§ The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Sir John Simon)
I beg to move, "That leave be given to introduce a Bill to make temporary provision for rendering unnecessary the Reelection of Members of the House of Commons on acceptance of Office."
I realise to the full that some inconvenience may be caused by asking permission to introduce legislation, and to carry it through all its stages at a single, sitting. So far as may be, to obviate that inconvenience, 15 copies of the Bill, which is a very short one, are provided in the Vote Office; I think some hon. Members have already secured copies, and there are others available for any hon. Member who wishes to see the actual terms of the measure. As the House knows, by a Statute that was passed as long ago as the reign of Queen Anne, a Member of Parliament who accepts an office of profit under the Crown vacates his seat, though if that office be of a kind which does not disqualify him from sitting in Parliament, that Member, appointed Minister, may, as the House knows, be re-elected by his constituents. It is beyond all dispute that the origin of such a provision is to be found in the history of past struggles between the Crown and Parliament. Such an explanation has, happily, long ago lost any semblance of reality, and there are many students of public affairs who think that this provision of the Act of Anne should be finally removed from the Statute Book by a permanent amendment of the law. [HON. MEMBERS: "No," and "Yes."] I do not say that everybody holds that view; I say—and it is certainly quite accurate to say—that many experienced persons hold that view. The ground for so holding is, that a man who is called upon to undertake new Ministerial duties should not find the discharge of his public functions hampered in the very earliest days of office by the expense and preoccupation of going through a re-election at the hands of his constituents. Perhaps the House will allow me to say that I confess to some personal sympathy for that point of view, inasmuch as my own earliest Ministerial experiences were a striking illustration of the effect of the present law.
But we do not propose, in the present Bill, any such general change in the law. We recognise perfectly that the only justification for making a proposal, at short notice, in a time of emergency, is that it is an emergency proposal, which needs to be carried into law to meet the occasion in which we find ourselves. We trust that the House will agree, whatever may be the view of its Members—and there may be some difference of view as to the expediency of keeping the Act of Anne in operation in normal times—that when we are in the midst of the greatest War in our history, it really would be deplorable, if those who are called upon to assume the responsibility of directing the affairs of the country should have to be absent from this 16 House, so diverting their attention from their public duties by the necessity of reelection. Such re-election, if we may judge from recent experience, would very probably turn out to be nothing more than a form, for the House will observe that, though the Act of Anne confers a certain privilege on the constituents of a Member, the Act has nothing to do with the control which the House of Commons, as a whole, rightly exercises, and will undoubtedly claim to exercise, over the proceedings and composition of the Ministry. The Bill will relieve from this embarrassment Ministers drawn from several quarters of the House, from the Labour Benches, from benches that have been occupied by those who, in the past, have supported the Government, as well as by those who favour the political views of some who have recently joined the Ministry. More particularly in the case of those who are Members for county divisions, the passage of such an emergency and temporary Bill will secure what nothing else will secure, the return of those Ministers to their duty here in the House of Commons at the earliest possible moment. If the House agrees to carry the Bill through all its stages to-day, it will be possible for those Ministers to return to their duty here next Monday.
Inasmuch as the Ministers to whom I have referred had, by the operation of the present law, already lost their seats, it will be clear to the House that the Bill must be given a certain retrospective operation. We propose that it shall have effect as from 1st May last, Hon. Members who have provided themselves with a copy will see that Clause 1, Sub-section (2) says:—This Act shall be deemed to have had effect as from the first day of May nineteen hundred and fifteen.There remains the question, since this is a temporary measure, as to what should be the way in which we express the time during which this temporary Act shall have operation. The present Parliament is rapidly approaching the prescribed limit to its period of life. On the other hand, we all realise that the question may arise as to what is proper to be done, if we still find ourselves some months hence involved in the crisis of this War. I do not prejudge that question at all. That will be a matter for the House to consider on some other occasion. But I submit to the House that if it is right to make this provision at all, it is plainly right to make 17 it so that it may operate as long as the present military and national crisis continues. Therefore we propose that this Bill shall cease to have operation on the dissolution of Parliament, which takes place next after the termination of the present War. I have only this further thing to say: The authority of the House of Commons is not the least in the world affected by this Bill. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] No, it is the right of a particular constituency which is affected by this Bill, and it will be for the House to judge whether these particular constituencies have really forfeited that which they would prize, or whether we are not acting in accordance with the real judgment of the country in suspending, for the time being, the operation of the standing Enactment.
It will be quite plain to the House that if we are to do this at all, it must be done promptly. The whole point and meaning of the proposal is that we should carry it through without delay, and it is for that reason, and only for that reason, that the Government urge the House to allow this Bill to go through its stages in this House to-day. It would be the height of absurdity to say you are going to arrange for a method by which new Ministers may speedily come back to the House of Commons, and, at the same time, to say you must have abundant time to discuss, stage by stage, the measure which is to secure their return. Therefore, without in the least suggesting that this procedure is not one which should be most sparingly used, I do submit to the House that this particular proposal, if the House is prepared to adopt it at all, should be carried effectively through in the course of our present Sitting.
§ Sir ROBERT FINLAY
I desire to say only a very few words in support of the appeal which has been made to the House by the Home Secretary. The Bill is an Emergency Bill, devoted to dealing with a particular crisis. Whatever the origin of the Rule to which the Home Secretary has referred, we are in a state of circumstances which render, in my judgment, the suspension of that Rule extremely desirable. I do not share the views which are entertained by some of my hon. Friends, and by many hon. Members in all parts of the House, as to the desirability of abrogating the Rule. Although the particular reasons for the introduction of that Rule in the reign of Queen Anne have ceased, there are other collateral 18 advantages, in my judgment, attending the maintenance of the Rule. But this is an extraordinary time, and I confess for myself I think it would be a national misfortune if by adhering pedantically to the application of the Rule at a time like this, we entailed even the possibility of the appearance of conflict in a nation, which, I believe, is absolutely united.
§ Mr. HOLT
I hope it will not be necessary to speak long, but I think there is something more that ought to be said on this point. This Bill, as the Home Secretary said, is an Emergency Bill, which, if passed at all, must be passed at once. It is a curious thing that, although this emergency ought apparently to have been just as great ever since the War began, its importance has only now been discovered when there is an agreement made between the two Front Benches. It is rather characteristic, after the coalition arranged between the two Front Benches, that the very first measure put before the House is one for their own advantage. It seems to me a very unnecessary thing in itself, because the borough Members could be returned by Tuesday and the county Members by the end of the week, and in the meantime I do not suppose enough Parliamentary business is going to be done for their absence to make any difference. So far as I am concerned, I am rather in favour of the abrogation of the existing law, because I really do not think it serves any useful purpose, but, if it does serve any useful purpose at all, it serves it in precisely this contingency.
The whole object of the law is not to persecute individuals for accepting office—the purpose for which it is generally used—but to give constituencies a check upon a deal between the Government and the Opposition. It enables a constituency to say whether or no it approves of a deal between the Government and the Opposition—the very thing that is happening now—and it does seem to me a most extraordinary thing that we should be asked to suspend an old Act of Parliament affecting the Constitution as an emergency measure on absolutely the only occasion in memory to which it properly applies. If that is the case, surely it would be very much better for the Government to wipe the law off the Statute Book altogether. As an emergency measure, and an emergency measure alone, I do not think it can possibly be justified. There is a good deal more that might be said, but one feels that 19 this is not a moment when one wants to enter upon recrimination and unpleasantness if it can be avoided.
It is quite plain that this Bill does give us an opportunity of discussing the whole of the circumstances which have made it necessary. It gives us an opportunity of discussing the circumstances in which the new Administration is to be substituted for the old one. If we are to forego that discussion, I think we ought to have a pledge from the Home Secretary that at an early date, when the new Ministers come back, we shall have a full and complete opportunity for discussing the new Government. If my right hon. Friend is prepared to give the House a pledge that at an early date, after the new Ministers have come back, we shall have an opportunity of discussing the whole of the formation of the new Government, then I hope the House will not further discuss the formation of the new Government on this Bill. If we do not get that pledge, then I think we must discuss the circumstances of the new Government on this Bill. Will he give us an assurance on this point? [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Very well, we will discuss the new Government now.
§ Sir J. SIMON
Of course, such a discussion might well take a good deal of time, and that rather militates against the rapid carrying through of this measure. I am sure my hon. Friend will not wish me to usurp the last thing I would wish to usurp, namely, functions which all hon. Members wish to have discharged by the Prime Minister. I feel quite confident in saying that if there were a general wish expressed in the House that there should be an opportunity for such a discussion, my right hon. Friend would think it right to make an early provision for such a discussion to take place.
§ Mr. HOLT
Under those circumstances I shall take my chance of accepting what the Home Secretary has said as being a Parliamentary pledge. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] At any rate, so far as I am concerned, I am entitled to take my chance. Everybody must do as he thinks right, but, so far as I am concerned, I shall hope that we shall have a better opportunity than the present one offers of discussing the question, and, having expressed my opinion that this is not a thing that ought to be passed as an emergency Measure 20 in any circumstances whatever, I shall not attempt futher to discuss the question at this stage.
§ Mr. W. O'BRIEN
I do not speak from any hostility to the principle of this Bill, nor, indeed, so far as I can see, from any hostility to the new Government, with one important reservation; but, in face of the extinction of the Home Rule Ministry and the composition of the present Ministry, there are some observations which are almost inevitable for Irish Nationalists to make, and I for one should desire to make them, not in any spirit of hostile challenge, but with a view to reserving the liberty of action of Irish Members as to the future. Under these circumstances, I respectfully submit to the Home Secretary that if the Second Reading of this Bill is adjourned until Monday, there will then be no difficulty, after his intimation to the hon. Gentleman opposite, in carrying the Bill through its other stages, and then every Member of the Ministry would be in a position to take his seat on Tuesday.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I wish to ask a question in reference to the reply given by the Home Secretary to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Holt). The right hon. Gentleman said that while he was unable to give a pledge on behalf of the Prime Minister, he had no doubt, if there was a general desire for a discussion on this subject to which my hon. Friend referred, that the Prime Minister would consent to give time for discussion. In former days we knew the method by which a general desire was ascertained. It was ascertained through the usual channels, the usual channels being a consultation between my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Gulland) and the Noble Lord the Member for Chichester (Lord E. Talbot). Now the hon. Member for Dumfries and the hon. Member for Chichester are now pulling in the same boat, and those ancient channels are no longer available. In the circumstances, I think that the Home Secretary, who has a very clear mind and can usually give a very accurate definition of what he means, might very well indicate to the House to-day at the very first opportunity upon which this question arises, how the general sense of the House is now to be obtained. Is there to be a plebescite of the Members, or have we to go through the course of framing requisitions to the Prime Minister and has the Prime Minister to assent to a demand when a requisition is signed by a 21 sufficient number of Members, or what other procedure is to be adopted? I think this is a matter of urgent importance. The hon. Member for Hexham said he was satisfied with what the Home Secretary said, but I noticed that when he indicated his satisfaction there were loud shouts of disapproval from other quarters of the House, and the volume of sound which greeted the suggestion seemed to suggest that the Government might be justified in supposing that my hon. Friend's view did not represent the general sense of the House.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
I notice that a very powerful exponent of the general sense of the House agrees with that observation. When he had the opinion of the two Front Benches, I should have thought that the hon. Baronet opposite would have adopted his old attitude of maintaining the rights of private Members, but I regret that he is now going to abandon his old rule.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
Under these circumstances surely it is all the more important that those of us who have less weight should exercise the greatest care that the rights of free discussion in the House of Commons should be preserved to the fullest extent. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Pease) whose eloquent statement to the House met with such general admiration, said he could not mention the immediate occasion of the change, but if we look at the underlying causes I think it will be generally agreed that the main underlying cause of the fall of the last Government was the absence of discussion in the House of Commons. In these circumstances it is surely not for the House of Commons to abrogate its rights, and I ask the Home Secretary to define the means whereby private Members would be enabled to put their case to the Government.
§ Mr. GINNELL
Although tampering with the British Constitution—[Laughter]—and with the safeguards of this House as by a long and tedious process set up for the freedom of vote and discussion within these wall is an Imperial matter, and therefore should not concern an Irish Nationalist, I must confess that it does concern me more than the laughter of hon. Gentlemen opposite would seem to suggest. It concerns me because, with all 22 its faults, I recognise this Assembly as a great instrument of human progress, not as judged by its actual deeds but judged by its potentialities for the future if these traditional safeguards are maintained as they stand at present, and none other. If I were an Englishman I should certainly fight this Bill, not only on its introduction, but on its First Reading, its Second Reading, and line by line, and word by word in Committee. But not having that advantage I am here to treat this matter from the Irish standpoint alone. The claims of my own country are more binding upon me than this Empire—vast as it is. The legal requirement of an election, after acceptance of office, implies the right of the electorate to criticise the new Minister. Already in this House we have the right to criticise Ministers, and we have occasionally opportunities for doing so, but this is an occasion when the electorate are about to be deprived of their constitutional right. We are here, therefore, to-day with the double duty of fighting this attack on behalf of ourselves and also on behalf of the electorate, who are henceforward about to be silenced, and when a Ministry which has not yet been elected, and several Members of which are not to-day Members of this House, has conspired to make this attack on this democratic institution in their own individual interests. You, Mr. Speaker, refused to entertain a question of order with reference to a Bill admitted by, concocted and introduced by men who are not to-day Members of this House at all. We have therefore the right on this occasion, not only to criticise the Bill, but to pass the Bill in review, and to pass in review along with it the Gentlemen who are responsible for it, even though some of them have no right at present to be here and are not here. In so far as my statement relates to public affairs, you, Sir, who have listened without a murmur to sedition and to threats of armed resistance to the law hurled by Privy Councillors across that Table in our presence, will have no occasion to be startled by anything I have got to say; and in so far as my statement relates to individuals, you, Sir, who have listened to charges of lies, deception, connivance at swindling, and a guilty purpose to commit wholesale assassination, will have no occasion to be startled at anything I have got to say. It is not my intention to go beyond, and you can scarcely and consistently prevent me from approaching, those right hon precedents.
23 We have just been told that this Bill is the proposal of the whole Coalition Ministry; that is to say, it is the proposal of Gentlemen, most of whom are not in this House and are not entitled to be in this House. The body which has concocted this Bill and makes this extraordinary demand is unconstitutional on two grounds: first, in being a co-opted body not the result of any election, and therefore having no authority from the electors; and, secondly, in not being Members of this House at the present time. The law of this realm recognises no such unconstitutional body; it rightly requires every acceptor of office of profit to return personally to his constituents for their approval or their disapproval. The only pretext for this unconstitutional proposal is, forsooth, that there is not time for it. Not time for it, when the House is sitting only three days a week and not able to fill up even those three days! Not time for it, when the opposite leaders, the hon. and right hon. Gentlemen who have hitherto led this House and fought each other across the floor, are now arm in arm ready to help each other in office! They are not content with the facility of a normal re-election corresponding with the law of the land, but they must ask this House to confirm their jobs when they are afraid to ask the electors. That is, in short, the meaning of this Bill. [HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed!"] It is certainly not agreed.
What is the character of these persons, who are to-day neither hon. or right hon. Members of this House, and who send in this Bill by the Home Secretary to attack the constituents of this House in their absence. What is their character? The question is easily answered. They have no character. The chief of them, the Prime Minister, calls himself a purist, apparently to facilitate him in giving two mutually destructive pledges on the same subject. He then waits to see which of the sides is the more powerful or the more determined in order to give way. That is the character of the leader. All his life a strong speaker of Liberal platitudes, he has been all his life at bottom a Tory ready to avail himself of every opportunity to betray real Liberal causes and ideals. Let it not be inferred that I think the Tories are a bad lot. What I do consider and brand as a bad lot is a man who adopts Liberal principles as the easiest and quickest way that leads to office and power, but is a Tory at bottom all the 24 time. He showed this in the crippling financial Resolutions of the Home Rule Bill, by which he promised to give full self-government to Ireland, and which he was not ashamed to mutilate, not at the demand of any single elected body in Ireland, but at the demand of a man who called him a liar and a potential assassin across that Table. He showed it by deliberately planning the historic snap Division when the Government was defeated, while he had us Irishmen travelling across land and sea to be here to save him on account of the cause for which he stood, and when he had twenty Liberal Members with his knowledge and consent making money as usual in the City of London, who would not pay a two penny tram fare to bring them here to save the Government. A little later, when the Prime Minister had an important communication to make to the public, he selected a Tory newspaper to make it his channel, thus exposing the Press that had supported him through thick and thin to the public humiliation of ignorance on a matter of current importance. The docile spirit with which that insult was swallowed exposed the further interesting fact that they deserved the treatment the Prime Minister had given them, The destruction by him of the Liberal Government, and of all the causes to which it was pledged, and for which it stood, constitutes his greatest achievement in these days. The Unionist newspapers, as we know, demanded three important things. The first was that the Liberal Government should form a Coalition, and the Prime Minister conceded that without consulting his own party.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
Is it in order to discuss the policy of the Government on a Bill to abolish a Statute of Queen Anne?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I have had some difficulty in following the hon. Gentleman. I understand that most of his speech is an attack directed against the Prime Minister, and that does not seem to me to be relevant to this Bill. Perhaps the hon. Member will confine himself now more strictly to the subject matter of this Bill.
§ Mr. GINNELL
I will try to do so. But, as I remarked just now, this extraordinary Bill cannot be discussed without reviewing more or less the character of the man 25 by whom and in whose interest it is introduced. We are called upon by the Home Secretary to give this Bill, promoted by the Coalition, a First, Second, and Third Reading this day, for the personal advantage of those who form the Coalition Government, and without any authority whatsoever from the electorate. Surely that, if anything, is closely relevant to this Bill. This House may prepare itself for further proposals. The Coalition is not likely to stop here. It is asking to be given absolute Executive and legislative powers without interference from this Assembly, and this Bill is only the first step towards that eventuality. The conduct of the Prime Minister in forming this Coalition, and thereby making this Bill a necessity, is relevant to this discussion. We all remember how twelve months ago, when the Prime Minister wanted to wreck a certain Bill then before Parliament, and disliked taking it upon his own shoulders the odium of doing it, he succeeded in getting the King—
§ Mr. SPEAKER
That has no reference whatever to this Bill. I must ask the hon. Member to confine himself more strictly to the Bill.
§ Mr. LYNCH
May I ask if it is not in order, when a Bill of this exceptional character is introduced, and introduced moreover under the plea that the country at large desires it, for hon. Members to examine into the nature and character of the Government which is making this claim upon its confidence?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
Advice which the Prime Minister may have given a year ago has nothing whatever to do with the Bill before the House.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The character of the Prime Minister has nothing to do with this Bill. I have warned the hon. Member under the Standing Order three times, and I must now ask him to resume his seat.
§ Mr. HEMMERDE
I want to ask the Home Secretary whether this is not about 26 the best opportunity that we could have in this House of getting rid of what I hope I may, without disrespect, declare to be one of the most ridiculous Acts upon our Statute Book. A good many crimes are committed in the name of democracy. We have been told that this is a democratic Statute, and that there would be an invasion of the rights of democracy if we abolished it. I agree entirely with what the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Holt) said when he asserted that, if there ever was a time when Members should have to go to their constituents for re-election on appointment to office it is a time when we have a Coalition which has been formed without taking the advice of the constituencies; and there never was a time, therefore, when this Statute was more necessary than it is to-day. But how has this Statute really operated in practice? We are told it is a democratic thing for Members to go back to their constituencies. The Home Secretary said he could speak with personal feeling on the subject of re-election. I can do the same, for I went through six elections in six years, and that, I think, is a record even for this House.
I do not see any point in retaining this Statute at all. I do not see why, whenever a man accepts office, he should go back to his constituents for purposes that were never intended when the Statute of Queen Anne was passed. Often in this House we have discussed possible appointments to Ministerial Office. How often has it been said that so-and-so cannot be appointed because his majority at the last election was so small. In the administration which ended in 1906, and in the subsequent administration, we had the indecent spectacle first of the Conservative party and then of the Liberal party having to hunt out men with large majorities in order to fill offices, even the office of Whip, and in the latter case no majority proved large enough to enable that appointment to be filled. About 1905 proposals were actually made by the Government, led by the present First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Balfour), to the Opposition, which was led by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, for abolishing this ridiculous Statute, because it was becoming perfectly indecent) in having to hunt round for Ministers with large majorities. I believe that at that time Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman did not favour the abolition of that Statute, although the general feeling wan against 27 the Act. Subsequently, during the administration which has just come to a close, exactly the same sort of thing went on. We have all hoped to see poor men finding places in the Cabinet much more readily than they used to do. What do we see now? A man in the fourth year of a Parliament may be elected to an office, and we know perfectly well it may cost that man, especially if he sits for a county constituency, more than the salary he will actually receive if he has to go to his constituents, and then very possibly he may hot be re-elected. If he be reelected he finds himself mulct in an enormous amount which he ought never to be called upon to pay in any democratic assembly.
If a Bill of this character is to be brought in, what better opportunity could we have of abolishing this anomaly than this period, when party politics are absolutely put on one side? If a Liberal Government had brought in such a Measure their opponents might have taunted them with being afraid of losing by-elections, and if, in 1904–5, the Conservative Government had brought a Bill in to that effect, they would have been subjected to the same ridiculous charge. But now party politics are in abeyance, and there could be no better opportunity of getting rid of this Act. It simply is an anachronism, and it does that which it was never intended to do. Why should we make two bites at a cherry? Party strife at the moment is hushed, and at least the Government might give us some pledge that, in the course of the next few months, the House will have an opportunity of expressing its opinion upon this Measure. Why cannot, however, the Government take the opinion of the House of Commons, which I believe to be overwhelmingly in favour of the abolition of this Statute? [HON. MEMBERS: "NO, no."] I believe, at any rate, that opinion both in the House and in the country is overwhelmingly against the Statute, and, therefore, I urge the Government to let us have an opportunity ere long of giving a direct vote upon this Measure. I am not going at this moment to divide the House on the question of the temporary abolition of an anachronism which I think should have no existence in our Constitution, but I do ask the Government whether it is not about time—now we are under the auspices of a Coalition Ministry, and when there is no party Government in existence;—to get rid of this Statute altogether?
§ Colonel CHALONER
As one trying to do his small bit at a military station at a time of great crisis in our country's affairs, I wish to offer a strong protest against the delay caused by this discussion. This is a time when the Prime Minister of the greatest Empire in the world has thought fit to call in the assistance of the Opposition to form a united Government, in order that work may be done rather than words uttered, and I ask is this the time to split straws and discuss technicalities? Speaking on behalf of the soldiers—and I think I may do so—I say they want more work and fewer words. It is time something was done. The Prime Minister has an opportunity of doing it if the House will back him up, and I say that to cause delay now by discussing technicalities and splitting straws, instead of hurrying this Bill through all its stages so as to enable the Cabinet to do its work and to provide those munitions of war without which our men's lives are being sacrificed—I say action in causing delay of that kind is the action of traitors, and I appeal to every section of this House to put aside their personal views.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
If the hon. and gallant Gentleman did intend that word to apply to any Member of this House, of, course it would be grossly improper, but I did not understand him to mean that. Perhaps he will explain himself.
§ Colonel CHALONER
No, Sir, I was merely saying that if anything is done either here or in the country which prevents the Government taking the steps necessary to carry the War to a successful conclusion, that action is the action of traitors. If I have hurt anybody's feelings I am sorry. I only wanted to pour oil on the waters. If I have said anything in a contrary sense I gladly withdraw it, but I do appeal to this House to put forward every effort they can. They have the chance now by allowing this Bill to pass through all its stages, so that the Cabinet may take the steps that are necessary to save the lives of our gallant men at the front.
Sir H. DALZIEL
I share the regret which was expressed by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Holt) that the first measure which is brought before Parliament by 29 the new Government should be a measure which so directly concerned themselves, but I recognise, as I think the House recognises, that we are passing through exceptional times, and that, perhaps, exceptional measures may be excused at the present moment which could not possibly be tolerated in different circumstances. We have to recognise that this question is not a new one in the House. During the last ten years it has been brought forward almost every Session, and we can at least recall this fact, that strong though the last Government was, even with the support of hon. Members opposite, on this question, they were unable to alter the law. The position to-day is, not that we are altering the law for the future, but that we are having regard to the position as it is, after Members themselves have ceased to be Members of this House. We are, in effect, asking the House to co-opt gentlemen who are not Members of the House, instead of leaving the constituencies their choice in the matter. It is a considerable order, but for my part, so anxious am I that there should be no excuse for the new Government saying that we had prevented them dealing with those problems which remain to be dealt with at the present moment, that I could not take the responsibility of delaying the progress of this measure.
Let me say, in fairness to some of my hon. Friends who have strong views on this matter, that this Bill will not hurry by one hour or one minute a more adequate supply of munitions to our troops or the carrying out of a great policy of national organisation, or any of the other items that may be included in the programme of the Government—nothing of the kind. The sole and only argument for this Bill, the only plea on which it can be put forward in the public interest is that it is going to facilitate the more rapid progress of Members on the Treasury Bench back to the House of Commons. The delay is not overwhelming, because there would be plenty of Cabinet Ministers left to answer questions and reply for the Departments. It is not suggested that any attack is going to be made on any Department which is concerned with a Ministers now asking for re-election. However, it means that on the ground of public interest they are anxious to get back to the House, and to be on the Treasury Bench. I hope it is an indication that there will be more Cabinet Ministers on that bench in the future than there have been in the past when vital 30 matters have been before the Housel If anything can be done, so far as I am concerned, to facilitate them in the great work they have to do at the present time and in the great responsibilities they have undertaken, I shall offer no opposition.
I would beg of the Government not to accept the suggestion made by my hon and learned Friend (Mr. Hemmerde) to enlarge the scope of this Bill. This is an emergency measure. That is why I am sorry the Bill goes as far as it does. In my opinion, it should be limited to the immediate crisis of the present moment, and to the thirteen Ministers concerned, and it ought not to extend to the end of the War. I shall move an Amendment to that effect in Committee. At the moment we want the Ministers back. It might conceivably happen that the War will go on for another year, or even two years. We have had the suggestion made here by the Home Secretary that perhaps the General Election may be delayed. We know what that means. Probably it will be the wish of the country and be thought a very good arrangement. But in a few years time you may have a Member of this newly-constituted Government who will take a view of his own on a question of public policy, a view which is antagonistic to that of the rest of the Government, and he may think it necessary to resign his position. You will have a reelection, and it will be left to his constituents to decide the question, and it may be that another Member of the House would be added to the Cabinet, and he would not have to go to his constituents. We are not doing right at this moment, in face of this immediate emergency, in depriving a constituency a year or two years hence of expressing its view upon what may be a matter of great public importance upon which the whole country may be divided. Therefore I suggest that we should accept the measure not as it stands but as applying only to the thirteen Ministers at present concerned, and to the present crisis, and that we should not extend this Bill beyond those purposes.
§ Sir W. BYLES
I shall offer no opposition to the introduction of this Bill, because I have never opposed the introduction of any Bill in this House, but I rise to support the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cork City (Mr. William O'Brien) that a reasonable opportunity should be given us to debate the 31 Bill on Second Reading. There is an important principle involved in the Bill with which I am in disagreement. The course taken with regard to this measure is a very strong one. In the first place, the Order Paper contains no intimation that it was to be introduced to-day, and, secondly, the Bill has not been distributed to Members. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that Members could see the Bill, but I am accustomed to having my Bills supplied to me by officers of the House. We have not seen the Bill, and we ought to have the chance of reading and studying it. I know it is put forward as an emergency Bill, but where is the emergency? All the Ministers who are seeking re-election can go to their respective Departments which are to provide the munitions of War, or all those things asked for by the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Colonel Chaloner) in his very eloquent speech. All that work can go on, and the only thing is that we shall be deprived of the company of these Ministers on the Treasury Bench for a very few days. It is perfectly well known that there will be no contests in any of these constituencies. Therefore the whole business of re-election will consist in appearing for ten minutes before the returning officer. In these circumstances I would request the Government not to pursue this measure with indecent haste.
§ Mr. CHAPLIN
I have no right to speak for anybody but myself, but I cannot listen any longer to this Debate without asking permission to say a word. I look back over the years—there is an immense number of them—I have been in the House of Commons, and the one thing borne in upon my mind is this, that never have we been placed in so grave and serious a position as that in which we are to-day, and never within my recollection has there been a House of Commons who would have offered the objections that have been offered to-day to the Bill which is now before us. I ask the House to remember two things, and two things only. What is the reason for this Bill? Some Members seem to forget that we are engaged in a life-and-death struggle at the present moment. That ought to weigh with us as the first and only consideration that we have to take into account at the present time. I would ask the House to remember its own position. Here we are waiting for Ministers to take their places in the House of Commons. No one will deny 32 that it is of the utmost value that those Ministers should be present and able to pursue their duties in this House at the earliest possible opportunity. What, then, is to be gained by delay? Will you have it go forth to the country to-morrow that we in the House of Commons are responsible for preventing them from taking their grave and serious share in these great duties? With all my heart and soul I appeal to the House of Commons on both sides, and ask them to say that they will do nothing to interfere with the passing of this Bill at this moment, whatever may be right or wrong in regard to a question which has been discussed over and over again, but which has absolutely nothing to do with the great crisis with which we are engaged at the present moment.
§ Mr. HOGGE
One point in regard to this emergency measure is that if the Government had had their way, this House would not have met until Tuesday of next week. Therefore the reason why this new emergency should have cropped up and that the desire should have been expressed that so many Ministers should return to the House at once requires some other explanation. I rather resent—if I may be allowed to use that word in a charitable sense—the view expressed by an hon. Member opposite that anybody who expressed a view which would delay this measure would interfere with the provision of the munitions of war, or would endanger the lives of our people at the front. Many of us have relatives at the front; many of us have our own sons fighting at the front, and we can speak on a measure of this kind and put a point of material interest to those at home as well as to those at the front and yet not be doing anything traitorous to the country or injurious to the Forces. That is not the method with which this question ought to be approached. There is not a single Member who has joined the Coalition Government who need visit his constituency. Not one of the Ministers requires to leave London. As a matter of fact, to-day they are all at work in their offices, or, if they are not, this House ought to know why they are not. The new Minister of Munitions is working, as we are told by the Press, so hard that he has only time to take a very informal and scrappy lunch. We are even given the details of the lunch he has taken in order to enable him to attend to his work. What is the use of coming to this House and saying that this 33 Bill is necessary for purposes of State? I wish to put a point to the Home Secretary which he has not yet answered. The question has been put to him as to how feeling in the House among private Members is to be canvassed. Everybody in the House has views with regard to a Coalition Government. Everybody holds the view that the Coalition Government ought to be given a fair chance, and none of us would seek to hinder that Government from having the opportunity of doing the work it has set out to accomplish. But at the same time we ought to know whether we are to have sufficient opportunities of raising these questions in which we are interested. We might have a discussion at this stage of the Bill, and then there will be the Second Beading, the Committee stage, and the Third Reading, which will afford a number of other opportunities, even today, of discussing our attitude towards this Bill, unless we are definitely satisfied by a statement from the Front Bench as to how the private Member is to stand. It is a very material point. If the Government want us to give them our confidence they ought not to put anything in the way of a private Member having his chance of assisting the Coalition. No private Member, in whatever part of the House he sits, takes any other view than that he is prepared to give the Coalition a fair chance. If the Home Secretary will answer the question put to him by the hon. Member for North-West Lanark (Mr. Pringle) it may materially alter the line of discussion on the future stages of the Bill.
§ Mr. OUTHWAITE
I should not have taken part in the discussion if the Home Secretary had been able to give us a more definite assurance that we shall not be losing an opportunity of discussing the formation and duration of this Coalition Government. I think, for the sake of the Government itself, the Prime Minister should give us that opportunity. Briefly, we want to know, and I think the country wants to know, whether this Government is the expression of a patriotic sentiment and a patriotic desire in a time of great national crisis to sink party differences, or whether it is the outcome of a Press intrigue—whether this Coalition is the creation of Lord Northcliffe and the "Daily Mail," arising out of his attacks against the Minister of War in connection with the Dardanelles expedition. We and the country want to know what is the origin and intent of this Coalition. We 34 may be losing our opportunity for such a discussion if we pass this Bill, as suggested, through all its stages. If we could get any further assurance from the Home Secretary, if he would assure us that he will convey the sentiments expressed in this matter, I will take no further part in delaying the passage of this measure, but I shall if we get no such assurance.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I can say this without any qualification, not only on my own behalf but on behalf of the Prime Minister and of the Government as a whole. We shall certainly not seek to avoid criticism, and all that I suggest is that that criticism will be more suitably administered after, rather than before, the Ministers who compose the present Government have the right to sit in the House. It would plainly be most unfortunate if a discussion such as some of my hon. Friends wish to raise should take place in the absence of half the Members of the Cabinet. That being so, I am sure the House will agree that if I can offer, and I think I can, a reasonable assurance after the passage of this Bill, so that we may get these previous Members of the House back in their places here, that will be a contribution towards the very end that they have in view. As for the opportunity itself, it is quite true that under the conditions in which we are now met the question does arise and needs to be considered how private Members in different parts of the House will indicate that which is a contribution towards the general sense of the assembly. It is an important question.
The hon. Member for Lanarkshire says that in the previous part of this Parliament hon. Members communicated by what are called the usual channels; but, using a picturesque, if possibly a slightly confusing metaphor, the Whips of the two parties were now in the same boat and the channel was blocked. The metaphor is a little faulty and the fact is not really represented by what is there suggested. He will find, and other hon. Members will find, that if he will address himself to one of the Whips to whose blandishments he has hitherto lent so ready and so willing a response, whoever that may be, that the general sense of the House will be collected by a very similar process to that which has hitherto been found effective. The only difference will be that those whose particular business it is through the usual channels to collect the general sense of the House will have this additional advantage, I do not say they 35 will sit in the same boat, but, at any rate, they will be in such close and constant contact with one another that indications as to what is the general desire of the House can be arrived at even more readily than hitherto. Certainly, if that course is followed it is all the better, because it is the traditional course and there will be no difficulty whatever in arriving at a conclusion as to what may be the wishes of the House on this particular matter. I will make it my business to communicate to the head of the Government what has occurred in this Debate and tell him the answer which I have given on his behalf, and I repeat that the Government, having no desire to avoid criticism, will only suggest that it would be better that the opportunity be provided, if that be the general wish of he House, for such a debate to take place after the Ministry appears as a whole upon the Government Bench.
§ Mr. W. O'BRIEN
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain what is the difficulty about the new Ministers taking their place on Tuesday if the Prime Minister's statement is satisfactory on Monday?
§ Sir J. SIMON
I do not quite understand what statement of the Prime Minister the hon. Member is referring to.
§ Mr. W. O'BRIEN
The statement that some opportunity will be given for discussing the circumstances under which the Home Rule Government committed suicide.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I have already stated that the hon. Member may take it as an unqualified answer that, assuming that it is ascertained that that is the general wish of the House, the Government, so far from wishing to avoid such a discussion, will certainly make any arrangement they can in order that it may take place. There are only one or two other matters that I wish to refer to and I would then ask the House to carry this Bill through all its stages without delay, for really the whole meaning and object of the Bill would be destroyed if we continued at undue length to discuss its provisions. A right hon. Gentleman behind me says that when we come to look at the one important Clause here, which is the Clause which defines the limits within which this exception will take place, it may be a question whether the right way to put it is not to use rather narrower language and not in advance to prejudge what may be the proper rule to follow, not only 36 up to the end of the War, but up to the end of that interval which will occur between the end of the War and the next dissolution of Parliament. I think there is force in that criticism. It seems to me our main principle should be that we must deal instantly with an emergency that is present here before us, but it may very well be that it would be better to modify the Bill in that direction. The point is quite a small one, and I do not think there will be any difficult in arriving at a conclusion as to whether that should be done or not. There really is nothing else in the Bill but that, assuming that the House is prepared as an emergency measure to make this provision. Some hon. Members have said, why not do it now for all time? The answer is that if you are going to make a change, which I admit is a change of some constitutional interest, even if it is of some constitutional importance—if you are going to make it permanently you ought not to do it by passing the Bill through all its stages in one day, consequently I could not accept any proposal to turn this opportunity into an occasion when we make this change for all time. My hon. Friend (Sir W. Byles) made one comment which I will deal with. He said he would have liked it better if the Bill had been circulated with the Parliamentary Papers and notice had appeared in the Parliamentary Papers this morning. I can assure him that that would have been done if the Rules of the House had permitted, but he will probably recollect that Notice of Motion can only be given while the House is sitting and a Bill cannot be circulated with the Parliamentary Papers until it has been read the first time. It was for that reason that we provided, at the beginning of the sitting, abundant copies of the Bill, exactly as it is proposed to be carried, in order that hon. Members might inform themselves as far as they could. I would appeal to hon. Members in all quarters of the House to show that the thing which we feel is really important is that we should make such emergency arrangements as are necessary with promptitude, and that the Government as a whole, in full communion with the rest of the House of Commons and subject always to their criticism and their discussion, should be able to apply itself without any distraction to the enormously important business which lies before them.
§ Mr. LYNCH
The plea which has been put forward in this Debate, that criticism 37 of the Government in any form is indefensible, means that the House must entirely abdicate its functions. That is a plea which comes from the Front Bench with less grace than anywhere, for it has been in response to criticism that they have not only undermined the authority of the Government, as the former President of the Board of Education expressed it, but they have undermined the Government itself. There has been no more formidable sanction given to criticism, even criticism coming from a hostile source, than by the act of the Prime Minister himself, who has destroyed his own Government and introduced a very hazardous and unprecedented state of affairs, in regarding not suggestions from his own ranks, but directly hostile criticism. Certainly, if this measure were necessary, it should have been instituted not now, but at least nine months ago, following the example, which has been cited in its defence, of the French Government, who, at the very commencement of the War, called into their counsels men from all ranks and formed a truly national Government.
But this Government, formed as it has been in dubious circumstances, has not even the merit of being a truly national Government, and the different seats in the Cabinet are apportioned not by a large outlook on national necessities, but by pressure of party opinion. Then again, when a Member is elected to the House his constituents know why he has been elected and they are able to form a measure of the scope of his activities. When he is raised to Cabinet rank his relation to this House and his relation to his constituents both change, and his constituents have a right to say whether they then endorse the previous election, particularly in view of the Acts which have brought about his translation to the Cabinet. Take, for instance, the question of the present Minister of Education. We have a Labour Member, the Chairman of the Labour party, introduced into this Cabinet as President of the Board of Education. His constituents may have been very well content to elect him as a Labour representative and proud to see him as Chairman of the Labour party, but it does not for a moment follow that they will endorse his action in entering the Government—an action which cannot have been foreseen when the election took place, and which involves very many questions deeply affecting the party of which hitherto he has been the representative.
38 We have a right to criticise not only the general action of the Government, but the position of each individual Member of the Cabinet. Even with respect to that question of the Board of Education I say, with all my great respect for the Chairman of the Labour party, that that is one of the last offices which should have been offered to him. There are many other offices for which his talents and his previous activities better fitted him. Had this been truly a national Government, and had the Prime Minister risen to a large view of the entire national interests, he would not have hesitated to go beyond the limits even of this House to find a great Minister of Education as great as Wilhelm von Humboldt was in the councils of our enemies a hundred years ago, who, by his wide grasp of educational necessities, by the virtue of the free hand given him, by his deep insight into the future of his country, provided it with the means of developing which have made it now so formidable an antagonist. Had the Prime Minister been properly inspired he would have gone to some great man of science, such as we have in this country, men who during the continuance of this War have displayed great interest in the War and have shown the strong points of Germany's system and the weak points of her conditions, and he would have made such a man Minister of Education, instead of acting in a haphazard way, putting round pegs into square holes, and selecting the Chairman of the Labour party for this position. When one looks down the entire list of members one is met by the same curious suggestion that these men have not been selected by their fitness for the post they occupy, but have evidently been the recipients or the profiters of some kind of party pull or Parliamentary chicane and intrigue—
§ Mr. SPEAKER
What relevance has this to the Bill? These Ministers are appointed, and the question is whether they are to come back here or not.
§ Mr. LYNCH
I must admit that that is precisely the point. The questions I am dealing with now are precisely the questions which are being proposed by the constituencies themselves. They might have been very well content to have their representative as a Member of this House and occupying an honourable position, but they might not be so completely satisfied to see him occupying a place which, though powerful and honorific, 39 might not be in accordance with their own desires, or even with their own interest. I hope we shall have an opportunity subsequently of discussing these points.
This matter has been very forcibly brought before the attention of Ireland. We have men who have been very conspicuous in Irish life who are concerned in this matter. There is, for instance, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Dublin University (Sir Edward Carson), who has played a great rôle, with signal ability and courage. Even his constituents might not be content to see him in an entirely new rôle, hampered by allegiance to the Government, and abandoning for that reason the previous attitude which he had taken up. Then we have the question of the Lord Chancellorship of Ireland, which is an emanation from this Cabinet. I, for one, would like to see that office entirely abolished. It has been filled by—
§ Mr. SPEAKER
That has nothing to do with this Bill. The office is there and the Bill does not propose to deal with that office.
§ Mr. WATSON RUTHERFORD
I shall only occupy a minute, but the point I have to raise is, I consider, a very important one. The Home Secretary in introducing this Bill pointed out that he proposed to make it retrospective, and I think he said that the suggested day-should be the 1st of May. In the second speech which he made he used words to show that the right hon. and hon. Members who have been made Ministers have at the present moment no right to sit in the House. I gather that if that is the case Mr. Lloyd George is not at present a Member of this House?
I said, "If it is the case." Certainly the new Ministry of Munitions has not been passed. Take the case of Mr. Bonar Law. If the Home Secretary is right in the observations which he made just now that these right 40 hon. and hon. Members have for the moment lost their right to sit in this House, what is the consequence? I take it that nobody can elect a Member for Bootle except the constituents of Bootle. It is a very important point which I wish to submit to you, Mr. Speaker, as to a matter of Parliamentary procedure and the rights of the constituents. I suppose that at the present moment there is no Member for Bootle, and that nobody can elect a Member for Bootle, except the constituents of Bootle. It has been said that Parliament is omnipotent, and that the House of Commons and the House of Lords together, as Parliament, with the King, can practically do as they like. The Bill now introduced is, I presume, prepared upon such an astonishing basis as that. I take it, however, that there is one thing which this Parliament cannot do: it cannot make Gentlemen who have not been elected by their constituents Members of Parliament. This retrospective Bill, as far as I can understand it, is utterly useless. It cannot bring men back to the House of Commons if their seats have gone. There is not a single Member of this House more anxious to see the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer here, and at once, and there is no Member more anxious to see here again the friends who have occupied honourable positions and who will occupy their positions worthily as Members of this National Government. But I do appeal to the Government, and more particularly to the Home Secretary, who has got this matter in hand, to take care that they do the thing properly. There are such things as penalties for sitting in this House when a man has not been properly elected. There are all kinds of difficulties to come unless we do this matter we have now in hand, and which is proposed by this Bill, in a legal and proper manner. I am bound to say that, according to my limited judgment—and I have had thirty or forty years experience in trying to construe Acts of Parliament—if these Ministers, these ex-Members who have been made Ministers, have at the moment lost their seats in this House, no retrospective Act that we can pass will cure it. There is only one thing we can do for the present moment, and that is for these men to go to their constituents and get their constituents to ratify their appointments, which I have no doubt they would immediately do. The proper time to deal with a point of this kind is clearly when the emergency does not arise, and 41 when we could deal with it dispassionately. If by a side wind we attempt to do anything which amounts to electing Members of this House behind the backs of the constituents, then I say that we are making a legal, a moral and a Parliamentary mistake.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Secretary Sir John Simon, Mr. Montagu, and Mr. Steel-Maitland. Presented accordingly, and read the first time, and ordered to be printed. [Bill 95.]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."[Sir J. Simon.]
§ Mr. KING
I should not have intervened at this moment but for the very remarkable speech, to which we have just listened, from the hon. Member for Liverpool. I must confess that his argument seemed to me to be not only extremely ingenious but the obvious one, and I hope some answer will be forthcoming from the Treasury Bench. If I had noticed the Home Secretary rise with the object of replying I should not have risen to appeal to him, as I do most earnestly, to give some explanation when our faith in the effect of this legislation has already on First Reading debate, been so shaken as it has been by the speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool. I appeal to the Home Secretary, if possible, to give some answer to that argument. In view of the expression of opinion we have had had from all sides of the House it would have been better, as this eventuality could easily have been seen, in fact must have been foreseen by the Government when we last sat, and it would have been very much more simple to have had a sitting of the House at some earlier date this week for the moving of the writs, so that by next Tuesday, when we were supposed to meet again, the elections might have been completed. I very much regret that this course has not been taken. It was the straightforward course, it was the simplest course, and the course which was obviously without difficulty of any legal kind. I do hope we shall have an answer from the Home Secretary on this point.
§ Mr. BOOTH
I wish to make a protest against the Bill on the ground that it has not been put before the House. It contains references to some junior Ministers, who apparently are being overlooked. I do not propose, as far as I am concerned, 42 to do anything to divide responsibility for this Government. They may do right or they may do wrong, but for some considerable time I shall support them to the utmost of my power; but I want to tell them, plainly, that in this matter they are making a great mistake and that they have made a bad start. There are a number of junior Ministers here. I refer specially to the Whips. I object to this Bill, because in its absence an opportunity would be given to the constituents of these Gentlemen to say whether they are required or not. I consider that they are not required. All businesses during the War are effecting economies. Men are asked to undertake duties in order to liberate other men for the War. That has been going on all over the country; but this Government have not chosen to do that. They inculcate an example upon business houses, but they do not observe the example themselves. The Government have been multiplying, or rather, I should say, increasing posts. At the present time we are to have eight or nine Whips. Why should not the Government have set a very excellent example to the country in this matter. I believe it would would have been received very well by all the military forces as well as the business houses if they had set an example in economy in this direction, and I think the constituents of some of these hon. Members, if this Bill were not passed, would express that view. Why should we have eight or nine Whips? For the first time in the history of the country, in a united Government, there are to be three Whips from different parties paid in order to marshal us. What for? There are no Divisions in the House and there are no contests in the country. We might very well have saved these salaries, and if we had done so I think the effect of the example would have been far-reaching. The only explanation given by those newspapers which at the present time are settling our destinies is that the Whips are necessary in order to keep up the organisation in the country. I do not want that. I want to see us united in the country in the prosecution of this War as we are in this House. If we are to pay three sets of Gentlemen to keep up organisations in the country, to fight each other two or three years hence, then I maintain that we are misusing public funds. It would have been better to have been content with three Whips, one from each side, and I should have liked to have seen the Irishmen join. That is all that is necessary for 43 this House at the present time. We could have saved these salaries and have set an example. I cannot understand why the Government have not followed the example which has been set throughout the country and effected a substantial economy by doing without these unnecessary posts.
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Mr. GINNELL
A Bill to reinstate in this House Members who have of their own volition resigned their seats is a Bill more or less that concerns our view of those Gentlemen. We cannot withhold our admiration from Gentlemen who have in pure patriotism accepted offices of profit with salaries and perquisites ranging from £2,000 a year to, I believe, £18,000 a year in the case of the Attorney-General. We cannot withhold our admiration for the splendid example of self-sacrifice which they have shown in this great crisis. Happy British Empire, which possesses men of that disposition, and men who are kind enough to sink their personal animosities to each other, and from tearing each others characters across that Table in your presence, have graciously deigned to go arm in arm, all, of course, for the sake of this Empire, that is being ruled now by a self-appointed body, consisting of a judicious mixture of potential assassins and contingent rebels! I say all this without entertaining the slightest grudge against Sir Edward Carson, to whom I understand the sum of £18,000 is now going. He has shown, at all events, that he is a man, if there was no other man on the bench opposite. I congratulate him on that achievement. He has obtained his compensation, and we are witness of the fact that it was not by a policy of conciliation that he won this plum, but it was by what certain people on the Continent would call the mailed fist. Those Gentlemen who have arranged all this against constitutional government, who ask us not only to relieve them of the necessity of going to the constituencies, but actually ask us to elect new Members for those constituencies, and limit us in the choice to these same Members, some of whose constituents may be tired enough of them, for anything of which we are aware. There is a great deal in all this to reveal the character of these Gentlemen, or rather to reveal, as I said some time ago, the fact that they have no characters. In these circumstances I oppose this Bill.
Sir H. DALZIEL
I would suggest to the Home Secretary that it might facilitate the passage of this Bill if he would reply briefly to one or two of the points which have been raised. One in which I am particularly interested was raised by me on the First Reading: Will the Government consent to limit the operation of this Bill to immediate emergencies, so that it will apply only to the Ministers who are at present affected? I will not argue the matter further, but I think that the Home Secretary is aware of the case in point. When the right hon. Gentleman called it a small point, I think not quite accurately, he was referring to the case of a Member of the Cabinet, resigning owing to a difference of policy, but conceivably you might have eight or ten Cabinet Ministers resigning on a great question of public policy, and the Prime Minister might then fill the Cabinet with a great many men directly opposed to the policy of those who had resigned. There might be a great controversy in the country, and not a single constituency would have got the opportunity of expressing an opinion on the matter. Surely on such a matter of general criticism the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that he will limit the operation of the Bill in the manner suggested.
§ Sir J. SIMON
It may be convenient if I deal at once with the point raised by my right hon. Friend. What I would propose is, when we reach the Committee stage, to make a modification in the Bill which will be found fairly to meet the point which has been mentioned. I agree that this point, though a small one in appearance, might in conceivable circumstances be a point of substance. What I should propose to do is, so to change the language of Sub-section (1) that the Bill shall apply only to those who accept any office during the months of May and June of this year. Of course, the Bill must be retrospective, else it could not have any operation in the very cases which we now have in mind. That leads me to deal with the point raised with great force by the hon. Member for the West Derby Division of Liverpool (Mr. Watson Rutherford). He observed with great acuteness that the Bill in its first Clause professes to relieve certain individuals who are called Members of Parliament, whereas those who have forfeited their seats by accepting office during the last week or two necessarily are not Members of Parliament at this moment. That criticism is not only acute, but it would be quite destructive in its effect—which I 45 think it is not—were it not for the fact that Sub-section (2) of the Bill says that this Act shall be deemed to have had effect as from let May, 1915, and consequently, as every lawyer in the House will agree—if one can still claim to speak in that capacity—and as those who have studied the subject inform me, the effect of that would be that we must judge whether a man is a Member of Parliament by asking whether he was a Member of Parliament on 1st May, 1915. Of course, that has been understood. The point has not escaped the draughtsman who advises us in these matters. He foresaw the point, and has advised me that this is the proper way to meet it. My hon. Friend behind (Mr. Booth) said this was a time to economise. It is, and it is time to avoid the paying of returning officers' expenses in getting re-elected.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I am not quarrelling with the hon. Member, but the number of Whips in the so-called Coalition Government is exactly the same as before—neither more nor less than before. But I would ask the House, and I would ask the country, to remember that the Whips of the different parties have been at the head of the organisation which has conducted the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee since the beginning of the War. It has been owing to the fact that, since the beginning of the War, the Whips of the different parties worked with this object, and owing to the use of their staff that it has been possible to get all over the country and to do all that has been done by the Parliamentary Committee on behalf of recruiting. I hope that the House will now be prepared to give the Second Reading, and on the Committee stage I shall propose to make the change to which I have referred.
§ Mr. RUTHERFORD
I do not wish to repeat the observations which I made on the Motion to introduce this Bill, but I must say that the explanations made by the Home Secretary are not satisfactory and carry no conviction. If this Bill had been brought in and passed two minutes before these Ministers accepted office, and if it had said that they should not lose their seats as Members of Parliament by accepting those offices, then obviously the Bill would 46 have carried out the object which the Government have got in view. But when the Bill seeks to put right something that is past, and when it does something more, namely, proceeds to elect a number of people as Members of Parliament for the different constituencies—for that is the direct effect of it—all I can say is that if I happened to be one of those hon. Members I would not dare to come back to this House and vote, because I should know that my election was void, and that I should be incurring penalties every day. I have no hesitation in saying that if this irregularity is perpetrated to-day one or other of these Ministers will be sued for the penalty. That is a very serious matter. I was in hopes that the Home Secretary, who apparently has put off the robe which distinguished him—for that is what he told us himself—at all events would have said that no time would be lost by putting this Bill through on Monday, and that this point, which goes to the root of the matter, would be carefully considered in the meantime. The point ought not to have been laughed off, as if it were one of no importance. I think that it is of considerable importance. We cannot by passing a retrospective Act elect Members of Parliament for constituencies. The seats are vacant to-day. There are twelve seats, out of the thirteen for which to-day there is no Member of Parliament, and no retrospective Act which may be proposed can elect Members to those constituencies. It is not possible to put this matter right in that way. It would have the effect of electing Members for various constituencies. I am very sorry indeed to see that the point, which appears to me to be of such extreme importance, is treated in such a light and airy manner by the Home Secretary, who may find out later on that he is wrong in the view that he takes of it.
§ Mr. PRINGLE
In reference to the point made by the hon. Member opposite, may I recall to him that within a very short time this House has already passed a Bill doing exactly the thing which he says it cannot do, and that an hon. Member sitting on the bench beside him to-day is reaping the benefits of the former Act? We have passed a Bill dealing with Gentlemen who have accepted commissions in the Army. We have said that in their case it should be deemed to operate from the commencement of the War, and there 47 are many precedents of a more ancient date; so that although the Home Secretary has deserted the law, the hon. Gentleman may still be satisfied with the legal advice of the late Attorney-General. There is one other personal point. I desire very sincerely to thank the Home Secretary for the Amendment that he has agreed to make, and I am all the more thankful because I have a parental affection for the words which he has adopted.
§ Sir W. BYLES
When a principle of our Constitution is being assailed, as it is in my judgment by this Bill I think it right that the objections to it which one see should be stated. It appears to me to be an abrogation of a part of our Constitution. I am very jealous of any legislation which tends to destroy any of the bulwarks of our freedom, however obsolete they may appear to be. Our fathers had a certain amount of wisdom, and I do not think that it is wise of us to depart from their practice in this matter. It has been argued that times have changed since this provision was adopted. That is quite true. There used to be the King's party and the People's party, and we have not got that now, but, if times have changed, then times may change again, and it is just as well to keep all these safeguards. I look upon it in this way: A Member of Parliament is the servant of his constituents, he is independent, owing allegiance to them and them alone. When he takes service under a new master, and when he takes service at a large salary under that new master, surely he ought to surrender his seat and offer himself to be re-elected, if he can be re-elected. The constituents may approve in all the specific cases now before us; no doubt they will approve. Put they might disapprove, and if they did disapprove of their Members taking office, surely they ought to be entitled to say so, and elect another Member to serve their interests.
It has been argued that the present provision has this effect, that the Prime Minister can only invite those Members to join the Ministry who have what is called a safe seat, or a large majority, and that he does not get always the best men, but only the best men of the men who have large majorities. That seems to me to be perfectly right, because if a Member is to become a Minister he ought to have wide and general support. I would point out that those Gentlemen on whose behalf we are about to legislate are actually not 48 Members of the House of Commons at this moment, any more than the first man one meets in the street; and we are invited to let the House of Commons create them, into Members of Parliament and allot them to their respective constituencies. I think that is a very strong argument. I have been against the principle of this Bill long enough. I know perfectly well that there is a great desire expressed by an hon. Member opposite to get this principle embodied in our legislation, because at some time or other he may require to be re-elected. But we have to consider the interests of the constituents. They are the people concerned. I confess that I am very sorry to express these views at the very beginning of the life of the new Ministry, but if I am found fault with, it arises from the fault of the new Government, by beginning its reign with this vexatious tinkering of the Constitution. Certainly I shall not oppose a Second Reading of the Bill, and I hope I shall not be obliged to oppose the Government in any of its operations. I believe it is the general desire of the House—as it is my desire—to look upon the Government as a committee of public safety, and to do all that we possibly can in aiding them to-carry out the one great task that they have in hand, namely, to prosecute this terrible War in which we are engaged to a successful conclusion.
§ Bill read a second time.
§ Sir J. SIMON
I beg to move, "That this House will immediately resolve itself into Committee on the Bill."
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly considered in Committee.
§ [Mr. WHITLEY in the Chair.]