HC Deb 11 July 1916 vol 84 cc293-300

Considered in Committee.

[Mr. WHITLEY in the Chair.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money to be provided by Parliament of all compensation and purchase money payable by a Government Department under any Act of the present Session to make provision with respect to the possession and acquisition of land occupied or used for the Defence of the Realm in connection with the present War, and of all other Expenses incurred by any Government Department thereunder."


I beg to move, after the word "money" ["compensation and purchase money"], to insert the words "not exceeding in the whole ten million pounds."

I object, again on principle, to these unlimited grants of public money which the Government is asking us to give. It is not in the traditions of Parliamentary practice, and it is not in the interests of good finance or financial control. Last week we had a case of giving unlimited money for the purpose of unemployment insurance, and a certain case was made there, inasmuch as the money was limited by the number of men who might be coming upon the funds, and it was also, in the nature of an obligation under the National Insurance Act to pay unemployment insurance in certain cases which might arise, and therefore the money, being in the nature of carrying out a definite personal obligation to workers, might be said to be limited in that way, and therefore, if possible, of being exactly stated beforehand. We have come now to a totally different case. A Bill has been brought forward for the acquisition of land, after the War, which is now used for camps and factories by any Government Department. It extends even to docks and public places. Ten million pounds is a large sum, but I am generally in favour of this Bill, and I wish to signalise my support of its principle of State Socialism and State acquisition of land which it involves by giving them an adequate amount. I therefore propose £10,000,000 as a beginning. I think, probably, if they carry the Bill through, it will cost a very great deal more, but we ought to go slowly in these matters and £10,000,000 is quite enough for a start. I do not know whether I shall have the approval of the Committee, but I believe I shall, and in the confident hope that the Committee will accept my Amendment, I beg to move it.


My objection to the form of the Resolution is, I am afraid, different from that of the Mover of the Amendment. The position is this: The Government has introduced a Bill which the Mover of the Amendment has referred to as a Socialistic measure. It is a Bill which has been referred to personally by many Members of the House as a distinct breach of the party truce. But the right hon. Gentleman in charge of it agreed, I think, on the Second Reading to alter every single Clause in it. At any rate he gave up a large amount of the principle of the Bill. Not a single Government Amendment has yet appeared on the Paper, and we have been told that the Bill is likely to be taken on Thursday. We are asked to vote an unlimited sum of money in respect of a Bill as to which the Solicitor—General certainly made very large promises of drastic amendment. I have been asked not to divide the House, and I have consented, I am afraid, on grounds connected with gastronomic considerations, but I strongly protest against this method of treating the House. An extraordinarily important Bill is brought forward and is partly abandoned, and we are then asked, instead of getting the Amendments put down so that we may know what the real Government intention is, to give an un-limited blank cheque to the Government to spend it upon a Bill about which we really know nothing at present. I have frequently protested against this blank cheque being given under any circumstances to any Government. I feel that if we give a blank cheque here for a Bill which we really know nothing about, it is not treating the House fairly. I hope if this is given to the Government to-night we shall get an assurance that we shall have these Government Amendments before us, not for twenty-four hours, but for at least time to be able to communicate with our constituents and get an answer by return of post, and that we shall not get the Amendments on the Paper, possibly to-morrow morning, and take the Bill on Thursday. The right hon. Gentleman himself has protested against that sort of thing when he sat on these benches, and I hope sincerely that on an important Bill of this kind, which I characterised strongly on the Second Reading—as probably others will on the Committee stage—before this is given to the Government we shall get a definite assurance that the Bill will not be taken this week, and that we shall have the Government Amendments on the Paper to-morrow morning.


I am not bound by the arrangement which my hon. and learned Friend has entered into. I do not know whether it is worth while challenging a Division, but supposing we allow this Resolution to go through, I think we ought to have an assurance that the Bill will not be taken on Thursday. There are several reasons why it should not be taken. One is that the Government Amendments are not on the Paper. There are ten pages of Amendments which we have to go through, and we must really read the Government Amendments and consider the action we are going to take upon them. If they appear on the Paper to-morrow and the Bill is taken on Thursday, we have not time to do that. The Government Amendments should appear on the Paper, and we ought not to take the Bill before next Tuesday. The Bill ought to be first Order, and we ought to be told when it is going to be taken so that we may have time to consider our action and get up the points and not have it rushed upon us in the way it is being rushed. With regard to the special Amendments before the Committee, I really do not see any reason why £10,000,000 should not be inserted and why there should not be a limited sum, because what it means is that if the Government spend that £10,000,000 they can come to Parliament again and get power to spend a further sum. We are supposed to be the controllers of the purse. I do not often agree with the hon. Member (Mr. King), but I really think there ought to be some limit in the Resolution; but if we can get a satisfactory undertaking that the Bill will not be taken on Thursday, and that we shall be given three or four days' notice before it is taken, and that it shall be the first Order, we might let this stage go, and the hon. Member might move a limiting Amendment on the Report stage.


The Solicitor-General will remember that it was originally announced that the Committee stage of the Bill was to be taken to-day. That was thought by a section of the House to be unduly rushing it, and now we are told—and it seems to me with equal haste—that it is to be taken on Thursday, and possibly it will be the second Order of the Day. That will hardly be fair in view of the importance of this question, because it is almost certain to take a whole day's Debate. As my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Rawlinson) pointed out, no Government Amendments are before us. I assure the Solicitor-General that this Bill is looked at with great alarm outside, and we are asked to put down all sorts of Amendments. We do not know what the altered conditions of the Bill would be. We do not know what the Bill is likely to be. Therefore, it is no use sitting in the Lobby framing Amendments to an unknown quantity. We ought to be favoured with the revised Bill, and then set our wits to work, assisted by our numerous friends outside. I can assure the Solicitor-General that our friends outside are numerous. I do join in the appeal that the Bill should be postponed so that we can have a fair opportunity of considering the Government Amendments. The right hon. Member for the City (Sir F. Banbury) says that we are the custodians of the public purse. If he is referring to the few of us that remain here, I may say that I am almost shocked at the suggestion that £10,000,000 should be put down as the expenditure. I could not vote for such an Amendment.


I will reduce the sum from £10,000,000 to £2,000,000, if it will please the Committee.


I must, in the first place, express my entire dissent from the description which the hon. Member for North Somerset (Mr. King) gave of the Bill. It is in no sense a Bill to favour the State acquisition of land in the sense in which my hon. Friend understands and favours that process. It is in my view a Defence Bill, intended to deal with land acquired for defence purposes and to promote the future defence of the realm. It is, I am afraid, impossible for anyone to give an estimate of the amount of money which may be required. I think the sum named is perfectly absurd, and I should be very sorry to see such a sum inserted in the Resolution. In regard to the point of time for the consideration of the Government Amendments, I may say that I have, as I promised, gone exceedingly carefully into the Bill with the assistance of my colleagues who are responsible with me for the measure, and I have framed Amendments, not many, and quite easy to master within a very short time, which I think will give entire effect to the promises I gave in the Debate on the Second Reading, and will, I feel sure, alter the view which has been expressed by my right hon. Friend (Sir F. Banbury) and others as to the effect of the Bill. I am putting the Amendments down to-night, and they will appear on the Paper to-morrow morning, with the exception of an Amendment which I may be able to put down to-morrow, and which will be entirely in the direction desired. With that exception I propose to put the Amendments down to-night with the object that they may be considered to-morrow by hon. Members who are interested in the Bill and by those associations who are also deeply interested in the Bill, and from whom I have received Amendments, very carefully and very reasonably framed. I have been able to consider the Amendments sent to me, and in many cases I have seen the representatives of the associations who have sent them in. Although I do not say I shall be able to concede them all, I shall be able to deal with all the Amendments proposed and with the suggestions made to me in a reasonable manner, and I am satisfied that if that is done the House will be quite willing to consider the Bill in a reasonable way and to accept any proposals that com-mend themselves to the Committee. In regard to the day on which the Bill should be taken, of course that is not for me to decide, but I think I am entitled to say that when these Amendments of mine, which may be considered in half an hour, have been looked into, I do not think there will be the least objection to the Bill being taken at an early date. I shall be ready on Thursday, and I believe everyone interested in the matter will be ready too. I hope the House will not unduly delay the Bill. I should like to get it through as soon as possible.


To be quite frank, I think the statement of the Solicitor-General is most unsatisfactory. Supposing we get these Amendments, which he admits himself are going to carry out the very wide alterations indicated, we shall only get them on the Paper to-morrow morning, and it is impossible to send them to the country in order to get a reply back for Thursday, because they will not get them until Thursday. The Amendments will not appear in the news-papers to-morrow morning. Therefore the associations which are interested will only get them on Thursday morning, and the Bill is likely to come on on Thursday, I admit that the associations in London may possibly get them some time to-morrow. I consider that it is a very inadequate time to consider Government Amendments of this magnitude between Wednesday morning and the following day. It means rereading the Bill. To the Solicitor-General that may be easy enough, but for a person not accustomed to reading Acts of Parliament it is not easy to read into it Sections which look quite innocuous and simple, but which do not reveal their full force until you have read them carefully. It is difficult enough for lawyers, but it is exceedingly difficult for a layman to read and understand the meaning of these Amendments when inserted into the Act of Parliament, in the course of half an hour. Any layman who can do that in that time ought to take up some other occupation than that in which he is engaged. I think we are entitled to an assurance that if we have the Government Amendments to-morrow the Committee stage of the Bill should not be taken until we have had time to consider the Amendments.

Mr. GULLAND (Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury)

This question is part of the same subject that was raised at Question Time to-day when the right hon. Gentleman questioned the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister then said that he would consider the matter and give an answer to-morrow. I hope that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen will allow that promise to stand. The Prime Minister will give an answer at Question Time to-morrow. It is rather difficult on the spur of the moment to alter the business of the week. I hope hon. Members will allow this Resolution to be taken to-night, because, as they know, we cannot have the Committee stage of the Bill until this Resolution has been passed. I will represent to the Prime Minister very strongly what has passed to-night.


It is quite within our power to stop the Resolution, in which ease you cannot take the Committee stage on Thursday. If we can have an assurance that this matter will be put before the Prime Minister, and that it will be represented to him what our feelings are, I think we might perhaps allow the matter to go forward.


I think there is no desire on the part of any hon. Member to obstruct the Bill. If the measure could be taken next week I feel sure that the delay would promote an early passage of the Bill, because we should have time to really grasp the meaning of the Amendments. Otherwise, we shall wish to speak about them because we cannot quite understand what they mean at the time. I know that arrangements are being made to try to consider these Amendments, not for the purpose of giving trouble but to try to help on what we believe is the purpose for which the Bill has been introduced.


May I ask the Solicitor-General why he considers the sum which I proposed to put in the Resolution absurd? He does not say whether it is absurdly small compared with what it should be or absurdly great, and far more than should be demanded. He described the Bill as having for its first object to acquire defensive positions for the Crown.


I did not say that.


For national defence. That is quite different from the object of the Bill as defined on the memorandum which is to save the State from loss.

Amendment negatived.

Main Question put, and agreed to;. Resolution to be reported to-morrow (Wednesday).

The remaining Orders were read and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 22nd February, proposed the Question,. "That this House do now adjourn."

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven minutes after Eight o'clock.