HC Deb 12 February 1910 vol 112 cc109-18
Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)

I beg to move, That, until the House otherwise determines, and so far as the House does not otherwise determine, no public Bills other than Government Bills be introduced and no Ballot be taken for determining the precedence of such Bills. The two Motions standing in my name have been carried in the House at this stage of the Session every year since the War began. I had hoped that although the War was not technically over that in the changed circumstances it might not have been necessary to ask the same facilities on this occasion. Unfortunately, although war necessities are not so pressing, the demands on the time of the House are as great as they were in any of the Sessions while the War was going on, and I therefore find it necessary to make this demand once more. The Resolutions are practically in the same terms in which they have been carried on every occasion during the War, but there is one difference to which I would like to call the attention of the House. The first Resolution commences, "That, until the House otherwise determines." On all previous occasions the Minister of the Crown, in making this Resolution, has said it was the intention of the Government to apply it to the whole of the Session then being entered upon. I hope that that will not be necessary on this occasion.

I realise as fully as any Member the great disadvantage it is that time should not be given to private Members. It is in every way an advantage to the House that they should have their time. The opportunities given by moving Resolutions are very often of the greatest value in enabling subjects to be taken for which the Government might not easily find the time. Though it has been very rare that a Bill introduced by a private Member has been passed into law, yet I should be very sorry to limit the privilege of the House, for in the past the experience of every Member of the House must have been the same as my own, that it is a disadvantage that in any way the rights and privileges of the House should be taken away. But, as was indicated in the Speech from the Throne, and as the House fully recognises, it would have been quite impossible to attempt to deal with the many subjects that the Government are pledged to deal with, and that the country expects us to deal with, if we adopt the methods of the past, under which is was almost impossible to get more than a single Bill through in any one Session. The Government are hoping, therefore, early next week—and I trust they will be adopted by the House—to introduce alterations of procedure which, I believe, will leave more time for the House to deal with general subjects. After we have had a little experience of the working of these proposals I hope it will be possible to ask the House to rescind the Motion which I am now asking the Members to adopt. Indeed, I may say that I shall be disappointed if it is not possible for the House to adopt that course at the end of the financial year, 31st March, when, as the House knows, the greatest stress is past. With this explanation—an explanation which I trust will make the House realise that the Government is very anxious to restore the privileges of private Members, and that we shall not delay a moment in so doing as soon as the exigencies of business permit. I hope the House will adopt both Resolutions.


I am very much surprised at the Motion which has just been moved by the Leader of the House. I did not expect that such a Motion would have been put down for our consideration at this stage of our proceedings. I quite recognise that the Government have a very heavy programme in front of them. But I am going to appeal to the Government also to realise that private Members are here under pledges, given to their Constituents, and that their Constituents expect that they will have some time given to enable them to get their programme made effective. The restriction of private Members' rights was a war measure. But every time it came up it was agreed to very reluctantly, even during the War. The chief reason why the majority of Members of the House believed that this restriction was necessary was to enable them the more successfully to combat the most brutal dictatorship in the form of Kaiserism the world has ever known. To my mind, having successfully withstood that dictatorship, it will be tragic if we agree to set up another dictatorship in this country. During the last few weeks it has been the duty of the members of the Labour party to stand with their backs to the wall, fighting against the unofficial element within their own movement who were attempting to exercise a dictatorship which we believed would endanger the interests of those for whom for the time being we are the custodians. Having successfully resisted that dictatorship, we shall refuse to be a party to the establishment of a dictatorship in this House, and, if necessary, we shall withstand any attempt to set up any unconstitutional methods of the character that has just been put before us by the Leader of the House.

We were talking yesterday about the causes of industrial unrest, and the necessity for steps being taken to allay that feeling of unrest which is manifesting itself in the Labour movement of the country. I would like to put a question to the Leader of the House. Does the right hon. Gentleman think the proposal he is making is one that is likely to allay that feeling of unrest which is manifesting itself in the Labour movement at the present moment? It is a matter of vital moment to the working classes of the country that the Labour party should have ample opportunities of introducing Motions and Bills calculated to remove the cause of unrest, and I desire to say to the Leader of the House that if you sit on the constitutional safety-valve in the form of the Labour party there will be a great danger of an explosion taking place. If this Motion is proceeded with it will be our duty to divide the House. That being the position, I hope the Leader of the House will see his way to withdraw the two Motions which he has put down on the Paper. We are anxious to do all that is possible to maintain harmonious relations amongst all sections of the people in this country, but we are profoundly convinced that if any attempt is made to remove the constitutional safeguards to which I have already referred it will not tend to the continuance of harmonious relations, and I hope that, after consideration, the Leader of the House will see his way to withdraw this Motion at least until a later stage of the Session, until he sees how the time of the House is going to be occupied.


I think it may be convenient to the House if I express a somewhat different view to that taken by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Adamson). I realise at once the very great pressure which there must be upon the Government in getting the absolutely necessary business done; and with all due respect to private Members, the business of the nation must have the first claim upon us. The Leader of the House has suggested that if this Motion be carried, the matter can be considered at the end of the financial year. Could that not be placed in the Motion? If that be done, then I think the appeal the right hon. Gentleman has made is one which those of us who have, perhaps, a fairly complete knowledge of the great difficulties of the Government in getting through their absolutely necessary business can accept. If that limitation be put in giving us an opportunity of reconsidering the whole question, I for one do not see how I can resist this proposal.


With the leave of the House I should like to say at once that it occurred to me that it might remove the difficulty if I made that suggestion. I am perfectly willing to adopt that course. I have already explained that it was my hope that by the end of the financial year, the 31st of March, when the pressure is not so great, it might be found possible to relax this rule, and I have expressed my willingness to make a Motion then to that effect. What is suggested now is to put into the Motion words to prevent us taking the time of private Members after the 31st of March without the consent of the House, and I am perfectly willing to do that. I am quite ready to alter the Motion and to move an Amendment, instead of the words "until the House otherwise determines" in both Resolutions to insert the words "until the 31st March, 1919."


I am entirely with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) when he states that every consideration should be given to the Government to expedite the business. I notice in the second Resolution it is proposed to do away with Friday sittings.


The hon. Member had better wait until we reach that Resolution.


I am very much obliged to the Leader of the House for his concession, but I ask him to give us a further concession, which really runs concurrently with the one he has already granted. The first Resolution says: No Public Bills other than Government Bills be introduced and no Ballot be taken. Seeing that this Motion is to stand good until the 31st of March, would it not be possible to allow private Members' Bills to be introduced and balloted for as they used to be in the old days, although anybody who got a place in the ballot knew that there was even then only a mere chance of his Bill being debated? If private Members' time is restored after the 31st of March, which I very much doubt, because the Government always have such a pressure of business that private Members do not get a chance, then the Bills introduced could be debated. I see no reason, even from a Government point of view, for preventing private Members introducing Bills. To introduce a Bill does not mean that it will be debated. They may be introduced under the Ten Minutes Rule, and receive a First Reading. They could then be circulated so that hon. Members would see what legislation is proposed. I can see no better way calculated to educate Members of Parliament than to try and draw up in the form of a Bill what they think the Government should do, which is not an easy task, as many hon. Members know. To give that privilege to this large new House, nearly the whole of whom are supporters of the Government and will have no speaking to do at all, would afford an excellent opportunity of giving every member of this House a chance of taking part, if not in legislation, at least, in putting his ideas on paper. I beg the Leader of the House to say whether he cannot concede that Members should have the right to introduce Bills and to ballot for the chance of having them debated. I hope in that appeal I may have the support of the National Democratic Party, the Leader of which I know has the interests of private Members at heart. I believe, if Members could ballot on this question, instead of having to vote in accordance with their pledges to the Government, that we should get an overwhelming division in favour of retaining the rights of private Members. The dangerous process of muzzling independence and driving any Members who want to do any decent work into Government offices, has gone too far, and we want to restore the small pre-war liberties that independent action had in this country.


Supposing the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House does make the concession by inserting the words "thirty-first day of March," it will be of no use at all to the private Member so far as Bills are concerned, because the old-standing Rule about the Government taking private Members' days after Whitsun' will come in after 31st March. I have been some twelve or fourteen years in the House, and to me it has always seemed a very futile thing that you should have your ballot, that some seven or eight small Bills should be brought in, and that then there should only be a gambling chance of the first, two Bills, if they are non-controversial, ever getting on to the Statute Book. If they are controversial, they never get there. I would respectfully urge the right hon. Gentleman to consider the suggestion of the hon. and gallant Member who has just sat down, and, whilst taking the private Members' time up to 31st March, permitting private Members to introduce Bills under the Ten Minutes Rule. If that is done, then it can be determined, according to the exigencies of business, whether the first three or four Bills which have been introduced shall be dealt with in their subsequent stages upon what hitherto have been private Members' days.


According to the second Resolution which we are going to discuss, Fridays are not required for Government business. Would it not be a reasonable compromise if the Government, while taking the evenings which are normally allotted for Resolutions up to Easter, at least gave us the Fridays which they do not want up to 31st March? This would enable us to let off a good deal of steam which otherwise might be extremely inconvenient.


The hon. Member (Mr. C. Edwards) who has just spoken has suggested that up to 31st March private Members should have the opportunity of introducing Bills under the Ten Minutes Rule. There is no such thing as the Ten Minutes Rule. This rule is that a Member introducing the Bill shall make a short statement in support of it, and that one Member who is opposed to it may make a short statement in opposition to it. [An Hon Member: "And that will be you!"] However that may be, I am at present supporting the Government. That is the rule, and it might take, not twenty minutes, but half an hour or oven longer. I remember a Member on the Front Bench introducing a Bill under the Ten Minute Rule, and after he had spoken forty-five minutes being pulled down by his colleagues on either side. I would point out another difficulty. How many Members are to have this privilege, and how many ten or twenty minutes will be taken up in the day? You might pass a whole day with private Members introducing Bills. And when you have done it all, what is the advantage? You gain nothing. Surely it is better to accept the proposal of the Leader of the House and wait until 31st March. After the 31st March the introducing stages of the Bills, and possibly the Second Reading, might be taken.


The Leader of the House made no statement as to the intention of the Government using the whole of the Parliamentary days available from now till the end of March, and, if it is a fact that the Government may not take Fridays and possibly even Mondays for Government Orders, it does alter the situation somewhat. When the House is giving this great concession—because it is a very great concession on the part of Members—they have a right to know from the Government that the Government not only require the whole of the time until 31st March, but that they are going to take it, and that we are not merely going to sit on three Parliamentary days, missing Monday and Friday, which might otherwise be given to private Members. It the right hon. Gentleman could say that is the intention of the Government, it would set our minds at rest.

Mr. BONAR LAW indicated assent.


I think it might be possible to overcome this difficulty if the Leader of the House would table Amendments suggesting that we should meet at twelve o'clock in the day. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] When all is said and done, we are paid for our work, no matter how inadequately, and if we met at twelve, and from twelve to one-thirty were devoted to private Members, we should have an opportunity of seeing those who are really anxious to get on with their work coming down here to do it. It would in no way interfere with the Government work. They could easily, with the large number of Ministers that they have, tell off one to occupy the Front Bench to deal with these matters. I make this suggestion in the hope of avoiding a Division, because it would be a most unfortunate thing if the Government should fall on the first Division in the first day, and feeling is very strong among private Members on this question.


I have listened with great interest to what has been said regarding this matter. I am very reluctant to move from a position that I have taken up, but I will make this further suggestion to the Leader of the House by way of compromise. As he is still aware, we have Tuesday and Wednesday evenings for Motions and Fridays for private Bills. If in addition to the Amendment suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member fur Peebles (Sir D. Maclean), he would agree to insert the words "except from 8.15 on Wednesday evenings" after the words "Government business do have precedence," that would give us an opportunity of introducing Motions. If he could see his way to make that further concession, and also to consider the advisability of using any Fridays, when the Government have no business, for private Members' Bills, we could accept that as a compromise. I hope he may see his way to do so and thus enable us to get over a very difficult situation.


As an old private Member of this House I am naturally very jealous of private Members' privileges. What new Members of the House ought to remember is that on two days in every week, from 8.15 till 11 o'clock, they are entitled to bring forward Resolutions with regard to matters of public interest. If we look at the Order Paper for to-day we find there a great number of Amendments to the Address which will never be reached and never be discussed in the course of the Debate on the Address to the Throne. Tuesday and Wednesday nights are the only nights in the week on which the subjects they deal with can be disposed of. The argument put forward by the Leader of the House with regard to the time up to 31st March is a perfectly sound one, but I would like, before we pass from this Debate, to know what he means exactly by paragraph 3 in his second Motion. That paragraph only refers to the rising of the House on a Thursday night.


That will arise when we take the next Resolution. We are only discussing the first Resolution now.


If we cannot raise that until we come to the next Resolution, let me, on the general question, say that, as far as I am personally concerned, I want to join in the appeal to the Leader of the House to give us the Wednesday nights from 8.15 till 11 o'clock. I urge that because that is only two and a half hours of time. That two and a half hours of time the Leader of the House can recover on every Friday, because on Fridays he has from 12 till 5 o'clock—that is to say he has double the amount of time he proposes to take from the private Member by occupying Friday with Government business. Therefore I see no reason why the proposal put forward by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Adamson) to let us have Wednesday nights should not be acceded to.


May I be allowed again to speak in answer to the appeal of the right hon. Gentleman opposite? I need not say to the House that I should be very glad indeed to meet his wishes if I could. I hardly agree with him in thinking that this is a serious situation. I have been in many much more serious situations. I really think that this difference of opinion is due more to a misunderstanding than to anything else. For instance, the right hon. Gentleman spoke is if I should have delayed this Resolution until later. I am sure he must realise, what everyone who has taken an active part in the business of the House knows, that it is precisely between now and 31st March that the greatest pressure comes. It was only after consultation with my advisers on this subject, who convinced me that it would be with the utmost difficulty that we could get through the absolutely necessary business by 31st March, that I made this proposal to the House at all. It is obvious, therefore, that we could not hang it over. As to what has just been said, that would be a very good argument if we did not intend to use Fridays. I cannot go into that now as it deals with the other Resolution. As it happens—the House will not be surprised—we have put down the Resolution in the form in which it applied during the War, but we have not only the intention but the knowledge that we must use the Fridays. That is the whole object of the Resolution. I hope the Right hon. Gentleman will agree to the Resolution. In any case I am convinced the House will agree I that we have spent a sufficient amount of time in discussing it, and that one way or the other we ought to come to a decision.

Colonel ASHLE

Y: I hope no Member of the House will vote against the Government Resolution as amended. I am as keen as anybody on retaining private Members rights, but the Government has met us perfectly fairly. They have given us an opportunity in six weeks' time of reviewing the matter. We have been elected to do urgent business at the quickest possible pace. The Government has the support of the vast majority of Members, and we ought to proceed.


Will the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) move his Amendment?


I thought the Leader of the House would move it.


I beg to move to leave out the words "House otherwise determines," and to insert instead the words "31st day of March, 1919."

Amendment agreed to.

Original Question, us amended, put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That, until the 3ist day of March, 1919, and so fur as the House does not otherwise determine, no Public Bills other than Government Bills be introduced and no Ballot be taken for determining the precedence of such Bills.