HC Deb 20 March 1917 vol 92 cc55-62

Will the Leader of the House state the business he proposes to take to-night in the event of the Resolution on the Paper being passed? And will the right hon. Gentleman also state what business he proposes to take before Easter, and on what day he proposes to take the Easter Adjournment?


I had intended to make a statement on the Resolution which is on the Paper, but, if it is desired that I should make it now, I am ready to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That, until Easter, Government business be not interrupted under the Provisions of any Standing Order regulating the Sittings of the House, and may be entered upon at any hour though opposed."


In submitting this Motion, I may say that the Government have every hope that it will not be necessary to ask the House to sit often, or perhaps at all, after eleven o'clock. To-night we only propose to take the first two Orders on the Paper. I know that it must be a very great inconvenience to the House for the Government not to be able to state exactly the business they mean to put through before Easter, and also the length of the Adjournment. The House will understand that at a time like this it is very difficult to make with precision arrangements in advance. For instance, I intimated last week that we hoped to take to-morrow the Agricultural Bill. That Bill, as the House knows, is an extremely complicated one: it has already been before the Cabinet, but it is so complicated that we have not yet had time to pass it, and it may be that we shall not be able to introduce it for a day or two.


What is it about?


It has everything to do with the production of food. As to the programme of business, I hope to be able to tell the House definitely to-morrow, or on Wednesday, what we propose to take in the way of business, and also the date and length of the Adjournment.


My right hon. Friend, in moving the suspension of the Eleven o'Clock Rule until Easter, has given no reason for doing so. The only reason he gave was that he hoped that it would not be necessary to put the Motion in force, and that to-day only the two first Orders on the Paper are to be taken. I would like to point out to my right hon. Friend that the course he proposes to adopt is an extremely unusual one. So far as I can make out, there has been no such Motion made since 1894, and in 1894 there was a very similar Motion made in the middle of March. In that year, and at that period of it, there was a considerable amount of controversial business going on, and, therefore, I do not think it can be considered a precedent. The only other precedent I have been able to find out was in March, 1889, when the Twelve o'clock Rule, as it was then, was suspended for financial business. May I point out to my right hon. Friend that he has got all his financial business, or, rather, he will have done so to-morrow, when he will take the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill. When he has got that he has obtained all his financial business. It is not necessary to suspend the Eleven o'Clock Rule to consider the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill, which is exempted from it, and therefore the precedent of 1889 was for financial reasons, and in regard to those reasons there is no necessity at the present time. The precedent in 1894 had reference to the very exceptional Budget of that year.

4.0 P.M.

I would point out, further, that the Government are in the very exceptional position of having got the whole time of the House. Hitherto every Government has had to give up Tuesday and Wednesday after eight o'clock, and every Government hitherto has had to introduce controversial business. We were told at the beginning of the War that controversial business which had no relation to the War would not be introduced. I had the pleasure of walking behind my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when he was leading the Opposition on this side of the House, to the Lobby, he was so angry with the then Government for introducing a controversial measure, and putting the Home Rule Bill on the Statute Book. Under those circumstances, as my right hon. Friend still holds that it would be wrong to introduce controversial business under those circumstances, I fail to see what is the reason for introducing a Motion of this sort. I have already shown that the Government are in an exceptional position because they have not to give up Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon; they have not to take controversial business; their financial business is practically all cleared off; the Army (Annual) Bill is not subject to the Eleven o'clock Rule; therefore I can see no object for this Motion, unless there is something behind which we do not know, and that the Government are intending to introduce some controversial legislation, or to force something through the House of Commons which ought not to be done. On Friday a Motion was taken to move Mr. Speaker out of the Chair, which was a very unusual thing to do as Friday is a very inconvenient day. I find that not only did they move Mr. Speaker out of the Chair, but the Vote was actually taken. I never remember a Vote being taken on the same day as Mr. Speaker is got out of the Chair, and especially on a Friday, without any notice being given. I see that on Thursday a Bill was taken through all its stages. I do not object to the Bill—I dare say it was very harmless—but surely it is not right, when, as far as I know, the Government is only there to carry on the War, that all these measures should be pushed through in a way whereby the House of Commons is unable to have that control over the proceedings which it ought to have. I really think if we are to maintain the privileges of the House we ought to insist that the Government does not do these things until they can show a good reason. I hope that the Government will reconsider their determination, or, if not, that the House will take some steps on the Motion.


The right hon. Baronet the Member for the City (Sir F. Banbury) has stated quite truly that this proceeding is almost without precedent. In years when previous Governments were faced with fierce opposition and had to struggle to carry through this House most contentious business they never resorted to the practice of suspending the Eleven o'clock Rule, or Twelve o'clock Rule as it used to be, before the Easter Recess. That was a measure always resorted to at the end of the summer, and not taken usually until the beginning of the early days of August. In all my experience of the House of Commons I have never heard of a Minister proposing a Resolution of this kind without going into a somewhat elaborate justification for the proposal and giving full reasons. It is always a contentious Motion, and, so far as my memory carries me for thirty years or more, the Minister in proposing the Motion in the early days of August made an elaborate justification and explanation of why he wanted the Motion, and explained fully the business he was going to sacrifice. Whenever this Motion was proposed it was accompanied by what was known as the "massacre of the innocents," and the Minister gave a list of the Bills he was going to throw over and the business he was going to ask the House to put through before the end the Session. We are here in a Session when there has been practically no contentious business, and no strenuous opposition of any protracted character. We have here a totally new departure, and the Minister comes to the box and proposes this Resolution without giving one solitary reason, or attempting to give a solitary reason why he asks for it. Not only that, but he deliberately refuses to do what all his predecessors have invariably done, that is to state categorically and clearly the amount of business which he asks the House to get through under this power which he demands. Therefore, I say that this Motion is absolutely without precedent, and it is made at a time when the needs of the Government are less than in normal times.

There was one remarkable statement by the Leader of the House when he was making this Motion, and as to which I would like to ask an explanation. He stated, or, rather, I think it was in reply to a question, that it was the intention of the Government to introduce to-morrow a Bill to prolong the life of this Parliament. Why does he propose to introduce it to morrow? Why is it to be introduced, it may be a contentious Bill, before the Easter Recess? I fully expected that in his speech in proposing this Resolution he would give us some explanation of the sudden decision of the Government, because certainly none of us anticipated that a Bill to prolong the life of Parliament would be introduced to-morrow. Something must have occurred to induce the Government to arrive at that sudden decision. I think the right hon. Gentle- man owed it to the House to explain what were the grounds and the arguments and the reasons which had induced the Government to introduce the Bill before Easter, and thereby to increase the work that will have to be got through. I think it is very unfair to the House for the right hon. Gentleman to tell us that to- morrow or the day after, when no Debate can arise, he will make his statement as to the business which he proposes to ask us to transact before Easter.

I do not for a moment intend now to make any appeal to the Government or to inaugurate any Debate on the question of the Irish settlement, but I am entitled to ask the Government whether there is to be announced to the House something more definite before the Easter Recess on this subject? I certainly expected from the Leader of the House some information on that point. We stand now in a very extraordinary and peculiar position. We listened here in silence on these benches the other night to one of the more remarkable Debates that ever took place in the House of Commons, not inaugurated by us—we had said our say—but inaugurated by English Members. The Leader of the House on that occasion announced, an announcement which I may say was of portentous significance, that the Government had decided on their own responsibility to attempt a settlement of the Irish question. I do not know whether the Leader of the House and other responsible Members in the House know or appreciate the terrible significance of that statement. The moment that statement was made I say every hour that is lost is adding to the difficulty of settlement. It is not for us, it is not our business, to press the Government on this matter, but I feel bound, from a deep sense of responsibility as to what the situation in Ireland is, to warn the Government that if they allow the Easter Recess to pass over without any indication of whether they are in earnest or not in that announcement that difficulties will arise every day, and every hour that passes is beset with fresh difficulties, and that they will have in all probability done what the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House pointed out in his speech and find that, by that announcement, they have made the situation worse than it was before. Once the Government committed itself to this task in its own initiative, I say that it is their bounden duty not to allow the grass to grow under their feet, but to hurry matters as quickly as possible and place their proposals before the people of Ireland and before this House. I must say that it is most extraordinary, when now on this Motion the whole course of business before Easter ought to be surveyed, that the Government have given no sign of whether it is their intention or not, having taken up this question of an Irish settlement, to allow the Easter Recess to come and go without any further sign of what their proposals are. In connection with that matter I want to say this: Last July, in another great and critical hour, proposals were made which brought us, as most people thought, within a very short distance of a settlement of the Irish question, and it was quite possible that a settlement by agreement would have been arrived at had it not been for the delays, the intolerable delays, by which the people of Ireland were exasperated and all their hopes destroyed. I warn the Government if they are going to engage in a policy of delay, after having made that statement in this House, and allow week after week to pass without something being done, they will repeat the fatal and disastrous blunder of July with consequences which may be still more disastrous.


The hon. Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon) has appealed to the Government to make a statement with regard to their new Irish policy. As one who is anxious for the settlement of this matter, I hope the hon. Member will not persevere with that request at this moment. As he has rightly said, every hour lost now is dangerous to the situation. But I think I may take the responsibility of saying that not one hour has been lost, not one minute has been lost, since the Debate on Thursday in regard to the matter with which the House is so much concerned. As a matter of fact the Prime Minister has been devoting every minute of his time to it since the Debate on Thursday, and I believe has given his attention to it up to the early hours of this morning. Therefore, I hope the hon. Member will not persevere for a statement at present. The request for a statement of the business to be passed before the Easter Adjournment is quite another matter. I am perfectly sure my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has no other desire in this matter than to consult the convenience of the House. I must admit I do not think his reasons to-day for asking for the suspension of the Eleven o'Clock Rule were totally convincing, and certainly not convincing as to to-night, because he does not require it. So far as I have observed the progress of business during the last few weeks, I have seen no desire, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree with this, to delay matters unnecessarily in oppositon to the Government. We have also got to remember that but for a mistake on the part of the Government, whereby a Consolidated Fund Bill was required and an extra Vote of Credit, there would have been no difficulty whatever in regard to Government business before Easter. I am sure the Leader of the House has no desire to have a Division on this matter, and as there is an obvious desire to assist the Government in all quarters I suggest to him to hold over this Motion until he, is able to produce overwhelming evidence that such a course is necessary. Personally, I do not think it is necessary. If my right hon. Friend will adopt the policy of the late Government and wait and see on this occasion, I think he will probably find it will not be necessary to make the Motion which he now proposes.


Perhaps it will shorten discussion if, by leave of the House, I saw a few words. My right hon. Friend the Member for the City (Sir F. Banbury) told us that this Motion was put down solely for the convenience of the Government. As a matter of fact, that was not our reason. We thought it would be for the convenience of the House not to be tied to stop precisely at eleven o'clock, and the Motion was proposed, not for the Government, but for the House of Commons and for the conduct of business. It is quite true that it is unusual at this stage, and that the general course, when a Motion of this kind is necessary, is to take it for two or three days. I am not sure at all that the House does not think that, on the whole, it would be a convenience, but I have no desire whatever to have any disagreement, and least of all a Division on a question which is not of vital importance either to the Government or to the conduct of business. Therefore, I rise at once to say that I will withdraw the Motion, and if it becomes necessary later on it will be more convenient, I think, to cover the whole ground than to he doing it day after day. In postponing the Motion I recognise one of the argu- ments of the hon. Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon), and that is that it would be right that the House should have some opportunity of expressing its opinion on the business to be taken when a Resolution of this kind is moved. Obviously they cannot do that when we are asking them to give us a blank cheque without telling them what is the business. For that reason I am not going to press this Motion; but I should like to say, since the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Dillon) has raised it, that it is precisely the Irish question which is one of the things that have made our course uncertain. We do not know whether or not it will be possible to make a statement before Easter. We shall certainly make it if we can, and I may add—and I am sure the House will agree with this—that we have a full sense of our responsibility in this matter, and that there will be no delay that we can avoid. But perhaps the House will agree with me that the disadvantage of delaying last year arose chiefly because the time was lost after the decision was taken. I am not at all certain that there is the same risk of delay before the course proposed to be adopted is laid down, and in any case I would remind the House that at the time I made that statement on behalf of the Government, I asked them not to press us unduly, but to give us a little time to look into the thing, so that when we do take action, we shall take it, at all events, with the knowledge that we are taking the course which seems to us best, after giving it the best deliberation we can. I withdraw.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.