HC Deb 16 February 1916 vol 80 cc65-76
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I beg to move, "That, until the House otherwise determines, and so far as the House does not otherwise determine, no Public Bills other than Government Bills be introduced and no Ballot be taken for determining the precedence of such Bills."


The Motion which you, Mr. Speaker, have just read from the Chair, is, I think, identical in terms with that accepted by the House last Session. When proposed last year, I suggested to the Government a slight modification of the proposal which, I am sorry to say, was not at that time entertained. As the Motion stands private Members are deprived of their right of introducing Bills, and so bringing them under the notice of the House. In view of the exceptional circumstances of the case, personally I am not prepared to argue that we ought to have the facilities we have in ordinary times of peace. I can hardly conceive that Members should be able to turn their minds to any matter of domestic interest at the present conjuncture in our national affairs. But as Members, we have to ask ourselves whether we ought to be placed in an inferior position in regard to rights and privileges to those which prevail in another place. What is the position at the moment of a Member who may desire to introduce a Bill of an important character which may properly come under the definition of a War measure? There is only one course for him if he desires to bring the matter before the notice of his fellow Members for their information, and that is to go to the other House and try to prevail upon a friendly Member to introduce the Bill, and in that way to obtain copies and circulate them to Members of this House. I do not think that the House of Commons ought to be in any worse position in regard to this matter than Members of the House of Lords. We have to consider this matter in the light of other proposals which will be brought before the House at a later stage. The Government, I understand, are proposing to take all the time of the House, so that there will be no opportunity at all, except on the Motion for Adjournment, for Members to raise any matter of public interest.

I would suggest to the Prime Minister that he might favourably consider whether Members should not have the right to introduce a Bill, deprived as they would be of the opportunity of discussion here? A Member would simply hand his Bill in at the Table, and would have the privilege of circulating it to the House. That is not a very great demand. There are Bills of vital war interest that private Members wish to introduce. Take the question of the Moratorium. Take the question of the conscription of wealth, which the hon. Member for Sheffield outside this House has placed before the country. The Government cannot say that private Members have not been of some service in regard to legislation since the War began. Last Session the Government themselves officially adopted, in another place, a Bill introduced there by a private Member—the Volunteer Bill—there was also the Grouse Bill—which is, I understand, going to be pressed upon the Government in this House. Why should Members of this House not have the opportunity of putting forward their considered views for the consideration of the Government on any matter of legislation which is closely associated with the War? I can assure the "Prime Minister that there is not the least danger of Members taking advantage of the privilege to introduce Bills of a domestic character. There is no desire whatever, I think, to do that. What is wanted is simply an occasion for a Member, who may desire to put forward his views on matters appertaining to the War, which he has no other possible opportunity of doing, to put them forward. It may be said by the Prime Minister that in these days of appeals to economy that this aspect of the question ought to be considered. If that be a point, then the right hon. Gentleman should prevent private Members of the House of Lords from introducing their Bills, and getting them printed. The right hon. Gentleman cannot say that he does not command the House of Lords: he has got both parties there now. The mere whisper of his desire for the economy suggested would be carried out without delay. The argument of economy will not stand good in this case, because, I think, it would be a fair forecast to say that under the circumstances very few Bills would be introduced. Very few pounds would be required. It looks as if the Prime Minister is going in a few days to execute us altogether—or attempt so to do. I trust I may get a favourable reply to my suggestion. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot accept it now, I hope he will consider the advisability of finding means to provide the machinery I suggest.


I hope the Prime Minister will respond to the appeal just made. The phraseology of the Resolution says "until the House otherwise determines." How, I would ask the Prime Minister, could the House "otherwise determine" that this Resolution shall not stand? Is there any Parliamentary opportunity that arises for the Members of this House to reconsider it at any period of the Session, apart from what the Government, of course, put down? I readily admit that the Government could give a further opportunity for discussing this question, but the House itself has no opportunity for raising this again if we agree to it to-day. Then the Motion goes on to say, "so far as the House does not otherwise determine." What is the use, then, of saying "so far as the House does not otherwise determine" when the House cannot determine otherwise except at the will of the Government? I think, at any rate, that if the Prime Minister does propose to take all our time, he should take it in a perfectly fair and straightforward fashion, and not suggest in the terms of the Resolution that there are opportunities for private Members to rediscuss this. On the point raised by my right hon. Friend I should like to call attention to this matter: That, for instance, the right hon. Member for Swansea (Sir A. Mond) has in another place, and in another fashion, outlined proposals for a Bill dealing with the obligations of men called up to join the Army We do not know how far the Cabinet agree with that measure. We are told—I do not know how far it is true—that the Cabinet have been discussing, or individual members of the Cabinet have been discussing, whether the Bill suggested by the right hon. Member for Swansea should be adopted by the Government. That means, of course, and I know it to be the case, that the right hon. Gentleman has put his proposals down on paper, and that members of the Government, at any rate, have seen these proposals. But Members of the House have not seen them, and I submit very respectfully that it would be to the advantage of the House of Commons to see proposals of this kind. There are other matters continually being delegated to Committees by this House. There is the large question of pensions to soldiers and sailors, which has now been delegated to the Statutory Committee under the Naval and Military Pensions Act. There are some proposals in connection with that. For example, in connection with the training and employment of partially disabled soldiers and sailors, many Members of this House have certain ideas. The Prime Minister will know, as a Scottish Member, that the question of forestry has always been a very acute question, especially more recently, and that in that connection there have been proposals for Scotland, for public bodies, for dealing with disabled soldiers in order to put into operation measures of afforestation. These proposals should be put in black and white, so that members of the Government and of the House may see them and come to a more reasoned and considered conclusion upon them. I think the Prime Minister will see that he will be giving a real concession to Members of this House, which they will value, and which I think he will agree that Members will not abuse, if he allows them to put down Bills dealing with war problems, and war problems only, so that the whole House may see in a tangible shape the ideas which are floating through the minds of Members from time to time during the Session as these measures come on. I hope the Prime Minister will respond to the appeal of my right hon. Friend, and give private Members of this House this small concession.


I wish to add my appeal to those which have already been made that the Prime Minister should reconsider this position. I am sure that he, as a good House of Commons man, must feel the force of the argument that we in this House ought not to be placed in a worse position than members of the other House, and I would like to make this suggestion to him. It may be a practical one; I think it is myself. Suppose we pass this Resolution to-day, will he consider within the next week or two introducing some sessional modification of the Standing Order relative to the introduction of Bills? I would suggest a modification in this way: that no Bill should be introduced unless it could receive on the back at least the names of twenty Members of this House, and that no Bill should be printed unless it could receive on the back, say, the names of forty, or even fifty, Members of this House. Perhaps that is rather a large number, but I think the Prime Minister must realise that it would not be left to mere faddists to introduce Bills, but that only those Members who could obtain for their fads a very considerable amount of, if not general, weighty support could introduce measures. I throw this out for what it is worth, and I hope the practical and sympathetic mind of the Prime Minister will respond to it.


I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether he still adheres to the position he laid down at the commencement of last Session. I understand his reason then for a similar Motion to this was that subjects should not come before the House unless they were connected urgently with the Wax, and an understanding was given then by him, on behalf of the Government, that the Government itself, if private Members gave up their rights, would not introduce Bills except war legislation, and for the period of the War. In some of-the temporary absences of the Leader of the House, that pledge was not observed by some of his colleagues. I will not trouble the House with instances. They are familiar to the House. But I have again and again, on Bills, drawn attention to the Prime Minister's declaration, which, if I may say so with respect, I think was eminently fair—that was, applying the same restraint to the Government to which he was asking private Members to conform, and I think the House willingly adopted that decision. I wish to ask whether there has been any decision on the part of the Government to depart from that understanding, or whether the Government will follow the self-denying ordinance they placed on us? My second point is to ask whether it would not be possible to leave the introduction of new Bills somewhat in the power of the House? We have what is known as the Ten Minutes Rule, which I do not think has been abused in the past, though I speak as one rather biassed against a Bill. I can always see the faults of a Bill rather than its virtues, by constitution, but I think it would be admitted that that privilege has not been abused, and if there were some opportunity for a Member to ask leave of the House to get his Bill printed, it would then be within our power to exercise our rights and privileges, and save the public purse in the interests of retrenchment, unless we thought it an urgent matter. I do not suggest an alteration of this Resolution to that effect, but I throw it out so that it may be considered by the Government. I will not venture to reinforce the arguments of my right hon. Friend (Sir H. Dalziel). I content myself by saying that I attach myself to his observations.


I think the House will agree that there should be nothing in the nature of the usual ballot for the introduction of private Bills, but I think there is a considerable diversity of opinion in the House as to the wisdom of withdrawing entirely from private Members the right of introducing these Bills and having them printed, particularly Bills relating to the problems of the War. I think those who watched the experience of last Session will agree that what occurred then is a conclusive argument for some relaxation on the part of the Government of the Resolution which they are now putting before the House. The right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir H. Dalziel) has referred to what the House of Lords did during last Session. There is complete freedom for private Members of the House of Lords to introduce Bills, and, indeed, in the exercise of that freedom, certain Bills were introduced and passed through the House of Lords, and in regard to two of those measures the Government themselves took the extraordinary course of starring them when the Bills come before the House. In the latter part of the summer of last year, just before we were adjourning for the autumn Recess—when, indeed, we had only a few hours to consider the subject—there was a Bill brought here, which had been introduced in the House of Lords, for the purpose of dealing with the close time for grouse.

It might appear to the ordinary lay mind that this did not seem a problem intimately associated with the more vigorous prosecution of the War. However, it commended itself to His Majesty's Ministers and the Lord Advocate recommended it to the House of Commons. Unfortunately a few of us did not quite see its relevancy to the prosecution of the War, and we were able to prevent it becoming part of the law of the land. The second Bill was far more important and appealed to a large number of Members on both sides; it was what is known as the Volunteer Bill. Unless the Government themselves introduce it here this Session we can only follow the procedure pursued last year and have it introduced in the House of Lords. Surely it would be better to have it introduced here even by a private Member, and the Government might then allow a discussion so as to elicit the views of the House as a whole before they themselves adopted it in this House. That is obviously the preferable course to pursue. There are other questions. We have heard references already to the question of a moratorium to be given to those men who are called up for military service. That question was brought before the Government by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Swansea (Sir A. Mond) last Session. An attempt was made to raise the same question on the Military Service Bill by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Major Guest), but unfortunately it was ruled out of order by the Chairman of Committees. Consequently there was no opportunity whatever of considering the desirability of giving a moratorium to the men called to the Colours, a provision which is made in every country where compulsory service exists. In France and Germany when war breaks out there is provision made for a moratorium to be given to the men brought compulsorily to the Colours. Here we have a partially compulsory system, and yet no opportunity has been given in this House to discuss the question of relieving men who are compulsorily called up from their ordinary civil liabilities. If the Government themselves are not going to undertake this legislation I think it should be within the power of private Members of this House to have their proposals printed, and so have them put before the House and the country. That surely is a small thing to ask. I do not suggest that the Government should give complete freedom to all hon. Members to introduce any Bill on any subject which they please, but I think there should be some relaxation in the direction indicated by my right hon. Friend which would enable private Members to introduce simple Bills connected with the War or in the direction suggested by the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Booth), that they should be able to bring them before the House and ask leave to have them introduced and printed. Either of these proposals would commend itself to the general view of the House, and if the Government gave this concession there would be no risk of any extravagance in printing and you would have absolute security that any hon. Members with fruitful ideas would be entitled to have them registered. I do not know whether that course will commend itself to the Government, but I am quite sure there are many hon. Members besides those who have already spoken who would appreciate such a relaxation as I have indicated.


I desire in only a word or two to support the appeal which has been made to the Prime Minister to introduce some modification into the Motion which he has moved. Under the Standing Orders it becomes necessary to take a ballot to determine the order of private Members' Bills, but I would suggest that perhaps the divergent views expressed this afternoon might be harmonised if the Prime Minister were to confine his Motion to the ballot determining precedence for such Bills. That course would have this advantage. It would leave it to the Government to decide later under what conditions private Members might present their Bills at the Table, but it would not automatically, as the Resolution does in its present form, prevent private Members from having the right to introduce Bills. It appears to me that the advantage to the House and to the nation of allowing the introduction of private Bills in this way would be very great. Many of the Bills introduced by private Members represent in many cases not only the private Member's own views but also the views of a great body of experience outside the House, and they are frequently the subject of long inquiry and investigation by expert bodies outside the House. Consequently when such Bills come here they represent very much more than the opinion of an individual Member of this House. I submit to the Government and to the Prime Minister that it is to the advantage of the Government itself to have presented to them in printed and considered form the deliberate judgment on important questions of great bodies of opinion outside this House. That becomes more important when I remind the House that much of the legislation which is now being passed in connection with the War is legislation which in itself raises new difficulties and new points which have to be met or should be met in subsequent legislation. The Military Service Bill is a good example, because it raises a great number of difficulties which certainly will have to be dealt with by legislation if those hardships are to receive adequate and fair treatment. I submit that it is to the advantage of the Government themselves to see the various proposals that are made for the removal of difficulties and for securing the general efficiency of the nation in this the greatest crisis of our history. I support the appeal which has been made to the Prime Minister.


I should like to give an illustration which I think has some force in regard to the proposed abrogation of the ordinary rule in this matter. The complaint which has been made by my right hon. Friend (Sir H. Dalziel) is that here in the House of Commons we shall be placed in an inferior position to the House of Lords in the discussion of matters which appertain to the War, and which are of real national importance. In the last week or two there has been a case in the Courts which has gone up to the High Court, and it has been decided that, under the Defence of the Realm Act, the Home Secretary can, in effect, imprison any British citizen without the Habeas Corpus Act having any power of rescuing him. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Therefore the right of trial has been abrogated under the Defence of the Realm Act. Whatever the decision may be it is, in a certain respect, abrogating the rights of British citizens, and a matter of such importance as that is certainly a thing which it ought to be easy for the House of Commons to discuss. There is no doubt whatever that the House of Lords will discuss it, and we also should have that right. The House of Lords can do this on any occasion. A Motion can be made there and a Bill introduced, but we have no chance. Under this new rule we shall not even have the chance of introducing a Bill or of putting it down in order to show what is wanted. I do not know what the Government intend to do in the matter. It is, of course, possible, as the House of Commons certainly did not want to deal with the Habeas Corpus Act under the Defence of the Realm Act, that the Government themselves may be ready to amend the Defence of the Realm Act, but, if they are not so ready, then there are certainly large numbers of Members who will want to raise the question, and the passing of this Resolution will make it more difficult for them to do so while the House of Lords will be able to raise it on any occasion. I maintain not that we ought to be able to bring in any small domestic piece of legislation in which we may be interested, but where it is a matter of constitutional liberty or a large question connected with the War, that we ought to be absolutely free, more free than in peace time, to register our opinions.


The House of Commons is entitled to some very cogent and convincing reasons before passing the Resolution you have put from the Chair, and I have no doubt that the Prime Minister will recognise that fact. As a private Member, I am very loath indeed to surrender any of the liberties or privileges which this House has enjoyed from time immemorial. The House of Commons is still an important institution in the country, and I do not want to see it the mere instrument or tool of the Government, as it seems to me it is becoming more and more.


I beg to move to leave out the words "House otherwise determines, and so far as the House does not otherwise determine," and to insert instead thereof the words "thirty-first day of March."

The Resolution is merely a repetition of the Resolution passed at the beginning of last Session, under the operation of which the House has carried on its business for considerably over a year, so that it is no innovation or novelty or anything of that kind. Listening to this discussion, some of my hon. Friends seem to me to be exceedingly wanting in perspective. They do not seem even now to realise the conditions under which we are living. If they did, they would appreciate more clearly than some of them seem to do that the country does not want a mass of private Members' legislation put upon the Table, printed at the public expense, never to be discussed, and there for no useful purpose of any sort or kind. The Government are less disposed than ever to curtail the liberties and privileges of this House, but under pressure of public duty they feel that the legislation of the House ought to be confined, in the conditions under which we live, to matters which are urgently necessary and considered necessary by those responsible for the effective prosecution of the War. Various suggestions have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerset (Mr. King) made one, that we might allow a certain amount of latitude not to individual Members but to syndicates. That was the effect of his proposal. If you can get twenty Members to put their names on the back of a Bill, then it should be printed, and, for the subsequent stages, if you can get twenty more, say forty, to put their names on the back of it then it might be discussed. "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." That is a new form of coalition. That is not really the way in which business ought to be conducted. At the same time, I say to my hon. Friends that I am very anxious, and the Government is very anxious, to provide for any real emergency, not in regard to such a case as that put by my hon. Friend the Member for the Elland Division (Mr. Trevelyan). That is a question of the interpretation of an Act which has already been passed, and, if the administration exceeds the powers given by that Act, the question can always be raised, not by legislation by a private Member, but upon the Motion for the Adjournment or upon a number of other occasions, such as a Vote of Credit, the Consolidated Fund Bill, and so on. I am always anxious in conducting the business of the House to keep open as many loopholes as one can for possible and unforeseen emergencies, and although I think this Resolution goes a great deal further in that direction than some of the Resolutions in the past, because it contains the words until the House otherwise determines, and so far as the House does not otherwise determine, and the House has power to determine whether or not there shall be an exception; although, as I have said, I think that this Resolution goes a great deal further in the way of safeguarding the privileges of private Members than some previous procedure Motions have done, yet in order to make it abundantly clear that the Government have no intention of precluding possible opportunities of private Members, I will amend the Resolution by giving a fixed date. It is quite clear that until the close of the financial year no private Member's legislation or any legislation can possibly be entertained unless it is of an emergency character. So I will modify the Resolution by inserting after the word "the" ["That until the"] the words "thirty-first day of March." Then I should omit the words, "House otherwise determines, and so far as the House does not otherwise determine," so that the Resolution will read: That, until the thirty-first day of March no Public Bills other than Government Bills be introduced and no Ballot be taken for determining the precedence of such Bills. That, I think, will give a full opportunity to raise the question again at a subsequent stage.


I should like, if I may, to thank the right hon. Gentleman.

Question, "That the words 'House otherwise determines, and so far as the House does not otherwise determine,' stand part of the Resolution," put, and negatived.

Words "thirty-first day of March" there inserted.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That, until the thirty-first day of March no Public Bills other than Government Bills be introduced and no Ballot be taken for determining the precedence of such Bills.