HC Deb 04 February 1930 vol 234 cc1849-64

Order read for Consideration of Lords Reason for insisting on certain Amendments disagreed to by Commons.

Message from the Lords:

The Lords insist upon the amendments proposed by them in page 5, line 16; page 11, line 17; page 11, line 42; page 12, line 20; page 12, line 22; page 13, line 30; page 13, line 31; and page 14, line 13 for the following Reason:

Because they consider that, before passing permanent legislation, it is desirable that an opportunity shall be afforded to Parliament for further examining questions relating to unemployment insurance.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald)

I beg to move, "That the Lords Reason for insisting on certain Amendments disagreed to by Commons, be now considered."

Not much need be said at this stage of this controversy, but what is said has to be perfectly plain. You, Sir, when the Bill came back amended in the first instance, announced that certain Amendments were privileged. The House, in the exercise of its own judgment, which it always has done, decided to select from these Amendments certain ones regarding which it consented to waive its privilege. As regards certain others, it decided to do no such thing. One of those which it reserved was perfectly clearly a question of Privilege. It was an interference with our rights to determine how the money of the country should be spent, and the House, by a satisfactory majority, decided not to waive the Privilege, but to send the Bill back with the Lords Amendment deleted. The usual thing, the precedent, I think, almost without exception, is that when that is done, the House of Lords agrees, and waives the whole thing. To-night we are informed by the House of Lords that so long as there is a Labour Government in office in this House—[Interruption]—it is to regard none of our Privileges, but is to sit and criticise our Bills as a sub-committee of the Tory party. We take note of this.

I admit that the decision of the Lords has put the Government in a fix. If it were meant to do so, then I give them the great satisfaction of admitting that they have succeeded. If we were to drop the Bill, and pass it into the category of Bills awaiting the operation of the Parliament Act, the finance of unemployment insurance would be completely bankrupt, and within the course of 10 or 14 days, there would be no money in the fund from which to pay unemployment benefit. There is another situation. In a matter of Privilege it is not a question of whether they agree with us in substance or not. It does not matter how the House of Commons uses its Privilege; our contention is that so long as that Privilege is legitimately used, the action of the House of Lords must be regarded by the House of Commons as a breach of its privileges. If we had suspended this Bill at this stage, we would have had all the benefits contained in the Bill obliterated, the harsh administration of which we have complained for years would have been re-established—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] The old Act, with its fourth statutory condition, would have remained in force. By making this Bill one of the first of what I believe is going to be a solid body of Bills awaiting the three Sessions proposal—if the action of the House of Lords the other day is any indication of a policy—by making this Bill the first of that phalanx, every benefit of the Bill, every blessing given to unemployed men and women, would have been suspended.

Therefore we have to consider some other way of handling the situation. We waive no privilege. We state now, as emphatically as a statement can be made, that the Lords in insisting on that Amendment encroached upon the privileges of the House of Commons. If we were to stand on that and take no action it would mean that we were going to send on to the Poor Law thousands of people who will be kept off the Poor Law by this Bill. We therefore propose to amend the Amendment of the Lords. We propose to amend the Amendment of the Lords not simply because we want to amend it, but because the Lords Amendment is absolutely unworkable. It is another illustration that the Lords, as a reviewing assembly, as a revising assembly, cannot be trusted when there is a Labour Government. The Amendment which I wish to ask the House of Commons to amend is that to limit the operation of the Bill to 12 months. That means, as a matter of actual working, of administrative effect, to limit it to nine months, because a new Bill would have to be drafted and all sorts of inquiries made to enable a Bill to be passed before the ending of 12 months. The objections are obvious. The new administrative machinery will hardly be in working order by the end of 12 months. There would be the difficulty of the efficient working of a new Act, involving great changes in machinery, under the shadow of a time limit. The experience of 1927 shows that it takes at least two years to secure full results, and a limit of nine months is absolutely absurd and would not be proposed by any ore with a practical knowledge of the difficulties of the situation. Moreover the Amendment imposes a time limit which is finished before certain important changes made by this Bill have come into operation, for instance, the change relating to young persons under sixteen cannot come into operation until 1st April next year. This Bill becoming an Act of Parliament with the Amendments of the Lords upon it will cease to be in existence one day before the provisions of this Section come into force. The Government proposal, therefore, is that the time should be changed from March, 1931, to 30th June, 1933.

This gives sufficient time for the administrative and adjudicating machinery involved to come fully into operation. It gives time for the Act to be treated as a reasonable experiment, whether its provisions are wise or foolish. At the end of three years the Public Assistance Committees will have shown what they can do, the process of rationalisation will have got through its preliminary period, and a clearer view will be possible of the staple industries of the country. In short, full experience will have been gained of the working of the new Act, and, if revision proves to be necessary, it can be undertaken in a calmer and clearer atmosphere. For these reasons—first of all, in defence of the privileges of this House, and, secondly, so that, when the Act is passed, it may be a piece of practical, useful, workable legislation—I move this Resolution.


I have allowed the Prime Minister to go far beyond the Resolution and to discuss the reasons for the various Amendments which he proposes to make in the original Lords Amendments. I think that, with the approval of the House, it would be much the best way of dealing with this matter, if the whole question of the merits of the various Amendments were discussed on this Motion; that then, if the House be agreeable, the various Amendments should be put, that we should not have a repetition of the discussion but that, if the House sees fit, we should proceed directly to divide on the various Amendments.


We are always very glad to see the Prime Minister back again in the House of Commons. We feel much safer when he is here; we know what he is doing; and certainly I think we owe him a debt, in that, with his many grave preoccupations, he should have treated us to such a formidable Parliamentary statement on the subject of the Lords Amendments which are now before the House. Let me say at the very outset, on behalf of His Majesty's Opposition, that in the main we commend the course which the right hon. Gentleman has decided to adopt. The course that he has chosen, and the mood which he has displayed in relation to the Second Chamber, are very much better, wiser and sounder than we have been accustomed to from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, with the assistance of the Attorney-General, who have endeavoured to wipe out the other branch of the Legislature and rule it completely out of all share in our public affairs.

I have mocked at the Government, and shall do so again, when I have seen them run humbly to the footstool of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). I have mocked at that because, undoubtedly, it does carry with it a considerable element of humiliation when you see the Government of the country anxious to obtain and enlist the co-operation of a right hon. Gentleman who on frequent occasions has delivered studied insults at honourable and valued Members on the opposite benches. I have never attempted, and should never attempt, to criticise the Government when they show a just and proper deference to the other branch of the Legislature. That is quite a different thing, and on the whole I am bound to say, while in no way prejudging the fate which the proposals that the Government are now making will meet elsewhere, that it is a great improvement upon the mood and the treatment of constitutional affairs by them which we have witnessed during the present Parliament.

The right hon. Gentleman said of the House of Lords that a Labour Government could never receive, or expect to receive, fair play from them. [Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen must use the keen intelligence which is given to them, and endeavour to practise some sense of detachment in judging of our constitutional and political conditions. Has ever a party—a minority party, a minority in this House—been treated with more generosity—[Interruption.] If they had not been a Labour party, their numerical position in this House could never have enabled them to rule and sway, quite contrary, in many cases, to the feelings of the majority of the people of this country, so many grave and important events. What have they to complain about? [Interruption] I do not understand this sudden eager, almost furious, attempt to work up a passionate sense of grievance. They are the favoured, pampered darlings— [Interruption]—a minority Government every member of whose majority is elected three times as easily as a member of the Liberal party; and then they are ready to cry out. But the right hon. Gentleman, in his crying out, is actuated by careful and calm calculation. He is endeavouring to settle this matter—[Interruption]—he has, so to speak, to make a retreat under heavy fire of artillery. I do not criticise him or complain that he has made a retreat and has come forward on this occasion with an entire recognition of the position which the second Chamber still preserves in the constitutional life of the country.

Let us look into this for a moment or two on this general topic. The right hon. Gentleman spoke of privilege and so forth, but he cannot deny that under the Parliament Act, which is the foundation of our modern constitution, the House of Lords have an entire right, if they choose, to reject this Bill. That is the basis of his argument. If that is so, they obviously have a bargaining power, and it was intended by those who passed the Parliament Act—no one had more to do with it than I had; no one took more part in the Debates in the House except Mr. Asquith himself—in the Parliament Act it was intended, and always declared, that a real, effectual bargaining power would be reserved under it to the second Chamber. I cannot expect my Friends on this side of the House to agree with me, but I am dealing with the situation that has now arisen. We always argued that, once the House of Lords had been deprived of an absolute veto upon the proceedings of this popularly elected Chamber, once it had been given limited powers of delay and revision, those powers would become real and effective and that they ought to be used, and should be used on every occasion that was appropriate, and that is what is happening now. You have limited the powers and a new charter has been given to the House of Lords within the limits of the Parliament Act, a charter for which the Foreign Secretary, the Lord Privy Seal, the Secretary of State for India, and I daresay, half-a-dozen on that Bench are as much responsible as I am. Therefore we have entered upon a new era, and I hope a much more satisfactory era, in which the House of Lord is entitled to make a real and an active use of its limited powers in order to revise legislation and to bring a new element into the discussions of this House. After all, whatever vanity we may have about our own Chamber, we must admit that we are subjected to a great number of electoral pressures, and all sorts of things are settled, as we have seen only to-day, across the Floor of the House and behind the Speaker's Chair and so forth. The intrigues that the Prime Minister has been carrying on with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) have shocked me. At any rate, I would suggest that the limited powers of the House of Lords, used effectively and reasonably, will bring into the settlement of these difficult legislative and social questions a new element and an influence without which the House of Commons by itself will not arrive at the best decisions. You will have a richer and a stronger mode of constitutional life if the kind of discussions now proceeding between the two Chambers, and within the limits within which they are proceeding, are permitted to continue to develop.

What is the case? What is the point on which these discussions have arisen? A flagitious Bill. There is no Measure which the right hon. Gentleman's Government have introduced which has more thoroughly deprived them of their prestige, not only in this country, but all over the world, where it is believed, and wrongly believed, that this country is a down-and-out country, that it is simply peopled by unemployed and burdened with ruined industries, and where it is believed that we have, by pursuing undoubtedly passionate policies sapped the strength and self-reliance of our working-classes. I am not saying that that is what is believed in every country about this island. I know myself when in the United States at the same time as the Prime Minister friends of England on the other side came up and said, "Do you think this new Labour Government will have the courage to sweep away the dole?" One has to explain, of course, our great and elaborate system of Unemployment Insurance which is not understood abroad, but nothing has reinforced the disparagement of this country more than some of the provisions for which the Attorney-General took especial responsibility in regard to "genuinely seeking work." We know very well that there is duress at work—there is duress at work in every Government in power in one part of it or another—and that the decisions embodied in this Bill do not represent those which would have been put forward by legislators who were proceeding in an absolutely calm and uninfluenced atmosphere. Is not this the very kind of question on which the corrective aid of an external opinion carefully limited by a new constitutional warrant and rendered effective by the very use of that constitutional warrant, should enter into our affairs?

As to the actual provisions of this Amendment, whether it should be one year, or two years, or three years, it is not for us here on this side to interfere in the discussions which are being conducted between the two Chambers. Let them go forward. I have no right or authority whatever to pronounce as to what course should be taken in another place, but I say that this process of collaboration betwen the two Chambers, this instance of help being sought and accepted and given as between the two Chambers in a matter of this kind, will, I trust, inaugurate a series of useful and fruitful collaborations between the House of Commons and the House of Lords which will conduce to the improvement of our legislation and enrich the public life of the country.


The expressions of chief importance in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman were those, I venture to suggest, with which he opened and with which he concluded his observations, because it is indicated that tonight the House will be able to arrive at a unanimous decision. I feel sure that that will be a very great advantage. The remainder of his speech, if I may venture to say so, was wholly irrelevant. The right hon. Gentleman cannot, of course, miss a convenient opportunity of sowing discord and stimulating controversy. I can assure him that all he has said on this occasion, and the many similar speeches which I am sure he will make in future, will be received on these benches with a spirit of complete indifference. It is interesting to learn from the right hon. Gentleman that he still stands by the principles of the Parliament Act, in the passing of which, as he has said, he took so large and valuable a share, but in any case he knows quite well that in his present company he has nothing whatever to fear from the House of Lords. For four and a half years the Second Chamber disappeared from the Constitution. Was there nothing during all that time which needed the careful restraining hand of a revising body, such as that which he invoked this evening? But now, with a change of Government its activities speedily revive.

The point of principle mentioned in the speech of the Prime Minister is one of supreme importance, and we on these benches, now, as always in the past, will be prepared to support any Government in asserting and, if need be, in vindicating, the ancient privileges of this House against any aggression that may be attempted from any quarter. But, happily, the point of substance which is now in controversy between the two Houses has been reduced to very narrow dimensions. Their Lordships, very wisely in our view, have not insisted upon the deletion of Clause 4 of this Bill and the insertion of other and different provisions. The point of difference is now narrowed down simply to the question whether the duration of this Bill shall be one year or three years. I cannot imagine that the other House will impose upon the country the trouble and, in many quarters, the distress and suffering that would be involved by the rejection of this Bill. If the Bill is lost, 120,000 people will straightaway be thrown upon the Poor Law. If the Bill is lost, next Friday the funds in the Unemployment Insurance Fund will be exhausted and in the following week there will be nothing to provide maintenance for 1,400,000 unemployed and their dependants, who are an equal and even greater number. In these circumstances, I sincerely hope that the Government, having met the Lords very fully and in a spirit of great moderation, will be met equally by another place in the same spirit, and that the Amendment now proposed will be accepted, particularly if, as I presume will be the case, it goes to the other Chamber with the unanimous support of this House.


I am sure the House will recognise that, though we may come to the conclusion that a final decision has now been taken upon this question, it would be unfair to the independent Members of the House of Commons if we remained silent on an occasion of this character. Therefore, the interest which the question has aroused among Members of all parties, as represented in the character of this Assembly to- night, is one that I think ought to impress itself on the minds of the people of these Islands. It was a strange circumstance that the Tory party selected my right hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) to be their spokesman on this occasion. I can bear testimony to the intellectual power and valour with which the right hon. Gentleman waged war against the House of Lords at the time when the Parliament Act was passed. This House rang with his indignant eloquence at the gross attempt which an unrepresentative Chamber had made to impose its will against the elected House. I confess that to-night I thought him less logical and less defensible than I have ever heard him in this House. The House of Lords justified itself, or tried to justify itself in those days by saying: "We are preventing great Constitutional changes being made without the will of the people being expressed." At that time the resentment of the nation was aroused against it, but some people justified it in its action.

The question which arises to-day is not some great Constitutional change but a great social and economic difficulty, but the spirit of the House of Lords is unchanged. It is not a great chamber of national safety, set up to prevent a too-ready rush of democracy towards certain changes, but it has shown that the spirit of the House of Lords is anti-democratic. When a great Measure of this character has been submitted to the elected representatives of the people and passed, after they have given it their considered judgment, in the interests of the most helpless and most defenceless of our people, the members of the House of Lords airily say: "We will not reject the Bill but we will pass an Amendment which obviously means the rejection of the Measure."

If there is one question which the elected representatives of the people in the House of Commons are eminently capable of deciding it is the question how to solve the unemployment problem. We are the direct representatives of the people, living among them and understanding their conditions. We sympathise with their conditions. We know something of their difficulties and the lives they live, and having listened to the Government's proposals we believe that they are proposals that will meet the difficulty. The considered judgment of the House of Commons has been given, and now an unrepresentative Assembly—a body of men who know nothing of the working-class community: great landlords, great lawyers, men who have shone in many spheres of activity, but whose lives are foreign to the working people and who do not understand the condition of the people—set their judgment against the considered judgment of this House, elected by the people. The necessities of the situation demand that we should ask for no concession from the House of Lords; to do so would be an insult to the intelligence of the people who have returned us to this House. The action of the House of Lords is indefensible.

12.0 m.

The right hon. Member for Epping has taunted the Government with holding conversations with the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). Why did they hold these conversations? Because they were prepared to lose whatever prestige was associated with a Measure submitted to this House in order to secure a useful public purpose. The Government were prepared, in the true constitutional spirit of a minority Government, to consult with other elements in the House who are friendly and sympathetic, but who might find some parts of the Measure unacceptable to them. I cannot see what other course the Prime Minister and his Government could have adopted. If I may say it without offence, I have seen in this House, at a time of great industrial difficulty, when according to all parties this country is faced with troubles and difficulties unparalleled in our industrial history, a spirit of flippancy and amusement unworthy of the great situation we have to face. The business of this Government is not to have regard for its own prestige, or dignity, or party power, but to regard itself as the great modern instrument of the State, in which real democracy has found for the first time spokesmen who understand their spirit and appreciate their wants and desires. It is not for that great party to talk about its prestige or dignity, but to do things for the working classes. I would ask them not to care whether they have to look for assistance here or there, but to secure it and save the nation from destruction. First, to support and preserve old industries, next, to foster new ones and concurrently with that to teach the people that it is only by constitutional effort that Parliament will do for them what revolution cannot do—namely, give them security in their lives, some measure of contentment and happiness and procure for them a measure of justice which should be the aim and ambition of all true patriots.

Lords Reason considered accordingly: The Lords insist upon the amendments proposed by them in page 5, line 16; page 11, line 17; page 11, line 42; page 12, line 20; page 12, line 22; page 13, line 30; page 13, line 31; and page 14, line 13 for the following Reason: Because they consider that, before passing permanent legislation, it is desirable that an opportunity shall be afforded to Parliament for further examining questions relating to unemployment insurance.

  1. CLAUSE 6.—(Repeal of fourth statutory condition.) 253 words
  2. c1862
  3. CLAUSE 16.—(Further amendment of s. 14 (2) of 17 & 18 Geo. 5. c. 30.) 216 words
  4. cc1862-3
  5. CLAUSE 17.—(Minor Amendments.) 108 words
  6. cc1863-4
  7. CLAUSE 20.—(Interpretation, repeal, application, short title, and commencement.) 258 words