HC Deb 15 January 1924 vol 169 cc49-56
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Baldwin)

I beg to move, "That Mr. James Hope be the Chairman of Ways and Means, and that Captain Fitzroy be the Deputy-Chairman."

In this new House and with the peculiar circumstances of the balance of parties to-day, a few words explaining why the Motion is made are eminently desirable. It is well known to the older Members of the House that these appointments used not to be made until after the conclusion of the Debate on the Address. The change in practice arose when the custom was given up of Mr. Speaker leaving the Chair for an hour or an hour and half during the course of the evening for dinner. It is well known, probably to all Members of the House that no one can take the Chair in Mr. Speaker's absence except the Chairman or the Deputy-Chairman of Ways and Means, and, therefore, for the continuance of our debates and the convenience of debate, it is necessary to have these officers appointed on the first day of the Session.

I would like to say a word or two about the position of the Chairman of Ways and Means. He is not in any sense a member of the Government, nor is he a Minister of the Crown. He is not subordinate to any Minister, he is not responsible to the Crown, to the Government, or to the Prime Minister. It is true it has been customary of recent years for his name to be put before the House by the Leader of the House for the time being. His responsibility, however, is not to the Leader of the House, but to the House itself, whose servant he is. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chairman of Ways and Means in the last Parliament, and my hon. and gallant Friend the Deputy-Chairman, arc fully sensible of that responsibility, and if, after their election, circumstances should occur in which the House itself should desire a change, and the desire for that change should be intimated to them, they would immediately fall in with the wishes of the House. That is the reason for making the proposal to-day that they be appointed to the offices which I have named.

I think it only right that the House should be aware of this fact, and should realise that the appointment is for their convenience. On the other hand, if there is a general desire in the House that during the short period of the Debate on the Address, the old custom should be followed—subject, of course, to Mr. Speaker's assent being obtained, and Mr. Speaker has always been, as we all know, ready in these matters to fall in with what may be the wish of the House—in that case, I would not press this Motion. I would, however, remind the House that in the event—and I hope nothing of the kind may occur—of the Speaker being ill, or incapacitated in any way from taking the Chair, then, in the absence of these officers, there is no one who can be called into the Chair, and the House would have to adjourn until the Speaker's health permitted him to resume his duties. I felt that I owed it to the House in these circumstances to give this explanation. I hope, very much, they may see fit to support this Motion, but I shall await what may be said in the course of the discussion which will undoubtedly follow, and T shall endeavour, as far as I am able, to fall in with the wishes of the House.


I am sure the House is very much obliged to my right hon. Friend for putting the case in the fair and open way in which he has put it. It is perfectly evident that since we altered our Standing Orders, so that Mr. Speaker was no longer able to adjourn the House during a dinner-hour, it was necessary to elect a Chairman of Ways and Means, and a Deputy-Chairman, at this sitting. There is no use, however, shutting our eyes to any of the facts. We are meeting to-day in most unusual, most exceptional circumstances, and I think it would be a profound pity if we started with a Division at this time upon this subject. We are going to have a great many difficulties during the life of this Parliament. [HoN. MEMBERS: "You are!"] We are, whether it is short or whether it is long, and I feel it would be far better if an avoidable Division were obviated. I think, Mr. Speaker, it would be well if you informed us whether you could see your way to help us in this matter by saying it would be possible to adjourn the House for a short time—say, an hour—each day during the Debate on the Address, while you had your refreshment and we had ours in the evening. By the end of that time we will see what a greater and more critical Division will bring forth, and then we will be in a position to set about our business in the ordinary way. I think it would be far better, if I may express my own opinion, if this matter were adjourned, because it is quite impossible —however much one may regret it—to get this Motion through without a Division which would be most regrettable. If the matter were adjourned, and if Mr. Speaker were to get us out of our difficulty in the way I have suggested we could proceed later on to the appointment of these two officers.

Lieut.-Colonel J. WARD

An extremely interesting situation has developed, and apparently even before the Speech from the Throne has been read, some arrangement has been made by the parties represented on this side and by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. MacDonald) to decide that there shall be no Chairman of Ways and Means until such time, I suppose, as he is in a position to form a Government and to decide who the gentlemen are to be. That is only carrying on exactly the same tendency against which I protested the other day, and I most emphatically enter my protest against it now. This is a House of Commons appointment, as admitted by the Prime Minister in making the proposal. It is only an accident that the Prime Minister, or the Leader of the House as a rule makes the proposition, because it rarely happens that there is a Government which has not a majority of the Members of the House supporting it. It so happens that this Government has not a majority of the House supporting it, but while that may be urged against them, as a reason why this matter should be delayed, when the hon. Member for Aberavon forms his Government, he will be in a still more insignificant minority. If this argument holds good now, then we ought not to elect a Chairman of Ways and Means or a Deputy-Speaker at all, and the Government would be ill-advised if they accepted the suggestion of the hon. Member for Aberavon, and delayed this matter, especially as this old House is a peculiar institution and the hon. Member for Aberavon is no doubt counting his chickens, but they may be lost even yet. The hon. Members behind him, I suppose, occasionally sing that verse in their particular song about

Craving for power and pelf. [Interruption.] It is the first time I have ever had the chance of being in Opposition. For over 20 years I have been in the House, and I never had a chance of being in Opposition, but I have that chance now, as you will discover very often. Apart altogether from that, this is a House of Commons appointment, an appointment which should proceed from the Members themselves. These two gentlemen have given service to the House. They are not new men, they are not untried men. We have had them during the last Parliament, and for some considerable time their services have been well known to the House. I am astonished that the first pact made by the parties in this new Parliament should be, of all things, a pact between a Conservative Prime Minister and a prospective Socialist Prime Minister. That is a peculiar combination in my estimation. I would beg of the House to proceed with the election.


I think there will be general agreement that the Prime Minister has fairly consulted the probable views of the House in the course which he has taken. He has offered in respect of the Motion now before the House two alternatives, and I am extremely glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon has on behalf of his Party, and the Opposition, selected the second of those alternatives. I think it would have been unfortunate had the first been chosen, and for this reason—that it would have been open to all the objections which have just been put by my hon. and gallant friend the Member for Stoke (Lieut.Colonel J. Ward). We would be in this position, that to-day, on the motion of the Prime Minister, we would be electing the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Central Sheffield (Mr. J. F. Hope) as Chairman of Ways and Means, and the hon. and gallant Member for Daventry (Captain Fitzroy) as Deputy-Chairman. That would be an assumption on the part of the Government, and an admission on the part of the House, that these appointments were within the gift of the Government of the day. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] I am putting it as it appears to me, and if hon. Gentlemen opposite disagree with me, I am quite ready to hear any arguments which they can bring forward. I am endeavouring to suggest in a deferential way that such an arrangement as I have indicated would lead to these inferences—first, that the present Motion admits a right on the part of the Government, and that right having been admitted on the part of the present Government, then it would be the right of the new Government, whoever composes that Government, to nominate whom they please to sit in the Chair of Committee of Ways and Means and to be Deputy-Speaker.

It seems to me any such an arrangement would be most unfortunate, and furthermore, that in the exceptional and unusual conditions of the present House to which the hon. Member for Aberavon has referred, it would be wise to depart altogether from the, tradition of having the Chairman of Ways and Means and his deputy nominated by the Government of the day. It is true, as the Prime Minister has said, that for many years now the Government of the day has nominated the Chairman and that nomination has been accepted by the House without challenge, but there is one very interesting precedent, which is an exception to that rule, and it is an exception which arose under conditions very like those in which the House is now met. In 1835 Sir Robert Peel, like the present Prime Minister, was a minority Prime Minister. He had appealed to the country in exceptional conditions, in the hope of attaining a majority like the present Prime Minister. He had failed in his appeal but not so badly as the present Prime Minister. On that occasion Sir Robert Peel decided that he would endeavour to carry on The first trial of strength between the parties occurred then on the election of Mr. Speaker—a precedent which was happily not followed on the present occasion. When it came to the nomination of the Chairman of Ways and Means, Sir Robert Peel, whose nominee for the Speakership had been defeated, wisely saw that it was impossible for him to put his party nominee in the Chair of Committee of Ways and Means, and he nominated—I think it was in the month of March, 1835—Mr. Bernal a member of the Whig Opposition. That Motion was accepted without a Division by the House. On that occasion, he recognised, as I think the Prime Minister now recognises, and any future Prime Minister must recognise, that in these appointments the wishes of the House must be consulted.

It seems to me that the second alternative which the Prime Minister has put forward, namely, to adjourn the whole matter, would be preferable from every point of view. It is true that it would mean a temporary change in the order of our proceedings, in that you, Sir, in the Chair, would require to follow the example of your predecessors about 30 years ago, and suspend the sitting for the dinner hour. I apprehend that that can be done without any alteration in the Standing Orders of the House, but I have no doubt that the House will be prepared to be guided by you in that matter. If this is left open, there will be an opportunity in the intervening time to ascertain the general view of the House as to who should fill these offices, and, if I might make a suggestion, it would be to this effect, that such efforts as are possible should be made in the interval to ascertain the general sense of the House, so that in the Chair of Ways and Means and in the office of Deputy-Chairman, there should be those who commend themselves to all sections, and that, therefore, for the purposes of the present Parliament, the best possible appointments should be made.


At this stage, perhaps, it would be well if I answered the question put by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald). I am the servant of the House, and, as far as human frailty permits, I shall carry out the decision of the House. It may be necessary for me to leave the Chair in a long sitting for a short period.


I am one of those who believe in spoils to the victors, and I believe that this is an attempt to queer the pitch. Instead of being in the House of Commons, I imagine I am in Petticoat Lane. [An HON. MEMBER: "YOU ought to be."] I have been. Surely it ought to be left to the new House of Commons to get into order, to appoint our own officials without having them appointed for us. Who are these gentlemen who are coming along? Hope and Fear. I do not object to whoever gets the job. I never stand a chance, but I do want to ask the House to realise that we ought to have a chance of getting our breath. Some of you have lost it, but we are in the position to-day that we have parties more than equally divided, and I have the right to reecho the sentiment of one of the most celebrated statesmen of the day: "Wait and see." We have a right to ask that these appointments shall not be made until the proper time arrives, and then the gentlemen who are nominated may find themselves cremated. I hope they will not be, but I hope they will live to see a better time. I am, however, supporting the proposition that this Motion be adjourned until we have the opportunity of fully considering the situation and electing the officers of this House in accordance with the position of the people who have given their decision.

The hon. and gallant Member for Stoke (Lt.-Col. J. Ward), who always stokes up, who is always lecturing us on this side of the House about our imperfections, has, I am glad to see, turned over to the other side of the House. We are gradually finding him out. We were members of the same labour organisation when I was 17 years of age and he now becomes a reactionary and talks to me about constitutionalism.[HON. MEMBERS: "Order"] I am prepared to go on with it. This Gentleman knows more about it than I do. [HON. MEMBERS: "Order"] This hon. Gentleman, if I may he allowed to say so, cannot give me any lectures on constitutionalism. I want to see the officials of this House properly appointed, and we claim the right to appoint them, and we are going to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "We?"] Yes, I am one of the "we's." We are going to keep on keeping on until we have a chance of doing so, and we leave the House to judge.


This House has constantly created new precedents, and probably this Parliament will do so more than ever. I am one of those who have always been jealous for the privileges of the private Members of this House, and although there may he some difference in custom about it, it has always been considered, I believe, the right of this House as a whole, irrespective of party, to elect its Speaker. The position of Chairman of Ways and Means has of late years assumed a rather different aspect as his position as Deputy-Speaker has become more important, and it seems to me that the Members of this House should strive to preserve that same absence of any party spirit in the elections of these officers which it has been the tradition of this House to follow in the matter of the election to the Chair. Under these circumstances, I rise to ask the Prime Minister, and, if I may be allowed to do so, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald) also, whether, in the case of these appointments, whoever may be the particular Member of the House who proposes the names, they will take off the Whips of their respective parties in the case of any Division on these appointments.


I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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