HC Deb 20 February 1919 vol 112 cc1245-53

In order to facilitate the business of Standing Committees a Motion may, after two days' notice, be made by a Minister of the Crown at the commencement of public business to be decided without Amendment and Debate, "That the House do now adjourn," provided that if on a day on which the Motion is agreed to under the Standing Order leave has been given to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a matter of urgent public importance, Mr. Speaker, instead of adjourning the House, shall suspend the sitting only until a quarter-past eight of the clock.


I listened with great sympathy to my hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Joynson-Hicks), but it seems to me that he lives in an unreal world. He finds that the House of Commons does now supervise and control the administration of the country, but I should have thought that was quite visionary. It is my earnest desire that it should have a much larger and more constant supervision and control over the administration of the country than it has at present, and it is precisely because I think that if more time were saved over its legislative business by the system of Standing Committees that I am a supporter of the proposal of the Government as it is now framed. I do not think the process of moving the Adjournment is, in, its present shape, a very satisfactory form. It is one of those parts of procedure in regard to which there has been a long contest of ingenuity between the Chair on the one side and private Members on the other, and it has become surrounded with such a mass of barbed wire entanglements that to get a Motion of Adjournment through the delicate, narrow, and intricate channel by which alone it can approach, is becoming so complicated that in 99 cases out of 100 the Motion for Adjournment is not possible, even though the subject may be a matter of urgent public importance. I should like to see a much better opportunity given, and I throw this suggestion out to the Government, not as relevant to the present discussion, but for their consideration. I think it would be an improvement if on every allotted day the Speaker could be moved out of the Chair at the commencement of public business. Practically everything is in order on that Motion, and that would therefore give an opportunity for a free Debate. An hon. Member who is new to the House might suppose the House could discuss anything it liked at any time, but that is very far from the truth. We have all known of instances, where the House of Commons has been sitting for weeks and months together while all the rest of the country has been talking of something else, and the House of Commons has had its appointed task, possibly some Bill of no very great interest, to be gone through, and simply could not discuss what everybody was talking about. It has no freedom in that way.


We can still less discuss such matters if we are not sitting.


But under the Government's proposal we should get rid of legislation much more quickly, and would therefore have more time at our disposal on other days for a Motion that the Speaker should leave the Chair. Though it would be necessary to keep the discussion on such a Motion within reasonable bounds, in the House's own interest, by the Closure, that could very readily be done after, say, a couple of hours 'discussion, when the House could go on in Committee with the ordinary work of Supply. That would give a really free opportunity of discussing what people are interested in. My hon. Friend asks what the 250 Members who are generally in attendance between four and 8.15 are doing. I know what I am doing—reading the same piece of news in five different evening newspapers. I find that a very tedious operation, and not one of any national importance, and I would much rather be able to go home or somewhere else, and spend my time, possibly more profitably and certainly more amusingly. I can see no advantage by keeping Members here when they have nothing to do. Under the system of Standing Committees a certain number of Members would be actively doing work with a real opportunity for the private Member to take part in Debate and to shape a Bill. The other Members who were not on the Standing Committee would not be obliged to attend the House at all, and would be able to go about their ordinary normal business. Both, therefore, would immensely gain. My hon. Friend seemed to think the House would adjourn every day and that there would be no sittings at all, but that, of course, would not be in anyone's interest, and what would likely happen would be that the Government would adjourn the House one or two days a week in the middle part of the Session. Then the hon. Member said that probably it would not be possible for a Committee to sit from eleven in the morning till eleven in the evening, and that, of course is quite right; but I hope the ordinary practice will be that whereas unimportant Departmental Bills can be conveniently disposed of in the morning by a Committee without interfering with the ordinary sittings of the House, where a Committee is dealing with a great controversial measure it will sit in the afternoon and not in the morning, substantially adhering to the same hours as the House itself. If you sat two days a week during the summer months of April, May, and June, you would get quite a sufficient number of sittings to get through even a very important and controversial Bill. I believe that if the system, were worked like that, so far from its being an aggression by the Government on the rights of private Members, it would, on the contrary, be a valuable concession to private Members, and likely to restore to them something of what they have lost by repeated changes of procedure. I am sure the true lines of reform of procedure are these, that the private Member of Parliament should be given real work to do and a real voice as a critic of the Administration and of legislation, and being given that real voice should at the same time be restrained from so abusing it as to obstruct the business of Parliament. If you can combine that you will have made a real reform, and I think the Government's proposal is a very substantial advance in that direction. It may be supplemented in future Sessions by further reforms. It is confessedly a matter of experiment, and I believe that if it is given the wise co-operation of all parties it will prove a great step in advance.


The Noble Lord has invested this proposal of the Government with somewhat of a halo of romance. When he commenced to speak I noticed the anxiety on the countenances of the occupants of the Front Bench, and as he developed the reasons why the proposal should be adopted and as for the first time those reasons dawned on the intelligence of the Government, their expression seemed to say, "Thank God, someone really knows what we meant to do!" My position is this. I am very anxious to render any humble assistance I can to the Government in making more effective use of the private Members of this House, and in saving us all from wasting our time and slacking about here with nothing to do. But I want at the same time to preserve the ordinary privileges of the House, to maintain its prestige and dignity, and to do nothing to diminish the confidence of the public in the House of Commons. I fear that the Motion before us is an ill-considered proposal and that the scheme has never been definitely thought out, that concealed away somewhere in the inner secrets of it there are some good points; but nobody has yet found out which are the good points and which are the bad points, and I do not think the Government ought to ask the House of Commons to come to a decision upon this important principle until the Government have thought it out more in detail and have given us a more definite scheme. May I indicate by illustration what I meant? Supposing we had this permissive power granted to the Government that the House may be adjourned immediately after Questions. I cannot understand how that is really going to facilitate the sittings of the Committee. One would have assumed from the speech of the Attorney-General, although he did not say so, that these Committees went on sitting all the time that the House would have sat if the Adjournment had not taken place; but then the Noble Lord, who really is an intelligent interpreter of the hidden mind of the Government, suggests that that is not the case at all—that the Committees are not to sit in the morning, but in the afternoon; and, therefore, it seems to me that what would happen is this: you would lighten the labours of the Committee in the morning in order that they might do the same number of hours' work in the afternoon as they would have done in the morning, and that those who are not on the Committee should have a day's holiday. That does not seem to be a better utilisation of the time, intelligence, and ability of the House of Commons.

I would far rather have some scheme of this kind. I have not been able to think it out in detail, but members of the Government may adumbrate their considerations without due reflection, and so, I suppose, ordinary private Members may do the same. I suggest some such scheme as this, that there should be some definite day in the week on which the House should not sit at all, or only sit for a limited number of hours, and that all the Members of the House should be on the Committees that did sit on that day, and that everybody therefore should sit in Committee while the House of Commons stood adjourned. I could understand that utilising the resources of private Members, or I could understand a scheme of this kind, that in order that Committees may sit till five or six o'clock on certain days of the week the House of Commons should not meet till five, or six—that we should go back to something like the old procedure and instead of meeting at two forty-five meet on certain days at four forty-five or five forty-five. There surely can be no reason why in order to enable 150 Members of Committees to sit for five or six hours in the day 700 Members should all have the day's holiday. We want a re-arrangement of the hours of business, both of Committees and of this House, if you are to carry out your new scheme, but clearly you have no scheme yet before you. I want to support the Government. I cannot help making jibes at them when I see them there before me, but it is only a debating habit, and I put this to them quite seriously, that we are in a difficulty about this matter. We like the notion of economising the time of the House for the purpose of giving more time to Committees. We think there is something in it, but I think you might devise a method by which you might shorten the hours upon which the House of Commons sits, either on every day or on certain days in the week, and utilise that time to extend the services of the Committees, but I think that the method you have devised is about the clumsiest that the wit of man could possibly submit, and I think the reason is that, you are so busy that you have not had time to think about it; you extemporise all kinds of conditions and alterations to the Amendment, and you have got into a tangle of incoherence. If you will take it back and work out from it an intelligent scheme for the better utilisation of the time of the House and a more effective delegation to the Committees of the House, I think you will find the House of Commons most anxious to give it their support.

6.0 P.M.


This proposed new Standing Order, it seems to me, could be brought in quite as well in a month or two's time, possibly even when the urgent need for it has appeared. Personally, speaking from the Grand Committee point of view, I think it would be much more helpful if it could be met by arranging that the House, by giving notice a day or two days before, should not meet till 4.45 instead of 2.45 p.m. Then the Committees could meet at eleven or eleven-thirty and have a short adjournment for lunch, followed by a good afternoon's sitting. From what I have seen of Grand Committees upstairs, the great difficulty of getting Members back, even after an adjournment for lunch, and the delay that often occurs before a quorum is formed, I do look with considerable dread on the idea of the House sacrificing the whole of its evening in the expectation that the Committee will sit, say, from four to eleven o'clock, with an interval for dinner, all the time taken in preparing to get away, and the feeling that the House is up, and no Whips are at the doors, and the various details which I need not mention, but which every Member with experience will realise. I feel that by arranging under this scheme for the Committees to sit from four o'clock to a doubtful ten, with an hour or two out of it in. the middle, it would mean very little gain, and would upset the time of the House and give the country the irresistible feeling that when the House says it has not time to do its work, it is deliberately throwing over two days in a busy part of the Session for the sake of one or two, or at most three, Grand Committees who are overburdened with work. I think a much better thought-out scheme could be devised, and the Government would lose nothing by withdrawing this proposal for the present, and going on with the other proposals, which are quite distinct. Then they could, possibly, devote a day later in the Session to it, if need be. The more I look at it, the more I feel that some other scheme would be more convenient to Members, interfere less with the time of the House, require less arrangement beforehand, and would certainly mean more efficeint work and a fuller attendance at the Grand Committees.


I listened with interest to the remarks of my right hon. Friend, who has had so much experience in these matters, and, as regards my hon. Friend below the Gangway, I reciprocate the friendly views he expressed, but not to the extent that I wish to show it by gibing him on what he said. While he made quite a valuable speech against these proposals, I should be very interested to hear what particular form the speech would have taken if directed against his own proposal, had it been brought forward by us. I think, in that case, it would have been an equally eloquent speech. I quite agree there is an objection to any proposal of this kind you can make. But there is one point made by my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member below the Gangway which shows they did not pay any attention to the speech I made on the first day of these discussions. They spoke as if our proposal was something we had suddenly jumped at without consideration. I pointed out that the Committee set up to draft these reforms made a proposal which took the form of the Amendment we have suggested. They had two alternatives before them, and, after discussing them, we came to the conclusion that the form in which we introduced the Amendment to the House was better than the other. Do not let the House make any mistake. The proposals which we are asking the House to adopt do mean a revolution in our procedure. I do not mean from the point of view of Closure—they are not very drastic in that respect—but from the point of view of getting the bulk of the business done by Committees, and that does mean a real revolution in the procedure of the House of Commons. We recognise it.

I want the House to realise exactly what our proposal is. We still think that the proposal we originally introduced is the best. Of course, members of the Government discussing these things do not always take the same view, but we come to a decision after discussion. I took the view myself that, suddenly to say that the House of Commons is not going to sit after Questions on so many days of the week would be a shock to the feelings of the House of Commons and to the country itself; at all events, until we had got accustomed to the working of the Grand Committees, it was too dangerous an innovation to make. I came to the conclusion, therefore, that if the House of Commons tried to work the new arrangement, it would be done with some commonsense, by the Chairmen of the Grand Committees considering what the business was going to be on a particular day, and on what day it would be wise to sit. I personally thought that, as there came pressure to get a particular Bill through, the Grand Committees would arrange by themselves to sit on certain days, and that what they would do, probably, would be to go into Grand Committee till lunch time, and then indulge—if they do in that vice, in a smoke, come to the House of Commons and listen to Questions, which interest everybody except the Government, and then go back and work in Committee, perhaps, for three or four hours. That is what I believe will happen. Against that, many Members of the House press the other view. What we want to do is to let our original proposal have a trial, and if we find that the evil, which those in favour of the other plan fear, happens, then the House of Commons, without making a new Standing Order, could give the other plan a trial. But it is not our intention to utilise the proposal which is suggested in this Amendment unless we find the other proposal breaks down. I see no reason whatever why the House should not agree to this Amendment, unless on the assumption that everything the Government is doing is with some vicious object—I do not think it is the view of the majority—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]—of trying to deprive Members of some of their privileges. It is really no great risk to give us this Amendment. I think it is a fair compromise of two views as to the best way of working Grand Committees. I would ask the House to come to a decision, and I hope it will be in favour of the Amendment.

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That, in order to facilitate the business of Standing Committees, a Motion may, after two days' notice, be made by a Minister of the Crown at the commencement of public business, to be decided without Amendment or Debate, "That this House do now adjourn," provided that if on a day on which a Motion is agreed to under this Standing Order leave has been given to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, Mr. Speaker, instead of adjourning the House, shall suspend the sitting only until a quarter-past Eight of the clock. Resolved, "That this be a Standing Order of the House."—[Mr. Bonar Law.]