HC Deb 25 November 1909 vol 13 cc427-30

"In arranging the time for the execution of any work which has already been approved under this Act, and which involves the employment of labour on a considerable scale, regard shall be had, so far as is reasonably practicable, to the general state and prospects of employment."


I think this Amendment alters the conditions under which advances may be made, and I must rule that it is a privileged Amendment.


moved. "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment.


For reasons which I have explained, I do not attach the slightest importance to the question of privilege objection, which seems to be an utterly silly objection for this House at this time of day to take. If it is a good Amendment we ought to adopt it, and if it is bad we ought to reject it. The silly doctrine of privilege is worthy of the days of the Stuarts As to this particular Amendment, whether it is privileged or not, I very much prefer the Clause the House of Lords has put in. The object of Clause 18 was to secure a very proper object, that largo works under this Bill should be executed at a time and under conditions which as far as possible, should meet the fluctuations of employment. I suppose everyone desires that, and has always thought that is the most healthy way of dealing with the unemployment question. The great thing is that when you have large works to carry out you should, as far as possible, reserve them till a time of slack employment and not push them forward in times of full employment. But the Clause would not have had that effect, or anything like it. It deals only with approving or making advances, and says nothing whatever about carrying out the work which is the important thing. They may approve of the work in November because they think employment is likely to be slack, but the work may not be carried out till the following May, when employment is at its height. I should have been satisfied with an Amendment which left the word "executing" in and left out the words "approving and making advances," but the Lords have done it on a rather* more comprehensive Amendment, but it really is the same thing as though they struck out every word but "executed." They say that the time of arranging for the execution of the work is the occasion on which you ought to have regard to the conditions of unemployment. I very much regret that the Government do not see their way to adopting this. If their only reason is that it is a matter of privilege, it is deplorable that they should be stopped by these antiquated doctrines in dealing with a question of this importance. Certainly the Clause, as it stands at present in the Bill, is wrong in principle, it will not carry out the object which we all have in view, and, if the Government still feel that their dignity would be hurt by accepting the suggestion of the House of Lords, let them, after they have disagreed with the Amendment, propose an Amendment of their own to put this Clause right. As it is, it will do a great deal of harm. It will expose them to pressure in considering the desirability of a scheme on the ground that there is some question of employment, so that they may be induced to assent to schemes in particular parts of the country which are not really those on which public money ought to be spent. That is not what anyone desires. No one has been more strong than the Chancellor of the Exchequer in declaring that that is not what is desired. What he does desire is that the works should be carried out at the proper time, having regard to the state of the labour market. If the Government are not prepared to make some alternative proposal, I shall vote against the Motion of the Solicitor-General.


My Noble Friend has pointed out that if the Clause is left as it stands, the Commissioners will certainly be rendered liable to pressure of a very undesirable character in considering schemes. If the Clause is left as it stands, infallibly and inevitably the Government of the day, whenever there is a time of slack or doubtful employment, will continue to be exposed in this House and outside to political pressure in connection with various schemes. Clause 18 says that in making advances in respect of the execution of any work, regard should be had to the state of the labour market. Who makes the advances under the Act? It is the Treasury, and the Treasury is subject to the direction of the Executive Government of the day. Therefore you have it laid down in an Act of Parliament that in considering whether they will make an advance of public money for a particular scheme it is to be the duty of the Treasury to consider the state of the labour market at the moment when they decide to make the advance. Such a provision really can serve no useful purpose, and it will certainly expose not only the Commissioners, but also the Treasury throughout the whole of their dealings with this Act to pressure of an extremely undesirable kind. I hope the Government will look at the matter, not from the point of view of a punctilio, or injured or threatened dignity, but from the point of view of the real dangers which have been pointed out.


It is out of no disrespect at all to the Noble Lord opposite that I abstain from arguing this question on its merits; I have argued before that the apprehension which appears to be in the minds of some hon. Members is not reasonably founded. If I abstain from discussing the question on its merits, it is because I ask the House to disagree with the Lords Amendment on the ground of privilege.


We have heard from the Solicitor-General that he abstains from discussing the question on its merits on the ground of privilege. It seems to me an illustration of the extremely ludicrous, preposterous, and portentous extent to which this doctrine of privilege is stretched. In whatever conversations we are going to have outside of this House in the not distant future on this subject we shall take care to show how this doctrine stands in the way of the public interest.


I really think that the Solicitor-General is rather wanting in courtesy in not giving some explanation why the Government reject this Amendment. Clearly the Government have some reason on the merits of the question. I am certain that any common-sense person reading the amended Clause, and also the one in the Bill, must come to the conclusion that since the attention of the Commissioners is to be concentrated upon the selection of the time when this work is to be executed, it is most important that the Clause should clearly define that and make beyond all question the one thing which is to guide them in their decision. Instead of that the whole issue is confused by mixing up the time of giving approval to a scheme and the time of making an advance. It seems to me a deplorable thing that, merely because of a question of privilege, the Government should decline to accept an Amendment which is manifestly an improvement on the Bill. Why the Government should fall back upon this miserable plea of privilege is beyond my comprehension.

Question, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment," put, and agreed to.