HC Deb 27 March 1917 vol 92 cc223-5

Perhaps, with your kindness, Sir, you will allow me to draw attention to what I conceive to be a very gross perversion of the spirit of the Rules of this House, although it may conform to the letter. If you look at the Notice Paper to-day, you will see notice of the presentation of three Bills by Ministers. The effect of the presentation of a Bill is this, that the Bill comes before the House without its contents being in the slightest degree known, and that it has the sanction of a First Reading. The third Bill to which I wish to call attention is that for the extension of the life of the present Parliament. Anything more important, or more vital to constitutional interests at the present time than such a Bill as that, it is difficult to imagine. It is one which should be taken in accordance with the spirit of the Parliamentary Rule, with adequate discussion and adequate notice. This, I take it, is the third occasion on which Parliament has passed a Bill to prolong its life. The first occasion on which a Bill was proposed was on the 9th September, 1915. On that occasion it was at least proposed under the Ten Minutes' Rule, and the Home Secretary of that day, who, unlike the Home Secretary of the present day, was a Cabinet Minister, proposed it. The second occasion was on the 14th August of last year, and it was then proposed by the Prime Minister himself. Now we have got this third occasion on which the Bill is proposed for First Reading without discussion. I take the liberty of directing attention to the circumstances under which this Rule was passed by the House of Commons on the 17th February, 1902. It was passed under the most solemn pledge that it would never be used for anything even of secondary importance, and Mr. Grant Lawson, who proposed it on behalf of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, then the First Lord of the Treasury, said it was not proposed to take away the stage of the First Reading of any Bill of any importance. Is this Bill of no importance, a Bill for prolonging the life of Parliament? Mr. Bryce (now Viscount Bryce) and Sir William Harcourt and my hon. Friend beside me (Mr. Dillon) were very restive about this Bill. Mr. Bryce asked whether it was possible that a first-class Bill could be introduced under the Rule, and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs got up and made this solemn promise. He said: It is evident that important Bills ought to be introduced with all the oil paraphernalia: that others ought to be introduced under the Ten Minutes' Rule, and that much smaller and less important BILLS Ought to come under this Rule. Is this, the third Bill which is to be presented to prolong the life of this Parliament, a smaller and loss important Bill? This undertaking Mr. Bryce (as he then was) accepted. This is an important matter to which I call public attention, and I scarcely think in the circumstances that this Bill, though it may come within the Rule itself, is put down in conformity with the spirit of the Rule. You have, Sir, great experience of the procedure of this House, and I would ask you as the guardian of the rights and privileges of the House and the protector of its procedure, to give an opinion against what I call a series of outrages upon it. I ask your ruling, Sir, and I ask your opinion as to whether it is right that such a Bill on such an occasion should be introduced into this House in such a way?


Will you allow me, Sir, to say a word on this subject, because on the occasion of this new Rule in 1912 the moment the Rule was passed I was the first man in the House to take exception to it, and I did so on the ground that if once introduced into the procedure of this House, Ministers would, after some time, and having become accustomed to the new procedure, introduce important Bills under this Rule. Whereupon the Prime Minister, I think it was the Prime Minister himself—at any rate he was responsible for the conduct of Parliament—gave me the most absolute assurance that no such thing would ever be done, and he ridiculed the idea that any Minister would ever introduce a Bill of such importance as this one under the Rule. But these proceedings show what we have come to. Surely no Minister will get up on that bench now and say that a Bill for the third time prolonging the life of this Parliament is not a first-class and most important Bill! I say it is a very serious example, a very bad example, in the conduct of the business of this House, after a solemn undertaking given on the part of Ministers, or on the part of Leaders of the House, on the faith of which the new Rules were introduced, and which has been broken in this way.


I have nothing to do with the circumstances under which the Rule was passed. The Rule is quite distinct— A Member may if he thinks it, introduce a Bill without an Order of the House for the first introduction. I have no power to stop the introduction, even if I wished to do so. I am bound to carry out the Rules of the House, and I would remind hon. Members that under this very Rule the Home Rule Bill, the Welsh Disestablishment Bill, and the Plural Voting Bill were all introduced on one day.

NAVAL DISCIPLINE (DELEGATION OF POWERS) BILL,—"to amend the Naval Discipline (Delegation of Powers) Act, 1916, with respect to the officers to whom powers under that Act may be delegated," presented by Dr. MACNAMARA; supported by Sir Edward Carson, Mr. Pretyman, and the Solicitor-General; to be read a second time To-morrow, and to be printed. Bill 21.]

ARMY (ANNUAL) ACT (1916) AMENDMENT BILL,—"to amend the Schedule to the Army (Annual) Act, 1916,"presented by Mr. FORSTER; supported by Mr. Macpherson; to be read a second time Tomorrow, and to be printed. [Bill 22.]

PARLIAMENT AND LOCAL ELECTIONS BILL,—"to amend and extend the Parliament and Local Elections Act, 1916,"presented by Sir GEORGE CAVE; supported by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mr. Hayes Fisher; to be read a second time To-morrow, and to be printed. [Bill 23.]