HC Deb 15 April 1915 vol 71 cc43-50

May I ask the Prime Minister what are the business arrangements for next week?


Before the light hon. Gentleman replies may I ask him if he will state whether he will give a day for—


I am going to answer the hon. Gentleman.

On Tuesday we may introduce some minor Bills and give the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Wing) an opportunity for discussing his Motion for an Instruction to the Kitchen Committee.

On Wednesday we shall be glad to give an opportunity for the discussion of the Motion standing in the name of the hon. Member (Mr. Hewins) on munitions of war.

On Thursday we shall take Supply, probably the Vote for the salary of the Secretary of State for War.

As I have an engagement elsewhere on Tuesday, we shall take the Motion in regard to the Serjeant-at-Arms on Wednesday.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House, at its rising this day, do adjourn until Tuesday next."—[The Prime Minister.]


I do not wish for one moment to oppose this Motion, but I rather deprecate it being assumed that this is preliminary to a general Motion taking all Mondays away. It is impossible, to prophesy, but there are indications that this will not be such an exceptionally light Session from the point of view of legislation. Business is likely to accumulate, and at the same time there may be matters of great importance which will require discussion. What I foresee as a probability, if we surrender Mondays throughout the Session, is that the time may come when we shall have to consider a quantity of necessary business which will have to be gone through, and when special questions arise which require discussion we shall be told that the time has been taken away. It would be better if this Motion were repeated weekly. In the ordinary course it could be agreed to, but if matters of special importance arise we should then be able to ask that they should be taken on a Monday. I only say this by way of suggesting that the matter is not quite as simple as it appears on the surface, and that it must not be assumed that the Motion to take all the Mondays of the Session will not meet with opposition.


There are two points to which I should like to direct attention. The first is as to the time to be given for questions. It is obvious that if we rise on Thursday, it is very long notice to give of questions for the following Tuesday, and I hope there may be some way out of this whereby shorter notice may be possible. The other point is as to the question of Adjournment. Now that another day has been taken away from the House, the Government might consider the pleas which were before it when the question of taking further time was discussed some time ago. That is, that they should move the Adjournment at a time when Members wish it, which would allow them more than one hour for discussion. We are gradually getting to a state of things when the whole power and everything is in the hands of the Front Bench, and no one is to be allowed to say a word unless they fully approve of what the Government are doing.

No one wants to occupy time unless it is for something of interest, I should say, in connection with the War; but I do not see that Members ought to give up all rights, and deprive themselves of the opportunity of raising matters which may be unpalatable to the Government, which hon. Members consider it their duty to raise. Hon. Members who were here on the various adjournments last Session know that two or three questions were not adequately discussed at all, simply because when an hon. Member raised a particular matter, a Minister would reply and occupy the remainder of the time. There is no possible opportunity for anyone to make any comment on what the Minister says. I heard one Minister say of another, who had sat down ten minutes before the hour expired: "What a fool! Why did he not go on for another ten minutes?" I do not blame the Minister, if he is being criticised, for occupying all the time that remains. He had the last word, and no one has an opportunity of pointing out the defects of his speech, if there happen to be any. I would suggest to the Prime Minister that he might make that small concession of moving the Adjournment before the completion of the Ministerial orders. There has been no abuse of the time of this House during the last eight months. I challenge any Minister to say that there has, and it is not right of the Government to refuse every small request that is put forward on behalf of private Members. I ask the Prime Minister whether he cannot see his way to grant that small concession.


I very strongly support what has just fallen from the right hon. Gentleman. I think most strongly that we ought to have this concession granted to us. I remember on the last occasion when this was discussed the Prime Minister made a very forcible appeal to the House to remember that the country was at war, and not to raise House of Commons points. I am quite sure that no one wishes to do that; certainly I do not, and I recognise most fully that we are under very exceptional and peculiar conditions; but it is just because of those conditions that I desire to preserve an adequate right of criticism. During the time the House is sitting the administration of the country, and particularly the administration of the War, is advantaged, and not injured, by it. I do not believe that there is anything to be gained by freeing the Ministry, even at a time of great crisis, from criticism and discussion of their proposals, and I feel most strongly that an hour at the end of the sitting is quite inadequate, and that there is no real defence for it at all. If there is unlimited discussion on the' Adjournment, a Minister merely has to say, at any moment, "This discussion is not in the public interest," and every Member of the House has been willing instantly to defer to the Minister. I think that what the right hon. Gentleman has suggested will really meet the case, namely, that whenever there is any substantial Question to be discussed, as a matter of course one of the Ministers should move the Adjournment before the last Government order is entered upon. That seems to me to be a most admirable proposal. It meets the case of any real grievance which we might feel, and I should be quite satisfied with that, though really I do not personally approve of a hard and fast limit of an hour. I hope the Prime Minister will see his way to meet the views of private Members.


To make the matter clear, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether this Motion is not strictly confined to next Monday, so that we are not now discussing any permaient conditions which may be set up. I should like to add to the appeal which has been made, but as it is clear that we are dealing only with next Monday and there must be a later Motion for dealing with the Government proposals for the Session, I do not think the discussion need be prolonged.


I should like to add a word to what has been said in regard to notice of questions. The difficulty of the case, if the House sit only on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, does not exclusively lie in the long notice which will be required from Thursday to Tuesday, because under the existing rules there will be no power in that case of asking questions on. Wednesday at all, unless notice was given in the previous week. Therefore I hope the right hon. Gentleman will enable hon. Members to give notice of questions for Wednesday upon the Monday, although the House will not then be sitting. If he will accede to that request we shall have power, notwithstanding that the House is not sitting, to give notice up to Friday evening for questions on Tuesday, and on Monday we shall be able to give notice of questions on Wednesday.


I wish to advocate a careful economy of the time of the House with respect to one matter, and that we should not allow too many Adjournments until due provision has been made for some discussion of the affairs of India, for which we have only one or two days in the year.


That does not arise upon this Question which relates only to the adjournment over Monday.


There is one point that I think we ought to be clear upon. I am not sure whether the Noble Lord (Lord Robert Cecil) was supporting exactly the proposal made from this side, because the Government have exercised during previous weeks the power of moving the Adjournment when a certain representation was made to them. But private Members know the difficulty of convincing the Whips on either side of the House of the fact that the matter they want to bring up is important. I want to suggest that, after all, no private Member to-day dare bring up any subject unless it is of overwhelming interest, for the simple reason that forty Members will not stay to listen. We have had an experience of that in the early part of the Session, when a junior Minister of the Government listened to one Member for half an hour in this House. I want to point out that the Government have a protection against any private Member raising a question which is inconvenient—first of all in the fact that if it is not a sufficiently large question forty Members will not remain to make a House, and, in the second place, the Government have the power of moving the Closure at any moment to get rid of any inconvenient question. I am perfectly certain that if the Government would allow the House on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, if these are to be the days of our sittings, to discuss matters as long as necessary on the Motion for the Adjournment they would probably find that it would never be abused.


In regard to the question raised by the hon. and learned Member (Lord Robert Cecil), I would point out that in an earlier part of the Session we were allowed the privilege of putting down a question to be replied to on the succeeding day. I thought that privilege was to be continued. I handed in a question yesterday and marked it for Thursday, but I find it is in the list for this day week. I want to know whether this privilege might be extended to us during this part of the Session, because when we are meeting only three days of the week it is very difficult indeed to give notice quickly of questions which are to come up? The privilege of questioning Ministers by private Members is of more importance now than at a time when we have regular meetings for a full week. I would like the privilege I have mentioned to be continued if it is possible, but if it is not possible, and if it is inconvenient, I have nothing further to say.


There are subjects put down for discussion on special days, but we have found that on the day given for the discussion so much time is taken up by Ministers that there is only the fag-end of the Debate for anyone else to speak. It was the case in regard to the question of British dyes. The President of the Board of Trade and the Under-Secretary of the Board both spoke at length before seven o'clock in the evening, and although many Members were ready on both sides of the House to discuss and criticise they had not the chance until later on in the dinner-hour. Therefore, I think that more time ought to be given for discussion for matters of this kind.


The private Member in this House is becoming more and more a vanishing quantity. The Front Bench have not only largely increased their power by direct legislation during the War, but they presume to exercise further prerogatives in extending as far as possible the limits of that power. That attitude would be correct if they were recognised as a kind of supermen or demigods beyond criticism; but I think the criticism in this House has a salutary effect even upon them, and especially upon Departments in the public service where they have not been successful. I hope the House will take seriously—


Discussion of the Question is rather exceeding the limits of this Motion, which is that the House shall adjourn until Tuesday next.


I will conclude by saying that I hope the House will take very seriously the point raised by my right hon. Friend (Sir H. Dalziel) and insist once and for all that the House of Commons has a certain corporate right.


May I venture to make a suggestion? I think the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman (Sir H. Dalziel) is well worthy of consideration, and I hope that the Prime Minister will say that when he does propose his Resolution it will be after consideration, and after deciding what is the best means which can be arrived at for giving a larger amount of opportunity for discussion of important matters. I think the hon. Member for Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge) went at great length if he really means to suggest that we should bring our ideas of compulsion into operation to make it the duty of Members to stay to listen to those Members who wish to address the House.


I do not suggest that.


I would not go to that length, but I do think it is worthy of consideration whether some such suggestion as that made by the right hon. Gentleman (Sir H. Dalziel) can be adopted.


I need not say-that the Government have no desire to take advantage of the shortening of the days on which the House sits to escape criticism, legitimate or otherwise. Nothing is further from their thoughts. In regard to the question of my right hon. Friend (Sir H. Dalziel), I may say that several times in the course of the present Session when notice has been given, such discussions have taken place. I can assure him that we shall always be ready to give facilities for such discussions, if we receive intimation beforehand that there is a desire to discuss any topic of urgency or interest. In regard to the putting of questions, the Standing Order at present does not allow notices of questions when the House is not sitting. We propose to amend that by an Order so as to enable questions to be put down on Friday or Monday, as the case may be, and the answer to be given with the least possible delay. I do not agree with my hon. Friend (Sir W. Byles) that one day's notice is sufficient. Otherwise we will try to give effect to the various suggestions made.


I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether he will take into consideration the position of Members who will not be in the House on Fridays, and whether he will allow notices of questions sent by post to the Clerk of the Table by Friday night's post to be answered on Tuesday or Wednesday?

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, "That this House, at its rising this day, do adjourn until Tuesday next,"