HC Deb 05 May 1914 vol 62 cc149-59
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I beg to move, "That, in determining whether a discussion is out of order on the ground of anticipation, regard shall be had by Mr. Speaker to the probability of the matter anticipated being brought before the House within a reasonable time."

I do not propose to say more than a very few sentences in explanation of the Resolution. It is now exactly seven years since a Select Committee of this House, over which I had the honour of presiding when I was Chancellor of the Exchequer, considered this matter. We unanimously agreed to a Report, the principal recommendation of which is textually repeated in this Resolution. I need not go into the past history of the matter, which is some what obscure, because it is one of the many peculiarities of our Parliamentary procedure that this Rule or practice, now so well established and of late years so constantly applied, or, as some would say misapplied, does not rest upon the authority of any Standing Order. It has been evolved in the course of time, and, indeed, is of comparatively recent date, and, like the common law of this country, by the dicta and revisions of successive Speakers. I think I am right in saying, if my memory he accurate, that it is not to be found even in the "Journal" beyond the tenure in your Chair, Sir, of Mr. Speaker Dennison, not very much more than sixty years ago. But that it is now a well-established Rule of Parliamentary procedure we are all only too well aware, and the possible abuses to which it may lead have never, I think, been more signally illustrated than during the last two or three Sessions.

It is a curious paradox that the practice or Rule, as is pointed out in the Report of the Select Committee, was intended to serve a very useful purpose, namely, to prevent a Member from forestalling unfairly discussion by moving a Motion for the Adjournment on any matter of which notice had already been given, either by a Notice of Motion or by the introduction of a Bill. That, I think, was a possible abuse which makes it undesirable to abrogate altogether the Rule against anticipation. In practice, particularly of recent years, it has been perverted to the precisely opposite purpose. In fact, as we know well, from our experience of recent years, it enables a man, by putting down, I will not say a bogus notice, but a notice which he really intends to give effect to, to prevent any discussion whatever on a matter, which may be of the highest urgency and importance. I want to deal with the matter in a purely non-controversial spirit, and I do not think there is any difference of "opinion on either side of the House as to the necessity of reforming our procedure in this respect. The Noble Lord (Lord Robert Cecil) anticipated it by putting down a Motion in precisely similar terms. He was a member of the same Committee by which the matter was discussed and which came to a unanimous conclusion. We thought then, and I think now, acting, as we did, on the advice of persons skilled in the procedure and practice of this House, and of the additional knowledge gained for our own personal experience, that the best way of dealing with the matter is not to abolish the practice. There are undoubted cases in which, if no such practice existed, there might be very great-abuse. Frivolous Motions for the Adjournment might be encouraged, and a Member who had honestly given notice of his intention to deal, either by Notice of Motion or by Bill, with some matter of urgent public importance, might be forestalled, and opportunity altogether removed by the action of some more or less irresponsible person. On the other hand, it is perfectly plain that the Rule in its present naked and absolute form reduces the proceedings of this House to something in the nature of an absurdity, and even more than an absurdity. We saw a recent illustration which was, I suppose, intended to make plain to all who can run and read, the absurdity of the Rule by which a number of hon. Members putting down Motions which dealt with almost every conceivable topic of public interest.


They were not entirely successful.


That only shows that the most perfect human ingenuity is not always capable of foreseeing everything. It was intended that no possible subject which could conceivably fall under the purview of discussions should be raised. I am told the only-thing they left out were the Mental Deficiency Act and Wick Harbour. It must be a very fine net that no fish could escape through. With a little more practice they would have obviated the possibility of even such a small loophole as that. To speak quite seriously, it is time we brought this state of things to an end. Neither the dignity nor the interest of the House is served by the continuance of such a practice and I hope I shall have with me practically the universal assent of the House when I ask them to adopt the pew Standing Order in the form which the Committee recommended, which is now on the Paper. I think that will be found to meet all the necessities of the case. I see that there are one or two Amendments down. That in the name of my hon. Friend (Mr. Booth), that Mr. Speaker should have regard to "all the circumstances of the case and particularly to," is, I think, a little vague and might seem to circumscribe the new Rule, at least to make it too elastic to be useful for its purpose. The other is by the Noble Lord (Viscount Helmsley), that Mr. Speaker should have regard to the public interest. I think the Noble Lord himself put a question when the Clerk of the House was under examination. The Noble Lord asked— Whether it is desirable in the public interest that there should be unrestricted power of discussing anything in the House of Commons? I rather gather that you do not think that any restrictions ought to be placed upon the power of moving the adjournment on that ground. The reply was:— 'What I feel is that it would be dangerous to confer such power upon the Government because any Government would be tempted to abuse it and say that it was not for the public interest that a particular matter should be discussed. I should not like to entrust such a power to the Speaker, because I think it would be imposing upon him the invidious duty of determining whether it was or was not in the public interest that a matter should be discussed. I think that is a consideration which the Noble Lord ought to bear in mind, whether he is not casting upon the Speaker a duty in the exercise of which, though we may repose the utmost confidence in the manner in which it was exercised by you. Sir, the Speaker is required to pronounce judgment on what may be a very delicate question. I suggest, therefore, that it is really better in the interest of the House and the dignity of the Chair to relieve Mr. Speaker of that duty, and to fashion the proposed change of the Rule in the manner I have suggested. I am quite sure neither you nor any successor you may have in the Chair would shrink from performing that duty if the House in its wisdom thought fit to entrust it to you. The duties of the Chair are so great and laborious and so increasingly complex and responsible that, although I am not speaking in any controversial sense, I should myself rather hesitate to advise imposing upon Mr. Speaker that fresh obligation. I think, on the whole, having regard to the unanimous report of the Select Committee and to the fact that the experience of the three years which has since elapsed tends to show that this is an increasingly urgent matter, in the interest of the dignity and efficiency of the House of Commons, the House will do well to accept the Resolution as it stands.


I do not propose, after what has been said, to move the Amendment, of which I gave notice, to insert the words "all the circumstances of the case and particularly to" before the words "the probability of the matter anticipated being brought before the House within a reasonable time." I would like to say that, in my view, the Resolution itself will not solve all the difficulties. I have picked out, since I have been a Member of this House, ten instances of Blocking Motions, and I am not at all clear that they come under the head of "anticipation." Members, to my knowledge, have put down blocking notices deliberately because they did not desire that a question should be reached, others because they did not wish the Member who would bring forward a question should be the person to introduce it, and others because they could not attend when a question was coming up and who wished it to come on at a time when they could be present. I put these under the head of public reasons for what they are worth. But there have been cases where a Member, being chagrined because he has failed to catch the Speaker's eye, has put down a notice on the Paper to block a subject. I am pleased to say that, in one instance, the Member on reflection took off the notice. These are cases which may be classed under the head of retaliation, and it is surely an open secret that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen who sit on the Front Benches on both sides have not always been hostile to the placing of Blocking Motions on the Paper. I do not wish it to go abroad that these Blocking Motions are merely brought forward by factions. Sometimes a Minister does not wish to be detained on a holiday Motion, and sometimes the Member who would be the principal speaker on the other side does not wish to be detained by the Debate until the time when it might be his duty to answer. One can see very many points in regard to which ingenuity maybe exercised in the bringing forward of Blocking Motions deliberately, but, of course, there are a large number which come about inadvertently. I would like to point out as an illustration the National Insurance Act administration. Suppose there is a proper and legitimate notice on the Paper to arraign the Government's administration of health insurance, I say that is no reason why a Member should not bring forward on the Motion for the Adjournment his own complaints about the administration of the Act. I submit that some of the Blocking Motions are very wide. If a Member puts down a Motion dealing with the administration of the National Insurance Act, although it may well be that the hon. Member wants to deal with medical benefit or casual labour almost entirely, I do not think the mere fact that the Motion will come on in a week or two should deprive any Member of his right to arraign the Government upon the general administration of national health insurance, because that is a point which would probably not be touched at all in the subsequent Debate In regard to many of these large questions, I say that a notice on the Paper should not deprive any Member of the Opposition, or any supporter of the Government, of the opportunity of raising urgent questions at any time on a Motion for Adjournment at night, or on a Motion for a Holiday Adjournment, if he believes that it is in the interest of good administration throughout the country that these questions should be brought forward and discussed. I put my Amendment down in order that Mr. Speaker might have the power to protect any Member of the House if he thought at any time that a Member was being deprived of his right of legitimate criticism, whether in the immediate future or at some more remote time. It was in that spirit I acted when I gave notice of the Amendment.


I beg to move, after the word "the" ["to the probability"], to insert the words "public interest and to the."

I still feel inclined to move the Amendment in spite of what the Prime Minister has said. I move it in no hostile spirit to the Motion. I quite agree that the time has come to deal with the question of Blocking Motions, which have been used to an absurd extent. I am in full sympathy with the movement that there should be a reform in that direction. It appears to me that by carrying the Prime Minister's Motion as it stands the House would be depriving itself of a power which it ought to possess to stop a discussion when that discussion would be dangerous to the public interest. As a general principle I think we should protect the rights of the private Member. A private Member should be, able to discuss any matter upon a Motion for Adjournment, but at the same time we all know very well that occasions do arise, especially with regard to foreign politics, and matters of very grave concern, when an incautious word spoken by any Member of the House might do infinite harm. It is in cases of that kind that a Rule of this nature ought to be able to operate, so that a discussion raised probably contrary to the wishes of the majority of the House by a single Member might be stopped. I remember that during the whole time of the Balkan crisis we were frequently told by the Prime Minister that it was not advisable to say more, or to have any further discussion. One can imagine that when foreign affairs are in an acute and delicate position a Debate in this House might do a great deal of harm, and ought to be avoided. If that can be done by putting down a Blocking Motion, I think it would be a good and legitimate use of it, because if the discussion took place foreigners might take a wrong view of the opinion of this House, on account of something said which was merely the opinion of an unimportant private Member. A good deal of harm might be done to the House in that way.

It depends entirely on circumstances whether a discussion should be allowed, and that is what I have in my mind in moving the Amendment. That is why I think this is a matter of some importance. The Prime Minister has said that it is putting a great responsibility on Mr. Speaker. I am aware of the tendency of the House nowadays to put further responsibility on Mr. Speaker, but I do not think that this responsibility would be as great for the occupant of the Chair as he has already been asked to undertake. What would be the procedure? The Minister would give Mr. Speaker reasons why he thought it was not in the public interest to discuss a particular subject. Mr. Speaker would be able to judge whether they were adequate or inadequate, and therefore the Minister would have the protection which was necessary from his point of view. I do not think that the responsibility would be so great as the Prime Minister suggested. May I remind the Prime Minister that some time ago the Government conferred greater responsibility on the occupant of the Chair, because, by what is called the "Kangaroo" Closure, the Chairman of the Committee can select the Amendments to Bills which are to be moved? That imposes a greater tax on the impartiality of the Chairman than anything suggested by this Amendment. In that case I do not think it is desirable, but in this case it is in the public interest, and I do think the Amendment would be highly beneficial.

Sir J. D. REES

I beg to second the Amendment. The reasons which have been stated by the Noble Lord appeal to me. I can remember occasions when discussions on Russia, the Congo, India and Persia have been prevented in this House, which, if they had proceeded, would inevitably have given, as I think, a false impression of the opinion of this House. At any rate, they would have made it appear in those foreign countries that the opinion in this country was that represented by the particular Member who brought forward the subject. The Blocking Motions which have prevented such discussions have not been unwelcome to the greatest purist in Procedure sitting on the Ministerial Front Bench. I think that the Prime Minister when he said that there was no actual Rule to justify this process, overlooked for a moment the fact that many of our most valued institutions are not based upon any rule or Standing Order, and I submit, as regards the serious responsibility thrown on the Chair, that, even by the Prime Minister's Motion, that responsibility is thrown on the Chair, and that there is really no very great difference between the words of my Noble Friend in that respect and those of the Prime Minister, except that the words of my Noble Friend are preferable as they give the Chair some opportunity of enabling a private Member for a good and worthy object to block a discussion which it may be the general opinion of the House it would be well to avert.

Colonel SEELY

As I was a member of the Committee presided over by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister which made the recommendation embodied in the Resolution now before the House, and as we then discussed the point raised by the Noble Lord in the Amendment, I am anxious to say one word. Although I know that the House is practically agreed upon the general question, still a definite question of importance is raised by the Noble Lord in his Amendment. I may say at once that I think that the House would be well advised to reject the Amendment of the Noble Lord. It so happens that during my official life I have had charge of more than one of those matters to which the Noble Lord referred, especially the Official Secrets Act, in which it was considered very desirable to have little discussion, and to have matters passed with exceptional rapidity, so much so that I rather doubt whether the particular method to be adopted commends itself to you or to other officials of the House. Nothing struck me more in dealing with these matters which I have had to do than the fact that the House responds with extraordinary readiness—indeed, I sometimes thought with too much readiness—to any appeal in the public interest. I think apart from the point raised that it would throw an unfair burden on you; I can go further and say that if we ever appealed to this House not to raise a discussion on a matter because it is not in the public interest to do, we will never appeal in vain.

The Noble Lord said that one incautious word might be used which would damage our official relations, but no arrangement such as he proposes could prevent one incautious word, or half a dozen incautious words, or a great many more which might be uttered at Question Time, above all, or on other occasions. The real point is: Are we going deliberately to block Debates in this House by giving any authority, however exalted or impartial, the power of saying that the House shall not talk what it pleases? I am sure that it would be a fatal error. The only safe rule is to make this House absolute master of its own fate, and if it wishes to discuss a matter which the Minister or anybody else considers to be a delicate matter which should not be discussed, that it should have the power to commit an indiscretion if it pleases; because by giving that absolute power there is no doubt that the safeguard automatically imposed will be far more potent than any device which you can adopt to check discussion. Experience has shown that the device suggested by the Noble Lord is unnecessary. On reflection I am sure that he will agree that experience has proved that to be the case in the past. I therefore suggest respectfully to the House that they would be well advised to reject the Amendment which he has proposed.


I agree with the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down. I do not think that the Amendment of my Noble Friend is a desirable Amendment. The truth is that if a Minister does not wish to discuss a matter he can always refuse to discuss it, and, so far as any other Member of the House is concerned, ha cannot stop him from talking about it if the hon. Member wishes to do so. If he cannot talk about it here, an hon. Member can talk about it outside, and what he says outside may do just as much harm as if it were said in this House. Therefore, I am myself against, limiting discussion in an artificial way on matters of public interest. Apart from that, I confess that when listening to my Noble Friend I was struck with his statement that he would willingly trust the Ministers of the day, and that they would go to the Speaker and explain that discussion was not desirable, because unscrupulous Ministers, if you can imagine that such people could exist, might go to the Speaker and say, "We cannot explain fully to you the reason, but we do think that it would be very disastrous to have this subject discussed in the House"; and a Speaker might feel that, if he disregarded that warning, he might be doing a great deal of harm to the country, and, if he complied with it, he might be doing a great deal of harm to free discussion in this House. I venture to think, therefore, that the Amendment is not a desirable one, and I hope that the House will not accept it. I wish to say one word of thanks to the Prime Minister for introducing this Motion. The matter is one in which I have taken a great deal of interest for some years. I think that it was originally raised by my friend, Mr. George Bowles, when he was a Member of this House, and I think that I had something to do with raising the matter in the early part of 1906, and the right hon. Gentleman gave us very valuable assistance.


(who was indistinctly heard): I hope that the Noble Lord (Viscount Helmsley) will not press this Amendment. I quite recognise the force of what he said, but it would be undesirable to lay down that if the House desired it was not to be able to discuss these matters. I think that there is great force in what the Noble Lord who has just sat down (Lord Robert Cecil) has said—that it is possible to picture a time, which, as he says, would not be corresponding to the time in which we live, in which we might have a Ministry devoid of scruple, and not animated by the strictest regard to the public interest and a single-minded sense of public duty, and it might be very difficult for the occupant of the Chair, if one of that hypothetical Ministry in future were to suggest to him that the raising of a particular topic was not in accordance with the public interest, to disregard it. He could hardly be indifferent to a suggestion of this character made by a Minister of the Crown occupying a responsible position, and although I do not quite agree with what the Noble Lord has said, that what people say outside this House bas the same weight or influence as what they say on the floor of the House—I do not go quite so far as that—yet I do agree that persons who are determined to make certain statements can make them. I think, on the whole, that the Noble Lord would be well advised to withdraw his Amendment.


As my Amendment does not seem to meet with acceptance on either side of the House, I will take the Prime Minister's advice, although I am not altogether convinced by what he has said.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.0 P.M.


There is one matter which I think is rather vague. Might I ask what interpretation the Prime Minister would put on the words "reasonable time"? Does he mean in the space of time before the next holiday adjournment, or what does he mean? I do not know whether it would be possible to put it more exactly, but the words seem to be so very inexact that they might mean any day before the end of the Session.


As the hon. Member knows, we can always rely on the discretion and authority of the Chair.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Question, "That this be a Standing Order of this House," put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That, in determining whether a discussion is out of order on the ground of anticipation, regard shall be had by Mr. Speaker to the probability of the matter anticipated being brought before the House within a reasonable time.

Resolved, That this Resolution be a Standing Order of this House.—[The Prime Minister.]