HC Deb 02 June 1927 vol 207 cc593-602

I want to call the attention of the House to what I believe to be a matter of very grave concern to a large number of my hon. Friends on this side of the House, and in regard to which I hope I may be able to evoke a certain amount of sympathy even from right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House, in view of the fact that the present disposition and allocation of parties in this House may not necessarily be permanent. That matter is the anomaly of the present allocation of the time of this House to different subjects of grave national concern, and the time which is allotted to the several parties represented in this House. I am more directly moved to bring this question to the attention of the House by reason of the entirely inadequate time and attention which this House is able, or perhaps inclined, to devote to questions which are of as great concern both to the whole Commonwealth of nations of which Great Britain is still the centre, and to the dependant Empire of which Great Britain is still the head. I want more particularly to refer to a very important document—I am not going to refer to it in detail, for reasons which I shall explain in a moment—which was issued as a Report from the Imperial Conference which assembled in London in November last. Everyone is aware that matters of the very greatest importance were discussed at that Conference, and that matters of grave consequence were also discussed at the Colonial Conference which came to an end only two days ago.

There was a Report on what are known as Inter-Imperial Relations issued from the Imperial Conference, which I do not hesitate to describe as the most important single document in the history of our Colonial Empire since Lord Durham penned—if he did pen—the famous Report on Canada in the year 1839. I do not propose to go into the merits or demerits of what is commonly known as the Balfour Report, and, if I were inclined to do so, I should feel myself excluded by the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Dominions is unfortunately unable to be present this afternoon. I recognise the reasons for his absence, which he very courteously explained to me, and, in his absence, I think it would not be appropriate that I should go into the merits of the Report to which I have referred. What I wish to refer to is a matter of a. rather more general character; I mean the lack of opportunity possessed by Members of this House for the discussion of questions in which they, or a large section of them, may be supremely interested. I put on the Notice Paper of this House a Motion to the effect that, in our opinion, it is desirable that this House should have an early opportunity of considering the declarations and recommendations contained in the Report of the proceedings of the Imperial Con- ference of 1926. I would have preferred to have phrased that Motion a little more precisely, and to have said that it was not desirable that this House should be deemed tacitly to have acquiesced in the declarations and recommendations of that Conference. That is a matter which has been elsewhere debated, but I quite recognise that, at any rate in this country, without some further explanation the words which I have just quoted might lend themselves to misconstruction and even to misrepresentation.

I observe that, in some quarters, it has been not merely tacitly assumed, but explicitly asserted that, since last November, there has taken place a full abandonment by the British Government of any claim to control or superior authority. Whether that full abandonment has, as a 'matter of fact, taken place or not, I have no means of knowing, but I would very respectfully ask, if we are to have any reply from the Government, when this abandonment took place, and who presumed to abandon this claim to which reference has been made. Above all, I would ask whether an act of such supreme importance to this country and to the Empire as a whole is to take place without the assent or even without the knowledge of this Imperial Parliament. I suggest that, if that were so, this House would be placed in a gravely false position. I do not want to enter upon the merits of the policy at all. All that I ask is that, by silence on. matters of such grave constitutional importance, this House may not be assumed to have acquiesced in the policy of which it has not been formerly informed. I observe that very pertinent questions, as they seem to me, are being asked in another place. It has been asked, "What is to be the notice to the various overseas Dominions that the Parliament of Great Britain has accepted the proposals of the Imperial Conference as binding? How are the Dominions to know when the proposals come into force unless some special action is taken by the Parliament of Great Britain and by the Parliaments of the overseas Dominions?" These questions seem to me to be very appropriate, pertinent, and indeed inevitable questions to be addressed to the respective Governments, and I would venture to address them very respectfully to the Government of His Majesty.

I am not on this occasion going into the merits. I refer to these matters, I refer even to the Balfour Note on inter-Imperial relations, merely in order to illustrate the grievance, which I think is widely and which, I know, is deeply felt, among hon. Members on this side of the House. About a week ago, I asked the Prime Minister whether this House was to have any opportunity of discussing the Report to which I have referred, and the Prime Minister replied, courteous as ever, to the effect that an opportunity might be obtained on one of the days devoted to Supply, or on some other occasion. The House knows perfectly well that topics for discussion on the 20 days devoted to Supply are selected, not by hon. Members on this side of the House, but by hon. Members on the other side. I am not complaining; I am merely stating the fact which is known to hon. Members in all parts of the House. It is also known that, by a convention—all these matters are nothing more than convention—out of the 20 days allotted to Supply, seven days are controlled by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen sitting on the two top benches below the Gangway opposite. Forty Members who sit sometimes on these two benches control seven of these days, and the rest are controlled by the 150 or 160 Members who sit above the Gangway on the other side. I am not concerned with that allocation, but what concerns me is that the 400 hon. Members who are supporters of the Government do not control a single Supply day.

I am not without hope that, before this portion of the Session ends, before August, if it does end then, by the courtesy of the leaders of one or other of the two Opposition parties, we may obtain a day, or part of a day, for the discussion of this very important subject I would remind the House in that connection that, about a year ago, the Colonial Office, as it was formerly named, was bifurcates into two distinct departments, the Dominion Office and the Colonial Office, and I had an impression that one of the reasons for the bifurcation was that it might afford a double opportunity for debates on matters of Imperial concern. I would, however, remind the House that up to now it has had no such result, and I submit that the existing convention by which these days are allotted does effectually prevent the large majority of Members of this House from discussing a matter which to them seems to be of supreme national or Imperial importance.


I rise to support very strongly the views which have been put before the House by the hon. Member who has just sat down. I think the hon. Gentleman has expressed the view which is very generally felt by all Members of the Conservative party, and, indeed, by the Members of other parties, that it is extremely unfortunate that there has been no opportunity since the Imperial Conference for this House to debate the general principles which were there discussed, and the very important decisions which were come to at that Conference only a few months ago. Today I do not want to enter into the details of those proposals or the very important effects which follow from them in regard to the relations between ourselves, the Dominions and the Colonies. When it is realised throughout the Empire what took place at the Imperial Conference, and when we remember that the results of it have been freely discussed in almost all Parliaments with one exception since the return of the various delegates to their own parts of the Empire, it is extremely unfortunate that in the Mother of Parliaments no discussion whatever has taken place on the decisions of the Imperial Conference.

The subjects discussed at that Conference included not only such very important matters as those connected with inter-Imperial relations but also questions of emigration, Empire defence, and indeed other important matters such as the reference to the Privy Council, a matter which is very strongly felt in various parts of the Dominions, and a question upon which it is felt to be necessary that some decision should be taken before very long. There is a feeling in some parts of the Empire that it would be fatal if the opportunity which exists at the present moment to refer questions to the Privy Council should pass away. I know there are other branches of the legislature abroad which hold the view that the conditions which will prevail in certain Dominions in the future and their status demand that their judicial functions should be complete within their own borders. In all these matters, and particularly in the extraordinary important matters of preferential trade, emigration and inter-Imperial relations, this House has had no opportunity of saying a single word. I very strongly support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Sir J. Marriott). Up to the present we have had no opportunity to raise this matter except on the Motion for the Adjournment, and I ask the Government whether there is anything they can do in consultation with the different sections of the House to give us an opportunity of adequately discussing this important question.


The Chancellor of the Exchequer.


Is it not the rule that members of the Opposition should have an opportunity of expressing their views before the representative of the Government replies?

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Churchill)

May I suggest that it will not be necessary to raise this point of Order, because I am quite willing to give way to the hon. Member.


I have a certain amount of sympathy with the hon. Member opposite in regard to what he has said about the time allotted for the discussion of particular matters in this House, and the need for some alteration in regard to the arrangements. In the case he has raised, however, I do not think there is really any point in his request for a discussion of Imperial Conference questions. We think that the whole matter could be settled by giving Scotland Home Rule, and then we should have an opportunity of managing our own affairs, and there would be more time available in this House for the discussion of other subjects. I think it is necessary, before the Chancellor of the Exchequer replies, to deal further with the question of the Supply days. I wonder if hon. Members who have raised this question understand that what they are really doing is censuring their own Government. If they have not confidence in the administration of the Government in connection with various Departments, they could easily put down a Vote of Censure on the Government in that connection. I think it is preposterous, and a most extraordinary proceeding for hon. Members opposite to complain in this way that they are not getting an opportunity to discuss particular Votes in Supply. I want to point out to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there has been very little opportunity for the Members of the Opposition to discuss matters connected with Supply, and the reason for this is to be found in the fact that the Government have introduced so much panic legislation, and have taken up so much time with the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Bill that we are not getting the proper number of Supply days. There are ever so many matters of grave domestic concern that we have not yet had an opportunity of discussing.


We are bound to get the 20 allotted days.


I know we are bound to get the 20 allotted days, but they are to come on later in the Session, and I am now dealing with the statement of the hon. Member for York that there has not been an opportunity for discussing the Imperial Conference decisions in this House, although they have been discussed in the Dominion Parliaments. The reason for that may be due to the fact that the Government have been mopping up the Supply Days by their legislation, and Supply will have to be taken at a later period of the Session. I believe there are other matters of far more importance than that which now seem to be agitating the ultra-Conservative minds in this House as to whether the Home Parliament should have some sort of control over the Dominion Parliaments. Those ultra-Conservative minds seem to be greatly concerned about something being done to provide opportunities to discuss Imperial matters. I think there will be an opportunity of discussing on Supply Days matters of very much more importance to the working classes, and we should then have opportunities of criticising the Government for the way in which they have failed to do anything to abolish the poverty and misery which are the lot of so many millions of the people of this country to-day.


I think the subject which has been raised by the hon. Member for York (Sir J. Marriott) is one of some importance. I would like to say in this connection that in the official position I hold in my party we are always willing to meet the wishes of hon. Members, and if I had been approached and asked to assist in giving ad opportunity for the discussion of this question by any hon. Member opposite, I am sure the official members of my party could have been useful in putting down subjects on Supply Days which are interesting not only to ourselves but to the whole House. We are only too glad to get hon. Members interested, and if the hon. Member for York and his friends will approach me, I will do all I can to get my party to afford the necessary facilities for such a discussion.


This Debate looks as if it were finding its way to a happy and immediate conclusion. As regards the special claim which has been put forward for a discussion of questions raised at the Imperial Conference, it follows that we shall have some opportunities through the usual channels and, perhaps, through the unusual channel to which the hon. Member for Montrose (Sir H. Hutchison) has alluded, of achieving the entirely desirable and legitimate purpose of having an opportunity provided for discussing the very memorable and historic decisions which were arrived at in the Imperial Conference. The reason why they have not been discussed before is principally because there has been such a very general measure of agreement amongst all parties in regard to what was done, and the belief that this will conduce to the strength and harmony of the British Empire as a whole. That is why there has been no challenging current of opinion to set in motion what I would call the heavy machinery of the House of Commons so as to provide the necessary opportunities for a Debate.

Nevertheless, I agree with my bon. Friend the Member for York (Sir J. Marriott) that, although these matters may be dealt with by agreement, perhaps it may be misunderstood in other parts of the Empire if we pass these questions sub silentio, and it might be thought that we do not consider these matters are so important, whereas, as a. matter of fact, it is because of their importance that they have not actually been discussed up to the present time. Therefore, I welcome very much the helpful suggestion of the Liberal Whip that consultations may take place in regard to this particular matter between the official representatives of parties, and I hope the result will be that an opportunity will be given for what, I am sure, will be a very valuable and deeply interesting Debate.

With regard to what has been said about the practice adopted in regard to discussions of Supply Votes, those who look back to the period before the Supply Rule will realise what an enormous improvement has taken place in our Parliamentary affairs. I came into the House some years after the change had been made, and it was a commonplace amongst leading speakers in all quarters of the House—I am speaking of a quarter of a century ago—to admit that there had been an immense improvement in the conduct of our business, in the dignity, efficiency and celerity which had been achieved by the substitution of the new Supply Rule with its allotted 20 days and extra days in certain circumstances, instead of the altogether chaotic and disorganised manner in which the immense bulk of Supply had been previously dealt with by the House of Commons, when vast sums of money were passed without being properly discussed, and had to be rushed through in the course of a single evening. But if we admire the Supply Rule, and if we adhere to the views that were expressed in the years immediately after its inception, that it was a great improvement in our Parliamentary procedure, it is perhaps worth while looking back to what was said at its inception in 1896 by the then Leader of the House, who still occupies a high and important position in His Majesty s Government. Lord Balfour used these words: My idea is that with a time limit of 20 days, or whatever period the House fixes, it should be left to the Whips of the two sides, and mainly, let me say, to the Whips of the Opposition, to determine the order in which the Votes should be taken. I would put the suggestion even more strongly and say let it be left entirely to the Opposition Whips, if there were not such questions as the Army and Navy on which hon. Members on this side would desire some opportunity of speaking, while perhaps there is not the same desire for Debate on the other side. Lord Balfour contemplated that the main control of the topics to be discussed should naturally rest with the opponents of the Government and with the minority in Parliament, because it is the minority that is discontented and they ought to have the opportunity of raising grievances. But it was also clearly contemplated by Lord Balfour when he devised this rule that some proportion of the 20 days should be allocated in accordance with the wishes of the supporters of the Government, who might find that the selection by the Opposition of particular topics for discussion left whole spheres of important matters entirely unprovided for. That, I think, is a very interesting fact. I am certainly not going to suggest that a change should be made, but I think it is a matter that should be considered, because the discussion of Supply ought to be fairly representative of the whole sphere of our affairs and not be unduly confined to any special class of matters. Suppose for instance, we will say, taking an extreme, remote instance, hon. Members opposite were in power with a majority as large as ours and the representatives of some part of Scotland were not entirely satisfied with the policy of the Government, and thought it was really far too moderate and wished to enforce upon them vigorous action in regard to dealing with questions of poverty and unemployment generally, and on the other hand a Conservative Opposition differing from those gentlemen, having the sole right of prescribing what should be discussed on Supply, continually discussed Imperial topics connected with the Army and the Navy and matters which entirely excluded hon. Members opposite from their special opportunity, I think that would be a grievance. I hope the intended action by the Liberal party may have the effect of rendering the consideration of these topics a little less urgent than it seems to be at present. For the rest, if we really found that whole blocks of important matters could never be brought forward, it might be necessary to consider whether a certain number of days could not be relegated to the control of the Government and not the whole distribution confined to the Opposition. However, I am certainly not in n position to suggest that any action should be taken in the matter, because actually it is one that requires most careful consideration.

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