned the old practice and what was more important, had extended it. In those days the practice was adopted to prevent discussions which might be inconvenient to the Government, but recently it had been adopted to the detriment of the privileges of the private Member. If there was any further encroachment on private Members' rights they would be reduced to the level of voting machines. He sincerely hoped that the Government would give sympathetic consideration to the Motion of the hon. Member for Norwood. He had himself put a question on the Paper to the Prime Minister on the subject which he would ask the first day after the recess. What he suggested was that the Government, while they were considering procedure, should make themselves responsible for an amendment of the Standing Order which would make these encroachments on private Members' rights absolutely impossible. On the Labour Benches they naturally felt this matter very much. They availed themselves of the ballot and took every opportunity they could to raise questions in which they as a Party were peculiarly interested. He was pleased that they had had a bit of luck in the ballot; and they had tabled Motions which might in some quarters be regarded as inconvenient, but which it was their duty to submit. It might be that somebody would get the tip. He did not think that the Patronage Secretary would be guilty—he had admitted yesterday that he had been guilty of jesting—of trying to rob hon. Members on those benches of an opportunity to discuss one of those inconvenient Motions. But at any rate he was not prepared to go so far as to trust him or anybody else who occupied that position. He would rather have it in the Standing Order that such a thing could not be done. Therefore he hoped sincerely that the spokesman on behalf of the Government would recognise the fairness of the Motion and the justice of the claim advanced in the interests of private Members, and see their way to accept it.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "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 procedence 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."—(Mr. Bowles.)

MR. ASQUITH (Fifeshire, E)

said he had not changed his view on this subject since he had changed his seat from the opposite side of the House. It was one of the great grievances under which at any rate they imagined they suffered in the late Parliament, that there was this almost perpetual blocking out from free discussion of almost every subject of the greatest urgency. He could not help feeling that there was great abuse in the practice, and he was in hearty sympathy with the object of the hon. Member opposite. But he was bound to say that since this new Parliament had assembled, the old system, subject as it was to very great abuse, had been supplemented by a practice which was still more objectionable, and of which, as the hon. Gentleman had very properly remarked, they had illustrations only last week. He saw the noble Lord opposite, and he was not in the least surprised that he should have followed the example which had been set, and shown that two could play at the game, and that everybody suffered from it. Whether they looked at the practice in the more restricted form, as seen in the late Parliament, or the more amplified and dangerous form as seen under the new rules, he thought that in the interests of free discussion and the dignity of the House of Commons it was high time that they got rid of the evil which had been complained of. It was not very easy to say what form precisely the remedy should take, because it was quite obvious that so long as a Member could get up in the afternoon and give notice to move the adjournment of the House, and occupy hours of a sitting, that was a practice which was quite as bad and quite as hostile to the best interests of the House as the one which they were now condemning. Whatever remedy they might devise they must take care not to introduce another practubject to that qualification, he 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 of the House. With that qualification, he was very glad on behalf of the Government to assent to the Motion, and he hoped that it would be carried unanimously.

*SIR CHARLES DILKE (Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean)

said that after the most excellent speech of his right hon. friend he had only one word to add, and it was to express the hope that hon. Members would observe the practice which had hitherto prevailed with regard to Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and indeed prevailed up to that moment. It had been the custom for even Members who were opposed to a particular Motion to take their Bill off in order to permit of the discussion taking place. He had never known of an instance in which there had been a failure to take the Bill off temporarily in order to allow of a Motion coming on for discussion. Pending any action by the Government, he hoped that Members on each side of the House would continue that practice and prevent the expedient by which a single Member was enabled to reverse its operation. The matter had become more acute since the adoption of the new method of bringing in Bills without any need to express an opinion upon them. New Members who came in had every right to be heard in the House by raising questions in which they were interested; and the Labour Party and the Irish Party, who were in the minority, had a claim on the good feeling of the House to prevent their Motions from being blocked by the action of a single Member. Therefore it was that he addressed this one word of appeal to his colleagues in the House to co-operate in arriving at a uniform understanding.

MR. T. L. CORBETT (Down, E.)

said he did not rise in any way to oppose the Motion; he would rather like to see its scope extended so as to take in Motions for Adjournment. He had a poignant memory of the last Parliament, when, after years of waiting, he won a fortunate position in the ballot. When his Motion came on, the Adjournment of the House was moved by an hon. Member below the gangway on a purely frivolous question, as it turned out, and thus the discussion for which he had waited for years was prevented. If the Government could see their way to deal with the whole question, and also to protect private Members' rights, as affected by Motions for Adjournment, he thought they would do a real service.

LORD R. CECIL (Marylebone, E.)

said he was glad that the right hon. Gentleman had rightly interpreted his motive. He was very sorry to stand in the way of the hon. Member for Bolton, but he had pointed a moral if he had not adorned a tale. He quite agreed with the right hon. Baronet that they should revert to the old practice of an honourable understanding, but he thought they must put in this caveat: the Government, he understood, were going to take action in the matter, and the action must be by way of standing order or sessional order; he did not think that anything short of that would do. If they proceeded promptly, well and good; if they did not, he for one could not regard himself as bound by any honourable understanding. He regarded this as a question of vital importance to be dealt with at once. As to Motions for adjournment in respect of questions of urgent public importance, he regarded that practice as the one hold which the House had on the Government under present conditions. It was the one means by which they could bring the Government to book promptly. As long as they kept within reasonable limits it was really one of the privileges which the House had, and which should not be parted with. He agreed that they did not want to go back to the old condition of things when there were Motions almost every day on more or less frivolous grounds. Under the ruling of Mr. Speaker, however, both this and last session, there was no fear of that happening. Mr. Speaker had ruled constantly that the matter of urgent public importance must be a matter of broad policy in the ordinary sense of the term, and not merely in a Parliamentary sense, and, therefore, as long as they were confined to that, he thought that it was a privilege they ought not to lose. He felt strongly that the academic Motions which were discussed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays did not achieve anything except to show how hon. Members voted on particular questions. Let the House take such a Motion as that which had been blocked that evening. Whatever view they might take of it, still it was desirable that the House should arrive at a decision upon it. They had debated a definite Bill for four or five hours, and it was very desirable that the country should know which hon. Members were in favour of woman suffrage and which were against it. He thought it a very unfortunate circumstance that, owing to the extraordinary rules of the House, the Motion could not be brought on. He only trusted that the Government would take the matter up seriously and introduce a Standing Order or a Sessional Order, because it lay entirely with them; nobody else could do it, and unless they I did it, it would not be done at all.

*MR. MORTON (Sutherland)

heartily supported the Resolution. It had always appeared to him to be a monstrous thing that any one hon. Member could stultify the desire of the House to discuss a particular question. The smallest and most obscure institution in the country would not allow itself to be so stultified. He quite agreed that something would have to be done to prevent unnecessary adjournments of the House. He hoped the Government in dealing with the procedure rules would provide against a repetition of what had happened this session and other sessions. All parties were agreed that some remedy should be found.

MAJOR SEELY (Liverpool, Abercromby)

asked if they could not now come to the honourable understanding to which the noble Lord had referred. The noble Lord had said he would agree to any scheme the Government might produce on the subject, but he entered a caveat that he could not agree to an honourable understanding that Motions for adjournment should in any way be interfered with. Surely they might agree that they would not introduce Bills in order to block private Members' Motions for which precedence had been obtained in the ballot.


said that, as far as he was concerned, if the Government produced a Standing Order to carry out what they all desired he would not oppose it; but if the production of the Standing Order was postponed to the end of the discussion on procedure they could not take out of their hands the weapon which had been given to them in order to put pressure upon the Government.


thought they were all agreed that the right of private Members for Motions on Wednesdays until Whitsuntide should be respected by agreement on both sides of the House, whilst the question of adjournments remained undecided.


said he could not enter into any such agreement unless the Government produced their Standing Order with due promptitude.

Resolved, 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.—(Mr. Bowles.)

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