§ Sir G. HEWART
I beg to move, "That the proposals of the Government relating to Procedure be now considered."
It may be convenient that upon the first of the Government's proposals in relation to procedure I should make a statement as 816 to the scope and the method of the proposals as a whole. The object of the proposals is at least threefold. It is, in the first place, to save the time of the House. It is, secondly, to accelerate the progress of business, and also it is, by avoiding waste of time and energy, to improve the real opportunities of criticism and of discussion. I will deal first with the new scheme in its relation to Bills. The method suggested is to have more general recourse to the services of Standing Committees. The proposal of the Government is generally to refer to Standing Committees all Bills, with four classes of exceptions. They are Finance Bills, Consolidated Fund Bills, Appropriation Bills, and small Bills of a non-contentious kind. It follows, obviously, that if this proposal be adopted the number of Standing Committees must be increased-Fourteen years ago the number of Standing Committees was raised to four. Under the proposals which are now made the number is to be raised to six. Of these Standing Committees five are to be, so far as subject-matter is concerned, Committees of general scope, and one is to consider Bills relating exclusively to Scotland. Of how many members ought these Committees to consist? As the House is aware, the present practice is that a Standing Committee shall consist of sixty to eighty members, together with fifteen added members, specialists as they are sometimes called, with reference to particular Bills. These Committees and these members would obviously make a very heavy demand on the membership of this House at a time when there are many other heavy demands. Therefore, upon consideration, it has been decided and is now proposed that the number of members on the new Standing Committees should be forty, and that the number to be added with reference to particular Bills should be not fifteen but ten. The effect will be that a Standing Committee will consist of fifty members, and it is proposed that the quorum should remain as it now is, namely, twenty.
It is proposed not only to add to the number of Standing Committees but also to improve their procedure. I refrain at this stage from entering into details, but there are two matters which I might mention. In the first place, under the present practice, Standing Committees, except under certain conditions and within certain narrow restrictions, may not sit while the House itself is sitting. Under 817 the new scheme, if it be adopted, a Standing Committee like a Select Committee, and within like limits, will be able to decide for itself the question whether it shall continue to sit while the House is sitting. A second observation upon that particular matter is this: It may be said that if that course is followed difficulties may arise at a time when Divisions are being taken in this House. Accordingly that difficulty is to be met by the provision that it shall be the duty of the Chairman of a Standing Committee to suspend the sittings of the Committee during Divisions in this House, in order to enable hon. Members to give their vote. From the simultaneous labours of these six Committees, at least two results are expected, and I think reasonably expected. One is an improved efficiency in legislation, and the other is a considerable saving of the time of the House.
Let me mention some other proposals which it is hoped may lead also to a saving of time. In the first place, under the present practice, as hon. Members are aware, upon the consideration of a Bill reported from a Standing Committee, there are certain Members who have the privilege of speaking more than once. It is proposed to get rid of that privilege and return to the practice of one speech only. In the second place, where a Bill is to be recommitted, it is proposed that the Motion to recommit shall be made not as it is now, but within the conditions and restrictions of what is called the Ten Minutes' Rule. There is another proposal which has for its purpose the saving of time, and that is that where a Division is pressed against the general wish of the House, an unnecessary Division, we propose to discontinue the present cumbrous and very often impossible practice of recording the names of Members who challenge the view of the Chair. The words which are employed in the Standing Order as it is now are "frivolously and vexatiously." We propose to substitute the word "unnecessary." Everything which is frivolous or vexations in this House is unnecessary. But it may be that there are things which are unnecessary, though they fall short of being either frivolous or vexatious. The next proposal, which goes beyond the desire to save time, though that is a purpose which it is hoped it will accomplish, is to make the power of selecting Amendments a permanent and no longer an occa- 818 sional attribute of the authority of the Chair. But it is not proposed to give that power to the Chairman of a Standing Committee. It is next proposed to extend the power of the Closure, so as to apply to new Clauses in Committee, and it is proposed to get rid of superfluous Divisions upon the stages of Second and Third Readings. For example, a Division having been taken up on the Question that the word "now" stand part, it would not be the practice, if the new scheme is adopted, to proceed to a second and superfluous Division upon the Question that the Bill be now read a second time. There are, but I do not recapitulate them now, a series of provisions to the same end which are a little technical, and will call for individual explanation as they arise; but taken altogether, our hope is that they will add not a little to efficiency and economy of time.
I pass to the remaining head of these proposals, and that is the group of proposals relating to Supply. The House will observe at once that the proposals of the Government in this respect are not proposals to amend the Standing Orders. They are proposals for this Session only. The keynote of the whole matter is that Estimates are to be referred to a Standing Committee or Standing Committees, subject to a very important exception. The exception is the Votes, which determine the number of officers and men to be employed for the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force, and their pay; in other words, Votes which are familiar to Members as Votes "A" and "1."With regard to these excepted Votes the proposal is that they should be dealt with in Committee of Supply. They are Votes which have this feature in common, that they have to be obtained before the commencement of the financial year to which they refer. The Minister in charge in each respective case will make his statement in Committee of Supply as to the programme for the year. The second proposal—but I do not dwell upon it—is that Mr. Speaker will leave the Chair for Committee of Supply without putting any Question except when it is necessary to come to the House for a Vote of Credit. The effect of these proposals taken together will be, it is hoped, to reduce the number of days which so far as the House and the Committee is concerned are necessary for Supply. It is propose, therefore, to reduce the twenty days which are at present allotted under 819 the Standing Orders for the business of Supply to twelve days. It may be asked if these proposals are carried, how will these twelve days be spent? They will be spent in these ways—the Committee of Supply will deal with the excepted Votes, the very important Votes which I have mentioned; they will deal further with the Report stages of all Votes, and they will also deal—and this is an essential element in the Government's proposals—with particular Votes which from time to time may be withdrawn from the Standing Committee in order that they may be considered in Committee of Supply.
With regard to the rules of procedure which will be observed in the Standing Committees which deal with Supply, they will be the same as those which govern the procedure in Committee of Supply itself. If that scheme is to be worked out, it is clear that some method will have to be followed in order to determine what Estimates and what Bills are at particular times to be considered by Standing Committees. The proposal is that Estimates shall be sent to Standing Committees in the same way as that in which Bills are sent. In other words, Mr. Speaker will allot the Estimates, or it may be part of Estimates, to a Standing Committee, or it may be to more than one Standing Committee, and thereupon the Committee of Selection will add ten members, with special reference to the subject-matter of the Estimate or the Bill, as the case may be. It will be the duty of the Government to decide from time to time whether upon a particular day Bills or Estimates are to be considered in a Standing Committee. I pass over other and minor points. For example, it is proposed to exempt Reports of the Committee of Ways and Means and other money Committees from the Eleven o'Clock Rule. It is proposed to expedite the procedure in connection with financial provisions in Bills. There are other detailed proposals of a similar character.
The essence of the whole matter, as the House will observe, is that, whether with regard to Bills or with regard to Supply, there is to be a much greater use than hitherto of the labours of Standing Committees. This, in the briefest detail, is the scheme which is now proposed. It is at least a sincere and careful effort to accomplish a purpose which is not only useful, but has become necessary. A great 820 Member of this House once said, "The time of the House of Commons is the treasure of the people." The scheme which I have outlined is a modest attempt to preserve that treasure by saving that time.
§ Sir DONALD MACLEAN
The House is indebted to the Attorney-General for the lucid way in which he has rather glided over, and the attempt which he has made in a very limited space of time to give an exposition of a very difficult subject. I am sorry to say that I do not agree with his closing remarks in which he claimed that this was a modest attempt, because it is a sweeping innovation of some of the most fundamental rights, I will not say privileges, of the people of this country as expressed through the House of Commons. The present position of this House, and the pressure on the House, I hope, is not a permanent state of affairs. Sooner or later there must come, and the quicker the better, a large measure of devolution whereby, as Question Time showed to-day, many of the subjects with which this House has to deal will be referred to other bodies knowing the subject on the spot, and thoroughly capable of dealing with them.
This House was elected under conditions entirely unprecedented. The appeal was made to the country on two sides—first that we were dealing with the enemy outside, and that we had to carry through a vast scheme of social and domestic legislation. I venture to predict that while we shall be successful in dealing with our outside difficulties, this House can never grapple adequately with the vast scheme of social reform until there be some means of devolution. I hold this above all other things that under the pressure of that vast scheme of social reform we should not give away in this House some of the most important privileges and nights of free expression which have been handed down to us for centuries and which were fought out between this Parliament and the Executive, as then represented by the King, but as now represented by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet; and we should see to it that under the pressure of these two factors we should give away nothing which is vital to the free deliberations of this great Assembly. The Executive Government to-day is more powerful than it has ever been before. It has a very large majority in 821 this House, but I am glad to note that that majority is exhibiting signs of independence and responsibility which I am sure the people of the country will welcome heartily.
We must also bear in mind that a charge has been frequently made against the House that it is not a business house, and it has been said, "We want a business Government. We want business men coming to this House." I am sure that many hon. Members will feel, what I felt when I first came here about twelve years ago, that the business cannot be the kind of business to which men have been accustomed outside. You cannot settle affairs here by pressing a button, getting in a typewriter and dictating this or that. That is not the House of Commons. We must be careful to bear in mind that one of the merits of this House is the equality of each Member. Mr. Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, when he was a Member of this House, and Members of all parties have always insisted on that. You cannot settle things here by simply saying "This is business. We must get on with it." Members are equal, and why? Because they are not here individually, but as representative of their constituents. It is most necessary for us to see that we maintain the great asset which has been handed down to us of a free deliberative assembly. Above all, it is of the utmost importance at the present time that there should be no vital matter hidden from publicity in this House.
As I stated yesterday, this House is in many respects unrepresentative of many shades of unpopular opinion. There is a large measure of agitation going on outside the House. It is of a very dangerous character, mainly because it is unrepresented here, and if we seek in this House, without very great care, to give another weapon to them, another chance of saying "these things are done sub silentio, our liberties are being curtailed, great privileges are being abrogated, and free discussion which formerly took place is no longer allowed," we shall indeed give them the opportunity which they seek. That is the trouble of it. That is what they want. They want to degrade this Assembly to take away our representative institutions, and establish others which they will use in an unconstitutional and a most regrettable manner.
Do not let us be carried away by this cry of, "Let us have a business Govern- 822 ment above all other things, and let us get on with the work." That is quite right, and in connection with these proposals I shall do everything in my power and with such experience as I had during the past six or seven years in the Chair, to promote efficiency. But, above all other things, I have learned in that Chair the tremendous usefulness of the power of the private Member to express his views fully here on all vital matters that affect the State. I am a House of Commons man first, last, and all the time, and I always shall be; and I make this appeal to Members coming here for the first time. Let them remember that they have become members of an assembly which, with all its demerits, is the great democratic legislative example to the world. Do not let them be carried away by appeals to smaller issues or by suggestions that this House has lost its power, and that its dignity is gone. I hope that they will be worthy of the traditions of the past, and apply their sense of responsibility to these very grave and sweeping proposals.
Coming to the proposals, I regret that no suggestion is made for shortening Debate in the matter of repetition of speeches. One knows how frequently the House has been wearied, and business has been delayed by Members who have not heard one single word of the Debate coming in, picking up a few suggestions made by some hon. Member who has sat through the Debate, and repeating ad nauseam arguments and statements that have been made over andover again, through the long weary hours of a particular Debate. Under Standing Order 157 power is given to the Chair to stop tedious repetition. I know how very difficult it is to exercise that power, but if the House of Commons would back up the Chairman in the matter, a very great and sweeping improvement would speedily be inaugurated. I approve heartily of the proposal to increase the number of the Standing Committees. Splendid work has been done in the Standing Committees. Hon Members are there able to express opinions on the real merits of questions in a manner and with a usefulness which are often absent from our Debate on the floor of the House. I agree entirely that that is a very useful change, but it can be dealt with in more detail when we arrive at the particular proposals.
823 The question of the selection of Amendments is a very important matter. The House will perhaps excuse a personal reference to my own experience. On three Bills of the most passionately difficult character opinion was extremely divided—the Parliament Bill, the Welsh Church Bill, and the Insurance Bill. With regard to the Parliament Bill and the Welsh Church Bill, I think that on the whole the House will agree that the power of selection of Amendments was exercised with fairness, and on the whole with a good deal of efficiency. But it does throw a tremendous weight of responsibility on the Chair, and everybody who has any experience of Committee work in this House knows that it constantly happens that the course of debate shows unexpectedly that certain Amendments would involve certain things which must be dealt with. It is, after all, a very great compliment to the representative character of the House. There is scarcely a subject at all debatable or of real, vital interest to the country of which we do not sooner or later find some Member who is a master of it, and that man has often stood by and not spoken for weeks or months or, perhaps, a year. But he applies his particular knowledge to the subject, and you quite suddenly find the whole atmosphere altered and the conditions sometimes fundamentally changed.
I do say, that the power of selection of Amendments, if you give the Chairman the necessary assistance, is a useful aid in conducting the business of this House. I do not know whether it would be possible for a Committee of Members to assist the Chair in the selection of Amendments. There are not many opportunities for Members to act in these matters, but no doubt some rule could be devised. I must refer to the proposed addition to Standing Order No. 26,A Motion may be made by a Member in charge of a Bill (the assent of the Chair as aforesaid not having been withheld) that the Chairman do forthwith report the Bill with or without Amendments to the House, or if the Bill be under consideration on Report, that the Bill be ordered to be read the third time, as the case may be, and the Question upon any such Motion shall be put forthwith and decided without Amendment or Debate.That is a most sweeping, drastic and fundamental change. What has been the case which has been presented, either as to before the War or since the War, which 824 suggests that such a power as this is necessary? Has the House of Commons misbehaved itself to such an extent? I venture to say that during the past ten or twelve years the output of legislation by this House is far in advance of that which any other Parliament ever achieved. I want to know what is the case for this proposal?
I come to the last point—we shall have further opportunities of dealing with the subject in Committee—and that is the extraordinary proposal for dealing with our financial affairs, or, as it is put, Business of Supply. What has been the foundation of the power and prestige of this House? There is no question that there has come from the struggle of this House with the King all the great freedom that has been won by this country. What is it proposed to do? It is proposed, except in one or two Votes and such other Votes as the Executive for the time being—mark that—may, with a majority behind them and at their will, keep in this House—that all others have to go up to these Committees. If the House of Commons adopted this proposal, it would be selling its birthright for a mess of pottage, and I hope that proposal will be drastically dealt with by the House as a whole. I would ask hon. Members, so many of whom are new, to realise what are the real principles which lie at the root of this great question. I do not think my right hon. Friend suggested that this proposal is founded on the ninth Report of the Committee on National Expenditure. If any hon. Members think for a moment that the proposal has any relation at all to the recommendations of that Committee, let them disabuse their minds of any such idea. The proposal of the Committee was that a Committee should be set up which should deal with the Estimates before they came on to the floor of the House, to report on them, and work with, but not in substitution, for, the Public Accounts Committee, that this Committee should have professional assistance, and that sitting there as business men they should examine an Estimate and, having examined it, make their report on it to the House.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
This is a proposal to take from the House the real power of control of the Executive. Let us get 825 down to the real fact, and that is that it is taking away the control of the Executive. What are the conditions in which we find ourselves with regard to the control of the Executive? We have lost all count of value. When we talked formerly of hundreds of thousands we now speak of tens of millions. What appreciation has the highest financier in the world of what eight thousand millions means? He does not know. We do not know what are our values. During the last four and a half years there has been a pouring out of the national capital, and not only of our capital, but the pledging of the capital of generations yet to come. Is this a time, when we have lost our ideas as to values, to hand over to a Committee, sitting upstairs, the financial powers and privileges of this House?
The suggestion is made that we can deal with these things on the Report stage. Those of us who have had some Parliamentary experience know what that means—how difficult it is on Report stage to alter what has been done upstairs or downstairs. There is the limitation of debate, with the right to only speak once, and the necessity to have a seconder for an Amendment. The whole tendency of Report is to take the thing as done, and to get on with the next thing. While every possible assistance will be most heartily and freely given to the Government to bring our machinery as far as we can up to date, to deal with the tremendous pressing problems that lie before us I will not assent, but as far as I can, will do everything possible to prevent the fundamental rights and privileges of the House of Commons being handed over to any Executive, however powerful. I make this appeal to private Members—that they are now face to face with a really serious question, and that at the outset of their Parliamentary careers they should be careful to preserve those rights handed down to them by their forefathers' fathers, and which they preserved in their fight against the Crown. I would ask them to preserve them now against the tyranny of any Executive however powerful it may be.
§ Lord HUGH CECIL
I think everyone will agree that the Government are fully entitled and indeed bound to bring this subject before the House at the outset of the Session. The procedure is certainly in need of reform and no one can doubt, 826 with the very heavy load of legislation which necessarily arises after the War and on the great business of reconstruction which is in prospect, that the House, if it is to deal with that at all, must deal with it by amended procedure. I should like to say how cordially I am in agreement with one of the observations of the right hon. Gentleman opposite and that is, when he spoke of the great importance of upholding the credit of the House of Commons with the public and the people generally. It is not merely lamentable but it has become dangerous that the House of Commons has lost the moral authority that it at one time so abundantly possessed over the great mass of the people of this country. Really, we have been getting used to the spectacle. It is one of the most curious and interesting things in the historical development of our country that whereas the House of Commons in, say, the eighteenth century was a very narrow body, and, I am afraid, rather a corrupt body, and a body defaced by many blemishes, yet it was quite indisputably the greatest assembly in the country, and exercised immense authority in the whole country, both in the laws it passed and by its authority over the people. Now we have a House of Commons elected on the widest possible franchise and the Members returned to it without any circumstances of corruption, and they themselves being above the suspicion of corruption, and with all those circumstances so much in favour of its authority, yet it seems to have lost the unique and magnificent position which it had in the eighteenth century. One of the curiosities of the history of that time was the enormous interest that was taken in the House of Commons on occasions by its Members. I came across an extract the other day from Horace Walpole, in which he mentioned how he had sat from two in the afternoon until five o'clock the next morning for the purpose of attending a Debate. He was rewarded about half-past one by hearing the Elder Pitt, make a speech that afterwards became famous, and in which he compared the Coalition of the time to the junction of two streams like the Rhone and Saone. I am sure if we had a Debate of that kind to-day, and if, let us say, the hon. Member for South Hackney, who resembles the Elder Pitt in popular acceptance outside and independence of thought, compared my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench to any number of 827 streams, we should listen with wearying impatience. In those days they felt not merely respect but enthusiasm for the House of Commons, in spite of the artificial and self-indulgent state of society. They spent sums of money, which now seem almost incredible, in order to carry elections. Tens, and in some cases hundreds of thousands, were spent on a single election at that period. That is a measure of the esteem and power which the House of Commons has to-day largely lost. One of the immediate reasons for that is that the House of Commons has to some extent lost its own self-esteem and does not think so highly of itself as it used to do.
The main criticism I would make of these proposals is that, like all the other proposals to reform procedure—and I am afraid I have heard a great many now—they are really addressed to making it easier for the Government to carry on their business. They are not addressed to the fundamental weakness of Parliament and to restoring to the House its own self-esteem. Yet I believe the Government would find it to their advantage if they would try and reform procedure after the other theory, because this loss of self-respect and self-esteem makes obstruction on the great scale a possibility. If the House of Commons really revered itself as it used to do obstruction would only remain as a rarely used remedy against genuine oppression on the part of the Government, and it would cease altogether to be part of the ordinary tactics of Parliamentary life. Part of the Government proposals do seem excellently conceived in order to restore to the House of Commons its efficiency and dignity. I mean that part which relates to the larger reference of Bills to Standing Committees instead of Committees of the Whole House. I think every Member who has had experience of Committee of the Whole House on a controversial Bill will agree with me that that part of the procedure has really broken down. Committee of the Whole House on a Bill does not seem to me to work well either from the point of view of the Government or the critics of the Bill. In most cases it is conducted by very empty benches, from which those who desire to criticise the Bill may speak with the voice of men and of angels without producing the slightest effect, because there is no one to listen to them except the Ministers themselves, who are indisposed, of course, to be convinced. I have 828 seen a great many Bills, and I think I have quite accurately described the common procedure in Committee of the Whole House. It does not give the critics a good opportunity; it wearies out the Government, and it gets the Government by mere exhaustion into a stubborn frame of mind, so that they say, "We cannot go into that." They find that it saves time to resist every Amendment that is proposed, and after a time, when the end of the Session begins to approach, they apply the guillotine or the Closure, or something of that sort, and from that time the proceedings become a perfect farce. Everybody knows that the moment the Closure falls by common agreement the business of Committee of the Whole House becomes unreal.
Therefore I am strongly in favour of sending Bills up to Standing Committee, and I do not think the Government go far enough. I would send to Standing Committee every Bill, without exception, on which it is anticipated that there is going to be any discussion, including the Budget Bill. If the Government would do that, they would save so much Parliamentary time that they could afford not to press some of their other proposals, which are, I think, open to criticism. They could afford to leave Supply with the full number of allotted days and not take the course of sending Supply upstairs. But I do not think you can work Standing Committees by allowing them to sit while the House is sitting. I do not think it matters if they slop over half an hour, as sometimes happens, but to sit really at length while the House is sitting is, I believe, unworkable, and it is eminently inconsistent with the great principle which we ought to insist upon, of treating Parliament with respect. It really amounts to saying that it does not much matter what the House is doing downstairs if the Standing Committees are to be allowed to sit during the sittings of the House. Many of the most able Members being engaged upstairs could not attend to the business of the House itself, and the effect would be to give an impression that that did not very much matter. It really is part of that treatment of Parliamentary procedure of which I am afraid I must say that the most distinguished Members of this House have been guilty in the past and which has done so much, as I think, to lower the House in its own respect. The right hon. Gentleman the Foreign Secretary (Mr. Balfour) and Mr. Asquith, both 829 being sentimentally devoted to the House, have done very much to lower the respect of the House for itself by constantly treating its Debates as though they did not matter two straws, as though any party advantage were sufficient to set them on one side, and as though the main thing were to get the business done in a workmanlike way rather than to have the Debates properly conducted. If you have 240 Members engaged upstairs you cannot have the business of this House properly conducted downstairs, and it does not look as if you really were treating the Debates of the House with respect. I think it will be found that the burden thrown on particular Members in a controversial Session would be quite overwhelming. I suppose the Standing Committees would meet at about eleven-thirty or twelve o'clock, and a Member who was taking a prominent part, the sort of part that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the Duncairn Division of Belfast (Sir E. Carson) took in opposing Home Rule, would be sitting upstairs on one controversial Bill all day and downstairs on another controversial Bill all the evening. I do not think you can really work Standing Committees on that basis.
The suggestion which I make to the Government is that they should send all Bills to Standing Committees, of the existing size, but that they should use the time spent in Committee by adjourning the House as soon as Questions are over on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the months of April, May, and June, and I have put down a Motion to that effect, but forgot to mention the days. Then the Members could go upstairs to their various Standing Committees and do the business of those Committees, and I believe that would help the Government enormously in getting through their business. They would have a long evening before them, and would have eight or ten Standing Committees at work simultaneously. It would be immensely better for the ordinary Member of Parliament, like so many hon. Gentlemen now who have come here with high hopes that they are going to be of great service to the public and to do a great deal of valuable work, and whose hearts are practically being broken by being kept in attendance with nothing in the least interesting to do. We have all seen how intensely depressing and mortifying it is to Members of Parliament, animated by 830 the highest patriotic intentions and honestly zealous for the public service, to be obliged to stay here in order to vote either for the Government or the Opposition but not able to do any useful or efficient work of themselves. Under the system that I have tried to sketch that would not arise. Members would either be on one or two important Committees dealing with one or two important controversial Bills, or they would not. If they were, they would feel that they were taking part in very important work, and would indeed be able to do important work in Committee, because the individual has a much better chance in Committee of taking part in the business than he has down here. On the other hand, if he was not a member of the main controversial Committees, after four or five sittings the minor Bill he was put on would be finished with, and then he would not be obliged to attend at all on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and would not weary himself by useless attendance here. It would immensely save the House of Commons from becoming in the summer months, as I am afraid it has so often become, a jaded and worn out assembly, and when Members returned in July to the full sittings of the House you would find the House fresher and in better humour and more efficient than it is accustomed to be in that month at the present time. Therefore I am convinced that if the Government would consider that plan they would find it a better plan than their own, both in their own interests to get their business on more quickly, and in the interests of the House at large, and it would give them, I think, a much more efficient criticism and discussion of Bills, including Budget Bills, than they get on the floor of the House in Committee, because in Standing Committee you have this great advantage, that the Members vote after listening to the Debate. People outside the House of Commons think that always happens, but in this House we know that we hardly ever vote after hearing the Debate, and quite commonly we vote without even knowing anything about the question upon which we are voting; but that does not happen in Standing Committees. There you have the great advantage that people vote after hearing the arguments, and however tight party discipline is, and however well disposed people are to support a particular proposal, if it is destroyed in argument they 831 really cannot bring themselves to vote for it after they have heard the ease argued out, and accordingly the criticism is much more efficient and weighty, and more often succeeds in getting the Government to modify their proposals, and occasionally places the Government in a minority without any of the shock to the Government's general credit outside, and consequent injury to its usefulness as a Government. Therefore I am convinced that if the Government would extend their proposal of the Standing Committees as I suggest, and would drop the part of the new Rule that gives Standing Committees leave to proceed during the Sittings of the House, and instead would pass a Rule adjourning the House on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in April, May, and June after Questions, and devoting the whole time of Members to the work of the Standing Committees during that period, they would do good service both to themselves and to the business of the House.
There are two other important proposals on the Paper. One is the selection of Amendments, and there again I think the Government are right in supposing that this is the least invidious way of interfering with the liberty of Members of Parliament in criticising a Bill. But selection of Amendments as we have known it is done at very short notice by the Chair, so much so that, if my memory serves me aright, it often happens that Members do not know when they enter the Chamber whether their particular Amendment has been selected or not. Human nature being what it is, that is a very irritating thing to Members, and it makes the relations between the Chair and Members very difficult, because everybody, of course, thinks their Amendment a nice one, and has a paternal fondness for it and they come down with their speeches prepared in their own head and are then told that the Chair does not think it suitable. They feel they are being unfairly treated. Moreover, there is this additional disadvantage in that process of selection at short notice, that as the pressure of time grows greater on the Bill, and as it becomes clear that the Government will have some difficulty, and there is doubt whether there will be enough time in which to finish the Bill before the end of a Session, there comes a very strong temptation to the Chair to select more and more strictly and to cut out more and more Amendments. The pressure of the Government 832 upon the Chair, not very consciously exerted, is a real thing, and it becomes very difficult for the Chair to say, "You have managed your business so badly that you will have to lose your Bill, as I cannot cut out any more Amendments." I should like to have the selection of Amendments on Report made deliberately by the Speaker, it being required that everyone who wishes to move an Amendment on the Report stage should put it down five days after the Bill is reported from the Standing Committee. If they did not do that, the Amendment would not be considered at all. The Amendments being thus on the Paper, the Speaker would go through them and select those he thought worth discussing on the Report, and his task would be made much easier by consultation with the Chairmen of the Standing Committees, who would, of course, be familiar with the discussions in Committee and would be able to indicate to him those Amendments of special importance. Then the Amendment Paper, being settled, would be printed in the ordinary way, and the Bill would be taken, and every Member would have received the Paper on the morning, at any rate, on which the Bill was coming on, if not earlier, and would come down to the House knowing what Amendments were to be discussed and prepared to speak on those in which he was interested. There would be no friction, and there would be no power of pressing the Speaker at the last moment to cut out more Amendments. The Paper would be fixed, and the Government would have to make up their minds to find time in which to finish it. So handled, I think the selection of Amendments would be both dignified, consistent with the efficiency of the House, consistent with the just claims of the Government, and consistent also with full liberty of debate.
The third important proposal of the Government is to send the Supply to a Standing Committee, but I am afraid I think that is a proposal which neither in their own interests nor in the interests of the House can be defended. I hardly think my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House can have sufficiently considered it. Committee of Supply is really a Committee of grievance. It is a Finance Committee certainly, but it is not a Financial Committee in the sense that it scrutinises the minutiæ of public expenditure or can do so. All the Debates I have ever heard in Committee of Supply, 833 except perhaps purely obstructive ones on Supplementary Estimates, at any rate in recent years since the allotted Supply Rule was adopted, have been criticisms of a perfectly legitimate and non-obstructive character of the policy of the Government, sometimes the main policy of the Government and sometimes the policy of a particular Department of the Government. How can that be done in Standing Committee, either from the point of view of the critics or from the point of view of the Government? How can a Standing Committee criticise the policy of the Government which, if it is successfully criticised, must involve either a change of the Government altogether or at least the resignation of the Minister defeated? How could you allow a Standing Committee to carry the reduction of a Minister's salary, or even of a Vote of importance in Supply, without the ordinary consequences following of the Minister, or perhaps the whole Government, retiring? If that is to follow, you make the Government responsible, not to the Whole House, but to the Standing Committee—both in principle and in fact a most intolerable, position. What you want is not a Standing Committee, but one of two things—either the Whole House in Committee or on Report, or a Select Committee for the purposes of financial scrutiny. If you set up a Select Committee with special powers of scrutiny, I have some doubt as to whether it is a workable proposal in the matter of machinery, but, at any rate, it is quite a different proposal. A Standing Committee could not do that sort of work.
On the other hand I do not think a Standing Committee could possibly do the work of the Whole House, and I am surprised the Government has put forward that proposal, because that part of the machinery of Parliament has certainly not broken down. Ever since the twenty days of Supply have been allocated there has been no obstruction, and there can be no obstruction. I do not think twenty days of a Session too long to devote to administrative criticism. If the Government think it is too much this Session because of the special circumstances, they have only to put down a Sessional Order assigning a smaller number of days. But I am quite sure that, given the principle of allotted days, you are perfectly clear of any interference with the normal progress of Government business, and perfectly secure against anything like 834 obstruction. Therefore, I hope the Government will not press that proposal. I am sure they will find that, neither in their own interests nor in the interest of the House, would it work well. And I confess I rather hope they will not press the proposal to allow a Minister on the Report stage, or—if they do not adopt my plan—in the Committee stage, to get up and move that the whole proceedings shall be brought to a close and the Bill summarily put through. I think that is to institute guillotine closure as part of the ordinary practice of the House, and guillotine closure in its least scientific and intelligent form. If what they mean is that it should be open to them to close down the whole proceedings of the Committee, then I think they must revise the drafting of their Rule. As I understand it, it might be done immediately on entering upon the Committee stage or the Report stage of a Bill, and the whole proceedings might be brought to a close on a summary Motion. Though it is true that the consent of the Chair is a certain safeguard, I think it is agreed that too much weight should not be thrown on the shoulders of the Chair by putting it into the position of even having to consent to or refuse Motions of that character.
I believe that if the Government would try the experiment, which I have tried, of going through the business of a Session—I took the Session of 1896, which was a singularly crowded Session, in which the business did break down—and see how it would work under the procedure I have tried to sketch, of sending every Bill to a Standing Committee, and of adjourning the House after questions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in April, May, and June, they would find that without any alteration in procedure they were perfectly able to conduct the business of Parliament and secure a Prorogation early in August. The relief would be enormous, and I believe the gain in efficiency would be equally great. Though I am sure it would be uncongenial to his temper, and very unlike his usual manner of conducting the House, to seek to force on a new House of Commons very drastic changes in the procedure in the House, it is of course my right hon. Friend's duty to put before the House those proposals which he considers really necessary to conduct its business with efficiency; but I really hope he will not press on a necessarily inexperienced House drastic changes such as may be 835 tolerable to us who support the Government in a Parliament in which the Government has a great majority, but will not be equally tolerable when he and I sit on the other side of the House, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Labour party is Prime Minister, carrying through measures of which we very much disapprove. We should think of the future and not only of the present, and should safeguard, with the efficiency of the House, due liberty of debate and due right of minorities.
§ Sir SAMUEL ROBERTS
The two last speakers both approve the principle of the extension of Grand Committee procedure, and, as one who has some little experience of Committees upstairs, perhaps the House will allow me a few moments to state my own opinion. The Government find themselves in this position: the War being over, no end of social reforms are necessary, and it has been rightly pointed out that, unless new machinery is provided, they cannot be carried out this Session. The only way is to send Bills to Grand Committees. I agree with the two last speakers—and I think the House will agree with them—that you cannot try to get the Grand Committes to sit when this House is sitting. I am perfectly certain that I am right in that. Grand Committees, as a rule, sit at eleven o'clock or half-past eleven in the morning, and you can get them to sit till half-past one or two o'clock; but you cannot get a quorum after lunch. What will happen if the rule is that they sit on? A quarter to three comes, and questions begin. A large number of members on Grand Committees will have questions of their own in this House, and want to hearthe replies of Ministers, and I think they ought to hear them. Then at a quarter to four there is going to be, perhaps, an important speech by the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House. They want to hear it, and they ought to hear it. The Noble Lord who has last spoken said very rightly, and I agree with him very largely, that the difficulty might be overcome by this House suspendingg its sittings when the Grand Committees sit. That would require a thoughtful working out, but I think his idea is a useful one, perhaps not on the two fixed days he mentioned, but on the days for which the Minister in charge of the Bill may move in this House. I see an Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Brecon (Mr. S. Robinson): 836On such ways as the House shall determine, after questions, on the Motion of a Minister of the Crown, witnout Debate, the House may resolve itself into Standing Committees, which shall sit simultaneously.That is very much the same proposal as the Noble Lord made, but with this difference, that you do not have two fixed days a week for three months, but leave the procedure to be fixed by the Government. I think that if that question is fully gone into by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the whole difficulty will be met.
There is one other point upon which I want to lay stress, and it is the important point which the Noble Lord has made about moving Supply upstairs. I think that is a very great mistake. I had the honour of serving last Parliament on the Committee on National Expenditure. That Committee went very carefully into the question of the Estimates being examined before they came into Committee of Supply in this House. There was no proposal we made to move Supply upstairs. The proposal was that there should be two Committees of fifteen each, that these should examine all the Estimates and make reports from time to time on those Estimates, and that those reports should come on in this House in Committee of Supply, when the proper time arrived. The Committees, of course, would have power to call witnesses. What we proposed was that these Committees should have professional assistance, and that an Examiner of Estimates should be appointed who should be an official of this House in the same way as the Comptroller and Auditor-General. My right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) was chairman of a Committee which sat before the War. That Committee failed, and failed very largely because there was an absence of professional assistance—
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend. I cannot admit that it failed. I do not think any of the Members who were on the Committee would admit that. I think we did very useful work, but I think we should have done a good deal more useful work if we had had professional assistance, as my hon. Friend says.
§ Sir S. ROBERTS
In order to arrive at a decision on the question, the Select Committee on National Expenditure invited opinions from important Members of this 837 House and officials. Of the twenty-five replies received on the question as to whether there should be a Standing Committee, nineteen were in favour of it. We sent this question to all the officers of the House, including Mr. Speaker, the Chairman of Committees, the Deputy-Chairman, the Clerk, and Sir William Gibbons, all of whom supported. The five ex-Financial Secretaries to the Treasury who sent replies took the same view, as did Mr. Henderson, writing on behalf of the Labour party. Four out of the five Whips who were consulted, including my right hon. Friend who is now the Chief Coalition Whip, Mr. Gulland, and the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Parker), Junior Lord of the Treasury. They were all of the same opinion, and Sir Sydney Olivier (writing on behalf of the Comptroller and Auditor-General), Sir Charles Harris (Assistant Financial Secretary of the War Office), and Mr. Harold Cox agreed to it. Mr. Asquith had no objection to the experiment being tried, though he was not sanguine as to the result. The dissentients were the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. McKenna, and the Joint Secretaries of the Treasury, together with Sir T. Gibson Bowles, and Mr. Sidney Webb. The Chief Government Coalition Whip (Lord E. Talbot) said he was "not particularly enamoured of the proposed scheme." The principal objection of these gentlemen was that if this Committee were set up, it would take away the responsibility of Ministers and of the Government of the House. I hardly think that that is a sufficient reason.
What this House is entitled to as representing the taxpayers of this country is to see that their money is properly expended, and to keep control. The Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University spoke about putting things back. Perhaps it may not generally be known that the Committee of Supply in this House was set up in the time of Charles I., for a special object, which was to give this House an opportunity of discussing the grievances and differences between the Crown and the people. It was not intended that the Committee of Supply should deal with Estimates, but that it should give the House an opportunity of airing their grievances against the Crown which at that time, with every reason, made the House eager for economy. Every scrutiny was made, for they wanted to allow the King as little money as possible because he was extravagant. But after Parliament had 838 gained the victory all this inducement was gone. There was no conflict then between this House and the Crown, and I am afraid that since that time, and at present this House has not been so eager about economy. In fact, it has been the other way. In my experience, during the time I have had the honour to be a Member of the House, Members have always been anxious to talk about economy, but when some scheme has been brought forward in the House the money has always been voted. I think that if an Estimates Committee or two Estimates Committees were set up they would do very useful work. They would make reports which a Committee of Supply would be unable to make; but this would not be done if, as the Governmnet propose, the Committee of Supply were removed upstairs entirely. We, as representatives of the people and the taxpayers of this country, ought to, hold fast to the control of the money. In fact, it is our duty to do so. We are sent here to do it, and if we do not do it, it is quite right that our constituencies should reject us.
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ Major E. WOOD
I am sure the House has listened with much pleasure to the speeches made on this subject. The hon. Baronet who spoke last had the advantage of great experience, and I think the criticisms which he made were criticisms to which the House will be disposed to attach much weight. I was interested in the speech delivered by my Noble Friend the Member for Oxford University. It has been a mark of all the speeches which have been delivered so far this afternoon that they have pointed to one section or another of the proposals of the Government, and made suggestions for their improvement. What interested me about the speech of the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University was that, with certain notable exceptions, as to which he was able to suggest improvements on the Government scheme, it appeared to me that he was in the position of welcoming a revision of the Rules of Procedure, substantially in the direction suggested by the Government. If that be his position I am bound to say that I broadly differ from him. I am quite prepared to admit the necessity, but it is to me an unpalatable necessity. I shall endeavour to show to the House as briefly as I can why I think that in this matter—though I admit that for the moment there is no immediate alternative—the Government 839 have and are suffering for their own neglect in the past. I do not wish to labour the necessity of some such action as this. It is a necessity of which all the Members of Parliament who have been in the House, or have watched the procedure of the House, are profoundly conscious. One device after another has been invented to make debates possible, but even with all the new inventions of Parliamentary genius, Parliament has perpetually been finding itself more and more unable to cope with its work. I once saw an interesting survey by a Parliamentary observer, who said that between 1900 and 1919 Parliament had passed 318 Acts in 276 days, with regard to which he made the comment that no deliberate Assembly could deliberate at that rate unless it was forbidden to deliberate. When all this is gone through I think it is true that there has been a great increase in the amount of business left to administrative order as against legislative action. We have been compelled to forego attention to matters like reforms in India, and a host of other Imperial matters. That will not grow less in the time to come. All this that I have suggested is a cumulative burden on the ordinary Member of Parliament himself, who is more and more expected to be both ubiquitous and omniscient, and no Member of Parliament can be one or the other.
Further, I suggest that not the worst side of the evil is found in the effect on the Ministers and on the Government Departments which have to sit and work in a tornado of daily questions, whereas they ought, according to all sound rules of business, to be attending to their Departments, preparing legislation and supervising administration. I suggest that in these circumstances the Government had two alternatives before them. One was to say, "We will maintain in this House direct responsibility for all the existing business coming before it, and for all the business that will come before it during the circumstances of the present day, but we shall make it possible to get through that business by new Rules of Procedure, placing a limit upon the attention that you, private Members of Parliament, may give to it." Or they might have said, "Procedure will be remedied, not by limiting the attention that you pay to business coming before you, but by limiting the business coming before you, to which we invite you to pay attention. In other words, to reduce and decentralise your 840 work in order to give proper consideration to such work as you retain." That was the alternative which was suggested by the right hon. Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean). It is, of course, a proposal that has been made before and to which I wish again to call the attention of the House. The proposal has been known under the name of federal revolution. It has been brought forward from time to time, the object being to distinguish between matters that are of necessity reserved for the consideration of this House and of other matters that it may be possibly right and wise to delegate to subordinate Legislatures. This is not the time nor the occasion upon which that proposal should be argued in detail. Suffice it to say that I do not think I should be far wrong if I said that the broad difference between that proposal and the proposal of the Government is that the Government says, "Reduce the amount of attention you pay to your work," whereas I would say, "Reduce the amount of work to which you pay attention, and do it properly."
That is the general objection, and it is reinforced by one or two general considerations. Why I said, at the beginning, that I was not enamoured, as seemed to be the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University, with the great extension of Standing Committees, was for this reason. It is, I think, uncontestable that the merts or demerits of Bills emerge, not from the examination of general principles on Second Reading, but from the close scrutiny of the actual method by which it is proposed to translate these general principles into law. Every Minister has found that expressions of good will on Second Reading are not at all inconsistent with far-reaching differences of opinion at later stages, and why I object to these proposals is that they have the effect of withholding consideration of the actual method of translating general principles into law from all but a very small number of selected Members of Parliament. The result in working is bound to be two things. In the first place, you are running straight enormously to increase the value of the other House as an appeal tribunal from this House in matters of legislation and administration. I am not sure whether that is a good thing from the point of view of Parliament as a whole, and of this House. In the second place—and it is a more important thing—you must inevitably strengthen the ten- 841 dency—of which, I think, all who watch the working of Parliamentary institutions are aware—that more and more the pressure on the Executive and the control of the Executive is beginning to pass from private Members of Parliament into the hands of great organised corporations, outside this House, of industry, trade, finance, and so on. That, to my mind, is not helpful. Everyone who was in this House, and who heard the speech of the right hon. Member for Derby (Mr. J. H. Thomas) the other day, must agree with him in deploring the action of men who turn to violent, direct methods rather than use the constitutional method of the ballot. But, as I heard him say that—and I have often thought so before and since—I wondered very much how far that action, by which men are beginning to turn to direct industrial action instead of to the vote, is due to the fact that they have gained the view that our voting and representative system is ineffectual and not working properly. That may or may not be so; at least, I know this, that anything that tends to diminish the capacity of the private Member of Parliament to act as the direct spokesman for his constituency upon matters which affect their purses, their lives, their liberty, their thoughts, or whatever it may be, is directly acting against the reassertion of the self-respect and self-esteem of this House for which the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University pleads, and which, in the long run, depends on its place in the affections and the hearts of the people outside. I take it that it is rather a serious objection. But, as I began by saying, I recognise, as I think most of us do, the pressure which makes the Government proposal probably inevitable; indeed, nothing but extreme necessity, I think, would have justified the Government in asking the House, composed as half of it is of new Members, to scrap machinery with which they have not yet had time to make themselves familiar.
I venture to think that not even the right hon. Gentleman himself, the Leader of the House, would dare to be very confident as to how these new Rules will work. They must, I think, admittedly, be experimental. In my view they are a piecemeal treatment of a far larger problem to the root of which they make very little attempt to go. It is quite obvious, even from the discussion we have had this afternoon, that they have little chance of 842 getting through in their present form. It is obvious, if they pass, they will pass in a reduced shape. If that be so, I would urge upon the Government to bear in mind two things. One is to recognise, admit, and act as if these Rules were frankly experimental; and secondly, and of more importance, I would ask the Attorney-General to convey to the Leader of the House, who for the moment is not here, and to the Prime Minister, the strong feeling that exists in many quarters of the House that this is a piecemeal treatment of a great subject, with the hope that they would employ time during the experimental stage, by instituting a serious inquiry into the comparative merits of the larger scheme in order that as time goes on and they see how the experiment works, and they have data to proceed upon, they will decide that the wider departure is in the interests of the nation. My own conviction is, and it is one which is shared, as I know, by a great many Members in all quarters of the House, that if the Government were to institute such an inquiry as that they would be going a long way towards finding not only a partial, but a complete and permanent solution by which this House would be left free to deal with matters which concern the whole of the United Kingdom and the Empire at large; at the same time enabling matters of less than United Kingdom concern to be dealt with by subordinate assemblies in every part of the United Kingdom.
Mr. J. W. WILSON
As a Member who has had a good deal of experience in connection with the Grand Committees of this House, and as one of the Panel of Chairmen, I do feel how most loyal the work of the Grand Committees has been. As regards legislation, I think that work might very well be extended and increased and more confidence put in the work of the Grand Committees. One or two points have already been mentioned why their decisions happen to be more independent and more often for the businesslike development of the Bill than the discussions which take place in this House. One reason is that all Members, or practically all Members in attendance at the Committee, on the particular day hear all the discussion on an Amendment and vote upon it. If they are away, they do not get the chance of voting, because there is no Division Bell rung; there is only a moment or two left for anyone to look along the 843 Corridor to see if any Member is outside. Therefore you get an intelligent decision, and one that does not necessarily throw out the Government—whichever Government it is which is promoting the Bill. That, I think, is a distinct advantage. I feel that more Bills, and more important Bills, and more controversial Bills, might be sent upstairs. There is no reason why the Whips of particular parties, or their delegates, should not be in attendance to see that their members do attend and so procure the close attention needed so that, as suggested here, the work may be very largely extended.
There is another advantage in the discussion to which, I think, one speaker has alluded. That refers to Standing Order No. 19, which provides against irrelevance or repetition. The Standing Order says:—Mr. Speaker, or the Chairman, after having called the attention of the House or of the Committee to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition, either of his own arguments or of the arguments used by other Members in Debate, may direct him to discontinue his speech.It has been pointed out that the Chairman of the House here has practically no power—though we have seen it occasionally done—or has found it impossible to enforce that rule. A Member comes in and fires off a speech very likely on the same lines as another Member who has just left the Chamber. Neither has heard the other. Only the reporter of the Official Debates Staff in the gallery, who has taken down the speeches, knows what useless repetition it is. The main difference between this House and Grand Committee is that the Chairman of the Grand Committee has the whole Committee behind him when he calls attention to the fact that the Member on his feet is repeating what another Member has said. Thus the Chairman is backed up by the Committee, and this is one of the secrets of the success of the Committee's labours and of their progress with the matter in hand. I feel all these points work in favour, not only of progress, but businesslike progress, in the legislation which is submitted to Grand Committees upstairs. Therefore, I welcome the proposals of the Government to make more direct, practical use of these Committees. I think they might very well be extended in time. Whether certain limits should be put upon them remains for the House to consider. Then there is a great difficulty raised in Committee in 844 connection with the self-extension that is provided for here. Two or three Members, it may be, want to come downstairs to ask questions, or to join in the Debate, and they often upset, or tend to upset, the decision which the bulk of the Committee would gladly see, and therefore it would be useful for them to keep at work. if need be, longer than the present house allow.
I apoligise for dealing with these details, but I think I am possibly speaking to a good number of new Members of the House who have had no experience of our Committees. I do feel, however, that the proposal of the Government to refer Estimates to these Committees is a very doubtful one. I cannot see any advantage in it. I was a member of the National Expenditure Committee, which sat for eighteen months upstairs, to consider these questions of procedure, and in their conclusions, and recommendation No. 16, I can see no contemplation of any reference of Estimates to these Grand Committees as we understand them. It is true that there was a recommendation that a Standing Committee, or two Standing Committees, or, they said, it might be found necessary to have a third Standing Committee appointed. That, I think, meant they were to be continuous Committees, and were to consist at most of fifteen members, with the power to call officials, and to go into certain discussions. But the criticism against extending this too far is that the effect will be to release Ministers and Departments from responsibility. That, however, is quite a different method to the one proposed here. The idea was to report by a White Paper or otherwise to a Committee of the House, and so enable a Committee of the Whole House, if it so desired, to go into questions of detail. I think the main function of a Committee of the Whole House, as far as Estimates are concerned, is to air grievances. There are also questions of policy.
I am glad to see that it is contemplated, even if in a limited degree, and oven if it is curtailed by reason of pressure this Session to some extent, that the right of Members to discuss matters downstairs shall be continued. One of the reasons why progress is made upstairs is that reporters are seldom there. Occasionally, when you get a Bill of local interest, or a particular Member is known to be going to speak, his local reporter, or the agency acting for the particular local paper, may 845 send down, but as a rule there is no speaking to the Press, upstairs. That facilitates business. In a matter of policy, often discussed on the Estimates, I think it is an advantage to have the matter discussed on the floor of the House. I see in the first Resolution another point in regard to Standing Committees. The words are on the White Paper. They say:The procedure in these Committees shall be the same as in the Select Committee unless the House otherwise order.That may surprise hon. Members, and it may surprise them still more to find that the words are actually in the Standing Orders. May I point out that the procedure of Grand Committees upstairs is totally different to what is understood by a Select Committee? In the ordinary Select Committee the Chairman has power to call witnesses, and each Member has power to ask questions, and there are various details of that sort. The procedure in Grand Committee, as hon. Members know, is exactly the same as down here with the Speaker in the Chair or with the Chairman of Ways and Means in the Chair. There is no initiative in the Chairman. The words appear to be repeated here from the Standing Order, but they are very misleading. I have asked one or two of the officials if they could explain as to what was the actual allusion in these words, "Shall be the same, as in a Select Committee" was, and they said they could not. I do not at present feel that it would be of benefit to the Estimates, or for the benefit of Progress, if the Estimates were referred to Grand Committee upstairs, even if steps were taken to secure a quorum being present. There is one matter, perhaps, I might be allowed to mention, if the Government are going to refer more legislation to Grand Committee. I may say that at present there is no means of suspending a Bill in course of consideration. It may frequently happen that something will delay the procedure of the Bill and make it desirable that it should be postponed and proceeded with, it may be, a month later. That can be done in the House, which may put a Bill off for a month. But once upstairs we begin a Bill we must go through. Another Bill can be taken in the interval downstairs, but not upstairs.
There is another detail which I would commend to the consideration of the Attorney-General, that is with reference to the Scottish Grand Committee. We are talking of placing Members of this House 846 in their right capacities, and of the delegation of work. I have never seen why this House should be burdened by having to appoint fifteen additional Members on the Scottish Committee which consists of all the Scottish Members. The additional Members do not as a rule attend. They feel themselves out of place. We might as well, I think, leave the Scottish Committee to manage its own affairs in questions that are delegated to it, and matters of home rule, and so on, without giving effect to the Rule that necessitates the appointment of fifteen additional Members. There is another detail which, as a Chairman of the Panel, I may point out, and that is that if there is going to be a continuous sitting there should be a change in the Standing Order, by which it should be a recognised right of one Chairman to take the place of another Chairman in the case of illness or necessity. We pass an Amendment at the beginning of each Session that the Chairman may be allowed to ask another Chairman to take the place, but the Standing Order says that the Panel of Chairmen shall appoint a Chairman of each particular Committee. It does not give any power to relieve the Chairman. These are mere details, perhaps, but as we are having general review of matters embodied in many Amendments, I think I might call the attention of the Attorney-General to some of these points for the time when he is considering details. The main question, however, to which I feel I wish to call attention, or to emphasise, is that to delegate the Estimates to Grand Committee, as contemplated, will not be carrying out the recommendations of any previous Committee of this House on the subject.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I think this Debate has been very interesting. I need not say that I expected a Debate, and the whole discussion of this subject, to be very interesting, and perhaps more interesting to the members of the Government who are responsible for seeing these Rules carried into effect. As the Leader of the House I have had some experience of the making of proposals of this kind before. I remember when the present Foreign Secretary made a great effort to improve the machinery of our procedure, and those who have studied the subject know what an immense amount of time was spent upon it, and how in the end we had to be content with very little progress. I can assure the House that the 847 Government fully realise the difficulty of any task such as that we have undertaken. If there is anything that can be represented as interfering with the rights and privileges of Members of this House there is always great difficulty to be overcome before a change of that kind can be made.
We recognise all that, but the House of Commons recognises something else, and it is that circumstances are not only unusual but unprecedented, and there has been more than four years of a terrible war, and during that time the ordinary social legislation has fallen into arrear. The War itself has created a new atmosphere in this country. Things have got to be done, and without undue delay. In these circumstances it is perfectly hopeless for the House of Commons to approach a subject like this in the frame of mind that would be adopted in ordinary times. My Noble Friend the Member for Oxford University (Lord H. Cecil), in a speech of special interest, dealt largely with a subject with which he is very familiar, and he pointed out—and every hon. Member of the House must recognise it—that it is important, and it was never more important than it is now, that the position of the House of Commons, not only in our own minds but in the minds of those outside, should be one which will command due respect.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) dealt with the same subject, but I do not think that he took the whole position in his view. He said, looking at the trouble outside, that this House stands between the people of this country and action, which means revolution, and he said that if the feeling rose outside that we cannot have free discussions and things are burked, all chance of the House of Commons acting as a bulwark is gone. There is some truth in that, but there is a great deal more truth in this, that if as a result of our sticking to what is thought to be right in the method of our procedure it is found that the House of Commons cannot do the work the country expects it to do, in that case the result would be ten times more disastrous. It is true, as the Attorney-General said, that we have tried to make these proposals as modest as in our view the needs of the situation require, and that has been our aim.
I ask the House of Commons now to come down to more commonplace things 848 from the serious aspect I have put before it. There has never been any change in the procedure of this House which has not been held by the Opposition and by a large number of private Members to be the end of the House of Commons and to mean that everything was going to pieces. I believe that was said of another institution of which the Attorney-General is a representative. The House remembers the accounts given in some well-known novels, which did not exaggerate, of the delay in changes in our legal procedure, but it is a fact that that body of lawyers, which is as intelligent as any existing in the country, when it was contended that the old practice was an absurdity, almost as a whole opposed changes, and they argued that if the changes suggested were adopted there would be no more justice in England. We must not look at questions from that point of view. We have to look at it from the point of view that the thing has got to be done, and looking at it from that point of view I am disappointed at the reception that has been given to our proposals. I knew that they would be looked upon with great suspicion but that would be true of any proposals on this subject we could make. I am satisfied that the Member for Halifax is wrong when he says that we shall not get them through in anything like the present form. I am sure that unless we get them through in a form which makes us able to do the work we have undertaken, then we cannot undertake the work.
Look at the reception which has been given to our proposals for a devolution to Grand Committees. This has been welcomed and there has hardly been a word said upon that question. My Noble Friend the Member for Oxford University did not exaggerate the facts of the position when he pointed to the ordinary procedure of this House. This House does not do the work of Committees at all unless it is dealing with some great subject like Home Rule, and then the House is full, but when we come to the ordinary procedings in Committee the House does not act as a Committee in that sense. For that purpose Grand Committees are much more effective, and I hope they will do the work much better. I am sanguine enough to believe that by this arrangement, and by making the Members who belong to these Committees feel that they are dealing with these big subjects, they will take more interest in their work than they did under the old system, and their respect for the 849 House will be increased. I think that proposal has been generally accepted, and it will meet a very grave difficulty.
My Noble friend took exception to the idea that these Grand Committees should sit at the same time as the House of Commons. I can assure him and the House that we have no interest in the matter either one way or the other from this point of view. As a matter of fact, all these proposals which we have submitted here have been considered over and over again by those whom we thought from our experience were most competent to advise the Government, and as, a matter of fact the first draft of our proposals was in the exact form recommended by my Noble Friend. Nevertheless, we came to the conclusion that that would not work so well as the proposal we are making. All the objections to our proposals are on the assumption that the Grand Committees must sit while the House of Commons is sitting, but that is not what we propose. We propose that they shall be in the same position as the Select Committees, and if it seems necessary they should be ready to sit while the House is not sitting, if they should think it necessary to do so. All these things have been looked upon by those interested in the light of our own experience, and it seems to us that when the Standing Committees could not get through their work in the time, the probable procedure would be that they would sit from 11 or 11.30, and adjourn to enable Members to attend questions, and when there was any necessity for them going on they might meet again at 4 o'clock and go on for two or three hours. Of course, that would rest with the Standing Committees themselves, and it would depend upon whether or not on that particular day it seemed possible to do these things, having regard to the general business of the House.
Another mistake made was the idea that all the Committees would meet at once, but that is not so. We all thought on the whole this method would be better than the proposal of my Noble Friend. We want machinery that will enable the business to be done. We knew there would be much criticism, and we had some experience yesterday of the speeches made against our proposals, but I should like to see any other body of Members produce proposals which would not be subject to at least as much criticism as these. Let me look at some of the other proposals which have been made before. 850 One of the objections is to what is called the kangaroo closure. I was glad to find that most of the speeches recognised that that was one of the best methods of expediting business. A suggestion made by my Noble Friend that, perhaps, something could be done in the way of having the Amendments specified in advance would possibly be an advantage. I do not say it is impossible, but I see grave objection, because it is only those Members who have been on the Grand Committees who would be ready to put Amendments right away. I think, however, I may take it altogether the House is in favour of the kangaroo closure.
Now I come to the power of the guillotine to bring the Debate to a close. I want the House to consider what it is we are asking. I know it will be discussed when the time comes, and we shall defend it as well as we can; but I do ask the House of Commons, and the new Members as well as the old, to remember that, however much you prize the liberty of individual Members of this House—and the authority of hon. Members is something we have to keep in mind—we really have got to consider that the rights of private Members and individual Members ought not to be considered of such a nature as to deprive the vast majority of the House of the rights they are entitled to in this Assembly. There are none of us who has been a long time in this House who have not over and over again seen occasions when individual Members, or perhaps half a dozen, at a late sitting, have, by means of raising new Clause after new Clause, been able to keep the House sitting hour after hour against the will of 99 Members out of 100.
That is the kind of evil against which this particular proposal was intended to guard. On the face of it it seems drastic, but to put it, as it was put by one hon. Member, that a Minister can bring the discussion to an end at any time is absurd. Any proposal of this kind which tries to improve our procedure without at the same time depriving us of legitimate rights must rest on the impartiality of the Chair. I quite admit that it is undesirable to throw more responsibility on the Chair than we can help, but in reality this is not a guillotine motion enabling a Bill to be brought to an end at any time or saying that you must finish so and so at a given time. If the House only has faith in the Chair, it will recognise that it is a power which will only be used for the express purpose for which we ask it, namely, that 851 the rights and privileges of a particular Member shall not be used to deprive the Members as a whole of the rights to which they are entitled.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I say that it depends upon the Chair. You must fall back upon the Chair. Either you must give the minority power to prevent the majority carrying out their wishes and the wishes of their constituents or you must leave a large amount of responsibility and power to the Chair. The financial proposals have been condemned by every speaker, but I am a little inclined to think that they have been condemned by a consideration of names rather than of realities. They do not, of course, mean as my hon. Friend pointed out the adoption of the proposal recommended by the Expenditure Committee. It was an entirely different proposal, and I am inclined to think, whether it can be done this Session or not—and certainly when I was at the Treasury I realised the importance of it—that we shall have to adopt as a permanent part of our machinery something which will mean a re-examination from the spending point of view of the Estimates; but I am making no promise in regard to it. That is not the object of these proposals. We are now dealing with the congestion of business and the necessity of getting through an unusual amount of work especially in this Session. After we had gone through all the other proposals we came to consider whether, without disadvantage to the country, some saving of time might not be made also in regard to the financial proposals. My Noble Friend suggested that we should even send the Budget to a Standing Committee upstairs. I wonder what our financial experts would have said if we had made that proposal.
§ Lord H. CECIL
There are two Committee Stages in a Budget. There is the Committee of Ways and Means in which the Budget is introduced, and there is the Committee stage on the Finance Bill. It seems to me that the Finance Bill could be just as well criticised in Grand Committee as any other Bill.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I know as well as most people that there is a Committee stage of the Finance Bill, but I should be greatly surprised if the objection to sending the Estimates upstairs would not have been ten times greater if we had suggested sending the Finance Bill to a Grand Committee. We had to consider whether there could be any saving of time without damage to the public service of the House. I want to point out that in the first place this proposal is only for one year. It is a Sessional Order, and it is intended to see how it works. Its main object, from the point of view from which I am now considering it, is that it will save us something like eight or nine days in this House. Is that a disadvantage? I ask the House, and I ask old Members of the House who have had experience, to consider what happens now in the examination of the Estimates. They are not examined at all, as my Noble Friend pointed out. The only use of Supply is to criticise the policy of the Government or of the Department. Of course, if we seek to deprive the House of that opportunity, that is clearly something to which the House ought not to submit. But we do not do that. What happens now? Every old Member knows that twenty days are taken up by different subjects which are selected in the main by the Opposition of the day. The great mass of Supply goes through without discussion at all under the guillotine at the end of Supply. There are twelve days on Report, and there is not a single subject which can be considered in Committee which cannot be considered on Report. My right hon. Friend opposite (Sir D. Maclean) rather surprised me when he said that by carrying out this proposal we were selling our birthright for a mess of pottage. He said that after telling us that the Grand Committees were far more competent and more likely to do the detail work of examination much more thoroughly. What sense is there in that unless the House has no other opportunity of criticising policy?
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I was dealing with the question of the House of Commons losing its control as a House over finance. That is the principle involved.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I quite realise that. There is not a Vote of any kind under the existing proposals that can go through unless the House of Commons allows it to go through, and its control over Report is precisely the same as its control over Committee. Indeed, my right hon. Friend 853 showed that himself. He gave us one of the reasons why Report was not so good. He said it required a Seconder for any Amendment. Really have we come to this, that the House of Commons is selling its birthright for a mess of pottage because it will not discuss something on which two Members are not willing to act together?
§ Sir C. HENRY
Is the right hon. Gentleman certain that this gives twelve days on Report for Supply?
§ Sir C. HENRY
This is rather an important point. A good many of these days of Supply would be taken up by the Army and Navy, the Civil Service and Revenue Departments. The right hon. Gentleman's argument was that this House would be able on Report to review the Supply relegated to the Committee upstairs.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I had not quite finished what I had to say on that subject. The effect of our proposal is that twelve days, instead of twenty, would be given to supply, but so far as those twelve days go, the House would have the same opportunity of discussing what it wants as it has under the existing arrangements. I do think, though a Standing Committee cannot do the work of such a Finance Committee as I suggest, that if it really takes an interest in the Estimates as Estimates, there is some chance of them being examined from that point of view, and that is certainly what ought to be done. I now come to the loss of opportunities for airing grievances. It is quite true that under our present system twenty days have to be given for subjects not chosen by the Government, and that under this system there will betwelve days that will come under that category. I ask the House of Commons to judge the matter by their experience and also to have a certain amount of confidence in the House and its Leader. Always during the last two years—I cannot speak for any longer period—whenever there was any general desire in the House to discuss any subject of given policy which came under Supply, we gave a day for it, unless the pressure of business was so great that it was impossible. We hope by this arrangement that there will be more time available, and that one direct result will be that there will be a far larger number of opportuni- 854 ties of discussing the big subjects which the House of Commons wishes to discuss instead of the smaller ones.
I think after what I have said, whatever view the House may take and however unwilling they may be to change, that they will realise that there is something to be said for our proposals. They are not so drastic as hon. Members imagine, and at all events we only ask that they should be given a trial for a year. It is necessity which has made us bring them forward. My Noble Friend spoke of the good old days of the first Pitt and of the way in which the House has lost its respect since then. In those old days the whole speaking of the House of Commons was done by a score or two of Members, and there was no need to interfere by such proposals as we are making. Now it is quite different. There are 707 Members of this House, and there is not one of them of whom we could not say, as was said by Cicero, "It is no credit to a man to be able to express what he thinks; it is a disgrace if he cannot do it." The whole of them can speak, many of them want to speak, and their constituents in many cases expect them to speak. It is an entirely new situation, and we really have got to do what we can to make the House of Commons as interesting as possible to their private Members. We certainly have to do that, and I believe this proposal will add to its interest. I do appeal to Members to face this problem now in a different spirit from that which it would have been faced at any time since I have been a Member of the House, and to realise that something of this kind has got to be done and done quickly. Whatever else may be done to retain the respect of the House of Commons, if this is not done, and we are unable to fulfil the promises which we all made, the House of Commons will be condemned for that more than on any other account.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
The right hon. Gentleman makes this great mistake, that he does not realise that this is the first House of Commons in which there is no Opposition. His plans are laid for the same desperate Opposition that we have known in past Parliaments. In this Parliament there can be no Opposition. There is nobody here who wishes to conduct an Opposition such as was carried on in the old days. It may be that there is more business to be done, but it cannot fail to get through this House 855 much more quickly than it would have done in any Parliament of which he or I have any recollection. There is this also to be remembered, that the Government could have called Parliament together earlier than it has done, and could have started its legislation earlier, if it had had the foresight to get that legislation prepared beforehand. The Government must not put the blame on private Members of Parliament if things go less quickly than they expect, because they are partly responsible through not having brought forward their measures early enough. I must say that the right hon. Gentleman makes out a fairly good case for these reforms of procedure, and I will only urge him to amend them in certain directions, partly in those indicated by the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University (Lord Hugh Cecil), and above all not to commit us to making the changes in the treatment of Supply a permanent instead of a temporary measure.
The origin of Parliament was, of course, to vote money for the King, but immediately Parliament was called together for that purpose it took upon itself the primary duty of redressing the grievances of the people of the country. Both the redress of grievances and the voting of money came centuries before the question of legislation by Parliament arose, and I see in the sending of Supply upstairs to a Grand Committee a serious limitation of that primary duty of Parliament. The criticism of the Executive at the present time takes place very largely at Question time, but manifestly that is unsatisfactory for all sorts of detailed criticism of any Government Department. The real reason why we debate the Estimates, be they for the Home Office, the Colonial Office, or the India Office, is that it enables us to point out to the Government what the people, of the country object to in the administration of the various Departments. For instance, when the Home Office Vote comes up we do not go into the question of how much the London police are paid, or how much the inspectors of factories cost, but we discuss the question whether conscientious objectors should continue in prison any longer. That is the only means this House has for bringing before the Government a particular point of view—it may be an unpopular one—and over and over again the criticism of private members of Govern- 856 ment Departments, although it very seldom results in a Vote against the Government, does induce the Government to modify, and it may be possibly radically change, its policy. I do not want these opportunities to go from the House of Commons. Perhaps the most ennobling feature of the House has been the way in which it has looked after the interests of the black races in Africa. That is done on the Colonial Vote. If we are going to send these Votes to a Grand Committee upstairs it is true those who happen to be fortunate enough to be on the Committee will be able to raise these questions, but they will only do so before an audience of twenty appointed Members, instead of one consisting of forty millions of people. The Debates in Grand Committee upstairs have certain great merits. Everybody is present throughout the sitting. A Member can write his letters and listen to the Debate at the same time, and nobody votes who has not heard all the arguments. It is very different down here. But then not a word said in Grand Committee upstairs is reported. If we want to raise the question of taxation of the natives of the Gold Coast in connection with the nut kernel and if we do it here it is reported in the newspapers which go out to East Africa and it shows the people there that we are looking after the interests of the natives. But in Grand Committee nothing of that sort can possibly take place. It is the right of criticism of the various Government Departments on the floor of the House that we desire to secure. We want our words reported, we want to be able to address an audience drawn from all sections of the House, and not merely composed of a certain number of selected Members.
I press the Government, I will not say to give way, because their proposals are merely of a temporary character for this year, but not to imagine that any legislative facility is going to achieve their object. After all, there is a great deal of unnecessary legislation; the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that many Bills passed during the last fifteen years have become dead letters, and it is not impossible that some of the Bills being prepared now, by which it is hoped to establish a new England, may also prove dead letters in the near future. I want the Government to remember that legislation is a secondary feature of Parliamentary life. The primary feature is 857 criticism of the Executive and the translating the complaints of the people into effective action by the legislature under the pressure of the peoples' representatives. Criticism of the Estimates may be very useful. It may be usefully carried out before the final Estimate is presented to Parliament, but the main thing is criticism of the policy of the Department. All Departments require constant criticism. They get it at Question time, but it can be applied far more effectively when the Vote for the Department is brought forward. Another point I wish to press on the right hon. Gentleman is that the Grand Committees cannot be too large. They can easily be too small. I have perhaps seen more Grand Committee work than any other hon. Member present, but over and over again I have found that of a Grand Committee which is supposed to consist of eighty members it is only possible to get twenty-five or thirty to attend, and very frequently it is not possible to get even a quorum of twenty. For instance, there was a Grand Committee on the Emigration Bill last Session. It tried to meet week after week, but only two meetings were found possible, and on the remaining eight or ten occasions no quorum could be made. If you are going to cut down the Grand Committee from eighty to fifty you will find it more difficult to get a quorum than it has been in the past. Again, these Committees are very apt to be packed. It is the right of every Member of the House to criticise every measure brought forward. If you restrict the number of the Committees, Members will very likely be ruled out either by the pressure of the Government or by the caucus, and they may be prevented sitting on Committees of the utmost importance. It may be that people who have Amendments down to the Bill may not be allowed to be on the Committee simply and solely because it is feared they may delay its passage into law. But it is often possible by putting Amendments down to make quite clear to the Government the point of view of the minority and to ultimately convince the Government of the undesirability of that particular type of legislation. But if you are going to severely restrict the numbers of the Grand Committee, to restrict the number of extra Members who may be added for a special Bill, and it is done by the Government—I do not say it is done by the right hon. Gentleman, but it is done by people who advise 858 him—you may keep off a Member who is interesting himself in the measure. When we come to deal with that question, I hope we shall meet with generous treatment in regard to the number of Members who can be added to the Committee for a special Bill. There is no real reason why an hon. Member should not be on several Grand Committees, because it does not follow that they will all meet on the same day.
There is one other point. The principle of the selection of Amendments is apt to work extremely harshly if the Speaker or the Chairman of the Committee upstairs does not consult the Member who puts down the Amendment. If, having prepared your case and having gone to some trouble to collect your evidence, you find, at a moment's notice, your Amendment has been "kangarooed" and subsequent Clauses are being discussed, it destroys one' sheart and it puts an end to that amicable feeling which is the only possible feeling under which satisfactory legislation can be produced. I do strongly urge that the suggestion by the Noble Lord opposite in this respect should be adopted. It is quite practicable to get the Amendments printed within five days of the Committee being completed. There are rarely any Members anxious to put down, on the Report stage, Amendments to a Bill which has been in Grand Committee unless they have also been in the Committee upstairs. The fact of being on the Committee creates a real interest in the Bill. One knows the points which have caused the closest Divisions and which have aroused the keenest interest in the discussion, but, generally speaking, very few Members who have not been in Committee upstairs care to discuss a Bill on the Report stage. There are, of course, exceptions, because if a Member is kept off the Committee upstairs, as was done, I believe, on a solitary occasion, the result is that when the Bill came up on Report that hon. Member moves his Amendments. On the occasion I have referred to, I believe the hon. Member compelled the House to sit up two nights in succession to discuss his Amendments. I am afraid this drastic system of closure is directed solely against action such as that. When a Member feels he has been unfairly treated by being kept off a Committee, he naturally gets his own back when the Bill comes back to the House on Report. Although these reforms of procedure may be necessary, it is important that the one dealing with Supply going 859 upstairs should be merely temporary and not permanent, and, secondly, it is important that your Grand Committee should be made a true reflex of the House of Commons, and should embrace as many as possible of those who are interested; it should not be devised so as to keep off those who are interested; it should not be confined to those who can be trusted to vote straight. We want to get our work done, we want the business of the House done, and we want, at the same time, to retain the dignity of the position of the Member of Parliament. That can be accomplished if the right hon. Gentleman does not seek to use these reforms of procedure as a weapon of autocracy, and if he will give private Members a chance to do their best for their country, to impress themselves upon the legislation, and at the same time have a free hand in criticising the heads of Departments.
§ 8.0 P.M.
§ Mr. SEDDON
I have listened to this Debate with very great interest, but with some considerable concern. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House almost entirely. He pointed out that we were living in new times. I remember coming into this House in 1906 as a young man with great ambitions and great desires, and one of the things that tended to break my heart was the fact that I had to come here and listen to speeches that were purely obstructive—speeches delivered against the Government by men who, when they changed their positions and came over on to the Government Benches, complained because those who were facing them were following their own example in wasting the time of the House and preventing legislation. The Noble Lord (Lord H. Cecil) made a very interesting speech. I would not term him a mediæval, because I think he has some progressive views. [An Hon. Member: "More than you have!"] That is a matter of opinion. I am quite sure there are other people who would agree that his views are very reactionary. The Noble Lord, I think, recognises the new conditions under which we are living. It has been said, quite truly, that the Government have undertaken a great programme of social reform. The flippant remark outside the House made by the great mass of the workers is that this is merely the national gasworks, that the only, thing that is done here is to talk, and I have 860 heard the House described as the Stock Exchange of politics, where men with ambition simply talk because they expect to get on the Treasury Bench. That is not good, so far as this House and its authority are concerned. The Noble Lord called our attention to the fact that in the days of Pitt this House had the confidence of its Members, and had control over the country. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) said that the House had lost its control over the country. The Noble Lord was referring to a time out of harmony with the present time, and he was reminded by the Leader of the House that it was a period when not more than a score of men would take up the time of the House. I would point out to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) that the great mass of the people of this country are looking to this Chamber to remove social wrongs in the quickest possible time and to do it effectively.
§ Mr. SEDDON
As one who has sat on Grand Committees I say that the real work is done in Grand Committees. The Members who go upstairs have not got their eye on the Press Gallery; they are there with a desire to accelerate the legislation of the country by what they contribute. I endorse whole-heartedly the proposals of the Government, because they are merely experimental. I do not care how drastic the changes may be, if they are going to save us from greater calamities in the country and to give the people a real belief in the honesty of this Chamber and that it is trying to build England upon saner, sounder, and more just lines. I am very anxious that the housing question and all these other great reforms that have been promised, including transit, and all that is so much in arrears, shall be dealt with this Session. Unless some proposals like these are adopted, it will be physically impossible for the House in this Session or next Session, or even during its lifetime, to carry out the promises, honestly made I believe by the Government, in order to prevent a revolution taking place in this country. I, therefore, ask hon. Members, not to be carried away by the remarks of some of the older Members about the traditions and the rights of private Members of this House. Our only rights are that we 861 shall carry out our promises, and the only way in which we can carry out our promises is to make the machinery of legislation work so easily and smoothly that that can be done in the quickest possible time.
One of the complaints against the Government proposals is made in regard to the question of the discussion of finance. I can well understand the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) feeling very perturbed about these proposals, because when I sat in this House in other Parliaments I certainly did admire his ability and agility in chasing little details which seemed to escape the notice of every other person. In fact, he was the champion discoverer of missing commas and semicolons. I can quite understand that he will feel almost like Othello, that his occupation will be gone, if he is not able to take part in that particular work in which he excelled in former Parliaments. With regard to finance—I am ashamed to say it, but it is an honest confession—I have often been outside the House and have then come back to vote millions away. There has been no discussion whatever. We have simply been told by the Whips, "To the right" or "To the left," and we have gone to the right or left, and then next day, if we have taken the trouble to read the reports of the Debate, we have discovered that we have been enabling the Government to spend millions of money by giving that vote, when we really did not know whether giving them the right to spend it was for or against the interests of the country. In reference to finance, a number of people in this House are experts. It is not given to every man to be an expert on finance; indeed, most people like myself, who belong to the working class, have never had any experience in what is called "high finance." We have not talked about millions in our lives; we have been confined to dealing with shillings. It is the work of the experts to criticise the Estimates, and when they have done so in the interests of the country, then the work of this House has been done so far as the spending of the money for the nation is concerned.
§ Mr. SEDDON
I want to make a suggestion to the Leader of the House. A complaint has been made about the lack 862 of attendance in Grand Committees. I would wish to see a report day by day of the attendance of each Member who is put upon a Grand Committee. Hon. Members are now in receipt of as alary, and that being the case the country has a right to know whether or not hon. Members are doing their work. The Members of this House are sent here to help in legislation and to wisely assist the Government in running the country. It is grossly unfair to the Government, to the House, and to his constituents, when a Member is returned to this House and fails in his duty by not attending in Grand Committee or even in the Chamber itself. I do not suggest that the alteration should be made at this time, but I make the proposal sincerely in the interest of the good name of this House with the country. We have to rehabilitate this House in the good opinion of the country. We can do it when they know that everyone sent here is doing his duty to the country and not merely drawing his money as an absent Member. I hope the Leader of the House will maintain the position he has taken up. He has told us that these proposals are the result of inquiry, and the very best the Government can devise at the present time. They are merely experimental for the moment, and I ask all hon. Members to give the Government the right to put these proposals into operation for a year, so that we can get on with the legislation; then, if at the end of the year we find that they can fee amended or improved, I am quite sure the Government would be prepared to listen to the result of the experience of this Session, and if it is found that something can be improved they will readily make any improvement they can in the conduct of the business of the House, as they are very anxious to get their proposals through.
§ Colonel Sir ROBERT WILLIAMS
I do not desire to go into the general question, because most of the points already mentioned will come up for discussion on different Amendments; but I wish particularly to say a word to the Leader of the House with regard to the provisions respecting the Estimates. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) mentioned the National Expenditure Committee of last year, and the decisions to which they came. Old Members of the House will know there was a Committee on Estimates set up on the same lines as the Public Accounts Committee. The Committee of Public Accounts 863 is one that examines the way the money has been spent; it has the opportunity of calling before it all the officials who spend the money, and of examining them very closely upon the way in which the money has been spent—not only whether it has been spent in accordance with the general wishes of the House, but also whether it has been spent in accordance with the actual purpose for which the identical pounds were voted in Committee of the House a year before. That Committee exercised a very salutary effect upon the spending bodies of the nation, because they knew that they had an expert body—a very small body—which could call witnesses and every member of which could examine witnesses in order to make sure that the money had been spent for the exact purposes for which it was voted by the House. It is proposed that that should be extended to the Estimates, and that when the Estimates come before the House they should be referred to a small Committee—it might be a Committee of sixteen Members, like the Public Accounts Committee, or it might be a larger Committee—who should have power to call witnesses and make the permanent officials, who, after all, are responsible for the details of the Estimates, justify the items in those Estimates. It has been tried in three Sessions. The right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London was Chairman of that Committee. In those three years the Estimates Committee went very thoroughly into one or two of the Estimates for the year. I think they took the Civil Service Estimates one year and other Estimates in other years. If the House is going to examine and keep a proper check over the Estimates in detail, it is impossible to do it in regard to more than a certain number of Estimates in the course of each Session. Hon. Members will realise that the money voted last year by millions had really been before the House in very small amounts indeed, often in token amounts as low as £25 and £20. It would be impossible for the whole House to examine Estimates in that way. Therefore, it is a great pity that the Government are not prepared to set up a Committee on Estimates which can discuss them fully and give the House a real opportunity of checking permanent officials who bring in the Estimates. The Minister, of course, brings in the Estimates in bulk. You cannot possibly make a Minister responsible for every 864 single item in the Estimates. If you questioned him upon any particular item he would have to go to the permanent officials close by and ask them what was the explanation, whereas you want before you the man responsible for putting the £100 or £l,000 down and make him justify not only the one answer, but the criticisms of four or five Members who know a good deal about the subject under discussion in order that, if possible, the Estimates may be reduced slightly, but at all events that the Estimates in the next year may be more carefully prepared with an eye to real economy and efficiency. Therefore I hope the Leader of the House will be able to tell us that he has not put that Estimates Committee out of his mind altogether, and that it may be possible that we shall have the Estimates Committee at the same time as his new proposal for sending the Estimates to a Committee. If he sets up the Committee of Estimates, I should like to remind old Members, and tell new Members, that it was a proposal which was made by a very strong Committee representing all sections of the House and composed of men who have had experience of every part of the House's work.
But if he adopts the Committee of Estimates, is there any use in sending the Estimates to a Grand Committee? Is it not better to let the discussion of the main lines of the Estimates go on in the House itself while the details are referred to a Select Committee? I differ from the view of the functions of this House taken by the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Colonel Wedgwood). I quite realise that we are here to take care that the grievances of the nation are properly aired—the grievances of the nation, not necessarily the grievances of individuals, and a great portion of the time of the House at present, at Question Time, and also in Committee, I believe, is taken up with very small questions which Members are asked to bring forward by their constituents. They are really Departmental questions, but on them very often we hang a whole evening or a half-evening's proceedings, with great discredit, as I think, to ourselves. What the House wants to realise, and what in the last ten or fifteen years it has forgotten, is that it is after all the great Assembly of the nation, and we are here not for the particular individual in small matters, but to see that the main work of the nation is done, and if we can leave details to a great extent and talk 865 more of principles, if we can begin to realise that the nation want these Bills passed—it may be right or wrong—I hope we shall set ourselves to pass these Bills, and that a good deal of the old party feeling will die away by which it was always held necessary, if a Government proposed a thing, to oppose it at once. Because it came from the Treasury Bench it was to be picked to pieces with carping party criticism, and criticism which was faked up for the moment in order to make a speech and delay business. I think that spirit has prevailed a great deal too much in the last ten or twelve years. I hope this new House will set itself much more to seeing that Acts of Parliament come out after wise and careful consideration, and that we shall not give ourselves up to small criticism and opposing just for the sake of opposing.
Captain STANLEY WILSON
Having been a Member for close on nineteen years I feel that I have some right to make some observations with regard to the suggested changes. The Leader of the House made one of his most persuasive and eloquent speeches, but I regret to tell him he has not entirely convinced me of the necessity of this proposal, and I feel sure he has not convinced a considerable number of the older Members of the House. I cannot see really the absolute necessity for the drastic changes that the Government propose to make. I earnestly trust that Members are going to consider carefully the votes they may give, because if these Rules are passed as they stand the consequences will be extremely serious for the future of Parliamentary life. I believe private Members who vote for these proposals will be depriving themselves of the last few remaining powers that they have, and they will be placing the House more and more under the control of the Government of the day. I cannot help being astonished at the fact that the first action of the Government in this entirely new Parliament should be to endeavour to remove every obstacle from their path. We had the Bill that we discussed yesterday and again this afternoon, and now we have these new proposals, whose aim and object is to clear the path of the Government and enable them to get their business through. I feel that when considering the Rules of Procedure within the walls of the House Members ought to be allowed to give a free and unfettered vote, and it would be very wrong of the Government if they imposed the Government Whips.
866 My first desire is to make a very strong protest against the action of the Government in having brought forward these proposals at such a moment as the present. We have here a new House of Commons, made up, more than half of it, of new Members who know absolutely nothing about the procedure within those walls, and therefore cannot be expected to judge fairly whether those Rules are right or wrong, and they will naturally follow the advice that is given them by the Government they have been sent here to support. I hope the older Members of the House will also offer their advice to the new Members with regard to these proposals. I very much regret the absence of the Foreign Secretary in Paris, because there is no man in the House who has a greater knowledge of the Rules of Procedure. I wonder whether the proposed changes mave been submitted to his consideration. It would weigh with me a good deal if I knew that they had received his complete and absolute approval. I well remember that when Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman proposed the first setting up of the four Standing Committees it aroused very strong opposition from the Foreign Secretary, and if he is going to approve of the present considerable increase he has very much changed his attitude from that time. The present procedure in this House has stood the test of time, and now the Government, in order to save themselves trouble, are going to completely alter that procedure. I warn the Government that they are forging a weapon which some day in the future will be used against them. I cannot for the life of me see the real necessity for these great changes. We have a Government in office supported by the greatest majority that any Government has had in modern times, and we have a House which, at the General Election, agreed to the proposals of the Government so far as they have been foreshadowed in respect to reconstruction and social reform. I cannot see, therefore, where the obstruction which the Government evidently fear is going to come from, and which they intend to meet by the proposals now put forward. I remember that previous Governments in the early days had a way of dealing with obstruction as it arose, but that method does not appeal to the present Government. It was by an occasional all-night sitting. New Members, so far as I can see, are going to be deprived of the occasional enjoyment that we used to have 867 years ago of an all-night sitting. I can assure new Members that if ever they do find it necessary to oppose vehemently any action or any Bill or any policy of the Government they will gain far more honour and glory by fighting them here on the floor of the House than they can ever gain by opposing the Government in the privacy of the Committee Rooms upstairs.
The day may come again when we shall revert to party politics and we shall again have subjects of an extremely controversial character which ought to be fully discussed and debated on the floor of the House. If these Rules are passed private Members will be deprived of the few powers that are left to them. Already the Government have in their hands great powers for the prevention of obstruction. They have the Closure, and they have the Kangaroo Closure, and I do most strongly object to the new Closure which is proposed in these Rules. That is one of the things which I very much regret the Leader of the House did not tell us he could see his way to withdraw. A good many Members have accepted the proposal as to the increase of Grand Committees from four to six. I have had a certain amount of experience of Grand Committees, but not so much as my hon. Friend (Colonel Wedgwood). I was on the Committee to which he referred which dealt with the Emigration Bill, and I came here on many occasions only to be kept hanging about the lobbies waiting for a quorum which never arrived. I cannot help thinking that that moment may arrive again. At the present moment in a new House, full of new Members enthusiastic to do work, there probably will be no difficulty, but later on we shall find as Members get tired with the heavy work that is being imposed upon them by the Government, that they will be faced with the same situation in regard to Committees with which we have been faced in the past.
I ask hon. Members to think for a moment of the work that they are going to impose upon themselves if these Rules are passed. The Committees may sit at 11, 11.30, or 12 o'clock, as the Committee may arrange, and according to the new Rules they are to sit indefinitely. If hon. Members intend to attend to their duties as their constituents expect them to do they will be kept in this House from 11 or 11.30 in the morning until 11 o'clock at night. 868 The Government are faced with strikes all over the country, and if they impose this drudgery upon the House of Commons I venture to think that the time will come when we shall find the Members of this House striking for an eight-hour day. I can assure hon. Members that they will find an occasional all-night sitting infinitely preferable to the slavery that is going to be imposed upon them by these new Rules. Several Members have said that these Committees are an absolute necessity. That may be so, but there is one thing about these Committees, and that is that they will prevent business men here in London from attending to their duties in the House of Commons. The business men cannot get away from their business to attend Grand Committee work upstairs. Another point is that the lawyers are always prevented from being present at these Committees. The presence of lawyers is, in my opinion, essential on these Committees, because they understand far more about the framing of laws than any other Members of Parliament. What about the Law Officers of the Crown? They are going to have their hands pretty full. We are going to have three or four, or perhaps six, Committees sitting dealing with different Bills. It has always been the custom for previous Governments to have the Law Officers of the Crown present during discussions in Committee to advise the Committee as to the effect of Amendments. I think the Law Officers are going to be overwhelmed with the work to be imposed upon them by these new Rules.
I regret very much to hear from the Leader of the House that he cannot see his way to withdraw his proposals with regard to Supply. Those are the most dangerous proposals of all. With the exception of the hon. Member who has just spoken (Sir R. Williams), they have been, opposed in every speech delivered by a private Member in this Debate. They have most strongly and strenuously opposed the proposal to remove Supply upstairs. I think the Government are making one of the greatest mistakes they have ever made. They are going to establish a precedent. We are told that it is for this Session only, but it is a precedent which every Government will endeavour to follow, because it is going to ease their work. Private Members are going to deprive themselves once again of one of the few opportunities they have of ventilating grievances on the floor of this House. I 869 can assure hon. Members that it is no use ventilating grievances in the Committee Rooms upstairs. Nobody will pay any attention to it. The Press will not bother about it and the public is not going to bother about what happens in Committee rooms upstairs. In regard to a few of the smaller proposals contained in the Rules I am in agreement, such as the abolition of a second Division which is taken occasionally on the Second Heading of a Bill, but that is a very minor matter.
In regard to most of the main proposals contained in the Rules I am opposed to them. The Government have not treated the House at all fairly. Before submitting these proposals they might very well have formed a Committee of the older Members of the House and allowed them to consider the proposals that they were going to make. The fact is, that we have got a Government in a hurry. A day or two ago I asked one of the junior members of the Government what was the reason of these drastic changes. He said, "The Government have got to get a hustle on. They have got a lot of measures to pass." I say that they are taking now an unfair advantage of a new and inexperienced House of Commons and the country, because the Government wish to get this hustle on, is going to be served up with a whole mass of ill-considered legislation. I realise as much as any other Member of the House that the Government have got most important proposals to pass and that these ought to be passed as quickly as possible. But we have here a House of Commons which is ready to give the Government every assistance in its power with regard to proposals for reconstruction, and before proceeding to make such drastic changes as they now propose they might have given the House of Commons a chance first of seeing if they could not carry along on the old lines on which we have worked for so many years. They might for once have adopted the policy of Mr. Asquith to "Wait and See," and they might have found out whether it was really necessary to pass such Rules before proceeding to impose them at the commencement of a new Parliament.
I have discussed these Rules with many of my colleagues, many of the older Members of the House, and I have failed to meet one who is an out and out supporter of the whole of these Rules. I would appeal to the Government to withdraw their proposals, and submit them to a Committee such as I have suggested. 870 The proposals are ill-considered. I know that the Government will refuse to listen to the appeal which I make, and I therefore beg hon. Members to think over most carefully each vote which they give with regard to each of these new Rules, and to consider the future consequences that those new Rules will have for our Parliamentary life. If they are passed they will, I believe, make this Chamber merely the place where we shall have to register the decrees of the Government. We shall do away with the few remaining powers that we private Members have got in this House. I trust very earnestly that those Members who, like myself, are proud of the old traditions of the House of Commons, will see that the Government do not destroy those traditions by passing these Rules.
§ Mr. ADAMSON
The proposals now under discussion are viewed with serious misgiving by Members of the Labour party, on whose behalf I now rise to say a few words. The Attorney-General early in the Debate described these proposals as being an innocent little change in the procedure of the House.
§ Mr. ADAMSON
I am not possibly using the exact words, but am giving the impression conveyed to my mind by certain remarks of the Attorney-General. I am not sure that the Leader of the House, who later on intervened in the Debate, took the same view of the proposals as the Attorney-General. He seemed to think that, from the point of view of the Government, the proposals were of the utmost importance in present conditions. They will undoubtedly limit the activities and reduce the opportunities of private Members and Members who are sitting in Opposition to the Government in particular. One has only to look at the manner in which the proposals of the Government seek to deal with Divisions, with the selection of Amendments, and with the closure of Debates to discover the serious limitations that will be put on private Members and the manner in which opposition to the proposals that may be brought forward by the Government later on can be circumscribed. If one looks at the proposals as they relate to Supply, there is no doubt that the Government are seeking to effect a change that will be for the good neither of this House nor of the country itself. There 871 has recently been a strong movement in favour of the House assuming more effective control over expenditure. If these proposals are carried into effect, instead of having more control over expenditure the House will undoubtedly have less.
I would like to know, if the proposals on the Paper are carried, will they do away with the right of private Members to move Amendments to the Motion, "That the Speaker do leave the Chair," for which right Members balloted only the other day? Further, in the event of Supply being referred to a Standing Committee, is it proposed that a Report of the Debate shall be published? This is a very important point. If more of the work of Parliament is to be done in the Committee Room, then I think that the Government will be bound seriously to consider having reports taken of the proceedings in Committee, in the same way as they have reports taken at the present time of the proceedings in this House. In the present frame of mind of the people of this country, proposals that will limit the power of the House of Commons will undoubtedly increase the dissatisfaction that is manifesting itself in certain quarters with regard to constitutional government in this country. That is a very serious thing and one which I think should receive the careful consideration of the Government. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian and Peebles I am prepared to consider any reasonable proposal that will help to economise the time of this House, and which will enable us to get through a greater amount of work than we are able to accomplish under present conditions. But I am not so very sure if the way in which the Government seek to alter the Rules of Procedure is particularly calculated to accomplish that end. Let me take one of their proposals as an example. I find that it is proposed to reduce the membership of Standing Committees to forty, with the addition often. If twenty is to form the quorum, as under present conditions, I am not sure that a proposal of that kind will have the effect that the Government anticipate. I know that with the present size of Standing Committees it is sometimes very difficult to find a quorum, and again and again the proceedings in Standing Committee have had to be adjourned because of the difficulty 872 of finding a quorum. If you reduce the number in your Standing Committee, that difficulty is increased, and the Government may find that at least some of their proposals are not of the helpful character that they think. There are other directions than those I have named where I think that the Government could have made changes that would have economised time, and possibly enabled us to get through a greater amount of work. They could, for instance, I think, have proposed to shorten speeches in this House. I do not think it would have been very much of a hardship, at least on a large number of Members, if the length of speeches had been considerably curtailed. I think that those introducing a measure or a Motion might have a little liberty as to the length of their speeches, but the speakers who follow could be curtailed to twenty minutes or half an hour, and in that way they would be able to save a considerable amount of time.
There is one Amendment which the Government have not suggested, and which the members of the Labour party regret very much that they have not brought forward. I refer to the hours of the sittings of the House. The Members of the Labour party have never been able to see any useful purpose that is accomplished, so far as the interests of the country are concerned, by the House commencing its sittings at 2.45 in the afternoon and finishing at 11 o'clock in the evening. The tendency all over the industrial system of the country is to shorten hours, and, if not for the sake of Members of the House, I think some alteration is required in the hours of the sittings of the House in the interests of the officials and the attendants of the House. The Labour party would suggest that the House should meet at 12 noon, and adjourn at 8 o'clock. We think we should set an example as to the hours of labour, at least to a number of employers in the country. In following such a suggestion we would only be copying the example of other Parliaments in certain other countries. I understand that in America Parliament meets at 10.30 and adjourns at 4 in the afternoon, and in Holland Parliament meets at 10.30 and adjourns at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. I hope that this suggestion of ours will receive the serious consideration of the House, and particularly of the Government, before we part with the question of the reform of our procedure. The proposals of the Government are of such a 873 serious character that the Members of the Labour party think that the Government would be well advised not to hurriedly make the changes which are involved in the proposals under consideration. We rather take the view that instead of going on now in the method proposed to deal with these proposals, the matter should be referred to a Select Committee and a Committee made up of Members who are thoroughly conversant with the procedure of the House and the relative importance of the business that from time to time comes before the House. We think that if this matter is approached in that way it will provide a better medium for evolving some satisfactory reform, so far as the procedure of the House is concerned, and I hope that the Government will give this suggestion their serious consideration before this Debate closes.
§ 9.0 P.M.
Mr. T. THOMSON
It may seem presumptuous on the part of one of those who have been described by an hon. Member opposite as new Members, who knows absolutely nothing whatsoever of the procedure of this House, to venture to intervene in a Debate of this kind. But it is said that sometimes outsiders see most of the game, so possibly one coming entirely new and without any preconceived ideas may possibly not be entirely out of court in making a remark or two on this subject. It seems to me from what one has seen and read outside that we could have no method of procedure more likely to hinder Bills than the present procedure of the House, and judging by the results of the past it has certainly seemed as if the means of procedure were not outlined so as to carry out business in an expeditious manner. Local authorities are perhaps not comparable in work and dignity with this House, but in most county councils and county borough councils this system of detailing work to Committees has been carried out very successfully, and I cannot but think that instead of detracting from the usefulness of a private Member this suggestion of detailing, as the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford suggested, all the Bills to Grand Committees would give considerably increased opportunities of usefulness to the private Member which he cannot possibly enjoy by discussion on the floor of the House, and I therefore hope the Government will follow the lines suggested in that regard. Might I suggest for the consideration of the Leader of the House the practice that is followed in some 874 localities of allowing Members to attend these Committees even when they are not members of the Committees themselves? That is to say, if a certain number of this House were on the various Grand Committees, it is possible that other Members might like to be present to hear discussions which are taking place, and in some local authorities that is allowed. [Hon. Members: "It is done here!"] But they cannot speak, and that is the point I was coming to. They may be present as strangers, but they cannot speak or ask questions, and that is a practice that is allowed in many localities. They may not vote or move a Resolution, but they may take part by asking questions and by speaking if any particular subject on which they have special knowledge comes up; and in this programme of social reconstruction which is coining before the House there are so many kindred subjects, such as housing, the Ministry of Health, electric power, and so forth, all matters closely associated with local work, that Members would perhaps like to be present at these various Grand Committees, which they could not do if they are only allowed to attend and speak at the meeting of the Committee of which they are special Members. It may not be a practical suggestion in this House, but it works well in certain localities. In regard to the suggestion that the Government's proposal will put a great deal of pressure on Members, I was under the impression that we had come here to make up arrears of social legislation. I was astonished at the criticism which came from the Leader of the Labour party. We are all aware that during the last four and a half tragic years industrial workers have been putting in not merely eight hours, but a considerable amount of overtime in order to keep pace with the demands of the special occasion, and I would suggest that it is our turn now to be willing to give up a considerable amount of extra time in order that these arrears of social legislation, this great programme of social reconstruction which has been outlined by the Government, may have a chance of being carried into effect in the near future. Reference was made by two previous speakers in regard to the effect of these Resolutions on the public outside, but I think their fears are unfounded. I fancy the fears may be very considerable, however, if they see that we are continuing to talk, 875 talk, talk without results. We shall surely be judged as an Assembly by the amount of effective legislation we turn out in the next three or four years, and by going into Grand Committees you will get more effective work done than you do on the floor of the House. Therefore, I think there is a bigger danger in our maintaining our rights of criticism and in sacrificing our rights of effective legislation, and therefore I hope the House, as I, have no doubt it will, will cordially support the Government's proposals.
§ Mr. RENWICK
This is the third time that I have been returned as a Member of this House. The first occasion was in 1900, when the war was in progress in South Africa. There was the usual cry at that time for legislation, and when I came to the House I found there was the usual story from the Labour Benches about the slowness of legislation. The Government of that day decided to go in for curtailing the liberty of Parliament, and especially of the private Member, but they acted differently from the way in which the present Government are acting. The Government which came into power in 1900 had the decency to wait until 1902 before they brought their measure in, but the present Government have not allowed the new Members to have the slightest experience of the present Rules before bringing in their proposals for reform, and I think it is not fair to the new Members. In 1900, as I say, I was returned to this House. In 1906 I was defeated, after we had passed Rules facilitating legislation. In 1906 a Liberal Government came into power, and took advantage of the Rules that had been passed, and got through a lot of legislation. Mark the sequel. In 1908 I came back to the House. In spite of all the legislation that had been passed by the altered Rules, I fought that election on the question of unemployment and pauperism, which were rampant in the country at that time, and I venture to say that if the House gives way to panic legislation now as it did in 1900, it will not be long before again unemployment and pauperism are rampant. We have heard through an hon. Member here that300 Bills have been passed in 276 hours. It is a very large amount of legislation, but whether it is effective in character is a very different matter. I am one of those who think the less legislation we have the better, and hon. Members would be surprised if they knew how many people outside this House 876 hold the same opinion, and especially business men. We do not want any altered procedure in dealing with the housing question, which we all recognise as urgent.
We all recognise that fair play for the wounded soldiers and their dependants is necessary. We also recognise that it is necessary we should try to get a certain number of people back upon the land. We recognise that all these important matters are necessary, and we are quite willing to give them the necessary support to carry them into law. But we do not want a lot of panic legislation. I am speaking now as a business man, and I would say, for God's sake, leave us alone and let us get on with our business! I am connected with one projected company who at the present moment are prepared, if conditions were favourable, to spend anything from £250,000 to £500,000 in developing new works. It is no secret. It is shipbuilding. We have got the land, and are prepared to go on with the work, but, owing to the uncertainty of legislation, we have decided to delay. That is not the only case where employers and manufacturers wish to get on with the extension of works and develop new works, all of which is stopped on account of the danger and fear of panic legislation; and I do appeal to the Government to hesitate before they further curtail the liberties of private Members.
We have heard from the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University that he wants to see the Bills considered upstairs whilst this House is not sitting. That is, to my mind, putting the cart before the horse. We have heard the extraordinary admission that you cannot get Members to attend Standing Committees now. Then what is the good of having more of those Committees? Business men will not come here at eleven o'clock in the morning and sit till eleven o'clock at night. Perhaps some think it is not advisable to have business men here. Others are of a different opinion. I think a good leaven of business men here does an enormous amount of good, but we cannot sit here from eleven in the morning till eleven at night. And I say that if you cannot get a quorum, or barely a quorum, on a Grand Committee, that is not a body to which Bills should be sent. I do hope the House will hesitate before consenting to the Government's proposals. I have no wish whatever to harass the Government. I want to support them in carrying out the 877 measures that are necessary. But it is stretching my loyalty very far to ask me further to curtail the privileges of private Members. This House is really a talking shop. I am quite in agreement with the Leader of the Labour party that speeches should be shorter. I moved a Resolution in the 1906 Parliament in favour of shorter speeches. The late Major Rasch also supported it, and we went on exactly the same lines. We gave the Mover of a Resolution twenty minutes or half an hour, and the other speakers ten minutes. Ten minutes are all that is necessary for a business man to put the salient points of a case. If the Government had proposed that, I should have given them unqualified support, but I cannot do so now. I will not say I will take the responsibility of voting against the Government, but if I had not heard from the Leader of the House that this was only a temporary measure, I should certainly have voted against it.
§ Mr. RENWICK
Then I hope it will apply to the whole of the proposals. Members are sent here because they can speak. One of the leading Members sitting upon the Government Bench came to the House in 1900 and could not get an opportunity to speak, because old Members got up and spoke for half and three-quarters of an hour. I remember his coming to me one night and saying, "Renwick, I am tired of this. I cannot get an opportunity to speak, though I think I know a great deal more of the subject than many Members who speak." He is now one of the leading members of the Government. If not the most leading member. I will not mention his name. I was much struck by the remark of an hon. Member to-night when he said, "Who knows what talent there is amongst new Members?" There may be many men who are experienced in subjects brought forward, but you never find it out until they have an opportunity of speaking. They will never do it in Committee rooms, because they are not reported there. Mr. Asquith, when these proposals in 1902 were brought forward, said this—and I commend this especially to the new Members:He maintained that to tie the tongue of the Mother of Parliaments was a dangerous task. What was Parliament but a talking machine—a machine by which not in dumb show but by the use of speech, and free speech, proposals were 878 forged into a shape in which they would obtain the acquiescence of the great majority of the people. This was the function of the House of Commons.I say the function of the House of Commons is to talk—to express our views of the measures as they are brought forward. There is another prominent Member sitting on the Government Benches. I want to say a word about him. He condemned the alteration of the Rules of Procedure, and I will commend what he said to the House:An elaborate procedure is the only method by which a minority can defend itself, and assert its influence on the Government of the country so that the doings of Parliament shall have a national character—an elaborate procedure which gives a minority the opportunity of questioning the proceedings of the majority at many stages. If I had to choose between the interest and the dignity of the House of Commons and its freedom, I would pronounce for its freedom.So would I. I am in favour of the freedom of the House and of the Members. As one Member said to-night, we all have equal rights and we all demand the opportunity of giving expression to our views. Nearly every Bill that we shall have to deal with during the present Session will be a Money Bill, whether it has to deal with housing, land, fair play or generous treatment to wounded soldiers and dependants. They will be Money Bills—demands for money at a time when we are overloaded with taxation. It is ruining business, and unless we get to work producing the things that are necessary to pay the debt, I do not know where we shall be. Two days ago I signed a wages bill of the company of which I am chairman. £5,000 is the usual weekly bill. For the last fort-night I have had to sign for under £2,000. Why? Because large numbers of the men are out of work, at a time when they are making more money than ever they made in their lives before. I got out the return of the wages of these men on strike The labourers, even, were earning £5 10s. a week, without overtime, and the others up to £7 or £10 a week, and they were out on strike on a trumpery question. For God's sake, let us get the men to work. You will not get them to work as long as you are giving them doles. You have all heard of the story of the man who had a fit, and they ran to get brandy for him—
§ Mr. RENWICK
I bow to your ruling, Sir, and I am quite prepared to keep to the 879 Motion. I do want Members of Parliament, and especially the new Members, to retain their freedom. I want them to have free expression, and I want to hear their views. They come here with fresh views, and we want to hear what they are. We are delighted to have the opportunity of doing so, and we do not want to stifle them practically in their infancy. For this reason, while I am not going to take the responsibility of voting against the Government, I do sincerely hope that they will make the whole of the Resolutions of a temporary character for a year only, and give us an opportunity, at the end of that time, of reconsidering them.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I am sorry that the hon. Member who has just sat down did not give the name of the prominent Minister who preferred the freedom of the House to its dignity. I am in a position to give it to the House, and I will therefore do so. I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman is not present on the Front Bench. The Minister in question is the present First Lord of the Admiralty, a very progressive Member and one with whose opinions, I feel certain, a large number of hon. Members above the Gangway are in accord.
I propose to say a few words on the different Amendments when they come forward, and therefore I shall say very little at the present moment. I should like to say, however, that I am very nearly in complete agreement with the Leader of the Labour party, with one exception. The Leader of the Labour party suggested another alteration in the Rule, namely, that the House should meet at 12 o'clock and adjourn, I think he said, at 8. The Leader of the Labour party forgot—I am sorry he is not present for the moment, but no doubt his Friends will convey this to him—an objection which, I think, is fatal to his proposal. If you are going to have the House meeting at 12 o'clock, you must have independent Members only. By that I mean Members who have not to earn their own living, but who are, from one source or another, in receipt of sufficient income to keep themselves, because it is absolutely impossible that business men can come down to this House at 12 o'clock every day of the week and remain till 8 o'clock. Consequently you would limit the House to Members of independent means, who could come down, and disregard the necessity of earning their 880 living. I will leave out lawyers for the moment, because, of course, lawyers can come down. I am not myself altogether adverse to having lawyers in the House. I think, on very many occasions, they are extremely useful, and I am going to point out later some occasions on which they are useful and some occasions on which they are not. I think it is evident, and I am sure the Leader of the Labour party on thinking it over will see, that his proposal is not practicable
I should like to say one or two words only on the question of Standing Committees, because, during the twenty-seven years that I have had the honour to sit in this House, I have served on a good many. There is a good deal to be said for Standing Committees, but, on the whole, I am not inclined to take quite such a rosy view of them as does the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University. I am sorry he is not in his place, but I do not think I have often seen him on Standing Committees; I do not remember. Neither can I take quite such a rosy view as that of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Stourbridge Division of Worcester (Mr. J. W. Wilson). There are a good many difficulties about Standing Committees. First of all, there is the difficulty of getting a quorum, and that difficulty has grown very much in the last few years. If you have four Standing Committees with a membership of from sixty to eighty, and you find it difficult to get quorums, it is a very simple proposition that if you have six Standing Committees you will find it still more difficult to get a quorum, especially if the numbers are reduced from sixty to eighty to forty to fifty. Then it has been said, and the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University said it, "Oh, Members on the Grand Committees always hear the arguments and are much freer to express their views than they are down in this House." The right hon. Member for Stourbridge suggested that the Whips should be present. I am glad my Noble Friend (Lord E. Talbot) is present. I do not know how the Whips would regard that proposal. I am not at all sure they would very much like it in addition to their labours. But how about the freedom of Debate, and of the ability to express your opinion, if you are going to express your opinion before the Whips of your party? I do not think that would tend to the freedom of debate and the 881 freedom of voting. The Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University seemed to suggest that because, on Grand Committees, the Members spoke their minds fairly freely, it necessarily followed that they voted in the same sense. That is not so. I remember one case last Session when I was on a Grand Committee and several Members said to me that they regarded the proposal with a good deal of dislike. On one particular occasion I think they all spoke against it, but when it came to a Division, several of them seeing that a Division was coming thought it advisable to go outside, and those who remained voted in absolutely a contrary direction to which they had spoken. Therefore, I do not at all think that it is certain that when you get these Grand Committees you are going to get any greater freedom of voting than you have now.
Then there is another point that has to be remembered. I remember a case in Grand Committee where a Bill was carried on the Second Reading by a majority of over 100—I think it was 120. When it went up to the Grand Committee on the first day we could not get a quorum; on the second day we found a strong number of opponents of the Bill, who would not come into the Committee Room because, by so doing, they would make a quorum and they would be in a minority. So they remained outside, and we had not got enough Members in the room to make a quorum. So that day passed. That went on for a day or two, with the result that those Members in favour of the Bill gradually found that they could not be continually attending, and one day the opponents found themselves in the majority. They came in, and by a majority of one or two, defeated every Clause in that Bill. Consequently, although that particular Bill had twice passed the Second Heading in this House. once without a Division and once, as I say, with a majority of 120, yet the result of sending it to Grand Committee was that twenty-one Members defeated entirely the wish of the House of Commons as expressed on the Second Reading. I will not weary the House, but I would give new Members to understand that this idea that sending Bills to Grand Committee is going to alter the whole procedure of the House in order to benefit it is extremely doubtful. Then there is the question of the Law Officers. There 882 will be six Grand Committees, and if they are going to sit at all regularly, and unless they do sit at the same time, I do not see much use in them, it will be necessary to have six Law Officers because it must be remembered it is very necessary to have a Law Officer present when you are passing a Bill. I am sure the new Member who is most desirous of passing all sorts of legislation very quickly is not desirous of passing legislation which will not work, or legislation which will have to be altered or amended. It is absolutely necessary, therefore, that we must have all the Law Officers present. What has happened in the Grand Committees? We sometimes get a Law Officer. When it is a Scottish Bill the Law Officer is an Englishman, and he says, it may be: "Well, Mr. Chairman, I shall be very glad to do the best I can, but I am a Scottish Law Officer, and, of course, the laws of Scotland are not the same as the laws of England. I think myself, though I cannot, of course, be pledged to it that such and such is an interpretation of a Clause or of a law." Sometimes the reverse takes place, and you get an English Law Officer at the Scottish Committee. All these things have taken place. Are you going to require the six Law Officers to be present? I am not sure if there are six?
§ Sir F. BANBURY
Well, I do not want to say anything disrespectful of the Irish Law Officers, or, very often in a somewhat similar case, the Scottish Law Officer. But some of us have noticed that occasionally an amiable Gentleman comes and sits down on the Front Bench. Some Member asks who that is, and he is told: "Oh, that is a Scottish Law Officer, or the Irish Law Officer, who is not very often here." So that I do not think that these hon. and learned Gentlemen will be of very great assistance to us. I should like to know why there is any necessity for this alteration of Rules? We have here a new Parliament. I gather from speeches made by hon. Members that they are anxious to promote legislation. Unfortunately, we have not with us any Irish Nationalists, or practically none. They were celebrated for making long speeches, and were very difficult to call to order, because they 883 knew the rules by breaking them. I do not suppose anything of that sort will occur now. We have a number of Members of the Labour party all most anxious to do their duty and to pass legislation. We have also a large number of other Members who have been returned as supporters of the Coalition. Under these circumstances, I fail to see the necessity for these new rules. I should like to use an old phrase, and suggest that we should "Wait and See" how things turn out for a year or two, and what sort of Parliament this is going to be before we ask new Members to come under new rules. One must remember that there are a very large number of new Members—about 300 perhaps. Before you ask new Members to give effect to something which they know absolutely nothing about, would it not be wiser to wait. Remember, the Rules of this House are the accumulated wisdom of centuries and of our ancestors, and they have all been devised with the idea of doing the best that can be done in the interests of this House, and of the State. Old Members of this House—and in another two or three years I shall be able, I have no doubt, to say the same of this present House—the majority of Members of the old House of Commons were distinguished for their love for the House of Commons. These Rules have been gradually evolved, not, as the hon. Member said, on the model of a county council, or some new fangled body of that sort; they are the accumulated wisdom of centuries, which have made this House noted for the success of its procedure and for the way in which it has managed its business. I do not want to say anything about the remitting of Supply to a Standing Committee, because I shall have something to say when that comes on. But I would make this remark, that having been a member of the Select Committee on National Expenditure which reported on this very subject last Session—a Committee which was set up for the special object—when its Report and recommendation tallied with the opinions given us by the very highest authorities in this House, from Mr. Speaker downstairs—I think it would have been only courteous that some consideration should have been given to that Report and those recommendations.
§ Sir EDGAR JONES
I hope the new Members of the House will not take it for granted from the course of this Debate 884 that silence on the part of the body of old Members suggests that they are in agreement with the criticisms of the proposals of the Government. I shall show by an illustration or two presently to new Members the opportunities and freedom they will get on the lines of the extensions laid down in the Government proposals. Before I come to these examples let me get at what is, after all, the crux of the discussion. I address myself now largely to the Labour Members because I was very disappointed to heart he speech of the Leader of the Labour party, though I am not surprised to hear some of the speeches on this side, for I have heard them many times before. The hon. Member who spoke from here said he did not want any legislation at all. Those who do not want to get on with legislation are perfectly entitled to protest against these Amendments. I am rather addressing myself to hon. Members who came here knowing that we must have legislation, that we must have it in considerable volume, and who have come hereto get it. How, I ask them, are you to get it? You certainly will not get it between now and June on the old lines. I defy any old Member acquainted with the procedure of the House to contradict my statement. It cannot be done on the old basis. I know very well, and I do not want to put it in an offensive way, that the Labour Members have, heard probably more criticism of delays in the House of Commons than probably any other Members of the House. The phrase has been used about this being "a talking shop." It is a well-known phrase used to depreciating the House of Commons in working-class circles. The Government here is making a real, genuine, and honest attempt to so amend procedure that we can get something done. The right hon. Baronet behind me (Sir F. Banbury) talked about the accumulated wisdom of centuries. We are not dealing with the accumulated wisdom, but with the accumulated cobwebs in our procedure. Nobody in this House can deny the undesirability of the present position, or that something has got to be, must be, done. What are we facing? Here are the Government's proposals in detail. I agree with a great many of the suggestions made by the Noble Lord—some of them were most admirable. I hope when we come to details the Government will be able to move somewhat in the direction he indicated. 885 He made constructive and practical suggestions. The Noble Lord took the point that we have got to get a lot of work done, and that it cannot be done under the old methods. Therefore, he made some contributions to the suggestions of how it could be done. With all respect to the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir D. Maclean), may I point out to him that he has not got a single Amendment on the Paper, not a single proposal as to our procedure?
§ Sir E. JONES
I thought the right hon. Gentleman opposed them very seriously. He certainly opposed the whole proposal in regard to Committee of Supply, but there is no Amendment to it.
§ Sir E. JONES
Then there was the Leader of the Labour party who, as I said, I am sorry to see has taken up a negative attitude, and has not a single proposal at all as to how we are to get procedure in this House into some sort of shape to get through the business. Therefore the proposals of the Government hold the field. Those people who want to go on with clogged wheels and do not want legislation—very well, let them vote against the Government; let them take a negative line. I submit that those who want Government legislation through and want to contribute to the business of this House should put up alternative proposals for achieving it, and then they have a right to criticise. I am going to put two points forward to show that there is another side to this question. We have heard a good deal of criticism about Standing Committees and quorums, and so on, but it is all based upon a fallacy. It is not fair to Standing Committees to apply the criticism that has been applied largely to-day. On what occasion was it difficult to get quorums on Standing Committees? On what kind of Bills was it Standing Committees were not enthusiastic and not sufficiently attractive to draw the attendance of Members. They were Bills of comparative unimportance, small things which had been relegated to Standing Committees, but whenever you have referred a substantial Bill to a Standing Committee you never had any difficulty about a quorum.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
May I point out that last Session there was the case of the Emigration Bill which was a Government Bill and was that not important?
§ Sir E. JONES
No, and the right hon. Gentleman himself took the line that it was not a Bill of very much consequence. Take a measure like the Coal Mines Bill Should we ever have had that Bill through this House, or would it have been so good a Bill, if it had not gone to Committee? As a matter of personal interest, I may say that I got infinitely more publicity in my Constituency and elsewhere when that Bill was before the Standing Committee than I ever got here. [An Hon. Member; "Is that why you support them"?] The hon. Member can take that view if he likes, but my argument still holds good, and it is an answer to the argument that Members would not attend because there was no reporting and no publicity. Take, for example, the two sections of the Insurance Act. There are hon. Members present who remember those measures, and hon. Members who read the procedure and are acquainted with the results. Take the one section that was threshed out here, with obstruction of the worst type, und compare it with the Unemployment Insurance Section, which was threshed out in Standing Committee. I say that the opportunities for hon. Members to do good work are infinitely greater on Standing Committees upstairs, and it would have been a good thing for the country if the other section of the Insurance Act had been dealt with by a Committee upstairs.
With regard to the Estimates, I rather think the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir D. Maclean) and the Noble Lord (Lord H. Cecil) have missed out one important point. I do not see the dangers that they refer to, for, after all, twelve days out of twenty are reserved for big Debates on grievances, and as a check on the Executive here on the floor of the House. That point seems to have been left out. Twelve days out of the twenty are left, and in place of the other eight we get more extended opportunities for hon. Members to raise questions of detail on administration affecting their constituencies. Let me just tell new Members what has happened in the past with regard to Supply. You have your twenty days for every sort of grievances which your constituencies want you to raise, and what happens? One big section of the House wishes to raise some great question 887 which may have attracted a lot of attention in the newspapers. That subject, and probably one other, will swallow up the whole day, and the ordinary private Member with some special point and grievance never gets in at all. That has been our experience for many Sessions. I have had a pocketful of speeches, and have stood up and sat down, time after time, and have never got a chance at all to deliver them, therefore, if it comes to a question of opportunities for private Members of criticism in Supply, the setting up of a number of Committees that can be almost in perpetual Session outside the twenty days of Supply, is going to be a tremendous extension of facilities and opportunities for them. I mention these points as a set-off to the criticisms we have heard in order to show that there is another side to the case.
§ Mr. JOYNSON-HICKS
I am not going into details which will be discussed here to-morrow and the next day. The main point to decide is what effect these proposals are going to have upon the dignity of the House itself. After all, the House of Commons is not a mere machine for grinding out legislation, good, bad, or indifferent. I listened to the speech of the Leader of the House, and I often feel converted by his speeches, but I think he has put the duty of controlling the House of Commons far too high and that of controlling the Executive far too low. The real grievance during the last four years was not that we did not pass legislation, but that we did not control the Executive in the management of the War. If we want the House to rise again in the estimation of the people we shall have to get back that control of the Executive which we have lost during the last few years, and which undoubtedly the Government has for the last ten years tried to get rid of. There is always the attempt, and there has been in years past, on the part of the Government, to make this House entirely subservient to the Government, and every new proposal is in the direction of making it easier for the Government to get their views through whether they are right or wrong.
If you go outside this House and ask the opinion of members of the general public upon the legislation passed during the last ten years you will find a large percentage of the people would prefer that any particular Bill had not been passed or that 888 many details of it should have been altered. That is the real reason why the House has fallen in the estimation of the people, because it has passed a lot of ill-considered Bills, and has failed to keep the Government in order. These proposals will allow the Government to get through legislation and to avoid criticism, but we are now a democracy and we are the only barrier between revolutionary Government and all that follows on that. I believe the House is capable of standing as a barrier between revolution and the autocracy of the Government itself. We are autocratic or revolutionary unless this House has full power to govern not merely the Government but the country itself. Our duty is not merely to pass legislation but to govern Great Britain and take our share in the Government, because each individual Member is a Member of the governing body and his first duty is to see that he governs. I think these proposals are a direct attempt to prevent every individual Member sharing in the Government of the country. There has been no obstruction during the last five or six years. The Leader of the House did give us one or two cases of obstruction, when various Members started hares of various kinds in Committee. As one who perhaps in his younger days took part in hare starting, I should like to say that I do not think I or any other Member of the Opposition who in those days kept the Committee sitting all night ever started a hare without someone or other of our leaders turning round and saying, "That was a capital hare; it ran well." In other words, my right hon. Friend, when he was in Opposition, was not against what he is good enough to call obstruction to-day.
Just consider the. Bill on which I will assume for the moment there was obstruction—the great Budget of 1909. I am prepared to say that if we, a handful of Unionist Members, had not sat up night after night, week after week, and month after month putting down Amendments to that Bill and riddling every Clause of it with arguments, it would not have been nearly as good a Bill, or perhaps I should say it would have been a much worse Bill. If anybody will take the trouble to look at the great Budget of 1909 as it was introduced and as it left this House, he will find that it is full of Amendments which were made by those handful of Members who sat on these benches, and who, you may say, were guilty of obstruction. They were guilty of putting forward points 889 which had certainly been overlooked by the Minister in charge of the Bill. The bulk of the Amendments moved in Committee are not moved merely out of the brain of the hon. Member who puts them forward, but are moved at the request of great bodies outside this House representing different interests, trades, or professions that come to some Member or another and say, "This Bill is going to affect us. Will you put down Amendments and have certain questions debated on the floor of the House?" I am speaking now of the main Bills of the Session. If these Bills are all to be sent upstairs to Grand Committee, I will tell you what will happen. Instead of the views of the public being put forward, where they ought to be put forward, on the floor of the House of Commons, there will be log-rolling bargains—and there have been log-rolling bargains made before now in Grand Committee—between representatives of the various interests affected and the Minister in charge of the Bill. That is not what we want to see in this Great Mother of Parliaments. We want to see the rights and interests of every trade and interest affected—labour and capital—openly debated on the floor of the House, so that no one should be injured by any Act of Parliament without the House having the opportunity of dividing upon it.
There is one further point I want to raise, and it is rather a delicate one. It is the question of the kangaroo closure by yourself. The proposal now is that the kangaroo closure should be exercised by Mr. Speaker on the Report stage after there has been no Committee on the floor of the House. Of course, at present the closure is very much modified by the fact that we have had Debates on all reasonable points on the floor of the House in Committee. That will no longer be the case. I wish some means could be found of associating someone with yourself, or perhaps it would be better that I should say with the Speaker for the time being, because we all know, from what you said a few days ago, that you will not be able to preside over us much longer and that we shall have a new Speaker without the great experience and great position which you occupy in this House. We have been in the habit of looking, and we are entitled to look, to the Speaker as the guardian of the interests of the private Member of this House. It is a very invidious position, and the Government year after year have been making the 890 Speaker more and more responsible for getting through the business of the Government. It is not a position that they should put on the shoulders of any Speaker. In the first place, the decision whether the closure should be put was placed on the shoulders of the Speaker. Now it is proposed that the decision of the kangaroo closure on every single Amendment shall be put on the shoulders of the Speaker. May I say—and I am sure that you will acquit me of any reflection on yourself—that quite recently, on the Debate on the Address, the Speaker found it necessary—I do not complain of it—not to call a particular Amendment in which a large number of Members, particularly new Members, were interested, and were pledged. In one of those Committees upstairs which, during the past, three years, have been formed vary largely of independent Members—the House was not a sufficient debating assembly and did not sufficiently control the Government, and these Committees, such as the Unionist Business Committee, and the Liberal War Committee, were formed in order to control the Government in the management of the War—within a few minutes eighty Members signed a request to Mr. Speaker to take a particular Amendment. It is not for me to say what the view of those Members was, but it is putting the Speaker in an invidious position when it brings him, as it were, up against a large number of Members who want, quite fairly, a particular subject discussed. I have always regarded the Speaker as the one man in this House who is fair to all Members, particularly to new Members, and to the Member who perhaps is the apostle of unpopular causes, and I do wish some proposal could be made to associate with the Speaker in this question, say, two Chairman of Standing Committees, who would bear some of the brunt of making this decision.
Lastly, I want to associate myself with the remarks which fell from the Leader of the Labour party in regard to short speeches. The long speeches, I am going to say quite frankly, come from the two Front Benches. No Member of the two Front Benches during the last few years has felt it consistent with his dignity except the Leader of the House—[Hon. Members: "And Mr. Asquith!"]—and the Leader of the late Liberal Opposition (Mr. Asquith), to speak for less than three-quarters of an hour. Most of my new hon. Friends within a very few weeks will see 891 that there is an idea, I do not think it is a Rule of the House, that if any Member on either of the Front Benches gets up in an important Debate he must necessarily be called upon to speak. I have gone through the Official Report time after time, and I find a succession of Front Bench Members one after another, when there is an ordinary full Opposition, getting up and speaking from three-quarters of an hour to an hour. If new Members are to have free opportunity of speaking, and, as my right hon. Friend himself said, every man has the same rights in this House, and every man is equally a Member of the House of Commons, there must be something done to curtail that power of the two Front Benches to monopolise so large a share of the time of the House. I am not altogether opposed to the proposals put forward by the Government. I realise that there must be an extension of the powers of these Standing Committees, but I have ventured to put down a few Amendments which I think will mitigate some of the severity of the proposals that are made, and above all I do ask the House and the Government, in coming to a conclusion on these various Amendments, to think of the dignity of the House and the reputation of the House outside as well as inside.
§ 10.0 P.M.
§ Mr. T. P. O'CONNOR
I find myself in a peculiar position of agreeing with some and disagreeing with most of what has been said by all the previous speakers, including the speakers on the Treasury Bench. My hon. Friend who has just sat down wound up by some frank criticisms on the length of speeches of Members of the Front Benches. My hon. Friend is now an old Member of this House, but not so old as some other Members, and I can tell him that the Front Benches, although they may be open to criticism on the point of the length of their speeches, compare very favourably with Front Benches of old days. I remember the time if Mr. Gladstone or Mr. Disraeli did not wind up with a speech of two hours he would have been regarded as not worthy of his position or his salary. I would refer for a moment to the remarkable speech of the Noble Lord (Lord Hugh Cecil) earlier in the afternoon, in which he talked about the growing disfavour of the House of Commons in the eyes of the public. He named Mr. Asquith and the Foreign Secretary as two 892 of the contributors to that state of things. I think the Noble Lord was rather too sparse in his catalogue. I was in this House some six years before I became a Member of it. The two great Leaders in those days were Mr. Disraeli and Mr. Gladstone. I sat for many years in the same House with Mr. Gladstone, both when he was Prime Minister and when he was Leader of the Opposition. There was this extraordinary difference between those two great Leaders of the House and their successors. They thought it always their business to be in the House. Sir John Pope Hennessy, an Irishman who had a distinguished career, was one of the supporters Mr. Disraeli found in Ireland in a certain phase of history. Sir John went to Mr. Disraeli and asked him how he could save his Parliamentary soul? The answer was that a Member of Parliament should be always in his seat in the House of Commons except when he was in the Library reading Hansard's Debates. I must say in my own Parliamentary experience I have seen plenty of cases of men who have risen to almost inaccessible heights through the servile adoption of that recommendation. But I am bound to add that Mr. Disraeli lived up to his advice. He sat in this place hour after hour, night after night, year after year. He considered he would be wanting in his duty to the House if he did not do so. Mr. Gladstone, except for a period of two hours, generally between eight and ten p.m., as long as he was Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition, also made it his business to be in his place. I do not want to be critical about present day leaders. I must admit that the present Leader of the House lives up to the obligation of his position and is fairly constant in his attendance. Neither do I want to be critical of the Prime Minister, who has had so much to do with the carrying on of this War and who is now engaged in helping to make peace. But the office of Prime Minister is to a large extent the creation of the House of Commons and it is his duty to the House to be in his place whenever circumstances permit. My right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) I regard as also one of the gentlemen who have quite unintentionally no doubt, contributed to a certain want of confidence in the effectiveness of this House. New Members will not realise the full irony of a situation which was quite 893 familiar to us in the old days, when towards the close of the Session there were certain consultations nightly between the right hon. Baronet and whoever happened to be the Leader of the House—these conferences taking place behind Mr. Speaker's chair. In those days, too, there was another Member of the House, Mr. Caldwell, who was also seen to be in close conference with the Leader of the House behind the Chair, deciding what matters of business should be allowed to proceed. It was my right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London and Mr. Caldwell whose omnipotent responsibility for the business of the House led to the creation of the sense of its impotence under their dictatorship.
What is the remedy? It is the remedy alluded to quite casually by the hon. Member for Halifax, and also touched upon in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench. This is meddling, muddling, and tinkering with the real root of evil. What is that real root? You and I, Mr. Speaker, were once interested in a very extraordinary transaction, in this House not many years ago. The Vote of the Foreign Secretary—the post was then held by the then Sir Edward Grey—was put on for discussion and was debated in a thin House, the hon. Members present being mostly cranks. It came to a close at a quarter-past eight, and the whole foreign policy of this Government was debated for only four and a quarter hours. At a quarter past eight we got into a highly interesting wrangle as to whether the East Surrey Water Company should be allowed to take, a certain number of gallons of water from the River Wandle. The Member for Croydon declared that if the Bill were passed typhoid would ravage Croydon. The Member for Midhurst asserted that if the Bill did not pass typhoid would ravage Midhurst. And over this little quarrel the House spent three times as much time as it had devoted to the foreign policy of our wide Empire. That is where the real evil is which is producing all these tinkering remedies proposed by the Government to-day. The real trouble is that this House has to deal not merely with the affairs of the Empire but with the pump of every village in England and Scotland. I remember meeting a South African gentleman some years before the South African War was in the contemplation of any man in the British Empire outside South Africa. 894 We had had, a short time previously, some activity in the town of Tipperary, and there was a question whether an Irish Member first hit a policeman or whether the policeman struck the first blow in an incident which nearly approached to a riot in an Irish town. It was observed by this gentleman that this incident would form a stable subject of discussion in the coming Session of Parliament. Indeed, we did discuss it for days and weeks, and "all the time," said, my friend, "you are paying no attention to the condition of South Africa which I tell you in twp or three years may be presenting this Empire with the question of peace or war." Take the case of India. I have been present at the discussion of thirty or forty Indian Budgets, but rarely was such a Budget introduced except at the tail end of a Session, in the hot days of July, and then to an audience consisting of twenty or thirty persons. In the meantime movements were going on in India of which we heard nothing. We gave less time to India than we gave to the East Surrey Water Company. It is all very well calling this an Imperial Parliament which has great Imperial responsibilities, but as long as you have this Parliament engaged at one hour in the discussion of an Imperial problem and at another hour in the discussion of the parish pump, so long will this be an assembly unworthy of its name and unequal to its responsibilities. That is a matter in which reform can be brought about.
I come now to the proposals of the Government. So far as regards their proposals for the transfer of business from this House to Standing Committees, I am entirely in sympathy with the proposals of the Government. I do not think that a body as large as 707 Members, as this is, is the body that can discuss the details or a measure in Committee. I must qualify that, however, with this observation: The longer I study the conflicts of opinion the more I am convinced of two propositions: first, that for executive action the smaller the body the better—I myself prefer a Committee of one; secondly, that so far as discussion and exchange of thought and conflict of opinion are concerned, the broader your basis of discuss on the better it is and the more patient discussion is. So long as discussion is inspired by good sense, good feeling, and honest purpose, the larger the body the better. I warn this House, which is full of all the energetic activities of exuberant youth, against 895 measures that curtail debate so long as debate is conducted with honest intention. As to the opposition which a single Member of this House has been able to give for so many years to legislation, of course the majority must establish its way, but do listen to minorities in this House, and all kinds of opinion.
Remember that legislation is not the only function of this House. I would go the length of saying that I do not think legislation is the chief function of this House. What is the chief function of this House? This House is the grand inquest of the Nation; it is the House to which the smallest, the meanest, and the most modest individual in our realm can look for redress and relief if wrong be done. Hon. Members who are old in this Chamber can remember a remarkable occasion on which a gentleman, now Judge Atherley-Jones, raised a Motion in this House. He carried that Motion against the Government. If it had not been that the Government had been brought up recently into being, and that Ireland was the iron band that kept all its different elements together, that Motion might have led to the resignation of the Minister, if not of a Ministry. Miss Cash was arrested and imprisoned for some hours off Regent Street on what was supposed to be a false charge of solicitation, and on the question of this woman's illegal arrest the Home Secretary of the period was defeated by the free vote of the House of Commons, in which he had a large majority behind him. I give that as an example of the great part this House of Commons plays, and ought always to play, in the life of our nation, namely, a Court of Appeal, to which even the meanest subject in the kingdom can come for redress. Beware lest by your rules you interfere with that great function of this Assembly. When it comes to legislation, the Government is following the example of many other legislatures in referring the details of Bills to Committees. They have that system in the French Chamber, and even to a greater extent in the Legislatures of America. I have not formed an opinion as to what the size of the Committee should be. The number is now eighty, and the Government proposes that it should be sixty, and the Noble Lord proposes that it should remain at its present figure. I do not think the matter is of very great importance. I have been a Member, and 896 sometimes Chairman, of many Standing Committees, and I think they had far better tone in dealing with legislation than the floor of this House where we are apt to fly off into party differences and sometimes purely political differences. With that part of the proposal of the Government I have no fault to find.
Now I come to another, namely, the reference of the Estimates to a Committee. These are proposals which require to be very severely scrutinised. This, I am afraid, may be described as a Parliament in a hurry, and more hurry the less speed very often. We have had over twenty days in Supply it is true, but we have passed £50,000,000, £60,000,000 and £70,000,000 of the public funds under the guillotine, without a moment of discussion, in four or five hours at the end of the Session. That is a travesty of the examination of the public funds of the country. I have a proposal which is an enlargement, curiously enough, and not a curtailment of the proposals of the Government. Every Government Department of this country should, as in the French Parliament, and as to a certain extent in other Parliaments of the world, be under the permanent supervision of a Committee of the House of Commons. The first Department I would put under such control is the Foreign Office. In the French Senate, and in the Chamber of Deputies, there are altogether forty commissions, each consisting of 25 members, chosen by the groups of the House. Every group is treated fairly. These Commissions range from the most ardent and Radical Republicans to the most ardent Catholic Conservatives, and they were on the best of terms with each other. I have had a peculiar experience in the last two or three years. I have been a member of an inter-Allied Parliamentary Committee, which I hope will be re-appointed. It consisted of delegates, from each of the Parliaments of the three Allied countries, England, France, and Italy. I have attended, with many of my hon. Friends, meetings of these committees in Paris and in London, and the opinion of every single British representative at that committee was one of surprise and humiliation at the position of the British members as compared with the French. The question of munitions was raised. A member of our Committee, who was rapporteur of the Munitions Committee in the French Chamber, got up, and was able to announce that on his desk every day 897 there was a full list of the rifles and the shells, and the cartridges, and all the other munitions of war that were produced by all the factories, State or private, in France, with observations as to whether there was a rise or fall in the production. The gentlemen, who spoke on behalf of the French representatives in regard to submarine warfare was able to give full details in regard to the work the submarine had done and the devastation it had caused. The gentlemen who represented the Foreign Affairs Commission was able to give us all the details including documentary evidence, that had been submitted to his Committee on the foreign policy of the country. On the other hand, the British representatives, who I may say, excluding myself, were a body fairly representative of the unofficial intelligence of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, sat there with our tongues tied, comparing our absolute ignorance of the inner details of the administration of our country with the full and complete knowledge of these representatives of the French people in the French Chamber. I have raised this question before and I shall continue to raise it until I hope I shall succeed. I know that I have a powerful opponent in the Leader of the House. I once had a powerful Friend in the Prime Minister until he was converted to the wrong course.
§ Sir H. CRAIK
The hon. Member does not speak for all the members of that delegation in regard to support of the French system. I chink he said that the members of the delegation agreed with him. I must be excepted.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
I did not expect a good old crusted Tory like my hon. Friend would agree with anything modern. My hon. Friend has misunderstood me. I said that they all agreed with me in the feeling that we were humiliated in the presence of the intimate knowledge of our French colleagues and of our own absolute ignorance. Perhaps that is too much to commit any Scotsman to. Take the conduct of the late War. I have heard all kinds of discussions in this House on that, but I held my tongue. I felt it to be my patriotic duty to hold my tongue, and to hold my tongue because I knew nothing. I could not speak like certain other hon. Gentlemen who spoke out of the abundance of their ignorance. Does, anybody suppose that if there was a Committee of this 898 House to deal with these matters the scandals would have gone on that went on for months, until they were exposed by a telegram in the newspapers. Although I am in favour of the appointment of Committees of this House in control and in communication with the Departments of the House, I am not in favour of the particular method of the Government. One word about the Foreign Office. It is as unwise, and it is as perilous to leave the decision of peace or war to two or three men who are called Ministers as it is to leave it to two or three men who are called Kaisers. The world is not safe for democracy so long as any small body of men, call them Ministers or call them Kaisers, are able to plunge the world into war without consulting at least with the representative of the people. Therefore, I appeal to my hon. Friends on the Labour Benches, whose general views on foreign politics are the same as mine, to support me in demanding that we shall have some control over the foreign relations of this country and the declaration of war other than the control which comes down to this House and tells us that the nation is at war, and then leaves us the choice of being traitors to the cause of our nation or of supporting the Government. In the present form to give the whole control of our finances to a Committee in addition to giving Ministers the power of closing discussion at any moment, is a departure from the liberties and traditions of the House of Commons which the House of Commons ought not to accept.
The House always enjoys the speeches of the hon. Member for the Scotland division when he draws on his inexhaustible mine of Parliamentary reminiscences, but I was rather surprised at the conclusion of his speech. He told us a great deal of the difficulty in the past to be found in ventilating public grievances and matters of very great national importance. He moved the House by an eloquent passage as to its function as an appeal tribunal of the nation. He led up to the importance of the House controlling foreign policy and then after all that apparently he is in favour of these proposals.
As I read these proposals we shall have far less control than ever we had before, 899 because in some of these matters, such as appeals in individual cases of injustice or the control of foreign policy, our only opportunities are on the Estimates or on Money Bills, and if we cut down the time allocated to this particular kind of discussion the already insufficient opportunities which we have will be still further restricted. Personally I agree that in the present emergency there is a case for some change in our Standing Orders, but I appeal to the Government to make that change, as they have in the case of the financial proposals, only a temporary one, and to pass the whole of this Amendment as a Sessional Order. It may seem a matter of small importance whether it is a Sessional Order or a permanent change, but there is this difference, that if it is a Sessional Order, we shall at the beginning of next year's sittings have it brought up again, when new Members will be in a better position to decide the matter, and when also we shall know whether there is going to be the same pressure of work in a subsequent Session as confronts us at the present time.
The Government, in the speeches both of the Leader of the House and of the Attorney-General, showed a very reasonable spirit, and I hope that this discussion to-night will impress upon them that there is a very strong feeling of uneasiness as to these proposals. I think that this discussion will shorten proceedings to-morrow if the Government will, owing to the generally expressed opinion of the House, consent to modify some of the more objectionable Amendments to the Standing Orders. It is very important, especially in this new Parliament, that the Government should avoid anything which to the country might look like trying to play a confidence trick. It would be disastrous to stampede this new House into an Amendment of Standing Orders of which they do not understand the full purport. The hon. Member opposite spoke of the procedure of county councils, but, with all respect, that cannot be compared with what we do here. Our administration here is not done by a Committee, as is the case with county councils. We are concerned with legislation, and the fact that county councils do so much of their work by committees is no argument at all in our case, because their work is almost entirely administrative.
It is very unfortunate that yesterday the Government came to this House and 900 sought to weaken the link which binds us to the constituencies and enables them to some extent to control this House and the Government. To-day they come down again and ask to weaken the control of the House over the Government and our administration. I think it is most unfortunate that at the beginning of this Parliament they should be taking up the position of breaking down the control of the people. I think it is also most unfortunate that the Government should propose to cut down the number of these more numerous Standing Committees. If it was possible in a smaller House to employ 320 Members on Standing Committees, then in a larger House could there not be as many, if not more? Personally, I think the only safe system is for every Member to be on one Standing Committee. If the nomination of those Standing Committees is going to be in the hands, as it was in the past, of Party Whips, it would be a very great temptation to the Party Whips to put on only absolutely reliable Members. I am afraid you would find, perhaps, in the future, that these Standing Committees would become stables for only the most reliable of Party hacks, and that only the tamest and well-broken animals would find their way on to them. I think that the only remedy for that is to give more power to the Selection Committee and increase the numbers of it, so that all Members, whatever their views and their independence, would find that they could do work of that kind.
I would also mention the great danger there is of leaving the control to the Speaker of selecting Amendments. There is no Assembly in the world which pays greater deference to the Chair than we do in the House of Commons. A strong Chair is of enormous importance owing to the diversity of our interests and the occasional turbulence of our proceedings. It is essential that the Speaker should be above party and independent of the Government. To ask the Chair in such an Assembly as this to select Amendments is putting on the occupant a dangerous task which is inconsistent with real impartiality. It would be disastrous if in the opinion of this House the Speaker is ever considered to be tempted to choose Amendments with a view to assisting the conduct of business by the Government of the day. After all, it is a very difficult task for any Chairman to know the drift of an 901 Amendment until he has heard it argued. He cannot possibly tell what is in the minds of hon. Members, and the only way is to hear a brief account of the objects of the Amendment before whatever authority which decides what Amendments are to be taken comes to a decision. I remember a case of the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) on the Act which was to apply Conscription to Ireland. He put down an Amendment to turn ''may" into "shall.' That Amendment was of enormous importance, and if the right hon. Baronet had been allowed to move it, it would have put the Government in an extremely difficult position. The Chairman of Committees in this House did not call that Amendment, and very likely did not realise the great importance of it; but it caused great ill-feeling. I think that kind of occurrence, if it becomes common, will do very much to shake the respect which is felt by all parties for the Chair in this House. I do not think the solution of the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University is really practicable, as I do not think it is possible to put down Amendments five days ahead. There might be many consequential Amendments necessary. The only solution which would remove soreness from the minds of those Members whose Amendments are not called is that they should be given an opportunity in a speech of three or four minutes only of explaining the object of their Amendments before they are passed over, and I am putting down an Amendment in Committee which I hope the Government will accept to enable that explanation to be made. I think it is a very unfortunate moment for these proposals to have been made, when there is so much unrest in the country, and it is the more important to avoid anything which will weaken us in the eyes of the nation. Our only hope of peaceful times during demobilisation is a really strong House of Commons capable of controlling our own difficulties and our own weaknesses, and I hope the Government will show the same reasonable spirit on these proposals as they did on the Re-election of Ministers Bill. The need of reform is admitted, and if the Government will meet us in some of these Amendments I am sure they will find that the business of the Session will be facilitated. We have got a very difficult task in emergency measures of reconstruction. 902 They are just as urgent and difficult as the emergency war measures which confronted the last Parliament. Those measures occasioned an unprecedented waste of public money and of public effort, and I do hope that we shall avoid the mistakes which were then made. We have learned the danger of giving too much control to a bureaucracy which the Government is not strong enough really to supervise. Let us alter our machinery by all means, but let us alter it so as to reassure public opinion and to give back to this House, and not merely to the Government, effective control over legislation and expenditure, and not least over the administration of the country.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I will make an appeal to hon. Members to let the discussion come to an end. We have had a very free discussion, and I was anxious that there should be, so that the House should feel that the first stage of these Resolutions had been discussed without haste. We wish to take a small Bill to-night to which I understand there is no opposition.
§ Question, "That the proposals, of the Government relating to procedure be now considered," put, and agreed to.
§ Further proceeding adjourned till To-morrow.