HC Deb 13 February 1918 vol 103 cc101-7
The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law)

I beg to move "That, until the House otherwise determines, and so far as the House does not otherwise determine, no Public Bills other than Government Bills be introduced and no ballot be taken for determining the precedence of such Bills."


I do not want to take any exception to this Resolution, because I realise that the ordinary procedure cannot go on during the War, but there is a matter in this connection to which I should like to draw attention and ask fox an assurance. As the matter stands, no Bill whatever can be introduced into this House except by the Government. I will take an example which occurred last Session, when a Bill was passed through all its stages in another place, to open the profession of solicitors to women, and it was impossible for any private Member to introduce that Bill in this House. It might very well be that the Government themselves would not wish to be responsible for introducing a Bill of that kind to the House, but surely some arrangement might be made by which a measure which has passed through all its stages in another place, which can be shown to have the support of a considerable number of Members in all quarters of the House, and which is not in any sense partisan, should have an opportunity of passing into law. It seems to me that it might be quite possible within the terms of this Resolution for the Government to allow such a measure, assuming that it has the support of a large number of Members in all quarters of the House, to be introduced by a private Member on some occasion when the Government docs not require the whole of the time of the House or by the suspension of the Eleven o'Clock Rule, leaving it to the private Member to maintain a quorum. I should be glad if the right hon. Gentleman would give us some assurance that this suggestion will be favourably received.


On a former occasion I asked the late Government to consider whether the time had not come when there might be some relaxation of this very severe Rule regarding the practice of the House. I would like to make that appeal again to the right hon. Gentleman in charge of our proceedings, and to ask whether he has considered each Clause in the very long and drastic Resolution on the Paper, and also whether he thinks every Clause just as necessary to-day as it was in the first and second year of the War. There is one new circumstance I would like to call attention with regard to some relaxation of the Rule. The new circumstance is that the Government are passing a great deal more important business on general and national affairs than in the first and second years of the War. The theory of our proceedings when this Rule was adopted, was that no business should be done by Parliament except that which was absolutely necessary and connected with the War.

That theory has been altogether abandoned, and it has been discovered that war time may be a good time for passing legislation of the first importance on matters of great and general public interest. That has a most important bearing upon this Rule. These largo public matters cannot be so well considered when the hands of private Members are tied, when no alternative private Member's Bill can be brought forward, and when the mouth of the House is practically closed. My right hon. Friend says that he has not noticed that the mouth of the House is closed, but it is very largely closed. If anyone will read this Resolution they will see that the Government can shut up the House at any time it pleases, and bring all our expostulations and deliberations to an end. A drastic Order of that kind is very much more serious when the Government is legislating on great questions like the franchise and education and proceedings after the War, and it requires much more serious consideration from the House than it did at the beginning of the War. I will make one appeal to my right hon. Friend and ask him to meet me at any rate on this point. There is a provision in the Order No. 4—


On a point of Order. Are we discussing No. 2 (Business of the House) or No. 1 (Ballot for Bills, etc.)?


Question No. 1.


Then I will postpone that point for the moment, and I will make the general appeal that I have made and support what my hon. Friend has said about that particular Bill about which I have had several communications from my Constituency.


I desire to suggest to the Government that the time has come when this Order should be dropped. It places this House in a very anomalous position in reference to the powers that are exercised by members of the House of Peers. No such Standing Order exists in another place, and from time to time we receive from the House of Lords Bills that are introduced there by non-members of the Government. There seems to me to be no proper reason to distinguish between the two Houses in this way. It is not upon that ground that I chiefly base my opposition to this Standing Order. I think it reduces membership of this House almost to a farce to be refused not the privilege, but the right of introducing Bills into this House. It arises from the unfortunate view which the Government hold that they in themselves embody the whole wisdom of the country and of this House. It is an unfortunate view to hold, and the history of the past few years shows that it is not sound. I especially desire to protest against this Standing Order, because the time that the Government take from private Members is not used for Bills which arc appropriate to the present state of affairs. It is used for Bills relating to post-war policy like the Non-Ferrous Metals Bill or the Imports and Exports Bill that was introduced yesterday, or the various Bills dealing with Conscription. It is appropriate, when this Standing Order is moved, that the House should consider for what purpose the Government has used the time that it has taken from private Members in the past, with the object of finding some guidance for the future. Much of the legislation that the Government now proposes is legislation which is controversial in a very acute degree, and as time goes on it shows a tendency to become more controversial. To my mind, nearly every measure that the Government introduces requires a supplementary measure in order to mitigate some of the evils that it does and in order to rectify some of its mistakes. I deeply regret that the House having assented to this Motion voluntarily should deprive itself of all effective power to control the Government of the day, and if a Division is taken I shall vote against it and be glad to think that I, for one, am recording my entire lack of any belief either in the wisdom or the policy of the Government.


I do not quite agree with what has been said so far, but I would appeal to the Leader of the House to see whether he could not make some concession this Session with regard to this particular matter. I quite agree that in an ordinary Session most of us who ballot for Bills do involve the State in large charges for the printing of Bills which, as a matter of fact, often never go very much further. But the right hon. Gentleman will remember, in connection with private Bill legislation, that the House has taken a rather different view, and has placed in the hands of the Deputy-Speaker or Chairman of Committees the power to say whether private Bills brought forward for passing through this House involve subjects which are controversial. The success of the Chairman of Committees has been very marked in the three years that we have been at war. He has guided the House in that matter, and has successfully prevented private Bill legislation being brought before the House which involved questions of a large controversial nature. I am wondering whether the Leader of the House cannot agree to some kind of arrangement whereby measures having special reference to affairs arising out of the-War which are suggested by private Members can be brought before the House. I will take, as an example, one of the greatest social questions of to—the grant and administration of pensions. There are to-day 1,250,000 people in this country drawing pensions from the State. The central organisation in London is overwhelmed, and I myself at the present moment have at least a thousand cases before the National Ministry of Pensions in London which have been sent to them as long ago as three months, and to which we can get no reply, and would like this Session, if I could, and I had the luck of the ballot, to introduce a private Member's Bill to hand over the administration of pensions for the Scottish soldiers to Scotland. It would relieve the national administration in London. I shall be deprived of that opportunity by this Resolution. I do think that Members ought to have opportunities of that kind. I am with the Leader of the House in suppressing unnecessary private Members' Bills. They waste a great deal of money on printing, and they never get any further. I am wondering whether we cannot think of some such arrangement, as exists at the moment with regard to private Bill legislation, whereby legislation suggested by private Members and which has special reference to subjects arising out of the War can be considered, and whereby time can be found by the Leader of the House, who is always ready to accommodate himself to the House of Commons, if he possibly can—I am ready to admit that as one of his critics—for that kind of measure. I am not prepared to suggest a specific plan myself, but the parallel of the procedure in regard to private Bill legislation might be followed, and the Leader of the House, who is not only frank with the whole House, but ingenious in the methods by which he leads it, might be able to evolve a plan by which, if a private Member has a Bill which would facilitate public matters, it would be considered by the whole House. I would appeal to him in that sense.


I, of course, admit that what the Government are now asking the House to do must inevitably have some consequences which cannot be satisfactory to all Members of the House, but what I would like to point out to them is that the Motion I am now asking the House to adopt is one that has been carried, generally after a discussion such as we have had to-day, in every Session since the War began. The need of it must be recognised. As to the special criticism of the hon. Member below the Gangway opposite (Mr. Whitehouse), who says the reason why he opposes it is because this particular Government thinks it has all the wisdom of the House concentrated in itself, obviously, if that is so, the same reason could be applied equally to all the preceding Governments, because they adopted the same procedure. There is something more than that to be said. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Lough) brought forward an argument which, unless my memory is at fault, he used last year, to the effect that now the War has gone on so long, surely we can go back to more normal relations in connection with the business of the House of Commons. I wish we could. I wish the War would allow us to do that. But if the House will forgive mo for introducing a serious note into a comparatively unimportant Debate, there never was a time in my view when, if we are going to try to win the War, it was more necessary that the whole energies of the House and of the country should be concentrated upon that object. I quite admit that this does put great restrictions on private Members. I will take the two cases which have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Holt) and the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge). Take, for instance, the Bill for the qualification of women as solicitors. Under existing arrangements it is quite true that that Bill has no chance whatever of being brought before this House unless the Government undertake it. I would remind my hon. Friend that I have been a Member of the House for a long time and I cannot recall during my time a single case where a private Member's Bill has got through all its stages unless it was adopted by the Government to start with. [Hon. Members: "No!"] I say I cannot recall an instance; it must have been very unimportant. I guarded myself by saying I could not recall one. I should have remembered it if it had been of sufficient importance. I take it that this particular Bill could not go on under present arrangements unless the Government took it up. The position which the Government has to adopt in a matter of that kind is that they cannot take up a Bill like that if it is going to prove seriously controversial. That must be the test. If it can be shown that a Bill like that or any other would have a reasonable chance of passing through the House, I do not say without opposition, but without becoming really controversial, I shall be quite ready on behalf of the Government to consider whether or not we shall take it up. As regards a Pensions Bill, there again it must be evident to the hon. Member that so long as the Government can get a majority it is quite obvious they would not allow what they think best about pensions to be altered by a private Member's Bill, unless they were defeated.


They might be persuaded.


But there is something which I think the House of Commons has a right to demand. I remember that when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Fife (Mr. Asquith) first moved this Motion, speaking from the Front Opposition Bench, I then said that I recognised the need for it, but that in these circumstances it is surely right to get from the Government a promise that whenever there is a general desire in the House—I do not say a majority—that a subject should be discussed, the Government should give an opportunity for its discussion. I have recognised that obligation during the time I have been Leader of the House. I have never asked that it should be the desire of anything like half the House, but I have only asked that there should be a widespread desire for a subject to be discussed, and an opportunity has been given. I am ready now to say that, so far as I am concerned and the Government are concerned, we shall act in that way. I do not think it would be reasonable for the House of Commons at this stage of the War to deprive the Government of the use of the time of the House which has been given to it since the War began. From our experience last year, which I hope will not be repeated during the present Session to the same extent, the House knows that every hour of the time was required to get through Government business. It is said that we are introducing measures not connected with the War. If so, it is against our will. It must be obvious that when a war has lasted this length of time, and the life of the country is going on, it does become necessary to introduce some Bills which do not directly bear on the conduct of the War. I quite recognise that. Any measure of that kind, which is necessitated by the conditions arising out of the War, is one which the Government ought to endeavour to carry through. I hope the House will not take a long time in coming to a decision, because this is a subject we have discussed frequently before, and I am sure that at bottom Members of the House of Commons do feel that it would not be reasonable now to go back on a system which has prevailed since the beginning of the. War.

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, "That, until the House otherwise determines, and so far as the House does not otherwise determine, no Public Bills other than Government Bills be introduced and no Ballot be taken for determining the precedence of such Bills."