HL Deb 19 July 1904 vol 138 cc390-5

My Lords, I rise to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether, in accordance with the undertaking given on the 22nd of February last, he has taken any steps to consult the Prime Minister with reference to carrying into effect the Resolution adopted by this House last year, respecting the duration of the Parliamentary Session. The Question which I have placed on the Paper has been prompted by an invitation, expressed in almost pathetic terms, which I have received from my noble friend the Leader of your Lordships' House, inviting me, and, I presume, everybody on these Benches, to come here in August and assist him in passing the Licensing Bill, and intimating at the same time that if we fail to attend certain unfortunate consequences may ensue.

I do not wish to say anything ill-natured, but I cannot help respectfully pointing out that if unfortunate consequences do result, it will be entirely due to the action of the Government; for, so far as I can see, there was no earthly reason why the Licensing Bill should not have been introduced in this House. The opposition to the Bill in your Lordships' House would have been, to put it mildly, quite as effective as the opposition in another place. The Bill might conceivably have been much improved, and, if it had gone down to the other House it is equally conceivable that those measures which have been taken in order to abbreviate its progress might have been rendered unnecessary. I ought to add that the only two Cabinet Ministers to whom I have made this suggestion admitted that it would have been more practicable if the Bill had been introduced in your Lordships' House, but those Ministers are not Members of this House. That is, I admit, merely a hypothesis, and I only want to discuss facts.

The fact we have got to face is that this highly contentious measure does not appear in this House until the concluding days of July, and cannot be seriously debated until August. I have not a lengthy experience in this House, but my experience, such as it is, is that the debating of Bills in August is more or less a farce, and this year it will be undoubtedly a farce, because it is perfectly clear that with the amount of time left at our disposal no Amendments of any importance can possibly be accepted. The Prime Minister may have some indefinite ideas upon certain subjects, but, at all events, he is very definitely convinced that Parliament ought to rise in the middle of August. I observed in The Times yesterday—and I have always found The Times a very accurate prophet so far as the Parliamentary policy of the Government is concerned—that the Prime Minister is due on August 17th to deliver an address to the British Association at Cambridge, and as in addressing so august a body as the British Association even the Prime Minister must take considerable time in which to prepare his speech, the writer deduced from these facts that the termination of the session cannot be later than 15th August.

From the statement made just now by my noble friend the Leader of the House, one might suppose that we had ample time at our disposal. He airily suggested that any noble Lords who wished to discuss the new Army scheme or anything else would find plenty of time in which to do so before we adjourn. To me it appears that the sands in the Parliamentary hour-glass are running out very fast. There is not so very much time left. I have ascertained that there are still thirty-nine Government Bills to come up from the House of Commons, and thirteen Government Bills have gone down from this House to the House of Commons, none of which appear to have made any progress so far. Therefore, the generous margin of time to which my noble friend refers does not appear to me to exist. I presume that, in addition to these long-delayed and, no doubt, highly important matters, the military Lords will want a day or two in which to discuss the Army scheme; I gather that noble Lords on the opposite Benches are going to impeach the Leader of the House and the noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty with their temerity in joining Mr. Chamberlain's association, for which. I suppose, a day or two will be required; and I presume, also, there will be various questions connected with the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office which it will be necessary to debate before we adjourn.

All this is bad enough, but I would ask you to think how very much worse the situation would have been if a large portion of the Parliamentary cargo had not been already discharged. Almost every contentious measure, with the exception of one, has been already dropped. What, I ask, would be our position if we had still got, in addition to the measures I have indicated, to discuss such contentious Bills as the Aliens Bill, the Port of London Bill, and measures of that kind? If we liked being treated in this sort of way, if we made no objection, and if the silly, hoary superstition, which I confess I hoped I had exploded myself, that the House of Commons consists of hunting men, induced noble Lords to remain contentedly here in August, there would be nothing to be said; but, as a matter of fact, we have made our protest against the present system. I do not know why I should be modest about it. It was at my instigation that we passed a Motion last session, by a large majority, in which we expressed not merely our disapproval of sitting here in August, but our conviction that Parliament ought to rise at the beginning of July.

I need hardly remind your Lordships that although I was temporarily successful in getting this Resolution adopted, no steps of any kind have ever been taken to carry it out. I have occasionally reminded my noble friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that he is bound to take some notice of a Resolution passed by this House, and perhaps this afternoon I shall succeed in eliciting some information from him. After all, the noble Marquess is the strongest critic of the present arrangement, and it is only necessary for me to quote his words to show how emphatically all sensible persons must condemn the present system. The noble Marquess, in replying to me on 23rd February of this year, said— I am bound to say it seems to me almost a scandal that year after year important matters of business should be crowded before us in the dying moments of the session, when we are all of us more or less exhausted"— I do not pretend to be exhausted myself, but I have not the least doubt the noble Marquess is— and when it is quite impossible for this House either to consider, as it should consider, the Amendments which may have been introduced in any measure in the other House of Parliament during the later stages of its progress, or even those Amendments put upon the Paper by Members of your Lordships' House. The result, I am afraid, is that a great deal of our legislative work is very badly done. In that observation I entirely concur, and I do not think I need add anything to the statement made by the noble Marquess. I will conclude, therefore, by asking the noble Marquess what steps he has taken in order to induce the Prime Minister to bring about a different state of things, and I would appeal to all those noble Lords who desire to retain such rights and privileges as we still possess not to cease agitating on this question until we get the change we all desire.


My Lords, my noble friend has done me the honour of quoting at length from some observations which I addressed to the House in February last, and I am bound to say that to those observations I desire to adhere. I still think it is most unfortunate that important measures so often come up to this House at a period of the session when it is not possible for your Lordships to do justice to them or to your powers of criticism and examination. That, no doubt, applies with great force to the Licensing Bill, which I presume is not likely to reach your Lordships until some time next week. But it does nor rest entirely with us to discover a remedy for this condition of things, and in the course of the interesting debates which we have had on this subject, it has, I think, been universally admitted that unless the other House of Parliament could be persuaded to see eye to eye with us upon this subject, there was no prospect of obtaining an alteration in our procedure. In compliance with my noble friend's desire, I called the attention of the Prime Minister to the Resolution of this House, of last year, and also to the discussion which took place this year. I understand from my right hon. friend that he does not see any prospect of a change of the kind which my noble friend desires being agreed to by the House of Commons.




There are, I understand, difficulties, the nature of which my noble friend, who has been in the House of Commons, is better able to appreciate than I am, connected with the conditions under which the financial business of Parliament—


Quite imaginary.


Under which the financial business of Parliament is transacted, and I also gather from the Prime Minister that it is his impression that if this House were to meet in the month of November it would probably end in our sitting continuously until the month of July following. There are, moreover, two objections raised to the proposal of my noble friend, and, I think raised by persons who have a special right to be heard upon this subject. One of them is that an autumn session would very greatly interfere with the conduct of public business in the offices and departments of the State. All of those who have held office know that the autumn months are those in which the greater part of the business of the coming session is prepared, without those interruptions which are inseparable from a session of Parliament. That is an objection which is strongly felt in many quarters, and which will, I have no doubt, alway be pressed; and then there is, besides, the other objection, namely, that if we have an autumn session there is always a chance that we shall have not only the autumn session, with all its inconveniences, but also a summer session not much shorter than the session which at present is usual. Those two objections prevail widely, and I think my noble friend will have to educate public opinion a good deal more before he succeeds in entirely overcoming them. At any rate, as I said at first, the question is one which concerns both Houses of Parliament, and I certainly have seen no signs of a disposition on the part of the other House to share the view which is so strongly entertained and so eloquently urged by my noble friend.