HC Deb 14 July 1915 vol 73 cc845-58
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I beg to move, "That for the purposes of concluding the business of Supply for the present Session, seventeen days shall be allotted under Standing Order 15 for the consideration of the Annual Estimates for the Army, Navy, and Civil Services, including Votes on Account; and, as respects the present Session, that Standing Order shall have effect as if in paragraph 7 of that Standing Order the sixteenth day were substituted for the last day but one of the days so allotted, and as if in paragraph 8 of that Standing Order the seventeenth day were substituted for the twentieth day so allotted."

The House is aware that Standing Order No. 15 provides that not more than twenty days, being days before the 5th of August, shall be allotted for the consideration of the Annual Estimates, including Votes on Account, and that those days do not in- clude Supplementary Estimates or Votes of Credit. In the Motion which I am about to make I am proposing that in this part of the present Session, for the purpose of concluding the business of Supply, we shall be content with seventeen days instead of the twenty which are normally allotted under Standing Order No. 15, and that consequential Amendments of the Standing Order, so far as this Session is concerned, shall be made. I may point out that the Votes for all the large Departments of State have been discussed, with the exception of the Foreign and Colonial Offices. We have had discussions on the Army and the Navy —and a number of questions were raised on the Votes on Account — the Office of Works, the Post Office, the Board of Agriculture, the Treasury, the Board of Education, the Scottish Office, the Board of Trade, the Home Office, the Local Government Board, and the National Insurance Commission. With regard to all these matters the House has had an opportunity —in all cases in Committee I think, and in one or two cases, on Report — of discussing the Estimates.

The outstanding Estimates that remain to be discussed, or could be discussed, are these: Law Charges, Superannuation— already mentioned — Old Age Pensions, Public Works, the Diplomatic Services, the House of Commons, and the Foreign and Colonial Offices, together with some of the Revenue Departments. In regard to those, so far as I can gather from such information as I have received, one subject which the House would desire to have an early discussion upon is the Colonial Office. That will be provided for. The House will observe that in addition to the seventeen days which, under my Motion, will be allotted to Supply, we shall practically have had twenty days of Supply, because three days during the Session has been devoted to discussion on Votes of Credit. I agree that under the terms of the Standing Order Votes of Credit are not included in the twenty days, which is not the minimum, but the maximum allotted by the Standing Order for Supply; but the circumstances in which we are now living are very anomalous. On the proper Votes of Credit most questions, or a large number of questions in which the House and the country are peculiarly interested, have been the subject of, I will not say repeated or adequate, but of considerable discussion. Time has also been given for the Report stage of these Votes. In effect the discussions which we have had under the Votes of Credit may be taken as equivalent, for all practical purposes, to additional days in regard to the Army and Navy, and for the most part they have been devoted to those two topics.

I must say that we expect to have to ask the House for another Vote of Credit before it adjourns. Of course, there will be a further opportunity for a continuation of such discussion, or initiation of discussion, on new or revelant topics. I may point out further what may be in the recollection of hon. Members in every quarter of the House that during the fifteen days which have been devoted to Supply the House has very rarely sat the appointed time. In most cases we have adjourned about the dinner hour. I am not complaining of it; it is perfectly natural, but hours under which the conditions of a normal Session would undoubtedly have been occupied with further discussion and elucidation of the various questions presented by the Supply of the year, by the deliberate wish and decision of the House have been foregone. I may add that I think it is very desirable, if possible, that we should bring the necessary proceedings of this part of the Session to a conclusion before the end of the present month. There is no intention, I need hardly say, to withdraw from the House of Commons the proper opportunities of supervising and criticising the action of the Executive; but I think we shall all agree that a reasonable interval might well be allowed to elapse before we resume our Parliamentary activities. It is in view of these questions that we ask the House, abnormal as the conditions are, to be content, so far as this part of the Session is concerned, and so far as the business of Supply is concerned, with the seventeen days which under this Resolution we propose to allocate for the purpose.


The Prime Minister said that all the great Departments of State had been the subject of debate. I suppose it is because of the peaceful condition of Ireland that the right hon. Gentleman no longer treats that country as in any sense a great Department of the State. While I do not object to the course the Government propose to take, I must, I think, make one reservation, that the days which have been retrenched are, to a large extent, days which would have been devoted to Irish discussion. I do not, at this time, ask for those days, nor do I desire to obtrude any needless controversy upon the attention of the House, but there are some matters connected with Ireland, even during this War, that in my opinion need discussion. One of them is, the intimation that the Government no longer intend to have a revision session for the registration of voters. If there is to be an Act abolishing revision for the present year, there will be no necessity for a discussion on that point, but I am bound to make this declaration, that we have need of some protection against partisan appointments, especially since this Coalition Government was formed.

We all remember the controversy connected with the removal, or the proposed removal, of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland. We all know the action which was taken by a particular party in sustaining him in office. I make no criticism' whatever of the action of the Government in that matter, but it does put those who-have taken an independent position under the necessity of making a demand that the partisan appointment of revising barristers in Ireland should cease. I say that partisan appointments have been made in the past, and that some of them have been scandalous appointments. In England, as I understand, there is a kind of truce in the appointment of magistrates. What is the position with regard to the appointment of magistrates in Ireland? Are they to be made on partisan lines? Are particular districts to be boycotted, and are unworthy persons to be entrusted with judicial office? These are matters that require attention, and I do say, while not claiming any time at this moment under the rules of Supply, that if hereafter a desire should be expressed for attention to Irish matters, the Government should give a guarantee that that time will be given. There is one other observation. It is a very remarkable fact in time of war that, for the first time for over half a century, neither the Lord Lieutenant, nor the Chief Secretary, nor his Under-Secretary for Ireland, who is a permanent official, is an Irishman, and I can only say—and I say it solemnly on my responsibility—that any pro-Germanism which now exists in Ireland has been fomented by the folly of those who put the present Irish Under-Secretary into his position.


As I understand, the Prime Minister proposes that the House shall give up two days, and I think three potential days, because I believe it is in the power of the Government, if the House desires it, to extend the number of days that are provided. I also understand that two days will still remain, one to be devoted to the Colonial Office and the other to the Foreign Office.


I should be glad if that is the wish of the House. I understood it was the desire to discuss the Colonial Vote, but I was not aware there was a desire to discuss the Foreign Office Vote.


I understand the extra day has not been given to any particular subject. It is rather difficult for private Members now to convey their views as to the Votes they would desire to discuss. However, I have no doubt there will be an opportunity for discussion of any particular Vote if there is any large body of opinion in favour of it. I think I can say there is no private Member of this House who has on more frequent occasions than I have protested against Motions of this kind; but I recognise these are not ordinary but extraordinary times, and, so far as I am concerned, I do not propose to offer any objection to the Motion. At the same time, I think the Prime Minister fully wishes the House to understand this is not to be taken as a precedent, and will not be referred to in future as a reason for any Government interfering with the Motion regarding Supply. Because the House on previous occasions may not have utilised all the time set apart for Supply, that must not be taken as an indication that the House does not highly value the privileges we have under that Motion. I know the right hon. Gentleman does not mean that. There are some occasions on which Supply goes through in a much more rapid manner because of circumstances, apart altogether from the mere merits of the Vote.

I understand we are to have a Vote of Credit. The right hon. Gentleman has not yet said how much it is for, but no doubt we shall know in the course of time. As I understand from the right hon. Gentleman, we are going to have rather a long Adjournment. I do not know whether the Prime Minister is in a position to-day to give any indication as to the length of that Adjournment, but I would only say with regard to the proposal of the Government—indeed, with regard to all proposals as to business—so far as I am concerned I have not said, nor will I say, anything to oppose them in carrying out their work. What I have contended, and continue to contend, is that there should be more vigorous prosecution and more action, and, so far as this Motion is concerned, it will certainly not have my opposition.


I should be very glad if my right hon. Friend would tell the House what is to be done with the three days. So far as I understand, we have only two-days more of Supply, and I am sure the House would like to know whether any Bills other than those which have already appeared on the Paper will be introduced, and what the nature of them may be. There is one Bill which has been referred to dealing with the postponement of elections. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will excuse my saying that I think in the opinion of many the introduction of that has been delayed too long, and I think it points to a sphere in which economy might be effected. I should be very glad to know when it will be introduced and what other legislation, if any, the Government proposes to take?


These Rules relating to Supply were, so far as I remember, put into existence by my right hon. colleague the senior Member for the City of London (Mr. Balfour) somewhere about the year 1902, and they were put into existence because it had become a perfect scandal that Supply had been pushed off till the end of the Session. Since that date these Rules have never been altered, and I think, on the whole, they have been found to work extremely well. I am sorry, under the existing circumstances, it has been found necessary to make an alteration, but I do not rise in any way to oppose the alteration, because I think under the circumstances it is necessary; but I wish to emphasise what the right hon. Gentleman opposite has already emphasised, namely, that this will not be taken in the future for a precedent, and that it is really an alteration which is caused by the exigencies of the moment. With regard to the actual alteration at the present moment, I myself, personally—of course I am only speaking for myself—think that the sooner this House adjourns the better, and, therefore, I do not intend to offer the slightest opposition to the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman. I would even go further and say that the later the reassembling is put off the better for everybody in this country.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman opposite that the fact that Supply has not taken very long on the allotted clays, is not to be regarded as indicating that an interest has not been taken in it, and that good results have not taken place. The reason Supply has not taken very long is, as I think the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, the loyalty of all the private Members on both sides of the House, who have gone out of their way not to move reductions in salaries and not to move the Adjournment. Only the other day I, myself, had occasion to make certain observations which the hon. Gentleman in charge of the matter could not answer; in fact, he did not attempt to answer them. He had only been appointed a very short time, and I did not wish to press him, but, under the ordinary circumstances, I should have moved the Adjournment of the Committee until we had somebody who could answer the questions. As things are, I thought it my duty to take no notice of the inability of the Government to deal with the questions which they put before us, and consequently I let the matter go. I would point out, however, to the right hon. Gentleman that that sort of thing cannot go on always, and when the House does meet—and I hope it will be under happier circumstances—the question of Supply will become very important. I hope all private Members will take the opportunity of coming down to criticise the action of the Government on later occasions upon these questions of Supply. The conscience of the House of Commons during the last five or six years, for what it is worth, has not been exercised in a proper manner in the criticising of Supply, and that is going to be a very important thing in the future. I am sure from what the Prime Minister has said that if he is in power later on he will not endeavour to use this as a precedent for depriving private Members of these opportunities in Supply.


I would like to ask the Prime Minister what is the object of curtailing the industries of the House of Commons? Is it done in the interests of the Government or the House of Commons? Is it not a dangerous or, at any rate, an undesirable precedent for the Government of the day to tamper with the Standing Orders of the House of Commons?


I wish to ask one or two questions with regard to the Prime Minister's Motion. I would like to say at once that I am one of those who do not agree with the sentiment expressed by the hon. Baronet who represents the City of London. I cannot see how even he can have his appetite for discussion gratified if he desires a prolonged adjournment of the sittings of the House of Commons. His lecture to the Prime Minister about the uses that can be made by hon. Members of days in Supply obviously falls to the ground if he at the same time desires that the House of Commons should not meet. Therefore I feel very strongly that the hon. Baronet opposite never made a more futile intervention in the Debate than that which he has just made. Of course, I know that the Prime Minister cannot follow the course of Supply as closely as the Whips, and there are certain questions which have been left open on Supply days which are not yet settled. In the first place, there is the only Grant in connection with Supply which has been considerably reduced, and that is the Grant to the Board of Agriculture in Scotland. That Supply is not yet passed. Another is the Local Government Board Vote for Scotland, in connection with which there rests a very important question which has not yet been finally settled by the Treasury, namely: whether or not sewers in our great cities, especially in our Scottish cities, shall be assessed to Income Tax until there is a uniform method of assessment throughout the United Kingdom. In connection with these points I want to ask the Prime Minister that the last day of Supply, which is the seventeenth, he proposes to give shall be put down as far back in the Session as possible so that these points can be discussed before the seventeenth day is actually taken. There are some negotiations going on, and I want us to be able to take part in those discussions if it is possible.

I also wish to ask the Prime Minister a question about the Votes of Credit. The last Vole of Credit which was taken in this House will carry on the War until at least the middle of September. If the Prime Minister proposes a long Adjournment at the end of this month, there could be a six weeks' Adjournment without the necessity of the House of Commons taking another Vote of Credit. I want the Prime Minister to assure us—and I put this in no contentious spirit—that if he does, as he is entitled to do, come for another Vote of Credit before we rise at the end of this month, will he assure us that that will not prejudice the length of the Adjournment. The mere fact that the Prime Minister takes another Vote of Credit, in view of the fact that the present Vote will take us to the middle of September, ought not to be used to keep the House adjourned indefinitely for any lengthy period. I feel very strongly about this matter, and I do not think it can be repeated too often that this War is no ordinary War. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I think I may be allowed to say that. We are all very intimately bound up with the fortunes of those who are partaking in this War, and our interests are more closely bound up than ever they have been in any previous war because of the large number of men recruited both for the Army and the Navy. Very many of us feel that it is our bounden duty, and we feel it quite sincerely and anxiously, that we should be kept in touch with all that is happening as far as possible, and therefore the Adjournment should not be unduly prolonged.

4.0 P.M.


I generally differ from the views expressed by the hon. Member who has just sat down, and I generally agree with the views expressed by the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London. But this afternoon I am a little more inclined to agree with the hon. Member for East Edinburgh and inclined to differ from the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London. I should like to ask the Prime Minister if he cannot answer the question put to him as to when he proposes to discuss the Vote of Credit for carrying on the War. I wish to take the opportunity of making some observations, not in a contentious spirit, with regard to aviation, and I should be glad to know whether he will take that Vote next week or the following week. With regard to the length of the Adjournment, I was very sorry to hear the remarks made by the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London. If the hon. Baronet is anything at all he is a House of Commons man; his reputation has been built up in the House of Commons, he is a pillar of the House of Commons, and we all look to him to keep us right in every matter of order and in maintaining the rights and privileges of Back Bench Members. I say quite frankly—and I think I may say that I have not taken part in any contentious discussions—that I cannot agree with the hon. Baronet's contention. This is the House of Commons and it has certain rights on behalf of the people of this country, and although it is true that there is a war of vast importance going on, I think it is undesirable that the Adjournment should be too long. I do not want to press the Prime Minister further than to ask him, if he can, to indicate what length of Adjournment he proposes, but I trust it will not be such an Adjournment as will make us feel that the Government of the day, who have the support of the vast majority of the House of Commons in the prosecution of this War, desire to escape legitimate criticism. There are two kinds of criticism—destructive and constructive. I am quite sure that the bulk of the Members of this House do not wish to indulge in destructive or opposition criticism of any kind, but merely desire to assist the Government to carry on the War in the most vigorous manner possible. I do plead with the Prime Minister and with my hon. Friend not to delegate the rights of the House of Commons, but to allow us, after a reasonable interval, to meet again, relying upon the patriotic feelings of the House not to criticise where criticism would be dangerous.


I want to put two points which I do not think have been put to the House in connection with this Debate. The first is the importance of economy at the present time. We are all for economy, and I believe a further discussion of the Estimates would show the Government those points on which Members are generally agreed that economy is more desirable and more easy to effect. It is particularly necessary from the point of view of economy to discuss as many Votes as possible on the Estimates. The second point to which I wish to refer is in connection with what the Prime Minister said with regard to the Foreign Office. May I point out to him that we have had several Debates on Foreign Office questions—only one this week—which would have been properly taken in connection with the Foreign Office Vote? There has been, for instance, the question of contraband. We have had on the Adjournment repeated discussions of this question, and they have been invariably cut short by the rules enforcing the rising of the House after an hour's Debate. There has also been the question of the treatment of prisoners. We have had several Debates on this subject, and similarly they have come to a premature conclusion. I hope that we must not assume, or take it as meant from what the Prime Minister said about the Foreign Office Vote, that the control of the Foreign Office is to be taken away from this House. Personally, I have no desire upon the Foreign Office Vote or upon any other occasion to discuss the high questions of national policy for which the Foreign Office stands, but there are many most important questions, notably those of the treatment of prisoners and of contraband, which can be only effectively raised in connection with the Foreign Office Vote.


I should like to express my agreement with the hon. and learned Member for Cork (Mr. T. W. Healy), who expressed the hope that some time would be found before the House separates for a discussion of Irish matters. The hon. and learned Member referred to an event which is fresh in the memory of most of us, and which was discussed in the papers in the form of a controversy over the suggested removal of the Lord Chancellor in Ireland. I do not think any of us have any desire to discuss that matter or to go into the past, but there are circumstances connected with it which might make it very difficult for us to refrain from asking an explanation from the Government. However that may be, there are matters connected with the administration of the law in Ireland, to which the hon. and learned Member referred, which I think even in this abnormal time might be legitimately discussed, and I therefore hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give us an opportunity for that discussion.


Could my right hon. Friend say what sum the Government intend to ask for in the Vote of Credit?


I should like to ask whether we shall have an opportunity of hearing from the President of the Board of Education something about the scheme which was outlined by his predecessor for co-ordinating higher education with industrial development. I desire to protest against various suggestions which have been made for curtailing the privileges of this House by amateur Cromwells who attempt a coup d'etat. One of the greatest speeches ever made on the floor of this House was that which contained the phrase, "Take away that bauble!" but that had great convincing victories behind it.


I must express on behalf of the Government our acknowledgment to the House for the spirit in which this Motion has been debated. There has been no disposition whatever either to oppose it or to make anything in the nature of carping comments on it. The hon. Gentleman who spoke a few moments ago (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) suggested that the Government might possibly have at the back of their minds the desire to escape criticism. Criticism, as he said, is of various kinds, constructive, destructive, and I may add, though it is not synonymous with either, instructive. The last class the Government is always ready to welcome and to profit by it, and we should be very sorry that this House should be curtailed of any opportunity of giving them that necessary and patriotic assistance. It is from no desire to escape criticism that this Motion is put forward, and, when my hon. Friend opposite (Mr. King) suggests as a drawback to the curtailment of the normal number of days which are given to Supply that the cause of public economy may suffer, I am bound to say that in my experience as a Minister, which now extends over a good many years, the almost invariable result of discussion of Supply in Committee of this House is to suggest new modes of expenditure by which additional burdens would be imposed upon the Exchequer and additional requirements exacted from the taxpayer. I am sorry to say that is my experience, and I believe that the best friends of economy—it may be a self-complacent and almost Pharisaical attitude—are to be found on this Bench.


Does that apply to the Minister of Munitions?


I am speaking of them comprehensively. My hon. Friend asked quite a reasonable question: Whether in connection with this proposed reduction in the number of days to be given to Supply we contemplate any addition to the legislative burdens of the House? The Bill to which he referred, the Bill with regard to elections, will be introduced next week, and, so far as my knowledge goes, there is no other legislation in contemplation this side of the Adjournment, except legislation of a purely departmental character necessitated by the special requirements of the War. Some inquiries have been addressed to me in regard to two matters, neither of which is strictly relevant, I think, to the present Motion, though I myself rather offered the temptation to hon. Members to comment upon them, namely, the Vote of Credit and the length of the Adjournment. The Vote of Credit, whatever amount it may be, will have to be introduced next week, because it has to be included in the Appropriation Bill which concludes our labours in Committee of Supply, and I will ask the House to be content to wait until next week for a disclosure of the character of that Vote. In the same way with regard to the length of the Adjournment, somewhat diverse views have been expressed by two hon. Gentlemen, both great Parliamentary authorities—the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) and the hon. Member for Brentford (Mr. Joynson-Hicks), who usually agree in their criticism of the Executive Government, from whatever party or combination of parties that Executive may be drawn—


If they are wrong.


If, in the opinion of the hon. Baronet, they are wrong. And who upon this occasion differ. One of them, I gather, is in favour of a long Adjournment. He thinks that the less the House of Commons sits and the less public ventilation of opinion and criticism there may be, the better in the interests of the country. The other, supported as he is by hon. Members in various quarters of the House, is naturally loth to part with the privilege which the House has always claimed and which it has abundantly vindicated of an effective supervision and control over the Executive of the day. I will not for the moment pronounce as between those two views, but when the time comes, and it must come very soon for the Government to propose the Adjournment, I hope that we shall be able to reconcile them. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cork (Mr. T. M. Healy), supported by the hon. Gentleman the Member for the St. Augustine's Division (Mr. R. McNeill), suggested various points in connection with Irish matters which he thought might be fitting subjects for discussion. I very much doubt, speaking of course off-hand, whether the particular topics to which my hon. and learned Friend referred would be in order on any Vote of Supply. I do not think, as regards the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, that his salary is charged on the Votes at all, but in regard to that and Colonial matters and in regard to what my hon. Friend behind me (Mr. Hogge) said with reference to Scotland we shall be guided very much in the order in which we put down the various Votes for the final days of Supply by any opinion which is conveyed to us and which seems to reflect a general current of opinion in any quarter of the House. We are not bound to any order, and we shall take the Votes in that order in which so far as we are able to judge it is the general desire of the House they should be taken. Those are all the points which have been raised in the course of the Debate. I again express on behalf of the Government our acknowledgment to the House of the public patriotic spirit in which they are about to agree to this curtailment of the number of days in Supply.

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That for the purpose of concluding the business of Supply for the present Session, seventeen days shall be allotted under Standing Order 15 for the consideration of the annual Estimates for the Army, Navy, and Civil Services, including Votes on Account; and, as respects the present Session, that Standing Order shall have effect as if in paragraph 7 of that Standing Order the sixteenth day were substituted for the last day but one of the days so allotted, and as if in paragraph 8 of that Standing Order the seventeenth day were substituted for the twentieth day so allotted.