HC Deb 23 February 1926 vol 192 cc474-83
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Baldwin)

I beg to move, in line 1, to leave out the word "Six," and to insert instead thereof the word "Five."

It may be convenient to make a brief explanation as to the need for the proposed change in the number of the Standing Committees and the number of members composing them. At one time the number of Committees was four. In 1919 that number was increased to six. At that time the Estimates were sent upstairs to a Committee. At the end of 1919 the Panel of Chairmen met to consider the effect of the establishment and working of these Committees, and they came unanimously to the conclusion the the Estimates Committee, for reasons that I need not go into—for the point hardly arises—had been a failure. They recommended a change, and also that the Committees should be reduced to five. The reason for that—and these few remarks cover the subsequent Amendments—was that it has been found that, seeing there are only three large Committee Booms upstairs, if you have all, or even some of these Committees sitting at the same time, not only is it inconvenient so far as the seating accommodation goes, but there is not a sufficient staff of clerks or shorthand writers to do the work required, especially if the pressure is kept up for any length of time.

Further the Panel of Chairmen found in 1919 that the result of some years of experience was this: that those members who attended most regularly and took the greatest part in the discussions, the moving of Amendments and the like, as well as the hard work of the House, were not the members who had been allocated to these Committees, but members who for special reasons were desirous of giving special consideration to special Bills. This caused them to suggest that the numbers should be decreased and, because of the difficulty experienced in obtaining a quorum, that the number of the Committees should be reduced. Curiously enough, I do not know why, the Report of the Panel of Chairmen was never acted on at that time, and it awaited a meeting and a consultation of the Chairmen of Committees upstairs, who were appointed in the present Parliament and represent all parties in the House. After careful inquiries, they came practically to exactly the same conclusions that the Chairmen of 1919 had come to when they first examined the working of the six-Committee system. That is the reason why these proposed Amendments of the Standing Orders are brought before the House now. As this is a matter for the House of Commons as a whole, I have been at pains to see that all parties, through the usual channels, have been made aware of the proposals and have had time to consider them. I understand there is general agreement that the desire of the Chairmen of Committees should be given effect to by the House. That being so, I beg to move in succession the Amendments that are down in my name.


In view of the fact that the executive of the Labour party have approved these changes, I do not propose to take any definite action against them. I am always anxious to agree with my leaders where no matter of vital importance is involved. I think it is worth while, however, to put in a word of caution about these changes. With the exception of an hon. and gallant Member opposite (Colonel W. G. Nicholson) who has been for so long Chairman of these Committees, I have probably taken more part in the work of Standing Committees than any Member of the House.

We ought to be fully aware of what this change means. The Prime Minister, quite rightly, has pointed to the fact that those who attend regularly on the Standing Committees are the specially-appointed Members. Under this change of Rules, these specially-appointed Members are being increased from 15 to 35. That will mean, in the first place, that the attendance at these Committees will improve. No doubt that was at the back of the minds of the Chairmen in making these recommendations. But I think Members ought to realise that in nine cases out of 10 Members who are nominated to these Committees have asked to be put on them, with the result that those Members who have a special interest in a Bill are more fully represented there than those who simply represent the public interest. On two Committees last year, the one dealing with the Rating and Valuation Bill and the one dealing with the Tithe Bill, there was, in my opinion, an overweighting of the membership of those Committees by one particular vested interest. With this increase in the nominated Members; we get increased opportunities for vested interests to be represented on these Committees.

In the 20 years I have been in the House I have seen another change on these Committees. It seems to me that more and more Members go on to a Committee acting almost as agents for societies outside. They come to the Committee not merely with Amendments, but with briefs to speak to those Amendments, and more and more we are getting on these Committees Members who are not taking what I think all of us will agree is the correct view for a Member of Parliament to take on a Committee, that is the sane point of view that he takes on a Private Bill Committee, but are taking up more and more the view-point of the special interests involved. It is for that reason that I rather deprecate the increase in the number of those who are specially, and at their own instance, added to these Committees. I do not think it is avoidable, because the attendance at Committees has got so bad, and we have got to have increased interest in the working of the Committees upstairs. But the Selection Committee, when they are nominating additional Members to these Standing Committees for special Bills, ought to give special attention to nominating, in the first place, those who do not act usually as special agents. There are of course those who take a general view rather than the point of view of any particular interest. I am not attributing any corrupt influence, but when you have a Bill which touches certain vested interests, there is a tendency to put those who represent that interest in special force on that Bill. We must realise that under this scheme you will get a larger representation of a special interest on these Committees, and we should get increased latitude on the Report stage in the House of Commons. If you have special interests represented by agents upstairs, then there should be a little more latitude for Members of Parliament on the Floor of the House, and more opportunities for re-debating Amendments which have been debated upstairs.

I rather regret that when this change was being made we did not raise the question of the number of the quorum of the Committees upstairs, because I think 20 gives an unfair pull to those who are specially interested. I would like to see along with this change the quorum raised to 30, to ensure a sufficient number of Members who will take the ordinary public point of view rather than a special point of view. Would it not be possible for the Committee, when making their selection, to choose new Members more largely rather than those who specially desire to go on, because I think that the work done upstairs is the best possible training for a Member of Parliament.


These Standing Orders need wider and more comprehensive alterations than are contained in these Amendments. Some of those sitting on the Labour Benches are not quite happy in regard to the way the business of this House is conducted. We believe that it could be conducted more expeditiously and in a manner more beneficial to the country at large if this House would depart from its ordinary practice and refer matters more to Committees, to report back again to this House for its final judgment, in the same way as many committees do which are set up by municipalities. With regard to these Amendments, I think the Committees ought to have remained at six, because there is ample accommodation in this building to accommodate all the Committees set up here, and there is sufficient staff obtainable to enable each of these Committees to be sufficiently well reported and have their deliberations put before the Committee in good time. I do not think that the Prime Minister has advanced any sound arguments why the number of Committees should be reduced. I think it will be a good thing to have some more Members added who take a great interest in the particular subjects referred to those Committees. That would be a very much better method of conducting the business, and I would rather see an extension of that method than a reduction of the number of Committees.

There is another point that I want to raise. While these alterations are being made, I should have liked the Prime Minister—who, at any rate when he comes to Scotland, prides himself on having at least some few drops of Scottish blood in his veins—to do something with regard to the Scottish Grand Committee in order to bring it more into line with the Committee which is provided for in regard to Wales and Monmouthshire. One finds in Standing Order No. 48 a provision that the members of the Committee which deals with business relating to Wales and Monmouthshire are to be those Members who represent Wales and the County of Monmouth. No English member, as I take it, sits on that Committee; it is pro vided that Welsh business shall be dealt with by a Committee consisting of Welsh members and members from the County of Monmouth. But, when it comes to a question of Scottish business, Scottish business has to be discussed—


I am afraid the hon. Member cannot raise that question on the present occasion. I observe that he has a Motion on the Paper, which he can put down again, dealing with the Scottish Grand Committee. But there is nothing in the present proposal that touches the Scottish Grand Committee, and it has been ruled by one of my predecessors that matters cannot be raised which are not cognate to the Motion before the House.


Should I not be in order in suggesting to the Prime Minister an extension of the Amendment that he has already on the Paper?


If it is in the nature of the one which I observe on the Order Paper to-day—that is to say, a proposal to confine the Scottish Grand Committee solely to Members from Scottish constituencies—it would not be in order. That is not touched or raised by the present Amendment.


That is quite true, but I thought I should be in order, as I did not expect my Motion to come on to-night, in making the suggestion I am now making, to see if the Prime Minister himself would take it up, since there is already a Standing Order which sets up a Committee to deal with specific matters relating to another part of the country, the members of which Committee are to be exclusively Members from that part of the country, without any from any other part.


I am afraid that that is debating a matter which is not raised in the Question before the House. The hon. Member must put down his Motion again, and try and find an opportunity for it.


On the point of order. Seeing that the Prime Minister's Amendments are based on a recommendation from the Chairmen's Panel, of which the Chairman of the Scottish Grand Committee is a member, is not the point that my hon. Friend is making very cognate to the matter that the Prime Minister is bringing before the House to-night; and, further, do I understand that it is only by the leave of the House that this matter is being brought forward at all this evening? Would it not be possible for the Prime Minster to take back his present suggestion and widen the scope of the whole re-arrangement of the Committees?


On the first point, this is exempted business, and therefore the House is entitled to proceed with it. On the other point, I am quite clear about my ruling. It is exactly on the lines given by my predecessor—that that question cannot be raised on the present occasion. The hon. Member has put down a Motion for another day to bring the matter up in the House.


Seeing that this is exempted business, would it be in order on the first night on which the Standing Order in regard to the sittings of the House is suspended to have a Motion similar to that of which my hon. Friend has given notice to be discussed here? Would an ordinary Member be granted the same privilege as the Prime Minister?


If he can persuade the Prime Minister to star it—


There is no star here.


or put it before the Government Orders. This is Government Business. It is moved by the Prime Minister as representing the Government. It is Government Business, though it is not technically an Order of the House.


Is there a Standing Order dealing with business in the name of the Prime Minister not marked as distinctively Government Business? Must Government Business not be marked as distinctively Government Business with an asterisk?


No, not Government Orders as distinct from Motions. If the hon. Member will look at the Order Paper for yesterday, he will see the first two questions were not starred, and they were not counted as Orders of the Day. If he watched closely, he saw that at the third item I called on the Clerk to read the Orders of the Day.


I accept your ruling, Sir, but may I ask the Prime Minister to go into the matter, because I think we have a definite grievance in that regard in Scotland, and if he does so I am prepared to have things go through in that way, as a general agreement has been arrived at between all parties. I hope he will take my suggestions into consideration and probably at a later stage bring forward a further Amendment to the Standing Orders along the lines I have suggested.


I hope hon. Members will allow me to make one or two remarks about the very interesting speech of the right hon. Gentleman opposite. It appears to me, having only been in the House some seven years, as against his 20, that the House has somewhat improved its methods during the last seven years. I am afraid I must look to him as being far more a Tory in these matters than I am, according to the view he expressed, not in accordance with the executive of his party, but his own private views. His point seemed to be mainly that the weakness of the Standing Committees is that there are too many hon. Members who represent vested interests, and come as representatives of some outside body putting forward the views expressed by that body. One cannot help realising that the fact of hon. Members to some extent representing outside bodies is perfectly true, but I think throughout the House all parties do their business and understand their duties so well that they cannot be said to represent in an unfair way vested interests. But so far as concerns their representing and putting forward the views of outside bodies I think that is not altogether a bad thing. During the 20 years the right hon. Gentleman has been in the House the world has got 20 years older its affairs have become more complex and in practically every Bill of importance that comes before the House specialised knowledge and long acquired experience is very necessary if the House is to come to satisfactory decisions, and consequently I hold the opinion somewhat strongly that it is of great assistance to this House that there should be on these Committees men who can put forward the views of representatives of bodies outside who have made a special study or have special experience of the question.

I have a sufficiently high opinion of my colleagues in this House to think that one, two, three or, for that matter, even more Members of the Standing Committees representing outside bodies can put forward a special point of view, if you like be special pleaders, but they are not there in sufficient strength to enable those outside bodies for whom they speak to be said to be unduly influencing the Committees of this House. In these circumstances I venture very respectfully to disagree with the view which the right hon. Gentleman put forward. On the whole, these Standing Committees, in the form which it is now proposed they should be, are likely to be even more successful than they have been during the years since the War. There is only one other point I want to make. It has been suggested by another hon. Member that there should be more Standing Committees than now proposed, but I differ essentially because I think that we do not want to overload this House or the country with too much legislation. We want a little less and a little better legislation. If there are more Standing Committees, the heavier is the work thrown on the Members of the House. To reduce the numbers of Standing Committees will work for good in the effect it will have on the legislation of the House.


I want to raise one point. The only danger I see in this proposal is that at the present time Members are appointed, generally speaking, to Standing Committees, and they do not know the business that comes before it. The result is that a large number is co-opted on a Committee before which comes a particular Bill, but if a Member is unable to pull the party wires he will have difficulty on his own to get on a particular Committee. It is quite conceivable that the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Scrymgeour) or the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Saklatvala), or two Members who are in no party at all at the present time, like the right hon. Member for Norwich. (Mr. H. Young), because they have no particular party machine, may be appointed on a Committee without knowing what is coming before that Committee. But when an important Bill is to come before a Committee, because they are in no party caucus or have no party machine, they may be left out, or at least they have the greater chance of being left out of the Committees than formerly. I have no great enthusiasm for it, and I must disagree with the hon. Members who have spoken before. I served on the Unemployment Insurance Committee and attended every meeting held last year during the month of July. We met fairly early and sat rather late, and the sittings at times were heated. I cannot say that the co-opted Members attended as well as the Members who had been elected in the ordinary way, nor did their influence in the moving of Amendments show any greater ability on their part.

This proposal need not be very contentious, but behind it I view with distrust the giving of greater power to the party machine to say who are to be the additional Members. Like it or like it not, the party caucus says who are to be the additional Members. If a group of Members or one Member should happen to be unpopular with the party machine, that group or that Member will be penalised by being left off a particular Committee. As one who has been unpopular with all kinds of party machines, I view with a great deal of suspicion this proposal. Had it not been for the fact that I am trying to turn over a new leaf and to be more loyal, and that a certain agreement has been come to whereby this proposal should go through unopposed, I should have fought against it now and have done my best to delay its passage, because I look upon it as a danger to the rights of private Members.

Amendment agreed to.