HC Deb 12 July 1916 vol 84 cc358-61
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I beg to move, "That leave be given to introduce a Bill to make temporary provision rendering unnecessary the reelection of Members of the House of Commons on acceptance of certain offices."

4.0 P.M.

The Bill which I am asking leave to introduce is rendered necessary in consequence of an Amendment to the Re-Election of Ministers Bill of 1915, which was accepted by the House in the course of the passage of that Bill through Committee. The Bill, as some hon. Members will recollect, as introduced, exempted from the necessity of re-election Ministers who accepted office between the 1st May, 1915, and the date of the Dissolution of Parliament next after the termination of the War; in other words, during the whole of the lifetime of this Parliament. The Amendment which was inserted confined the operation of the Bill to the months of May and June, 1915, and in that form it became an Act with consequences which I am sure were unforeseen, and, I am still more sure, were undesirable. In the first place, as the Bill for creating the Ministry of Munitions was introduced on the same day as the Reelection of Ministers Bill, the Munitions Bill, relying upon the provisions of the other Bill, did not provide, as was customarily done on the creation of a new office, for the inclusion of the office of Minister of Munitions among those which are mentioned in Schedule H of the Representation of the People Act of 1867, that is to say, the offices the transfer of a Minister from one to another of which does not necessitate re-election. If the Ministry of Munitions Bill had been in the ordinary form it would have automatically provided for that, but as on the same day the other Bill was introduced, it was expected that it would have had the same effect, and the Munitions Bill omitted that common form. Then came the Amendment which was accepted to the Re-election of Ministers Bill, with the result that a person who was appointed to the office of Minister of Munitions had to be re-elected, and a person who had been appointed to that office, and was transferred to another office, was also subject to reelection. That affects two of my right hon. Friends-the present Secretary of State for War (Mr. Lloyd George) and the new Minister for Munitions (Mr. Montagu). The Secretary for War when he accepted office as Minister of Munitions was exempted from reelection by the operation of the Act which applies to the months of May and June, because he accepted office in the month of May. But that particular protection no longer extended after that, and it does not extend to his successor, nor does it extend to the late Minister of Munitions in his transference to the office of Secretary for War, because the Minister of Munitions was not provided for, and included in Schedule H of the Act of 1867. That is highly technical, and is the effect of these Acts. We think, and I think the House will agree, it is eminently undesirable at a time like this, in a critical state of the War, that the holders of these two offices, one that of Secretary for War, and the other that of Minister of Munitions, should be obliged to go back to their constituencies and to remain out of this House for a considerable time, and possibly go through the ordeal of a contested election. I think that is a purely technical fault that ought to be cured. Certainly if Parliament had foreseen the creation of this new office, it would have provided against these Ministers going through the ordeal of a new election.

There is a second point which is also technical, indeed, still more technical, the exemption from re-election of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General (Sir F. E. Smith). The reason why I am the spokesman of the Government in introducing this Bill is because my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, whose duty it should be, is affected by it, and is unable to be here today. These are the reasons, the technical reasons, as the House will see, why he is not exempted from reelection. In respect to the offices mentioned in Schedule H of the Act of 1867, that applies only to a Minister being reelected as a Member of Parliament on the acceptance of one of those offices. It does not apply to a Member who was first appointed to an office mentioned in Schedule H in May or June, 1915. This is a very obscure point. My right hon. and learned Friend was appointed Solicitor-General in the month of May, 1915. By virtue of the Act then passed it was not necessary that he should seek reelection, but when to the great detriment of the Government, and I think to the public disadvantage, my right hon. Friend (Sir Edward Carson) thought it necessary to resign the office of Attorney-General in the month of October and the Solicitor-General took his place, he under normal conditions was under no obligation to vacate his seat because transference from the office of Solicitor-General to the office of Attorney-General is sanctioned by the Act of 1867 without the necessity for re-election. But having taken the benefit of the Act which enabled him to become Solicitor-General without reelection, he was not technically a person who had been elected. The result must be, and has been, to prevent him from sitting in this House, and he has been doing so without qualification for some time. It is no reflection upon my right hon. and learned Friend, as I do not think he was consulted in any way, nor do I think it is any reflection upon anyone else. This matter escaped the attention of lawyers, draftsmen, and politicians in the House, and I hope the House, which always shows itself in such matters reasonable and generous, will be prepared to grant the necessary relief. The effect of the Bill I am asking leave to introduce will be to deal with both of these cases, and to give effect to what was undoubtedly the intention of the House, and, incidentally, it will relieve the right hon. Gentleman from certain consequences which otherwise would have fallen upon him. I trust that after this explanation the House will give leave to introduce the Bill. I do not ask them to-day, without seeing it, to pass it, but on to-morrow, after Members have had an opportunity of studying the Bill, which is a very short one, though highly technical, I hope they will be disposed to pass it through all its stages, thus preventing the necessity for the re-election of these two Ministers.


I have not the slightest intention of offering any opposition to the Bill in question. I think the real history of the difficulty arises from the fact that the Bill which was brought in in June, and which saved myself and other Ministers from having to go to their constituencies, was amended in Committee. It was meant to be general throughout the War. I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that it would be well now, in bringing in this Bill, not merely to make it applicable to these two Ministers, but to go further, and to not having us going through this farce at a time when it is really far more important that both the House and the Ministers should be attending to their duties in relation to the War than going through these mere formal matters. As regards the position of my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General, it is a painful one because he ought to have known the law, and I attribute the error entirely to the fact that, to my regret, I had myself to leave the Government. However, it is not a unique experience on his part. I myself was once solemnly offered by the Lord Chancellor, when I was a law officer, a judicial appointment for which I was not qualified, and for which I did not know I was not qualified.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by the Prime Minister and the Solicitor-General; presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time To-morrow, and to be printed. [Bill 66.]