HC Deb 21 February 1919 vol 112 cc1311-8

Where before or after the passing of this Act, a Member of His Majesty's Privy Council has been or is appointed to be a Minister of the Crown at a salary, without any other office being assigned to him, he shall not by reason thereof be deemed to have been or to be incapable of being elected to or of sitting or voting in the Commons House of Parliament:

Provided that not more than three Ministers to whom this Section applies shall sit as Members of that House at the same time.


I beg to move, after the word "Parliament," to insert the words, and the office of such Minister shall be deemed to be an office included in the above-mentioned Schedules.


I am very glad the right hon. Gentleman has added these words, because it relieves a number of his colleagues of a difficulty with which otherwise they might be faced. The present Lord Chancellor had to be protected by a special Act of Indemnity in this House because of the omission of a similar provision from previous Acts.

Amendment agreed to.

Title.—To make provision for rendering unnecessary the re-election of Members of the House of Commons on acceptance of office, and to make provision as to the right of certain Ministers to sit in the House of Commons.

Amendment made: Leave out the words "rendering unnecessary," and insert instead thereof the words "restricting the necessity of."—[Sir G. Hewart.]

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


In my opinion the Bill has come out of Committee in an aspect less useful than it was when it was introduced. The main difference between the Bill as it stands now and as it stood when introduced is the fact that whereas originally this Bill was to protect Ministers on accepting an office of profit under the Crown from the necessity of submitting themselves to re-election, with no definite period stated, and therefore to operate during the whole course of Parliament, we have now substituted an Amendment that only for nine months after a General Election is a Minister to be protected in that way. In my opinion that is an Amendment which does not improve the Bill. The Leader of the House remarked in the Committee stage that the feeling of the House on Second Reading was entirely in favour of a time limit. He also stated that there was often a very quiet body of opinion in the House amongst Members who thought that the best way they could help on a Government Bill was by saying nothing about it. That was my own view, and I purposely did not speak on Second Reading for that reason. The original object of this old Statute of Queen Anne was, firstly, to protect the House of Commons from undue influence of the Crown. That, of course, has completely disappeared. We know that the Crown no longer has the power, had it the desire, to interfere with this House in the way in which no doubt it did in the days of Queen Anne. But I think there was another reason for introducing this provision into the Act of Succession, and that was what may seem an obvious reason perhaps, in order that a man who was going to be paid by the people should submit himself to them to let them see him and see whether they thought he was a man suitable to be paid by them. That also has surely disappeared, because the payment of Members has changed the position to the extent that every Member of Parliament is now paid by the people. Consequently it seems to me that that is not a measure with which to-day we are concerned as they were in the old days when this Statute was introduced. The only argument that now remains in favour of this provision in the old Statute is that it is desirable for Ministers periodically to go to the constituencies and to ask their electors whether they approve of them, and, inferentially, whether they approve of the policy of the Government of the day. I agree that that is an argument, but how much really does a by-election reflect the opinion of the country at any particular time? I think it is extremely doubtful as to what extent it does so. We know that there are a hundred and one local issues introduced into by-elections and that people flock to them from all over the country and set up all sorts of questions and bewilder and "flummox" the electors in such a way as that they constantly do not know what they are voting for. But even admitting for the moment that a by-election is an expression of the opinion of the country, then surely in the natural course of events, by deaths of Members and resignations, you have a constant series of them going on during the course of the Parliament. I cannot for the life of me see why you want to add to them, in the way in which the old Statute did, by compelling Ministers upon appointment to an office of profit under the Crown, to go down once again and submit themselves to their constituents.

If you admit the argument that it is desirable at certain periods after the General Election to re-submit the policy of the Government to the constituencies, it seems to me that this is not the proper way to do it. You might introduce the machinery of a referendum in big issues. I heard the speech on the Second Reading from the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. T. P. O'Connor). He held up his hands in horror at what he called the appalling prospect of the severance of the direct connection between the constituencies and this House which this Bill would bring about, and he declaimed in favour of a perpetual and constant touch being kept between the electorate and this House. I agree with him, but what would that hon. Member have said in the year 1912 or 1913, when it was proposed that a referendum should be taken upon the question of the Parliament Act and on the question of Home Rule? Would he then have been so keen upon that close and direct touch being kept between the constituencies and this House? I very much doubt it. I think there is a lot to be said for a referendum if there is a necessity for submitting questions to the electorate, but I pass that by. There is another alternative, surely. Admit if you like, which I think is very doubtful, that a by-election does give a real expression of the country's opinion, would it not be much better, if you wished Ministers to be subjected to these by- elections, to select certain Ministers, we will say by ballot or in some other way, from among those who have been longest in office to go down to the constituencies at stated intervals and submit themselves for re-election? I say that, because it seems to me, on the face of it, absurd that a man who has just joined the Government, and who is in no way responsible for the policy of the Government, should be the one selected and mulcted in the expenses of an election to test the feeling of the country as regards the policy of a Government to which he never even belonged. I think that would have been a more sensible suggestion, and that immediately introduces the question of expense, which was referred to also by the Leader of the House.

In my opinion, this question of expense is a real question. I did agree with the right hon. Gentleman when he said, "Why should you submit Ministers at the very moment when they first get their appointment to what is the great expense of an election?" "Well," somebody said, "they will recover it in their first year's salary," but sometimes that first year's salary never materialises. The Government may go out of office within a month, and, in my opinion, the question of expense is really a question which does deserve proper consideration; and if you are going to make it a necessity for Ministers to seek re-election in this way, then you ought to select those who have been in office longest, and who have got some salary out of which they can pay for their election, and select them if you like by ballot. I merely wish to express my views, and I think they are the views of a large section of this House. It has not been a vociferous section, but I believe there are a considerable number of Members in this House who wish, as I do, that the Government had not given way in response to a few hon. Members who raised this point on the Second Reading. Then we have heard about the question that this Bill places good men at a discount. Of course it does. We know from the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House himself that on a certain occasion he might have been a member of the Cabinet had it not been for the fact that his seat was considered an unsafe seat, and, consequently, under this system a Government can only select for rearrangements of its Ministry during the course of Parliament men who have got safe seats. That is putting good men absolutely at a discount, and I think it is a most undesirable policy. I happened to be looking the other day at what is, I suppose, the best known and the widest read book upon our constitutional law. I refer to the book of the late Sir William Anson. He deals with this point, and Sir William Anson takes entirely the view that the Government took when they introduced this measure. I have not got his exact words by me, but he said something of this sort. This part of the Act of Succession operates now merely as an inconvenience and a hindrance to public business. I think Sir William Anson was not a man who would have been in favour at all of separating this House from the opinion of the electorate, and yet he takes the view that this Section of this old Statute is nothing but an inconvenience and an anachronism. In my opinion it is an absurd anachronism, and I think it would have been well if this Section of the old Statute of Queen Anne had a long time ago become as dead as is the gracious lady whose name it bears.

Colonel GREIG

Emboldened by what has been said by the hon. Member who has just resumed his seat, I rise as one of those older Members who voluntarily preserved a discreet silence when this Bill was going through its Second Reading. We did so, apart from our natural modesty, out of a desire, first, to expedite business, and, secondly, to give new Members the opportunity that they are always entitled to in this House, but the result has been, in my opinion, disastrous. I entirely and thoroughly agree with what the hon. Member who has just spoken has said about this practice. The scythe of death has already started on this House, and amongst 707 Members before the end of the Parliament it may have many victims. Those are the opportunties for by-elections to take place. To my mind, the duty and responsibility of choosing Ministers should be on the Prime Minister, as it is at the present time. I may be stating what at first sight may seem rather an unpopular theory, but I hold that the responsibility of choosing Ministers and of a Government is not directly to the country, but to this House. Therefore it is essential, in my opinion, that the Prime Minister should take upon himself—and he does take upon himself—the responsibility of choosing Ministers. Consequently, he should have the widest choice possible, and it should be in his power to choose the man he thinks best fitted for the job with- out any reference to whether he had a small majority at the previous election. That is what does guide and must influence the choice of Ministers in this House. If you want to test the policy of the Government, there is a recognised method of doing it either by the natural one which I have indicated, that of the death of a Member, or on the other hand, if the Opposition desire to question the policy of the Government at any moment of the Session all they have to do is to give notice of a Vote of Censure and the opportunity is afforded to them. That is the right way, and not by these adventitious opportunities. I cordially agree with the hon. and gallant Member and I hope that in future, if we ever have the opportunity again, we shall get rid of this section of the law.

Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)

I am sure my hon. Friends will forgive me if I do not make a long speech in reply. Both speeches, the reasoned arguments of my hon. Friend (Major O'Neill) and of my hon. Friend (Colonel Greig) were extremely good, and I think that all the more, because I believe every word they say. The position of Leader of the House is not an easy one. He must always, I think, be guided in his actions by weighing the advantages or the disadvantages of any particular course. I have not the smallest doubt that if we had adhered to our original proposal, we should have had an immense majority in support of it. Beyond that I have the opinion that if I had carried out my first suggestion, to leave the matter to the free vote of the House, probably the majority would have gone in our favour. I thought by a compromise we should get rid of a large part of the opposition, and we did so. I did not wish, at the very beginning of the Session, to have a large number of Members left with the impression that the Government were forcing through a measure which they would think was primarily in the interests of the present Government. We did get rid of a large part of the opposition, but not the whole of it, and certainly if we had pressed the matter, it would have given the impression that we were acting solely for the advantage of ourselves. I do think, in addition to that, that there was some force in the arguments that were used.

The composition of the present House shows possibilities of value, perhaps more than at an ordinary time. There is a possibility—I do not put it any higher—of some regrouping of parties in this House which would give a majority quite different from that at the General Election. These considerations led me to take the view I did that on the whole it was far better not to press this matter further at that time. Very likely I have made a mistake, and I shall make many more, but that was my view. Of course, nobody knows what the position will be when the time comes. I think the best way of getting rid of this Statute altogether would be, if possible, just at the end of a Parliament, when, it is quite obvious that the Government that proposes it is not doing it for the benefit of themselves, but in the general interest, and if I had an opportunity I would try to get the change effected in such circumstances, so that nobody would think that it was being done in the interests merely of the Government.


With a sincere desire to assist the Leader of the House in his difficult task of taking the sense of the House, I hope he will not adopt the method suggested, that he will be guided by the silvern though, sometimes defective speeches of those who speak, and not by the golden and intelligent silence of those who do not. Should he adopt the method suggested to-day, I am afraid the reputation of this House, which many have pointed out has not advanced of late, will suffer a further blow. I hope he will accept the assurance that we do not intend to hinder, but, as far as possible, to assist in making measures better, but if speeches are to be disregarded and only the artistic and intelligent silence of Members is to be the guiding factor in the decisions of the Government, an unfortunate impression will be created after the rather peculiar circumstances which obtained during the last General Election, which suggested the formation of a majority which is going to have an undue advantage. There are signs, however, that that majority is being interspersed with intelligent criticism. The right hon. Gentleman leads the House, as I am sure all will agree, with great skill and consideration. We trust he will not allow himself to be unduly impressed by the appeal made to him to-day, and that he will not only look round to study the facial expression of this the large and intelligent majority, but that he will give due heed to observations made by Members of the House.


No Leader of the House could fail to pay atention to those who speak, but, on the other hand, he would be a very foolish Leader of the House if he thought that those who spoke alone represented the opinion of the House. He must judge.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the third time, and passed, with an amended Title.