HC Deb 19 November 1917 vol 99 cc971-9

Sub-section (1) of Section one of the Parliament and Registration Act, 1916, shall have effect as if seven years and six months were substituted therein for five years and eight months; and Section one of the Parliament and Local Elections Act, 1917, is hereby repealed.


I beg to move, to leave out the word "six"["six months"], and to insert instead thereof the word "two."

10.0 P.M.

The Clause is drawn in a rather complicated way, but the effect of my Amendment will be to prolong the life of this Parliament until the 31st March instead of until the 31st July. It may and probably will be argued that the reason the Government have put in the date, 31st July, is that by that time the Reform Bill will have become law, and it will have been possible to have completed the new register, and then will be the proper time to have an election. My answer to that is that if my Amendment be accepted, if the life of the present Parliament terminates on the 31st March, there is nothing to prevent a new Bill being brought in to continue its life until the 31st July. The advantage of making this Bill run until only the 31st March is obvious, as by that means the private Member of this House will retain a certain power over the Government, and if during the next three months, which are going to be critical months for this country, the Government conducts affairs well, there is nothing to prevent another Bill being brought in which will continue the life of Parliament until the 31st July, or any other date which may be fixed. I believe I am right in saying that this is the fourth Bill of this sort which has been introduced, and therefore my Amendment is not open to the argument that it is not desirable to be continually introducing Bills of this nature. I have some reason for having some slight suspicion—I will not put it any higher than that —of the conduct of the War by the present Government. It will be remembered that when the present Government took office it was on the under-standing that the whole of its energies were to be devoted to the prosecution of the War to a successful issue. Last June or July I went to the trouble of taking out a list of the Bills which had been introduced since the present Government came into office and as far as my memory serves me of nine or ten Bills introduced there was only one which really had anything to do with the War and that was one which indicated that the soldier who had been wounded and dis-discharged from the Army, or the man who had been rejected on account of ill-health might be re-examined and, if medical opinion had changed, be taken back into the Army. That is the only Bill which had anything to do with the War. There were large numbers of other Bills. They may have been good or they may have been bad Bills, but I venture to say they were all controversial Bills. They were all a distinct breach of the promise which was given by the late Prime Minister when nearly every. Member, certainly all prominent members, of this Government were in the late Government that no controversial measure should be introduced. After all, during the last two or three months I do not know what we have been doing except bringing in all kinds of socialistic measures which interfere with the trade and business of the country, which have nothing to do with the War, or which so far as they have anything to do with the War have had evil effects. We have had Bills for regulating this and regulating that, and the only result has been that while price may in one or two cases has gone down a little, the article has disappeared altogether in most instances. In these circumstances, I think I have shown sufficient justification for an Amendment which will to a certain extent preserve the power of the House of Commons over the Government. I am glad to see that only on Friday the Government accepted an Amendment which they refused to accept when I moved it on Thursday that there should be only one Under-Secretary to the new Air Force instead of two, and by the result the members of the Government at the present time number only ninety-one. I think that in view of the tendency, among other things, to give every Member in the House office of some sort it would be better if those few of us who retain our independence might have that independence strengthened by the fact that the Government would have to come to us within another three months to enable them to continue the life of this Parliament. Of course, I know in the very few words which I shall address to the Committee in moving my Amendment, that probably the argument I am about to bring forward will be met by the fact that we are at war. All arguments which are distasteful and not easily answered are met by that statement, but this Parliament was especially summoned to sit for only five years.


Seven years.


It was summoned for seven years, but the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gulland) himself was instrumental in passing an Act which prevented it sitting for more than five years, and on the ground—I remember perfectly well the arguments that were used—that in the last two years a Parliament got effete, out of touch with the electorate, and was not capable of carrying out the ordinary functions that a Parliament carries out. This Parliament will have sat for seven instead of five years on the 31st of next January, and it is only a simple rule of three to arrive at the conclusion that if a Parliament summoned for five years is inefficient at the end of three, how much more inefficient is a Parliament that has sat for seven years! If it is not fit to carry out the ordinary duties that a Parliament carries out in peace time, how is it fit to perform the very much more onerous duties which devolve upon a Parliament in war-time? The hour is rather late, and there are not many Members in the House, but I hope that those who are present will do me the kindness to listen to the argument which I have put before them upon this point, because I think it is a very important point. I do not myself attach any very great importance to the actual number of months for which Parliament is to be prolonged. I put down the 31st of March because I thought that was not a bad time at which to terminate Parliament, if it should be terminated, as there would be time to make all the necessary arrangements before the new financial year came into operation. If it is thought that another month might be added, I myself should have no objection, but I think the period of eight months is too long. Unless I am very much mistaken, the last period was seven months, and the period before that was also seven months. I remember perpectly well the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Dublin (Sir E. Carson), who now occupies a prominent position in the Government, standing at this Table and moving a somewhat similar Amendment to mine. So far as I remember, the Government accepted not his Amendment, but a compromise, so it is possible that something of that sort may be done to-day. I think the matter is really rather more important than it looks, and I hope the Committee will give it careful consideration.


My right hon. Friend who has just sat down fell into one little error, in which he was corrected very soon, namely, that this Parliament had only been elected for a period of five years. We all know that it was elected for a period of seven years. This is the fourth Bill that has been brought before this House for the extension of the life of the present Parliament. My right hon. Friend used to be extremely fond of precedents. No one was a greater student of precedents in this House, and no one insisted more on precedents being followed. Yet we have three precedents on which we might found this Bill. The first is the Bill of 1915, which extended the life of this Parliament for eight months; the next is the Bill of 1916, which extended the life of this Parliament for seven more months; the next is the Bill of 1917, which extended the life of this Parliament for seven more months; and now this Bill has been brought in which, following the first precedent established by the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Fife (Mr. Asquith) was the Leader, asks that this Parliament should extend its life for eight more months. Whereupon my right hon. Friend comes down on the Committee stage and asks the House not to commit itself to an extension of Parliament for eight more months, but to be satisfied with extending it to the 31st of March instead of to the 31st of July, the date put in the Bill. He uses these arguments: He says that the private Members ought to get control over the Government, and that if the House extends the life of this Parliament until the 31st of July the private Members will lose control of the Government until the end of that period. He draws from that the inference that it might be the desire of the House to have a Dissolution or a change of Government before the 31st of July, and that it would be prevented from having that change of Government or that Dissolution because it had given the Government the power to extend the life of this Parliament until the 31st of July. I think that inference is really erroneous. Supposing that we pass this Bill—as undoubtedly we shall do—and the life of Parliament can be extended without another Bill until the 31st of July. That does not in the least prevent any Government dissolving any Parliament next week, if they wish it; nor does it prevent this House of Commons using all its ordinary means of pressure on the Government to bring about a Dissolution. I am satisfied that if this Government should have lost the confidence of the country and of the House by March next, there are means and ways known to the House of Commons by which to bring such pressure on the Government that it could not continue to conduct its business; and that this House of Commons, like every other, will have the means of forcing a Dissolution. I do not think my right hon. Friend at all strengthens the hold of private Members upon the Government by merely shortening the period of the extension of the life of Parliament. The real gravamen of that offence which the Government have committed in the eyes of the right hon. Gentleman is in passing legislation which he describes as controversial. He tells us that some of the Bills which have been passed have no reference to the War, and could not possibly be described as connected with the War. Surely the Bill setting up the Pensions Ministry, so highly adorned by my right hon. Friend near me, is connected with the War. I was instrumental in passing through this House a measure dealing with the rents of the poor, and making it impossible to raise those rents to a greater figure than before the outbreak of war, and although my right hon. Friend objected to it, surely he could not say that that had nothing to do with the War? Finally, I come to the Bill we have been discussing for twenty nights, and which we shall be discussing every night this week, the Representation of the People Bill. I know my right hon. Friend is a stout opponent of that Bill, but surely he will not assert that that measure has, nothing to do with the War?


Certainly it has nothing to do with the War.


How can the right hon. Gentleman say that when it is a measure putting on the register some millions of soldiers who otherwise would not have votes?


That will not help the War. We cannot win the War with votes.


But for measures like those I have mentioned you would have this country in such a state of ferment and unrest that you would not be able to win the War because you could not win if the people were discontented. I hope the Committee will have no sympathy with this Amendment, but follow the precedents set in 1915, 1916, and 1917, when the life of Parliament was extended. By 1918 we hope it may be possible to obtain a register as the result of a Bill which I hope we shall pass by which we shall put millions of new electors, and then, for the first time, we shall have an opportunity of going to the country and getting the express will of the people.


Does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that it will be possible, without any further extension than that which is contemplated in this Bill, to hold an election under the new register which it is proposed to enact by Parliament? If he believes that I am satisfied, although I do not like to extend the life of Parliament in this way. I should like to get at the end of this business, and I hope the date which the right hon. Gentleman fixes will be one which will enable this measure to be final, and that then we shall be able to have a General Election.


That is a very fair and practical question to be asked, and one that I am most willing to answer. If we can pass the Representation of the People Bill so that it actually becomes law this Session, then, although the staffs of our local authorities are terribly depleted and although we are face to face with all kinds of difficulties in the way of paper, printing and matter of that kind, I believe, after taking the advice of those best able to advise me, people who are experts in the matter, that we may succeed—I express a very strong hope, only that—in getting the register ready so that at the end of the period, 31st July, 1918, it may be possible to appeal to the new electorate. I do not make any very definite statement to the House, because we all know the difficulties with regard to paper and printing may be very much increased during the next year, but, given only such difficulties as we have at present we do think that we shall be able to produce a register for an election at any time after 31st July.


When the right hon. Gentleman says "this Session," does he mean before Christmas?


I will not say actually before Christmas Day, but I will say by the end of the month of December.


I quite recognise that at this stage it is impossible, with any hope of success, to oppose the passage of this Bill, but I speak as one who has never departed from the view that the first extension of the life of this Parliament was a profound mistake, and as one who has viewed with very grave misgiving the repeated introduction of legislation for still further extensions. I am not very much impressed by the right hon. Gentleman's argument on the ground of precedent, because I recall that only the other day the Leader of the House practically threw over the whole authority founded upon precedent, and informed the House that in his view precedent stood for nothing nowadays. It is customary for the Government, in defending these Bill, to suggest, as the Leader of the House did the other day, that it would be unfair to make an appeal to the electors when so large a proportion of the electorate is absent from the country. That argument does not appear to me to be a conclusive one. The Government are increasingly introducing legislation which affects not the electors who are absent from the country but the electors who are at present resident in the country. The Government are undoubtedly using the sympathy of the House and the desire of the House for the successful prosecution of the War to introduce every week fresh proposals and fresh measures that cannot be justified on the ground of being war emergency measures, but which do most vitally handicap and hinder the energies and activities of traders and other classes of this community. I believe—I give it only as a personal opinion—that if the Government were forced to go to the country at the present moment they would find themselves much more severely put to it to defend many other interferences with the processes and energies of trade and industries than they imagine at the present moment. It is perfectly absurd for any Member of the Government to suggest that the House has still the power to turn the Government out, if the House is of that opinion. Everybody knows—no matter what the issue is that may be raised, that it is only necessary for the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House, or for some other Member of the Cabinet to come down and beat the big drum to rally to themselves a sufficient majority in the lobby. The Government are in danger of using a universal desire of the House to see the War successfully prosecuted, and I associate myself with the wish expressed by my hon. Friend (Mr. Holt) that we are now at the last of all possible attempts still further to lengthen the life of this Parliament.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 (Further Postponement of Local Elections) and 3 (Short Title) ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."


Before the House agrees to the passing of this Bill I wish to add a word to what has been said in Committee about the altogether exceptional character of the measure, and to make an appeal to the Government that in another place they will insert some words in the Preamble to show that the Bill differs from all previous Bills in being an extension of the life of Parliament beyond the period for which it was elected, which can only be justified by the necessity of the War. We all recognise that there was a difference in the previous Bills, under which Parliament took back the power which the electors had given them. We were elected for seven years, and we voluntarily limited our life to five years, therefore we had some constitutional ground for saying that we had a right to lengthen the life of Parliament to the period for which we were originally chosen. We must, how ever, all feel that no Parliament has a moral right to lengthen its own life beyond the period for which the electors originally chose their members, except under peculiar conditions, such as prevail at present. One can see that, practically, the Government have no other course open to them at the moment than to prolong the life of Parliament, although it might, at an earlier period, have solved the difficulty by an election, but this Parliament ought not to consent to the passing of a Bill of this nature unless in the text of the Bill there be inserted words to show that it is only done under the stress of national necessity, and that it is in no way a precedent for the future.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.