§ Mr. R. McNEILL
I have handed in a manuscript Amendment, but I am not quite certain whether it is in order to move it at this stage, and I would like your opinion upon it. My Amendment really is to substitute a new draft for Clause 1, but I do not know whether this is the proper time to move it.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The hon. Member's Motion is to leave out Clause 1 and to insert it in another form. It may or may not be better drafting, but he can raise that point when I put the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill." If the Committee accept his view, it will have to negative the Clause as it stands, and, if that should happen, he will be able to bring up his new Clause.
§ Mr. McNEILL
There may be other Amendments moved to the Clause as it stands, and, if you put those Amendments in the form that they stand part of the Clause, will it be open to me afterwards to move the rejection of the whole Clause? It would seem to me, as a matter of convenience, that there would be a good deal of waste of time in discussing various verbal alterations of the Clause as it stands, and then afterwards in discussing a redrafting of the Clause. Assuming my Amendment were in order and that it were accepted, it would become the Clause upon which the more minute verbal Amendments would be moved, and that would save a double process of amending the Clause.
§ 8.0 P.M.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The hon. Member may have a case for an alteration of our Rules, but until they are altered I am bound by them.
§ Mr. A. WILLIAMS
I beg to move, in Clause 1, to leave out the words "six years and four months" ["as if six years and four months"], and to insert instead 2164 thereof the words "a period lasting for the duration of the War and six months afterwards."
I think the meaning of the Amendment is perfectly clear. It is that I desire to see it enacted in this Bill that the possible life of this Parliament should be extended until six months after the end of the present war. It is possible that the wording I have put down is not exactly the right wording, but I need not deal with that now so long as my meaning is clear. Any slight alteration in wording could, I imagine, be dealt with at a later stage. The Prime Minister came down to the House yesterday and told us that it was almost impossible that we could contemplate a General Election during the course of the War. At any rate, if it was not impossible it would certainly be a very great calamity, and hon. and right hon. Gentlemen in all parts of the House agreed with that. Yet we are asked to draw the conclusion that we ought to make a law that there must be this calamity within twelve months, war or no war. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Certainly, so far as the law can secure that—of course, it is always possible that the law may be altered—we are asked by this Bill to make it certain that if the War is going on at the end of eight months we must, nevertheless, have this calamity, and the only possibility of avoiding that is to have the law altered again. I think there is a very great misunderstanding in the House as to what the effect of extending the life of this Parliament is. It seems to be thought by many people that the effect is that there cannot be a General Election until the added period has expired. That is very far from being the case. A General Election might, nevertheless, take place by Dissolution the very next day after this Bill had become law. What this Bill, if passed in its present form, makes certain is that, in the absence of a further change in the law, there must be a General Election at the end of eight months, however great a calamity it might be to the nation, and however serious might be the state of affairs. Of course, as I have said, anything enacted can be altered, but that would be the effect of this law, and that would always remain so unless it should be hereafter altered. In fact, we are asked to make this great calamity as sure as any law can make it if the War lasts another eight months
2165 I venture to say to the House that if, as we all agree, it would be a disaster to have a General Election during the time of the War, let us at least make it possible to avoid that disaster by making it possible for this Parliament to last till the end of the War and for six months afterwards, unless it is dissolved in the constitutional way by His Majesty on the advice of his Ministers. I say further, let us do it now. Do not let us pass a law now which would make that desirable result possible only by relying on the possibility of our altering the law at some future time. If we do that, it will have the great advantage that it will not leave this House at the mercy of the other House, with the constant threat of death hanging over the House if this House disagrees with the other House. There is no doubt a certain section of hon. Members in this House who think it would be to their advantage to keep this threat hanging over the House, because they think they can exercise such influence in another place as would bring about a General Election if they desire ft. I venture to say that is a wholly unconstitutional and wholly undesirable position. A Dissolution can always come by the action of His Majesty on the advice of his Ministers, and that action can always be induced by a vote of this House, and can always be induced by the other House. So far as the other House has a constitutional right, it can always exercise its right to reject any measure passed by this House, and thereby bring a certain pressure on the Government to dissolve the House. I venture to think that is enough for all purposes in time of war. In peace time a Dissolution at a fixed date has no doubt always been a part of our Constitution, but I do not think that that principle has any applicability, from the point of view of what is generally desirable in the national interests, to a time of war. I do suggest that in a time of war a fixed date at which Parliament should necessarily come to an end ought to be fixed with reference to the end of the War itself. For my part, I should like to see that a permanent part of our Constitution. At any rate, we are all agreed that during this war, I will not say all war, it would be a great calamity if a General Election were to come about. I wish, therefore, to make it at least possible that we should avoid it, knowing that if it becomes in- 2166 evitable, His Majesty, and his Ministers, and this House have it in their power to bring it about.
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asqulth)
I think is might be convenient if I were to say now at once on behalf of the Government what is the view we take of the various Amendments, which all deal with the same point of the duration of Parliament. I confess I do not myself attach very much importance to any particular date, because, for reasons I have explained more than once, I am satisfied that the country would not tolerate the idea—whatever date is fixed in this Bill—of a General Election while the War is still going on. Therefore, whatever date is fixed, it is only a question, supposing the War still continues, and, of course, we hope it will not, of the date when you will bring in another Bill to still further prolong your own life. It is, therefore, rather an academic question. I listened with interest to what my hon. Friend (Mr. A. Williams) said just now. He proposes to prolong the duration of this Parliament for so long as the War lasts and six months afterwards.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
Yes. There is a very great deal to be said for his proposal in point of convenience, but let us remember that this Parliament, this House of Commons in which we now sit, was a party a very few years ago to an Act which voluntarily put an end to its own existence at the expiration of five years. It is quite true that the War was not then foreseen, but since then we have prolonged our own existence for the best part of a year, and now we are going to prolong it again with, I think, universal consent. It is, however, a somewhat invidous task for the House to undertake, and I think an indefinite prolongation, such as my hon. Friend proposes, for so long as the War continues and six months afterwards, is open to a good deal of not unfounded criticism. I think, on the whole, the advantage lies in choosing some fixed date, although hereafter, as I feel quite sure will be the case, we may have to postpone or move that date. There are various suggestions on the Paper for either curtailing or lengthening the time we propose in the Bill, namely, eight months. I explained, I think yesterday, and also when I spoke 2167 before, what were the two reasons which have led us to fix, or at least to suggest, the date of eight months. The first was that we were following the precedent of the previous Bill, which was assented to by Parliament, and to which our original proposal of twelve months was cut down; and the next, which is more important, was that according to the best information accessible to us, the new register could not be compiled at an earlier date than the time which we have so fixed, and that it would be an obviously anomalous and inconvenient thing if you provided for the expiration of the life of Parliament at a time when the new register, which you had also sanctioned, could not be brought into operation. In other words, it would have brought about a state of things which everyone agrees is undesirable, namely, having an election upon a register which is already obsolete, and which, of course, eight months hence would be still more out of date. That is the reason that led to the proposal of eight months, but we are not wedded to it or to any other figure. The right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Sir E. Carson), I see, proposes six months, which would bring the life of this Parliament to an end on the 31st of March.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I must point out that that is a very inconvenient date to select, for two reasons. I am speaking now from the purely practical point of view. There is no principle involved in it. It is inconvenient for two reasons. In the first place, we are always overcrowded in the month of March with necessary financial business which has to be carried before the 31st March—that is to say, before the end of the financial year is reached—and if in that overcrowded month we had also thrown upon us the duty, as we should have in all probability, of considering and discussing a measure for the further prolongation of the life of Parliament, we might be very much pressed—indeed, I think public business would undoubtedly suffer. That is one reason. Another reason, which perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman may not have noticed, is this, that next year, I find on consulting the calendar, Easter falls at the end of the first week in April—I think it is the 8th— and obviously, on the assumption that 2168 Parliament is going to come to an end, and that there is not going to be a prolongation of its life, you could hardly have a more inconvenient time for an election, or for preparation for an election, than during the week just before Easter.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
We are not proposing to remain the full term. We are only talking now about the difference between six months and eight months. I am only pointing out the practical inconvenience which I think would result from fixing that particular date. Then some of my hon. Friends would like to see a much more remote date, for which, again, there is a great deal to be said. But, having modestly limited our original prolongation of our life to eight months, and being now so much older than we were when we made that original proposal, I do not think it would be decorous on our part, at this very advanced stage of our Parliamentary old age, to go beyond our original term of eight months. On the whole, I am disposed to suggest to the House, if we can avoid an unprofitable discussion and come to a satisfactory and generally agreed conclusion, that we should choose as the date the 30th of April. That is a much more convenient date than the 31st of March. It gives a month to the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite, and it subtracts one month from the eight months which we originally fixed for prolonging our life. It is a modest proposal, and, I think, a convenient proposal, and I hope the House may agree that, on the whole, that represents the balance of convenience and public advantage.
§ 1 Sir E. CARSON
I put down six months ms a compromise between the eight months in the Bill and what is preferred by a Marge number of those who consult with me, namely, four months. May I point out to the hon. Member who moved this Amendment that the extension by ourselves of? our own life is a very serious proposition? Bit is only the absolute exigencies of the I War that can justify it, if it can be justified at all.
§ Sir E. CARSON
In point of fact, at the present moment we hardly represent anybody. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] I 2169 suppose we represent about 25 per cent, of the electors. We boast that we are representatives of the people. We are not, or only a very little more than the House of Lords are. You were not elected upon these issues that have arisen.
§ Sir E. CARSON
And on many other things of that kind. You were elected to pass the Parliament Act, giving Parliament a life of five years. Having been elected to do that, now you are going to make it six years and four months, instead of the five years which have now expired. The Prime Minister will agree that that is a very extreme action.
§ Sir E. CARSON
You are compelled to do it owing to the War, but let us not think that it is a light matter. It is a very serious matter. Therefore, at all events, I think that, compatible with convenience, we ought to extend the life of this Parliament from time to time for the very shortest period that is convenient and not for the longest period. The hon. Member who moved this Amendment said that having this kind of Bill hanging over the Government will enable us to put pressure upon them or something of that kind. Why should it not? It is a perfectly fair thing to do to put on pressure if you have views, unless you are challenging the sincerity of our views, which I do not think the hon. Member intended to do. It is a perfectly fair thing, in a difficult crisis of this kind, that we should take advantage of any way we can to press our views upon a Government which is carrying out the greatest operations of the Empire. So long as our views are honourable and patriotic, we have not only the right, but we are bound to take every way we can to press our views upon the Government, if we think they are in the interests of the country. The manner in which the matter was put forward would lead one to suppose that the Government wants the prolongation, as if the House were factious and did not want to extend the life of Parliament when it was to the benefit of the country, and particularly having regard to the diffi- 2170 culties of an election during the War. The House has never taken that attitude at all. It did not take it the last time; it has not taken it now. If it had not been for the Registration Bill, this Bill would not have taken an hour. The whole of the speech made by the Prime Minister in introducing the Bill was a speech on the Registration Bill, not on this Bill. When we talk about putting off an election for eight months, or for twelve months, or until six months after the War, as is proposed in the Amendment, I think the hon. Member might remember that the House is quite willing and anxious, when the time comes and if the same inconveniences of an election arise, to give to the present Parliament the extension that is desirable. Therefore, what I would lay down as the first proposition is: what is the shortest time, not what is the longest time, compatible with convenience to this House? The Prime Minister says that the 31st March is an inconvenient date. I do not think that an hour or two would matter so much. I am perfectly sure that we shall spend several hours on other matters that are not nearly so important as this during, that month. I do not see why there is any inconvenience in bringing up the matter again in the month of March. I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that we might come to a compromise, and if that date is inconvenient, let us make it five months and extend the life of this Parliament until the 31st February. [Laughter.]
§ Sir E. CARSON
I am glad that the House is in a frivolous mood. The House is always amused by something of that kind, and it is probably just as well that we can have a laugh occasionally. I suggest there would be no inconvenience about that. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that he would have no difficulty, if the same state of affairs exists, in getting the Bill again then. It seems something like bargaining at a fair for the Prime Minister to offer seven months when I have put down six months. Having heard a great deal of discussion about four months, I thought I was making a suggestion that might be accepted readily. Therefore, I suggest the 28th February.
§ Sir E. CARSON
The House would always be willing to repeat the dose. It is a great thing to point out to the public, to let them see, when we are setting aside these laws and when we are claiming, without any mandate from them, to extend the life of Parliament, that we are doing it for the shortest possible time, and only because of the exigencies of the case. I certainly would have moved my Amendment for six months, but, of course, if the Prime Minister insists upon us having seven months, I must leave it.
§ Sir NORVAL HELME
The right hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir E. Carson) has assumed that this House only represents 25 per cent, of the electors. I venture to suggest that never before did a Government represent a larger proportion of the electorate, seeing that we have statesmen drawn from both sides of the House forming a Coalition Ministry and carrying on the business of this country in a manner, I hold, deserving the confidence, not only of this House, but also of the country. It is our pleasure, as Members of this House, to endeavour, while recognising the claim of the Act under which we work, to carry out the wish of the country that the Government shall be left strong and free from continued consideration of outside matters to prosecute the War with the greatest possible vigour to a successful conclusion. As the Prime Minister has made the suggestion of a compromise, and as my name is associated with that of the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Mr. A. Williams) in regard to the Amendment he has moved, I suggest to him that we should withdraw it in order that the Prime Minister's proposal might be accepted. I hope the House will resit very strongly the proposal to reduce the life of this Parliament for a shorter number of months, as is suggested by the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Sir E. Carson). If it has to go to a Division, I would rather see the Government stand by the text of the Bill and test the confidence of the Committee as to whether their proposal should not be accepted, because I take it that it was not arrived at without due consideration. The proposal made by the Prime Minister was made with a desire to get an agreed method of working. We welcome the idea of working in that atmosphere of conciliation and mutual confidence which has been developed under the Coalition Government, and I hope that under it, by 2172 means of the Registration Bill, we maybe able to put the franchise on a thoroughly good footing, so that when an appeal is made to the country we may have the carefully expressed opinion of an, election which can deal with the important matters which must follow the successful termination of this War. We are quite willing to withdraw this Amendment if we can meet the wish of the Government and secure an agreement with this House.
This House was elected for seven years originally, and it is rather an amusing thing to see my right hon. Friend (Sir E. Carson) using the Parliament Act, which he so hotly opposed, as a stand-by for the position he has taken up this evening. He as much as anyone-on this side opposed the Parliament Act for shortening the period of Parliament, and he is now using it as a weapon against the Government. There have been eighteen Parliaments since the Reform Act, six or seven of which lasted for just under or just over six years. This Parliament will come to an end, if this Bill is not passed, in five years and eight months, and my right hon. Friend says it is a serious proposition to extend the life of Parliament for more than six months. I fail to see it. It is no use using eye-wash to deceive the British public and saying we will only extend it for five months, and next time four months. The British public really understands the reason why it is being extended. To extend it for too short a period is extremely inconvenient, because if it was extended for four months, as was proposed at one time, it would mean that hon. Members would have to go to their constituencies and get ready in the short space of four months, and if it is only to be extended for another four months they would have to go down again, and they would be perpetually visiting their constituencies in short periods of four months. This is the only House which is really representative of the whole of the constituencies of this country until the soldiers come back from the front. You never can have another House of Commons which is really representative elected by the whole of the electors of this country until the soldiers come back from the front. What is the use of pretending that you are going to have another register, a stop-gap kind of register, as it was described by the Prime Minister the other day? We are never going to have an 2173 election on that to settle the reconstruction after the War, so that practically we all feel that there never can be, until alter the soldiers come back, a real General Election which would really represent the people. Now we are making not two bites at a cherry, but half a dozen. Supposing we went to the country on the present register, which of course does not represent the whole of the people of this country by any means, or on the new register that is suggested in the Bill which passed Second Reading yesterday, what should we do? On what issue should we go to the country? If we had no contest in any of the constituencies it would be a futile proceeding. If we did have contests, what about the men in khaki, Members of the House, who are fighting and who would have to be opposed if it were a proper election? In all probability it would be an ungrateful thing to them. Therefore, as there is to be no real General Election to get a proper representative House of Commons till the soldiers come back from the front after the end of the War, it seems to me to be trifling with the subject to be niggling about seven months or eight months. I should like to support the Prime Minister and say eight months by all means. But for peace, and to meet those who have these peculiar views on the subject, I am willing to consent to seven.
§ Mr. THOMAS
I think it is a fatal mistake on the part of the Government to make a proposal and then compromise on the question of a month. I do not subscribe to the view that the people of this country are anxious for a General Election. On the contrary, it is the last thing the people want, and, what is more than that, if. it is correct, as the right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Carson) said, that this House only speaks for and represents 25 per cent, of the people, that is a very dangerous doctrine, because that would be a direct encouragement for the people to say that we do not speak in the name of the country, and, consequently, they would disobey the law, because, after all, whether the register is a new one or a stale one, whether this House of Commons has been elected for twelve months or five years, I think there is no Member in any ' part of the House who does not recognise frankly that the laws passed by this House must of necessity be observed. Therefore, for the moment we have to keep that point clearly in mind. It is quite true to say that there is no Member of the House, 2174 and certainly no party in the House, which-was elected on the issue that is before the-country at this moment.
§ Mr. THOMAS
The War. I frankly admit there is no party which could claim that it has any mandate in connection with the War. But, on the other hand, I think it will be generally admitted that, when the War did break out, all parties subordinated their party views and concentrated on the War, and, after all, that was the nearest reflex to the opinion of the country that we could possibly get. On the other hand, I am bound to say that to come down in four, or five, or six months and ask for a new lease of life is not a very dignified procedure. But, whilst I admit that no one wants a General Election, I equally agree that it would be highly dangerous in the best interests of the country, and in the settlement of the War, if it was known that there could not be a General Election, and, therefore, it appears to me, taking both those points together, whilst the prospect of an election ought always to be before the Government, it is equally necessary to say that the election itself would be useless unless we immediately take in hand the register so that it can be ready when an election takes place. I do not think the House ought to quibble over a month, because that is, after all, what we are debating at this moment. I think if the Government determined on eight months originally they ought to have done so for good and sufficient reasons, and it would be much better to stick to it.
§ Major ASTOR
I really think there is not so very much difference between the two sides. Everyone agrees that an election would be most undesirable, very confusing and upsetting, but everyone seemed to be agreed yesterday that events might occur which would make a General Election necessary and imperative. Therefore what we have to try to arrive at is a date which if he had to have an election will be at least disturbing to the country.
§ Major ASTOR
But there is a point surely which is confusing to hon. Members opposite. They seem to think that if we extend the life of this Parliament six or eight months we must of necessity have an election then. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO!"] It seems to me that is the way they have 2175 been arguing. We all agree that a General Election would be inconvenient. We all agree, surely, that such events may occur as may necessitate a General Election. Therefore let us try to arrange a date which will be least inconvenient. I cannot imagine any date more inconvenient than that selected by the Government.
§ Major ASTOR
I do not know. The end of May means the middle or the height of the spring offensive, if we have one. Surely if we are to have an election we ought to have it during the time hostilities are less active, which is rather in the winter than in the spring. I grant hon. Members that we do not want an election, but they surely granted yesterday that an election might be necessary, and therefore, with that contingency in view, let us try to select a date which will interfere least with operations in France. Therefore, if we wait until the spring we are selecting a date which will be most inconvenient for a country which is interested so closely in what takes place in France and elsewhere. When we talk of four months or six months or eight months we are speaking of a period which is not very long normally, but surely we are forgetting the fact that a month now with the great events that are occurring is really as important as a year in ordinary times. As much happens in a month now as happened formerly in a whole year. I think in view of general convenience and in the interests of the country and of the War, it is far better to have a shorter period than the period which is suggested by the Government.
Sir H. DALZIEL
The Amendment before the Committee is that the House should take power now to sit until six months after the War.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
That is not so. The House can always be dissolved by the King on the advice of his Ministers.
Sir H. DALZIEL
I am sure we are indebted to the hon. Gentleman for giving us such a very important piece of information. What I said was that the Amendment proposed by the hon. Member proposes to give power to this Parliament to sit for six months after the termination of the War.
Sir H. DALZIEL
I think the House understands the position. If the hon. Member reads his Amendment he will see exactly what it means. I think the view of the House is that that is not an Amendment that could be accepted. The Prime Minister did not give it very much support or encouragement. It means that no matter how long this War goes on—and who is to say how long the War is going on: two years, three years, four years, as some very important people think it will do—we shall go on in this House as if we still represent the whole country, although our mandate has terminated. That Amendment will not do. It shuts the door with a bang against our soldiers having a vote at the election when it does take place, because they would obviously not be back in time. No one supposes that the moment the War is over the soldiers are going to be brought back. Peace negotiations will take place, and, according to precedent, they will last four, six, or eight months. So that when the election took place it would not be possible for the soldiers to take part in it. I regard that Amendment as dead, and I come to the real issue before the Committee. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Carson) suggested the 31st March. I have been amused to hear the statement, cheered by almost every Minister on the Front Bench, that the 31st March is a most impossible date—perhaps the most impossible date in the Calendar. They know that that is nonsense. They know that if the House and the country knew that a General Election was coming on the 31st March they would get the whole of their Supply in an hour.
§ Mr. L. JONES
The difficulty is that time would have to be taken up in March to pass another Bill, assuming that Parliament is to go on.
Sir H. DALZIEL
If the Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Carson) was accepted that this Parliament was to end on 31st March, we should know throughout the whole of March that the election was coming.
§ Mr. JONES
I understand that the difficulty about the 31st March is not that an election should take place at that period, but that if we decided earlier in March that it was undesirable to have an election at the end of March, we should have to pass another Bill to prolong the life of Parliament when we were wholly occupied with financial business.
Sir H. DALZIEL
The hon. Member is mistaken. If the Amendment was accepted and the 31st March was the date, it would mean that if there was to be an extension there would be a repetition of this discussion and we should probably extend the period, if we thought it advisable, in the course of a couple of hours or less. If the House was not minded to extend it—the circumstances outside this House would determine the decision of the House—we should know at the beginning of March whether there would be a General Election and Supply could be got through quickly. There are precedents for it. Right hon. and hon. Members have seen the whole of the Supply of the country go through almost in an hour. I have seen it go through —Committee one day, Report next day, without much more than five minutes being taken. I forget the time when it went through like that, but a General Election was in prospect. That is what would happen again. Any Government, with the knowledge in the mind of the House that there was a General Election pending, could get all the Supply they asked for without criticism. Hon. Members may question whether that is desirable or not, but they will agree with me that there are many things done under the Coalition Government which are not very desirable. Whether it is desirable or not, it is the fact that Supply has been got through in the way I have stated. Therefore, the objection to 31st March as an impossible date will not stand. With respect to the other argument about Easter, I cannot conceive a better time for an election, if there is to be one, than during the Easter holidays. The electors would have time to consider the points put before them. Therefore, I do not think that objection is fatal. The hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Denniss) was very severe as to whether this House represented the people of this country or not at the present time. I am not prepared to express an opinion one way or the other, but I would point out that the hon. Member does not represent the majority of his constituency.
Sir H. DALZIEL
The majority voted for other candidates at the election at which the hon. Member was elected.
If the right hon. Gentleman had followed the election at 2178 the time he would have found that on the calculation of the opposite party I got a clear majority.
Sir H. DALZIEL
I am not going to pursue that. It is enough for me to take the figures as returned at that Table, and according to those figures the hon. Member was returned to represent a minority of the electors. There was a split and three candidates for one seat. However, that does not matter. I do not think there is any desire at the present time for an election. I think there was a much greater desire a short time ago, but I do not think it exists at the present time. There does exist a desire—I cannot go into it now—that the Government should make fewer blunders and show more vigour in carrying on the War. This is not so much a Government matter as a House matter. We have a Coalition Government with all the paraphernalia of organisation and influence, social and political, which they can bring to bear. They have enormous power in this House. They are deciding off that bench how long they ought to be able to remain in office, without the renewed authority in regard to the powers which they exercise. This Motion ought really to be left to the House itself, and the Government ought really not to take any part in the Division. I think that six months is a very reasonable time. What is the difference between six and seven? [HON. MEMBERS: "One!"] There is no real difference from the point of view of a Government who are anxious to please every section in this House, because they know perfectly well that they will get another six months if they behave themselves in the meantime. Why wrangle about it here at the present time? I deny that we have ever wrangled, but speaking for myself I say that we are entitled to express our views, when this proposal comes before us, as to what line I think should be adopted. We are told that in no possible conceivable circumstances can there ever be an election during the War. That is the position.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Mr. Bonar Law)
I never said so.
Sir H. DALZIEL
The Prime Minister said so. He said that it would be most undesirable. If the Prime Minister's speech meant anything—and I am sorry that he is not here now because I do not want to misrepresent him—it meant "all the power I possess and all the power that 2179 my colleagues possess will be exercised towards preventing an election during the War." I want to ask the Colonial Secretary—because this is important—if he will he give us a definite pledge here and now that he will never be a party in any possible circumstances to advising a General Election during the continuance of the War? Of course, the Colonial Secretary can give no such promise. Neither will the Prime Minister nor any other member of the Cabinet, because they know perfectly well, in spite of all the protests about the terrible thing a General Election would be during the War, that if they thought it would suit their purpose at any moment next month or the month after, or three or four months after, they would advise His Majesty that there should be a Dissolution of Parliament, and you would have an election upon your old register. Why is it an old register? It is by the act of the Government. They themselves, by a measure which they introduced and which they pressed with all their authority upon this House, declared that all efforts to keep the register up to date must cease at that time. So they have the responsibility of having an old register at the present time. Therefore, they should take that into account in coming to the decision at which they arrive.
I should like to have that promise from the Government, so as to understand the position, that they will use their influence in that direction if they get their way now, and that they will tell us they are not going to be parties to a General Election in the meantime. If they have a majority in this House, and they believe that it is an outrage to have an election upon a stale register, they can prevent it. Of course, if this Cabinet loses the confidence of this House, it is possible to have another Cabinet which might have the confidence of this House. I do not think that that is a very far-drawn, imaginative picture. They are not going to give us a promise with regard to that to-day. We must content ourselves with the fact that though they may have an election at any time, yet so far as they are concerned their desire is to extend Parliament. Between the eight and the six I do not think there is sufficient difference to have any great controversy about, but I think that the argument is on the side of six, because if they have our confidence they will get an extension later on. Of course, this whole business between seven and eight has been 2180 arranged on a split-the-difference principle. I think that it was oh my own Amendment, passed last year, that eight months was accepted, and having gone away from that precedent they say seven now on the principle of split the difference. I would ask whether, cm a matter of this kind, they would not say six? I do not think it worth prolonging the controversy upon it, but it would settle this matter.
§ Sir ROBERT FINLAY
In one sense the discussion as between eight, seven, five, and four months seems very paltry indeed, but there is a principle of some value behind it. That is, that the prolongation by Parliament of its own existence ought to be very jealously watched. The rule ought to be to make the extension the minimum that is required by the circumstances of the case. I think that there is very great force in the point made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Plymouth (Major Astor) that that day fixed by the Bill would very probably coincide with the great supreme offensive. If, as is only too probable, the War is still going on next year, it would certainly be very undesirable that, at such a time as that, you should have the possibility of a General Election being forced. I hope that the Government will take that point into consideration. As regards the point that was made by the Prime Minister of the register not being ready at an earlier date than the end of May, I do hope that the result of the consideration of that Registration Bill will be the adoption of some speedier method of having a register prepared, even at the sacrifice of perfect accuracy—a register which is a mere stop-gap, as we have been told repeatedly. I think that some speedier method might perhaps be devised of having a register prepared, so that that objection disappears. As regards any date that may be fixed, I would remind hon. Members that there is no necessity to wait until the very last moment of the period, if it was desirable that there should be a further prolongation, and that you could bring in a measure without waiting until the eleventh hour had struck; so that there is really nothing in that. In the circumstances I hope that the House will realise the desirability of making the, period as short as possible.
Sir RYLAND AD KINS
The right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down referred to the prognostications of the hon. and 2181 gallant Member for Plymouth about the spring offensive and the date of 31st May. Everybody would know, at least those in authority would know, weeks before that there were military operations intended which would make it intolerable to have an election here at the same time. That, of course, could be provided for. What has not been touched on by those speakers who are anxious to shorten the period as much as possible is this, that when the question of armaments is coming to an end it will either entail a General Election or, entailing the sort of controversy we have had in this House this week, has a very bad effect upon the country in time of war. The nearer we are getting to the time of an election the more the time and attention of the people will be taken away from what is going on in connection with the War to consider other matters. The reason why a large number of us would have a prolongation for a longer period of time is that we should not have these constant intervals of unrest in the country as to what is going to happen in this House and what is going to happen with regard to elections. It seems to me that a good deal of indifferent sense has been talked about the question of prolonging Parliament to a period inside seven years. This Parliament in which we are now sitting was made a quinquennial Parliament under the Parliament Act, in order to make the House, which had then reduced the Lords' Veto to a suspensory one, go back earlier to the electors. The issues between us and the House of Lords have ceased during the War, and the very circumstances which led to the quinquennial Parliament are not now with us, and we are therefore in circumstances far more analogous-to those which, many years ago, existed between the two Houses, and when the period of seven years was a most reasonable one to have.
In common with several other Members of this House, I have put down an Amendment to extend the period to twelve months, and I have done that because I want to avoid that unrest in the country, which is so injurious to the proper prosecution of the War. I imagine that the right hon. Member for Dundee and the j right hon. and learned Gentleman the; Member for Trinity College may want the period to come down to three months or two months, and I can perfectly under stand the attractions that has to' the right hon. Gentlemen, who would devote 2182 themselves to criticism of the Government, and I am bound to say that they do it with great flexibility on almost every conceivable subject. But there are others among us who have no taste for this miscellaneous criticism, and who are devoting themselves to war work in the country, and do not wish to be disturbed in that work. We have had enough of these rumours, and alarms, and excursions which are so dear to some right hon. Gentlemen opposite. Those of us who propose twelve months are perfectly prepared to divide the House in that sense. I regret that the Prime Minister has altered the terms of the Bill at all. I support the Coalition Ministry, which undoubtedly comprises a very great variety of temperament and experience, but, when they have put a date like this in the Bill, I think they might well be asked to stick to that date which had been considered by them. I regret that the Prime Minister has offered terms, and I regret still more the manner in which the offer was received. The right hon. and learned Member for Trinity College seems to have experienced a momentary pleasure at some jest on this side.
§ Sir R. ADKINS
I cannot imagine the right hon. Gentleman, who was the ingenious creator of the joke, did not see it himself. The point is this: The Prime Minister has offered a compromise which apparently has been rejected, and therefore I hope that the Prime Minister will at least stick to the original date in the Bill. He is asking a good deal from many Members of this House, and I submit that we have had enough disturbance of matters in the country. The right hon. Gentleman should keep to the eight months, though I should have preferred to have extended the period, and would have voted, for it against any opposition.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I should be glad if the Committee will come to a decision now. We are fighting about a very small matter; the difference between six months or eight months is a very small thing, and I thought I had offered a reasonable via media. The destinies of the country during the War are not likely to be seriously affected whether Parliament prolongs its existence to 30th April or to a later date. I venture to 2183 appeal to the Committee to come to a decision on this very' reasonable proposal which has been submitted.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman, before we go to a Division, whether it is proposed to put on the Government Whips?
§ The CHAIRMAN
I think that was so, and if the hon. Gentleman desires to proceed with his remarks, of course he is entitled to do so.
§ Mr. POLLOCK
I do desire to do so, and I shall be only three minutes. I understood that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dundee intervened to ask a question; then, not receiving a satisfactory answer, he claimed to make a speech. What is the practical point we are considering? Nobody contemplates that a General Election will take place in the course of any period which is contemplated by any of these Amendments, and really the practical question to discuss is when are the Government to come back to ask for a further extension of the life of Parliament? That is really the only practical question, When shall the Government come back again for a further lease of life? Shall they come back some time in March or April, or shall they come back in May? The object of their coming back, and of our giving them a short time in which they have got to come back, is that there may be an opportunity for criticism. We must not give too long a time, because we should lose the opportunity we should otherwise have of criticising them, and taking such steps as might be in the country's interest. May I project our minds to the practical course of business next year?
I suppose we shall be sitting in January or early in February, and we begin with the Supplementary Estimates, and the like, and these offer the greatest opportunity of criticism of almost any business that we do throughout the year, and therefore throughout February and 2184 throughout March we would secure almost day after day the opportunity of constant criticism of the Government. If you really think of the ordinary working of the system of business, am I not right in saying that during February and during March there is abundant opportunity for criticism of all Departments, and all measures taken by the Government. I believe I shall secure general assent to that. Does it make very much difference whether they also have to come back to ask for a new extension of the life of Parliament in February or in March or in April? Mark you, if we go on sitting until April, we have then to begin the Budget, and I should think that that is a very inconvenient date to bring the question of the life of Parliament up again. My hon. and gallant Friend below the Gangway has given us a very good reason why you should not have that in May. It really is a very tiny matter. I should think that the Government would be glad to agree to some date in March, and if not, I think it would probably be better to have a still longer period, and say June rather than April or May. Can we not really agree that the practical point we have got to consider is whether the opportunity we desire to criticise the Government shall be in March or in April? I venture to suggest that at the present moment we might all go to dinner and agree on the 31st March, and if the Government do not agree to that, the 30th April. I am not sure that it is really worth staying from dinner to discuss that point. I do not believe that individual Members could give any valid reason why they refused the 30th April and voted for the 31st March.
§ Mr. CHURCHILL
I must express my regret to the hon. and learned Member who has just spoken. I did not realise that he had commenced his argument and otherwise I certainly should not have intervened. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the very unsatisfactory manner in which this question is approached in certain quarters. The Government have decided to put on Government Whips, and to represent this matter as one in which they are specially interested. Surely that is a very great mistake from their point of view, and surely it is a very great mistake from the point of view of their supporters who have spoken with so much enthusiasm and fervour this afternoon. Why 2185 should they represent the Government as being a class of persons specially desirous of prolonging the life of Parliament at all costs, and having a special interest in the matter, and why should my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton (Sir It. Adkins) come down and think that he is going to win the smiles of the Government by pressing the longest possible date for the avoidance of an election? I think it is putting the Government in a very undignified position, and I dare say Ministers have been saying to themselves, "Save us from our friends." The Government has no more interest in this matter than the House. That is the only decent way of looking at the question. We are all salaried Members here, Members of a salaried Parliament, and our prolongation of its life is a matter which we should undertake, I think, with modesty and sparingly, and not as if we wished to be as greedy of our tenure as possible. I think the Government are extremely ill-advised to handle this matter in this way. They would not be put to the least inconvenience if they took four months, and then asked for another short Bill to go through, and, as my right hon. Friend said, it would only be a matter of an hour, or an hour and a half's discussion. Surely, if there is a difference of opinion in the matter, good feeling and good taste should lead the members of the Government not to be over eager to take the most favourable position for themselves, but to allow Parliament in the New Year to come to a fresh decision. I think it is very likely that Parliament will have to be prolonged to a date much longer than those mentioned. I think it is a matter which should be sparingly dealt with and decently dealt with in a dignified spirit. I do trust that the Government are not going to put themselves in the invidious position of putting on the Whips of all the caucuses in the country in order to make sure that they get a month or two more, and that their power of remaining in office is to be prolonged when they could rely on getting an extension of time whenever the circumstances of the case demanded it.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I really do not think that any of us who have listened to this Debate have much reason to be proud of the display which the House of Commons is making. The right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has given us two very valuable lessons, which come with great effect from him. One is, that we should 2186 all conduct ourselves with becoming modesty, which is good advice wherever it comes from. The other is that we are committing an unpardonable offence in proposing to put on the Government Whips for a Government Bill. It may be worth while to note in passing that this is the same right hon. Gentleman who told us yesterday that all that the House of Commons wanted the Government to do was to give a lead and say what they wanted.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I was coming to that. The right hon. Gentleman said that we should give a lead, and tell the House of Commons what we wanted. I am not the least afraid of the insinuations which the right hon. Gentleman has just made that we have given away something by agreeing to seven months. We do not look upon this as a matter of any consequence whatever to the Government. In that respect the right hon. Gentleman was perfectly right, and the Committee, I think, will see why if they think of the matter for a moment. The point of view of those who are criticising is that this is in some way going to extend the life of the Government. It is quite obvious to anyone who knows the House of Commons that there is not a fraction of truth in it, for the moment the House of Commons is dissatisfied they can find many other ways of expressing their dissatisfaction, and getting rid of the Government. It is, therefore, not a question between the House of Commons and the Government. It is simply a question of what the House of Commons itself ought to do. I am quite ready to accept the view of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Trinity College (Sir E. Carson) that it is an invidious thing even in time of war for us to prolong our own existence to a greater extent than the public convenience requires. I am quite willing to agree with that. The Prime Minister pointed out the day before yesterday that we fixed on eight months partly because it was the precedent of last year and partly because we thought the Register Bill could not be got through earlier. Now we find there was a distinct inconvenience in having this discussion in March. The right bon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir H. Dalziel) said that it would only take two hours. That all depends on the opposition, even though the number is small. 2187 What we have seen this evening is an example of the length of time which may be taken by a discussion of that kind. Surely the balance of convenience is in favour of having it at the end of March. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Churchill) says that we have only been an hour, or an hour and a half, on this, but it has been over a very small point. There is, I think, very little disposition in the House as a whole to interfere with the general proposals we are making. That is my view, but it might quite well be that just when we wanted the time, as everybody acquainted with the conduct of the Government knows, that that was the very period when we had to introduce a Bill of this kind. Is there anything in this that is worth while, unless the object of those who are making the opposition is to arrest or get rid of the Government? If that is the object they have in view, let it be on a bigger issue than this. For that reason, since the Prime Minister did think that seven months was a sufficient length of time, I am not going to propose to adopt the suggestion of my hon. Friend behind me and say, "Since those who think six months is better are not willing to accept the seven months, we will go back to eight months." That does not seem to be reasonable, and we wish to deal with this matter in a reasonable way from every point of view. All I wish to say further is that there is certainly no hidden argument in connection with this matter which the House of Commons has not already had before it. If hon. Gentlemen wish to have a Division, let us have it; but at all events let us have done with this subject and get on with something else.
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
In order that the Government's proposal may be tested, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Major HUNT
I beg to move to leave out the words "and four months."
I think that four months is certainly quite long enough to renew the life of this Parliament. In my opinion, it is quite long enough to get a fair register if the Government would try. But they have regularly neglected the register, and it is entirely their fault that there is not a register ready now. When the register is prepared I think there ought to be a General Election at once. The longer an election is delayed, the more unrepresentative will 2188 the House of Commons become. This Parliament was elected in January, 1911, and it deliberately smashed the Constitution for the express purpose of destroying the other House and making its Ministerial Leaders absolutely supreme. This was done, however, on the definite condition that it would not continue its existence beyond five years, and that at the end of that time the people should undoubtedly have an opportunity of electing another Government if they so wished. That was the compact, but it has already been broken once, and the House is apparently going to break it again for another eight months, and without even preparing a decent register. The Government certainly cannot pretend that they are popular in the country. But they are going to try and hang on by this plan of theirs on the plea that they are indispensable and that a General Election is un thinkable. That is just what the Government said about war with Germany; they said it was unthinkable. Surely if Parliament can afford the time to take a six weeks' holiday it can afford three or four weeks for a General Election to give the people an opportunity of saying whether they approve of this eight months' prolongation of power for what has, after all, become nothing but an outworn, effete oligarchy, acting for I self, drawing its salaries, and no longer reflecting the will of the people. At all events, that is how I look at it. Surely there have been plenty of by-elections. Ministers could quite well stay at their posts while the General Election was going on. If they have done their duty hey may be quite sure the people would re-elect them. If this Clause passes the great probability is that the present Government, in spite of all their blunders—and some of them criminal blunders from the amount of life that has been lost—
§ The CHAIRMAN
This seems to be a speech against the Second Reading of the Bill. We have decided chat there is to be an extension, and we have now to deal only with the question of how many months.
§ Major HUNT
If this Parliament is prolonged for eight months it seems to me that the terms of peace are almost sure to be regulated by this Government. For that reason I do not want it to be prolonged for as long as eight months. I hope that is in order. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dublin University 2189 is quite of my opinion that it would be a far worse misfortune to have the life of the Government prolonged over the peace terms than it would be to have a General Election. If the life of this Parliament is to be prolonged it should be for as short a time as possible, so long as you can prepare a register. If this Amendment is not carried there will be little or no chance of getting this Government out until, if the War is still going on, another great offensive movement will have been begun, and we shall have the old excuse over again that this great offensive movement must not be deterred by a General Election. After the frightful blunders this Government have committed and their various fins of omission and commission, I think it is surely necessary to make the term of prolongation, if its life must be prolonged, as short as possible.
§ Sir G. RADFORD
On a point of Order, Mr. Chairman. Is the hon. Member in order in reading his speech?
§ Major HUNT
I really was not altogether reading it. The hon. Member need not be so critical. I have seen Ministers with typewritten copies in front of them doing a goodish bid of reading.
§ Major HUNT
Unless we have this Clause amended we have got to extend the life of this Government for another eight months, because it has been put about in the Censorship and muzzled Press, and amongst the "mugwumps" of both parties that an election during the War is absolutely unthinkable. I quoted the precedent of the case of Lincoln, which tends to show exactly the reverse. We heard yesterday about Solomon, and we are told that the Prime Minister is the only person who can preserve—
§ The CHAIRMAN
It is as I expected. The hon. Member's remarks have slipped over from the Second Reading.
§ Major HUNT
I will finish in about a dozen words—if I get the chance of getting them out. I think that the Government is most unsatisfactory. It certainly ought not to be prolonged any longer than necessary. People, I think, are very anxious to bring it to an end, and I beg to move.
§ Amendment negatived.2190
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I beg to move, in Sub-section (1), to leave out the word "four" ["six years and four months"], and to insert instead thereof the word "three."
Perhaps it would be the simpler way if we were to take one Division instead of two—
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I assume so. I hope this—and I say it quite frankly—after all the time that has been occupied we will take the course of having a Division.
§ Sir E. CARSON
I am sorry that my right hon. Friend has begun to be a little hasty in his temper. I do not think it is of the slightest use. The Government, for the first time this Session, have absolutely made up their minds that they would show a bold front on a question of one month's duration. I congratulate my right hon. Friend that on this question we have had a lead from the Government. It is not a very big one. My right hon. Friend is quite wrong in supposing that he has any right to dictate to us whether he will or will not have a Division. We can do our own business in our own way, and perhaps we can do it just as well as the Government do theirs, or most of it. The Prime Minister said that he would agree to seven months instead of eight, and all I said was that I should move six months instead of seven.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
May. I remind my right hon. and learned Friend of the words of the right hon. Gentleman who sits beside him?
§ Sir E. CARSON
Do not let us get into a dispute over the matter. I think it is a great pity that we have had this dispute. This is a kind of matter in which, when you are prolonging the life of Parliament, the Government might have met us fairly. It would not have made the slightest difference to them. It was only 2191 because we were on the eve of the Adjournment that they wanted to appear strong over this matter. So far as I am concerned, we must leave out the word "four," and then, of course, the other can be moved.
§ Sir E. CARSON
The confusion has arisen entirely through the Government taking up the attitude that they must put on the organisation of the two great parties in this country to get a prolongation of one month more than we ask. It is one of the most absurd things that could have happened in the House of Commons.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Question put, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."
§ Mr. R. MCNEILL
I would explain that my Amendment is really one to redraft this first Clause. I move this Amendment as a protest against the manner of the drafting of this Clause, which is a very conspicuous example of the manner of drafting which is becoming more and more common in our Acts of Parliament. It is known as legislation by reference. Just let me show the Commitee how this matter has grown. Section 7 of the Parliament Act upon, which all these subsequent Amendment are built, says:Five years shall be substituted for seven years as the time fixed for the maximum duration of Parliament under the Septennial Act, 1715.Everybody knows the Septennial Act, and it does not require any great research amongst law books to discover the meaning of the Section I have quoted. The next Act was the amending Act passed at the end of last Session, the Parliament and Registration Act, 1916. The first Section of that Act said:Section seven of the Parliament Act, 1911, shall in its application to the present Parliament have the effect as if five years and eight months were substituted for five years.It seems to me perfectly clear that that Clause of that Act might have been drafted in a very much simpler form. The draftsmen of these Bills are, and have been for a long time, gradually building up a sort of Rabbinical code known to 2192 themselves and utterly unknown to the general public, and it is a matter of vital importance that the man-in-the-street, our old friend, should be able to look at an Act of Parliament and, in nine cases out of ten, get some sort of meaning out of what he reads there. Now we come to the Bill before the House, the first Clause of which says:Sub-section (1) of Section one of the Parliament and Registration Act, 1916, shall have effect as if six years and four months were substituted therein for five years and eight months.Could any ordinary person not conversant with the ways of draftsmen, and without having a library of law books at hand, get any meaning whatever out of that Clause? The substituted words which, I submit, enact exactly the same thing in language which, I think, is a great deal simpler, are as follows:Notwithstanding anything in the Parliament Act, 1911, or any subsequent Act, six years and two months shall as applied to the present Parliament be the time fixed for the maximum duration of Parliament.It goes back to the terms used in the Parliament Act, 1911, and uses the same form in this Bill. I cannot imagine there can be any possible objection to that form of words. No one can argue that simplicity is a matter of no importance, and if the purport is exactly the same—and I do not think the learned Solicitor-General is likely to deny it—can anyone deny that the simpler form of words, going back to the original Statute, the foundation of all the Acts, is not a much better form? Therefore, I beg to move, "That the Clause do not stand part, of the Bill. "I believe that is the only way in which I can move in order that I may substitute the form of words I have read to the Committee.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The question before the Committee is, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."
§ Mr. McNEILL
May I request, at all events, the courtesy, if nothing else, of some reply from the Government? I have submitted to the Committee an argument. It may be a perfectly worthless argument and perfectly foolish, but I think one of my learned Friends on the Front Bench might have the courtesy, at all events, to point out where the folly lies before the Motion is actually put.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL (Sir G. Cave)
No one could accuse my hon. Friend of any folly in any shape or form. There has been some delay in answering him because I have only just got hold of the form of the Clause to which he has referred. The matter is a very simple one. Whereas the original term fixed by the Parliament Act, 1911, was five years, we, at the beginning of this year, put in its place the term of five years and eight months. Now we propose to put in the place of five- years and eight months the term of six years and three months. I notice my hon. Friend's form proposes six years and two months, whereas we take? six years and three months. I do not think anyone who follows these Acts would have the least trouble in ascertaining the effect.
§ Sir R. FINLAY
Of course, it can be made out, but I think, as far as possible, Acts of Parliament should be in ordinary English.
§ Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.