HC Deb 12 December 1916 vol 88 cc795-808
The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law)

Hon. Members in all quarters of the House will, I am sure, recognise that it would not have been possible for the Prime Minister to make to-day the statement which, as the head of the Government, he will be expected to make. In addition to that, as it happens, he is confined with a chill, which makes it impossible for him to be present. I am sure also every Member of the House will feel that the first statement as to the policy and intentions of the Government must be made by the head of the Government. It is altogether necessary that a Vote of Credit should be passed and reported upon this week. The proposal is that it should be moved on Thursday and the Report stage taken on Friday. That will give the Prime Minister, who will move the Vote of Credit, the opportunity of making the statement to which I have referred. It will also give every Member of the House an opportunity of taking part in the discussion which will naturally follow. In these circumstances I hope the House will recognise that the course which I am now proposing is a reasonable one. I therefore move, That this House do now Adjourn until Thursday next. I hope hon. Members will be content to wait till then to raise the questions which naturally arise in their minds in connection with the situation.


(rising from the Front Opposition Bench:) The proposal put forward by the Leader of the House appears to me to be a very fair and reasonable one. He suggests that we should take the Committee stage of the Vote of Credit on Thursday and the Report stage on Friday. It is known to the House that it is absolutely essential that those two stages should be concluded this week, but my right hon. Friend, if he will allow me to call him so, says that it is proposed by the Prime Minister to make a statement of his policy on Thursday. The Prime Minister is at the moment, I understand, unwell. The Leader of the Liberal party is also at this moment confined to his bed. It is possible that the Prime Minister may be well by Thursday, but I fear it is impossible that the Leader of the Liberal party should be in his place on Thursday next. [An HON. MEMBER: "There are no parties in the War."] There is no Opposition to the Government in the War. I would suggest, therefore, to my right hon. Friend, would he be willing to consider the possibility that the Prime Minister should make his statement on the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill on Tuesday next—[HON. MEMBERS: "No !"] —if it is the wish of the House, in order that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Liberal party might be present to answer. Of course, I am entirely in the hands of the Government in this matter, but I put forward the proposal in what I believe to be the best interests of a full discussion of the position at the present moment.


I heard an interruption to the effect that there are no parties in the War.


We have had enough of that cant.


I hope and believe that that is not cant, and I should like to say that, in my belief, if the House took the same view, there might be great advantages in the course which the right hon. Gentleman has suggested. It is obvious that no discussion can take place which does not in some way or other refer to the past, and the events which have led to the change of Government. It is obvious, also, that no such discussion can be complete or satisfactory to the House if part is not taken in it by my right hon. Friend, who, until the other day, was Leader of the House of Commons. I cannot, of course, pledge myself to agree to the suggestion of my right hon. Friend without consulting the Prime Minister, but, if the House be willing to accept that arrangement, I, personally, would be glad to adopt it, and I believe the Prime Minister would gladly accede to it.


I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question on a matter of urgency. I quite realise that it is inevitable that a large number of questions on the Paper should be postponed or dealt with in some other than the usual way. But this is a question of the utmost urgency which has suddenly arisen in Ireland, and I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman about it. There has been a great deal of unrest and discontent on the railways in Ireland for a considerable time, due to the fact that the English railways, which have been taken over by the Government, had a war bonus provided for their men. The Government refused to take over the Irish railways, and therefore no war bonus was proposed at all; and although the railway companies in Ireland, some of which are earning no dividend at all, have endeavoured to give small war bonuses of 2s. and 2s. 6d., and so on, yet the difference between the position of the railwaymen in Ireland and in Great Britain has been so acute that we knew trouble would arise. It became acute especially in this way. The English railways have officials working in Ireland. The London and North Western Railway Company have men working on the North Wall in Dublin, and alongside of them doing exactly the same work are the men employed on the Irish railways who are getting no bonus at all, whereas the English men working by their side are getting a bonus of 10s. a week. That is bound to lead to trouble, and unfortunately that has come to a head. I would not have intervened unless this was a matter of the utmost urgency. The railwaymen on some of the chief railways of Ireland have given notice to strike, those notices will expire next Monday, and unless some strong action is taken by the Government to remedy the injustice of the present state of things you will have a strike. Let the House of Commons remember what a strike in Ireland means. It means sympathy from the railwaymen of this country and a refusal to handle Irish goods, a more serious state of things from the point of view of the War. That is my justification for intervening, and I would not have intervened had it not been in regard to a most important and urgent matter. There are three Departments concerned, and I have been engaged in doing all I could in the past to remedy this injustice. First of all, the War Office, which refused to take over the Irish railways; then the Board of Trade, and then the Treasury. These three Departments are con corned, and I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in view of the fact that next Monday these notices will expire, he will see that action is taken at once to avert what, from the point of view of the War and the interests of this country, would be a most serious calamity.


Everybody recognises that on an occasion like this a general Debate is impossible, but I submit to the House that, having the Leader of the House in his place, we are reasonably entitled to ask him for some slight information as to the course of public business. I would impress upon the right hon. Gentleman that in the position he now occupies, as responsible Leader of the House, it will not do—and I am sure he will recognise this from a practical point of view—to answer questions of this character by saying that we must wait until he has consulted the Prime Minister. He is the Leader of the House, and we are entitled to expect that he will answer on his own responsibility—at all events, in regard to all questions affecting the business of the House and the conduct of public business. Here are some questions which I am entitled to put: What business will be taken before Christmas? When will the House rise? And when it does rise, will it adjourn or be prorogued? [An HON. MEMBER: "Wait and see!"] That is exactly what I do not want to do.

There is another very important question which I think ought to be raised now and which I trust the right hon. Gentleman will represent to the Government. It is as to the nature of the proceedings on Thursday, or if we adjourn until Tuesday, on Tuesday. If the Prime Minister were to move the Vote of Credit and on that Motion to make his statement on the policy of the Government, it would be impossible to discuss the speech, because we remember what happened on previous Votes of Credit when we were strictly held by rules of Order and confined, and properly confined, to the subjects covered by the Vote of Credit. But, under the revolution that has taken place, when the Prime Minister will be expected to make a far-reaching declaration of policy covering all kinds of subjects, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to point out to the Prime Minister that some method ought to be adopted, and I say must be adopted, which will enable his Motion to be moved in such a form as will allow the House to discuss the declaration of Government policy, and that form might be a Motion for the Adjournment or some general form. If the right hon. Gentleman commences a discussion by moving the Vote of Credit, then there can be no discussion at all except on questions affecting the Services covered by the Vote of Credit. Would the right hon. Gentleman kindly point out to the Prime Minister the absolute necessity—should say the primary necessity—of including in his statement of the Government policy to which we are all—in fact, I might say the whole country and almost the whole world—are looking forward with such intense interest, a clear statement of the working of the new system under which the heads of the great Departments are excluded from the Cabinet. I am not here for a moment to quarrel, in the crisis which this country has reached, with the dictatorship which now exists. I think we have reached a stage when some form of dictatorship is probably absolutely necessary. What I urge upon the Leader of the House of Commons is that we are now embarking upon a system of Government wholly novel and absolutely revolutionary, and a departure from all those systems to which the British people are accustomed. All I claim is that the Prime Minister should, in his statement, include a frank—and the franker it is the better—announcement of the character of the machinery which we are expected to work. If he does that, I would represent to the right hon. Gentle- man that he will remove many possibilities of friction and difficulty from his path. There is one point to which I am, perhaps, entitled especially to direct the attention of the right hon. Gentleman, and it is: Where does Ireland come in? We are no longer to have a representative in the Cabinet. As I understand, no member of the Irish Government is to be in the Cabinet. We are entitled to know, and to know clearly, where responsibility rests. That is the difficulty which rests upon my mind as a somewhat learned student now of the working of the British Constitution. It is essential to the smooth working of this new system that Members of the House should know where responsibility rests, and when they ask Ministers on that bench questions to which they are entitled to have answers that they should not be put off by Ministers saying, "We cannot answer until we have consulted our superiors." These are serious considerations, and I venture to submit them to the Leader of the House.


I understand that we are to have a Vote of Credit for several hundred million put before us on Thursday, but that the Prime Minister may not be able then to make his promised survey and statement with regard to the whole war position. While, of course, we all regret the absence and illness of the late Prime Minister, I fail to see why we should be asked to vote a Vote of Credit without having a statement from the present Prime Minister. Therefore, I do hope that the right hon. Gentleman, when he discusses the matter with the Prime Minister, will point out to him that we cannot be expected to vote a Vote of Credit without having put before us the case to justify that Vote of Credit.


I have given private notice of a question which I wished to ask with reference to a Motion. I presume that the right hon. Gentleman will postpone that question.


It has been postponed.


Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to ask a question which he can answer completely off his own bat. I communicated with you, Mr. Speaker, on a little point which refers actually to the constitution of this House, and I intended, if I caught your eye, to ask you yourself about it. I now ask the right hon. Gentleman, who will perhaps be able to give me a satisfactory answer. In the papers this morning, from the "Times" upwards or downwards, there was an official notice that the Chairman of Committees and Deputy-Chairman of Committees had agreed to retain their posts, at the request of the right hon. Gentleman. I intended to ask the Prime Minister whether he is aware that the posts of these Gentlemen are in the possession and in the gift of the House, that the House alone elects them, that they hold their offices under Parliament, and that they are the servants, not of the right hon. Gentleman and not even of the Crown itself, but of the House of Commons? If they choose to resign, their proper course would be for them to communicate their decision or to make their announcement on the floor of this House. This is really important. It does not refer to politics at all; it touches the position and the relation of servants to this House, and such an announcement was never before made that servants of this House had consented to remain on at the request of the right hon. Gentleman. I beg to tell him that the Chairman and Deputy-Chairman are not Ministers, but are servants of the House, and I would ask him why that announcement was made?


I wish to bring to the right hon. Gentleman's notice a matter the importance and urgency of which I think the whole House will recognise, inasmuch as it touches the interests of our Army and those connected with it. It is now becoming very urgent in view of the necessity of making immediate arrangements with regard to the Christmas leave and the draft leave of our soldiers. A statement was made by the Financial Secretary to the War Office last Monday which has given very great distress both to the soldiers and to their relatives. I know that myself from an enormous number of communications which have reached me in consequence of a letter I sent to the "Times" newspaper. I knew it before that, because I wrote that letter to the "Times" newspaper on very urgent representations which had reached me. I do trust that before we break up, the right hon. Gentleman will be able to assure the House, and, through the House the Army and our soldiers and all those who are looking forward to meeting them at Christmas, that the best arrangements will be made, and that the hard and fast terms which would postpone the interests of our soldiers in favour of those civilians travelling for their own pleasure will not be adhered to.


The hon. Member for Donegal (Mr. Swift MacNeill) is mistaken if he thinks that I assumed that the Gentlemen named were the servants of the Government. As I understood that they were the servants of the House appointed on the nomination of the Government, it did not seem to me improper that I should find out whether or not they intended to continue in their present offices. I made the inquiry and I learned that they did intend to do so, and, if I am not mistaken, though I do not wish to run the risk of putting the Chairman of Committees in the wrong, the wording of the notice was that which was suggested to me by the Chairman of Committees himself. I know that the question of the railways in Ireland was being considered. I did not know that it was so serious and urgent as the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. John Redmond) has indicated. All that I can do is to say that the moment I am able to leave the House I will see that the Departments concerned at once take the matter up and deal with it in the way the Government think best under the circumstances. As regards many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. Dillon), I am sure he will feel, if I can avoid making it, that it is better that a statement as to our intentions and the method of carrying them out should be made first by the Prime Minister, but on one point, since he has raised it, I do wish to state clearly what our intention is, and that is in regard to the Leadership of the House. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it a condition that for everything connected with that I should take the responsibility. I do not readily do it, but I shall do my best, and there shall be no question put off in order to consult the Prime Minister. As regards the other point, I am sure the hon. Member will feel that I can hardly be expected to make a statement about it to-night.

As regards the question whether or not we should postpone the general discussion until Tuesday, as I say, I was not prepared to give a definite reply, but I will put to the House exactly the point of view from which it strikes me. In the first place, the mere fact that a request of that kind is made on behalf of my right hon. Friend the late Prime Minister would make me desirous, if the House were willing, that it should be acceded to. In the second place, I really believe that we cannot have a full and frank discussion without the presence of the late Prime Minister, and I am sure—that is my feeling—that it will be for the convenience of the House that the course suggested by my right hon. Friend should be adopted, but, of course, we cannot do so unless the House is willing. But if that course is adopted, and all I can say is I should like it to be, then I hope there will be no question about allowing us to get the Committee stage and the Report stage of the Vote of Credit without any general discussion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] Well, on the part of the Government. Under those circumstances I shall simply move the Vote of Credit, not dealing with general questions of policy, but dealing with the immediate financial situation. That is my intention on Thursday, and if, as I think probable, the Prime Minister authorises me to agree to the request of my right hon. Friend, I assume that the Committee and Report stages of the Vote of Credit can be carried through this week as it is absolutely necessary.


Why not, under those circumstances, not meet to-morrow and not waste time. We do not want the Prime Minister present for that?


I wish to draw the attention of the House to a matter of urgency. Since the change of Government there has been a great move in commercial circles of a certain character, and there is no doubt whatever that the German interests in the City are making desperate efforts, owing to the change of Government, to get out of their holdings and put them in the names of nominees. There is a considerable movement going on, and large parcels are being offered this morning. There can be no doubt of the fact that they have taken fright, owing to recent events. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, speaking on behalf of a lot of Back Bench Members, that he will have as full consideration and support from us as any of his predecessors in office. In saying that, I have reason to know that I am speaking for a very large number of Liberal Members. An announcement was made in the Press that the right hon. Gentleman was giving special attention to this matter of German interests and German firms. I do not know, of course, what that means. I hope it is true. I am not asking now for an answer. I simply want to tell him that immediately that notice appeared in the Press that he was giving attention to this subject there was a corresponding move on the part of those interests to evade it. That is why I mention it, as it is very important, and I feel sure it will have his attention.


I am sure the right hon. Gentleman may feel great reason to congratulate himself on the assurance he has heard. I remember the first day the late Coalition Government met the House of Commons that the late Prime Minister received from exactly the same quarter assurances equally emphatic of loyalty and confidence to a Government of whom the hon. Gentleman boasted himself to be the reputed parent, but whose subsequent treatment at his hands is only too well known in every quarter of the House. I think that the right hon. Gentleman must also be deeply grateful for the information which has been conveyed to him as to the intentions of German interests in the City. Of coarse, the hon. Member is in the confidence of German interests in the City.


Really we are in the middle of a great war. The hon. and learned Member, if he listened at all to me, ought to know that those men to whom these goods were offered are, some of them, men to whom I am paying considerable salaries to watch and track and hunt down those enemies, and it is from those men I got the information, and if the hon. and learned Gentleman likes to come with me I will show it to him.


That explanation is even more illuminating. The friends of the hon. Member who were prepared to deal with those German interests, when by a subterfuge they evade the action threatened to be taken, have conveyed this information to him. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, instead of having got up in this House and advertised this here—[HON. MEMBERS: "Sit down!"]—it would have been much better for him to have conveyed this information privately so as to defeat this nefarious intention. I would make one observation as to the general question raised by the hon. Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon). I think it is extremely important that the Government should make up its mind as to the limits of the discussion which is to take place in the House on the Vote of Credit. On ordinary occasions on the Vote of Credit the House is only entitled to discuss questions of policy of the Government in regard to the War. On the present occasion much wider questions are opened up. We have the whole question of the events which have led to the fall of the late Government and to the formation of the new Government. We have also the deeply important constitutional question as to the new constitutional arrangements which have been made now for the first time, superseding entirely the old constitutional Government of this country. I think that it is of extreme importance that the House of Commons should receive a fair opportunity of expressing an opinion upon that point. I do not suggest that the Vote of Credit is the proper occasion, but I think that the Government should consider the advisability of giving to the House the opportunity of discussing the question. After all, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that we are no longer living under constitutional government in this country. We have seen two Governments fall without a vote of the House of Commons, and the House of Commons has not expressed an opinion on either occasion. I think it is entitled to express an opinion. We are now, if we allow this to go on, living under a system which is described under autocratic government as a palace revolution, where we have a kind of Pretorian guard in the Press. [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide!"] Yes, it is very serious. I think that is a consideration which should be in the minds of the Government and of the House. However, hon. Members who were endeavouring to shout me down may shut their eyes to. the fact—these are facts which they must face—and they must remember that in all these cases palace revolutions are followed by popular revolutions.


I should like to refer to the question put to me by the hon. Member for Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities (Sir H. Craik) with regard to leave for soldiers. I cannot say that I am familiar with all matters in this connection, but I may say that I do know that efforts are being made—and I am sure will be successfully carried out—to have a larger measure of leave for those who are actually serving in France at Christmas than ever has been the case before. As to the arrangements, I am not in a position now to say anything, but I shall make inquiries. As to the last point put by the hon. Member for East Mayo as to why we should not meet to-morrow, I really would ask the House to give us the day's interval. After all, what has been happening is not easily carried out. Apart from the duties of the Prime Minister, none of us have had a moment to think about anything. I hope, therefore, that the House will agree to adjourn till Thursday. As to the further point mentioned by the hon. Gentleman who spoke last (Mr. Pringle), of course, if a discussion takes place on Tuesday it will not be on the Vote of Credit. I thoroughly recognise that it is the duty of the Government to give the House the fullest opportunity that is possible of discussing everything which arises in connection with this event. I shall therefore consult with the Whips, with my hon. Friends, and with the authorities of the House as to the best method of trying to give effect to that, and it will be the desire of the Government to make the discussion as wide as possible. In these circumstances, when it is evident to everybody that criticisms of the Government cannot effectively begin to-day, I would suggest to the House that we might now adjourn.


I want here and now to repudiate the suggestion that has proceeded from this bench to the effect that Ireland has been accustomed to have her representative in the Cabinet. All Chief Secretaries for Ireland are representatives of this country and of the predominant partner. They are not known in Ireland, and are appointed for their special ability for keeping Ireland in its place. Ireland has never had a representative in the Cabinet, and could not, under such a system, have her representative in the Cabinet. I trust she will never have a representative in the British Government. With regard to some remarks made by an hon. Gentleman opposite, in which he referred to the supreme importance of giving this House an opportunity of considering the change of Government which has taken place without its consent, I am surprised that he does not recognise that he is far too late. Governments have come and gone, and each of them in turn has abrogated civil liberty in this country. They have passed Defence of the Realm Acts one after another to that effect. Those Bills were passed, in most cases, without a word of discussion, and this House has had to submit to a humiliating rebuke from the other House, which it has spent years trying to muzzle.

I rise for a more positive purpose than either of these, namely, to take advantage of the presence on the Treasury Bench of the new Home Secretary to ask him, as we are now coming very close up to Christmas, what he means to do with reference to the Irish prisoners in this country. There are some 650 of them, by far the larger number never having been tried at all and never having been accused of any definite offence under a civil law; yet of these, 350 are now undergoing punishment while this House is rocking its sides laughing at the abolition of civil liberty. I want to ask the Home Secretary—I ask it in all sincerity, without the slightest trace of the asperity with which we regarded his stony-hearted predecessor—whether he will now give any assurance to the House and to the public in Ireland, who are greatly disturbed and most anxious, with reference to these 350 of their countrymen under special extra punishment at Frongoch, with reference to the others of that group who are not under extra punishment, and also with reference to those who are undergoing sentences of penal servitude passed upon them—I ask the right hon. Gentleman's attention to this—by illegal courts-martial. Courts-martial held upon civilians not subject to military or naval law are illegal. There is no law for them. Courts-martial held upon such persons in camera are doubly illegal. Every sentence that was passed in Dublin last May under these conditions was an illegal sentence. Every man executed in Ireland last May without open trial but by a secret court-martial was an illegal execution, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Walthamstow (Sir J. Simon) declared in Dublin that an illegal execution was another name for murder. I ask the new Home Secretary whether he is going to perpetuate these sentences on our unfortunate countrymen at Portland and Dart-moor?

Some promise was given by his predecessor that they would all be transferred to Lewes and that their conditions there would be improved. Is he now in a position to inform the House whether that improvement will be carried out before Christmas, and is he in a position to inform the House and the public and to allay the resentment felt throughout Ireland upon this subject? Is he in a position to inform the House that all these men at Frongoch will be released and sent home before Christmas? Furthermore, I would like to ask the Home Secretary, when dealing with the convicts at Portland and Dart-moor, if he will now state whether any improvement accorded to them and any amelioration of their position will be extended also to the solitary lady convict at the same time, she having now spent six or seven months in solitary confinement at Aylesbury? I want to ask the Home Secretary also with reference to that lady — the Countess Marckiviecz— whether he has really considered or will consider the advisability of releasing her from penal work, which cannot be of any appreciable advantage to this ramshackle Empire—whether he will release her from that penal work and allow her to practise drawing, painting, or any other art in which she is skilled? There are a few-questions on the Order Paper with reference to specific phases of these subjects, but I trust the Home Secretary will not put us off with a written answer on this question, but will give some assurance here and now that the new Government has turned a new leaf with reference to those people—and I can assure him and the Government that although Nationalist Ireland does not pretend either to regret the old gang or to welcome the new— we are prepared to take them according to their acts and not otherwise, and if the present Home Secretary can now see his way to make something like a humane announcement on this subject it will do more for the stability of his Government than all the metallic, stony-heartedness of his predecessor for months past.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House do now adjourn until Thursday next.—[Mr. Bonar Law.]

Adjourned accordingly at Eighteen minutes before Four o'clock until Thursday next, 14 th December.