HC Deb 22 December 1915 vol 77 cc520-9

(1) Section seven of the Parliament Act, 1911, shall, in its application to the present Parliament, have effect as if five years and eight months were substituted for five years.

(2) Section two of the Parliament Act, 1911, shall, in relation to any public Bill passed by the House of Commons after the passing of this Act and during the continuance of the present Parliament, have effect as if the Session ended in September nineteen hundred and fourteen, and the Session in which the Bill is so passed were successive Sessions.


I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), to leave out the words "five years and eight months," and to insert instead thereof the words "six years."

The reason I move this Amendment, and the reason I have anything to say upon it at all, is really contained in the history of this measure. A few weeks ago we were told that the Parliament and Registration Bill was to be introduced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but at the last moment the Bill was suddenly withdrawn, and we were told that it would be produced a few days afterwards. It is common knowledge that, if the Bill as it was originally drafted, and as it was approved by the whole of the Cabinet, had been introduced, we should have had a longer extension of the life of Parliament than was contemplated in the Bill as introduced. When this Bill was introduced, in substitution of the one originally brought forward, there was in it a proposal for the extension of the life of Parliament by one year, instead of eight months as now appears in the measure. During the Debate upon the Second Reading of the Bill my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Duke) threw out the suggestion that under these rather unusual circumstances it would be more reasonable to make the period of extension a Session rather than a year. The Prime Minister who, at the time, was not at all in possession of the views of the House, said that he was not in the least wedded to the time set out in the Bill. When the Committee stage was reached, without waiting to hear any opinion of any section of the House at all, the Prime Minister himself moved the Amendment reducing the period from twelve months to eight months. I was always under the impression that when a Coalition Government came in we should have more, and not less, chance of taking the sense of the House upon proposals put before us, and I do not understand the system under which a Minister, however eminent, comes down to the House and before hearing any Debate throws over proposals that are apparently the united product of a united Cabinet and suddenly puts forward totally different proposals. The Prime Minister no doubt did it merely with a view of saving time. I venture to doubt whether, as a matter of fact, it will be found to save much time, but undoubtedly it was done entirely for that object.

I want to point out to the House that the Debate which followed made it perfectly clear—and not only am I fortified in my view by what I heard in the Debate, but also by what I was told by Members in all quarters of the House following upon the Division—that as a matter of fact the majority of the House would have preferred the original term of a year in the Bill. I believe that is the case, and if the Government thought otherwise I cannot conceive why they wanted to put the Whips on with regard to a matter which is eminently a matter which the House ought to have been allowed to decide for itself. The real fact of the matter is that Coalitions have their greatest danger, not from the strength of their enemies, but from the lack of enthusiasm of their friends. If merely because a few people raise a question of the reduction of the Government proposal the opinion of the majority of the House is to be taken as of no account, and we are to pass Bills merely because the minority is in favour of them, all I can say is that if such procedure is to be carried out to any extent in this House, the Government will find itself in a very different position from that in which they are at present.


We had a Division.


We had a Division, as my hon. Friend below the Gangway says, and he knows perfectly well that his interruption is purely irrelevant, because Members supported the Government because they did not want it to appear that they desired to throw the Government out or were hostile to the Government. I never expected, when we forced a Division on that occasion, that we should get the real opinion of the House reflected. Everybody knows perfectly well that the real opinion of the House was not reflected on that occasion. I am not, as I said on the Second Reading, an opponent of the Government, nor do I in any way think that the Government have done badly. On the contrary, I wish to see them stick to their original proposal, because I believe the majority of the House realises that a year is the least possible time to give them. We cannot possibly proceed with registration upon the lines that we discussed on the Second Reading or upon any other lines, unless we give a longer period than eight months. The whole object of limiting it to eight months is a sort of affront to the Government, and a sort of suggestion that they cannot be trusted longer. Further, it puts the whole of the question, not in the control of this House, but in the control of the Members of the other House, and against that I absolutely protest. Therefore I suggest to the House that the original term proposed is the shortest term possible. No doubt we may hear something from the Government Benches to-day that may make us reconsider our views, but from all I have heard up to the present I believe the House would welcome the longer term, and I have, therefore, taken this opportunity of moving my Amendment restoring the longer term which was the original considered opinion of the Government.


No, not the original opinion.


I am referring to the original proposal in this Bill. I am not in the secrets of the Government like my hon. Friends below the Gangway, and I do not know what the other Bill was. I support the longer term because it was the original intention of the Government. I believe it is also the opinion of the vast majority of this House, and I move the Amendment particularly as a protest against giving away Government proposals in a lamentably weak way merely because a few people who do not in any way represent the majority in the House make suggestions.


I beg to second the Amendment.

5.0 P.M.


My hon. and learned Friend proposes to the House that we should reverse a decision which was taken in Committee on this Bill a short time back. I hope I can, in a few sentences, give some good reasons why we should not reverse the decision that has already been arrived at. My hon. and learned Friend will not suspect me of any special or particular enthusiasm for altering in this respect the Bill as I presented it on behalf of the Government to the House. The Bill is itself a compromise, or an attempt at a compromise, and I do not think that he and I are likely to differ in what he said as to the advantage, so far as may be, of maintaining a compromise. There is, however, an overwhelming reason, as it seems to me, why we should not endeavour to change this Bill. After all, what was done the other day was done on the Motion of the Leader of the House, the head of the Government, on behalf of the whole Government, and was in effect, and in the way the Debate went, a bargain. Now a bargain is a bargain, and it makes no difference to me whether the desire to alter it is a desire to alter it in a direction which might be in my favour or against it. I think it would be a very unfortunate thing, especially in a delicate matter of this sort, where controversial feeling is easily aroused, if we went back on what was in fact a compromise and a bargain. There were hon. Gentlemen opposite who suggested an even shorter term than eight months; six months, I believe. I think myself, and I said it in Debate, that there are practical inconveniences and disadvantages in making the term too short; but everybody agrees in what the Prime Minister said on behalf of us all, when he said that there was nothing sacrosanct in the number twelve, and that in this, like all other matters, especially where there is a possibility of controversy breaking out from under the surface, when we come to a bargain do let us stick to it. Apart from the merits of six, eight, or twelve months, or years, I would appeal to the House without doubt or question to say that this Bill should remain as it stands. I do not desire to go into the question of what may be the history or origin of this Bill. It is a compromise, and that is the best way in which we can hope to deal with a matter of this sort when we are preoccupied, or ought to be preoccupied, with the overwhelming subject of the conduct of the War. My right hon. Friend the Secretary for the Colonies said, on the Second Reading, that the Bill as it was then before the House was in a form which was his own suggestion. That is quite true, but in this particular it was changed, in order that we might arrive at a common understanding with the general consent of the House, and certainly by an overwhelming majority of those who spoke, and I trust we shall not have any more Divisions, but shall be prepared to take it, as it is intended to be taken, as the best bargain that can be arrived at for the time being on this awkward, but none the less secondary, subject.


I do not know whether the hon. Member for Norfolk (Mr. Hemmerde) intends to go to a Division on a proposal of this kind, but I venture to say that if his attendances were not so few he would never have put down an Amendment of this kind to reverse the decision of the Committee. I do appeal to him to come into our midst more frequently so as to get into the way and routine of transactions of this kind. He seems to forget that we voted on this question largely on his instigation, and that the vote was twenty-three for his point of view and 158 for the suggestion of the Government. Then he comes down here to-day and tries to make the House believe that the 158 belonged to him and the twenty-three to us. I venture to say that if he pursues his vocation with the same ability, a more distinguished career awaits him than he has yet attained. I appeal to him to withdraw an expression he used, namely, that to bring this proposal forward was an affront to the Government. I took particular notice of that. If he was going to use that term he should have given notice to the hon. and learned Member for Exeter (Mr. Duke). I do not think a member of his own profession should so describe an expression put forward calmly and in good faith in this House by another Member, without warning him that he was going to describe it as an affront. The proposal came from the hon. and learned Member for Exeter, and he and the Prime Minister in accepting that suggestion, used very definite words. Clearly the Prime Minister never regarded it as an affront, and he accepted in general terms the proposal of the hon. and learned Member when it was made in the spirit in which it was made. The language shows that quite clearly. The Prime Minister said: I understood him to suggest— that the term to be fixed in the Act should represent something like the average duration of an ordinary Session. Mr. Duke nodded assent. The Prime Minister: Well, there is a good deal to he said for that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Tuesday, 14th December, 1915, col. 1984, Vol. LXXVI.] That good deal is not abuse, but an acceptation of the point, and not worthy of the language the hon. and learned Member for Norfolk has used. It is a very simple matter. The hon. and learned Member seems to think that it is the result of some kind of conspiracy in some quarter of the of the House. It is nothing of the kind. The well-known editor of the "Observer" suggested three months, and some Members of the House, with whom I do not agree, suggested an immediate election. The Government proposal was twelve months. Some Members wanted a year after the War, and others eighteen months from now, and as his was about midway, and his suggestion was put forward in the proper spirit, we decided to put it down, so that in case the Government decided to use it it would be on the Paper. I venture to hope that the hon. and learned Member will see his way to withdraw such an expression as that, especially as the hon. and learned Member for Exeter is not in his place to defend himself.


Having regard to what has fallen from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I have no desire whatever to press this Amendment to a Division, and I beg the leave of the House to withdraw it.

Leave withheld.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause," put, and agreed to."


I beg to move in Subsection (2), after the word "Commons" ["passed by the House of Commons"], to insert the words "before the first day of October, 1916, and."

The object of this Amendment is to provide that the provision of the Parliament Act as to successive Sessions shall apply only during the extension of the life of this Parliament which this Bill grants—that is, the additional eight months. These eight months will expire on the 30th of September next, and accordingly I propose by this Amendment that we should say that the Sub-section dealing with this matter should read thus:—

"Section two of the Parliament Act, 1911, shall in relation to any public Bill passed by the House of Commons before the first day of October, 1916" … and so on… "have effect as if the Session ended in September, 1914."

I submit for the consideration of the House that it would not be reasonable that in making provision for this particular extension we should alter the provision of the Parliament Act, excepting in regard to the additional time so granted. If at the end of that time a further extension is wanted, it will be for the House when that proposal comes before it to say what it desires to do with regard to that extension, and it ought to approach the matter with its hands perfectly free. In the Debate which took place on Monday, on a Motion made by my hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), it was said by Members on this side of the House that the Bill, as drawn, did not extend beyond the operation of the extension of the Bill itself, and speaker after speaker on this side said that the Clause which it was moved to omit was not to be regarded as a precedent in the case of another Bill of the same kind. My right hon. Friend was appealed to by some of his own Friends to consent to the withdrawal of his Motion on the ground that a compromise had been arrived at, that the circumstances were very special indeed and intended to meet a particular case, and that it would be no guide for the future. The Amendment was accordingly negatived, as my hon. Friend did not press it to a Division. Just before it was negatived, however, the hon. Member for North-West Lanarkshire (Mr. Pringle) pointed out that in his opinion the view taken of the effect of the Clause was erroneous, and on the Motion that the Clause stand part of the Bill the hon. Member for the City of London appealed to the Home Secretary to have his view on that point. The right hon. Gentleman said that he adopted the view, and stated his view as being that which had been submitted by the hon. Member for North-West Lanarkshire. I have looked carefully into the point, and I agree with both my learned Friends on it, that the Bill in its terms would apply automatically in the case of any further extension, so that the point would not be undecided, so to speak, when Parliament approached the consideration of another Bill for a longer extension of the life of the present Parliament. That is how the Bill stands. I cannot believe that it was the intention or purpose of the Bill that it should have that effect. I submit to the House that it is not right, and I bring forward this Motion for the purpose of having the matter corrected and leaving the hands of Parliament absolutely free and untied when we approach, if we should ever be asked to approach, the question of a further extension. It is no use saying you can repeal the Clause when you consider proposals for a further extension. You are in a very different position when you have to ask the House to repeal a Clause which has already been enacted from that in which you are when you ask it not to introduce a Clause that would have that effect. The question would be as the matter stands prejudged, and when we asked to have a Clause put in to repeal it, we should be told that Parliament has considered this matter and decided upon it. It was with a view to making such a predicament as that impossible that I bring forward this Motion. It is a very short one, and I beg to move it.

The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Mr. Bonar Law)

I hope my right hon. Friend will not think it necessary to press this Amendment. It seems to me to be a question of form much more than one of substance. My right hon. Friend has just said that Parliament must be free to deal with the new situation when it arises. Of course, Parliament must be free, and it must be so in any case. When this period of eight months comes to an end, this Parliament will automatically come to and end, and if the life of Parliament has to be extended, it must be by a new Bill, which can only pass into an Act of Parliament with the consent of both Houses. Therefore it does not seem to me the difference between the two Motions is very substantial. I earnestly put it to my hon. and right hon. Friends on either side, that we have had a good deal of trouble in connection with this Bill. This is not a matter of substance because, in fact, the only difference between the two proposals is that this will extend the life of Parliament, and obviously the life of Parliament cannot be extended save by a new Bill. The idea in making this proposal is to postpone that which I certainly hope will never take place. If it does, we can resume our freedom of action with all our rights, and it really is not worth while delaying this Bill when we have the power of doing that. Nothing in this Bill will tie the hands of parties.

The hon. Member for North Lanark complained about the trouble which had arisen. I wish there were more of my hon. Friends present to hear what I have to say. I do not believe, whatever trouble there is in connection with this measure, it should ever have arisen, as the feeling of both sides was that we would accept any settlement which was acceptable to our party. That has been our view from the very beginning. I think the Prime Minister went out of his way to show that he was anxious to treat the Bill in that spirit when he made the concession to which the hon. Member now objects, and I think we should meet him in the same spirit. I should like to observe this—although I do not care to say it—there has been talk about misunderstandings, and there have been a few complaints about my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in that respect. But those who have a right to complain of misunderstandings are not the Unionist Members or myself. I think we have been met fairly, and if, as I believe, this is only a matter of form and not of substance, I do think my hon. Friends on the other side of the House will do well to show the same spirit as has been displayed by the Prime Minister in regard to the matter, and not insist on making a change in what has been practically accepted by both sides.


I have no wish to press the matter too far, especially after the speech of my right hon. Friend. But what is in my mind and what caused me to put my name down to the Amendment was this: It is always well to be candid with the House. I was afraid that when the time came, if it ever did, when a new Bill was brought in to prolong this Parliament, the Title might be so drawn that it would be impossible to introduce any Amendment beyond an Amendment dealing with the purpose of prolongation. Understanding from my right hon. Friend that he does not think there is any chance of such an event taking place, and he has told us it is merely a matter of form and not of substance, and if that is the opinion of the House generally, and we are really at liberty to raise this question should another Bill ever be brought in, I should personally not desire to divide.


I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.