HC Deb 14 March 1912 vol 35 cc1393-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Wedgwood Benn.]


Under the Rule which exists at the present time I should like to utter a protest against the manner in which the Government have thought fit to treat us this evening. We asked a number of questions on a very important matter, and additional pressure was brought to bear on the hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary to the Treasury by hon. Gentlemen on the benches behind him. I do not know if those hon. Members would have voted against him in the Lobby, but I do believe if the opinion of the House had been taken the hon. Gentleman's conduct would have been declared deserving of censure. Certainly the attitude which the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have adopted to-night almost brings the work of this House to a farce. At the present moment Ministers appear to watch the clock to see if the magic hour of eleven is going to absolve them from any further trouble. We have been discussing a matter of extreme importance. I venture to say that, in any financial measures which we in this House are called upon to vote or to withhold money, it is the duty of the Government to return adequate answers as a matter of courtesy or otherwise. The matter of courtesy I leave to the hon. Gentleman, but when one realises it was not only the Opposition, but also the hon. Gentleman's own colleagues, who asked the questions which he had not the decency to answer—


Is that a Parliamentary expression?


I do not think there is any question of decency involved.


I venture to submit that any Minister who treats the House in the manner in which the Financial Secretary did deserves the sincerest censure of all Members of the House.


I think as far as the personal charge is concerned—either of discourtesy or indecency—those who have followed the Debates on the Supplementary Estimates, either in Committee or on Report, will in the main acquit me. Under circumstances which some hon. Members have generously acknowledged, I have had to present the Supplementary Estimates this year, and in every case I have endeavoured to give replies such as are allowed by the House to hon. Gentlemen opposite. In the particular case to which the Noble Lord refers—that of this picture—several questions that were asked to-night were asked again and again on the Committee stage. I made seven or eight short speeches on the Committee stage, endeavouring to reply to all of them. As to the reason why I did not give another reply at the end of the discussion to-night, I may say there was one question which was raised to which I should have replied if there had been an opportunity. So far as I understand the rules, on the Report stage the Minister in charge is not supposed to be continually making speeches introducing fresh matter. If I am wrong in that interpretation, I am prepared to amend my ways, but, so far as I understand them, I have carried out the traditions of the House to the best of my ability, and I hope that the sentiments expressed by the Noble Lord are not the sentiments of the majority of this House.


I have no desire to make any personal attack on the hon. Gentleman who has recently come to his new office, for having committed any intentional discourtesy, but I must honestly say I do not think the treatment the House has received in connection with this matter is quite what it is entitled to expect. I do not wish to go back on my own personal grievance, but I did put a very distinct question. Let me describe what happened. The hon. Gentleman told us that the particular way of treating the Estimate was authorised by a particular Section of a particular Statute. I read the Section of that Statute to the House, and everybody who heard me read it was perfectly satisfied that that Section, as it stood, did not authorise it. I believe that a good explanation might have been given. But the hon. Gentleman says he had already spoken. Surely he could have asked the leave of the House to speak again. If he did not do so, the Home Secretary, who was present, and who had been carefully studying the question for several minutes, could have answered for him. As a mere matter of courtesy, in this case I think it was only what one would have expected from a Cabinet Minister for him to have said, to a perfectly bonâ fide question, "The answer is so and so," or "I do not know the answer," or "It can be given later on." As to that matter, there was no difficulty as regards the Rules of the House. Attention was carefully called by one hon. Member to the fact that the Government proposed to suspend the Grant for next year. That point had not been raised in the Amendment at all. An appeal for the reconsideration of that decision was backed up by four hon. Gentlemen sitting on the hon. Gentleman's own side of the House. It was enforced by several Gentleman sitting on this side. It was a matter capable of being answered in a very short space of time, and I must say that the speech of the hon. Member for Sutherland (Mr. Morton) seemed to deserve a reply.


That was the point to which I was referring where I was prepared to give a reply, although it was fully discussed in Committee.


The hon. Gentleman had very many opportunities of rising, but he did not rise. He says he would have risen if the hon. Member for Sutherland had sat down. But the hon. Member did not rise till six minutes to eleven, and there would have been ample time to reply. These personal disputes and squabbles are very undesirable, and I do not wish to pursue the matter; but I do think that the Government have not treated the Opposition or the House fairly in regard to this matter.


I may supplement what the Noble Lord has said. I put a very distinct question on the Paper as to why the ordinary normal practice of Parliament was departed from in this instance. It is explained in a footnote that it is departed from, and I asked what the authority was. It was a matter on which presumably the Government knew that they could give an answer in two minutes, with which I should have been perfectly satisfied. And then the question was asked twice by myself and once by another Member, but not one word of reply was given.


When these charges of discourtesy are made against the Financial Secretary, I have sat with hon. Members opposite for many days in Committee upstairs on Bills under the guidance of the Financial Secretary, and the party opposite has said no Gentleman ever treated the Committee with greater courtesy than the hon. Gentleman. When they talk about indecency they ought to remember what they did when in office. I remember addressing many questions and never having the courtesy of a reply. That is not so very long ago, but it was before the Noble Lord was a Member of the House. At all events, so far as the general charge of discourtesy is concerned, a few words ought to be said from these benches. No Under-Secretary in this House endeavours more to do his duty to the House of Commons.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve minutes after Eleven o'clock.